Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 10, 2023
Life is full of distractions. In the office, chatty colleagues derail our train of thought with random commentary. At home, children shout demands and slam doors. Meanwhile the smartphones that were supposed to increase productivity instead pull us away from work with chirping and beeping notifications. Gloria Mark, an expert in digital distraction, estimated that it takes almost 25 minutes to completely focus on the original task after an interruption. The result of all these interruptions? Mistakes. Research suggests that meditation helps you avoid making so many of them. Does it provide hope for improving our focus and productivity?
The Cost of Distraction
Mistakes aren’t just annoying. They can be deadly. Distracted driving is linked to over 3,000 deaths a year according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. In 2008, a texting engineer missed a stop signal and plowed into a freight train killing 25 people –– including the engineer. And in the workplace, almost 15% of respondents in a recent survey reported digital distractions causing an accident. Of course not every distraction is digital. There’s no question lack of focus can affect everything from productivity and performance to safety.
Meditation may offer a solution. Being more focused and present is one of the practice’s primary goals. That can help in a variety of ways. For instance, studies suggest that quieting your mind and paying attention to your breathing can reduce anxiety and depression. Being present can also mean making a daily gratitude list which has proven benefits as well. Yet despite the host of studies, there remains much we don’t know. It’s easy to find someone extolling the benefits of meditation yet overall the science behind the practice’s effectiveness remains slim. “People’s interest in meditation and mindfulness is outpacing what science can prove in terms of effects and benefits,” explained Jeff Lin, a Michigan State University psychology doctoral candidate who co-authored a study examining whether or not meditation could help people avoid making so many mistakes.
Meditation and Mistakes
The MSU study enlisted 200 volunteers who were newbies to meditation. They were first instructed in a practice called open-monitoring meditation. Different from the type most people are familiar with, which usually focuses on emptying one’s mind and focusing on breathing, the open-monitoring form encourages people who are meditating to turn their attention to whatever is going on with their mind and their body. Instead of just our usual stream of consciousness, with open monitoring meditation, you employ a second internal voice, that of a detached observer who not only notes your thoughts but how they affect your mood. As you do this, the stream of consciousness voice quiets, leading to a calm, peaceful outlook.
It also has a surprising effect on mistakes. In the study, volunteers were connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) before being introduced to an open-monitoring meditation exercise. After the 20-minute session was finished, they took a computerized distraction test. The results arrived quickly as the EEG could monitor neural activity in milliseconds.
When people recognize they have made a mistake, there’s a signal in the brain called “error positivity.” This awareness allows people to correct the problem –– which reduces their overall error rate. This signal was measurably increased following the open monitoring meditation. “…[I]t’s amazing to me that we were able to see how one session of a guided meditation can produce changes to brain activity in non-meditators,” Lin admitted.
“These findings are a strong demonstration of what just 20 minutes of meditation can do to enhance the brain’s ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes,” study co-author Jason Moser added. “It makes us feel more confident in what mindfulness meditation might really be capable of for performance and daily functioning right there in the moment.”
The study offers valuable insight for anyone hoping to improve their productivity and even overall mental health. Open monitoring meditation lessons are widely available for free online. Of course, reducing interruptions at work and home may not be so simple. Not everyone can work remotely; not everyone can afford a nanny. However, you might want to start by muting those pesky smartphone notifications.
Written by John Bankston
- The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress
- Distracted Driving
- Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling
- Meditating just once proves to make a difference
- On Variation in Mindfulness Training: A Multimodal Study of Brief Open Monitoring Meditation on Error Monitoring