Zen and the Art of the Mobile Worker

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

In the classic American novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the unnamed protagonist and his son ride on motorcycles across the country. During the journey, the author ultimately finds peace. Yet, for our mobile workers, peace is increasingly hard to find on the road.

As the number of mobile workers grows, so does the stress on our roadways and as a result, on our drivers. A recent MIT study showed that driving can cause as much stress as skydiving. For mobile workers, this means a figurative jump out of a plane every day, without the fun or fanfare and with statistically much higher danger.

Driving has been rated as one of our most stressful routine activities. Even the simple acts of maintaining speed, accelerating, and braking increase our normal stress levels—not to mention near-missed side swipes, tailgating, and traffic jams which, in addition to making you late, have been linked to increased risk of heart attack. All of these daily stressors can begin to wear on anyone, especially those who spend their work days in their cars.

So what’s the mobile worker to do?

Mindfulness and the Workplace

A few other particularly stressful career fields – the Marine Corps, Law, Wall Street, and the tech giants of Silicon Valley – have looked to mindfulness.

Among employees at Google, General Mills and the Marines, mindfulness is being used not as an opportunity to reflect on the intangible, the mystic, or religious but instead as a practical method for improving focus and productivity.

Google, for example, employs a Jolly Good Fellow whose official job responsibility is “to enlighten minds, open hearts, and create world peace.” In actuality, his job is to provide free mindfulness training to Google employees. Each year, hundreds of Google employees take part in his training, called “Search Inside Yourself.” The focus of the training, and the reasons managers are implementing it, is to build emotional intelligence skills needed for peak performance and effective leadership and to bolster resilience to avoid burnout due to stress.

Mindfulness on the Road

While at your company, and in your car, you probably don’t have access to a “Jolly Good Fellow” or even a mindfulness class, but it doesn’t mean that mindfulness can’t be a powerful tool. In today’s fast-moving business world (which can move even faster on the road), resilience, stress management, and emotional intelligence are essential skills. And your commute might just be the perfect time to practice mindfulness and develop these skills.

It takes a lot of focus to be a good driver, so we’re by no means advocating you practice traditional meditation techniques like “clearing your mind” while behind the wheel. However, mindfulness – unlike other meditation techniques – is the practice of becoming present in the moment.

Instead of closing your eyes and drifting away, mindfulness involves being intensely aware of what is going on around you, and nothing else – not your phone, your outstanding emails, or what you have to do when you arrive at the office – which might not only help you let go of some stress, but also provide needed attention to the road and to improve your driving.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review provides techniques to practice mindfulness on the road, all starting with the moment you get in your car. It begins by focusing on your breathing, then by focusing on your presence within the car. Once you begin driving, it requires a conscious effort to be truly aware and focused on what you’re seeing, hearing, and your body within that moment in time.

By focusing on what you are seeing and hearing in the moment, rather than the “unconscious” thoughts of the million other things you need to do, you enable your brain to relax during your drive, ultimately empowering you to think and work more effectively once you arrive at your destination. It’s not an easy feat, but practicing these mindfulness techniques over time can help you achieve better judgment, focus, adaptability, and – perhaps most essential to the ever mobile worker – it can allow you to take a single moment in a day of battling the roadways to relax. So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment; turn off the radio; and tune in to the present.

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