Mindfulness

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.