GENERAL MILLS IS NOT JUST A LARGE NORTH AMERICAN food corporation with more than 41,000 employees, $17 billion in net sales and over 100 brands under its umbrella. It is also a pioneer in executive education and leadership training, thanks in part to its 2006 adoption of a ground-breaking program aimed at cultivating ‘mindfulness’ — a state of heightened awareness and attention — in its workforce.
After participating in the company’s mindfulness training programs, employees testify to enhanced listening capacity, clearer decision making and higher productivity. Other leading companies have since launched similar programs, including Google, Procter & Gamble, Apple, Yahoo! and Unilever. Meanwhile, the latest research in the fields of Psychology, Neuroscience and Management has begun to lend scientific credence to the notion of mindfulness, which until recently was derided by many as pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo.
In this article, we will explain how mindfulness can strengthen a broad set of executive functions to boost productivity, improve decision-making and enhance well-being, based on research and coaching experiences we have undertaken in designing and delivering programs for multinational corporations.
The Antidote to Attention Deficit
In this age of multitasking, instant messaging and constant connectivity, the fact that people are finding it increasingly difficult to focus their attention on one thing at a time hardly comes as a surprise. Every day we are bombarded with stimuli, distractions, interruptions and growing pressure to do more with less, with negative repercussions on our productivity and well-being. The result: disordered minds, reactive behaviour and unduly high levels of stress and anxiety.
We recently surveyed 1,000 executives to measure the impact of this attention deficit on workplace performance. We used two recognized temperament scales — ‘exploratory excitability’ and ‘impulsiveness’ — both of which are related to hyperactivity, disorderliness, a propensity to seek out novel experiences and an intolerance for monotony and routine. In the first test, 72 per cent of participants exhibited high or very high levels of ‘exploratory excitement’, suggesting heightened levels of novelty-seeking behaviour. In the second test, 45 per cent showed high or very high levels of ‘impulsiveness’, implying a lack of control of automatic responses and an unwillingness to focus in-depth on issues at hand.
Given such findings, any tool or practice that serves to relieve mental overload and helps people devote their full concentration to the task before them seems warranted. This is exactly what mindfulness aims to do: it helps you stop functioning on autopilot and engage more consciously and proactively in your work. In addition to giving your full attention to the present moment, acting deliberately or mindfully also helps you detach yourself, making you less prone to emotional prejudices and whims.
Our ability to manage external stimuli and our response to them depends on the degree to which we allot our attention. Mindfulness allows us to develop a broad set of cognitive and executive functions, raises self-awareness levels and facilitates emotional regulation, empowering individuals to substitute knee-jerk reactions with more conscious—and ultimately more efficient behaviour. It is worth underscoring the difference between mindfulness as a technique and mindfulness as a state of mind: the former is just a means, but it is important to keep the latter — the true end — in sight.
‘Cultivating our attention’ is one of the key aspects of practicing mindfulness. The good news is, we can train our minds to do this, just as we firm our muscles when we do physical exercise. As psychologist Daniel Goleman explains, “Attention is a mental muscle, and can be strengthened with the right practice. The basic move to enhance concentration in the mental gym: put your focus on a chosen target, like your breath. When it wanders away (and it will), notice that your mind has wandered. This requires mindfulness—the ability to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in them. Then bring your attention back to your breath. That’s the mental equivalent of a weightlifting rep.”
The effort we make to refocus our attention on what is most relevant has a reward: in sharpening our mind, we are effectively helping it to rest. There are a variety of techniques to achieve this state of sharpened attention and full awareness, but all have one thing in common: the establishment of an ‘anchoring point’ to return to when your attention begins to wander.
An ideal starting point is the most internationally-renowned mindfulness program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). First developed in the 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts, MBSR was initially tested in a clinical setting and later applied to the real world of business. Its positive effects on the brain — the general feeling of well-being and effective management of emotions and impulses — have been rigorously evaluated in multiple studies and are extensively documented.
To achieve the desired results, the practice of mindfulness must conform to the following requirements:
- Non-judgmental observation: being able to step back from your emotions in order to be free from distorted judgments;
- Renewed attention: deactivating the autopilot response so as not to be dulled by routine;
- Anchored to the present: living and embracing each moment in a fully conscious way; and
- Equanimity and composure: experiencing emotions, but without getting carried away by them.