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Becoming 'brain aware' to calm chaos, boost productivity

Intel's mindful awareness program introduces employees to new skills for dealing with the always-on demands of the digital age. In the future, will businesses become more 'brain aware?'

Part one of this two-part series outlined the downsides of multitasking. Clifford I. Nass, a Stanford University communications professor who died in 2013, once said, "The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking." Here, we take a look at how a grassroots program at Intel is designed to clear the brain fog multitasking often creates.

It was a presentation by Clifford I. Nass on the detriments of multitasking that inspired Intel's Qua Veda to implement a mindful awareness program at Intel. "It's the opposite of multitasking," said Veda, an IT market research analyst who works out of the chipmaker's Portland, Oregon, offices. He began small, reserving a conference room at work and hosting a weekly noontime session in which he guided a small group through breathing exercises designed to help drive focus on the present moment. That was two years ago. "It started with, like six people," he said. "And just by organic growth -- people telling people -- it's grown to more like 150 people. That doesn't mean all 150 people show up for every session, but they can whenever they'd wish."

The noon sessions helped pave the way for awake@Intel -- an eight-week course (see sidebar) developed and launched by Veda and two other Intel colleagues to promote mindful awareness.

"Besides the experience of just being present, the other principle involved is having a nonjudgmental, nonreactionary attitude. You create a stillness [and you're] fully available in that moment" to respond to the situation, Veda said.

For example, before dashing off an ill-considered note to a colleague (or a boss), mindfulness helps employees differentiate what needs to be addressed right now from what can wait, Veda explained. The ability to discern between urgent and it-can-wait is vital to survive in the Information Age where every correspondence -- be it instant message, email or tweet -- exudes the same sense of urgency. By taking a step back (and a few deep breaths), Veda said employees bring their "full potential to bear on writing an email."

'Extremely frustrated and overwhelmed' to 'measured response'

That's a lesson Marne Dunn, digital literacy strategic program manager at Intel, had to learn. As fast as emails came in, responses went out. Once, when she didn't reply within her usual two to five minutes, a co-worker contacted Dunn's manager and expressed concern.  The time between the co-worker's email to Dunn and the complaint he sent to her manager was seven minutes.

Marne DunnMarne Dunn

The experience served as a wakeup call, revealing how "extremely frustrated … and overwhelmed" she was by the barrage of day-to-day tasks, Dunn said.

When she learned of the awake@intel eight-week program, Dunn felt the program's mission -- "to help employees become more present and less overwhelmed by our growing workload"-- had been written for her, she said.

By the third class, Dunn was not only looking forward to the classes but also spotting some not-so-great personal work habits. She realized she was turning distractions and interruptions into her workday agenda instead of thinking strategically about what she should be doing. In frantic reaction mode, she was not only feeling overwhelmed, she felt she was also perceived by several co-workers as being "angry or frustrated all of the time," she said.

After mindfulness training, Dunn became more aware of how her body responds physically to daily work stress, as though preparing for a fight. Rather than reacting, however, she now takes a few deep breaths before engaging. Her workload hasn't changed -- in fact, it's increased, she said, but she's figuring out how to maneuver through the digital terrain. "Not all 150 emails that come in to me today have to be addressed today, and I needed to learn how to navigate that," she said.

Mindful awareness is also helping with workplace relationships. When a flustered new co-worker became upset over Dunn's approach to a project, announcing "this isn't going to work," Dunn used the training to keep from getting defensive. "Instead, I was able to listen to her and empathize with how she read what her experience was and how she read the situation," she said. Her measured response led to a productive conversation, turning a tense interaction into something positive and possibly saving an important work relationship.

"Had I not had the [awake@intel] program, this dialogue -- this exchange -- would have gone so much differently," she said.

awake@intel's eight-week course

Week 1: Mindfulness/attention
The foundational role of meditation and inner stillness in mindfulness: intention, attention and attitude

Week 2: Awakened presence
How to use the present moment to "truly arrive and wake up"

Week 3: Intention
Intention as a guiding force for what we want for ourselves, in any area of our life

Week 4: Emotional intelligence
We are not our thoughts, emotions or life situations.

Week 5: Relational and social intelligence
How to apply emotional intelligence in relationships with others

Week 6: Vulnerability
Crucial for true innovation to occur

Week 7: Collective intelligence and emergence
Team intelligence emerges that is greater than the sum of the parts

Week 8: Employee and corporate realization
The hero's journey: "When we have the courage to face down our fears, we will emerge as the triumphant hero."

Source: Qua Veda, Intel Corp.

The mindful maverick

Incorporating mindfulness into the workplace is happening at other notable institutions besides Intel --and even spawning conferences. Wisdom 2.0 , for example, attracted thousands of attendees this year, boasting speakers from companies such as Zappos.com, Ford Motor Co., Google and Twitter who talked about the potentially corrosive impact of technology on work lives and how to better deal with digital tools.

That same thinking could be a competitive advantage for CIOs, according to Gartner. "Enterprises that understand the limits and needs of the most valuable and underutilized asset in their organizations -- the brain power of employees -- will capture a competitive advantage. Profits will follow," reads a Gartner report titled Living and Leading in the Brain-Aware Enterprise. Written by analysts Elise Olding and Jackie Fenn, the report was labeled "maverick" to indicate that it's "designed to spark new, unconventional insights."

Olding and Fenn believe the brain-aware enterprise will begin to emerge in the not-too-distant future. One of their predictions suggests that by 2020, 50% of the highest-performing leaders and employees will "routinely monitor and modify their own mental state to optimize their effectiveness."

They envision that the enterprise of the future will sport:

  • Nap pods to give the brain time to rest
  • Mingle rooms for brainstorming activities
  • Self-hacking techniques, so employees can stay on top of their own personal data
  • Distraction-free time, when employees can't be interrupted by phone calls, text messages and IMs

Far out? Even if such features never materialize in corporate settings of the future (Google excluded), managing a digital business will mean breaking out of "long-established habits" that erode productivity and drive workers to distraction.

"The easiest way to avoid old habits is to create new ones and to reinforce them regularly," Olding and Fenn wrote. "Small steps can make a difference if practiced regularly. … When this type of small step (or micropractice) is repeated many times a day, it becomes the normal way of thinking and living."

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer and chronic multitasker, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

This was first published in July 2014

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