Published December 03, 2012
This morning, like every morning, I sat cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, rested my hands on my knees, closed my eyes, and did nothing but breathe for 20 minutes.
People say the hardest part about meditating is finding the time to meditate. This makes sense: who these days has time to do nothing? It's hard to justify.
Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what's happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you're still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.
How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Research shows that an ability to resist urges will improve your relationships, increase your dependability, and raise your performance. If you can resist your urges, you can make better, more thoughtful decisions. You can be more intentional about what you say and how you say it. You can think about the outcome of your actions before following through on them.
Our ability to resist an impulse determines our success in learning a new behavior or changing an old habit. It's probably the single most important skill for our growth and development.
As it turns out, that's one of the things meditation teaches us. It's also one of the hardest to learn.
When I sat down to meditate this morning, relaxing a little more with each out-breath, I was successful in letting all my concerns drift away. My mind was truly empty of everything that had concerned it before I sat. Everything except the flow of my breath. My body felt blissful and I was at peace.
For about four seconds.
Within a breath or two of emptying my mind, thoughts came flooding in — nature abhors a vacuum. I felt an itch on my face and wanted to scratch it. A great title for my next book popped into my head and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I thought of at least four phone calls I wanted to make and one difficult conversation I was going to have later that day. I became anxious, knowing I only had a few hours of writing time. What was I doing just sitting here? I wanted to open my eyes and look at how much time was left on my countdown timer. I heard my kids fighting in the other room and wanted to intervene.
Here's the key though: I wanted to do all those things, but I didn't do them. Instead, every time I had one of those thoughts, I brought my attention back to my breath.
Sometimes, not following through on something you want to do is a problem, like not writing that proposal you've been procrastinating on or not having that difficult conversation you've been avoiding.
But other times, the problem is that you do follow through on something you don't want to do. Like speaking instead of listening or playing politics instead of rising above them.
Meditation teaches us to resist the urge of that counterproductive follow through.
And while I've often noted that it's easier and more reliable to create an environment that supports your goals than it is to depend on willpower, sometimes, we do need to rely on plain, old-fashioned, self-control.
For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it's better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you'd be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle. Your urges won't disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control.
Does that mean you never follow an urge? Of course not. Urges hold useful information. If you're hungry, it may be a good indication that you need to eat. But it also may be an indication that you're bored or struggling with a difficult piece of work. Meditation gives you practice having power over your urges so you can make intentional choices about which to follow and which to let pass.
So how do you do it? If you're just starting, keep it very simple.
Sit with your back straight enough that your breathing is comfortable — on a chair or a cushion on the floor — and set a timer for however many minutes you want to meditate. Once you start the timer, close your eyes, relax, and don't move except to breathe, until the timer goes off. Focus on your breath going in and out. Every time you have a thought or an urge, notice it and bring yourself back to your breath.
That's it. Simple but challenging. Try it — today — for five minutes. And then try it again tomorrow.
This morning, after my meditation, I went to my home office to start writing. A few minutes later, Sophia, my seven-year-old, came in and told me the kitchen was flooded. Apparently Daniel, my five-year-old, filled a glass of water and neglected to turn off the tap. Oops.
In that moment, I wanted to scream at both Daniel and Sophia. But my practice countered that urge. I took a breath.
Then, together, we went into action mode. We got every towel in the house — and a couple of blankets — and mopped it all up, laughing the whole time. When we were done soaking up the water, we talked about what happened. Finally, we all walked together to our downstairs neighbors and took responsibility for the flood, apologized, and asked if we could help them clean up the mess.
After that, I had lost an hour of writing. If I was going to meet my deadline, I needed to be super-productive. So I ate a quick snack and then ignored every distracting urge I had for two hours — no email, no phone calls, no cute Youtube videos — until I finished my piece, which I did with 30 minutes to spare.
Who says meditation is a waste of time?
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This story originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.