10 mindfulness tips for making you better at business

09 April 2015


Mindfulness won’t clear your inbox, shorten your meeting agenda or cancel that difficult conversation – but it can make the present moment a great deal more productive, says a publishing exec

Jackie Scully

Two years ago I made a big mistake. I assumed that the sign of a good employee was long hours and an unhealthy attachment to the flashing light on the Blackberry. I interpreted cancelling my social life and Pilates classes as commitment to my craft. Skipping lunch was about staying focused, and missing birthday dinners signalled a determination to succeed. I was so busy working throughout each day that I had forgotten what it was to enjoy that time. And then, on 17 January 2014, I was diagnosed with cancer – at the age of 32.

Now, while I am not connecting my illness to my workaholic tendencies, there is nothing like a brush with death to force you to re-evaluate your priorities. A nurse once said to me: “What would you want your gravestone to say?” Had it all ended last year, I reckon: “Here lies Jackie Scully, worked hard, but never time to work out what life was all about,” would have just about covered it.

Roll the clock forward a year, and I’m pleased to say the message would be rather different if I were to write it today. I haven’t changed the job I love, I don’t care any less about publishing, the company or my own career ambitions (although admittedly I do plan better holidays). My to-do list is just as long. So what’s the difference you ask? Well, I have turned up for the first time in my own life – and I rather like it. Cancer played its part. But, so too, did mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a word (and a practice) that brings with it a whole range of interpretations and definitions. For me, mindfulness isn’t about meditating or paying more attention to the person opposite me on the commute to work. It’s about seeing the world as it is right now – not as we expect it to be, want it to be, or fear it might become. You wouldn’t jump from a plane without a parachute, so why should you run a company or manage a team without giving your mind and the present moment the attention it deserves?

Mindfulness has taught me what it really means to be a good employee. You don’t need to meditate in the corner to make your working day that little bit easier and more efficient. Just reflect on these learnings and you might just start seeing a difference too:

1. Thoughts are not facts

Think of them as clouds passing through and stopping you from seeing the blue sky that is always there (as you know when you travel on a plane). Thoughts are propaganda, forcing you to re-live work scenarios, and pre-live future events rather than acknowledging what is actually happening and helping you respond to the present moment in the most effective way. Experience can be a very good thing. But we often spend so long thinking about what might happen that it stops from us from actually doing something about it. Thoughts are often harder to face than reality, encouraging us to over-generalise, catastrophise and plan for the worst.

2. Now is the only moment you’ll ever have. So turn up

Tomorrow and yesterday are just thoughts and, while five-year plans and strategies all have their place, it’s important to make sure you don’t put up too many barriers to stop you ticking off those to-dos. Try and tackle the hardest task on your list first, and stop using your inbox as an excuse to delay doing something that will make a difference to the business. If you can’t identify something at the end of the day that has helped you develop your career or the organisation for which you work, ask yourself whether you’re spending your time on the right things. How easy it is to think about doing, rather than just start.

3. Beware the automatic pilot

While it’s useful to not have to think about putting on your socks or relearning how to drive a car, our inbuilt automatic pilot can also prevent us from getting the most out of a working day. Imagine what ideas you could generate if you come at a challenge with the curiosity of a beginner’s mind. You want more hours in the day? Then wake up to them and you’ll find the week’s 168 hours are enough. Mindfulness gives us the chance to take a different – and often more exciting – path.

4. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf”

Jon Kabat-Zinn – creator of an eight-week, mindfulness-based stress-reduction course – coined that maxim, and applied to business, it’s pretty powerful stuff. Difficult conversations shouldn’t be avoided. Criticisms shouldn’t be overlooked. Work can be really hard and painful. Mindfulness shows you that while that pain is inevitable, you get to decide whether you suffer as a result of it. Approach every challenge in an open way and you might just find you start responding in a positive and constructive way rather than reacting in a negative one.

5. Put your oxygen mask on first

It’s a fact of life that the busier you are, the less likely you are to look after yourself. But it is when you’re busy that you most need nourishing and enjoyable activities to create space and balance in your life. I work smarter after a healthy lunch (or, in fact, any lunch). I feel ready for the day after a run through the park. By putting myself first, I can give more of myself to my work. Try listing all the activities that nourish and deplete you across a day and work out whether or not you need a little more you in your life.

6. Learn to dance again (or, for those over-endowed with left feet, any other hobby!)

All work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy – but I would go further to say, it also makes “Jack-ie” less productive in working hours. That’s why I have started carrying a new list with me of 10 nourishing activities that I can enjoy in 10 minutes. I no longer wait for a delayed train or for a conference call to start, I use that time to live the life I once put on hold. Try it, and if that seems like too much hassle, start small, by switching off your computer 10 minutes before you leave the office, to give you space to reflect on the day.

7. Don’t mistake kindness, gratitude and compassion for weakness

They may not be the first personality traits you identify in a great leader, but they are some of the best. How often have you misread a situation because you have jumped to the wrong conclusion? A great example of this is The Story of Wrong Perceptions in The Wise Heart. Walk a while in your colleague’s shoes and you might just be able to get more out of them.

8. Be a mindful communicator

How many times have you failed to listen in a meeting, caught up as you are in planning or rehearsing your contribution to the conversation. If you tend to dominate a group, try being silent and listening to those around you. Hear what they have to say, acknowledge their feelings and question any assumptions or interpretations you are making. It could make your working relationships a little more meaningful and valuable.

9. Awareness is key

Mindfulness isn’t designed to stop you thinking or worrying or over-analysing. It’s about getting you to recognise the thought patterns and behaviours that you adopt in certain situations, and encouraging you to see them for what they are: thoughts. Being aware of the way you are likely to react to a challenge, and acknowledging that behaviour when it happens, can make you stronger and give you the choice to do things differently.

10. Celebrate those small victories

Not every day can be coloured by a pitch win or a promotion. The fact is, it’s the small pleasures in life (a compliment from a colleague, your favourite cake at a meeting) that can change the course of every day. Open your mind to discovering and savouring them and you might just find that every day can bring with it something to smile about.

And one for luck…

Stand still and look up. Okay, so admiring the architecture on your way in to work or taking in the view from a window may not improve the bottom line or answer that email – but it can remind you just how lucky you are to be alive and making a difference, your way. If you are grateful enough to be in it, the working world can be a surprisingly beautiful place.

When your in-tray is bulging, the phone is ringing, the inbox has more unread messages than read and you have an afternoon of meetings and interviews scheduled, the mind can be a very destructive place. Every day and with every email, you have the chance to let what is take the place of what might be.

I wish it hadn’t taken a cancer diagnosis to show me that the world I create for myself is a lot harder than the one I wake up to every day. Now, I know that while you can’t stop your thoughts, you can stop what happens next.

Can mindfulness really make us better in business? Tweet your view to @InsightsCMI (hashtag: #mindovermatter)

To find out more about mindfulness and locate an eight-week course near you, head right this way.

Mindfulness is just one of the subjects tackled in the latest issue of Professional Manager magazine (out on 22 April), which focuses on modern working life. The magazine is available free to all CMI members (in print and online). The digital edition is also available on a subscription-only basis.

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