Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff all have something in common besides being successful billionaires. They all practice meditation, and credit it as a tool for their success.
Research tends to back up the buzz: A 2018 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that daily mindfulness training, like meditation, can improve productivity, job satisfaction, work-life balance, and reduce stress.
"Mindfulness allows you to experience your life in the present without ruminating about what just happened, what should have happened, what almost happened," says neuroscientist Sam Harris, a New York Times bestselling author, the host of the Making Sense podcast, and the creator of the Waking Up meditation course for beginners. "It is the ability to pay attention to what actually matters."
Though incorporating mindfulness into your own life can be tricky, the challenge is worth it, Harris says, since it "can be the difference between having a brilliant career, surrounded by creative people you love to work with, and being the scary guy in the office who just got fired (again)."
Jeremy Hunter, Ph.D., the founding director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management, agrees: Mindfulness can give you a "competitive edge at work," he says, which can help you manage your attention, develop self-awareness, learn to adapt, and regulate your emotional impulses.
Here's how Harris and Hunter say mindfulness can help you in your professional life.
"The ability to notice thoughts and emotions arise and pass away, rather than being merely identified with them, is a kind of superpower," says Harris. But it's not a superpower we're born with. Useless mental chatter is the brain's default and "we never get a moment's peace for the rest of our lives," he says. "That is, until we learn to meditate."
We live in an environment that "seduces our attention at every turn ... and at the same time we're using our minds to make a living." Your capacity to focus your attention is your most valuable asset, but reclaiming our focus requires intention, says Hunter.
Hunter tells his students that the first step to becoming more mindful is to observe where attention is being allocated: "Ask yourself, 'Is what you're giving your attention to on a daily basis truly meaningful to you?'"
This question led one of his students to recognize she was spending the first 30 minutes of her day in bed scrolling through Instagram. She was shocked to learn that amounted to 3.5 hours a week.
After you observe where you're putting your attention, you start to recognize which routine behaviors may be reducing your productivity, and therefore hindering your success.
Outlining your priorities can help you catalog what's unproductive. If you're writing an important email and your attention shifts to searching the internet for what you should make for dinner, say, mindfulness helps you recognize you're being distracted. Instead of letting it lead you away, "ask yourself, 'Is this the best use of my time?'" says Hunter.
Being mindful doesn't mean you'll stop experiencing distraction or no longer entertain negative thoughts or emotions. Instead, it teaches you to assign less value to those thoughts. "The goal isn't to stop thinking. Rather, it's to recognize thoughts as transitory appearances in consciousness," says Harris.
Not all negative feelings are counterproductive, he says. He uses exercise as an analogy for how negative feelings can serve as motivation: At the gym, you voluntarily create physical stress by running in place or lifting heavy weights. When you leave the gym, you don't keep tensing your muscles and elevating your heart rate for no reason. You physically relax.
"You want to have a similar relationship to periods of psychological stress. Can you put down your five-year plan so that you can actually enjoy dinner with your family? Not if you're helplessly identified with every thought that comes lurching into consciousness," Harris says.
Meditate for as little as 10 minutes a day and you'll slowly start to increase the amount of time you're able to pay attention to the present. That ability will start to seep into other aspects of life, says Harris. You can then take a step back, categorize the feeling or thought as useless, and avoid manifesting ill feelings or acting impulsively.
Learning to be mindful can help you cultivate self-awareness and adaptation skills that can help you find more meaning in your personal and professional life, says Hunter.
Here's how you can apply those skills at work:
- You can gain "a competitive advantage." Hunter says that having the capacity to manage your attention and your emotions "gives you a competitive advantage in a dynamic and challenging environment," which in turn can aid your success at work.
- You can become more adaptable. Being mindful can help you recognize the need to adapt. If you're aware of your organizations changing needs, you'll recognize your own role in helping to meet those needs.
- You can get better at regulating impulses and emotions. Mindfulness "can be the difference between letting a surge of anger dissipate in a matter of seconds and acting on the basis of that anger in ways that derange your life" and cost you your job, Harris says.
- You can better realize when you need a change. If you're not happy in your career, being mindful can help you realize how you might be contributing to that unhappiness or that the situation is unlikely to shift. It can also help you find a way out.
Moreover, the experts agree, mindfulness can just make you feel vastly better.
"The great power of mindfulness is that it can reveal a sense of well-being that is intrinsic to simply being conscious in each moment," says Harris, "Through mindfulness, we can discover that, whatever we may seek to accomplish in life, we can never truly become happy. We can only be happy. Making this discovery, again and again and again, is the essence of the practice."
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