Being aware of our surroundings, showing sensitivity in certain situations, putting ourselves in others’ shoes – these all seem obvious things to do both in our professional and personal lives. But what is not so obvious is how being mindful – “being in the zone” – can help our careers.
According to Ellen Langer of the Langer Mindfulness Institute (and first female Professor to gain tenure at Harvard University’s Psychology Department), mindfulness is “the process of actively noticing new things”. By challenging ourselves to ignore the multiple distractions we experience each day, and instead fully absorb ourselves in the task at hand, Langer argues that we can reduce stress levels, improve our ability to think creatively, and improve our performance. In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, she shared the benefits of mindfulness; “It’s easier to pay attention. You remember more of what you’ve done. You’re more creative. You’re able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. You avert the danger not yet arisen. You like people better, and people like you better, because you’re less evaluative. You’re more charismatic.”
All positive, but can we realistically apply these concepts to business?
Although the concept of mindfulness can be traced back to Buddhism, it was pioneered in America by Jon Kabat-Zinn through his work in the medical field during the 1980s and then with a number of other groups including sports, CEOs and judges. The benefits of mindfulness have been demonstrated throughout society and it is now gaining traction in the professional field – as of 2012, the Financial Times reported that 25% of large US companies had launched ‘stress-reduction’ initiatives .
In 2007 Google successfully introduced Search Inside Yourself (SIY), a mindfulness based programme which provides Googlers with the tools and opportunity to be mindful at work.
With the stream of research providing evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness at work, it is easy to see why this is the case. A recent research article from INSEAD and Wharton showed that mindfulness could lead to better decision making around investments by helping to reduce “sunk-cost-bias” – the tendency to progress an investment despite negative results in order to compensate or justify for earlier investments. An online course on mindfulness developed by Oxford University and Mental Health Foundation claims that participants who have completed the course have experienced “58% reduction in anxiety, 57% in depression and 40% in stress”. There are also examples of mindfulness programmes being effectively incorporated in the legal profession and in the military.
The benefits are clear and apply to both genders; Langer’s HBR interview cited some research during which she asked 2 groups of women to give persuasive speeches; one group using masculine traits and the other group presenting as they would normally. “Then half of each group was instructed to give their speech mindfully, and we found that audiences preferred the mindful speakers, regardless of what gender role they were playing out.” Irrespective of gender, the way we perceive our situations and the way others perceive us can be influenced by the degree to which we apply mindfulness throughout our lives.
With today’s continuous distractions and technology – phones, emails, apps (including those to help with mindfulness) – some of the sceptics among you might think that it is impossible to apply mindfulness in high stress environments associated with New York’s Wall Street, London’s City and lots of other fast paced business cities. But how much of this time is spent on mindless activities?
Moving from Mindless to Mindful
The argument thus far shows that we should approach life (work and personal) more mindfully, so what steps can we take practically to become mindful? Here are 3 things you can start today.
Uni-task – One Thing at a Time
Multitasking, proven to be an area in which women outperform men, has now been found to be counter-productive. However, there are always many things to do and the temptation to multitask is prevalent. Can mindfulness help?
A recent study showed that applying mindfulness reduced the likelihood of switching tasks, also leaving participants with a better feeling about the high-stress experience. Prioritise your activities and uni-task to ensure you are 100% focused on each task you commit to.
Keep a Mindful Calendar – include breaks
We are all culprits of the “back to back” calendar and sometimes proudly express how busy we are to anyone who will listen. Not only do you end up multi-tasking when our calendars are full, there is an increased chance of impacting your health. Participants in a case were asked to review busy calendars at the beginning of the day while applying mindfulness; as a result of mindfulness they were more sensitive to their body changes including tightening of the chest.
A mindful calendar could reduce your stress levels, provide you with time to reflect and therefore space to think creatively. It may also provide your teams with the opportunity to have mindful calendars of their own and a better environment for innovative thinking.
Take 10 – plan your “me time”
Part of your mindful calendar should include a 10 minute break each day for you and your thoughts – no one and nothing else. Finding this time to take a step back, meditate, and assess your physical and psychological state is a core part of the mindful way of life.
Janice Marturano, founder of the Institute of Mindful Leadership and previously deputy general counsel at General Mills, introduced mindfulness programmes and supporting meditation rooms. Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, was also an advocate of meditation, stating that it helped shape his world view. He told his biographer: “It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.” Take 10 and do the same.
Mindfulness is a challenge but one worth taking on. As Henry Ford once said, “paying attention to simple little things that most men neglect makes a few men rich.” While mindfulness does not necessarily lead to financial riches, it provides the clarity we need to identify opportunities in a more healthy and sustainable way – a very enticing prospect for those of us who would like long and successful careers.