Mindfulness: Part 1.
(I do not own this image, but it is available for free use, according to our University Health System!!)
How do you measure your own productivity?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had difficulty evaluating my level of productivity in a given day. Was it productive when I cleared out my inbox before heading home at the end of the day? Did I make the best impact in that committee meeting I was in? Did I struggle to create my own waves of productivity, or was I able to to motivate myself to focus and get in the groove? When I did focus, did I have feelings of “going through the motions” out of obligation without my heart into it? Did I have the right attitude to approach the day I had in front of me?
I hope some of these questions resonated with you, because they’re ones that I have grapple to solve. Like the image above, there are always things that I have to get done, and my mind often feels full. I’ve been in my field for almost a decade now. I am constantly striving not to drift into comfort or coast on my own past achievements. But I think anyone who has worked at a job for any span of time knows that your motivation does wane. It’s natural to have one attitude the very first day of a job and a dissimilar one a couple years in. Here’s what I’ve been working on, and how it feeds into a minimalist point-of-view.
My supervisor introduced me to the concept of mindfulness earlier this year. It really rattled me and caused me to reflect on how I was structuring my day and paying attention to my own needs. Contextually, this can be very vague or carry a buzzword-like connotation, so let’s be specific:
Mindfulness: a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. (Thanks Google!)
Here’s how it fits in for me: Mindfulness is about keeping my awareness in the present, not dwelling in the past or daydreaming about the future. I find this challenging, given the amount of stimuli that make every attempt to distract me. Some of these stimuli are always going to be present. However there are techniques to allow these stimuli to enter our minds, acknowledge their existence, and watch them to exit. That is, if you’re really good at mindfulness (I hope to be that good some day!). As a novice, here’s what I’ve been doing to practice mindfulness. Some of these are new strategies I’m working out, some I’ve formed into habits over time: A preface:
Some of us face the reality that a disability impacts the amount of energy we have for the day (a really good metaphor I use to keep myself respectful of this is Spoon Theory).
I’m giving this Chipmunk her lunch break. She’s helping me practice some mindfulness. Symbiotic relationship accomplished! (Photo Credit: Justine Pinskey)
- Use my lunch break, as a lunch break.
I used to be a big fan of lunch meetings. I thought I was really being productive. I’d have lunch with a staff member I supervised, I could talk through our agenda, and then I’d have an hour where I could be even more productive. Well, it was humbling to admit I was wrong. I ended up not being productive as the day went and falling into pits where I didn’t manage my time well. What usually happened was that I went through the day without a fleeting moment to catch my breath. A counselor once recommended that I spend my lunch not thinking about work at all. He also said…
- Use your break during the day to spend it away from noise, to do something calming or soothing.
I really enjoy green spaces. I love nature. I live on an urban (by our Upper Peninsula standards) campus. We live in the Midwest. It’s cold in the winter here, y’all! Regardless, in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, I love to get outside for my lunch breaks. In the winter, I’ve tried to find a moment for just myself or with a friend where work isn’t a conversation topic. This drains a lot of noise in my head and I’ve found it helps me stay engaged for the latter half of the day. I’ve also tried: Calm.com. There’s great daily meditation exercises, mindfulness strategies, and some white noise, which is also great for a break in the day.
- I limit my social media and internet consumption.
This is really hard for me, but I think it works. I tested this over the past week. I really enjoy perusing my fair share of the Facebook feed or browsing the front of Reddit. It’s a guilty pleasure, and sometimes it’s useful, entertaining, or informative, but often I find that there are moments where it stifles my own productivity. Case in point, I’ve caught myself swirling in anger or frustration over whatever is happening in the political world, knowing as a sole individual I’m unable to change these things. In these moments, I’m useless to my students and staff, focused on my own needs and frustrations. Meanwhile, there are very real ways they are being impacted by the world. So, arguing the finer points of /r/politics with some unknown internet user isn’t doing me any favors, and my reflection is it’s really not making a difference in the world. What did I change? Refuse to allow it to personally drain me and try to keep it to under an hour a day.
- The Pomodoro Technique.
This puppy works wonders. I’m doing it right now writing this blog entry. Created by Francesco Cirillo, it’s named after the Italian word for tomato and the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he owned. My wife deserves the credit for getting me on board the tomato-train. This method for productivity uses a short, preset interval of time. For us, it’s usually 30 minutes. For 25 minutes, you are aiming for 100% focus on your work. After those 25 minutes expire, you are able to take a brief 5 minute mental break. Do whatever you want during those 5 minutes. Relish in it, you’ve been working hard! In fact, if writing, you’re encouraged to stop, even mid-sentence. My wife and I use this Tomato Timer site, for example. I’ve found this helps me avoid any tendency to drift into something off-task. If you can form it into a habit, you’ll definitely notice some changes in your productivity.
- When you’re done for the day, find a way to disconnect.
When you’re done with the workday, how do you decompress? I sometimes catch myself peeking back at my phone and monitoring my email, even right before bed. It’s a horrible habit. It’s not a mindful approach, even if I think I’m being productive or a model employee. Other times, I’m browsing the internet for whatever reason. Truthfully, it’s usually mindless occupation of my brain, creating noise in my head when I could be fully present elsewhere. That said, I’m sometimes on-call for our campus. I have to be ready to support a student, receive an emergent phone call, or work through a difficult issue, regardless of the hour. To balance this, we recently started a 9:30 cut-off from our screens or other distractions (Including catching up on Netflix shows). We make that the time to start winding down for the evening. Whether by reading a book, listening to a podcast together, or simply talking, it helps cut blue light from disrupting our circadian rhythms. This alone has contributed to me feeling more well-rested, having a better attitude, and experiencing better productivity.
I hope that some of these strategies I’ve incorporated benefit you and add some value to your life. There’s more that I want to bring into the conversation, but I hope that these are something you might explore for yourself. I want to know what you use personally, or if there’s something else you think is worthwhile for me to consider. Thanks for reading!
If you’re curious about some additional reading, here’s a page I came across this week: A minimalist describing a trick called Beginner’s Mind. Or you could read some quick, simple articles around the web on mindfulness, like this one!