The alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and the first thing I think of is coffee. I get up, somewhat reluctantly, and as I make my way toward the coffee maker I spot my so-called smartphone plugged into the wall. Reflexively, I pick it up and check my personal email. I see this month’s electric bill and my latest credit card bill. Didn’t I just pay those? I wonder. Against my better judgment, I open both emails, and the prospect of more money going out as opposed to in causes a good deal of anxiety to rise within me. I then check my work email, scanning sender names and subjects for anything “important.” I open one email from a client who, it turns out, is very unhappy about a document I’d sent her a week earlier and wants me to “take another crack it.” This causes anger to rise. It’s fine! I say silently. The document is fine! It’s you who … and I begin to tap out a defensive reply when I think: coffee. Yes, I almost forgot. I set down my phone and grind the beans and start making a pot. While the water drips, I check my email again (nothing new in the past 90 seconds) and then decide to check my Instagram feed. I only received that many likes? I scroll down. In seconds, I’m envying/feeling jealous of a friend’s Parisian vacation. Then I realize it’s getting late. I have to get my son up, make his lunch, make his breakfast, make mine, shower, and get both of us out the door in 22 minutes. Meanwhile, I’m still anxious about my bills, seething about the client’s email, envious of my friend’s trip. My head is spinning. What do I do first? I don’t know. I check my email one more time.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, then you, like me, are often not acting very mindfully in the morning. And you, like me, would greatly benefit from the work of Rasmus Hougaard, a man with two decades worth of experience of practicing and teaching mindfulness and who’s taken his mindfulness training to numerous organizations, including Google, Microsoft, Nike, Accenture, and Sony. Hougaard currently trains 25,000 people each year in mindfulness; his goal, by 2020, is to annually train one million. If you haven’t been a student of Hougaard’s training program, now you’re in luck: the program is outlined in a new and extremely enlightening and practical book he co-authored with Jacqueline Carter and Gillian Coutts entitled, One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Hougaard, and for the past week I’ve been reading his book—while attempting to implement some of the trainings it outlines. Already, in this short period of time, the recommendations, tips, and techniques offered in One Second Ahead have significantly changed the way I work—for the better.
Let me back up for a moment, and explain why some of the world’s largest organizations are coming to Hougaard and his foundation, The Potential Project, for help.
“Today we’re facing a workplace that’s more and more distracting,” Hougaard told me. “We have digital gadgets that work faster and faster. We have tighter deadlines. We have more and more social media sites. And as a result, our attention and minds are under massive pressure. Because of this pressure, we’re losing the ability to focus. And this is affecting our productivity as well as our wellbeing. So we need to counteract some of the downsides of this fast paced-work environment. And mindfulness training teaches us to be present to what we’re doing, whether that’s taking part in meetings, emailing, or paying attention to our children.”
In fact, research has shown that, at work, our minds wander 47 percent of the time. This means that we’re only working 53 percent of the day. Companies have begun to realize this: that their employees aren’t focused, and thus not working as effectively as they can, and thus bottom lines are not as large as they should be.
However, research has also shown that mindfulness training can combat this loss of focus (and money). Hougaard writes (and footnotes each of the following assertions with hard data):
Since the first controlled experiments with mindfulness, the scientific world has discovered the wide-ranging benefits of mindfulness training. Mindfulness has a positive impact on our physiology, mental processes, and work performance. At the physiological level, researchers have demonstrated that mindfulness training can result in a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. People sleep better and feel less stressed.
Mindfulness training increases the density of grey cells in our cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that thinks rationally and solves problems. Cognitive function improves, resulting in better memory, increased concentration, reduced cognitive rigidity, and faster reaction times. Not surprisingly, people who practice mindfulness techniques report an overall increase in quality of life.
If you’re wondering, like I was before speaking with Hougaard, what exactly mindfulness means (it’s such an ubiquitous term but one that no one had ever been able to describe to me all that clearly), Hougaard says there are two “central characteristics” of mindfulness: “sharp focus” and “open awareness.” Sharp focus, according to Hougaard, is “the ability to concentrate single-pointedly on any object of choice for as long as you want with minimal effort,” and open awareness is “the ability to see clearly what is happening in your mind and make wise choices about where to focus your attention.”
Hougaard’s two rules toward achieving these states are “focus on what you choose” and “choose your distractions mindfully.” Which mean: 1) no matter what you choose to do or work on, focus all of your energy on that one thing; be present to it; do not attempt to multitask, which we really are unable to do anyway, and 2) evaluate each distraction that comes your way before deciding whether to shift your focus or not; do not merely react; take stock of the situation and decide what’s best to do: whether to turn your attention to a new object of focus or not.
Hougaard told me, “Through mindfulness training, we develop this little gap that allows us to choose whether to switch our attention when confronted with something new, like a text or an email asking us a question or telling us to do something. When we’re busy and our mind is full, we tend to react, without any reflection, without thinking about what’s the right thing to do. Which can very easily make us effective robots. But being mindful gives us this little gap, one second of freedom in the mind. Should I do something or not? What should I be doing? Otherwise, the mind goes on autopilot.”
As for specific techniques toward achieving that one second of freedom (of getting one second ahead), one of the things Hougaard’s method asks you to do is to take short breaks during the day in order to follow your breathing. Which I’ve found to be extremely helpful. Also helpful are Hougaard’s seven guidelines for mindful emailing. Here are three of those:
1. Never first thing in the morning. “Morning is when the mind is most focused,” says Hougaard. “That’s when you want to focus on big scope, big picture tasks, not minute details. When we open our inbox, we get 500 details from yesterday. We become detail-oriented rather than big scope. My advice is to spend between 15 minutes and an hour in the morning having an important meeting, or writing important reports, or doing really important reflections. Then open your inbox.”
2. Kill all notifications. Email notifications might be obvious distractions, and hopefully you’ve figured out that these do nothing toward helping you focus on your current task. Instead, they cause us to shift in mid-gear, and this results in a loss of focus. Hougaard recommends, if you do use notifications, to turn them off for a week or so and try paying attention to the differences in the way you work. But what if, I asked him, as part of your job, you’re expected to reply to emails right away? Or at least within a few minutes? His answer is part of the third guideline below.
3. Mind your switch time. If you have your email open all day long and typically answer every email as soon as you see it, or you continue to switch back and forth to check your email all day long, whenever you stop what you’re working on to answer an email or to check your email, it takes time for your brain to shift focus away and on to something new. Your brain takes the same amount of time (or more) to shift back to what you were doing (likely more because when you shift back it takes you time to find your place again). Plus, there’s energy spent in moving between the two tasks. And thus, you’re less effective. To counter this loss of time and energy, Hougaard recommends, if possible, limiting your email checking to as few times a day as possible. Maybe once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. Of course, if your job doesn’t allow that, then you have to remember to “choose your distractions mindfully” and only reply to emails that demand your attention.
In addition, One Second Ahead, which is 234 pages long, contains an extraordinary number of other, helpful mindfulness techniques. Some of which aim to improve your ability to contribute to meetings and hold more effective meetings. Others aim to improve your ability to communicate with coworkers and managers. And still others aim to help you work more creatively, be more emotionally balanced, and act with more patience.
Although I’m only about halfway through Hougaard’s book, and although when the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. the first thing I still think of is coffee, now I’m finding that I’m not unnecessarily checking my email as soon as I get up. I’m finding that I’m not checking my email as frequently during the day. I’m finding I’m able to better focus my attention at the task at hand (such as write this blog). And I’m finding that I’m deciding, more and more, to set aside distractions that don’t need my immediate (shift of) attention.
However, I’m still finding it difficult, more often than not very difficult, to do this: mindfully motivate a five-year-old to eat his breakfast, get dressed, and get out the door by 8. Any advice?
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