As I was preparing to write this post, I just happened to get an email from the app Coach.me that began: “Lack of focus is the single biggest killer of your productivity. Meditation is the solution.”
That pretty much summarizes the theme of this post. In a previous article, we discussed the central role that focus, or concentration, plays in our ability to achieve our goals and to develop excellence in any endeavor we choose. We’ve also discussed different types of distractions that can interfere with our ability to focus, and ways to combat those distractions (multi-tasking; electronic distractions; and overwhelm). But are there any positive steps we can take to actually boost or increase our ability to focus? Or are we stuck with a certain genetically predetermined level of concentration?
The good news: scientific studies suggest that we can in fact develop and measurably improve our ability to concentrate, through the practice of meditation.
I have to admit, I had always been a little reluctant to try meditation, at least the kind that involves sitting still and clearing my mind, or focusing on my breathing, or “Ohm-ing”. It always seemed a little too woo-woo for me – I’d picture Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love“) sitting in an ashram in India, or maybe Jon Hamm in that last episode of Mad Men – and meditation just seemed pretty far out there and detached from reality.
But then, as I started studying excellence and focus, I discovered there was some serious science backing up the benefits of meditation. Not to mention a lot of people at the very top of their fields, like Fortune 500 CEOs and pro athletes and Olympians, swear by meditation and claim it plays a big role in their success.
You’ve probably heard of at least some of the benefits of meditation. It helps to reduce stress (especially in people with high levels of stress), as well as decrease stress-related inflammation, reduce blood pressure, and improve symptoms of stress-related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia. (1) Studies have shown meditation can reduce anxiety, decrease depression, increase self-awareness and self-esteem, and help to develop mental discipline or willpower, as well as the ability to resist triggers for unwanted habits or even addictions. It can also improve sleep quality, and help to control pain. For a comprehensive list of the benefits of meditation along with links to the original research publications, check out great summary on the Live and Dare website.
But, for the purposes of this article, let’s take a closer look at just a few of the studies that have investigated the impact that a regular meditation practice can have on focus and concentration. Two studies that looked at the effects of 8-week classes in mindfulness meditation found that participants were better able to reorient their attention and stay focused for longer periods of time, and they switched between tasks less frequently. (2,3) One of the studies also reported lower levels of stress and improved memory.
How long does it take for the effects of meditation to show up? One study showed that even 4 days of meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety, increased mindfulness, and significantly improved visual-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. (4)
But sticking with a meditation practice long term may have even more profound effects on the brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate activity patterns in the brains of experienced meditators (regular practice for at least 3 years) compared with matched individuals who had never meditated, another study found that activity in the ventral posteromedial cortex (an area of the brain associated with spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering) was more stable in the brains of the meditators. Further, the meditators also outperformed the control group when given an intense test that required rapid visual information processing. (5)
So, it’s pretty clear that if we’re looking for a way to improve our ability to focus and concentrate, meditation provides a lot of bang for the buck (and considering how it’s something you can do for free, it’s one of the most economical things you can do for yourself). But, if you’ve never tried meditation before (or maybe you’ve tried but written it off), how do you get started?
1. Just like adopting any other habit, start small.
You don’t have to book a month-long trip to India to learn from a revered yogi and practice meditation all day, every day. If meditation seems a little weird or difficult, and outside your comfort zone, or maybe you’re worried about finding time for yet another thing in your already packed schedule, remember the idea of sneaking under the brain’s fear and resistance radar using the tools of kaizen and microresolutions.
Begin with a tiny commitment, like 1 minute or 5 minutes a day – pick a length of time that’s so small you can’t come up with any reason not to do it. If the idea of sitting still and concentrating on nothing but your breathing, or a mantra is about as appealing as getting a root canal, start with 1 minute. You can survive pretty much anything for 1 minute. The key here is to do it regularly – every single day, ideally at the same time – and your brain will start to adapt. The practice will get easier, or at least more comfortable, and it will become a part of your routine. You’ll start to see benefits. And once you start to look forward to it, you can gradually increase the amount of time you meditate.
2. If you’re not sure how to meditate, take advantage of tools to get started (or to keep going).
Sometimes the biggest barrier to starting something new is not knowing how to begin. No worries! When it comes to meditation, there are so many free tools, like apps for your smartphone, YouTube videos, and downloadable audios, that will let you get started easily and effortlessly. Try a few different ones, to find the one that works best for you (or maybe variety is your cup of tea…)
One of my favorites is the Calm app, which comes with a variety of free programs, including guided meditations and timed meditations to relaxing background sounds, like ocean waves. It also has options for in-app purchases, if you are interested in meditations to address specific issues, like anxiety or breaking habits. Other popular apps include The Mindfulness App, Headspace, Buddhify, Insight Timer, and Stop, Breathe & Think.
If you like structure and/or group settings, look into a taking a class or joining a group practice locally – just Google your city and “meditation” to come up with a list of nearby places and times. Or if you’re really sold on the idea of meditation and want to take a deep dive, check out a meditation retreat and turn it into one of the most relaxing a mini-vacations you can find.
3. Experiment with different types of meditation to find a format that clicks for you.
Many people associate the word meditation with sitting cross-legged and trying to clear their mind of all wayward thoughts while repeating the word Om or some other mantra, and that is certainly one form. However, there are so many different types of meditation that if repeating a word or phrase doesn’t appeal to you, there are plenty of other options.
There are two basic categories that most types of meditation fall into: focused attention, where the goal is to concentrate on a single thing, such as breathing or a mantra or a visualization; and open monitoring, where the objective is simply to remain aware of your experience in the moment, including both internal and external perceptions, in a detached, non-judgmental way. Within those broad categories, there are dozens of different techniques, or forms of practice (for a review of 23 different types, check out this article on the Live and Dare website).
You can also choose between guided meditation, where someone talks you through the process, giving you direction on how to breathe, or what to visualize, versus unguided/freestyle meditation, where you go through the process in silence, or while listening to soothing background sounds. Most traditional forms of meditation are performed in a seated position, either on the floor or in a chair, but if you like to move around, you may want to check out dynamic, or walking, meditation.
After reading about the benefits meditation can have on concentration and attention span, I decided to add meditation to the habits I’m acquiring as part of my Excellence Experiment to see if it had any impact on my unruly monkey mind. I started about two months ago, and right now I do 5 minutes in the morning, or right before bed. At first, I didn’t notice anything different, but over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that I’m better able to stay focused throughout the day – I’m less tempted to flip back and forth between my work and Facebook or emails, and I can stay on task longer. I still find my mind wandering when I’m reading, especially online, so I’ll be curious to see if that changes with more regular practice, or when I extend the duration of the time I meditate to 10 minutes.
So, what kind of experience have you had with meditation? If you practice regularly, what benefits have you seen? Let me know in the comments section below!
(1) Thorpe, M. 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation. July 5, 2017. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation
(2) Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2007)7:109.
(3) Levy DM, et al. Initial results from a study of the effects of meditation on multitasking performance. Proceedings of CHI EA ’11 CHI ’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems; Pages 2011-2016; Vancouver, BC, Canada — May 07 – 12, 2011.
(4) Zeidan F, et al. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition. (2010)19:597-605.
(5) Pagnoni G. Dynamical Properties of BOLD Activity from the Ventral Posteromedial Cortex Associated with Meditation and Attentional Skills. J Neurosci. (2012)32(15):5242-9.