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Is mindfulness demotivating? Yes – according to the latest research reported in HBR

An interesting new study reported in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, calls into question the benefits of mindfulness on personal performance.  Andrew Hafenbrack, Assistant Professor at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, had some subjects meditate for 15 minutes while others took a break to read the news or think about their lives.  After this he asked both groups to perform a task, such as editing a letter.  Before each started, he asked them questions about their motivation to do it and how much time they would spend on it.  Fascinatingly, the meditators felt less inclined to do the task and that they would devote less time to it.

Statistically, the motivation level of those that practiced mindfulness was 10% less than those that hadn’t.  However, important to note was that despite their lack of inclination, those that had been mindful, completed their tasks just as well as the control group.  Even 14 versions of the experiment were conducted, in every one the meditators performed the task just as well and in one case, they even did it better.

What is surprising according to Hafenbrack is that some 500 studies on goal setting shows a correlation between motivation and performance – the more motivated, the better performance.

The reason he believes they were at odds in his study is that mediators were less focussed on the future and more relaxed which should have impacted performance.  But, some elements of their experience were actually beneficial to it.  Meditating gave them a break from stress, obligations and worries which helped them concentrate on the task better.  It would appear that the negative impact of reduced motivation and the positive effect of increased focus cancelled each other out.

Asked whether he would get rid of mindfulness programmes at companies, Hafenbrack says no. “Given all the other benefits, that would be the worst reaction.  Mindfulness helps you take control of your life by noticing the world around you as it is and what’s going on inside yourself so that you can make an intentional decision about what to do, rather than avoiding reality or reacting automatically to issues that come up.  We need mindfulness.”