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Faculty Insights

How to Cultivate Well-Being in a Busy World

By Jill McDermott

January 29, 2015

There are so many demands surrounding you right now—texts, instant messages, media alerts, social media updates, meeting reminders, all chiming in from multiple devices. But that’s normal, right? As a professional, you’re expected to know the answers and pay attention to all of it in a way that communicates you are the master of your universe.
Except it’s not working. It’s making you less effective, unfocused, and less productive. All the distractions are stressing you out. And then there’s that nagging inner voice, reminding you of all the ways things aren’t going the way you’d like them to.

Jill McDermott
Jill McDermott, program director, Center for Professional and Executive Development at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Recent studies reveal many important things about what this information overload is costing us. One from Harvard shows that 47 percent of the time we’re thinking about what’s not going on, and simultaneously feel dissatisfied because of that lack of attention. Another study claims that the amount of data we are faced with every day is quantified at two quadrillion megabytes (that’s 21 zeros!). This constant influx of information creates an environment ripe for distraction, and this isn’t just impacting us individually, it’s happening to the project teams we work in, and carries over into the culture of organizations.
Work environments have changed dramatically in recent years, and the volume of information and demands on employees is not going away. A workplace productivity study I read recently shows that 80 percent of us continue to hold an expectation that “things will slow down soon,” but we don’t know when, and we continue to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Even worse, it’s estimated that only 20 percent of employees have adapted their personal, inner “operating system” strategies to grow and thrive in this “new normal.”
So what can we do about it? How do we acquire a new “operating system?”
The Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development (CPED) and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds have partnered to develop a new program to cultivate well-being in the workplace and better focus our attention in the moment, away from common distractions.
“Cultivating Well-Being” is a neuroscientific approach to thriving professionally. The intent is to cultivate an awareness of yourself and your environment in a way that enhances your ability to stay in the moment. We believe this evidence-based approach, backed by more than 30 years of research by UW-Madison Neuroscientist Dr. Richard (Richie) Davidson, can bring greater satisfaction and achievement to our professional and personal lives. It turns out, well-being is a skill that can be learned.
“The one thing that each of us can do today and every day is to take more responsibility for our mind,” says Davidson. “Our brains and minds are plastic. So often people leave their minds and brains to whatever is happening—a rudderless sailboat. We can intentionally insert a rudder and guide our minds in a particular way.  Once you recognize that possibility, it opens so many doors. Take a few minutes each day and intentionally cultivate a particular direction of your mind, use simple mindful breathing exercises. Pay attention in a mindful way to your breathing, to your body, to sounds that are present in your environment. Pay close attention to what you’re eating, how you’re eating and even when you walk to your next appointment. Take two or three mindful breaths before entering a difficult meeting or conversation.”
At the 2015 World Economic Forum, Davidson spoke about this approach and his perception that people in leadership positions are beginning to understand the importance of mindfulness practices, which some people believe can help reduce the costs of employee burnout and turnover.
It sounds simple, but it takes learning and practice much like mastering project management, developing business acumen, or adopting any tool or technique that helps us reach personal and professional goals. It can help us become aware, sort out and prioritize an inherently messy, chaotic world filled with competing demands.
So stop multitasking right now. Give your full attention to the words you’re reading. I dare you to try. It starts with just one, mindful breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.