Research says that the rapid pace of work is taking a huge toll on our ability to focus, be productive, remain engaged and be creative. A majority of people at workplace today seem to be struggling to cope with severe stress resulting from conflicting work priorities, hyper-connectedness, onslaught of notifications and information overload. How do we cope up with this stress? How do we address our lack of attention so that we can not only complete the things we start without getting too anxious, but also enjoy the process of doing so?
With these questions in my mind, I picked up the book “One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness” written by Rasmus Hougaard with Jacqueline Carter and Gillian Coutts. I loved the simplicity with which the authors have been able to demystify mindfulness by providing tools and techniques we can all start using to be more effective.
I caught up a conversation with Jacqueline Carter, one of the co-authors, a partner at The Potential Project and a contributor at Huffington Post on how mindfulness can help us perform better. Here is the interview:
[Tanmay Vora] Jacqueline, Thank you for agreeing to share your insights here. I read your new book “One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance At Work with Mindfulness” with great interest. The first thing that intrigued me was the title of your book. What does “One Second Ahead” mean with respect to mindfulness?
[Jacqueline Carter] One Second Ahead, both the book and the concept, is about applying mindfulness techniques to daily work life. From a cognitive perspective, being one second ahead provides a clear edge in effectiveness and productivity. It offers the space and freedom to choose your distractions and direct your mental energy, no matter what you are facing.
[Tanmay Vora] We certainly are in middle of a productivity crisis at work. Pressure, information overload and always-on culture inhibits our ability to truly focus on work. What makes mindfulness, a potent response to the crisis?
[Jacqueline Carter] It’s not hard to see how work life has changed radically over the past few decades. It is common for people to attempt to concentrate on work while dealing with a constant stream of distractions and data, impacting their focus and performance. But it is actually possible to train the brain to respond differently to today’s constant interruptions through the practice of mindfulness.
Simply put, mindfulness means trained attention. Mindfulness techniques enable people to manage their attention, improve their awareness, and sharpen focus and clarity. We need to learn to work differently so we are more focused, calm and have less clutter in our mind to be able to succeed at the things that matter most to us.
[Tanmay Vora] One of the first victims of stress resulting from our “always-on” culture is sleep and lack of proper sleep only adds to the stress we experience. How can mindfulness be used for enhancing the quality of sleep and what are your three tips for better sleep?
[Jacqueline Carter] It’s true that sleep deprivation is reaching near epidemic proportions all over the world. Studies are showing that even light sleep deprivation has been proven to negatively impact logical reasoning, executive function, attention, and mood. Unfortunately, as a result of our busy lifestyles, sleep is regularly pushed toward the bottom of our list of priorities. However, research has shown that regular mindfulness training improves the ability to fall asleep as well as improve our sleep quality significantly. Some simple guidelines for better sleep include:
1. Catching the Melatonin Wave—Melatonin, when released from the pineal gland inside your brain, makes us relaxed, drowsy and ultimately fall asleep in a natural way. The key to catching the melatonin wave is to be mindful; have awareness of the natural drowsiness and relaxation that occur toward the end of the evening and maintain that awareness as you prepare for bed. Getting in synch with your body’s natural rhythms and your own cycle of melatonin is a simple avenue to a better night’s sleep.
2. Turn off All Screens 60 Minutes before Sleep—Your smartphone, your tablet, your laptop, your television all stand in the way of you catching the Melatonin wave. Because of the blue-light waves that are emitted, production of melatonin is suppressed in the pineal gland. Your brain reads blue-light as if the sun is still up, when in reality, the sun is most-likely down and you should be sleeping. It might sound difficult to some, but turning off all screens 60 minutes before you go to sleep works. The impact it has on sleep quality—and therefore mental and physical performance—speaks for itself.
3. Only Perceptual Activities 60 Minutes Before Bed—Too much thinking is an enemy of late evening natural relaxation and drowsiness. Conceptual activities, like intense conversions, replying to e-mails, working, or reading, can arose your attention and suppress your natural sleepiness. However, perceptual activities, like doing the dishes, going for a walk, or listening to music, can help you to catch the wave of melatonin as it rises. Just a small adjustment to your evening routine can go a long way toward enabling you to prepare for bed with a calmer mind that’s more in tune with the natural rhythms of your body. So save the dishes, walking the dog, or taking out the trash for the last hour of the evening. Sometimes procrastination can pay off.
[Tanmay Vora] How does mindfulness enhance our mental effectiveness in understanding complex problems, synthesizing experiences and addressing challenges?
[Jacqueline Carter] According to scientists, our mind is wandering over half of our waking hours. We are constantly thinking about events that happened in the past, or might happen in the future, rather than attending to what’s happening in the now. This limits our ability to address everyday challenges and accomplish meaningful results.
Yet, our thoughts are the foundation for everything we want to achieve in life. Thus, our ability to manage our mind becomes critically important. We are best able to manage complex problems when our mind is clear, calm and focused. This is true in all aspects of life, but especially in a work context. With a calm, clear mind, we are able to greatly enhance performance, effectiveness, creativity and innovation, which is foundational to business success. Mindfulness is the ultimate training for developing a highly functional and effectual mind.
Mindfulness is the ultimate training for developing a highly functional and effectual mind.
[Tanmay Vora] One common observation is that our openness to new learning and experiences decline as we mature in our practice and gather more experience. How can mindfulness help is break the shackles of our past experiences and make us more receptive to new learning?
[Jacqueline Carter] When we are exposed to the same experiences over and over again, there is a tendency to become complacent, to default to our pre-conceived notion of what should happen or may occur. We feel we’ve seen it all before, and we close ourselves off to being fully present. This can be problematic, and lead to what’s called cognitive rigidity—the inflexibility created by automatically relying on our habitual perceptions and past experiences.
Thankfully, mindfulness training shows us that we don’t have to give in to our habitual perceptions. When we allow ourselves to see things with a Beginner’s Mind—the ability to face reality as it is—we liberate ourselves from our habitual perception and approach all situations with fresh eyes and an open mind. Cultivating a beginner’s mind can be a wonderful way to change how you experience life. Regardless of your work environment, daily life can be filled with more wonders and possibilities when you see things with a fresh perspective.
[Tanmay Vora] What are your top three recommendations on mindfulness to those readers who are new to the concept of mindfulness?
[Jacqueline Carter] First, I would say to consider why mindfulness would be beneficial for you and be specific. The more clear you are on why you want to try mindfulness the more likely you are to be successful in incorporating it into your daily life.
Second, make a commitment to do 10 minutes of mindfulness training every day for the next 14 days and see what impact it has on you. I recommend downloading an app that has simple, easy instructions. Readers can download our app by searching for The Potential Project in their app store. Alternatively, there are many other great tools, just be sure to pick something that will work for you.
Third, I would say look for ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Notice times when it is difficult for you to pay attention and ask yourself what you could do about it. For example, if you find that you are constantly distracted by notifications try turning them off for an hour a day and see what happens!
[Tanmay Vora] These were really helpful insights! Thank you so much for sharing your lessons through the book and in this interview. I am sure readers will find these ideas very valuable.
[Jacqueline Carter] Thank you very much, Tanmay! It was a pleasure to connect with you and your readers on the topic of organizational mindfulness.
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BONUS: When you have an hour free, check out this amazing video of Jacqueline Carter speaking at Microsoft on the topic of Mindfulness at work.