I’ve always believed that while technical skills are incredibly important to our success as IT professionals, it’s also true that there are a number of key proficiencies that we must acquire if we are going to advance in our career. Some time ago, I wrote a piece about how “learning how to learn” was one of these; after all, if we can’t acquire and retain useful knowledge, then surely we won’t be able to improve our lot in life. Today, I want to introduce another of these keystone soft skills as I’ve come to call them: mindfulness.

What is mindfulness exactly? I like this definition from the U.C. Berkeley Greater Good site:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

To put it another way, mindfulness helps us disentangle ourselves from the endless chatter in our minds. When we pause, take a few breaths, and focus on our breathing, we can notice all sorts of things flowing through our heads. Words, phrases, and whole stories float by in waves, coming and going like the tides of the great oceans. Sometimes these stories are good and useful, such as when we’re pondering a pleasant memory of time spent with loved ones, or thinking about a particularly knotty problem we’re trying to solve at work. But in many other cases, the thoughts in our mind can be downright harmful, especially if we get caught up in them. To continue the analogy of ocean tides: while it can be great fun to play and swim in the waves, it’s also true that if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves swept away by the powerful currents, suddenly becoming conscious that we’ve been pulled out to sea.

Some of the very same traits that make us good IT professionals can also harm us in this way. For example, I’ve found that the best technology workers tend to have an almost obsessive quality about them. They are meticulous and detail oriented when it comes to their work; they insist on doing things in pre-ordained and methodically planned ways, because that’s how you can get consistent results time and time again. They are also good at taking a problem, breaking it into smaller components, and chewing them up in the minds, ruthlessly chipping away until the problem is resolved. And believe me, until the obstacle is beaten, they won’t let it out of their minds.

Now, would you say that the traits I’ve just listed are positive ones? Really stop and think about it for a moment. Notice what comes into your mind, without judging it or questioning it. Focus on it for a few minutes, mulling it over. Then, write down what you noticed yourself thinking.

Chances are, if you’re like me, your reaction was largely positive. After all, these skills and tendencies are probably one of the reasons we are successful in our careers, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing. But at the same time, there’s another side to this, one that isn’t quite so positive. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

Not so long ago, I was working through some rather tough issues at work. We were in the midst of a rapid and rather complex deployment in the Microsoft Azure cloud, all of which was completely new to me. We were under tight deadlines, with a great deal of pressure to get everything up and running successfully. As with most new endeavours, we encountered numerous problems and obstacles that needed to be either circumvented or resolved.

Now my brain is a fantastic piece of machinery when it comes to this sort of thing. I love challenge as much as anyone, especially when it comes to novel areas of technology. So naturally, this work dominated my thinking almost constantly, even when I was not at work. I would find myself caught up in trying to figure out solutions while in the shower (Remember that cliche about our best thinking happening there? It’s totally true.), or while working out at the gym, or even while spending time with my family in the evenings.

One night I was deep in thought, researching things on my phone while getting the kids ready for bed. I was sitting in the bathroom while the younger of my two kids played in the bath tub. I could tell I was close to a breakthrough; the pieces were slowly fitting together in my mind, moving ever slowly towards a coherent picture. It felt wonderful.

Then, suddenly, a small voice penetrated my deep thinking: “Daddy, will you please come play with me?” It was my daughter, who was looking up at me with the typical wide eyed expectant look on her face.

I started to tell her that I was busy, but that I would play with her soon. But then, I stopped for a moment, pausing before any words left my mouth. I could tell I was about to respond in my usual automatic way; perhaps it’s my ADD riddled brain, but I have a rather pervasive tendency to speak without a lot of thought. But something in me also called out: “Wait, breathe, and be aware: what am I experiencing in this moment?”

I let my attention fall to my breathing, slowing it to a measured, purposeful pace. I noticed how it felt as my stomach rose and fell gently, how the air felt moving all the way from my nostrils down into the deepest part of my lungs. Then, after a few breaths, I noticed my thoughts floating in front of me: “I need to figure this out. I’m so close! Why does she have to bother me right now, all I need is a little more time.” I felt the powerful pull these exerted on me, urging me to ignore or otherwise dismiss her request.

But then I asked myself a simple, yet powerful question: “What’s the most important thing I can do, right here, right now?”

The answer came easily: spend time with my daughter. She is still in that magical (and at times incredibly frustrating) age where children look to their parents with almost magical reverence. Opportunities like this are precious, and I know that there will come a day when she no longer wants desperately to play with her Dad.

So what did I do? I put my phone face down on the counter, got down next to tub, and played with her. I let all my attention be directed towards her and me, just being fully present in the moment. From time to time, thoughts about that pesky work problem crept back into my mind, trying to worm their way in and disrupt my focus on playing with her. And when they did, I simply noticed them, said “Gee thanks for that thought mind, I’ll get back to you,” and went back to what I was doing.

That, folks, is the real power of mindfulness. It would have been so, so easy to get caught up in the tide of my mind, swept off, and totally miss that precious few minutes with my child. Instead, by bringing the gentle (yet oh so powerful) strength of awareness to bear, I was able to escape that path, and focus on what was truly important to me in the moment.

If that sounds awfully “woo-ish” to you, you’re not alone. I too once believed that meditation and mindfulness were largely some kind of mythical practice, mostly done by monks sitting in remote monasteries in the mountains. But over time I’ve come to see that as nothing more than a false first impression. In fact, mindfulness as a practice can be completely secular (if that’s your sort of thing, for some the spiritual elements may in fact be an attractive point), and increasingly has a great deal of scientific research behind it. For example, studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can lead to fundamental changes in the structure of our brains, reduce recidivism among inmates, and (perhaps importantly for us) reduce stress and increase resiliency in the workplace.

So how might we actually get started in the practice of being mindful? Simple: pay attention. Mindfulness is really nothing more than focusing our attention on what is happening in the present moment, both externally as well as internally. In fact, if you did the exercise earlier in the post where I asked you to notice what you were thinking, congratulations, you’ve practiced being mindful!

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not in the least! Our minds are so very good at pulling us out of the moment, into a state of anxiety or rumination. Even the best meditators and mindfulness experts still suffer from this; it’s just a basic part of the human condition. But over time, it does become more natural, and the benefits are tremendous.

In some future posts I’ll talk about some quick ways to get started practicing mindfulness in our daily lives. For now, I hope I’ve stirred some interest in learning more about this crucial and fascinating practice.

Why DBAs (and IT Pros) should cultivate a habit of mindfulness

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