By: Sherry Dale, CPA – serial entrepreneur, mindfulness coach and partner in the management consulting firm, The Mettise Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is mindfulness?
Many times the words mindfulness and meditation are used interchangeably so for the purposes of this article, the distinctions are as follows:
Meditation is when you intentionally set aside time to do something that is good for you – writing in a journal, spending time in nature, prayer, exercise, music or art.
Mindfulness (a deceptively simple practice) is a way of being – of having a general awareness of the world. It requires purposeful and nonjudgmental attention to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness is the antithesis to being on autopilot.
We live in an always on 24/7 world – full of distractions. We seem to have the collective attention span of a gnat. However with a mindfulness practice, we can resist endlessly reacting to our inbox and take ownership of a meaningful agenda.
So what does science say?
The scientific community has caught on to the mindfulness revolution. An emerging field of contemplative neuroscientists are becoming a part of everyday academia at the best research universities around the globe. Whole centers have sprung up at universities like Stanford, UCLA, Harvard, Yale and others where scientists and psychologists are studying longtime meditators.
Technology has made a significant impact on helping the scientific community make a big leap forward in studying the impact mindfulness has on the brain. The advent of the functional MRI has aided in the research. The fMRI technology shows in real time what areas of the brain are active. After examining the brains of the same individuals, scientists quickly began to see that the neural pathways of the brain seemed to change over time.
We now understand that our neural pathways continue to develop throughout our lifetime. This is a key finding of modern neuroscience – the architecture of our brains is not static; it can change. The notion of neuroplasticity has upended the study of the brain at academic institutions around the world and now it is changing the way researchers assess mindfulness.
Mindfulness increases activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex which is the seat of much of our higher-order thinking – our judgment, decision making, planning and discernment. In addition, research has demonstrated measurable changes in the brain regions linked to memory, self-awareness, stress and empathy for those subjects who practice mindfulness.
What we think can change the brain.
How does this relate to our work?
A huge problem in the workplace today is lack of attention. People are distracted.
We are in a state of continuous partial attention. At meetings – your body is there but your mind is somewhere else. We have countless gadgets constantly sending information – texts, calls, emails, reminders, news flashes – no wonder we are exhausted.
Lack of attention impacts your performance. Your ability to do your job is directly related to how well you concentrate and focus. If you’re continually distracted, you just can’t get it done, or get it done well.
Focused, less stressed, more effective and happier – all sound like things we want for ourselves and our employees. Mindfulness is becoming an integral part of leadership strategy. The ability to be calm and concentrated in the midst of chaos is a transformative skill set for CEOs, executives and leaders.
Mindfulness is about being fully present. Imagine the power of everyone being fully present at meetings or during conversations.
Many companies are beginning to realize that it’s bad for their employees to be so stressed out that their health falters or so distractible that they can’t concentrate.
Organizations such as General Mills, Aetna, Apple, Google, SalesForce, Etsy, the Pentagon and many others are offering mindfulness training to employees. Employees who have attended the training sessions report reduction in overall stress, improved time management and improved ability to handle workloads. Employees also report reduction in perceived strenuousness of the job as well as reduction in the perceived mental and interpersonal demands of their jobs.
Some of the main qualities of effective leadership – clarity, focus and compassion can be cultivated through mindfulness. Mindful leaders are less stressed and more accepting of what is happening. They are more focused and not easily distracted: while staying on task and paying attention to those around them. They are compassionate – working to improve working conditions for themselves and others.
5 simple ways to get started:
- Tune into your breathing 4 times during the day – be mindful of 2 or 3 full cycles of breath.
- Eat one meal mindfully this week.
- Choose a routine activity usually done on autopilot (brushing teeth, showering, taking out the trash, driving to work) – and do it intentionally this week.
- Choose either first thing in morning or right before bed – take 5 to 10 minutes to bring your mind to the present moment – still the mind; be quiet & peaceful.
- Meetings and conversations– commit to being fully present; mobile devices are silenced; focus your complete attention to the human interaction; be aware of what is merely noise; start the meeting with a moment of silence for everyone to arrive both physically and mentally.
And, a bonus suggestion – start keeping a gratitude journal – it will help you gain clarity on what really matters and what just causes you stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness can change us from the inside out. It can make us compassionately accepting of imperfection. It can shift us from reaction to response and from greed to gratitude. With improved concentration and more effective leadership, we can transform the exhausted, stressed and uninspired to the present, resilient, focused and productive.