We’ve all seen advertisements for ‘miracle cures’ before: pop-up windows or magazine inserts that claim “Cure found! This man has discovered the secret to a longer life,” or “This one weird trick can earn you $100,000!” More often than not, those ads are peddling dubious herbal supplements or a self-help program. Given this, it’s understandable that we as a society are skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true.
But in the world of psychology, one practice is turning cynics into believers with its amazing results: mindfulness. While it’s not exactly a quick, easy fix for every problem in your life, it has proven effective in a wide range of contexts, from treating depression to losing weight to improving sleep and much, much more.
So what exactly is this wonder practice?
“Mindfulness is awareness that comes from paying very close attention to what we are experiencing in the present moment, both internally and out in the world. It means being aware of what we are doing, while we are doing it, and also what is going on mentally and emotionally,” says Clinical Psychologist and Certified Success Coach Dr. Sam Von Reiche. “When we are in a mindful state, we are compassionate observers of what goes on within and around us. We notice without [applying] labels and judgments. People tend to experience various kinds of fear based on compulsive thinking about the past and projections about the future. Being in the moment liberates people from these fears and allows them to live life more authentically, creatively, and productively.”
When practiced with regularity, mindfulness can (literally) reshape your brain so that you have more activity in areas associated with decision-making, focus, and memory, among others — and that can directly translate to gains in your career, both short-term and long-term.
The Many Benefits of Mindfulness
No matter what your career goals are, odds are that mindfulness can be helpful in one way or another.
For example, in a hyper-connected, always-on world, “Mindfulness is an antidote to the constant pull of distraction,” says Gayle Van Gils, Certified Mindful Leadership Teacher and author of Happier at Work: The Power of Love to Transform the Workplace. “We are bombarded with information and opportunities to be pulled away from the task at hand. When we develop the ability to focus — bring our attention back to the task we are engaged with — our productivity and satisfaction with work will increase.”
It can also help reduce stress, by allowing you to “deal with issues rather than ruminate on projected scenarios in our head,” Van Gils adds. “While stress is caused by many factors, incessant and unnecessary worry can be interrupted whenever we remember to return our attention to what is actually happening rather than what we fear will happen.”
Trying to push yourself to think outside the box? Mindfulness can help with that too. “Mindfulness leads to creative problem solving because you take the time to allow new solutions to incubate, rather than simply applying stale mental patterns and expectations from the past to new situations,” Von Reiche shares. “This also creates greater adaptability (accepting reality in the moment and formulating the best solutions) which is a strong predictor of leadership ability and career success.”
One of the great things about mindfulness is that “when you mindfully conduct yourself, the long-term effects accumulate,” says Dr. Amanda Gale-Bando, licensed psychologist. The end result? “You are viewed as clear-headed, in control, productive and attentive. You become an authority on whatever task is in front of you, and others notice. These characteristics are vital to building a reputation supporting your forward career movement.”
Training Your Brain
While remaining present in the moment may seem easy, mindfulness requires a good deal of determination and dedication.
“It’s actually quite difficult when you understand that the average person has between 20-50,000 thoughts go through their mind in an average day. In fact, the latest research shows that we are NOT in the present moment [46.9%] of our day — that’s over 7 1/2 hours in a 16-hour waking day!” says Robin Todd M.S., Owner of mindful momentum.
But don’t let that intimidate you too much. While reaching peak mindfulness can take years of practice, there are a number of simple exercises you can start doing today that will allow you to begin reaping some of the benefits of mindfulness almost immediately. Try a few of the following exercises on for size:
- The 3-Minute Controlled Breath Break: “Close the eyes. Inhale as if you are growing a bowling ball in your abdomen to the count of three. Hold the breath for one second. Now exhale deeply, collapsing your belly to your spine. Repeat this deep breathing for three minutes. You can do this in the office in the middle of the workday to refocus yourself. Brain scan studies show that controlled breathing calms down the stress centers of the brain.” —Dr. Romie Mushtaq, Physician, Mindfulness Teacher, and Speaker
- Mind the Little Things: “The scent, sound and feeling of washing your hands, the sound of your fingers on the keyboard, the sound and feel of the door as you open and close it. Pretend you are a cinematographer trying to capture every nuance of what you experience around you. These moments add up to having a more mindful day.” —Von Reiche
- Learn to Listen: “If you’re constantly confronted by the most talkative person in the office or find holding conversations with co-workers difficult or draining, mindful listening can help. Imagine you’re at the movies and listen to the person in front of you like you would an actor on the big screen. Sit back and enjoy the conversation without a personal agenda, pressure to give advice or an opinion, or the need to relate to what is being said. Basically, you don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to make it about you. Take it all in like you would a good movie and let the speaker have the stage.” —Dr. Lynn Rossy, Director of Integrated Wellness at Veterans United Home Loans
- Let Negative Thoughts Go: “It’s necessary to vent about your stressful day, but [only] to a certain extent. Don’t let your negative thoughts spiral out of control. Rather, close your eyes and take a deep breath, or even better, three. Notice the feelings that are associated with your negative thoughts, and acknowledge these feelings. Allow yourself to release this negativity once and for all.” —Amy Ritsema, owner of OnSite Wellness
- Set Reminders: “You can activate your return to the present moment by setting reminders on your phone or watch to buzz at regular or random intervals. You will find that this usually jogs you back from wherever your mind has wandered, and will over time be a form of mindfulness training in itself.” —Van Gils
- Watch Your Thoughts. “When you become aware of a thought, place it on a cloud (or lily pad, or conveyor belt, or whatever imagery resonates with you) and watch it as it goes by. When the next thought comes, repeat. If you’d like, you can set a timer for two to three minutes and practice watching your thoughts go by.” —Gale-Bando
Don’t worry if you have trouble with these exercises at first — as with almost everything, practice makes perfect. “If your mind wanders, that is always okay because that is what minds do. In fact, it gives you a chance to practice a ‘rep’ and further strengthen your mindfulness muscle. Whenever you become aware that your mind has wandered, very gently bring your attention back to your intended focus, repeatedly, however many times is necessary,” Gale-Bando recommends.
So the next time you start to feel those worries start to rise or your productivity slow down, relax. Take a breath. Notice where you are, and what you’re feeling. You’ll feel better in the moment — but perhaps even more importantly, you’ll set yourself down the path of a happier, healthier future.