There is an old Zen saying: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.” If you’re constantly checking notifications or crossing things off your to-do list, the science shows you probably need to start meditating… right now.
How often have you heard yourself lamenting, “there just aren’t enough hours in the day”, or “things have been so busy”? It’s not uncommon – the reality is that most of us find ourselves running from one task or place to the next, and then filling the gaps in between with distractions like scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix.
The problem with this need to keep ourselves preoccupied at all times, is that it results in the opposite of ‘getting more done’ – being busy all the time makes the brain less efficient, less productive, and worsens overall performance. It also leaves little room for reflection and a break from routine, which is what makes life more meaningful.
Signs You Need to Meditate: The “busy” trap
Here’s the easiest, single question litmus test that will give you your answer: Do you have 5 minutes a day to meditate? If not, you need to meditate.
Being ‘too busy’ can often be just a reflection of priorities, and not a real reason to take some time for self-care. After all, if high achievers such as Tim Ferriss, Oprah Winfrey, Ray Dalio, and Ellen DeGeneres practice daily meditation, you can too.
Most people believe that although their schedules are jam-packed they are still in control of their life, and how they spend their time. In fact, you may not even be consciously aware of the extent to which keeping yourself busy controls your life. Below are some clear signs that you would stand to benefit from a meditation practice: (1)
- Are you constantly checking your smartphone for notifications?
- Do you feel guilty if you don’t have much work to do?
- Is it difficult for you to relax or take vacation?
- Is it difficult for you to sit in silence without external stimulation of any kind?
- Do your days consist of going from one to-do list item to the next?
- Do you find it difficult not to talk about work?
- Do others consider you a workaholic?
If you found yourself nodding “yes” to one or more of those questions, you’re in dire need of a heavy dose of mindfulness.
The Benefits of Meditation
Given our fast-paced reality, it is perfectly normal to have one, if not all of the warning signs above resonate with you.
Just as exercise is necessary to train the body and fight against a sedentary lifestyle, so is mediation a necessary tool to train the mind and become more effective in fighting off distraction. Research has shown that the benefits of meditation do extend beyond the current moment, and improve these two areas in particular:
A study conducted by the Information School of Washington found that meditation improves memory and the ability to focus on the task at hand. (2) Whether that’s work, a sport, or a conversation with a friend, we all know that being able to give our full attention enhances the overall quality of the experience. The study also showed that people had lower levels of stress and less distraction.
As recently discussed in this article about brainwaves, meditation does allow us to train our brains to operate at slower frequency states. These brainwave-changing skills help deepen your ability to focus and control your attention – abilities that are key for athletic performance as well as work performance.
How To Meditate
Fortunately, you don’t need to visit an ashram in India, or hike to the top of a mountain to learn to meditate. The beauty of a meditation practice lies in its simplicity and ease of access.
One of the simplest forms of meditation for beginners is concentration meditation, where you have a single anchor, such as your breath, to use as a way to bring your wandering mind back from distractions. The idea is that once you start to practice what is known as attentional loops, you become increasingly more skillful at avoiding distracting thoughts and bringing your mind back into focus.
Here’s what to do:
- Find a quiet and calming space at home where you will be undisturbed.
- Sit on a mat or chair in a comfortable position. Avoid laying down as that may make you potentially fall asleep – this is all about focused attention!
- Concentrate on a single point of focus – this could entail following your breath, staring at a candle flame or repeating a mantra such as ‘Om’.
- Anytime you find your mind wandering, shift your attention back to the point of focus. Do not judge your mind for wandering, just become aware of the thought and then let it go.
- Try this for as little as five minutes, and then gradually increase the duration. You can stick to five minutes, or go all the way up to one hour if you’d like! Practicing on a consistent basis is more important than duration.
Meditation Tips for Beginners
When you’re starting out, your mind is going to wander a lot. This is perfectly normal! The key a successful meditation practice is bringing the mind back from a wandering thought to the point of focus, as much as possible — reinforcing that attentional loop.
To help bring back your mind from wandering thoughts and to make your practice more effective, try some of the meditation tips below:
- Try guided meditation. This helps provide structure for beginners and keeps the mind more focused. Use an app like Muse to guide you through meditation sessions that are as short as three minutes or up to an hour.
- Listen to soothing sounds. It’s often much easier to quieten the mind if you’re listening to waves crashing on a beach or the sound of rain. With the Muse app, you can choose from carefully crafted meditation soundscapes such as the beach, rainforest, a city park, ambient music or a desert.
- Get real-time feedback and take out the guesswork. Measure your brainwave activity during a meditation session with the brain sensing headband, Muse. Using sensors on the forehead, Muse can translate brain activity into guiding sounds. For example, let’s say that you select the soundscape ‘beach’ for your meditation sessions. If your thoughts are bouncing around, the waves will pick up, signalling you to shift your focus. Once your mind is calm, the waves will also become softer.
Lastly, the best advice for beginners is to just do – don’t get too caught up in the ‘how’. Try to commit to a few minutes every morning and check in with yourself after a month to really feel the difference.
- Harvard Business Review. (2018). The Busyness Trap. [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-busyness-trap [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].
- Levy, D., Wobbrock, J., Kaszniak, A. and Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment. Proceedings of Graphics Interface, [online] (2012). Available at: http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].
- Lustenberger, C., Boyle, M., Foulser, A., Mellin, J. and Fröhlich, F. (2015). Functional role of frontal alpha oscillations in creativity. Cortex, [online] 67, pp.74-82. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945215001033 [Accessed 26 Feb. 2018].