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Is there any evidence for Buddhist meditation practices increasing productivity for software developers? Just from my own experience it seems like it does but I'm just interested into other experiences or evidence, anecdotal of otherwise. If I can try to clarify this further

  1. Is there any research on this?
  2. Are software companies using meditation techniques at all to help their employees? If so, what reasons do they give for this?
  3. Does anyone have reasonable compelling evidence for this from their own experience?
  4. If I can broaden this a little - what about related professions? - ones that require sustained concentration and maybe a little creativity. Do they use meditation techniques at all?

If I can just share my motivation for asking this. I'm considering giving a lightening talk at a local software user group on this topic and I just want a broader idea of what kind of evidence there is around this kind of thing. If it seems like there is something there then I will probably throw my hat it the ring and give the talk. If it just my own personal experience I probably won't. I don't want to give the talk it it is entirely unsupported.

  • 1
    This article prompted me to look on the Skeptics site to see what evidence there is. The question (about "what kind of evidence there is around this kind of thing") is partially answered here. – ChrisW Jan 1 '15 at 21:16
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There's an old (2004) article from the CBC: INDEPTH: MEDITATION The Pursuit of Happiness

It includes:

  • Using an MRI to test monks who are meditating
  • Using meditation to help olympic athletes and stressed-out office workers
  • Meditation courses being offered by hospitals (e.g. St. Joseph's in Toronto)

One way to look at it would be from the point of view of stress: if meditation helps cope with stress, and if the job is stressful, then meditation helps with the job, am I right?

But IDK whether a company might admit whether their employees are subject to stress?

I remember Tom DeMarco's The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management (1997) included the claim/observation that, "People under pressure don't think any faster."

For anecdotes about the connection between stress, problem solving, and concentration, you might find some large percentage of developers (and research scientists/engineers) have had or remember the experience of "seeing the solution to a problem" when they "stop thinking about the problem". I remember puzzling over a bug during one afternoon, and then more-or-less suddenly "seeing" the cause of it after I left work and was walking home and enjoying the day (weather and landscape) outside.

That seems to be so common-place that it could be an archetypal way of problem solving: you have a problem, so, you go out for a walk, ...

I found it noticeable with cigarettes too, when I used to smoke: feel stressed at work, step outside for a smoke, feel destressed, inevitably therefore see the solution i.e. what I need to do to solve the problem or at least what I needed to try next, step back inside to my computer to do that.

BTW "productivity" is IMO notoriously difficult to measure in software developers: because people don't know what to measure; and you don't usually have teams and people working on several identical (comparable) software problems; and choosing specific metrics distorts behaviours (joke reference).

So arguing via stress (meditation => stress => productivity) might be easier to "prove" than a direct link (meditation => productivity).


Here's a possible anecdote/joke for someone who objects to people "doing nothing" while at work.

This guy is in his office (an office! you can tell it's old story...), sitting back in his chair with his feet up on the desk. His manager walks past, looks in the door, sees him sitting like that (instead of, you know, working) and asks,

  • "What are doing?"
  • "I'm thinking."
  • "Thinking? Can't you do that at home?"
  • I like the quote, "People under pressure don't think any faster"- A person may have a tight deadline but that doesn't mean he or she allows themselves to feel pressured. – Parag Nov 23 '14 at 3:30
  • @Sisyphus Perhaps you mean that a skillful person doesn't allow themselves to feel pressured; and that (worst case) any undue pressure (stress) may cause another person (who has less skill for coping with stress) to think (i.e. work productively) more slowly (less efficiently). – ChrisW Nov 23 '14 at 13:27
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I'm a software developer and practiced different kinds of meditation (first - sit for 5-10 minutes with open eyes and pay attention to inhaling and exhaling, second - 16th Karmapa meditation in the Diamond way Buddhism).

From my subjective experience I can say that (other things being equal), on average, I am more productive on days, where I do meditation in the morning than on days when I don't.

By "more productive" I mean

  1. that I solve problems faster (the day of a software developer consists of making solving big and small problems/decisions) and
  2. am less distracted by e-mail, Facebook etc.

Also, I have the impression that meditation in the morning allows me to better concentrate in a loud environment (i. e. I can easier focus on my work, when I'm surrounded by lot of talking people, whom I don't like). Same applies to situations, where I am exposed to stress.

Once in a while meditation (once in 3-4 weeks) leads to a productivity breakdown. This happens, when I discover some information about me (which you didn't realize/notice earlier). Usually, this information is a) embarassing (I've been doing ... wrong all my life!) and b) helpful in my development (you can only fix bugs, which you know exist - this applies to the mental hardware as well).

In my opinion, you can test the hypothesis "meditation increases my productivity" using at least two experiments:

Experiment 1: Productive time per week

  1. Start tracking the time, when you are doing something useful (there are lots of fine tools out there, including those, which run on mobile devices).
  2. Collect data on the average productive time for several weeks.
  3. Start meditating and continue to track time.

Once you have enough data, you can use statistical methods to find out, if there is a difference in productivity and if that difference is significant.

Experiment 2: Accomplished tasks per week

  1. Create a spreadsheet with 3 columns: Date, Task completed, Subjective size & complexity of the task (e. g. "small", "medium", "big").
  2. Whenever you accomplish something useful during a week, add a record to that spreadsheet.
  3. Gather data on your weekly productivity (in terms of number of small, medium and large tasks accomplished during a week) without meditation.
  4. Do the same thing, when you regularly meditate.
4

Many people aren't aware that software developing and programming also requires creativity when at an impasse. When I get stuck, I want to try harder to solve the problem and get it over with (almost in a forceful way) which usually makes things worse. I notice that my eyes fatigue much faster and I get a sense of generalized restlessness. My body wants me to take a break but my mind wants the problem solved.

Even if you don't have the will to meditate at this point simply getting up and doing something will work wonders. When John von Neaumann was working on the Manhattan project, the breakthrough occurred to him when he was stepping off a bus. During these ordinary moments when we are separate from the problem, we have the most freedom to solve the problem, and although just getting up from the computer may not be beneficial as sleep or extended meditation, thinking about the problem on the couch away from the computer works great. By that time you've learned enough about the problem to think about it while not physically at the computer.

2

I like all the other answers (less so the one saying try two approaches to measuring your productivity, but that is my bent), and I wanted to say something else as a former software developer:

Spiritual practices are to get yourself out of the way. Pitching it to others is like saying: "here, let me help you get rid of yourself, you will feel so much better (and be more productive too!)" I realized at some point that the best I could do as a developer was to create a system for building applications that did not require programmers. I did that. Fortunately, nobody took me seriously in my quest to eliminate my own position. Eventually, my position was no longer needed and I went on to run a retreat center, then when I was no longer needed there, I went on to something else. Later, I misplaced myself, and now I feel so much better!

Are you feeling uplifted? Did I sell you on the project of making life so much better for everyone? All I can do is stand here and be an advertisement for overcoming self, but that is not a product most people will ever want. I suggest you keep your realizations to yourself (ha ha). If anyone wants to know, they will ask, as they see your face day in and out, being... nobody. And that is just fine.

I think I have addressed your "real" motivation for asking your question. Please let me know if I did not.

  • I wonder what you mean with "misplaced". – eric Mar 17 '15 at 22:00
  • Eric, I had an experience that left me without a self, beyond just mastering ego. Not much changes when that happens, except there is less drama. Still things to learn, still interactions, experiences, "textures", as Deborah Westmoreland says. Still a "character", but not to get caught up in. It is simply a natural course of development, nothing to work at or attain. It is inevitable. Not special at all, any more than growing is. "Who by thinking can add one inch to his height?" I created a SE proposal for Nonduality, you might want to check it out. – user2341 Mar 18 '15 at 13:17
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I'll present a counterpoint, maybe adding to what @no_comprende wrote. It's about my personal experience, and probably a consequence of not meditation alone, but also Buddhist philosophy.

After I started meditating my productivity in LoC/day lowered, and I don't solve problems faster, and not even more tasks per week are accomplished.

But in the other hand, I started to think more carefully, trying to be more aware of program states, of side effects, of bad code interactions, of unexpected use case conflicts. I started to test more, and I usually don't "turn a blind eye" to problems without taking note of it (commenting or registering a task).

Put in short, I became more defensive and I started thinking in a more attentive way. Instead of just completing more features, fixing more bugs and thinking in a rush, I began to try to be more aware of what I do.

Thankfully my bosses allow it, and seemingly they support it.

  • Do this sound like I'm showing off "my accomplishments?" Maybe my answer is not very appropriate for this site. What do you think? – eric Mar 17 '15 at 22:02
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    Eric, I was in a similar situation to you as a programmer. I did more planning, which saved time in writing, and even more time straightening out problems later. Most of my stuff was back-end, didn't have much of a UI anyway, so that is the best approach. Eventually I saw that my goal was to do as little as possible (not selfishly). Most of the things people do are completely unnecessary. When I realized that, I didn't see a need to be a programmer anymore. I was dinged for apparently showing off on this site, but I was not. I suggest you ignore that. "What is necessary is never unwise." – user2341 Mar 18 '15 at 13:12

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