Mala beads serve as a tactile reminder during meditation and chanting. In many Eastern traditions chanting and prayer is done in certain numbers. By running the beads through your fingers as you chant you’re able to keep track of how many times you have chanted or prayed to a specific deity.
Today a lot of people use them in prayer and meditation because it helps to calm the “monkey mind” that many people have to combat in meditation. While some people can easily quiet the mind to focus for meditation, many others can’t. So having the beads to keep the mind and hands busy can help with keeping focus.
They also help us to remember to breathe during our meditations. If you’re not chanting, and your goal is to just focus and clear the mind you can use them to track your breath by inhaling with one bead and exhaling as you move to the next and so on.