Loads of research links meditation to positive outcomes—to little things like peace and happiness. But what about that outcome that, for better or worse, many prioritize above all—productivity?
If it works for them…
Many attribute their productivity to meditation. Yuval Noah Harari, for instance, author of international bestseller Sapiens, attends a silent retreat each year, spending two months simply observing his thoughts. Without the focus this provides, he says, writing his books would not have been possible. For Oprah, meditation encourages a sense of stillness and a space to do her best work and live her best life.
How Meditation Boosts Productivity
That meditation can foster productivity is well supported by science. The possible mediating factors are many—from decreased stress and emotional reactivity, to increased self-control and energy—but let’s focus on three: improved decision making, attentional control, and problem solving.
Improved decision making
Researchers in Pennsylvania investigated whether meditation minimizes the sunk-cost bias—the tendency to continue with something just because money, time, or effort has already been invested. For example, you might eat more than you want as it’s already been prepared, stay in a bad relationship as you’ve been in it for years, or continue with a dead-end project because you’ve already begun. (Any sound familiar?)
The researchers allocated participants to a mindfulness condition or to a mind wandering condition, where they either focused on their breath (mindfulness) or thought about whatever came to mind (mind wandering).
Next, they had to make an important decision. They imagine they’re the CEO of a printing company that has just paid $200,000 for a new printing press. They learn a competitor has gone broke and is selling their printing press for just $10,000. It’s 50% faster and costs half as much to run. Should they buy it?
While 44% in the mind wandering condition said no, most (78%) in the mindfulness condition said yes, refusing to compromise the company’s future just because money had already been “sunk” into its crappy, old press.
Doing our best work requires that we stay focused. One measure of attentional control is the two-back task. For this task, people are presented with letters, one at a time, and are occasionally asked whether the one they’re currently viewing is the same as the one seen “two back”.
To examine whether mindfulness meditation enhances performance on this task, researchers had some individuals focus on their breath (mindfulness condition) and others listen to a Lord of the Rings audiobook (control condition). Not only did those in the mindfulness condition exhibit superior attentional control, but meditation also resulted in less fatigue and anxiety.
So if you find yourself prone to distraction, lethargy, or unease, taking a moment to attend to your breath could get you back on track.
Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” But how do we change our thinking? How do we prime ourselves to see the solutions to our problems?
Researchers in the Netherlands looked at whether creative problem solving could be enhanced by open-monitoring (OM) meditation, wherein the individual attends to any sensations or thoughts that arise. Specifically, the researchers asked if this could promote divergent thinking, defined as the generation of many ideas when more than one solution to a problem exists.
The Alternate Uses Task (AUT) was used to assess divergent thinking. For this task, people come up with as many possible uses for an object as they can. For instance, a brick might be used as a step, a paperweight, or a dumbbell.
After OM meditation, participants performed significantly better on the AUT. As well as coming up with more uses, their thinking was more flexible (the uses were more diverse) and original (the uses were more distinct from those proposed by others).
Where to begin?
If you’re interested in meditation, though lack time, note that many of the above benefits can be achieved with sessions as short as 5 minutes. And if the idea of attending to your breath just seems too boring, rest assured this is not the only way. In his classic book Wherever you go, there you are John Kabat-Zinn outlines a range of practices, from a walking-based meditation to picturing oneself as a mountain, surrounded by forests and meadows.
So, if improved decision making, focus, and problem solving sound good to you, why not give meditation a shot? It just might be the key to unlocking your potential.
David Robinson completed BSc, MSc, and PhD degrees in psychology and neuroscience in London, England. He is a co-founder of UKFitness.Pro, the UK’s largest database of personal trainers.
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