I’ve just posted an initial article on Resilience. It’s a broad topic affected by everything from our mood, to life experience to gene expression – but critically, there’s lots of evidence (including my own research) that we can build mental resilience at work, but perhaps not in the way you think… take a look.
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.
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.
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,
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,
* 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.
How do you turn a strength bad?… easy, you overuse it. If you have the ability to translate the feeling of anger into a calm rational response, that will serve you well in most situations – until that response is perceived as not caring, or ambivalence. The ability to always have a clear, strong opinion can be seen as an important leadership skill, until it becomes or is perceived as being singled minded, unthinking selfishness. And that competitive streak can help you succeed – until winning at all costs spends farness, dignity, or character.
If an ability is under-used, or simply not seen we often call it a weakness – oh, they’re no good at… We should say the same of a strength that is overused.
In mathematics there is a ratio called the golden ratio, sometimes described as the golden mean. We use it in visual layout/design and architecture to produce something that is pleasing to look at. It appears in music, geometry and nature (such as the nautilus shell above).
Aristotle used the golden mean to describe the desirable middle ground between two extremes – the Wikipedia author uses the example of courage as a virtue, which if taken to excess would be recklessness, and if missing would be cowardice.
In my view, a strength is an ability or trait used wisely. This brings a new perspective to ‘working on your strengths.’ It’s not simply about building strengths, but knowing when and how to use them, becoming adept at hitting the golden mean. Thank you Aristotle.
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.
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.
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.
There are plenty of things that will happen in 2014 that will be out of our control – some of them will be great, and some of them won’t. In 2014, what if we focus our energy on the things where we do have influence, rather that worrying about the things we don’t – spend more energy on the things we are passionate about and, less on the things we are not?
Sometimes that means doing things we don’t ‘like’. We might be passionate about becoming a great leader, engineer or parent, but becoming great at something often requires drudgery, or making uncomfortable decisions. The passion for the end result is what helps us persist through the drudgery and continue on the path to greatness. Seth Godin wrote a book about the barrier to greatness which he described as The Dip, a test to keep out those who aren’t prepared to put in the work. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes it as the resistance giving examples like, procrastination, self-sabotage, grandiose fantasies, unhappiness and fear – indeed he suggests that the more scared we are of our calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
That’s not to say of course that we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves – but perhaps our definition of enjoyment might be a bit narrow. In psychology there are multiple kinds of happiness – including hedonic and eudemonic. The first is characterised by pleasure and is what most of us think of as happiness – watching a movie we love, choosing the dessert option after our main. Whereas eudemonic happiness is characterised by meaning – persisting through a difficult problem that you care about solving, or spending time helping someone in need.
What you find pleasurable or meaningful may be very different from your partner or colleagues. Though working to beat the resistance or get through the dip might not be pleasurable, it is likely to create meaning. And in studying these two angles on happiness, in the long run, meaning is where it’s at!
So, may you successfully control your controllables, climb out of the dip, beat the resistance and, have a remarkable 2014!
That’s how Nelson Mandela said he wished to be remembered. It’s common to talk about following your passion, and using the word ‘passion’ conjures not only positive intent but also a happy, even easy life in its pursuit. Though the people we remember, those we would describe as remarkable, who impact our lives whether on the world stage as the great leader of a country, or just the lives of one or two, they don’t seem to follow the easy life.
The Free Dictionary suggests synonyms for passion including fervour, fire, zeal and ardour – these get closer to a better definition for me. If it is to guide our contribution to the world, then surely that is something about which you would have fervour, fire, zeal and ardour.
The great man used the word duty. In our world of autonomy, where we may feel we have a right to happiness, duty is not a word we often use. Following our passion suggests that we make the world fit our needs, the needs of self, which we sometimes shorten to ‘selfish.’ Duty suggests the opposite – serving, doing what is right irrespective of the personal consequences.
But then, passion is used to describe the final path to crucifixion took by Jesus Christ, on his path to save. Nelson Mandela, as prisoner 46664, somehow found it in himself to take the road of peace – he chose to love his aggressors rather than to fight them.
Perhaps passion is the right word, and it’s simply about direction; a passion for others, for compassionate justice, for peace.
The world may have lost a great man last night, but we are blessed and forever changed by his passion to do what was right, and we live with a better world because of a man who did his duty on earth.