What meditation can teach us about getting things done
Several years ago, overwhelmed by the stresses of life, I signed up for an introductory meditation course in the hope of finding some tranquility. I sat in a dim room with nine other frazzled professionals as the instructor taught us to concentrate on our breathing, letting all other thoughts float away like clouds blowing past the peak of a mountain. As we practiced sitting and breathing we also learned several Zen principles to leading a more mindful life. One in particular, the idea of focusing on the present moment, I've found quite helpful in approaching my life's endless to-do list.
Though seemingly obvious, a prerequisite to living in the present moment is to first accept it. If you are always fighting the present, wishing it were something else or longing for the future, you cannot embrace the moment fully. Likewise, before you complete a task you must first accept it as something worth doing. Often I will find a task at the bottom of my list that has been ignored and postponed for quite some time. It's on the list because at some point I decided it should be accomplished, but if I look deep inside I realize that I haven't yet accepted it as one deserving my energy. Yes, it seems a little odd that soul searching is a necessary part of getting things done. For me, embracing a neglected task usually involves thinking about how it helps achieve the other goals in my life. Once accepted, then I will actually set about completing it.
Case in point, for the longest time I planned on merging the retirement accounts I had acquired from various jobs into a single IRA. It was the responsible thing to do, but an insipid chore I continually procrastinated. One day I embraced the task by mentally connecting it with the goal of simplifying my life, and then easily completed it within a few days.
In our breathing exercises we honed our concentration, letting go of all the thoughts and stresses that cluttered our minds so we could experience "right now" with more clarity. When I apply this same practice to my daily tasks I find that not only am I more efficient, but I produce better work. Much has been written about the concept of "flow" - the complete immersion in an activity - primarily because the results are astounding when one enters this mental state. True, blocking out distractions takes discipline and practice. While sitting on the meditation pillow I could rarely go ten seconds before my mind wandered off to the stresses of life. Ignoring texts and instant messaging is nearly impossible for me, but when I do, accomplishing my current task is so much easier. When I set out to develop a new feature, or fix a difficult bug, being fully present and focusing on one task at a time allows me to complete higher quality work, quicker.
Being present to the current moment also allows you to enjoy it more - precisely because you're actually aware of what's going on. Of course the same holds true when I'm working through my to-do list. Normally I loathe the tedious chore of updating the company books. However, as I enter the numbers in QuickBooks, if I stop worrying about all my other tasks and focus on doing a good job, I realize it's not all that bad. If I remember how this helps me reach the goal of growing my business, and that being precise now will help avoid problems in the future, I realize this once despised task is actually the best thing I could be doing right now.
By the end of the 8-week course we learned to transform the necessary act of breathing into a source of peace and renewal. For most of us, our to-do lists are a necessary reality of life. However, if we focus our attention as we complete the tasks, we discover we can experience the fullness of life itself instead of just getting things done.
I love building products! And Python. And dark chocolate. When I'm not leading the team at GQueues, I can be found running ultras on the trails of the Rocky Mountains.