With the possible exception of our families of origin, no other setting than work provides us with more opportunities to be irritated, outraged, anxious, discouraged, disappointed, overwhelmed, jealous, embarrassed, bored, or afraid of saying what we really mean. Whether we like it or not, we take our hearts to work everyday—and sometimes they get hurt.

But you don’t need me to tell you that work hurts. What you may not know is that this is good news. What we hate about work can also provide a catalyst to important changes in our lives. Dissatisfaction, for example, can remind us about our long-lost sense of possibility and purpose, which might have gotten buried in endless meetings, bottomless inboxes, and overwhelming to-do lists.

For more than a decade, I’ve been teaching the skill of mindfulness as a way to combat stress and dissatisfaction—and cultivate a greater sense of purpose and meaning—on the job. Over that time, the scientific study of mindfulness has grown exponentially, with the latest studies showing that it improves such work-related capacities as focus, emotion regulation, memory, learning, decision making, bad-habit breaking, leadership, and creativity. My students have included burned-out health care providers, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and MBA and mid-career students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

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One of the first and biggest questions many people have about mindfulness at work is when, precisely, they’re supposed to practice it. Most workplace-oriented mindfulness programs start by telling employees to find a quiet place to meditate on their lunch hour (or, everyone’s favorite, to wake up earlier and meditate before work). Or they might suggest turning off the phone during dinner, perhaps unplugging completely once a year on a special retreat.

These ideas are great, if we can manage to find the time for them. But for the vast majority of us, for the vast majority of the time, our eyes are open, our phones are on, our bosses are watching, and we have to keep doing our work. We find ourselves in the thick of things, most of us without nannies and personal assistants to pick up the slack while we seek some ideal balance of self-care, family responsibilities, and “leaning in.”

What if we didn’t have to stop what we’re doing to meditate? Contrary to the perception of mindfulness as something that you only practice on a meditation cushion, in seclusion from the world around you, I teach my students the importance of “mindfulness-in-action”—becoming mindfully aware of your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings even while you’re engaged in some other activity.

The possibility—and benefits—of mindfulness-in-action gained support recently from a study led by Florida State University’s Adam W. Hanley. Hanley and his colleagues instructed some college students to wash the dishes mindfully, by paying attention to what they were doing as they were doing it: the water, the soap, the dishes, the sounds and smells, their own breathing, even their own thoughts and feelings, all of it—as long as it was happening in the present, as opposed to, say, ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

Compared with students who washed dishes as they normally would, the mindful dishwashers not only seemed more mindful after about eight minutes of dishwashing, but they also reported greater feelings of inspiration and decreased feelings of nervousness. While most studies examine the benefits of sitting meditation, this is one of the first to investigate a more informal mindfulness practice.

These encouraging results support an understanding of mindfulness as an eyes-open, on-the-spot engagement, not just an eyes-closed, time-out break. Without stopping what we’re doing, we learn to hold onto the threads of awareness, compassion, and purpose throughout our day. Perhaps most important for busy working people, meditation doesn’t become yet another item on our to-do list. Mindfulness-in-action has big implications for the people who (for whatever reason) don’t take to sitting meditation—and for the other 23 hours of the day for people who do.

What would mindfulness-in-action look like at work? Based on my experiences teaching a variety of professionals, here are three ways to practice while on the job.

1. Bring a sense of purpose to the everyday. You can turn the smallest routines into opportunities for greater accomplishments.

For example, one of my students changed the password on her computer to “breathe.” When she took a breath upon logging in, she explained, it allowed her to check in on her intention for the next task. So rather than compulsively check her email, she could choose to work on projects that mattered to her. This made her more productive and more satisfied with how she was spending her time and energy, and it took zero extra time—or no more than a few seconds, what researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have called a “micro-moment.” Their studies have shown that
a moment is all we need to reset our perspective and see things differently.

It may sound simple—a cue, a breath, a moment to think about what matters—but that’s the point: We can do a lot with a little if the effort is well-targeted. Getting a cup of coffee, waiting for an application to open, or putting our hand on the door handle to the meeting room are all opportunities to reconnect with our purpose and get perspective.

2. Speak your truth. Easier said than done, of course, but downright impossible without mindfulness.

Say you’re in a meeting. At the moment of deciding whether to speak up, take a second to notice the thoughts or stories that pass through your mind. Are you trying to please someone else? Are you trying to protect yourself, or an image of yourself? Often when people communicate, fear is part of the picture—fear of being exposed, judged, misunderstood, or ignored; fear of misunderstanding the other person. Awareness that our fearful thoughts and feelings are nothing more than fleeting thoughts and feelings can free us from being controlled by them.

Mindfulness makes room for a choice to feel the fear and do it anyway or, better yet, feel the fear but base our decisions and actions on something else. In this mindful moment, can you see that these thoughts are just thoughts, and thus allow yourself the choice not to let your fearful or angry thoughts run the show?

3. Take a moment to reflect. At the end of a day, a meeting, an email exchange—indeed, after any task you approached with purpose and intention (see #1 above)—pause to consider how it went, and to reset your intention. For example, maybe you are frustrated with a colleague and are setting the intention to improve the relationship. Even if there’s nothing you would do differently next time, reminding yourself of your intentions keeps them alive and effective.

Often, however, there is a gap between what we meant to happen and what actually happened. This is not a bad thing; it’s an opportunity to learn and make new choices accordingly. Sometimes, we all succumb to what I like to call the “screw it, I blew it” effect: After we make one mistake, we give up on preventing others, assuming we’ve already lost our way. But one study at Louisiana State University suggests that a moment of self-compassion can keep us on track: Participants who were prompted to have some compassion for themselves after eating a donut ate significantly less candy (offered by the experimenters) than participants who were not prompted to have any particular perspective on eating the donut.

In the workplace, beyond any literal donuts we may encounter, the implications are clear enough: Since we’re not perfect there any more than we are anywhere else, we must be able to tolerate mistakes in order to carry on and do better. A moment of self-compassionate reflection can be the antidote to the culture of perfectionism that pervades so many of our workplaces.

So mindfulness-at-work is not about meditating at work so much as work as meditation. It does not require finding more lovable work (or co-workers) but instead rediscovering joy in the work (and co-workers) we have. It helps people use the heart they already have at the job they already do to close the gap between the way things are and the way they want them to be.

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