Focus can seem impossible. We daydream about what we wish we were doing. We replay silly things we’ve said or done. We over-analyze the actions and words of others. All of this brain juice that we expend means that we may be missing out on living in the present. Worse, many activities, such as work and driving, require our focus. When our minds wander, we may be putting our jobs or even lives at risk.
Researchers at Harvard created the www.trackyourhappiness.com app to track the link between a wandering mind and happiness. Incredibly, they found that the people using their app thought about something other than what they were doing about 45% of the time. The worst part is that wandering minds were more likely to be unhappy ones. People who reported thinking about something other than what they were doing were also 10% more likely to say that they felt unhappy. Scientists can’t be sure whether daydreaming is the cause of unhappiness or just a result of people being unhappy with what they’re doing. There is some indication that wandering thoughts may cause people to feel unhappy.
Whether our motive is focusing on our job or feeling happier, it is in our best interest to hone our minds. Here are some steps that people can take to cultivate a mind more focused on the present.
Mindfulness shows up frequently in the media and news. It sounds terribly new-agey and like something our weird aunt Mirtha probably does while humming and holding up a green stone. The reality is that mindfulness simply means being aware of where we are and what we are doing. In other words, mindfulness means focusing. An essential part of mindfulness is awareness, but without feeling overwhelmed or upset by our surroundings. Mindful.org explains how we can achieve mindfulness through meditation and daily practice.
The first step is to set aside some time every day to practice meditation and mindfulness. It could be first thing in the morning while everyone else is still sleeping or in the car while waiting to pick kids up. Pay attention to the moment without making a judgment. Make a note of any judgments and let them roll by. Continue to observe the present moment as it is. Bring a wandering mind back to the present moment. Mindfulness is merely thinking about the present moment and when there is a distraction—judgments or a wandering mind—make a note and return to thinking about the present moment.
It sounds great in theory, but how helpful is mindfulness? In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that taking a mindfulness class significantly improved undergraduate students’ concentration. Incredibly, it also improved their scores on a verbal reasoning test from the GRE and a working memory capacity test. The control group took a nutrition class instead of a mindfulness course. Their scores on both tests remained about the same, and their ability to concentrate did not improve.
Incredibly, the mindfulness class lasted only two weeks. One of the researchers involved, Michael Mrazek, said, “What surprised me the most was actually the clarity of the results. Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results. But we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it.”
Still not sure how to practice mindfulness at home? There are plenty of mindfulness classes out there. Some of them are online, and others are offered at universities and community centers.
Meditating before performing stressful work may help managers finish more quickly. In 2012, the University of Washington recruited three groups of human resource managers to participate in research about meditation. The first group received meditation training for eight weeks. Researchers provided the second group with body relaxation classes during the same period. Finally, the third group received neither for the first eight weeks and then participated in meditation training.
All human resources managers were asked to complete a complicated task that tested their ability to multi-task. Those who received meditation training reported feeling more relaxed. Additionally, they spent more time on individual parts of the job and switched activities less often. There was no increase in the time they took to finish. Meditation helps workers feel more relaxed while performing a task without taking more time to do so.
How can a person learn to meditate? Many religions teach meditation. Yoga and tai chi are forms of meditation. Mindful.org offers some great guided meditations for adults and children on its website. One of these is a five-minute breathing exercise. A body scan meditation lasts three minutes. People can practice compassion meditation in 20 minutes. Meditation doesn’t have to take long, but it is vital to practice it regularly to reap the benefits.
People with halitosis know the benefits of gum. Chewing gum has also kept people from snacking, helping us all stay on a diet. Amazingly, this incredible substance can also aid concentration. Perhaps Singapore should rethink the ban they’ve had in place since 1993 on importing and selling chewing gum.
Scientists at Cardiff University asked 38 participants to complete a listening task in 2013. They were asked to listen to numbers being read randomly for 30 minutes. The researchers asked the listeners to identify strings of odd-even-odd numbers like “7-2-1.” Sounds awfully dull. Half of the participants who chewed gum while listening responded more quickly and had more accurate results.
Still can’t concentrate
Having a wandering mind may not be all bad. In 2009, scientists at the University of British Columbia scanned people’s brains while performing a simple task. The participants had to press a button every time a number showed up on the screen. The MRI scan showed that when people’s minds wandered, the part of their brains responsible for complex problem solving activated in parallel. This may indicate that when we need to solve a difficult problem, it may be best to stop actively thinking about it and perform a simple task to access the problem-solving area.