Mindfulness has many benefits, but in the context of modern business, leadership and high-performance it's just lacked a little purpose or fallen short of providing a compelling value proposition for busy professionals. This can be fixed by taking the benefits of presence and clarity that can be enhanced through mindfulness and layering it with an improved understanding of internal narratives and cognitive framing. Then you have a more powerful tool for modern resilience along with more sustainable health and performance.
Mindfulness isn’t new, but it’s certainly having a moment (and with good reason) as we find ourselves navigating a seemingly more and more emotionally challenging environment. But there’s a key element or valuable opportunity within mindfulness that some miss that can help boost the benefits for modern day performance.
Mindfulness originated from ancient Buddhist philosophy and has been around for thousands of years. While it’s dealt with it’s fair share of skepticism, there is good evidence that an ability to be more present and to have improved awareness, less judgment, and less reactivity to thoughts and emotions can have positive benefits for our mood, our health and our mental wellbeing. Some research has shown that mindfulness-based treatment can reduce anxiety and depression along with other evidence that it may help lower blood pressure and improve sleep. All good things given the rates and upward trends in prevalence of all of those health concerns.
But for many trying to learn the basics of mindfulness, following traditional teachings and simply listening or acknowledging and accepting thoughts and feelings without judging them might not allow you to get the most from mindfulness in the modern world.
In traditional mindfulness you’re not supposed to label how you are feeling as productive or not productive; you’re just supposed to let it be and let it shift, noticing how your body feels without necessarily trying to change it. But for many who hope modern mindfulness will help them be more present in order to achieve flow or be less inhibited by insecurities in order to perform at their best, simply noticing when your thoughts are unproductive or when your physiology is tense and doing nothing to correct it doesn’t help.
At any given moment our thoughts often drive our feelings, and our thoughts and feelings dictate our ability to perform. A simple example for illustration is one of the most common performance inhibitors or stressors for modern professionals: a fear of public speaking. If, prior to presenting, you start to have worrying thoughts about whether you will remember your words, whether your audience will like you, whether people will judge you, those thoughts will often lead to feelings of fear and insecurity, which translate into physical sensations like nervous stomach, shorter breaths, tight shoulders and posture – all of which actually make it harder to confidently project your voice or have good clarity of thought. Often times, these fears then become self-fulfilling. Mindfulness techniques can be helpful – focusing on your breath and trying to separate yourself from your thoughts can help to reduce the physiological stress response, but simply trying to pay attention to, or non-judgmentally acknowledge that your body is tense and that you lack confidence doesn’t actually help correct it. It just makes you more aware of why you likely won’t speak well.
Modern mindfulness from a performance standpoint is more a mix of mindfulness and psychology. It’s taking traditional mindfulness beyond observation and adding the extra step of course correction. Cognitive reframing is more actively challenging, changing, or refocusing your thoughts. It’s about recognizing when thoughts or emotions are unproductive and choosing to shift focus back to the present or to give your attention a specific job to reduce distraction. This could be a mantra that helps you to feel safe or confident, or deliberately focusing on correcting a physical sensation (e.g. relax your shoulders; stand up tall; breathe deeply) in order to more actively shift and reframe your thoughts or emotions.
Modernized mindfulness is about using the practice of mindfulness to become more skilled at catching when your thoughts and feelings are not helping you, and then having a plan or process to try to actively challenge or change those thoughts to focus on to things that are within your control that will help you to perform. To put it another way, it helps you get better at catching yourself telling stories about yourself and improving your ability to notice subtle physiological signs of tension and stress.
Cognitive reframing can be more beneficial in a moment when you need to be present in order to perform. But it’s the combination of becoming more skilled at recognizing and acknowledging thoughts, feelings, and your internal narrative (which you can improve through mindfulness practices) along with strategic cognitive reframing or focusing on practiced processes that can help you maintain your confidence and not be overwhelmed when performing in stressful environments.
If you've been intrigued by mindfulness but perhaps struggled to find it useful within the context of a busy professional life, consider a program that goes beyond traditional mindfulness and instead helps build both recognition and understanding of unproductive thought processes and provides strategies to counter or reframe those unproductive thoughts and behaviors.
HBD leadership, health and high-performance programs utilize neuroscience to build better understanding and a strong value proposition for why certain health and work practices help to build resilience and sustain health and performance. If you are interested in how HBD can help your work group, please contact us.