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What Meditation Can Teach Us About Productivity

What Meditation Can Teach Us About Productivity
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    Most productivity writing is about tips for organizing our workspace — creative ways to arrange our e-mail inbox, write to-do lists, color-code folders, and so on.  These techniques can be useful, but they don’t deal with one of the biggest obstacles to getting our work done:  our own minds.

    As I’ll bet you’ve experienced, if your attention is scattered, you feel sluggish and unmotivated, or you’re paralyzed with anxiety about what others will think of your work, it’s going to be tough to make the kind of progress you want, no matter how well-organized your e-mail is.

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    Meditation is the most powerful tool I’ve found for disciplining my mind.  Practicing sitting still and training my attention on something — whether it’s my breathing, an object I’m looking at, or something else — has had powerful effects on my focus and motivation at work.

    What’s more, I’ve discovered that many of the ideas and techniques used in meditation can also be applied “in real time” — as I’m sitting at my desk working on a project.  Whenever I find myself getting scatterbrained or frustrated, I can use one of the tools I’ll describe in this post for restoring my concentration and peace of mind.

    1. Focus on Your Breathing

    Meditators often concentrate on their breathing to stay alert, and keep their minds from drifting into memories of the past or concerns about the future.  I’ve found that this technique isn’t only helpful during meditation — it also works great whenever we find ourselves getting distracted at work.  We can focus on our breathing to bring our attention back to this moment, and to what we’re doing.

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    Many meditation teachers explain why this works by observing that, whenever we focus our attention on what’s happening in our bodies, our awareness naturally settles into the present.  If I ask you to pay attention to your breathing, you probably won’t start daydreaming about the way you used to breathe five years ago — you’ll focus on the act and experience of breathing right now.

    When your attention comes back to the present, the memories and worries that may have been bothering you fade into the background, and you can easily return to your work.

    2. Let Your Experience Be

    In meditation, as in the rest of our lives, uncomfortable thoughts and sensations sometimes come up — perhaps anxiety, resentment, boredom, or something else.  Meditation teachers often invite us to just let these experiences be, rather than trying to push them away and think about something pleasant.  This approach isn’t just useful in meditation — it’s also helpful when we’re struggling with procrastination at work, as I think we all do from time to time.

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    When we start to feel bored or frustrated at work, most of us are in the habit of “taking the edge off” by turning to some distracting activity — checking e-mail, playing FreeCell, or something else.  The trouble is that, when we distract ourselves from sensations we don’t like, we also take our attention away from our work.

    The next time difficult thoughts and sensations come up for you at work, I invite you to try fully allowing them.  Instead of running away from the uncomfortable experience, just keep breathing, relax your body, and let the feeling pass away on its own.

    What I think you’ll notice, as you practice allowing that thought or sensation to be without resisting, is that it will pass away quickly — perhaps within a few seconds or minutes.  When it dissipates, you can gently return your attention to your work.

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    The more you practice this, the more comfortable and familiar that experience will become.  You’ll become able to make progress in a task at work, even when that discomfort is coming up.

    3. Practice Holding Your Attention

    This exercise, which is based on a meditation some Zen practitioners do, is very simple.  Pick an object in the room.  It doesn’t matter what it is — it could be, for instance, a spot on the wall, or a paper clip on your desk.  Now, for five minutes, simply hold your gaze on that object.

    As you do this, I suspect, you’ll find your attention drifting off.  Maybe it will float away into thoughts about the past or future.  Perhaps you’ll find your eyes darting around the room, looking for something more interesting.  Whatever happens, when you notice your attention floating away, gently bring it back to the object you’re looking at.

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    I think you’ll begin to find, pretty soon after you start doing this exercise, that those moments of distraction — when your attention drifts away from what you’re looking at — will start to happen less and less often.  In other words, you’ll begin developing a longer attention span.

    As you can probably see, this is a very useful thing to cultivate if you want to become able to sit at your desk and make a lot of progress on a project in one sitting.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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