Just a minute or two, here and there, can make all the difference.
Feeling stressed out, short-fused, or scatterbrained at the moment? Work is enough of a juggling act as is, but piled on top of all those non-work to-dos, staying productive, organized, and emotionally stable during the busiest weeks can seem like a true Herculean effort.
It’s impossible to stop the barrage of tasks, pings, and meetings (or whatever others stressors you’re up against), but there is an effective method to help make everything feel more manageable. That method is mindfulness. When you feel anxious or overwhelmed, knowing how to practice being mindful—and using that skill to your advantage—can be a powerful tool for calming the nervous system, regulating emotions, shifting your perspective, and letting go of unhelpful thought patterns.
“[M]indfulness can help us remain grounded in change and ambiguity and manage emotional triggers,” says Scott Shute, founder and CEO of Changing Work and former head of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn. “Practicing mindfulness lowers stress and increases productivity, which ultimately contributes to an employee’s success both inside and outside of work.”
Mindfulness does not need to be the time-consuming, esoteric phenomenon you might think it is. It’s a skill and practice you can try in the middle of the busiest work day to de-stress and stay centered.
“A lot of people think mindfulness is a synonym for meditation, but this is not the case,” Shute explains. “I like [mindfulness-based stress reduction founder] Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s definition: ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.'”
Practicing mindfulness during the day doesn’t need to take up a lot time. For instance, before diving into work in the morning, begin your day with a few deep, purposeful breaths—breaths you really feel, listen to, and notice with intent. Midday, go for a quick walk, free of work distractions, paying close attention to the five senses. Stand up between conference calls to take a big, satisfying stretch. These allow you to come back into your body, reset your mind, and calm the sympathetic nervous system (which gets triggered by stressors).
Shute shares some of his favorite mindfulness strategies that are easy and effective enough to do at work.
Basic Body Scan
If you have 10 or 15 extra minutes, Shute recommends a technique known as the body scan. You’ll spend this exercise becoming aware of different parts of your body, both how they feel physically and how they relate to your immediate environment and what you feel mentally.
Take a few minutes (set a timer if that’s helpful) to sit comfortably in your chair. Feel free to close your eyes or keep them open with a soft focus. Become aware of your body’s points of contact with the back and seat of your chair, the floor, your clothing—noticing any sensations or thoughts that come to mind. Start to pay attention to your breath, noticing the quality of your breathing (fast or slow, deep or shallow?), the physical sensations of air going in and out through your nostrils. When you’re ready, mentally “scan” your body from top to toe (or choose one area to focus on), checking in with each part, but never judging or trying to force a fix or change. Notice and acknowledge, be curious and open, and then move on to the next area.
Visualization is another mindfulness technique, and it’s great for getting yourself into the right frame of mind for a particular circumstance, be it focus, joy, compassion, or relaxation. Visualization can be a tricky concept at first, since it’s more abstract and requires some imagination, so it helps to follow a guided visualization session. Shute suggests sneaking in a visualization practice before a meeting where you need to be present and on the ball.
This technique involves picturing something very specific—like a situation you’re anxious about, a particular person, or an achievement you’re working toward—and cultivating positive images and associations around them. Before an important work presentation, for example, you might take a few minutes to sit quietly with your eyes closed and bring the upcoming scenario to life in your mind, visualizing success and positive outcomes as vividly as you can. Imagine yourself in the meeting space feeling confident, prepared, relaxed, and capable; getting your message across clearly and successfully; impressing your colleagues; and ultimately feeling proud and fulfilled.
Beginner Breathing Exercise
Oftentimes, the outlets we rely on to reduce stress (taking a walk, working out , baking, playing with the cat) aren’t realistic options on a work day. But many effective mindfulness exercises, like Shute’s Three Breaths practice (available in a guided session via his LinkedIn Learning course), don’t require taking any sort of break or even leaving your chair, making it an ideal workday tactic.
A mindfulness exercise that only requires three breaths and takes less than a minute? Yes, please. Find a quiet place and a posture that’s comfortable but alert.
First, exhale completely so you can begin on an inhale:
- Inhale slowly and fully.
- Hold your breath at the top for a few moments.
- Exhale slowly and fully, thinking of a calming phrase, such as “letting go,” as you do so.
- Hold your breath at the bottom for a few moments.
- Repeat, starting on the inhale.
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