That’s a concept developed by Ellen Langer, Harvard’s first tenured woman professor of psychology. She writes extensively about the concept of “mindfulness”—a concept all of us can use as we struggle with constantly changing priorities.
Mindfulness, technically, is the concept of focusing attention on the present, and not being distracted by the chaotic environment around us.
This concept really runs counter to our current culture characterized by information overload, time pressure, and superficiality. Mindfulness argues that focus is in, and
multitasking is out.
The concept of mindfulness may have evolved from Buddhist meditation. In western academic circles, Professor Langer has centered her career on mindfulness—first as a therapeutic milieu, and later as creative energy.
Just think how social media, email, instant messages, handheld devices, internet, and cable TV have become the norm with children nurtured on television, video games, and computers. All of these activities suggest short attention spans, rapidly changing focus, and instant gratification.
The opposite, thinking deeply about the subject at hand, is a concept that demands greater respect. After all, we are what we think, what we concentrate on, and how we direct our minds.
When we are “mindless” and not concentrating, our behavior wanders and we can become much less effective. Actively noticing new things, behaviors, and actions in our surroundings makes us sensitive to context and more engaged. Being focused is actually less stressful than not being focused.
Being mindful makes it easier to pay attention. By paying better attention you will have better memories, be more creative, and potentially avert danger. You will also potentially be more creative and take advantage of opportunities that you might not otherwise observe when you’re distracted by the “noise” around you.
Wherever you put
the mind, the body
Mindfulness has been linked to innovation. By prejudicing a group of engineers or inventors either positively or negatively to find a new use for a product, those test subjects can find success or failure, respectively.
The famous story of “Post It” notes from 3M came from a person who found a use for a “failed” glue. A “not too sticky” glue was perfect for the application, even though
the original use of the glue on the back of post-it notes was viewed as a failure because it didn’t create a permanent bond.
Someone at 3M was being mindful by directing his/her full positive optimistic attention to the product with the idea that a use could be found. In other experiments,
a test group was given the same “not too sticky” glue but was told the product had failed in the past. They quickly became discouraged and could not come up with a worthwhile use.
When people are prejudiced in a positive manner they do better. An old experiment told hotel chambermaids they were exercising while they worked by pushing their
carts and doing other physical activities. These folks lost excess weight and felt better. Creating positive expectations does work to make people happier, healthier, engaged, and satisfied. This is an example of “directed mindfulness”—in other words, starting with a good goal and sharing with those who will benefit.
“Work/life integration” has become a top-of-mind subject for two-career families as well as those interested in caring for themselves and their families. Notice I am
not using the more common phrase “work/life balance.” I agree with Professor Langer that “balance” implies there is a single sum with one activity cutting into the other.
This is not true. Focusing on mindfulness encourages more productivity at work, or more engagement at home; both important facets of our life are integrated.
Another important point about mindfulness and mindlessness deals with what we bring to a situation. For instance, stress is not so much a function of the events or
people involved but rather how we react to events or people.
Eleanor Roosevelt once stated, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The meaning is clear: How you react is even more important than the stimulus (or in this case, the attack). Being mindful, concentrating on the subject at hand, staying centered and positive is the best way to control one’s own attitude and ultimately one’s own future success.
The digital age provides us with incredible amounts of data that can be converted into information and ultimately knowledge. By being mindful and focused on areas where there are opportunities, rather than being mindless and overwhelmed by volumes of data, we can all be happier and more satisfied with our lives—both personal and professional.
Of course there is cross-pollination. Benefits from one activity or segment of our lives can be successfully transfused into other areas and behaviors. We all learn from
the entire environment around us.
So the question of “multitasking” surfaces again. When we loosen our boundaries but still pay attention to what we are doing at the moment, we can take advantage of
the situation. There are clearly times when having “loose” boundaries is helpful, not harmful.
In one early experiment, Langer placed elderly men in an environment recreated to match their youth. When they were asked to act as if they were young again, the group had significant improvement in cognitive ability, memory, and even physical capabilities. A similar group was placed in the same “back to the past” environment and instructed just to reminisce. They too improved, but not to the same extent.
Prejudicing people or groups of people with preconceived notions and ideas directs their minds to being focused in one direction. This is just another therapeutic example of mindfulness.
Being focused, mindful, and having a positive attitude helps everyone utilize their innate resources more effectively. By contrast, mindlessness, constant distraction,
having everyone and everything grabbing for our attention just makes us frantic, and frustrated by our lack of progress and satisfaction.
Fully engaged, mindful, and positive folks will lead happier, healthier, and longer lives. I think we all want to be one of these individuals, and spend time around these folks.
So be “mindful,” my friends.