These days, mindfulness is practically a household word. It’s not just your mom sending you articles about mindful dishwashing, either. The Seattle Seahawks rely on mindfulness meditation for a competitive edge, and it’s so mainstream that companies from Google and Twitter to Aetna and Goldman Sachs have embraced mindfulness trainings for their employees.
It seems that mindfulness is catching on as a hack for increased productivity for good reason. Even just two weeks of mindfulness training might be enough to improve reading comprehension, working memory and the ability to focus, research suggests. And really, who wouldn’t want to think more clearly while getting more done?
But if all of this seems too good to be true, or the whole concept of mindfulness seems a little easier said than done, we’ve got your back.
What Is Mindfulness, Anyway?
Mindfulness, as we know it, has roots in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 to help chronically ill patients who weren’t responding to other treatments.
Since then, clinical trials have touted the health benefits of the secular practice, which teaches nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment through mindfulness meditation, yoga and body awareness techniques. Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness meditation as “intensive training in Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism.”
The self-awareness that mindfulness encourages can help you differentiate between what’s really happening, and what is actually just a personal or societal narrative you’re participating in, says Danny Arguetty, M.A., mindfulness program manager at the University of Washington. For example, are Mondays really that terrible, or are you just allowing yourself to get caught up in that expectation?
“Mindfulness is an opportunity to step back and respond more and react less to life,” says Arguetty, who’s tasked with helping UW students, faculty and staff tune in and slow down. “It’s a practice of paying attention so we can pause and make more skillful and empowered decisions, instead of making decisions that are rash or reactive.”
The Body and Mind Benefits
To understand how mindfulness can positively affect your health, start by imagining the opposite: Do your days start with pouring your coffee into a to-go mug as you run out the door, barely having time to pull on your shoes as you rush to your bus stop or to sit in traffic on I-5? If you’re always hurrying from task to task and never stopping to savor the moment, your body will react to what it sees as mini emergencies, accordingly.
Cue the fight or flight response—your brain sends a stress signal to your adrenal glands, which secrete the stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, explains Kristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. These hormones help your body react in an emergency, but when they’re elevated long-term and in the absence of a real threat, like a car swerving into your lane, they can wreak havoc on your health.
Reacting to everyday stressors also strengthens the pathways in the limbic system and frontal cortex that are designed to detect threats, which makes us start to perceive these pretty harmless stimuli as things that are instead “potentially to probably dangerous,” he explains. “This continues to potentiate and activate this whole system.”
Regularly practicing mindfulness can help you better control your immediate reactions by placing some space between the “threat” and how you respond. Over time, you’ll be able to choose from a wider repertoire of responses, explains Rhoads, which can transform “how you interact with and respond to the world.”
Being more mindful might have additional health benefits beyond stress reduction, research suggests. For example, mindfulness might be helpful in alleviating chronic low-back pain, according to a 2016 randomized clinical trial published in JAMA. When researchers from the University of Washington compared the effectiveness of MBSR, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or usual care among 342 adults with chronic low back pain, they found that those practicing MBSR and CBT experienced greater improvement in function and less back pain than those who received usual care.
Various mindfulness practices may also be useful as a complementary treatment for improving diabetes self-management, preventing depression relapse, and reducing chronic pain symptoms, among other health benefits.
5 Ways to Practice Mindfulness Every Day
So how can you become more mindful? It doesn’t happen overnight—and yoga and meditation, while great tools, aren’t the only ways to practice mindfulness.
“[Mindfulness] is a muscle that needs to be exercised,” says Arguetty. “And it really is the little things that make the most difference.”
These simple tricks can make your usual routines a little less mundane. Bonus: they may even help you attain better health at the same time.
1. Have a morning ritual.
Mornings have the power to set the tone for the rest of your day, says Arguetty. In other words, start off rushed and frazzled, and you’re more likely to carry that frenetic energy with you for the rest of the day. Instead, try carving out 20 minutes first thing in the morning for a little alone time before checking your email, scrolling Instagram, tuning into the news or getting ready for work, suggests Arguetty.
Your morning ritual could be as simple as grabbing a journal and writing down a list of what you’re thankful for that day—you’re breathing, it’s a sunny day, you have food in your refrigerator.
Even having your morning coffee or tea can be an opportunity to be more mindful. Try focusing on the smell of the beans in your grinder, the drip of the coffee into the pot or the steam coming off the water as it boils, instead of making caffeinating just another item on your to-do list. Then, sip slowly from a favorite mug.
“It really is a matter of tempo and rhythm,” says Arguetty. “How do you want to start your day?”
2. Make the most of your commute.
Whether you get to work by car, bus or light rail, your commute probably isn’t your favorite part of the day. But choosing to use your commuting time to your advantage might change that, says Arguetty. Instead of starting every single day in a super stressed-out state by listening to the news or worrying about the inevitable traffic, try switching on a podcast or some music.
Spending your time listening to something that’s a little more relaxing and contemplative will help activate your parasympathetic nervous, which is known as the “rest and digest” system, Arguetty explains. That means you’ll be less likely to snap when someone cuts you off on the highway or your bus is running 30 minutes late. Plus, listening to music can put you in a better mood, which might make you a better, safer driver, according to a 2012 study in the journal Ergonomics.
3. Plan your time with tech wisely.
A whopping 40 percent of Americans check their phone within five minutes of waking up in the morning, according to a 2016 study released by Deloitte. And collectively, smartphone users check their phones more than 9 million times per day. That translates into a lot of missed opportunities for being in the moment.
To combat tech overload, Arguetty suggests first turning off notifications on your phone (the news and your Facebook likes will still be there in an hour). Then, set aside a couple short periods during the day when you’ll let yourself check your social media accounts, read the news or check email, he says.
Known as time blocking, this technique allows you to really focus on the other things you need to do with your day, rather than getting caught up in answering every text or email the second you get them—or getting sucked into a social media black hole.
4. Try savoring your meals.
Mindful eating is one of the most established of the mindful everyday activities, and there are dozens of books on the market explaining the ins and outs of how tuning in to what’s on your plate can help with weight loss, controlling binge eating, improving overall health and improving your relationship with food.
In general, mindful eating involves awareness of preparation, looking at, smelling and tasting your food, and chewing it more slowly, instead of just scrounging down a meal in front of your computer, says Arguetty.
To try mindful eating, aim for 20 to 30 chews per bite, Arguetty suggests. If that sounds daunting, set a timer and test it out for the first two minutes of your meal. Put your fork down between each bite and really focus on chewing. When you have a spoon or a fork in your hand, your brain wants you to take a bite (we’re all just animals trying to be fed), but removing the utensil from the equation takes the pressure off, he says.
Not only can this make you a more mindful person, it could be useful for regulating your weight. “It takes about 20 minutes for the digestive organs to communicate to the brain that they’re satiated,” Arguetty explains. “By slowing down, you’ll feel satisfied but consume fewer calories.”
5. Take a hike.
Spending time in nature, which there’s no shortage of in the Pacific Northwest, can be a great opportunity to unplug and reflect. That could be why one study found that people who feel a connection to nature have a stronger sense of well-being and are more mindful than those who don’t liken themselves to John Muir.
In another study, researchers found that people who took a 90-minute nature walk had less activity in the region of the brain that’s most active during “the type of maladaptive, self-reflective thought and behavioral withdrawal that occurs during rumination,” the researchers write. In other words, those who spent time in nature spent less time dwelling on the negative aspects of their life than those who walked for 90 minutes in an urban setting.
“Physical activity and nature seem to have a greater capacity to get us out of our heads and into our here and now,” says Rhoads. “I think attention to nature is important for more reasons than we can quantify, but a big piece of it may be acknowledging something bigger than us and realizing and accepting our place in the order of things, which can be as comforting as it is humbling. Individually, we're kind of a small deal in the grand scheme of things. Nature is an excellent reminder of that.”