Making Mindful Decisions

mindful decisions

Read Time: 9 mins

You should not see mindfulness as an addition to your life. It is part of you and every part of your life. This includes making mindful decisions.

Practicing mindfulness is not considered to be a mainstream medical intervention in western countries. However, there has been an increasing amount of research into its potential benefits. This has resulted in academic research programs and publications in peer reviewed journals.

The results are certainly encouraging and a lot more attention is now being paid to how it can be used to treat disorders and improve our daily. This includes making decisions and our performance in our careers.

One review of academic scientific studies from a few years back concluded that there was evidence that mindfulness would help a range of people in varied situations*.  It concluded:

Thus far, the literature seems to clearly slant toward support for basic hypotheses concerning the effects of mindfulness on mental and physical well-being. Mindfulness training may be an intervention with potential for helping many to learn to deal with chronic disease and stress.

In the cautious language of academic journals, that’s a pretty good endorsement.


Mindfulness in the Business Environment

Unsurprisingly, business has not been slow to turn its attention to how it may be able to use mindfulness to improve employee performance. Quite an impressive list of potential benefits have been identified.

For example, Michael Chaskalson’s book ‘The Mindful Workplace’ identified that employees who engaged in mindfulness exercises showed signs of:

  • improved attention, job performance, productivity and satisfaction;
  • reduced experience of psychological distress and neuroticism;
  • greater well-being and satisfaction;
  • increased blood flow with reduced blood pressure;
  • improved social skills;
  • increased self-awareness;
  • higher success in achieving academic and personal goals;
  • greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of their emotions and quicker recovery from bad moods;
  • less frequent negative thoughts with improved self-esteem and reduced dependence on external validation;
  • reduced defensiveness and aggressiveness when threatened;
  • enhanced ability to manage internal thoughts and feelings and resist acting on impulse;
  • fewer hospital admissions for heart disease, cancer and infectious diseases; and
  • a reduction in addictive behaviors.

That’s quite a list and I’m not saying you will experience all these benefits, but the research appears to be pretty conclusive.

Introducing mindfulness programs to the workplace can improve concentration, awareness and objectivity among employees resulting in action rather than reaction and better calmness under pressure. This is apart altogether from the general health benefits.

This conclusion has also been supported by leading business publications such as the Harvard Business Review (and here also).

So how might you use mindfulness to assist you in making decisions and in your career?


Mindful Decisions

One thing to remember about following a mindful decision making process is that while mindfulness helps you to focus on a single objective and to concentrate on the task in hand, this is very different from being single minded about something.

And this is a great benefit when it comes to making decisions.

You can set out a single objective for success, however you might define that. You have a single objective that dominates all others.

However, you should not be single minded about your conclusions. Instead you must be open minded to the countless alternatives to the one you have adopted as your preferred conclusion. An example will show you what I mean.

Let’s say you have decided on a career in retail sales. (If that’s not you, no problem. The ideas here are just as applicable everywhere).

You have made this decision on the basis of information that is available to you and thinking that this will provide a better outcome for you relative to where you currently are.

You may see opportunities, you might know someone who can give you a start, or you may have reached conclusions about your own talents that point you in this direction.

Along the way, as you develop your career, new information on what is involved in sales becomes available. You also begin to learn more about yourself. And you start to see new opportunities.

In other words, just about every one of the inputs to your original decision will change. Should the outcome of your decision process also change?

In many cases, people are faced with this new situation. But instead of stepping back and assessing their situation as it is currently they rationalise that the best decision is to do nothing.

In their hearts they know that they need to reassess what they are doing. But inertia is a powerful force.

mindful decisions

You have put a lot into getting where you are. Are you just going to write that off and move in a different direction?

There’s a loud voice telling you not to waste all that effort. But that voice may well be wrong. Because that voice is working on the basis of what you have done in the past.

You cannot change the past. And why would you wish to? After all it has gotten you to where you are now and you have decided that there is not a better path than you saw in the past.

You listen to that voice. It’s a pretty reasonable voice, even though you know it is wrong.

You don’t go against it. And you continue to not go against it.  You continue on the path you are on.

And now you really are wasting effort and time.


Using a Mindful Decision Process

Mindfulness will help you to break this very common adherence to prior conclusions and expectations by increasing your awareness of what is actually happening now.

It centres you in the present, rather than emphasising expectations about the future that are based on analysis undertaken in the past.

I think the following paragraph from ‘Mindfulness in Plain English’ by Bhante Gunarantana captures mindful behaviour, as opposed to this learned way of thinking, quite well:

Mindfulness is very much like what you see with your peripheral vision as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision. Yet this moment of soft, unfocused, awareness contains a very deep sort of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify the object into a thing. In the process of ordinary perception, the mindfulness step is so fleeting as to be unobservable. We have developed the habit of squandering our attention on all the remaining steps, focusing on the perception, recognizing the perception, labelling it, and most of all, getting involved in a long string of symbolic thought about it. That original moment of mindfulness is rapidly passed over.

This shows the contrast between mindfulness and the decision process above where you listened the reasonable internal voice.  The information about the present was known. However, it was rationalised as support for a decision made in the past.

Notice two important concepts in the passage above in relation to mindfulness. The first is that it is about awareness. The second is that mindfulness is only about this awareness. It occurs before the logical mind kicks in.

This means that learning mindfulness is not just about improving awareness.  You also need to develop the skill to leave it at that. You do not explain or categorize or internalize whatever it is that you become aware of.

This contrasts with our usual practice of being aware of only a tiny subset of our sensory experience and then applying our intellectual facilities to this subset to reach conclusions of some sort.

Often these are coloured by our prejudices and prior experiences, which are just just figments of our imagination and memory.

And even if by some chance we are objective in our thinking we will have ignored so much else.

Gunarantana goes on to say

Mindfulness is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation. It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. With this ability, one sees things without condemnation or judgment. One is surprised by nothing. One simply takes a balanced interest in things exactly as they are in their natural states. One does not decide and does not judge. One just observes.

Do you see the importance of this when making decisions?

You must make decisions on the basis of what is. Not what you want to be, or what you want someone to do or what you imagine is happening.

The flow of information, the inputs to your decisions, is one way only. It is from the external world to you. Never the reverse.

You cannot influence this external environment by ignoring, or refuting, what it is telling you. You must simply accept it.

The practice of doing so is a skill at the heart of mindfulness as captured by the following passage:

Mindfulness is an impartial watchfulness. It does not take sides. It does not get hung up in what is perceived. It just perceives. Mindfulness does not get infatuated with good mental states. It does not try to sidestep bad mental states. There is no clinging to the pleasant, no fleeing from the unpleasant. Mindfulness treats all experiences equally, all thoughts equally, all feelings equally. Nothing is suppressed. Nothing is repressed. Mindfulness does not play favourites.

It’s not a big step from this to say that if you make decisions mindfully then it is much the same thing in terms of its emotional impact for your mind to accept the times when you are wrong, as to accept that you are right.

If you can achieve this you will not experience any regret about wasted effort. You will not be defensive. Your only impetus will be to revise your decisions.


Do you Have the Courage to be Wrong?

This is a long way from how most people react when faced with new information that undermines an earlier decision.

Winston Churchill put it well when he argued that ‘to improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often’.

OK, the logic is not perfect, and he was almost directly quoting, without credit, from Cardinal John Henry Newman some 80 years earlier. But his own life showed that he lived by this rule.

mindful decisions

Do you have the courage to do so also? Do you have the courage to make decisions in a manner that might require you to change?

If you are new to mindfulness and what it entails have a look at this introduction.  There’s also a very useful free course called Mindfulness in a Busy Life that provides a good introduction and shows you how to develop mindfulness skills.


* See Grossmann, P., L. Niemann, S. Schmidt and H. Walach (2004) ‘ Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A Mata-analysis’. Volume 57, pp. 35-43


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