“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

There’s increasing research evidence into how effective mindfulness is as a therapeutic tool for mental health issues like stress and depression, and how beneficial it is for improving our focus and concentration. The idea has been around for millennia in Buddest meditation and was bought to a secular form by Jon Kabat-Zinn with his definition above.

Last month I explored whether stress is a health and safety issue, and a key part of handling stress is controlling how you perceive the work or project you undertake. People often succumb physically to stress when they loose this control and feel overwhelmed by what has to be done. So the mind tries to give attention to everything at once and does it poorly which leaves us feeling even more overwhelmed and a downward spiral takes over. Time away to clear the mind can help but this isn’t always an option for some people. Learning to tune out from thoughts that aren’t immediately helpful is the key to regaining control.

Chalk drawing of a mind, inside is a figure meditating

It is through yoga that I personally came to the idea of mindfulness and letting go of competing thoughts that invade our minds. During class we would try to block out the clutter from our minds to concentrate on our breathing and I found this very difficult at first, but like all new skills it takes practise.

Mindfulness – being in the here and now – is all about focussing on what’s currently in hand without allowing other limitless thoughts to clutter the limited memory and attention areas of our brain. If these areas are cluttered we can’t process things effectively and we make mistakes. In this mindset you’re more likely to make mistakes and your ability to judge things accurately is impaired.

Each person needs to find their own method of practising mindfulness, but I find describing to myself (in my head) exactly what’s currently happening stops the other thoughts coming in and helps me stay on task and not get distracted. For example, when I’m driving I sometimes have other things going round my head that need my attention when I get home; an important call, a meeting etc. I’ve had some near misses so I know I need to address this seriously and I practice being in the here and now. Using my technique, I give myself a running commentary of the road ahead: how do I feel? when was I planning to stop? how many junctions is it until I should take a break? Whatever seems important to the driving situation and only that. It helps me stay safe when I drive because it stops my mind drifting off and getting distracted – a major contributor to driving accidents.

When I talk to people in culture change interviews they often say “you can’t prevent all injuries… something always happens that you don’t see coming” and to a point you can’t control every risk that’s true. However, being mindful of the situation you’re in and keeping your concentration on it in a deliberate manner brings us out of auto pilot. It allows us time to evaluate every risk and option we have and how we’re going to act on it. Plus there’s more recognition now that being in the right state of mind is a key control measure for many safety critical tasks like driving a train or captaining a ship. There’s also an expectation that people will take adequate rest breaks so they’re not affected by tiredness – another human factor that can kill.

Try it for yourself next time you perform a task that’s usually automatic and see how much more aware you are of the whole situation. A running commentary is a tool used in advance and defensive driving courses, but it works just as well on any task you really want to stay focused on.

Let me know how you get on.