We hear a lot about work distractions these days. It used to be distractions in the office that bothered us: noisy colleagues, ringing phones, gossip and unproductive meetings, to name a few. Now it’s the distractions of working from home: family members, delivery people, household projects and more. Helpful tips for dealing with these external distractions abound.
But what about distractions that don’t arise from the environment, those internal, mental distractions we carry with us everywhere? These have as much power to interfere with our work as external distractions, but we are often not as quick to recognize them.
A 2010 study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth made what was then a startling discovery: people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. These psychologists came to two conclusions: “[A] human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
Without being able to learn from the past and plan for the future, our species would likely not have survived, so mind-wandering served an evolutionary purpose. But these skills do not always serve us well in today’s world; in fact, we often overuse them to our detriment. When we ruminate about past events instead of trying to make sense of them and worry excessively about future events that may or may not occur, we are time-traveling in unhelpful ways that can easily make us unhappy and waste our time.
Since the 2010 study, mind-wandering has been the subject of further research, some of which points to ways that mind-wandering can be helpful, for example, in creative problem solving and planning around future goals. This makes sense as long as the mind-wandering occurs during tasks that don’t require much of our attention. But it can be problematic, even dangerous, when our minds stray from complex tasks like performing surgery, controlling air traffic or even driving a car. So whether mind-wandering serves us well or poorly depends on the context in which it takes place. Yet our minds often wander without our even noticing.
This is where mindfulness, or “mindful awareness,” comes in. Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with curiosity but without judgment. In practicing mindfulness, we learn to notice our thoughts and feelings as they occur without labeling them good or bad, wanted or unwanted, and allow them to move on from our consciousness in their own time.
I was a stranger to mindfulness when I began my Integrative Health Coach training in 2016. The concept meant nothing to me, and meditation – the most traditional technique for practicing mindfulness – definitely came with baggage. To say I was skeptical is an understatement. Then I saw the words MINDFUL AWARENESS, capital letters and all, at the center of Duke Integrative Medicine’s “Wheel of Health” graphic, illustrating the scope of my future coaching practice.
Together for our first meeting, my class did a painful (for me) guided meditation, five minutes that felt like fifty. Day by day, I found these short meditations a little easier. At the same time, it became clear that to be a great coach, I needed to bring the attitudes of mindfulness to my coaching conversations. By the end of my first training week, I knew I should begin a meditation practice.
At this point, I viewed mindfulness as a necessary coaching skill but nothing more. Classmates told me I could practice meditation with an app on my phone, so I signed up for a free trial of Headspace. To my surprise, I quickly began to enjoy it. I appreciated the relaxed, clear-headed feeling it gave me.
After a few weeks of daily practice, I realized something else: mindfulness was not just for coaching. In social conversations, I found myself listening more deeply, more aware of my judgmental thoughts. I worked better and faster, with a new sense of ease; as I have learned, mindfulness contributes to greater focus and reduced stress. As I continued to practice, I noticed I was less often reaching absentmindedly for my phone or a snack. Overall, I felt happier.
Four years later, the benefits continue to grow. Outside the city apartment where I live and work, I hear honking cars, sirens and other distractions I can’t control. Inside there will always be distractions like messy closets and drawers. But at least I am able to use internal distraction more wisely and use my awareness to minimize the churning in my head that used to steal my time and energy.
If you’re interested in trying a meditation app, this list may be helpful. And for an introduction to mindfulness that even a skeptic could appreciate, consider reading this book by Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe.