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An athlete's mental state is just as important as her physical health when it comes to performing well during a game. But when it comes to training, the work often is 100 percent physical. Most workers today participate in the knowledge economy — far from pre-Industrial Revolution physical labor — yet we often fail to condition our minds to perform their best under pressure.

“We’re getting paid to use our minds,” says Stephen Archer, a mindfulness educator and trainer at Wellington, New Zealand-based firm Mindfulness Training. Yet many workers live in a state of constant distraction, switching between tasks and devices and never giving their full attention to the present situation. “That state of being is one where we’re not enjoying the best of ourselves. No one else gets the best of ourselves, and we’re not doing our best work,” Archer says.

The effects of constant distraction

Archer refers to the attempt of multitasking as giving continuous partial attention — people are always thinking about the next thing and never fully engaging with the moment at hand. The situation is amplified by the technology we increasingly use to switch between tasks (and apps, and screens). For as much as people brag about being busy, negative side effects abound when we pursue this frenetic pace.

“We’re actually sabotaging our own productivity and attention instead of supporting it,” says Maura Nevel Thomas, a productivity expert and founder of Regain Your Time, an Austin, Texas-based attention management training firm. “We’re really shooting ourselves in the foot, because we’re task-switching. We’re using up all kinds of resources in our brain and all kinds of brainpower, and it erodes our memory. It erodes our ability to be creative. It erodes our ability to really learn, because we end up taking things in in a very superficial way.” 

Side effects also take a physical form. People don’t sleep well, and they feel anxious and sometimes depressed, Archer says.

Companies seek mindfulness

The good news is that companies are realizing that constant distraction takes a toll on employees. They’re removing “multitasking” from job descriptions and introducing meditation and yoga classes at work. “We are in the beginnings of a backlash against this sort of always-on, frenetic, humble brag about being busy,” Thomas says.

Google has received attention for its Search Inside Yourself program—a course that teaches employees emotional intelligence and meditation. More than a thousand Googlers have completed the class, and it regularly has a wait list of six months. 

Facebook, Microsoft, and Cisco are among the Silicon Valley companies participating in Wisdom 2.0 — a well-being conference where executives discuss everything from Buddhism to ways to inject compassion into business processes.

Presence from the top down 

Mindfulness is contagious. “There certainly can be a trickle-down effect in the policies business leaders implement and the way they treat people,” says Arnie Kozak, a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and founder of Exquisite Mind, a Burlington, Vt.-based mindfulness training firm. The challenge is that mindfulness initiatives compete with every other task employees need to check off. “That becomes a dilemma that has to be navigated from the top down — saying that if we’re going to prioritize this, we really need to create some space in which it can happen,” Kozak says, adding that HR plays a significant role in mindfulness training.

For Thomas, the busy-body approach to work is a habit waiting to be broken. “We’ve trained ourselves into it, so we can certainly train ourselves out of it,” she says. 

Photo: Can Stock