The concept of mindfulness seems to be everywhere these days, even if you aren’t looking for it. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man who coined the concept of mindful-based stress reduction, defines mindfulness as: “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
That seems reasonable to apply to one’s life. But how, exactly, are we supposed to apply that to work?
Think about some of the many challenges in the working world today:
- Expectations that employees will spend (unhealthy) long hours in the office.
- De facto requirement (though usually not an official policy) that employees be accessible at home outside of working hours, at therisk of damaging relationships and wellbeing.
- The fear of many in the U.S. of taking vacation days, lest they lose work opportunities or respect of colleagues and bosses. Half of all workers in the U.S. with paid vacation days don’t take them all, forfeiting an estimated 212 million paid vacation days each year.
- The fact that almost 4.9% of U.S. workers hold more than one jobto make ends meet.
Add to that the results of study indicating that many peoplespend almost half their timeawake not thinking about what they’re doing (ever driven all the way home without any recollection of the trip?). It’s a wonder any work gets done at all.
These distractions, challenges, and worries make it clear that mindfulness can have some real benefits in someone’s workday. While some forward-thinking companies are creating official spaces, like meditation rooms, for employees to practice mindfulness, most companies aren’t doing that or don’t have the kind of workplace to make that a viable option.
No fear, it is quite possible to create your own mindfulness practice without a formal space. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what your workplace looks like: whether you work in an office or at home, in a kitchen or food truck, or at the airport or mall. You can create your own time and space for practicing mindfulness. The key is to remember that mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment.
- Consider a meditation practice. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not the ability to empty your mind of all thoughts. It’s the practice of becoming aware of your thoughts and learning to focus despite of those thoughts. This is all about the journey, not the destination.
- Breathing exercises. Sometimes, all it takes to bring awareness back to the moment is taking a few breaths. If you’ve never benefited from that, it can be a hard one to get your mind around. Breathing exercises have worked well for me, including reducing some serious anxiety attacks, so I’m confident these exercises can work for others, too. My go-to technique is known as box breathing. However, I know people who hate this exercise. If it doesn’t work for you, here are some othersto try.
- Turn off your phone and other devices. This is critical for keeping your focus and staying present. If your schedule requires that you are accessible for certain things, find specific times (after 9:00 pm, all day Saturday, etc.) or situations (like at the dinner table) that will be phone/device free. That sets you up to be in the moment with family and friends or your own activities.
- Breathing exercises or short meditation at your desk. Start the day with this, before diving in to the pile of papers, turning on the computer, or picking up your toolbox. No one will even know you are doing it. Come back to these exercises during the day, either for breaks or to reduce specific stressors. Considering setting reminders on your calendar to take breaks several times throughout the day.
- Stop multitasking(aka, serial tasking). Studies question if there is really a benefit to switching between tasks – like answering your phone, checking email, editing that report, and researching on the web with several tabs open at the same time. And much of the research in this area posits that, in fact, attempting to multitask slows down the pace for most people to accomplish tasks. Mindfulness is about focusing your attention on one thing. Part of this is about reducing distractions you can, like turning off notifications and ringtones, closing the office door if you have that as an option. The other part is about training yourself to let go of internal distractions and thoughts, as you do in meditation.
- Take breaks. Put work aside for at least a few minutes, several times during the day. Get up from your desk and stand up and stretch. Put down your tools and go for a short walk outside. If you can’t physically get away from your workspace and it’s safe to do so, take a short meditation or breathing break in place.
Mindfulness practices like these help you focus and keep perspective, deal with your coworkers with more compassion and understanding, perform better, and lower stress. Seriously, what’s not to like?
Mindfulness can feel silly to some people. The truth is that the practice builds on itself (and for most of these activities no one other than you ever needs to know you’re doing them). The first time you mediate before work or practice breathing exercises before a tough meeting, you might not necessarily feel like it made a difference in your day. But it did. And the more you practice, the more it will make a difference. Try it for a couple of weeks and see how you feel.