Can meditation tangibly help improve focus and attention?

Image by Paul Skorupskas

Meditation is widely touted as having a wide (and seemingly ever widening!) range of benefits. At Meditation: Unlocked we explore the evidence base behind some of those claims. The focus of this piece is… focus!

Let’s start with defining “meditation”. We often refer to meditation in the singular because it’s convenient to do so, but it’s actually an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different mental practices. A good analogy would be with “exercise” as an umbrella term for lots of different physical practices. This clarification will help us to explore which of these practices are beneficial to focus and attention and why.

Mindfulness meditation is one family of meditative practices that has gained a lot of traction in the West. Mindfulness is a nuanced and complex subject but in its simplest terms I would call it “paying attention in the present moment”. In my opinion mindfulness based practices are some of the best meditation tools for systematically training our attention and focus. So what does the science say?

The results of a 2006 study titled “Mindfulness Training Modifies Subsystems of Attention” published in the journal “Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience” suggest that mindfulness training may improve attention related behavioural responses by enhancing the functioning of specific subcomponents of attention.

That study was conducted using groups put through an 8 week mindfulness course or an intensive 1 month mindfulness retreat. That immediately begs the question, how much mindfulness training is actually needed to be able to measure a difference?

A 2010 study published in “Consciousness & Cognition” looked to address that by exploring the effects of brief mindfulness training. Titled “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training”, it showed that just 4 brief mindfulness meditation sessions can measuraby affect your ability to sustain attention, as well as unlock a host of related mental wellbeing benefits.

I know both from exploring the science and my own experience that mindfulness oriented meditation can noticeably improve our focus and concentration levels. A 2016 University of Winconsin-Madison study backs this up by showing that just 8 minutes of breath focused meditation led to improved performance on a sustained attention task.

I had set out to explore the effects of meditative practices on focus, but found that lack of focus was affecting something much larger than the triviality of occasionally feeling distracted.

Image of Niraj Shah by Kristina Kashtanova

One of our favourite studies at M:U is from Harvard, published in the journal “Science” in 2010. Entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind” the study worked with 2,250 American volunteers from a wide socioeconomic spread of ages and backgrounds over 6 months, gathering over 250,000 data points. This research showed that 46.9% of the time people were not thinking about the thing they were doing, i.e. their mind was wandering. Let that sink in; almost half the time people were not thinking about the thing they were doing and this was in 2010, before the smartphone revolution and its associated hyper-distraction was in full swing. Furthermore, time lag analysis showed that mind wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of unhappiness.

This could be attributed to thoughts either dwelling on the past or worrying about the future generally not being helpful to our current state of mind (unless we are actively learning from the past or actively planning for the future, which is mostly not the case).

If meditation can help us improve our focus and being more focused helps us to be happier, perhaps some of the world’s most ancient traditions’ messages of staying in the present moment have merit far beyond sounding like a nice thing to do?

Going back to that exercise analogy, one meditation session is not going to change your life but the studies cited above show that it can make a difference and the more we do the more difference it can make.

So that leads on to the question of what we can do to improve our focus and attention. Here are my thoughts

  1. Develop a mindfulness based meditation practice to systematically train attention and focus. There are a plethora of ways you can do that — via an app, your local yoga studio or buddhist centre or come to my event series Meditation: Unlocked. This one has been a game changer for me.
  2. Start becoming aware of when and how your attention is wandering and then disrupt the distraction. I like moving the apps on my phone around, because then I really notice when I’m mindlessly tapping to where my brain thinks an app is. The pattern interrupt is often enough to question and break the habit.
  3. Another trick I like is to set 2–3 alarms on my phone to go off at random times during the day asking “Am I present right now?” — again it’s just a sense check on whether I’m focused on what I’m doing or if I’m distracted. My friend (and superb meditation guide) Ashley Hunt taught me that one.
  4. The “pomodoro” method has been quite useful, especially when working on tasks I perceive as boring. This involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and then only doing that task for that time, the reward is a 5 minute break before starting a new 25 minute “pomodoro”. I like having a visual timer for this.
  5. Talking of visual timers, the first game I played with one was to start the stopwatch, start working and then notice when I first got distracted. The number of minutes was so embarrassingly small I’m not going to tell you what it was (it was under 5!). The game then becomes to reset the stopwatch and beat that number. Before long I was stretching my concentration time to a more respectable number.
  6. Managing transitions — I got this idea from Brendon Burchard, the thinking is that every time we have a “transition” i.e. go from one type of activity to another e.g. from the office to home, we take a few moments to breathe and check in with our intention for the next activity, how we want to feel etc. I’ve found this really useful to help keep me focused on what I want rather than where my attention might pull me.

The following further tips came from guests in our M:U sessions on the theme of focus & attention:

  • Turn off all notifications on your phone — an oldie but a goodie
  • Grayscale your phone — this scrambles how your brain perceives the various apps
  • Take 3 conscious, slow, belly breaths at various points in the day — I like this one a lot because it not only anchors us to the present experience but also activates the body’s healing systems (search for Dr Herbert Benson & his term the “relaxation response” for more on this).
  • Use the Forest app — https://www.forestapp.cc
  • Use the Mute app — http://www.justmuteit.com

What are your best focus and attention tips? Let me know in the comments below.

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Image by Stacey Williams