Updated: Feb 13, 2020
“What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.” ~ Herbert Simon
I took a week off from doing this show because I was feeling a little stressed and scattered. We had a lot of Spanish podcasts to produce in order to catch up with the English version, I had to wrap up an annual audit for My Stuff Bags Foundation where I volunteer, and we received requests for 12 workshops between mid-May and the end of June, on top of an already jam-packed schedule. A blessing to be sure, but it was as if my brain suddenly decided to check out. Cognitive scientist Herbert Simon said, “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.” I evidently slipped into poverty.
Have you ever had something like this happen? You really need to be super productive but your brain won’t cooperate? For me, it wasn’t so much writer’s block as it was brain scramble. Like a bingo cage full of balls popping everywhere as the cage spins. Believe it or not, the best thing we can do in this kind of situation is stop. It’s a sign we need to pause and take care of ourselves.
When we are stressed, scattered, distracted or unwell, we greatly slow down or halt productivity. A big dose of self-care is what will kickstart productivity back up where you need it to be. But you have to be mindful enough to recognize the symptoms so that you can assess the inner situation and take mindful action.
Typically, many of us associate work with stress and pressure, and some people classify work and self-care as opposing factors. But we can integrate self-care into our work, which actually increases productivity and prevents events like a complete brain scramble from occurring.
It’s important to note that not all stress is bad for us. We need stress to feel motivated, to take action and to feel purposeful. Stress is actually neither “good” nor “bad.” The impact of stress is how we define and experience it. Stress that we view as negative is what impacts our productivity, health and well-being. Integrating self-care into our work, then, is a key to health and success!
To be most productive, we need both hemispheres of our brain firing and we need to feel physically well. It’s important to remember that mind and body are not only connected, but continuously communicating and synchronizing. Mindfulness and all forms of meditation are very effective at activating the right hemisphere of the brain where big picture thinking and creativity reside, and connecting mind and body. Your mind will match how your body is feeling; your body will match how your mind is thinking. Being fully present in mind and body boosts productivity, as we use all of our available resources.
Dr. Jan Chozen Bays describes mindfulness as “deliberately paying attention to what is happening around you and within you – in your body, heart and mind. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgment.” While ideally, I would have slowed down before my brain felt completely scrambled, once I recognized it, I didn’t judge myself. I simply listened to my mind and body. I slowed down, took a pause. And of course, bounced back and was fully productive again quite quickly.
Some of the many benefits of integrating mindfulness into our work include increasing positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress, increasing the density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy, and helping us tune out distractions & improves our memory and attention skills.
All of this increases productivity, which is why many corporations, (including Google, Sony, and Aetna), as well as universities and public school systems are implementing mindfulness programs. Aetna with about 50,000 employees, tracked their training outcomes and while mindfulness scores increased as expected, they were surprised to discover that on average, employee stress levels dropped by 28%, reported sleep quality improved 20%, and pain dropped by 19%. Savings to the company averaged $5,000 per employee per year due to increased productivity and decreased healthcare costs alone! That makes a pretty strong case as to why self-care is important not just to us individually, but to the companies we work for.
So what does applying mindfulness at work look like? The most effective application of mindfulness at work is to mono-task. Thanks largely to technology, we take in far more information than people did before the digital age. One solution to respond to this bombardment was to “multitask,” which we now know is a myth. The brain can’t multitask, it task switches.
Following every switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration.
The harm spills over into the rest of life. For example, the inability to filter out the noise (distractions) from the signal (what you mean to focus on) creates a confusion about what’s important, resulting in a drop in our ability to retain what matters.
Studies show that heavy “multitaskers” are more easily distracted in general. Conversely, cognitive control lets us focus on a specific goal or task and keep it in mind while resisting distractions. As little as ten minutes of mindfulness can correct the damage to concentration from “multitasking.”
Another approach is to perform simple everyday tasks mindfully. For example, if you are filing, pay attention to the materials, the smells and the sounds in addition to the label on the file. This brings your awareness sharply into focus and as you remain present, you make fewer mistakes and you work more efficiently.
Before answering a ringing phone, practice taking a deep breath and feeling positive or grateful before you pick up the phone. This again centers you and pulls you into the present. You’ll be a better listener and be able to think with clarity in order to respond more productively with the caller.
Follow ultradian rhythms, which are natural body cycles that take place throughout the day every 90-120 minutes. During these cycles we're given signals if we're hungry, angry, or stressed out. Instead of fighting these cycles, embrace them by working in blocks of 90-120 minutes. Once the minutes are up, take 5 to 15 minutes for a break to either eat, nap or go for a walk. By managing your energy this way, you'll notice that you'll be more productive because working in 90 minutes bursts keeps us feeling refreshed and energetic.
Using work time to exercise may actually help improve productivity, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. If possible, build in set times during the week for taking a walk or going to the gym. Getting your blood pumping could be just what's needed to clear your head and get your focus back. You can also combine meditation with exercise by taking a walking meditation, doing a yoga session, or practicing Qigong or T’ai Chi.
So, integrating self-care and work is easy if you apply these simple techniques:
Practice mindfulness. It takes no extra time and greatly boosts productivity.
Pay attention to signals from your body that you are tired or stressed and take action.
Mono-task. According to a study from Stanford, we may lose 40% of our productivity by practicing the illusion of multitasking. It causes stress, increases mistakes and slows down productivity.
Take care of your mind and body and remember they are connected.
Exercise, meditate and take short-breaks throughout your workday.
Enjoy your work! Use gratitude, positive self-talk and simply notice what’s great about it!
Anyone can become more focused, more creative, better at framing goals and making wiser decisions. We can all become more productive!