The end of the day is fast approaching and the deadline looming overhead, which once felt light as a feather, now has the weight of a stone. Yet all you can think about is: What’s for dinner? Should I stop at the store for bread? Should I consider eliminating bread from my diet altogether? Did I set the DVR for “Game of Thrones?” I really should check that, right now…
All you can think about is anything but what you should be thinking about. All the while, the clock keeps ticking and the analogous stone keeps picking up more weight. Your efforts to whip yourself into a focused, disciplined state of mind fall helplessly short. Is it time to give up? Will that stone (deadline) crush you?
Rather than tell your boss/professor/colleague that you’re just not up to the task, may we suggest “mindfulness meditation?” Even with that deadline looming, it’s a very good use of your precious time. Countless studies have shown that even short periods of meditation can help shift brain waves in a way that greatly reduces the intruding thoughts attempting to gain your full attention. In short, it allows you to focus better.
So what does it take to get this meditation started? It requires that you carve out some time to do nothing, according to Andy Puddicombe, a clinical meditation consultant and former Buddhist monk. You may be thinking, OK – that should be pretty easy. There’s no spreadsheet involved, no meeting, no complex problem to break apart and analyze. Well, not so fast. In a world of constant sensory overload, it can take real effort to disengage from all the electronic devices upon which we’ve become dependant, and to step away from a busy workload. It has become a challenging proposition to do “nothing”. Your mind may tell you that you don’t have time for “nothing”. As strange as it sounds, that’s when you have to tell yourself (firmly) that yes, you do have time! And what may initially seem like doing nothing is actually doing something – but what?
The “nothing” you’ll be doing is actually a form of paying attention, without actively engaging. Puddicombe believes that we need to be better caretakers of our minds, which can help us be at the top of our game more consistently. In his TED Talk last year, he said: “We spend more time looking after our cars, our clothes and our hair…The mind whizzes away like a washing machine, going round and round…and we don’t really know how to deal with that. The sad fact is that we are so distracted that we are no longer present in the world in which we live.” Puddicombe added that we’ve been lulled and conditioned to believe that that’s just the way life is.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Puddicombe says it takes only 10 minutes a day of doing "nothing" to potentially “impact our entire life.”
Alina Tugend composed some helpful tips for getting started. First, locate a quiet space. Focus on something – your breathing, or a picture on a wall. Pay attention to when thoughts come and go, without rendering any judgment on them. Simply notice that they come and go. Puddicombe adds that it’s vital to allow thoughts to bubble up and burst forth. To try and stop them would be a waste of time and energy. Rather, take a mental step back, acknowledge each thought as it shoots across your mind, and make every effort to maintain a relaxed, non-judgmental state. This is, of course, easier said than done.
You may experience anxious thoughts, Puddicombe says, that grow until you feel more anxious than when you first started. Conversely, you may have dull thought after dull thought, which feels boring and unhelpful. Strangely enough, this means you’re on the right path.
Tugend also advises practicing “purposeful pauses” by taking yourself out of “autopilot.” For example, “instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth, focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water.” One more important tip: don’t bury unpleasant feelings if they pop up. Being mindful means acknowledging the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And if you become discouraged, remember Puddicombe’s bottom line: “Meditation offers the opportunity to step back and get a different perspective. We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way we experience it. All you need to do is take 10 minutes out of the day to step back and familiarize yourself with the present moment.”
Should you have the ambition of becoming the best meditator of all time, consider this: no one’s really the best at it – not even the Buddhist monks who have been practicing mindfulness techniques for decades. But every time you set out to focus your wandering mind by taking 10 minutes to unplug from the matrix, so to speak, you are one step closer to improving your ability to focus. In a world of constant distractions and temptations, this can be one very valuable technique that can help you in myriad ways, even beyond your professional life. You may find that doing nothing is a very good way to spend your precious time. And before you know it, that deadline is once again a feather.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has a list of additional techniques here.
Photo courtesy of Ransomtech.