Mindfulness came of age in 2020. In the grueling, fearful months of this global pandemic, organizations had an epiphany: support for employee wellbeing is a must-have, not just a nice to have. The need for increased focus and resilience, especially by managers, has been obvious. The meditation app Headspace reports more than a 500% increase in companies seeking mental health assistance for their workforce. Medical prescriptions for digital therapy apps have increased by 6,500%. Before Covid-19, it was predicted the mindfulness industry would grow to be worth $2billion a year. This figure is now likely to be far larger.
Amid Coronavirus, mindfulness has metamorphosed. It began as a hyper-trendy Silicon Valley fad in the early part of the century. It’s now an essential leadership development tool for stressed-out managers in companies from De Moines to Düsseldorf.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention on purpose to the present moment, non-judgmentally. One way to develop this skill is through daily meditation practice. There are over 1,000 meditation apps, with Calm, Headspace, and Meditopia topping the global charts. However, you don’t need to invest in an app to benefit, just establish some simple everyday habits.
From Buddhism to Boardroom
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation. Since it came to prominence in the Swinging Sixties, it’s gradually been shorn of spiritual connections. It’s now viewed as a scientifically-proven route for gaining a mental edge in a frazzled business world. As well as the frothy hype served up by lifestyle gurus such as Gwyneth Paltrow, it has some seriously impressive adherents. Google provides its employees with a mindfulness class – Search Inside Yourself – which has a six-month waitlist. Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic has revealed regular meditation is how he stays focussed on crunch points. Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, says it’s had more impact on his success than anything else. Even the seriously non-tree hugging U.S. Marines have achieved remarkable results. After eight weeks of meditating for just 15 minutes a day, soldiers were far better at dealing with anxiety and stress. They could stay calm in the thick of battle.
Mind-wandering is the human brain’s default mode of operation. Harvard University researchers revealed most people spend a remarkable 47% of their time thinking about something other than what they’re doing. What’s more, this mind-wandering makes people unhappy. When working from home it’s even easier to get distracted. Regular meditation is shown to improve your ability to focus and make better decisions, especially in stressful situations. The psychological term for “paying attention on purpose” is meta-awareness: the ability to “think about thinking”. Meta-awareness makes it possible to observe thoughts that are always chuntering away. Without any scrutiny, this mental chatter affects your mood without you consciously registering the corrosive impact.
Making Mindfulness Part of Your Day
Here are a few tips we’ve shared with the hundreds of senior executives who have sampled mindfulness in my leadership programs at London Business School and elsewhere. First, choose a time and relatively quiet space that suits you. My daily habit is to set a 10-minute timer on my smartphone in the morning and then simply focus on my breathing and observe my thoughts. Of course, you can invest in a book or an app for a little more guidance, but it is not strictly necessary. Regular meditation trains your brain. In time, it literally alters its physical structure through the process of neuroplasticity. As researchers like to say, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Meditation training has the same relationship to mindful clarity as jogging has to cardiovascular fitness.
With a regular meditation routine established, you can begin to bring mindfulness into the rest of your day. Michael Chaskalson, a pioneer in the application of mindfulness to leadership and the workplace, said: “Periodically, during the day, consciously move away from the thinking part of your mind. Instead, switch on the direct experiencing part of your mind. During exercise pay attention to your body; while eating, pay attention to your food; talking, pay close attention to the person and that experience.” As you build your “mindfulness muscles”, meta-awareness begins to pop up when you need it most: in an important meeting, making a big presentation or asking for a raise. It’s just as valuable for appreciating the small gifts each day offers: chatting with a friend, taking a walk, or taking your first bite out of a donut.
Another practical method is to simply pause for a breath and a moment of awareness. I call this “The Doorknob Technique”. As the name suggests, this can be used the moment you place your hand on a physical door arriving at a meeting. More lately, it may be your finger on a mouse clicking into a Zoom meeting. When working from home, it’s especially helpful to make a more conscious transition from work mode to being with family or friends.
Life’s challenges – client wins, client losses, the weather, sickness, irritating people – mean we’re buffeted by a storm of unwanted knee-jerk emotions. Mindfulness allows you to better choose your response to life’s ups and downs. I think of this as The Leadership Gap: the precious moment between what happens, and how you respond. Mindfulness unlocks the potential of this magic instant. It allows you to pause, to defer judgment, and to think: “how can I respond imaginatively to this situation to get the best result?”
In the late 1970s, if you’d casually remarked to someone you were going to leave the office and run through the streets, your colleagues would have thought you were eccentric, to say the least. But, as we’ve become more enlightened about the benefits of physical health, jogging is now completely normal. Most people regularly train their body, some even run marathons. We’re now seeing a similar shift in our attitude to training the brain. When leaders are more mindful they consciously make better decisions. Next time something rocks your day, don’t snatch at your first knee-jerk response. Pause mindfully, to make a more creative choice.