Artificial lighting, open-plan layouts, windows that don’t open… modern day offices are far from a haven for mental and physical wellbeing. I’ve spent most of my working life in less-than-ideal work environments that have had a significant impact on both my mood and productivity.
Thankfully, more and more companies are starting to realise the link between a positive work environment and staff performance. That said, there’s still a long way to go. I’ve worked in offices with no windows, constant air-conditioning and even one where my breaks were restricted and timed – it felt like being chained to the desk!
With mindfulness becoming an ever-increasing focus in my life away from work, I’ve been thinking about how I can bring that practice into my professional life. I started a new job four weeks ago and I’ve been keen to find ways to be more mindful in my new office. I’m typically a real sufferer of the afternoon slump and prioritising other people’s workloads over my own. I’ve now managed to shift my focus to my own task list to avoid feeling burnt out by mid afternoon. I have to say that I feel much better about being in an office environment thanks to my mindfulness practices.
Here are a few of the workplace mindfulness practices that I’ve been testing out:
I think getting yourself in the right headspace before you step foot in the office is super important. I drive to work and I can’t count how many times I’ve managed to drive from A to B in some sort of trance, without really taking in the journey. I’ve challenged myself to give each part of the drive my full attention.
As much as I love listening to music in the car, I’ve switched off the radio for my morning drive. It felt really weird for the first couple of days, but I started to listen in to the sound of the engine and focus on each action; gear changes, indicators, brakes – driving a car is pretty cool when you think about it!
I have a very active imagination which means my mind can run away from me at times. I’ll often use my commute to run through everything I need to do that day or sometimes even remove myself from reality entirely! Concentrating completely on each aspect of driving has helped me to steady my mind and lessen any anxieties I have about the day ahead. I’ve noticed that I’m much less frazzled when I reach the office.
The art of multitasking has long been praised but now we’ve started to realise that juggling so many things at once can lead to stress, frustration and results that are below par. I’ve worked with colleagues in the past who have so many tabs open in their browser, it makes you tense just glancing at their screen!
I’m a big fan of a to-do list. I have a long term task list of everything I need to do and then I create a micro list of what I plan to focus on that day – and I work through my tasks one at a time. I find email the trickiest thing to manage. I used to have my inbox open all the time, but now I set myself specific time slots in the day to check and reply to email. It helps me to better organise my time and stops me from continuously prioritising other people’s projects over my own.
Take a break & move
I think everyone has worked with that one colleague who likes to brag about their amazing work ethic. They’re the one who gets in early, ‘forgets’ to eat lunch, doesn’t move from their desk all day and is always the last to leave. That’s just not healthy. Hours sat at a desk does not equal productivity. It’s important to take breaks throughout the day.
There’s been a lot of research in the last few years into the effects of sitting for extended periods of time. I like to make sure I get up and move around at least once an hour. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy break – just a minute or two of standing up and stretching out.
Another useful tool I’ve adopted is to ditch emailing internal colleagues where possible. If the person is in the same room as you, get up go to their desk instead. Not only will you get a break from sitting (and your screen) but you’ll get face-to-face interaction and help build your working relationships.
At lunchtime, I always try to leave the office. Getting a blast of fresh air is so important to maintain clear thinking and often can help us get a fresh perspective on a problem or task. I used to plug in my headphones and go for a wander. Now I leave the headphones behind and walk in silence. It’s amazing what you miss when you shut off your ears to the outside world. I’m lucky enough to work next door to some beautiful gardens, so I head there and observe all of the different flowers.
I’ve also used my lunchtime walks to practice breath control. I match each step with an inhale or exhale to keep my breathing slow and steady. I use a yogic breath called Ujjayi (this is where a slight constriction in the back of the throat creates an audible breath, almost like the sound of ocean waves. Or Darth Vader as one of my teachers once said!). This mindful breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. The attention on my breathing and the sights and sounds around me, has helped to keep me completely focused in the moment. I find it a great way to prepare for the afternoon ahead.
I’m not talking about sitting on the floor in full lotus while your colleagues look on bewildered! I recommend mastering the art of subtle meditation. I practice a two minute, eyes open meditation that is so inconspicuous, you can easily practice it at your desk without drawing attention to yourself.
Take a few deep breaths and pick a point a few feet ahead of you – that will be your point of focus. For the next few minutes, keep your attention on that object and your breathing. Remember that your mind will wander and that’s okay. Simply acknowledge the thoughts that come to you but don’t engage with them. Bring your attention back to the point ahead of you each time.
I find it a useful technique to just give me a quick time out in the middle of the day or to sharpen my focus ahead of an important meeting.
For me, this is the most important but also the most challenging. It’s easy to take work home with you or spend your evenings dwelling on a negative interaction with a colleague. It’s vital that we allow ourselves time and space to totally detach from the office. Not only does it mean we can enjoy our free time more but also ensure we’re refreshed and raring to go when we return to the office.
I used to have emails synced to my phone but I’ve learnt that for me that’s a big no-no. It’s so easy to get sucked into the habit of responding to emails late at night. If you have a demanding boss, set your boundaries. Let them know that you’ll only be available up until a certain point in the evening. You don’t want them calling you up at 10 o’clock every night!
I found organising other commitments for the evening has made it easier to leave the office on time. For me, that usually means a gym or yoga class, but it could be dinner with friends or a new hobby – anything that allows you to separate yourself from work while you’re there.
If you have any tips for staying mindful at work, I’d love to hear them so leave a comment!