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Ellen Langer: Cultivated Mindfulness

Ellen Langer was researching and promoting the idea of mindfulness long before the avalanche of books and articles about it started a few years ago. Her research into what it is and what benefits it offers provides real insights for business managers and leaders, especially in the domains of innovation, charisma, and reductions in stress.

Ellen Langer

Short Biography

Ellen Langer was born in the Bronx area of New York in 1947 and grew up in neighbouring Yonkers. She attended New York University, initially studying chemistry, but after attending a psychology course with Philip Zimbardo, she swapped courses. They remain friends. She earned her BA in 1970 and went on to gain her PhD in social and clinical psychology at Yale in 1974. Her research focused on ‘the illusion of control’ – our belief that we are able to influence certain events that are really outside of our control. After a period teaching at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she was appointed the first tenured professor in the Psychology Department of Harvard University, where she continues to teach and research. In parallel, she also runs the Langer Mindfulness Institute, a research and consulting venture.

Her research also included a notable experiment transporting older people to an immersive environment much like that of their young adulthood and observing physiological changes consistent with reduced age. This is documented in her popular book. ‘Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier‘. The bulk of her research has touched in one way or another on the topic of mindfulness and her original book on the subject, ‘Mindfulness‘ has recently been re-released in a 25th anniversary edition. She recently co-edited the massive academic tome, ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness‘.

What is Mindfulness?

Langer has offered a number of definitions of the term ‘mindfulness’, which are wholly consistent, but together build a rich picture of how we can understand the term. Fundamentally, we become mindful when we turn off our auto-pilot and start to pay attention to our situation. It is a conscious awareness of our context and of the content of our thoughts, in which we link context and thought patterns together.

A deeper understanding of the meaning of mindfulness can be gained from examining the dimensions of Langer’s psychometric measure, ‘the Langer Mindfulness Scale’. The four dimensions are:

Novelty Seeking
The extent to which we see every situation as a chance to learn something new.

Novelty Producing
The degree to which we tend to produce new information, to understand our situation.

Engagement
The extent to which we notice details about our environment and how we relate to it.

Flexibility
The degree to which we embrace change, as opposed to resisting it.

Importantly, Langer’s definitions do not require meditation as a means of achieving mindfulness. Meditation, she says, is a tool. You can use it to become mindful, but you can also become mindful without meditation.

… and why does it matter to managers?

Langer asserts that most leadership problems are a result of inattention, and that organisations which create an environment that fosters mindfulness also become more effective and more innovative. This comes from her study of how people handle mistakes, which has found that a greater level of awareness of the potential for error leads to better and more flexible solutions to problems. Mindfulness reduces accidents and errors, and it also seems to reduce stress levels. Perhaps less surprising, mindfulness and attention to the people around us results in our being rated as more charismatic.

So how can you become more mindful?

Most important of all, start noticing things: be wholly present in the moment. When you find yourself worrying, examine the thoughts going through your head.If you need to make a decision, look ahead and consider how you will make it work. This way, you can notice events that are unexpected, rather than letting your cruise control run your life and therefore fail to notice small deviations. Become curious: when you do notice something, don’t just let it go past, but enquire into it. And finally, learn to savour experiences and small pleasures.

Ellen Langer speaking about ‘Mindfulness over Matter’

‘Most of us are mindless virtually all the time’

 Why we are ‘frequently in error, but rarely in doubt’

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Manage Stress at Work

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended correspondence course in management. You can dip into it as you go, or you can follow the course, right from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


As a manager, you have two stress management responsibilities:

  1. To manage your own stress levels
  2. To manage the environment to avoid subjecting your team members to inappropriate levels of stress

Let’s scamper through the basics.

Exercise 1: How to spot the signs of stress in your team?

In your notebook, make a list of all of the outward signs that suggest that a team member may be experiencing stress.  These are the things you could observe in their demeanour, appearance and behaviour.

Part of your responsibility is to monitor your team’s collective performance.  What if stress were an endemic problem?  What would be the indicators and behaviours that would signal this problem? Write these in your notebook.

For some examples, click here.

Reducing Stress

To understand stress, you need to focus on one thing: control.  We feel stressed when we do not feel we have enough control in our lives.  Therefore, to reduce stress, we must increase control.

Supporting your team

Look for places where stressed team members feel robbed of control.  Where you can, restore some of their control.  Where that is not possible, help them to find other areas where they can take control.

Points of Control

The five key points of control for all of us are:

  1. Our environment
    How can you or your team members make changes to the environment to feel a greater sense of control.  Often, very little things are enough.  Personalisation is an important driver.
  2. Our use of time
    Where can you use your time more effectively (you may want to look at the time management tips in an earlier blog)?  How can you give team members more control over the way they use their time to get their work done.  Autonomy is another important driver.
  3. Our physical response to stressors
    Simple choices like what to eat, getting enough exercise and prioritising rest and relaxation will make a big difference to stress levels.  Poor physical health will reduce our resilience to a stress response.
  4. Our mental response to stressors
    ’there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’
    Hamlet was spot on when he understood that it is the meaning we attach to events that determines our response to them: elation, contentment, boredom, or stress for example.  When feeling stressed, take control of your mental response and start focusing on what opportunities there are, what resources you have, and what there is to be grateful for.
  5. Our values – what is important to us
    A mismatch between what we are told is important at work and what we fundamentally believe is important to ourselves is a major cause of stress.  Examine your values – they may be out of date and you may want to shift, for example from: ‘it is important I work hard’ to ‘it is important I do great work’.  If your values are still out of sync with what your employer requires, you are in the wrong job.

Further Reading

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Type A and Type B

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended correspondence course in management. You can dip into it as you go, or you can follow the course, right from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Are you a ‘rush-rush-got-to-get-things-done’ sort of a manager, or are you a ‘take my time; want to get things right’ type?  Or are you nicely balanced.  Doctors Mike Friedman and Ray Rosenman identified these two styles as, respectively, Type A and Type B personalities.  When I tell you they were cardiac specialists, you might start to worry.  There is no need.  Take the test and then I’ll explain.

Exercise

For each of these nine statements, score yourself 0 to 10 according to how close you lie to the first statement (a low score) or to the second statement (a high score).

Type A-B Thermometer

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Casual and relaxed 0 … 10 Often feel on edge

Slow and deliberate 0 … 10 Always rushing

Dislike deadlines 0 … 10 Love working to deadlines

Patient 0 … 10 Impatient

Express your feelings 0 … 10 Suppress your feelings

One thing at a time 0 … 10 Lots of things at once

Ready in advance 0 … 10 Just in time

Plan and prepare 0 … 10 Just do it

Enjoy relaxing 0 … 10 Feel guilty when relaxing

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Interpretation

Friedman and Rosenman predicted that strong Type A personalities would be prone to heart disease and die young.  They were wrong.  Many of their patients did have a cluster of personality traits that they characterised as Type A, but only a few of them were truly predictive of illness – and not the ones relating to rushing about.

However, both Type A and Type B personalities each have their own challenges in operating in an organisation.  Let’s look at some.

Dealing with other People

Inevitably, we deal best with people who are like us.  We find them easy to understand and their habits agreeable.  Type As readily get impatient with Type Bs.  They want the B to hurry up and despair that the B has no sense of urgency about things.  Type Bs find Type As’ hurry annoying; they would rather the A would slow down and do things properly and are concerned about quality standards.

Dealing with Admin

Type Bs will take on the organising and admin tasks as another thing to do carefully and well.  Type As – unless they really value it – will rush through it, wanting to move quickly onto ‘proper work’.  They will then get angry when they can’t find what they need or get what they want.

Dealing with Interruptions

Type Bs may not welcome an interruption – especially when they are engrossed in something – but when they accept it has happened, they will turn their whole attention to you.  This is great for the interrupter and can lead to positive outcomes.  But when the interrupter has a non-critical issue, Type Bs can lose valuable time on the work they were doing.  Not so Type A’s.  The interruption may be unwelcome or a welcome distraction when they are starting to feel bored, but the Type A will soon be tapping their foot, keen to get on.

Managing Time

Type A personalities get masses done; often just in time and at breakneck pace.  Quality can suffer, especially when they try to multi-task, but it is Type As who are at the heart of the (perfectly true) cliché: ‘if you want it done; ask a busy person.’  Type Bs focus on one thing at a time and do it well.  They plan well and execute effectively, as long as they don’t get held up by an interruption or by finding a problem and working deliberately to solve it.

Exercise: Balance is Everything

The most successful people inevitably balance both personality types.  Look at your weak points and note them in your notebook.  What strategies will you use to neutralise them?

Further Reading

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Mental First Aid

nsad_logo2010Tomorrow is National Stress Awareness Day, so let’s take a look at a valuable idea from The Stress Pocketbook.

The Stress Cycle

Early in the Stress Pocketbook, author Mary Richards introduces a cycle of our natural response to stress, in the form of a threat or a challenge.

Response to threat

The problem is that, in a stressful work environment, we don’t get the time for our body to return to its normal state, before the next threat or challenge arrives.  So, instead, we get this result.

Stress cycle

Break the Cycle

One of the tools that Mary offers to break the cycle is what she calls ‘Mental First Aid’.  This involves turning your mind to something else, for example:

  • Daydreaming for a few moments
  • Self-talk to direct your mind to a productive approach
  • Thinking about how the situation is not so bad after all
  • Checking your attitude is positive

Physical First Aid too

You can get a far greater positive effect when you combine your mental first aid with physical first aid:

  • Control your breathing by taking slow, deep breaths
  • Release tension in your muscles
  • Sit up or stand up straight
  • Smile

More on Managing your Stress Levels

The Stress Pocketbook

The Stress Pocketbook is filled with tips and tricks and an essential guide. You might also like:

The Energy & Wellbeing Pocketbook

The Positive Mental Attitude Pocketbook

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National Stress Awareness Day

Today’s post comes to you from
Mary Richards, author of the Stress Pocketbook

12th Annual National Stress Awareness Day

National Stress Awareness DayTomorrow, Wednesday 3 November, is the 12th Annual National Stress Awareness Day. Organised by the Institute of Stress Management (ISMA) their website (www.isma.org.uk) contains a balance of practical approaches and chilling statistics. It’s worth taking a look at. There are some good tips and they give some sound advice.

Relax

But just to make sure that I don’t add to your stress levels today, I would prefer to leave the nitty gritty to the ISMA and choose instead to tell you a story. So relax for a moment, step down a gear; read, absorb and enjoy…

When I was about 7 years old, my grandfather took me for a walk. There was nothing unusual in this, we often went for walks. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we walked in perfect silence, listening to the birds, feeling the winds, watching the clouds, sensing the life around us.

As we came to the edge of the village pond my grandfather stooped down and picked up a stone. ‘Here’ he said as he passed me the stone, ‘throw this into the water.’ Laughing, I threw the stone high in the air and watched as it dropped, squealed with delight as it hit the water and splashed us. I quickly bent to pick up another stone, but felt my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder.

‘Look’, he said, ‘see what the stone has done to the water. You felt the splashes, now see the ripples. Wait and watch. See how long they last. See how far and wide they spread.’

And so we stood and watched. And as we did, I heard him say ‘As you grow, remember that you are like a stone dropping into the pond of life. You will create a lot of splashes in your life, it is inevitable. But just as you are responsible for your own splashes, so you are responsible for the ripples that come from them and touch the lives of others. The splash that comes from anger will send anger out to others. The splash that comes from kindness will send kindness out to them. You always have a choice. The responsibility is yours. Remember this.’

And although in my early years, I often forgot, I find that I am increasingly reminded by some quiet inner voice, that whatever comes my way in life, I have a choice. I have a choice of how I see it, and how I respond to it. My choice can make life more difficult for myself and others, or my choice can make it easier. My choice is my responsibility.

Have a smooth day, and a stress-free week.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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Recharge with Watercress

Management Pocketbooks is based in the lovely Hampshire town of Alresford.  The principal claim to fame of Alresford is as the heart of Watercress growing in the UK.  Thanks to the clear, fast moving fresh water that flows through around the town, watercress grows plentifully.

Watercress

Watercress has a peppery taste and is full of good things.  Those of us who live here use it as a salad vegetable and ingredient for most of the year for its taste, but it is one of the foods that can rightly claim the title of “’superfood’.  Let’s look at what’s in it:

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Vitamins:
A and beta carotene, C, B1, B6,
Folate (or folic acid) – a type of B vitamin needed to form new cells,
E, and K

Minerals:
Calcium, Iodine, Iron, Manganese,
Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc, Magnesium.

Powerful Phytochemicals:
Beta carotene, Lutein, and Zeaxanthin, Quercetin , Glucosinolate Family

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The Watercress Festival

This Sunday (16 May) sees the annual Watercress Festival.  This has been a consistently great day out, with music, dance and food a-plenty.  You will be amazed at the flexibility of the humble water-weed that is Watercress.

What has this to do with Management?

Managers, leaders, trainers, and educators – indeed everyone in today’s stressful world – needs to know how to take care of their health.  Here are three relevant tips – which you already know:

1.  Eat well
Healthy eating is a pre-requisite for long-term resistance to the effects of a stressful job or lifestyle

2.  Sleep well
Sleep is when your body goes on its full re-charge cycle.  Like the battery in your mobile phone, you do need to drain your body’s energy and re-charge it fully on a regular basis.  Your battery needs this at least once a month: your body is designed to work best with this cycle running once a day

3.  Learn to relax
Days out, relaxing evenings, pursuing interests and time with family and friends will all help you to discharge the stresses and strains of daily life

So here’s the deal

Get along to Alresford this weekend and enjoy the Watercress Festival.  Eat watercress, buy watercress and take it home to eat.  See you there!  Click here for directions.

Management Pocketbooks to help you thrive

EnergyWellBeing

The Energy and Well-Being Pocketbook by Gillian Burn is full of tips and techniques to help you maintain your sense of well-being and boost your energy levels, so you can be at your best.

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