All sorts of gizmos and gadgets can help you be more productive at work, and theories abound on how you should structure your days to get more done.
But a new study finds that becoming more focused, productive and less stressed at work may involve nothing more than learning to meditate.
David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects’ memory while easing their stress.
Levy, who has used meditation for many years in his own life, decided to do the experiment involving the workplace after reading Darlene Cohen’s book, The One Who Is Not Busy: Connecting to Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way.
“In the book she was talking about how she’s adapted some Zen training to the workplace,” he says. “For 20 years I’ve been looking about how to add balance to the workplace, and that gave me the idea for the experiment.”
Levy had one group of human resource managers undergo eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training. A second group got eight weeks of body-relaxation training. The third group received no initial training but then was given the same training as the first group after eight weeks.
Subjects were given a stressful test on their multitasking abilities before and after each eight-week period. They had to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, phones and word-processing tools to perform common office duties.
Researchers looked at their speed, accuracy and number of times they switched tasks. The participants also were asked to record their stress levels and memory performance while doing the jobs.
Researchers found that the meditation group not only had lower stress levels during the multitasking tests but also were able to concentrate longer without being distracted.
But for the other two groups — those who received relaxation breathing training and those who had no initial training — stress did not go down. However, when the third group received meditation training after eight weeks, their stress also decreased.
Further, those who meditated also spent more time on tasks, didn’t switch between different chores as often and took no longer to get their work done than the other participants, the study found.
“Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle,” Levy says.
Levy says that he knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed at work, calling himself “stunned” when he left a Palo Alto, Calif., think tank to take up academic duties.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he says. “I do wonder why we make ourselves work this way. There’s no time to even think. We’ve gotten to a place where we’re just speeding up and we don’t do things well. We’ve got to slow down.”
While Levy says further study is needed to determine whether the meditation benefit can continue over the long term, in his own life he says meditation has helped calm his stress. He thinks it can be worth a try for workers who feel overwhelmed, distracted and stressed.
Many employers are beginning to agree. For example, Google offers “Search Inside Yourself” classes that teach mindfulness at work. Employees reportedly have given the program rave reviews and say it increases their focus and decreases stress.
“There’s an awful lot going on in this area,” Levy says. “You see it in health care, in the schools and in the workplace. It’s really turning into a serious direction and finding a place in American lives.”
For those who have not had training in meditation or mindfulness, Levy says the first step can be a simple one.
“The simplest form of mindfulness meditation I know is to just to sit and pay attention to your breathing,” he says. “To feel the actual sensations of your breathing and when you mind inevitably goes away to something else; just bring your mind back. Bring it back to the sensation of the breath again and again.”
“It really can make a difference in your life,” he says.
Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy . . . and How to Avoid Them,” www.45things.com. Write to her in care of Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
The vagus is one of the larger more important nerves in the human body. One key role that it plays is as the “reset” button to counteract when our alarm system has been set off resulting in the infamous fight, flight or freeze response as some type of threat has been perceived. The vagus nerve basically tells the body and brain: “It is safe now. The threat is gone. All bodily functions can return to normal now.”
Understanding how to maximize self-control of your emotions and behavior can decrease some of the emotional pain that emotionally sensitive people experience.
Not acting on impulse and thinking through how your actions in the short-term will affect your long term goals will decrease the suffering that you experience.
The good news is that some of the most effective strategies are everyday actions that are only surprising in terms of their effectiveness.
Ways to Strengthen Self-Control
Slowing Your Breath: Slowing your breathing to four to six breaths per minute will activate the prefrontal cortex and increase heart rate variability which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control. When you are in stress mode, you are not able to think as clearly.
Your brain is in automatic survival mode, the need to do just what works in the moment. This is helpful in true emergencies but keeps us from seeing the big picture, our long-term goals. When the brain turns off the stress alerts, you have more access to the plan-ful behavior.
Meditation: Meditation improves attention, focus, impulse control and self awareness. Initial results can be seen within three hours and significant improvements with eleven hours of practice. McGonigal (2011) says that over time the brains of meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as well as brain regions that are related to self-awareness. Practicing meditation over time will build your ability to stay aware and manage your impulses. Practicing mindfulness will also work.
Many people stop meditating because they are “bad” at doing it. Their minds are skipping from topic to topic. Even when your meditation practice seems distracted, you are practicing bringing your mind back to a focused goal and that makes a difference in your ability to focus and concentrate when you aren’t meditating.
Sufficient Sleep: When you don’t get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex develops “mild prefrontal dysfunction,” which is similar to mild intoxication–obviously not good for your self control. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived increases your susceptibility to stress, craving and temptation.
Sleep deprivation diminishes the body’s ability to process glucose which is its main form of energy, and you feel exhausted. When desperate for energy you are likely to crave sweets or caffeine. But your brain and body still won’t get the energy it needs because it can’t process effectively. Self-control requires a lot of energy and so it suffers when you don’t have sufficient sleep.
Eat a Balanced diet: If the body is fueled adequately with the nutrients it needs, self-control will be stronger.
Practice Self-Compassion: Many people believe that being hard on yourself motivates you to stick to your goals. Turns out that is not true. Self-criticism is actually associated with less motivation and less self-control. Self compassion is associated with better self-control.
Structure: Having a regular schedule to eat and sleep helps the body function at its best and that helps build self-control. In addition, building in reminders of your goals that you see on a regular basis is helpful.
Reward Substitution: When faced with needing self-control to do unpleasant tasks to get to an important long-term goal, using reward substitution may help. Give yourself an immediate reward for getting through each step toward the long-term goal. For example, if you want to stop biting your nails, give yourself a reward for each day you succeed.
Pros and Cons: Focus on what you want to do. If you want to stop yelling at people, then your goal would be to speak in a moderate voice tone regardless of your mood. Then make a list of the pros and cons of doing that. Then make a list of the pros and cons of not keeping your goal.
Keep pushing deeper and deeper to list all the important pros and cons. List both short term and long term consequences. Then keep it with you and review it throughout the day and before any situation that you might be tempted to act impulsively (Linehan, 1993).
Replace the Behavior: Take a close look at the benefits of the impulsive or destructive behavior. Replacing whatever positives you get from the behavior you want to replace will be important.
Exercise: Sometimes it seems that physical exercise is the answer to everything. McGonigal (2011) says exercise reduces cravings, relieves stress and enhances the biology of self-control just like slowing your breath. Exercise reportedly enhances the speed of processing of the prefrontal cortex. which plays a large role in self-control.
In addition, the effects of exercise are immediate. Exercising outdoors is especially beneficial. Five minutes of exercising in nature, even walking, has immediate effects on your mood and self-control.
Linehan, Marsha. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personaltiy Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012.
Breathing is something most of us don’t usually think about. If we’re still alive and breathing, we must be doing it right, right? Wrong.
Let’s start with the disadvantages of rapid, upper chest breathing. Things I see in my physical therapy practice every day. Like neck pain, low back pain, anxiety, poor sleep, cold hands and feet. And headaches. Especially headaches. In all my years of practice, I have never, not once, met someone suffering from headaches who breathed well. (Most of my clients with headaches have a similar story: headaches for years, poor sleep, cold hands and feet, tight neck muscles–all related to upper chest breathing).
Let’s get to the good news…
What are the advantages of breathing well, that is, slow, diaphragmatic breathing? There are SO many advantages that I can’t even begin to list– much less describe– them all here. Let’s start with three important ways breathing well is related to feeling well, as in, less pain.
Diaphragmatic breathing promotes the relaxation response. One of the the ways it does this is by activating the vagus nerve (which lies close to the diaphragm, so when we breathe deeply and the diaphragm moves up and down, the vagus nerve is stimulated). 75% of the parasympathetic (rest and repair) nervous systems’s fibers come from the vagus nerve, so the vagus nerve is a VERY big player in the relaxation response. So much so, that slow, deep breathing is one of the most efficient, non-medication ways we have of going from the state of “fight or flight” (where most of us tend to hang out) to the much more healthy “rest and repair.” When our bodies are in a relaxed state our brains are considerably less likely to perceive input as threatening, and so pain signals are significantly turned down. Research has shown that decreasing anxiety can decrease a pain level of 7/10 to 3/10. Definitely significant.
Diaphragmatic breathing also improves oxygenation. Of course it does. Seems obvious. But did you know that the lower parts of our lungs are about 7 times more productive in oxygen transport than the higher parts? So when we breathe using our diaphragms (and thus the lower lobes), we get much more oxygen to all of our cells, including the cells in our hands and feet (they’re warmer–a nice fringe benefit), and our nerve cells (less pain). And all healthy cells need oxygen. Only pathogens (unhealthy cells) don’t.
Lastly, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates lymphatic drainage. Our lymphatic system has been compared to a sewage system (yuck!). It removes toxins, wastes and abnormal cells. The lymphatic system doesn’t have any pumps, so it relies on muscle contraction and deep breathing to keep it moving. Using our diaphragms to breathe stimulates the cleansing of lymph nodes, increasing lymphatic drainage. This increases the rate of toxin elimination (including the byproducts of inflammation, which cause pain) by as much as 15 times!