Your mind at work

I was in what was likely the last generation of school children to be paddled by their teachers. I certainly received more than my share of such paddlings, the last of which came in seventh grade. My math teacher, Mr. Melvin, was a former college football player, quite a large man. One day, he was evidently put out with us and he said, “The next one to say a word will need to meet me out in the hall.” We all knew that he wasn’t looking to have a conversation outside the door.

Not two minutes later, I absent-mindedly (note the phrase) made a inquiry of some kind to a neighboring student. Mr. Melvin frowned and said, “Randy, get it out in the hall.” I received my lick from the paddle and came back in dejected. Little did Mr. Melvin know, but he was the first teacher of mindfulness in my life.

I was reminded of this experience when I attended a silent retreat in recent days. At one point, I almost asked the instructor a question — at a silent retreat! Clearly, I have much to learn about being mindful of my actions and my place.

There have been so many changes in how we work and live in the past 20 years, but one that strikes me most is the emergence of mindfulness as something pursued by many average people. There are mindfulness workshops at companies, mindfulness apps on our phone, articles, books, and, most prominently, mindfulness taught at yoga classes.

Occasional lapses aside, I have found that practicing mindfulness at work is transformative. The first time you start to react to some provocation only to catch yourself, it feels like you have grown up a little more. The simple act of noticing your breath can provide just enough of a pause to prevent you from saying or doing something inconsistent with the way you want to behave.

Tony Schwartz writes convincingly “If you feel compelled to do something, don’t.“. Having that sense of urgency, the notion that something must be done or said, is perhaps the most handy indicator you should step back and take inventory of your physical and mental state.

Mindfulness has been described as ““bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”. Thus, the most obvious professional benefit is to bring your full faculties to any problem or situation. If your company pays you to do your best, we can conclude that your best requires your full attention.

The other motivation for practicing mindfulness at work is stress reduction. Much of our stress comes from worrying about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. The present moment is seldom the source of stress. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Some of the ways I’ve tried to incorporate mindfulness into my day include:

  • Starting the morning with a period of quiet. Whether you want to meditate or pray or just sit, set the tone for your day by being in tune with yourself and your surroundings.
  • Do one thing at-a-time. It is not easy to be mindful when you are doing one thing. Being fully engaged when you are multi-tasking is not likely.
  • Be present with others. Other people know and appreciate when you are completely there for them. (I was in a one-on-one meeting recently which was scheduled for 30 minutes. I knew it wasn’t going to be good when the other person checked the clock eight minutes after we began.)
  • Don’t fret if you make a mistake. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you struggle with mindfulness because you are thinking back to your failure to be mindful?

Perhaps you are convinced of the productivity benefits of mindfulness but there’s a bigger issue here. By being mindful, you will enjoy your work more. When you walk to another building, you will notice the flowers blooming beside the sidewalk. You will pick up on the fact your co-worker is worried about her daughter and you will connect with her. You will realize your manager is asking for help. In all these things, your life at work will be integrated with the rest of who you are.