Mindfulness & Meditation: Improve Your Attitude and Your Aptitude
Our minds are amazing. Just imagine the immense number of memories you have stored, ready to be called up at a moment’s notice, and the thousands of tasks you perform each and every day; it’s pretty awesome when you stop to think about it. As we become more accustomed to the convenience of technology and all the instant gratification and entertainment it brings, it may also be taking a toll on our attention spans and our ability to learn new skills.
The world of smart phones and smart TVs brings around the clock access to work email and social media sites that keep us updated on all the latest happenings, which means we tend to stay in multi-tasking mode just to get caught up. Sometimes, this is simply a necessity while at other times it can prohibit us from accomplishing much of anything. Imagine a time when you’re scrolling through Facebook while concurrently watching television and ‘listening’ to your partner tell you about his or her day: did you remember a thing that was said to you? Managing several activities all at once just doesn’t work as effectively as we think it should because we’re trying do too many things with too little focus.
Sometimes our days (and nights) end up filled to the brim with multi-tasking that leaves us distracted and feeling as though we can’t think straight anymore. It should come as no surprise that in our technologically advanced world, juggling simultaneous tasks has become the new normal. This ultimately may cause our minds to begin experiencing some issues with memory or we might start feeling anxious and depressed seemingly without reason. Even though we may not be able to put a complete stop to our culture’s love affair with multi-tasking, there are a few ways we can improve our minds and mitigate these negative effects.
Numerous studies have tied vigorous physical activities like running to positive impacts within our minds and our moods, but a new study sought to explore whether a less intense workout routine would still yield the same benefits for both the mind and the body1. (After all, not everyone is an avid runner!) Study participants began implementing yoga classes along with meditation exercises into their daily lives. After 12 weeks, their memories and moods showed marked improvement over other participants who were only instructed to perform mentally stimulating training exercises with no physical activity. Researchers noted that the active participants experienced higher amounts of feel-good chemicals released within their brains along with decreased anxiety levels.
In addition to these mood-lifting benefits, our attention span and focus may also improve with a bit of mild exercise and a little meditation. Most of us can relate all too well to that scenario of someone scrolling through their phone while watching TV and trying to pay attention to another person, but how much information is truly absorbed from those three activities? This person will likely have a hard time recalling anything that was said or anything they read.
When our attention is divided to this extent over a long period of time, we tend to have a lowered ability to focus in on any one thing. To improve upon our attention spans, it may be helpful to incorporate a few moments of meditation into our daily routines.
For example, several hundred students were surveyed about their multi-tasking habits to determine whether mindfulness played a role in improving their focus. They were asked to count their breaths for several minutes while performing no other tasks: in other words, they were practicing meditation or mindfulness. Afterward, they answered a few questions designed to measure their ability to focus2. These students scored higher on the measured questions than students who had not been performing the meditation exercise because it forced them to concentrate on only one thing, thus improving their attention spans and allowing them increased focus on subsequent activities.
If you’re not quite convinced that you can apply mindfulness to your benefit, there are a few more things to know. First, meditating can help you understand underlying pain or anxious feelings that you may have, especially if you’ve been experiencing anxiety without uncovering a reason behind it3. When your stress levels are skyrocketing, it can help you bring those back down to earth. Meditation and training your mind to concentrate on only the task at hand may also help decrease that incessant mind chatter that clutters the brain and impairs productive cognition.
If you’re new to meditation, let’s walk through a six-step practice to help guide you on your journey to improved mental aptitude4:
1) Make sure your mind is absorbing your situation right here, right now and not five minutes ago or one week from now. Being present is crucial to meditation.
2) When the mind chatter pops in for a visit, notice it but don’t criticize it. Let it leave your mind just as abruptly as it entered.
3) Practice gratitude and adopt a positive outlook on life. Things are never going to be perfect, but be intentional about finding things you’re thankful for and don’t allow those negative thoughts to become your reality.
4) Decide that you’re going to be happy. While we can’t control everything, we can control our response to situations. Decide every morning that you’re going to be happy, which goes hand in hand with practicing gratitude.
5) You’re going to stray from these guidelines, and that’s okay. Don’t be harsh with yourself for ‘failing’ to be fully mindful. If you find your thoughts wandering away to next week, gently bring your focus back to the present. Most importantly, keep trying!
6) Habits take weeks to form, so be sure you’re meditating every day.
For a relatively easy activity that offers huge benefits without eating up your day, mindfulness is a powerful tool that helps improve your memory, boost your mood and hone your focus. These benefits are applicable to work life and project deadlines but also to personal life and your everyday interactions with others. Now put down that phone (and laptop, and TV remote) and start practicing!