Meditation has come a long way from being reserved for monks, nuns, headstanding hermits and New Age hippies. Firmly planted in the secular world, it’s a part of 18 million Americans’ health and wellness programs.
In the past decades, scientific research has been piling up to demonstrate the mental, emotional and even physical benefits of meditation. It’s shown especially effective in the workplace, increasing productivity, alleviating stress and providing long-term boosts in focus and creativity.
One recent study found that just eight weeks after receiving basic mindfulness-based meditation training, participants had improved speed, concentration and accuracy during a test of standard office tasks. They were less distracted and stayed on task longer.
They also reported lower stress and better memory performance, compared to participants who didn’t meditate.
Why does meditation at work help us so much?
First, it reduces stress, which is nearly epidemic in most professional settings. Long-term stress means that workers are less productive and more likely to quit – not to mention less happy.
Secondly, it’s a much-needed break from the information overload that most of us are exposed to during our daily work, thanks to our constant connection to the internet and social media.
Meditation teaches you to quiet your mind and “single-task.” Multitasking is often encouraged but rarely makes people more efficient. In reality, it’s just rapid task switching that makes us less focused and overloads our brains.
When you’re juggling between three different tasks, you can’t give enough attention to any of them. It’s much better, both for the quality of your work and your mental health, to pick one and focus on it.
Finally, it gives you the mental stability and emotional skills to handle anything that comes your way. When there’s a crisis in your department, your project is a week overdue and everything is falling apart, instead of getting swept away you will be able to observe it, calmly choose the right actions and remain as a pillar of calmness for your team.
David Levy, who ran the study above, explained: “Meditation is a lot like doing reps at the gym. It strengthens your attention muscle.”
More than a quick fix, the benefits increase the longer and the more consistently you practice. Over time, it will actually rebuild gray matter in your brain, creating lasting improvements in cognitive performance and psychological health.
And when I say “over time,” it’s less time than you might think: half an hour a day, for eight weeks, is enough to make changes that will show up on brain scans.
How to meditate: a 3-minute introduction to a 5,000-year-old science
Meditation starts with a very simple lesson: how to sit.
Technically, you can meditate in any position you want. It’s about the mind, not the body. But for best results, especially when you’re first learning, the right posture will do half the work for you.
You don’t have to go crazy with it. You can make real changes in your habits without lotus pose or perfect zazen posture. Just follow a few simple guidelines:
- The back is straight and upright, shoulders balanced directly above the hips.
- Hips should be higher than the knees if sitting on the floor. If sitting in a chair, they should at least be level with the knees. Use a cushion if your chair doesn’t allow this.
- Feet are flat on the floor, if sitting in a chair. Knees are at a 90-degree angle.
- The chin is level with the floor, not allowing the head to droop.
Overall, the body is relaxed, in a comfortable position that you can maintain without effort, but firm and stable at the same time.
In meditation, you want to find a balance between concentration and relaxation.
Remember in X-Men: First Class when Professor X tells the young Magneto to find “the point between rage and serenity,” and then Magneto unleashes his inner superpowers and lifts a submarine out of the ocean? It’s kind of like that, but with fewer submarines. (Maybe, I don’t know your life.)
The point is, you’re looking for high energy and mental focus, but with absolutely zero tension. This is a tall order, because for many people, energy and tension go hand in hand. Normally, we feel the most energy, focus and drive when we’re under stress, in a crisis or heading for a tight deadline. And we only feel relaxed when we’re in a dull, low-productivity state, watching TV or lying down to sleep.
It doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, when you practice meditation for a while, you’ll discover that alert relaxation actually allows for more energy.
When your mind is tense, this contraction can create a temporary burst of focus that allows you to accomplish a lot quickly. (Looming deadline, anyone?) But it’s not a real solution. You can’t maintain that type of energy for long, and if you rely on it for all your important work, you’re going to run yourself into the ground.
Meditation is generates a sustainable energy. By teaching your mind to relax while maintaining focus, you are creating the best conditions to be in a flow, a state of peak efficiency, concentration and creativity. With more mental space, you can learn to stay in this intensity without burning out.
It’s best to start a meditation practice with a strong commitment to do it every day. There’s an old saying that if you don’t have time to do a daily half hour meditation, do an hour! You can improve your concentration and efficiency enough to “add” this time back into your day and more.
I recommend meditating at the same time every day so it becomes a habit. (First thing in the morning works best for many people.) You can also choose a special spot in your home. It will help teach your mind to go straight into meditation mode when you sit there.
Meditations to boost productivity
By now we’ve covered why you should meditate, and how you should meditate… so what do you actually do in meditation?
There are hundreds of different meditation techniques, for different purposes and personalities. Mindfulness meditation has become extremely popular, to the point of turning into a bit of a buzzword. It’s extremely effective for reducing stress and breaking negative patterns, while one of the easiest forms of meditation to integrate into daily life and workflow.
To practice mindfulness meditation, start by closing your eyes and becoming aware of your breath. Notice how this awareness brings a natural relaxation.
Now simply stay with your breath. Notice how your body feels, how sensations come and your thoughts continue to run, but don’t follow any of them. Let thoughts come and pass. You’ll see that if you don’t give them attention, any thought – no matter how loud and urgent it seems – soon enough will dissipate on its own.
This doesn’t mean trying to ignore or suppress anything. Don’t make an effort to block out sounds or stop thinking, just remain totally present and neutral, the silent observer of everything you experience.
When your mind wonders or you loose focus, come back to your breath. It is your anchor.
This deceptively simple form of meditation can change your life no matter how much time you have to practice.
- If you have no time – mindfulness bells. Set a gentle bell to ring on your phone once every hour or half hour. When you hear it, take just 10 seconds to close your eyes, breathe, and come back to yourself. (There are apps for this.)
- If you have 5 minutes – center yourself with a mini-meditation at your desk. Compare how much better you feel than if you spent those spare minutes on Instagram.
- If you have 15 minutes – walking meditation. Maintain the same relaxed, detached attitude while walking in a slow circle. You can practice inhaling as you move the right foot and exhaling with the left, touching the ground with care and sensitivity. Walking meditation is a great middle point between seated meditation with the eyes closed and daily life.
- If you have 30-60 minutes – full meditation. Practicing in longer sittings will create the most powerful changes in your life, and it will make the smaller sessions above much more effective.
When you’re facing a more specific challenge, you can try other types of meditations.
If you’re feeling extremely stressed and tired, practice a deep relaxation.
Preferably you will do this lying down, but you can sit in a chair also.
With your eyes closed, go through every part of your body, starting with the toes of your left foot and going up. When you come to each body part, simply be aware of it and feel it relaxing. You can even say to yourself, “I now feel my left foot. I am sending love and relaxation to my left foot.”
While you do this, feel your breath moving slowly in your belly.
Just bringing awareness to your muscles will encourage them to relax, and when your body releases stress, your mind will also cool down.
For more tips on how to relax at your desk, read this article on office yoga.
If you’re about to start a difficult project or heading towards a deadline, do a visualization.
Begin by sitting quietly and relaxing with your breath. Then evoke the upcoming project. See yourself accomplishing every stage of it with skill and ease, everything working out exactly as it should. See yourself being calm, focused and positive every step of the way. Try to really believe in the story, as if it’s already happened and you’re just playing your way through it.
Visualization can also be a technique for relaxation. Close your eyes and picture yourself in a beautiful, peaceful place. Try to see it in every detail.
If you’re short on inspiration, check out Limestone, a free dashboard extension for Chrome. It will give you a gorgeous background image from nature, so ideas are always just a new tab away. (Plus, it comes with several other useful productivity features.)
If you’re angry, stressed or in conflict with someone, practice loving-kindness meditation.
Start by relaxing and bringing your awareness to your chest. You can imagine a light or a sense of warmth there.
From here, first send love and compassion to yourself. You can visualize yourself within a sphere of light, and repeat positive words like, “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I be loved.”
Now send this love and compassion to someone dear to you, a friend or family member. See the light going from your heart to theirs, and tell them, “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, etc.”
Next, send it to the person who’s making you angry or stressed out. Obviously it’s more difficult, but this is the most powerful part of the practice!
Finally, you can send love and light to the whole world.
This meditation is a beautiful way to become more peaceful and harmonious, with yourself and the people around you. Whenever you’re working in a team and there’s a conflict, try sending love to everyone involved. It will create a more positive atmosphere for the whole team.
Meditation doesn’t have to be mysterious and esoteric. The techniques I’ve shared here are simple, pragmatic, and backed up by modern science. Integrating mindfulness into your life, especially your workday, will bring incredible rewards.
Your meditation practice should be part of a larger wellness plan that includes a healthy diet, exercise and sleep patterns. You can also use technology, like wellness apps or a personal productivity dashboard, to remind yourself to stay on track. All of these aspects together will keep you at your peak performance.