Mindfulness gets a bad rap. Too often, it’s put in the woo-woo box next to manifestation and the Law of Attraction. But it isn’t just a new-age gimmick; it’s actually a superpower that’s tragically misunderstood. Let’s bust some common myths right off the bat:
Mindfulness is NOT meditation (although meditation is a form of mindfulness)
Mindfulness is not about clearing our brain of thoughts (that’s actually physically impossible)
Mindfulness doesn’t have to take up thirty minutes of your day or longer
Mindfulness doesn’t require you to close your eyes
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about what mindfulness is. Put simply, it’s thinking about our thinking, and focusing our attention without judgment.
As far as we know, we’re the only species that chooses what we want to focus on. But we aren’t naturally designed to do this. In fact, our brains are designed to wander because wandering allows us to scan for threats.
The good news is, we can train ourselves to build a “practice” of mindfulness, and there are a lot of scientific reasons to consider it.
Why Your Brain Loves Mindfulness
When practiced consistently and effectively, mindfulness physically creates new neural pathways to the parts of our brain that are incredibly powerful.
For example, mindfulness connects us directly to our hippocampus, a portion of our brains that’s involved in crucial memory processes, learning, and emotional modulation. Mindfulness practice has been shown to actually increase the size of the hippocampi and reduce the size of the amygdala, aka the fear center. As a result, experts in mindfulness experience better memory function and emotional regulation and lower rates of anxiety, stress, and anger.
Additionally, mindfulness affects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain associated with self-regulation. In a practical sense, this is the part of the brain that allows you to direct your attention towards certain things and suppress inappropriate behaviors. It also helps with mental flexibility, problem-solving, and decision-making.
On top of all that, mindfulness has been shown to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, which are portions of the brain related to attention control. Our minds wander around 47% of the time, which means we aren’t actively engaged in our activities or lives almost half the time. It also affects our happiness levels, particularly because people whose minds wander frequently have lower rates of happiness than those who don’t. This is partially because our brains tend to go toward negative thoughts and ruminations when our thoughts wander.
Thanks to its effects on the ACC and PFC, mindfulness creates pathways for us to choose what we want to focus on and consciously decrease our brain wandering. This makes our thinking more effective and concentration less draining (and boosts our happiness levels).
This ability to focus isn’t just about connecting with our lives and work. It’s also about energy conservation. When we’re overthinking or have too much stuff going on in our brains, we consume more energy, causing us to feel anxious and lethargic.
When we can shut that constant chatter down with mindfulness, we’re able to reserve that fuel and keep ourselves going longer.
3 Steps for Incorporating Mindfulness Into Your Life
There are clearly a ton of tangible benefits to incorporating mindfulness into your life. Here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Start Small
You don’t need to dive into a 30-minute-a-day mindfulness practice. It can start as small as being mindful for one breath at a time. For example, try taking a deep breath in, and then on that inhale, ask yourself, “What am I thinking about right now?” Use that breath to pause and notice what your brain is thinking about.
Mindfulness is all about being intentional about what you’re focusing on. It involves clearing the brain, eliminating distractions, and focusing on the moment you’re in.
Here’s the thing: when you’re trying to be mindful and another thought enters, just acknowledge it and refocus. Don’t judge yourself. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to refocus. That’s all part of the practice.
If focusing on your breath doesn’t work, try taking a walk and pay attention to the clouds, your footsteps, and your surroundings. Focus on what’s happening around you while you walk versus what’s happening inside your head.
Step 2: Make it a Habit
Once you’ve got the hang of it, work on making it a habit. Try tying it to something you do every day. For example, practice mindfulness while brushing your teeth in the morning. Tying your mindfulness practice to something you do every day makes it easier to make it a habit.
Step 3: Mix Up Your Routine
Once you’ve tied mindfulness to a daily habit, start trying to do it more often. For example, maybe you add a moment of mindfulness every time you take a drink of water. Find ways to practice more often and incorporate it into more parts of your routine.
If you need help, check out these “Mindfulness on the Go” cards to more easily make mindfulness a part of your routine. Do a card every day to help you further incorporate it into your day-to-day process and make mindfulness a habit.
Say Woo-Hoo to Mindfulness
Mindfulness isn’t just for meditation. It’s a beneficial practice for everyone, making us better human beings, improving creativity, and resulting in less stress. But you have to be consistent.
Take the steps to make mindfulness a habit in your life, and see how things change for you. If you’re curious to learn more about mindfulness and how to use it to improve your performance at work, reach out!