Mindfulness Can Help You at Work

Mindfullness card in window

Charles Murnieks, Ph.D.

Entrepreneurship is Grueling
Although entrepreneurship can be an exhilarating experience, it is often a stressful and exhausting one! In a recent study we conducted, the entrepreneurs we surveyed worked an average of 60 hours per week, and nearly a quarter of these worked well over 70 hours a week. That’s a lot of time and energy devoted to your work life.

We know that today’s business environment is more competitive than ever – a global marketplace inundated with breakthrough technologies makes it harder and harder to bring innovations to life. This requires entrepreneurs to work long into the night to succeed. As business scholars, we’re always looking for ways to make individuals’ work lives more efficient, more effective and more pleasant. Thus, in our study, we searched for ways that we might help entrepreneurs combat the feelings of exhaustion and stress that accompany working such long hours.

We all have been told a number of things that we can do to combat feeling tired on a daily basis. For example, we can go to the gym and work out or go outside for a jog under the beautiful Kansas City sunshine. We can consume coffee, espresso, energy drinks or some other caffeinated beverage of choice. Better yet, we could sleep more – wouldn’t that be nice! In preparation for our research study, we reviewed lots of research covering all these different remedies for exhaustion. During this process, we uncovered a growing body of work examining the health benefits of engaging in something called “mindfulness”.

You may already be familiar with the concept of mindfulness as it is often referenced in discussions around self-care, cultivating a grateful mindset, and practicing yoga or meditation. If so, you can skip the next section where we describe mindfulness. But…please keep reading! Through our research, we’ve observed some fascinating connections between mindfulness and its impact on entrepreneurs that may be helpful to anyone with a busy schedule.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to a conscious state of non-judgmental awareness of one’s surroundings and personal feelings. More specifically, mindfulness is a psychological state where individuals are attentive to the “here and now”, instead of worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. It involves paying attention to the current situation, and one’s own thoughts and feelings with an accepting attitude. It is awareness without judgment. Mindfulness exercises have been employed successfully in psychology and medicine as treatments for a variety of mental health conditions and physical addictions.

The key to mindfulness is developing an ability to observe stimuli, without habitually reacting. Observing without automatic reaction allows an individual more discretion and power to pick the appropriate response. This mindfulness process allows mental distance and more awareness, and is a precursor to developing more self-control over one’s emotions. This way, the impact of adverse events can be minimized.

Here is an example of being mindful. Say you are working feverishly at your desk one morning making last-minute preparations for a big presentation this afternoon. Your director stops by and reminds you that he needs the latest projections for next quarter by Friday. He also makes a subtle comment about how your last set of projections were not very accurate, and he hopes this next set will be better. While you and your colleagues think your director is competent at his job, everyone acknowledges he is not the best motivator or leader. Receiving a reminder that something you did was not up to par obviously bothers you. You don’t need constant praise, but you work hard and try your best on everything you do. You know that the new projections you are working on need to be good and you planned on working hard on them, as soon as this big presentation today was over. This comment upsets you.

If you’re being mindful about this, you pause for a moment, and reflect on the fact that you are upset. You observe your own personal feelings and state of awareness, without judging it. Meaning, you don’t chastise yourself for letting your boss upset you. You just notice that you are upset. In fact, this is probably a normal reaction to receiving criticism. Getting upset in the moment we are criticized is normal so there’s no point to beating yourself up over that reaction (this relates to the part of mindfulness that is non-judgmental). Instead, you congratulate yourself for noticing you are having an emotional reaction to an environmental stimulus. Being mindful, you also realize you do not have to let your current emotional reaction affect other important tasks. You still have an important presentation to deliver, and being upset about a comment will not help you prepare. The comment from your director does not necessarily need to affect your presentation. Rather, you can choose to focus your effort on your presentation, and when that ends, you can shift your attention to those projections that are due in a week.

In this way, being mindful gives us more control and autonomy over how we react to adverse stimuli in the environment. Now, in reality, being able to notice and compartmentalize reactions to strong feelings does not come automatically. It takes practice to be able to notice emotional reactions and to react in a mindful way. In our study, we found that individuals elevated their levels of mindfulness by practicing a number of different exercises, including meditation, yoga, and daily prayer.

Our Research – Mindfulness Helps
We were intrigued by the possibilities of mindfulness exercises in entrepreneurs’ work lives, so we surveyed 105 active entrepreneurs to determine how much they practiced a variety of different methods to relieve exhaustion (including physical exercise, consuming various stimulants like caffeine, sleeping more, and a number of different mindfulness practices). We found that two methods showed more efficacy in reducing exhaustion than the others: 1) sleeping more hours, and 2) mindfulness exercises.

We did not think it would be practical to tell entrepreneurs that if they felt tired, they should just sleep more. As we all know, sleep is often one of the things that gets sacrificed when work pressures build and deadlines loom closer. However, our findings regarding the efficacy of mindfulness exercises as an alternative to sleep were encouraging.

Our survey showed that practicing mindfulness exercises for just ten minutes per day reduced feelings of exhaustion equivalent to sleeping an extra 44 minutes per night. Obviously, we can’t replace sleep with mindfulness exercises entirely. Sleep provides critical physiological and psychological benefits that are irreplaceable. That said, for busy individuals, time is always at a premium. If we can find ways to make ourselves more efficient, that might help us be more productive. Our research provides some hope that there may be some short-term benefits to fighting off tiredness by practicing mindfulness.

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Murnieks, C. Y., Arthurs, J. D., Cardon, M. S., Farah, N., Stornelli, J., & Haynie, J. M. (2020). Close your eyes or open your mind: Effects of sleep and mindfulness exercises on entrepreneurs’ exhaustion. Journal of Business Venturing, 35.

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