Mindful for a Moment: Integrating Attention into a Busy Day

by Scott Crabtree

Note: This is an article I co-wrote with Chris Wilson, a psychologist who integrates mindfulness exercises into his personal and professional life. He also took the two photos you see in this post. You can find out more about him and his work at www.drchristopherwilson.com. The article has originally been published in Positive Psychology News Daily.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention, then noticing without judgment that your focus has drifted, then refocusing your attention. It’s simple to describe, but for many, difficult to do.

Perhaps you’ve read the growing body of scientific evidence that mindfulness improves mental and physical health, self-regulation, and quality of relationships. You are convinced you should do it.

But weaving mindfulness into a busy day at the office is easier said than done. The thought of sitting down for a 20 minute meditation session in order to be mindful sounds impossible given the demands of your day. But it is possible to incorporate mindfulness into even the busiest of work days.

I believe you, but I just can’t seem to do it.

Ever heard these statements or maybe even said them to yourself?

“I don’t really know how to meditate.”

“I just don’t have time to meditate.”

“It feels kind of weird to just sit there and do nothing when I’m supposed to be working.”

“Even when I try to remember, I usually just put it off until I’m so busy that it feels impossible.”

These are words uttered by folks who agree that practicing mindfulness is a good idea. It’s not a question of believing. It’s a question of finding ways of doing it (or consciously not doing, as Jon Kabat-Zinn might say). We suggest you don’t have to meditate regularly to experience the benefits of mindfulness.

This suggestion is based on a very small but growing body of research exemplified by Jean Kristeller and Ruth Wolever, who used “mini-meditation” in the form of brief practices as part of their work cultivating mindfulness with clients. We believe it is only a matter of time before the research in this area expands to show that this practice is effective in more than just clinical settings.

From inaction to action – rejecting dichotomy, embracing inertia

Too many of us buy into the dichotomy that if we’re not engaging in a consistent practice of meditation, we aren’t “doing mindfulness.”

However when we consider the literature on attention, it becomes clear that we don’t have to meditate regularly to move toward being regularly mindful. Does it help to meditate? Absolutely. But too many folks believe meditation is the only pathway to mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness may be cultivated a number of ways.

You can overcome such all-or-nothing thinking. More important than whether you have a regular meditation practice is whether you are practicing mindfulness right now. By connecting short moments of mindfulness, we can cultivate a sense of momentum that builds over time. Even if you forgot to practice your exercises for a week, just by noticing that you forgot, you’ve practiced a bit of mindfulness. Now you’re back on track.

Short Moments of Mindfulness

A number of techniques can be used to inject moments of mindfulness into the busiest of work days, without losing any productivity. In fact, the following techniques will boost productivity as well as mindfulness.

These simple mini-mindfulness techniques don’t require formal meditation:

1. Choose any meeting that you’re attending, and make a sustained effort to focus on the meeting. When your mind wanders to lunch, a deadline, the dishes in the sink, or an upcoming performance review, notice this and gently refocus: “There’s wandering mind… Back to the meeting.” Stay engaged in the present. When you find your mind wandering, bring it back without judging your wandering mind. You can do this with other common work activities, such as reading reports. As you do this consistently you will build your mindfulness momentum.

2. Use built-in cues to trigger moments of mindfulness. Set alarms (silent or not, depending on your work environment) to go off intermittently throughout the day, inviting you to notice your breath for just a few moments. As you hear each alarm, notice your immediate response – irritation, reluctance, annoyance, joy – see it as simply a wandering mind. Focus on your breath, and move on with your day.

3. Use the same technique with unplanned interruptions. Phone calls, chiming calendar reminders, or pinging instant messages all provide the opportunity to notice your breath. When we do this we can respond instead of react. Do you want to take a phone call or an instant message conversation now? Will it possibly disrupt the productive focus you had on another task? You choose, mindfully.

4. As you walk from meeting to meeting, office to elevator, or front door to your car, feel your feet. Notice your steps. As the mind inevitably wanders, come back to just walking. Be with your feet for a few moments, and go about the day.

Mindfulness only brings benefits when we put it into practice. For anyone daunted by the prospect of sitting down for many minutes of meditation, try moments of mindfulness instead. They’re simple, they’re short, and they’re effective.

Try this practice, and let me know about your experiences or your own variations. I’d love to hear from you.