What corporations can learn from yoga

Jenny Pan

A multi-tasking culture perpetuates a less productive culture, writes contributor Jenny Pan. Here’s what we can learn we can all learn from yoga for our tech-crazed, string of endless email notifications, red-flagged, urgent message, reply immediately lives.

Communications technology has accelerated the pace of business and trading in the global marketplace, but it has also increased the number of way to be sidetracked at work too.

How can you quantify the depth that technology distracts employees at work?

A survey of over 500 employees, cited in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article found this:

"Technology accounts for about 60% of workplace distractions — through email, social websites and even the time it takes to toggle between applications. About 45% of the respondents kept at least six items open at the same time and 65% said they used more than one device in addition to their main computer." [1]

After a week of seemingly endless emails, tweets, and conference calls, I attended my second yoga class this past Saturday to unplug. I was hoping to center myself, but while sweating a lot with other yogis in a trendy hot yoga class, I broke one of the cardinal rules of yoga – I let myself multitask mentally. However, I came up with a few lessons that can translate from the yoga studio to the boardroom and scale up the Zen in the office.

Lesson #1: Setting goals and pre/post reflection

Goals are a part of every company. They are what we use to measure success, failure, and trajectory. However, we do not necessarily spend enough time with the internal process of goals (i.e. setting and celebrating goals) because we are more concerned with the external process of goals (i.e. measurement, results, comparisons with the competition).

So what can we learn about goals from yoga? From the first deep breath in to the last deep exhale, my yoga instructor focused on the importance of setting, achieving and celebrating the personal goals we set for each session. She taught us to "imagine what things you want to achieve today." She constantly emphasized the importance of focusing on our goals and "being here."

Because we had a chance to internalize our goals in the beginning of class, we could focus better on executing poses. With the proper internalization of goals, prioritization and focus come more naturally. However, I believe that the most important part of the entire yoga session was the end when we meditated during our cool down. The instructor told us to reflect on the good work that our bodies had done in the class and that we should be proud of our accomplishments.

Despite the simplicity of reflection, I struggle to remember the last time I set aside time to reflect on my accomplishments. It is critical to set aside time to internally celebrate accomplishments before moving on to the next task because it automatically creates a sense of achievement and separation of tasks. It would improve employee morale and satisfaction in a simple, independent way by firmly acknowledging the completion of goals and bringing closure to our endeavors.

Lesson #2: Practice positivity and forward imaging

Imagine what your workplace would be like if a majority of the thoughts you processed were positive rather than negative. Imagine what your workplace would be like if the majority of your coworkers' thoughts were positive rather than negative.

It might be a trite exercise, but we all know we should not underestimate the power of a good attitude. "Shine your heart to the sky" is a common phrase that my yoga instructor used during class. She was asking us to lift through the front of our ribcage and to flatten our shoulder blades onto our back. So why didn’t she just say "stand up straight and stick your chest out."? Positivity. Without it, yoga would be a glorified stretching class.

You generate between 25,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day. How many of those thoughts would you categorize as positive?

Psychologist Michael F. Scheier, whose article "Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies" has been cited in over 3,145 other articles [2], states that the fundamental reason that optimists do better than pessimists as this:

"The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they're problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can't be altered, they're also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on […] Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings." [3]

Think that person in the corner office is too cheerful for his/her own good and smiles too much? Like the old wise adage says, "If you can’t beat them, join them," and perhaps you can take a page out of the optimist’s approach to problem-solving.

Lesson #3: Be there in the space for the community

Have you ever looked up from your laptop screen during a meeting and noticed that no one is paying attention to the speaker in the front of the conference room because they are immersed in answering their urgent emails? You might have felt as if the meeting could have been done over teleconference while all the participants were in their own individual offices. While yoga can be done in complete solitude, the class I attended emphasized the importance of the community of fellow yogis. They would love to say, "You are never alone. We are here for one another."

These were not just the warm welcome and sentimental parting words of the class – they were part of the foundation. The instructor highlighted the strength and support we gain and lend to everyone in the room by being in the room. They create a sense of belonging, pulling the focus of the people in the room to one common cause: we can accomplish more together by being mentally, physically, and spiritually in the room.

This is a valuable lesson not just in the boardroom, but for our tech-crazed, string of endless email notifications, red-flagged, urgent message, reply immediately lives. Research shows that only 2% of all people can actually multi-task [4]. What are your chances of being part of that two percent?

Think about this: people who are interrupted – and therefore have to switch their attention back and forth – take 50% longer to accomplish a task and make 50% more errors.

Even if you are the two percent, why take the risk of creating rework? We often emphasize Done Right First Time, but how do we support those words? We are guilty of not ‘being in the room’ so often that we let others do it too.

A multi-tasking culture perpetuates a less productive culture. So turn off your phone and close the top on your laptop during a conversation or meeting. If we can hold ourselves accountable for being in the room perhaps we can truly be the change we want to see in the world. Even if you think that is idealistic, reducing multi-tasking in the workplace can improve personal productivity, employee morale, and safety.

I don’t trust in my ability to convince you to take yoga class, but I do trust that the benefits of setting and reflecting on goals, the positive impact of an optimistic attitude, and the productivity of unplugging are very real.

Even if you have never stepped foot in a yoga studio, these lessons can straighten your warrior stance at your company. Just like yoga, listen to what your body (or in this case, your work life) is telling you and practice these disciplines often. I hope you can take these learnings to heart-center. Namaste.