If you are a multitasker like me, you might be used to doing many things simultaneously. While multitasking is efficient, we develop different routines and habits over time and consistently operate in the “automatic pilot” mode, which is doing something without paying attention.
Our brains are wired to be distracted. A study has shown that we spend more than 45% of our time “mind-wondering” while doing daily activities like walking, driving, and eating. It’s normal to have thoughts. We have about 70,000 thoughts going through our minds daily. However, spending too much time thinking and ruminating can lead to many mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and burnout. We can also feel disconnected from people around us.
What is mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, the key to being present is practising mindfulness. Kabat-Zin defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises through “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. “
Since we know now that our minds tend to wander from time to time, the “secret” is to notice when our mind wanders off and practise bringing our attention back to the present moment in a kind and non-judging way, using our body, breathing and senses as an anchor.
How can mindfulness improve our lives?
Research has shown that mindfulness practices have a long-term positive impact on our brains. Over time, it can increase grey and white matter densities, which are responsible for improved memory, empathy, focus, sense of balance and clarity. Neuroscientists also discovered that long-term mindfulness practices could help rewire our brains and increase neuroplasticity.
Other benefits include:
- sleep quality
- anxiety and depression
- pain and other physical discomforts
- emotion and stress reactivity
- unhelpful coping strategy use (e.g. substance use, smoking)
How to be mindful?
There are many formal and informal ways to practise mindfulness. Here are some examples of simple exercises that anyone can do.
Mindful daily activities
You can be mindful anywhere while piggybacking on doing many things that you are already doing. The difference is that you set the intention to focus on doing one thing at a time, on purpose, in a non-judgmental way.
Use brushing your teeth as an example:
- Put your phone aside and focus on just brushing the teeth
- Start by looking at the toothbrush, notice the colour, shape
- Apply the toothpaste and Notice the anticipation of putting the toothbrush inside the mouth and how it feels not reacting to the automatic response.
- Brush slowly and tune into the different senses:
- What do I taste?
- What do I hear?
- What do I smell?
- How do my mouth and gums feel?
- What’s the temperature like?
- Notice the breath in the nose.
- If the attention wanders off, just say to ourselves, “it’s ok, that’s just what minds do”. We then gently bring the attention back to the senses: the taste in your mouth, the sound of brushing, and the feeling of the gum.
- Once it is complete, thank ourselves for taking the time to be mindful. Be grateful for having these teeth so we can eat all the tasty food and smile.
Yoga is a form of mindful practice. Mindful yoga focuses on body and breath awareness rather than striving to get the right posture and pose.
Research has shown that practising 10 to 20 minutes of meditation daily can improve sustained attention. Centre for Mindfulness UC Santiago provides free guided meditation and mindful movement resources. The duration of the recordings ranges between 1 minute to 35 minutes.
Meditation apps and online resources:
In conclusion, being mindful is a way of living. As the habit-making expert James Clear says, “The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.” The more we practice being mindful, the more we can feel and see the positive changes in our lives.
“Nothing is worth more than this day. You cannot relive yesterday. Tomorrow is still beyond your reach.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
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Staff, M., 2017. Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness – Mindful. [online] https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/Yang, CC., Barrós-Loscertales, A., Li, M. et al. Alterations in Brain Structure and Amplitude of Low-frequency after 8 weeks of Mindfulness Meditation Training in Meditation-Naïve Subjects. Sci Rep 9, 10977 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-47470-4