Staying focused on a task you know needs to be completed should be easy, right? It’s on the to-do list and once you are able to cross it off, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Well, for most of us it’s not that easy. My phone has a little light that blinks at me when I get a notification. It’s like an eye that stares until I cave into the pressure.
Maybe what you’re doing is important, but something you’d rather not be doing at the moment. In school, this was an everyday reality. Luckily, there are many ways that we can increase our ability to pay attention to the task at hand.
One of these has been heavily studied and is an interesting, round-about way to increase focus that I had never heard of it until I was doing research for another article. What I am referring to is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
MBSR pulls tactics from many ancient practices but was largely brought to the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. In short, MBSR was developed to help people live happier, healthier and more adaptive lives  through helping people live in the present, utilizing exercises such as meditation, yoga, and other practices . The goal is for you to be fully “awake” and in control of your life rather than aimlessly wandering about.
“The consequence of enhanced mindfulness is a shift from non-awareness and automatic, habitual behaviors and stress responses to conscious awareness and effective, deliberate action”
We will go more in-depth on specific practices later, but let’s first explore some of the research. Early studies showed that it did what it was intended for; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving overall well-being . The benefits that meditation can have on our psyche are very well known (head here for more information on mindfulness meditation), however, further research started producing some more unique results.
Researchers started to test the effects that the training had on other aspects of our day-to-day life, one of which was focus, otherwise known as attentional control. The results were stunning. Immediately after MBSR training, older adults were found to have made significant improvements in visual attentional control as well as executive control, especially when performing complex tasks. Executive control can be thought of as your brain’s flexibility and processing power.
These results aren’t limited to older adults. Another study showed the same amazing results among young and middle-aged participants as well . Across the board, it seems as if MBSR can significantly help to increase your attentional control and strengthen your mind.
“MBSR improved the ability to orient attention, and direct and focus attention on relevant inputs”
We now know that this training can help people of all ages, but if you’re still not convinced, let’s see how MBSR holds up to a bit more of an extreme environment. One of the most stressful activities that I can think of is being in live combat. You have tremendously taxing training and the enemy is actively trying to take your life all while you are separated from your loved ones by thousands of miles.
Researchers showed that without any mindfulness training, active-duty military members had a gradual and significant decrease of working memory capacity throughout their enlistment. However, personnel who actively participated in MBSR actually saw an increase in working memory capacity .
“ mindfulness training was associated with an increase in working memory capacity, defined as the capacity to selectively sustain and manipulate task-relevant information without becoming distracted by irrelevant information.”
Working memory capacity can be broadly defined as your ability to focus attention along with your cognitive processing power. This is important for everyone especially military members or really anyone who is looking for peak cognitive performance.
Besides the common benefits that meditation has on our psyche and wellbeing, how does MBSR specifically help us to increase our focus and brain power? Well, there are two interesting routes we can examine: physical changes to the brain and mentality changes.
Let’s start with how MBSR has been studied to change us emotionally. One group of researchers found that in addition to enhanced focus and the ability to control where attention is directed, patients became more mindful and, like the name implies, saw a reduction in their stress .
As a result of being more mindful, I would imagine that priorities would become much more clear which might be followed by a realization on how futile it is to check your social media in the middle of an important task. It has also been hypothesized that simply relieving your mind of stress and anxiety allows the brain to function properly, allowing the ability to enhance focus and mind power.
In addition to this, MBSR has been shown to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and general emotional control .
The physiological changes to the brain amazed me when I first read the research. This is where things really get interesting. Scientists found that after just 8 weeks of MBSR, grey matter in the brain increased significantly in the left hippocampus among a few other regions .
Grey matter contains neurons located near the surface of the brain and is responsible for processing information from the central nervous system. It also contains glial cells which transport nutrients and energy molecules to neurons. The hippocampus is the emotional processing plant in our brains along with regulating wakefulness, vigilance, muscle response and heart rate.
“The adult nervous system has the capacity for plasticity, and the structure of the brain can change in response to training… [and] such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”
Just practicing MBSR for 8 weeks actually changed the shape and composition of the brain in an extremely significant way.
By this point, I am sure you are 100% ready to embark on your mindfulness-based stress reduction journey. Let’s go into the details on how you can participate in the practice and see some of the same results.
First off, it would be disingenuous of me to act like you can significantly enhance your focus and change the physical composition of your brain with an “easy 5-minute MBSR hack” or something of the sort. This practice is fairly intense and will take some of your time every day.
However, I am hoping that the proven results will serve as motivation to push you through it and hopefully it will become something you enjoy as many do. There are many in-person or online courses that you can participate in to help guide you through, but if that isn’t what you’re looking for or if you don’t have access, I’ll give you some ways to try this at home.
Practicing MBSR is very flexible and there are many different methods you can use. Below are some of the most common techniques, though you can find many more through a quick search of the internet. Everyone is different, so choose what works for you and do it. Dedicating 30 minutes to an hour is about the amount of time you should be spending on this if you want to mimic what the methods used in many of the studies.
This list incorporates just a few of your many options to practice MBSR. My favorites are walking meditation, mindful stretching, and lifting weights. These are easy to incorporate into my day and give the added benefit of staying fit and flexible. Just remember to stay in the present moment within any activity you choose and stay consistent. These are the two biggest factors for success.
In addition to these two important reminders, there are a few other principles that are universally true to make MBSR successful:
And finally, here are some attitudes for success from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself:
With everything that has been said, I hope that you will be willing to at least try MBSR to see what it can do for you. The risk is low, but the potential for a stronger mind and improving well-being is high. So, pick a few practices that sound enjoyable and doable and get after it.
 Moynihan, Jan A., et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults: Effects on Executive Function, Frontal Alpha Asymmetry and Immune Function.” Neuropsychobiology, vol. 68, no. 1, 2013, pp. 34–43., doi:10.1159/000350949.