So, you successfully unplugged and immersed yourself in each experience during your holiday break. You took time to thoughtfully connect with friends and family, or, maybe, you experienced an especially taxing holiday break complete with travel delays, airport food, and encounters with irritable family members. Either way, you were away from your work responsibilities. Good for you! Let’s talk about your triumphant return.
Your intentions for returning to work involve accomplishing projects efficiently to reduce further bottleneck, but, as a leader or manager, you also want to reconnect with your staff and inspire them to drive mission-essential tasks for the first quarter. Efforts to focus on your important work quickly diminish as you exchange holiday-vacation stories. Reminiscing of sugar plum fairies, family drama and presents galore ends 45 minutes later. Morning meetings commence while you, with the best of intentions, remain behind schedule. You don’t need to look at your high-tech watch with that handy heart-rate monitor to know your heart rate is climbing. Thoughts begin to flood your mind, resulting in a 20-minute panic attack and convincing yourself you’ll be fired straight after the next meeting for failing to respond to the 400 emails and 15 work projects on your desk. Cortisol surges through your body, leading to other stress-based side effects, like a headache, disrupted breathing and muscle tension. If only you could relax long enough to actually get some focused, undisrupted work done.
What if there was a way to do so? Not only might you improve your ability to acutely attend to each moment and experience, but you may also feel the effects of reduced stress. This method exceeds any temporary effects of focus produced by caffeine or other stimulants because, over time, it trains your brain to pay closer, sustained attention to the task at hand. The technique is ancient but becoming more and more relevant with today’s longer working hours and increased stress.
As the science on meditation becomes more rigorous with its rising popularity, many researchers are studying the main claim of mindfulness meditation- keeping our focus in the present environment by sustaining attention on an object, such as the breath or sounds. Research from the National Academy of Sciences supports this result, highlighting more activation in response inhibition and attention areas of the brain in expert meditators compared to novice meditators. While expert meditators, with an average of 44,000 hours of practice, show less brain activation in regions associated with thoughts and emotions when distractions occur, benefits of meditation might appear in both your brain and behavior after only three months of meditation.
Decreasing or managing stress responses within our bodies and brains means decreasing those unattractive, unhelpful responses that occur in the world outside our bodies. Meaning that, when you find yourself under significant stress at work, you are less likely to yell at that well-meaning intern who foolishly interrupted your frantic rush to clear your inbox. Meditation trains your brain to deal with situations like these by teaching practitioners to more easily disrupt the stimulus-response chain. What does that mean? It means you become better at harnessing those tempting knee-jerk reactions and choose a better alternative instead (thankfully, for the sake of your intern). While appearing straightforward, this requires daily practice.
It’s true. The effects of meditation are not immediate. It is a long-term, sustainable solution to increased focus and, presumably, better decision-making. Surely, you wouldn’t expect to go to the gym for a week and look like David Beckham. Changing deeply entrenched behaviors is difficult, especially when desired results are sparse in the beginning.
Therefore, the reasons or personal motivations for beginning a mindfulness meditation practice are more critical than any specific method you select. Tying your daily practice to your core values will more likely sustain the longevity of this new routine, instead of doing it for office-bragging rights that sound something like, “Oh, I wake up every morning at 4:30 AM for 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation followed by a five-mile run. And, all before you chumps have your morning coffee.” Don’t be that guy (or gal).
While our team (and some scientists, and millions of practitioners) understand the value of having a meditation practice, don’t take our word for it. Take a few days to consider your interest and motivation. If you’re ready to give it a try, check back next week when we teach you how to make yourself your own experiment (lab gear and Excel sheets not necessary).
Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,104(27), 11483-11488. doi:10.1073/pnas.0606552104