(or…5 Ways Meditation Helps You Work Smarter, Not Harder)
Meditation improves cognitive ability across several measures, all of which are beneficial in the workplace, where improvements to attentional performance, working memory, focus, and problem solving are directly related to our performance.
Those who meditate sleep better, are less stressed and depressed, demonstrate greater resiliency, and experience less cognitive decline as they age.
Anyone can learn to meditate, all it takes is a willingness to devote at least ten minutes per day to practice. Let the five reasons below encourage you to begin, or to pick up where you left off.
1. Meditation Improves Working Memory
Meditation improves working memory, which is important at a meeting when your boss asks for figures that aren’t in your notes. Working memory is the ability to hold information that’s needed in the present moment. While scientists originally thought that working memory had a storage limit, it seems those who meditate can hold onto more information for short term use than those who don’t.
Related to an increase in the volume of the brain’s hippocampus, working memory is also important in emotional regulation, learning, and problem solving. In fact, many activities which take place within the prefrontal cortex are related, including decision-making and planning.
Meditation improves functioning in the prefrontal cortex, and helps keep it strong as we age. Without meditation, this important area of the brain is the most susceptible to age-related decline.
2. Meditation Strengthens Attention
Meditators consistently perform better than non-meditators on measures of holding attention. This includes studies where participants were asked to hold attention on a single object, when they were asked to be aware of two objects simultaneously, when asked to hold attention visually, and when asked to hold attention to an unexpected object. Interestingly, meditators are also aware that they are better at holding attention, and score very high on self-reported mindfulness.
Meditation is involved in the thickening of the posterior cingulate, which is involved in noticing when the mind wanders. Thus, not only are meditators better able to hold their focus on the task at hand, they are able to catch the wandering mind sooner.
The ability to recognize distraction, stop multitasking, and get more done by intentionally focusing on a single task for longer puts any worker well ahead of their cohort.
3. Meditators Ruminate Less
Rumination is the insidious churning of the mind that causes you to second guess your decisions, worry constantly about what did or did not happen at work last week, and keeps you unable to make decisions. While rumination is on one level a natural response to facing a problem, excessive rumination leads to depression, anxiety and further stress.
In part, mindfulness meditation works to reduce rumination and it’s partner, depression, by changing activity in the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), which includes the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. Rumination is habit forming, and meditation can help break those habits through mindfulness.
4. Meditation Increases Resiliency
Resiliency is the ability to quickly overcome setbacks and to respond to stress in a healthy way. In contrast to ruminators, those who are resilient are able to let go and move on. Resilience is dependent on an individual’s ability to be self-monitoring and self-aware, traits that are improved through mindfulness meditation.
A study on physicians who participated in mindfulness meditation training shows that meditation is effective in preventing burnout and increasing psychological well-being in the workplace. The same study demonstrates the connection between self-regulation and resilience. Resilient physicians were those who were able to admit their limits, their uncertainties, and their mistakes and self-regulate their somatic, emotional and cognitive responses to the stress that arose from that awareness.
We cannot do everything perfectly in the workplace, and we don’t always know the answers. This can be a source of stress, or we can grow by choosing a healthier response. Meditation helps us with the latter.
5. Meditation Helps You Sleep Better
It’s not uncommon to be sleep deprived, whether due to chronic sleep disturbance or total sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep leads to negative outcomes in cognitive performance. Total sleep deprivation impairs attention and working memory, as well as our decision making ability and long term memory.
Interestingly, the cognitive actions impaired by lack of sleep are those that depend on the prefrontal cortex. Not only does meditation help you sleep better, but it helps repair prefrontal cortex damage due to past lack of sleep. A randomized controlled study in 2015 showed that participation in mindfulness meditation not only reduces sleep disturbance for a better night’s rest, but improves day-time symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue.
Science is finally beginning to understand the underlying mechanisms through which meditation actually changes our brains. Changes to cognitive functioning have been measured after just two weeks of steady meditation practice, and are also long lasting.
Once you begin to reap the benefits of a meditation practice, you’ll be inspired to continue.