Tackling goals—whether at work, at home, or in fitness—can be challenging. But if you take care of the mind, it can help you take care of everything else.
When you’re focused and present, you probably find that you get more done in the time allotted. That could be as simple as setting a timer when working in order to focus for a certain period of time, turning off phone notifications during your meditation session, or concentrating on movements during a workout instead of people-watching at the gym during your strength session.
Observing yourself and your behavior while you’re doing an activity can help you improve what you’re doing and reach your goals faster. Here’s why:
When you’re trying to get more than one thing done at the same time to be more productive, you’re not doing yourself any favors. What you call “multitasking” is actually “task-switching” or “switch-tasking” because your brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.
But wait! I’m reading this article right now, listening to music, chewing gum, and answering text messages from my friend. Of course I can multitask! If multitasking were an Olympic event, I’d be a medal contender.
Actually, that’s not working as well as you think it is. Researchers found that not only will multitasking cause mental overload, but moving from one task to another causes us to lose time. The more complex the task, the more time you’re losing. The studies’ results said that while switch-tasking costs are pretty small (a few tenths of a second per switch) when it keeps happening, those seconds add up. According to researcher David Meyer, Ph.D., “brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
To geek out a bit on the why the brain struggles with doing too many things at once, an article on the American Psychological Association’s website says “human ‘executive control’ processes have two distinct, complementary stages. One stage is ‘goal shifting’ (e.g., I want to do this now instead of that) and the other stage is ‘rule activation’ (e.g., I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this). The science community says that trouble crops up when the switching “costs” conflict with our environmental demands for productivity and safety, whether that’s checking email every few minutes while trying to analyze sales reports at work or chatting on your Bluetooth while driving to a new destination.
There’s a reason meditation focuses on the breath. When you’re intently focused on the process of breathing in, breathing out, and how your body feels during that experience, you’re training your mind to exist in each moment as it comes, as well as reaping the benefits of relaxing the body with the breath. Mindfulness (particularly mindfulness-based stress reduction) can show improvement in depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, according to research. Practicing breath-focused attention helped increase activity in areas of the study participants’ brains that are associated with attention. Arming yourself with improved attention and better self-esteem are the makings of a success story. Athletes know how important it is to get breathing down in their sports. Staying calm, measured and building respiratory muscle strength through conditioning can help runners, swimmers, and cyclists last longer in training and competition.
An article published in the International Journal of Wellbeing found that students who reported being more attentive and aware tended to be engaged in personal endeavors and they were more autonomously motivated (setting and achieving goals), which in turn appeared to cultivate their wellbeing. The article’s authors cited various research studies that discovered how practicing mindfulness meditation may help you observe your thoughts and feelings as temporary events in the mind, so you’re better able to handle new and challenging conditions. Basically, when you’re confronted with a snag in progress—like trying to reach a PR in a lift or race—meditation sets you up for adaptability so you can address these challenges consciously and continue moving forward toward your objective.
When an activity becomes routine—like driving the same way to work or running the same route—we often ‘zone out’ while doing it. The brain automates the process and goes offline, in a way. The problem with that is when something becomes habitual, our brains and bodies can remain status quo—which is probably the opposite of what you desire if you’re reading this. By practicing mindfulness and focusing on each moment as it comes, you’re keeping your mind engaged and active. You could try this by noticing how certain flowers have bloomed along your running trail or noting the construction of a new building on your commute. During a strength-training workout, you might find it easier to keep a steady pace and tempo during a set if you’re focusing on each rep in that moment.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.