“Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” | Jon Kabat-Zinn
Is mindfulness more than just a buzzword? Can it make any difference to your productivity? It's certainly more than a passing fad - it's been used for hundreds of years as part of meditation - and yes, practicing mindfulness regularly can help to reduce inattention and lack of focus, thus improving productivity.
To understand how this works, you should know that your brain pays attention in two different ways. Voluntary, or directed, attention is what you use when you're writing a project plan or listening to a team briefing. It's what people usually mean when they talk about "paying attention". But your brain also pays involuntary attention: if a flash of light or a noise distracts you, it's not because you consciously planned to notice them. These two types of attention use different areas of your brain, and there's research to suggest that if you can switch from voluntary to involuntary attention for a while, it gives the part of your brain that's concentrating on work a chance to rest and re-energize.
This explains why going out for a short walk is more energizing than taking a break and doing a puzzle. If you're walking then you tend to be aware of lots of things in your environment without actually focusing on them: that's involuntary attention. If you're distracting yourself by concentrating on a puzzle, you're simply redirecting your voluntary attention rather than giving that part of your brain a break.
In fact, your brain will do this switch naturally. If you've ever been trying hard to focus on something but found yourself staring out of the window or simply looking at your screen without taking in what it says, you've experienced your brain switching from voluntary to involuntary attention. There's a law of diminishing returns when you try and force continuous voluntary attention; there's only a certain amount that you can do before your brain naturally switches away. The good news is that it only takes a few minutes of involuntary attention for your voluntary attention to recharge. But how can you control something that's involuntary by nature?
This is where mindfulness can help. Rather than trying to distract yourself with another activity, mindfulness specifically requires you to notice things without concentrating on them. It's like finding yourself staring into space but done consciously and deliberately. Mindfulness does not mean taking half an hour to listen to gentle music or forest sounds; in fact, the opposite is true. Mindfulness means noticing what's already there, without needing to focus on it.
The easiest example of this is your breathing. Many meditation exercises begin with paying attention to your breathing, often followed by an instruction to breathe more slowly or more deeply or from your diaphragm, not your ribs. Mindfulness simply means noticing your breathing; not trying to change it, just becoming aware of it.
This is harder than it sounds. Your brain evolved to switch from involuntary to voluntary attention; for prehistoric people paying attention to a sudden movement could make the difference between being predator or prey. So simply being able to notice without having to focus is a skill that requires practice. If you find that you're concentrating on your breathing rather than just being aware of it, switch your attention elsewhere. What sounds can you hear? Which colors can you see? What can you smell? Now come back to noticing your breathing again. With practice, you will be able to be aware without having to concentrate or focus. This gives the voluntary attention part of your brain a break, so that you can them re-engage with the task at hand.
Mindfulness is much more than just a buzzword: it is a powerful tool to help you re-energize when you're losing concentration and focus. Like any tool, it requires practice to master, but once you're able deliberately to switch from voluntary to involuntary attention, you'll become able to focus when you need to and increase your productivity.
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This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical issue or disease. The author does not in any way guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of this article and will not be held responsible for the content of this article. The information in this article is not intended to replace a personal relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your personal health care provider for specific medical advice.