Mindfulness makes you better at work

My friend Josh March recently said that meditation is “an essential part” of his “entrepreneurs toolkit”, a sentiment I’m hearing echoed by increasing numbers of entrepreneurs and startup execs. As you may have read here before I have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for two years now and found it hugely helpful in dealing with stress and improving my interactions with people, and at Forward Partners we have regular mindfulness sessions for all staff organised by Calmworks.

The way it works is that mindfulness practice, and in particular meditation, results in physical changes to two areas of the brain which affect these behaviours. The following is lifted from an HBR article:

[Regular meditators have a] bigger anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure located deep inside the forehead, behind the brain’s frontal lobe. The ACC is associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly. … [and] demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators. They also show more activity in the ACC than non-meditators. In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making. Scientists point out that the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.

Adapting well to fast-changing conditions is key for entrepreneurs, and increasingly for everyone as change happens faster and faster. That’s big.

The second brain region we want to highlight is the hippocampus, a region that showed increased amounts of gray matter in the brains of our 2011 mindfulness program participants. … a set of inner structures associated with emotion and memory. It is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and studies have shown that it can be damaged by chronic stress, contributing to a harmful spiral in the body. Indeed, people with stress-related disorders like depresssion and PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus. All of this points to the importance of this brain area in resilience—another key skill in the current high-demand business world.

Resilience is also essential for entrepreneurs. One founder of a successful company said to me earlier this year that his emotional lows are as intense as his emotional highs, but they last much longer! The ability to bounce back is an essential trait.

The HBR article concludes by saying “Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”:  a way to keep our brains healthy”. I agree, and like to make an analogy with exercise. Fifty years ago very few people took regular exercise and the science linking exercise to health and happiness was poorly understood. Nowadays everybody understands the link and a large proportion of society puts significant time and effort into keeping fit. Meditation today is where exercise was fifty years ago.

  • Colman Stephenson

    While I find meditation and mindfulness personally tremendously helpful, I am cautious about articles such as that in HBR which implies causality.

    Those studies are very small and the samples of self selecting. So its impossible that the participants show those physiological and character traits because they meditate.

    There is surely a high degree of the opposite causality: one is more likely to maintain a regular medication practice if one is already able to focus and calm the mind.

  • I have seen other studies which found regions of the brain growing when people started to meditate for the first time. You are right that the number of subjects is too small to be conclusive, but I’ve seen enough small scale studies now that I’m pretty sure the conclusions will hold.

  • Michal

    Good (short) video for skeptics on this topic from Dan Harris: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAcTIrA2Qhk
    Repeatedly gently forcing yourself to return to the present moment is like bicep curls for your brain.

  • Fitness Connections

    Mindful meditation for me allowed me to center myself and reset on the thoughts, feelings that have amassed throughout the day. It allowd me to stay neutral and put things in their roper perspective. As an entrepreneur, mindful meditation has allowed me to cope better with the ups and downs of businesses

  • That’s great to hear. Thanks for the comment.

  • Rintintin

    The “science is compelling”….hmmm …if it works for you ,yes. I’ve tried various types of meditative techniques. I find the effects overwhelmingly negative. It took me quite a time to recognise that these techniques do not work for everybody.