When you hear the word ‘mindfulness’, what do you think? Is it meditation? Taking a yoga class? Or perhaps a casual cleansing of the aura? If so, then you might have misunderstood the concept. Author of Mindfulness in a Frantic World Danny Penman PhD defines mindfulness as “paying full conscious attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions are flowing through your mind, body and breath without judging or criticising them in any way.”
So, what does the practice of “living in the moment” have to do with engineering? Recent research from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) demonstrated that mindfulness could actually help engineers strengthen their ability to generate new ideas, which, in turn, could potentially lead to innovative thinking and better solutions.
The HBR study hones in on the requirement for engineers to engage in both convergent and divergent thinking to be successful in the engineering design process. So, let’s start there...
Convergent Vs. Divergent Thinking
To understand where mindfulness comes in, we need to understand the differences between these two approaches:
Convergent Thinking. Linear; involves going through a list of steps to get a single correct answer. Used by engineers to evaluate ideas to determine the optimal solution.
Divergent Thinking. Exploring different directions from an initial problem statement to generate many possible ideas. Mainly used by engineers in the design process to highlight a broad range of potential solutions.
The value of divergent thinking skills is evident, especially when we consider the importance of continued evolution and innovation in the engineering sector.
But, There’s A Problem…
The HBR study goes on to highlight the concerning fact that divergent thinking skills are absent from engineering education, which instead concentrates on discipline-focused technical information. This laser-focus on applying a series of formulas and rules to structured problems in search of the “right” answer, means that many engineers struggle with the concept of divergent thinking once they enter the workforce.
For several years, global organisations, including Google and Facebook, have been integrating mindfulness training in the workplace to promote creativity, emotional intelligence and overall wellbeing.
HBR’s mindfulness study saw 92 engineering students from Stanford University split into two groups, which were asked to complete two divergent thinking tasks, with one group guided through a 15-minute meditation beforehand. The results found that 15-minutes of mindfulness practice improved the originality of ideas.
Although not wholly conclusive of the value of mindfulness, the study suggests that both engineering organisations and educational facilities should consider how such practices can help kickstart the more divergent way of thinking that’s critical in today’s engineering sector.
What Could This Look Like?
Engineers don’t have to wait for mindfulness practices to be introduced in the workplace; instead, take control and try out these simple exercises to unlock your divergent brain:
One-Minute Meditation. Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out, concentrating on the rise and fall of your chest. Try not to think about anything other than your breathing.
Observe. Pick out a nearby object and focus on it for one minute. Pay attention to its shape, texture and construction as though you’re seeing it for the first time.
Listen Carefully. Don’t let your mind wander during conversations with colleagues or friends. Stop thinking about your to-do list or of how you’re going to reply before they’ve finished talking and listen instead, remaining in the moment.
Get Out In Nature. Head outside for a stroll and, if possible, leave your phone in the office or at home. Use the time to focus on the world around you and take in some fresh air.
The question is, are you sold on the idea of mindfulness as a tool for becoming a better engineer? We’d love to know what you think about HBR’s study and whether you already practice mindfulness for work purposes, so let us know on email@example.com.
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