Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Creating a Journal to Declutter Your Mind

Ryder Carroll in a TEDx Yale Talk titled, How to declutter your mind – keep a journal, highlighted the role a journal can play in helping you to overcome the busyness in your life and lead what he calls an “intentional life” – a life lived with intent, focus and purpose. He maintained that we cause ourselves stress and anxiety by cluttering our minds with things that are not important and as a result lose sight of things that matter to us.

Our thoughts are discursive – one thought follows another in an endless stream. These thoughts and our busyness are often driven by expectations – our own and those of others in our life. As discussed previously, expectations can hold us captive and erode our freedom of choice. In some organisations, busyness has become a sign of importance – where the expectation is to be “seen-to-be-doing”, rather than being and achieving.

Ryder states in his presentation that today we suffer from “decision fatigue” resulting from “choice fatigue”. At every moment of the day we are confronted with choices and decisions – you only have to try to buy a simple product at a supermarket to experience this at a micro level. Decisions take time and energy and time is a non-renewable resource – the very words, “take time”, indicate that we consume time in our lives as we live out our choice-making and act on our decisions.

Create a journal to declutter your mind

Journalling has been shown to be beneficial for many reasons – not the least of these being to improve our overall well-being. Ryder, however, emphasises the necessity of a journal to help declutter our minds and free our thinking to focus on the things that are important to us. He suggests that a journal can serve the purpose of a “mental inventory”, where you record your tasks, events and notes as a way to better manage the present, track what has happened in the past and plan your future.

He provides a simple approach to journalling that he calls a “bullet journal” and provides a very brief video to explain this approach. The name derives from the methodology of creating different forms of bullet points to identify tasks, events and notes.

Ryder highlights the importance of reflection to underpin his approach to mind management. He suggests that it is not enough just to record the relevant information but also to review what has been written. He offers three considerations that can form the basis of a daily, weekly or monthly review of your individual journal entries:

  • does it really matter?
  • is it important to achieve or realise?
  • is it merely a distraction?

Recording without reflection is just reinforcing busy behaviour – without review there is little development of self-awareness and self-management. The review can be strengthened by consciously developing a focus for our time and energies.

Developing focus and productivity through small projects

Ryder’s approach to developing focus is to identify things that are important to us to achieve and to frame them as small projects (breaking down larger projects into smaller parts or milestones). He then suggests that these are incorporated in the monthly plan of your bullet journal, while the relevant tasks that make up an individual project can be collected in a project plan or what he describes as a “collection”.

The small projects act as a point of focus in any given month, serve as a way to channel time and energy, engage your curiosity and build a sense of self-efficacy through achieving identified milestones and project outcomes. Breaking goals down into achievable parts is a proven approach to increasing your productivity. Ryder suggests that the small projects should be something that is within your control – they are free from externally imposed barriers, they are expressed as achievable tasks/outcomes and can be done in the limited timeframe of a month (which lines up with the monthly planning cycle that he recommends). These small projects give us a sense of control and increased agency which serve as a foil to the sense of losing control which comes with endless busyness.

As we develop our journal to declutter our mind and manage our time and energy, we can free ourselves to grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation and open our lives to less stress and more creative opportunities.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of raydigitaldesigns on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness: Enabling Sustainable Agency in the Workplace

In a previous post on agency and mental health, I stressed the need to create healthy workplace environments where employees had a sense of control over their workplace environment and the authority and responsibility to decide how the work is done.

Mindfulness enables worker agency by impacting positively on both the manager and the employee and thus enabling the development of employee agency – which is conducive to mental health.

Mindfulness and the Manager: Enabling Agency

Managers need to cope with their own thoughts and emotions when providing agency (some control and power) to employees.  There is a natural fear of loss of control which can impede the delegation of authority and responsibility to employees.  There is also the ongoing concern when things do not turn out as hoped for or mistakes are made.  Managers need the self-awareness and self-management skills developed through mindfulness, if they are to remain calm and to resist the temptation to curtail employee agency to prevent any reoccurrence.

The more positive and healthy perspective is to encourage honesty when mistakes are made, to undertake a systemic analysis of what went wrong (rather than an inquisition of the individual involved) and enable all concerned to learn from what happened.  This requires robust self-esteem on the part of the manager and a willingness to trust employees – a trust that helps to develop a constructive, mentally healthy environment.  This does not preclude the manager from ensuring that adequate training is provided to employees to undertake the tasks assigned to them.

The manager’s calmness, self-control and empathy in an apparent crisis (developed through mindfulness practices), will inspire employees and build their trust, confidence and risk-taking as they move outside their comfort zone and take up the opportunities presented by increased agency – increased authority and responsibility over their work environment and how work is done.

Mindfulness and the Employee: Building Capacity for Agency

Mindfulness builds the capacity of employees to contribute effectively in an organisation by taking up the authority, responsibility and opportunity provided by increased agency.

Like the manager, employees need to develop self-awareness (understanding their own thoughts and emotions) and self-management (keeping their thoughts and emotions under control).  It is natural for employees to feel fearful as they move outside their comfort zone (typically based on dependence) to exercise more independence and judgment.

Some employees are reluctant to agree outcomes and outputs in advance, even while having control over how they are achieved, because this freedom of choice and agency brings with it a new level of responsibility.  Self-awareness and self-management developed through mindfulness, and support of an empathetic manager, can help employees to take on the responsibility associated with increased agency.

Mindfulness, too, enables employees to develop clarity in relation to their role and responsibilities while enabling them to develop creative solutions.  It also helps them to build resilience, not in the sense of endurance of unreasonable demands, but in the sense of being able to bounce back from difficulties and setbacks when pursuing specific goals and outcomes in the workplace.

Relationships in the workplace are enhanced as employees develop social skills through mindfulness training and become better able to contribute to the team effort and collaborative endeavours.

Mindfulness: Enabling Managers and Employees to Build Sustainable Agency 

Mindfulness, then, enables managers to offer increased agency to employees and, in turn, assists employees to take up the opportunities and responsibility that come with increased agency.  These mutually reinforcing outcomes of mindfulness training, not only enhance productivity in the workplace but also employee wellness.

As Tali Sharot points out in her research-based book, The Influential Mind:

Just giving people a little responsibility, and reminding them that they had a choice, enhanced their well-being (p.98).

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better equipped to provide the psychological and productivity benefits of giving increased agency to employees; on the other hand, employees trained in mindfulness are more able to take up the responsibilities and opportunities entailed in increased agency and to enjoy the satisfaction and well-being that results.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness Initiative is a policy group that developed following mindfulness training for British MPs, peers and staff and now works with politicians from around the world.  It helped UK politicians to establish a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

It is interesting to note that the primary patrons of the policy group are Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax, comedian, who has completed a Masters in mindfulness-based, cognitive therapy at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre.

The Mindful Initiative also assisted the MAPPG to undertake a parliamentary inquiry into mental health in a number of arenas, resulting in the production, after 8 parliamentary sittings, of the Mindful Nation UK report.

Shortly afterwards in 2016, The Mindfulness Initiative published a new document, developed by the Private Sector Working Party, which was called, Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.   This document is the primary focus of my post.

The latter document focused on mindfulness in the workplace and provides an explanation of mindfulness, identifies the potential benefits for business and discusses workplace implementation issues and strategies.  The ideas advanced in Building the Case are strongly supported by reported research and shared experience captured in documented, organisational case studies.

It provides an excellent starting point for any organisation envisaging the development and implementation of a mindfulness program for their executives, managers and staff.  Besides individual mindfulness training, it also touches on organisational mindfulness as a cultural approach.

One significant point that Building the Case makes is that mindfulness is not the province of a particular religion, such as Buddhism.  The report contends, based on the work of Dane (2011) and Kabat-Zinn (2005), that:

mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.

The problem of course is that with life in our fast-paced world, obsession with social media and concerted efforts by interested parties to disrupt our attention, we are fast losing the power to concentrate and focus – we increasingly experience “disrupted attention” and recent research confirms that our attention span is declining rapidly.  Additional research demonstrates that we spend almost 50% of our time thinking about the future or the past and not being present to our internal or external environment.

We also carry with us memories, emotions, prejudices and biases that distort our perception of reality.  This, in turn, results in workplace stress, mental illness and declining productivity.

The Building the Case report highlights the potential business benefits that accrue from the pursuit of mindfulness, focusing on:

  • enhanced well-being and resilience
  • improved relationships and collaboration
  • enhanced performance
  • improved leadership
  • better decision-making
  • growth in creativity and innovation.

To ensure that people approach the implementation of workplace mindfulness programs in a level-headed way, the report challenges a number of myths about mindfulness and addresses the issues involved.

Of particular note, is the emphasis on regular practice of meditation and organisational support mechanisms beyond the initial training to sustain mindfulness within the organisation.

It is clear from the research and case studies cited, that as people in the workplace grow in mindfulness and sustain their meditation practice, they experience real personal benefits that, in turn, flow onto the organisation, work teams and colleagues.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay

Multitasking or Single Focus?

I drafted my previous post about support for meditation while in Hong Kong en route to Italy.  Now that we are in Lake Como in northern Italy, I have been able to reflect on my experiences in Hong Kong.  This post is a result of those reflections.

During our Hong Kong stay we visited Chi Lin Nunnery which is a functioning monastery for Buddhist nuns. The Nunnery is an exquisite structure and in the cloisters surrounding the central gardens are sculptures made from Yantan Stone, each with an inspirational subscription.

The inscription for the stone sculpture in the image for this blog post highlights the value of a single focus. The text is taken from the Trainings on Landscape Painting written in Dahua in Guangxi Province China – a province famous for its natural beauty and the influence of its artists on the evolution of landscape art in China.  The text can be seen below:

It reads:

The key to everything is that we should focus on one thing at one time.  Otherwise, we will not be able to concentrate on the essence.

It is interesting that the Chinese knew about the deficiencies of multitasking long before neuroscientists demonstrated through research that multitasking is inefficient, consumes vital energy and is counter-productive.

Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author, addresses the negative impact of multitasking in his book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

He maintains that constantly changing our focus through multitasking drains our neural resources.  In the process, we are consuming our vital glucose reserves which is why multitasking makes us tired.  It also increases our stress levels.

According to Dr. Levitin, multitasking also negatively impacts our capacity to discriminate, e.g. discern the difference between fact and fiction.  He also argues that when we are multitasking we are storing information in a part of the brain that is difficult to access – so information is incorrectly categorised in the brain.

Other neuroscientists have also demonstrated that multitasking is inefficient and impacts negatively on our productivity and creativity.

in contrast, a single focus is an essential element in building creativity. Dr. Levitin, being a musician himself, studied the behaviour of great songwriters and musicians, like Eric Clapton and Sting, and found that their capacity for a single focus and ability to be-in-the-moment were key factors contributing to their creative success.

As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our capacity to maintain a single focus during our daily endeavours thus increasing our productivity and creativity and avoiding the downfalls of multitasking.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Start Your Meeting With Reflection Time

When we arrive at a meeting, our thoughts are often elsewhere rather than in the room – with the unfinished task we have just left, the things that we have to do, the work that will not get done as a result of the meeting.

So we do not have a meeting of minds, because the minds of people “present” are elsewhere – we have a physical collection of people.  People are not present in the sense that their attention is not fully on the meeting, its purpose and goals.

What exacerbates this situation is that many people “at” the meeting are checking their phones for their latest emails or social media updates, doing their to-do lists or planning another activity.  This multitasking in itself is both personally injurious (can cause inflammation of the brain) and contaminates the meeting (inattention spreads).

What some organisations are starting to do now is to begin their meetings with a short reflection time (5-10 minutes) so that people can become grounded and really present.  Besides helping people to become focused on the meeting and its purpose, this reflection time reminds people why they are at the meeting and the need to attend to (pay attention to) what is going on.

At a recent mindfulness conference, a group of digital designers from a bank decided then and there that they would start their meetings with a ten minute reflection time.  They realised the power of reflection to develop focus and release creativity.

If you do build in time for reflection at the start of a meeting you will experience a heightened level of focused energy and strengthening of team spirit.  You will also be more productive as a team.  Residual resentments about missed opportunities will be less likely to contaminate the meeting process.

Starting your meetings with time for reflection also helps your team to grow in mindfulness and focused attention so that the benefits flow beyond the meeting.

Image Source: Courtesy of ForMyKerttu on Pixabay