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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Smallest, Simplest Way to Reduce Stress at the Office

Forbes has written articles about it, Google trains its employees in it, and countless websites are now spreading the idea of it. So if you haven’t yet heard about the mindfulness movement, you probably won’t be able to avoid it for much longer.

Now, I’ve seen plenty of workplace initiatives come and go. Typically, I refer to them as “flavors of the month,” since most are only around as long as the book promoting the program stays on the business bestseller list. But I truly hope that mindfulness in the workplace is different and that it doesn’t simply become a buzzword we’ll want to remove from a list of clichéd office jargon by the end of 2014.

Why? Mindfulness is incredibly valuable in an office environment. Do you ever feel anxiety over things that have already happened, like a bad conversation with your boss or a presentation gone wrong? Do you worry about what might happen in the future, like if there will be a layoff, if your new boss think you’re as good as the old boss did, or if you’ll (finally) get that raise this year? Do you struggle with feelings of not being good enough, worry too much about what others think of you, or wilt under the impact of working with negative people?

If you recognize any of these thoughts, mindfulness can help. According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness is “the act of being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling at every moment—without interpretation or judgment.” And it’s been proven to improve quality of life, reduce stress, and eliminate the self-judgmental, jumping to conclusions-type thinking that can drive your anxiety levels up.

Of course, this isn't something you can do overnight; like many people, you’ll probably need to practice in order to develop the skills of mindfulness. After all, being intensely aware of your every moment is not exactly a perspective we honor in today’s multi-tasking, information-overloaded workplace.

But there are some changes you can make—this week—to increase your awareness of the present moment. To get you started, here are five incredibly helpful exercises from How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Lessons in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays, MD. Though they may seem like simple tasks, they can be a great jumping off point to mitigate the worries and distractions that consume your mind at work.

1. Use the Opposite Hand

When doing ordinary workday tasks, like writing with a pen or dialing the phone, try switching to your non-dominant hand. Because it doesn’t have the skills of your dominant one, you're forced to think about what you’re doing in the present moment.

How it Helps: This is a great demonstration of how much we unconsciously move through our lives. We don’t have to think twice about using our dominant hand, but using the other makes us slow down and pay attention, as if it’s a new experience.

2. Listen Like a Sponge

If you’re having a conversation with a colleague or your manager, attend the conversation with no electronic devices. Don’t formulate your response while he or she is speaking, and don’t even take notes. Just focus completely on what the person is saying.

How it Helps: To do this kind of listening, you must quiet both your body and your mind. It may be a challenge to wait for your turn to speak, but by listening 100% attentively, you will be better able to take in what the other person is saying.

3. Stop and Listen

Try eating lunch in the cafeteria by yourself one day. While there, tune into the sounds drifting around you. Don’t try to figure out what each sound is, where it’s coming from, or what you can do to stop it. Just listen to it as if you’ve never heard it before.

How it Helps: Intentional listening is another tool to quiet your mind. If your morning has left you frazzled with stress, too many emails, or a huffy customer, a listening practice at lunch will help you rejuvenate.

4. Pay Attention to Posture

Take notice of your posture during the workday. If you’re standing in a slouch, straighten up. If you’re hunched over in your desk chair, bring your shoulders back and take a few deep breaths.

How it Helps: Bays says that posture and focus are directly connected. When you feel drowsy and begin losing focus, your posture often deteriorates as well. By improving posture, you’ll increase your focus and pull yourself into the present.

5. Breathe

Before you answer your phone, breathe. As soon as the ringing starts, pause and take three breaths. This will help settle your mind before answering the phone, which will help you go into that phone conversation fully focused and 100% present.

How it Helps: This exercise brings you into a state of stillness of mind and body, redirecting your attention to the moment and helping you respond to the caller with calm, kindness, and openness. If you would normally carry your workday stress into a phone call, the three breaths will help you to release that stress before you speak.

When you’ve tried these exercises for a week or so, notice what’s happening for you. No, they won't immediately dissolve all of your work worries, but they'll likely help you approach your struggles in a different way. And ideally, you’ll find a sense of calm, peace, and presence in the moment. Start with these simple steps, and see what happens.

Photo of man at work courtesy of Shutterstock.