Using Meditation to Train Focus and Improve Productivity

This post is a part of the 10 Steps to Nonstop Accomplishment series. If you like the tips in this post, check out the other posts in the series for maximum accomplishment, energy, and motivation.

 

Meditation, or more generally a “practice of mindfulness,” has slowly come to the forefront of common advice given in every field from business to general self help. It has become something of a movement in the business community: a search of Forbes.com alone leads to 344 articles on “mindfulness.” Business leaders are attracted to the daily practice because of its purposed ability to train focus and create mental quiet/clarity. These benefits are certainly valid, but as is typical with Buddhist teachings, it is inadvisable to attempt to extract just one part of the practice. Mindfulness cannot/should not attempt to decouple focus from the greater goal of self-awareness, as we shall see.

 

Meditation

 

The Need for Focus

At most points throughout the day, we allow circumstances and our internal state to dictate what we are thinking about. We are not in control. Recent sensationalist headlines have claimed that we now have shorten attention spans than that of goldfish; this is debatable, but in the words of the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon:

a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

Of course, focus can help us perform better at a given task. But a lack of focus is also detrimental in a much more pervasive manner. In the book Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence, author Daniel Goldman cites Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner:

Flubs, Wegner has found, escalate to the degree we are distracted, stressed, or otherwise mentally burdened. In those circumstances a cognitive control system that ordinarily monitors errors we might make (like don’t mention that topic) can inadvertently act as a mental prime, increasing the likelihood of that very mistake (like mentioning that topic).

 

 

Mental Weight Training

Of all the analogies and descriptions of meditation, I think the one that makes the sense is that of mental weight training. As anybody who has seriously lifted weights can tell you, “reputations” are performed in order to push one’s limits – which leads to torn muscle fiber and ultimately regrowth of a (larger) muscle. What’s interesting about this is that it is actually the failure/pain which leads to the progress.

Mindfulness is the same way. The misconception about meditation is that the goal is to sit in a perfect state of Zen bliss, but this could not be further from the truth. Such a state would lead to zero progress. Instead, mindfulness is simply the practice of putting your mind to something and noticing when it wanders. This builds focus in the same way that weight training builds muscle: you repeating perform the action which leads to growth (lifting a weight or calling your attention to something).

The ability of mindfulness to aid in focus is well-documented; research has shown that:

Meditators are able deliberately to regulate their cerebral activity. By comparison, most inexperienced subjects who are assigned a mental exercise—focusing on an object or an occurrence, visualizing an image, and so on—are generally incapable of limiting their mental activity to that one task.

Meditation famously uses the breath as the object upon which to focus, but there are many other options (sensations, like ambient sounds, are also often used). I submit that these targets are useful exactly because they are so deceptively simple. It is no challenge to focus on making a million dollars: we call this daydreaming. At the same time, the breath is not so plain as to be uninteresting. Practitioners of meditation learn that there are many types of breathing, and gain insight into their own mental/physical state through the introspection.

 

Self Awareness

The benefit which has been most evident to me in my meditation practice has been that of self awareness, specifically with regards to my own thought process. I find myself understanding the content of my own thoughts much better when I am engaged in a regular practice. For example, I am much more able to notice when I am being judgmental or having negative thoughts. The more I practice, the more I find that I can cut these thoughts off: I am able to identify them earlier and faster, until I can feel that I am about to have a negative thought and prevent it in the first place through simple awareness.

A frequent misconception with meditation is that it is about removing emotions. Quite the contrary; meditation and mindfulness require a deep appreciation of emotional state. The pragmatic aspect to this is simply acknowledging that the ultimate goal is goodness; in the words of scientist & monk Mathieu Ricard:

Rather than distinguishing between emotions and thoughts, Buddhism is more concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run. This is actually quite consistent with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and emotion. Every region in the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition. There are no “emotion centers” in the brain.

He goes on to observe:

Behavioral studies have also shown that those who are best able to balance their emotions (by controlling them without repressing them) also demonstrate the greatest selflessness in the face of the suffering of others

 

Getting Started

Truly, there is nothing so valuable as simply getting started with a mindfulness practice. Society has taught us that we need to be “good” at something, but there is no such thing with meditation. There are many wonderful teachers out there, and simply surrounding yourself with the material is a good start: it will begin the process of thinking in a new way.

Here are my favorite books, ranked by their approachability.

  1. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story: Dan Harris relates his journey from stressed-out drug-consuming news anchor to meditation practitioner. What I loved about this book was how far the journey took him: from absolute skeptic to grudging practitioner, and eventually, to 10% happier.
  2. Happiness: a Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill: Mathieu Ricard is a French scientist turned Buddhist monk. As an engineer myself, he was able to appeal to the logical/analytical side of my brain, yet have a profound emotional impact upon me at the same time. It was this book which convinced me to start a daily practice, even though I had been first exposed to meditation nearly a decade earlier.
  3. Search Inside Yourself: Chade-Meng Tan’s book sprung out of the mindfulness courses developed at & for Google employees. His approaches have been widely embraced by Google’s culture.

 

There are also some smartphone apps out there which can help with a daily meditation practice, such as:

  • Headspace: Daily 10-minute meditations
  • Buddhify: Short collections of audio for different daily situations

 

 

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