How to Live a Mindful Life

Posted by Amber Bradley on April 26, 2014

Have you ever seen someone dancing in the airport?

Or maybe they are just grooving ever so slightly with their headphones on?

Maybe they are even mouthing the words to that blaring song so you can only make out the bass?

They are in the moment.  They are taking a relatively ho-hum experience and jazzing it up a bit.

What is that?  How can they be so present?

It’s not surprising that it’s a phenomena that has actually been studied for more than 40 years by Ellen Langer.  Harvard Business Review’s senior editor Alison Beard sat down with Langer to get her take on mindfulness and leadership in the March 2014 issue. 

“What is mindfulness?” might be the first question.  As studied by Langer, “Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things.”  Her research reveals that by paying attention to what’s going on around us instead of operating on auto-pilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity and boost performance.  Being able to unlock the mystery of mindfulness means we are truly engaged in our present life and not trapped in the regrets of the past or the fear of the future. 

The misconception is this way of life would be draining, but the opposite is true.  What causes us stress is all the mind-space we give to negative evaluations and worry that we’ll find problems and not be able to solve them.  Langer says, “We all seek stability.  We want to hold things still, thinking if we do, we can control them.”

Some may be saying, “Is this yet another fluffy article from Virgillo?”  Maybe so.  But consider this:

We can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.  We need to stand up against learning something until it is “second nature,” according to Langer.  That’s because once we do that, we stop thinking.  It becomes mindless.  How can we really tackle our organizations’ problems by doing the same thing over and over in a mindless state?

According to research, mindful living begets better performance in our work life.  When we are fully present and tackling the day’s challenges in a mindful way it’s easier to pay attention.  We’re more creative.  We’re opening our minds to more creative solutions because we’ve let go of worry and stress about things that haven’t even occurred yet.  A mindful friend of mind calls that “future-tripping.”

Langer has been studying this for nearly 40 years and no matter what the subject matter she tackles, mindfulness generates a more positive result.  It’s pretty simple really.  Every choice we make, every day; we are making a choice to be mindful or mindless.  We are making a choice to be present or not.

Still don’t believe me?  Consider this: If we researched Fortune’s Top 50 CEOs, our most accomplished artists, musicians, athletes, teachers and mechanics, we’d find many are mindful people, according to Langer.  Coincidence?  Nope. Not a chance.

Create a more mindful organization

Mindful people actually consider the perspective of others.  “As a leader, you can walk around as if you’re God and get everybody to quiver.  But then you’re not going to learn anything, because they’re not going to tell you, and you’re going to be lonely and unhappy,” says Langer.  If we are a mindful leaders, we consider that our perspective is not the lone and universal view.

Being able to consider others’ perspectives also yields a side benefit of not jumping to conclusions.  Before we’re quick to label someone as “wrong,” considering another perspective might help us learn something.  Yes, it could be naïve to think that individuals in powerful positions might put their ego aside for a moment to consider another’s perspective.  But what’s wrong with that?  There are a lot of business books out there.  Not one of them demands a prerequisite of successful businesses to be so egocentrically cruel and judgmental.  That might not be a coincidence.

The only way we can legitimately opt-out of being mindful is if two things happen:  we’ve found the very best way of doing things, and nothing ever changes.  As you probably guessed by now, neither one of those are possible.

The first step in creating a mindful organization is to allow our teams to say, “I don’t know.”  If we eliminate a zero-tolerance policy for not having all the answers we might just create a more creative and innovative department.  The second step is asking questions that encourage mindfulness.  Bring our teams into the moment.  If we’re facing a difficult interview or investigation or even a mystifying shrink challenge, ask some in-the-moment questions.  For example, “What process did we change since the last inventory that may have caused this?  What are other stores with less inventory shrink doing that is working?” or, “Based on the exception report today, where should we begin our focus?”

True mindfulness can be accomplished and actually enhance our ability to juggle multiple tasks together.  According to Langer, “You want a soft openness – to be attentive to the things you’re doing but not single-minded, because then you’re missing other opportunities.”

Moments – that’s it

We’re making a choice.  Every day.  Are we living mindfully and truly experiencing the tiniest little joys?  Langer closes with, “Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that.” And another poignant quote that everyone has heard but still remains true, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

So next time you’re in the airport, throw on those tunes and groove it out a bit.  Sure, everyone might watch.  But it’s your moment, don’t miss it.

A perfect example…

Here’s a perfect example of a group feeling their moment…and going with it.  This video received 4 million views within 24 hours!  It currently sits at 16 million.