“Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow.”
That’s a concept developed by Ellen Langer, Harvard’s first tenured female professor of psychology. She writes extensively about “mindfulness”—a concept all of us can use as we struggle with constantly changing priorities.
Mindfulness is the idea of focusing attention on the present and not being distracted by the chaotic environment around us. The concept 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.
Are You Mindful or Mindless?
This concept may sound simple, but it really runs counter to our current culture that is characterized by information overload, time pressure and superficiality. Just think of how social media, email, instant messaging, handheld devices, internet and cable TV have become the norm with children who have been nurtured on television, video games and computers. All of these activities encourage short attention spans, rapidly changing focus and instant gratification.
The opposite, thinking deeply about the subject or task 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. Mindfulness argues that focus is in and multitasking is out.
When we are “mindless” and not lending our full concentration to anything, our behavior wanders and we become much less effective in our daily lives. Actively noticing new things, behaviors, and actions in our surroundings and those around us makes us more engaged. Furthermore, being focused is actually less stressful than not being focused. By paying closer attention, your memory will improve, you will be more creative and you may potentially avoid dangerous mishaps. All of these benefits may help you take advantage of opportunities that you might not otherwise observe when you’re distracted by the “noise” around you.
The Power of Positivity
Mindfulness has also 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.
For example, the famous invention of Post It notes from 3M happened when an employee found a use for a “failed” glue. Even though the glue was originally viewed as a failure because it didn’t create a permanent bond, a weaker adhesive ended up being perfect for the application. Someone at 3M was being mindful by directing his/her full, optimistic attention to the product with the idea that another use could be found. In other experiments, a test group was given the same “not-too-sticky” glue but was told that the product had failed in the past. They quickly became discouraged and could not come up with a worthwhile use for the adhesive.
When people are prejudiced in a positive manner, they feel and do better. Creating one’s own positive expectations works to make one happier, healthier, more engaged and more satisfied. This is an example of “directed mindfulness.” Starting with a good goal helps you, but you also extend the benefits to others when you share your optimism.
Integrate Your Duties
“Work/life integration” has become another popular subject for people who are trying to juggle careers, children, relationships, self-care and even caregiving. Notice I am not using the more common phrase “work/life balance.” Professor Langer posits that “balance” implies there is a single sum with one activity cutting into the other, and this way of thinking can be counterproductive. Instead, being mindful of each and every task at hand allows greater focus, produces fewer mistakes, and encourages more productivity at work and more engagement at home. In this way, both important facets of life are integrated rather than competing with one another.
Change How You React
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 to something is even more important than the stimulus itself. Being mindful, concentrating on the subject at hand, and staying centered and positive is the best way to control one’s own attitude and, ultimately, one’s own future success.
Learn to Focus
In this digital age, we have access to an endless amount of data, which can easily become overwhelming. By being focused on areas where there are opportunities, rather than giving into distraction, we can all be happier and more satisfied with our lives—both personal and professional.
Of course, there is cross-pollination. Benefits from one area of our lives can be successfully transferred into other areas and behaviors. So, the question of “multitasking” surfaces again. When we loosen our boundaries slightly but still pay attention to what we are doing at the moment, we can take full advantage of the situation. In caregiving, for example, there are clearly times when having flexible boundaries is helpful, not harmful.
Being focused, mindful and positive allows us to utilize our innate resources more effectively and lead happier, healthier lives. By contrast, mindlessness and constant distraction just make us frantic and frustrated by our lack of progress and satisfaction.