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Solve like Sherlock using more mindfulness

What we can learn about better concentration — and problem-solving — from the quintessential unitasker and mindfulness master, Sherlock Holmes.

Multitasking has become a badge of honor and esteem in our modern lives. Many of us pride ourselves on our multitasking prowess, and even strive for higher levels of frenzied activity.

A portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget
A portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

The remedy for our overloaded senses may be found in the habits of the eccentric, yet brilliant Sherlock Holmes character made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When taking on a new case and absorbing the details, Holmes closes his eyes and becomes very still. Sometimes he focuses on his fingers or the long ribbons of smoke rising from his pipe.

Maria Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University, has studied mindfulness and meditation extensively and uses the famous fictional detective as a model in unitasking.

In her book “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” Konnikova summarized the highlights of her research:

Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think – and it does so at a basic neural level.

In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states – states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.

Participants were instructed to relax with their eyes closed, focus on their breathing, and acknowledge and release any random thoughts that might arise. Then they had the option of receiving nine 30-minute meditation training sessions over the next five weeks. 

When they were tested a second time, their neural activation patterns had undergone a striking leftward shift in frontal asymmetry – even when their practice and training averaged only 5 to 16 minutes a day.

As little as five minutes a day of intense Holmes-like inactivity, and a happier outlook is yours for the taking…

The mindfulness and meditation training didn’t just help with emotional regulation, it provided productivity benefits as well:

In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. (Simulated by a barrage of emails, phone calls, instant messages, etc.)

After the multitasking free-for-all, participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly); another group didn’t take the course at first, but took it later; and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy.

The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently.

So with 5 to 15 minutes a day of simple meditation you can gain clearer thinking and a happier, more positive attitude. If you need a quick primer on quieting your mind, here’s a recent Harvard Business Review blog post on the subject.

Have a great week.

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