Carving the Path to Mindfulness in the Workplace

Three minutes. That’s the average frequency that we’re interrupted during the workday.1 From an ongoing influx of calendar invitations to the seemingly never-ending stream of push notifications lighting up phone screens, our lives are flooded with distraction.

In fact, Harvard researchers found that 47% of our day is spent thinking about something other than we’re doing.2 And as we all know, distractions don’t always jive with valuable contributions in the workplace. It’s not surprising, then, that leading employers - including Google, Intel, and General Mills - are increasingly embedding mindfulness, or meditative practices that promote a “state of active, open, intentional focus on the present,”3 in employee education and the surrounding work environment.

Definitions of mindfulness vary, but they all typically break down to a few common components:

  • Being fully in-tune with events and feelings in the present, using breathing to center thoughts.
  • Devoting complete attention to tasks in the present. Multi-tasking is off limits.
  • Acknowledging feelings as they arise, without deeming them “good” or “bad.”

But what role does mindfulness play in higher work productivity?

Steve Jobs, among the best-known mindful meditators in business, said it best: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is… [but] when it does [calm], there's room to hear more subtle things--that's when your intuition starts to blossom … You see so much more than you could see before.”

Companies embracing mindful practices report results consistent with those of Apple’s founder. They’ve shared that employees are more creative, productive, focused – and are all-around better leaders.

Take, for example, General Mills, one of the earliest adopters of mindfulness in the workplace. Back in 2006, Janice Marturano, the company’s Deputy General Counsel, founded General Mills’ “Mindful Leadership” program. Following completion of the course, surveyed executives reported measurable benefits – 80% reported better decision-making skills, 82% reported a better ability to prioritize higher-value tasks, and 89% reported better listening skills.4

About 5 years ago, North Highland’s own CEO Dan Reardon joined the growing number of business leaders adopting mindful meditation. In talking with Dan, I learned that he practices transcendental meditation, in which meditation sessions focus on a repeated mantra. When thoughts about work or life challenges surface during meditation sessions, he brings focus back to the mantra.

Reardon also uses a phone app that helps time consistent, 25-minute daily sessions. He has currently completed 175 meditation sessions without skipping a single day.

“Even though I am not processing issues [while meditating], I often have more clarity on them when I am done meditating,” Reardon said.

Mindfulness programs positively impact leadership and productivity, but your organization doesn’t need to have a formal program in place to reap the benefits.

The Harvard Business Review sets forth several best practices when it comes to incorporating mindfulness in your workday. A mindful day at work might look something like the following:

  • After waking up, spend the first 1-2 minutes of the day focused completely on breathing. Dismiss any interfering thoughts, particularly those about obligations for the day ahead, by bringing thoughts back to breathing.
  • Upon arriving at the office, avoid checking email for at least 10 minutes. This is the time of day during which creativity is strongest, so it’s best spent focused on your highest-value work.
  • Throughout the day, take brief “mindful performance breaks” every hour. Close your eyes, relax your muscles, and fully restore focus on breathing.
  • On the drive home, devote a portion of the time to complete silence, effectively clearing your mind and resetting your focus before returning home to a different set of priorities.5

At the end of the day, “employees” are mothers, brothers, friends, little league baseball coaches, and local volunteers. The multiple obligations that accompany parenthood, being a compassionate friend – or simply sorting through a growing pile of unread emails— all vie for attention.

This isn’t changing anytime soon. It’s more important than ever to stop, breathe, and focus on what matters in the moment. Both the individual employee and organization stand to gain.

1  Mesiter, Jeanne. “Future of Work: Mindfulness as a Leadership Practice. Forbes. 27 April 2015. Web. 8 April 2017.

2 Bradt, Steve. “Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind.” Harvard Gazette. 11 November 2010. Web. 8 April 2017.

3  Dixit, Jay. “The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment.” Psychology Today. 1 November 2008. Web. 8 April 2017.

4 Gelles, David. “The Mind Business.” Financial Times. 24 August 2012.  Web. 8 April 2017.

5 Hougaard, Rasmus and Carter, Jacqueline. “How to Practice Mindfulness Throughout Your Work Day.” Harvard Business Review. 04 March 2016.  Web. 8 April 2017.