Reframing (the Science of) Mindfulness for Skeptics

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If words like “meditation” and “mindfulness” conjure up images of a yoga retreat or something that seems equally irrelevant to your professional life, this article is for you.

Working Out Our Mental Muscle

Although it sounds easier said than done, attention is a mental muscle; like any other muscle, it can be strengthened through the right kind of exercise. Meditation and mindfulness, which are the fundamental exercises for building deliberate attention, are actually quite simple: whenever your mind wanders, notice that it has wandered, bring it back to your desired point of focus and keep it there for as long as you can.

From a neuroscience perspective, meditation pertains to what we are paying ‘attention’ to, and mindfulness pertains to the ‘awareness’ of where we are directing our ‘attention’. What we pay ‘attention’ to, and our ‘awareness’ of it, impacts our brain and outlook.

We live in the era of knowledge, and business moves faster than ever. Information overload is real and distractions are constant. Cognitive control takes place in the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain in charge of abstract thinking, thought analysis and behaviour regulation. Once bolstered through a bit of practice, cognitive control allows you to stay focused even in the face of disruptions or impediments. It should come as no surprise, then, that cognitive control is a highly desirable quality of successful leaders. This is how meditation and mindfulness can be used to enhance your professional life.

Distraction Inaction is Real

A quick reality check—how often does this happen? You’re sitting at your desk concentrating on something when one of your devices sounds a notification. You check it and promptly return to the task at hand. A colleague pops by to ask you a “quick question.” Then there’s an incoming email notification…then a phone call…then a loud conversation that spills over from the other room, and so on.

Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you haven’t even made a dent in your to-do list. Anxiety goes up as productivity goes down. The spiral continues in a seemingly endless cycle.

From emails and social media notifications to advertisements, our focus is more challenged than ever. Notifications elevate our feelings of urgency, and resisting the temptation to check them has become one of the great challenges of our time.The average person looks at their phone 52 times a day and experiences an interruption every three minutes. After an interruption, it can take anywhere from 5-23 minutes to return to the original task.

Linking Wandering Minds and Worry

We’re also locked in a fierce battle for attention with our own minds. One study of over 15,000 people found that their minds wandered nearly half of the day. During these periods of mind-wandering, people report being less happy than when they are focused in the present moment.

That’s because mind-wandering often involves worrying. With access to more information than ever, we are hyper-aware of dangers near and far, from disease, terrorism and credit card fraud to climate change and gluten. Our negativity bias is in overdrive.

Our brains evolved to perceive danger everywhere, yet in reality there is only about one real “tiger” for every 99 we perceive. Research has shown that the repeated stress triggered by those imaginary tigers is detrimental to our health, and it can also lead to decreased engagement and performance.

Making Mindfulness a Habit

Here’s the good news. With discipline about where you focus your awareness, it is possible to manage distractions. You can shut off email, turn off audible notifications and tune out noise by working in a quiet place.

As Donald Hebb, the influential Canadian psychologist once said, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your experiences become entrenched in your mind through a system of neurons. When you repeat a behaviour, the neuro-pathways involved in that behaviour become even stronger and habits are formed. Once the habit is formed, your brain uses less energy because those pathways are already strengthened and the behaviour is routine.

This can work to your benefit. More mindfulness leads to higher emotional intelligence—higher self-awareness, self-regulation, deeper motivation, better empathy, and better social skills. And it is self-reinforcing; it gets easier each time.

Reducing the Strain on Your Brain

Research shows that mindfulness can create lasting changes. The University of British Columbia has found that the practice of mindfulness meditation impacts many regions of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for self-control—focusing, managing impulses, and resisting temptation and distractions.

Another area of the brain that is significantly impacted by mindfulness is the hippocampus, which is associated with emotion, memory, and managing setbacks. Unfortunately, stress can have a damaging effect on the hippocampus—those who experience chronic stress have been shown to have smaller hippocampi than average, coupled with a reduced capacity for resilience. Mindfulness can help counteract that stress.

Another study found that meditators demonstrated better self-regulation, resisted more distractions and made fewer errors than non-meditators. These abilities are imperative for personal and organizational leadership, where mental fortitude and resiliency are necessary to cope with change and setbacks.

Focus is Good for your Health

Outside of work, meditation can be a life-saver. An 11-year study comparing non-meditators with meditators found significant reductions in illness and a 63 per cent reduction in healthcare costs for those who practiced meditation.

Other research has shown that mindfulness training reduces stress hormones, builds immunity, increases focus, improves sleep and creativity and boosts happiness. Clearly, mindfulness meditation is powerful stuff.

Mindfulness was first introduced to the mass market in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who traveled the world teaching an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It was later discovered that his students had developed greater cortical thickness, which is known to ward off age-related cognitive and mental health diseases. Thankfully, mindfulness practices have now entered the mainstream.

Strengthening the Mental Muscle

Ready to begin? There are a variety of resources available. Headspace.com offers a mobile app that helps you exercise your mental muscle through mindfulness meditation—with a practice that is simplified for beginners. Using a mindfulness app is a pleasant, if not ironic, upside to being tied to a mobile device.

Whether you choose a technological aid or practice the old-fashioned way by setting aside quiet time for inward focus, mindfulness meditation is an essential tool for professional life in the 21st Century.

 


 

As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™ (www.e-leadershipacademy.com), Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.

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