Why Top-Leaders Are Practicing Mindfulness - And Four Steps To Get Started
This is article was originally publishedion Forbes.
Everybody talks about mindfulness these days. But what is it actually? Here is a short explanation that will make you sound like an expert next time a colleague brings up the topic.
Mindfulness is about generating greater mental effectiveness, so that you can realize more of your potential on both a professional and a personal level. Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years. In our work with organizations around the world, we keep the practice and definition of mindfulness simple and close to its ancient roots: paying attention, in the present moment, with a calm, focused, and clear mind.
What happens when you practice mindfulness
The ability to manage attention and focus increases. At the center of the practice of mindfulness is learning to manage your attention. When you learn how to manage your attention, you learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn to hold your focus on what you choose, whether it’s this page, an email, a meeting, or the people you are with. In other words, you train yourself to be more present in the here and now.
Overall health improves. Research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on our physiology, psychology, and work performance. At the physiological level, researchers have demonstrated that mindfulness training results in a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. In addition, people who practice mindfulness sleep better and feel less stressed.
Problem-solving and other cognitive skills significantly improves. Mindfulness training increases the density of grey cells in our cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that thinks rationally and solves problems. Because of this increase, cognitive function improves, resulting in better memory, increased concentration, reduced cognitive rigidity, and faster reaction times. With all these benefits, research has found people who practice mindfulness techniques report an overall increased quality of life.
Sustainable increase in organizational performance
The benefits of mindfulness have also been demonstrated in an organizational context. For example, Jochen Reb, a researcher from Singapore Management University evaluated the effectiveness of some of our mindful leadership programs at Carlsberg Group and If Insurance, a large Scandinavian insurance company. He found significant improvements in focus, awareness, memory, job performance, and overall job satisfaction after only nine weeks of training for ten minutes each day. Attendees also reported reduced stress and improved perceptions of work–life balance. Other researchers have found similar benefits from mindfulness training in corporate contexts, including increased creativity and innovation, improved employer–employee relations, reduced absenteeism, and improved ethical decision making.
A stronger executive brain function makes us better leaders
But mindfulness does something far more powerful than all of the above—it constructively alters our perception of reality. Through repeated practice, mindfulness triggers a shift in cognitive control to frontal brain regions. This enables us to perceive our world, our emotions, and other people without fight-or-flight, knee-jerk reactions and have better emotional resilience.
This change in neurological wiring helps us perceive situations and make decisions more from our conscious mind, avoiding some of the traps of our unconscious biases. Operating more from our prefrontal cortex also enhances our executive function, the control center for our thoughts, words, and actions. A well-developed executive function allows us to better lead ourselves and others toward shared goals. With stronger prefrontal activity, we deactivate our tendency to be distracted and we become more present, focused, and attentive.
Manage focus and awareness to develop a strong performance mindset
There are two key qualities of mindfulness—focus and awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task at hand for an extended period of time with ease. Awareness is the ability to make wise choices about where to focus your attention. Optimal effectiveness is achieved when you’re simultaneously focused and aware.
Focus and awareness are complementary. Focus enables more stable awareness, and awareness enables focus to return to what we’re doing. They work in tandem. The more focused we become, the more we will also be aware—and the other way around. In mindfulness practice, you enhance focus and awareness together. Mindfulness can be presented in a two-by-two matrix, as shown in this figure:
In the lower left quadrant, you’re neither focused nor aware. There is really not much good to say about this state of mind. Most of the mistakes we make arise from this mind state. And in leadership, as elsewhere, this can be harmful. If we are distracted and on autopilot, we are not present with our people. We can’t expect team members to be engaged and feel supported if we ourselves are not fully present.
In the lower right quadrant, you’re aware but easily distracted. Great ideas may arise from this state. But if your mind is too distracted, you’ll have difficulty retaining them and turning them into actions. Good ideas only become innovative solutions when you have the focus to retain and execute them by bringing them into the upper right quadrant.
Looking at the upper left quadrant, when you’re focused but on autopilot, your state of mind can be described as being in “flow.” It can be useful for routine tasks or when exercising. But the problem with this state is that we are not very aware and therefore are at risk of missing out on valuable information. Without awareness, we may not notice the expressions of the people we are meeting with, and hence we may exercise poor judgment. Also, without awareness, we are not able to see or understand our unconscious biases and may make bad decisions.
In the upper right quadrant— “mindful”—we are focused and aware. We are focused on the people we are with and the tasks we do. And at the same time, we have awareness and the ability to see our unconscious bias and regulate accordingly. In today’s always-on and distracted office environments, these two key qualities help us be mentally agile and effective.
In mindfulness practice, we train both our focus and our awareness. When we’re mindful, we’re able to overcome our minds natural tendency to wander. We can maintain focus on an object of our choice, notice when we get distracted, and then make decisions about where to place our attention. When we’re mindful, we also have a greater awareness of what we’re experiencing internally and externally. We can observe our thoughts as they arise and make best judgments what to focus on and what to let go.
Four best-practice mindfulness suggestions to get started
I and my colleagues in Potential Project have trained hundreds of thousands of leaders and employees in mindfulness over the past decade. Based on this, here are a few best-practice suggestions to you if you want to become more mindful:
- Practice 10 minutes of mindfulness training each day. Most people find mornings the best time to practice mindfulness, but you can do it any time of day.
- Stop multitasking. It keeps your mind full, busy, and under pressure. It makes you reactive. Try to maintain focus on a single task, and then notice when you find your mind drifting off to another task — a sign that your brain wishes to multitask. When this happens, mentally shut down all the superfluous tasks entering your thoughts while maintaining focus on the task at hand.
- Avoid reading email first thing in the morning. Our minds are generally most focused, creative, and expansive in the morning. This is the time to do focused, strategic work and have important conversations. If you read your email as you get up, your mind will get sidetracked and you’ll begin the slide toward reactive leadership. Making email your first task of the day wastes the opportunity to use your mind at its highest potential. Try waiting at least 30 minutes, or even an hour, after you get to work before checking your inbox.
- Put it on your calendar. Schedule a check-in with yourself every two weeks to assess how well you’re doing with above tips, or as a reminder to revisit this article to refresh your memory. Consider engaging one of your peers to do the same thing. This gives you a chance to assess each other, which can be both helpful and motivating.