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One Second Ahead – Mindfulness as the core quality of performance

By Rasmus Hougaard, International director of The Potential Project

Take one moment to consider this; what mental quality would allow you to do your work (and live your life) even better in the future? I have asked this question to numerous people and often get answers like improved focus, more effectiveness, higher empathy and resilience. But while we can all agree to these qualities, the important question is; how do we achieve them?

To suggest an answer I would like to share the story of Michael, a senior manager in a medium-sized financial service company. He was always available on his smart phone and his tablet, and with a steady stream of emails arriving in his inbox he would constantly try to deal with. Day after day his calendar would get filled up with meetings he had not asked for and whenever he had a free moment in his office he would get disturbed by colleagues or someone phoning with yet another urgent matter. He took his work home in his mind. And at work he would think about what he would do after working hours. He never had peace from his thoughts. When I first met Michael, he told that he didn't feel in control of his own life. He was always trying to catch up with what was happening. He felt like he was running on autopilot, with his surroundings and his own thoughts dictating the speed and direction. Many people will recognise what Michael described to me.

When I asked Michael what mental qualities would be the most important for him his answer was a greater sense of control and more presence in the moment. During the course of half a year Michael undertook a corporate-based mindfulness program to try to develop those qualities. He participated in ten one-hour sessions and dedicated ten minutes a day to actual mindfulness training. It was a significant investment of time in his already busy working day and after the six months had gone by, I asked him directly what he had got out of it. At first, his answer took me by surprise. He said that he had got one second out of the six months. He went on: "Previously, when something happened, I reacted automatically. Every time an email came in, I read it. Every time I received a text I answered it. Whenever a thought or emotion popped into my head, I paid attention to it and allowed it to take my focus away from what I was doing. I was on autopilot; I was a victim of my own automatic reactions. The six months of training have given me a one-second mental gap between what happens and my own response. It feels like I am one second ahead so that I can choose my response rather than being a victim of my automatic reactions. I can't always control what happens in life. But I have developed the freedom to choose my response to it."

Michael’s story clearly describes what thousands of other busy corporate leaders and employees are experiencing today; that mindfulness training has become an indispensable method to stay one second ahead of our own reactions to a challenging work-life and to our own mind. The training has been researched in organizational contexts and proven to deliver increase in job performance, job satisfaction, work-life balance, organizational citizenship behavior and the ability to be focused as well as decrease in emotional exhaustion, stress and turnover intention. The method has been taken in-house by companies like Google, Carlsberg, Sony, Nike and many others as a training of the one mental quality that gives us the mental space to apply and strengthen qualities like focus, effectiveness, empathy and resilience.
Rasmus Hougaard will be speaking at the Australian Business Congress in Sydney in August.