The key to getting more done at work might not be working harder, but being more mindful. Meditating for just a few minutes can improve your focus, help you make more rational decisions, and reduce stress, studies have found.
“Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle,” David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington, told USA Today. In 2012, Levy conducted a study that found that workers who underwent eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training were less stressed and better able to stay on task than those who went through relaxation breathing training or didn’t receive any training at all.
Mindfulness – which allows us to turn off our “automatic pilot” and “fully experience ourselves and our world,” according to Michael Baime, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania – is one of the most common forms of meditation. Other types of meditation include mantra meditation (which involves repeating a word or phrase to help clear your mind) or dynamic meditation, where your practice involves physical movement.
While stealing away to a quite conference room is ideal if you want to meditate for a few minutes on the job, you can practice mindfulness anywhere. Ariana Ayu, the CEO of Ayutopia International, suggests trying a simple, 2-minute breathing exercise. Just set your cellphone timer for 2 minutes, close your eyes, then breathe in for a count of three, and then out for a count of four, and repeat, she explained in Inc. magazine.
That sounds easy enough, but can such a simple exercise really make you better at your job? It might, if you make it part of your daily routine.
“[T]he mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation,” said Fadel Zeidan, who authored a 2010 study on mindfulness published in Consciousness and Cognition. Zeidan and his colleagues found that people who participated in short periods of mindfulness training (20 minutes a day over four days) experienced a significant improvement on cognitive tests.
“Mindfulness meditation teaches you to release sensory events that would easily distract, whether it is your own thoughts or an external noise, in an emotion-regulating fashion. This can lead to better, more efficient performance on the intended task,” he explained.
At its core, mindfulness and meditation is about allowing yourself to be present in the moment. It can give your brain a chance to rest and recharge, clearing away mental clutter and allowing you to focus on what’s really important. And that’s a valuable skill to have in a hectic, always-on work culture.
“We can spend so much time rushing from one task to another,” Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. “We may think we’re working more efficiently, but as far as the brain is concerned, we are working against the grain. No wonder we get exhausted.”
Many employers have gotten the message that workers could benefit from a little mindfulness, and perhaps be more productive too. Target, Google, Ford, and Goldman Sachs are among the companies that offer mindfulness or meditation programs to their employees, the Atlantic reports.
But mediation isn’t a panacea, some warn, and closing your eyes and focusing on your breath for a few minutes won’t make all your work-related problems float away. Some people might use mindfulness meditation as a way to escape from problems, according to David Brendel, Ph.D., an executive coach and career consultant. And a “cult of mindfulness” in the workplace, where people feel pressure to meditate from a boss or supervisor, could actually increase stress.
“[M]indfulness practices need to be incorporated as one among many self-chosen strategies for people aiming to cope with stress, think effectively, make sound decisions, and achieve fulfillment,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
Still, in increasingly harried work environments, it seems there are benefits to taking a few minutes to reflect and center ourselves.
“We’ve gotten to a place where we’re just speeding up and we don’t do things well,” said Levy. “We’ve got to slow down.”
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