Mindfulness is an ancient technique for intentionally training ourselves to become more aware and observant of the present. Research by neuroscientists has consistently shown that it can actually help us to re-wire our brains to improve our attention, memory, creativity and efficiency and it also increases our happiness and well-being in the process. Findings suggest that a positive difference in mental functioning, observed by changes in MRI brain scans, can occur with as little as 10 minutes of mindfulness practice a day. ‘Mindfulness’ was first introduced to the West in the late 1950’s and was then secularised into mainstream medical circles in the 1970’s where it was initially trialled, with extreme success, for patients with incurable and/or terminal pain and illness. Since this time it has gained respect and recognition within the fields of mental health, education, medicine, sport, prisons, the creative arts and business. The benefits of mindfulness, all scientifically supported, include stress reduction, pain management, increased productivity, enhanced creativity, improved memory function, greater self-confidence, more self-awareness and self-care and, above all else, a significant increase in happiness and well-being.
When you are studying stress is often the norm, especially when there is a deadline looming, work mounting up and exams on the horizon. It is often tempting (and very common) to rush about haphazardly from one thing to another, even if you know it isn’t really helping, in fact despite the hype it sometimes gets, especially for women, multi-tasking isn’t at all effective, for anyone. Multi-tasking is sometimes dubbed ‘the art of messing several things up at once’ – this is NOT an accolade. Just to prove the point, how about trying the following two exercises:
Task 1: At the same time, making as few mistakes as possible, as quickly as possible: text a friend saying ‘Hi, just trying a multitasking experiment, will explain later’, rotate your left foot in a circle five times, sing a tune (try ‘yellow submarine’ if nothing else comes to mind).
Task 2. Do each of the above, but one at a time, making as few mistakes as possible and as quickly as possible.
Now ask yourself, which was the quickest, least stressful and the task where you made the least mistakes?
The more you multi-task, the busier you delude yourself you are, but the less effective you actually become – this is because you may have trained your brain to be heavily distracted – at work, according to research, this can actually mean that for up to 50% of the time your mind may be wandering off task. So it is time to rewire your brain to get focussed, effective and really productive using the simple practice of mindfulness. This is a scientifically supported way to also reduce stress, get more creative, improve your memory, make better decisions, have healthy working relationships and get everything done.
If you want to try training your mind to become more focused give the following very simple exercise a go, try it frequently (two-three times a day) for at least a week. This exercise is based on a classic ‘mindfulness of breathing’ practice, it utilises the breath and the body as anchors to the present moment. It is normal for our minds to wander and become distracted by past or future images and thoughts, the real training here is not so much about being perfectly present, or emptying your mind of thoughts (impossible and not recommended!), but more to increase your awareness of when you do become distracted and to guide yourself back the ‘here and now’ using the breath.
- First begin by noticing that you are breathing. You should find that you are doing this all the time, anywhere you go! This means you can do this exercise anywhere, anytime.
- Watch your breath flowing into your body, starting at the nose or mouth, and then follow the course of the breath as it leaves the body. Allow yourself to pay good attention to the physical sensations of breathing.
- If your mind wanders, don’t panic, this is just your habitual distractibility appearing, it is inevitable and normal. Just be gentle but deliberate in guiding your focus back to the sensations of breathing.
- Any thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that you notice can now be observed, you do not need to engage with them, embellish them or push them away. Just see them appear and come back to the breath.
- Allow yourself to watch the breath come and go for a few minutes. Doing this keeps you present-moment focussed, and every time you notice and are aware of the present moment (in this exercise by watching the breath) you are strengthening concentration.
With time and practice you will see that your distractibility decreases and that you can apply the same technique that you have used here for watching the breath towards any task, so at work you are improving your productivity and decreasing stress. To find out more about how mindfulness can help you reduce stress, gain confidence and get more done you might like to read our new book Working With Mindfulness, which is available now from all good book shops, online and in-store.
Dr Michael Sinclair and Josie Seydel are the authors of Working with Mindfulness. It is out now, published by Pearson, priced £13.99