New year, new you: mindfulness skills for improved concentration and wellbeing in the workplace

In the final weeks of the year, attention turns to New Year’s resolutions and for many living in the moment is a real aspiration. Here’s some advice from Noa Belling on how to achieve those mindful moments

Mindfulness is all about living in the moment. Only in your mind can you dwell on the past or worry about the future, which can perpetuate stress and anxiety.

Coming into the present moment can open your mind to think more clearly, improve concentration, boost a sense of wellbeing and build stress resilience. It can also improve listening skills, patience and the ability to communicate clearly. All of these benefits can be supportive in the workplace.

Mindfulness is not only about being relaxed (so no need to fear that you won’t get anything done). Rather, it is a state of relaxed alertness that is ideal for daily living and being productive at work.

How to go about it with ‘mindful moments’ 

Cultivating mindfulness takes practice. Keeping up a meditation or yoga practice is one way to go about it and there are other ways too. For example, you can deliberately bring your attention into the moment with the help of short mindful reminders, easy to integrate into your day and that over time can build sustainable mindfulness.

These reminders are referred to here as ‘mindful moments’. They can be used on-the-spot and any time, with even 30 seconds of practice starting to rewire your brain so that presence and a more positive outlook come more naturally.

This is backed by research by Dr Rick Hanson, psychologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Centre. Best results are achieved when you take these short mindful breaks a few times a day (perhaps two or three) and repeat over a period of time, such as a month, to experience the benefits. Or you might choose to integrate them into your life because of the value they bring, especially as part of a busy schedule.

Mindfulness to the positive

To optimise a sense of wellbeing, paying mindful attention to the positive and focusing on what is right instead of over-focusing on what is wrong can go a long way. Research has shown that on average we think 60,000 thoughts per day and of those thoughts, about 75 per cent are negative, driven by the primitive survival areas of our brains that govern stress responses like fight or flight and can make us more irritable and impatient.

Fortunately, we have the ability to turn this around by deliberately taking notice of the positive, such as paying more attention to life’s joys and gratitude. Then stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline give way to feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin to have us feel happier and gain a more positive outlook.

Five mindful moments for boosting concentration and wellbeing in the workplace 

Try each one out to discover your favourites and use them often. Vary your practice now and again to keep mindfulness fresh.

1: Head to toe body scan to release tension

Run your awareness from head to toe and notice parts of your body that are holding tension. Then gently loosen, stretch and breathe into tense areas to encourage your body to feel more open and freer before returning to focus on your work. This works because a calmer body equals a clearer, less preoccupied and more focused mind.

2: Come to your senses 

Here you are invited to draw on three of your senses, namely sight, sound and physical sensation, to clear your mind and refresh your ability to focus. It is called the 333 technique.

  • Name three things you see

  • Listen for three sounds, near or far 

  • Move three body parts or touch three things around you (one at a time). Moving your body can also loosen up tense areas and be soothing as the physical grip of stress is released.

3: Breathing break

Holding attention to a single point of focus is a common meditation technique, such as focusing on your breathing. When you also slow down breathing there are added benefits of calming your nervous system and boosting energy through increased oxygen intake.

How to go about it? Take three to five slow breaths. 

Breathe in slowly for a mental count of three seconds (building up over time to five seconds for deeper relaxation effect). Then breathe out for the same amount of time, either blowing air gently out your mouth (for stress relief) or breathing out through your nose (for deeper calm).

It can take time and practice to slow down your breathing. If anxiety rises, reduce the mental count to one or two seconds per in and out breath and gradually build up to more seconds as you get used to the practice.

For support during this practice, place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly to encourage belly and chest breathing. You can also imagine blowing your troubles away with each out-breath and then topping up on fresh vitality with each in-breath, imagining this vitality filling you from the soles of your feet to the top of your head.

4: Place a hand on the centre of your chest for emotional soothing and to remind you to come from a heartfelt place

When feeling emotional, or when you have been thinking too much, this practice can draw your attention down from your thinking mind and into your feelings. It can remind you to tune into your heart and send yourself some love.

You can also send a well wish to yourself if you are going through some challenges and/or to someone else who might need it. This can be uplifting and emotionally soothing, possibly putting a smile on your face and instilling a kinder, more patient frame of mind. When you acknowledge your emotions in this way it can soften tension inside you, and allow you to focus better on what you need to.

5: Gratitude and savouring the positive 

Pause now and again to give a few moments of thought to what you are grateful for or appreciative of. It could be loved ones, a great opportunity, or that the sun is shining - anything at all, so long as it makes you feel good and warms your heart.

Hold it in mind, or you can write it down in a dedicated journal that you can keep at hand. Then notice the warm and fuzzy feelings that might have been generated in your body and mind and stay with this experience for as long as you can, perhaps imagining breathing the feelings through your body or noticing where in your body you feel these feelings.

According to Dr Rick Hanson, if you add even 10 seconds more to savour the warming effects of a positive moment, it can greatly support the positive rewiring of your brain. You can also apply this to enhance spontaneous positive moments you might encounter through your day.

So next time someone smiles at you, you hear good news, you receive a compliment, or when you have the opportunity to practise a random act of kindness that feels really good, see if you can savour the warm and fuzzy sensations and positive state of mind for 10 seconds longer than usual.

Noa Belling is an author, mind-body psychotherapist, corporate consultant and author of Stress Less: Managing Anxiety in a Modern World