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,


* 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.