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What Meditation Can Teach Us About Productivity

What Meditation Can Teach Us About Productivity

    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.

    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 August 16, 2018

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

    How about a unique spin on things?

    These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

    1. Empty your mind.

    It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

    Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

    Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

    Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

    How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

    2. Keep certain days clear.

    Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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    This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

    3. Prioritize your work.

    Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

    Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

    Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

    How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

    4. Chop up your time.

    Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

    5. Have a thinking position.

    Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

    What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

    6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

    To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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    Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

    7. Don’t try to do too much.

    OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

    8. Have a daily action plan.

    Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

    Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

    9. Do your most dreaded project first.

    Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

    10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

    The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

    11. Have a place devoted to work.

    If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

    But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

    Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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    Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

    12. Find your golden hour.

    You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

    Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

    Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

    Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

    13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

    It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

    By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

    Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

    14. Never stop.

    Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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    Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

    There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

    15. Be in tune with your body.

    Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

    16. Try different methods.

    Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

    It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

    Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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