By Kate Taylor
In the corner office, a woman scans her email, talks on the phone and intermittently sips from a giant coffee cup. In a nearby cubicle, a man listens to hold music while stapling paper stacks and squinting across the room at a wall clock. Up at the reception desk, another man plays online Solitaire while eating soup and preparing office supply orders.
This is a snapshot of an office where I once worked. Indeed, it’s what most of my past workplaces looked like. And according to social psychologists, it’s what most American workplaces (those with cubicles, desks and chairs, anyway) look like.
Everybody multi-tasking. Nobody giving their full attention to a single task.
“The bottom line is we are all constantly self-distracting,” says Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author and research psychologist.
Rarely, he says, do we “focus and attend” any task for more than three to five minutes. We’re perpetually distracted — primarily by emails, texts and other social media.
No wonder it’s so hard to work mindfully.
But don’t give up just yet!
Above all, staying present requires practice. The following expert tips can help you start that practice and learn how to work mindfully throughout the day.
- Be Consciously Present
Mindfulness is about being aware and awake rather than operating unconsciously. When you’re consciously present at work, you’re aware of two aspects of your moment-to-moment experience — what’s going on around you and what’s going on within you.
If you’re mindfully writing a report, for example, you give it your full attention. You choose the words you type with care. You remain aware of how your chair supports you and how the keyboard keys feel beneath your fingertips.
Sounds easy, right?
Perhaps, if you’ve spent the last five months on a silent retreat. Most people, however, are used to giving far less than 100 percent of their attention to work. As they write a report, a third or even half of their attention drifts with music coming through their earphones. Or wanders to last night’s Game of Thrones episode. Or rumbles about needing some fries.
If you’re trying to boost your mindfulness at work, don’t let your undisciplined thoughts discourage you. Staying present requires practice. Lots of practice. ‘When you catch your thoughts slipping away to global warming or Kim Kardashian-land, just acknowledge what’s happening and usher them back to the task at hand. Here are some extra mindfulness tips to boost your chances of success:
- Make a clear decisionat the start of your workday to be present as best you can. Pause for a few moments before you start your work to set this intention in your mind.
- Make an effort to work more consciously, even if that means that you need to work more slowly at first—doing so pays off in the long run.
- Keep the advantages of being presentin mind to motivate you. Mindfulness brings a powerful sense of calm and focus to your day and will help you produce your best work.
- Give your full attention to seemingly mundane taskslike typing, loading the copy machine and dialing phone numbers. If you’re just waiting in a meeting room, just focus on your breathing. These little moments can energize you and bring unexpected pleasure and peace.
- Use Short Mindful Exercises at Work
Mindful exercises train your brain to be more present. The more you do, the easier your brain finds it to drop into a mindful state, thus optimizing your brain function.
In a busy workplace, it might seem impossible to find time for mindful exercises. No worries — they can be as short as you want them to be. In fact, just a minute of consciously connecting with one of your senses qualifies as a mindful exercise. You don’t need to make is obvious to others by assuming a lotus position or closing your eyes. You don’t even need to be sitting down. So be creative! Find the time for several mindful exercises every day.
Quick way to fall in love with mindfulness:
Try a mindful exercise when work-stress is driving you to your limit. Just closing your eyes and tuning everything out for two minutes can help rebalance your nervous system, tone down the fight-or-flight response and engage the wisest part of your brain. Once relaxed, you’ll be far less reactive and better equipped to make smart decisions.
- Be a Single-Tasker
Single-tasking means doing one thing at a time. Multi-tasking means trying to do two or more tasks at the same time or switching back and forth between tasks.
Multi-tasking is a myth, scientists say. We may think we’re multi-tasking, but in reality, our brains are madly switching from one thing to the next, often losing data in the process.
So why do we keep trying to do it? Multi-tasking makes us feel more productive. And that false feeling of productivity, experts say, is addictive.
Here are a few ways to kick the multi-tasking habit for good and become a paragon of single-tasking:
- Keep a time journalof what you achieve when single-tasking or multi-tasking. Note the time each time you measure, and write down what you achieve in both modes. See whether you can notice your productivity rising when you single-task. Noticing the benefits can motivate you to switch permanently to single-tasking.
- Switch off as many distractions as you can.Silence your phone, log off from your email account, and so on. Then set a timer for whatever amount of time you need to work, and record how much you get done.
- Practice mindfulness during breaksbetween tasks. Once you’ve completed a task, get up, stretch, take some deep breaths or go for a mindful walk.
- Use Mindful Reminders
Remembering to be mindful is challenging, even for veteran meditators and mindfulness students.
Here’s why: the brain’s normal (default) mode is to be lost in thought while running internal narratives. As we go through our routine daily activities, our brains automatically switch into this unmindful state.
One Harvard study showed that people spend nearly half of each day lost in thought, performing many actions automatically. And though we often think of day-dreaming as pleasant, this study also showed that unmindful thoughts frequently take us into negative or unproductive ruts and sabotage our well-being.
Operating on auto-pilot means that you’re not fully present and awake to the opportunities and choices around you. You’re unable to be creative or thoughtful, you can’t come up with new ideas or solutions – some of the best parts of owning a mind are simply unavailable to you.
Reminders can help bring you back to mindfulness. Here are some effective reminders to try:
Set an alarm on your phone – a vibrating alarm that doesn’t disturb others can work well.
- Add mindful exercises in your daily schedule – set an appointment with yourself, and keep it.
- Post a small note or picture on your deskto remind you to be mindful.
- Associate certain activities with mindfulness, such as meal times or meetings or when finishing one task and starting another.
- Use the sound of bellsand rings in the workplace as “bells of mindfulness.”
- Slow Down to Speed Up
Chronic rushing is a misuse of energy and leads to bad decisions. Instead, pause, focus on listening, stroll rather than run, and generally take your time at work.
Effective leaders, workers, and entrepreneurs slow down and reflect to make the best decisions—they slow down to speed up. That’s a mindful way of working.
- Feel Gratitude
Human beings have what psychologists call a “negativity bias.” That’s a tendency to react more intensely to negative stimuli than equally strong positive stimuli.
We owe this tendency to our primitive ancestors, who made life and death decisions all the time.
Makes sense, right? Back then, it was far more important to remember the poisonous striped snake by the river than the tree with super-sweet plums on the hill.
In modern times, however, that negativity bias is basically a useless buzzkill. It dampens our happiness and pre-disposes up to fear and anxiety.
Having a negativity bias “is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Our work places are full of things to worry about, from possible future layoffs to perceived bad vibes from the boss. That’s why it’s so important to fight our faulty programming.
“Be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert,” Hanson says.
Remember that we tend “to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive.”
The antidote to all this predisposed negativity?
Being grateful helps us realize how many blessings we truly have. It helps us step away from fear and anxiety and feel better. It helps us stay positive and put problems in perspective. It boosts our creativity, health, working relationships and quality of work.
Of course, this brings up another problem with our troublesome minds: we’re not hardwired to be grateful. For the same reason we focus on negative stimuli, most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on how lucky we are.
Not to worry – we can recover from gratitude-deficit. Try these tricks to bring more gratitude into your life:
- Keep a Gratitude Journal. Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable life theme of gratefulness.
- Remember the Bad. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.
- Ask Yourself Three Questions. Utilize the meditation technique known as Naikan, which involves reflecting on three questions: “What have I received from __?”, “What have I given to __?”, and “What troubles and difficulty have I caused?”
- Learn Prayers of Gratitude. In many spiritual traditions, prayers of gratitude are the most powerful form of prayer, because through these prayers people recognize the ultimate source of all they are and all they will ever be.
- Come to Your Senses. Through our senses—the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear—we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift.
- Use Visual Reminders. Because the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude.
- Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude. Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed. Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as “I vow to count my blessings each day,” and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day.
- Watch your Language. Words are powerful and often reflect the way we think. That’s why grateful people often use happy words like gift, giver, blessing, blessed, fortune, fortunate and abundance. Try using a few and see if it doesn’t add to your happiness.
- Fake it until….. As a last recourse, go through the motions of gratitude — it’s very likely to trigger true gratitude. Motions of gratitude include smiling, saying thank you, and writing grateful letters and notes.