Mindfulness teacher Laurie J. Cameron, the author of The Mindful Day, reflects on the dramatic benefits of practicing mindfulness in the workplace and shares practical ways we can integrate mindfulness into our workday.
It’s no secret that top CEOs, NFL teams, performing artists, and Wall Street bankers are practicing mindfulness, as well as training their organizations in the fundamentals. There is good reason: Mindfulness can make you better at work. I don’t just mean calmer and more agile, but also more productive, personable, and creative. These are qualities that benefit any professional—whether you go to an office, run an online business from home, work in a restaurant, spin records in a dance club (one of my favorite former jobs!), care for people in a hospital, or any other endeavor in which you use your skills in exchange for rewards.
We all know that working in any capacity has its joys and challenges, from the feeling of accomplishment when you deliver a big project to the emotions that come from dealing with difficult relationships, unexpected challenges, and failures. Whether you’re facing a reorganization, a difficult relationship with a colleague, or the cancellation of a beloved project—mindfulness enables you to shift how you relate to challenging experiences with greater equanimity.
The practices that follow are expansive: They will help you develop your attention, regulate strong emotions, cope with difficult situations, generate fresh ideas, and be a stronger team player and leader. They are also simple, starting with how you greet people when you arrive at the office and continuing with how to increase productivity at your desk. But ultimately, these daily strategies help you channel your energy toward what matters most in your job so that your intentions match your impact. As you’ll see, these are guidelines for deeper satisfaction with your dayto-day work as well as your long-term career.
The positive effects of a mindful approach to work transcend the individual, too. Mindfulness can improve relationships—one of the most important parts of our jobs, according to the thousands of professionals I’ve worked with, from the executive to staff level. Mindfulness is the first step in releasing pain points, navigating complexity, and planting the seeds for greater collaboration. As you begin to strengthen your mind, grow your skills, and cultivate positive mindsets, you will lay the foundation for increased engagement, meaning, and flourishing at work.
Focus your wandering mind. Increase your ability to harness one of your greatest resources: your attention
Our minds are designed to wander. Here is a scenario that happens for me: I’m on deadline for a consulting project, sitting at my home desk with my dog, Max, at my feet and the cat, Olivia, curled next to me as I try to write. Suddenly, I realize that I’m lost in thought about yesterday’s client meeting. I don’t know how long I’ve been in the reverie, but I can see that the hands on my old metal desk clock have advanced, and progress on my project has not.
Humans are unlike other animals—we are often thinking about anything but the present. We’re usually contemplating past events, worrying about what might happen in the future, or imagining things that may never happen at all. And interestingly, this pattern is hardwired. In 2007, Norm Farb and his team found that our brains have two distinct ways of operating: In default mode—aka the narrative circuit mode that dominates our waking hours—our minds are bouncing from thought to thought and interpreting and generating stories about our behaviors and interactions. The other mode, direct experience, is when we are completely tuned in to the present, experiencing the moment in real time. Direct experience activates two key parts of the brain: the insula, the region associated with perceiving bodily sensations, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the part that is associated with switching attention. Although planning and strategizing occur in the narrative circuit mode (planning our role in tomorrow’s meeting), the direct experience state (feeling the breeze on our face right now) is what we seek to increase with mindfulness.
Direct experience—being mentally present—is multidimensional. It means taking in your surroundings, your body sensations and emotions, and your thoughts. If you’re directly experiencing a meeting, for example, you’re noticing the temperature in the room, processing the presenter’s words, and detecting the subtle vibration of a colleague’s mobile phone or other movements in the room. But this attentive state can be more elusive than some of us think.
In my corporate talks, I like to ask the audience to guess what percentage of their typical day they think their minds are wandering, that is, in default or narrative mode. What’s your estimate? I hear answers ranging low to high, but most of the time very high. Harvard researchers found that 47 percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they are doing.
That’s nearly half of our day.
This matters for productivity and well-being.
In the groundbreaking study that Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted in 2010, 2,250 participants were pinged at random times during the day and asked how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about what they were doing or something else. In addition to the discovery that minds were wandering almost half the time, the participants’ responses suggested that they tended to feel less happy when their mind was not focused on their current activity. In 2016, cognitive behavioral therapist Hooria Jazaieri and a team at Stanford explored this by taking the research a step further. Their findings suggested that a wandering mind can be associated with less caring behavior. (Note, however, that the silver lining here was that the nature of the mind wandering seemed to matter: Thoughts of unpleasant or neutral topics were associated with less caring behavior toward oneself and toward others, while thoughts of pleasant topics were associated with more caring behavior.)
Being present, on the other hand, is correlated with well-being, evidence of which you’ve now seen repeated in this book. And as we’ve learned, meditation can be a way to help build your capacity for mindful presence, or receptive attention to your direct experience.
The bottom line is that we can work on taming our roaming minds by strengthening our ability to focus. Now that you understand your two operating modes, take note of which state prevails during different situations in your workday. See how often you catch your mind skipping off to a tropical island while your body is still in your desk chair. Then start using meditation and other mental training exercises (see the following) to help build your capacity to sustain your focus. You might gradually find that frequency of being lost in thought gets lower. But do remember that 100 percent focused attention isn’t the goal. Although it is natural and even healthy for your mind to wander—giving your prefrontal cortex a rest and boosting creativity—the key is to be able to arrive and stay in the moment when it matters.
Practices for the Workplace
- Use the mantra, Just this. Try to start catching yourself when you get distracted, either from internal or external stimuli. When your goal is to focus and you catch yourself daydreaming, use the handy mantra, Just this, to return your focus to the task at hand. Just this email, Just this conversation, Just this book.
- Recognize and return. The core skill of increasing your ability to focus is this one—knowing when your mind has drifted off and bringing it back to the object of focus. Your attentional control will get stronger over time. Remember that each time that you notice your mind is lost in thought, you build your awareness.
- Label thinking. Naming your mind-wandering habits is a way to break the trance of whatever reverie you’re in, as well as to deepen understanding and reduce distraction in the long term. “Planning mind,” “worrying mind,” and “daydreaming” are a few examples.
- Use your senses. Reconnecting with your senses is another strategy for reining in a roaming mind. Open up to the sounds in the room, notice the touch of the chair on your arms or back, taste a sip of tea or coffee from your cup. Wherever you are, tap into your physical experience to bring your attention back to the present.
This excerpt has been taken from Laurie J. Cameron’s new book from National Geographic, The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy From Morning to Evening. Learn more about Laurie and the book at lauriejcameron.com.