Perhaps you’ve read the growing body of scientific evidence that mindfulness improves mental and physical health, self-regulation, and quality of relationships. You are convinced you should do it.
But weaving mindfulness into a busy day at the office is easier said than done. The thought of sitting down for a 20 minute meditation session in order to be mindful sounds impossible given the demands of your day. But it is possible to incorporate mindfulness into even the busiest of work days.
I believe you, but I just can’t seem to do it.
Ever heard these statements or maybe even said them to yourself?
“I don’t really know how to meditate.”
“I just don’t have time to meditate.”
“It feels kind of weird to just sit there and do nothing when I’m supposed to be working.”
“Even when I try to remember, I usually just put it off until I’m so busy that it feels impossible.”
These are words uttered by folks who agree that practicing mindfulness is a good idea. It’s not a question of believing. It’s a question of finding ways of doing it (or consciously not doing, as Jon Kabat-Zinn might say). We suggest you don’t have to meditate regularly to experience the benefits of mindfulness.
This suggestion is based on a very small but growing body of research exemplified by Jean Kristeller and Ruth Wolever, who used “mini-meditation” in the form of brief practices as part of their work cultivating mindfulness with clients. We believe it is only a matter of time before the research in this area expands to show that this practice is effective in more than just clinical settings.
From inaction to action – rejecting dichotomy, embracing inertiaToo many of us buy into the dichotomy that if we’re not engaging in a consistent practice of meditation, we aren’t “doing mindfulness.”
However when we consider the literature on attention, it becomes clear that we don’t have to meditate regularly to move toward being regularly mindful. Does it help to meditate? Absolutely. But too many folks believe meditation is the only pathway to mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness may be cultivated a number of ways.
You can overcome such all-or-nothing thinking. More important than whether you have a regular meditation practice is whether you are practicing mindfulness right now. By connecting short moments of mindfulness, we can cultivate a sense of momentum that builds over time. Even if you forgot to practice your exercises for a week, just by noticing that you forgot, you’ve practiced a bit of mindfulness. Now you’re back on track.
Short Moments of Mindfulness
A number of techniques can be used to inject moments of mindfulness into the busiest of work days, without losing any productivity. In fact, the following techniques will boost productivity as well as mindfulness.
These simple mini-mindfulness techniques don’t require formal meditation:
- Choose any meeting that you’re attending, and make a sustained effort to focus on the meeting. When your mind wanders to lunch, a deadline, the dishes in the sink, or an upcoming performance review, notice this and gently refocus: “There’s wandering mind… Back to the meeting.” Stay engaged in the present. When you find your mind wandering, bring it back without judging your wandering mind. You can do this with other common work activities, such as reading reports. As you do this consistently you will build your mindfulness momentum.
- Use built-in cues to trigger moments of mindfulness. Set alarms (silent or not, depending on your work environment) to go off intermittently throughout the day, inviting you to notice your breath for just a few moments. As you hear each alarm, notice your immediate response – irritation, reluctance, annoyance, joy – see it as simply a wandering mind. Focus on your breath, and move on with your day.
- Use the same technique with unplanned interruptions. Phone calls, chiming calendar reminders, or pinging instant messages all provide the opportunity to notice your breath. When we do this we can respond instead of react. Do you want to take a phone call or an instant message conversation now? Will it possibly disrupt the productive focus you had on another task? You choose, mindfully.
- As you walk from meeting to meeting, office to elevator, or front door to your car, feel your feet. Notice your steps. As the mind inevitably wanders, come back to just walking. Be with your feet for a few moments, and go about the day.
Mindfulness only brings benefits when we put it into practice. For anyone daunted by the prospect of sitting down for many minutes of meditation, try moments of mindfulness instead. They’re simple, they’re short, and they’re effective.
Try this practice, and let us know about your experiences or your own variations. We’d love to hear from you.
For an introduction to the scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, start with http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf
Fredrickson, B.L., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., Cohn, M.A., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.
Jencke, W. (2010). Meditative exercise. Positive Psychology News Daily. This following article has another example of everyday mindfulness as well as a number of additional references.
Johnson, D. P., Penn, D. L., Fredrickson, B. L., Kring, A. M., Meyer, P. S., Catalino, L. I., & Brantley, M. (2011). A pilot study of loving-kindness meditation for the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research, 129, 137-140.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life. Sounds True.
Kristeller and Wolever (2011). Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: The Conceptual Foundation. Eating Disorders, 19, 49-61.
Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
The top two pictures are used with permission from the author, Chris Wilson, who is also a photographer.
30 Boxes Demo courtesy of Thomas Hawk
Feel your feet courtesy of 5 O’Clock Lab
Amazingly practical suggestions. Thank you!
Thanks Louis! We hope they work out, and we’d love to hear how it goes. Driving is another one. Obviously you can’t shut your eyes while driving, but I just did a little mindful driving on the way from from delivering a training. Just by completely focusing on the driving and not listening to the radio, etc., it can be a mindful experience.
Thanks again for the kind comment.
I do not hear well. In most group gatherings I am not mindful because I don’t hear most of the spoken words. So I do not know what’s going on. People get tearful or laugh out loud and I’m emotionless because I have no idea what the group is finding sad or funny. (I wear my hearing aids regularly.)
I can’t seem to accept this handicap emotionally. I blame myself for my inability to focus or not trying hard enough to hear. I feel deficient because I am so “out of it.” I feel sad and lonely in those situations, even though I know I am liked and respected by the groups I am in and they are sympathetic to my hearing loss. I know these feelings are illogical, but the feelings are there!
I mention all this because I wonder if there is psychological stuff going on with lack of mindfulness that might need more than mindfulness exercises?
I totally empathize with your situation. I’ve played a lot of drums in my life, my hearing isn’t great, and I also sometimes miss what the group is laughing or crying about.
Feeling left out of a group is very painful for almost anyone. We are social animals, wired to value inclusion in any group. The first thoughts that come to mind for me are more practical than psychological:
* I’m sure you’ve tried reading lips; I assume this is difficult when conversation bounces quickly around the room.
* Can you ask someone what was said? Although slightly awkward or perhaps embarrassing, it might be better than being left out? This also might help train/remind others to be more considerate, talk more loudly, etc.
* I’m assuming the hearing aids you have are the best you can afford? (Again please forgive me if I’m just stating the obvious here.)
Ideas on fixing the communication issues aside, I do think mindfulness can help here. Research shows that at least longer periods of meditation add neurons to your prefrontal cortex (PFC), and pathways between the PFC and the limbic system (amygdala, etc.) See the work of Richard Davidson. This backs up what other studies have found: that meditators are better at self-control and control of emotions.
Visualization might also help. It may sound cheesy, but science is clear that visualization works. In the fine book “Buddha’s Brain…”, the author talks about picturing himself as a tree when stress comes. The wind may shake his leaves and even push his limbs around, but the tree stands firmly grounded and ultimately isn’t affected much by the storm.
Perhaps with practice and meditation, even when you experience this painful situation, your PFC visualizing a calmly assuring scene will help the painful experience blow by, so you can more objectively stop blaming yourself, and get the help you need to be more consistently part of the conversation.
I hope this is at least a little helpful. I urge you to stop blaming yourself, recognize that feeling left out is an awful feeling for all of us, and perhaps ask for help from others fixing this problem. I bet your colleagues would love to help.
Chris may have other thoughts to add, but those are mine. Thanks for your comments and question.
Scott and Chris – my personal experience is that the version of mindfulness you discuss has some benefits but it is comparatively small when compared to a full on meditative practice.
To use an exercise analogy – small amounts of incidental exercise undertaken regularly are critical for health – but if you want to have optimal health you need to incorporate more intensive exercise (meditation) as well.
But again – my ideas like yours need to be tested.
It sounds like you’re on the right track, given your last comment. If you are open to it, I would suggest you might benefit greatly from finding a therapist to work with – particularly someone who has experience working with those who have hearing loss. One of the benefits of working with mindfulness in the context of doing therapy is that it can help you move past the blame you put on yourself, and move toward acceptance/acknowledgement of your hearing loss in a non-judgmental way.
You seem to be quite aware of your own experience. As you’ve suspected, my guess is that if you can find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable, you’ll be able to start moving away from blame and toward acceptance. Thank you for your question, Bob. Take care and we wish you well.
First off, thank you for your comment. It’s discourse like this that makes us both Scott and me smile! One of the reasons for this particular article is that there are folks out there who just can’t seem to find it in themselves to start or if they’ve started, continue a formal meditation practice. Our thinking is that for these folks, mini-mindfulness exercises will be a way of beginning to incorporate the practice into their lives. As they see the benefit (because there is no doubt in our minds that folks will see benefit, at least in the immediate moment) our hope is that they will begin to consider your point – “hey, if this mini-mindfulness stuff is helping me, I wonder how much actual formal meditation will help me?”
Also, from a anecdotal perspective, as a psychologist I’ve been using mini-mindfulness work with clients (particularly folks express a resistance to meditation) for several years now. With every client the experience is the same: when they practice the mini-mindfulness exercises they report feeling an overall sense of greater contentment and calm throughout the course of a day. When they complain that they seem to be falling back into old patterns, my first question is “are you noticing your breath throughout the day” and the answer inevitably is something along the lines of “ohhhh…yeah I haven’t been doing it as much this week.”
I think part of the reason we can actually benefit greatly from short periods of practice is because the brain and its neurons work very differently from our muscles and our cardiovascular system. We all know that to build muscle we have to break down the muscle – optimal health from a physical perspective takes longer workouts because those muscles and the cardio system need to be pushed in order to break down.
But with our brain and the neurons inside the brain, we know that neural networks are created in an instant. They also seem to “maintain” much more effectively than muscles/cardio. For example, trauma victims/survivors have neural networks related to a single brief incident that often last a lifetime. So, theoretically at least, we believe that the question of “optimal” benefit is up for debate. Do you have to ride a bike for 30 minutes to build a neural network for how to ride a bike? Or can you ride for five minutes six times a day? From a neurological perspective, we’d suggest the brain will create a lasting neural network for how to ride from both experiences.
All that being said, we are not arguing that brief mindfulness exercises are more beneficial or more effective than formal meditation. Certainly, if people establish formal meditation practices, they will reap the benefits of being mindful throughout the day more quickly. We are simply saying that if one wishes not to start by meditating, there is another way to reap many of the benefits of mindfulness.
We genuinely appreciate the comment, oz, and would love to hear what others think.
In my psychology class we were discussing the positive psychology perspective and how staying positive can improve a persons physical and mental health. What I’m curious about is how this method of meditation can work for everyone? I personally don’t find it relaxing or soothing to take time out of my day to practice this, in fact, it may even stress me out more knowing that I could be taking care of another task that needs to be done. While I can see how some people would find this benificial, what can be said to those of us who find meditating to be unproductive and overall hurt our “positive outlook”?
Excellent “Kaizen” approach to Mindfulness and potentially a gateway to help people get to a more formal practice.
Jeremy, thank you! Exactly what Chris and I are hoping for.
Oz, Chris already shared many thoughts I agree with, but in a nutshell, I’m hoping for what Jeremy wrote: that brief mindfulness practices are much better than nothing, and may be the gateway to longer and more formal meditation practice.
Bob, all I would add to Chris’ response are probably things so obvious they are annoying (any chance your hearing aids can be improved? Any chance you can improve your ability to read lips in a meeting? Would it work to ask for help more often? “What did he say?”)…but there is one thought related to mindfulness that comes to mind.
In the book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” by Hanson and Mendius, the authors describe a visualization technique that I found powerful. The science is clear: visualization works. The authors describe, in times of stress, picturing yourself as a tree. When things get ‘stormy’, your leaves and limbs may get blown around a bit, but the trunk and roots stay firmly rooted. When the storm passes, the tree is still standing strong.
I don’t know if that is helpful or too “out there” for you, but again, I’m suggesting this because science backs up that visualization helps us manage stress. Perhaps this technique, along with what Chris suggests, may be helpful.
Thanks everyone for reading and especially for commenting. Please keep sharing your thoughts.
You are exactly the kind of guy we’re trying to target with this article!
To answer your specific question – what can be said to those of us who find meditating to be unproductive and overall hurt our “positive outlook?” – I’d say a few things:
First off, we’re not suggesting you meditate. In fact, we’re suggesting you not meditate and instead try the mindfulness exercises we’ve suggested. You can engage in these exercises while you’re accomplishing other tasks.
Second, if you engage in the mindfulness exercises that we suggest (one of the crucial components being to notice and re-focus the wandering mind) over time, we suggest you will eventually notice how actively your mind, and not anything else, influences your positive outlook. It’s not meditation, nor anything else you find stressful, that hurts your positive outlook. It’s the judgment and perspective you take toward things you find stressful or unproductive that hurt your positive outlook.
As an example: Nelson Mandella was imprisoned in South Africa for many, many years, simply because of the color of his skin. If anything would hurt one’s positive outlook, it would be false imprisonment in a South African prison. Yet, when you read about how he approached that experience in his life, you find that it does not seem to have negatively affected his outlook – which remained positive.
Third, from the perspective of “if we were asking you to meditate,” I’d suggest that meditation is not intended to be relaxing nor soothing. It is intended to train your mind. While this may be relaxing and soothing to some, it can be disquieting for others – especially when one starts to notice the chaos of their wandering mind. If you were to try meditating and noticed that you were getting stressed out about needing to take care of another task, I’d ask you two questions: if you need to take care of another task so urgently, why are you meditating? and, are you sure you really need to take care of that task, or is that just your mind feeling uncomfortable with what Kabat-Zinn calls “non-doing.”
The reality is that whether it’s comfortable or not, whether it’s soothing or not, meditation has benefits for the brain that have now been shown to be significant by actual hard science. So, when you say “some people find it beneficial,” I say “if you stick with it, you will find what science suggests every brain will find.”
And the good news is we’re not asking you to meditate! Just practice these mindfulness exercises and see what happens. And get back to us. Seriously.
This is a fabulous discussion. Scott and I love the questions and comments. My guess is that you’ll have a reply from him at some point, Matt. Feel free to reply with more questions or comments if you feel like I’ve not accurately understood where you’re coming from.
To Chris’ good response, I would only add: your mileage will vary. Human brains are immensely complex (~100 billion neurons averaging several thousand connections to other neurons!) Everyone’s experience will vary.
I personally believe positive psychology (“the study of what’s right with people”) has a lot to offer. But some techniques will work better for others, and some techniques may not fit at all with someone!
You mentioned feeling stressed by having things to do. As we suggest in the article, you may be able to weave mindfulness into the things you are doing. Really focus on that reading you are doing without distraction, for example. Getting into ‘flow’ is good for happiness and productivity. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology))
Finally I’ll echo Chris when I say big THANKS for your comment and please keep sharing your thoughts. How people apply this stuff–or struggle to–is the really interesting territory!
Hi Matt, I think this is a question of self-control. If you feel you are working on projects that you want to be working on and would rather not waste your time meditating, then do that and be mindful about your approach on the things you are working on. But if you feel that you would like to be able to disconnect from these things and can’t, then developing the skill to shift your awareness to where you want it to be could prove very valuable. Don’t stress out if it feels uncomfortable, just recognize that as your starting point and try to build on it from there.
Great advice! I’m going to share it with my students next year… I finished “The Willpower Instinct” recently. One of the recommendations for increasing willpower was to take a few moments to consciously slow your breathing to four or five breaths a minute (kind of like smiling to feel try to induce happiness). I’m also going to share that with my students…
I have started to view mindfulness as a part of a mindset. You can’t stop to smell the roses without being aware of the blooms and their scent. Taking a breath of fresh air is just another breath unless it is noticed and savored. I won’t thank somebody for their hard work if I don’t consider the effort they put forth. I can’t imagine showing gratitude, awe, appreciation, compassion, or empathy without mindful attention. In fact, so many positive emotions, traits and actions require focus and awareness that mindfulness almost seems mandatory for positive character development.
The default state (mindset) is typically grasping and reactionary. The alternative mindset, which mindfulness trains us for, allows for release and acceptance. I think an important question is: “What kind of person do I want to be?” When I look at the traits associated with mindfulness and meditation, it looks a lot like the qualities that question has me listing.
Thank you for your comments. Much of what you’ve brought up resonates with the discussions Scott and I had while writing the article together. In one such discussion, I shared my experience with my clients who use mindfulness to the extent that it becomes part of who they are: it seems they go from reacting to life, to responding to life. Your notion of release and acceptance is particularly rich, and when combined with the question “what kind of person do I want to be,” would seem to suggest a thoughtful response to life, as opposed to a reaction.
Also, with regard to mindfulness being an integral part of being able to stay positive – Dan Siegel and Richard Davidson (researcher out of Wisconsin) would probably suggest that your comment is backed up research on the brain. I won’t go into great detail here, but research suggests that in creating our narrative, mindfulness appears to keep us grounded in a narrative that avoids what some might call the “negative feedback loops of our past.” So, for example, with a person who consistently sees the negative in situations, teaching that person to notice the breath and be mindful is one way to help move out of that negative feedback loop.
Glad to hear your students will be encouraged to practice mindfulness! I think Scott would agree that to have a teacher/professor who’d shared such thoughts with us in school would have been pretty cool.
Hey folks, I’m just chiming in that this post was super helpful. I’ve read Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and in fact meditated with him and 450 other folks at Plum Village in 2000 — which was sublime and I recommend it to all — so mindfulness meditation has had a huge positive impact on my life. But my own meditation practice is intermittent — like, um, I think I went three years without meditating! It’s on the upsurge now, so I’m re- re- remembering how wonderful meditation is. In the ebb and flow of the incredibly busy, often stressed, and sometimes despairing-at-climate-change-and-species-death lifetime I’m having (also a creative, productive and life-filled lifetime) I return to mindfulness again and again. Here are two examples.
1. Today I was so sad about a close colleague leaving that my eyes filled with tears, with the brand-new intern sitting right here. While open about my sadness, I didn’t want to overwhelm her, and wanted to get our creative productive flow of work back to a calm state quickly. I went into the backyard and for under two minutes, admired a a Rose of Sharon tree and a patch of bee-balm buzzing with bumblebees. I cut two flowers, put them in a wine-bottle vase full of water, returned to the table and was full of life and calm. The simple sweetness of that mindfulness minute returned me to my breath and to the present moment, and instead of being a weight for the new intern i brought a gift to the table.
2. This evening a friend came by to borrow my car but I could see she was literally breathless with excitement and with a time-rush. I handed over the keys but also said, “but first! breathe!” — ok, I also mentioned, “cars kill.” I witnessed her become swiftly grounded, shifting from the ungrounded state that made me almost hesitate to hand over my keys to her. Now I feel confident of her breathing and mindfulness while she drives in rush hour, not so panicked as she was before. It was as if I was watching her feet make full contact with the ground, as her breathing changed.
So, I offer up those little examples as a way to reinforce the incredible variety — endless, really — of simple mindfulness practices. Awareness of beauty, like the beauty of the breeze or a flower; is one form. Honestly, awareness that cars can kill is also a form of mindfulness. Knowing and feeling the trust involved in handing over the car keys is even a form of mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh developed little sayings for mindful awareness related to everyday acts like washing hands, grateful for water; those little sayings are what he calls mindfulness bells.
Thanks for helping “bring me back to my true self.” Your post functions in a lovely way as a mindfulness bell. Keep it ringing.
Thank you for reading and commenting – your examples are wonderful and to know that we had a small part in bringing you back to yourself makes me smile. It’s was a treat to read your comment after a long day.
Take care and enjoy your renewed energy for mindfulness and meditation.
Chris and Scott,
I just listened to an interview of Richard Davidson, who has a new book out with Sharon Begley called, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them. Any chance you all would like to write a review?
Dr. Ben Dean interviewed Dr. Richie Davidson last Friday and perhaps that is the interview you listened to. I had read the book prior to the interview. I was live on the interview and Ben asked me about what I thought about it.I wrote:
“I don’t think I have ever heard as many MentorCoach callers from around the world announce themselves before Dr. Richie Davidson’s interview. What a testament to our group’s curiosity and motivation to help us understand what makes us tick emotionally. Your interview skills, Ben, made the interview personal and revealing. I loved when he mentioned how even a few minutes of focusing on your breathing may have positive health benefits. As a therapist/coach, I have been challenging clients for years to go take a “breathing break” to nourish their souls. Now we now for sure it helps their physical health, too.
I bought Dr. Davidson’s newest book, ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect The Way You Think…’ as soon as you posted it. What a fascinating, cutting edge affective neuroscience optimistic look at how your brain is plastic. No more excuses blaming others. You can alter the way you react and actually re-wire your brain. Fantastic! I especially enjoyed taking his quiz to determine your six emotional styles. And how awareness and focus are imperative.
His discussion about his many-year relationship with the Dalai Lama was meaningful. How the Dalai Lama encouraged him to announce to the world he was a “closet meditator” was a huge jaw-dropper.
My biggest take-aways were:
~ Empathy is a pre-requisite to compassion. Social-emotional intelligence in action.
~ Deep breathing, even a few minutes a day, can jack up your auto-immune system and ward off disease.
~ Emotions are not who we are, nor are our thoughts. Observe your cravings. What do they tell you?
~ Well-being is a skill cultivated through practice.
~ Mindful meditation helps ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and for some may replace need for medication.
I enjoyed every minute of the interview Ben, and the time flew by. Truly, there was nothing negative whatsoever. I thought the questions were superior and enlightening.”
While this is not a review, Kathryn, hope it sheds a little light on the book.
Happy Fourth of July!
I also purchased the book this weekend and either with Scott or on my own will be providing a comprehensive review of it in the coming weeks. I’ve read the first several chapters and while I think he’s ignoring the contributions of Albert Ellis (who spoke of the role of cognition on emotion back in the 1950s) I’m excited that there now appears to be a resource that captures of all Dr. Davidson’s research in one place! So far, it also appears to be written in a way that those with very little neuropsychology in their background can still follow and understand. There is much to be gained from Dr. Davidson’s work over the past 30 years; I’m excited to get more deeply into the book.
If you’ve not read it yet, I’d also recommend “Destructive Emotions” by Daniel Goleman, based on a yearly meeting the Dalai Lama has with a hand picked group of scientists. It’s basically an account of the meetings and it’s fabulous.