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The Top 10 Things I Learned Meditating for 35 Hours over One Week

The Top 10 Things I Learned Meditating for 35 Hours over One Week

I remember it vividly.

About four years ago I was at a tea shop reading a book on meditation, when a Buddhist monk walked in and sat across the room from me.

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    As I read, I occasionally looked up at him, and saw that he was mindfully sipping on a cup of tea. He would slowly bring the cup to his mouth, smell the tea, then drink it slowly, savoring its taste, and slowly rest his arm back down again. He drank it so slowly that it took him about an hour to finish the small cup.

    I remember thinking, “What a complete waste of time.”

    After all, he could have gotten so much more done in that hour than just drinking tea. What if he picked up a book? What if he listened to a podcast or a few TED talks and learned something new? What if he invited one of his other monk friends to join him? He could have been so much more productive.

    Today, I think the exact opposite.

    Four years later – yesterday, in fact – I sat alone in my kitchen mindfully sipping a cup of tea. Like the monk, it took me about an hour, but I truly couldn’t imagine a better use of my time.

    Meditation and mindfulness look absolutely pointless on the surface, and that’s because on the surface, they are. The real magic of meditation happens on the inside. Meditation and mindfulness completely reprogram your mind. Both practices increase the blood flow to your brain, calm you down, and allow you to better handle stress. They also make your brain younger by increasing your brain’s grey matter, and help your mind defragment its thoughts. They’ve even been shown to boost your test scores. Not to mention that they make you feel freaking awesome.

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    Over the past seven days, I meditated for a whopping 35 hours, and diving deep into the practice, I observed its myriad benefits first hand. Here are the top 10 things I learned about productivity meditating for 35 hours last week.

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        10. If you don’t want to meditate, try integrating mindfulness into your daily life.

        Over the last seven days, I experimented with countless ways to integrate meditation and mindfulness into my daily life. I think a lot of people are put off by sitting meditation because on the surface it seems foreign and complicated (even though it isn’t – I wrote a great guide to getting started here). If you don’t want to practice sitting meditation, I think you can reap most of the benefits of meditation when you actively seek out ways to integrate mindfulness into your daily life. Last week I mindfully: shaved, showered, walked, snacked, drank tea, and a lot more. In a comment on one of my posts, Ellen Symons also mentioned a few other great activities to bring the practice to, like during yoga, a massage, and even mowing the lawn.

        Seeking  ways to integrate mindfulness into your daily life will allow you to receive the benefits of meditation, and will benefit you even more if you already meditate.

        9. You can do any task that doesn’t involve thinking, mindfully.

        When experimenting with different activities to bring mindfulness to, I found that some activities were easier to focus on than others. The main thing I discovered is that the less thinking an activity involves, the easier it is to be mindful of your actions. If you’re looking for activities to bring mindfulness to, start with the ones that don’t involve a lot of thinking, like cleaning or washing the dishes.

        8. Meditation makes you way better at playing pool.

        Or any other sport, for that matter. Pool is a game (sport?) that requires incredible concentration, patience, mindfulness, and focus. Most days I play a solo game of pool to mull over ideas and plan things for A Year of Productivity, and I was surprised to find myself sinking more shots than ever during this experiment.

        A lot of people consider sports to be 90% mental and 10% physical, and I’m confident that if you actively play sports, meditation will help you perform. It’s no surprise that athletes like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, and many others all have a meditation ritual.

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          7. Meditation clears your brain’s RAM.

          A computer’s RAM is like its short-term memory. By having a singular focus during meditation, you clear your mind of thought, which not only works out your ‘attention muscle,’ but also clears your brain’s RAM.

          This by itself is a good enough reason to practice meditation. Clearing your brain’s RAM reduces your stress and allows you to focus better throughout the day.

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          6. Meditation lets you work smarter, instead of just harder.

          During the experiment, I made sure to work as much as I could so I had a way to measure how meditation affected my productivity.

          Interestingly, I found that meditation made it much easier for me to identify the highest leverage activities in both my work and personal lives, which made it possible for me to work smarter, instead of just harder.

          I think there are two ways to get more done: put in more time and effort, which is a crappy way to get more done, or identify the highest leverage activities so you can work smarter instead of just harder. Meditation lets you step back from the things you do so you can see the ‘whole forest’ instead of just the trees, and work smarter instead of harder.

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              5. The bigger something is, the easier it is to put off.

              When I started the experiment, I made an effort to group my daily meditation time into one big chunk so I could tackle it all at once, but I frequently found myself procrastinating because I made such a big commitment to myself.

              When I broke down my meditation time down into a few smaller, easier-to-manage chunks, I procrastinated much less, and got a lot more done.

              Breaking other activities down into smaller, easier-to-digest chunks helps a ton with procrastination. If you’re studying, schedule time to just study one chapter instead of five. Similarly, the idea of cleaning up your basement may seem daunting (especially if it’s going to take you a day or two), but cleaning your basement for only 10 minutes is much more manageable. It’s a much smaller chunk of time, but you’ll actually do it. And, when you get started, you’ll likely want to keep going!

              4. You enjoy food twice as much when you eat it twice as slow.

              If you’re anything like me, when you eat something good, you want to eat it all right away, now! Fast! But that’s a bit backwards. When you really look at the amount of enjoyment you receive from eating something, you realize that you receive pretty much twice the enjoyment from eating it twice as slow.

              When I took the time to mindfully eat food during the experiment, that food was the tastiest food I’ve had in years, not only because I mindfully focused on the food’s flavor and texture, but also because I slowed down to actually enjoy and taste what I was eating.

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              If you want to get more enjoyment out of your food, eat slower. Better yet, practice eating mindfully. The practice will also help you eat less because you won’t lose track of how much you eat, and because your mind has more time to register that it’s full.

              3. Meditation turns you into a more compassionate and patient person.

              When I was writing the first draft of this article, I was sitting next to my girlfriend and she added to the end of the title for this section, “and a better, more patient boyfriend!” Last week I found myself becoming more caring, patient, and compassionate as the week went on. I helped out with things I didn’t before, cleaned up when I didn’t have to, did favors for strangers just because I could, and found myself listening to the people around me much more attentively.

              Patience is a quality I work hard to cultivate in myself, especially when it comes to dealing with people. Meditating for 35 hours helped me become more considerate, compassionate, caring, and patient than I have been in a long time.

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                2. Never wish away time. You have a set amount of it, and you don’t get more.

                My mind travels to weird places when I meditate, and over the last week I thought a lot about time. As my mind revved down during each meditation session, with each passing meditation bell I could almost feel time ticking away. Last week I thought a lot about how little time I have.

                While there are a lot of ways to get more out of your time, there are a lot fewer ways to get more time. Meditating for 35 hours forced me to step back from my actions, and allowed my mind to process what the most important elements of my life are. If you’re looking to do the same, I couldn’t recommend meditation more.

                1. Your actions are your only true belongings.

                Every single action of yours falls into one of three buckets: actions you have already done, actions you’re doing now, and actions you’re going to do. The brain glitch that nearly everyone has is that they spend most of their time in either the past or the future; thinking about the stupid or great things they’ve done in the past, or thinking about the things they’re going to do.

                But here’s the thing: the past has already happened, and the future is just an idea of what you think things are going to be like (and if you’re anything like me, you’re wrong 75% of the time). The actions that you perform in any given moment shape your future, and create your past. The present is the only time that ever actually exists.

                There’s a Buddhist parable that says that your actions are your only true belongings, and that they’re the ground upon which you stand. I lived that parable last week, and can say now that I can’t think of a sentiment more true. Meditation trains you to focus on the present moment, and maybe even more importantly, teaches you that never have to (or can) deal with more than one moment at a time.

                A quick walk through the forest.

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                  Imagine you’re walking through the picture above.

                  It’s a gorgeous autumn day; not too hot or cold, and there’s a light breeze ruffling the leaves as you walk by them. You get lost in how the branches are moving, how the day is so perfect and calm, and gaze up in awe about how beautiful your life is.

                  Now imagine that instead of walking along the trail, you’re driving down it. You pass the exact same trees – whooooosh – but they mean a lot less to you. There’s no depth to them. Sure, you might take a second and think about how nice they are, but even if you did, you definitely wouldn’t hear the wind rustling the leaves, or notice the Rainbow Lorikeet perched on one of the branches.

                  You might not even notice the trees at all.

                  ————

                  A lot of people have a go, go, go, faster, faster, faster view of their work. They want to do more, in less time, and get from point A to B as fast as possible. And a lot of the articles on this site are about just that.

                  But there’s also a flip side to productivity that brings meaning to how productive you are, and this is the side of productivity that I explored last week.

                  Productivity is completely meaningless if you don’t reflect on how it makes your life better and more meaningful. It might seem strange that sitting on your butt and doing almost nothing can make you more productive, but I personally can’t think of an activity that will bring as much perspective and meaning to your life as meditation. (Besides maybe being a parent, which I haven’t done yet. And hopefully won’t anytime soon!)

                  Meditation, unlike a fast drive through the picture above, is slow, calm, and deliberate. It brings meaning to what you do, helps you discover who you are, and in my opinion, it’s one of the best gifts you could give yourself.

                  If you don’t already practice meditation, I highly recommend it.

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                  Last Updated on July 17, 2019

                  The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

                  The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

                  What happens in our heads when we set goals?

                  Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

                  Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

                  According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

                  Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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                  Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

                  Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

                  The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

                  Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

                  So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

                  Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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                  One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

                  Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

                  Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

                  The Neurology of Ownership

                  Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

                  In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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                  But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

                  This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

                  Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

                  The Upshot for Goal-Setters

                  So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

                  On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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                  It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

                  On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

                  But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

                  More About Goals Setting

                  Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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