Those of you who have read some of my posts in the past will know that I am a foodie, which includes being a bit of an “amateur chef wannabe”. A part of that pursuit is following the stories of much more accomplished chefs, as well as studying the relationships between humans and food. Recently I have watched the Netflix series Cooked, a documentary by best-selling food writer Michael Pollan. It explores the history of human cooking, and at another level looks directly at a “dangerous trend” in which fewer and fewer people are making food for themselves.
I won’t explore the “dangerous trend” in any detail except to say that the food industry encourages us to look at cooking as something we don’t have time to do, something which would otherwise take time from what we consider to be critical activities like “being busy”, “stressing out” or “doing important things” (sarcasm intended!). The most important element of this discussion to me was in an episode where one of the chefs discussed the mindful nature of food preparation, where many “non-cooks” consider the act of chopping vegetables or other similar activities mindless.
It made me reflect on my own relationship with cooking. While it has been a love of mine for many years, as the scope and stress of my professional life grew over time cooking became a place of retreat. I would come home from work, perhaps do something to chill a bit like read the paper, go for a bike ride, etc. but inevitably I would end up in the kitchen preparing a family meal. Some evenings our “busy family” would cut this activity short and in those evenings I might find myself with diminished energy. But in the evenings where I could immerse myself fully in the activity of food preparation I found great peace.
This episode of Cooked awakened me to the mindful nature of this activity for me, and how it often centered me in the present where the problem of the day, the dysfunctional relationship of the moment, the daunting project all seemed to fade into the background and their noise was smothered by the blissful silence of presence in the activities of cooking.
The leap forward here is to look at how we might apply this principle in the working component of our lives. There are many simple (perhaps tedious) things on our plates at work such as cleaning up our email box, entering data into computer systems, completing expense forms, checking voicemail, reviewing reports, etc.
We likely have a unique, personal relationship with each of these tedious tasks. Some are difficult to even think about: “I’d rather chew tinfoil than do my forecast!” while others may have some degree of appeal to them. For those activities that have some positive energy to them for us, I’d like to suggest that perhaps we think about how they might help us be more effective in our working lives. They have the potential to use become the basis for exercises in mindfulness, which will allow us to become more present in our work environment.
There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live. – Dalai Lama
If we think about what happens daily at work, we are constantly looking back on past results or problems and worrying what impact that might have. Or conversely, we find our minds in the future, thinking about plans or project outcomes, wondering what to do next. The truth is, the only space in time that we can do anything about either is the present and we need techniques to be able to bring our mind back to now. We will know we are there when we feel ourselves relax, our energy returns, a sense of calm comes over us and nothing seems to own our attention other than what is in front of us. We may even lose track of time and surroundings.
So we need techniques that help us center in the present to allow us to be focused on getting the right things done right now. We will know we are there when we feel ourselves relax, our energy returns, a sense of calm comes over us and nothing seems to own our attention other than what is in front of us. We may even lose track of time and surroundings.
Think of those times when the day seems to be getting away from us, or we find our emotions more in charge then our intellect. How might we get back in the right state of mind (and time) to tackle our high-intensity environment?
The key is a routine of mindfulness. Mindfulness is using a process to allow us to release the control outside influences are having on our thoughts, wants and feelings and allow us to be present with what is happening right now and what wants to happen next. There are many approaches to mindfulness … why not be productive while being mindful?
The nice thing about energizing yet simple tasks is that we can go to them as a comfortable place and still get things done. There should be no challenge or emotion, no deadline or evaluation associated with them. We can close our door or put our headphones on and immerse ourselves in them. We settle into the activity and we focus. The goal is to focus so completely on the activity and the energy that we get from that activity in order to bring our entire consciousness into now.
When we feel that relaxed, calm, energy return to us there is one more thing to do before we return to our primary responsibilities. That is to use our state of presence to ask ourselves “what is the one thing I can do right now that will help me the most with what I have on my plate?” You’ll be surprised how much clarity you will have when present.
Beware of the trap of mindlessness that exists in simple tasks. It is easy to get lost in them as we continue to mull over past problems or future challenges. In this state we are simply avoiding issues and hiding behind administration. We’ll know if we’re being mindless as we won’t feel the relaxed, calm, energy. We will have no clarity of thought around what we need to do next. We’re simply escaping from life for a few minutes until we return to right where we left off.
If you are uncertain of the value of mindful tasks, or if you have trouble identifying some task that will provide the platform for becoming present here are some other ideas that you might use instead to achieve the same end:
- Go for a walk in nature
- Sit quietly in your office and take ten deep breaths, thinking about nothing else other than your breaths.
- Where possible, close your eyes and do nothing but listen to the sound around you without judgment, separating it into individual layers.
- Slowly scan your body top to bottom, looking for tense muscle groups and relaxing them when you find them.
What other techniques do you use to become and remain present? How do you help others use mindfulness?