Taking 10 minutes to meditate before tackling a difficult task can help anxious people focus and get the job done, a new study from the University of Waterloo has found.

Meditating helps people focus on the "here and now," lead researcher Mengran Xu said, which seemed to help them complete a short-term task.

"If you're anxious, if you're going to do something that requires a lot of attention, I would say based on this study, we know that doing a short meditation, a breathing meditation, 10 minutes, eight minutes, before you do the task will help you," Xu said.

"For how long? Whether that would help you stay on focus for the whole day? I don't know. But for 40 minutes, an hour? Yeah."

Meditation vs. listening to a story

Researchers had 82 people complete a task that required attention. As the people worked on the task, the researchers would stop them at random times and ask them what they were thinking about.

Xu said sometimes they would say a test or exam that was coming up or what they planned to do that weekend.

Once the task was completed, the study participants were then separated into two groups. One group went and did a breathing meditation for 10 minutes. The other group listened to an audiobook of The Hobbit – which researchers said has been used several studies on mindfulness – for 10 minutes.

After that, the participants once again performed the same task that required attention.

Meditation shifts attention to now

Xu said there were three main findings:

  • Those who meditated stayed on track with the task.
  • Those who mediated performed the task better than people who listened to The Hobbit.
  • Those who meditated were more easily able to shift their thoughts to the "here and now" than the other group when they were asked what they were thinking about while completing the task the second time.

"People who practise meditation … they kind of have a shift in their attention and focus, to the present moment," Xu said.
"Which kind of makes sense because when you meditate, the purpose of meditation is to stay in the present moment. So we actually proved that in our experiment that people did have a shift of taking the focus to here and now."

More meditation studies

The study, which was co-authored by Waterloo psychology professors Christine Purdon and Daniel Smilek and Harvard University's Paul Seli, was published in the May edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

Xu said they are currently working on more research for how meditation can help people with anxiety.

"We don't know if different kinds of meditation can be more or less effective," he said.

They're also looking at whether meditation can help broaden a person's perspective overall.