How to be mindful and work smarter

It’s 9.30am and an office worker sips a latte between bursts of typing minutes from yesterday’s meeting. Outlook pings with a new email and she switches to check it. The desk phone rings. She wedges it between shoulder and ear while continuing to scan her inbox. A colleague drops a file on her desk and she gesticulates a thanks, simultaneously registering the buzz of an SMS in her jacket pocket. Hanging up the receiver, she lets out a deep sigh, trying to remember where she was up to. The quiet time spent watching her breath on the meditation cushion this morning feels like a world away.

It’s an all too common scenario. Modern work-life is now characterised by interruptions and competing demands, increasingly so as ever more information is hurled at us from an array of tablets, smartphones and open office arrangements. In fact, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California in the US, if you manage to concentrate for five continuous minutes on one task you’re doing better than most.

Her studies into digital distraction have revealed that three minutes is about how long the average office worker concentrates on their job before they get interrupted or interrupt themselves. And that it can take workers up to 23 minutes to get back to the task they were working on. According to Mark, these interruptions are sapping morale and affecting employee productivity.

The problem is compounded by the tendency of people to compensate for interruptions by working harder. This generally means managing multiple tasks at once. While multitasking can often seem like über efficiency, there is growing evidence to suggest it is actually a poor coping mechanism. In a 2002 paper for Harvard University in the US, Teresa M Amabile and colleagues found that fragmented days of frenetic activity lowered the capacity for innovative thinking in senior workers.

Other studies have found that after just 20 minutes of interruption, workers start to suffer negative consequences. “People in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, greater frustration and more time pressure,” Mark writes in one of her papers.

Finding calm amid the storm

After years of training in vipassana meditation, when Rasmus Hougaard entered the corporate workforce, he was immediately struck by the culture of scattered attention. “Juggling so many tasks, people were just chasing their tails, it was so obviously inefficient,” Hougaard says. “I decided I wanted to bring business leaders and mindfulness teachers together to work out a way of using mindfulness as a tool in the workplace.”

Hougaard now heads The Potential Project, a Sweden-based organisation that teaches mindfulness globally to staff in companies that include Carlsberg, Sony Electronics and General Electric.

A guest at last year’s Mind & Its Potential conference in Sydney, Australia, Hougaard told the audience that, before convincing CEOs to switch their phone on silent, he had to mount a good case as to why our current model is bad for business.

“The brain’s reaction to multiple tasks at the same time is to try to solve them all at once. There is inbuilt inefficiency in this. If you’re writing an email and answer the phone, it takes a few minutes to properly switch tasks. There is much time lost in transitions,” says the anti-multitasking campaigner.

Although multitasking may help you feel like you’re ticking things off the list, Hougaard points to recent studies that show that it makes us less productive and more stressed. American psychiatrist Dr Edward Hallowell, who studied multitasking for over two decades, declared modern workers to be chronic sufferers of “Attention Deficit Trait”: they had lost the ability to focus and had become “frenzied underachievers”. Stanford University researchers found it led to more mistakes and longer time needed to perform tasks.

Citing research showing the human mind wanders in 47 per cent of our waking hours, Hougaard says multitasking comes at the expense of long-term planning and decision-making abilities. “When we’re constantly distracted we lose the capacity for visionary and creative thinking. We become addicted to action and reaction.”

According to Hougaard, the most powerful antidote to the habit of distractions is mindfulness. “The mind is like a muscle; it can be strengthened and toned and make us more present. And it can be trained to more effectively engage in everyday work activities to be more productive, efficient, collaborative and creative.

“Mindfulness is a mental discipline that helps keep the mind on the single task at hand. It’s basically about learning how to manage our attention,” he adds.

While 10 minutes of formal meditation practice a day is encouraged, Hougaard’s Corporate-Based Mindfulness Training program often starts with tangible goals such as curbing email checks. “Email is the biggest issue for workers now, with 60,000 surveyed Australian employees saying emails were detrimental to their performance,” he says.

Instead of responding to emails first thing in the morning, Hougaard recommends tackling a focus-oriented goal during the first two hours of the day. Email should be scheduled: three periods of one hour a day, for example.

“When we’ve had a night’s sleep and we come to work, there’s a tendency for the mind to be more open about what’s going on around us, meaning we are better able to focus on something that really needs our attention,” says Hougaard, whose business has just developed a phone app that includes a “mindfulness bell” as a reminder to stay present.

“If we want to work smarter rather than harder, we make clear priorities and focus on one thing at a time,” he explains.

A matter of priorities

A senior sports executive within the ACT government, Neale Guthrie welcomed the Corporate Based Mindfulness Training as a way of managing his stress: “As an events manager I was always on 10 channels at once. I’d be constantly scanning emails and interrupted by people asking me things. Two years ago a promotion gave me responsibility for a second group, which meant I was twice as busy. I was really struggling and stressed out.”

During the training, Guthrie began to sit and watch his breathing for 10 minutes every morning, as well as learning to “be present” with one task at a time, and set priorities. “My job still demands multitasking but, rather than doing the nine other things in my head at the same time, I’ve learnt to be in the moment with whatever I’m doing,” Guthrie says.

“Late afternoon I sit down and write down all the actions that need doing. Then I star the ones I want to concentrate on. When I come into work the next day I don’t look at the others; I just focus on three main things and make sure I allocate time for them,” he says.

“I’ve learnt to shut the door when I need to focus, and to walk around and check in with my staff to see if there are any issues. I’m also realistic and know that I might need to re-prioritise when the unexpected arises.”

Guthrie Deals with his 200 emails a day by scanning them twice a day for anything urgent and then setting discrete times to respond. “I look at people now; they’re in a meeting and they’ll be writing emails or making lists. Sometimes that’s OK. But I see a lot of time wasted, too,” he says. “You can have many irons in the fire but only be with one at a time. When the phone rings, I am now mindful of taking that distraction and then returning to the main task.”

Another eureka moment came for Guthrie when he learnt to adopt an attitude of “beginner’s mind”. “As a senior executive I’ve cycled through the same issues two or three times. I’d shoot down ideas because they didn’t work three years ago. Now I try to look at everything fresh.”

Guthrie found that as his productivity went up, so too did his sense of wellbeing. “My blood pressure dropped. Work colleagues said I wasn’t as wound up and my wife noticed I was far more relaxed,” he says.

“The course helped me rediscover some calm and focus in my everyday life both at work and at home. I am now much improved at being in the moment, actually hearing what is being said and able to prioritise the important over the noise of a busy work life.

“It’s not zen and crazy hippies. We’re in the sports industry — it’s chips and beer on weekends. But this really works. It’s simple but effective.”

As Guthrie’s colleagues attest, the benefits of applying mindfulness in the workplace extend beyond improvements in focus to interpersonal relations.

Mindfulness & professional empathy

Eve Ekman, a San Franciscan social worker and trainer in the use of emotional regulation and mindfulness to reduce stress and burnout, claims that applying the techniques of present-centredness in the workplace develops “professional empathy”. This, she says, is equally beneficial to worker productivity as time management.

“When people feel overwhelmed by the stress burdens of their relationships and work, they may feel their only option is to emotionally disengage. This disengagement is a sign of burnout and generally has a serious impact on communication, co-operation and empathy with co-workers and friends,” says Ekman, another keynote speaker at the 2013 Mind & Its Potential conference.

According to Ekman, there is a direct relationship between burnout and a lack of empathy. “Burnout is basically chronic stress. By using mindfulness techniques you can facilitate the regulation of emotions before they become ‘over-aroused’ and create stress,” Ekman says.

“In this way, developing professional empathy is a preventative for burnout. We train in the use of emotional and cognitive intelligence to understand another’s experience.”

Using the example of a school teacher, Ekman explains that instead of reacting when a student starts acting out, professional empathy would engage a curiosity as to the reason for the behaviour, and a more informed path of response would follow. Ekman would also encourage a teacher struggling with the daily demands to come back to the original inspiration for their vocation, connecting to the extrinsic rewards of their work.

The Cultivating Emotional Balance training that Ekman now spearheads is a continuation of the pioneering work of her father, Dr Paul Ekman. It arose from a dialogue between biobehavioural scientists studying emotion and the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and scholars at the Mind & Life Institute in Dharamsala, India, in March, 2000.

At this meeting, the Dalai Lama asked scientists if they could conduct research to determine whether or not secularised Buddhist practices would be helpful to Westerners dealing with “destructive” emotional experiences. In response to this request, Dr Ekman and Dr Alan Wallace developed a training program. It integrated Buddhist contemplative practices with Western techniques and the science of emotion to reduce destructive emotional responses and enhance compassion and empathy.

The field results have been encouraging. Guards at a juvenile jail in San Mateo, in the US state of California, learned over two day-long sessions how to identify their own emotional flashpoints and to read other people’s emotions more accurately. Before the training was finished, the guards pronounced it the most profoundly beneficial professional training they’d ever received.

Ekman teaches simple mindfulness meditation techniques that can be used to notice tension rising and to derail destructive thoughts before they escalate. “Mindfulness practice gives us a calm mind that is not bedraggled by stress so we can start exploring the emotion with some space,” she says.

Start on the cushion, says Ekman, and then let it expand into your work life. “My teacher says if you have two minutes a day, make sure they matter. It is not selfish; it is important and will benefit all beings.”

The potential project

Try these key practices to benefit from mindfulness at work:

1. Do 10 minutes of formal mindfulness training a day to boost focus and effectiveness.

2. Adopt a new way of working based on multitasking being a myth, in the way you email, have meetings, communicate, take breaks — you get the picture.

3. Develop mental strategies to deal more effectively with opportunities and challenges, such as dealing with stressful situations with presence and patience rather than the automatic reaction of fight, flight or freeze.


Claire Dunn is a freelance journalist and writer based in the Hunter Valley of NSW, Australia. She has just released My Year Without Matches, her memoir about a year lived in the wilds.

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.

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