A study from the University of Washington Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock suggests that meditation training can help people working with information stay on tasks longer with fewer distractions and also improves memory and reduces stress.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore how meditation might affect multitasking in a realistic work setting,” Levy says.

Three groups each of 12-15 human resources personnel were tested: (1) those who underwent an 8-week training course on mindfulness-based meditation, (2) those who endured a wait period, were tested, and then underwent the same 8-week training, and (3) those who had 8-weeks of training in body relaxation

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities using email, calendars, instant messaging, telephone and word-processing to perform common office tasks.

Researchers measured participants speed, accuracy, and the extent to which they switched tasks; along with participants self-reporting on levels of stress and memory.

The results were significant: The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test while those in the control group or who received only relaxation training did not; and the control group also reported lower stress once given the same meditation training.

The meditation training helped participants concentrate longer and make fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance. In addition, both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed.

Levy says, “We are encouraged by these first results. While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments.”

The study notes “Meditation is already being introduced into the modern office in the hope that it can effect positive changes in worker performance and well-being.” [(2003) Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (4), 564-570.9].

The study offers some support for such interventions, suggesting that they may lead to improved memory and reduced stress.

Read the full research paper here