While building mindfulness into your day might seem daunting, the benefits could have a positive impact on both your mental and physical health, says Dina Smith
This article was first published in the February/March 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
If you’re like the senior leaders in my executive coaching practice, you know that mindfulness offers a host of benefits. It can help you reduce stress, improve your mood, increase your ability to regulate emotions, and even improve general physical health.
And while that sounds great, you barely have enough time for your many work and life commitments as it is. Where would you find time to meditate or practise mindfulness? As a busy professional with two kids and other commitments, I appreciate how adding one more thing to your schedule feels like a non-starter.
Fortunately, there is another way. A key distinction is in order first. Mindfulness and meditation have many similarities and can overlap, but they’re not the same thing. Meditation in its various forms typically involves a formal, seated practise that supports a more mindful approach to life. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is simply about being fully in the present moment and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, movements, or other information coming into your five senses in real time. The great news about mindfulness is that you can practise it anytime, anywhere. All you need to do is purposefully pay attention, in an open and non-judgemental way, to your direct experience of the here and now.
Staying in the present, however, is far easier said than done. Our brains are immensely talented time-travellers, often working over things that have already happened or worrying about future events. In fact, studies have shown that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.
But similar to how lifting weights will makes your muscles stronger, practising mindfulness will strengthen your brain’s ability to stay present. Here are three simple ways that I and other busy leaders have found to easily incorporate mindfulness into our days.
Convert a mindless activity
How many tasks do you process each day in a mindless way? Whether it be taking a shower, driving or performing some repetitive chore, we move through countless activities like drones on autopilot. All these daily activities present an incredible opportunity to practise mindfulness.
One simple technique involves focusing all of your attention on your five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feel – to directly experience your activity. One enjoyable time to practise this technique is eating, but you can do this with any activity.
Stop everything else you are doing to fully experience your food and the process of eating it through your senses. Smell the aromas and notice the colours and texture. Feel the smoothness and weight of your utensils in your hand as you lift them. Notice each flavour, how the food feels in your mouth and the act of chewing. As you eat, your attention will wander. This is normal. As thoughts arise and you catch yourself elsewhere, gently bring your focus back.
Another daily opportunity to practise this technique is when you walk, whether it be on your way to work, taking the dog out or going to meet a colleague for lunch. Choose a time and rather than letting your mind wander, focus your attention on directly experiencing your walk through your five senses. Notice the feel of your foot touching the ground and the movement of your legs and arms. What sounds do you hear? What aromas do you smell? What tastes do you notice?
Focus on your breathing
Your breath can be a powerful ally for practising mindfulness and your overall health. Slow, deep breathing increases oxygen to the brain, supporting cognitive function, and decreases muscle tension and stress. Your breath not only provides you with a focus for practising mindfulness but is a simple and highly effective tool you can use to relax and reset yourself anytime you feel tension and stress rising.
While there are countless mindful breathing techniques, the simplest is to simply count your breaths. Start by counting one on the inhale, two on the exhale, three on the inhale, and so on up to a count of 10. Repeat the cycle back at one, all the while keeping your focus on following your breath as you rhythmically and deeply inhale and exhale from your belly.
An easy time to focus on breathing is when you find yourself waiting for a couple minutes: perhaps for a taxi, at the airport or a store. Rather than reflexively whipping out your phone to quickly check your email or social media, take a minute or two to focus your full attention on breathing intentionally and deeply. This will help you build your mindfulness muscles and increase your ability to quickly access this relaxation tool in times of need.
Listen mindfully to others
Deeply listening to the people around you is a critical and often overlooked leadership skill. All too often, we only partially listen: we may be multitasking, thinking about something else or formulating a response before the other person is done speaking. The countless conversations you have every day offer another opportunity to practise being present and will connect you more powerfully to others.
Listening mindfully is simple but not easy. Stop everything you are doing and give the other person your undivided attention. Let go of your agenda and focus entirely on what they are trying to tell you. Listen for the feelings beneath their words and notice what their body language may be telling you. When you notice a thought or response arising, gently let it go and reorient back to the other person. Let them finish everything they want to say before you choose how to respond.
As you can see, it is possible to practise mindfulness throughout your current day. To build this habit and quality of mind, start small and anchor it to something that is already part of your existing daily routine. Know that you’ll lose your focus constantly in the beginning: this is normal.
The magic of mindfulness is that the benefits extend far beyond your practice sessions. May you enjoy both the process and outcomes.
Dina Smith is an executive coach and owner of Cognitas, a boutique leadership development firm.