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The Essence of Engagement

12 March 2014

Learn how to embrace change, practice presence, and boost productivity. Explore the science-backed journey to a more mindful and successful you.

For over 40 years Ellen Langer has been at the forefront of Mindfulness research, and it seems that her ideas are now more popular than ever. (Beard, 2014)

The question is, do you know what mindfulness is about and can you make it work for you? In this article, we will first take a look at the benefits of mindfulness and then do a short guided meditation to practice your mindfulness today. We will take you through six steps, describing what to do and why it works as we go along. The idea is to relax, re-focus and get ready to tackle a task you have been resisting once you are done, armed with a more energized and positive mind-set. Let’s see if it works…

Are you paying attention, or are you on autopilot?

So, what is mindfulness about? In a recent interview in the Harvard Business Review, Ellen Langer described mindfulness as: “a soft openness – to be attentive to the things you are doing, but not single-minded, because then you’re missing other opportunities.” You are mindful when you are attentive to the context in which you are behaving and making decisions. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to improve your own reality checking as it forces you to be present – to be able to distinguish between what is real and what is imagination. Langer goes on to describe the benefits of practicing mindfulness as the following:

  • It is energy begetting, not energy consuming

  • It makes it easier to pay attention, and improve your ability to recall information later

  • It reduces stress

  • It unlocks creativity

  • It boosts performance

The reason why mindfulness is so important is not just, because of its many health benefits, but also the fact that your context is always changing. You need to be present in order to effectively deal with a situation. “We all seek stability. We want to hold things still, thinking that if we do, we can control them. But since everything is always changing, that doesn’t work. Actually it causes you to lose control.” The only time you can afford to be mindless is when:

  • You’ve found the very best way of doing things, and

  • Nothing changes

  • Of-course this is an impossible situation. (Beard, 2014) So with this in mind, let’s proceed and use the rest of the article to practice our own mindfulness with a guided meditation…

  • Relax, Re-focus – a guided meditation

This is a guided meditation. By reading through this and actively participating, you will have slowed down your mind, increased your heart rate variability, become aware of your present state and have become more capable of reigning in your all-over-the-place attention, to focus on one thing you can do right now and then get back to work on it (in theory at least).

Step 1: What do you see, hear, smell and feel?

Besides your screen, what do you see around you, on your desk, out the window? Name the things you see, softly or in your mind. Jump from one thing to the next, don’t linger.

What you are hearing? The air-conditioning, the clickety-clack of fingers typing on keyboards, the phone, your breathing?

What are you feeling physically? Your bum on the seat, the mouse in your hand?

What are you feeling emotionally? Happiness or a dull sense of urgency?


Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but also at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. People, who meditate regularly, aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as in regions of the brain that support self-awareness. (McGonigal, 2012)

Step 2: Breathe out slowly

Allow yourself to breathe and exhale as slowly as you can. Exhaling as if you are blowing through a straw helps you to increase your heart rate variability, which is an indicator and influencer of your willpower reserves.


Everybody’s heart rate varies to some degree… We’re not talking dangerous arrhythmias here, just little variations. Your heart speeds up a bit when you inhale and slows down again when you exhale. This is good. This is healthy. It means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, which revs the body into action, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and healing in the body.

When people are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, which is part of the basic biology that helps you fight or flee. Heart rate goes up, and variability goes down. The heart gets “stuck” at a higher rate – contributing to the physical feelings of anxiety or anger that accompany the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, when people successfully exert self-control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but variability goes up. When this happens, it contributes to a sense of focus and calm. (McGonigal, 2012)

Step 3: Now think back...

When was the last time you felt powerful and in control? Use your senses to enrich the experience. What do you see, hear, and feel in this memory?


In a Harvard Business Review article entitled: ‘Be Seen as a Leader’ Galinsky and Kilduff found that people who were primed to feel happy, powerful or focused on promotion, simply by recalling an experience before an experiment, significantly influenced how they were perceived by other members in their group.

The takeaway here is that your mind-set influences your behaviour, how you are perceived by others and according to some research even your tone of voice. You can prime your mindset by recalling times when you felt happy, powerful, in control, grateful, etc…

Step 4: Express gratitude

Express gratitude, in whichever way feels natural to you, for having had this powerful experience.


Experiencing gratitude is one way for you to unlock feelings of happiness and joy, which is linked to increases in productivity.

From a meta-analysis of happiness research that brought together the results of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people— it was found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and, in particular, our jobs, careers, and businesses. (Lyubomirsky, 2005)

Step 5: Consider what you have to do today – what have you been putting off?

Of all the possible things you could be doing once you’ve finished reading this, what comes to mind as the most important thing? That one thing that you might not feel like doing, but will have to do eventually? Imagine that you just did it – it’s done. Can you picture what a successful outcome looks like? Now re-trace your steps.

Where did you have to start?

What did you have to do next?


David Allen calls this the natural planning method and uses this technique to break down projects into smaller ‘next actions’. The answer to the first question: “Where did you start?” is your next action that will move you closer toward the result you want.

“No matter how unimportant they seem or how unconscious we are about them, unfulfilled commitments consume psychic fuel that is unavailable for other uses. When these unfinished items are brought to the surface and completed (or acknowledged as complete, as is), previously inaccessible energy shows up.” (Allen, Ready For Anything: 52 productivity principles for work and life, 2011)

Step 6: Get back to work

Tell yourself: “I just have to do this (next action)”


This is a small action that helps you get moving on the task. Once you are moving and have momentum, it is easier to proceed with less resistance.

“We are drawn—powerfully, magnetically— to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “activation energy.” …

In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyse a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit. Otherwise, human nature takes us down the path of least resistance time and time again.” (Achor, 2011)


Achor. (2011). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Ebury Publishing. Allen, D. (2002). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin. Allen, D. (2011). Ready For Anything: 52 productivity principles for work and life. Little, Brown Book Group. Beard, A. (2014, March). Mindfulness in the age of complexity. Harvard Business Review. Galinsky, K. (2013, December). Be seen as a leader. Harvard Business Review. Lyubomirsky, K. D. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological bulletin, 803-855. McGonigal, K. (2012). Maximum Willpower. UK: Macmillan Publishers. Lyubomirsky , S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005 ). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803– 855.


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