Mindfulness is no longer a 'nice-to-have' - by Charlotte Murray

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Åhus beach in Skåne, SwedenWhat is mindfulness to you? What does it mean for your everyday life? Mindfulness has become a buzz word in many professional spheres – be it in executive coaching or leadership development. Personally I’ve always found that the word is abstract and ‘fluffy’, and when it gets overused, it loses its value or meaning altogether. But perhaps it’s not the meaning of the word that’s important or relevant, instead maybe it’s the sentiment or feeling behind the word that matters. If this is the case then mindfulness is no longer an abstraction because it is tied to a tangible feeling.

The Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the presentmoment, while calmlyacknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodilysensations, used as a therapeutictechnique.” Within this definition, I see other words that I would use instead of mindfulness – like presence and self-awareness. Again, these words can have many meanings depending on your context, and some people might group them all into the ‘fluffy’ category.

How do these ‘fluffy’ terms like mindfulness, presence and self-awareness matter in a professional way? I believe that mindfulness is a key differentiator between being a good leader and being a great one. The Harvard business review recently published an article on how ‘Mindfulness can change your brain, literally’. It discusses new research in neuroscience that collated more than 20 studies conducted around the world in the last few years showing a direct correlation between practicing mindfulness and changes in the brain. The research goes on to make direct links between the changes in the brain and the impacts these changes have on relating to others, reducing stress, and making better decisions.

I’ve noticed that when I don’t practice yoga for a week or two, or if I don’t take time for myself regularly, I become more irritable and I communicate less clearly. I get frustrated more easily, and find it more challenging to think creatively to solve problems. I basically get stuck in a rut more easily. As soon as I begin practicing yoga again, almost immediately, I’m a different person; more calm, more prepared to take whatever comes my way. What differences do you notice about yourself when you are more or less mindful?

The HBR article makes the argument that “Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have…” If this is really true, how can we support each other in becoming more mindful and in the end better leaders? Returning to the definition of mindfulness, there are two elements that we might seek out to help us: one is being present in the moment, and the other is accepting what you are feeling or experiencing in the present.

Sometimes, at least for me, it might feel like being present, and accepting whatever feelings or sentiments in the moment takes too much time, especially with a lot of things going on. That being said, I’ve found that there are several things that have supported me in working on bettering my mindfulness, and they all revolve around focus and choice: focusing on one thing at a time, keeping my daily to-do list short (maximum 3 items), and of course, practicing yoga regularly, which I admit has not been the case lately, and visualizing a place or view that helps you focus (mine is the Åhus beach in southern Sweden, hence the photo).

In the end, I don’t believe mastering mindfulness is possible. It’s not like when you climb a mountain and reach the top, and then you’re done. Improving your mindfulness is an on-going developmental process which is crucial to becoming a better manager, a better leader, and in the end a better person.

So I leave you with these questions:

  • What does mindfulness mean to you?

  • What steps could you take to improving your mindfulness?

  • What benefits do you/ would you expect to experience for yourself from practicing mindfulness regularly?

  • What actions might you take to support others at home and at work to practice mindfulness?