You just got back from meeting with your boss and are prioritizing what you got assigned for the week. Meanwhile, an email alert says you missed an urgent question from a client. And now your spouse is calling to report a problem at home. You feel scattered, let alone capable of finishing a project that you’ve got to wrap up by the end of the day.
But you can zero in on what needs to get done, by trying a meditative exercise. Start by taking a few deep breaths, and try to keep your inhales and exhales steady throughout.
If you have just 5 minutes:
Feel your feet: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, your palms resting on your front thighs. Close your eyes. Feel how your soles press against the stable surface beneath them. Allow that sense of grounding to travel up through your body and anchor you. If your mind wanders, draw your awareness back to the sensation at your feet.
Notice what’s around you: A keyboard. A plant. Windows. Go on, just like this. Start with what’s right in front of you, then move to what’s nearby, and finally expand to your whole field of vision. You are only identifying objects, not attaching significance to them.
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If you have 5 to 20 minutes:
Repeat a word or phrase: “Be still,” is a good one. So is “relax.” Don’t overload yourself with “focus” – that will come more naturally after you’re done. Do it on exhales. Use “inhale” for the inhales. Say each word or phrase to yourself, inaudibly.
Walk: Just walk, preferably where you can get fresh air. Do it at a steady and deliberate pace. Pay attention to each step. See if you can take three steps for each inhale and three steps for each exhale, creating a rhythm.
All of the exercises are forms of mindfulness. They work because they keep you in the moment, training your brain to deal only with the task at hand. That helps you focus. They also generally help you feel less anxious, among a slew of other benefits, studies have shown. The more often you do them, the better.
“One of the problems with focusing at work is transitioning from task to task,” says Stacy Payne, who helps run Unum’s health resource center in Chattanooga, Tenn., and is a licensed massage therapist. “Having something simple you can use to keep centered helps you not feel overwhelmed.”
Journalist Mitra Malek writes about wellness, fitness and innovation. She has taught yoga regularly since 2006 and was a senior editor for Yoga Journal magazine. Learn more at mitramalek.com.