Training the mind to focus on the here and now rather than wandering off here and there can improve your decision-making and your stress levels, says Rob Yeung
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This article was first published in the January 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Would you like to feel less stressed at work or make better decisions? Would you like to feel less exhausted, have more control over your emotions or derive more satisfaction from your job?
All these positive outcomes are linked to a mental state known as mindfulness. In simple terms, mindfulness is defined as being consciously aware of our moment-to-moment experience, which includes not only the information we perceive through our physical senses but also the thoughts and feelings we are having.
Contrast that with states of mind that are not mindful: if you find yourself caught up in irrelevant thoughts, unlikely daydreams or past regrets perhaps, or if you rush around busily doing activities while running on automatic mental pilot.
To experience mindfulness, try a brief exercise: close your eyes for a minute and just focus on the sensations of your breathing. Breathe normally through your nose and simply pay attention to the feeling of the air entering and exiting your nostrils. Soon you may notice your mind wandering, as you think about tasks you need to complete at work or home. Many people also get distracted by thoughts about past mistakes or current problems.
Training the mind
Studies have detected benefits from mindfulness training almost immediately. One research investigation led by scientist Michael Mrazek at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that only eight minutes of performing mindfulness resulted in psychological benefits that were greater than from the same time spent either reading or relaxing quietly.
However, the most impressive benefits of mindfulness have typically been observed after many hours of practice. Investigators led by the University of Melbourne’s Richard Chambers found that people who completed an intensive 10-day programme (around 110 hours) of mindfulness training experienced improved memory and attention, and psychological well-being. Other studies that reported benefits such as reduced stress and greater job satisfaction have typically asked participants to perform mindfulness for up to 30 minutes daily for around eight to 10 weeks.
There is likely to be a dose-response relationship between mindfulness and its benefits, much as there is between physical exercise and its positive effects. Run, swim or play tennis for an hour a month and you will likely get some but limited benefits; engage in a bigger ‘dose’ of physical activity for perhaps several hours a week and you almost certainly get greater benefits. Similarly, occasional mindfulness likely accrues only certain benefits; more frequent and/or longer mindfulness may lead to greater gains.
The benefits of mindfulness are not purely subjective, either. Scientists led by Harvard Medical School’s Britta Hölzel used magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brains of participants after an eight-week mindfulness programme and found increased grey matter concentration in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, among others. In other words, mindfulness training is able to change the very structure of the human brain.
Modern mindfulness is an entirely secular training exercise unrelated to religion. Just as physical exercise hones the body, mindfulness strengthens the mind and our ability to focus on what we want to focus on. You can practise mindfulness in its most basic form simply by focusing on your breathing, as I suggested earlier. When your mind inevitably wanders, gently bring your awareness back to your breathing. Perhaps set a quiet timer to go off when you want to finish.
If you find it difficult to practise mindfulness for 10 to 20 minutes in one go, aim for smaller chunks throughout the day. When clients tell me that they are too busy, I advise them to try practising mindfulness only on certain days of the week. Practising mindfulness occasionally will still likely deliver more benefits than never doing it.
If you would like more formal guidance, download two instructional audio tracks that I have recorded at bit.do/mindful-audio. These are available for free, but the site requires email registration. Alternatively, follow the link to the accompanying ACCA video.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk.
CPD technical article
"Mindfulness training is able to change the very structure of the human brain"