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Aim Higher: Make mine 'mindfulnesss'

With our lives in overdrive, Stuart Pickles says we must switch off from overwhelming information and choices to be more calm, restful, and make better decisions

YOU HAVE PROBABLY heard about ‘mindfulness’ by now – everyone’s doing it, apparently.

There are talks, courses, coaches, retreats, books and audio guides. For many of us it comes into that “soft and fuzzy” zone, the kind of thing that sounds great in principle, but is it just another one of those wacky fads? Why is it getting so much attention and airtime? How can it help, and what is it, actually? And how do we get it?

Why mindfulness? The reason its generating so much interest is something most of us are all too familiar with. For many of us our lives are in “overdrive” – overworked as economic pressures seem to intensify, overwhelmed with information and choices due to the explosion of digital media and activity.

We are dealing with more and more “VUCA” – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This is a concept which originated in the US military to characterise the new post-cold war terrorist military landscape, but it is rapidly becoming a popular narrative to describe our modern zeitgeist.

The aggregate impact of all of this on our lives is to increase stress and anxiety, and it diminishes our sense of peace of mind, our effectiveness, and our happiness and health. The interesting thing about mindfulness is that the opposite is “mindlessness”, which for many people probably sums up exactly how their lives feel at times. If any of this sounds familiar, read on…

If overwhelmed, detach

So how can mindfulness help? Mindfulness describes a state of mind where we are able to detach ourselves from all the noise, all the overwhelm and the “VUCA”. To stand back, or rise up, (metaphorically) and see ourselves, our situation, our thoughts and our emotions, as if we were someone else, one step removed. It’s like when we hear someone else describe their problems, and we can see solutions when that they can’t.

Mindfulness is about getting out of the “quagmire” and realising that we have choices, options, and resources. It is being consciously aware of how we are being, and making conscious and thoughtful choices about how we are being and what we are doing, rather than allowing our reacting in the same old way, bogged down by the emotional turmoil and the same old thought patterns. As well as helping us sort out some of our problems, it’s a very calming and energising experience – it feels like reconnecting with our “real” and inner self, and with what seems to be some long lost peace to our mind.

If we can do this just for ourselves it can make us much more effective and happier – at home and at work. And it also has a big impact on us as leaders, and for our people. We can all think of mindless bosses we’ve had to work for, how different it can feel to work for a really mindful boss?

So what is mindfulness, and how do we get it? In truth we all know what it’s like to be mindful. If we think of it as a spectrum, with mindful at one end and mindless at the other, we have all experienced moments (however rare) when we are suddenly feel incredibly calm, clear and aware of what is happening in our lives. The problem is just that these moments can seem fewer and far between, and the frequency and intensity of our “mindlessness” is greater.

The ideal state might be to be mindful all the time, but barring hermits and monks I’m not convinced anyone really achieves this. Mindfulness practice is just about (1) creating more of those really mindful moments (when its good, its great), and (2) dealing more resourcefully with the really mindless times (when its bad, it can be a bit better).

Take a technique

There are many techniques, some are more conventional and things which you probably already do sometimes (take deep breaths, go for a walk, go to the gym, just stop and empty your mind, listen to birdsong, observe beautiful things in nature around, listen to uplifting music).

Others might stretch you to embrace new and different things which might seem strange at first if you have not done them before – such as meditation, intense focus on objects, and “guided visualisation”. They don’t work for everyone, but when they do they can be very powerful – many people swear by them, including many senior leaders, they are becoming more “mainstream” and rapidly losing the “soft and fuzzy” label.

Mindfulness techniques are now being offered very extensively by leadership coaches to their clients. It’s worth consulting with experts because if it’s not taught properly, it can easily be ineffective and even offputting.

The financial equation: bottom line, whether we like it or not, overwhelm and VUCA are here to stay, and the chances are that, over time, mindfulness will become more and more recognised as an effective tool to deal with it. It has the potential to transform how we feel and how we perform, and it doesn’t cost much. For us and our people, that sounds like a financial equation worth exploring.

Stuart Pickles is leadership coach at Aim Higher Leadership, and a former FD of Foster’s EMEA

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