Mindfulness, in its simplest form, is closely related to motivation and to the kind of thinking that underlies increased productivity—and practicing mindfulness techniques can help you in your work day. This doesn’t mean that you need to chant mantras at your desk or have enforced meditation breaks during the working day. It simply means understanding how a small change in thinking can lead to a big change in productivity.
What is mindfulness? There are plenty of different definitions but what they all have in common is that being mindful means focusing on the present. It’s about being aware of what’s happening right now, rather than running on automatic pilot while thinking about something else.
What does this have to do with motivation? Motivation involves associating an activity with a reward. You’re motivated to play a game because you enjoy it, and you’re motivated to go to the gym because you want to lose weight. But in fact these are two different types of motivation: one is associated with the activity itself, the other with an end result. In work terms, it’s the difference between doing your job because you love it and doing your job because you get paid.
Think about the first example: you do your job because you love it. This is the kind of attitude that says even if you had an independent income, you’d still want to do this work. This is closely related to productivity: why wouldn’t you want to do more of something you love? It’s also good evidence of mindfulness. You can’t enjoy doing something unless you’re immersed in doing it – if you’re happy but your mind is elsewhere, you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re enjoying whatever it is you’re thinking about. So if you want to enjoy your work (or if you want other people to enjoy theirs), mindfulness is essential.
What about the second example? Every day millions of people go to jobs they don’t enjoy because they need to get paid. Of course, they don’t spend every second of their shift thinking about their pay packet – but in motivation terms, they’re focused on the result, not on the present moment. This is the very opposite of mindfulness. A shift or a working week becomes something to be endured. This leads to an unwillingness to do anything beyond the minimum. Productivity stagnates or declines; if it feels like a struggle to do what’s required of you—why would you want to do more?
What’s the solution? If you want to increase your own motivation, move away from to-do lists. There’s nothing wrong with having a checklist, especially if you need to make sure that you’ve not missed anything vital. But they focus on getting to the end of a task: you associate that positive feeling of ticking an item off the list with not having to do that task anymore. Instead, practice being aware of what you’re doing. If you find that your thoughts are drifting away and you’re thinking about your lunch or what you might do on the weekend, bring yourself back to the present. As far as possible, try to be in the present moment. After a while, your brain begins to associate the rewards you get – praise from the boss, a clear desk (or even ticking off an item on your list) – with actually doing the activity, rather than with getting to the end of it.
If you want to improve motivation and productivity in others, start looking at qualitative outcomes. This means asking “How well is this going?” instead of “Have you done this yet?” If you want employees or people you manage to be focused on actually doing a task rather than constantly thinking ahead to the end of it, it’s no good repeatedly asking them if they’ve finished yet. When you’re conducting a performance review (or even an informal catch-up), don’t ask what they think they’ve done well, ask what they enjoy about the job. Don’t accept “I like getting paid”! Their answers may surprise you and give you useful insights into what motivates your workforce. And it will help them to become more mindful, to begin thinking “How am I feeling about this right now?”
Motivation means associating a reward with an activity, and productivity relies on wanting to do more of that activity. If the reward is associated with getting to the end of a task, shift, or work week, then the motivation isn’t to do that job, but to stop doing it, and productivity won’t increase. Mindfulness will help the brain to associate the reward with the process of doing a job, which makes it possible to genuinely enjoy it and for productivity to improve.