The idea of being mindful — being aware and present, being more conscious of life as it happens — seems almost impossible to many of us.
Between work commitments, family obligations and life in general, it is hard to find time for ourselves (and to take that time seriously). This is especially relevant now, as we are more and more invested in our careers, constantly trying to push ourselves further and to achieve our goals quicker.
By the same token, as technology takes over more and more of our lives, the less we make time to recharge. This often affects the way we react and channel stress as well as our mental well-being and awareness of self. Practicing mindfulness can influence this.
“But what IS mindfulness?” might one ask. What does it mean? What does it entail? How can this really help me and others? How can I implement this at work and in life to be more productive and achieve more? Why should I encourage my staff to practice mindfulness and is it really effective?
Let’s look at it together shall we…
What Is Mindfulness?
To provide some context, mindfulness is the English translation of a Buddhist concept called “Samma Sati” in Pali, the original language believed to have been spoken in the region where the Buddha lived in northeast India 2,500 years ago.
“Samma Sati”, or Mindfulness, is defined as “the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
While this definition may inspire some, it doesn’t truly clarify what it means to be mindful in more realistic terms. In the spirit of clarity, let’s take our definition one step further.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness as:
“A state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”
With the above in mind, we can confidently state that Mindfulness at its core is the act of being aware: aware of our thoughts, aware of our emotions, aware of physical sensations and aware of others.
By paying attention and focusing on our feelings, our surroundings and sensations, we nurture greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of the present moment. Mindfulness allows us to take a moment to acknowledge what we feel and why, which is a proven method to reducing stress and anxiety. This is really important when we consider the detrimental impact stress has on the mind and its adverse effect on the body.
“Mindfulness at its core is the act of being aware: aware of our thoughts, aware of our emotions, aware of physical sensations & aware of others.”
Unfortunately, even though Mindfulness has become the buzz word of the moment, it is still largely misunderstood and is often confusing to people.
“Inevitably, the mind will wander, so in this type of meditation, practitioners have to vigilantly keep guiding their attention back to the breath. It’s hard for beginners not to feel like a failure because they find no matter how hard they try to focus on the breath, the mind jumps all over the place. This is what is called the “monkey mind.””
She found that the standard instructions to mindfulness don’t explain that the mind is supposed to wander. “In fact, researchers have found that the typical mind wanders within 12 seconds and hypothesize that mind wandering evolved as a way to give our executive functioning neural pathways a break to refuel and to allow creative insights to emerge to the surface of consciousness.”
“Mind wandering evolved as a way to give our executive functioning neural pathways a break to refuel and to allow creative insights to emerge to the surface of consciousness.”
Oftentimes, the instruction to pay attention to the breath tends to give people a misguided notion that mind wandering is a problem, so they start wrestling with their wandering minds. This struggle then becomes a distraction that may prevent a person from experiencing the essence of Mindfulness.
In order to avoid the distraction, one must exercise the mind to remain in the moment. It is about becoming familiar with how the mind wanders and accepting that we don’t actually control what unfolds inside our minds. It involves awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes and the ability to steer and regulate one’s thinking.
So now the question remains… how can we implement mindfulness in a real way so that it has impact? What concrete actions can one do in order to exercise the mind to remain present and not wonder? And finally, how can encouraging mindfulness at work benefit a business?
The Benefits of Mindfulness
In a world where our schedules never sleep, where “the pace of life is often frantic, our minds are always busy, and we’re always doing something”, mindfulness comes as a gentle friend to remind us that we deserve a break.
Instead of letting stress take over, it gives us the opportunity to take a step back and understand why we are anxious in the first place in order to turn it around for ourselves. This is extremely relevant in business as when our minds are too busy being frazzled and are not able to focus on a task, this results in productivity loss, loss of drive and meaning and the risk of burning out.
Other consequences of Stress include:
– Poor health (high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, psychological disorders), which leads to employees taking more sick leave and not being at the top of their game.
– Lower productivity (mental distractions, absenteeism).
– Lower team cooperation.
– Inability to focus.
– The feeling of being worn out.
By practicing mindfulness regularly, individuals can counteract stress, as well as the above consequences. Additionally, Mindfulness can also assist and better teamwork as well as leadership skills. With more and more businesses looking to instill a culture around collaboration, Mindfulness can help team members feel more connected to one another as well as improve empathy and understanding which leads to higher productivity.
With this atmosphere of openness comes the ability to discuss mistakes and learn from them rather than sweeping them under the rug.
Follow By Example
This all may sound too good to be true, yet Mindfulness is not a new concept. Already largely successful amongst many high-end companies such as Deutsche Bank, Nike, P&G, HBO and Ebay among others, encouraging mindfulness at work has become a proven solution to counteract stress and reinvigorate/take care of staff.
Even Google, which continues to be a leader when in comes to implementing innovative programs, has jumped on the bandwagon.
By encouraging their engineers and team members to be creative and tackle projects they are passionate about, Google was able to and continues to unleash an enormous amount of innovative ideas. In fact, the company purposely grants 20% of working time towards fostering innovation. By doing so, they opened the gates for one of their employees to create a mindfulness program that not only changed the face of their own company but initiated a worldwide movement.
“Encouraging mindfulness at work has become a proven solution to counteract stress and reinvigorate staff.”
Chade-Meng Tan, the program’s creator, is now called Google’s Jolly Good Fellow as during his creativity time he developed a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum. This curriculum is now hugely successful in both Google and other big companies who have chosen to implement it.
Meng’s aim was to create more harmony in the workplace, and in order to do so, he chose to pursue this by honing the power of Emotional intelligence. Considering EI is the ability to recognise one’s own and other people’s emotions and being able to deal with them accordingly, it was the perfect base for his mindfulness program, which is still to this day the highest ranking internal training program at Google.
Using Meng’s ideas, a program called “Search Inside Yourself” was developed which is based on brain science. Its aim is to increase emotional intelligence using mindfulness and employees can take courses to sharpen their attention skills.
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise one’s own and other people’s emotions and being able to deal with them accordingly.”
The course is divided into 3 parts: First, an attention training which means that attendants learn how to bring their mind to a place that is calm & clear in any situation. Secondly, self-knowledge is trained in order to control your emotions, and lastly, trainees learn to focus on creating mental habits that aim at making them happier and more fulfilled.
The experience shows that the approach works very well at Google and reports show positive impacts such as higher staff morale because employees are exposed to less stress and consequently are happier and have more positive feelings about their organisation. Additionally, the relationships between employees have improved, as people start to care for others. Consequently, productivity increases, people want to stay with the company long-term and have fewer sick days and so on…
Needless to say, if it works at Google, there is no reason for it not to work anywhere else. So what can you do to make your workplace a better place?
Encouraging Mindfulness at Work
Now that we know it is possible to encourage and instill mindfulness at work, what are steps that YOU can take to make your workplace better?
Whether it be by trialing the “Search Inside Yourself” program, implementing a meditation/relaxation room, organising yoga classes on site, creating incentives for employees to go out and exercise or even just letting employees know that it is OK to go outside for an extra 10 minutes or so during the day to shut off, there are many options to choose from that will suit any type of business.
“Make focusing or being present a habit.”
Wanting to try it out for yourself? Looking to implementing it in your business or pitch it to your colleagues?
Below are a couple of tips & tricks from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. He states that “the best method [he] can offer for learning to be present, the best method for practicing, is to focus on it for one month. Make focusing or being present a habit. If you make it your only focus, [he] guarantees you’ll get better at it, and more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of remembering to focus, of remembering to practice, of being more aware.”
The One Month Challenge
Do one thing at a time. Single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just pour water. When you’re eating, just eat. When you’re bathing, just bathe. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating or bathing or driving.
Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.
Do less. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping to think about what you do. But you’re busy and you can’t possibly do less, right? Yes, you can. I’ve done it, and so have many busy people. It’s a matter of figuring out what’s important, and letting go of what’s not.
Put space between things. Related to the “Do less” rule, but it’s a way of managing your schedule so that you always have time to complete each task. Don’t schedule things close together — instead, leave room between things on your schedule. That gives you a more relaxed schedule, and leaves space in case one task takes longer than you planned.
Spend at least 5 minutes each day doing nothing. Just sit in silence. Become aware of your thoughts. Focus on your breathing. Notice the world around you. Become comfortable with the silence and stillness. It’ll do you a world of good — and it just takes 5 minutes!
Stop worrying about the future – focus on the present. Become more aware of your thinking — are you constantly worrying about the future? Learn to recognize when you’re doing this, and then practice bringing yourself back to the present. Just focus on what you’re doing, right now. Enjoy the present moment.
When you’re talking to someone, be present. How many of us have spent time with someone but have been thinking about what we need to do in the future? Or thinking about what we want to say next, instead of really listening to that person? Instead, focus on being present, on really listening, on really enjoying your time with that person.
Eat slowly and savour your food. Food can be crammed down our throats in a rush, but where’s the joy in that? Savour each bite, slowly, and really get the most out of your food. Interestingly, you’ll eat less this way, and digest your food better as well.
Live slowly and savour your life. Just as you would savour your food by eating it more slowly, do everything this way — slow down and savour each and every moment. As I type this, for example, I have my 3-year-old daughter, Noelle, on my lap. She’s just sitting here quietly, as the rain pours down in a hush outside. What a lovely moment. In fact, I’m going to take a few minutes off just to be with her now. Be right back.
Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. Cooking and cleaning are often seen as drudgery, but are both actually great ways to practice mindfulness, and can be great rituals performed each day. If cooking and cleaning seem like boring chores to you, try doing them as a form of meditation. Put your entire mind into those tasks, concentrate, and do them slowly and completely. It could change your entire day (as well as leave you with a cleaner house).
Keep practicing. When you get frustrated, just take a deep breath. When you ask yourself, “What should I do now, the answer is “keep practicing”.
Even with practice, being mindful can often be difficult to muster independently. This is why it’s a great idea to implement the use of mindfulness apps and tools. If you need some guidance in your daily practice, the Calm mobile app is a great place to start.
If you are still not convinced, check out this TED Talk featuring Andy Puddicombe, who is a Mindfulness expert. It will change your life, so are you up for the challenge?