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Can meditation make you less motivated?

Researchers find that being mindful may reduce both stress and motivation.

We’ve all been told that meditation can make us more focused and productive. In fact, mindfulness in the workplace has achieved almost “cult status”. But is it possible to have too much of a good thing? In a series of studies, scientists in Portugal and the U.S. discovered that the state of being mindful may be linked not only to feeling less stressed, but also less motivated.

The researchers recruited 109 adults and asked them to listen to either a 15-minute focused breathing meditation or to let their minds wander. Participants were then told they’d be completing 10 difficult anagram word puzzles, and asked how motivated they felt to do so, how many minutes they’d be willing to take to solve them, and how focused on their breathing and the present moment they felt.

Compared to people in the mind wandering group, those who’d completed the breathing meditation reported being significantly more mindful. They were also far less motivated to complete the puzzles.

Next, the same researchers asked 168 adults living in France to take part in a study of attention and career advice. Once again, half listened to a breathing mediation, while the others were told to let their minds wander. Once done, each was asked to edit two cover letters, and experimenters noted how much time it took them to finish.

Again, the breathing meditation group said they were more mindful of their breath than the mind wandering group. They were also less motivated to work on the cover letters, but their performance was on par with the mind wanderers.

Meditators were more mindful but less motivated

But what if the breathing meditation was only half as long?

A third sample of workers listened to either 8 minutes of a breath-focused meditation or told to let their minds wander. They were then instructed to copy down legal text from the terms and conditions of a software application and told that the top 25% of performers would be entered into a lottery for one of 3, $10 bonuses. Performance was measured by tallying the number of words typed minus the number of errors.

Once done, participants were asked to rate how much they were focused on their breath, whether they’d been thinking about the future, and how they felt after the writing task.

As might be expected, people in the breath-focused meditation group had better breath awareness and were more focused on the present moment than mind wanderers. They were also less motivated to complete the text copying task, but their performance was about the same.

As always, it is important to consider these results in context. Meditation instruction in each was delivered in a single 8 or 15-minute recording. Although this approach was linked to short-term changes in present moment awareness, a key measure of mindfulness, it may not accurately reflect what happens when people have a consistent mindfulness practice.

What’s more, there is no way of knowing what people were doing while listening to the recordings. It is possible, however, that 8 to 15 minutes of breathing exercises left people feeling more relaxed and therefore less ambitious.

What we do know is that research continues to support that mindfulness is linked to a number of improvements in things like attention, mental sharpness, problem solving, positive emotion, and self-regulation that are tied to success in the workplace.

Results of these new experiments suggest that there may be a more nuanced picture when it comes to the benefits of meditation at work; namely, although we may feel more focused and less stressed, we may also be far less motivated to get the job done. What’s more, our performance may not necessarily be enhanced by meditation.

Previous critiques of meditation in the workplace noted that mindfulness on the job may not be as universally beneficial or appropriate as it is claimed to be.

Clearly, we still have a lot to learn.


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