At the start of one hectic day, Gandhi is reputed to have said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one." Contained in that counterintuitive argument is the reason for pursuing the practice of mindfulness – but also the reason we don't.
When people are asked to consider the value of mindfulness or meditation for their well-being, which is what most courses promise, they see it as an extra, something they lack time for. But when they see it as a way to improve productivity – spend time on mindfulness to save time in our busy lives – they are more intrigued.
Rasmus Hougaard, a workplace mindfulness consultant who divides his time between New York and Denmark, has encountered this resistance, and so pushes meditation – a state of heightened attention to our thoughts and feelings – for the value it provides in sharpening our focus and effectiveness more broadly at work. And he finds Gandhi's observation true in his own life.
When he's on vacation, relatively at peace, he might meditate for just 20 minutes. But back at work, his usual practice is one hour, divided into three parts. In the morning, he prepares himself for the rigours of the day for 30 minutes, then at midday carves out 10 minutes to calm his mind among all the distractions, and finally in the evening he takes 20 minutes to wind down and ensure good sleep.
You may have tried meditation but perhaps, like many, have given up in the mistaken belief that meditation will quickly bring you to an oasis of peace. Instead, thoughts keep bombarding you, so it doesn't seem worth continuing. "Meditation is not about a state of bliss. We don't call it meditation perfect but mediation practice," he said in an interview.
Those distracting thoughts when meditating at home are like the distracting thoughts you face as you go through the day's tasks at work. Learning to deal with them – you won't banish them – in your daily practice will help you at work. And that's the second reason people give up: They don't make the connection between mindfulness practice at home and their regular life.
To be in good physical shape, you might go to the gym, knowing it will help you be more energetic and effective during work. It's the same kind of thing with meditation. "We are strengthening the attentional muscle. When we have a strong attentional muscle it's easier to be effective in meetings or with e-mail. We are less likely to be distracted," he said. More formally, he said we're working on the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which plays a central role in controlling attention.
He sets out two rules for mental effectiveness at work, both assisted by mindfulness practice. The first is to focus on what you choose – a focused mind doesn't multitask but rather concentrates on one item. The second rule is to choose your distractions mindfully. You don't want to be so focused that you miss what's happening around you.
In his book, One Second Ahead, he sets out two areas for practice, each with a similar four-step process, remembered with the letters A, B, C, D.
For training sharp focus, start with Anatomy – the right posture, sitting comfortably, back straight, relaxed, with your hands on your knees.
Breathing will be the anchor for attention, since it's always available, and it also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which assists relaxation.
Count for focus: Don't just focus on your breathing, but count each breath – one, two, three … until 10 and then reverse back to one, proceeding over and over with that cycle. Don't worry if you trip up, if you get lost at four and follow it with one, or find yourself counting to 37, since the idea is to maintain focus.
Distractions – the D in the process – will occur, and are essentially anything other than your breath. "Distractions are your best friends for focus training. Distractions are the ones telling you when you are off track," he writes. The idea is to master them, relaxing and releasing the associated tension by refocusing on your breath.
The second skill to hone is open awareness, increasing your self-awareness and insight into what makes you genuinely happy. Again, start with anatomy and breathing, counting if that helps get rid of distractions. But after developing proper relaxation, focus and clarity, open your awareness to whatever might arise, noticing the distraction and observing it neutrally, returning to the anchor of breathing occasionally but mostly being attentive to distractions.
"Open awareness isn't about minimizing the number of distractions in your life. On the contrary, it's about seeing those distractions as precisely what they are and choosing which ones deserve your attention," he writes.
The application to the workplace of both forms of mindfulness training is clear. He recommends starting with sharp focus for the first few weeks before moving on to open awareness.
Lower your expectations and make mindfulness practice a habit, trying for the same time and place every day. "We advise people to do it for two weeks – two times seven days. Generally people find more mental peace and happiness," he said in the interview. That bolsters the urge to keep practising and translates into greater productivity at work. Eventually on a busy day you might find yourself, like Gandhi, meditating for two hours rather than one.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter