What can you do to take control of your nervous system when your schedule feels jam packed, you work in an open office, and there are dings and whistles from your phones and emails all day? Perhaps you’ve heard of the term, mindfulness, but don’t know exactly how to be more mindful. Aren’t you using your mind all the time?
The answer? Meditate my friend.
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to this moment without judgment, and is cultivated from a daily meditation practice. A few deep belly breaths and we bring more oxygen to our brain, our heart rate calms down, we let go of thoughts of the past or future, and we bring our full self to the moment and our work.
Since starting my meditation practice twenty years ago and reaping the tremendous rewards, I have been fortunate to become a lead consultant conducting research on the long-term benefits of meditation on resilience to stress, disease prevention, leadership, and workplace well-being.
Today, as the founder of Living Well Awake, I serve leaders and businesses to lead consciously at work and in the world. In the many roles I embody to serve this mission, I begin any meeting, coaching session, or leadership training with mindfulness.
Our stress response evolved to save us from attack or danger, like a saber tooth tiger or a potential natural disaster, but in our “always on” culture at work and in the world, our nervous system and stress response is constantly triggered.
New research suggests that people use their smartphones for an average of 5 hours a day and check them about 85 times a day. When we’re stressed, cortisol—the “stress hormone”—is released into our bloodstream, which causes our pupils to dilate so we can see more clearly. Then our heart rate and blood pressure increases to divert blood to our larger muscles so we can fight or flee.
This stress response may have helped us survive tigers in the wild, but it isn’t very effective for seeing the big picture or for that matter seeing the good in your colleagues or boss. When we feel stressed we protect the Me and not the We, which doesn’t serve anyone in the long term.
We all feel the pressure to do more and to do it faster and faster. But the fast-paced juggling invariably causes problems and increases our stress response, limiting our presence and experience at work and in life.
For instance, has this ever happened to you? During a conference call a few years ago with a client, I decided to send a quick email to a different client from the safety of my desk. What could go wrong? Well, I sent the client the message. Then I had to send him another one, this time with the attachment I had forgotten to append. Finally, my third email to him explained why that attachment wasn’t what he was expecting. When I eventually refocused on the original call, I realized I hadn’t heard a question my client had asked me.
One recent study showed that people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-15 point decrease in their IQs. What is the impact of a 10-point drop? The same as losing a night of sleep.
In addition to being reduced to a 10-year-old’s capacity, did you know that multitasking can actually damage your brain? Yep, it has been found that multi-taskers (people who use many media devices at the same time and are switching attention back and forth frequently) have less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.
We often feel that doing several things at once is a requirement and supports us to get more done. In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%! Humans don’t actually multitask well. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves, diminishing productivity, and losing time in the process.
You might think you’re different, that you’ve done it so much you’ve become good at it. Practice makes perfect and all that, right? Wrong. David Stayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah has been studying attention—how it works and how it doesn’t. Most of us (98%) deceive ourselves and overrate our ability to multi-task. Research shows that the better we think we are, the more likely it is that our performance is well below par.
The good news is that you can reverse that damage by uni-tasking or focusing on doing one thing at a time. Start by identifying what has priority and do that item until completion. Close your email, turn off phone alerts, and identify the time span you will focus on a task, then attend to ONLY that task.
Let’s try it together.
Find a quiet space to listen to this uni-tasking audio.
Now speak the following mantra, which is nothing more exotic than a statement you say repeatedly to train your mind and calm your body. This may be helpful to say to yourself several times during your day:
(Breathing In) I am aware that I am juggling numerous tasks.
(Breathing Out), I am aware that I can accomplish only so much in one day.
Think about your daily “to do” list: preparing for and attending work meetings, finishing that proposal, life appointments, picking up the kids, etc. As you increase your practice of mindfulness, you may become more conscious of what is realistic for you to accomplish in one day and adjust your life accordingly.
What can support you to be more effective when you have many things to do is to engage each task with full awareness. Don’t worry about the next things that needs to be done. While you run an errand, simply do that with your whole being. When you return home, tackle the next task with the same focus and concentration. The mindfulness exercises above can help you to stay present and not think about other tasks.
This way, your mind stays relaxed and fresh, and you have more energy to accomplish the items on your list as well as greater flexibility and acceptance when you need to adjust your schedule to meet the demands of your “to do” list.
So, how does this infinitely increase your capacity at work?
Mindfulness and meditation are about expanding the possibility and embracing the adventure. The practices reconnect you with your body so that you can take time to breathe, lead from your heart , feel the many things you are grateful for, and surrender to the constant ride of life. At work, mindfulness supports healthy brain function and greater cognitive control, facilitates flow states, and increases empathy for co-workers, employees, and customer so that you can achieve that lofty company mission that supports the greater good.
Carley Hauck is the founder of Living Well Awake, serving fortune 100 companies and high-growth startups such as LinkedIn, Pixar, and Bank of the West with strategic consulting, leadership and development, team building, and thriving cultures. Carley is also an adjunct instructor at UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School and Stanford University, where she teaches on leadership, emotional intelligence, and bringing your whole self to work. For more tips and wisdom on how to lead consciously at work and the world, visit www.leadfromlight.com
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