It’s 3:15pm. You’ve just emerged from your sixth back to back meeting and it’s the first time you’ve seen your desk all day. You have 45 minutes before your next appointment … ahhh – finally some space.
With so much to do, where do you start?
You sit down and open your email, just as a key member of your team rushes in, wanting your support. Halfway through reading an email, you look briefly at them before turning back to your screen. “Yes? What’s up?” It’s a ‘crisis’ they need to debrief. You turn to face them, but your mind stays with the email, doing your best to look like you care and at the same time trying to get them out of your office as soon as you can.
Back to the email, and your mind, as if on autopilot, wanders to the dinner plans you’ve made for tonight. And the worry you may not get away in time. Perhaps if you make the call now to call it off, you can just get a straight run at the report you need to proof read by tomorrow.
And then there’s the conversation you overheard that you really need to speak to HR about …
Absorbed in the details of everything you have on your plate, the autopilot mind flits compulsively from one thought to the next. 45 minutes passes and you’ve barely managed to read the emails that were at the top of the list.
And you end up working late into the night.
If this sounds like a typical working day for you, the pressure for results and deadlines, along with constant distractions, feeling always ‘on’, information overloaded, you’re not alone. You want to focus, but it seems to be harder than ever.
1. Block out the ‘external noise’
Learning to focus the mind on what you choose is fast becoming a lost art form – especially in busy workplaces.
Most people are familiar with the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is the diagnosis for people who have problems maintaining focus. According to researchers, ADHD is genetically determined but can be exacerbated by surroundings.
However Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) is only determined by surroundings. Dr. Edward Hallowell writes: “Just like traffic jams, ADT is a product of modern life. It is created by demands on our time and awareness which have exploded over the past two decades. When our minds are filled with noise, our brains lose the ability to be completely present.”
Modern day leaders and workers, regardless of industry and culture, are finding it increasingly challenging to maintain focus in the present moment.
How many times has your attention wandered off just while reading this blog post?
2. Focus on being ‘present’ in the here and now
There are two reasons why maintaining focus and being present in the here and now is difficult in today’s work environments:
- There are many external distractions; and
- There are many internal distractions.
But we do not have to be a victim to external or internal distractions. We can do something about it.
And it’s why organisations like Google, Accenture, Nike and American Express – as well as boutique consultancies and creative hubs are using mindfulness training. Within this context, mindfulness training trains the ability to be focused and maintain open awareness of what’s going on in and around you, without getting caught up in judgements, moment to moment.
At the personal level, it can bring increased productivity , creativity and well-being. By specifically focusing on cultivating relaxation, focus and clarity, you develop a mind that is balanced even in the midst of a very busy day. This is a mind seeing reality clearly as it changes, not getting too attached to the way things have been, and able to see the potential in what is happening now and for the future. This is extremely important as the pace of change accelerates faster now that organisations can adapt.
3. Recognise when your attention starts to wander
Mindfulness training can come in a few different forms – sitting, walking, eating. The most basic concentration practice is to take the time to focus on your breath. Noticing the experience of your breath in your belly, sensing the physical sensations as you inhale and exhale.
As you focus on your breath, at some point you may notice that your attention starts to wander – captured by a thought, a sound, a feeling. The instruction at this point is that at the moment you become aware that your attention has wandered away from the breath, just relax. Release the thought and return your focus to the breath.
This practice can be done for just a few breaths, or longer. Research shows sustained attention and awareness improvements can be achieved through just ten minutes of practice a day.
4. Implement ‘corporate mindfulness’
There are lots of ways to learn more about corporate mindfulness – a google search will bring you over a million options. Apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind can help you develop your individual practice in as little as ten minutes a day.
And yet, what companies like Nike and Accenture have seen is that mindfulness is more than just an individual development process, to be done in personal time. They are supporting the development of their teams by encouraging them to focus and maintain awareness into everyday work activities. Like dealing with emails, improving meetings and communication, planning, innovation and change management.
Imagine that. It’s 3:15pm. And you have 45 minutes to come up for air before your next meeting. You pause for a moment to find the clarity, focus and peace of mind to be able to remember your priorities and act on what is most important in that moment. And when distractions arise – as they do – you can make a conscious choice of how you’ll respond. Giving the autopilot the boot.
It will never be perfect, but you can be so much more productive.
Gillian Coutts is a Senior Trainer with The Potential Project an organisation that facilitates the Corporate-Based Mindfulness Training Program (CBMT) in order to meet the specific challenges corporate life has. CBMT is a tailor-made solution for busy people with little time and high ambitions.