How you do something matters more than what you do.
When you are distracted, unaware of what you are doing, the end product suffers. Mindfulness is not just a state of mind — your (lack of) focus affects your craft.
If greater well-being isn’t enough motivation for you, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques improve self-control, objectivity, tolerance, enhanced flexibility, concentration, and empathy — you gain mental clarity.
You probably know all this. But, also fear that I will tell you that meditation is the way to go. I get a lot of people asking me for other ways to become more mindful. Many have already tried meditationbefore and, after a few frustrating attempts, they quit. Others think meditation is not for them. If that’s your case, no worries. This post has you covered.
I’m not writing off meditation, neither telling you to do so. But, there are many other ways to start practicing everyday mindfulness.
A quick note on the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Though these two words seem interchangeable, they are not the same.
Mindfulness is the quality of being present — the experience of being open and aware in the moment, without judgment or criticism, focusing your mind on the present rather than wandering. Meditation is the practice of training your mind for everyday mindfulness. You learn to strengthen your mind as you become more familiar with yourself.
Mindfulness is a mindset; meditation is the training to achieve it.
To dive deeper, check out this post I wrote — a meditation guide for beginners. Or start practicing these 21 mindfulness exercises. Give them a try and see what sticks.
List of Exercises
- 1. Watch your own movie
- 2. Observe other people
- 3. Slow down
- 4. 5-minute breathing exercise
- 5. The body scan
- 6. Observe with your eyes closed
- 7. The tangerine experience
- 8. Track footsteps
- 9. Turn your chores into a meditation
- 10. The mindful window
- 11. Mindful listening
- 12. Name your emotions
- 13. Mindful gratitude
- 14. Mindful eating
- 15. Mindful drinking
- 16. Declutter your workspace
- 17. Pay attention to music
- 18. Silent meeting
- 19. Body stretch
- 20. Take a digital break
- 21. Walking contemplation
1. Watch your own movie
Imagine you are observing a movie and have to describe everything that is happening to someone else. You have to pay special attention and be clear, so the other person can understand what’s going on.
That’s precisely the purpose of this exercise. The only thing is that the movie is your life and you are telling the story to yourself, not to someone else. When you are ready, start by focusing on what you are doing — describe everything that is going on. Be specific, detailed-oriented, and clear. You are trying to increase awareness of how you are doing what you are doing.
Most of the time, we are living on autopilot. This exercise will help you increase awareness of your behavior, no matter how insignificant or not is the task that you are performing.
2. Observe other people
We usually see reality, but we don’t honestly pay attention. Similar to the previous exercise, you will increase your focus by becoming a better observer. You can practice this at your office or in a public space such as a park or public transportation.
Focus on one person and observe what that s/he is doing. Look at the appearance, body language, the way s/he is dressed. Then, move to another person or group and repeat the observation. You are not trying to guess or interpret what they are doing or why. Just watch and become aware of what’s going on.
We usually don’t pay attention to what happens right in front of our eyes. And, if we do, we pass judgment. When we judge people by their looks or actions, we stop seeing. Becoming more mindful requires to see things as they are, not through the lens of our feelings.
3. Slow down
When you rush from one thing to another, you are doing stuff but not performing at your best. By slowing down, you can reconnect with the present moment and flow.
Taking more time to do something will help you appreciate what you are doing as well as improve your end product. Most of our mistakes are made not out of ignorance but of being sloppy. As the saying goes, there is never enough time to do it right the first time, but always enough time to do it over.
Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow. When we find balance, we become more productive and effective — we don’t need to do things over.
When you enjoy what you are doing, there’s no need to rush from one task to another. Instead of just checking things off your list, you learn to enjoy the journey too.
4. 5-minute breathing exercise
This exercise is short and easy. Don’t tell me you can’t make five minutes for yourself. Breathing is a necessary process to stay alive. Sounds obvious, right? However, when we are anxious, what do we do? We stop breathing, or we don’t breathe as regularly and deep as we should.
Yogis count life not in years but in the number of breaths they take. Certain apps, such as Spire, were designed for that purpose: to help you track your breathing. However, the best way to improve your breathing is to practice paying attention — you don’t need an app for that.
Find a comfortable position. You can either be seated on a chair or the floor. Keep your back upright (but don’t force it). Notice your body and relax. Take a deep breath and focus on the experience.
Feel the natural rhythm of your breath. Notice the air temperature in and out. Let your breath flow naturally. You don’t need to do anything. Your body knows how to breathe on its own — don’t force it. Notice how your chest expands and contracts. Focus on your body — one breath at a time.
You might get distracted at some point. That’s okay. Don’t judge yourself. You can say “thinking” and let your thoughts flow naturally. Reconnect with your breath. When the five minutes are up, focus on your breath one more time. You are all set.
Practicing this exercise daily, will improve your breathing but also bring calmness and more awareness to your life. When we increase self-awareness, we become at peace with ourselves.
5. The body scan
This is a popular exercise among mindfulness practitioners. And a favorite among beginners.
Mindfulness requires to pay attention to both our mind and body. Pain is a signal — where do you feel it and why? Your body registers everything that happens to you. When we have muscle knots is because our mind is full of tensions too.
Practice this exercise more than once a day. When you are brushing your teeth, waiting for the bus or in an elevator — every spare moment is an excellent opportunity to practice a body scan. Overcome the instinct to grab your phone — like we all do when we are in between things — and focus on your body.
Take a deep breath. Scan your head, face, neck, shoulders, chest, legs, and arms. Focus your breath on the area where you feel pain — the oxygen provides calmness and relaxation. This video will help you improve your practice.
6. Observe with your eyes closed
Our eyes are our primary source of distraction — we jump from one thing to another and stop paying attention. Sometimes, the best way to remove a distraction is to stop seeing it.
This is ideal to practice in a public space. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax. Focus on what’s going on around you. First, pay attention to the sounds that are closer to you. Little by little, start focusing on the sounds that are farther away.
Now, pay attention to what’s going on right next to you. What sounds do you hear? Can you hear voices? What are they saying?
Now repeat the same routine with the more distant noises, sounds, and voices. Remember that you are trying to understand, not to analyze, what’s happening.
Pay attention — learn to observe what’s going on without seeing.
7. The tangerine experience
This exercise is about improving our ability to focus on the details. You can practice this with a tomato, walnut or any other fruit of your choice too. I love tangerines because they have a unique shape and texture.
Take a look at the fruit. Pay attention to its shape. Touch it and notice how it feels. Play with it. See how the shape and texture react to your manipulation. Smell the fruit. Now close your eyes and smell it again. Hold your breath for a second or two and see how long the perfume stays.
By focusing on one fruit, you practice paying attention. Everything else fades away when you concentrate on one single thing. Mindfulness is about noticing what’s happening right in front of you in the present moment.
8. Track footsteps
We are so busy looking that we stop seeing.Tracking is the art of interpreting the indirect signs left by animals or people. It’s an entertaining and insightful practice once you get used to it.
The purpose of this exercise is to notice the tracks but also trying to understand what left them behind.
The other day, my wife and I were walking in the middle of a park in Wisconsin right after a massive ice storm. All of a sudden, I noticed some deer tracks. I stopped to observe them in more detail. I realized there were two pairs — one smaller, one bigger. Probably, a mom with the calf. I followed their path and saw how they run in one direction and then turned back in the opposite way. The tracks seemed fresh — the shape was still perfect. As I continue to observe, I noticed that some tracks were deeper than others, with a more significant distance in between — maybe both the deer were running or jumping at that point.
I’m not a track expert by any means. But observing footprints is an excellent way to train our focus. What seems like a silly exercise at first, makes us feel calm and curious about our surroundings.
Snow and sand are perfect for tracking footsteps, but you can also practice in a park or any other public space.
9. Turn your chores into a meditation
Mindfulness is more than just noticing things — you learn to enjoy what you are doing. We all hate chores. However, the more we avoid doing something, the more burdensome that task becomes.
Choose a chore that you want to master or one that you usually do but dislike. Prepare by setting-up the scenario — remove distractions or things that might get in the way.
Focus on the activity. Let’s say you want to clean the kitchen. Start by visualizing the outcome. How would you like the kitchen to look like? How will you feel once you’ve accomplished the task?
Start doing the chore. Pay attention to every detail. Observe your movements. How can you improve your craft? Experiment with alternative ways. Which one works better? How do you feel when you improvise instead of repeating the same movement over and over?
Keep the end-result present. You are not just doing something. You want to become the best kitchen cleaner ever. Once you are finished, take some time to appreciate the outcome. You can practice this with the same chore next time or with a different one.
10. The mindful window
Distance drives perspective — we get to see what was around us but were missing. Find a window. Look at everything you see. Start by the things that are closer to you and then, progressively, move your focus to those that are farther away.
Avoid judging or labeling things. Forget about the object — don’t name things. Focus on the shapes, colors, movements, or textures. Don’t pay attention to the sounds either. This exercise is about increasing focus by developing your ability to see things.
This practice requires just a few minutes yet increases our ability to discover new things even in familiar places. The more you train your ability to observe, the more things you’ll see.
11. Mindful listening
This exercise is for a group setting and requires a moderator. Pair up all participants.
Each person shares a personal story or anecdote with her/his partner. Everyone has the same time: 3 minutes. Then they switch roles. Once everyone is done, the moderator asks participants to share with their partner the story they told them — try to be as accurate as possible and to use the same words the other person used. Switch roles again.
Now, participants have to tell the story they heard but in the first person — like if it was their story. Then their partners do the same. Everyone comments on the experience: how accurate their partners were, and how they felt to tell someone else’s story as if it was theirs.
The purpose of this exercise is to realize our ability to pay attention. But, most importantly, the effect that mind-wandering can have on others. While listening to their story being retold by others, most people realize we are not good listeners— a gentle reminder for everyday conversations.
12. Name your emotions
We are continually experiencing emotions. Sometimes, we don’t pay attention to what we feel. Others, we overreact without realizing what’s triggering our behavior.
This exercise will help you familiarize with your feelings. Practice labeling your emotions as they happen. Close your eyes and focus on your emotions. Name them without passing judgment. Feeling upset is not the same as being angry, sad, or frustrated. Most of the times, we mix our emotions. Check this post to learn to discriminate different feelings.
Becoming more mindful about how you feel can help you uncover what affects your mood but, most importantly, to avoid overreacting because you are not fully aware of what you are feeling.
The more you get to know your feelings, the less they will cloud your behavior.
13. Mindful gratitude
One of our principal sources of frustration is that we are living in the future — we anticipate what’s going to happen instead of appreciating the here and now.
When we are consumed with our thoughts, worries, or dramas, we stop paying attention. Feeling grateful requires noticing everything that happens in our life. We are wired to focus on negative things — the ones that didn’t happen as expected or went wrong. Practicing daily gratitude boots our happiness by grounding us to the present.
Reserve some time, preferably before you go to sleep, to capture all the good stuff that you should be thankful for. Recap your day, and think of all the people you met, all the moments you enjoyed, what you achieved or learned, the small battles you won.
Keeping a gratitude journal is an excellent practice, as I explain how to do it here. Our brain tends to focus on adverse events — this exercise could be a little bit frustrating until you get used to it. With time and practice, it’ll become easier and easier to acknowledge all the positive stuff in your life.
14. Mindful eating
Food is much more than fuel to your body. It’s a sensorial experience that can be both gratifying and insightful. Most eating disorders are anything but mindful — instead of enjoying eating we turn it into compulsive behavior.
Mindful eating is not just about appreciating the food but also understanding why you are eating.
Fortunately, most of us don’t suffer from hunger. The downside is that our bodies don’t know what that feeling really is. We eat because we are conditioned — driven by emotions, not a physical need. We feel a compulsion to eat. When other people are eating around us, we feel the urge to eat too. Or we have breakfast or lunch because it’s the appropriate time, not because we are hungry.
Mindful eating is about becoming more aware of our relationship with food. Start by enjoying the smell and visual appearance of what you are going to eat. Don’t just swallow the food, taste it. Cut small bites. Chew your food mindfully — it will help you eat less compulsively. Chewing may help you feel fuller longer, leading to less eating overall.
Snacking is a clear example of compulsory eating. Before you grab something in-between meals, ask yourself: “Am I really hungry? Why do I want to eat this now?”
When you feel the desire to eat, reflect on your feelings first. Most of the time, we eat to silence our emotions. If you are feeling distracted, anxious or upset, rather than eating try going out for a walk or engaging in another mindful task.
15. Mindful drinking
We tend to drink the way we do everything: fast. Not only we end drinking more than we planned, but we don’t really enjoy what we are having. There’s a growing movement in England promoting total cleansing. Non-alcoholic beverages — beer, spirits, wine, etc. — are on the rise and have decreased alcohol consumption among young people.
However, if you enjoy drinking and don’t have a drinking problem, you can still do it mindfully. Just like with food, don’t let your emotions control your behavior. Drink because you enjoy it, not to get rid of your problems. Drink because you want to, not because of social pressure. Drink to enjoy it, not to get drunk.
The problem with alcohol is that we are not taught to appreciate what we drink — we just swallow it.
Start by appreciating the moment. Enjoy the holistic experience. First, feel the glass. Notice its temperature and texture. Focus on the color. What do you see? What do you notice?
Swirl the wine (or drink) slowly. Observe the legs that it leaves behind in the glass. Take a slow deep breath in to inhale all of the aromas. What do the smells remind you of? Take a slow sip. Allow all of the different flavors to swish around your palette. Experience the wine, don’t just drink it.
Concentrate on how it feels, tastes, and the memories or sensations it evokes. You can practice this exercise with coffee, tea, or even water too.
16. Declutter your workspace
Marie Kondo is very in right now. But you don’t have to go to that extreme to clear your mind.
A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind. But there’s more about cleaning your workspace. When you approach your work with mindfulness, you enjoy it more. Turn the act of clearing and organizing your desk into a mindful moment. Don’t think of it as a chore but rather as setting up the right conditions to perform at your best.
My desk usually looks chaotic. I’m working on various client projects, researching, writing, preparing workshops or talks, etc. I feel the need to have my notes, post-its, and books in front of me. My desktop is also full of various open windows and files. I perform well in my organized chaos but, at some point, it starts to slow me down. So, I take a break to organize my stuff.
The act of decluttering not only helps me recover focus but also reenergizes me — it’s like a gift to myself. Some people like it tidy; some thrive in chaos. Whatever your style is, decluttering your desk cleanses your mind.
17. Pay attention to music
We all love to enjoy music. Listening to music not only calms us, but it can also change our brain improving memory and learning. However, most of the times, we are not actively listening to the music — the sound becomes part of the background.
Practice paying attention to music. Choose any song and listen to it mindfully. Notice the different instruments. Try to identify each one of them. Now choose one — either the bass or drums — and just pay attention to it. If you really focus, at some point you will stop listening to the other instruments. Switch to the guitar or piano and repeat the exercise. Now listen to the entire song all over again. Pay attention to all instruments playing together. You will enjoy a much richer experience.
Try another iteration. Notice the lead instrument — the one that plays the melody of a piece. What role does it play? How do the other instruments come and go? If you listen to jazz music, you’ll notice how the various instruments take turns — different ones take the lead throughout the song.
The power of this exercise goes beyond listening mindfully — paying attention helps us notice all the parts within the whole.
18. Silent meeting
We have a love-hate relationship with meetings. Most executives spend 25–30% of their working hours in a conference. The problem is not the time spent, but the quality — we usually don’t pay attention to what other people are doing or saying.
Next time, try to stay silent. Focus on listening rather than on speaking up. Pay particular attention to other participants’ behavior. Take notes — capture verbatims, not just the idea. Register the ‘how,’ not just what people are saying. Each person has a distinct way of expressing her/himself. We usually filter other people’s words through our emotions or our ideas.
What happens when you really pay attention?
It’s okay for you to speak up when necessary. But fight the urge to do so. Are you going to say something new or just repeat what someone else said? Are you adding to the conversation? Will your words build on other people’s ideas or deviate the focus?
This exercise will help you become a better listener, but also to be more mindful about what you say and when to speak up or not.
19. Body stretch
Working at a desk all day is harmful — we tend to adopt postures that make us feel stiff and tense. Regular stretching increases your flexibility — an essential factor of fitness — as well as improves your posture, reduces stress and body aches.
Inadequate flexibility not only harms your body but can accelerate reduced mobility that comes with age. Also, there’s a direct correlation between our physical flexibility and our mental one. When you stretch your body, you are flexing your mind too.
Static stretches involve holding a stretch in a comfortable position for some time — between 10 to 30 seconds. It’s beneficial after exercising. Dynamic stretches are active movements without holding the stretch. It’s usually practiced before exercise. Try these 12 simple stretching exercises at your desk.
If you want to dive deeper, The book Stretching by Bob Anderson is a classic — it provides different routines and exercises for multiple age, activities, and sports.
Like everything, go slow. Be gentle with your muscles, or you can harm them. Your body needs time to adjust and get used to being stretched.
20. Take a digital break
When we feel overwhelmed, our first instinct is to find comfort in our devices — we want to connect to something. However, this meaningless fix makes us feel more stressed out and distracted. Mind-wandering is driven by the lack of a connection with the present moment. Instead of focusing on one thing, our attention is divided.
Trying to reconnect to something is important, but it has to be something meaningful. Try taking a couple of digital breaks along the day. Start small — a 5-minute one is a good way to start. Little by little, increase the duration. When you achieve longer breaks (30 minutes or even one hour), you’ll realize what a difference it makes.
Stepping away from your digital devices relaxes your mind. When we pause, we make room for new ideas to show up. Mental breaks boost our productivity, energy, and focus.
One word of caution. Many people fail to take a digital break because they approach it with the wrong mindset. This is not about “devices are evil; get rid of them.” It’s rather about enjoying a mindful pause — to give your mind some space and calmness.
21. Walking contemplation
Most people associate meditation with being seated and relaxed. But you can also meditate while moving around. A walking contemplation is a simple way to practice a “meditation on-the-go.”
Walking is a healthy habit — it increases your heart and lung fitness, improves balance and reduces body fat. When you can engage all your senses, it also calms your mind. That’s the primary purpose of a walking contemplation — you are not just exercising your body but your mind too.
Ideally, plan for a 30-minute walk — that’s the daily minimum recommended by health experts.
A walking contemplation is an invitation to engage all your senses. You become aware of how your body moves, feeling your feet hitting the ground, noticing what happens around you, listening to the sounds of people and objects, and noticing the air temperature as you breathe in and out.
When you engage with your environment, you practice paying attention to the present moment. You focus your energy on noticing things outside rather than ruminating thoughts inside your head.
Increasing mindfulness is a never-ending journey. Start somewhere. Start small. Many of these exercises might feel awkward initially — regular practice will release negative patterns.
Try these exercises and let me know how it goes. Which one do you like the most? Which one was the hardest? How do you practice daily mindfulness? Please share.
Originally published on Medium.
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