Updated: Apr 4
There are multiple historical records to indicate that meditation has been practised as early as 5,000 BCE (1). Meditation as an ancient practice had different purposes across various cultures and religions. Today, meditation is primarily used by practitioners for its physiological and psychological benefits.
While there are various forms of meditation, mindfulness – which is having nonjudgmental attention to the present moment (2) – is the meditative technique often investigated in contemporary research. Although research findings generally suggest that meditation can be beneficial for one’s health (3), its benefits can also translate into improving productivity. Specifically, meditation can accomplish this by reducing anxiety, improving sleep, and enhancing attention. This article will review these meditative benefits which are essential for promoting greater productivity.
Meditation's impact on anxiety
A primary reason for practicing meditation is to manage anxiety. Those experiencing anxiety often feel a sense of worry and nervousness in anticipation of an imminent event. There is an increased risk of low productivity and avoidance of work in those with anxiety (4). Meditation has been shown to reduce subjective levels of anxiety (5). With regards to its relevance for productivity, a study examining the effects of using a mindfulness smartphone application among employees found that meditating reduced their anxiety and job strain - a form of work-related stress which is predictive of productivity (6, 7). Meditation may also reduce physiological responses elicited by anxiety. Studies examining mindfulness-based interventions have shown that meditation can reduce feelings of anxiety by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate (8-10). Taken together, mindfulness meditation can be a useful application for anxiety management. Reducing anxiety through meditation could have beneficial effects on improving one’s productivity.
Can meditation help improve sleep quality?
Another utility of meditation is the effects it has on promoting better sleep. Having good sleep is essential for greater productivity. This importance has been demonstrated in a Japanese study investigating the impact of sleep health on work which showed an association between short sleep duration and declines in productivity (11). Despite a productivity-related benefit that may be derived from adequate sleep, many people suffer from issues with sleep which is expected to increase in prevalence (12). It is estimated that 10%–30% to even as high as 50%–60% of the population suffer from insomnia, which is a common sleep disorder that negatively affects sleep initiation, duration, consolidation, or quality (13, 14).
Using meditation can potentiate alleviating the difficulties associated with sleep. A study evaluating the efficacy of mindfulness meditation for the treatment of chronic insomnia found that people who practiced meditation were able to stay asleep longer and had significantly reduced insomnia severity (15). Similarly, another study was able to reduce insomnia with a mindfulness-based intervention in older adults with sleep difficulties (16). It is likely that the benefits of sleep may be due to biochemical mechanisms as an effect of meditation.
Melatonin – a neurotransmitter thought to be responsible for regulating sleep (17) – is shown to increase with meditation (18). Additionally, meditation may also assist with a “racing mind” which is a problem commonly reported among poor sleepers with insomnia (19). A habitual practice of meditation can facilitate the development of skills that would allow one to control or redirect the racing thoughts that often accompany a “racing mind”. In summary, meditation could promote better sleep which is an essential component for avoiding declines in productivity.
Meditation can help increase productivity
Most importantly, meditation can enhance attention which may influence factors that are highly predictive of productivity. Constantly shifting your attention from one stimulus to another can reduce productivity by as high as 40% (20). This can be reflected by distractibility, a characteristic of a reduced attention span (21), which has been associated with employee productivity loss (22).
The inability to sustain attention is likely attributed to mind-wandering-like experiences, like being distracted by unrelated thoughts (23). Most of us mind-wander nearly 50% of the time without any conscious awareness or recollection of doing so (24). This means that for almost half our lives, we are constantly distracted by irrelevant thoughts which detract us from being present in the moment.
Neuroscience research has established that mindfulness meditation can affect regions of the brain that underlie a mind-wandering state. Brain imaging techniques using fMRI technology have found the activity of the default-mode network (DMN) - a network of brain regions that show greater activation during mind-wandering – is reduced during mindfulness meditation (25). Reducing activity in the DMN through meditation suggests that mindfulness-based techniques can be an effective tool to lessen mind-wandering which may improve productivity by being less distracted. Support for this finding has been shown in another study which demonstrated that mindfulness meditation was associated with better cognitive test scores and brain activity, which indicated improved attention (26). Based on the evidence provided, enhancing attention through meditation may alter factors that can be advantageous for productivity, such as reducing distractibility.
In conclusion, practicing meditation, specifically mindfulness, can be utilized for improving one’s productivity. It has been shown to reduce physiological responses and feelings that are associated with anxiety. Furthermore, mindfulness meditation can promote better sleep and enhance attention through its reported effects on neurotransmitters and brain regions, respectively. However, without consistent practise and proper technique, it may be difficult to acquire or retain these benefits.
The use of meditation smartphone applications that are readily accessible can address these concerns given that they are often designed to encourage adherence and teach mindfulness meditation. Trying out meditation can be a great way to improve your productivity, even if you only have a few minutes to spare each day.
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