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'Mindfulness' Is Being Incorporated Into Employer Strategies to Combat Multitasking

Research shows multitasking at work costs companies billions of dollars a year in lost productivity. A growing mindfulness training industry hopes to remedy that by offering workplace instruction in the ancient principles of mindfulness.

September 6, 2012
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Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Basic Skills Training, Training & Development
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Shalini Bahl begins her webinar "Mindfulness at Work" by polling participants. Obviously, all those people have logged on to her presentation because they want to learn a skill that could make them more productive and effective at work. But Bahl has a sneaking suspicion that most of them are not focusing 100 percent on the webinar.

"At the moment, are you multitasking?" is her question. When the answers come in, anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of her audiences admits to fitting the webinar into a multitude of other office tasks. And that, Bahl believes, is why her work is so important.

Bahl is co-founder of the Mindfulness Connection in Amherst, Massachusetts, which brings mindfulness training to work settings. The intended results are clear focus, rational decision-making and problem-solving, and a sense of equilibrium, no matter what dramas are unfolding all around you.

"Studies show that about 49 percent of our waking time, our minds have wandered away from the task at hand," Bahl says. "Especially with digital communication, there's a lot of texting, there's a lot of multitasking going on, and people are losing the ability to focus when they really want to focus."

This isn't just harmless woolgathering. According to data from Basex, a Yorktown Heights, New York-based business research firm, the estimated annual cost to the U.S. economy in loss of productivity from multitasking is $997 billion and a minimum of 28 billion hours.

Bahl, part of a growing mindfulness training industry, hopes to remedy that by offering workplace instruction in the ancient principles of mindfulness, which is most commonly associated with sitting meditation. Companies that have instituted such practices, such as Apple Inc., General Mills Inc. and Google Inc. are seeing an easier flow of productivity and personnel interactions, as well as effective work resulting from a sharper focus, she says.

"Focus is the key word," says Nancy Nicolazzo, an ordained Buddhist minister in New Hampshire who offers mindfulness coaching to corporations such as Nike Inc. and Omni Hotels. "Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. With focus, we are more productive, make fewer mistakes and can bring ourselves fully to our tasks."

Although mindfulness has Buddhist roots, Bahl stresses that its use in the workplace is purely secular and supported by solid scientific research, most notably at Harvard Medical School. Brain scans have shown that neural pathways are actually altered by mindfulness. In other words, new ways of responding are created that can replace usual patterns of behavior, those that tend to be knee-jerk reactions to familiar emotional triggers.

Most people engaging in daily mindfulness practice will do so by sitting in silence on a chair or cushion, focusing on their breathing rather than on all the thoughts vying for attention. Bahl says just 10 minutes a day of quiet repose will have a cumulative effect, with results soon evident in lower blood pressure, elevated mood and other positive effects.

Even just one minute of mindfulness will reap positive results, Bahl says. In workshops and webinars she teaches the STOP technique that can be used throughout the workday to bring focused attention to the task at hand. "S" stands for Stop; "T" for Take a break; "O" for Open up, soften and observe; and "P" for Proceed.

Nicolazzo suggests using cues to begin a brief but effective mindfulness moment. For example, looking at the clock or hearing a telephone ring could be the signal for dropping into a deeper level of awareness, reminding yourself to bring undivided focus to what you're doing, to listen with full attention to whoever is speaking, or even to be more cognizant of how your body responds to stress.

But other experts recommend focusing techniques that may be easier for some people to accomplish on the job. Executive coach Barbara Bartlein of Milwaukee-based Great Lakes Consulting Group recommends tailoring work schedules to productivity needs. For example, the workday could begin with listing important tasks and scheduling them. Distractions, such as answering emails and answering phone calls, should be scheduled as well, by batching them into strict time blocks.

But Bartlein is in agreement with mindfulness experts when it comes to the work environment. Dial down the noise, she advises, by reducing music and conversation levels. After that, quieting the mind just might be the natural next step.

Susan Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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