Booked review One Second Ahead
Rasmus Hougaard on how mindfulness can make you more effective at work
One second ahead
Maintaining focus at work is an increasingly difficult task. The author of this book says that research suggests that our minds wander for about half of our waking hours. This means we are focused on work tasks for only about half of our time. So this means, if tackled properly, there a massive opportunity here to unlock productivity. The answer, he says, lies in being mindful.
There’s a constant battle between the forces of our conscious and unconscious minds. Our subconscious is driven by two major motivations: grasping for things we like and avoiding things we don’t like. Our subconscious often craves short-term gratification, but our conscious goals more often include delayed gratification.
When you find yourself behaving counter to your desired goals, take a mindful pause, focus on your breath as you calm down and regain focus and clarity. This establishes your awareness. Ask yourself the question, “What stories, beliefs or grasping or avoidance is keeping me from doing the thing that moves me closer to my goal?” Whatever you find, face it and dismantle it by being present with it, adjust your behaviour and move on.
The author suggests a simple test. When you arrive at your desk, sit down and look out the window or at a blank computer screen. Don’t act, don’t talk, just sit there for three minutes. If you are challenged by this lack of activity, it is likely you are experiencing some degree of action addiction, he suggests.
Mindfulness increases the number of conscious bits you can process, allowing you to keep your goals centre stage.
Email is one of the worst offenders in terms of distraction. The suggestion is to not look at it first thing in the morning when creative energy is high but to schedule specific periods to answer emails and to turn off notification alarms.
Meetings should involve total attention from all participants, with a clear purpose, a defined agenda and agreement on timing. If participants have their laptops open or are paying attention to their phones, then they are not actively engaged. If someone chooses to respond to a text message they have effectively left the room. Worse, they are also distracting others.
Under stress, we are inclined to over-plan. We think we need a plan to survive but not only can we survive without one we may actually live better and get more done if we tone down the automatic planning, do more mindful planning and focus on what’s truly important. While mindful planning is both built on our experiences from the past and is directed towards the future, it’s always done in the present moment. It’s about deciding when to plan rather than simply planning on autopilot.
Mindfulness, it seems, helps us in all sorts of other ways too. Being present in the here and now is a simple and easy way to conserve mental resources. When we allow our mind to wander aimlessly, it uses up valuable energy. It helps maintain balance. Being aware of the mind’s tendency to succumb to attraction or aversion – to run towards things we want or away from things that we don’t want – is powerful.
It also cuts down on multitasking. The author advises following what he calls the first rule of mental effectiveness and choosing a task and sticking with it. Avoiding jumping back and forth on tasks can have a huge impact on energy levels.
Energy comes in cycles and most people have maximum energy levels first thing in the morning after a good night’s rest. Those energy levels decrease during the day, with a low point after lunch. Complex problems should be scheduled for when our energy levels are highest, whereas a more mundane task such as filing or sifting through emails can be performed at a low energy time.
Houggard also has observations about the importance of good sleep. The trick is to catch the melatonin wave and to do so in its early stages by being mindful. Be aware of the natural drowsiness and relaxation that occur towards the end of the evening and maintain that awareness as you prepare for bed. Specifically, all screens should be turned off 60 minutes before sleep. Instead, perceptional activities such as going for a walk or listening to music can help catch the wave of melatonin as it rises.
There’s plenty more in this vein in this thoughtful book on how to bring some calm into a busy working schedule.