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How Does Mindfulness Work?

By: Joe Burton
Puzzle pieces

Get ready to Power Down, Power Up and Power Forward!

Let’s break it down. In a nutshell, mindfulness training helps you notice when you’re distracted and come back to a single point of focus. You can improve your ability to do this with practice. There are countless  techniques to do this, one being meditation, using your breath as the focus of your attention. This is a mindfulness fan favorite because you can use it anytime, anywhere without any extra tools.

You can also train your attention on things like your heartbeat, pressure points in your body, a spot on a wall, even music. In fact, you can do this using almost any soothing point to become calm and relaxed. Even just 5 to 10 minutes of practice daily can be transformative.

There are thousands of studies on the health and performance benefits of mindfulness out there. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read them all. My favorite study from Harvard University has got you covered. It shares that the human brain cycles through normal states of awareness and neural activity. They estimate the average person spends about half their time with the mind “wandering.” By wandering, we mean worrying about the future. Worrying about the past. Is my boss out to get me? Fantasizing, fretting, conspiracy theories. Did I leave the oven on? You name it. Most of us have trained our brains to cycle through a myriad of thoughts, except what’s actually happening in the moment.

Obviously, this unproductive time is terrible for business. It gets worse. They further estimate the average person spends another 20% of their time in “distracted awareness.” Basically, you’re kind of listening, but not really. Anyone who’s married may recognize this state of mind. The research from hundreds of universities, insurance companies, healthcare systems, and think tanks indicate that these natural tendencies for the mind to wander are also terrible for your health. It can cut years off of your life.

There are two analogies I like to use. The first is that our brains are like refrigerators. The equipment is running at various levels of effort all the time. But if you leave the door open, they work nonstop, the equipment breaks down faster and what’s inside ends up not being very good. The wandering mind is causing our minds to burn out from overactivity while spoiling the quality of our emotions, moods, and thought patterns. What’s worse, according to Stanford University, as much as 90% of that overactivity is negative and recurring. That means we have a tendency to think about the same unhealthy nonsense all the time. It’s the human condition. And because of neuroplasticity, our brains become experts at processing and revisiting the things we think about most. A double whammy.

This tendency to ruminate on the negative can feed self-doubt, turning us into our own worst critics. That leads to my second analogy. As a kid, I remember Pluto, Daffy Duck, and other cartoons where characters would have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, representing two sides of their conscience. Two inner critics. Pixar took it to the next level with the movie, Inside Out, in which all five primary emotions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust) took turns tugging at the lead character’s conscience.

When it comes to the wandering mind, you likely already realize that it’s not very quiet in there. In fact, many leaders feel like we have an entire board of directors in our head. The critic. The worrier. The fraud. The savior. The conspiracist. The hot mess. The regretter. The hero. The second-guesser. Left unchecked, an overly active board of inner critics can feed the constant distraction that has a detrimental impact on your health and performance.

The wandering mind and tendency to constantly worry are the root causes of professionals getting stressed out, burnt out, and opting out at earlier ages and at record numbers. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns creates stress. Stress impacts your health, wellbeing and performance. That impacts relationships and teams. And that impacts entire company cultures.

Don’t let this get you down. The inner critics or voices arise as ways to protect you from fears, failure, or shame. Often they just need your permission to stop working so hard on your behalf. There are many techniques to reverse the mind’s natural tendencies and let them know the job’s over. They all start with mindfulness – your ability to catch yourself when you’re distracted and come back to what’s happening in the current moment (also known as reality).

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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