Without knowing you, I bet you clean your teeth just after breakfast and shortly before bed. The mechanics will be identical each time: the way you put the toothpaste on; how long you run the tap for; the order you visit each tooth. On most days I bet you don’t choose to do your teeth – it happens on autopilot. One moment you’re dressing for work, the next you’re in front of the mirror brushing away.
This is the magic of habits. They save your brain from deciding how to handle every moment of the day. Without them you’d barely make it out the front door every day. In fact, one study suggests over 40% of what we do every day happens without conscious thought.
While habits are essential, they can also be damaging. The wrong habits cause many of our problems and learning to control them is essential. However, that’s not the topic of this article. Read Atomic Habits by James Clear for that information. Instead, we will explore how bad habits affect productivity and why meditation is an unlikely tool for defeating them.
Procrastination is a Habit
Imagine you’re working on a report and it’s difficult and boring. What happens next?
I usually head for the fridge. After staring at the contents for a minute or two, longing for food I don’t own, I head back to work. Other people decide their office needs a tidy before they can finish their work. After all, a tidy office encourages more work, right?
Next time you’re procrastinating and find yourself escaping into another activity, take note of what you’re doing. I’ll bet it’s the same thing each time.
There was no choice involved in going to the fridge (or tidying the office). A routine was triggered by feelings of boredom and despair and it was acted it out involuntarily. There was no gap between feeling and action. Just like when you put your hand on a hotplate – it moves back instinctively.
This is why habitual behaviours are difficult to change. To do something differently you need to know the loop is about to play again.
Going back to the report, consider how you’d prefer to act when feeling bored. You could acknowledge the feeling and take a break, recognising a walk refreshes the brain. But more often you’d want to acknowledge the task is difficult, but decide to persist a little longer.
What you need is a small gap between the emotion and the automatic reaction. A moment for your brain to step in and make a mindful decision. Fortunately, there is a tool that can help with that.
Meditation as a Productivity Tool
Meditation isn’t about quietening the mind, contrary to popular belief. The real goal is to observe your mind and accept it without judgement. Within a couple of weeks of starting to meditate, your awareness will blossom.
This isn’t spiritual hocus-pocus, by the way. The UK national health service promotes meditation as a treatment for recurring depression. Elsewhere, meditation studies demonstrated physical changes in the brain in only eight weeks.
What does this increased awareness feel like? Andy Puddicombe, the founder of Headspace, compares the untrained mind to the inside of a washing machine. Thoughts and feelings tumble and spin around, giving you little choice but to be swept along with them. There is no sense of control or perspective – your entire world is the swirling vortex of the mind.
He then explains how meditation provides distance from these emotions. The meditator begins to feel like they are outside the machine, watching the spinning and tumbling emotions from a place of calm. The machine is still there, spinning as fast as before. It’s the perspective that shifts. The sense of distance.
Back in the context of the office, this distance can give you a moment to choose how to respond to unpleasant feelings. When boredom strikes, you get a few extra milliseconds to observe it. Ah, here’s boredom; welcome back. Now, will I take a break for a while or will I ride out this feeling and get back to work?
This is an incredibly powerful productivity skill to have in the toolbox.
Other Benefits of Meditation
If defeating procrastination hasn’t sold you on meditation, there are many other benefits to consider. A minor investment of ten minutes a day (only 1% of your waking life) can have life-changing consequences, including:
- Reduced anxiety – Mindfulness keeps you rooted in the present moment. This helps reduce anxiety, which is a tendency to obsess over the future.
- Increased focus – I find it far easier to keep focused on something when my meditation practice is going well.
- A sense of peace – Meditation teaches you the present moment is fine. In fact, it’s great. This reduces the desire to change the present moment into something else. I think that’s a pretty good definition of peace.
How to Start Meditating
I’m not a meditation teacher, so I would recommend downloading a meditation app and following a guided practice. I love Waking Up, by Sam Harris.
That said, the basics of meditation are simple and you can try it out by following some simple steps:
- Sit comfortably in a chair.
- Pay attention to your body and notice where you feel the breath most strongly. It could be your stomach or chest rising and falling, or the air passing through your nose.
- Pay close attention to this feeling. Watch every aspect of it, from the moment each breath starts to when it finishes.
- Your brain will soon get distracted with thoughts. You will completely forget you’re supposed to be watching your breath. This is normal.
- When you realise you’ve lost track of your thoughts, return to focusing on the breath. Don’t judge yourself for this.
- Keep this going for ten minutes.
Remember, the goal is not to quieten the mind. Progress is being made every time you get distracted and notice it. The moment when you realise and return to the breath is like a weight-lifting rep. And like weight-lifting, you will get stronger over time.
The Best Time to Start is Today
Meditation can give you productivity superpowers, but only when you act. If you want to control your emotions and fight procrastination you need to set aside ten minutes to meditate.
Start today and you’ll be amazed how different everything feels in ten days.