Mindfulness: Why being present at work and at home matters
Leaders and employees face a multitude of challenges and obstacles on a daily basis. With the latest technology and global trends, business never stops. We have become connected and defined by what we do in a 24-7-365 cycle. This influences our ability to be decisive, act assertively, perceive objectively and manage time and stress effectively. Ambiguity and uncertainty can undermine our performance and no amount of technical expertise will save the bottom line. The fast-paced, stressful, deadline-driven world can be detrimental for individuals, relationships, and organisations.
Individuals often feel overwhelmed and underprepared for the expectations of a modern technologically driven world. We often hear our colleagues and friends say the proverbial cry for help with statements such as, I need a holiday, I just can’t get up in the morning, my partner wants to destroy my phone, I am on autopilot and I cannot believe it is only Tuesday. These statements have become part of our habitual responses and we seldom take the time to question why we use them or where they come from. It is through self-awareness and mindfulness that we will be able to notice that it is not necessarily the holiday that we need or that our partners despise our tangible phones, but that we need to become present in our own lives. Through actively being present, we may be able to think clearly, innovate, solve problems, be still and connect: competencies necessary for the 21st century human being.
Neurosurgeon, Dr James Doty from Stanford University says that, “Mindfulness is the ability to have sustained focus and attention and also non-judgemental self-awareness. All of us have a dialogue going on in our mind all the time and often, because of that dialogue, people are distracted from being present and also, often times, it results in an emotional reaction which has a peripheral physiological affect which can be negative.”
Our modern world is filled with an immense number of distractions and it creates an environment that some may find stressful and it creates anxiety for many. I remember meeting Sandra*, a woman wanting to succeed. She was also a mother and a wife, completing her third degree and extremely self-critical: nothing was ever good enough. She would share anecdotes from her life which I marvelled at, yet she did not even begin to notice the wonder. My fondest memory was when she described her relationship with her son, a seven year old adventurous boy who had experienced life with all his senses. The story started with her daily, which became her weekly and monthly, routine:
I open my eyes before my alarm clock goes off. It reads 03:55 and the red lights glare at me in the darkness. I need to get up because I have to work in an hour of training before I wake Alex* up at 05:15. I cannot remember when last I woke up feeling rested. I push my feet into my trainers and am immediately irritated by the fact that my domestic worker washed my trainers and did not put the shoelaces back. I am annoyed because it is going to take me minutes, which I do not have, to thread the shoelaces. Annoyed and in a bad mood, I train for 55 minutes (not the hour as planned due to the shoelace dilemma). I jump in the shower, constantly looking at one of the many watches and clocks I have around the house. I have 7 minutes to shower and get dressed. It is still dark and the only reason I know this is because Alex always complains that he wakes up before the sun. We have gotten into the routine of putting music on to wake Alex up. That gives me another 8 minutes to plaster on my face whilst he wrestles out of the clutches of sleep. Once my make-up is done, I barge into his room annoyed (again) that he has not even moved. “Come on, Alex. We are going to be late!” I shout, and in my mind, I am scolding myself for not being the mother hen who strokes her child’s hair and smiles at him as he opens his eyes. But, honestly, I don’t have time. He smiles at me. I am downstairs in the kitchen making sure his school books are signed and in his bag; his lunch is packed and his water bottle is where it is supposed to be. He comes downstairs, dressed in his school uniform.
I do not get an answer immediately and I can feel my agitation in my fingertips. He gets yogurt which he needs to finish in the car on the way to school because I cannot wait for him to finish it at home. Traffic is terrible as always and I want to hit my steering wheel and hoot at every taxi that pushes in front of me. Who do they think they are? We make it to school by 06:45. He is the first child there. I remind him not to walk out the gate and I start turning back to the car. He does not want to let go of my hand and for a moment I feel guilty, but I brush it away. I am not the only parent that needs to be like this. This is what it takes to make a decent living today. He tells me he loves me to Pluto and back and I smile.
“I love you, too. Mommy needs to go. I have a very important meeting.” He will be fine.
Another 30 minutes of unadulterated anger in traffic and I can see the office. Meetings. Emails. Deadlines. Targets. Objectives. Irritating colleagues. Reports. Teleconference at 15:10 with the London office. At the end of the day, I remember it is my PA’s birthday. She did not say anything. Perhaps she should be more assertive.
17:00. I know this because I have to set an alarm to remind me. I have been late to fetch Alex before and then I had to pay a penalty. I grab what I can: laptop, files, notebook, phone, purse, and I am out of there. I will continue tonight when I get home. When I get to Alex’s school (it is 17:25) he is one of two boys left on the playground. As soon as he sees me his face lights up and he runs towards me with open arms and a smile from one ear to the other. “Come on, Alex. If we don’t leave now, we will be stuck in terrible traffic.”
I pack all his bags in the car. Stop at Woolworths on the way home. We arrive at home at 18:20. We are late. You know, I do not understand that traffic lights stop functioning when it rains. My husband takes Alex when we get home and they laugh, practise reading, take a bath, and I am preparing dinner. We need to eat at 19:00, because Alex needs to be in bed by 19:30. A child needs to sleep. At the table my husband has started going through what we enjoyed the most during that day and what we did not enjoy. He is so emotionally mature and calm. The complete opposite of me. Alex says that he enjoyed everything during the day especially when I fetched him. My husband says he had an incident at work which was unpleasant; however he was pleased that everyone pulled together and they were able to rectify the problem. His highlight was reading with Alex. I cannot think of anything positive to say. I start with the negatives. After about 15 minutes of moaning, Alex looks up at me and says, “Mom, did you see the sunset on the way home today. I think it looked like you, because you are beautiful. Remember, other people’s problems are not your problems.” He smiled and stuck a piece of cucumber in his mouth. I was dazed. When last did I look at the sunset?
I asked Sandra why she wanted to share this event with me and she said, “I did not see the sunset and, do you know, I did not see my son.”
When we are stressed and overwhelmed, we become blind to the world around us. Self-absorption kills empathy. We are unable to notice anything let alone find solutions for problems. The practise of mindfulness techniques has the ability to decrease these feelings of stress and anxiety. From a business perspective, being able to manage stress and anxiety gives individuals the ability to make effective and positive choices which influences decision-making, interpersonal communication, personal impact power and personal health.
Many people, like Sandra, experience the world around them as filled with anxiety and fear. This is emphasised because many corporations, themselves, are not necessarily caring or thoughtful or mindful of their employees and they create an environment that is not compassionate. When an individual is stressed and anxious, they cannot be present. Therefore, they cannot be at their most productive, because the part of the brain called the frontal executive control area, which is associated with creativity and planning, is not working at its best. When you are stressed and anxious, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, and your immune system is depressed. For every 20 minutes of intense stress, your immune system is down for eight hours.
This type of repetitive behaviour has a profound effect on the bottom line!
Many people then ask, “How can I change it?” The question should be: How can I be mindfully present?
There are various techniques which you may use to become more mindful. Almost all these techniques are based on quieting the mind, experiencing through the senses, introspection and self-awareness. One of these techniques is to eliminate automatic negative thoughts:
- Accept the emotion, never suppress, ignore or deny it. Let it flow through you in a non-judgmental manner.
- Question the wisdom the emotion is trying to tell you. Remember the things that upset us the most are the parts of ourselves that require the most work, therefore look deeper.
- Reach for better feeling thought. Know you can change negative neural maps and their resultant negative vibration and reaction, by repeating a positive alternative. You have the power of choice.
- Eliminate ANTS – Automatic, Negative, Thoughts by replacing them with a positive alternative
- Make several choices. We always have more than one option to make.
- Consider this choice through your purpose. Does my choice reflect who I am?
By Saskia Snyders