How to Be Zen at Work

“In America, we hurry--which is well; but when the day's work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us...we burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age.” - Mark Twain

It’s often our main source of stress and anxiety, and while we may want to compartmentalize it as “just work,” the fact is we Americans spend an average of 9.5 hours a day at work. Just tolerating it, or worse yet, not tolerating it, would mean half your waking hours are kind of tragic.

So, what’s to be done?  First, it helps if you enjoy your work and find it purposeful. Once you get to that point, Paolo Gallo, Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum, recommends we practice “Zengility” -- “a combination of Zen Buddhist philosophy and the mental agility to understand and make sense of our surroundings.” He tells Forbes Magazine, “It includes the ability to have both a strategic, general overview, as well as detailed and granular analysis.”

Other experts like to recommend Zenning it up at work too.  Here’s five  to-dos for a Zen approach, none of which involve buying a sand/rock garden for your desk.


Find & Cultivate “Flow”

Fortune author, Camille Preston, says it’s about tapping into “Flow” as often as possible.  She defines Flow as those moments when you look up from work, see three hours have passed and you’ve accomplished a ton. It is the state of being fully engaged and focused, and Preston believes we must recognize our patterns for good flow and then fight to achieve them by cutting distractions and interruptions.


Learn to Let Go

Perfectionism will drive any worker to madness, especially if you work in a team (and who doesn’t)?  No one has the same expectations, vision or even work style and accepting that means doing a lot of deep breathing and detachment. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good,” and good is often all that’s needed to get the job done.


Isolate Urgent from Important

Nothing could be less Zen than running around putting out fires all day -- reacting and responding to emails, running off to impromptu meetings, and taking personal responsibility for every must-be-done-now project. One leading guru on combating this often default mode was former president, Dwight Eisenhower. He coined a model, now called Eisenhower’s Principle, that placed tasks into four quadrants:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important and Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

The model implores that we pay close attention to #2 -- Important and Not Urgent -- and prioritize it over the much distracting, and often falsely promoted #3 -- Not Important but Urgent. The key to a Zen and effective day means keeping this list in order and not letting the seeming urgency of non-important work light our day on fire.


Actively Manage Stress

Taking Breaks is key and even short breaks at work result in a 16% improvement in awareness and focus. So you skipping lunch and never looking up from the keyboard is hurting you and the organization. You’ve got to Sharpen the Saw, as Stephen Covey says, because not taking time for rejuvenation is short sighted.  There’s no heroism in muscling through stress.


Get Perspective

Going back to the Urgent and Important point... it’s key to get a higher-up and longer-term perspective on what matters both for your career and the growth or mission of the company. Once you have firmly established goals and values, you can make better decisions to eliminate fake urgency and prioritize what matters, including your zen mindset and job satisfaction.





Human Unlimited
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