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How to be mindful and proactive at the same time

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By Stephanie Vozza, Fast Company

Mindful means being in the moment, while proactive means thinking and working ahead. Both are important for your career, but they seem to contradict each other. Can you be mindful and proactive at the same time?

Losing your gut isn't just about what you put in your body, it's about what's going on in your brain, too. In a 2015 study, Brown University researchers asked nearly 400 people to complete a mindfulness awareness survey, which asked whether subjects agreed with such questions as "I find it difficult to stay focused on what's happening in the present." Then, they X-rayed the subjects' bellies to determine their degree of belly fat. The results showed that the higher people scored on the mindfulness survey, the less visceral fat they were likely to have. People who are less mindful have, on average, an extra pound of fat inside their bellies than those who are more in tune with their everyday lives and the world around them. Eating mindfully also happens to be one of the top weight loss tips from real people.

To be mindful and proactive, leaders must create separate space for both activities, says David Shanklin, managing director of culture solutions at CultureIQ, a culture management company.

“Mindfulness is really about focus and awareness of only what’s right in front of you, so not thinking about a million other things in the present or incessantly trying to multitask,” he says. “The trick here is really to be present with the future. When you are intentionally trying to plan, you need to be present with that activity.”

Mindfulness is often misunderstood, says Megan McNealy, author of Reinvent the Wheel: How Top Leaders Leverage Well-Being for Success. “Mindfulness isn’t showing up at work in slippers and meditating at your desk,” she says. “It’s taking the intensity we normally have and using it in the present moment. It’s okay if you want to focus on nature or birds—we could use mindfulness that way, too—but it’s really the intensity of focusing on one thing instead of five others.”

Being mindful as you look ahead is the best way to balance the present and the future. You’re proactive instead of reactive, and it can pay off in many ways.


Better relationships

Being mindful helps you pick up on other people’s cues, so you can notice what someone is doing and adjust your vocabulary to meet them where they are, says McNealy.

“Listen in the moment, and focus your entire attention,” she says. “Most of us are scattered. If you just focus on the other person and become immersed in the conversation, magical things can happen. You can tap into your intuition or think of something brilliant when you give it all you have.”


Achieving your goals

When you stop focusing on the present time and start planning your future, you can take steps toward accomplishing your goals, says Jason VanDevere, founder of GoalCrazy Planners, a personal planning system.

“Stop working for a couple of hours and make a plan for your future,” he says. “Once you have a plan written out of what you need to accomplish to build your desired future, you can direct your focus to the current step that is in front of you. By focusing on the moment, you will be focusing on getting closer to your desired future.”

VanDevere suggests ending every day by planning out the next. “By doing this, it will allow you to feel much more present after you leave work because you will not be worried about what you will have to do tomorrow,” he says. “You will already have a written plan of what you need to accomplish and how you will do it, so you can focus 100% on being with family or whatever you like to do after work.”


Creating stronger strategies

It’s easy to get caught up in the urgent “fires” that happen at work each day, says Shanklin. “One thing we see all over our data is that organizations don’t spend enough time planning,” he says. “One method of avoiding this is to earmark specific meetings for only strategic, forward-looking topics.”

Planning and strategy better enable focus, allowing you to be present with what’s most important right now. Ultimately, that planning can actually enable mindfulness or presence in some sense, says Shanklin.


Setting yourself up for success

“Often we can feel a tug of war between past and present as if it’s a zero-sum game,” says Sarah Greenberg, lead coach at the online coaching platform BetterUp. “But the truth is it’s often a false controversy. There’s a way to be fully present and plant seeds for a fruitful future.”

You can balance being fully present with proactively planning for the future by forging a relationship with your future self that can encourage you to take steps now that will pay off later. “Research indicates viewing a picture of ourselves designed to make us look senior has a host of benefits, including making better decisions that will help us in the future,” she says. “Find an app that can age a photo of you, or use your imagination.”

The best way to be mindful and proactive is to understand what mindfulness really is, says Shanklin. “Mindfulness is about focus and eliminating distraction,” he says. “Whether it’s being fully focused during a one-on-one meeting with a direct report or putting down phones and emails during a strategic planning session. Being present is critical to being at top performance.”

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