Editor’s Note: This story is part of 5 Habits Changes You Can Actually Make In 2015. Check out the full list here.
Just 20 minutes a day. That’s all the time it took for Harvard researchers to see measurable changes in the brain that would help us become more focused, creative, and productive, not to mention less anxious.
What do you do with this time? Meditate.
If our attention span is like a muscle as the scientific community claims, then the best exercise for it is meditation. Scientists at the University of Washington concluded that mindfulness meditation, the goal of which is to become more present with ourselves just as we are, helps people stay on tasks longer with fewer distractions, improves data retention, and reduces stress. This kind of meditation requires us to focus on one specific thing–from our breathing to a particular object outside of us–and continually bring our attention back to that focal point when it wanders.
Mindfulness meditation is also great for improving our working memories, which help us temporarily hold on to new information. Researchers at Harvard Medical School believe meditation helps us screen out everyday distractions, which helps us more rapidly remember and incorporate new information.
Scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands also found that when subjects practiced open monitoring meditation–which involves observing our internal and external sensations without attachment–they improved their divergent thinking. The researchers concluded that when our attention is more evenly distributed, we are able to generate more diverse ideas and a more creative state of mind.
And if all of that isn’t enough, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that meditation can temper our anxiety throughout the day. When we consistently meditate for just 20 minutes a day, we begin to weaken the neural connection in our brains that make us feel scared and under attack, and we simultaneously strengthen the connection between the part of our brains known for reasoning and our bodily sensation and fear centers.
All that personal growth for just sitting quietly for 20 minutes may sound like a pretty easy investment. But the actual practice can be incredibly challenging for most people.
Meditation takes practice and discipline to not only set aside the time to meditate, but to also be successful at it. For example, imagine sitting in your apartment in the middle of a busy city, trying to concentrate on your breathing, with the noise of garbage trucks and sirens filling your ears. Or worse–your own nagging thoughts.
That overpowering distraction is what I found most challenging the first and only time I tried to meditate. But for the next week, I plan to put our advice to the test–and keep at it no matter how distracted I may get–by meditating for at least 20 minutes each morning, and I hope you’ll join me.
Challenge yourself to meditate at least once a day for as long as you can (20 minutes should be your goal, but studies show you can get some of meditation’s benefits from even five minute bursts) and tell us what you loved and hated about it, if it worked or totally bombed, and we may feature your response in an upcoming Fast Company story. Responses must be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by end of day Thursday, September 11, 2014.