Meditation is a tough sell for some busy, working people. Work for many in an organizational setting is overwhelming simply due to the amount of responsibilities you have to keep track of. In a typical day at the office, there are emails, projects, deadlines, meetings, and quotas to juggle. In your personal life, you have to balance relationships, fitness, chores, education, sleep, and hopefully some quality fun. As Dr. Susan Biali, wellness expert, says “For so many people these days, our life is like a house of cards.”
How can a busy person who’s accountable for delivering important results at work, justify taking even 5 minutes out of their work schedule every day to essentially do nothing?
At this point, you might be tired of hearing about meditation hype, since everyone’s talking about it these days. Charles Francis, founder of The Mindfulness Meditation Institute, explains that the reason it’s becoming so popular is “because scientists have been conducting a tremendous amount of research on the practice.” Most of the studies confirm that meditation helps relieve stress, depression, and anxiety. But what if you’re already pretty happy, and not particularly anxious or stressed? Is meditation still valuable then? When we view meditation as it’s commonly viewed in our age— as nothing more than a stress reduction tool— then it seems logical that meditation is a waste of time for people who aren’t that stressed.
But is there more to meditation than stress reduction or enlightenment (the “old” purpose of meditation)? Can meditation actually help us become more creative and productive?
People who take their work seriously know that time is valuable and every minute of the day is important. Even losing 5 minutes a day of doing one’s work tasks can be detrimental. But the whole concept of meditation is that you’re sitting their doing nothing! How does that add value to your work day and contribute to productivity?
Author-entrepreneur Ramit Sethi has recently tweeted “you don’t need to meditate or having a morning routine to be successful.” What makes Ramit’s tweet interesting, is that it’s now counter cultural to speak out against meditation in the business world. But what he’s getting at is actually pretty deep and represents a shift in the way we need to talk about meditation at work.
I understand not fully buying into meditation as a daily habit, because if you’re not stressed and anxious it’s hard to know why it’s even valuable. The majority of meditation advocates assume that everyone is unreasonably stressed and anxious and meditation will help cure them. I mean how many more of these articles about the benefits of meditation do we need? The stress reduction approach to meditation is a turn off for people who aren’t really anxious, unhappy, or stressed. And it represents a big gap in the way we think about meditation.
There’s another way to look at meditation other than stress reduction, and that’s actually relating to it as a tool that can enhance your productivity. When you view meditation as a productivity booster instead of a stress reducer, it changes your whole relationship to it. Instead of looking at meditation as something wishy-washy that can get rid of negative emotions, it becomes something that actually supports our creativity, productivity, and self-actualization (becoming all that we’re capable of and living up to our potential). Some teachers have even made guided meditations specifically designed for boosting productivity, like Emily Fletcher who founded Ziva Meditation, “a school for high performance.”
Even stress reduction meditators should start thinking about meditation as something that can enhance productivity and creativity, in addition to relieving stress. Simply getting rid of stress and negative emotions fails to provide strong inspiration, when you really think about it. That’s like someone who works out at the gym with the goal to look less bad. There’s a huge difference between looking at something in the affirmative vs. the negative. It’s what Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about 150 years ago. He saw withdrawing from the world as nihilism and “slave morality”, which he opposed. Instead of withdrawing from life, a meaningful life for him was about creating, affirming, and producing things. And the way we as a society tend to think about meditation now, for whatever reason, is too withdrawn, too weak, and not nearly productive enough.
The goal of meditation isn’t to be calm and do nothing forever. It’s actually to have a more full relationship with the world, and that means creating and producing along with it. If you’re meditating all day every day and doing nothing else, that’s just escaping from the world. You should use meditation to enhance life, not as an end in itself. The main way you can apply meditation at work, which represents a large portion of your life, is to direct it towards significantly improving your focus and productivity.
How can meditation actually enhance productivity ? How can it go beyond stress reduction?
Meditation can make you more productive by increasing your focus. According to Joshua Gowin Ph.D., “meditation not only changes brain patterns, but it also confers advantages in mental focus that may improve cognitive performance.” Focus is the ability to pay attention to one activity — the most important project or task at hand. The most productive days at work are days in which you know exactly what you want to do and then invest our efforts into doing that without getting distracted. I’m defining productivity as the ability to get results rather than just being busy. And when you jump around from activity to activity and multi-task you’re not that productive. Jumping around to various activities throughout the day, and checking off a lot of boxes, might seem productive, but leads to few results if any. What leads to really powerful results is focusing on one important activity for several hours at a time and resisting distractions while doing that.
Cal Newport is one of the leading thinkers in finding focus at work in a distracted world. His concept and book, Deep Work articulates his opinion on the matter. On his blog, Newport articulates the difference between shallow and deep work. He defines shallow work “as a task that almost anyone with minimal training could accomplish. On the other deep work includes cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.” Throughout the day, you might have to spend some time on shallow tasks, like answering emails — but that should be a small fraction of your day compared to the important, intellectually demanding thing that you’ll focus on for at least a few hours.
The problem is, how many of us are truly focused enough to focus on deep activities for hours to the point where you start doubling or tripling your results (or more)? Too many of us spend our time at work doing shallow tasks, multi-tasking, and getting distracted—and it’s not bringing us the results we desire.
Meditation trains you to focus on what you need to focus on—the deep, challenging activities that bring desire results—and helps prevent getting distracted in the process. Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, shares a concrete example: “When I sat down to write a paper I would constantly check my twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blog feeds, and got hardly anything done. Today, I simply write the paper. Meditation helps you focus more, which is is very handy when there are an increasing number of distractions in your life.”
Let’s define distraction as any unconscious, unwanted interruption. In a given day, how often do workers get distracted ? I should note that distractions are different than taking occasional breaks. It’s important to take breaks so you can re-charge and not burn out. Breaks are healthy and energizing. Distractions are unconscious, and unwanted.
According to science researcher Gloria Mark, every distraction at work takes up about 25 minutes of time at work. Most people get distracted at least a handful of times at work—perhaps once every hour. So when you add up all of your distractions, that accounts for almost half the work day. If you didn’t get distracted, you would have potentially double the amount of time at work.
How much more productive would you be if you didn’t get distracted at work? You might be 2–3 times more productive or more. And you’d also be a lot happier.
According to a study, happy workers are up to 20 percent more productive than unhappy ones. Put it another way, if you’re employees are unhappy, they’re leaving a lot of money on the table. So how can you be happier, and consequently, more productive at work?
Positive psychology research is showing that a psychological state called “flow” is highly correlated to happiness at work. Flow is a state of being totally absorbed in an activity for it’s own sake. It’s when you lose yourself in your work and forget that your ego or time exists. If you’ve ever experienced a flow state, you know what it feels like. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist who wrote the book on Flow, explains it this way: “[Flow is] a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Some common activities that induce flow states are sports and artistic activities.
Flow states are great, and the key to happiness and productivity…. but how can you experience flow states at work more often?
In order to induce flow states at work, you need to be intensely focused on one activity for hours on end, meaning no multi-tasking and no task jumping. Becoming focused starts with choosing one activity that you can dedicate several hours of your time at work to. It’s okay if there are some other necessary shallow tasks at work, like answering emails for a few minutes a day. Not every task has to induce a flow state. But usually there is one really important work activity that if you did more often, you’d be both happier and more productive.
Aside from being intensely focused on one activity, you also need to pick an activity that challenges you just the right amount. You don’t want something that’s too challenging, or you’ll get frustrated. You also don’t want something that’s too easy or you’ll get bored. You need just the right amount of challenge in your work to experience flow.
Just choosing a work activity to focus on is one thing, but being able to fully focus on that for hours on end without getting distracted is a whole different challenge. So, in order to induce flow and get happier and more productive, you must improve your ability to focus. That’s where meditation comes into play.
Meditating for productivity benefits is no different than meditating for any other benefit.
All you have to do is select a point of focus and then focus your attention on that topic for a period of time. The most common way to do this is through a seated meditation and using your breath as the point of focus. In Zen Buddhism sitting meditation is called Zazen, or just sitting. In Zazen, you find a quiet place, sit down, fold your legs together, and then simply focus on your breath. Your eyes can be open or closed, it doesn’t matter. Some people find closing their eyes to be easier, while others like to open them. If you notice your mind wandering while meditating, just notice it, and then draw your attention back to your breath and keep going.
As you start to meditate, you might find yourself tempted to stop the meditation and give into distractions. The key is to learn how to ignore the wandering thoughts and maintain focus. The benefits of this focus training will carry over into the workplace where there are a million other pressures and demands in place. As you get better at improving your focus, you’ll start to notice your urges for distraction and your ability to ignore them will improve. This will ultimately improve your productivity drastically.
Consider how much more productive you could be if you didn’t constantly get distracted at work. Again, breaks are different than distractions. Breaks are healthy, distractions are unwanted and guilt inducing. You can take short breaks, but getting distracted won’t make you feel good.
Even just 5 minutes of meditation a day can yield benefits.
The first time you meditate for 5 minutes, you might only notice a slight difference in our focus levels at work. But if you keep meditating over time, and make a habit out of it, your ability to focus will improve every day.
If you’ve ever tried to take up a meditation practice, you’ll understand that it can difficult. It’s hard first of all to be accountable for practicing every day. And then it’s hard to actually perform the meditation correctly when you do sit down to do it.
One of the reasons it’s so hard is because when you meditate, you usually do it in your home, maybe on our commute, at the gym, or the workplace. These are all places where it’s really hard to focus on your breath, because these environments don’t align with meditative intentions.
It’s easier to accomplish a goal when you’re environment supports you. That’s the same reason why it’s easier for people who work at the gym to get in shape — they are surrounded by fitness 24/7. It’s also the same reason why mastermind groups are so powerful. If you’ve ever been on a Zen retreat, you’ll know it’s easier to meditate when you’re in a really quiet, relaxed, calming place. Having your environment match what you’re doing changes everything.
You can’t just up and leave our job or home and go to a mountain top or silent beach to go meditate on. But virtual reality now allows you to simulate that.
Immersive Sanctuary’s new virtual reality meditation program, for example, allows you to meditate on a quiet beach in the middle of work. They’ve been installing virtual reality hardware and software into organizations like hospitals, law firms, and corporations, and giving stressed patients and employees a chance to go to a virtual beach during the work day to find their focus. D.J. Smith, Immersive Sanctuary’s General Manager explains that “virtual reality is incredibly effective for meditation because the technology completely blocks out any distractions from the real world. Forward thinking human resource managers and innovation officers are starting to integrate this kind of meditation VR hardware and software into the workplace. There’s no better way to incentivize a team to meditate, then by bringing virtual reality equipment and software to your organization for everyone to use.”
Meditation is usually a very private affair, and it’s hard to get people excited about what they can’t see. But virtual reality makes it so everyone sees the same beach, the same mountain top, which makes meditation a social, fun, and productive experience for everyone in the workplace.
If you’re interested in bringing virtual reality meditation to your organization to improve focus and productivity, and don’t know anything about virtual reality equipment or meditation, don’t worry. Immersive Sanctuary sets everything up for you, then teaches you and your team how to use everything, so it’s really simple.
To see if you qualify for a FREE virtual reality meditation demo for your organization, just fill out this quick survey here!
Do you view meditation as a stress reduction tool or a productivity enhancer? Leave a comment below and let me know.
Originally published on Medium.