The words mindfulness and meditation often go together, but they are not one and the same. “Mindfulness meditation” is a deep-breathing relaxation technique meant to be practiced in 10- to 20-minute sessions. It looks how most people expect “meditation” to look—sitting still with your eyes closed.
Although it is dismissed by some, meditation has been scientifically shown to lessen a number of ills, including depression, anxiety and physical pain. But meditation is not for everyone. Some people feel they don’t have the time or the constitution to stop everything and spend 20 minutes doing nothing. That doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness means being present and aware, moment by moment, with acceptance regardless of circumstances. Mindfulness, quite simply, anchors us in reality so unruly thoughts or ruminations don’t trigger a stress response or hijack our attention. It helps us keep our composure, in other words.
By definition, mindfulness happens in the moment and in the middle of things, not just when you set aside time for it. Practice being mindful throughout the day by becoming aware of your breathing when you become stressed, overwhelmed or distracted. If you’re hunched, sit up straight and focus on drawing air down into the belly. Notice without judgment any thoughts and feelings that surface, but always come back to your breathing. Slow, deep breaths tell the brain that the body is not on high alert, which has a calming effect.
You can perform this simple mindfulness exercise on an ad hoc basis, or you can ritualize it by performing it at certain times. It’s especially helpful when you’re having trouble focusing on the task at hand and when you’re transitioning from one area of focus to another. Take a moment to close your eyes and in the span of one or two deep breaths, bring one activity to a full stop before starting another. Making a mindful transition as opposed to a rapid switch from one thing to another promotes “uni-tasking” over multitasking, which results in higher concentration and improved efficiency at work and deeper engagement in interpersonal exchanges.
While mindfulness is beneficial, there’s something to be said for occasional mind-wandering, too. University of California researchers found that mind wandering—not to be confused with messing around on our mobile devices—helped people solve problems they’d been working on before allowing their minds to drift.
Mind wandering for creative incubation is not the same as getting sidetracked by off-task thoughts. You’ll recognize the difference—if you’re mindful.