You might assume you have to kick it into high gear when you’re juggling emails, phone calls and multiple projects, but a new study shows that slowing down, or specifically, meditating, can make you a better multitasker – and a more productive employee.
Much has been written about the downside to multitasking: It’s been shown to make workers less accurate and efficient, it hampers your ability to filter out irrelevant information, (in other words to focus on the task at hand), and it increases stress and other negative feelings.
Researcher David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, hypothesized that meditation might help workers stay more focused, and therefore be more productive in the face of the onslaught of interruptions and demands that are typical in today’s workplace. Some research has suggested that certain kinds of meditation can enhance attention and improve your ability to remain focused, but Levy wanted to test it in a real world simulation.
In his study, Levy randomized participants into different groups. One group received eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation. A control group received relaxation training. Each group met with the instructor for two hours once a week, and were given about a half an hour of “homework” exercises.
“The basic technique is to pay attention to the sensation of the breathing, and when the mind wanders, as it will, to return to the breath.”
- David Levy, of the Information School of the University of Washington
The mindfulness meditation training emphasizes the ability to narrow or widen your focus voluntarily, to shift focus voluntarily from one thing to another, and to create a greater awareness of your breath and your body. After the eight weeks, they were put in a simulated office environment—a typically busy office setting.
The participants were asked to complete a set of tasks requiring them to communicate with other employees, and at the same time, they were flooded with a barrage of emails, instant messages, telephone calls and knocks on the door.
Participants did this office simulation twice, once before the eight week training and once after, so the researchers could compare results. Here’s what they found:
• Those in the meditation group spent more time on task and switched tasks less often after the training compared to before the training. Meditation appears to strengthen your ability to notice interruptions without necessarily changing tasks or switching gears, Levy said.
“Having such skill might therefore give users the choice to stay with the current task longer, rather than responding to each interruption immediately,” the authors wrote in their study.
• The meditation group felt less stress and negative mood after the training than the relaxation group. The authors believe the ability to stay focused may have reduced their stress by increasing their sense of competence.
• Both groups showed improved memory, which the authors attribute to having reduced levels of stress.
“I consider our results to be preliminary, but they suggest that we don't have to be at the mercy of our devices,” Levy said. “We can train our attention so we're better able to focus, and this may well help us be less stressed and more effective. I do believe that effective multitasking involves careful decisions about which distractions to attend to, and which to avoid."
If you want to test out the theory, start slowly with five to 10 minutes a day, and work up to about 30 minutes daily.
“The basic technique is to pay attention to the sensation of the breathing, and when the mind wanders, as it will, to return to the breath,” said Levy, who is also a seasoned meditator.
You can also learn how to meditate from books such as The Miracle of Mindfulness or Mindfulness for Beginners and websites; but most importantly, you need to practice it daily.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.