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How to Stay Mindful at Work

Why is it important to be mindful at work?

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. 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 be mindful at work.

But don’t give up just yet!

Above all, mindfulness requires practice, and the following expert tips are all you need to keep off autopilot and stay mindful throughout your work day.

1. Stay Present

Mindfulness is achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment and giving your full attention to the task at hand. 

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 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 present in 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 tasks like 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.

 

2. Use Short Mindful Exercises at Work

Mindful exercises help to teach your brain to be more fully present and cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your day. In a busy workplace, it might seem impossible to find the time and space for mindful exercises. No worries — they can be as short as you want them to be. You don’t need to make it obvious to others by assuming a lotus position, closing your eyes and chanting. So be creative! Find the time for several mindful exercises every day.

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.

3. Focus on Doing One Thing at a Time

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 very popular in our rushed society and makes us feel that we’re being more productive. In reality, by not giving our full attention to the task at hand we’re unable to focus clearly and are actually less productive. 

Here are a few ways to kick the multi-tasking habit:

  • Set aside short blocks of time to complete specific tasks or projects and focus only on those during the blocked time. When your mind starts to wander or you’re tempted to check your email or texts, gently bring your attention back to the task. As you become more practiced at this you can make the blocks of time longer.
  • 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 breaks between tasks. Once you’ve completed a task, get up, stretch, take some deep breaths or go for a mindful walk.
4. Use 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:

  • Add mindful exercises in your daily schedule – set an appointment with yourself, and keep it.
  • Post a small note or picture on your desk to 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 bells and rings in the workplace as “bells of mindfulness.”      
 5. Focus on 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 predisposes us 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 workplaces 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?

Gratitude!

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. At the end of each day, take a few minutes and write down five things that you’re grateful for that day. Some days will be easier than others, but try to find five things that you can list each day. Once you establish this habit you’ll find yourself focusing more on the positive things in your life, which will boost your happiness and contentment.
  • 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.
  • Give Back. Giving to others is not just a good thing to do, it’s also good for you! People who regularly volunteer tend to have less depression and stress. Helping others gives you a sense of purpose and personal satisfaction, and volunteering can improve your social network as well. So find a way to give back — your money, your time and talents, your support. You’ll be making the world a better place and making yourself happier as well.
  • Show Appreciation. Tell the people in your life — family, friends, co-workers, the barista who makes your morning coffee — how much you appreciate what they do for you. It will keep you focused on the positive and will improve your relationships as well. Plus, you’ll be making their day brighter as well! 

A guest blog by Kate Taylor

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