How startups can use mindfulness to cultivate an innovative mindset

Susan Mackie

Susan Mackie, chief executive of Be Learning

The average person at work gets interrupted every 11 minutes, and it takes up to 23 minutes to re-focus on the task at hand. That adds up to thousands of hours, and dollars, wasted per year.

These are the alarming statistics that Jodie Gien, founder of Mindful Future, presented to an audience at the Commonwealth Bank’s Pop Up Innovation Hub in Melbourne last week, citing research by US-based office design company Steelcase.

Gien told attendees the way to achieve focus in a time of constant distraction is not by locking your door or switching off your devices, but by training your brain to practice mindfulness — a skill “as important as management or leadership skills”.

Mindfulness is the practice of “being fully present in the moment”, Gien said, explaining that she took up the practice as a way to deal with stress and anxiety.

After working for years as a human rights lawyer, Gien wore her stress “for so many years it became like a second skin”, but after encountering difficulties with her children’s health she knew she needed a way to stay focused and calm. The solution was mindfulness.

Gien conceded that mindfulness can often be associated with hippies and yoga retreats, but the reality is that mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere.

“You can practice mindfulness sitting on an office chair, at home, on a bus or walking around,” Gien said.

Listing corporations like Google, Twitter and Goldman Sachs as proponents of teaching their employees mindfulness, Gien said the reason so many corporates are embracing the practice is because it has immediate, tangible effects.

“We spend so much time at school, university, countless hours on the job training, but we are rarely taught to investigate the mechanism involved in doing the thinking — your mind,” she said.

“Your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy — it can make you happy or miserable.”

Mindfulness is about being calm and keeping your emotions in control in times of stress, a state that “shuts off part of the brain that helps you think logically”. Mindfulness, Gien said, “brings the monkey mind down from the trees to sit quietly on the jungle-floor”, allowing the brain to relax and approach stressful situations in “new, innovative ways”.

How to practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is as easy as closing your eyes, focusing on your breathing and registering the sounds and sensations going on around you, Gien explained. When your attention wanders, you can simply bring it back to the present and re-focus on what is occurring around you, she said.

“The moment you have noticed your mind has wandered away, at that moment you are practicing mindfulness,” Gien said.

Gien referred to this exercise as “bicep curls for the brain” because it strengthens the brain’s ability to focus for longer without getting distracted.

“The more you exercise the easier it is to achieve greater calm and clarity and focus,” she said. While it’s “normal for the mind to wander away”, the realisation this is happening, and the decision to re-focus after it does, is key to practicing mindfulness.

If done regularly, Gien said mindfulness can help you learn to stay calm when things go wrong; re-wire the brain to perform well under pressure; and cultivate “strong focus and deep resilience”.

“Failure is a way to innovation”

Susan Mackie is the former chief executive of the thought development-focused de Bono Institute, and current chief executive of human performance consultancy Be Learning. Speaking at the event, she explained to the audience that cultivating a growth mindset is also about developing a concept called “neural plasticity”.

Having a growth-focused mindset requires a belief that your personality, natural abilities, creativity and intelligence can be changed and strengthened by forming new neural connections, and weakening old ones, Mackie explained. This is achieved by constantly learning, facing adversity, and being open to feedback.

A fixed mindset, however, occurs when a person “views their basic talents, intelligence and abilities as fixed traits that will not change”, Mackie explained. While we are all born with a “zest for learning”, Mackie said this zest can quickly turn into recoiling from negative feedback and avoiding risks rather than trying new, innovative things.

Mackie said cultivating a growth mindset will allow you to “take on challenges and bounce back after setbacks”, which is key to creating new neural pathways and stepping out of old habits.

“Failure is a way to innovation”, she said, adding that “fabulous struggles” should not be seen as adversity to be avoided, but rather as opportunities for growth.

By challenging the brain, constantly asking for help, support, advice and feedback, Mackie said we can “push our brain and start to build new neural pathways” that pave the way for a growth and innovation-focused mindset. 

“You need to step outside your comfort zone to develop neural plasticity; if you’re not building a new idea or new IP then you’re not going to grow. You need a struggle,” she said.  

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