Have you heard about the new magic pill that can reduce work stress, boost energy, improve focus, and help you be more productive? This amazing breakthrough is legal, has no side effects, doesn’t require special equipment, and—best of all—doesn’t involve breaking a sweat.
OK, it’s not actually a pill. It’s meditation. 40% of us say we already meditate at least once a week, but whether or not you’re on board, you’ve probably seen a slew of headlines about the benefits. Multiple studies show that meditation has a positive effect on anxiety and stress, and subjects in one study showed improvements in focus and cognitive function after just a few weeks of mindfulness training.
Research even suggests that long-term meditators have brains that age better than those of non-meditators. Many of meditation’s perks are as relevant to your 9–5 as they are to your after-hours life, which is why it makes sense to meditate at work.
“Wait, what?” you might be asking, “stop and do nothing in the middle of a hectic, everything-has-to-be-done-20-minutes-ago kind of day?” Yes, exactly. Companies like Google, Ford, Target, and Adobe—hip to the benefits of meditation for their employees (and their bottom lines)—have begun offering corporate mindfulness programs. Aetna, whose CEO personally championed their yoga and mindfulness programs, estimates it has reaped productivity benefits worth about $3,000 per employee. And participating staff members report an average 28% reduction in stress levels and 20% improvement in sleep quality.
With benefits like that, meditation is worth investigating, even if you’re not lucky enough to have a corporate mindfulness program at work. Here’s what to think about as you’re designing your own regimen:
Find the right spot
The ideal space is quiet and private. We all have enough trouble focusing inward without the addition of background noise—or self-consciousness about being observed while we’re, seemingly, doing nothing at work. If you have an office, you’re in luck. If not, a small conference room will do. Either way, give yourself some uninterrupted time by silencing your phone and alerts—and maybe putting a note on the door about when you’ll be available again.
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Commit to it
There’s a reason they call it a meditation practice. The more consistent you are, the more effective it can be—and the more mindfulness can become an ingrained habit. So block out time in your calendar every day, and treat it like the important meeting it is. If something critical comes up that overrides your meditation time, do your best to re-schedule it for later in the day. Fully commit for a set time, say two weeks, so you have time to get into a groove and notice the benefits.
In a nutshell, meditation is about tuning in to your breath and the physical sensations in your body, noticing when thoughts arise—”should I have included the quarterly numbers in that email?”—and then letting them go. Your aim is to keep bringing your attention back to the breath and the body. Trying counting each time you breathe out, going up to five and starting over at one. Sometimes you'll get to 12—or even 23—before you realize you’re on autopilot. Don’t judge yourself for thinking or worrying—that’s what the mind does. When you realize you’ve been captured by a thought, just label it “thinking,” and gently let it go. Start over at one. If you have little to no experience with meditation, you might find one of the hundreds of meditation apps helpful. Insight Timer is a popular option that offers—you guessed it—a meditation timer, along with ambient and nature sounds, discussion groups, and over 5,000 guided meditations that range from the secular to the religious.
It’s OK to start with five minutes a day
Recommendations about the optimal length of meditation time can vary. As an old Zen adage has it, “you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day—unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” But however long you sit, consistency is key. If you can stick with five minutes daily, that’s still a great start. Like your music teacher used to say, it’s better to practice a little bit every day than for a long stretch once a week.
Make any activity a meditation
You can also decrease anxiety and increase focus throughout the day by bringing mindfulness to almost any activity. Take a one-minute break at your desk to notice your breath. As you walk to your next meeting, focus on the sounds around you and the physical sensations of walking rather than thoughts about how the meeting might go. Mindfully drink some water, noticing the temperature and the feel of the glass in your hand. This is one kind of meditation where alerts and notifications can be helpful—schedule in a few daily reminders on your phone or work calendar.
Enlist your co-workers
It’s always easier to stick to something when you have support, so think about inviting your co-workers to join you. Whether you’re just looking for a small group or trying to start a company-wide program, your HR department or office manager might be a helpful resource, especially if you make a case about the potential benefits to your company. It takes patience and persistence to create any new habit, and mindfulness meditation is no different—especially if you’re trying to do it in a work environment that doesn’t seem particularly conducive to slowing down. But don’t let that stop you—start small, be consistent, and notice which practices seem to work best for you. Got five minutes and some privacy right now? There’s no time like the present.