Student life is great, but I’m jealous of my friends with 9-5 jobs. They’re better than I am at forgetting their work when they leave the office. I read non-fiction books or watch Netflix to switch off, but since I write about popular culture in my PhD, it can often feel like I’m half working, half-relaxing.

To get better at switching my brain off, I thought I would try meditation, which has been shown to improve mental and physical health in rigorous clinical trials.

10 months ago, I downloaded Headspace. It’s an app that teaches the basics of meditative practice through guided tutorials. I’ve been doing it for 15 minutes each night. This adds up to about 52 hours of sitting silently and training the mind.

I meditate just before I get into bed, and it does help me switch off and sleep.  But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I was amazed by was how it helped me switch on and focus on my work.

Noticing Distraction

Meditation develops mindfulness, which is the quality of being fully aware of the present moment. If you’re mindful, you’re aware of what’s happening around you right now. This might be how the floor feels against your shoes, the breeze on your face or just how noisy the supermarket is.

More importantly, mindfulness means you are aware of yourself. If I’m stood in the queue at the supermarket, I find it irksome when someone takes too long to pay or pack their bags. I silently seethe and visualise how wonderfully efficiently I would be compared to the oaf who couldn’t find his Nectar card. 

Mindful people observe, rather than judge, analyse or criticise what they’re thinking or feeling. Nothing is gained from indulging my impatience with the slow shopper, nor is there any use in chastising myself for being so rushed. Neither will make the shopper speed up. Headspace uses the word ‘notice’ to describe a mindful response. Noticing your body, your thoughts and feelings. Once you notice a feeling or thought, you acknowledge it then let it go.

None of this may seem useful for academic work, but noticing how distraction seeps into our work is not a skill we are ever taught.

Distraction is dangerous for anyone who must motivate themselves to succeed. For students, it is not uncommon to be working on an essay when the deadline two hours away. They will stress, panic, quaff Red Bull or pop study drugs to focus but still find themselves flicking between the assignment and Facebook. How can we be so reckless when we know we should be focussed?

Instead of punishing ourselves with all-nighters in the Library, Headspace’s remedy is to acknowledge distraction and let it go by returning to the work. If it happens five minutes later, fine.  You simply do the same again. This won’t extend the impending deadline but, over time, it will extend your concentration.

The noticing technique is taught in Headspace's guided meditations, but it’s hard to find 20 minutes and a quiet place to meditate.They have packs that don’t require you to sit cross-legged on the floor. The mindful running pack tackles the boredom of running and ever-present distraction of thinking about the end of the run. Instead of plugging into Spotify, you try to focus on your feet hitting the floor.

I first balked at the idea of running headphones-free. As great as running to music is, many do it because the running itself isn’t rewarding enough: we need to distract ourselves from the task (running) to get to an external reward (fitness, health). It is this point about external and intrinsic rewards where Headspace really helps

Studying for studying's sake: getting into a state of flow

Distraction arises in learning because we can’t immerse ourselves in the task for the sake of the task. We’re studying for an external reward, perhaps a good grade or good job. We’ve chosen to study a subject we love. If the topic is interesting, the learning itself should be enough to keep us focussed, but since we check our phones 11.3 times during classes, it clearly is not.

Headspace helps diminish distraction, which helps us become immersed in the task at hand. If we get ourselves into that place, attention can become effortless because it is not motivated by finishing the essay, but by the intrinsic reward of answering a question or learning something new.If we do love our subjects, this sort of attention should be possible.

It is known as flow. It’s is complete absorption in the task at hand. It’s been documented in people who make things (musicians and artists). I used to get it when playing the piano, and have had it once or twice at university. You’ll know if you’ve experienced it. Your neck will ache from craning over your laptop. Hours will have passed since you started working and you’ll feel tired but accomplished.

Headspace won’t get you into a state of flow in a week or two of meditation. But little by little, it’ll help you focus on the present moment and create the right conditions for flow to happen.

It’s free for the first 10 sessions, so there’s no harm in trying it out.