Mindfulness as a practice has become much more widely accessed in Western business in the 5 years since I originally wrote this article. And that also goes for Engineering & Construction, where the best businesses are constantly on the lookout for ways to access high performance.

We’re coming out of the time of year where conscientious business owners and leaders find themselves reflecting on what’s happened over the last 12 months.

At this time, it’s also quite natural to be actively thinking about what’s ahead in the coming year. And no doubt experiencing the accompanying anxiousness, borne of an array of rapidly changing industry challenges including COVID-19 requirements, fluctuations in project demand, supply chain issues etc. etc.

As a suggestion though, you might find that spending at least some of your waking time actually experiencing what’s happening in the present better serves you. That’s not to say that this is an easy state for everyone to achieve (and most certainly not for me!)

So let’s consider for a moment the process of thinking – or “being in our heads” – from three different perspectives:

  • how we evaluate the past;
  • how we perceive the future; and
  • how we experience the present.

As an awareness piece, the underlying intention of this exercise is for you to find yourself – even for a brief moment or two – in that place of “presence” which is indeed mindfulness in action!

Past Assessment

Have you ever noticed that when you’re dwelling on a significant past event – say a holiday or a recently completed job or project – you can readily recall the joys of the highlights and stress of the lowlights (rather like a movie trailer) but struggle to recall the feelings associated with the sometimes long and boring times in between?

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist who specialises in judgment and decision-making, and most particularly in the area of behavioral economics for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize. His empirical findings, explained in his 2012 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” challenge the assumption of human rationality as a fundamental plank of modern economic theory.

In his book, Kahnemann explains two related psychological effects which come into play when we remember an experience:

  • The peak–end rule, in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end; and
  • Duration neglect, which refers to how people neglect how pleasant or unpleasant the experience was, or how long it lasted, in evaluating the experience.

Kahnemann describes an experiment specifically formulated to verify these effects, in which subjects were asked to undergo a painful experience with their hand held in unpleasantly cold water. He was able to demonstrate circumstances where, by slightly reducing the coldness of the water towards the end of one trial in comparison with a similar trial of a shorter duration, subjects would willingly choose to re-subject themselves to pain of a longer duration. His experimental conclusion was that the subjects relied on their vivid recall of the end of each experience, in evaluating which experience involved lesser unpleasantness.

Future Perception

When we consider the future, we’re typically subject to what is termed affective forecasting – the prediction we make about how we are going to feel in some future situation. As it turns out, we’re not that good at it. We’re typically poor judges of what will make us satisfied or unsatisfied and have trouble seeing through the filter of the now.

Accordingly, we are prone to over-estimate the pleasure we will experience as a consequence of, for instance, a major purchase such as a car. Think about a time when you experienced pleasure in relation to a motor vehicle. Was it when driving it? You might consider that we’re much more likely to be thinking about other things when driving. Or is it only during times when we’re actually thinking about the vehicle itself?

Professor Stanley Jack Rachman is one of the leaders in research and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders. His work concerns the fear of future events that results in anxiety-driven compulsions such as repetitive washing or checking. What he finds is that the actual experience of the thing that was feared is significantly less fear-inducing than the person imagined. This principle underlies the practice of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in which patients learn management strategies to break the links between anxiety producing thoughts and the potentially destructive behaviours triggered by these thoughts.

Present Awareness

Mindfulness is a hot topic in Western psychology and is increasingly being applied in a range diverse fields including coaching in its various forms. There is increasing recognition of mindfulness skills as an effective way to improve performance, reduce stress, enhance emotional intelligence, increase life satisfaction and build leadership capability.

Although mindfulness has only relatively recently been embraced by Western psychology, it is an ancient practice found in a wide range of Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga. Mindfulness involves consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, curiosity and receptiveness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world authority on the use of mindfulness training in the management of clinical problems, defines mindfulness as:

“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Mindfulness training involves increasing your awareness that a part of you is a watcher or witness of everything you think, feel and do. Although English has no word for this dimension of yourself, it is widely termed the “observer self” because it enables you to observe and notice your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.

So now – right now – have a quick check in about what you’re thinking about….

Curious? I’ve found https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness to be a great place to start my journey towards greater mindfulness.

Peter Wilkinson – Director, Sam Wilko Advisory