From Oprah to Kobe Bryant, many icons have taken to mindfulness. Is it a fad, like juice diets or Pokémon Go, or does mindfulness offer something of substance?
Scientists have been studying the impact of practicing mindfulness for years. Brain scans have revealed that meditation, the main way of practicing mindfulness, physically changes the structure of one’s brain for the better, strengthening regions associated with memory, emotional control, and learning. These changes can be seen in as little as eight weeks. Other studies have revealed a host of other benefits, all of which foster innovation.
Mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention on purpose with curiosity. Mindfulness is about switching off autopilot so you can choose what you pay attention to rather than react out of habit. It’s also about replacing your familiar way of viewing the world, through a lens of judgement and evaluation, with a lens of curiosity and eagerness to learn.
Mindfulness is a simple concept. It can be difficult to practice though because our minds like to wander off. Our minds often act like the dog from Up; anytime there’s a distraction like a juicy squirrel, they chase after it. Our minds also love to judge. It’s their way of making sense of the world. However, this tendency sharply limits our ability to innovate. We end up traveling in the same, familiar ruts of thought. Growing our ability to focus deliberately and to be curious rather than judgmental frees us to innovate.
If you’re still wondering why you would want to cultivate this state of mind, below are some compelling reasons.
- Creativity – Practicing mindfulness boosts your capacity to think divergently. To innovate, we must be able to create a multitude of ideas from which we can choose the best ones to develop.
- Stress and anxiety reduction – Mindfulness reduces our anxiety and stress by cutting down on ruminating, or obsessing over problems. When we spend less time fixating on the negative, we have more time for solutions and growth. We can apply our creativity productively rather than using our creativity to ramp up our heart rates.
- Emotional intelligence – Engaging in mindfulness enhances our emotional intelligence, which is key for improving collaboration. In fact, Google discovered that empathy, a product of increased emotional intelligence, made their most successful teams so productive. If you want to boost your organization or team’s collective output, try increasing everyone’s emotional intelligence.
- Diversity and inclusion – The main barrier to diversity and inclusion is unconscious bias, or prejudices we have against certain groups of people we are not even aware that we have. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce these unconscious biases so that organizations can take advantage of the best that everyone has to offer rather than inadvertently discriminating on the basis of race, age, gender, or some other way we categorize one another.
- Sleep – About 60 million US Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, and countless others struggle with the quality or quantity of sleep. Lack of quality sleep can degrade focus, happiness, and productivity. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control has classified it as a public health concern. Practicing mindfulness leads to improved sleep. With better sleep, we can think clearly, act rationally, feel happier, and be more productive.
- Focus – Contrary to popular belief, multitasking reduces productivity. To overcome the strong tendency to multitask, we need to build our capacity to focus for long periods of time. Mindfulness develops our capacity to focus so that we can work on a task until we’ve finished it. This kind of focus is essential for producing the most valuable work, what Cal Newport refers to as deep work.
- Happiness – Mindfulness shifts us away from negative thinking and toward the positive. Humanity has a strong negativity bias, so when our minds wander, they tend to gravitate toward the negative. The Harvard study’s title that proves this fact sums up our tendency nicely: “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” With mindfulness, we gain more control over where we focus our thoughts so we can choose to focus on the positive more often. We can still focus on the negative, but it’s our choice as to when we do this as opposed to drifting toward it as a default mode. This ability to choose yields increased happiness, another pillar of productivity and innovation.
- Resilience – We will experience many, many setbacks in our personal and professional lives. How we handle these setbacks determines whether we learn and grow from them or whether we retreat and wither. Mindfulness cultivates resilience so that we can quickly recover from setbacks and regard them as educational opportunities rather than indicators of self-worth.
- Addiction treatment – Addictions sap our potential for happiness and productivity. Mindfulness has proven to be superior to traditional methods of quitting smoking. Mindfulness has even bested traditional methods of addressing addictions to such drugs as crack cocaine. It does so by making us more aware of our thoughts as thoughts, not as absolute reality. It also cultivates our ability to recognize our emotions and urges and to just observe them without acting on them. This awareness and self-control has helped individuals break free from addictions so that they can reach their potential.
- Job satisfaction – Onsite mindfulness training increases employees’ satisfaction with their overall jobs. At a time when so many employees are dissatisfied and disengaged with their work, doing onsite mindfulness presents a huge opportunity to increase retention and boost productivity.
Mindfulness holds tremendous promise for improving people’s lives both personally and professionally. As scientists continue to enhance our understanding of the benefits of mindfulness, employers ought to start capitalizing on their findings. They can set up workplace mindfulness programs to create daily meditation practices for their employees. Integrating mindfulness into wellness programs can be easily accomplished.
We’ll cover best practices for establishing a workplace program in another article. In the meantime, please let me know what experiences you may have had with workplace mindfulness.
About the Author
Ed Maxwell runs Third Left Wellness, a consulting firm that improves organizations through mindfulness. He holds his MBA in corporate finance from the University of Wisconsin Business School, and he has been trained by the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness. Recently, he gave a TED talk on how mindfulness can reduce unconscious bias.