Author Rob Kendall explains how mindfulness can transform your productivity and relationships at work
There’s an old Zen story about a man and a horse. The horse came galloping through a village and its rider was clearly rushing somewhere important. An onlooker called after him, ‘Where are you going?’ The rider looked over his shoulder and shouted, ‘I’ve no idea. Ask the horse.’
So often we can feel like that rider. The horse may be your calendar, or your demanding boss, or your email inbox. It may be your to-do list or that project you’re trying to get over the line. As the horse gallops on, you know you’re pushing too hard, feeling the stress, compromising on family life or putting up with a situation that isn’t in line with your values, but you keep thinking that if you can just grip tighter and stay in the saddle, the horse will – with luck, eventually, surely – slow down, allowing you to experience the scenery and the ride. But, just as you’re about to get some breathing space, the horse gallops off again.
In my own case, my work dominated our evenings and weekends. I kept saying to myself that things would get better and more manageable if I could hold on and gallop faster but, privately, I knew that something had to give. Either I would burn out or I would fail in my job, or my relationships at home would be damaged. I’d always maintained that my family came first, but I was putting them second too often. And if I didn’t make time for my children, why would they – later on in their lives – make time for me?
In my new book Workstorming: Why Conversations at Work Go Wrong and How to Fix Them, there’s a character called Jack whose story is based on my own. He comes home one night and asks his six-year-old daughter Ellie to tell him about her day, but he’s too distracted to listen. Noticing that she’s speaking very fast, he asks her to talk more slowly. Ellie looks him in the eye and says: ‘Then listen slowly!’ Her reply fires an arrow to the heart of the problem, as only children can. Jack faces the same challenge at work; his team don’t make of habit of raising their concerns with him, because they don’t expect to be heard.
Facing the Problem
When I eventually had the courage to face up to my predicament, I discovered an uncomfortable truth: I lived in a constant state of preoccupation, and it robbed me of experiencing life in the present moment. On my way to work, I was mulling over my to-do list. While reading my emails, I was thinking about getting on with proper work. During meetings I was thinking about how I could make better use of my time. When I was putting my children to bed, I was thinking about getting back to my emails. This is surely the definition of a mindless life, as described by Leonardo da Vinci who is reported to have said, ‘An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance, and talks without thinking.’
A study by Harvard University psychologists concluded that people spend 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. This comes at a price: when our mind is wandering we are less happy, our relationships are shallower and our productivity diminishes. Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and often referred to as the ‘mother of mindfulness’, claims that most of our behavior is mindless.
Falling into Habit Traps
My own predicament led me to a point of realization. Rather than viewing my metaphorical Zen horse as the circumstances that were dominating my life, perhaps the horse represented my own work habits. This gave me a different slant on the story. It was uncomfortable because I couldn’t blame my habits on anybody else, but it was liberating because they were mine, and therefore I could choose to change them. Here are four common traps to watch for:
- Stacking – the way we manage our time. Our tendency is to fill every available space in our already-bulging calendars so our commitments run back-to-back. On average we have 62 meetings a month, leaving us with the experience that we’re always rushing and that we have no space to think. The more we stack, the more we compromise our recovery time and the more vulnerable we become to burnout. No wonder that 39% of people who are signed off work in the UK are signed off with stress.
- Spinning – the way we manage our attention. Rather depressingly, a study by Microsoft concluded that our attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. The next time you go into a meeting, look into the eyes of the people around the table at the start of the meeting and you’ll see that most of them aren’t engaged in the conversation; they are swallowed up in thought. Distraction is the enemy of being present and, when we spin, we get the illusion of speed but not necessarily the satisfaction of progress.
- Skimming – the way we manage the waves of information that crash over us. Imagine a newspaper with 85 pages. Now imagine 175 of these newspapers stacked on top of each other. That’s roughly how much information we take in every day. It’s inevitable that we skim to pick out the headlines and the urgent issues, and the focus is on speed rather than depth. But if we skim when we’re listening, we become vulnerable to miscommunication and poor decision-making.
- Spilling – the way we manage our boundaries. We’re Spilling when we read our emails during a meeting, interrupt a one-to-one to take a phone call or check who’s sent a text message during a meal at home. People are left feeling that they don’t have our attention or that they’re being ignored. The more we spill, the more exhausted we become because we can’t seem to switch off.
When we stack, spin, skim and spill, we’re more likely to come away from conversations thinking:
- Why on earth didn’t I engage my brain before I opened my mouth, or fired off that email?
- Why didn’t I raise that concern when I had the opportunity?
- How come that person’s introduced themselves to me and I have no recollection of their name three seconds later?
- How on earth did we come out of the same meeting with a completely different understanding of what we agreed?
Making Presence a Habit
As you increase your ability to be present, you’ll be more effective in each and every task, and more connected with other people. These five habits are tried-and-tested and will allow you to transform your experience of mindfulness at work. Take them on initially for three weeks, and then build them into your working year:
- Restore the pauses. To avoid Stacking, enter gaps in your calendar like any other commitment and use them for thinking time, or to have a conversation that’s important but not urgent. Speak to a customer or supplier, catch up with a colleague in the hallway or discuss a long-term opportunity. When you feel as though you’re on a hamster wheel, it’s worth remembering another Zen saying, ‘Meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, in which case meditate for an hour.’ As you create more pauses, you’ll feel less overwhelmed.
- Switch on and switch off. As you move from one task or conversation to the next, imagine that you are turning off a switch that relates to the task you were doing a moment ago, and imagine turning on a switch that relates to the new task. Each time you practice this, you activate a mental prompt that reminds you to bring your attention as well as your physical presence to what you’re doing. In doing so, you prevent Spinning.
- Notice when your attention drifts: You’re not always going to give people your undivided attention, but you can notice when your attention drifts away during a conversation and then bring it back to the person you’re speaking to. This is not a one-off process; it takes discipline and practice. Over time, you can turn the habit of being distracted into a habit of being present.
- Say no more often. Without question, you’ll suffer from Stacking, Spinning, Skimming and Spilling if you can’t say ‘no’. Some people consider it a sign of weakness to decline a request, but this philosophy makes no sense if you end up failing to deliver. Negotiating appropriate deadlines allows you to fulfill your commitments and remain in charge of your time.
- Put the boundaries back in. Turn off your email during the evenings and weekends. There’s very little that can’t wait until tomorrow, and if someone urgently needs to reach you, they can call you and leave a message. The German employment ministry took the unprecedented step in 2013 of banning managers from emailing or calling staff outside working hours, except in emergencies. A warning was clearly made that ‘technology should not be allowed to control us and dominate our lives. We should control technology.’ If your company isn’t so forward-looking, grasp the nettle yourself.
When I began practising these new habits at work, I experienced an immediate uplift in my productivity and in the depth of my relationships. Encouraged by this, I experimented with them at home too. Having closed my computer for the weekend, I discovered that (God forbid) I wasn’t indispensable after all. I found renewed time and energy to be the tickle monster and chase my kids up the stairs, or camp in the garden with them at the weekend. I was able to read them stories at bedtime without them going down to my wife Sally and saying, ‘Dad’s fallen asleep in my bed again.’ And mealtimes became a sacred space in which all devices were put away, and we talked instead.
As you take on regaining control, life’s challenges won’t go away. Depending on your job, your clients will continue to call and emails will stream into your inbox. You’ll still need to juggle competing demands and commitments. But you don’t need to wait for life to slow down before taking hold of the reins.
Find out more: Rob’s new book is ‘Workstorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them’, published by Watkins. For more information, go to www.conversationexpert.com or follow Rob on Twitter @Rob_Kendall.