This article was written by Megan Reitz and originally published on May 5, 2015 on www.ashridge.org.uk/insights
There is much about mindfulness in the media, GPs are prescribing the practice, it’s on the Government’s agenda and a plethora of benefits are being extolled by a range of experts for people’s professional as well as personal lives.
The Lancet medical journal recently reported that mindfulness-based therapy could offer a ‘new choice for millions of people’ with recurrent depression, The Financial Times has described mindfulness as a ‘quiet revolution…gripping the City of London’, claiming that ‘fast-paced financiers are turning to “mindfulness”’. A Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary group is working to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society and the workplace, and the meditative practice with Buddhist roots has already been adopted by big business, including KPMG, Google and GlaxoSmithKline.
Previous research, although still limited in work contexts, suggests that people who practise mindfulness at work report an improved ability to communicate clearly and a better ability to handle workplace conflict; they respond more appropriately to stressful situations, show greater self-awareness and perhaps operate more creatively.
So what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘The Godfather’ of secular mindfulness training who first developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines it as ‘a way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non- judgementally.’ It’s about being in the moment, aware of yourself, others and the world around you. People who are more mindful know what their body is sensing, and they know what they are thinking and feeling. It is also about being kinder to ourselves, about recognising that negative internal chatter can be observed, and then changing that for the better.
It’s increasingly accepted that being hyper-busy isn’t necessarily aligned with being efficient and productive at work. Forget multi-tasking – focusing on one task at a time improves your productivity and accuracy. Everyone has responded to an email while being on a conference call, or sitting in a meeting, more concerned about another project with a tight deadline than the topic being intently discussed. But this inevitably impacts on your ability to focus, absorb information and really relate to people.
Here are five ways to make mindfulness part of your working life:
1. Undertake a daily mindfulness practice.
Research has shown that daily meditation practice actually changes the structure of the brain. But don’t expect to achieve these encouraging results if you don’t practice.
A useful daily practice is to find a quiet place, and set aside at least 10 minutes. Start by becoming aware of your body and sense how every part feels, moving slowly from your feet up to your head. Is there any tension in the body? Often being aware of the tension is enough to help you relax and adapt your posture to release stress.
As you do this exercise, acknowledge thoughts as they come up without judging them one way or another and then return your focus back to your breath and body. When your mind wanders, notice where it goes (for example, a looming deadline, a difficult meeting) and then bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t wrestle your mind’s natural urge to wander, but train it to return to the present. There’s no point in fighting with your own mind – that just makes things worse. Understand that thoughts come and go; that is just part of being human.
For some guided meditations to help you get started see Michael Chaskalson’s recordings.
2. Take a regular mindful minute.
Count the number of breaths you take when you are relaxed in one minute. Then, when you feel under pressure, pause, focus in and replicate this number of breaths at the same pace.
Breathing can help focus your awareness on the present. The breath is a mindfulness tool that you have on hand at all times. Pay particularly close attention to your breathing before an important meeting or when you’re feeling intense emotions. For example, if you are under pressure and you feel your stress levels rising, and you’re just about to respond to a curt email with a similarly, abrupt, brusque retort, don’t press ‘send’. Instead, stop for just a minute and pay attention, on purpose, to your breath.
3. Commit to doing one regular activity mindfully a day.
This could be waiting for the train, making your first cup of tea at work, routine filing or photocopying. While you are doing that take the opportunity to notice your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Be present.
4. Practise mindful relating.
Pick a conversation and practise being really ‘present’ with the other person. 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 the person in front of you right now. Notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations whilst you listen – you may realise that you connect and empathise so much more with the other person which they are likely to really appreciate.
This practice can be particularly useful when engaging in challenging or potentially emotional conversations at work. All workplaces are characterised by high-pressure and tensions sometimes – empathising through mindfulness can help staff feel valued, promote rebound and release stress.
5. Take a walk outside without your phone to give yourself ‘headspace’ and help de-clutter your mind.
Getting up and moving around can encourage you to become more focused and mindful of the present. If possible, take a break in a park or other natural surroundings. Pay attention to your walking by slowing your pace more than usual, and really feel the ground against your feet. Take the time to focus to how you feel and how your body is moving.
Although you should leave your phone for this exercise, technology can also be invaluable in helping you to make mindfulness practice easier as there are a number of apps designed to help you with your mindfulness practice, see below for examples.
Megan Reitz researches, teaches and consults in the areas of leadership, organisational change and personal development. She is a member of the Ashridge Open Programme Management Team and leads The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge and Leading on Purpose; Mindful leadership for a Complex World programmes.