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Why Stillness is the Key to Working Harder and Being Happier

How will incorporating stillness into your workday change your work and life?

How often during your average day do you take the time to truly be still? 

“Every night can be a reminder that we are more than the sum of our successes and failures, that beyond all our struggling and our rushing there is a stillness that’s available to us, that comes from a place deeper and more ancient than the unending noise that surrounds us.”
– Ariana Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution and co-founder of the Huffington Post

Stillness. Peace. Do these seem as foreign to you as they do to me? 

Stillness has no place in a busy home or in a productive workplace. Peace cannot survive the long commute to the office or the constant barrage of emails filling the inbox. Only when the TV is off, the phone is set to ‘do not disturb’, and the lights go out does stillness finally arrive, and sleep soon after.

And is it any wonder?

We in the 21th century have forged a war on stillness. At some point in our history, busy became synonymous with achievement, and stillness was lost to the buzzing and flashing of our cell phones. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we swore off stillness, since one of the greatest inventors in the last century, Thomas Edison, reportedly slept only 4 hours a night, preferring cat naps at his desk to a full night’s rest.

And this shift in thinking has not only echoed into modern times but has slowly permeated our workplaces. 

According to a report published by the CDC, 40 percent of workers say that their jobs are extremely stressful, and 26 percent of workers said they were often “burned out” by their work. And much of this stress, according to one study, is caused by our technology.

The average information worker is interrupted, on average, every three minutes by communication technologies, and post-interruption, it takes the average worker eight minutes to return to their train of thought. It is becoming increasingly clear that, in addition to productivity, all of this interruption is affecting our moods.

Gloria Mark’s lab at the University of California Irvine tracked the average day of an information worker and found that the more difficult it was to concentrate at work, the more likely the participants were to be in a bad mood. And the longer they spent answering work-related emails, the worse their moods got.

The research is piling up. When alerts, co-workers, and the passing thought interrupt our focus, we have difficulty returning to baseline, and our happiness suffers.

How then, can we maintain the peace against the constant onslaught of workplace chaos? One option, according to Dr. Mark, might be to embrace it.

If you can’t avoid distraction, for any number of reasons, here are some tips you might use to help refocus and maintain normalcy in the midst of chaos:

1. Use a journal to log your tasks, so that you can easily return to your train of thought. Extra bonus: by logging your interruptions as well as your tasks, you can begin to understand how many of your interruptions are internal (originating from a memory, feeling, or thought) and how many are external (arising from a co-worker, email, text, etc.).

2. Before doing anything else in the morning, take five minutes to write a list of things you want to accomplish today. When you inevitably get derailed, you can return to this list and remind yourself of the tasks which are most aligned with your goals.

3. Take a ‘mindful’ break, as often as you need, to dampen the effect of interruptions. By ‘mindful’ break, I mean a short (about 10-minute) break which helps to shift your focus inward and reset the emotional and cognitive centers. Especially after a distraction, which can initiate a stress response, a mindful break can work like a reset button and facilitate a seamless transition back into productive, focused work. Want to try it out? Try a breathing meditation: take a comfortable seated position, relax your body, and close your eyes. Focus on the sensations created by your breath, without trying to lengthen or change it at all. Be kind to your wandering mind and gently redirect your attention to your breathing.

4. Log your internal interruptions as they occur to isolate their effect. For example, if you remember that you need to pick up lemons at the supermarket, jot it down, and immediately forget about it. You an even log your emotions as they happen, which will help to solidify and address them. If you simply can’t move past the emotion, try a mindful break. This time, try changing your environment to escape the thought patterns by doing a walking meditation: Find a path, about 10-15 paces long, where you can be alone. Walk about 10-15 steps, pause to breathe, and walk back in the opposite direction. While walking, focus your attention on the small, deliberate movements of your feet and legs, your rhythmic breathing, or the environment which surrounds you. Repeat this exercise as many times as you need.

Related notes and links to other articles:

Need help managing a chaotic work life? 
Hello Mindful provides a method of tracking work-related tasks, fielding external interruptions, capturing passing thoughts and emotions, and logging daily goals. You can find the Hello Mindful web app at www.perfect15.com or at the App Store or Google Play.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? 
The best mindful break you can take may change depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Read this article to learn more.

References:
Stress at Work. Washington, DC, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 99-101, 1999

Kim, Rokho. “Burden of disease from environmental noise.” WHO International Workshop on “Combined Environmental Exposure: Noise, Air Pollutants and Chemicals” Ispra. 2007.

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