The Most Natural Way to Improve Your Life
It’s Monday morning. You hit the snooze button three times because you stayed up late binge watching the new season of your favorite show on Netflix. By the time you’re dressed and out the door, you’re already running late. You start the day without breakfast and fight rush-hour traffic to make it to work before your boss notices you’re late…again.
Sound familiar? Well, it’s time to take charge of your day — the mindful way.
Mindfulness is the process of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Researchers have found that practicing mindfulness can lead to better decision making, improved relationships, increased productivity at work, and all-around better health. Here’s how it works:
Start your day with intention.
Instead of snoozing, get up the first time your alarm rings, and set your mindful intention for the day. Mornings tend to be when we find ourselves most motivated, so focus on yourself in those early hours before the demands of the day take over.
According to Janka Livoncova, an insight meditation teacher and somatic movement educator, “If we set our intention in the morning, we are more likely to remember it during the day. Remembering is an important aspect of mindfulness practice. Instead of being lost in our narratives or opinions, or being on autopilot during the day which can lead to feeling stressed out, we remember our intention and bring our attention back to the present moment.”
An intention is a guiding principle for how you want to live your life that day. Different from a goal, an intention should have no attached expectations. Rather, it should be a non-tangible attitude or purpose you’re proud and willing to commit to. Intentions should always be positive, for instance “love myself” or “open my heart.”
To set your intention, think of what matters to you, and when you are your happiest self. Allow yourself to release negative thoughts or feelings, instead focusing on aligning your heart and mind. Once your intention has been set, use it to guide your thoughts and actions for the rest of the day.
Don’t send that fiery email.
Mindfulness involves evaluating the events of your day. If you are being mindful, you are more likely to respond to an event rather than to react to it. When we react, we are often feeling threatened and defensive. We let emotions, not reason, drive our response. Remember that driver that cut you off this morning? Elizabeth Kabalka, executive director of the Center for Mindful Living, explains, “You can react in a negative way, allowing yourself to get angry, or you can choose to respond in a way that is healthier for you.”
So rather than stressing out and reacting to every email in your inbox, for example, consider your response. Work on other tasks first, and allow yourself time to think through replies. Also, give yourself permission to only respond to those of the highest priority and postpone action on others until later.
Stop trying to do two things at once.
Turns out humans have very little capacity for anything more than simultaneous thought. Kabalka explains, “Our brains aren’t wired to multitask. When we try, we lose efficiently.”
Not only does multitasking lead to lost productivity, but it might even be stressing you out. Researchers at the University of California Irvine found that individuals who received a steady stream of e-mails and notifications throughout the day remained in “high alert” mode with corresponding higher heart rates. That’s because constantly stopping a task to check your email forces your brain to continually switch gears. In fact, many experts agree that you should set aside a specific time block each day to answer emails – in the afternoon, not the morning – and avoid the distraction outside of those parameters.
Multitasking can even have an effect on your most personal relationships. Let’s say you and your partner are in the middle of a serious conversation when you decide to pause and check a text message. Your partner might withdraw and check his own messages. Before you know it, the conversation has shut down. One recent study from the University of Essex reports that just having a cell phone nearby during personal conversation can cause friction and trust issues. If you are in a serious conversation, put your phone down and offer up your undivided attention.
Take a breather.
Evidence suggests that taking regular breaks during the workday can boost productivity and creativity and keep stress levels at bay. “It is easy to get lost in the busyness of our lives,” Livoncova explains. “Taking a couple of mindful breaths or letting our attention move gently down through our body to conciously relax any part that is registering tension or agitation invites the mind, heart, and body back into balance.”
The standard recommendation for mindfulness practice is 20 minutes a day. Helpful hint: if you’re struggling to accomplish a task that requires innovative thinking, a mindful break could be just the creative boost you need.
Live in the now.
With practice, mindfulness allows us to focus on what is in front of us, instead of replaying the past or worrying about the future.
For example, you walk through the door after a very stressful day. Your mind is still on work, and your child cries for your attention.
You can either get frustrated with your child or you can decide to be present in the moment, focusing on your child and not the demands of the work day. You and your child will both be happier when your attention is not divided.
Of course, learning to be present in the moment takes practice. Here are some simple tips to follow: whatever you’re doing at this very moment, focus completely on it and only it. Naturally, your thoughts will jump around, particularly at first. That’s okay. When you notice this is happening, just bring your attention back to the task at hand.
Come up with little “mindfulness bells” that will remind you to focus on the present. “Mindfulness bells” can be anything you want: stop signs, a favorite color, water running. Whenever you see (or maybe hear or feel) it, you’ll be reminded to focus on the present.
According to Kabalka, “Mindfulness practice helps you build your own self-awareness. With practice we ‘hear’ how busy our minds are, and how repetitive and negative our thoughts can be. We realize we don’t have to believe everything we think.” You might find that you are harder on yourself, even blaming yourself for thinking or feeling a certain way. While that’s normal, it’s not always helpful. In fact, too much anxiety, for example, might reveal itself as a tightness in the chest or heaviness in the shoulders. Life is stressful enough!
Allow your experiences and thoughts to be what they are. “Accepting our experience with kindness, honesty, and without the complications of judgments, evaluations, preferences, desires, and resistance allows us to choose a response that is kind, appropriate, and helpful to us and others,” says Livoncova.
So the challenge is this: tomorrow morning, wake up and practice your new, mindful routine. Look for your “mindfulness bell” throughout the day and practice being present in the moment. It won’t be long before you see your relationships begin to prosper, your productivity improve, and your feelings of anxiety or stress fade away.