Do you sometimes struggle to be present? Much of my professional life and research focuses on ‘always-on work’, sometimes described as ‘work taking over life’, and this phenomenon is often associated with difficulties in switching off from work. I think some people are drawn to research topics, perhaps unconsciously, to better understand themselves. I would place myself in this category. All too often, I find my mind wandering away while I’m sitting at the table with my family. 99% of the time, I’ll be engaged in work meetings, but if I’m under pressure, like 42% of people, according to Microsoft Workplace analytics data (1), I will multitask.
Regardless of whether the context is personal or professional, many of us struggle to be present. It’s no surprise when you consider that our world has become more fast-paced than ever before, with work intensity steadily rising since the ’90s (2). The proportion of employees who “strongly agree” their job requires that they work “very hard” increased from 30% in 1992 to 46% in 2017. Recent government-funded surveys show a steady increase in “work intensification” over the past few decades:
– Working to “tight deadlines” for at least ¾ of the time has jumped from 53% to 60%.
– Working at “very high speed” for at least ¾ of the time has soared from 23% to 45%.
However, the key to navigating this challenging landscape does not lie in doing more. Instead, the answer might be found in cultivating our capacity to be present in each moment to increase the quality of our interactions rather than quantity.
A Real-World Example: Senior Leader at Multinational Pharma
An HBR article shares an account of what this could look like in practice when a senior leader at a multinational pharma developed his mindfulness skills over several months (3). Colleagues reported he was more engaged, pleasant to work with and inspiring. What’s more, he was spending, on average, 21% less time in meetings as the quality of his interactions improved.
The Science: Benefits of Trait Mindfulness
Trait mindfulness refers to a person’s natural tendency to be mindful – being fully present and engaged in the current experience instead of being preoccupied with the past or worrying about the future – in their day-to-day life. Research indicates that trait mindfulness is associated with better well-being and performance. For example, studies have found that supervisors’ trait mindfulness is positively associated with employee well-being, job satisfaction, and performance (4). Trait mindfulness is also associated with better cognitive functioning, academic achievement, executive function, and lower stress, depression, and anxiety (5-7).
Cultivating our capacity to be present and fully engaged in each moment could benefit us professionally and personally, boosting performance at work and strengthening our connections with family and friends.
Alternative Practices: Cultivating Mindfulness without Meditation
While meditation is a widely recognised and effective method for developing mindfulness, it’s not always possible to fit a meditative practice into each day. Also, despite mindfulness being touted as a panacea in the popular media, reviews of the evidence indicate that meditation may have no effect or even a negative impact on some people (8).
If you’d like to experiment with meditation, you will find several resources online to assist you. There are also several alternative practices which you can integrate into your day to improve your ability to be present.
By engaging in these non-meditative practices, you can still cultivate mindfulness and enjoy the associated benefits for your well-being, focus, and emotional regulation.
Here are some alternative practices for cultivating mindfulness in both your professional and personal life in today’s fast-paced world:
- Mindful breathing: Pay attention to your breath throughout the day during different activities. Focus on the sensations of inhaling and exhaling, and gently bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders.
- Body scan: Notice sensations in different parts of your body without judgment. This can be done while sitting, standing, or lying down and helps you become more aware of your physical presence and the mind-body connection.
- Mindful eating: Pay close attention to the entire process of eating, focusing on the taste, texture, and aroma of the food. Eat slowly to fully experience each bite.
- Active listening: Practice fully focusing on the speaker during conversations, paying attention to their words and emotions. Avoid interrupting or formulating a response in your mind while the speaker is still talking (this is a great one for family meals).
- Mindful walking: Concentrate on the sensations of your feet hitting the ground, the movement of your legs, and your surroundings during walks.
- Daily routines: Incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities, such as brushing teeth, showering, or washing dishes. Focus on the sensations and actions involved in each task and bring your attention back to the present moment when your mind drifts.
- Journaling: Writing about your thoughts and emotions can help you become more aware of your mental patterns and promote mindfulness. Reflect on your experiences without judgment and observe your thoughts and feelings as they arise.
- Gratitude practice: Spend time each day reflecting on the positive aspects of your life and expressing gratitude for them. This can help shift your focus from negative or judgmental.
How can you measure trait mindfulness?
While there is no real consensus on which questionnaire can be considered to be the most valid and reliable instrument, the mindful attention awareness scale (MAAS)
Is one most popular questionnaires that have been widely used in literature.
The trait MAAS is a 15-item scale designed to assess a core characteristic of mindfulness, namely, a receptive state of mind in which attention, informed by a sensitive awareness of what is occurring in the present, simply observes what is taking place (9,10).
I’ve reproduced the questionnaire here.
Below is a collection of statements about your everyday experience. Using the 1-6 scale below, please indicate how frequently or infrequently you currently have each experience.
Please answer according to what really reflects your experience rather than what you think your experience should be.
Please treat each item separately from every other item.
1 = almost always
2 = very frequently
3 = somewhat frequently
4 = somewhat infrequently
5 = very infrequently
6 = almost never
1. I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.
2. I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.
3. I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present.
4. I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what I experience along the way.
5. I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.
6. I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time.
7. It seems I am “running on automatic,” without much awareness of what I’m doing.
8. I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.
9. I get so focused on the goal I want to achieve that I lose touch with what I’m doing right now to get there.
10. I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing.
11. I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time.
12. I drive places on ‘automatic pilot’ and then wonder why I went there.
13. I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past.
14. I find myself doing things without paying attention.
15. I snack without being aware that I’m eating.
Scoring: To score the scale, simply compute a mean (average) of the 15 items.
To provide a benchmark, in a U.S. adult sample, the average MAAS score was 4.22 (S.D. = 0.63) (11).
As we navigate the complexities of our fast-paced world, it’s crucial to recognise the power of being present. Embracing mindfulness practices, whether through meditation or alternative methods, could significantly improve our well-being, relationships, and professional performance. By making a conscious effort to be more present, we can foster deeper connections, enhance our focus, and create a more fulfilling life at work and home. Remember, the key lies not in the quantity of our experiences but in the quality of our engagement with each moment.
1. Microsoft (2022) Work Trend Index Pulse Report (September 2022)
3. Hougaard, R. & Carter, J. (2017) If You Aspire to Be a Great Leader, Be Present. Harvard Business Review.
4.Reb, J., Narayanan, J. & Chaturvedi, S. Leading Mindfully: Two Studies on the Influence of Supervisor Trait Mindfulness on Employee Well-Being and Performance. Mindfulness 5, 36–45 (2014)
5. Trait Mindfulness: An Overview: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/trait-mindfulness
6. McBride, E.E., Greeson, J.M. Mindfulness, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement in college students:the mediating role of stress. Curr Psychol (2021)
7. Rebecca K. MacAulay, Amy Halpin, Heather E. Andrews & Angelica Boeve (2022) Trait mindfulness associations with executive function and well-being in older adults, Aging & Mental Health, 26:12, 2399-2406
8. Dam, N. T. van, Vugt, M. K. van, Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., Meissner, T., Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Gorchov, J., Fox, K. C. R., Field, B. A., Britton, W. B., Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., & Meyer, D. E. (2018). Mind The Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 36–61. https://doi.org/doi:10.1177/1745691617709589
9. Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
10. Carlson, L.E. & Brown, K.W. (2005). Validation of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale in a cancer population. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 58, 29-33.
11. Brown, K.W., Kasser, T. Are Psychological and Ecological Well-being Compatible? The Role of Values, Mindfulness, and Lifestyle. Soc Indic Res 74, 349–368 (2005)