Do you ever feel like you’re on a nonstop hamster wheel? That you keep on running, can’t turn off, and are constantly distracted?
Alternatively, do you often feel like you’re stuck in stasis, that you can’t move or make the decisions that will improve your life and work?
These feelings aren’t unusual, mindfulness expert Jeremy Hunter, PhD, of the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University and founding director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute, explained at the 69th CFA Institute Annual Conference in Montréal. We exist in a state of constant VUCA — that is, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And we’re paying a price: 47% of the time, our attention is wandering.
“It’s very easy for many of us to feel out of control,” Hunter said in his presentation, “Manage Your Mind First: The Promise of Mindfulness in the Age of Disruption,” “We live too much on gas pedal, too much on brake.”
But we can control that hamster wheel, he explained, and get back to the sweet spot between gas and brake, what Hunter calls our “zone of resilience — a capacity to be calm.” The key to doing that is the practice of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is a way of cultivating a higher quality of attention,” Hunter said, and it comes down to two basic steps: managing your nervous system and managing your attention.
Managing Your Nervous System
Too often, we don’t live in the moment. Our nervous system is too distracted by stress and emotional reactions to be present and clear. But, as Hunter pointed out, “Managing yourself means managing your nervous system.”
To help do that, he walked the audience through a simple seven-step exercise, one that he called “Point-Seat-Feet-Root.”
- Start off with what Hunter calls “Getting Ready”: Find a comfortable position — perhaps in a chair or on the floor, maybe with your eyes closed — and try to recognize what your body feels when it is in that state of comfort.
- Next, in the “Point” step, focus your mind on a spot about two inches below your belly button.
- Then let your attention drift downward and feel the connection between your body and your seat, paying attention to your breathing, your pulse, and the relaxed sensation in your muscles.
- Shift your focus down to your feet, to where they meet the floor. Pay attention to that feeling. How is it different from the others?
- Now, imagine there are roots growing out of the bottom of your feet. What sensations does that evoke?
- Think about the preceding steps. Which one was the most comfortable and which the least?
- Finally, open your eyes and look around you. Does anything seem different from when you started?
Hunter recommends making a regular habit of such exercises. “The more you do it,” he said, “the more you’ll notice what calm actually feels like.”
From there, you can move on to the next phase in the mindfulness process.
Managing Your Attention
Referencing the work of one of his mentors, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hunter explained how important attention is.
“Quality of life equals quality of attention,” Hunter said. “Your life is what you give your attention to.”
So, how does one achieve the sort of densely focused attention that correlates with optimal experience?
The first thing is to forget about multitasking. “Multitasking is a fantastic strategy,” said Hunter, “if you want to be a shallow thinker.”
Research backs this up, he explained. Kids who multitask don’t learn. In his practice, Hunter encounters it all the time. His clients tell him that as they multitask, they are increasingly distracted and, at the end of the day, they produce work that they know could be better.
Beyond cutting down on doing too much with too little attention, Hunter recommends focusing on three qualities: receptivity, curiosity, and openness. Adam Smith offered an excellent rubric for this, Hunter said, when he encouraged people to adopt the mindset of “the impartial spectator.”
Embracing that approach, however, does not mean being passive, Hunter explained, but rather is part of a process of “recognizing, right now, you’re here.” From there, you can take in more information, and that information, in turn, allows you to create more choices.
So, what can we do to embed mindfulness in our professional lives?
Hunter recommended two actions, in particular.
Consider establishing an office meditation or mindfulness group, but make it strictly voluntary. Start small, and try to build out from a core group. “Any mandate will end in disaster,” he said.
The second step is an easy one.
“If you want to do one thing to improve productivity,” he said, “have a no-device policy in meetings.”
And that was a key theme of his presentation. Developing mindfulness is not an end in itself but rather a continual process of what he called “small steps over time that produce large effects.”
CFA Institute members interested in meditation or mindfulness can join the CFA Institute Meditation Group on LinkedIn.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Photo courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell