Why Mindfulness Makes You More Productive—And How to Make It Work for You

Matt Ellis
Matt Ellis / February 19, 2019

Do you ever wonder about those sages who live alone in the mountains, and think, "I bet they could fill out a spreadsheet in no time!"?

The science, somewhat surprisingly, suggests that they could.

With the current resurgence in mindfulness and meditation in the West, we're coming becoming fully aware of the effects of being fully aware. What we're finding is that there's more to mindfulness than the paltry rewards of inner peace and true happiness: It's also good for business. Plenty of successful CEOs have already attested to its power in increasing focus, decreasing stress, and clearing the mind to make better decisions. And now we have the data to prove them right.

What Is Mindfulness, Exactly?

Stacked stones

Mindfulness is hard to explain. In fact, the definition is one of the prompts some people reflect on when trying to achieve mindfulness.

To boil it down, mindfulness is being especially conscious or aware of what's happening in the current moment. And, contrary to popular belief, it's not something that happens only when you meditate—it's a state of mind you can adopt all the time.

Maybe it's easier if we explain what mindfulness is not: being bogged down by distractions. Even harmless distractions (e.g., noticing a person walking past your desk) can stop you from living—or working—in the moment. Some people equate mindfulness to not thinking at all, but that's not really accurate: What's missing from your head is distractions, but not thoughts. If you're mindful at work, you should be thinking too.

One final relevant aspect of mindfulness is emphasizing the process over the outcome. Part of being in the moment involves submitting fully to the task at hand, rather than focusing on what the results will be (and how they'll affect you). This inherently lends itself to productivity because you stay focused on your work instead of thinking about the intangible future.

How Mindfulness Affects the Brain

Stripping away the mysticism, how exactly does mindfulness affect the brain? Research has documented the success of mindfulness in a wide range of practical applications, from mental health treatments like PTSD recovery to quantifiably changing the way we perceive ourselves.

The positive effects of mindfulness can be considered an ancient secret from prehistoric times, but it's only recently—thanks to the latest developments in MRI, EEG, and other brain scanning technology—that we've been able to scientifically confirm what the gurus have known for centuries.

For starters, meditative activities—the aspect of mindfulness easiest to observe scientifically— reduce the brain's amount of beta waves, associated with stress and anxiety, or at low levels, heavy logical reasoning. So right away, we can confirm that mindfulness delivers on its promise of relaxation, just as advertised.

But what we're learning goes much deeper than that. A ground-breaking 2005 study from Dr. Sara W. Lazar, et al., showed that meditation actually increases brain density in the prefrontal cortex. While literally maximizing brain power is impressive enough, what's particularly interesting is that these changes occur in the prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal cortex

To oversimplify a complex subject, the prefrontal cortex is what separates humans from animals. Not that animals don't have it, but that it's far more developed in humans. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of our conscious thought and reasoning, including empathy, self-awareness, intuition, morality, and the ability to focus through emotional turmoil.

With that in mind, it's easy to see how mindfulness could improve your productivity by exercising the right parts of your brain. Let's look at each area individually.

Focus

A stronger prefrontal cortex gives you more control over your thoughts, even the unproductive ones. A University of California study showed that just two weeks of mindfulness training effectively "reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting," not to mention how it improved subjects' GRE test scores.

Decision-Making

Because big decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex, it stands to reason that mindfulness could be a great aid in making better choices. While it's a difficult topic to quantify and measure, what we do know—thanks to a University of Pennsylvania study—is that mindfulness does mitigate the sunk cost bias. By emphasizing temporal relations and presenting a clearer and more objective viewpoint, meditation fortifies your brain from making biased decisions.

Stress Relief

For many people, stress relief is reason enough to delve into mindfulness. Although scientific documentation is somewhat unnecessary—you can just see for yourself how meditation relieves stress—a John Hopkins University study has concluded that "meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress," defined in the paper as "anxiety, depression, and stress." The study also noted the positive effects of mindfulness on "improving physical symptoms (eg, pain)."

The implications of mindfulness on stress relief are directly applicable to business and productivity, and have already been documented. By incorporating a six-week course on mindfulness and cognitive behavioral training, Transport for London reported 71% fewer absentee days due to stress, anxiety, or depression, and 50% fewer absences overall. The participants also reported improvements in their relationships (80%), the ability to relax more easily (79%), better sleep patterns (64%), and more happiness at work (54%).

Relationships with Coworkers

Especially in business, it's often taken for granted that collaboration and teamwork are trainable skills, and some workers are better at them than others. Although no workplace-specific tests have been done, a joint Harvard University-Northeastern University study showed that "meditation directly enhanced compassionate responding" to people who needed help. Considering the prefrontal cortex's link to empathy, these results are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Creative Problem Solving

For something as ethereal as creativity, it's surprising how much empirical evidence there is showing its connection to mindfulness.

First, a Leiden University study showed that meditation's effects on divergent thinking were "robust." Divergent thinking is the process of creating multiple new and original ideas, as opposed to convergent thinking, which is more about deducing a single conclusion from various inputs.

A Fielding Graduate University study elaborated on these findings to include heightened creativity over the long run, in addition to immediate results. This study also concluded that subjects who meditate were 121% more capable of building upon the ideas of others, harkening back to the effects of mindfulness on empathy.

Experts have also pointed out that mindfulness facilitates three out of the four stages of the creative process:

  1. Preparation—Enhanced divergent thinking creates a greater amount of ideas to start with.
  2. Incubation—By reducing beta waves, mindfulness makes it easier to relax and temporarily forget about a dilemma, an integral stage of the creative process. (This study better explains the details.)
  3. Illumination—More self-awareness and awareness of one's thoughts strengthens the connection to the subconscious, making Eureka moments easier to come by.

The fourth stage, verification, relies more on logical evaluation and fine-tuning the idea; that kind of thinking is outside the purview of mindfulness.

Happiness

Can you really put a value on happiness? Yes, and that value is 12%—that's how much more productive happy workers are, according to a University of Warwick study. Even 12% is a conservative estimate—some subjects reached productivity as high as 20% more than the control group.

We've already discussed how mindfulness reduces stress, but a University of North Carolina-University of Michigan study reveals a more direct correlation between meditation and positive emotions. If you're still not convinced, just ask Matthieu Ricard, the world's happiest person as determined by brain scanning. Ricard happens to be a Tibetan monk, who is no stranger to mindfulness and meditation.

The same study also showed a direct correlation between time spent meditating and a person's "capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity." Even subjects with "only three weeks of 20-minute meditation per day" showed slightly better results than those who didn't meditate at all.

How to Attain Mindfulness Through Meditation

Although mindfulness is often referred to as a natural state, the truth is that attaining it is more like a skill: It needs to be practiced and honed before being properly utilized. There's no shortage of distractions in modern society, and it takes time to train yourself to tune them out. While some people have had success in learning mindfulness skills on their own, others have better luck joining a group or studying under an expert.

Because attaining mindfulness takes practice and training, the topic is closely linked to mediation, the most popular method of achieving it (but not the only one). Meditation is likewise hard to explain—it's more like the absence of action than an action itself. On top of that, there are dozens of different ways to meditate, from centuries-old Zen Buddhist methods to more recent Guided Meditations designed for busier times.

The common thread in all mediation is the goal of bringing your attention to the experiences of the present moment—in other words, achieving mindfulness. Guides encourage meditators to observe their thoughts, but not engage. The methods vary, but many involve focusing on your senses, such as a slight breeze on your skin.

In the absence of other sensations, you can always meditate on your breathing; for example, if you focus enough, you'll notice that air is colder coming into your nose and warmer coming out. That's as good of a prompt as any to start you off.

Meditation makes some people think about monks sitting crossed-legged in an isolated stone temple, but it can just as well be you sitting at your desk and closing your eyes for a few minutes. Call it whatever you want, but taking a moment for yourself to calm down has pretty obvious value. You've likely been meditating here and there your entire life without even realizing it.

5 Ways to Apply Mindfulness at Work

1. Meditation Exercises

Meditation doesn't have to be regimented or intimidating. It can be done virtually anywhere and anytime, just by giving yourself a few minutes. Here are beginner tips on meditating, for whenever you have some free time:

Get comfortable. There's no requirement that you have to be sitting cross-legged and upright to meditate. The most important thing is that you're comfortable, so feel free to meditate in a chair, lying in bed, or even standing if that's what comfortable for you. The idea is to minimize distractions, so find a position you can maintain without problems.

Scan your body for tension. Starting at the top of your head and working down, notice any points in your body with tension and release it. The usual suspects involve your brow, your shoulders, your neck, and sometimes even your jaw.

Don't beat yourself up for thinking. Naturally, it's not easy to clear your mind of all thought. Don't get frustrated at yourself for not being able to shut off your mind—it happens to everyone, even meditation experts. Rather, simply observe these thoughts as they "float by" your consciousness. Letting them come and go is part of the process. As long as you don't engage them, it still counts as meditating.

4-7-8 breathing technique. Here's a good method for beginners who have trouble clearing their minds: Focus on your breathing, specifically using the 4-7-8 technique:

  • Breathe in for four seconds.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Exhale for eight seconds.
  • Repeat.

This is a good "training wheels" meditation for people who struggle with being idle. The instructions are involved enough to keep your mind occupied with counting, but still simple enough that they won't distract from mindfulness.

If it's still too difficult to dive in, you can download a meditation aid app. Apps like Calm and Stop, Breathe & Think act as an automated coach. With different, voice-guided meditations at different time intervals, these apps offer enough flexibility to accommodate you as you transition.

2. Avoid multitasking

Multitasking is what you might call a "false friend"—it makes you feel like you're more productive, but as an Ohio State study shows, the final product is not as good as you think.

All multitasking does is water down your efforts for each task, as opposed to applying full focus to each. Completing one task at a time, however, helps train your focus, fitting hand-and-hand with mindfulness.

This is where Zapier comes in handy. As an automation app, you can easily program menial tasks to be completed automatically—the same kinds of tasks that are tempting to do with multitasking because they seem small and brainless.

3. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck of the Stanford Psychology Department posits that there are two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. A fixed mindset views personality traits, skills, and talents as static and unchangeable. A growth mindset understands that these things can be changed, trained, and improved.

Based on the statistical evidence we've been discussing this entire article, a growth mindset is closest to reality: The data shows people's traits have unequivocally changed and certain skills have improved. If you want the same positive results, it all starts with believing you can get them. And Dweck's research has even confirmed the positive effects of a growth mindset on business.

4. Be Consistent in Your Practices

To get the most out of mindfulness, you have to practice it regularly. The best advice for newcomers is to meditate at least once a day and turn it into a habit. As we learned from the UNC-UM study above, just twenty minutes a day can produce observable results in only three weeks.

The true amount of time may even be lower: Dr. Sara Lazar, the Harvard neuroscientist behind the discovery that mindfulness increases prefrontal cortex density, admitted in an interview that "anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit," but that "we need to test it out." Of course, the longer you practice per session, the more you'll get back.

Daily meditation doesn't have to take long, but when you're just starting out, the trouble is less about the time commitment and more about actually remembering to do it every day. During those first few days, set an alarm reminder so you don't forget. You can pick whatever time of day is best for you, as long as you do it.

5. Professional Guidance

Are you interested in mindfulness training for your entire organization? Getting an individual to embrace mindfulness seems easy compared to getting a group of people on board, but you can still enlist the help of experts or agencies for company-wide implementation.

There are plenty of programs to teach business-centric mindfulness. Search for groups under MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Relief) or MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Training), with most courses lasting four to eight weeks. Alternatively, you don't need an in-house trainer if you use an online course or webinar. These are more flexible with logistics, and can offer the same quality of instruction.

The mindfulness app Insight Timer facilitates communication with the meditation community, and can help you find the right guides or mentors. You can search for teachers in your area, or just follow the advice you find there on your own.


If you're really serious about maximizing your productivity—to say nothing of improving your life and happiness—mindfulness isn't something to brush off. It may feel fluffy at first, but with research backing up its effects, it's worth trying out for yourself, or your entire team.

Image of stones from PIRO4D via Pixabay. Image of prefrontal cortex from the Database Center for Life Science via Wikipedia.

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