Mindfulness Tips for Behavior Change

Mindfulness has been receiving wide attention lately in countless books, published research papers, and mainstream business literature. The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness are indisputable, and the implications for coaching, behavioral change, and leadership development are profound. Coaches and clients alike can leverage their change work through these simple tips.

Mindfulness: What Is It?

mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment

mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment

Simply put, mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment. We cultivate mindfulness through any of a wide range of sitting practices, which can be as simple as closing the eyes and counting our breaths. Over time, mindfulness practice:

  • Develops our capacity to observe our experience objectively,
  • Replaces the inner critic with a neutral acceptance, and
  • Allows us to stay present with strong experience, and to choose an effective response.

Stay with me a moment. This will appear to diverge, but it’s temporary… we will come back to connect mindfulness into the change proposition that is central to all coaching and leader development.

The Top Down View Of Habits

Please understand that our culture tends to view behavior, and the patterns of default behaviors we call habits, through the lens of results.

In this view, organizational goals and objectives provide the context for all behaviors. Feedback, competency models, and change methodologies are designed to motivate leaders, and to support the development of new behaviors that are aligned with organizational goals. All of this takes place on the macro level of visible behaviors and organizational context.

A Bottom Up View Of Habits

However, habits are simply conditioned patterns of behavior that have become hard-wired and default responses to life’s complexities. We learned them at an early age because they worked then. Yet, given who we are now and our current challenges, we all have long-standing habits that limit our creativity, render us less effective, and/or cause suffering.

A bottom up view is that our habits arise from unconscious patterns of neuronal connections. Behaviors that worked in the past (say, when we were four years old!) become automatized by the nervous systems’ built-in learning mechanisms. Biologically, this is a great way to save processing bandwidth, time and energy: we don’t have to re-learn what danger looks like, or how to respond to it!

Once learned, however, our habits of thought and action become embodied and automatic. Never mind that our boss giving us difficult feedback about our sales presentation has little to do with our mother scolding us when we left a mess at age four; our nervous system reacts in the same way, and reacts far faster than if we thought it through and made a rational decision!

Five Mindfulness-Based Tips For Working With Habits

The bottom up view lends itself to exploration via mindfulness.

When, through practice, we pay attention to the nuances of our experience, we discover that all behavior arises from subtle unconscious impulses below the level of awareness. We begin to see that these “automatisms” can be directly experienced as urges to action before they lead to actual behaviors. We begin to intervene with ourselves, in the present moment, to choose more wisely how we engage with others and with life.

Tip One: Start Practicing

Begin some kind of mindfulness practice. (Guidance for this is important, and easily available; two starting points are Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, another Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness.) Research shows that as little as 8 minutes a day of regular practice can have measurable long term benefits. The main thing is to start, and to stay with it. Don’t be an overachiever… this isn’t about “getting it right.” It’s about starting, and simply doing it. Every day, even if just for a few minutes.

Tip Two: Track Sensation

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment

Include, in your mindfulness practice, specific attention to the sensations in your body. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s influential work on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction includes body scans, a formal practice of directing attention into the body.

Tracking sensation (for example, our breath) can immediately slow our mental chatter and settle our nervous system, bringing us into the present moment. Sensations help us recognize, for example, that we feel impatient, or that we are sensing a disproportionate urgency that may lead to actions we will regret.

Tip Three: Accept Your Experience

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment. We are not seeking to change anything, merely to be present with our experience. Our stance is neutral; we notice our judgment arising, and we simply accept that it’s there, and let it go.

This acceptance short circuits the sometimes automatic commentary and interpretation that naturally accompanies all experience. Through acceptance, we come to see the external situation as it is: objectively and dispassionately. And, we see, and accept, the internal reactions, judgments, and impulses that arise automatically in response to our situation, but which might not lead to the wisest course of action!

This neutral stance allows for a much more creative and expansive range of choices than the narrowed, reactive automatisms that often drive our behavior.

Tip Four: Observe Yourself In Action

Change requires being able to observe ourselves doing what isn’t working, and knowing what an alternative might be. Then, we must interrupt our well-rehearsed automatic tendencies and, in the heat of the moment, replace a habitual behavior with an unfamiliar one.

Self-observation is a rigorous daily practice of reflecting, and writing down notes, about the internal experience of our habits in action. For example, we come to recognize the subtle urges in our body that arise immediately prior to interrupting someone, or the way our own mental commentary comes in and prevents our listening to the person we are speaking with. These internal experiences are made more visible by mindfulness.

Tip Five: Learn to Stay Present with Action Urges

Impulse control is a demonstrated benefit of mindfulness. When we recognize, and stay present with our urges to take action (whether to grab a second cookie or to vent unskillfully in a meeting!) we discover the freedom to either act on the urge or not.

Familiarity with, and acceptance of, our habitual urges (which are revealed in sensation) liberates us from their automaticity. What we formerly were driven by, we now see objectively, simply as a phenomenon that is present, but one that has less and less hold over us. This is tremendously liberating.

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Mindfulness means witnessing ourselves in action. Doing so translates directly into greater choice, creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience. While this calls for discipline and consistency over time, over time the neural circuitry of presence, choice, relaxed alertness, and non-judgmental acceptance becomes increasingly embodied as a set of physiological defaults.

The benefits are indisputable, and the investment minuscule compared to the rewards.

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