Some days, I feel like my attention span has gone off the rails. Sure, that I run downstairs and by the time I’ve thrown a log in the woodstove and given the cat her snacks I can’t remember why I left my office could be attributed to ageing. But it happens far too often just sitting at my desk. I’ll turn to my computer and by the time I’ve checked email and Facebook on my way to Google, I can’t remember what fact I was trying to check. It’s getting old, not me.
So, when I came across an interview with mindfulness pioneer Ellen Langer in the March edition of the Harvard Business Review, I tried to pay attention. Then I started to realize how a lack of mindfulness has crept into my work routine.
“Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things,” Langer says. That’s one of the cornerstones of being a better-than-middling writer, right? We’re professional observers. But when I’m rushing from one thing to the next—whether physically or mentally—the truth is that I miss stuff. The telling detail. The quirky eyebrow tic. The framed photo of the source on the cover of some fancy magazine.
Okay, the real truth is that I don’t miss those details. I see them. I just don’t bother to ask about them. Details are helpful for color but they’re all but useless unless you have the story behind them. Just becoming aware that I’m regularly allowing these gems to slip through my fingers helps me remember to ask about them the next time.
Still, when your to-do list is a gazillion items long, is there even time for mindfulness? Langer explains that there’s more than enough time. In fact, practicing mindfulness frees up time because one of its tenets is to let go of all the judgment that surrounds our thoughts.
One way to do this, says Langer, is to imagine that your thoughts are transparent. (Yikes!) This forces us to stop our snap judgments and allows us to step into another’s perspective. As soon as that happens, bam! You start to see both sides of an issue and a space opens for better balance in reporting.
Langer explains how checklists can put people on autopilot, which made me think of interviews. I always go into interviews with a list of questions. Early in my career I would let sources off with easy answers. “It was a great experience,” they would say. My editor would then ask what made it great. This forced me to become more mindful in my interviews and not allow sources to feed me rote answers. (I know, it’s Interviewing 101, but I had to learn it on the job.)
But I rarely work with editors these days, and I’ve back-slid. Sure, “great,” “awesome” and their ilk are still reliable triggers to prod for more detail but I’ve grown complacent. Again, the realization has me reexamining my interviewing technique and strategizing ways to improve. (Emma Marris (bio) suggests throwing in WTF questions to improve interviews.)
Finally, Langer presents mindfulness as procrastination banishment: “The idea of procrastination and regret also go away, because if you know why you’re doing something, you don’t take yourself to task for not doing something else.”
Whoa! Now, I wrote the chapter on procrastination in the Handbook. I’m a pro. Is it possible that mindfully choosing to procrastinate will get rid of the guilt? That feels like a stretch. But what is clear to me is that becoming mindful of where I lack mindfulness is a solid step towards improving how I go about reporting my stories.