performance

Why Mindfulness?

In my last post, about mindfulness at work, I wrote about one of the core benefits of mindfulness being improved control of our attention.  But, it’s certainly not the only benefit.  Since the late 1990’s, the number of research papers studying mindfulness practices have grown exponentially year on year, with 674 studies published in 2015 (from goAMRA.org);  that’s a lot!  So, what are some of the benefits of mindfulness practice these studies reveal?

First, let me add ‘awareness’ as a core benefit to the ‘aerobic fitness’ model I suggested previously, and then I’ll list a group of overall benefits.

Mostly our minds have, well, a mind of their own.  They dart here, which links to this, which brings up this thought, which reminds us of a task we hadn’t quite finished, which prompts us to open a new web browser window, which reminds us… and so on.  Having control over these related leaps of attention is an important part of the story;  the other part is having the awareness that your mind has wandered off topic.

This awareness though goes beyond spotting that your mind has wondered.  It is also the awareness of how our own mind and body work – that thoughts do come and go, sensations rise and fall in our body, and emotions affect our mood.  With practice, this awareness, sometimes called meta-attention, allows us to more easily choose whether to follow a thought, sensation or emotion; or whether to let it pass, deciding not to be snagged by a negative thought and led down a path to unproductivity.

I describe attention and awareness as the big two, the two most basic skills that come from mindfulness practice.

But there are many more benefits*, often building on the big two.  For example:

And this is far from a complete list.  But, it’s worth noting a couple of things.  Firstly, that there are many ways of practicing mindfulness and, different practices may emphasis different benefits.  For example, a 2012 study that compared Yoga (yes, it’s much more than stretching and postures), sitting meditation (closer to the way most people think about meditation), and a body scan technique (focusing progressively on each part of ones body), found that:

  • Sitting meditation was better at distancing participants from judging their own thoughts and feelings
  • Yoga improved well-being more that the other two
  • Yoga and sitting meditation improved emotional regulation the most (e.g. being less ‘triggered’ by emotional reactions)

And so, many mindfulness based courses teach multiple practices (including our own).

Secondly, despite the long list of benefits, mindfulness isn’t a a cure-all.   As with all interventions, some practices will benefit some people more than others, some people will enjoy mindfulness practice and others will not, the benefits may be more relevant in some circumstances than others, etc..

Though, one potential benefit I didn’t list is ‘world peace.’  That’s the ultimate outcome Chade-Meng Tan, the founder of Google’s mindfulness based emotional intelligence course, sees of having enough people being mindful – hmm, perhaps it is a cure-all.

Be mindful,
-Mark

 

 

*Many of the research studies relate to clinical topics, such as pain management and depression.  For example, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK for those who are at risk of of relapse into depression, and so available through the National Health Service.

Sticking at mindfulness meditation

Create a Mindfulness Habit

Sitting quietly for 20 or so minutes every day seems like such a simple thing – yet, it’s actually quite difficult for many of us.  We so used to doing, that something we perceive as not doing (just being) is hard to do.  It’s strange, if think about all the hours we work in order to take two weeks break away from it all, you’d think a 15 minute holiday every day would be easy.

If someone suggested that with 15 minutes of relaxed training a day, you could improve your mental performance, self-control, resilience, concentration, relationships with others, and reduce stress, do you think you would give it a go*?  In my experience, most people would, and do.

The problem comes a week or two down the road.  It’s difficult to feel like you are accomplishing anything during mindfulness practice – how can this relaxing, activity be doing me good; then add in that doing bias, and you have a recipe for lots of people to start mindfulness practice, only to give it up quite soon after.

If the benefits are real, and there are plenty of empirical studies that say they are, then how do we stay motivated to stick at our mindfulness practice?  Here are a few suggestions, see if any of them work for you…

Create a habit

Once it’s made its home in our regular schedule, anything becomes easier to do.  So, making it a habit is a good goal.  Association is one of the tricks to creating a habit – associate your mindfulness practice with… your morning coffee, do your practice then have your coffee; or practice before your shower; or after you’ve been to gym.  With association, you’re hooking your mindfulness practice to an existing habit.  Also, after you’ve practiced, giving yourself a reward will help cement it – so the coffee after your morning practice, or 5 minutes playing your favourite game, or a little taste of something sweet.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, has plenty of examples on making and breaking habits, and he also offers a number of supporting resources, like a flow chart on habit creation in the resources section of his website, it’s worth a look.

A regular reminder of the benefits

Part of the problem with dwindling practice, is that the details of the benefits and the reasons why we first thought we’d like them, fade.

Do some of your own research on the benefits of mindfulness, and write yourself a personalised summary.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate, perhaps half a page on how repeated mindfulness practice might impact your life.  Now, take a copy of the benefits with you, in your bag or wallet, and take a look at the summary as you walk between meetings, commute to work, or take a break, reading your summary regularly.

I’m sure you can think of multiple variations on this theme, including re-writing the benefits from memory, writing a blog post about them (ahem), discussing the benefits with like minded friends, and so on.

Buddy-up

This one is tried and tested… find a buddy who is already practicing mindfulness, or just starting, and practice together.  Or, agree to text each other after you’ve completed your practice, or some other model of mutual encouragement.  Or, if there is a group that practices regularly, join them.

Commitment contracts

Finally, a personal commitment contract might work.  This is a contract you make with yourself, committing you to regular practice – and if you fail to keep your commitment, there is a forfeit.  It might be, paying  money to a charity you don’t agree with, or denying yourself pudding, or … doing something else that you don’t like.  It doesn’t have to be big, just a little nudge to get you over the practice hurdle, while you’re still working on making it a habit.  It’s really useful to have a buddy to report to, even if they’re not practicing themselves.  You agree to tell them when you’ve done it, and if you don’t tell them, they ensure the forfeit goes ahead.

It’s worth checking out the website StickK where you can automate this process, for free!

Generally, it’s easy to see why we should practice mindfulness, the benefits generally out-way the costs.  But, regular practice for many of us, isn’t quite as easy as we’d imagine.  So, use that initial period of motivation to help create a habit that will keep you practicing for the long term.

Happy mindfulness habits,
Mark

Mindfulness at work?

Parody of Meditation at work

Last year I ran an event at Manchester United Football Club for a client.  Sir Alex Ferguson talked about avoiding gimmicks, but if something can improve performance by 1% or more then it was worth doing – adding the context, given that these are professionals at the peak of their game, adding 1% can make all the difference.

Most of our clients are knowledge workers, rather than football players, but in either case if you are good at what you do, you’ll have invested time and energy in your own professional development – even more important in our increasingly dynamic workplaces.  It seems relatively straight forward to suggest that physical fitness is a base requirement for a professional athlete, but what is the equivalent in knowledge work?

Continual professional skills development is common place, perhaps the latest social networking skills in marketing, or the details of a new framework in software development.  Just as ball control in football, or controlling ball spin in tennis might represent specific professional skills in sport.  But those specific skills aren’t the base, not like aerobic fitness is the base for so many athletes.  The primary tools in knowledge work are mental, so perhaps the knowledge worker equivalent of aerobic fitness, is mental fitness?

In 2005/6 Nintendo brought the idea of ‘brain training’ to the public consciousness, with their brain training games.  Though, brain training seems to operate on similar grounds to physical skills, that is, if I train a specific skill, like ball control, then the biggest benefit I get is in that specific skill area – it has little impact on overall fitness.*  Whereas if I train for aerobic fitness, then that provides a grounding for everything else.  So, how do we train for mental fitness?**

Distraction is a common feature of modern work life.  A constant stream of demanding emails, instant messaging, facebook alerts, and tweets, oh, and then there’s the actual work we are meant to be doing.  The demand for our attention is constant, and growing.  If we were super efficient at switching between tasks, and the interruptions were only short, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter – but given that neither of these is typically the case, perhaps it does.

In many cases the problem is that the distractions are compelling, more compelling than the work we’d like to complete, and we just can’t resist a peek at the email or tweet, and before we know it… 30 minutes has passed.  Our attention is a critical asset, it dictates what we focus on, and so what gets done – but giving in to a compelling distraction, means our attention is moved away from the thing we know we want to complete.  In fact, we often don’t have good control of our attention; we think we are good at multitasking, but the science doesn’t back that up – even worse, by giving in to distraction, what we improve is our susceptibility to distraction (for example, see 1, 2, 3).

One of the many benefits, perhaps the most basic, of mindfulness practice, is attention control.  Giving us the ability to maintain our focus on the thing that we choose, and better resist the distraction temptations that are becoming ever more sophisticated around us.  The very act in mindfulness mediation of bringing back our wandering mind to re-focus on our breath, or whatever the intended focus of the practice is, is training us to take back the control we should all have.

Attention control, is a great candidate for being the mental equivalent of aerobic fitness.  And, the most basic benefit of mindfulness practice in the workplace, is an improved ability to focus on the job in hand – to get done, what we know we have to get done… and speaking personally, I think that flies past the 1% test.

Be mindful, get more done,
-Mark

 

* There has been work in cognitive science to create activities and games that build general mental skills, that is, skills that are used across many different activities, but it isn’t a straight forward thing to do, see this study published in Nature of a large brain training experiment that shows mental skills training often doesn’t build general mental skills.  One of the areas of study in building general mental skills by the way, is mindfulness meditation!

** Actually, aerobic fitness has been shown to improve mental fitness too, but that doesn’t help with the picture I’m trying to paint, so I won’t dwell on that for now.

Reach Remarkable Strengths Triad

Reach Remarkable Strengths Triad Diagram

When we operating from our strengths, we’re working with our most powerful assets – the skills, thought processes, and ways of connecting that we’ve honed most successfully.  At Reach Remarkable we operate around a strengths triad, three areas that when developed and combined contribute to a high level of functioning and performance.

Strengths of the Mind

In reality just about everything we do involves our brain, but here we’re thinking about the mental or cognitive strengths that contribute to high performance – like self-control, resilience and persistence for example.  It’s not always obvious that we can develop in areas like self-control, with many of us considering this kind of capability to be in the, you either have it or you don’t category… but it’s not, and neither are many other strengths of mind that we might consider to be in same category.  Taking self-control as an example, you’ll find plenty of commentary here on the blog.

We consider strengths of mind to relate to ‘How we are’ – how we approach a task, how we deal with challenges, how we learn, and so on.

Character Strengths

The eminently quotable Albert Einstein suggested:

“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

Where the mind is about ‘how we are,’ character is about ‘who we are.’ The way we relate and involve others, whether through teamwork, curiosity, judgement or other character strengths.  I like the view that there are no bad strengths, it’s just a matter how much we use, or don’t use them. Teamwork is great strength when you need to achieve something as a team, it’s clearly less appropriate when you need to achieve something alone.

Character then informs the way that people know and relate to us.

Skills

Finally, our functional skills like leadership, project management or software development help define the role that we take, and our competency in achieving that role.  Most of us think about going on a course, and learning generally, being about this kind of skills development.  Alternatively, learning ‘on the job’ is a popular approach to development at work.  Both have their place, but alone, neither are likely to lead to skills mastery.

Finally, when you start combining these three areas of strength, you get important results.  Well aligned mind and character strengths, lead to authenticity;  the combination of strong character and skills leads to work engagement;  and finally, well developed strengths of mind and skill shows us our path to mastery…  and a person who is engaged, authentic and masterful is high performing.

Be strong,
Mark

Happiness at work – a bit squishy?

HappyBrain

Happiness remains a somewhat controversial word when applied to the workplace.  I don’t think it should be, but there is this sense that being happy is something you do after work.  Then, there’s the problem that describing happiness often involves words like emotion, and feeling – surely all a bit squishy for the workplace?

We don’t usually mind talking about performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and a slew of other words that convey resilience and action.

The problem is that as human beings, our most influential driving force comes from a well developed part of the brain called the Limbic system – a combination of interlinked structures responsible for emotion, behaviour, motivation and long term memory, among others.  The way we behave, make decisions, take action, respond to challenges, and much more is highly influenced by our Limbic system….

Or should I say, our performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and resilience are highly influenced by the part of the brain that appears to have primary responsibility for our emotional life.

But let’s not forget the brains executive function (there, back with more comfortable words), in the pre-frontal cortex (pfc).  This comparatively modern part of our brain is associated with consciousness, self-control, language, and many other things making it the ultimate seat of the rational human.  This then, surely, is the part of the brain we take to work, the all powerful.

Hmm, just like the Wizard, Oz, it’s mostly a deception.  In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt evolves a number of existing analogies of the relationship between the limbic system and the pfc, culminating in something along these lines… imagine yourself as the rider of a large elephant.  With some work and training you can sometimes get the elephant to go where you’d like it go.  But, if the elephant decides it really wants to go left when you want to go right, left it is.  In this analogy, you are the rational pfc, the human rider, and the powerful elephant is your limbic system.

The psychiatrist advising the incredibly successful British cycling team, Dr Steve Peters, uses the analogy of a chimp, a human and a computer to describe the limbic system, pfc and the supporting memory; described in his book The Chimp Paradox.  Where the mental skill in performance is managing the chimp, which he says “[is] an emotional skill – it’s no different to a bike skill.”  So, if you’re an elite athlete, clearly your physical state is critical, but to win also requires emotional skill.

Happiness comes when the chimp is happy, or when the elephant is happy to go with your flow.  When you understand how to manage your emotions, you’ll find yourself spending more time in a constructive positive mood, which is conducive to higher creativity, improved relationships, less negative stress and ultimately higher performance.

So, perhaps we’re unaccustomed to thinking of happiness, emotion and feeling in the workplace, but there’s nothing squishy about them – well not if you like the idea of high performance anyway.  I’m reminded of one of Tom Peters sayings “hard is soft, and soft is hard,” referring to soft things like the customer experience being the real hard data of a business.  Much the same is true with emotion, the real hard data of employee performance, may well be happiness.

Be remarkable,
Mark

Is Positive Emotion relevant to Business?

bussines eggs

We all like to feel good, don’t we?  I recall many years ago the BBC Radio breakfast DJ Chris Evans said something like ‘in order to appreciate feeling good you have to feel bad’, or some variation on that duality. But, does feeling good have any benefits in the workplace beyond, well, feeling good?

One of the worlds leading researchers in positive emotions is Barbara Frederickson.  With her colleagues Dr. Frederickson formed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions which you’ll find summarized at her PEPLab site, and in her book Positivity. Positivity-Book-Barbara-Frederickson

Among the things we can learn from the research is the effect positive and negative emotion have on our ability to creatively engage in a task or activity.  From my own experience, approaching a problem in a good mood certainly helps with engagement, leading to a frame of mind open to opportunities and possibilities.  When I compare it to approaching a task or problem in a negative mood, I’m much more likely to create a ‘why this is doomed’ approach, or at least find it harder to engage.

Although rarely black and white, it does seem like common sense that approaching an activity with positivity increases your chances of a great outcome.  What isn’t common sense and why I think Frederickson’s research is so interesting, is that it’s unusual for us to take advantage of this, that is, to actively try and engage positive emotion at work.

The quick version of the broaden and build theory is that positive emotions make us more open, they broaden our mind so we are better able to make connections and discover new information.  It’s perfect for problem solving, enabling a more creative state of mind.  This in turn means you’re more likely to learn new things and have a wider range of approaches and experience, which buildsyour resources over time.  So, not only are we more successful in the moment, but over time we grow our talent as well.

This is very relevant for business.  If individuals whether solo or part of team are more engaged, it can positively impact the business.  So, how do you help foster positive emotion in the workplace?  There are lots of ways, here’s a few:

  • Consistency between your internal and external view and approach to customers
  • Opportunity to work in and on your strengths
  • Having a better appreciation for the different kinds of personality among your team (putting some effort into understanding your colleagues)
  • Positive leadership and role models
  • A moral purpose
  • Fairness & openness
  • An unbalanced approach to criticism

Just taking this last example ‘an unbalance approach to criticism’ – Frederickson and Dr. Marcial Losadacombined their efforts to put a number on the amount of positive to negative emotion shown in successful and unsuccessful business teams.  The magic number is a ratio of 3:1… 3 times more positive emotion than negative.

A practical example, and a setting used in the research, is the interaction between people in the same meeting.  For example, if an idea is raised, a positive interaction might entail people asking about and exploring the idea – ‘that sounds interesting, though I’m not sure I understand, tell us more’, whereas ‘no, that doesn’t sound like it will work’ is a negative one.  Of course, some ideas raised may well be untenable and exploring them a waste of time.  The point is that successful, high performance business teams showed a positivity to negativity ratio above 3:1, and unsuccessful business teams showed a ratio of less than 1:1.

Incidentally, there’s also also a threshold for being too positive, it’s 11:1.  Here there’s so much positivity as to be blind to the challenges or pitfalls of an approach, and the downsides aren’t considered.  Which makes it worth pointing out that some negativity is beneficial and realistic, specifically as we’ve just learned, a positive to negative ratio between 3:1 and 11:1.

So there we have it, well a bit of it anyway… positive emotion can make you and your organisation more successful.

Be remarkable,
Mark