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Working Mindfully

Mindfulness at work can lead to more productivity...

Mindless Moment

I did a workshop on time management and productivity yesterday for a group of about 85 people. As always, the vast majority of participants said they don’t have enough time to get everything done in a day, which seems to be a national problem at this point. The main point of my workshop, however, is that we do have enough time. What we don’t have is enough attention on how we’re spending our time. Which brings me to this week’s mindless moment.

As I scanned the headlines in my Google newsfeed, one from The Takeout caught my attention: “America reels from national shortage of Popeyes chicken sandwich.” I found this fascinating on a couple of fronts. First of all, that there’s such a popular website about fast food and second, that people are so passionate about a chicken patty on a bun. But the mindless part is that the article goes on to describe the amount of online activity about this revered sandwich. People are evidently arguing online about it and the author states that “a large current percentage of your Twitter feed can’t talk about anything else.” And of course, from the headline you can ascertain that there is now a national shortage of these tasty treats, with many Popeyes selling out by mid-day, which is only spurring on additional online tweets and debates.

I’m not judging people’s obsession over a food product, so please don’t tweet me. I’m questioning how mindful we are about how we use our time. Most people that I either know or teach all say the same thing, that there’s too much to do in a day now and they feel overwhelmed because they’re never caught up. They have to work extra hours just to stay afloat. They have to sacrifice either family time or self-care in order to meet all of the demands placed on them. And yet, people have time to go online and debate a chicken sandwich?

All I can say is that this is a great example for my workshops. We have enough time, we simply use some of it mindlessly and then come up short for the important tasks we need to accomplish.


Speaking of being mindful about accomplishing tasks, how mindful are we when we’re at work? You are in the majority if you feel like it’s impossible to finish all of the tasks assigned to you each day. You’re also in the majority if you feel like co-workers are part of the problem. Have you ever had a thought like, “If only such-and-such would quit, I’d be happy here?”

Most of us spend the vast majority of our time working. And because of the way our brains work, most of us think about what we’d rather be doing while we’re working, and about work when we’re off. So the first step to improving our working conditions is to shift our thought process. When we’re at work, we’re working. When we’re off, we’re doing other things. Each time the opposite thoughts appear, an easy solution is to repeat a simple mantra in our minds – when you’re at work and thinking about how you’d rather be at the beach, say “I’m working.” When you’re off and start worrying about something at work, create another mantra like – “not now.” A mantra is just a statement repeated frequently. And of course, when you do anything repeatedly, it becomes a habit. Stating a simple mantra helps disrupt the thought process happening between neurons and slowly rewires them. Sending these signals helps your brain to refocus on what you desire and reduces mind-wandering. And that, in turn, sharpens your focus so that you’re more productive.

As for not having enough time, an excellent mindfulness exercise is to spend a few days paying close attention to how you spend your time. I think it’s very beneficial to keep a journal and write down everything you do, even if for just one day. I’ve covered mono-tasking and device use in other podcasts, so won’t go into depth here on those two topics, other than a reminder that studies show that we cannot multitask, but only task switch, and that we spend on average, two and a half hours per day checking our phones. What could we do with an extra two and a half hours a day that would help us feel less overwhelmed?

I frequently get push back from people about their device use when I point out that statistic about how many times a day we check our smart phones. Many folks claim that they are aware that other people do it, but they don’t. I was actually one of these people before I started paying close attention to this. Or I’ll hear that they think it’s definitely a problem with younger people. Unfortunately, that’s a common misperception. These devices and the apps on them are specifically designed to be addictive, regardless of our age. So if you think you don’t do it, I suggest you try a simple experiment. Place a sticky note on the back of the phone or on the case. Each time you look at the device (which is task switching) or pick it up, make a tick mark on the sticky note. At the end of the day, count how many times you looked at or picked up the phone. Multiply that number by one or two minutes (which is a very low estimate if you actually texted, tweeted, or posted to Instagram, etc.). Then look at your to-do list and contemplate how many items you could have finished by the end of the day with that extra time.

The good news is, when it comes to focusing on work when we’re at work, we have total control to change our habits. Other people, however, are a different matter.

Quite a few of my coaching sessions with clients focus on this issue. The manager is a nightmare. The admin assistant gossips all of the time. The HR department only cares about avoiding a lawsuit. It usually takes more than one coaching session for the client to begin to recognize that none of that matters. The problem is not the other people. The problem is our reaction to other people.

We can spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy wishing other people would change. If only so-and-so would do their job well, my job would be easier. If my manager would just make and implement better decisions, I could be much more successful. If only whomever would stop being so negative, I would be happier at work. Sound familiar?

The first aspect of this from a mindful perspective is that these trains of thought are all judgments. We’re judging our co-workers’ work. We’re saying they aren’t good enough. Practicing mindfulness is a very effective way to shift our thought processes, as non-judgment is a key tenet of mindfulness. Mantras are again an excellent way to practice this. Each time you hear yourself judging a co-worker, simply say to yourself, “I’m judging.” This begins to heighten your awareness of how often you judge and over time, it will begin to subside.

The second aspect of this is that when we blame others for our own discomfort, we’re handing over control of our own happiness to outside circumstances. We’re saying we can’t create our own level of content, but that it’s all in the hands of other people. That’s simply not true. What is true is that we cannot change other people. We can only change how we respond to other people. But in changing our response, other people frequently change, too. I’m sure you’ve heard the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is what that quote is about. We want to always start with ourselves. What can we do differently in response to a coworker who irritates us or upsets us?

The next time a coworker upsets you in any way, try not to react at all. Breathe and notice your breath. Consider yourself an objective observer, noticing what this person is saying or doing. Pretend it has nothing to do with you at all, which is probably true. Try listening to the person with curiosity. What need are they trying to fulfill? Are they in pain of some sort? Addressing the situation from this perspective, you begin to see that it’s not personal. You notice your judgments, but shift to inquiry, which disrupts the judgmental process. Simply listen and notice how at some point, the other person finishes and moves on to someone or something else.

When you feel frustrated with the lack of progress in someone else, try asking yourself how you know they’re failing. Do you really know all of the details involved? Do you know what that person is thinking or feeling? Remind yourself that you’re judging. Refocus on how you’re reacting. Why is this triggering you? Could you have an issue that you haven’t resolved? Could it be your ego running amuck? This is not about judging yourself, but simply observing that you may have an unresolved issue that you could address and that in turn, would reduce your reactivity over what someone else is doing.

As you encounter troublesome coworker behaviors in general, consider what you can learn from each situation. If certain behaviors irritate you, instead of judging, look at what you can learn from those behaviors. Negativity is a big one in the workplace, so instead of wishing other people would be more positive, consider how you could be more positive in your interactions with those people. Experiment with gossipers. What happens if you don’t contribute to the gossip or if you even share that you are trying to reduce your own gossipy behavior? You’ll find fairly quickly that people stop gossiping around you and maybe you’ll have prompted someone else to look at their own negative behavior.

Set an intention each morning to do the best work you can do that day. When you get to work, focus on the work, your work, not what other people are doing. If you’re struggling, look at why you’re doing the job you’re doing. Are you passionate about it? If not, you can be passionate about doing it to the best of your ability. Many of us take jobs because we need to make a living. But resenting having to do that job only makes us miserable and of course, we tend to blame others for our condition. Instead, by focusing on how we can do an excellent job, whether it’s flipping burgers or running a corporation, we become more self-aware and accountable. We can find joy in our own progress instead of focusing on others’ lack of it. And we can ultimately be the change we want to see in the world.

Have a mindful week!

~ Teresa

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