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Your mindfulness hack probably doesn’t work. Here’s why you should do it anyway

You might have a productivity hack that you swear by. But do they actually work, or do they help you perform because you think they work?

Your mindfulness hack probably doesn’t work. Here’s why you should do it anyway
[Photo: Isi Parente/Unsplash]

The world is coming at us fast every day, and in response, we’re always looking for ways to cope, perform, and thrive. It’s no wonder that we can’t seem to get enough self-improvement and “life hacks” advice. It’s worth a try, you tell yourself.

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If we’re honest, none of us are immune to trying things to increase our success. In college, I used to record myself reading my class notes and then listen to them while I slept before test day. My son listens to Spanish music before all his AP Spanish exams.

Why the method might not matter

Those methods seem to work, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter.

What matters most is your own belief about the practice. Ultimately, repeated preparatory activities—rituals—are ways to gain a sense of control over high pressure or ambiguous situations. A recent study showed that routines reduce stress and anxiety about an anticipated situation. By always putting the right sock on before the left and tying your shoes in that particular way before your client meetings, you’re seeking to bring a sense of personal control to an unpredictable situation.

People try a lot of practices in rituals and approaches to mindfulness. Here are some common ones that people have tried:

  • Meditation has been met with mostly positive results. Some research has shown that a high percentage of meditators experience some negative psychological events, but most studies are positive. For example, one study demonstrated positive effects of meditation on thinking and sustained attention (especially in the aging process). Another research effort demonstrated meditation reduced stress and heart rate, and another showed the positive impacts of mediation continued for seven years (and then plateaued).
  • Music has positive effects as well. One study found that it led to an increase in chemicals that resulted in positive feelings.However, it only worked for those with some musical aptitude and education. A University of Groningen study found music had beneficial effects on mood, and this affected visual perception and task completion.
  • Some people opt to consume energy drinks before an athletic event. According to a Health Psychology study, for many people, energy drinks can have a positive effect on their perceptions of their own assertiveness and power.

It’s all in what you believe

Our belief systems matter to the way we feel, process, and take action. For example, research published in the American Society for Horticultural Science found that when students feel more confident, they tend to perform better on exams.

Our beliefs about others also affect performance. A study by the University of California Riverside demonstrated that company effectiveness is tied to how leaders perceived their employees. When leaders believed that their employees were productive contributors, they tended to treat them more positively, which results in strong performance, employee satisfaction, and trust outcomes.

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Influencing ideas in people’s minds (known as priming) has also been shown to have an impact. For example, in one study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, when researchers showed students the letters A or F, it had a positive effect (if they were shown A) or a negative one (if they saw an F). In another classic study, those who were exposed to words associated with old age tended to walk more slowly and slouch. This matters in terms of the ideas we expose ourselves to—reading the article on productivity can affect how you think about it and perform.

Here’s the bottom line. Ultimately, the impact of a productivity hack will depend on what you think it will do. Your own belief about the effects of your hack will matter more than the approach itself. So whether you’re hoping to improve your own performance, increase the performance of others as a leader, reduce stress, or increase your focus, your mind is a powerful ally. In the meantime, I hear Spanish music playing in the house. My son must have a Spanish exam tomorrow.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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