Workplace efficiency: mindset mastery and meditation
12 April 2019 | Briony Gunson
How do thoughts and feelings influence our decision making process? Ultimately, our mindset plays a huge role in our productivity and efficiency. So how can we begin to get familiar with our mindset? And what role can meditation play in helping us master our mindset?
For many people, productivity and efficiency are all about getting stuff done in a timely manner—making steady progress on a task or project, hitting deadlines, managing your time and energy well. When we think of productivity and efficiency in relation to our jobs, and how we can improve efficiency, we would rightfully look to consider practical aspects like processes and tools.
My role as Operations Director for a digital marketing consultancy means that efficiency is a key consideration for me day-to-day. From my own personal experience, as well as observing my colleagues and clients over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about the decision-making process and what it means to be effective. I’ve begun to realise that, although things like processes and tools associated with actions are very important when it comes to striving for efficiency in the workplace, there are more subtle but powerful and very human aspects that we need to consider as well. And these are our thoughts and feelings.
Now, thoughts may be an obvious one—what we think about a certain scenario or task, using our intellectual mind to explore how we’re going to approach our work, drawing upon our past experiences, training and knowledge to inform our actions. But feelings may not be an obvious consideration at first—in fact, you may feel a bit of aversion to the very suggestion of feelings and the workplace (‘what have my feelings got to do with filling out my weekly report?’, a little voice may say in your head).
But our feelings have significant value and often huge sway over us, so it’s important that we begin to understand how to recognise and manage our emotions, rather than be at the mercy of them. And it’s our thoughts and feelings that together make up our mindset, and it’s our mindset that ultimately influences our decision making.
So what I’d like to do is explore how we can better understand our mindset, to allow us to achieve more effective actions, and the role that meditation plays in supporting this ambition. And this is drawing on my own direct experiences—my previous challenges with workplace stress and mental health—and what I have learnt from being a Modern Meditation trainer with beanddo.
How thoughts and feelings dictate our action
Our thoughts and feelings are closely linked. When we start any task—say, being briefed on a piece of work by a colleague—our minds will start to recall relevant information i.e. our memories based on past experiences. The process of accessing these thoughts from our past experiences will conjure up alongside them the emotions we experienced at the time as well.
For example, perhaps the last time I did a technical SEO audit, the project was rather fraught with stress and tension due to all sorts of complications with the client relationship. Now it means that when I come to do a technical audit the next time, I will naturally call upon my most recent experiences. Then my thinking may start to focus on negative thoughts, due to the emotions of the past experience. Perhaps I may start to hesitate a bit, feeling intimidating by the prospect of starting because I’m focused on my negative past experience. So I already start to get in my own way, adding layers of negative thinking and feeling, before I’ve even started the task!
Many of us have been conditioned to believe we should not exhibit our feelings in the workplace. This outdated and biased conditioning has been the product of flawed thinking, which is that to be emotional is to be female, and to be female is to be weak (although scientists are discovering the very opposite is true).
Now, I’m not suggesting we accompany every task with a deep, emotional heart-to-heart. And we of course need to ensure rationality and objectivity are present within our decision making. But humans are emotional beings and emotions are triggered within the mind and body throughout the day, whatever we are doing. And this isn’t just sensitive, avocado-chomping Millennial and Gen Z generations being emotionally delicate. With the rise of automation, the world of working is changing, and we are doing more creative and strategic work, which requires us to draw upon higher cognitive skills—like our imagination, reason, intuition etc. And this type of thinking—deep thinking producing highly creative and valuable work, argues Cal Newport—is more likely to evoke emotion.
How negative thoughts and feelings can scupper our productivity
The challenge is that many of us struggle to accurately identify our emotions, knowing what we are feeling and why. And this lack of self-awareness—of us being unfamiliar with the contents of our minds and hearts—means we can often end up suppressing emotions or sharing them in an uncontrolled way.
The result is that we can cause all sorts of unintended issues for ourselves, getting into situations that we don’t want. Unhelpful and negative thinking triggered by our past experiences mean we get in our own way, and we see this in the workplace all the time. In fact, it’s visible in any decision making we carry out. So my key argument is that, if our emotions play such a significant role, we had better know what emotional hue our thoughts have, which are ultimately steering our actions. For example, are thoughts of fear and worry shaping your decisions? ‘I don’t have enough time…’, ‘I’m not good enough to…’, ‘This always happens to me…’, ‘This is too difficult…’, ‘They don’t understand me…’
Although it’s important to be aware of practical blockers and issues involved in a task, we want to make sure we don’t give them more time and attention to them than we need to. Because where your attention goes, energy flow. What types of thoughts, feelings or actions are you giving your attention and energy to? Are you consciously aware of the feelings in the body right now? By taking the time to look at a situation objectively, you can begin to identify what things you can control and what things you can’t control. And then you can avoid falling into patterns of negative thinking that cause you unnecessary stress and strife.
Becoming aware of what thoughts and feelings are going on in the mind and body is the first step in being able to master our mindset.
Thoughts are the language of the mind and feelings are the language of the body
It’s very important to realise just how powerful stress is on the body and mind. For starters, stress is a fantastic disabler of creative, strategic and collaborative thinking. Because when you’re stressed—and the human imagination is so powerful we can turn on the stress response in the body just by thought alone—you are in a place of fight, flight or freeze. Your mind and body is prioritising survival, so you don’t want to have to wait to think about what to do—you want to be reactive, so you can get of danger quickly.
But if your perceived stress is your client at work, for example, then that persistent presence of that perceived source of stress can mean that you’ll likely be in a highly reactive state. You’ll be looking for threats, viewing everything through that lens, reading into tone of voice, feeling defensive and on edge, perhaps easily becoming frustrated or irritated. Even if the situation is objectively not that bad, simple irritations at work can produce quite a visceral experience in the body and mind. And if we are persistently stressed, this starts to take its toll on the mind and body and we can find ourselves really struggling. Ultimately, this state of emergency we can find ourselves in is just not a state of efficiency.
When you consider this, it’s probably no surprise that 1 in 8 people will experience a mental health issue at work. And why the World Health Organisation has labelled stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century, due to the detrimental physiological impact the stress hormone cortisol has on the body over time.
But the empowering fact is that you can change your thinking about any given situation. You are in control of you. This brilliant TED talk by Dr Alan Watkins outlines just this and is worth the 20 minute watch:
How meditation can help us break free of negative and unhelpful thinking
So how can we begin to be more consciously aware of any unhelpful or negative thinking or habitual behaviour that may be holding us back? This is where meditation is such a powerful tool. Meditation is defined as ‘becoming familiar with’, and when we meditate—because we are reducing external stimuli (e.g. close our eyes to reduce visual stimuli, sit somewhere quiet to reduce stimulating our minds with sound, we sit still, don’t eat, drink or answering emails etc.)—we can begin to become familiar with our own thoughts and feelings. And because our thoughts and feelings together make up our mindset, we can start to observe our thoughts and feeling and, over time, learn how to master our mindset.
This isn’t anything new. Aristotle—one of the most famous minds from antiquity—once said: ‘Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.’ We spend so much time and energy looking to understand our clients, our target audience, our competitors… but turning that attention around and focusing on ourselves, to get a better understanding of who we are, is actually one of the most productive things you can do.
So why not give yourself the gift of time to sit quietly, dive within, and get to explore just who you really are.
Meditation is not a selfish thing. Even though you’re diving in and experiencing the Self, you’re not closing yourself off from the world. You’re strengthening yourself, so that you can be more effective when you go back into the world.
***This post accompanies a conference talk from BrightonSEO, April 2019. Briony Gunson, one of beanddo’s Modern Meditation Trainers, talks about how meditation can be used as a tool to understand our mindsets that ultimately govern our actions.***