blog 8 - mind-wandering

Mind-wandering or mindfulness – what executives can learn from an Amazonian tribe

There is a tribe that lives in a remote area of the Brazilian rainforest called the Pirahã. The Pirahã are described as the happiest people on Earth. They have no interest in the outside world, they have no real concept of time or numbers and, fascinatingly, theirs is a culture so strongly built around living in the moment that their language doesn’t even have a past or a future tense. In short, they have all been practicing mindfulness as a way of life since long before Google made it the buzzy-est buzzword in business this decade.

But what is mindfulness and is it really as important to wellbeing and productivity as everyone is saying? Well, if the Pirahã alone don’t convince you, here’s some of the most recent research into the area to give some thought to.

I don’t want to present the argument for mindfulness, but the argument against not being mindful. Matt Killingsworth (creator of trackyourhappiness.org) has recently published research where he looked at people’s levels of happiness alongside their levels of attentiveness on whatever task they were doing at the time. He found that our minds wander 47% of the time. That figure rises to 50% when it comes to work. That is half of your day you’re thinking about something other than the work you are doing.

When you look at levels of happiness alongside this, the research finds that people are significantly less happy when they are mind-wandering than when they are focussed on the task at hand, no matter what the task is. So even when you’re doing something you don’t particularly enjoy, such as being jammed into that packed commuter train with an elbow in one ear and a briefcase in the other, or sitting in that endlessly dull meeting with a pile of work waiting for you back at your desk, you’re better off staying mentally focussed on where you are.

Killingsworth’s research has been conducted with over 15,000 people reporting on a total of 650,000 activities, so it’s quite hard to argue with. The Pirahã have been right all along.

Mindfulness is the art of focussing the mind, without judgement, on the present moment. It therefore seems to provide a simple solution to the issue of mind-wandering, regardless of all its other proven benefits (such as improving creativity, memory, compassion, and cognitive performance). Imagine if you could reduce your mind-wandering to even just 40% while at work; you’d be 10% more productive, and happier overall to boot.

But mindfulness is a skill that needs to be developed, and is not something that will happen overnight. Below are a few simple tips to help you get started with being more mindful during your working day so you can stay focussed and be happier at the end of it:

  1. Find small moments to press pause: those little moments in the day when you’re waiting for your document to print, or for the kettle to boil, or even when you go to the loo, are ideal to start getting used to checking your focus. Next time you have one of these opportunities, just take a moment and notice how you feel. Don’t try to change anything, just notice. Are you stressed, tired, excited, frantic? Are your muscles tense anywhere? Then take five deep breaths, focussing on how the air feels when you breathe in and breathe out, and nothing else.
  2. Switch your internal monologue to “audio description”: when we’re doing something repetitive or boring it’s a real challenge to stay focussed. A good tip is to narrate in your head everything that’s happening as you see, feel or hear it (keep it in your head though!) It’s important the narrative remains objective so you don’t get drawn into any judgments about what’s going on around you. A good way to practice is to narrate in your head your journey to work eg “I’m walking down the road now, left foot then right foot, there’s a crack in the paving stone, I’m going through the revolving door now, it feels quite heavy, I’m walking through reception now, I’m pressing the lift button”. It’s not going to win any Booker Prizes if put down on paper, but it will help you stay focussed and you’ll feel much more clear-headed when you start work.
  3. Do a body scan: this is another way to just start training your brain to focus on the present moment and what you are feeling. When you sit down at your desk (or at lunch, or on the loo – whenever!) just take a few minutes and notice how your toes are feeling, then scan up to your feet, your ankles, calves etc etc all the way up to the tip of your head. Take the time to notice how each part of you feels – your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on your chair, your shirt against your back. It might feel strange at first, but eventually you’ll start to do this more naturally and it will help you stay in the moment wherever you are.

I want to finish with a quote from Dan Everett, one of only three people outside the Pirahã tribe to actually speak their language, and a man who has dedicated his life to studying how they live and communicate. He describes how they:

“let each activity be dictated by the moment rather than their worries of the future or their knowledge of the past.”

Let us all learn from the Pirahã and live a happier, healthier life!

Try out these simple tips and please do let me know how you find them!

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