Reduce stress, gain focus with mindfulness at work

May 7, 2020

We have seen an increasing number of examples of mindfulness at use: Mindfulness apps, mindfulness training, mindfulness courses, mindfulness and self-help books, mindfulness based therapy… You don’t actually need all of those to start benefiting from mindfulness practices at work—and no spirituality is required!

Putting mindfulness to work is actually quite simple when you look past the hype:

  • In practice, mindfulness can simply mean changing your habits, your thinking, and your surroundings so that you are more present and focused on what you are doing, thinking, and feeling.

  • It helps you turn off your autopilot and tune out all the hundreds of stressful thoughts and interruptions you would otherwise be subject to every day.

  • Mindfulness practices can be especially useful at work if you are facing issues with focus, stress, or anxiety.

Although the topic of this article is practicing mindfulness at work, you can adapt the tips and exercises also to other aspects of your private life.

How does mindfulness help at work?

Mindfulness makes us become more aware of the present moment. It trains your mind to be consciously present and therefore helps you to live more fully and find peace even in a frantic work environment.

Research has shown that being mindful at work can, e.g., reduce emotional exhaustion and increase job satisfaction. So what does it mean to be mindful at work? It means you are consciously present in what you are working on. You acknowledge your thoughts and feelings and accept the experience of working as it is.

We have two tendencies that make it harder to work mindfully: Our minds are great at wandering. We tend to start evaluating or worrying about the past or solve future problems that are not yet relevant in any way. It may lead to negative or unuseful thought patterns that leave less energy or focus for the tasks at hand. We also switch easily into autopilot mode and start operating unconsciously. This happens most often while doing familiar, repeating, or easy tasks.

Being more mindful at work can help us enjoy work and the world around us more, and also to understand ourselves better. When you are more aware of your own reactions, for example in stressful situations, you can understand and accept those reactions and move on.

Being more aware of the present moment also helps to experience more vividly the things we often take for granted and focus on the enjoyment simple things can offer. Concentrating on the positive leaves less room in our brain for negative thoughts.

Mindfulness is important at work also for overcoming one the most difficult and stressful issues we face today at the office: interruptions. You might still get interrupted, but you have a better chance of re-focusing if you have trained your brain to concentrate on the task at hand.

You should practice and use mindfulness at work especially if you feel you cannot focus on your work or concentrate, if your mind is all over the place, or if you find it difficult to get things done.

Do you remember how your lunch tasted yesterday? You might if you had really paid attention to the experience of eating that lunch and forgot about the tasks you have to tackle after lunch.

You don’t have to go full Zen to reduce stress and gain focus

If you read about mindfulness online, you might feel overwhelmed. For some the spiritual aspects related to mindfulness might be a turn-off. Although mindfulness stems from Buddhist practices, it has since evolved to be secular.

You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to use and benefit from mindfulness techniques. Practicing mindfulness can be as “mundane” and worldly as any other everyday activity such as taking a coffee break.

A lot of techniques dubbed today as “mindful” are actually simply about finding ways to be more focused on the present moment and becoming more connected with your own thoughts and feelings.

You might be thinking is mindfulness for me or does mindfulness work for me? Why not give it a shot for yourself and see? Try different techniques to find which ones work for you. The tips in this article don’t require a lot of effort once you start doing them, but you should try them at least a couple of times. Re-learning to concentrate on the present moment can take some practice. 

How to be more mindful at work?

I’ll introduce you to some everyday practices that can help you be more mindful at work. The aim here is to reduce stress with mindfulness techniques by clearing your mind of unnecessary stressful thoughts, and helping you concentrate on the important tasks at hand. 

In a sense, practicing mindfulness can also be an investment in improved focus, efficiency, performance and productivity when those stressful thoughts or poor focus takes up less of your energy during a work day.

The following tips and ideas are in chronological order for practicing mindfulness starting with your breakfast and ending in your commute home from work. With these instructions you can practice mindfulness before, at, and after work.

Don’t worry, the activities and exercises are really simple, they don’t take too much of your time, and they integrate well into your everyday life and habits at work. You don’t have to start having meditation sessions if you don’t want to.

1. Start your day mindfully to prepare for a less stressful day

You can start your day by making a clear decision to be as much mentally present as you can. Making a promise to yourself primes your mind to remember to be present and to notice more easily when your mind starts drifting.

Breakfast

Breakfast can be a simple mindfulness exercise. Put away distractions such as your phone or the newspaper and turn off the television.

When you’re eating your breakfast, how does it taste? What kinds of aromas can you distinguish by taste or smell? How does your body feel when you’re having breakfast? Do you feel hungry before eating and full after finishing? Eating mindfully can also help you notice when you’ve had enough so you don’t accidentally overeat. There is no right or wrong way to feel when eating. Just let yourself become aware of those sensations.

Commuting to work

If your morning routines happen to be too busy for a mindful moment of eating breakfast, don’t worry, you can start priming your mind when commuting.

Commuting is often time that we tend to waste. It is a perfect moment to be mindful and become aware of your senses or surroundings instead of worrying about work. Mindfulness exercises in the morning also help you to be present and de-stress during the work day.

If you’re working from home, you don’t physically commute to work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, even less people are commuting to work. Some creativity is needed here, but a substitute “ritual” for commuting could be something to consider even if you’re working from home. How about taking a short walk around the block before starting your work day? Or taking out the trash? Can you think of a routine that would transition you every morning to work-mode?

Instead of starting to think about your work straight away, or opening your phone and killing time on social media, reading the news, or playing games, why not tune your mind to be more present? You can get one more bit of recovery before switching to work-mode.

Bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Become aware of your body and how it feels while you’re commuting. If you’re sitting in a car or on a bus or a train, how does the seat feel? If you’re outside, how does the air, sun, or rain feel on your skin? What do you feel in your body while walking? What do you observe in your surroundings? What catches your eye? Which sounds or smells do you sense? You don’t have to judge these feelings in any way, but only become aware of them.

Checklist for starting your day mindfully

  • Make a promise to yourself to be more mindful today.

  • Eat your breakfast mindfully.

  • Use the time you commute to work, or just before switching to work-mode, for a quick mindfulness exercise.

2. Work more mindfully and focused

You should always focus on one task at a time and avoid multitasking. To make it more mindful, you could also practice being more aware of working on that one task. Our thoughts tend to drift and we might end up working on autopilot. These are two signs of not being mindfully aware of the present moment.

Remember to be kind to yourself. It can sometimes be hard to concentrate mindfully. If you’re under a lot of pressure, it can be especially hard to keep your mind clear of stressful thoughts. Remember that it is also a matter of practice. Concentration takes energy, and mindfulness can help in training that muscle.

Working on a task

While you are working on a task, you can bring your attention back to the present moment with some simple “tricks”, e.g., by becoming more aware of your physical sensations.

How do you feel in your body while working on this task? How does your posture feel? If you’re for example working on a computer, do you feel your fingers moving on the keyboard?

You can also stop for a moment to think how does it feel doing that task? Is it exciting? Does it bring joy? Is it positively challenging? If you become aware of the negative feelings or thoughts regarding your task, you should acknowledge them and make a mental note to address those feelings later. Concentrate on finishing that task and see how it feels afterwards?

Negative thoughts or experiences can also be a signal for you to craft your job: Is there something you lack that would make it easier to do those tasks? Can you perhaps think of new ways to do similar tasks? What would make this type of work more rewarding, exciting or joyful for you?

Finishing a task

When you’re done with the task, do not rush straight into the next one. Take a moment to thank yourself for a job well done and finishing the task. If you feel like it, tell a colleague that you got that task done and how it felt to finish it (and also ask how they are doing or if they need any help with their tasks).

Hack your work environment

You can do some “hacks” to increase your chances of staying mindfully focused on your work. Your surroundings are a major contributor here.

Does your work environment help you stay focused? Do you have unnecessary distractions such as app notifications popping up on your own personal devices?

If you happen to have left your phone on vibration and a notification grabs your attention, you can use that distraction to your advantage. Make a note that you were distracted, perhaps turn the notifications off, and take it as a reminder for being mindful. Instead of checking that notification, stop for a moment and try to become aware of your surroundings, breath, and bodily sensations. Do you have a good posture? Can you relax your shoulders a bit?

Mindful working checklist

  • Work on one task at a time, do not multitask.

  • Make sure your work surroundings support focused working. Silence notifications while you focus on a task.

  • If your mind starts to wonder or if you work on autopilot, bring yourself back to the present moment by focusing on your physical sensations or your breathing for a short moment.

  • Acknowledge any negative thoughts or feelings associated with a current task, but keep concentrating on finishing that task. Take time later to craft your job.

  • Always finish a task by thanking yourself for a job well done.

3. Take mindful breaks and eat your lunch mindfully

As with having a mindful breakfast, you can use the same ideas to have more mindful breaks or lunch. If you, for example, have a coffee break, how does that warm cup feel in your hands? Is the aroma of the coffee pleasant? What kind of nuances do you taste in the coffee? This is a good way to regain your focus of the present moment.

To boost the energy restoring benefit of a lunch break, you should try to really take it as a break from work. You will return to your task more energized if you don’t spend the break worrying about work. Restoring your mental energy will help you stay more focused for the rest of the day. Use the ideas you’ve learned so far to make your lunch about the experience of eating good food rather than just having some sustenance.

To help you get work off your mind during a break, you can use that time to get to know your colleagues better. Sharing your thoughts about other than work-related subjects is a great way to spend a relaxing break or lunch!

Mindful breaks checklist

  • Use breaks to restore your mental energy and regain focus on the present moment.

  • Take a break from work-related thoughts.

  • Have a break or lunch with a colleague, but avoid only talking about work.

4. Detach from work-mode on your way home

When you’re finishing work for the day, you can already start recovering from the workload or work-related stress.

To boost this recovery process, it is very important to mentally detach from work. It is beneficial both for recovery and for your productivity the next day! A lot of things help in detachment such as hobbies or reading a book, but being present in the moment and more mindful can also help.

Just like you can practice mindfulness while doing your morning routines, you can also try some simple exercises when commuting back home from work (or finishing your remote working).

Start by turning off your work related notifications on your phone so they won’t bring your thoughts accidentally back to work and interrupt your recovery. If you find your mind wandering back to work, acknowledge it, don’t judge yourself, and let those thoughts drift away. Concentration can sometimes be hard especially if you’ve had a busy or stressful day.

You can also bring your attention to your surroundings or your body. What sensations do you have in your body when commuting? What do you see in your surroundings? How does the light or shadows look at this time of the day? When you spot something that fascinates you, allow yourself to enjoy watching it for a moment before bringing your attention to the next thing.

Checklist for having a mindful commute from work

  • Focus on mentally detaching from work as soon as you leave work. This will boost your recovery from stress and maximize your energy for the next day.

  • Paying attention to your trip home, your surroundings, and your sensations can help you stay in the moment and get your mind off work.

  • If you happen to think about work, don’t be too hard on yourself, but let those thoughts drift away.

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