Mindfulness at work: Six things you can do to focus and manage interruptions

“Mindfulness is simply the art of deliberately doing one thing at a time”                               Chris Bailey in his book, The Productivity Project

With over half-a-million people suffering from workplace stress, in the UK alone, could practicing mindfulness help us manage work-related stress?

A recent study by Ute Hulsheger and colleagues examined the experiences of 168 workers in Germany. Participants, who included doctors, teachers and consultants, filled out a diary three times a day over the course of five working days. They also responded to surveys, which among other things included looking at sleep quality and workload. They found a reciprocal relationship between mindfulness, workload, sleep quality and fatigue. Key takeaways from this study included:

  1. The ability to be mindful at work is reliant on switching off from work the previous day which, in turn, can help us get a good night’s sleep.
  2. When we don’t detach from work and work-related thoughts creep in to our personal time, this can hinder us getting a good night’s sleep.
  3. When we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we feel more fatigued and hence, less able to be mindful at work.

The researchers conclude that “successful recovery from the previous work period drives subsequent levels of mindfulness, which in turn facilitates subsequent recovery experiences in terms of psychological detachment and sleep quality”. They also make the important point that mindfulness is not only down to the individual. Organisations have a part to play and should regularly review work environments and workload.

Know your enemy – the hijackers of mindfulness

“Many of us are slaves to our minds. Our own mind is our own worst enemy”                       Sakyong Mipham in his book, Turning the mind into an ally

In today’s hyper-connected, always-on, socially networked world, it’s no wonder that we’re fighting a daily, if not hourly battle, against the demand and lure of email and social media alerts.

Mindfulness hijacker #1 – email

Researchers at Michigan State University found that managers struggle to keep up with email. Not only did this mean they felt like they weren’t keeping on top of things, the researchers found it also impacted managers’ ability to be effective leaders. This, in turn, threatened employee performance.

And a Loughborough University study found people spent on average 29 minutes per day simply reading emails (this didn’t include writing them, processing them etc.). They found that for a company of around 3,000 people who had fairly high email reliance it cost around £9million per year simply to read emails!

Mindfulness hijacker #2 – interruptions by other people

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found it takes around 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption. No wonder that so many of us are taking work home with us, or doing work on our commute home, making our working days longer than is healthy.

Mindfulness hijacker #3 – social media

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam conducted a study to examine the effect of social media use at work. More than 360 employees of three large telecomms and consultancy companies took part. While the researchers found personal social media for work linked with higher levels of autonomy and work engagement; they also found those employees who used their personal social media for work also felt more pressured and were more likely to experience exhaustion.

Mindfulness hijacker #4 – unnecessary meetings

Studies by Harvard, City University and The London School of Economics have shown that on average 31 hours per month are spent in unproductive meetings. A study by Eposon and Cebr in 2012 found that meetings cost the UK economy £26bn per year.

For individuals who run a small business, research suggests that pointless and unproductive meetings can cost SME’s in the UK almost £1million a year.

Ways to be more mindful at work

“(mindfulness) will help you see the deeper meaning of what you do, which will make you care more about what’s on your plate” – Chris Bailey in his book, The productivity project

1.Set your intentions for the day before you get in to the office

Caroline Webb, in her brilliant book How to have a good day, offers a helpful approach. I call it the 3-A framework where you have:

  1. Aim (what matters most in making today successful? Where does that mean your real priority is for the day?)
  2. Attitude (How do you need to be in order to achieve your aim(s)? What concerns are dominating your thoughts that might get in the way? Can you put these off, even if temporarily, to help you focus on your aim?)
  3. Attention (Given your real aim, where do you need to direct your attention? What kind of things do you need to notice and watch out for?)

2.Set a timer at various points to take a vigilance break

Daniel Pink, in his latest book When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing, advises us to take a step back with a vigilance break.

He cites the example of the University of Michigan’s Medical School’s Department of Anesthesiology. Before surgery begins each of the surgical team takes a step back from the operating table at which point they proceed to introduce themselves to each other and go through a nine-step pre-induction verification checklist. They then do this again just before the first cut, carrying out a pre-incision time out. One of the professors, and chief surgeon, says that since implementing these vigilance breaks “the quality of care has risen, complications have declined, and both doctors and patients are more at ease”.

3.Take your lunch breaks to get some psychological and physical distance

Research by Christine Bosch and colleagues explored the impact of lunch breaks on well-being and performance. The researchers examined the responses of over 100 people, who responded to daily surveys which tracked their emotion, mood and performance. They found that the extent to which people felt recovered after a lunch break had a positive impact on their ability to complete tasks in the afternoon. Not only did lunch breaks help people feel more energised but it also helped increase engagement levels.

4.Book out blocks of quiet time in your day

Professor Leslie Perlow, of Harvard University, worked with a company of burnt out and under-performing engineers. Constantly helping colleagues solve problems was draining them and taking them away from their own work. She helped them create dedicated windows of quiet time and interaction time which had a marked impact on their productivity and stress levels.

5.Take a power pause

Anne Perschel, also known as @bizshrink on Twitter, wrote a recent article on using a power pause to help us when we’re under stress. Essentially, the power pause is a focus on breath. A really good way to do this is what I call the 4×4 approach. Breathe in for a count of four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds. Do this for four cycles.

6.Apply the worth-your-time test

Peter Bregman wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. He suggests that when someone comes to you with a request, ask yourself:

  • Am I the right person?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Do I have enough information?

What kind of things help you to be mindful at work? Why not share the tactics you think might help other readers?

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Research reference: Hulsheger, U.R., Walkowiak, A. & Thommes, M.S. (2018). How can mindfulness be promoted? Workload and recovery experiences as antecedents of daily fluctuations in mindfulness. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 91, 261-284.

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