The concept of mindfulness has become a big part of the recent workplace discussion, especially in regards to its effect on work/life balance. According to Dr. Jon Zabat-Kin, regarded by many as the father of the movement, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Try focusing totally on breathing for two minutes, and you’ll get the picture.
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This isn’t to say we’re normally mindless as we work; usually, nothing could be farther from the truth. Healthy businesses consist of individuals who freely share their ideas and willingly come together in teams, making deliberate efforts to move their organizations forward and benefit all involved.
However, most of us do have our routines that, at times, become automatic. We’ve all been there — we suddenly realize we’ve done a whole slew of tasks without thinking about them. And many of us have experienced “highway hypnosis,” where we reach our destination faster than expected because we zone out during the drive.
While routines have their place, mindfulness is crucial for detail-oriented tasks and those that demand safety. When you get right down to it, mindfulness simply involves consistently paying close attention to all steps of a task, and thinking about nothing else while doing so. This typically results in greater productivity.
Many of those who write about mindfulness, including those who practice it, seem convinced it’s an example of Eastern mysticism that’s slipped into Western business practices. Some belittle it as New Age mysticism. I’m not sure I agree with either of these assessments.
You see, mindfulness doesn’t require anything more than the ability to maintain a tight focus on the present, a practice already well known for its productivity-boosting properties. Those of us who “single-task” tend to complete our tasks more quickly and effectively than those who try to multitask—a trick only a tiny percentage of workers can pull off.
Think about it: multitasking involves deliberately interrupting yourself repeatedly as you jump from one task to another. Just reorienting your attention takes precious time, and you may not regain your focus for over 20 minutes. Mindfulness also helps us notice new things and become more sensitive to perspective and context, sometimes resulting in new ways of doing things. In addition, mindful workers tend to be more charismatic, improve their sleep habits, and decrease their stress. At Aetna Insurance, those who attended a mindfulness program increased their work productivity by 62 minutes a week.
So what’s up with the Eastern link? It may have arisen because some top professionals who practice or have practiced mindfulness, including the late Steve Jobs, also practiced meditation and similar mind-opening techniques more common in the East than in the West.
But again, mindfulness needn’t have a mystic or religious aspect; it’s just the practice of being all there during your most important task. Researcher Ellen Langer, who has studied mindfulness for more than 40 years, points out that the top people in any field—including Fortune 50 CEOs, best-selling musicians, and star athletes—are more mindful than their colleagues. As she puts it, “that’s the only way to get there.”
Is Mindfulness for You?
Cultivating clarity through mindfulness is a good idea for you if you find yourself working on autopilot more than you like. Maintaining situational awareness can benefit you by helping you keep your mind open to new ideas, and ensuring you’re aware of what’s happening around you at all times. Realize that mindfulness does take an effort to maintain, and it may take a while for you to slip into it at will.
As for whether your company will adopt mindfulness or not, that depends on its openness to change. That doesn’t mean you can’t make the suggestion to HR, but don’t be surprised if no one joins you in your mindfulness quest. Even if they don’t, the best workers in your organization probably already practice mindfulness—they just call it something else.