Mindfulness, the lubricant for enhanced learning and retention

When you think of the benefits of mindfulness, what comes to mind? Being present? Reducing stress? Quieting your thoughts? Yes, yes and yes. And now we have evidence that mindfulness puts learners in an optimal engagement and retention zone.

Think about all of the continuous improvement that most careers require (thank goodness!). There are certifications, licenses, continuing education, sensitivity training, safety training, etc. that employees are required to complete to maintain or advance their careers. And then there are all of the courses, conferences, webinars, seminars, and degrees employees elect to pursue to enhance their careers and to add value to their employers.

Consider this: organizations spend a whopping $24 billion on leadership development programs (Bersin, 2014). Regrettably, once they’ve completed these programs, leaders have a tough time implementing what they’ve learned. Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the UNSW Sydney Business School in Australia found that leaders who are in “learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers” (Keating et al., 2017). “Learning mode” leaders bring a mindfulness approach that incorporates 1) commitment to a specific goal (“I need to learn to…”); 2) the willingness to experiment with alternative behaviors (perhaps simply sitting in a new spot or speaking last if they usually speak first); and 3) honestly evaluating how their changed-behavior worked and didn’t work. The study’s authors suggest that just asking oneself the simple question “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful mindfulness prompt to fully focus on actions that foster leadership development and improved performance.

Providing continuous learning opportunities—beyond required trainings–-for all levels of employees, not just leaders, is a hallmark of best-in-class organizations. What if an organization which is investing in training, both in terms of cost and time, could get more bang for the buck, literally, with an accessible, straightforward tactic that increases the effectiveness and maximizes the learning experience? Mindfulness is that tactic. Another task-learning study, measuring two groups of amateur dart throwers, showed that the performance those who had engaged in mindfulness activities was statistically higher in comparison to the control group (Zhang et al., 2016).

Another study, similar results. Cognitive tasks like focused-attention meditation, in this case a yoga nidra meditation technique, improved subjects’ performance in motor sequence learning, as compared to those who did not meditate. For this experiment, subjects’ responses to a spatially mapping exercise in a software platform were measured. Probably not as much fun as darts for the participants but the results were similar: cognitive control of sequence learning can be affected by prior meditation sessions (Chan et al., 2017 ).

The growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness in a host of learning environments with all different types of subjects, from executives to college freshman to young professionals (in these three studies alone) is compelling. It gives credibility to the theory that even brief intervals of mindfulness optimize the learning experience.


Bersin, Josh. (2014) Spending on corporate training soars: employee capabilities now a priority. Forbes.

Chan, Russell W., Immink, Maarten A., & Lushington, Kurt. (2017) The influence of focused-attention meditation states on the cognitive control of sequence learning. Consciousness and Cognition

Keating, Lauren A., Heslin, Peter A., & Ashford, Susan J. (2017)  Good leaders are good learners. Harvard Business Review.

Zhang, Chun-Qing,  Si, Gangyan, Duan, Yanping, Lyu Yaojun, Keatley, David A., & Chan Derwin K.C. (2016) The effects of mindfulness training on beginners' skill acquisition in dart throwing: A randomized controlled trial. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.  


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