Getting mindful, not mind full

Chances are good that you’ve been hearing a lot lately about mindfulness—paying attention to our moment-to-moment experience so that we can better focus, chill out, and hopefully increase our happiness.

And chances are also good that if you work in the tech industry—or in any field that relies heavily  on technology for communication, collaboration, or production (though it’s hard to think of many fields which aren’t so pervasively impacted by technology anymore)—you might feel that the forces align against any hope of your becoming more balanced and mindful. With workload demands, calendar reminders, text dings, and IMs pinging for “QQ”s, many of us feel so scattered, stressed, and compelled to multi-task (which neuroscience is proving is an unachievable myth; in fact, studies suggest it’s even bad for your career) that the concept of stopping to consider your moment-to-moment existence during your workday feels frivolous and self-serving at best, or at worst, a fast-track to being replaced at work.

However, an increasing amount of research and discourse is now validating the benefits of a mind that is more focused and calm. We are seeing proof now that our physical and emotional well-being suffer as a result of what this fabulous article calls The Cognition Crisis. What tools do we have already available to us to combat this crisis? From the article: “Some of the most ancient and formalized practices that we humans engage in are at their very core, cognition enhancing exercises: mindfulness practices and contemplative traditions. Promising research supports the beneficial effects of meditation on mood, attention, compassion, and stress management.”

So—how does this factor into your work life? Well, the lines between our personal/home life and our work life are ever more blurred, to the point where we can question the existence of a clear division at all. An upside to that reality is that cultivating good personal habits around watching your mind can traverse these lines and positively impact both our personal and professional worlds.

Mindfully future-ready

Projectline President Anika Lehde shared in a recent blog piece that there are 6 essential skills of future workers. I’d like to explore how mindfulness can inform and support each of these skills, helping position us to be this kind of future-ready (and ever-employable) worker.

  • Self-awareness. It’s hard to be self-aware if you don’t take the time to pay attention to what’s going on within and around you. A good place to start is to stop for a moment and just sit with your thoughts. One of the best ways to help you with this is by meditating—which is really just the act of investigating your mind. (For many of us, this is hard to do. In a series of studies in 2014, scientists at the University of Virginia put individuals in a room with only a chair and asked them to be alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes. Most subjects found this to be difficult and over half reported being unhappy. In fact, 67% of the men and 25% of the women self-administered an electric shock before completing the task, preferring a shock to the boredom of being alone with nothing to do.) But once you’ve gotten to know your mind and its patterns, you can move on to the following important skills. It is important to note that until have mastered skill #1, you are unlikely to experience much success developing skills #2-6.
  • Intrinsic motivation. A wonderful thing happens when you slow down and pause to consider what’s happening in the moment: you pay more attention to your inner workings, and you start to realize what’s important to you and the extent to which your actions are fostering or thwarting your goals. Again, this is less possible and less likely when you’re so busy running on the hamster wheel of work and striving towards your goals that you don’t think about why you’re doing all this in the first place—whether it suits you or if there’s a better way of doing it.
  • Self-discipline. Paying attention in the moment creates a very important pause between action and reaction—you know, the place where we often find trouble. Too often we fail to take this pause and instead jump right into the unwise reaction. But when we attend to experiences mindfully, simply by being a nonreactive observer we put some space between ourselves and the event. This allows us to digest a situation without grasping onto it, identifying with it, or being controlled by it. This detachment pays back huge dividends toward your sanity and effectiveness in the workplace. When you practice restraint, you can plan your responses to ensure they are constructive and thoughtful.
  • Dynamic communication. Communication trips us up in so many ways. Unfortunately, while technology helps us by increasing the speed and amplification of our communication, it does not always help us with the tone, content, or reception of our intended message. Again, mindfulness comes in so handy here because when we slow down and consider if what we are about to say and how we are saying it are likely to come across as intended, then we can better pair our intentions to outcomes. And to state the obvious, in stressful situations it’s always better to mindfully sit on it for a while rather than to hastily lob a flaming or defensive “reply all.” If you want to go a step further, here’s a useful test you can use to analyze your “speech” before putting it out there:
    •  Is it true?
    • Is it kind?
    • Is it necessary?
    • Is it the right time?
  • If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then continue using your skills of self-discipline until all of your answers are yes.
  • Systems thinking. Focusing on one thing at a time is at the heart of mindfulness as far as getting a handle on your moment-to-moment state of mind. But mindfulness also involves thinking wisely about people, places, things, and events—realizing that in our world as we know it, everything is interconnected. Things don’t just spontaneously arise out of nowhere, and all actions/events/outcomes do affect other things/people/situations. So when we think about the best way to approach a challenge, solve a problem, communicate a message, anticipate an issue and account for it, etc., it behooves us to think bigger picture: use our personal experience, sensory data, intelligence, curiosity, rational thinking, and powers of imagination to approach everything holistically. If we don’t, we will miss something important. And it’s critical that we not drown in the sea of data available to us. We need to discern that which is useful and relevant from that which just clutters our mental space so that we can make more intelligent decisions. This point is very well articulated in The Cognition Crisis:
    • “Success in solving such global challenges depends upon us having the mental capacity to actually solve them: high-level attention, reasoning, creativity, decision making, compassion, and wisdom are required. If we can’t focus our attention and make creative, wise, and more future-oriented decisions, we will never effectively deal with complex, time-delayed crises like the one affecting our climate, no matter how much information we acquire.”
  •  Synthetic and creative mind.
    When I think about this skill, I realize how hard it is for me to really get out of the analytical, perfection-driven side of my brain at times—a place I easily inhabit when I’m too far invested in the outcome. Where mindfulness comes into play here is, for example, when we do things that really get us “in the flow,” where we are so absorbed in an activity that requires focus and, more importantly, takes the “I” out of it. Doing something for its own sake, not for what learnings or growth can be achieved, or how well it provides an ego boost, can be particularly enjoyable activities precisely because they allow for the sensation of “letting go.” This is often the space in which creative types of people really thrive and produce their best work, and where innovative ideas are born.

What can you start doing today?

If the value of mindfulness in support of your career and the future of work rings true to you, below are some practical tips for how you can immediately begin adopting more mindful practices both in your personal and professional life.

At work

Be more mindfully connected during the workday. We can’t disconnect from technology at work, obviously, but there are ways we can use it to be less controlled and distracted by it. The new Focus Assist feature in Windows 10 allows you to block or filter notices and notifications to help you stay more focused and be more productive (according to the Washington Post, “Microsoft looked at research that said switching tasks, even just to see a notification, can keep someone from regaining their focus for 23 minutes.”). You can block everything for a specific window of time each day, or allow only messages from your boss or communication related to a critical project. This tutorial shows how to set it up.

Another fun trick: turn your computer’s display to grayscale. Why? Our monitors and the pretty pictures on the web all can cause us to veer off-task and disengage from the natural world in favor of the virtual one. Turning your entire system black-and-white makes it less fun, but also keeps things as purely business and inspires you to take healthy mindful breaks by looking up and out a window, or at least at the cute picture of your loved ones or pets on your desk. (To do this: from your main Windows menu, go to Settings, then Ease of Access, then Color filters, turn on Use color filters and select Grayscale. Want to take it a step further? You can also do this to your iPhone with a cool little magic trick. This video shows you how.)

Resist the urge to “multitask” and focus on one thing at a time. Remember, your brain can’t really multi-task anyway; it merely switches quickly from one task to another, ensuring that neither gets done as well as it could. Try not to email, IM, or browse the web during meetings/calls. Minimize the number of apps you have open and are working on to the extent that you can. Practice active, mindful listening in meetings.

Don’t always respond to emails or IMs immediately (unless you really, really have to). Take the time you need to gather your thoughts, do necessary research, compose a thoughtful response. If an immediate response is needed but you don’t feel ready to give your best response, say that you will get back to them in a few minutes. Feeling pressured to respond immediately or to be always available can create stress, interfere with more important projects, and can result in hasty (regrettable) responses.

Away from work

Disconnect from technology. On your phone, log out of your apps for Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/whatever-you-check-when-you-have-idle-time. Resist the urge to distract yourself whenever you have spare moments (Apple has new features to limit distractions and manage screen time in its latest iPhone release), look up, and take in more at the physical world around you.

Indulge in a hobby or activity that demands your focused attention. Activities like rollerblading, gardening, playing with a child, playing an instrument—all these are activities you do for their own sake. You’re not looking for a payoff, you’re not thinking about yourself or forming opinions/judgments. You’re just in the flow, relaxing, and it’s beneficial for your mind to take this kind of a breather and practice focusing.

Use everyday experiences and tasks as a chance to cultivate focus and practice mindfulness. Brushing your teeth, folding laundry, waiting for the bus, sitting at a red light, waiting in line at the grocery store—don’t use these moments to look at your phone, think about what to eat for lunch, or rehash last night’s argument. Instead, pay close attention to sensory experiences—what you are seeing, smelling, hearing, touching? Try to be a present but casual observer without judging what you are experiencing and instead just notice it.

Meditate. Saving the most obvious one for last here, but the whole purpose of meditating is to help you live your life mindfully. In meditation, you get to know how your mind works by watching it, catching it when it wanders, and eventually knowing how to achieve and restore balance even when you’re not sitting comfortably in silence. There are great apps that can help you get started with this, like Headspace (which Projectline provides for its employees to use) and 10% Happier.

I feel incredibly fortunate to work for company like Projectline that understands the connection between these inner qualities and the more external effects on work, and invests time and resources to empower its employees to adopt more mindful ways. Ultimately it’s up to each individual person to have the intention to be more mindful, the curiosity to learn how to do it, and the discipline to practice it.

For more on mindfulness and to stay in touch, connect with me on LinkedIn or check out my website, www.christievukoswalker.com