Stop. Are you ful­ly and total­ly con­scious of what you are doing, feel­ing, sens­ing, think­ing — right now? Mind­ful­ness has been around for a long time, with the con­cept traced as far back as the Bud­dha. But some­times old news is new again. Mind­ful­ness is Kate Pick­ert’s cov­er sto­ry in TIME mag­a­zine this week [link]. It’s also a sub­ject cov­ered by The New York­er in an arti­cle by Maria Kon­niko­va [link].

Why the sud­den atten­tion to a very old con­cept, one that became immense­ly pop­u­lar after the 1960s? Kon­niko­va’s open­ing para­graph might help frame this for us.

In the mid-nine­teen-sev­en­ties, the cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer noticed that elder­ly peo­ple who envi­sioned them­selves as younger ver­sions of them­selves often began to feel, and even think, like they had actu­al­ly become younger. Men with trou­ble walk­ing quick­ly were play­ing touch foot­ball. Mem­o­ries were improv­ing and blood pres­sure was drop­ping. The mind, Langer realised, could have a strong effect on the body. That real­i­sa­tion led her to study the Bud­dhist prin­ci­ple of mind­ful­ness, or aware­ness, which she char­ac­teris­es as “a height­ened state of involve­ment and wakefulness”.

My sense is that there is a good rea­son for the cur­rent atten­tion to this top­ic, and it has to do with how so many peo­ple live these days. There’s also an impor­tant nextsens­ing link.

With so many of us using iDe­vices large and small, we are (unless we turn them off) always in touch, always reach­ing out to some­one else or hav­ing some­one else tag us. It seems that every­one is more busy than ever. Yet, it’s easy to find reports that show that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is often declin­ing and that, despite all the con­nec­tiv­i­ty, our per­son­al health (espe­cial­ly our sense of being pro­duc­tive) has been sagging.

Businessman under waterThus mind­ful­ness, today, is far more main­stream than eso­teric. You don’t have to be a hip­pie to be into the sub­ject. Sports fig­ures and Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neurs, as well as you and I, are being asked to con­sid­er stop­ping our pace of life and becom­ing more mind­ful — both at work and at home. Let me per­son­al­ly attest that, despite the 360º/24/7 con­nec­tiv­i­ty that is my own life, I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly feel that I am “win­ning” at doing what I most want to get done. As with many oth­ers, I acquired all these devices to get more trac­tion on my life goals. Yet I attend far too many meet­ings in which peo­ple are in a room phys­i­cal­ly but are some­how con­nect­ed to — or try­ing to con­nect to — oth­er peo­ple in oth­er places. Does that sound pro­duc­tive (let alone respect­ful) to you?

Mind­ful­ness, the abil­i­ty to focus on the here and now, is exact­ly what is need­ed to arrest the timeshift­ing pow­ers of tech­nol­o­gy in our favour. Yes, it is great to take advan­tage of what tech­nol­o­gy empow­ers us to do, but not at the expense of what we are able to do as human beings! Our abil­i­ty to observe our sur­round­ings, recog­nise pat­terns as they emerge, and make sense of them is a unique­ly human endeav­our that tech­nol­o­gy can help. So far, tech­nol­o­gy seems to be most­ly hin­der­ing by serv­ing as an obtru­sion to what is real­ly hap­pen­ing in the here and now.

The core skills con­nect­ed to nextsens­ing — observ­ing, organ­is­ing and orig­i­nat­ing — are all think­ing-inten­sive actions that require more (not less) of your atten­tion. Insights about pos­si­ble pro­duc­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties (what I call fore­sense) come from a deep under­stand­ing of the here and now as the basis for for­mu­lat­ing a hunch about what could come next. In that sense, the mind­ful­ness move­ment might just be an impor­tant ally of the art and craft of think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about the future, based on a deep­er under­stand­ing of the present. If future-tense oppor­tu­ni­ties require a shift in pri­or­i­ties, then they should also require a cor­re­spond­ing shift in one’s mindset.

In oth­er words, one major ben­e­fit of nextsens­ing inside a com­pa­ny is that it shuts out the organ­i­sa­tion­al noise and lets lead­ers focus on tomor­row. Whether it’s your per­son­al life or your fir­m’s strate­gic plan, what could be more valu­able than a calmer, deep­er grasp of things? I, for one, would be pleased to know that my future actions were based (at least in part) on this type of pres­ence enabled by my own deep­er introspection. 

While it might seem like an oxy­moron to use thoughts of the here and now to improve your think­ing about the future, it seems to me that con­clud­ing a busy day with a mind­ful­ness exer­cise in order to deep­en your insights about your recent expe­ri­ences would be a very good use of your time. Of all the items on your to-do list, per­haps this would be the best 30 – 40 min­utes you could spend as a leader. This type of “here and now” devo­tion will help you to unearth obser­va­tions, glean pat­terns, and sow the seeds of cre­ativ­i­ty nec­es­sary to make a real dif­fer­ence in your life and work. Like­wise, keep­ing some kind of jour­nal (which can be a col­lec­tion of post-its, scrib­bles on a notepad or even voice record­ings using your smart­phone) of obser­va­tions, thoughts and insights about your day could become input to a deep­er mind­ful­ness exer­cise. I am sure you can imag­ine the col­lec­tive ben­e­fits of spend­ing 30 – 40 min­utes deeply explor­ing an issue impor­tant to you or your com­pa­ny (not to men­tion the ben­e­fits of your entire team doing the same) using mind­ful­ness techniques.

The prob­lem is that so few peo­ple do this. I thus issue this chal­lenge: Beyond exper­i­ment­ing with your own behav­iours, imag­ine what it would be like to cre­ate an organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture in which such activ­i­ties were actu­al­ly recog­nised as “good busi­ness”. If such a cul­ture tru­ly makes peo­ple hap­pi­er and health­i­er (and mount­ing evi­dence sug­gests mind­ful­ness will do exact­ly that), you should be able to expect a pos­i­tive effect on both your top and bot­tom lines. Har­vard has a great guide to get you start­ed [link] as does Brown Uni­ver­si­ty [link], and I would sug­gest you also review my relat­ed thoughts on mak­ing time to think [link] and the val­ue of down­time [link].

My sense is that a lot of us are work­ing hard­er and longer with­out real­ly know­ing what we’re doing. I say “Stop!”

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