The research is clear: meditation improves virtually every aspect of how we manage our attention. One primary reason is because the activity increases our working memory capacity—how much information we can mentally hold and process at any one time. A larger working memory means we can think about more in each moment, take on more complex tasks, and process our work and life more deeply. Brain-wise, your working memory capacity is akin to your computer’s RAM (Random Access Memory). Deliberate focus requires working memory—and when it comes to attention management, size matters.
My favorite meditation study measures the impact active meditation practice has on participants’ working memory capacity. Researchers guided participants through a 45-minute meditation exercise twice a week, and encouraged them to meditate at home. A few weeks later, they discovered something incredible: the working memory of all participants had increased by an average of more than 30%. In other words, their minds were able to hold 30% more than the average person. This was significantly more than that of the two other groups studied, one of whom practiced yoga for the same time period.
Another study discovered that when participants developed a meditation practice, their minds wandered less and they could focus for longer. This particular study introduced meditation to students preparing for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)—when it came time for them to take the test, students’ scores rose an average of 16%.
Our attention is fascinating, so much so that I wrote a book to deep dive into the science behind how it can be better managed. That’s when I learned about the profound effects of meditation, and how it helps increase the quality of our attention like nothing else.
The quality of our attention can be determined using three measures:
1. How much time we spend intentionally;
2. How long we can hold our focus in one sitting;
3. How long can our mind wander before we catch it.
Research suggests meditation increases all three measures.
Meditation is quite simple. Breathing meditation (the most common form, and the one I’ve practiced for about a decade), requires you to note the characteristics of your breath: how deeply it ebbs and flows, its temperature, where it is most prominent in your body, how your in-breath transitions to your out-breath, and so on.
If you’re sitting at your desk right now, give it a shot: position yourself in a comfortable but upright posture, stacking the disks of your spine one on top of another. Notice the qualities of your breath and refocus on them whenever your mind wanders. I highly recommend using an app to get started—I like Headspaceand Insight Timer, both of which offer guided meditations. Approach each meditation session with a genuine curiosity about where your mind will wander. It’s natural to feel as though you’re doing it wrong, especially at first, but try not to overthink it.
Mental resistance is one of the greatest barriers in beginning to meditate. It’s worth determining your resistance level, shrinking your meditation time until you no longer feel averse to the practice. For example, ask yourself: “Can I meditate for 30 minutes today? No way. Twenty minutes? Getting better, but still… Fifteen minutes? Sure, that sounds good!” When I started meditating, I did so in five-minute segments, and slowly built to 30 minutes. Now, I wouldn’t give up that time for anything. In fact, there’s one meditation rule I’ve stuck with for years: it doesn’t matter how long I meditate, so long as I do so each day.
Back to the importance of your breath—your mind is bound to wander since observing breathing doesn’t consume your full attention. This is exactly the point. You heighten your level of attention control each time you return your wandering mind to focus on your breath. This enables you to improve each measure of the quality of your attention—while also increasing the size of your limited working memory.
A 30% increase in working memory may sound like a small number. But the quality of our attention is integral to productivity. As a result, even the slight improvement makes a remarkable difference in how much we accomplish. When you practice being with your breath, you practice being with your life. While meditation takes time, you’ll make those minutes back—and then some—in how much more clearly, deeply, and deliberately you’ll think and focus.