Do you want to be more effective, efficient – and at the same time enjoy everything more? Are you being overwhelmed, diverted and unable to achieve what you want?
Too often high performance is derailed by over-load, multi-tasking and lack of focus on what matters. Sometimes our minds are so full – we are ‘mind-full’ – that we have no time or space to really think.
Perhaps it’s time to become mindlessly mindful –that is, to stop being ‘mind-full’ and start being truly mindful. It is a skill which is critical to high performance but can be difficult to realise in the hustle and bustle of modern business life.
The myth of multitasking
Have you ever noticed how you can be here, and not here? Whilst you are ‘listening’ to someone on your team, you are thinking about the next meeting? As you are working on an important project, your mind keeps slipping to that email from your boss? Or at home, you are spending time with the kids – but in your head you are planning what you will do tomorrow?
When we are not present, we miss the opportunity to be a part of, respond to, and learn from what is happening around us. Although we might think that multi-tasking is useful, it draws our attention and processing away from what is happening and makes us immediately less effective, efficient and available for high performance.
The brain essentially only has a single channel – which takes the sensory signals that we focus on, pull them through into working memory, process them and encode them as needed. Whilst we can run ‘behavioural programs’ at lower levels of our neurology (such as breathing, swallowing, and even learned patterns like driving and walking), we are fixed in the available ‘bandwidth’ of active cognitive capacity.
Because of this limited cognitive capacity, multitasking is really an incorrect description of what happens. It should really be called rapid cognitive switching, because at any one time there is only one point of cognitive focus, and we switch between these (often rapidly) when we believe we are multitasking.
Often we can ‘get by’ doing this, but this is all we can really manage. It is like the stereotypical ‘bloke’ with the TV remote control. Flicking rapidly between channels, they catch snippets of a dozen different shows, getting the gist of each, but often missing the key play in a sports match, the key plot twist in the mystery or the scenes that add depth and meaning to the characters in a drama.
When we attend to stimuli, they pass into our working memory. We know that the usual amount of information that can be held in working memory is 7 +/- 2 ‘chunks’ of data, which has a short lifespan before it fades away. It either needs to be processed or rehearsed, or encoded for long term memory. When we attempt to multi-task, we incompletely focus, we shunt material in and out of rehearsal and working memory, and lack the ability to apply full ‘bandwidth’ to any one topic.
It is a highly inefficient process, as the person has to take capacity to bring the mind back to focus, recall where they are up to on that topic, and ‘imagine’ into the gaps of what they missed attending to other signals. It also takes metabolic energy each time that you switch. This exhausts the brain’s processing capability as you keep rapidly switching between tasks.
Think of your own cognitive approach: Do you go through your life with your cognitive ‘remote control’ flicking over everything, but never really getting truly engaged with this one thing? Or do you allow yourself to be in ‘flow’ with one topic at a time, allowing a more efficient and effective approach to thinking?
Being mindful is not having a mind-full. But rather being mindful (selective) of what we allow ourselves to focus on and attach to.
If we start with the assumption that thoughts and feelings are only thoughts and feelings – they have no meaning unless we give them meaning, and we have the capacity to focus on them or simply notice them, and let them pass – then we can start the process of being more mindful and therefore more effective and efficient in our thinking processes.
If we can stay aware of what we choose to focus on, by being aware (noticing) what we sense, think and feel, then we can make conscious choices from all of these inputs what we choose to focus on. If we instead allow our thoughts, feelings and sensations drag our attention on and off topics at will, we force out mind into rapid switching, and poor performance thinking.
Being conscious of what is competing for your attention, but not being drawn into it (allowing it to be noticed, and ‘float past’, for example), allows you to be present and attend fully and mindfully to what is most important right now.
If being more efficient and effective in your thinking sounds valuable, it might be time to take a mindful approach and to produce increased efficiency, effectiveness and high performance in your thinking.
Sensed realities versus perceived realities:
There is a big difference between what we sense and what we perceive. I can, for example, detect with my visual sense that the colour of your cheeks change. I sense the colour change. Based upon my beliefs, prior knowledge and expectations, I perceive this to MEAN something. I perceive that you are blushing. I perceive that you are hot. I perceive that you are uncomfortable. Whatever meaning I place on the ‘sensed’ information is what I perceive in a situation.
The difference is critical. Each time that I provide meaning to sensory experience, it shapes what I do with it. The perception may have a valence (good or bad), it may influence what is drawn from memory by association, and can impact what I focus on.
Sensory experiences can be external (what we see) as well as internal (what we feel). If we label thoughts that we have, or feelings that we experience, it limits possibilities (makes things ‘definite’ or rigid) and also consumes available mental bandwidth.
How often do you jump to a meaning or conclusion based on a thought or feeling that you have had?
Instead, remaining curious and understanding the sensory nature of the experience can allow you to shift from automatic meaning making to new frames of possibility. When you ‘feel’ that sensation in your chest, rather than labelling it (as fear, tension or anger, for example), what would happen if you were able to just notice (sense) it? A great way to do this is to acknowledge it: “That’s interesting, I notice a feeling in my chest”. You can also notice how you would normally label it, and decide if that suits you. This is a great way to be mindful about how you are experiencing the inner and outer worlds.
Allowing yourself to notice specific detail of what you sense, rather than just jumping to the label, can also be useful in this process. Rather than seeing a tree, you could notice the shades of green, the browns, the shapes, etc. that make up this specific tree. This encourages us to shift from perceived experience to really being open to noticing the sensory experience in more depth.
This is really important when working with people. Instead of leaping to judgements and labels, being mindful of what we are actually experiencing gives us the opportunity to define the current experience of that person, and allow curiosity and possibility, which can increase our flexibility and options in dealing with them.
It also encourages us to be continuously engaged with them, rather than simply labelling them and switching into the habit patterns that this elicits. For example, someone ringing up with a complaint may or may not be a ‘problem customer’ (and everything that means). Instead, staying in the sensed experience rather than the perceived meanings keeps you present, engaged and mindful. We can then work with the person in real time (rather than in our stories) to find the best outcome.
Focus in time:
Mindfulness is about being present. If we allow our attention to be drawn to memories (the past) or created imaginations (the future), we have very little bandwidth to process what is actually happening right now. The truth is that we only live in the present, and as we allow our focus to be drawn forward or backward from this, we lose the ability to really gain full value from what we are currently experiencing.
Memories and imagination are important. We access both as we make sense of the present- the past allows us to understand how this current situation fits with what we know, and what we have previously learned or remembered that can help us better deal with the current circumstance. On the other hand, the future and our imagination helps us determine how the current scenario fits with our goals and purpose; and helps us plan.
However, being ‘mindful’ rather than ‘mind-full’ means choosing what information from these sources you pay attention to, and when. Simply allowing your attention and bandwidth to be drawn out of the present sensory experience and into memories (a common cognitive error present in trauma sufferers in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example), or into imagination (typical in anxiety) stops you being able to be fully present, and therefore able to apply yourself to the current situation.
Often what we are experiencing in the present gets overwhelmed by our own internal dialogue and judgements, meaning we have limited bandwidth to be truly present or engaged with what is occurring around us. If we can allow ourselves to ‘notice’ these inner dialogues and not be drawn into them, we can attend more fully to what is actually going on.
Imagine if we were able to give our full bandwidth to this moment, this problem, or this customer?
Being present enhances our ability to connect with others. When we are mind-full, other people we deal with will know that you are not fully present, and this can make them feel devalued or unimportant. This human connection and empathy is critical as it builds trust, and enhances collaborative potential. Being mindful enhances the cognitive bandwidth we have to pay attention to, to process, to synthesise and resolve what is happening now.
Why are we not mindful?
It takes effort and practice to remain mindful. We are all involved in many activities and relationships at the same time. In a typical office environment there are projects, tasks, relationships, teams, deadlines, goals, meetings…and what is going on at home which we can be drawn into thinking about. There are lots of problems to be resolved, situations to be processed for learnings, and things in the future to worry about – all at the same time. It is no wonder in modern life so many people are mind-full rather than mindful.
In the end, this simply means we end up chasing our tails. With so many things drawing our attention away from one specific thing, we reduce our capability to deal with it. Doing many things at once often means nothing gets done.
How much more effective and efficient could you be by being mindful, and completing each real and current task with your full attention and cognitive bandwidth?
How do I become more mindful?
Mindfulness is something that can be developed with some reflective practice. This means reflecting on what you experience, rather than just experiencing it. Allowing ourselves to notice what is going on in our thinking, attention and feelings is a great place to start. The more we practice asking ourselves ‘what do I notice now?’ helps us build up the skills and ‘habit’ of being mindful. Where can you start?
Try these exercises:
- Wherever you are, start by noticing what you see, what you feel, what you hear.
Notice if you are using ‘perception’ labels or if you are describing them in a sensory way.
- Sit in a quiet space. Tune into what you think, your inner dialogue and inner feelings. Allow yourself to be slightly removed from them – so that you can notice them, but not get drawn into them. Keep asking yourself “what am I noticing now”?
Sit quietly. Notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice the space between them. What do you notice?
In the office, here are some tips to be more mindful in a normal day:
- Set up your schedule so that you can have focus. Don’t allow your email to intrude or alert you whilst you are working on other things. Reduce distractions that may draw your attention, but if you are distracted, allow yourself to notice them, and to be choiceful if you attend to them or not.
- Set up your schedule so you are clear what it is that you want to achieve, and what requires your focus (a great idea is to develop an Urgency x Importance matrix to prioritise tasks). Block time to focus on each task. Notice what tries to distract you. Allow yourself to let that go and stay on task.
- When you work with someone, be mindful of your thoughts and judgements. Are you perceiving or sensing the conversation? Are you 100% present to this conversation? Notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice your judgements. Notice if you are present, or distracted?
In the end, give yourself permission to not be ‘perfectly mindful’. Everyone will be distracted. Everyone will make judgements. The aim is to notice, and to self-correct to the state of being mindful, present and focused when you do. The benefits will come in terms of your capacity to be efficient, effective and more flexible in how you think, allowing you to achieve higher levels of performance.
Let me know how you go, and the differences that you notice!