Mindfulness For The Restless And The Busy
(Originally published in Forbes.)
I am not a mindfulness expert. What I am is a restless, busy professional with two kids trying to build a mindfulness practice that I can fit into my day and sustain. Now the Dalai Lama has purportedly said that when he’s extremely busy, he meditates for twice as long. But I am far from the Dalai Lama.
Curious and believing that meditation would be “good for me," I started my journey 12 years ago by signing up for a meditation class. After arriving late and my phone ringing in the middle of a practice, the instructor kindly asked me to leave. Illustrious start. I didn’t attempt to meditate again until four years ago, when the mountain of scientific evidence about the benefits of mindfulness finally convinced my data-driven self to give it another try. I started small, really small — as in one minute concentrating on my breath. All this is to say I approach writing about this topic with great humility and a strong bent towards pragmatism.
When the topic of mindfulness practice arises as a topic with the senior leaders that I coach, most of them look at me like I have two heads. In a perennial state of overwhelm, the thought of incorporating a 10- or 20-minute sitting meditation (which seems to be the image that comes to mind when I mention mindfulness) seems virtually impossible. I get that and am here in part to dispel the notion that incorporating mindfulness into your day needs to look like that.
First, a key distinction. While mindfulness and meditation have many similarities and can overlap, they’re not the same thing. While there are many types of meditation, it typically refers to a formal, seated practice. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is all about being aware, being fully in the present moment and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, movements or other information that is coming into your five senses in real-time.
Mindfulness includes meditation, and meditation absolutely supports a more mindful approach to life. The great news about mindfulness though is that you can practice it anytime, anywhere, just by paying close attention in an open and accepting way to your direct experience of the here and now. This is something even the restless and busy can do.
Research by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that "people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing." Unlike other animals, we humans are immensely talented at thinking about what is not going on around us, either mentally rehashing events from the past or worrying about events that may or may not happen in the future.
Mind-wandering appears to be our brain’s default mode, but unfortunately, brains running on auto-pilot can lead to some problems. One such problem, as uncovered by this research, is that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost."
Being more mindful is a potent antidote to that and has a host of other documented benefits, including decreasing stress, increasing one’s ability to regulate emotions and improving general physical health. So, if you haven’t tried yet — you feel too busy, you can’t sit still, or simply don’t know where to start — here are a few ways that I and the busy leaders I coach have found to most easily incorporate a mindfulness practice into the day.
Mindful tasks: When we look at our day, there are a number of everyday activities that we typically plug through mindlessly on auto-pilot, for example, brushing our teeth, taking a shower, eating meals and even driving our cars.
One way to practice mindfulness is to tune into each of your five senses at a time while you complete these tasks. For example, as you take a shower, you may notice the sight of droplets accumulating on the glass door, the sound of the water swirling down the drain, the feeling of the warm water hitting your head, the smell of your shampoo, etc.
Mindful movement: Whatever form of exercise you enjoy — walking, biking, lifting weights or dancing — can also be a mindfulness practice. There are a couple of approaches that can be used separately or in combination.
One approach, which is not dissimilar from the five senses practice above, is to simply drop into your body to experience the movement and everything that surrounds it. For example, if you swim, pay attention to each stroke, the feel and sound of the water as you move through it, the sight of the bubbles and the sparkles of the sun.
You can also focus on matching the rhythm of your breath with your movement. Moving and breathing rhythmically enables your nervous system to align and stabilize.
Mindful listening: This is about giving your truly undivided attention to another person, and it's the practice other people will notice and appreciate the most. So often in conversation, we are only partially listening or formulating our response while the other person is still talking.
Mindful listening is simple but not easy: Just stop what you are doing and be fully present. Listen without an agenda to what the other person is saying; see if you can also hear the feelings beneath the words. Thoughts or responses will naturally arise in your mind, but let them go and return to the other person. Let them complete everything they want to say, and only then contemplate and choose your response.
The magic is that building a few intentional mindfulness practices into your day has benefits that extend far beyond your practice sessions. Start small, figure out a good trigger to remind you of your intention, and remember not to feel bad or judge yourself when your mind wanders. That’s just what it does. Half the practice and journey towards greater mindfulness is catching yourself and returning to a more mindful state.