Focusing the Mind by Staying Present
Take a moment to notice the “here and now.”
Do you ever find yourself dwelling on the past? Perhaps you can’t stop replaying a conversation in your head and thinking about what you should have said. Or, maybe you’re anxious about the future, and ask yourself endless “what if” questions.
It can be easy to get caught up in a web of anxious thoughts. But this can negatively impact our productivity and our health and well-being, and lead to more reasons to worry.
One way of stopping this pattern is to practice mindfulness – that is, concentrating our attention exclusively on the present in order to focus the mind and avoid distractions.
But how can we use mindfulness in the workplace? And what benefits can it bring to our personal and professional lives? In this article, we seek to answer these questions and bring together findings from the latest research.
What Is Mindfulness?
The Oxford Mindfulness Center defines mindfulness as “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.” Put simply, when you demonstrate mindfulness, you’re fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions, but, equally, you don’t get caught up in them.
The roots of mindfulness lie in ancient Eastern religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism, but there’s no need to follow any faith to benefit from it. The term is often used interchangeably with “meditation,” because mindfulness meditation is one of the most popular applications.
In the next section, we look at what mindfulness involves and provide a step-by-step guide on how you can practice it.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness sounds easy, but it’s important to note that you need to practice it regularly – preferably every day – in order to achieve long-lasting benefits. Here are five steps to get you started:
- Mindfulness Meditation – To practice mindfulness meditation you first need to find somewhere comfortable. Sit in an upright but relaxed position, and focus on your breathing. Pay attention to how it feels, listen to the sound of your breath, and feel your chest expand and contract. Don’t get frustrated with yourself if distracting thoughts arise. Instead, just be aware that you are getting distracted and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Aim to do this for at least one minute. Tip: If you want some more tips on how to practice mindfulness meditation, there are plenty of courses and resources available online, many of which are free. Mindfulness apps, such as Headspace™ and buddhify™, also provide guided meditation and advice.
- Observe Your Environment – Busy lives, social media, and our growing reliance on technology have meant that we can find it hard to keep focused. Regain your concentration by paying more attention to what’s going on around you right now. You don’t have to meditate to do this, either. You can practice it at work, on your commute, or at home. Look at the people near you (if it’s culturally appropriate). Really feel the ground and the sensation of your feet on it. What objects are around you? What sounds can you hear? What smells are there?
- Slow Down – Concentrate on completing one task at a time to the best of your ability. The pace and demands of work can fracture our attention, and leave us feeling excessively hurried or overwhelmed, which can reduce the quality of our work. If you still get distracted, don’t feel guilty. Instead, simply notice the distraction and gently direct your attention back to the task at hand.
- Pay Attention to Routine Tasks – Another way to cultivate mindfulness in your life is to think differently about an activity that you do routinely. For example, filing paperwork, washing dishes, or raking leaves. Simply pay attention to the detail of the task. For example, feel the paper between your fingers, experience the sensation of warm water on your hands, or listen to the sounds of the rustling leaves. Doing this prevents your mind from getting distracted by other anxieties or worries. Try to focus your mind like this for at least five minutes. You might find that you enjoy the activity more and you may feel more positive once you have completed it.
- Accept Your Feelings – How many times a day do you judge your own thoughts and feelings? For example, you might think, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or, “That’s a terrible thought.” Part of being mindful means not judging your thoughts and feelings as “right” or “wrong,” as this can often lead to low self-esteem. So, next time this happens, remember that such thoughts and feelings will pass. These thoughts do not define you, they don’t have to mean anything, and as long as you are aware of them you have the choice whether to act on them or not.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
In recent years, many big organizations have begun to invest in mindfulness. Google, Nike and Procter & Gamble, for example, provide meditation rooms and classes for employees, and the U.S. Army uses it to help soldiers to deal with stress, before and after deployment. The advantages of using mindfulness include:
- Better Focus – Mindfulness helps to keep you present “in the moment,” so that you can devote your full attention to what you are doing right now, and minimize the impact of distractions. But it’s not a quick fix – you’ll get into a state of “flow” more easily and quickly if you use mindfulness regularly.
- Improved Mental and Physical Health – Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness can change the structure of our brains so that we respond to stress in a healthier way and retain information for longer. It lowers our production of the “stress hormone” cortisol (which can have damaging effects on our hearts), and helps us to regulate our emotions. And when we’re not busy worrying about the past or future, we can approach day-to-day challenges more calmly. This will likely reduce our negative self-talk and boost our self-confidence . Mindfulness can be particularly effective in reducing the negative effects of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, when it’s used in combination with medication and cognitive behaviorial therapy (CBT). And researchers have also discovered that people who practice mindfulness meditation for eight weeks can experience physical health benefits, too, such as an increase in the antibodies associated with immune function. Warning: – Despite its many benefits, mindfulness meditation can sometimes have negative side effects, especially in people who have serious underlying conditions such as depression or PTSD. Negative thinking can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While mindfulness has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing occasional negative thinking, you should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any concerns over related illnesses, or if negative thoughts are causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
- Greater Resilience – Psychologists describe how people tend to develop and protect a “narrative self” – that is, we tell ourselves stories that paint a picture of who we are. But sometimes, life events challenge these stories, causing us pain and confusion. However, a mindful focus on the present can lead us to see the “experiential” self instead, which can help us to be more adaptable and responsive. So, we’ll likely be more resilient in the face of sudden job loss or dramatically changing markets , for example.
- Stronger Relationships – Emotional Intelligence (EI) involves strong self-awareness so, as you might expect, studies have linked mindfulness to higher EI. Another study concluded that mindfulness can help us to develop empathy, and to increase altruistic behavior. Also, when we’re fully present in a situation, we can respond more authentically to people, which builds trust and increases understanding. Together, these qualities will likely help you to create more meaningful connections and better relationships with your co-workers.
- Enhanced Creativity – Mindfulness can encourage divergent thinking , enabling you to generate more innovative solutions to business problems. In one experiment, for example, researchers found that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation for just 10 minutes prior to a brainstorming session produced ideas in nine different categories, compared to just five for the control group.
Mindfulness involves being fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. It means being present in every moment and paying close attention to what is going on right now, instead of worrying about the past or the future.
You can develop mindfulness by following these five steps:
- Meditate regularly.
- Observe your environment.
- Slow down.
- Pay attention to routine tasks.
- Accept your feelings.
Practicing mindfulness has a number of advantages. It can benefit your mental and physical well-being. And, in your working life, it can reduce stress, improve focus and concentration, increase resilience, aid creativity, and increase your emotional intelligence.
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