By TRAVIS CAPE. I am a Chartered Accountant (CA), with over 14 years of experience at some of the largest companies in South Africa. In 2017 I completed my MBA, with a focus on strategy, at the University of Strathclyde. I have used mindfulness as a tool to improve my leadership and focus while at work since 2016.
As a CA, you are dealing with numbers on a daily basis and one of the most important characteristics a CA needs to have is to attention to detail. Whilst this might not come naturally to some, when you make large payments, reconcile an account or finalise the annual financial statements, you will quickly learn the skill of attention to detail is critical. We are all humans so mistakes do happen. Not only that, while we might try and not bring our personal problems to work, this is not always the case, and our focus at work tends to drift. A good example is when a holiday is approaching, the week before the holiday is very difficult to focus on work! Hence, I really wanted to be more focused when at work to ensure that I could complete my work in the required time with no mistakes.
Further, as a leader, I make many decisions on a daily basis because of my various functions within the organisation. I make some of these decisions without consciously thinking and this can be dangerous as I might make the wrong decision.
Lastly, as a parent when I spend time with my daughter, I want to be able to do so without my mind drifting to work or other issues. I want to be present when I am with her, so she can get the best me.
I would like to be mindful and hence my interest in the topic of mindfulness in 2016.
What is mindfulness?
In order to use mindfulness as a tool, it is important to understand what it is, the benefits of using it as a tool, and examples of mindfulness.
According to the Ribera and Guillén article (2014), mindfulness is a state of heightened awareness and attention. Further, it stops people from operating on autopilot and helps them to act more consciously at work. George (2015) suggests that mindfulness is the practice of self-observation without judgment with a focus on our minds and inner voices. Boyatzis and Mckee (2005) define mindfulness as the capacity to be fully aware of all that one experiences inside the self, body, mind, heart, and spirit and to pay full attention to what is happening around us, people, the natural world, our surroundings, and events. The Beard article simply states that mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things.
In further understanding the term mindfulness, one needs to understand mindlessness. Mindlessness is to act without consciously thinking. Driving is a good example of mindlessness as per Thomas and Inkson (2009). When we act with mindlessness, we often use our unconscious bias (The Learning Manager, 2014) when thinking and making decisions.
The benefits of mindfulness as per the Beard article include:
- paying attention for longer;
- being more creative;
- the ability to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves;
- the ability to avert danger;
- people will like you better, and you will like people better because you’re less evaluative;
- mindful leaders are more charismatic;
- being less judgemental. We tend to categorise people when we act mindlessly;
Companies that use mindfulness as a tool include Thorlo and Santander (Beard article). Further companies as per George (2015) include Blackrock, Goldman Sachs and General Mills. These companies have shown that mindfulness decreases stress levels. According to Cole (2014), famous people such as Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates and Mike Gervais, ESPN sports psychologists use mindfulness. Leaders such as Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington also practice mindfulness. George (2015).
So why should we use mindfulness as a tool? Technology should be making our lives easier, however; we take our work home, and never switch off. There is also too much information to process as well as too many distractions. (Cole 2014). Research by Boyatzis and Mckee (2005) has shown that the ability to stay intensely focused declines over time. Leaders need to train themselves to be present. George (2015). We are bombarded with stimuli, distractions, interruptions and growing pressures to do more with less every day. This is having negative repercussions on our productivity and well-being. The result is often a disordered mind, reactive behaviour and unduly high levels of stress and anxiety. (Ribera and Guillén).
Mindfulness helps you to stop functioning on autopilot so that you can engage consciously and proactively in your work. Acting deliberately or mindfully also helps you detach yourself, making you less prone to emotional prejudices and whims. It raises self-awareness levels and facilitates emotional regulation, empowering individuals to substitute automatic reactions with more conscious and ultimately more efficient behaviour. (Ribera and Guillén).
Examples of mindfulness
Examples of mindfulness include daily meditation and focused breathing.
For focused breathing, I focused on my breathing for one minute every two hours throughout the day. The purpose of this is to refresh my attention and focus during the day, especially as I start to get tired. I also decided to join a Pilates class which also trains one to focus on breathing. This class is a once a week class and I used this to renew my focus during the week. To this day, I still do Pilates and focus on breathing.
For meditation, I downloaded an app from Headspace.com. I felt that it would be best to do this first thing in the morning so I decided that I should start this before work every day. During the session, the narrator asks you to:
- sit up straight and get comfortable;
- keep your eyes open;
- focus on your breathing by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth;
- then close your eyes and allow your breathing to regulate;
- focus on your body and the feelings and sensation running through your body;
- start noticing the different sounds;
- become aware of the space around you whilst continuously breathing;
- if your mind wanders off, bring the attention back by focussing on the physical sensations and the movement of your breathing;
- slowly start to count your breaths.
Since I started mindfulness, I no longer use an app to assist with mindfulness. As a Catholic, I say a decade of the Rosary and this helps me every day to focus.
I have thoroughly enjoyed improving my mindfulness, and continue to use it. I have found that when I am at work, I work and when I am at home, I am a parent.
I would like to end off with these words from Bill George, a Harvard professor: “Mindful people make much better leaders than frenetic, aggressive ones. They understand their reactions to stress and crisis and understand their impact on others. They are far better at inspiring people to take greater responsibilities and aligning them around common missions and values. They are better at focusing and are more effective at delegating work with closed-loop follow-up. As a result, people follow their mindful approach, and their organisations outperform others over the long run”. Ribera and Guillén article.