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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.