Juliet Adams, a trainer with CABA, CIPD fellow and learning design and development specialist, provides an insight into mindfulness, and why it's an excellent tool not only during stressful times but also for career progression.
In the last decade, mindfulness has become one of those buzzwords we frequently hear about as a way to calm our busy minds. In anticipation of her session on 18 August at ICAEW's Virtually Live conference, we spoke to Juliet Adams, a trainer at accountancy-focused wellbeing charity CABA. She argues that everyone should practice mindfulness whether they feel anxious and stressed or want to progress in their careers.
The journey to mindfulness trainer
At its core, Adams says, mindfulness can be defined as "attentional training". The ability to pay attention to what's going on inside your body and outside. "What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What's your emotional state? Having awareness of this will give you a greater insight into what's going on, which then allows you to manage yourself better."
Adams set up mindfulnet.org, which has become a leading resource for information on mindfulness, co-authored two books – Mindfulness at work for Dummies and Mindful Leadership for Dummies – and organised the UK's first Mindfulness at Work conference in 2012 followed by two more later on.
However, Adams's interest in mindfulness didn't start from a therapeutic approach. Instead, it came from a leadership development perspective to help professionals in leadership roles apply mindfulness to support and enhance their careers. At a time when the press wasn't particularly interested in mindfulness, Adams noticed a gap in existing leadership training programmes. "I felt there was an element at a deeper level missing; there was something that we should be equipping these leaders with which we weren't."
Adams took existing training programmes that had a more clinical, therapeutic approach and reshaped them to suit her busy, professional audience by reducing the time people would have to invest while still reaping the rewards of practising mindfulness.
Mindfulness to combat stress and anxiety
At its core, mindfulness training consists of three elements. Meditation-based exercises, specific to mindfulness, designed to help you to observe and manage your mind, secondly, psychological education and, thirdly, everyday mindfulness through "little ways that add a degree of mindfulness into what you do, without necessarily meditating."
When practised, mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety by training your mind to remain in the present. "The brain isn't capable of time travelling, but the mind is." And Adams adds, "as humans, we tend to focus on the past and future, an evolutionary trait that tries to keep us safe by anticipating what's going to happen".
Unfortunately, this leads us to often rely on the anticipation of what could happen rather than the actual present moment and reality. This is certainly something many of us might have experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, which has plunged everyone's life into uncertainty.
"A lot of what we try to do in mindfulness training is coming back to the here and now, rather than worrying about the 'what if' scenario. "Mindfulness training will teach you how to manage your mind and notice thoughts and emotions arising at an early stage to stop you from catastrophising and escalating a situation. You notice the symptoms, such as an increased heart rate or unhelpful emotions, and take steps to de-escalate things before you become overstressed."
Using mindfulness for career progression
However, not only is mindfulness an extremely useful tool for dealing with the stresses of everyday life, or a health pandemic like Coronavirus, according to Adams. She explains that "a recent analysis of all the research that has been done on mindfulness in the workplace concluded that there was robust evidence that mindfulness improved "multiple aspects of productivity, employee wellbeing and employee relationships."
Out of 5,000 research papers on mindfulness, over 270 of those specifically focus on mindfulness at work and for leadership. With growing evidence of its benefits, it's unsurprising that elements of mindfulness training feature in most MBA programmes and it is used by both the military and police force.
What mindfulness doesn't try to do is stop the mind from wandering, which would be impossible, says Adams. It helps you to notice when your mind wanders and bring attention back to where you want it to be. Doing so not only reduces symptoms of stress, it improves focus and can also help with increasing productivity.
Research undertaken by Harvard psychology professors Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert revealed that the human mind wanders on average 47% of the day. If a busy professional aims to increase their productivity and efficiency, increased focus training your mind to wander less is the key. And that is what mindfulness will teach you, Adams points out.
"Sometimes it's about knowing when to stop and step away, even if this sounds counterintuitive. Take a break, and then come back." Rather than worrying about hours spent at your desk, think about how many hours you are focused on a task and productive.
"If you can make it so that your mind wanders, for instance, only 40% or even 30% of the day rather than 47% that's a huge productivity win", Adams concludes. Essentially, applying mindfulness techniques could help you understand and manage your mind and consequently make better decisions and improve your career.
Top three tips for getting started with mindfulness
So what advice would Adams give for starting on your mindfulness journey?
- If you really want to learn mindfulness, take a full six to eight week recognised course whether you're teaching yourself from a book, or doing an online course (since face-to-face is currently unavailable).
- In the heat of the moment, pause and try to focus on the following questions: What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What is my emotional state? It will calm your mind and help you make better decisions.
- Don't be afraid to walk away for five minutes to take a focus break. Spending five minutes at your desk not getting any work done and punishing yourself is more detrimental than spending the same time going for a mindful walk or having a cup of tea, which will allow you to return to work more focused.
Find out more
Juliet Adams will be leading a guided mindfulness session on 18 August at 15:30. In this short, practical session, you will find out what mindfulness is, how it works and how you can develop it further. For more details, click here. To attend ICAEW Virtually Live you need to register in advance – ICAEW members can register for free.
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