The Science Scoop: Are you focused on the doing or the achieving in meditation?

Whenever we pursue a new activity, we’re often focused on the goal that activity is set to achieve.  For example, in the case of meditation, we often come to the practice with the hope, expectation or goal that it will achieve a desired outcome; less stress, more joy, overall improved health, etc.  That’s normal.  

However, two researchers from the University of Chicago, Fishbach and Choi, were able to demonstrate how our motivation to pursue and to stick with an activity is impacted by how we attend to the activity. 

Let me explain…

So, in their study, they took a group of 103 people at the university gym and divided them into 2 groups.  Prior to beginning their exercise session, in which they would plan and engage in different exercise activities, the groups were led to have a different focus during their workout.  

The first group was first asked about their goals for working out.  These were broader, end-term goals they had like losing weight, or gaining muscle mass, or “being healthier”.   This group was then instructed to keep their end goal in mind as they worked out.  The second group was asked to think about and describe their workout experience as they went through each of the activities.  

In essence, the two groups were told to look at their workout as either instrumental or experiential

What they found was that the first group had a harder time staying motivated throughout their workout, and did much less than they’d planned.  They’d been instructed to see working out as the instrument to achieve their goal, e.g. losing weight, being healthier.  The second group, on the other hand, often engaged longer in the workout activities they’d planned, were much more motivated, and felt much better about themselves and the experience.  They’d been instructed to focus on the experience of working out, rather than the end goal. 

With the end-goal as focus, the first group set themselves up in such a way that the activity felt more like a chore, a means to an end, deflating their motivation and actually having the effect of decreasing their chances of reaching their goal.  Whereas, the second group, focused on the activity itself, was able to stay motivated and focused on the task at hand, in effect increasing their chances of actually reaching an end-goal.  

Fishbach and Choi then replicated this process with groups participating in other activities, such as origami, dental flossing, and yoga, and their results remained consistent.  

This focus on the experiential (what we are experiencing right now) vs. the instrumental (what goal this activity helps me reach) in the case of meditation isn’t just applicable, but is at the heart of the instruction.  When we’re focused on the instrumentality of meditation, we can unknowingly set ourselves up for disappointment and decreased motivation when things don’t go “well”, or our experience doesn’t immediately match what we expect.  This also sets us up to feel bad about ourselves for our inability to achieve our desired end-goal. 

However, when we are focused on the activity itself, staying with the breath, allowing our experience to be as it is, coming back out of thought and into our bodies, we fail at nothing at all because we are doing just what we need to be doing, no matter the state of our minds or bodies.  This sets us up to truly be present, to be with our experience, and to actually achieve an overall greater sense of calm, presence and joy.  

So, you can start right now.  Bring your awareness to your breath as it animates the body.  Notice as it filters in through your nose, perceptible as a cool air, and flows out again, slightly warmer.  Notice how it causes the rise and fall of your chest and belly.  Follow the next breath. And again the next...without expectation...just this breath.

About me
I teach the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, and other meditation and mindfulness-based courses.  You can find out more by visiting: