Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Surprising Workplace Performance Booster: Mindfulness

“I don’t have time to think. My workload and pace is so intense I literally don’t feel like I have time to think, only to act and desperately try to keep up with the flood of demands and expectations. Thinking big picture or strategic or examining what and how I’m doing things and why, forget it. I have to keep my head down and keep going. And this is not just me, this is the culture. We all live with it.”

This is how one client described the incapacitating experience of his workload stress. Sadly, he’s not alone by a long shot. We hear this sentiment from clients at all levels and often from some of the most successful and productive people. Despite their results, they aren’t basking in the glow of their success. They’re busy trying not to drown in it.

Our to-do lists have seeped into our nights and weekends, spreadsheets and emails whirling in our heads as we toss and turn. We work hard at staying organized, utilizing our technology and paper planners to cram productivity into every breath, only to wonder at the end of the week what the heck we accomplished that truly meant anything. Mindfulness is the key to breaking this paradoxical unproductive productive cycle. It just might be the switch to turn your personal rat race into the fulfilling and exciting career you deserve.

What is Mindfulness anyway? No pretzel yoga poses required. Nope, burning incense or candles in your office won’t be necessary. According to Ellen Langer, author of several groundbreaking books on Mindfulness, the term Mindfulness is the opposite of Mindlessness, which involves automatic, habitual thought that is most frequently associated with behaviors of people who are distracted, hurried, multi-tasking, and/or overloaded. Conversely, mindfulness means being continually aware and dialed in to the moment and those participating in our moments. It is an “attunement to today’s demands to avoid tomorrow’s difficulties”. This mindset creates an openness to new information (creativity), an awareness of multiple perspectives (empathy and insight), and a quiet mental room in which to explore and examine what would otherwise be performed on auto pilot (critical thinking).

Adopting a habit of mindfulness in the workplace simply means approaching everything on your list and in your day in a thoughtful, objective, and holistic (tasks/goals and people/relationships) manner. It requires that you mentally “check in” on what is happening within yourself and around you. Let’s briefly review three important check-ins that help to create a mindset of mindfulness at work.

Check Your Pace

Often our tendency is to move rapidly into fixing mode or to maintain a continuous breakneck speed towards achievement, especially within high pressure cultures. This approach can reap results and therefore reinforces a mindless pace that is riddled with the blind spots of an overly outcome centric approach. To be mindful doesn’t mean being slow or ineffective. Rather, it is a mental check-in that thoroughly assesses the situation to determine the most balanced and effective method and pace for accomplishing the task at hand. It causes us to ask
the why, how, who, and what else questions that are so vital to wise decision making: assessment before action. Instead of moving at the speed of the culture or others demands, mindfulness provides a stop gap that helps us focus, increases our energy and allows us to more skillfully apply our talents. It encourages us to stop and thoughtfully consider all aspects of the project or problem and resist the urge or pressure to jump in and rush toward results. Without this mindful pace check-in, we miss important details and fail to understand root causes, almost guaranteeing a reoccurrence of the issue. Mindlessly, we might actually make the problem worse. A good technique for creating a mindful work pace is to start by assessing how you currently schedule your days. Are you booking yourself too tightly or committing to unrealistic deadlines? Push back on timelines that don’t feel balanced or necessary and be sure to schedule chunks of time in between meetings to process and plan around what you’ve heard.

Check Your Control

Many people report deep frustration and lack of personal fulfillment stemming from feeling out of control of their time. Keeping up with an intense workload is a common cause of mindlessness. Conversely, practicing mindfulness snaps your brain out of auto pilot by reexamining everything you had previously accepted as part of the necessary evils of the job. Are all your deadlines and workload expectations realistic and set collaboratively? Simply put, how much are you managing your environment and how much is it managing you? Fight any urge to think that achieving this level of influence is not realistic in your environment. We’ve heard this excuse many times and unfailingly clients are able to think of at least one person they work with who does exert control over their time and the expectations placed on them by others. It’s not that you can’t control your time; it’s merely a matter of learning how to do it. This more mindful and assertive approach for managing workload expectations might be different than what others have come to expect from working with you but rarely does that become a stumbling block. More likely, others barely notice when we renegotiate task terms yet we get a world of relief and a sense of personal accomplishment from taking back control of our time.

Check Your Plate

Should everything that is on your list actually be on your list? This is where you check-in that you are asking for help when needed, not assuming the problems of others instead of coaching them to do it themselves, and having the confidence to push back on a task or deadline that either doesn’t belong with you or will cause undue stress to accomplish it in the time allotted. The worst case stories we often tell ourselves about what might happen if we don’t meet or exceed other’s expectations often include things like…they’ll stop coming to me for help…others will see me as disorganized, ineffective or lacking a sense of urgency if I
push back on their timing….they’ll communicate poorly about me to others…I should be able to handle this; it’s my job….and more of the same. Reality rarely lives up to the fiction that plays out in our heads. Stay mindful about what you take on, what resources you’ll need, and what commitments you’ll need others to make for you to be set up for success, not stress.

If you can relate to our client’s sentiments and feel you too struggle to find the time to think, then take this opportunity to stop and awaken to another option. A mindful mindset is counter to our modern world and will take practice. Start by taking one thing on your plate today and mindfully assess it with fresh eyes. Less stress, more fun, collaboration, and meaningful impact….You never know what else you might discover.