How to be more productive by meditating
Whether it's last-minute cheap holidays or family planning gone awry, Ryanair has a lot to answer for. The budget airline is cancelling up to 2,000 flights over the next six weeks, leaving some stranded and others scrambling to change their plans in case they're being hit. As stress insidiously contributes to a huge number of ailments and ongoing cancellations curtail fliers, there's a surefire way to master your travel-rage: meditation.
We set one writer the task of incorporating meditation into his routine. The challenge? He's got to do it on the London Underground instead of a Japanese rock garden. Here's how he got on.
Meditating on the daily commute is difficult. It’s noisy. It’s hot. Your personal space is violated all too often. Nevertheless, here I am on the 8.39 to Waterloo, trying to clear my head by staring intently at a single raisin. It might just be working.
For the past five minutes, I’ve been surveying the fruit’s miniature landscape: tiny valleys, shadows, more colours than you’d expect. I note every twitch in my jaw muscles and little floods of saliva under my tongue when I hold it to my nose. Soon, I’ll actually put it in my mouth.
This is mindful eating, one of a number of Buddhist-style ‘workouts’ I’ve been practising for a week. The goal is to train my mind to focus on one thing at a time. I don’t feel it right now – the other commuters are staring – but this is making me brainier.
I’m going to catch up on missed deadlines. It will prepare me for this morning’s big meeting. I’ll stop procrastinating. Concentrate for longer. If I keep them up, exercises like this will rewire my grey matter, giving me a permanent mental upgrade.
(Related: need results faster? Try 15 mind tricks for more power in the gym)
New research shows that even a brief introduction to meditation can improve your cognitive performance by 50%. Fadel Zeidan, a US psychologist at Wake Forest University, found that just four 20-minute sessions enhance your memory, verbal fluency, visuo-spatial awareness and attention. “Some of the benefits of meditation can be realised immediately,” he says. “But it’s a discipline you build up over time.”
Studies show that meditation changes the physical shape of your brain. MRI scans at the University of Wisconsin revealed that regular practice gives you thicker slabs of mental muscle. “Long-term meditators have more efficient brain circuitry,” Zeidan says.
While you or I get tangled up with deadlines, music, plans for tonight, plans for tomorrow, plans for 2019, meditators have a different filing system. They access one thought at a time and single it out from the commotion.
(Related: 6 reasons to train your brain)
Officially curious, I contact Michael Chaskalson, a meditation teacher who uses mindfulness specifically in work and health settings (research shows that meditation can also block out pain andreduce stress by 31%). His clients include bankers and civil servants.When we meet, he’s dressed in the smart greys of the corporate session he’s just come from.
“I’ve had senior managers who were referred to me because they were tetchy and people found them difficult to work with,” he says.“Others have just feltthey wanted to be more innovative. Whatever bothers you, being better able to deal with your thoughts will help.”
(Related: want to transform your mind as well as your body? Sign up to the MH Transform Club here)
Chaskalson shows meseveral techniques, all based on sustaining my attention. There’s a sitting meditation, where I concentrate on my breathing and the sensation of my feet on the floor. Next is a condensed, 60-second version that he advises I try while I’m waiting for the train. There’s also a walking variant and, finally, I learn to meditate with that raisin.
After two weeks of mindfulness practice, however, I feel more frustrated than tranquil and productive. Every time I meditate my mind goes walkabout. My to-do list hasn’t shrunk. Incoming emails still derail my concentration. If anything, I’m slowing down because I’m always thinking about meditating... Where the hell is my new brain, the one that’s organised andunflappable in any 9-5 emergency?
I crave something measurable to at least tell me I’m making progress. When you run, lift weights or evenplay computer games, there are clear vectors that tell you how you’re doing. When you meditate, the whole point is to phase those things out. “I advise people to put aside the idea of ever becoming better at meditation,” Chaskalson says. “Your mind will wander off to the deadlines, your to-do list ...that happens. It’s not a fault, it’s what minds do.”
Chaskalson reminds me that meditation is like resistance training for the brain. “You’re building muscle,” he says. And like other muscle work, the gains are gradual. To increase your mental fitness, you just have to stick at it.
(Related: what is meditation, anyway?)
I start practising every day. There are sitting meditations at lunch, raisins on the train, mindful walking on the way to the shop and 60-second shutdowns at my desk, hoping the boss isn’t over my shoulder wondering what the hell he’s paying me for.
The internet also proves useful guidance. I download free MP3s that take me through longer sessions and use a Google Maps tool to find my nearest meditation centre, which has a sound-proof roomwhere you can shelter from London’s bluster.
A month into the regime, my brain workouts begin to feel routine and easy. It’s like muscle memory, I suppose. On trains or before bed, I use the techniques Chaskalson taught me almost automatically. My mind still wanders, but I’m far better at catching it when it does. At work, there’s still no ceasefire from the email server, but I’m better able to shield my attention span.
Meditation won’t make you more intelligent. What it will do is train your mind to focus on one thing at a time, streamlining your work and making youless susceptible to stress.
It was supposed to be a short experiment to find out whether it could improve my productivity. In truth, there’s still no clean way of measuring my progress but I feel more productive and close to three months on, I’ve no intention of stopping. It’s a tool that puts your brain on pause. When your inbox, your office and your commute are anything but peaceful, that’s a very useful thing.
Video: Meditation for a Productive Day
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