At any point in time, your mind is probably wandering. You might be thinking about a project that is due in 10 minutes or a networking meeting that you’re nervous about, but you’re probably not thinking about the present.
Unfortunately, not being present can also be detrimental to our health and productivity. One way to increase our presence in the “here and now” is by practicing mindfulness.
In a recent NextGen Nation webinar, panelists Virginia Hill, Program Manager for Partnership for Public Service and Sarah Marbach, Business Strategy and Communication Manager for Aetna, shared their tips for living in the present and answered common questions about mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Marbach’s favorite definition of mindfulness is “staying aware in your present moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity.” But, facts show that staying present is more difficult than it sounds. Apparently, our brains are paying attention to the “here and now” less than 50 percent of the time. “Over half the time you’re not paying attention to what’s happening, meaning you’re missing out on the present and interactions with the people around you,” Marbach explained.
So, if we’re not living in the present, what are we doing most of the day? “We’re often caught between the past and the future because we’re unhappy with the present and resisting it,” Hill said. “One thing I love about mindfulness is that it helps you let go of that resistance. Mindfulness is about accepting what is, instead of trying to change it or create distractions.”
But how do we reduce the distractions, daydreaming and worried thinking to ensure that we’re staying present in our day-to-day lives?
How do you actually practice mindfulness?
Hill and Marbach shared some of their favorite tips for making mindfulness a lifestyle.
- Mindful eating: “How many times have you eaten mindlessly while watching TV or talking to your friends?” Hill asked. Instead of eating your meals surrounded by distractions, eliminate all other activities and focus on enjoying your meal. “You may not be able to eat the entire meal this way, but at least take your first bites mindfully,” Hill advised. When we eat with distractions, we’re eliminating our ability to enjoy our meal and our time alone.
- Mindful movement: Hill suggests doing two minutes of mindful movement in the morning and in short periods throughout the day. “When I first wake up, instead of checking my phone, I try to do a few stretches,” she said. “If you match your breathing with your movement, it keeps your mind focused and allows you to reset and start the day on the right foot.”
- Mobile apps: If you’re struggling to bring yourself to the present, guided meditation apps like Headspace can help you settle into mindful thinking and meditation. Mobile apps allow you to practice guided meditation anytime and anywhere, and they are often less expensive than most guided meditations and mindfulness classes. “The only money you need to spend is on the app itself,” Hill said. “Other than that, you just need some headphones and a quiet space.”
- Unitasking: Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. “When you’re multi-tasking, you’re not giving 100 percent of your attention to each task,” Marbach explained. “You’re actually dividing your attention among those tasks.” Marbach relies on unitasking when she’s working, and said that turning off your phone and laptop notifications will help you stay focused on that one, critical task. “If you have to, set a timer to go back and check your email every 30 minutes or every few hours,” she added.
- Breathing: Most of us breathe constantly and effortlessly, so we don’t tend to pay attention to it. But, focusing on inhaling and exhaling, and timing your breaths can help you re-center yourself. “Hearing your breath and paying attention to how your body is contracting can help you re-center yourself in a few seconds,” Marbcach said.
What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
According to Hill and Marbach, there are countless benefits to practicing mindfulness.
- Your productivity will increase. Marbach discussed an Aetna employee study that uncovered how mindfulness affects productivity levels. The study’s control group did not practice mindfulness, but the second group was given monthly mindfulness activities and encouraged to eliminate distractions. “Over the course of six months, the employees that did practice mindfulness were able to increase their productivity rate by 30 percent,” Marbach said. “In terms of our work lives, mindfulness can improve productivity levels and quality of work.”
- You will minimize frustration. It’s easy to become frustrated when you’re sitting in traffic or standing in a long line, but mindfulness helps you accept everything about the present- the good and bad included. “Mindfulness is not about trying to change what is happening, but about noticing what is happening,” Hill explained. “If you’re bored and standing in line, be with the boredom. Accept it and pay attention to what the experience is like.”
- Your mood will improve. We are our own worst critics, but mindfulness can help us eliminate the effects of negative self-talk. Instead of beating yourself up for having negative thoughts, take note of them and then let them go. “We need to ask if these thoughts are serving us so we can eliminate negative thoughts, listen to ourselves and discover what we need,” Hill insisted. “When I’m in the moment and letting go of those thoughts, I’m being nicer to myself.”
- You’ll worry less. When we’re not in the present, we’re usually overthinking the future or regretting something about our past. Mindfulness activities can teach us to let go of these worrying thoughts. “When it comes to preconceived notions about how a meeting is going to go or dinner with an in-law, we can train ourselves to minimize those thoughts and that will help us to experience things as they’re happening,” Hill explained.
Regardless of how you choose to practice mindfulness, all methods are valid. If you find yourself becoming distracted, remember that being mindful takes time. “When it comes to mindfulness and incorporating things into our lifestyle, it is a matter of practicing and altering our lifestyle,” Marbach said. “It is truly a life-altering practice.”