Presented by Aetna

6 Steps To Turn Mindless Activities Into Mindful Ones

01/28/2016 12:00 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2016
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Coloring books for adults currently top a number of bestseller lists. And they have become a staple in bookstores, grocery stores and drugstores. But, let’s be clear, coloring in a book doesn’t automatically mean that you’re being mindful. Mindfulness isn’t about what you are doing; it’s about how you are doing it. There are techniques to apply and steps to learn. And we can actually apply these same steps to other “mindless” activities to make them more mindful too. With that in mind, we partnered with Aetna and turned to mindfulness experts to find out what steps to take to turn “ordinary” activities -- like knitting, gardening, coloring or even drinking coffee -- into mindful ones.

1. Breathe: Begin With Respiration
“Mindfulness starts with awareness of breathing,” explained Cheryl Jones, a mindfulness expert, resilience coach and a wellness program lead for Aetna. And the key word here is “awareness.” Jones said there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to breathe. “There’s no particular technique. You don’t need to take a deep breath. Your breath may be shallow or choppy. What is important is to notice that the body is breathing -- to have a gentle awareness of the air flowing in and out. Every time we pay attention to one breath moving in and out of the body, we connect the body and the mind.”

2. Notice: Take It All In
Use all of your senses and pay attention to the details of your activity. It is recognition and appreciation of the moment. “There are thousands of details arising in every moment that can pass by without conscious notice such as the quality of light where you are sitting, the texture of your clothing, the aroma of your cologne, the gentle hum of the clock or the way the ‘T’ on your keyboard has rubbed off from use,” said Jamie Derrick, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate clinical professor at the University of Idaho. “When we engage in the world with the eye of a poet or artist, we see that nothing that seems ordinary really is.”

3. Engage: Be In The Moment
Pay attention to your task or activity. Don’t focus on the past. Don’t plan ahead about what to make for dinner. “This is challenging and takes practice, because every moment our attention is pulled in many directions,” said Jenny Mills, M.Ed., founder of Roots & Wings, an organization working to make mindfulness accessible to teachers, youth, and families. “I always talk about attention like a flashlight in your brain. With mindfulness, we strengthen our ability to control our ‘flashlight of attention’ so it stays put where we want it to be."

Laury Rappaport*, Ph.D., founder and director of the Focusing and Expressive Arts Institute, agreed: “There are times in certain activities when the artist or ‘creator’ gets into the ‘flow.’ In these moments, thoughts, feelings and body sensations can even take a back seat and the dominant feeling is one of peace and calm, where time disappears.”

4. Discover: Delight In The Unexpected
Try as you might, your mind will -- in fact -- wander, even when you are in the moment, and that is OK. These thoughts, discoveries or new connections that are made when one’s mind wanders help “stimulate creativity and inspire innovation,” Jones said. These are occasions when we may grasp upon something that will help us solve problems with out-of-the-box ideas.

“When painting, for example, you may be focusing on the strokes of the paintbrush as it glides along your page, when suddenly you realize your attention has shifted to thoughts of how to mix those two hues of blue to paint the perfect night sky. It is not uncommon for your mind to generate great insights when you apply mindful awareness to the task at hand -- whether that be painting or even just breathing,” Mills said.

5. Accept: Acknowledge Distractions, Return To Actions
“When a person is fully engaged, distracting thoughts, feelings and sensations often fade into the background. But this can change when the critical mind comes in and judges: ‘That’s not good enough. You’re not doing it right,’” Rappaport said.

As your inner critic starts talking, it’s OK to acknowledge the voice; pause; and bring your awareness back to what you are doing. Mills said, “We constantly evaluate ourselves as we do almost anything. There are benchmarks in our head that we are either meeting or not meeting with every move.” Mills added that at these times she advises to gently acknowledge our thoughts, critiques and doubts -- and then let them pass.

At the arrival of a distracting thought, Jones said, you allow yourself to “notice” it. “You don’t have to always be positive. Notice the thought, notice what’s distracting you, and then let is go. It’s like watching clouds move in the sky.”

6. Savor: Revel In The Joy Of Small Moments
“The mind is wired for negativity, and we’re less likely to take in the positive moments. Teach yourself to pause. Be present. Be nourished by the positive moments of the day,” Jones went on. “Taking in those moments can also help us get through the negative ones.”

To savor something is to engage in the “fine art of elongating or stretching wide our pleasurable experience of it,” Derrick said. She explained that when we slow down, focus and maintain our sustained attention when we are doing something that seems ordinary like knitting, cooking or coloring in a book, we can be present to the “beautiful, touching, delicious moments; the joy over the small wonders; and the delights of the everyday experience.”

This content is sponsored by Aetna. It is for general informational purposes only, and is not meant to replace the advice, diagnosis or treatment of a physician or other health care professional. Learn more about mindfulness and get tips for practicing mindfulness every day by visiting aetnamindfulness.com.

*The medical professional referenced in this article participates directly in some of Aetna’s provider networks.

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