I was on a train coming back from a conference last week and overheard a couple worrying about the state of their future finances if their child was to go to university. The husband recognised that this was a legitimate concern, but felt that worrying was not helpful and that it would be better just to let these feelings pass without necessarily acting on them. After all, who knows that might happen in the future? In short, the husband wanted to be more 'mindful'. It made me think about the growing popularity of mindfulness and whether it is being applied as it was intended, or whether its widespread adoption has elevated expectations that go beyond its potential?
Mindfulness is a 'response focused strategy' that, according to Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, means being aware of what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. Mindfulness can be a great way to tackle stress and to create a sense of calm. But is there a danger that if we only live in the moment, we don't tackle the cause of the problems that we were initially trying to overcome?
Let me put it another way - if we want to get things done then we may need to look beyond the now and tackle the problems that determine how we feel. Easier said than done, I know. I am fascinated by the difficulties that people (frequently) encounter translating their good intentions into action. Indeed, we have been investigating the reasons underlying the inertia that we often observe in consumer markets as part of my work with the Institute of Inertia, a partnership between comparethemarket.com and the University of Sheffield. The Institute of Inertia's long-term aim is to better understand the psychological reasons for inertia to help inform interventions and actions that can drive positive behavioural changes.
One possible approach is to form plans specifying how to achieve good intentions. Considerable evidence now suggests that identifying a good opportunity to act, a suitable response to that opportunity, and linking these two things together in an if-then format can help people to achieve their goals. These specific "if-then" plans are called implementation intentions and were developed by a German psychologist called Peter Gollwitzer in the early 1990's.
Planning ahead has the advantage that it is a problem-focused coping strategy that attempts to tackle the cause of something rather than purely focusing on alleviating its symptoms. While mindfulness may help to foster the necessary mind set required for change, in my opinion, problem-focused strategies like planning ahead must be put in place to look at what needs to be done to move something from where it currently is to where you'd like it in the future.
So, in essence, be mindful of mindfulness and ensure that it's not being used as a distraction technique or to the detriment of achieving behavioural change.