By Jim Davis, EdM, MA

Early in 2023, Northwestern University’s Teacher Leadership Magazine published our article called “Practical Mindfulness: Attention and Awareness in Leadership.”

The feedback has been fantastic. Leaders in business and education have been reaching out for usable strategies to bring the practical mindfulness strategy to life.

I was reminded of it again on a recent trip to San Francisco, 36,000 feet above the earth in the Boeing 787 lavatory (the bathroom). Under the toilet lid was a visual display of the concept:

“Trash it, don’t flush it – Clogged toilets delay flights.” Brilliant.

“Clogged toilets delay flights” – the standard traveler is not concerned with environmental impact or extra labor for airline personnel. They want to get to their destination with relative ease. Most of them are stressed and weary. The brilliance of the United messaging is this: it asks, quickly, does your behavior match your goal?

Or in other words, do you want to get where you’re going on time? Do you want to avoid delaying your flight? Ok, then trash it, don’t flush it.

Practical mindfulness is an approach that can apply to any arena. It’s a mindset. A disposition. While everyone has their own relationship to implementation, below you’ll find 3 keys to bringing practical mindfulness approach into your life.

3 Keys to Practical Mindfulness

Begin with the goal: identify, then align. Practical mindfulness and its central mantra, Does Your Behavior Match Your Goal?, begin with self-awareness and the identification of purpose. Instead of rushing to ‘do’ something meaningful, take some time to slow down and identify what that meaningful thing might be.

What is worth your while? What, based on your needs, wants, context and dreams, would be a meaningful pursuit? After all, you cannot accomplish your goals if you forget to set them.

Make sure these goals are yours. And be sure they are worth pursuing.

Want to eat that extra donut? That behavior would not be good or bad, necessarily. But if you have made a commitment to improve your nutrition, then would that behavior match your goal? Only the donut eater can say.

Should you write a scalding email to an employee who just cannot seem to get it “right”? Up to you. But if you say that you want to improve your leadership style toward one that earns loyalty from your employees, to be gracious and empowering, then you will have to answer the same question.

“Should you write a scalding email to an employee who just can’t get it ‘right’? Up to you. But if you say that you want to improve your #leadership style toward one that earns loyalty from your employees, we ask… does your behavior match your goal?”

Once you have identified a goal, you must routinely decide whether or not your behaviors align with it. Be honest about it. Have humility. Check yourself and invite trusted, outside opinions.

A promotional shoot takes place for the School of Business on October 30th, 2020 (Photograph by Ross Kohl)

There is more than one way to do it. There is no precise script for this work. Practical mindfulness is an approach which can be applied to most situations, and there always more than one way to do it.

It is like going to work in the morning. Once you clearly identify where you want to go (the office, presumably), then you’ll realize that there are countless potential routes. You can take the fastest route, the most scenic route; you can take one route only to find out that a tree came down in last night’s storm and you must find another way.

When we get hung up on the methods and behaviors, we might become rigid. We need to be focused on the destination and the approach. Only then can we identify behaviors. Only then can we adapt, mindfully, with our practical and forgiving approach. Don’t put to much pressure on yourself. Make space for self-forgiveness. Perfectionism is the enemy.

This will take some time. You will have to repeatedly come back to the drawing board (sometimes literally) to find what works for you. Keep the secondary manta in mind:

This does not mean that workplace errors are irrelevant. It means that forward progress should not be bogged down by errors of the past. Guided by them, but not governed by them.

Habituate aligned behavior. Once aligned behaviors have been identified, they will have to be routinely implemented. If the implementation is successful, keep going. Turn these conscious behaviors into thoughtful habits. Normalize the good. Keep these habits so long as they serve you.

This is where it gets meaningful and can become – no overstatements here – lifechanging.

Practical Mindfulness: “Turn conscious behaviors into thoughtful habits. Normalize the good. Keep these habits so long as they serve you.” #DoesYourBehaviorMatchYourGoal?

When first enlisting a well-considered behavior (time-blocking, taking a breath before engaging with a coworker who frustrates you, or turning down another donut) it can be hard. It takes intentionality. It takes discipline. It takes effort.

It’s slightly easier to throw the napkin into the toilet than the garbage slot of a cramped airplane bathroom. But the harder thing, the adjustment, is more aligned.

That effort chews up cognitive bandwidth. The first day of a new meal plan, hypothetically, can be the hardest. At my workplace, that would require turning down muffins and chocolate pretzels literally dozens of times. Each time, I have to remind myself of my goal and ask ‘the question’. At the end of the day, hungry and work-weary, I might not have the bandwidth to talk myself down again…

But the more I do it, the easier it becomes. The more natural it is. Eventually, I no longer have to think about it. I walk past the cosmic brownies without a second glance.

Create an environment where the decisions are easier and well-considered behaviors can become habits.

Moving Forward

First, keep in mind that it is an approach. There is no one way to enlist the work of practical mindfulness – it is a concept, there is no script. In this way, it is valuable in countless ways and in all arenas.

If there were a script to be written, you would be its author.

Come back to the drawing board routinely. Set goals, align behaviors, remember that there are always multiple approaches and not one ‘right’ way. Then get to work! Good habits pay off.

Leaders, in our own lives and in the systems we oversee, keep an eye out for nonobvious misalignments, which can have major impacts (as in the previous article). Adaptation will be necessary. Confronting expectation gaps with thoughtfulness, humility, and forgiveness will allow for adaptation. It will allow for evolution.

And eventually, when it comes to that consistent question of practical mindfulness, it will allow you to answer ‘yes’.

James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.

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