Over the past couple of decades, mindfulness has risen to the fore. Not just in one or two areas of life, but in multiple. Of course, this isn’t too surprising: the benefits of regularly practicing mindfulness are numerous – and well-supported too.
The PPM method incorporates mindfulness techniques, but ultimately strives to take entrepreneurs beyond mindfulness. Beyond a mindset where we dwell on the present moment, and to a place where we develop deep introspection and curiosity to better understand and explore the root causes, triggers, and possible solutions.
Mindfulness, nonetheless, is a tool we use to initially pull back from the heat of the moment. To step back from the pressure of a high-stakes situation or problem.
As we do so, this is where we often find our thinking changes. I have talked about this several times in the example of the question I frequently present to audiences – ‘where and when do you have your best thinking?’
The most frequent reply is – in the shower. Or walking along the beach.
The point, and reason that I ask this, is to emphasize that the location and activity are not important, but rather it is the state that the individual has put themselves in that facilitates the ability to think with more clarity.
The process of moving away from future or past-oriented thinking, and focusing on just the present moment, allows the brain to relax and work more efficiently. If we could measure the brain chemicals and which pathways are active, we would see changes there too.
While not everyone would call this mindfulness, most would agree that during these activities – particularly when we encounter our best thinking – we are utilizing a mental state, a mindset where we are far more focused on the present moment. Where we are more attuned with our feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment without judgment.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that originates from Buddhist traditions but is widely adopted in many cultures to promote mental well-being.
As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we are, however, most interested in this from the perspective of whether it helps promote a positive, beneficial entrepreneurial mindset. If it can help bring clarity to decision-making and help reduce commonly cited issues of overwhelm, burnout, and cognitive fatigue.
While thinking about the possible benefits of mindfulness in workplace productivity seems an obvious area of interest, it has been one of the lesser-researched areas of mindfulness over the years.
There have, however, been researchers who have looked at this. In 2015, researchers Dane and Brummel from Rice University and University of Tulsa co-published a paper looking at mindfulness in the workplace and its relationship with performance.
They hypothesized, from the wealth of previous research on mindfulness, that they would find mindfulness to be positively correlated with performance and negatively correlated with employee turnover.
As mentioned before, mindfulness is nothing new and originates, as far as we know, from the Buddhist traditions, which have promoted the benefits of stepping back from the whirling world around us and encouraging us to sit – or dwell – in just the present moment.
Mindfulness, however, made the significant leap from something that was more philosophical in nature to something with proven academic underpinnings, thanks to the wealth of research that has been undertaken.
Today, research supporting the benefits of mindfulness can be seen in numerous fields of research, including clinical and counselling psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and education.
Before we go any further, it is worth defining what mindfulness is, and why the PPM Method – or at least the pause phase of the PPM Method, incorporates mindfulness but ultimately seeks to go further.
Mindfulness, as defined by the researchers Dane and Brummel, is ‘a psychological state in which one focuses attention on events occurring in the present moment’.
Other research has shown time and time again that we spend much of our time thinking about the future or dwelling on the past. In both of these time domains, we can end up endlessly ruminating, and spending both time and energy on ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. While some curiosity and contemplation can be positive, too much can lead us into the never-ending traps of never being able to switch off, decision paralysis, anxiety, and endless unproductive rumination.
Much of the prior research around mindfulness has looked at its link with psychological and physical well-being, its connection to life satisfaction, relationships, as well as depression, anxiety, and stress. In all of these areas, scientific research has repeatedly shown that higher levels of mindfulness, either as a trait or state, are correlated with improvements across all these areas.
One of the reasons that researchers put forward as a possible reason why mindfulness is so beneficial in all of these areas, is that when we are in the present moment, not ruminating on the past, or anxious about the future, we are able to view things more objectively and with less emotional intensity.
Taking that step back from past or future thinking, as we do in the first step of the PPM Method, allows us to better manage and regulate our stress state, as well as our emotions that can arise, particularly when the environment is disruptive, or the decision we are facing is a high-stakes one.
In business, and as an entrepreneur, the issue is that high-pressure, high-stakes decisions in a disruptive environment are what we face almost all of the time.
Business decisions are rarely made in none disruptive, or at non-ambiguous environments. We are trying to keep up and perhaps even get ahead of competitors and new technologies. We are juggling a million things, and until we learn to step back – pause – often we don’t have the capacity to make our best decisions.
While research around the benefits of mindfulness on decision-making and entrepreneurial agility or flexibility is more limited, some research in this area has been done. In 2011, Kiken and Shook’s research showed that mindfulness had positive effects on judgment accuracy. A year later, in 2012, researchers Ostafin and Kassman uncovered that it improved insight-related problem-solving.
How was mindfulness able to do this? Once again, it is suggested that stepping back and being present has a knock-on effect on our stress response – reducing our level of stress – and allowing us to access all of our brains better. Research in this area has supported the idea that mindfulness, or at least the calming of the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated when we start to feel a little hot under the collar, promotes executive function and enhances our cognitive flexibility too.
Comming back to the researchers Dane and Brummel, they took these research findings and built on them, hypothesising that mindfulness would bring about measurable benefits in the workplace: both on an individual and collective level.
While mindfulness is often considered to be a state – that is a temporary mindset, or a cognitive positioning in the moment. However, trait mindfulness has also been seen in certain individuals, where the ability to come away from past or future-oriented thinking and dwell in the present moment is more stable and part of their personality or character.
If what we know from other areas of neuroscience holds true in mindfulness, then trait mindfulness is not something that only a handful of people can attain – or something that some are born with. Rather it is the adaptation of the brain, harnessing the incredible abilities of neuroplasticity, that we see in stress research and emotion research, that over time the more a state is used, the brain and body update. It changes its set point towards that regularly used pathway.
What this means is that some people will find being mindful more natural, or easier than others. Some of this will undoubtedly come back to the patterns and behaviours that we were shown and adopted as children, but also the way we have conducted our lives and thinking since.
For me, while I was naturally someone who would definitely be classed as an overthinker – in my younger years, I always spent hours ruminating on the past, wishing things were different, or dreaming about the future and being anxious about how things might – or might not play out, as I learned more about stress and emotional mastery, a core ability of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, the more the present moment became a place to spend time. From my own observations, I personally have found over the years that when I can step back from the heat of a situation, I can reconceptualise it and put it in perspective (which is slightly beyond mindfulness – but we’ll come to this) then I am able to make better decisions.
Making better decisions in this regard, ironically, doesn’t always mean you make the best decision. But rather, when you evaluate your decision-making with the benefit of hindsight, you can see that the best decision that could have been made was made.
All too often, business leaders, in the face of time-pressured decisions, make snap decisions. These can be based on what they have always done. Or what has worked before. But as disruption increases, relying blindly on past decisions isn’t enough. When these decisions are then analysed in the cold, harsh light of the past, all too often, it shows things were overlooked, or dismissed from the decision process.
Stepping back, stepping away from the chaos of the moment and pausing, is vital as the world becomes more disruptive and chaotic.
So what did the researchers find in regard to mindfulness in the workplace. Did it support these observations that I had found in my own thinking, and in the observations of those around me?
The results from interviewing over 100 employees, and testing levels of mindfulness with workplace productivity, showed that there was indeed a significant and positive correlation between mindfulness and workplace output or productivity.
While this area of research had been largely overlooked, Dane and Brummel give empirical reasons why mindfulness is something that workplaces should pay close attention to.
So if mindfulness brings so many benefits, why in the PPM Method, do we talk about going beyond mindfulness in the pause phase?
As mentioned at the start of this short blog, it is not that mindfulness is not powerful it is. It is a tool we use to help encourage individual entrepreneurs to pull back from future or past-orientated thinking and be more present, allowing them more awareness of their emotions and stress state.
But where the real magic of the pause phase takes place is when we go beyond simply being in the present moment, and we build an inner curiosity and deep introspection.