This article is written by Dr. Karlyn Borysenko and originally appeared on her website Zen Workplace.
Being mindful at work helps you reduce your stress, be more creative, communicate more effectively, focus with greater clarity, gain greater resilience, and experience greater overall well-being. All great things, right? The thing about mindfulness is that it may sound simple…but that doesn’t make it easy. When you first start experimenting with being mindful at work, it requires a mental shift away from the way you’ve been doing things for years, even decades! Think of what happens when we try to develop more positive habits – you make mistakes. You slip up. You revert back to the old way of doing things. And so most people try and make mistakes and then they give up, because the old way of doing things may not be the best way, but it’s your comfort zone.
None of this is meant to scare you away – I offer it so you go into this list with your eyes wide open. You will be imperfect at this…and that’s ok. One of my favorite mindful phrases is this:
Every moment is a chance to begin again.
So as you get started with this, don’t worry so much about doing it perfectly. If you make a mistake, let it go and decide to begin again without beating yourself up. What follows is 20 ways to work mindfulness into your day at work. You don’t have to do all of them. Just pick a few that resonate with you and try them out. And then come back when you’re ready to pick out a few more.
#1 – Take responsibility
The world is a perfect place. It’s not perfect in that you get everything you want the minute you want it…but it is perfect in that you receive exactly what you should based on your contributions to the situation. We all love to take responsibility when we receive good things…we deserve them, right!…but we don’t like to take responsibility when bath things happen to us. Those are other peoples’ fault.
When you begin working with mindfulness, you’re making a decision to take responsibility for all parts of your experience, because if you don’t do that you can’t change it! You’ll always be at the whim of others. So start there. You’re responsible for everything you’re experiencing now, have experienced in the past, and will experience.
Feeling resistant to that idea? That’s only because you’re judging yourself because of the mistakes you’ve made that have led to a less than perfect outcome. But understand that the only mistakes we ever really make are the ones we don’t learn from. Judging yourself does you no good – it only holds you back. Instead, detach from the situation, zoom out and look at it almost as if you’re outside of it. There’s no judgement there. There’s just learning and growth.
#2 – Breathe deeply
When you say the word “mindfulness”, people often think of meditation. And certainly, a meditation practice can support your mindfulness goals. If you want to start meditating, there are lots of great free meditations out there on places like Spotify and YouTube. However, you don’t need to commit to meditation to gain the benefits of a few deep breaths in any stressful situation you find yourself in. Our breath is absolutely critical to our overall well-being. Think about it: We can go weeks without food. We can go days without water. We can’t go more than a few minutes about taking in breath!
Whenever you’re feeling stressed out, take a few minutes to take 3-5 really deep breaths. You can do this anywhere, even in the middle of a meeting! Just put both your feet flat on the floor, don’t cross your arms or legs, and make sure your back is straight. Then breathe in really deeply into your nose, so strongly you almost want to snore (don’t do that in a meeting!). Feel the breath going down your throat, through your lungs, all the way into your belly. Hold it for a moment or two and then release. That’s all there is to it!
Do this a few times and you’ll feel your body start to release and your stress levels will go down almost instantly. Then you’ll be able to look at the situation with more clarity.
#3 – Start from the moment you wake up
Your work life and your personal life are not separate – they blend together in almost every way. So if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed and have a horrible morning, do you think you’re going to go in and have a great day at work? No, probably not. And your morning is something you have completely control over! So make sure you set yourself up to have a great morning: Get enough sleep the night before, choose a gentle alarm to wake you up instead of a harsh buzzer, drink your water, have a great breakfast, appreciate the weather if it’s a nice day. Maybe you even bring your work into it and think about what you want to get done at work that day. Visualize a day of productive meetings. Do what you need to do to set yourself up for success before you even get to the office!
#4 – Turn off email
Human beings are not creatures that are built to multi-task. When you’re jumping around from task to task, your brain has to stop, shift its focus, and start again. That doesn’t allow for the flow to really focus on something and produce your best work. And in the modern office landscape, there is no greater distraction than email. It’s open on your desktop all day long, with notifications popping up and sounds chiming every time you get a new message. And instantly, your focus is drawn away from whatever you’re working on to the new message that’s landed in your inbox, you stop what you’re doing to read it, answer it if necessary, and then have to move back to your other task. This constant back and forth impedes your productivity and your creativity immensely.
Instead, try this: For the first 45 minutes of every hour, turn off your email. Not minimize, turn it off entirely so you’re not getting notifications of new messages. Throw yourself into whatever you’re working on with a few focus and allow yourself to solely concentrate on it without distraction. Then, after 45 minutes, open your email up and see what has come in. Respond as necessary, and then shut it off again.
We’ve got to move from this place where every email is an emergency and needs to be responded to immediately – that just distracts from working on the things that will move you towards your goals. In the case of an actual emergency, someone will come find you or call you on the phone. And in all other cases, 45 minutes is not a long time to wait for a response. Give it a try and you’ll find that people really don’t need immediate responses…we’ve just tricked ourselves into thinking they do.
#5 – Focus on the present moment
Human beings love to think about the past as a way to make sense of what they’re currently experiencing. He did this to me, that went wrong, this didn’t work, etc… But the thing is that doing so doesn’t allow you to experience the full breadth of what you’ve got right in front of you, right now because you’re not present in the current moment. Say someone throws you under the bus six months ago in a meeting and you think that means that he’s trying to do the same thing today, which prevents you from seeing that he’s genuinely trying to help you. Or say you tried a tactic in a previous job three years ago that is similar to one being proposed today and it didn’t work…you might think that because it didn’t work last time there’s no chance it will work this time, even though the overall circumstances are different. As much as you can, have a laser-like focus on what’s going on right in front of you, right now. If you find yourself having a resistance to it, ask yourself what’s truly driving it. Is it current circumstances, or is it stuff from the past? If it’s from the past, do your best to let it go. You’ll be surprised at the outcomes you’ll experience when you don’t let the past get in your way.
#6 – Disrupt yourself
When we’re faced with stressful situations, our natural response is to go into fight or flight: We either run away from the situation or we attack it aggressively. And we tell outsides that doing so allows us to remain in control when things around us feel like they’re spinning out of our control. However, the best control you can exert is to maintain control over your perspective in any situation. We can always make the choice to think about things differently. Being able to shift your perspective comes in useful in almost any situation where you’re experiencing stress or negative outcomes to get you back on a more positive track. When you’re going down those routes – my boss doesn’t support me, my co-workers don’t get it, I don’t have the resources I need, etc… – you have to be responsible for disrupting that thinking because continuing on that path only hurts you and prevents you from achieving what you could. Stop and ask yourself disruptive questions:
Am I looking at this situation in the worst possible way? What other ways might I look at it? What else might be happening that I’m not considering?How could this be a good thing? What opportunities will this open me up for? What is there to be gained?If I wasn’t directly involved in this, how would I advise someone else to proceed?
Really consider your answers and be open to possibilities that you hadn’t considered before. And then just choose to go down the path that benefits you the most!
#7 – Choose to be optimistic
Human beings naturally default to putting more weight on negativity than on positivity. This is evolutionary. Think about when we were cavemen, hunting and gathering out in the field. The bushes rustle 50 yards away…it’s probably just the wind but it could also be a lion. If we don’t assume the worst, we might not survive!
These days, very few of us have any real possibility of being eaten by a lion. Yet we still carry those types of instincts with us. The difference between the people who experience happiness and fulfillment at work and those who do not is simply that they make the choice to be optimistic. They see the negative and they choose to simply not engage with it. Here’s an example: Think of all those meetings you sit in when one person takes over the meeting, talking about how things won’t work, or here are all the things we’re doing wrong, or we’re never going to succeed with this plan. You can choose to engage with this person (or even agree with them!) and that just feeds the negativity. Or you can choose to simply not engage. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean you have to buy into their version of events. You could even speak up and say “here’s another way this could go” and present a more optimistic version for people to consider.
Asking yourself the disruptive questions in the previous step is a good way to help you make this choice when you first get started. Do it for a time and it will become a habit that you don’t even have to think about.
#8 – Set your own small goals
When I say performance goals, people normally think I’m talking about the annual (or quarterly) official HR performance review. But the annual performance review doesn’t really motivate anyone on an intrinsic level. Instead, you can take control of your own performance plan and break down your larger goals into smaller, focused tasks. It’s ok to do this outside of the official review process because you’re still working within the process and towards your larger goals – you’re just doing it in a way that is more mindful of what you need to be successful day-to-day.
We know that the best, most motivating individual goals are small, observable, controllable, meaningful and doable. Who better to set those goals than you! When you make your goals smaller, you keep yourself within constant view of the finish line and that allows you to maintain momentum because you’re not overwhelmed with the task.
#9 – Express yourself
Most people have a lot of great ideas, but when it comes time to tell people about them, they clam up! They tell themselves all sorts of stories for why this happens – maybe they aren’t 100% sure, or maybe they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, or maybe the idea will create more work for them, or maybe they think it will make someone mad. But those are just stories. They may turn out to be true or not, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. The real point of expressing yourself is not necessarily the outcome – it’s about allowing others the chance to receive your ideas, knowing that what you have to contribute is valuable! If you don’t put it out there, you’re not giving your co-workers a chance to respond to you either way.
Manage your expectations when you do this – don’t go into it expecting everyone to fawn over your idea. Sometimes people need time to consider something new, or they may like a part of it but not another part of it, or just wouldn’t be open to ANY new idea regardless of who it came from. And sometimes you just need to say something more than once before people will actually hear you! How people receive your idea is not important – the fact that you express it is. The point is that you have to find value in expressing the idea, and feeling satisfied that your voice was heard. If the people around you don’t receive it today, that doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water. It just means you have to say it again!
#10 – Create your own definition of success
You probably have your official annual performance review goals, and then all of those “other duties as assigned” that your boss expects you to take care of, that you’ll be evaluated on regularly at work to see if you’re hitting the mark or not. But just because those goals exist does not mean you can’t create your own measure of success that is just for you. Back when I was in a job I hated, with a boss and a CEO I couldn’t stand, every day I came in and felt like there was no chance of being successful. I just couldn’t win. The problem was that I was using their goals to evaluate my success, and in using their goals I was playing their game. So, I decided to create my own game and developed a mantra that I still use as my definition of success to this day:
Act with integrity Show compassion and empathy, even if others don’t. Be of service to the people around you.
This became the yardstick I held myself to every day, and if I achieved it, then it was a good day no matter what else happened. Using this didn’t preclude me trying to work towards my official goals…it just meant I was no longer internalizing things I couldn’t control (like if my boss was acting like a crazy person).
Let your own definition of success, something that you can focus on completely no matter what is going on around you. This might take a few drafts, but once it’s done it will help you find the light at the end of the tunnel.
#11 – Find the fun
We all have to do things that we don’t want to do, especially at work. If you find yourself putting things off or avoiding them simply because they aren’t your favorite tasks, you’ll just wind up with a whole mountain of stuff to do that you don’t like and may find yourself buried under it!
A better strategy is to find a way to make the task fun. Think about why you’re doing it, what it will set you up for. Or do something like listen to your favorite music or podcast while you’re doing it! You could even give yourself a reward for completing it, something small like a treat or leaving a little early, or something large for the bigger tasks. But above all else, just tell yourself that it’s going to be easy and fun before you ever get started and that will set you up to enjoy it more while you’re doing it!
#12 – Listen actively
One of the biggest problems plaguing most organizations is that so few people really listen – they just wait to talk and get their own point across. If you want to build better relationships with your co-workers (which should be EVERYONE’S goal!), then listening to them and making them feel heard is one of your ultimate shortcuts.
Whether you’re in a meeting, a one-on-one, or just having an informal conversation in the hall, put away your laptop or your phone and give the person talking your full attention. Look them in the eye. Uncross your arms so your body language is telling them you’re open to what they’re saying. And repeat back to them what you heard them say to make sure you understood. This simple act will not only enhance the quality of your communication, but it will also allow your co-workers to feel like you really understand and appreciate their contribution.
#13 – Find your allies
When you’re at work, you are not on an island all your own. Some people look at it as a weakness if they need to ask for help from others, but the reality is that it makes you stronger and will only lead to your advancement if you do it well. You need other people on your side to accomplish the most basic things (and you definitely need them for the bigger stuff!). So make sure you know who your allies are. These are not necessarily the people you like versus the people you don’t – these are also the people who’s goals align with your. If you’re moving towards the same thing, chances are you’ll be able to find common ground to work together to get there!
#14 – Don’t resist
A very smart person once ingrained this idea in my head: What resists persists! The more you focus in on the things you don’t like, the more impact they will have on your current experience. And most of those things are really out of your control! A decision that your boss, or someone higher up in the organization, made, a client who doesn’t like an idea, a co-worker who is pushing back on you. Fighting these situations usually just makes them worse, not better!
Instead, try to find your flow with any situation that you’re in. Be like water. Does water try to flow uphill? No. It flows downhill easily…and yet it’s very powerful and can get things done (the Grand Canyon, anyone?). How can you make the most of whatever situation you’re in without fighting against your current reality? There are usually plenty of opportunities around is if we make the time to look for them!
#15 – Empathize with the difficult people
We all have to encounter naysayers in our professional environments (and the occasional narcissist or bully). You know the type – they put down every idea and nothing you can ever do is good enough. It can be easy to turn your back in frustration…but that’s not necessarily the best thing to do when you’re working with someone long term because you’re not setting yourself (or them!) up for future successes.
Instead, try a little bit of empathy. Someone who is a constant naysayer is probably in a pretty tough place, and may not be experiencing the receptiveness to their ideas that they’d like either. Is it right for them to take it out on you? No. But try connecting with them human being to human being. Find out what their real concerns are and where they come from. Even better, find out what they’re afraid of, and then help them navigate it. Most of the time, you’ll find out that it might be a really easy obstacle to overcome, or that it doesn’t have much to do you with or your idea at all. But you have to empathize first to get to that final place.
#16 – Forgive when your co-workers make mistakes
You’re human. You’re going to screw up and make mistakes. And newsflash: Your co-workers are human too!
The problem is the fundamental attribution error, which holds that when we screw up, we blame external circumstances…but when someone else screws up, we blame it on a character flaw of that person. Be mindful of when this is happening so that you can stop yourself and reframe the situation – that person’s goal wasn’t to screw up and it may have been a simple mistake or miscommunication or something outside of their control that caused it to happen. And even if it is in their control, so what! If you want to be forgiven when you make mistakes then you have to forgive the people you work with when they make them too. Otherwise, you’re just holding your co-workers to a different standard than you hold yourself.
#17 – Embrace change
Just when we get comfortable with the current way of doing things, they change! And the process of change can be incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of folks out there and instantly causes them to think of all the things that could go wrong, or that they will miss out on. However, you are always in control of your perspective. Instead of focusing on all the things you don’t like about the change and its potential outcome, instead ask yourself what could go right! What are the benefits of it? What will it mean for you? Will it give you more opportunities or free you up to focus on other things? View it as a simple part of the process of getting to a better place. The most successful people are the ones that are able to flow with change and adapt to it, rather than fighting back against it.
#18 – Celebrate your wins, large and small
On any given day, you’re doing way more things right than you are wrong. Yet most of our victories at work go unnoticed – we only celebrate or hand out high fives for the really big milestones. Instead, look for opportunities to give yourself a pat on the back every day. This isn’t being egotistical or self absorbed – this is about acknowledging the power of your contribution. The more you acknowledge it, the more contribution you’ll make.
And if you see your colleagues having small wins, don’t be afraid to say “good job” or “way to go.” You’ll make their day, even if they seem a little embarrassed or uncomfortable with it. The reality is that most people are uncomfortable receiving positive feedback, because it just doesn’t happen all that often. Not only can you help your colleagues become more comfortable with it, it giving it out will also help you – the more praise and positive recognition you give out to others, the more comfortable you’ll be receiving it yourself.
#19 – Find your balance
Work/life balance looks different for every single person, and there is no one “right” answer. For some, working 60-80 hour weeks may be perfectly OK. For others, anything over 40 hours might be problematic. Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum, you’ve got to take responsibility for your own work/life balance and be proactive in developing it in a way that works best for you.
It’s not your employer’s fault if you’re a workaholic. Research tells us that when someone feels they are out of balance, the first place they need to look is in the mirror. It’s usually not the employer’s fault – it’s usually the employee who is giving, giving, giving…but not setting aside any time for themselves. Their boss might even tell them to take a vacation, or go home at 5pm, or encourage them to stop working and checking their email after hours, and they ignore all this good advice. The world will go on if you have time to yourself – be proactive about your work/life balance and you’ll be rewarded with increased focused and productivity at work as a result!
#20 – Be grateful
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve got it pretty good. You have a computer and an internet connection. You’re probably employed in a job and have money coming in, even if it’s not your dream job. You probably have a place to live and more food available to you than you could ever eat. And that’s just the basics, before you get into all the other really good stuff you have going on in your life.
Whenever you’re feeling angry or stressed out or frustrated, simply come back to all the good things you have going on and be grateful for them. Most people have a lot more good than bad to worry about every single day. Make sure you’re not letting the negative overshadow all the positive things.