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Levy and Wobbrock's research shows meditation helps workers multitask

Monday, June 11, 2012

Meditation appears to reduce stress and improves ability to concentrate in a fast-paced, information-intensive workplace

In an increasingly high-stress, multitasking world, people are looking for ways to manage workplace demands, remain effective at their jobs, and maintain their overall health.

New research by University of Washington Information School Professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock suggests that meditation training helps people stay on tasks longer, improves memory, and reduces feelings of stress. "To our knowledge," Levy observed, "this is the first study to explore how meditation might affect multitasking in a realistic work setting."

Levy, a computer scientist, and Wobbrock, a researcher in human-computer interaction, along with Alfred Kaszniak, a neuropsychologist at the University of Arizona, and iSchool Ph.D. candidate Marilyn Ostergren conducted the work to determine the effects of meditation training on the multitasking behavior of knowledge workers.

Three groups of 12-15 human resource managers were recruited for the study. One group received 8 weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training; a second group received 8 weeks of body relaxation training; a third group (a waitlist control group) initially received no training, but after 8 weeks, received the same training as the first group.

Before and after each 8-week period, participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone, and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks, such as scheduling a meeting and writing a memo. Participants' accuracy and speed, and the extent to which participants switched tasks, were measured. Their level of self-reported stress and memory for the tasks they performed were also measured.

The results of the meditation training were significant. The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test after training. This was not the case for those who received relaxation training or those in the waitlist control group. However after the waitlist control group received the meditation training, they also reported lower levels of stress, just as the original meditation group had.

The meditators also spent longer on tasks, switching tasks less often, but taking no longer to complete the overall job. No such change occurred within the other two groups. After the waitlist control group underwent meditation training, they too spent longer on their tasks with less task switching but no overall increase in job completion time. The meditation training seems to have enabled participants to concentrate on tasks longer without being drawn to other tasks calling for their attention.

After training, both the meditators and those trained in relaxation techniques showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing. The waitlist control group did not, until after it too underwent training.

Wobbrock summarizes: "Many research efforts at the human-technology boundary have attempted to create technologies that augment human abilities. This work is unusual in that it attempts to augment human abilities not through technology but because of technology--because of the demands it places on us and our need to cope with those demands."

"We are encouraged by these first results," Levy notes. "While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments."

Read the complete research report.