Mindfulness, a meditation technique with its roots in Buddhism, conjures up images of uncomfortable cross-legged poses in a field, preferably while smiling beatifically. In actual fact, it’s a well-regarded tool that’s going mainstream in financial services because of its proven ability to improve focus, productivity and efficacy at work.
The US military has used it, so have the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple. Financial services firms like Barclays, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan and PwC have also started encouraging their employees towards mindfulness.
Mindfulness could easily be called ‘attention training’, ‘focus enhancement’ or the ‘mind gym’. In other words, despite its background in meditation, it has practical applications in the corporate world. On the trading floor in particular, where judgement and performance are affected by hormones like adrenaline, testosterone and cortisol, mindfulness can be a great technique to increase focus.
Multi-tasking is addictive because we delude ourselves that we are achieving a lot in a small space of time, however, the truth is that we are achieving little, and doing that poorly. Add a dose of stress inducing adrenaline, pressure, noise and competition, on top of a coffee downed earlier, is it any wonder that we might be losing the plot occasionally? This all spells for disaster. But don’t worry, you don’t need to actually stop doing any of this stuff, just try doing it a little differently – one thing at a time. Here is an exercise to get you going, with the bonus of a caffeine kick if you need it.
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Coffee (Give- Me- a -) Break
Here’s how you should set the scene:
• Don’t make extra time for this practice, do it anyway when you go for a coffee (or tea, cigarette, vodka, etc.)
• If you don’t fancy doing it, then take notice of that and do it anyway. You can train your attention whatever mood or mind-set you are in.
• Don’t worry about anyone noticing what you are doing, they’ll just think you are deep in thought – which is what most of them are doing anyway.
• Try to keep this coffee space protected, notice urges to start conversations, check phones, day-dream, and see if you can let yourself just drink coffee for these few minutes and do nothing else.
• Anytime your attention drifts off (which is totally normal and habitual), guide it back to this one thing you have decided to do now. Just this. This is the training.
• It might feel that drinking coffee isn’t going to help but the attention training that you are doing whilst drinking coffee is the thing, get it?
• Each time you guide your attention away from distractions back to your coffee you are strengthening the same neurological pathways that will keep you focussed on the trading floor.
• You do not need to have any ‘special’ experience, you can feel divine unity with the coffee, confusion, boredom, irritation, peace or anything else. Allowing yourself to be present in this moment as it is, is part letting go of stress – but it takes practice, so give yourself a break (and another coffee if you like).
Here are some practical instructions:
• Get your coffee or vice of choice.
• Hold it in both hands and just take a look at it. Notice any colour, steam rising up, temperature, smells, weight or other sensations
• Be aware that you are noticing these things, that your thoughts and sensations are coming into your awareness, changing and going again.
• Here you are holding the coffee and here you are noticing yourself doing that. Just this. Nothing else.
• Bring the cup towards your mouth and feel the coffee aroma filling up the space, notice the subtle changes in temperature, the smell, the anticipation as it comes to your lips.
• Take a sip and just allow the coffee to sit in your mouth, noticing any emotional responses (like pleasure, dissatisfaction, disinterest, etc.) arising. See if you also have any thoughts (like ‘Look, no sugar!’, ‘Yum’ or ‘I sure I have more important things to do’), and then leave them alone and swallow the coffee.
• Do you feel the liquid on its downward journey? See if you can notice those sensations. Allow yourself to explore this moment.
• You are one sip of coffee heavier. Stand (or sit) and notice this.
• Continue from step 2 again, and see if you can really just drink one cup of coffee.
Try this exercise every day, and stick with it. Giving your brain a workout requires discipline. Keep practicing and you will find that your ability to be focused, make effective decisions, have greater mental clarity will give you that winning edge (even with a decaf) and keep you tranquil on the trading floor.
Dr Michael Sinclair and Josie Seydel are authors of ‘Mindfulness for Busy People: Turning Frantic and Frazzled into Calm and Composed’, (Pearson, £12.99), also available from Amazon.