How to Practice Mindful Leadership

In an age characterized by digital access and hyper-connectivity, it can be difficult to keep our attention focused on one task or project for an extended period of time. We are tuned into our cellphones, e-mail inboxes, Slack threads and social media accounts, often across multiple electronic devices. We might check our standings in our fantasy football league, while simultaneously sending a birthday message to a family member and filling out an Excel spreadsheet for work.

Though multitasking can make us feel like personal and professional mavericks, recent research indicates that switching between tasks actually lowers productivity and work performance. To combat this trend of inattention, a growing number of organizations have invested in mindfulness—the practice of paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

Sarah Marbach, Aetna’s Mindfulness Advocate, discussed the powerful benefits of mindful leadership during Wednesday’s Next Generation of Government online training.

Marbach acknowledged that in our fast-paced culture and constant “state of distraction,” focusing on the present isn’t always easy. However, practicing mindfulness is crucial because it “helps us become more effective at work and be more engaged in our personal lives.”

“The mind is busy worrying, stressing about the future, or reminiscing about the past,” Marbach said. “The present is the only time where we can learn, change, or grow. There’s always a new moment happening, but often we’re not even paying attention to it.”

According to Marbach, practicing mindfulness has numerous benefits and allows us to improve in the following ways:

  1. Better manage distractions and stay focused
  2. Prioritize tasks
  3. Strengthen our communication skills
  4. Stay calm and avoid engaging in negative coping behaviors
  5. Experience more clarity, flexibility and creativity in problem-solving

Taking the time to reflect, ground ourselves and practice self-care has a positive impact on both our professional development and our overall well-being. Though mindfulness won’t necessarily eliminate the stressors in our lives and workplace, it gives us the tools “to handle our stress and worry in a healthier way.”

But what does mindfulness look like in practice, and what does it entail? Marbach offered the following suggestions:

  1. Take some time—even just ten minutes per day—to meditate and pay attention to your breathing. Much like regular, targeted exercise strengthens a set of muscles, connecting the mind and the body through meditation “strengthens our ability to be mindfully present throughout the day.”
  2. Step away from your computer a few times a day. If you can’t leave your desk on a particularly busy day, take a few seconds to stand up and stretch.
  3. Resist the urge to check your email every few minutes, and log out on days off and weekends.
  4. Reduce unnecessary distractions by placing your phone in your desk or putting the screen face-down. Consider turning off the notifications that pop up on your computer screen.
  5. “Mono-task,” or focus on completing one project at a time before moving on to others. Though it can seem like “multitasking is a requirement in the digital world,” try your best to devote your attention to one task whenever possible.

Finally, Marbach tackled the question of how to direct mindfulness to stronger leadership. “Leadership is not about formal roles or titles,” Marbach emphasized. “Leadership is how you show up in the world, and about how you use your voice.”

Though mindful leadership can take many forms, at its core, it is about cultivating leadership from within. Mindful leadership requires being fully present, building strong connections and relationships with your coworkers and employees, and fostering an environment of trust.

Marbach pointed out that there is a common misconception that mindfulness is about tuning out and being passive. Instead, she describes the process as tuning in, and becoming more connected to the present in a meaningful way.

Though this may seem daunting at first, you can start small. Mindfulness isn’t something that you put on the to-do list or in your Outlook calendar. “It’s all about your everyday experience. It’s more of a way to approach your entire life,” concluded Marbach.

This blog post is a recap of a NextGen Mindful Leadership webinar (you can listen to the full recording of the session here). For more information on all things professional development, check out all of the NextGen Leadership Program’s blogs here.