Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

A Neuroscientist-Approved Brain Trick That Can Help You Make Better Career Decisions

Mindfulness, if you haven’t noticed, is everywhere.

2014 has been called “the year of mindful living.” A February Time cover called the momentum “The Mindful Revolution.” It’s now part of company culture at places like, oh, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

And with good reason. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar found that regular meditation is associated with increases in the brain’s cortical thickness—in other words, likely a stronger brain—in regions related to cognitive and emotional processing. What’s more, mindfulness training can reduce distracting thoughts and stress, as well as boost positive mood states. These benefits can certainly contribute to boosted productivity and greater satisfaction on the job.

But while it’s clear that mindfulness can help you have a better experience at work, did you know it could also help you figure out what, exactly, you want to do?

Mindfulness in a Nutshell

Let’s back up.

Mindfulness, as defined by the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It is a quality of attention you can develop through formal practices like meditation or simply by setting the daily intention to tune into your inner experience.

Through mindfully attending to your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations on a consistent basis, you can begin to recognize and hit the pause button on mental habits that separate what you’re doing from what you want to be doing. Think of it as paying better attention to your car’s dashboard so you know as soon as something is off beneath the hood—and can take the necessary steps to get your car, or in this case your mind, to an optimal level of performance.

How Mindfulness Helps You Find Your Path

So how does this help when you’re contemplating your career options?

Let’s say, for instance, that you’re considering going to medical school. You’ve always been great at science, you think it would be an interesting and lucrative career path, and your family (full of doctors) has been encouraging it. In other words, it all makes sense on paper.

But something’s just not sitting right with you. You feel uneasy and anxious, like you’re going through the motions or detached from your body.

The practice of mindfulness can help you tune into what’s really going on there. Mindfulness exercises allow you to step outside your rational mind and examine what you really want from a perspective that includes important things like your emotions and intuition.

As a personal example, I recently toyed with the idea of pursuing a PhD in counseling psychology. I have the necessary credentials, my inner perfectionist was tempted by the challenge, and after many informational interviews with professionals in the field, I felt lured. But, for some reason, I couldn’t fully commit mentally to the idea of applying to programs.

So, I carved out some time to sit in a mindful state to tune into my body’s reaction. While in stillness, I noticed a lot of physical resistance. But when I gave myself permission to entertain the idea of letting go of the PhD notion, simply by saying to myself, “you don’t have to do this just because you can,” I felt great physical relief. It became clear to me that I didn’t feel genuinely motivated to pursue a PhD, and was caught in my story of needing to do more and more to advance professionally. Mindfulness helped me sift through the clutter and find an inner nugget of truth.

How to Use Mindfulness In Your Life

The good news? You can get started in your mindfulness practice today. In fact, I challenge you to try it and see if it can have the same effect for you. Below is a basic mindfulness exercise to help get you into the practice, and then the same exercise—with a twist—to help you tap into your purpose.

The Basics: Mindful Body Scan

To be able to go beyond the story your rational mind keeps telling you, you first need to be able to fully arrive in your body. This means intentionally paying attention to what’s going on from your head to your toes such as your breathing, your heartbeat, sensations on your skin, and much more. This simple exercise can be done every day, and almost anywhere, and is a great way to help you get into a mindful state.

Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down, then close your eyes or gaze softly at something in the distance. Bring your attention to your breath, observing the air flowing in and out of your nostrils; your belly rising and falling. No need to control it; just breathe naturally and notice it.

Then, starting with the top of your head and moving downward, slowly draw your attention to each body part. As you gradually move your awareness down your body, notice the sensations. If you come upon tightness or pain, gently accept the experience, and to yourself, say words such as “relax” or “soften” to signal that area to loosen up.

Take your time, and once you’ve moved from your head to your toes, sit for a few moments in this aware state. If you notice yourself distracted by any thoughts, remember, it is normal, and just come back to your breathing.

When you feel ready, let your eyes flutter open. Gently wiggle your fingers and toes. Set the intention to move through the rest of your day with the greater presence that you created in the body scan. Consider this a mini-experiment. See if the practice changes your experience during that day or over the week or month as you continue to practice.

With a Twist: Mind Your Story

Now here’s a technique you can use to escape the story about what you think you should be doing with your life, and figure out what your calling really is. I collaborated on developing this practice with Linda Faucheux, associate director for counseling at the University of Colorado, Boulder Career Center and Deepesh Faucheux, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Psychology at Naropa University as part of a movement focused on Contemplative Career Counseling.

First, write down what you’re currently doing or what you think you want to be doing, why it’s meaningful, and any struggles you’re having. For example, “I am a career counselor, and I really enjoy meeting with individuals to help them figure out what their purpose is. I’m not sure if I want to become a manager, because it would mean less time counseling, which is where I feel most rewarded.” Read the story aloud and record it on your computer or mobile device.

Then, go through the mindful body scan process above. Once you are done and in a mindful state, listen to the recording of your story. As you listen, notice any physical, emotional, or cognitive reactions you have. Where is there excitement and energy? Where is there tension or stress? Are you smiling or frowning? What is your body telling you about what you’re drawn to or resisting?

By tuning into what your body and emotions are telling you, you can snap out of the mental tape you’ve been playing over and over again.

These techniques will help you make choices based on your whole experience—not just your mind, which often tries to solve puzzles with only rational pieces. Any time you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or confused about what’s next in your career (or anything, really), try them, and see what happens.

But also remember that the true benefits of mindfulness come when it’s a continued practice. Whether you find structured time for mindful activities or you make an effort to simply remember to be present throughout your day, such as while passing through a doorway, cultivate the practice over time like going to the gym. Mindfulness techniques are free and portable, so you can call upon them whenever you need to!

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.