Value of modern-day mindfulness

  • Columns
  • Monday, 31 Aug 2015

New technology sure is wonderful. Everything and everyone is just a tap away via your smartphone. But increased connectivity also means you’re always switched on and at risk of burning out.

The clamour for tickets from people hoping to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet at London’s Barbican Centre this summer made headlines across the world. Some fans have travelled thousands of miles to watch this admired actor take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles.While I wouldn’t dare argue about the brilliance of either this Hamlet production or its lead, there is another intriguing event on the Barbican’s summer roster: Lost in Thought: A Mindfulness Opera.

This interactive four-hour experience features music inspired by Buddhist teachings and encourages audience participation in yoga, meditation and even communal eating. Its inclusion on a lineup with Hamlet is a fascinating sign of the times.

The notion of mindfulness, a mental state achieved by slowing down and focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, is making a big impact on the field of business these days.

The life of an entrepreneur has always been hectic and stressful, but in the past few years increased connectivity has turned things up a notch.

Mindfulness is one way that many entrepreneurs choose to combat to the toll wrought by round-the-clock emails, long working hours and other aspects of our accelerated business culture. The business leader Arianna Huffington says that mindfulness gives her a competitive edge; Steve Jobs did too.

New technologies have transformed our workdays at Virgin. Smartphones, especially, seemed to bring only positives, giving people more opportunities to meet with others while remaining in touch with the office.

After all, real-life experiences and face-to-face encounters – with fellow employees, customers or the public – are where the majority of our best ideas have come from. But soon everybody began to notice that while work and one’s private life used to be strictly segregated, the line had blurred.

Increased connectivity also means that you are always at your desk.

Burnout is now a very real threat for many workers around the world, which is why we’ve taken the step of introducing unlimited holiday time and flexible working options at our head offices at Virgin. Other companies have intensified their focus on employee health as well. Arianna told me last year that at the Huffington Post, the introduction of healthy snacks, a wellness programme and mindfulness training has led to a fitter and more productive staff.The trick to not burning out is to dictate the way that technology complements your business and your working style, rather than allowing your devices and software to call the shots. One idea that’s making a difference is the concept of “fast failure” (perhaps we should call it “smart failure”).

Let me explain: There have been some famous examples from across history in which a would-be inventor’s persistence has paid off.

It took James Dyson thousands of attempts before he perfected his prototype for a vacuum cleaner, for example, while Thomas Edison went through about 10,000 failed prototypes before successfully creating the electric light bulb. You can imagine how they both could have benefited from a shorter failure process.

At Virgin we now have “fast failure” processes and technology that save time. At Virgin Australia, for instance, we rely on technology that gathers data on everything we do; an open dialogue with our customers via social media that allows us to respond to feedback in real time; and Ideas Lab, our internal innovation platform, which encourages “innovation champions” to step forward with potential solutions to problems the business might be facing. This means that we aren’t afraid of making a mistake, since it can be rectified quickly, and lessons can be learned and implemented soon as well.

This relentless pursuit of the best products and services for our customers across Virgin’s companies is essential, as we would never want to stand still. This pursuit of innovation, of course, requires a talented and dedicated workforce – and it requires speed, which can also cause strain.

This is where mindfulness training comes in, and it should be as important as any major technological upgrade.

When I went on holiday with my family recently, I wasn’t afraid to switch on my out-of-office email message. When was the last time you did the same? If you can’t recall, then maybe it’s time to slow down, switch off your phone and focus on the present.Your business will benefit as a result. – distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson is founder of the Virgin Group. He became an entrepreneur at 16 and made his first million at the age of 25.

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