Mindfulness and Freedom

Still thinking about the distractions of gadgetry (BlackBerries, cell phones, computers …) that I wrote about the other day, I came across two methods of trying to deal with this. The first is mindfulness training
A paper from the University of Pennsylvania discussed a

study in which training was provided to a high-stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq [and] has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training, or MT, and improvements in mood and working memory.

Remember working memory is the part that is impaired with the distraction of gadgetry.

The lead researcher, Amishi Jha, said that:

Our findings suggest that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness," Jha said. "Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick-and-considered decisions and action plans. Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances,

This is good to know as an article in the Economist (Schupeter, Overstretched, May 22, 2010) makes the point that

unemployment is bringing another scourge in its wake-overwork. The Corporate Leadership Council, an American consultancy which surveys 1,100 companies every quarter, reports that the average "job footprint" (what a worker is expected to do) has increased by a third since the beginning of the recession. The Hay Group, a British consultancy which recently surveyed 1,000 people, says that two-thirds of workers report they are putting in unpaid overtime. The reward for all this effort is frozen pay and shrinking perks.

The result of all this is that people feeling overstretched, and stressed. "The Hay survey notes that 63% of workers say that their employers do not appreciate their extra effort. And 57% feel that employees are treated like dispensable commodities. Half report that their current level of work is unsustainable. … For their part, companies are beginning to notice the downside of all this overstretching. Absenteeism is on the rise. Low-level corporate crime is growing. Corporate loyalty is on the wane.

Mindfulness training has a well documented body of research showing its benefits. One of the key proponents of it is Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Center for Mindfulness. He has researched and written extensively on mindfulness, including a popular book Full Catastrophe Living, and on his website there is a downloadable one page Suggestions for Daily Practice.

The second suggestion to combat the stress of endless information streams comes as disabling software. In the Economist's June 12 Technology Quarterly there is an article Stay on Target that discusses the

new wave of dedicated software utilities, and special modes in word-processing packages and other applications, that do away with distractions to enable you to get on with your work …. you can procrastinate for hours, checking e-mail, browsing social-networking sites or keeping up with Twitter.

To deal with these distractions a number of packages are available.

Some programs fill the whole screen to keep disturbing alerts hidden; others disable specific websites, such as Facebook, or even cut off internet access altogether. The idea is similar to parental-control programs that prevent children from accessing inappropriate content: but these are controls that grown-up users deliberately impose upon themselves.

The writer of the article is particularly keen on a package called Freedom

[It] may be the ultimate tool to ward off distractions: the virtual equivalent of retiring to a remote getaway, or going on a writers' retreat, to get things done. Launch the $10 program and it asks you how long you would like to disable internet access for: you can specify anything from one minute to eight hours. A second screen asks if you would like local network access to printers and other computers, or none at all. The program requires that you enter your system password, and then neatly severs your information feed.

It's a very simple, but powerful idea as the website proclaims

Freedom enforces freedom; you'll need to reboot if you want to get back online while Freedom's running. The hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat, and you'll enjoy enhanced productivity. Freedom does one thing and it does it exceedingly well: It helps you get work done.

So now I have two things to help me deal with work stress, mindfulness training, and Freedom. Both also useful to offer in the workplace to help people be calmer and more productive.