For many of us, performing well at work requires uninterrupted work time. Whether it’s writing a song, a smartphone app, a proposal for a new client, a business plan or completing a book manuscript, remaining focused for an extended period ensures the job will be done to the best of one’s ability and in the least amount of time.
Human attention is a limited resource, and multiple distractions deplete that resource. The information and communications technology that we use to create our work is increasing the number of interruptions that keep us from completing our work. And the more we consume electronic media, the more difficult we find it to filter out distractions.
Mindfulness meditation can help us to increase our ability to filter out distractions, recent research is finding. And filtering out distractions can greatly increase our focus and productivity at work.
E-mail, text or calendar alerts, telephone calls or in-office visits of co-workers lead us to stop important work and also create delays in our ability to return to that work. In a study conducted by University of Illinois and Microsoft Research, researchers found that information workers took an average of 16 minutes to resume work after responding to an e-mail alert. The workers took an average of 11 to 12 minutes to resume work after responding to an instant message (IM) alert. Granted, those alerts were coming from the same desktop computer the workers were using, and part of the delay was returning to the window where the previous work was being performed. However, 27% of the e-mail and IM responses resulted in a delay of two hours before workers resumed activity in the PC windows they’d been using prior to their response to the alert. And research performed by Microsoft in another study found that 40% of the work interruptions reported by workers were self-initiated.
Meditating one day I realized that I’d get more work done if I could focus my mind entirely on the task at hand. My work was slowed by allowing myself to be interrupted by electronic alerts, and also by worrying about critical “to do’s” (unanswered e-mails, the bio I needed to send before the radio interview, that upcoming Skype meeting, inviting panelists to the upcoming Webinar…). As the demands on my time and attention increase, I find I need to meditate longer to be able to focus.
Meditation research conducted by University of Washington and University of Arizona researchers confirms my experience that meditation can enhance our ability to focus. Specifically, focused attention meditation , a type of mindfulness meditation, led to improvements in the ability of participants to remain focused, ignore distractions , and regulate emotions. In focused attention meditation, meditators maintain their focus on their breath. When distracted by a sound, a thought, or an emotion, they are instructed to return their focus to the in and out of the breath, once they notice that their mind has wandered. The study also suggested that mindfulness meditation may lead to improved memory and reduced stress.
We are increasingly becoming aware of the limits of our mental energy. Human attention is an essential component of the mental processes of perception, memory, and reasoning that much of our work requires. Interruptions divert our mental attention and impede our ability to work. Developing a regular mediation practice could help us learn to limit interruptions and enhance the mental energy we apply to our work.
Anne Ramstetter Wenzel is an economist and business plan writer based in Menlo Park, California. She is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Market Research.