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Performance | Peer-Reviewed Research

To Do Or Not To Do

How Mindful Should You Really Be?

Based on research by Erik Dane

How Mindful Should You Really Be?

  • A cascade of literature attests to the power of mindfulness on performance.
  • But the benefits of mindfulness depend on context.
  • Because different aspects of mindfulness have built-in limitations, the practice can actually backfire in the wrong settings.

Much has been written in academic literature, the press and the media about the miracle of mindfulness. The benefits are said to range from simply feeling better to measurably doing better at work. Companies around the world have taken note: Cisco, Accenture and Microsoft, among others, have signed employees up for mindfulness training, and their managers have rhapsodized about the effects of digital-free brainstorming or “to be” lists. 

It’s not just a fad. Being more mindful, the literature shows, improves decision making. It helps us spot and circumvent risks or problems, and because it broadens perspective, it helps muffle internal bias, empowering us to see things from different angles. Former Rice Business Professor Erik Dane agrees with all this, but wants you to bear something in mind: Mindfulness has limits. 

In a recent article, Dane outlined a range of circumstances in which mindfulness can actually erode performance. Reviewing a broad spectrum of recent research, including his own, Dane divided mindfulness into three key components: being in the moment, being aware of internal as well as external stimuli, or “phenomena,” and being open and accepting. While each component offers clear benefits, there are also limits to their usefulness.

Consider, for example, the concept of focusing on the present. With high-risk, complex or volatile jobs or work settings, it’s critical to watch closely as events unfold in real time. On the other hand, during periods of downtime ⁠— even in these same jobs ⁠— the opposite is arguably true. 

Recent research shows the benefits of switching off and allowing the mind to wander, Dane notes. Daydreaming is a strong driver of creativity, a chance to ponder semi-completed or pending tasks and to plan for the future. When we’re doing routine or ceremonial jobs, or traveling from one appointment to the next, what Dane calls “mind-wandering” can actually enhance performance, especially for those people who need to manage multiple assignments or lead innovation within an organization. 

Then there is the second tenet of mindfulness: a combined focus on external and internal stimuli. In his own research, Dane has explored how this dual focus leads to greater breadth of attention ⁠— an asset for the likes of trial lawyers, university professors and others whose jobs involve integrating cues and inputs from an array of sources. A litigation attorney, for instance, needs to simultaneously process the responses of witnesses and jury members, while a professor needs to balance the progress of her lecture with feedback from her students. 

But what about when the lawyer needs to prepare case documents or courtroom exhibits? Or when the professor is marking her students’ exam papers? In these instances, Dane argues, a single-minded focus ⁠— free of pesky distractions ⁠— improves the ability to perform the task at hand.

Similarly, Dane argues, the third tenet of mindfulness ⁠— being open and accepting ⁠— can sometimes be less useful than being judgmental. Citing research into what he calls “moral judgments,” a type of decision that plays a key role in social or organizational settings, Dane notes that such judgments arise from experience. Switching them off through mindfulness practices may not only be difficult to do ⁠— it may squelch valuable, real-life insight

This doesn’t mean we should strive any less to understand or empathize with others. But, Dane says, it’s worth recalling that judgments carry “information distilled through experience and serve notice that discipline, training or mentoring may be needed.”

Embracing mindfulness as a blanket approach, in other words, is unlikely to change your performance across the board. Just be mindful, Dane advises, about when, where and how to cut your thinking loose ⁠— and act.

Erik Dane is a former professor and was the Distinguished Associate Professor of Management (Organizational Behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Dane, E. (2015). Mindfulness and performance: Cautionary notes on a compelling concept. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 8, 247-252.

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