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Increase Your Productivity by Mastering the Art of Slowing Down

Photo credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

The world encourages us to work more and rest less. It’s the secret to a successful career, right? Well, maybe not. Strategically slowing down leads to higher levels of productivity, less stress and, consequently, more success at work.

When it comes to getting ahead in your career, you’re like a fighter in training. You pride yourself on being tough and doing what it takes to make things happen. Most of us were raised with this mindset: The longer we tough it out, the more successful we’ll be.

But the human brain is like any sophisticated computer. Sometimes it needs a reboot. It’s tempting to believe that if you stop doing a task, like answering emails or working on a presentation, your brain will naturally recover so that when you pick up the same task later, your brain will be 100 percent refreshed. 

Here’s a reality check:

  • Recovery doesn’t happen when you lie in bed for hours unable to fall asleep because your brain is thinking about work.
  • It doesn’t occur when you hide out in your living room watching Netflix for the entire weekend, trying to distract yourself.
  • It doesn’t happen when your mobile device is always within reach, stressing you out with political commentary or new ways to remodel your home.
  • And, no, it doesn’t happen when you fill your precious holidays with as many high-impact recreational activities as possible.

I hate to have to be the one to break this to you. Brain recovery only happens when you stop for real. Unplug. Let go. In the immortal, radical words of former Harvard professor Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), “It only happens when you can be here now.” Otherwise, you won’t be your best at work. And you’ll miss out on the most poignant moments of your life.

I can see you nodding in agreement. But you’ve yet to take the leap. 

Why is stopping so intimidating? 

Because it’s difficult and uncomfortable.

Ours is a culture of doing, not being. And if you try to simply be – with the same intensity you apply to your career (your “doing”) – it could be the hardest work of your life. At least until you can reprogram your brain. The good news is it can be done. 

It’s a matter of strategically slowing down.

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke from the University of Texas at Austin studied a group of classical piano majors at NYC’s Juilliard School to find out what practice techniques are the most effective at advancing performance.

Seventeen participants learned three measures from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1, because it’s both challenging to sight read and to learn the piece in one sitting. What the researchers discovered was that the most successful practitioners slowed down at just the right points. An intentional pause helped them to avoid making the same mistakes twice. In performance psychology, it’s become known as “strategically slowing down.”

Meditation, or any mindfulness work, is no different. 

It’s about practicing intentional pauses.

Yet despite the scientific evidence that meditation improves your immune system, attitude, physical health and your overall resiliency, not everyone in the mainstream buys in.

Last weekend I read an op-ed from the New York Times entitled: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.” Authors Martin Seligman and John Tierney claim that new studies have proven humans struggle to process the present moment without shifting their brains between the context of the past and a vision of the future.

What bothered me most about the article, though, was that it assumed we lack the power to change. That our monkey mind is unalterable, it’s in our DNA, so why bother trying? I have to say, I was disappointed.

Yet, it’s not surprising.

The New Age hype that accompanies meditation hasn’t done us any favors. Think of it this way: If meditation were a pharmaceutical, we’d all want a prescription. If it were a workout sequence, we’d all be lining up to master the moves. In theory, you agree. Still, something is holding you back.

Dan Harris, ABC News correspondent and author of “10% Happier,” his personal meditation memoir, cited three main reasons we give up on the pursuit of mindfulness:

  1. Most people assume it’s impossible to quiet their minds.
  2. Most men don’t believe in meditation and think they have to do silly things like wear yoga pants or chant or burn incense.
  3. Most men believe that meditation will take away their edge. That it’s all about being mellow. Eventually, they’ll wear their hair in a man bun and utter inane phrases like “It’s all good.”

Humorous stereotyping aside, there’s no time like the present to strategically slow down. The question is how. 

Try these 5 meditation and mindfulness tips.

1. Fitness for the mind.

If the workout metaphor resonates with you, strip away the spiritual connotations that block you from regularly meditating. Think of it as training for your mind, just like going to the gym is training for your body. And, like fitness, both the challenges and the rewards of meditation increase over time.

Perhaps best of all, what equipment do you need to get started? Nothing more than a quiet, comfortable place to sit; comfortable clothing; and time set aside every day. More on this later. 

2. Be realistic.

The New York Times article I referenced before did have a valid, albeit obvious, point: Your mind is never going to stop completely. Your thoughts will keep coming as long as you’re alive. So don’t fight it. Practice watching your thoughts. Detach from them so you don’t get tangled up in drama. Once in a while, don’t forget to laugh at them.

Unless you’re a reincarnated Buddhist master, your monkey mind will always need to be tamed. You might as well enjoy the ride. 

3. Stick with it.

While the benefits of a meditation practice will be noticeable right away, you’ve got to stick with it to reap the rewards.

A Harvard study revealed detectable neural changes after eight weeks of meditating an average of 27 minutes a day. Besides stimulating the parts of the brain that help relieve stress, anxiety, anger, and indecision, the research indicated increased brain volume in areas that usually thin with age. Don’t have 27 minutes every day, or even 20? No sweat. Start somewhere, such as 10 intentional and focused breaths. 

4. Try the app.

Yep, you read that right. If you’re struggling to unplug, try an app called Headspace.

Created by Andy Puddicombe, a 43-year-old former Buddhist monk, this app has more than five million active users. Its tagline is “a gym membership for the mind.” Puddicombe says that consistency is the secret to developing meditation muscles. Headspace requires a mere 10 minutes a day. The app also includes sessions for commuting, cooking, running and walking, which means you can take your mindfulness on the road. 

5. Schedule downtime.

In her myth-busting book “The Future of Happiness,” Amy Blankson describes how to strategically stop using technology to control career (and personal) burnout.

Funny enough, she also recommends technology as the solution. Her apps of choice: Instant or Moment to monitor how many times you turn on your phone each day; Offtime or Unplugged to strategically schedule periods of automated airplane mode so that you can literally unplug and regularly recharge.

Her other tips? Take your lunch outside. Take all of your paid time off. Her goal? To move everyone from partial attention to full intention. 

When in doubt, just breathe.

For those of you ready to pare your practice down to a Zen-like minimum, watch your breath. Not just during meditation, but anytime during the day.

Try to let go of what happened earlier, or yesterday, or what’s coming tomorrow. If staying with your breath requires too much effort, try asking yourself a question repeatedly (a sort of mantra) to see what answer comes up for you.

Examples: How do I want to feel at the end of the day? How do I want to show up in my life? Either of these questions could serve as an intention-setting thought for your day before you even get out of bed. Meditating on a question and setting a daily intention both work wonders for me.

What else works when I need to hit the pause button? 

Practice gratitude.

Call it hackneyed, simplistic New Age trash … I’ve heard it all. But whenever I lose sight of what matters or take on too much in my work, thinking of one thing I’m grateful for always grounds me.

And, no, I’m not going to give you my shaman’s mobile number.

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