If you want to enhance your ability to focus and stay on task, mindfulness training may be the best short-tem tool—even better than healthy eating, according to new research from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
In a recent study, undergraduate students there took either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class four times per week for two weeks. At both the start and end of the two weeks, the 48 students were given a standard GRE test and other memory and focus tests.
Those who received mindfulness training showed improvements in both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory “while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion” of the test. The average GRE verbal score went from 460 to 520 for the mindfulness group.
“Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting,” the study authors concluded. “Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.”
So how exactly did this class help students “cultivate mindfulness?” The Atlantic has more details:
(The class) required participants to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities and to complete 10 minutes of daily meditation outside of class. During class, participants sat on cushions in a circle. Each class included 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording). … Classes focused on:
- Minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present
- Using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation
- Repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations [Ed. note: presume inhalations occurred as well.
- Allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.
As Atlantic Health’s James Hamblin notes, cognitive and breathing exercises like these are “the opposite of staying in a library for 86 hours fueld by Adderrall and anxiety,” and a hell of a lot less expensive than a $1,299 Kaplan GRE class.
Even if you’re long past the standardized test phase of your life, the implications are still relevant. Have a big presentation coming up? A job interview? A boatload of coding, an article, a grant proposal, a lesson plan, a report or any other pressure-sensitive thing to finish? The best way to stay on task may just be to let your mind wander a little bit.