Mindfulness As a Time Management Tool
Before you tackle your to-do list, breathe
Eventually every new professional experiences the late-Monday morning crunch.
Armed with a prioritized to-do list, the new professional arrives at the office early Monday morning before the day officially begins. He or she quickly responds to the day’s first emails and voicemails. But before he or she finishes, a supervisor pokes a head inside the junior’s office and says, “I need you to join me for a quick meeting.” Three hours later the new professional returns to his or her desk with a bevy of new action items that supplement the exiting to-do list.
The perfect plan for managing a day’s worth of work immediately swirls down the drain.
What’s a new professional to do? Many respond by doubling-down. With time at an absolute premium, they attempt to tackle major projects—draft a contract, prepare a market segmentation analysis, gather financial comps—while responding to an ever-increasing number of distractions. Multi-tasking has become the norm.
A growing body of evidence suggests those same new professionals might benefit by doing less rather than more . . . at least for 12 minutes a day. And increasingly, corporations like Google, Target and General Mills offer programs to employees to help them become aware of time-pressured reflexive, emotional reactions that can lead to bad decisions.
Even though mindfulness has Buddhist roots, many practitioners bring strictly secular beliefs to the skill-building process. In its most basic form, mindfulness involves the simple non-judgmental observation of one’s breath, body and, for lack of a better word, a mantra. Practitioners focus on being fully present and aware. They do not attempt to change a particular situation. Rather, they focus on being fully aware of what that situation is.
Herbert Benson, M.D. described his approach to mindfulness in his book, The Relaxation Response. Under his technique, patients:
1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in their belief system.
2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
3. Close their eyes.
4. Relax their muscles, progressing from one’s feet all the way up to one’s neck and head.
5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as they do, say a focus word silently as they exhale.
6. Assume a passive attitude. When their mind strays, and it will, they gently return it to their repetition.
7. Continue for ten to 20 minutes.
In a HBR (Harvard Business Review) IdeaCase, Maria Gonzalez, author of Mindful Leadership, described the three attentional skill set that mindfulness requires, including:
1. Concentration – “concentrate on whatever it is you wish to concentrate for as long as you wish, no judgment around what that is;”
2. Clarity – “put together different pieces of what’s going on and really [see] them for what they are instead of your own judgment that clouds the issue;” and
3. Equanimity – “go with the flow,” to accept that what is simply is.
Why mindfulness works
More than 30 years of research has documented that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. More recent research supports the beneficial role it can play at school and at work.
Dan Hurley reported on two of these studies in Sunday’s New York Times magazine.
In one study, participants spent a combined 11 hours over two weeks practicing a form of mindfulness meditation. M.R.I.’s performed before the study began and after it ended revealed the meditation “enhanced the integrity and efficiency of the brain’s white matter, the tissue that connects and protects neurons emanating from the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of particular importance for rational decision making and effortful problem solving.”
In another study, undergraduates who were instructed to spend 10 minutes per day for two weeks practicing mindfulness “made significant improvements on the verbal portion of the Graduate Record Exam—a gain of 16 percentile points. They also significantly increased their working memory capacity, the ability to maintain and manipulate multiple items of attention.”
In sum, researchers believe that by emphasizing a focus on the here and now, mindfulness trains the brain to stay on task and avoid distraction—just what today’s workers need in our hyper-connected world.
There’s little doubt that practicing mindfulness is a “useful business skill,” according to Todd Essig, contributor to Forbes.com. Essig sites new research out of the University of Toronto, which suggests that high levels of mindfulness provide some protection against potentially dangerous emotional highs. Professionals who are able to accept “what is is” without judgment, he writes, are able to react less emotionally to immediate victories or defeats.
Other research suggests that new professionals who practice mindfulness reap many other benefits, including: alleviating stress; decreasing blood pressure; regulating heart rate; and increasing immune function.
So, before you reach for today’s to-do list, take a pause and breathe.
What You Need To Know
Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes, in order to speed up, you must first slow down. Practicing mindfulness improves your ability to focus and avoid distractions.
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