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Training ourselves to live ‘in the moment’ can help us get the most from the modern working day says our expert – something that’s more important than ever in these strange times
You can’t always ignore your overflowing inbox or mute your annoying colleagues, but by actively pursuing mindfulness techniques during the work day, you can manage the challenges and make your working life a happier one. To find out more, we speak to expert Stephen J Mordue, author of How to Thrive at Work: Mindfulness, Motivation and Productivity.
How do you define mindfulness?
It’s not a thing you ‘do’. Some interpret mindfulness a bit like meditation. You set about being mindful. But for me mindfulness is not simply a thing you do but is rather a way of being. Instead, you live mindfully. Whenever you do anything you do it mindfully, that is, you do it to the exclusion of everything else – the run you go for, the report you have to write, the meal you are preparing. You focus on the thing you are doing exclusively to the exclusion of everything else.
Why is mindfulness more important than ever for workers today?
The demands of the modern workplace are huge. In most jobs these days we are asked to do more with less. This means that in order to get things done we need to be as productive as possible. Working mindfully helps us to focus on one task at a time avoiding being drawn into unhelpful distractions. This is particularly important for many of us working from home. We need to be able to shift our attention from ‘home’ to ‘work’ and then back again.
How can mindfulness help us at work?
By working mindfully on one thing at a time to the exclusion of distractions we overcome the myth of multitasking. Research shows us that multitasking doesn’t work and that by trying to do more than one thing at once we take longer to do the things we are trying to do. We would have done them quicker if we’d done them one at a time.
Also, when we multitask we are more prone to errors because of our divided focus. Single-tasking is the way forward. One thing at a time always wins the day. Mindfulness is about focussing on one thing at a time.
Beyond this, mindfulness helps us generate balanced practical responses to the problems we face rather than emotional ones. Responses generated from an emotional base can often be less helpful, both at work and home, than practical responses.
What is the link between mindfulness, motivation and productivity?
Mindfulness generates flow. By planning our work and taking up one task at a time we can move from task to task with less effort. Spend some time mindfully planning your week or your day and then take up one task at a time. This helps overcome procrastination. We tend to procrastinate when we’re not sure what to do next. If you plan so you know where to pay attention and when, and then pay attention when doing the task, you will be more productive. Set your intention then pay attention.
What can someone do straight away if they want to be more mindful?
Set up your environment for mindful work. Start by eliminating distractions. If you are doing deep work, something like report writing or problem solving, switch off your emails and your phone alerts and absorb yourself in the task. Give yourself the space to just do the one thing you need to do. You will work more efficiently. What is going to draw you away from the task? Is your desk untidy and cluttered? If it is then tidy it. A tidy environment equals a tidy mind. Prepare yourself for the task by having all you need to hand so you don’t have to go and find things and in doing so find you get distracted.
What other mindfulness techniques are useful to learn?
I use a ‘three-by-three’ breathing technique before I start anything. It sets my mind to be calm and focussed and it’s so simple. Breathe in slowly for three seconds, hold the breath for another three, and then breathe out slowly for a further three. This sends calming signals to your body and your mind.
Visualisation is another great tool. Start your day or an activity by visualising yourself undertaking and accomplishing the task effectively. There’s a reason Jonny Wilkinson used to visualise the rugby ball going between the posts before the kick! It really does help and there is lots of research to support this.
What points of the day are best for practising mindfulness?
For me there are three key points in the day that have always been important and are particularly important now many of us are working at home:
First, every morning, use the visualisation technique I mentioned previously. Look through your diary and visualise yourself being productive and having a successful day. This is called ‘mind’s eye rehearsal’ and it really works in terms of fuelling positivity and productivity.
The second key point is lunch time. You must take a lunch break. It’s easy to work through both in the office and at home. Don’t. Move away from the area you are working in. Take some gentle exercise if you can and get outside if you can. Research has shown all of these things help because they all help you switch off from what you were doing and replenish your motivation. Mindfulness, or (put simply) moving your attention away from work for a while, helps you to be more focussed and mindful when you return to it.
Finally, rest is crucial. So, you can practice mindfulness in a way more like meditation. If you are like me, I find it hard to think of nothing, so I empty my mind by journaling some thoughts about the day. This helps me transition from work to home (even though they both happen in the same place at the moment!) and gives me a sense of being able to leave behind the day to mindfully approach my evening by being able to focus on self, family, and rest, ready to do it all again tomorrow!
How long does it take to feel the difference?
The effects of techniques like the three-by-three breathing are immediate, but can sometimes be short lived when you first start to use them. If you feel yourself getting anxious or stressed do the breathing exercise again. We need to do them regularly. We need to recharge frequently throughout the day hence the importance of mini breaks during the day and a lunch break. It helps us replenish depleting reserves of energy and motivation. Frequent visualisation and reflection through journaling pay dividends in the longer term by giving us more of a sense of control over our lives. Small steps regularly repeated over time lead to big changes.
Stephen J Mordue is the author of How to Thrive at Work: Mindfulness, Motivation and Productivity (Critical Publishing)
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