As most people reading this know, not only is “mindfulness” a popular trend that’s sweeping the nation, but “mindfulness in the workplace” specifically is too. This post will give you some suggestions for helpful techniques for staying mindfully spacious and open when working an office job. In presenting them, I’m going to assume that you already know what mindfulness is, believe in the value of it, and have desire to practice it during your workday.
— Taking breaks
Before we talk about mindfulness, I think it’s helpful to talk about the value of taking breaks during the work day and the negatives that can happen if we don’t.
When we don’t take breaks during the work day, it is usually hard on our minds and bodies. We may be sharp, alert, and energized for our first couple hours of powering through, head down, go go go. But we inevitability then lose steam, since our body and mind can only take so much. Everything starts to be a drag and we start to drift. And trying to overcaffinate to force ourselves to over come can just make things worse.
When try to push through, we lose clarity and becomes less efficient and focused. Our work is often less accurate, less creative, and lower quality. When we try to work through without taking breaks, we usually achieve less than what we think we will.
The good news is, no matter how busy we are (or think we are), we have the time take short breaks. Taking healthy breaks can help us to restore, reset, reconnect, and recharge our energy, clarity, and focus. Healthy breaks can help keep us more centered, calm, engaged, and fresh, happy, resilient, and healthy. Taking a break from being on our computer actually often makes us more productive, efficient, and produce higher quality work.
There is an interesting contrasts: trying to push through our day can leave us feeling both exhausted, drained, and lethargic, and also frenetic, anxious, and overwhelmed. Meanwhile, a workday with some healthy breaks is more likely to leave us feeling both calm, peaceful, and serene, and also alert, motivated, and energized.
How do we know when to take a break? It can be helpful to set a timer on a phone or watch to ring on a certain schedule (we can set it to vibrate when we are around others). There are also apps that we can set up on a computer to pop up at regular times. When we get our alert, that’s our sign to drop what we are doing and mindfully tune in.
One great way to structure our day is to use the Pomodoro Technique. The basic idea there is to split our work into blocks of twenty five minutes of working, and the then three to five minutes of break, with, optionally, every fourth break being fifteen minutes long.
I also recommend walking away for a bit when stuck on a project, confused, blocked, fogged over, and unable to think clearly. In such circumstances, when janked up, just stop and take a break – even if it feels counterintuitive.
The kind of breaks that I’m talking about can range from taking ten seconds just to take a deep breath with increased awareness, to an hour and a half to go to a yoga class or take a long walk in the sun. When taking a breather, it’s best to do something non-mental, that involves the body, or otherwise promotes simple presence. This means no screen time – don’t do email, social networking, a phone game, or websurfing.
If you work in a shared office, you can go to conference room, or stay at desk. There is no need to take any sort of exotic posture or call attention to ourselves. We can sit at our desk looking normal and check in.
— Techniques for taking mindful breaks
Below are some techniques that I recommend as great for taking healthy and refreshing breaks from the work day. If you want to learn more about any of them, there are plenty of free posts, video, and instructions available online about most of them.
— Breath awareness
Awareness of breathing is the most common mindfulness practice, world-wide. It’s a great simple basic technique to control, stabilize, concentrate, and calm the body and mind. I recommend maintaining awareness of breathing either in the ring of the nostrils or in the pit of the belly.
— Body awareness
Every part of our whole workday has an aspect that occurs as body sensations. Every thought that we have, everything that we are motivated about, every word we say or write, and, really, all aspects of our work have a physical aspect, whether we are aware of it or not.
Mindfulness of our body can help with unraveling tension and knots in the body, which in turn can help unravel tension and knots in the mind, emotions, and “soul”, and cultivate a feeling of spaciousness, calm, openness, and integration. Being more aware of our body can help us stay aware of our posture, such that we don’t get out of balance and go into pain. It can also help us to be aware of our emotions and attend and respond to them without them becoming overwhelming.
There are many ways to meditate on the body. Three specific techniques that I recommend as great breaks during a work day:
- Even coverage – keep awareness evenly covering the entire body at once
- Body scan – sweeping awareness sequentially through the body from the top of the head to the toes
- Label body sensations – let awareness float in the body and be drawn by whatever sensations most attract it, and say the name of that body part inside our head as we deeply and richly feel how it feels
— Looking and hearing outside of ourselves
Just as we can also mindfully intentionally focus inside of ourselves (on emotions, thoughts, and body sensations), we can also intentionally let go of the story inside of ourselves and intentionally focus our awareness outside of ourselves.
The idea is to simply look and/or hear, without making meaning out of what one is seeing and hearing. My teacher Shinzen Young calls this technique “Focus Out” (which he explains here, here, and here) when he teaches seeing and hearing together (although they can be done separately as well).
— Looking at an important document with soft, unfocused gaze
In psychotherapy, there is a technique called Exposure therapy, and Shinzen teaches something similar that he calls “Trigger practice“. When practicing in this way, one takes something that one has a strong emotional reaction to – a picture of someone one has emotions about, something someone is addicted to, political news – and meditatively practices to ether ignore its importance while looking right at it, or to fully deeply experience the emotions caused by experiencing the phenomena as a way of growing less reactive to it.
So, as a break from our work, we can deeply experience our feelings about some of our work by bringing up an email, spreadsheet, or other body of work that we have a strong emotional reaction to, and then look at it with a soft, unfocused gaze. We can then simply observe our thoughts about it, acknowledge our feelings, feel our body the way it is, and allow it all to come and go.
— Mantra/repeating an affirming phrase
All major world religions, and psychotherapy too, use the practice of mentally repeating a phrase to serve two purposes: 1. To affirm positive meaning and cultivate positive mindstates, and 2. To calm, steady, and focus the body and mind. Many religious people, for example, subvocalize (repeat silently inside their mind) a mantra all day, from waking until sleeping.
Some mantras that I recommend trying during breaks during a work day are “Aware and allowing”, “Present and spacious”, “Open to it, allow it, be with it”, “Breathing in I calm my body, breathing out I relax”, and “I am here, I am present, I am ready”.
— Phone apps
Many people seem to use mindfulness apps on their phone. I’ve never tried one, but I’ve heard people describe great experiences using Brightmind, Headspace, and Insight Timer.
— Getting up from the chair
It’s also good to get up from our work chair/desk/computer during the work day and to be in motion. It helps us to create physical vitality, clears our mind, and can often be energizing when we are sluggish.
After sitting in front of a computer all day, our body may become tense, knotted, and sore and our posture may become unhealthy. It can be helpful to stretch, so as to open our muscles and release tension. Stretching can help create a pleasant flow of refreshing energy in our body and mind, as well as helping us to align our posture. And we can take care while stretching to cultivate an aware and spacious mind that deeply feels the sensations in our body in the present moment with equanimity.
— Going for a walk
Walking is traditionally the second most common posture for meditation after sitting. When I stayed in monasteries in Asia, I was surprised how much of the monks’ meditation practice involved walking.
I personally do a lot of walking meditation as breaks during the work day. I find that it helps to open up my physical vitality, recharges my thinking brain, and leaves me to be refreshed for more work.
I intentionally take a break to walk around the block, or from one end of the floor, grounding my awareness in the soles of my feet as I do. I also try to remember to stay mindful, grounded, present, and open even when simply walking to or from a meeting or other event.
— Full on exercise workout
Even people with no exposure to meditation generally know that physical exercise is a great break to take from an office workday to recharge our spirit. A workout can flood our brain with positive neurochemicals, build bodily vitality, and leave us feeling refreshed and having renewed clarity.
— Mindful meals
Mindful eating is a whole movement, popular with many people. Use our meals as a time for mindfulness practice can be a healthy act of self-care. We can bring focus, attention, and presence to eating so as to deepen our experience and leave us more mentally refreshed.
— Intentionally choosing specific activities as mindfulness bells
We can choose specific common cues throughout the day that remind us to drop in and take a microbreak – to notice what is happening in the present moment, to check in with what we are doing, feeling, or thinking, and to see ourselves and our surroundings freshly. We can take the time to briefly do a formal technique that invites us to tune into our present moement breath, body, posture, mood, thoughts, and surroundings, or perhaps repeat our affirming phrase a few times.
When we create such mindfulness practices as a habit, something that we do regularly as a practice, it can be a great tool to develop greater presence and awareness in our daily lives.
Some examples of moments that we may use as mindfulness bells:
- waiting for someone else to pick up the phone
- getting up to get water or coffee
- waiting for a computer to boot
- finishing an email
- closing a computer window
- walking to the bathroom
- washing hands
— Mindfulness not as a break, but while working (“dual awareness”)
The time we spend on our daily activities usually far outstrips the time that we spend on mindful breaks and in formal meditation. So, it is helpful to know that many of these techniques appropriate while taking a break can also be done while we are actually working or while doing other daily activities. We can cultivate a simple being-right-there where we richly feel the texture of our breath, feel body sensations, mindfully listen, or repeat an affirming phrase while doing ordinary walking-along activities in life
Instead of being unconscious and on auto pilot, we can practice “dual awareness”, where we are aware both what we are doing and also cultivating a mind that is spacious and aware. This has many benefits, as was revealed to the person who asked Ghandi how he worked fifteen hours a day while in his seventies, and heard the reply: “Inwardly, I’m always at rest”.
— Concentration meditation on work
One way to meditate while working is to focus on just the work in front of us, on one task at a time, and to “let go of everything else”. We can pay attention on purpose in a calming, settling, and focused way, similar to how we can focus on one breath at a time or on the soles of feet when walking.
With our intentional focus, we can notice when we become distracted and attention drifts into memories, things not present, unhelpful thought patterns, emotional states, or tripping forward into the next thing. As we do, we catch ourselves, break attachment to reverie and aversion to the work, and redirect and return thoughts and actions back to what we are doing. It is helpful when practicing in this way to put one’s phone away, close email for a while, to set a certain set amount of time as a focused work period, to not try to multitask, and to write down new to-do items rather than to branch off into them immediately.
— Dual awareness of breath
We can be aware of both what we are doing now and also how our breath feels. We create spaciousness by resting our mind on and enjoying the breath during everyday activities. It also helps us to cultivate a full deep healthy breath that is the opposite of the clenched breath we sometimes suffer with when stressed.
One prominent meditation teacher in Burma apparently used to ask his senior students how many breaths they had taken so far during the day, and would expect a precise answer. His students were serious long term meditators, the equivalent of Olympic athletes, and such a count is not something any beginners could do. But this does give us insight into what’s possible in terms of remaining aware of our breath as we go about our day.
— Dual awareness of body/posture
Mindfulness of the body is one of the easiest and strongest ways to stay present throughout the activities of daily life. As we go through our schedule, we can be aware of how it physically feels to be the person that we are. We can stay mindful of body sensation and posture – we can “be in our body” – while we read, work on a computer, exercise, wait in line, socialize, and other activities.
Awareness of body can be an anchoring, a guard against getting caught in mental preoccupation. Body awareness can also help to relax and release stress. It can help to let workplace social anxiety be manageable rather than overwhelming. It can help us to not be pushed and pulled by some of the negative emotional forces that sometimes hijack us, and to have more choice concerning how we express them. And body awareness in daily life can also help us to know ourselves with deeper self-awareness.
— While social interactions – tune deeply to what people are saying
Just as we may focus and concentrate on our breath, the soles of our feet as we walk, or on our work, we can also focus and concentrate deeply on what other people are saying in workplace interpersonal situations.
With intensive presence and focus, we can listen deeply to another and listen to :
- get a sense of what they are actually asking from us
- feel what matters to them (a form of empathy)
- feel what is alive and motivating in them
- feel how the world looks to them
If our mind drifts to our to do list, how to respond, or thinking we already know what the other person is going to say, we can come back to deeply listening to their words and meaning in present moment. This helps both to develop our powers of focus, to get more accurate information, and to improve our workplace relationships.
— Meetings, classes, and lectures
Meetings and lectures can be excellent times to be aware of body or breath while paying attention to content (or, if we are not actually needed or interested in the meeting but are still required to attend: without paying attention to content). It hopefully goes without saying that it’s best to not try to also multitask with phone, laptop, texting, email, internet, etc when being mindful in this way.
— Finding otherwise “dead moments” during the day
Moments that used to be occasion for boredom or wandering mind can instead, with intentional mindfulness, become wonderful, expanding opportunities to watch the breath, feel body sensations, practice one’s mantra, or do walking meditation.
As always, we can fully experience in the present moment, and, when the mind wanders, simply come back to a full, textured, spacious present moment experience of the activity.
I recommend choosing one of these activity and experimenting with staying openly present (using a technique or not) while doing it:
- waiting on line for lunch or coffee
- waiting for a meeting to start
- waiting for doctor or other appointment
- walking around a store
- folding laundry
- making bed
- doing dishes
- cleaning house
- yard work
- putting on clothes
— Progressively more challenging
When practicing dual awareness, we usually find that it’s easier to maintain the techniques in some “real-life” situations than others. It is for example usually easier to stay present with manual labor and physical work than it is with mental, conceptual and verbal activities (for example, talking, computer work, writing, being at a party, watching TV and movies, or arguments). This is why monks in monasteries all over the world focus so much on sweeping mopping and raking, chopping vegetables, chopping wood, gardening and farming, walking, altar cleaning, doing dishes, and cleaning buildings. When bringing mindfulness into our daily activities, it helps to start with physical activities, and then build up to mental/verbal ones.
— Outside of work hours
— Formal practice reciprocally supports mindfulness during the day
To be mindful during the day in a spacious and skillful way, it of course helps to practice formally at home. It helps to have a dedicated time to practice a specific formal meditative technique where sense inputs are calmed and simplified, where we are sitting in silence and stillness with our body in an aligned upright posture.
Just as how we need to practice and condition to play a sport well during a game or match, and we need to need to practice and practice scales to improvise or play a concert, so it is with formal, dedicated meditation practice and being mindful in daily life. Doing each helps makes us to be more skilled at and more motivated to do the other.
— Straight up formal seated meditation in silence
The classic times to formally practice meditation are first thing in the morning after waking and last thing at night before sleep.
Some other great times are right after work, so as to help to let go of your work day and transition into the evening, and at lunch time, to refresh for the afternoon. You can also of course come in early or stay late and do some sitting.
— Mindfulness while commuting
Time spend on a commute vehicle is time that we will be spending anyway, so we might as well arrive refreshed at our destination. Techniques that involve absorbing inward, such as on the breath, are not as good when out in public like on a train or bus, with unknown people around us. The technique of bringing our attention to real-time external seeing and hearing (“Focus Out”) is often a more comfortable one, as is generating lovingkindness for people around us.
— Healthy self-care besides mindfulness
There are many ways to practice healthy self-care that ally with and support our workday mindfulness practice.
It can be helpful to post things that remind us of our higher aspirations and intentions, like pictures and affirmations, in our cubicle/office.
It is of course helpful to get enough sleep, to exercise, to eat healthily, to have deep authentic nourishing connections with others, and to have relaxed downtime on nights, weekends, and vacations.
In America, when studying a mindful spiritual path, we often start with mindfulness and meditation to help with mental health. But in Asia, especially for lay people but for monks also, other practices are often the starting point before practicing mindfulness, or even constitute the entire path. These other practices include:
- Truthfulness and honesty
- Gratitude and appreciation
- Energy, vigor, enthusiasm, and effort
- Kindness, friendliness, warm-heartedness, and goodwill
- Generosity and giving
- Patience, tolerance, forbearance, and acceptance
- Virtue, morality, and proper conduct
- Renunciation and not doing addictions
Including mindfulness practice into our worklife can take practice, time, and sometimes work and effort. I recommend setting your intention to be present, mindful, and open, and just keep trying. Over time, our efforts will pay off, and we will experience more clarity, spaciousness, energy, and serenity. A bathtub can eventually be filled, one little drop at a time.
I have a four-hour powerpoint-assisted course available that goes deeper into all of this material. Please feel free to contact me with inquiries concerning delivering it to your organization.