What you can learn about productivity from a meditation retreat

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Takeaway: I just got back from an eight-day silent meditation retreat. A few powerful lessons I learned from it: your attention is one of the rarest commodities you have; slowing down can actually help you accomplish more; the more intentions you set, the more you’ll get done; meditation can help you overcome huge mental hurdles; the world won’t stop when you step back from your work; and there’s more to your work than productivity.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes, 42s.

About a week ago I got home from a meditation retreat. I lived in total silence for eight days with about 30 other people, and we meditated nearly all day long.

It’s oddly difficult to write about a meditation retreat, or describe the feeling you have when you’re on one. On the surface, a meditation retreat admittedly looks pretty weird. But over the eight days, I had the chance to step back, slow down more than I have in years, and disconnect (you’re discouraged from writing, journaling, or connecting to the internet while you’re there).

To paint a bit of a picture, here’s what a typical day looked like:

  • 6:15: Wake up
  • 6:45-7:30: Sitting meditation
  • 7:30-8:45: Mindful breakfast
  • 8:45-9:45: Sitting meditation
  • 9:45-10:30: Walking meditation
  • 10:30-11:15: Sitting
  • 11:15-12: Walking
  • 12-12:30: Sitting
  • 12:30-2:30: Mindful lunch, break
  • 2:30-3:15: Sitting
  • 3:15-4: Walking
  • 4-4:45: Guided sitting meditation
  • 4:45-5: Walking
  • 5-6:15: Mindful supper
  • 6:15-7: Sitting
  • 7-7:30: Walking
  • 7:30-8:30: Buddhist teaching (though people from all backgrounds attended the retreat)
  • 8:30-9: Walking
  • 9-9:30: Sitting
  • 9:30: Bed

(Pretty intense, to say the least.)

Flower-RZIdeas like mindfulness and meditation may seem like the antithesis to productivity, but over the last two years I’ve thought about this notion quite a bit and I don’t believe that’s the case. It was definitely true when we all worked in factories—where becoming more productive meant working faster, harder, and cranking out more widgets in a shorter amount of time. But today our working conditions are different. The most productive people know how to manage their attention and energy, in addition to managing their time. And the most productive people aren’t the ones who work harder or faster; they’re the ones who work smarter, more deliberately, and with more intention—in addition to working hard. The typical office worker has hundreds of distractions and interruptions throughout the day, so that’s why managing your attention and energy is so important.

Obviously if you worked mindfully all day long, you wouldn’t get much done, because it would take you twice as long to do everything. A monk wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a typical office. But over my eight day retreat, I still took away some incredibly powerful lessons for how to work more deliberately, and become more productive. Here they are, in no particular order!

Here’s an article I wrote about how to meditate if you’re curious! It’s easier than you think.

1. Your attention is one of the rarest commodities you have. Each day, between meetings, phone calls, IM’s, email, and more, our attention is pulled in a thousand directions, and often spread very thin. Our attention never been more diffused—but at the same time it has also never been more important. According to an illuminating study out of Harvard, the average person focuses on what’s in front of them a mere 53% of the time—the rest of the time their brain has wandered off to something else. My favorite part about meditation is how it stands up to science—over the last decade or two, scores of neurological research have shown how powerful it is for your brain. One of the most powerful effects of meditation—and there are dozens—is how the practice helps you bring more attention to every moment. In other words, meditation quite literally trains your brain to bring more attention to what’s in front of you. When you focus on the present moment, say, 75% or 85% of the time instead of 53%, you work more efficiently, become more immersed in what you’re doing, and even become happier while you work. In my opinion, for every minute you meditate, you get back at least two minutes of productivity. The benefits of meditation can be that great.

2. Slowing down can actually help you accomplish more. Whenever I write articles for this site, I notice something fascinating: the slower I write, the more words I’m able to crank out by the time my brain throws in the towel. It’s counterintuitive, but when you work slower on a task that requires a lot of mental lifting, you are easier on yourself, have more fun, and dive deeper into the task. The next time you tackle a task that requires a lot of brainpower, slow down and see whether you notice the same thing. As Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Beach-RZ3. The more intentions you set, the more you’ll get done. One of my favorite productivity tactics is the Rule of 3, where at the beginning of each day, you step back from your work to define the three main things you want to accomplish by the end of the day (and do the same every week). This rule is powerful for a simple reason: it lets you step back from your work to decide what’s important and worth focusing on. On a meditation retreat, you slow down so much that you’re able to set intentions pretty much every moment—with each step you take during a walking meditation, or with each bite during breakfast, for example. While these sorts of intentions wouldn’t work in an office, the idea behind them is still incredibly powerful: the more intentions you set throughout the day, the more often you’re able to step back, consider what’s important, and work smarter instead of just harder. Setting more intentions lets you step back so you can work on what’s important, instead of working on autopilot.

4. Mediation and mindfulness are insanely powerful for overcoming mental barriers. If someone invented a microphone where, when you were hooked up to it, people could hear your thoughts, there’s no way you’d agree to be hooked up to it for even five minutes. Our brains wander to crazy places sometimes. Without warning, they can flash us back to a cringeworthy moment or drift to some pretty twisted scenarios and fantasies. For all of the amazing things our brains can do, they can also be a challenge to live inside of—I’d wager a guess that most meditators agree. But during a meditation session, when you step back to observe how your thoughts ebb and flow, you can overcome these same mental barriers, and understand them as the way your brain operates. Meditation teaches you that the thoughts and feelings that arise in your head are sometimes random, insane, and unrealistic, and you shouldn’t listen to them all of the time. This is hard to see when you’re living inside of them.

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5. The world won’t stop when you step back from your work. On retreat, after being connected to the internet nearly every day for the past year, it took a few days to settle into a routine where I was okay with being totally disconnected. But even after that, sometimes while I was deep in a 45-minute meditation session, thoughts would frequently come up about my emails that were inevitably piling up. I often felt anxious and guilty about leaving work behind—even though I knew my team would be more than capable of dealing with it all. Since I didn’t have a ton of distractions around me—all I had was my thoughts—it was tough at times. But when I did reconnect afterward, it turned out that my business hadn’t imploded on itself. My team dealt with most of the work that came up, made smart decisions, and the rest waited until I got back. When your schedule is packed, and you’re busy every day, it’s easy to settle into a groove of thinking you’re more important than you actually are—but people invariably find ways of working around your absence. Chances are the world won’t stop when you step back from your work.

6. There’s more to work than productivity. Productivity is important—it’s the lifeblood of any organization, and it makes or breaks how successful you are. But in the moment, especially at work, it can be easy to forget to take it easy on yourself when you don’t live up to your expectations—and I’m definitely speaking from experience here. While working faster can be a natural impulse when you have more work than time, it’s actually not the smartest approach. Taking a minute to step back, slow down, and set a few intentions may help your productivity more than anything else.

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