If you’re still in ‘new year, new you’ mode, chances are that you may have committed to embracing some form of mindfulness this year. Perhaps you’re taking up meditation or perhaps you are going to put down your devices and spend more time reflecting. Mindfulness is a trend that has been around for some time and it’s one that is set to stay for a while longer.
In our hyper-busy, always-on work lives, it appears to offer the panacea for calm and order. However, mindfulness is no quick fix and while its benefits have been proven to help people deal better with stress, improve decision making and enhance emotional intelligence, the challenge in developing a habit of mindfulness is so difficult that many of us give up before we have really begun.
The reality of mindfulness is that the very thing that drives us to seek it out can often be the thing that gets in our way.
Our frantic lives push meditation down the pecking order when we could write just one more email. Being mindful is not easy. True mindfulness is a practice that takes a commitment of time and regularity, and many of us are just not willing to make the changes to our lives to create the space it needs, preferring to press snooze rather than get up 30 minutes earlier to fit yoga into our day.
The very thing that drives us to seek it out can often be the thing that gets in our way.
If you buy into the benefits, but are aware of your limits, thinking of mindfulness more as a series of actions and less as a lifelong practice may be a more useful approach. These mindful actions may not be as wholly transformative, but they are more likely to stick in the short term and they will set you on the right path.
Make space to think
A few mornings a week, I get to the office at 7:30am, shut myself in a room and work on one project or activity solidly until 9am when the meetings start in earnest. You might need to put some structure around your day for this to work for you, for example asking for help with childcare in the morning or blocking out the time so meetings don’t creep in when people know you are in the office.
It’s important to create this time to think when your brain is most engaged – for some that will be first thing and for others that will be later in the day. For more ideas on this action, Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great source.
Focus in three minutes
Busyness can be overwhelming and affect our ability to prioritise on the most important things that create value for the companies we work for. Meditation is one way you can get this clarity, but if you struggle to find the time or create the habit, asking yourself three quick questions at the start of the day can help to bring some focus back.
What did I achieve yesterday? What was I grateful for yesterday? What does success look like today?
Ask and Listen
An important concept of mindfulness is active listening. Listening to one thing without your mind wandering to your to-do list is becoming increasingly challenging. One way this really affects us at work is in our conversations with other people.
How often do you find yourself asking ‘how are things?’ without genuinely caring or listening to the answer? If this feels like you, try setting yourself a daily task of asking one person ‘how are you?’ and genuinely taking the time to listen to their response. Reflect on what the person shares with you and how it makes you feel and try to build it as a habit.
Make a stress log
One of the things that can get in the way of any efforts to increase mindfulness is the extent to which we allow stress to creep into our lives. It is worth understanding your default response to stress, and the Stress Responder Scale from Good Think Inc. is a good free tool to explore this.
Once you know how you personally are responding to stress, it’s worth spending some time understanding the triggers so you can try to take some control back over your responses. One way of doing this is to keep a ‘stress log’. For one month, score each day out of 10 with how stressed you feel and fill in the gaps in the following sentence: “Today I felt ______________ because ______________”.
After one month, look back on your commentary to see what consistencies are present. Sharing these insights with a trusted colleague can help you to generate ideas and develop an action plan to help make a change. For example, I worked with someone who learned from this process that the school drop-off was a key stress trigger that affected the rest of her day.
She put in place a rule where she had a 30-minute gap between arriving in the office and her first meeting of the day. This created some space between the two activities and meant she could ensure she was calm and focused as she embarked on her work day.
Just do one thing
One of our most common ‘mindlessness’ habits comes from our addiction to multitasking. Whether it’s checking our emails in meetings or watching notifications pop up on our phones, we all do it and in some cases, the pace of our work necessities it – but not all the time.
As well as making space to think, you can reduce the distractions by putting some blockers in place. Turn off your phone notifications, limit email checking to once an hour, don’t take your phone into meetings in the first place. All of these things are likely to feel uncomfortable as your addiction to immediacy and distraction fights back, but remember that being constantly busy is not a reflection on the value you are creating and actually diminishes your overall impact.
Overtime, these actions can build into a powerful practice that will enable you to be happier and more effective at work.
Helen Tupper is marketing director at Microsoft DX and founder of Amazing If.