Ignoring the inbox - a new morning mantra

Last updated 05:00 10/11/2012

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If you, like most office workers, open your email first thing in the morning, then you might be setting yourself up for a horrible day and wasting hundreds of hours a year.

The work email inbox is a "pandora's box" of nitty-gritty detail, gossip and distractions that are best dealt with later in the morning, and pressing the "send receive" button as soon as you slouch in your seat is the worst way to start your day.

These are the somewhat controversial views of Danish organisational behavioural expert and corporate consultant Rasmus Hougaard, who has taken his new way of working to international companies such as Sony, General Electric and Danish brewer Carlsberg.

"Doing emails first thing in the day is so ineffective," says Hougaard, "it is the worst thing you can do at work."

His teachings, in demand in his home country of Denmark and around the world, are based on a philosophy called "mindfulness".

Mindfulness has it origins in Buddhist traditions, stretching back thousands of years to Yogism, Taoism and Judaism, and has been applied to improve personal relationships, and more recently, to enrich the work environment. It is also being used as a therapeutic application in clinical psychology, as well as stress reduction and improving well-being.

"Mindfulness is basically a method to make your mind more effective, to achieve the things you want to achieve in life," says Hougaard, who was in Australia this week to promote his "mindfulness in the workplace" philosophy and to attract new students and trainers to his camp.

"And if you are a professional, a corporate, you have some specific things you have to look out for. Mindfulness will help you be more effective, by making you more focused and thereby higher-performing."

The problem is, explains Hougaard, the mind has a tendency to wander, getting caught up in emotions and distractions, from sadness over a past relationship, for example, or mentally listing the weekend shopping list. These diversions can lead to miscommunication, poor work and wasted labour hours.

For Hougaard, and others in the mindfulness school of psychology, it's all about being in the present moment and paying attention in a particular way. The mantra is: "on purpose, in the present moment, and non -judgmentally".

Followers also believe the therapeutic application goes a long way to developing emotional resilience, enhancing people's capacity to focus and ultimately act on what is important and meaningful in their lives and at work.

This has obvious benefits for businesses whose distracted, unhappy staff waste thousands of hours each year.

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Hougaard believes this daily wandering - who won Big Brother last night? What was that song on the radio this morning? Has someone taken my coffee mug? - can take up half of the average person's day.

"The mind is wandering almost half the time that we are awake," Hougaard says. "That means we are not really present with what we are doing half of the time, and that's quite a lot of time.

"If we can take this into the boardroom of any company, 10 people sitting around a room, there is a good chance that at least half of them are not present with this meeting, meaning the whole objective of the meeting is not achieved as fast and as high-quality as it could be if everyone was focused."

It's the same with work emails, says Hougaard, who is the founder and managing director of the Potential Project - a Denmark-based international provider of corporate based mindfulness training programs.

Hougaard, who has taught mindfulness to individuals and corporations in Europe, Asia and the US since 2000 and holds a Bachelor's degree in philosophy, says office workers are wasting up to three hours a day in the way they read and respond to emails because of the "wandering" mind and a lack of mindfulness.

And that unproductive time can be at its worst first thing in the morning.

"When you come in to work in the morning you have been just sleeping, and you have a complete open view of your working day. Most people know when they get in to work what they have to do, in terms of goals for the day, but then what happens is you open your mailbox and you are bombarded with all these nitty-gritty details and sometimes - many times - not very important emails.

"And your mind is absorbed into that rather than the goals and the priorities for the day.

"Studies show we can spend two to three hours every day at work on email and most of that time we are thinking about other things.

"We are allowing our mind to be distracted by incoming emails, or people talking around us, and we are basically not having the mental capabilities to stay focused on those emails and to deal with them one-by-one."

Emailing is a fast way of communicating, he teaches, but sometimes it can be too fast.

"A single word can be interpreted differently from the intention of the sender. It can cause minutes or hours of anger, confusion, doubt and other energy-consuming states of mind. Applying a short moment of mindfulness when emailing can save much time and energy. Mindful emailing is a way of training the mind to stay in the driver seat and never run on autopilot."

To help workers and companies to trawl faster, and more intelligently, through the flood of emails that wash up in the inbox every day, Hougaard has developed a morning plan for office workers when they first arrive at their desk:

* Take 5-10 minutes to get in the present moment. (This can include special breathing and meditation-like postures.)

* Take a few minutes to consider the main objectives and priorities for the day.

* For the next 30 to 90 minutes, focus on work duties (reports, organising meetings) that are of highest importance and require attention, creativity and productivity.

* Only after this, check your inbox.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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