So, how did you do?
A few weeks ago, many of you undertook an experiment with me in mind training or meditation. The basic idea was to spend 10 minutes a day sitting quietly, focusing on your breath, and noticing any thoughts that interrupted your focus. It's an exercise that's simple but not necessarily easy. For several readers, it produced some unexpected insight.
The most common reaction was surprise at how difficult it is to stay deliberately focused for even a short period of time. Most readers found that, in spite of their best efforts, unwanted thoughts kept assailing their consciousness. One commenter remarked that he found himself fending off "all kinds of thoughts from all aspects of life." Someone else reported that "my mind just jumps from idea to idea, from project to project, haphazardly."
If those comments reflect your experience, it's worthwhile to note that you're far from alone. Virtually everyone who undertakes this type of exercise gets more or less the same result. It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that there's something about the exercise that produces those cascading thoughts. Instead, it would be much more accurate to say that the exercise reveals them. Whether we ever realized it before or not, that relentless stream of thoughts is something that's been going on in our minds all along.
And if that's really the case, then the productivity implications for you and your team members are obvious and significant.
One way to think of it is that your mind is the object of a relentless, ongoing denial of service attack. You might make every effort to focus on a problem or project but a barrage of unwanted, unbidden thoughts keeps distracting you. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the attacks are so pervasive that they become "background noise," so much a part of your cognitive environment that you barely notice them any more. As the old saying goes, I'm not sure who discovered water but it definitely wasn't a fish.
There is no way to eliminate these thoughts altogether but there are effective strategies for mitigating their impact. Ten minutes of meditation every day is a great place to start. As readers who took part in the meditation exercise discovered, you begin to notice thoughts as they arise. With practice, they become less like a stream of undifferentiated traffic and more like a parade of individual cars. This strategy by itself can make a significant difference.
Another useful tool is a mindfulness bell. It consists of a bell or chime that rings at certain predetermined intervals (or randomly) throughout the day. As is the case with most mindfulness practices, the technique is simple and straightforward. When the bell rings, stop what you're doing and take a second to deliberately notice your thoughts. Are they positive or negative? Are they related to what you're trying to accomplish in the moment or are they swirling around somewhere in the past (or the future)? I like this version of the meditation bell but there are several others available online or in your favorite app store.
Mindfulness is simple but by no means easy. Everything in the environment seems to pull us in precisely the opposite direction. At work, we juggle email, text messages, conflicting project deadlines, upgrades, meetings, interruptions, and crises. At home, it's not much better. Television and advertising by themselves constitute huge impediments to mindfulness. (And don't get me started on Facebook!)
As I mentioned earlier, increasing your mastery of these simple tools can have an impact on your effectiveness as a manager. Providing one important example, Peter Bregman's HBR blog recently detailed the mechanisms through which meditation allows a manager to focus more effectively in the middle of any environmental distractions. That benefit by itself makes a regular meditation program a potentially important tool for most senior execs.