Can mindfulness improve your performance at work? Many businesses are embracing mindfulness and meditation training to help their employees. But what’s the actual benefit of mindfulness at work? And can it really help you?
Work is an area where many of us experience our greatest sense of personal development. We’re rewarded when we perform well and motivated to keep honing our game. For high-performing individuals, it’s natural to want to do the best job possible.
So can mindfulness help? According to a lot of people, yes it can. But maybe not in the way that you thought it could. Rather than placing you ahead of your co-workers, practicing mindfulness is the kind of training that can act like a force multiplier, benefiting not just you but your entire work culture.
There’s a reason why companies like Adobe, Facebook, Google, and Hubspot have all started their own meditation groups. Last year I even got inquiries from the folks at Rolls Royce asking how to set up a meditation space at work.
In a recent article from Upstart, Kim Nicols, a Silicon Valley meditation teacher wrote, “people who meditate seem to have an edge over those who don’t. More companies—like Google, General Mills, and Genentech—are offering mindfulness programs to their employees. Start-ups bring in people like me to lead 30-minute meditation classes on-site. Even pro sports teams like the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco Giants make it a part of their training.”
Why Are Companies Embracing Mindfulness?
So what are some of the benefits of embracing mindfulness at work? Before we get into the science, let’s hear from a few folks who are actually implementing mindfulness in the workplace.
A good friend of mine is a MIT trained PHD and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at a successful tech firm on the East Coast. Like a lot of tech firms, his business is expanding rapidly and so are his responsibilities. When I asked him how his meditation practice impacts his performance as CTO in a rapidly changing environment he said, “Through my meditation practice, I cultivate both an awareness of what needs to be done and the clarity to respond with effective action.”
Kim Nicols asked some of her business clients why they meditate. “One client meditates for four minutes before every important sales call, because it helps him feel centered, grounded, relaxed and confident.” And another one of her clients “schedules her most important meetings for the afternoon following our on-site meditation class. When I asked her why, she said, ‘After meditation, I feel like I can handle anything.’”
My good friend Steve is a senior consultant at the marketing software company HubSpot in Cambridge, MA. He’s a long-time meditator and organizes a volunteer meditation group for HubSpot employees. When I asked him why he started the Hubspot meditation group, he said he does it so that everyone can feel what it’s like to have no problems. “When you start your day with 20 minutes of stillness, focus, and relaxation, you realize that whatever you may have been worried about that day is small potatoes. In business we’re often dealing with problems of one kind or another; meditation helps reset the way we look at them and spot new solutions.”
Of course some mindfulness advocates and practitioners are critical of this trend of mindfulness in the workplace, dubbing it the McMindfulness movement. And it’s worth noting their objections. One New Yorker article explores this in depth, and I resonate with their conclusions when they write that, “On the spectrum of misappropriation, using self-advancement as a lure seems forgivable enough if it leads people to try a technique as subtly transformative as mindfulness. (Indeed, if personal betterment is America’s religion, such an approach might be seen as syncretic.) What can be lost by broadening access to a philosophy of liberation, even if a majority of people conflate it with the more vulgar priorities of our culture?”
Your Attention Is A Trainable Resource
Ok. But can mindfulness and meditation help elevate your performance at work? What does the science tell us? Well, it turns out that mindfulness really is a powerful tool for improving your performance at work. But how exactly?
For one thing, meditation taps into the most precious resource in any organization: attention. And if you can learn to harness and improve the quality of your own attention, you and your co-workers will benefit. And if you can create a work culture that values this resource, you’ll be in another league.
Just like you go to the gym to build your muscles, meditation builds the muscles of your attention. Here’s how a recent study out of the University of Washington put it.
“The present study builds on a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that human attention is a trainable resource and that certain forms of meditation constitute a viable form of such training. The evidence presented here suggests that meditation training may effect positive changes in the multitasking practices of computer-based knowledge workers, and thus offers encouragement to those who would design workplace or technology interventions to take advantage of this possibility.”
So let’s explore this further. Here are 7 ways that mindfulness will help you improve your performance at work.
1. Mindfulness Is Contagious
Mindfulness is the type of skill that can ripple out into the culture of your organization through your mere presence. Have you ever had the experience when you’re running around like a mad man, pushing to get everything finished, and you meet someone who’s grounded, present, and calm?
Those are powerful moments. Because, if you’re like me, they make you pause for a moment and reflect on your own manic pace. A little bit of that person’s calm demeanor rubs off. In those moments I encounter someone who’s exuding mindful presence, I realize I’ll be more effective if I slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
Author Daniel Goleman illustrates this point in a recent article. Just like stress is contagious and tends to shut down your brain’s executive functions, like paying attention, comprehending, and learning, so too is the opposite true. Calm, centered, and mindful leadership helps to open your mind and that infuses the culture around you, especially if you are someone in a position of authority.
Recent studies have show that mindfulness affects the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation. It’s called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). This enhanced capacity for self-regulation can help you avoid time and productivity bandits like email and web browsing.
To further illustrate this point, that same study from the University of Washington tested the effect of mindfulness-based meditation on the multitasking behavior of three groups of knowledge workers. The results were conclusive.