Mindfulness - by Ellen J. Langer

The key qualities of a mindful state of being: (1) creation of new categories; (2) openness to new information; and (3) awareness of more than one perspective.

Mindfulness and Intuition

In dealing with the world rationally, we hold it constant, by means of categories formed in the past. Through intuition, on the other hand, we grasp the world as a whole, in flux. Out of an intuitive experience of the world comes a continuous flow of novel distinctions. Purely rational understanding, on the other hand, serves to confirm old mindsets, rigid categories. In an intuitive or mindful state, new information is allowed into awareness. This new information can be full of surprise and does not always "make sense." If we resist, and evaluate it on rational grounds, we can silence a vital message.

Mindfulness on the Job

An old Vedic proverb admonishes, "Avert the danger not yet arisen." To catch the early warnings of trouble, we must be alert to new information, to subtle deviations from the way things typically go.

To a large extent, mental and physical exhaustion may be determined by premature cognitive commitments; in other words, unquestioned expectations dictate when our energy will run out. New energy in a new context is known to most people as a "second wind." Mindful individuals use the phenomenon of second wind to their advantage. Staggering different kinds of paperwork, changing to a different work setting, and taking a break to jog or make a phone call are all ways to tap latent energy by shaking free of the mindset of exhaustion. (Mindfulness in itself is exhilirating, never tiring.)

Ironically, although work may often be accomplished mindlessly, with a sense of certainty, play is almost always mindful. People take risks and involve themselves in their play. Imagine making play feel routine; it would not be playful. In play, there is no reason not to take some risks. In fact, without risk, the pleasures of mastery would disappear. We tend to be more adventurous at play because it feels safe. We stop evaluating ourselves. Play may be taken seriously, but it is the play and not ourselves that we are taking seriously--or else it is not really play at all. It would seem, then, that to encourage mindfulness at work, we should make the office a place where ideas may be played with, where questions are encouraged, and where "an unlucky toss of the dice" does not mean getting fired.

Burnout, a problem in a wide variety of wokplaces from emergency rooms to corporations, is compounded by mindlessness. Rigid mindsets, narrow perspectives, the trap of old categories, and an outcome orientation all make burnout more likely. Conversely, changing contexts and mindsets, or focusing on process, can be energy-begetting.