Mindfulness: "It's a "must have" - Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business School and INSEAD have highlighted mindfulness meditation as one of the two most effective business tools for twenty-first century executives (1 & 2). Recent studies have identified that meditation and mindfulness practices support leaders in “making better business decisions” (3, 4 & 5), improving strategy (6 & 7), conflict resolution8 and communication (1, 9 & 10). It has been proven that a regular meditation practice can strengthen the immune system (11), reduce stress (11 & 14) and combat mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression with more long-term effectiveness than antidepressants (15). So, we know we should be doing it but what is Mindfulness and how do we start doing it?

THE HISTORY

Mindfulness and meditation are most often associated with Buddhism or Hinduism but while it was popularized by the Eastern traditions it was also a cornerstone of many other religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam (16). However, research over the past 50 years drawing on neuroscience, social sciences, medicine, and education, have evolved ‘Mindfulness’ into the multidisciplinary practice it is today, free of spiritual or religious connotations. It is for this reason that it has been so widely adopted by such a wide variety of individuals and institutions from businesses to schools, hospitals and even the military.

WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?

In its simplest form ‘Mindfulness’ is simply ‘awareness’. As Jon Kabat-Zinn explained “it means knowing what you are doing”. Now that may sound simple but how many times are you fully present with what you are doing? Fully present and not distracted by thoughts of all the other things that need to be done, by thoughts of someone you need to call, or worrying about a conversation you had this morning? How many times do you open your emails only to forget what you needed to send or lie in bed worrying about the fact that you can’t sleep? It is in all these moments that cultivating mindfulness will help you to reduce stress, enhance focus and improve both your wellbeing and your productivity.

THE BENEFITS

FOCUS, WORKING MEMORY & DECISION MAKING

Countless studies since the 1970’s have shown a correlation between a regular mindfulness practice and improved attention enabling individuals to suppress distractions and enhancing their performance on a multitude of tasks from decision making to cognitive, communication and motor skills. Perhaps what is more interesting is the recent neuroscientific research using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brain showing an increase in white matter integrity and a thickening of gray matter in participants who regularly practice mindfulness meditation. This is essentially ‘strengthening’ the brain which also leads to the brain functioning more effectively (17).

Studies with the US military showed that after just a few weeks of mindfulness training participants exhibit an increase in working memory and in information processing speed (18), enhancing the ability to learn and utilize new information, to manage complex situations and make effective decisions under pressure.

In addition to this, meditation has been shown to prevent and slow the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

PROBLEM SOLVING & CREATIVE THINKING

These brain scans have also shown increased activity in the parts of the brain that regulate and enable creative thinking and problem solving, known as cognitive flexibility. For you that means having more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (19), enhanced resilience and a greater ability to break habitual responses. This is just one more reason that mindfulness is such a powerful tool in enabling individuals to quit smoking, lose weight and escape addictive habits.

REDUCED STRESS, COMMUNICATION SKILLS & OPTIMAL FUNCTIONING

As Jon Kabat-Zinn famously said “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” and for me this is what mindfulness is all about. Life is stressful, we all have challenges but a regular meditation practice can decrease the stress response in the physical body as well as reducing neural reactivity in the brain. This means that we can learn to function effectively through periods of stress, supporting more effective communication and strategic thinking. Meditators also show a faster recovery from stressful situations (20, 21 & 22), making us more resilient to the challenges of life and more able to enjoy life.

IMMUNITY, PHYSICAL HEALTH & MOOD

From increased immune functioning to reduced sensitivity to pain (23) and even a longer life span, the evidence shows that our physical body also becomes healthier when we commit to this simple mental practice. In addition to this, meditators consistently report improved sleep patterns, better moods and studies have even shown that practising mindfulness can improve your sex life (24 & 25). So, it seems like we all have something to gain from mediation and if it comes with a little more laughter, pleasure and optimism, then all the better!

 

THE PRACTICALITIES

HOW DO WE DO IT?

The foundations of mindfulness are short daily meditation practices that can be practiced anywhere, any time by anyone. They require no special posture, no equipment and can be as short as 3 minutes long. These guided meditations invite us to focus on one thing (often this is the breath, the body or movement) with our full attention.

The challenge is that the human mind is designed to think so you will soon notice that the mind wanders to think of other things. In Mindfulness, we simply notice this distraction before bringing our attention back to our point of focus. The goal in these practices is not to ‘clear the mind’ but to be aware of the thoughts that are occurring and redirect our focus back to a point of meditation, over, and over again.

 

It is in these repeated ‘mindful moments’ that we alter the neural pathways in the brain, “strengthening” the muscle of the mind. The brain becomes quicker and more effective at processing information, we reduce the stress response in the body and create a naturally calmer, more focused and efficient state of being. We change our default state from one of stress, where we feel perpetually exhausted and like we are constantly chasing our tail, to one of mindfulness, where we feel calm, focused and in control.

 

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

While the greatest benefits will be gained from a 15-20 minute, daily practice (or longer) it has been shown that even 5-10 minutes a day will have a noticeable positive impact within a few weeks. The key is consistency of practice. These formal Mindfulness practices require patience and perseverance but you will soon discover that you have more time as you are more efficient, focused, motivated and productive.

 

As Idowu Koyenikan, author of “Wealth for All: Living a life of success at the edge of your ability” says, “The mind is just like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets” so, as long as you can commit, the rewards are waiting for you to enjoy. It is for this reason that there is no success or failure in Mindfulness; in fact it is when meditation feels most difficult that you are possibly getting the greatest benefits.

 

WHERE DO I START?

There are a variety of books, apps and on line recordings to get you started on these practices but if you are new to the practice I highly recommend finding a local course where a certified teacher will lead you through them. This will not only encourage your commitment but will offer you a structured process which will support life-long benefits.

 

Once you have started to practice these exercises on a regular basis you will soon find that you naturally integrate mindfulness into your everyday activities supporting better mental well-being and building concentration, clarity and calmness26. Mindfulness is not complicated but it does take patience and perseverance; however, if you can commit to just 15 minutes a day you will soon notice feeling calmer, more focused, happier and healthier so if you make one New Years’ resolution this year, make Mindfulness the one!

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charlotte is a positive psychologist, wellbeing consultant and coach. For more information about classes, courses and events visit her website or follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RESOURCES

1. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

2. Retrieved from https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/assets/Harvard%20Now%20and%20Zen%20Reading%20Materials.pdf

3. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/insead/2013/09/25/meditate-for-more-profitable-decisions/amp/?client=safari

4. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/01/a-little-meditating-helps-you-make-better-business-decisions

5. Retrieved from https://www.insead.edu/news/2014-insead-wharton-meditation

6. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/05/mindfulness-can-improve-strategy-too

7. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/12/how-meditation-benefits-ceos

8. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/04/a-10-minute-meditation-to-help-you-solve-conflicts-at-work

9. Retrieved from http://www.harbus.org/2012/meditation-and-leadership/

10. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/mindfulness-helps-you-become-a

11. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/corporations-newest-productivity-hack-meditation/387286/

12. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/14/meditation-help-stressed-public-servants-mps-inquiry

13. Retrieved from http://www.executivecoachinguniversity.com/landing/mindful_leader/

14. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/09/manage-stress-by-knowing-what-you-value

15. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#6edbfbd97023

16. Trousselard, M., Steiler, D., Claverie, D., & Canini, F. (2014) Pleine conscience, stress et sante. (Translated Title: Mindfulness, stress and health.) Revue Quebecoise de Psychologie, 35(2), 21-45.

17. Lutz, A., Slagter, H.A., Rawlings, N.B., Francis, A.D., Greischar, L.L., & Davidson, R.J. (2009) Mental training enhances attentional stability: Neural and behavioural evidence. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(42), 13418-13427.

18. Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009) Meditation, mindfulness & Cognitive flexibility.  Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 176-186

19. Cahn, B.R., & Polich, J. (2006) Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 180-211

20. Davidson, R.J. (2000) Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity. American Psychologist, 55, 1196-1214.

21. Davidson, R.J., Jackson, D.C., & Kalin, N.H. (2000). Emotion, plas- ticity, context, and regulation: Perspectives from affective neuro- science. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 890–909.

22. Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness medita- tion. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564–570.

23. Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta- analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35–43.

24. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/sex-life-tips-mindfulness-help-advice-sexologists-counselling-psycho-sexual-krystal-woodbridge-a7573941.html

25. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/better-sex-through-mindfulness-meditation/

26. Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S.L. (2006) The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61(3), 227-239.

 

 

 

Why we don't keen resolutions and how to kick the habit

It’s the time of year that we are all filled with hope and optimism of all that lies ahead. A time we commit to being healthier, more productive, more patient, compassionate and many other things. Or perhaps it is already a time of year when ‘New year’s Resolutions’ start to be broken or we start doubting how long our commitments will last.

Well don’t lose hope yet! If you have made ‘resolutions’ (or ‘intentions’ as we often call them now) then I would like to offer you a new approach that will make your resolutions more effective and will enable you to keep your resolutions so that you can enjoy the long-term benefits.

WHY WE FAIL

If you stop for a moment to think about the approach most of us take to these commitments, we are all doomed to fail. After weeks of indulgence and pleasure we expect to suddenly wake up one morning, often nursing a sore head, and we imagine that we will be filled with more motivation, more willpower and more determination than we have ever had before. Like a Disney spell all our dreams will suddenly come true.

However, if you are bored of breaking your resolutions year on year there are a few simple steps you can take to make 2018 the year those dreams really do come true. I will cover these in this and future posts and I am going to start with showing you how to use the next year fully to make those lasting changes.

12 MONTHS OF PROGRESS

As a positive psychologist and coach the biggest challenge my clients face is that they want it all, NOW! I would love to say this is possible but it simply isn’t. I know this not only from a scientific perspective but also from my personal experience. Change takes commitment, patience and perseverance but you can do it!

The tendency it to fall into one of two traps. The first is wanting one life changing transformation right NOW. This might be trying to leap from a lifestyle of doing no exercise, having an unhealthy diet and drinking 7 nights a week to instantly working out 4 days a week, eating no carbs and not drinking any alcohol. The second is wanting to make a multitude of small (or big) unrelated changes immediately. Perhaps this is being on time, cooking more meals at home, getting to bed earlier, being more patient, going to the theatre more often and taking up meditation.

Both these visions are inspiring but it is all too easy to ignore the hard work that is required to get to this destination we envisage. I therefore invite you to take a step by step approach.

 

STEP 1 – Consider how you want your life to look in 12 months time. How would you be living, working and relaxing, how you would act, what qualities would you have, who would you be with and what would that relationship look like?

Take some time to think about the detailed answers to these questions.

 

STEP 2 - Review this vision and consider why this is important to you and what impact these changes will have on your life and the lives of those you love? Start to imagine how will you feel having achieved these changes.

I suggest taking 15 minutes to write down your thoughts.

 

STEP 3 – Whether there is one goal you want to focus on like or a variety of small changes you want to make the next stage is to consider how this goal can be segmented or broken down into smaller goals. Ideally break this in to a minimum of 4 mini-goals and a maximum of 10.

For example, let’s imagine you are looking to improve physical health. The steps might be: - eat more protein-filled healthy snacks, cook at home more, cut back on alcohol, eat more vegetables, only have desert 3 times a week, walk up escalators, get up to stretch every hour during the day, go to the gym 3 times a week, get more sleep and swim twice a week.

Here are your 10 mini goals. You will see that this consists of 5 activity goals and 5 nutritional goals.

NUTRITIONAL GOALS: Protein-filled healthy snacks, Cook at home more, Less alcohol (max 3 nights a week), Desert 3 times a week & Eat more vegetables

PHYSICAL GOALS: Walk up escalators, Stretch every hour, Gym 3 times a week, Get more sleep & Swim twice a week

This is the start of your map to optimal wellbeing. We need to think of this as a map as you have a journey to make, there is no ‘Beam me up Scotty’ option, and you need to acknowledge that.

You are now going to choose just 1 change for each month. This will help you to move beyond the stage of needing extreme self-regulation and willpower and into habitualising the changes. In the case of this example you might choose to combine 1 physical and 1 nutritional goal and allow 2 months to commit to these activities. For example :

JANUARY & FEBRUARY: Less alcohol (max 3 nights a week) and gym 3 times a week

MARCH & APRIL: Eat more vegetables and get more sleep

MAY & JUNE: Cook at home more and walk up escalators

JULY & AUGUST: Desert 3 times a week and swim twice a week

SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER: Protein-filled healthy snacks and stretch every hour

NOVEMBER & DECEMBER: Consolidation period to strengthen the habits (and let’s face it December has enough temptations that we don’t need to make life harder for ourselves!)

So, you now know what you want to change and why this is important to you, you know what a positive impact it is going to have on your life, you know how good you are going to feel when you achieve this and you have a stage by stage realistic plan of how to get to your destination.

 

STEP 4 - The last detail is to celebrate your progress and success. Commit NOW to a reward that you will give yourself at the end of each stage. This might be a massage treatment, a new fitness outfit, a night at the cinema or meal out with friends. It can be anything at all but allocate your reward now.

You only get this reward if you commit to the changes you want to make so write down the motivation, your goals and your rewards. You may want to stick them somewhere you will see them each day or share them with someone you trust but above all remember you WANT to make them!

This truly can be the year that your New Year’s Resolutions last and I assure you that patience and persistence are the keys to success. If you are bored of breaking your resolutions then give this a try. This can be the year that it all happens for you so go on, make it happen!

For more motivation and wellbeing this year check out X-FIT FOR THE MIND or perhaps a FREE MINDFULNESS CLASS. Keep an eye on Less-stess.london and Step-Inside for more tips to keep you motivated in 2018 so you can feel that sense of achievement that you deserve.

 

BUILDING MENTAL FITNESS

We all know that health and wellbeing is important and we are lucky to live in a city with some of the most diverse opportunities to eat more healthily, move more and live well. We can do courses in everything from sleeping better to skiing in the city. This is all something we try to make the most of but it can also add to the already busy and stressful lives we lead, adding another ‘to do’ to an ever growing list. So perhaps what is missing from this offering are more ways to manage the overwhelming feeling of ‘too much to do’, the sense of ‘getting by’ as opposed to being inspired, motivated, energized and positive about life.

 

The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” yet how many of us look after all three areas of our lives in equal balance? There are many reasons we don’t do this but the main reason is that we simply don’t know how. The media floods our attention with ways to enhance physical fitness but we don’t even know what social fitness or mental fitness might look like, let alone know how to improve it.

 

To define mental fitness is not as tricky as it may seem. In the same way that physical fitness is about our bodies functioning at an optimal level to enable us to live a good life, mental fitness is about keeping our minds strong to perform effectively and efficiently, to think clearly and solve problems, to feel good about ourselves and our lives, to prevent illness and injury, and to live long, happy lives. It includes our motivation, our creativity, our sense of life satisfaction and our ability to cope with the challenges of modern life. Social fitness is similarly simple. It is our ability to understand others, to communicate well, to use our strengths to lead and support others, and our ability to add value to our communities.

 

Over the last 20 years a huge amount of research has been taking place to fully understand mental and social fitness more fully and to identify how we can enhance it. What it is particularly interesting is that the evidence has shown that when we invest time in improving these aspects wellbeing our vital organs function more effectively, our immunity improves, we are less susceptible to chronic pain, more likely to eat healthily and more motivated to be physically active. It has also shown that we are more likely to reach our personal, career and physical health goals.

 

So now we know we want it how can we start doing something about it? The best way to start is join an X-FIT FOR THE MIND class starting in January 2018. These are London’s first “mental fitness” classes to support your mental, social and physical wellbeing in one session. These practical sessions will not only boost your mood through the darker months but will enhance your motivation, productivity and communication skills. They will include some practical mindfulness techniques, tools to build stronger relationships, tips on nutrition, movement and much more. (There will be no physical ‘exercise’ so there is no lycra or special equipment required, just bring yourself, your mind and your motivation!)

BOOK YOUR FIRST CLASS for £5.

 

Until then here are a few simple tricks to get you started before the new year. Let’s make 2018 a year of Optimal Wellbeing!

RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS – Once a week commit to doing a kind deed for someone else with no expectations of a favour in return. This could be buying the person behind you in a queue their cup of coffee, stopping and talking to a homeless person or doing some extra household chores. Be creative and please share your ideas in the comments below.

MINDFUL WALKING – Make your daily commute more interesting by paying attention to what you are seeing. Look up at the buildings or trees around you, observe the faces of the people you pass, notice the sensations of your feet on the ground and the temperature of the air on your skin. Simply take an interest in all the details of life and your surroundings.

GRATITUDE – every night for a week spend a few moments writing down 3 things you are grateful for. It could be a good meal, a warm bed or a smile from a friend. If you make the effort to do this you will find that even in challenging times there is something that you have learnt, something that made you smile or something that brought a little respite from the madness of life. 

Building Strengths and the Power of Character

Did you know that supporting your teams to use their character strengths more effectively has been shown to:

-      reduce staff turnover by 14.9%

-      increase profitability by 8.9%

-      enhance staff engagement by 59%

Perhaps we all think we are using our strengths as the idea sounds simple, but are we? And our we focusing on this as we recruit, promote and build teams? How well do we know our people? As individual characters rather than achievements?

I suggest starting by asking your team (or new applicants) to take this free survey https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey

You can then consider

-      How can these strengths benefit your company goals most effectively?

-      How can you create opportunities for individuals to use their strengths more?

-      How can each person use their strengths to manage their weaknesses?

-      How can you build teams to include all strengths to ensure that each member of the team is adding value and complementing others?

If you need more guidance on how to facilitate this process then please be in touch.

WHAT IS MENTAL HEALTH?

Wellbeing goes far beyond the physical body. It includes our motivation, our resilience, our mood, our ability to engage with the world and live life fully.

Tuesday 10th October is mental health awareness day. This wonderful day gives us the opportunity to consider our own mental wellbeing and the mental health of those around us. More often than not, when we do this, we focus on the prevelance of depression, anxiety, addiction, dementia and other mental illness’, but isn’t this mental UNhealth?

 

So what about Mental HEALTH?

We all spend a lot of time and money striving for a health body, eating well (or planning to) and exercising in order to prevent illness and injury. How many of us spend the same amount of time and energy looking after our mental wellbeing? It seems with our mental wellness we prefer to wait until we have a problem or “break” before we take any action.

And of course a lack of illness is not same as being in good health and that goes for physical and mental wellbeing. We can be getting by, always a little tired, stressed, not quite enjoying work as much as we used to, maybe our relationships seems more strained, we find it hard to focus, we feel like we are never doing the things we intend to do whether that be giving up smoking or making more time to spend with your kids. Does that sound healthy or fulfilling? Is this how we want to continue?

 

What a lot of people don’t understand is that we have just as much control over our mental wellbeing, our motivation, our creativity, our sense of satisfaction and all those other mental strengths as we do our physical wellbeing. In the same way that we can eat well and exercise to prevent physical injury and illness, we can build our mental health so that :

-       We are more resilient and less susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression, with mental fitness we naturally become more likely to grow as a result of challenges rather than suffer.

-       We become more effective communicators, stronger leaders, more collaborative team members and have better relationships

-       We are more likely to reach our personal, career and physical health goals

 

And what is even better news, and I have lived this fully, is that the bi-product of putting more energy into our mental wellbeing is that it enhances our physical wellbeing :

-       Our vital organs function more effectively – digestion, respiration and cognitive function

-       Our immunity improves

-       We are less susceptible to physical injury and chronic pain

-       Our body is more able to build muscle effectively

-       We are more likely to eat healthily, less likely to gain weight and more motivated to be physically active

If you are ready to start investing in your wellbeing then join Step-Inside for a day of FREE workshops, talks and events at Creative Debuts, 115 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AD. We will be offering free mindfulness, yoga, mental health fitness classes, mindful design workshops and more to BOOST YOUR MIND.

RSVP here or email us at charlotte@step-inside.org with any other questions.