Mindfulness in many ways is about creating the internal conditions for performance – by improving focus, clarity of thought and reducing reactivity and perceived stress.
It helps lawyers to effectively speed up by slowing down, cultivating greater bandwidth for paying attention with clients and colleagues.
One significant way in which mindfulness improves focus is by tackling action addiction head on.
Accomplishing any type of task – big or small, essential or superfluous – delivers a rush of dopamine to the brain. Dopamine is a naturally produced and highly-addictive hormone. When released, it provides a sense of enjoyment and gratification.
Because of this instant gratification, the brain is constantly looking for a new dopamine kick – and quick, easily-achieved tasks like email do the trick.
The consequence is we tend to focus on short-term outcomes and lose sight of larger goals and objectives. Which, of course, negatively impacts performance.
The following are five mindful strategies lawyers can start using right away to improve performance:
Identify choice points: Choice points are the countless moments during a day when you’re interrupted mid-task, confronted with a new priority, or have a thought that breaks your focus. Rather than automatically falling prey to these distractions, try making each choice point an opportunity to consciously decide what deserves your attention or what best aligns with your primary goals.
Take awareness breaks: This is a 45-second break performed once an hour while at work. Think of this break as a reset button for your mind. Forty-five seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s enough to break the action-addiction cycle and keep you focused on your most relevant tasks. If you have difficulty keeping track of awareness breaks, there are smartphone apps that can help.
Mindfully breathe: Stop what you’re doing, let go of thoughts, and direct your attention to your breath. During the first breath cycle – breath in, breath out – relax your body and mind. During the second cycle, focus your attention. And during the third, make your mind clear. Then return to your work. Consider breathing this way at each choice point you confront or during your awareness breaks.
Manage your email: Regardless of your position in the firm, email likely takes up a significant portion of a lawyer’s time, while not always producing the best results. Every time a notification rings or your smartphone buzzes, remember that you have a choice between maintaining focus on your current task or redirecting your attention to the incoming message. To help resist an automatic impulse to hit the reply button, consider these three quick tips:
- Turn off all email notifications, including pop-up windows, alarms, and ring tones. Doing so will keep your time between designated email sessions clear for other, more important work
- Choose two or three specific times during the day to take care of email. If you’re constantly checking and responding to email, you’re not focused on your work or your priorities
- Avoid addressing e-mail first thing in the morning. Opening your email as soon as you get into the office, or worse still, as soon as you get out of bed, immediately draws you into an onslaught of short-term problems. Also, early morning is an exceptional period of focus and creativity – don’t waste this time on inessential communication. As an alternative, try waiting at least half an hour before checking your inbox.
Start daily mindfulness training: By increasing serotonin production, daily mindfulness training is a proven way to balance the dopamine kick provided by short-term tasks, as well as to ultimately overcome action addiction. An effective training program requires just 10 minutes a day of practice and enhances your ability to detect choice points or have meaningful awareness breaks. To begin daily training, sign up for a locally-taught class or search the internet for a self-guided program.
Gillian Coutts is the Australian director of The Potential Project and co-author of One Second Ahead