Making mindfulness your full-time job

By Rina Goldstein, LMSW

You meet your friend for lunch and are asked the common question, “How’s work?” Most of us, if employed, can readily answer what we like, dislike, avoid, chase, accomplish, and mess up at. Some of us may be able to list long-term goals, aspirations, and forecasted growth or losses. If you are your own boss, you may have ideas about how you want to grow your business. It can include parts you’d like to add, reduce, or change. If you work for others, you may want to increase your shifts, aim for a promotion, or change roles entirely. Others of us can even think of more medium term goals for work. This can look like more concrete plans to be accomplished within a few months. Perhaps there is a project you can start and finish if you spend several hours weekly devoting time to it. Maybe you would like to arrive 5 minutes early to work daily and review your notes to be better prepared for your presentation in two months from now. Lastly, few of us may even have short-term goals with regard to work. This can look like work habits we aim to change within a few short weeks. An example of this would look like designating a new workspace for all virtual work tasks. You may aim to set up a more quiet and private workspace from home, supplying it in ways that will increase productivity within days, even. You add a comfortable chair within 8 days, and your short-term goal has been accomplished.

By now, you may be wondering what this all has to do with mindfulness. As the title of this blog post suggests, mindfulness can be acquired through utilizing work habits in all areas of one’s life. The reasons that you know what you do and do not like about work, what your goals for work may be, and the list of work triumphs and tribulations are all due to mindfulness. That’s right; mindfulness can be practiced without you even knowing it. When you are aware of the details of every minute of every work day, that is mindfulness at play. Clocking in, having supervision and staff meetings and reports, meeting quotas and deadlines; these are all simply ways of keeping employees accountable. Being accountable for yourself requires being mindful. If you have someone to report back to, even if it is just yourself when looking at your own monthly productivity, you become more aware of what it is that you are doing, which is exactly what mindfulness is. 

So now that you know that mindfulness is awareness of your presence, actions, surroundings, and purpose at every moment, you may be wondering whether it makes everyday living feel like work. Perhaps being mindful of your environment will only serve to increase a sense of hypervigilance and mental overstimulation. Of course, ruminating or focusing too much on the details in any situation takes away from the enjoyment of the big picture, but that is not what mindfulness is. Mindfulness is the act of being fully present. It is living life to its fullest. It is feeling your feelings, experiencing your experiences, and enabling yourself to build a rich set of memories. If you have ever experienced a dissociative episode, you know that it is unsettling, to say the least. Not feeling present allows for less feeling altogether, and it is harder to remember memories from that time period, let alone process your situation, and surroundings, while it is happening. So while “feeling feelings” and “experiencing experiences” may sound like redundant statements, the emphasis is on the experiential processes of these phenomena. Just like someone can have an experience and dissociate, someone else may have that same experience and recognize exactly what they are feeling, thinking, and relating to during that experience. Mindfulness is the opposite end of the experiential continuum from dissociation. 

Now, how can mindfulness be taught? There are many ways of enhancing one’s mindfulness practices. Some therapists may suggest exercises such as focusing on one fruit and noticing how it feels on your fingertips as you hold it, on your lips and tongue as you place it in your mouth, in your throat and esophagus as you swallow it. Next, you are suggested to note undertones in its flavor, inconsistencies in its texture, whether it is satisfying, what it reminds you of, or whether you do or do not like the flavor altogether. Perhaps you like the fruit itself but do not like its smell. Maybe the acid cuts your tongue. It might give you heartburn or hurt your stomach, or maybe it makes you feel energized. The list of what you may notice from a 1-minute exercise of tasting a fruit goes on. This is a terrific example of how one can be mindful of even the simplest act of taking a bite of food. Other therapists may have you practice a mindfulness exercise, such as using grounding skills with your five senses. This is commonly used to help people who experience frequent panic attacks or situational anxiety. The therapist will guide a client to recognize what they see, smell, taste, feel, or hear around them at any given time. Particular attention is given to listing those sensations, noting multiple feelings and taking the focus of the client off of immediately irrelevant stimuli, such as whatever they are finding to be distressful. Instead of focusing on an argument one just had with their partner, they are encouraged to list their surroundings in relation to how they feel. They may list their feet placed firmly on the hard ground, for touch, the scent of cherry blossoms outside their window, for smell, the bitterness of Febreze residual mist, for taste, the whir of the copy machine, for sound, and the soothing sea mist-colored walls, for sight. You are probably envisioning a rather vivid setting now, and as you read that last sentence, just like the client, you may have forgotten I even mentioned the client’s partner or their recent argument. 

Another way of learning to be mindful is through the recognition of that which makes work habits force us into a state of mindfulness. Yes, we can take work home with us in a positive way. Below, I will list ways that work accountability not only makes us more productive but more mindful as well. Then, we will look at how those very actions can translate into our daily lives.

  • Clocking in and out– You may have a system of punching in and out of work for accountability of your shift hours. It’s possible that you have a set lunch break, and if not, maybe you let your supervisor or employer know when you will be taking your break. If you are your own boss, or you do contract or per-diem work, you may not clock in or out of work; however, you can still likely relate to designating time for work. This can look like times that you set aside to address emails, see clients, create content, or hit the road. However your work day or shifts are set up, you are hopefully designating time to specific tasks and limiting your distractions, such as personal calls, leisurely activities, and rest. You are either accountable to your employer, or your clients, or both. This comes with a level of responsibility, which likely helps you notice your actions and whether they are on task. Is the phone call you are making helping you achieve today’s goals? Will your boss be upset if they walk in and see you watching a YouTube video or reading this blog? Will cleaning your office now be helpful for your next scheduled meeting, or is there something more valuable to be doing with your time? The concept of a work shift, or clocking in and out, is the concept of time awareness, which is one of the steps to being mindful. Remaining mindful of your time brings your attention to what you are doing and when you are doing it. Again, this is not just at work, but in other areas of your life as well. Picture a day that goes by with no schedule. You don’t notice what you did and when you did it. You are less likely to know how productive you were with your time and are thereby less likely to feel accomplished and satisfied with your day’s work, unless you created a time-blocked schedule for yourself. That is a loss of mindfulness due to a loss of time awareness.
  • Meetings, updates, reports- Meetings with your boss and coworkers, updates provided to your supervisor or clients, and reports that are due at the end of a week or month are all ways that we are kept accountable for our actions at work. If you have no updates to report to your client who hired you several weeks ago, you appear to be in bad shape. The same goes for progress reports at meetings with coworkers. Similarly, if your supervisor asks for statistics of your work, and productivity has not improved, you may find yourself having an unhappy employer. This type of relational accountability, letting others know what you have and have not achieved, is important for work productivity. Relational accountability is important with regard to personal growth as well. Telling our friends, coworkers, children, and spouses of our plans for personal achievement holds us accountable. Knowing that others are keeping track of our progress enhances our awareness of the steps we are taking to get there and whether we are slacking or succeeding. It allows us to feel a greater sense of pride when we do achieve, as others cheer us on. As an aside, having a regular therapist in your life accomplishes the same goal, and there is the added benefit of nonjudgment. 

  • Meeting quotas- For some people, meeting quotas per day, week, month, or year, is part of their work responsibility. Having a set number to achieve makes keeping track of inventory, patients, or assets easier at work. A smaller number out of a whole, as opposed to a larger number out of a whole, feels less satisfying, and it is easier to remember, since there is meaning attributed to that number. The same goes for mindfulness. When you set a tangible goal for yourself, it is easier to remain aware of your status-quo. Measuring success against an intended outcome is more easily and automatically done than evaluating success on its own. The same goes for awareness and mindfulness in any situation. Going into a situation with intentionality means you are prepared to measure and evaluate that which you experience, and that is mindfulness.