We hear the word mindfulness just about everywhere these days. But what does it really mean to be mindful, and how can you practice mindfulness to improve your personal and professional life?
Being more mindful has myriad perks. Studies have shown mindfulness practices and interventions to be useful in reducing stress and anxiety symptoms—an effect potentially comparable to that of established treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness can relieve our perception of aches and pains, keep us more focused at work and help us become more resilient. It’s also an ideal way to get a grip on emotions, which can affect our attention, memory and motivation.
“You almost need a black belt in emotion management in today’s volatile, uncertain and ever-changing organizational landscape,” says Kate Kerr, a mindfulness specialist from Canada. “Mindfulness gives us a space between our emotions and our fight-flight-freeze reactions, however brief, and increases our ability to respond more skillfully. This can lead to a reduction in conflicts and an ability to utilize empathy to drive stronger relationships.”
Being able to observe how your mind is spinning instead of being emotionally reactive can certainly help us evolve, adds Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist.
Mindfulness works wonders, but how exactly does one achieve it? Here are a few tips to help you tune into your inner zen.
1. Know what mindfulness is and isn’t.
Tiffany Cruikshank, the founder of Yoga Medicine and author of Meditate Your Weight, says there are many ways to approach being mindful, and the two core aspects are being an observer and being nonjudgmental about what you observe. Can you hear your breath or notice bodily sensations without trying to change them? This act of being an unbiased observer is what gives us the capacity to see things more clearly.
“Simply observing and acknowledging our feelings, thoughts or sensations without continuing to focus on them is important,” Bennett says. “Often, we convince ourselves that we need to do something about what we’re thinking or feeling, and we put our attention on them. This is where we get into trouble. We make up stories and ‘spin’ about them.”
One of the most beautiful (and frustrating) things about mindfulness are the many paradoxes, Kerr says.
For example, you might not feel like you have the time to meditate, yet meditation makes you more productive. “The more time we spend practicing mindfulness and being in the present moment, the more space we might create in our day to get things done,” she says. Or what about the fact that mindfulness isn’t about a goal at all, but it still helps you achieve more of them? “It’s an invitation to let go of any goals and lean into our moment-to-moment experiences,” Kerr says. “Over time, our busy minds begin to settle, enabling us to be more present and see more clearly. So ultimately, we’re more likely to achieve more of our goals.”
2. Begin now.
Kerr says it’s important to “just start” when you want to begin practicing mindfulness. “You could begin by working with a simple one- to two-minute breathing practice every day and go from there,” she says, adding that practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere, anytime. “The beauty of mindfulness is we can practice it in multiple ways such as sitting, standing, lying down, walking or eating, to name a few. It’s also highly adaptable to workplace environments and can be implemented in short bursts throughout your day.”
3. Observe the everyday.
The easiest way to incorporate mindfulness into your life is to find a way to connect to it on a daily basis, Cruikshank says. “Simple things like noticing the sensations in your body or your breath as you brush your teeth, drink water, wash dishes or drive home from work… anything you do every day on a regular basis will work,” she says. Pick just one or two and make it a routine.
4. Release expectations.
Many people try to get something from their practice immediately or expect to feel a certain way when practicing. That’s not how it works, Cruikshank says. “Mindfulness requires that you drop your agenda and really appreciate the moment as it is, regardless… without having to fix it or wait for it to be different.”
To see a difference in how being more mindful impacts you, practice regularly and give it time. “It doesn’t need to be long, it can be a few minutes a day, but the effects build over time and become more noticeable even after just a couple months,” she says.
5. Keep it simple.
Don’t try too hard when it comes to being more mindful, Bennett warns. “It’s called the ‘practice’ of mindfulness since it can take a while to retrain ourselves to simply observe what’s happening in inner space [thoughts, feelings and sensations] rather than concentrating on them and giving them attention they don’t deserve.”
Anxiety doesn’t typically disappear in an instant when one begins practicing mindfulness, Bennett says. “Undoing old habits can take a while, but this one is well worth the time. Practicing mindfulness should not be a struggle—it’s quite simple—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, since we’re learning new ways.”
Mindfulness can be an ideal tool to improve your personal and professional life—something that can cause a “positive ripple effect across both areas,” Kerr says. “At its core, mindfulness is a skill that teaches us to retrain our attention and boost concentration power. The obvious benefit is increased productivity, but that’s only scratching the surface.”
This article was published in July 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Farknot Architect/Shutterstock