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The Space Between Stimulus and Response: Ergonomics of the Mind

“Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”

The quote above is often attributed to Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and founder of what is often referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychology”. (The first two schools, more widely known, are those founded by Freud and Adler.) The Viktor FranklInstitute however, can’t confirm that this quote actually originated with Frankl.

In any case, regardless of its questionable origin, the quote has become a keystone in mainstream mindfulness. The corporate mindfulness movement is finding practical ways to utilize that space between stimulus and response. The growing list of companies realizing the practical benefits of mindfulnessin the workplace includes, not surprisingly, some of the top corporations in their fields.

Google, Keurig, Intel, and General Mills are just a few. When companies in return-on-investment-conscious industries such as the insurance business develop mindfulness programs, one can only conclude that substantial benefits are to be reaped. That company is Aetna, which has been promoting mindfulness for employees and clients since 2014.

Six Seconds of Space at Google

Google’s Chad Men Tang leads a 50 hour training program for Google called “Search Inside Yourself”. In his informative article, “Just Six Seconds of Mindfulness Can Make You More Effective”, Tang points out how many of his participants enjoyed immediate benefits long before the 50 hour course was completed. Chad Men Tang’s articles on mindfulness can be viewed here on the website of the Harvard Business Review. Just reading Tang's article is enough to get started in mindfulness. The big secret is that there is no big secret to mindfulness, though one can always benefit from coaching by experienced meditators. By its utter simplicity, mindfulness practice can often be baffling to the stressed out overwhelmed mind. This is where coaching or participation in a meditation group can be helpful.

Science tells us that our brains are sent 11 million bits per second for processing. That’s an enormous amount of data for any computer, even the champion data processor of them all, the human brain. To cope with this tremendous volume of input our brains rely on past experience, or similar frames of reference, to resolve input more quickly. When this occurs, the space between stimulus and response may be so short that we have already reacted in a manner inappropriate to the present moment. As we move from situation to situation throughout the workday, we can use mindfulness practice to reset our minds and keep focus on the present matter at hand, without dragging the residue of the immediate past with us.

Space to Breathe

Taking just a few moments for a cleansing breath, focusing only on our breathing in the present, leaves no room in our space between stimulus and response for past regrets or future worries. We can see this in action, in the way a basketball player prepares for the crucial foul shot with a cleansing breath, or a tennis player calms and resets herself after a disappointing faulty first serve.

A cleansing breath for a busy executive between difficult meetings is a very effective technique for putting the stress of the immediate past aside, and resetting the mind to focus totally on the present task at hand. The technique works just as well for the production worker feeling overwhelmed by unending repetition on the assembly line.

Ergonomics of the Mind in the Workplace

Many companies are already fully engaged in ergonomics programs for the body, rightfully concerned about the health and physical well-being of their employees. Ergonomic keyboards, chairs, and desks with adjustable heights, to suit each individual’s needs, all reflect the company’s wise investment in reducing stress and sick time, and increasing productivity. They need now take it just one step further to include mindfulness for a complete ergonomic program. A few paid minutes for focused breathing exercises throughout the day is sure to show a high return on investment.

Many companies already routinely begin their shifts with a five minute stretching routine to prepare employees for the physical demands of the production lines, as a part of their comprehensive safety programs. Its highly likely that forward looking corporations such as these won’t be long in expanding their employee safety and wellness programs to include mindfulness practice as a significant part of the daily work routine.

Mainstream Mindfulness

When articles on mindfulness are posted at the Harvard Business Review, you can be sure that mindfulness is a concept taken seriously by the business world. The book “Mindful Work” by NY Times reporter David Gelles is further evidence of the trend toward mainstream mindfulness.

Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce says of the book in his review, “Mindfulness is a practice we need to embrace, and we cannot be afraid to follow this path.”

We most mindfully agree!

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