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Bringing mindfulness to the workplace

18th April 2018 | Beverly Landais

One of the best books written in the past few years on mindset is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011). His insight is that we need to use two different types of thinking to deal with the variety of situations we face in our daily lives. He calls these thinking types System 1 and System 2.

According to Kahneman, System 1 represents the primitive, automatic pilot part of the brain that does the fast thinking we need to tackle everyday life. Fast thinking is the type of thinking we use to deal with short-term tasks, problems and situations. We act quickly and instinctively. In most cases, quick thinking is entirely appropriate for our day to day activities. However, because it puts us into the automatic pilot mode, it is reactive to situations, and this can lead us astray. 

Whereas System 2 represents the newest, rational part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex - which is responsible for considering options and developing long-term plans. Kahneman says slow thinking is when you step back and take more time to review the details of the situation before acting. Kahneman’s view is that failure to engage in slow, critical thinking is the cause of many of the mistakes that we make. It follows that to get your life under control, you need to press 'pause' before diving in and ask yourself a few simple questions. For example: 

  • What is it that I am trying to do?
  • What are my ideal outcomes?
  • What are the barriers to success? 
  • How might I overcome these? 
  • What will I not do to allow sufficient time, energy and focus on this task?
  • What is my first step? 

If you find yourself slipping into a negative frame of mind, ask yourself "How well does this belief service me?" and then choose something more useful. Of course, all of this requires discipline, and this is where the practice of mindfulness has a part to play.

What exactly is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts defines Mindfulness as: "The awareness that comes from paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally."  

According to the British Mindfulness Institute, being in mindful state is the opposite of the automatic pilot mode. It is about experiencing the world which is firmly in the 'here and now'. This state of mind is the 'being' mode where you are fully aware of the choices you make and are in control of your responses. 

Why is this important? A study conducted in 2011 by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, concluded that mindfulness meditation could produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extend beyond the time the individual is formally meditating. What is more, there is clear evidence that it can assist with better decision-making as research has found that mindfulness training alters our brains and how we engage with ourselves, others, and our work. More recent studies by social psychologists Laura Kiken and Natalie Shook have found that mindfulness predicts judgment accuracy and insight-related problem-solving. 

In 2015 the Mindful Nation UK inquiry by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group resulted in the publication of a comprehensive report. Such was the interest in workplace findings that the Mindfulness Initiative channelled grassroots enthusiasm into a Private Sector Working Group. The result is a document entitled 'Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace published in 2016.  The report sets out the benefits of mindfulness in three key areas: Wellbeing, Relationships and Performance and contains many good ideas for how to achieve improvement. You can access the report here:  http://themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk/publications/building-the-case

It is no surprise then that people in the business world are turning their attention to the application of mindfulness in the workplace — and for a good reason. When practised and applied, mindfulness fundamentally alters the operating system of the mind. Through repeated mindfulness practice, brain activity is redirected from System 1 our fast thinking mode to System 2 our slow thinking mode – which directly supports our ability to make better decisions and deal more effectively with life’s challenges.

So how can you start bringing mindfulness into your daily work? Here are six easy to implement tips to help you get started: 

1. Practice 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation each day. Most people find mornings the best time to practice mindfulness, but you can do it any time of day. Start with 5 minutes and build from there. Try downloading one of the many short mindfulness meditation courses available online (including meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, or buddhify). 

2. Do your most important tasks first thing in the morning. The mind is generally at its most creative and productive in the morning. Use this time to do strategic work and have meaningful conversations. Making email your first task of the day wastes the opportunity to use your mind to its highest potential. Try waiting at least 20 minutes after you get to work before checking your inbox.

3. Beware the attraction of distraction. Stay present at the moment to get more quality work done. Switch off all digital notifications as these keep you in a reactionary state of high alert that is draining and counterproductive.

4. Pay attention to attention. Try to maintain focus on a single task. Notice when your mind wanders off and calmly escort it back to the task at hand. Do this without excessive self-criticism or judgment.

5. Make it a habit of capturing insights. At the end of each task or meeting, take a few minutes to capture your most significant ideas. Once you get the hang of it, slow reflective thinking can take a surprisingly short amount of time.

6. After a week, assess how well you’re doing with the previous five tips. Author Daniel H. Pink says “Society beats solo” when facing a challenge so buddy up with someone to do the same and you can support each other.

Savvy business leaders are incorporating mindfulness practice into the workplace. Google, Goldman Sachs, and Medtronic are among the many leading firms that have introduced meditation and other mindfulness practices to their employees. Executives at these and other companies say meditation is not only useful as a stress-reduction tool but can also enhance creativity, opening doors where once there seemed to be just a wall. In the end, the only way to see whether you like mindfulness meditation is to try it yourself.

18th April 2018 | Beverly Landais

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