Take a minute
Meditation practice improves your ability to manage work, organize tasks and focus in stressful situations
By Robin L. Flanigan
Mindful multitasking may sound like a contradiction in terms. But proponents of the practice believe—and recent research confirms—that being calmly aware of the present moment can have a significant impact on productivity.
Even in times when focus and attention don’t come easy.
“There’s always a point in the eye of the storm—a balance within the imbalance,” says Annellen M. Simpkins, PhD, who wrote The Tao of Bipolar: Using Meditation & Mindfulness to Find Balance & Peace with her husband, C. Alexander Simpkins, PhD. “You can develop skills for different kinds of meditation, for different types of moods. Then even if you can’t meditate in the middle of a raging episode, you can recall that you have done it. You have a faith, a confidence. You can say, ‘Yes, I have had moments of balance.’”
In a 2012 University of Washington study, researchers found that people who took part in an eight-week mindfulness course were better able to focus and had less stress while multitasking than those who took either an eight-week relaxation course or carried on with business as usual.
Progress often is subtle at first. With regular practice, however, you’ll be better able to stay flexible and regulate stress, which in turn will make it easier to deal with multiple responsibilities simultaneously.
Randi, who has bipolar II and leads the Northwest Suburban Anxiety and Depression Support Group in Chicago, used to get so distracted before and during work that stable employment was difficult. The 49-year-old, currently a manager at Home Depot, now creates a to-do list of imperative tasks as soon as she wakes up.
She also has a back-up plan for when she’s running late, such as an alternate hairstyle for mornings when she has no time to put together her favored look. And if she’s still overwhelmed when she arrives at work, she allows herself time to walk around her department and reflect calmly on the day’s duties.
You can develop skills for different kinds of meditation, for different types of moods.
“I just say, ‘It is what it is,’ and that keeps me grounded so when something doesn’t go right, I don’t get sideswiped by it,” says Randi, who studied mindfulness during a six-week outpatient program after she was diagnosed in 2012. “Having a positive attitude really does make a difference. It takes you out of that victim position and puts yourself in a place of power.”Multitasking doesn’t just mean juggling work, the kids, and meals. We tend to do a good job of it within our heads as well.
“Buddha talked about the ‘monkey mind,’ always on the go and skipping away, and the cavewoman who was picking berries may have also been thinking about how she would prepare them,” notes Jonathan Schooler, PhD, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is an age-old problem, so maybe it’s not that surprising that one of the solutions is an age-old solution.”
In a study published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, Schooler and other researchers showed that two weeks of practicing mindfulness can decrease mind wandering and lead to higher scores on tests that measure reasoning and comprehension. The study required participants, who were trained to ignore or dismiss thoughts about the past or future, to meditate for 10 minutes a day on their own.
“Even just a brief amount of time is useful,” says Schooler.
Jesse of Toronto, 32, equates learning to stay on task with building up stamina by working out: “If you choose one thing that really needs to be done, and accomplish it, then the next day you can choose two things. That focus is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.”
Diagnosed at 19, Jesse recalls a time when symptoms prevented him from reading and writing, two of his loves.
After completing two mindfulness programs, he started meditating, first for five minutes, then slowly building up to an hour a day. He prefers a walking meditation.
It’s not about my mind going off somewhere. It’s about bringing it back.
“I feel the impact of each footfall, then watch my mind,” explains Jesse, who recently wrote a novel about a young man coping with bipolar through mindfulness meditation. “Sometimes I notice that it wanders, and I congratulate myself for noticing. Then I bring myself back to the feeling of my feet on the ground. I can do that hundreds of times. It’s not about my mind going off somewhere. It’s about bringing it back.
“Every person has the ability to pay attention in this way, but not everyone knows how to access it,” he continues. “It’s all about creating space around your worry and focusing. Pretty soon it becomes part of you, part of your everyday life. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Sidebar: 3 quick steps to de-stress
William Marchand, MD , an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah, stresses the value of mindfulness interventions in his book Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Your Guide to Recovery. His patients with bipolar often cite the stress that comes from multitasking at work, such as keeping up with emails and talking with colleagues while trying to focus on the task at hand. Expectations in this digital age to be connected at all times present an additional challenge, he adds.
To start cultivating mind awareness and switch off “autopilot mode,” which can trigger symptoms, Marchand suggests a three-minute breathing exercise.
During the first minute, assess your current situation. What are you thinking? What’s causing you stress?
For the second minute, focus on the physical sensations of your breath.
For the third minute, focus on the physical sensations of your entire body.
Sidebar: Bringing back balance
There is no perfect mood for meditation. However you’re feeling, take a few moments to ground yourself in the present. Here are two options, adapted from The Tao of Bipolar: Using Meditation & Mindfulness to Find Balance & Peace, for when symptoms strike.
Meditation when depressed: Bring your attention to whatever you are engaged in. If you’re at the computer, for example, notice how your fingers strike the keys of the computer, how your eyes move to look at the screen, what you notice on the screen as it appears, and anything else you are experiencing.
Whenever you catch yourself disparaging yourself or judging your abilities, gently return to the task. With your meditative focus, you’ll find yourself noticing important details you might usually miss. You’ll do a more complete and careful job, which often leads to greater success overall. Do this with each task you have to do, taking one at a time.
Meditation when manic: Next time you feel an impulse to do something, stop. Set the timer on your watch for one minute, then perform this one-minute mindfulness meditation: Turn your attention inward and open the focus to whatever you are experiencing now. Allow your attention to flow wherever it goes.
Notice what you’re experiencing, moment to moment, without judging whether it’s good or bad. Ground your awareness in the present moment, even if you find yourself jumping ahead, by naming your thought: “Now I am thinking of what I will do later.” Stay with the present as it changes, and simply notice. You may find that your pressing urge diminishes as you discover a moment of peace.