By Mandy Oaklander, Prevention editor
Signs you’re easily distracted: You know all the keyboard shortcuts for switching tabs. Starting a to-do list is on your mental to-do list. You can’t seem to—oh, look! A new e-mail!
See? We’re right there with you. But a new study published in Psychological Science found that you don’t have to resign yourself to cognitive craziness. Practicing mindfulness makes you a lot less distracted—and might actually make you smarter.
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara rounded up 48 undergraduate students and administered a reading comprehension test from the GRE standardized exam. They then enrolled half the students in a two-week-long mindfulness class and half in a nutrition class. Four times a week, students either learned mindfulness techniques, like meditation and breath awareness, or the fundamentals of nutrition science. Finally, every student was re-tested on the GRE.
The results? The mindfulness group showed the most improved brainpower. In fact, they outperformed the nutrition group by an average of 16 percentile points and reported significantly less mind wandering.
Even if you’re not a college kid, mindfulness training will still sharpen your noggin, says mindfulness expert Dawa Tarchin Phillips, one of the study’s authors and a former Buddhist monk. “The exercise is to learn how to let the mind be as natural as possible without letting it become distracted,” Phillips explains. “The way that’s done is through understanding properly how thought arrives—when you can observe thoughts come and go, you are less obliged to follow them.”
To become an awareness all-star takes time and practice, but Phillips has a few tips on instantly becoming more mindful. Here’s how:
1. Breathe. When the mind is concerned, the breath is never far behind. “Placing your attention on your natural breathing and counting 10 in-and-out breaths over and over again for several minutes can help calm the mind and restore balance,” Phillips says. Every time you become distracted, simply return your focus to your natural breathing.
2. Be present. During conversation, give your partner your undivided attention, Phillips said. “It changes the communication once the other person realizes you’re actually fully present,” he says.
3. Eat mindfully. Here’s some food for thought: When you focus on the food you’re eating, you’ll recognize you’re full much earlier, Phillips said. Experience how taste unfolds in your mouth, and heed the mental associations and imagery that accompanies food. “What develops is appreciation for the variation of mindfulness in ordinary experience,” he says.