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.
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.