Mindfulness Isn’t Just for Buddhists

Mindfulness Isn't just for Buddhists

Mindfulness being taught in higher education? College students attuning to their inner thoughts? It’s really not as farfetched as you might believe. The concept of mindfulness has already been advocated as an organizational developmental tool. In addition, some instructors are using this concept as part of their teaching practice and it holds promise for any college student who would like a method of developing stronger habits of concentration and focus.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism. Among its many tenants is “nonjudgmental observation,” which is recognizing what is observed without criticizing or making judgments about it. Another component is being able to register experiences without adding labels, making comparisons, or categorizing life events. It is a process of observing “everything as if it were occurring for the first time,” without conducting an “analysis, which is based on reflection and memory.” In other words, the process involves observing without reacting – physically or emotionally.

Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, has provided another definition of mindfulness as a means of translating this concept for use by organizations. Langer states that “mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.” She has conducted a great deal of research to support her work in the field and noted that it is important to cultivate mindfulness because “much of the time our behavior is mindless.” This applies to any ineffective thoughts, routines, or use of time that interfere with students’ performance. Being mindful is about having keen observation skills, recognizing when it’s time to make changes.

Mindfulness in Organizations and Higher Education

In the article, Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness, it discussed the work of Karl Weick who first introduced mindfulness to business organizations. Donde Ashmos Plowman, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration, studied this concept and concluded that “mindful organizations are those that pay close attention to what is happening within them, are ready to correct mistakes rather than punishing workers who report them and respond quickly to changes or problems.” Weick is a Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and co-author of Managing the Unexpected with Kathleen Sutcliffe in which they noted that organizational “mindfulness indicates a combination of high alertness, flexibility, and adaptability.”  Also noted in this article was the use of mindfulness by instructors, who are teaching students to calm their minds as a means of increasing their focus.

Within that same article there is also a discussion about Jeremy Hunter, a graduate teacher at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. Hunter “believes mindfulness should be at the center of business schools’ teaching,” because “it is about improving the quality of attention, and in the modern workplace, attention is the key to productivity.” William George, a Harvard Business School leadership professor, utilizes a similar approach and “focuses on helping businesspeople to better understand their emotions.” This has certainly piqued my interest and it is a tool that I could recommend in all of my classes as I’m always looking for new self-management techniques to share with students. Developing an emotional awareness would benefit students, especially those that are just beginning their academic program, as it would help them communicate and interact more effectively with other classmates.

Developing Your Own Mindfulness

What can students do to develop mindfulness, in a manner that helps to improve their performance and productivity? There are three key elements and they include attention development, creating new habits, and exercises such as breathing and meditation.

1. Attention Development

Jeremy Hunter co-authored Knowledge Worker Productivity and The Practice of Self-Management, in The Drucker Difference: What the World’s Greatest Management Thinker Means to Today’s Business Leaders. He noted that “mindfulness practices are a method of attention development that enhances self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transformation” (p. 3). Developing mindful attention can be difficult for students who have numerous responsibilities to balance while going to school; however, focused attention could help them concentrate during the time that’s been allocated for their studies. For example, when sitting down to study or work, this becomes a method of tuning out distractions so that the task at hand can be accomplished.

2. Create New Habits

As students start their academic journey, one of the first challenges they face is replacing ineffective habits (such as not having a specific time management plan) with new habits. Charles Duhigg noted that a “paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t due to decision making, but were habits.” Daily actions become a form of auto-pilot where we complete our tasks based upon a routine that’s been established through habitual thinking. The key to changing a habit is to alter one aspect of the routine, such as a behavior. For example, try something new that produces a positive result (creating and implementing a to-do list for example) and through repeated use it will lead to a new habit.

3. Mindfulness Exercises

Dr. Arnie Kozak, a psychologist and clinical instructor in psychology and medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, recommends the use of a breathing exercise. Kozak also teaches the practice of meditation because it puts us in the present moment. Why is this important? Kozak explains that it is necessary to understand “that the nature of our minds is to be addicted to thinking””planning, labeling, judging, conceptualizing and maintaining a running internal commentary, etc.””which takes us out of the present and fosters unhappiness.” Students can benefit from this approach, as a means of focusing their attention. Through meditation, which involves quieting the mind, they can begin to notice persistent thoughts and feelings that create distractions so they can be dealt with and minimized.

Students and Self-Management

While mindfulness is often related to spirituality, there are practical applications for organizations and higher education institutions. Students can utilize some of the elements described to improve the clarity of their thoughts and focus, which in turn can influence concentration and overall performance. Students can also fine tune their self-management plan by becoming aware of the thoughts and circumstances that create distractions, along with habits that are ineffective, which is at the heart of being mindful.

Have you considered mindfulness as an approach to improving your concentration and focus? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Josef Lindau/Corbis

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