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Leadership & Organisations

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Motivation

Andrew C. Hafenbrack, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics (INSEAD PhD), and Kathleen D. Vohs, Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Land O’ Lakes Chair of Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota |

Acceptance of the present moment can impact the will to work hard and get things done.

In recent decades, mindfulness meditation has taken the Western world by storm. Tech companies in the United States routinely offer mindfulness training programmes and tens of millions of people have downloaded meditation apps. Overall, one in seven Americans reports having a mindfulness practice. The concept of mindfulness has become so popular that it is even being used to sell products like mayo (MindfulMayo).

Rooted in 2000-year-old Buddhism, mindfulness entails focusing the mind on the present moment and accepting things as they are. It can be instilled in as little as eight minutes of meditation. The benefits of mindfulness are manifold: It helps with anxiety, depression, stress, sleep, job satisfaction, relationship quality and decision making.

Against a backdrop of thousands of scientific articles on the benefits of mindfulness, we asked a simple question: When might mindfulness have a downside?

Given its basis in experiencing and accepting the present moment, we thought mindfulness may be counterproductive in the context of work tasks, chores, goals and other responsibilities. As goals researchers, we know that motivation is borne out of discontent with the state of the world at present; it is served by focusing on the future (a disposition inherent to pursuing any goal or completing any task) and feeling energised. Our research, appearing in the July issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, tested whether there is a tension between being mindful and being motivated.

Mindfulness meditation and performance

We had some people meditate by listening to an approximately ten-minute meditation exercise guided by a professional mindfulness coach, a technique similar to popular mindfulness exercises and one we used in prior research. Other people listened to the same coach guiding them to let their minds wander. Mind-wandering is the opposite of mindfulness and, not incidentally, what most people’s minds do much of the time.

We then gave them a small job to do. The jobs were similar to daily activities such as editing a cover letter or wordsmithing. Before they began the task, we asked them how motivated they were. Did they want to do the task? Did they plan to spend much time on it?

The results were clear. After meditating, people lacked motivation. They didn’t feel like doing work, nor did they want to spend much time on it. Being mindful made people focus less on the future and instilled a sense of calm – just as it promises – but that came at the cost of wanting to get things done.

We also measured how well people performed on the tasks. There we saw no effect of mindfulness. That is, after meditating, people performed no better or worse than people who did not meditate, although mindfulness should have helped people perform better because it allowed them to focus on the task at hand. These benefits seemed to be washed away by the lack of motivation.

A meditation instructor at a major U.S. corporation told us that CEOs find mindfulness appealing because it places the responsibility for stress reduction on employees rather than the boss. Our results may serve as a cautionary tale for organisations that consider mindfulness interventions primarily to increase the productivity of their employees. Mindfulness makes people feel better, but seems to discourage them from working hard.

Andrew C. Hafenbrack is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics. He has a PhD in Management from INSEAD.

Kathleen D. Vohs is Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Land O’ Lakes Chair of Marketing at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

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Comments
DownUnder,

Thank you for your article. The problem could be with the research. Mindfulness without being driven by an underlying passion/interest is pointless. When highly motivated by an interest/passion, then mindfulness serves to enable a person to accomplish their goal with efficiency, calmness, focus, wisdom, insight, compassion and creativity at her fingertips. Mindfulness is the natural state of an awakened mind.

Chris,

Interesting! I notice the reference to mayo and trust this doesn't reflect a negative bias (recognizing mindfulness has been hijacked by the usual suspects). Also, "the eight minutes of meditation" I assume is the standard practice of daily over eight weeks before testing for outcomes. A challenge to "mindfulness" is that there are many different practices, including meditation. There are also many different meditation practices, each with specific intended outcomes - attention, awareness, relaxation, compassion. lLike any skill, effective demonstration improves with practice, as do intended outcomes. Meditation and mindfulness are not magic - but are skills that improve with practice.

Sue,

I've been a zen buddists practioners now for nearly 13 years, 1/2 hour in morning, 1/2 in the evening, and for many years a 4 hour zazen once a week. 10 minutes is hardly a "meditation", that's meerly enough time to realize how truly disordered your mind actually is, and guided meditation doesn't quite have much of a benefit as self disciplined meditation. I write code for a living, and quite to the contrary of what you found in your narrow survey, sunyata meditation has paid me huge dividends when it come to singleness of purpose, zeal, and attention to detail. Code can be hugely monotonous, and it gives me the patience I need to full fill the goal without having to fixate on the outcome. I work more efficiently. Might be better if you test "real meditators" takes years of discipline... Not 10 minutes!!! Lol

Nancy,

This is a very poorly conducted study – it used just one meditation session (that lasted only for a few minutes!) in order to “induce” mindfulness! This is like trying to “induce” fitness in people by asking them to run around the block once!
New York Times had a ‘letters to the editor’ (critical) section on this. It provides some good criticisms of this published article – one can google “New York Times letters to the editor Practicing Mindfulness in the Workplace: Does It Help?” to locate it.

Dan,

Strongly disagree. Beyond the obvious methodological deficiencies of the "research" this is based on (see previous comments), the base assumption is both wrong and misleading. Living in the now and accepting the moment for what it is (my poor attempt at phrasing the basic concept of mindfulness) does not mean - and should be portrayed as meaning - adopting a passive, defeatist attitude towards life, your place in it and your aspirations and abilities to make things happen. Quite the contrary - mindfulness, meditation, and various other paths all aimed in the same direction actually help one (and this is from personal experience) to deal with big, daunting, complex challenges by enabling one to accept the reality of the situation calmly and deal with things as they arise, without undue stress or anxiety. Seems clear the authors have understood little of what mindfulness/meditation is really all about - and that's a shame, for them and their readers.

NDJ,

The practice of mindfulness and the concepts involved in mindfulness is much more in-depth, rich and complex than these individual’s very simple intellectual interpretation of it. It is only through actually practising mindfulness that one can appreciate the intricacies involved.

We need to remember that mindfulness does not reject thinking about the future “at all costs.” Mindfulness is about being aware of whatever comes up in the present moment – so, if a thought relating to the future comes up (it could be a motivating thought), one can be mindful of that (and even propagate that if it is a useful thought), and that represents the ‘present moment’ at that moment. Practising mindfulness this way prevents one from acting on impulses. Research has shown that mindfulness greatly reduces rumination, which is a significant risk factor for almost all mental disorders.

Additionally, in this study, the people in the control group should have been given a simple relaxation exercise rather than telling to ‘not let their minds wander’ - this instruction would have interrupted their ruminating thoughts, and does not represent a good control condition.

clara mota,

I agree with Dan, there a misunderstanding about what is Mindfulness...
Mindfulness, was according to the teachings of The Buddha a method to help people keep the right conduct, to avoid causing problems to themselves and others. Mindfulness, is an exercise that when practised daily, helps people to be mindful of what goes in their mind and body by putting people in a calm environment so that they can watch their thoughts and understand why they arise and scan their bodies to understand where they have tension or other sensations, why they arise and to eliminate the tension.
The daily training will lead people to develop this hability in any situation and almost in auto pilot, and beeing mindful of their thoughts they can manage their emotions without just simply reacting and japardising their lives. The body scan exercise will allow people to correct tension postures and stop the fight or flight mode when not needed by relaxing. That's why people might answer to situations in a calm manner but not necessarily un motivated.

David,

I believe the authors have asked an important question that will inspire more research. However, in many years as a coach and counsellor to physicians, surgeons and residents where mindfulness has been used to alleviate stress, I have yet to see it reduce motivation. In fact, the result has been increased energy and creativity when used on a regular basis. Willingness to undertake hard work never appears to be a problem for this group.

Frederick,

A key variable in this analysis is time. How long did the alleged lack of motivation last-5 minutes, 5 hours, etc?

Kwame,

Great Article. But consider the mindfulness exercise as your first time doing aerobics. You will be tired and disoriented for the first day because you have introduced your body to a whole new experience that it needs to adjust and see the benefit that it will bring it. The Aerobics prepares your body for a longterm fitness but on the short term it does the opposite because you will feel sick and have your body aching. Such is a Mindfulness exercise. At the beginning it relaxes you such that your brains go to sleep. It makes you understanding that your brain is tired and at that moment you just need to relax, drain your brain and give it a fresh start. The mistake we make is when we allow the person to return to work immediately after that exercise. This is an exercise that is most preffered for workers that needs to take some leave. HRs are to take such employees through that exercise and allow them to go on a vacation as part of their annual leave to complete the process. That is when the real effect of it would be realised. Complementing mindfulness training with Aerobics is perfect because a weak body makes the brain tired too. So both can Complement each other to work out the brain and the body to fully function efficiently.

Sandyshore,

When people first begin to meditate, feeling sleepy is a major problem. So, in this study, with such a brief time on meditation, the chances are these people would have felt sleepy and lazy and that explains very well the results they found!!!

udappk,

Well people spend hours and hours a day to master something or get results but you are expecting meditation to show results in 10 min of meditation session LOL. You people are so funny..

Nancy,

Just think of it - if mindfulness was so demotivating, we wouldn’t expect someone like Steve Jobs (for whom meditation was a very important part of his life) to have become motivated enough to found a company that ultimately became the first trillion dollar company in the US!

[By the way, this highly ignorant study is reported today in BBC as well! (article titled “What you are getting wrong about mindfulness!”)].

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