Meditation is rapidly becoming a mainstream practice and I believe one day will be as popular as going to the gym. Author and entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss, found that meditation is almost always practiced by the worlds top CEOs and high-performers. Science has shown that meditation has a number of health benefits and will work wonders for your personal productivity. I've been meditating for the last 2 months and have been blown away by the benefits and the enjoyment that can be had. I can safely say that meditation is now a normal part of my day and will remain so in the future. In this post I'd like to talk about the benefits of meditation, some of the barriers that prevent people from practicing, how to get started and what this all means for your productivity.
THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
A lot of studies have been done on the effects of meditation; studies have found that practicing mindfulness can improve your stress, creativity, focus, anxiety, relationships and memory.
(DISCLAIMER: Science is coming! The facts and figures below can be credited to Headspace.com)
Stress – What a lot of people don't know about stress is that it's your bodies natural reaction to danger. It's the “fight-or-flight” instinct in your nervous system that puts your body into a heightened state – your body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing your heart-rate and blood pressure so that you can act fast to get away from danger. This can be damaging as the reaction shuts down non-essential bodily functions like your digestive and immunes systems, restoration and growth. A little bit of stress if okay, but clearly if you live a very stressful life you're not doing your body any favours. Meditation calms your nervous system; by practicing mindfulness your heart-rate and breathing slows and your blood pressure drops. Instead of being in the “fight-or-flight” state, you're in the “rest and digest” state. It's also been shown that after practicing meditation for just 11 hours your brain starts to physically change shape. This happens as your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for triggering fear, becomes less reactive i.e. you become less stressed less easily. In terms of productivity, lower stress is going to increase your ability to produce quality work as your mind isn't wandering off or constantly worrying.
Creativity – Creative thinking can help you take advantage of more opportunities and can be applied to all aspects of life. You don't necessarily have to be a “creative person” to enjoy the benefits of meditation. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness improves your ability to solve problems in a novel or creative way. Meditation has also been linked to an increase in “divergent thinking”; this is your ability to generate new ideas. This translates into increased productivity as you improve your ability to solve problems and spend less time thinking of solutions.
Focus – Improving your ability to focus and ignore distractions is vital for increasing your productivity. After all, there's no point having an intelligent brain if you can't focus and put it to good use. A 2012 US study has demonstrated that individuals trained in meditation can focus on tasks longer, make fewer task switches and are better at controlling and sustaining their attention. Another study has found that 20 minutes of meditation a day for just four days resulted in individuals performing significantly better on tasks with time constraints. This is ideal for those of you who have to work to a deadline. After 11 hours of meditation, as your amygdala starts to change shape, so does the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that controls focus and self-control. As this part of the brain strengthens, your ability to focus improves along with your short-term memory. As you become less easily distracted, your can recall information quicker. Now who wouldn't want to be able to focus better? Start treating your head right and you can start saving hours of time every day.
Anxiety – Humans are natural worriers (not to be confused with warriors). Our brains are more inclined to think negative thoughts and we’re drawn to threats more than opportunities. It’s not our fault, it’s a survival tactic and it’s in our genes. A study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that 90% of the participants in the study showed signs of decreased anxiety and depression after studying mindfulness. Remember the amygdala, that part of the brain which controls fear? Well as you meditate and your brain begins to reshape itself, your amygdala becomes less reactive and you naturally start to worry less. Being more mindful calms the brain like nothing else can and by reducing your “inner chatter” it can even improve the quality of your sleep. By worrying less you naturally becoming more productive as you’re less easily distracted by any concerns you might have.
Relationships – Another proven benefit of meditation is the effect is can have on your relationships. Not just with the people closest to you, but with people you meet as well. Practicing meditation makes you more comfortable with yourself, making it easier for new people to like you and for you to accept them as they are. Meditation can also help you to control your anger and communicate your emotions more clearly, significantly improving the quality of your closer relationships. Even if you’re in a happy relationship, increased mindfulness can enhance these connections by making you more empathetic and less judgemental. Because so many of us work in teams, improving these particular relationships is vital. Doing so will boost team productivity as you have fewer conflicts and produce better quality work together.
THE BARRIERS TO MEDITATION
With all the benefits that can be had from meditating, why don't more of us do it? Here are what I believe are the most common barriers that stop people from practicing meditation.
“I Don't Have Time” – One of the biggest excuses you might hear is that people think they don't have enough time to meditate. This is so ridiculous it's untrue! To practice meditation, you only need 10 minutes a day. Although some experts can meditate for just a few minutes, 10 minutes is the starting point for beginners. As we learned above, the positive effects that come from meditation will improve your productivity and it won't be long before you've gained back your 10 minute investment. For just a second let's pretend that there were no productivity benefits – would you still meditate? With all the health related benefits and improvements in the relationships you have, it's still worth the 10 minutes a day to get your head straight. If you don't think you have a spare 10 minutes in your day, you're doing something seriously wrong.
“I'm not Religious” – Some people think meditation is tied to certain religions and requires a particular spiritual belief. This isn't the case. It's true that some religions do involve mindfulness and meditation itself has evolved over thousands of years. However, as a practice meditation does not require you to subscribe to any particular belief or religion. Just approach it with an open mind (no pun intended).
“It's Silly” – Often when people give meditation a try they feel silly. The idea of sitting still and focusing on your breath for 20 minutes may seem foreign to a lot of people, but it's actually very natural. Just as it's important to exercise and keep your body physically fit, it's equally, if not more important to keep your brain fit and well trained as well. There's nothing silly about meditation and if you can't help but giggle, just stick with it and you'll soon learn to enjoy the time to unwind.
“Why Would You Want to Stop Thoughts?” – When people start out with meditation, they think it's all about stopping thought and clearing your mind of emotion. This isn't actually the case. The goal is to focus the mind and develop a healthier relationship with your thoughts. It's perfectly normal for thoughts and feelings to come and go and meditation is about practicing the art of not getting carried away by these ideas. In doing so, you learn to control your emotions and it gets easier to find that place of calm during a stressful day.
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH MEDITATION
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of meditation and debunked some myths, it’s time to get some headspace. Seriously, you need to get Headspace; the smartphone app! In my opinion using this app is the best way to get started with meditation. Founder and Headspace instructor Andy Puddicombe starts by leading you through Take 10; 10 minutes of meditation a day for 10 days. This is a free introductory course which teaches you the basic concepts of meditation. The sessions are fully guided and Andy is with you the whole way keeping you on track and reminding you what to focus on. Once you graduate from Take 10 you progress to levels 2 and 3 which consist of 15 and 20 minutes sessions. After completing level 3 you unlock the entire Headspace library and can now choose from themed packs like Stress, Focus, Creativity, Relationships and more. The app is well-designed, easy to use and quite simply the best tool for becoming more mindful. If you're an early riser like me (you should be) then I recommend meditating first thing in the morning. Starting your day with a clear mind is the best way to set yourself up for success.
So there you have it. Thank you for reading and if you’re even slightly considering getting into meditation, I strongly recommend you give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose, everything to gain and hours of productivity ahead of you!