8 ways to improve your mindfulness

The Human Element's Elin Agodi offers techniques for cultivating compassion and gratitude.

At a time in South Africa (and the world) when there are many external factors in the environment causing stress and a sense of hopelessness, there has never been a better opportunity than now to introduce techniques that allow people to feel less stressed, develop a more hopeful outlook on life, become more present in the moment by moment experiences of their life and ultimately improve overall happiness. 

There are many books to read, workshops and seminars to attend and podcasts to listen to that provide valuable techniques and ideas on how to be happier, less stressed and live a more fulfilled life. One major technique that I believe is the foundation of all techniques, which when implemented and maintained will help people be more present at the moment, less stressed and develop a more hopeful outlook is being able to practice mindfulness. We often hear spiritual guru’s and other personal development coaches talking about mindfulness and the benefits of practising it daily but very few people actually understand what it means. 

Mindfulness means the practice of paying attention in the present moment and doing it intentionally and with non-judgment. For instance, when you practice mindfulness during meditation, it means paying attention deliberately through the observation of one’s thoughts, emotions and body states. 

Some mindful activities include practices like mindful eating, listening to someone without judgement, mindful walking and mindful non-judgement of breath, body feelings, thoughts, and emotions. 

Mindfulness dates back to around 400BC and recently scientists have become more interested in the overall impact and effect of practising mindfulness over the long term. The benefits shown in recent studies include attention regulation, body awareness, changes in perspective on the self and emotional regulation. 

Now, imagine the benefits of these positive outcomes as people become more productive and engaged when implementing a mindful practice. During this Lockdown due to Covid-19, when people are fearful, unsure of the future, feeling isolated and lonely, implementing a mindful practice in the daily routine will have many benefits. The impact, I believe, is more people who are happy, doing what they love while being present in their daily activities moment by moment. I envision that this is the mindful global society that each of us should be working towards.

Mindfulness has been known to develop behaviours that cultivate being compassionate for self and others, gratitude and appreciative living, innovation and creativity, and very importantly being okay to experience emotions without wishing them away or allowing them to consume you. 

My first exposure to mindful living was at the time when I became an NLP trained life coach. It became apparent to me that as much as I was experiencing my life moment by moment, I was also not fully present in those moments. I also discovered that I was allowing my thoughts and emotions to control me, and I was not in control of them – it was as if I was at the mercy of my mind. I’ve been practising mindful living for just over 1 year and it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences that have made my life and day to day experiences more fulfilling. 

It is on this basis that I believe in its value, not just personally but in the workplace too, to improve productivity, engagement and overall happiness while reducing stress and burn-out. 

So, the real question is, how can you be more mindful and what are the real benefits of being mindful. Below I have listed eight ways to help you become more mindful. 

1 Be present in every moment 

This helps you be more consciously aware of what’s going on around you and also what’s going on within you. It helps you bring your full awareness to what you are doing at that moment and your emotional state. 

2 Take mindful breaks

You need not take a 20-minute break to meditate but rather be intentional about taking mindful breaths. This helps when dealing with pressures in your home and even at work and instead of reacting to the stressor in the environment you’d be able to make decisions with a clear mind. 

3 Stop all multi-tasking and be a 'single-tasker'

Sorry to disappoint but contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. What appears to be multitasking is just the ability of the mind to change rapidly from one task to the other. When was the last time you produced something of high quality while multi-tasking? I can assure you that when any task is performed in multi-tasking mode there is a higher likelihood of errors. So focus on one thing at a time so that you can produce it to the quality level that is expected. 

4 Set mindful reminders

The word mindful means to remember. Setting a reminder takes you out of autopilot mode so that you can be more present. Research undertaken at Harvard University showed that 47 per cent of a person’s day can be spent lost in thoughts. 

5 Slow down 

By slowing down and avoiding panicking can allow you to be more productive and efficient. Imagine how much more efficient you will be in making decisions or dealing with a crisis if you spend more time during the day being mindful. Yes, this may slow you down but this activity is directly related to increased awareness and conscious presence in completing tasks. 

6 Make stress (and other disempowering emotions) your friend

Your beliefs about the impact that stress, depression and anxiety have on you are directly related to how your body responds to that. The way to make these emotions your friend is to change the way you think about it. Like Wayne Dyer was famous for saying, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. 

Try this simple exercise the next time you find yourself experiencing a challenging situation: 

  • When you are in a challenging situation, bring your awareness to your heartbeat and notice how it beats faster and your breathing also becomes quicker and shorter. 
  • Observe this response and then respond to your stress with curiosity rather than negatively. 
  • Take a moment and be grateful that the stress response is energizing you. (Yes, it does energise you). 
  • Now, notice that your body is preparing you for this next challenge and that your physical response is a sign that more oxygen is being directed around your body in order to cope with the challenge. 
  • Acknowledge and thank your body and organs for this response. Now that you view the stress response from a new perspective you will see whatever you will encounter next as something positive and your body is preparing you to be ready for it. 
  • Then, notice how this minor change improves your ability to be effective in dealing with that challenging situation. 

7 Experience the feeling of gratitude more frequently 

All of us spend way too much time focusing on what went wrong or the negative aspects of a situation rather than focusing on positive things. We spend time talking about what we do not want to experience instead of what we do want to experience. Gratitude is the antidote. Evidence suggests that actively practising gratitude makes you feel better and has a positive effect on health, creativity, overall wellbeing, quality of work, personal and professional relationships. Being mindful of what’s going well in your life personally and professionally helps to improve your resilience. 

8 Believe in growth

Mindfulness is about adopting a growth mindset. Mindfulness is about giving attention to the present moment and not judging your abilities, skills or competence levels, but being open to new possibilities. When you adopt a growth mindset, you don’t mind getting criticism as you view it as a chance to discover something new. You don’t mind learning something new. You expect and move towards challenges, seeing them as opportunities for inner growth. You begin believing that you can enhance your skills, abilities and grow with experience. You believe that experiencing challenges benefits you. You start to understand the value of living in the moment and you are open to learning new things about yourself and others. 

I see a world where every human being is living a life of limitless potential while being aligned to their highest purpose. To me, this means living mindfully present moment by moment, doing what you love and loving what you do, while at the same time being productive, fully engaged and happy. This results in a more fulfilled society which ultimately benefits the whole. 

As we continue through this lockdown period in SA and globally, I invite you to think about taking small steps every day to implement mindfulness as a way of “life” so that you can be more present, happier and fulfilled while you live your life moment by moment.