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Being Mindful

VanSlykeThis month, we discuss the second of my four pillars of self-leadership, mindfulness. (The other three are purposefulness, reflection and practice.) When I give talks on self-leadership, I usually have a slide that shows the inflatable “autopilot” from the 1980 comedy classic, “Airplane.” Why? Because the idea of an autopilot is a pretty good metaphor for how most of us go through our days. Our mind is mostly operating without our conscious mental oversight. In the context of self-leadership, being mindful is pulling yourself out of mental autopilot mode; mindfulness makes you the active pilot of your thoughts. When we’re mindful, we pay active, open, non-judgmental attention to the present. (Note that this is somewhat different from the Buddhist approach to mindfulness.)

Let’s dissect our definition of mindfulness. First, it’s an active process. You’re not trying to empty your mind of thoughts. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When you’re mindful, you are very active mentally, but you’re active in a particular way. You’re mentally open to the experience of the present, with the key word being “open.” We humans have a built-in tendency to immediately categorize elements of experiences, usually using pre-conceived notions, assumptions, and habits. When you’re mindful, you suspend judgment, at least for the moment, and just experience the present. The time for categorization and evaluation comes later.

Becoming more mindful brings many benefits. Perhaps the most important of these is that it helps free us from our assumptions and rigid categories. Assumptions and categories are among the many mental structures we use to make information processing easier. While this is certainly useful, these assumptions and rigid categories come at the cost of understanding and complexity. (Now that I think about it, much of what we do in higher education involves helping students break their rigid categories and question their assumption in order to improve their ability to deal with complexity.) The openness of mindfulness is a sort of mental pause that gives us space to build greater understanding.

Mindfulness also improves general well-being. One way in which it does this is by shifting us away from automatic habits, thoughts and unhealthy behavioral patterns. In addition, empirical studies demonstrate that mindfulness is positively related to self-esteem, optimism and life satisfaction. Beyond these, becoming more mindful makes you a better leader (and a better person), especially with respect to critical thinking. Most of us naturally place experiences, including encounters with others, into rigid categories. The ease in information processing comes at the cost of understanding and our ability to effectively deal with complexity. “Auto-pilot” thinking also fails to adequately consider context and perspective, both of which are important to understanding complex situations. Finally, mindfulness brings with it an openness to novelty and unexpected ways of experiencing and understanding. Because of this, mindfulness makes you less likely to prematurely evaluate and judge your experiences. Taken together, all of this translates into a deeper, more meaningful way of experiencing life, which leads to new ways of thinking, knowing, acting and feeling.

This is all well and good, but how does one become more mindful? In a word, practice. While there are many methods for becoming more mindful, I offer a few simple, yet effective, approaches. First, focus on paying attention to things you might normally miss. One good exercise for doing this is to find a quiet spot, close your eyes, the focus your attention on feeling different parts of your body, starting with the soles of your feet and working your way up to the top of your head. Try to focus entirely on each part of your body. A similar alternative is to sit quietly and try to identify individual sounds (footsteps, breathing, the hum of a fan, etc.). Both of these exercises expand your capability to pay attention to seemingly minor elements of an experience. Practicing these in “mindfulness breaks” (short periods of the day in which you practice mindfulness) will, over time, help you become a more mindful person. While the exercises focus on physical sensations, you will find that your mindfulness will expand into a greater awareness of your own thought processes, enriching your cognitive abilities and your life. FBN

I’m mindful of how lucky I am to lead Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,400 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.

By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.



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