Beating stress: Why multi-tasking’s out, and mindfulness is in
Readers talk back
Time, or lack of it, has become one of the biggest stressors regardless of where you sit in the organisational hierarchy. Speak to almost any colleague, customer or supplier and most people will tell you there aren't enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done.
It may sound crazy, but I'm going to suggest the antidote to time stress is intentional non-doing. I believe freeing yourself from the tyranny of time and purposely doing less will allow you to achieve more and lead happier lives ... and world peace, of course.
Another common stressor is incessant thinking, which gets in the way of living a peaceful existence and being effective at work. This type of ruminating over issues and decisions is typically driven by our obsession with the past and future: thoughts like "everything will be OK when I get that promotion", or "why didn't I ask for the promotion sooner?"
Mindfulness is about stilling your mind and understanding that, fundamentally, the present moment is all we really have – but how often are you mentally somewhere else? It's about being awake and aware – living in the present – rather than being stuck dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. It is about making what you are doing right now the most important thing in the world, even if it is boring and mundane.
Mindfulness is achieved by purposely paying attention in a non-judgemental way to what is going on in your body, in your mind and in the world around you.
It is no longer just the new-age gurus who proclaim "living in the now" is the answer to all our problems — that being present equals being happy. Even scientists have got in on the act with psychologists at Harvard University discovering people are happiest when focusing on the present (along with another love-fuelled activity if you can think of it, but that probably didn't require much research!)
The challenge lies in stopping the automatic pilot that we have come to operate so well on and instead focus on the present moment. Our busy lives mean we often fear what might happen if we were to turn off the autopilot. Mult-itasking, although proven to be an ineffective technique, seems critical to fit it all in.
The extra demand on the brain of constantly switching tasks may actually make us less effective and even be damaging to our health as the various systems of the body become stressed and overworked (eg sore neck) and manifest as strong emotional reactions (eg lack of self control).
Let's look at a practical example of mindfulness at work.
Consider being under pressure to meet an important deadline and having an employee walk into your office to tell you about a donkey rescue centre she recently visited. Instead of paying attention to her story, you find yourself thinking "I have to respond to that email," or even planning what you'll have for lunch that day.
To master the art of mindfulness, you need to begin by learning to be curious, as well as being inquisitive and interested in the experience without trying to change it. Mindfulness requires you to shift your focus from the 'future ideal' to the present (ie someone who listens attentively to the story), accepting and embracing and learning in great detail about all aspects of yourself, without rejecting the uncomfortable and shameful bits (ie the fact that you care more about incoming emails than the plight of donkeys).
It allows you to connect more with the people around you and have them walk away from any conversation with you having felt listened to and understood.
As it goes when learning any new skill, staying in the present takes practise. When you first try it, it may feel foreign and you may be sceptical of its power.
To start with a straightforward example: next time you drive to work in traffic, practice being mindful.
Don't allow your thoughts to stray to the past to the chaos you might have left behind before running out the door ("did I turn the coffee machine off?") nor wander to the future to ("what meetings do I have today?" or "I have to remember to reply to that email"). Rather, being mindful requires you to stay in the present, simply taking in your present experience of the commute.
It also requires you to pay attention in a non-judgemental way to what's going on around you (guy in the car next to you singing way too loud and with the window open: try not to judge or close your window). Simply observe, listen and enjoy it, even if it's bad.
At first, you may only manage 10 seconds without letting your mind wander, but after a while this might extend to several minutes. Eventually you will find yourself calling on this skill to achieve higher levels of insight, make better decisions, improve your ability to recall important facts from conversations, generate more abstract ideas and reduce stress levels.
As we approach 2013, commit to being more mindful. You will find this will train your brain to pay more attention while at work. When stuck in rush-hour traffic, challenge your mind to be present without judgment. When having a conversation with a colleague, be wholly present and surprise yourself to learn that you actually enjoy donkey stories. Stop multi-tasking and take the time to simply be present and observe the benefits on your performance.