“You can use tips and techniques. There are time management tools and project management systems. But ultimately, you have to have this sense of self–this awareness of what’s going on inside of you and outside of you–to make choices. If you’re trying to be more productive, you can’t escape mindfulness.” ~ Dr. Tim Pychyl, Head of the Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University
Did you know that your mind wanders about 50% of the time? Researchers at Harvard University monitored over 2,000 men and women as they went about their day working, commuting, shopping, exercising, and even sleeping to discover how often and during what types of tasks your mind falls out of focus. When the mind wanders, it goes into a default mode of ‘stimulus-independent thoughts’: thoughts that come and go without an obvious trigger, much like the ones you notice during a meditation session. The researchers saw significant mind wandering in all daily activities except for one (sex). (1)
You’d get a lot more done if you spent less than half of your time distracted, which is why meditation is becoming ever more popular in the workplace. Some startups such as Medium offer in-house meditation as an employee perk. Companies including SAP and Adobe have full-time employees devoted to teaching meditation. Chade-Meng Tan became a best-selling author by writing about the wildly popular meditation-based personal growth programs he developed at Google.
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At first glance, it may seem strange to use meditation as a productivity tool. You have no goal or expected outcome from a meditation session. You produce nothing tangible while you focus on your breath or scan your body. Yet when you take time out of your day to produce ‘nothing,’ you build skills that increase your overall productivity and become more aware of what you’re doing when you’re doing ‘something.’ Meditation helps you procrastinate less, focus more, and prioritize tasks so that you get more done.
“I’m still just a beginner. I’m meditating only for three minutes a day, as I’m trying to make the habit a daily one. I occasionally go to 5 minutes but that’s about it. At work and when I wake up I meditate to try to stop procrastinating. Whenever I feel the urge to procrastinate I’m trying to substitute slacking off with a couple of minutes of meditation figure out why I’m feeling the urge, and then rationally talk myself into getting back to doing important work.” ~ Guðmundur Kristjánsso, Project Manager and Lift user, Iceland
The Biggest Threat to Your Goals
Tim Pychyl is an expert in what factors influence how effectively we pursue our goals. Incidentally, he’s really good at achieving his. He’s the head of a research lab at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) where he also mentors and teaches students. Pychyl publishes a monthly blog on Psychology Today, writes academic articles and books, and records a top-rated iTunes podcast where he’s interviewed scientists as well as best selling authors including Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) and Dr. Kelly McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct). Outside of work, he cares for his wife, two children, hobby farm, family horses, and team of sled dogs (in the winter, he moonlights as a musher). “People ask me if I procrastinate,” says Pychyl. “The truth is, I can’t.” (2)
Yet Pychyl has spent the last two decades obsessively researching procrastination, one of the biggest threats to achieving goals. Studies show that 20% of people procrastinate regularly and that workers spend 60-80% of their time surfing the net instead of working. (3,4) Technology keeps us constantly connected not only to our work but also to the things that distract us from it. “Procrastination is a major threat to our productivity because it’s always there in the background threatening to undermine our best-laid plans and intentions,” says Pychyl. His research has paid off. Pychyl has found at least one solution to our procrastination woes: meditation.
Why We Procrastinate
Procrastination is an emotional response. You procrastinate when you feel overwhelmed, scared, stressed, indecisive, insecure, or distracted by a more enjoyable task. Most people aren’t even aware that they’re having the negative emotions that they’re reacting to when they procrastinate. “These can be transient emotions,” Pychyl explains, “even preconscious—meaning that we’re not really aware of these feelings at a conscious level—but we do react to them… this avoidant coping response is procrastination.” (5)
Procrastination doesn’t make us happier, but we do it because our brain thinks it does. We’re programmed to do things that feel good to us in the moment and avoid what makes us feel bad. Unfortunately, procrastination has a net negative effect on your mood. When you evade negative emotions by procrastinating, they intensify. The longer you procrastinate, the more stress you feel. The positive feelings you initially gain while procrastinating fade. Procrastination also sparks a new emotion: guilt. (6) A certain amount of guilt incentivizes you to finish tasks but too much causes debilitating anxiety.
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Meditate to Stop Procrastinating
Meditation can help you stop procrastinating because it trains you to recognize the emotional changes that drive you to do so. Awareness is the crucial first step in overcoming procrastination. Pychyl explains, “Procrastination is a self-regulation failure… effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness.” (7) During a meditation session, you practice the skill of being aware of your emotions. You might look for points of physical tension during a body scan, state your feelings in verbal exercises, or notice your anxiety level. And as with anything you practice, eventually you become skilled enough to notice your feelings in real life situations.
You gain power over your emotions once you become aware of them. In meditation, you learn a concept called non-judgmental awareness: the unconditional acceptance and appreciation of all thoughts and feelings that you have. It’s like turning off the angel and devil on your shoulders. When you do, your thoughts are no longer bad or good, they just exist. Another key skill you learn is how to override your emotional reaction to any thought that comes your way. “When you recognize that procrastination is just about short term mood repair and meditation builds in this non-judgmental awareness of what you are feeling…you [realize you] don’t have to be those feelings that you are feeling,” says Pychyl. (8) Outcomes change dramatically when you approach situations with a mindful response instead of a reactive mentality. You gain control of your emotions, your focus, and your time. You have the skills you need to make the right choice between procrastinating or getting back on task.
“I found that meditation made it much easier for me to identify the highest leverage activities in both my work and personal lives, which made it possible for me to work smarter, instead of just harder. I think there are two ways to get more done: put in more time and effort, which is a crappy way to get more done, or identify the highest leverage activities so you can work smarter instead of just harder. Meditation lets you step back from the things you do so you can see the ‘whole forest’ instead of just the trees, and work smarter instead of harder.” ~ Chris Bailey, A Year of Productivity blog
The Multitasking Lie
There’s a scary trend happening across the working world. People are multitasking more than ever before. In fact, younger generations multitask more than previous ones. (9) At the same time, advances in technology and design make it easier to work on many tasks at once and even lure you to do so with notifications that pop up on your phone or desktop as you work. All of this is happening even though scientists proved that multitasking kills productivity years ago.
Why Multitasking Kills Productivity
The human brain cannot focus on more than one idea at a time. There are a few exceptions, for instance listening to music while performing a physical activity, but there are no exceptions when it comes to processing information. (10) Scientists have shown this time and again when studying the most common type of multitasking in workplace settings: task-switching between different types of information media. Multitasking gives the allure of juggling more than one task at a time, but what you’re really doing when you multi-task is repeatedly switching focus from one task to another. If you look at your brain through an MRI while multi-tasking, you can actually see different parts of your brain light up each time that you switch tasks. (11)
When you switch from task to task, your brain is too distracted to fully focus on either activity. Your brain needs time to process each task switch and decide what information is relevant. The lack of focus can extend the time it takes to complete a task and reduce the overall quality of your work. Dr. Eyal Ophir, who now works at Yahoo but led one of the most famous studies on multitasking, told Boing Boing, “Recent research suggests that the cost of task switching is rooted in cognitive interference from the irrelevant task set: interference from all those thoughts about the task you’re NOT doing. Every task you do competes for your mental resources, even once you think it’s no longer relevant.” (12) The research that made Ophir famous showed that frequent multitaskers have trouble focusing on individual tasks. They were more susceptible to distractions and less able to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information during tests compared to people who didn’t multitask. The effect worsens as people take on more activities. The current research reveals a scary possibility: that when you multitask persistently, you gradually lose your ability to focus. (13)
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Meditation Retrains Your Brain to Focus
Meditation retrains your brain to focus on one task at a time. One study at Stanford University found that people with just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation practice stuck to tasks longer and switched tasks less frequently than people with no meditation experience or who had performed 8 weeks of relaxation practice. The researchers explained, “Focused attention (FA) training appears to strengthen one’s ability to notice interruptions without necessarily relinquishing one’s current task. Having such skill might therefore give users the choice to stay with the current task longer, rather than responding to each interruption immediately.” (14) In Lift’s own research, 75% of people who meditated reported an increase in focus at work within 1 month of their practice. (15)
Awareness teaches you to notice when you’re multitasking so that you can stop. Multitasking is a state of constant partial attention that leads to stress and negative emotions. A mind wandering makes people unhappy. The same researchers who discovered that minds wander about 50% of the time explained, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” (16) Awareness teaches you to notice the negative feelings created when you multitask, just as it helps you to identify the emotions that lead you to procrastinate. In your meditation practice, you’ll also learn how different it feels to fully focus versus give partial attention to a task. You gain the power to stop multitasking once you can recognize when you’re doing it.
“I started meditating sporadically with a sangha in 2009. These days I include meditation in my morning routine — I get up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, drink coffee on train on my way to work and then meditate. There is no goal with it, there is simply meditation. From doing only 5-10 minutes on the train I now do close to 30 minutes every morning, and when the train reaches Oslo I am peaceful and calm. There is a strong sense of peace when I am finished and I carry this feeling with me throughout the day. It’s made me more focused at work, training the mind gives clarity and less procrastination.” ~ André Øverland Wibye, Marketing Professional, Norway
There’s one more way that meditation boosts your productivity: it helps you prioritize better. If you think about it, procrastination is another way of saying that you’re working with misaligned priorities. Multitasking is just another form of procrastination. You switch between tasks instead of finishing the one at hand because it makes you feel better. Researchers found that multitaskers exhibit a similar emotional pattern to the one that Pychyl sees in procrastinators. Dr. Wang and Dr. Tchernev explained in the paper, “Although cognitive needs are not gratified by media multitasking, emotional needs are, such as feeling entertained or relaxed.” (17)
The emotional basis of our productivity problems flies in the face of the logical, systematic solutions that promise to solve them, which may be why they don’t quite work. Productivity tools alleviate the symptoms of a wandering mind but not the cause: that the mind always wanders. And while a wandering mind can never be cured, nor should it be, you can take steps to make it wander less and reap the benefits of a more productive life.
[Tweet “”A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” ~ Matthew Killingsworth #strongmind”]
- I Am Aware Meditation by Will Kabat-Zinn: this can be done alone or with a partner
- Workplace Mindfulness by buddhify
- Matt Killingsworth, Trackyourhappiness.org and Harvard PhD student
- Dr. Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard
- Dr. Tim Pychyl, Head of the Procrastination Research Group
- Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Author of The Willpower Instinct
- Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power of Habit
- Joseph Ferrari, Author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done
- Dr. Mark Carrier, Psychology Department Chair at CSU: Dominguez Hills
- Chris Bailey, A Year of Productivity Blog
- Leo Widrich, Buffer App
- Dr. Eyal Ophir, UX Designer at Yahoo!, former Stanford Researcher
- Dr. Clifford Nass, former Stanford Professor and Human-Computer Interaction Expert
- Dr. David Levy, Professor at University of Washington
- Dr. Zheng Wang, Assistant Professor at Ohio State University
- John Tchernev, Ohio State University PhD student
(1,16) Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932.
(3) Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley).
(5,7) Procrastination: Why Mindfulness is Crucial by Tim Pychyl
(6) The Role of Goal Focus in Reducing Procrastination by Tim Pychyl
(9) Carrier, L. Mark, et al. “Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans.” Computers in Human Behavior 25.2 (2009): 483-489.
(10) The Myth of Multitasking: NPR Interview with Dr. Clifford Nass
(11) What Multitasking Does to Our Brains by Leo Widrich
(12,13) Eyal Ophir on the Science of Multitasking by Avi Solomon (Boing Boing)
(14) Levy, David M., et al. “The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment.” Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2012. Canadian Information Processing Society, 2012.
(15) Lift’s How to Meditate Guide
(17) Wang, Zheng, and John M. Tchernev. “The “myth” of media multitasking: Reciprocal dynamics of media multitasking, personal needs, and gratifications.”Journal of Communication 62.3 (2012): 493-513.
- Dr. Tim Pychyl’s Procrastination Research Group
- Lift’s How to Meditate Guide featuring guided mindfulness meditations
- Original Research by Dr. Eyal Ophir and Dr. Clifford Nass
- Your Brain on Multitasking by Kathy Sierra
Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on this chapter: Josh Roman, Erik Santoro, Tim Pychyl, David Ploskonka, Ellie Taesali, Kelly Martin, Alicia Liu, Zane Heard, Aaron Lewis, Matthew Dong, Darshan Desai, Esther Gladman, Duncan Davidson, Carter Bailey, and Laci Séber
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