How Paying Attention Can Change Your Career

A mindfulness expert reflects on more than 35 years of research, finding we perform better when we turn off the auto-pilot.

How Paying Attention Can Change Your Career
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Ever drive to work and not remember how you got there? Maybe you’re preoccupied with an upcoming deadline at work, or a fight with your significant other, or the million other things going on in your life that you essentially cruise-controlled your way to the office.


Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Harvard University, has studied mindfulness (the act of actively noticing new things) for more than 35 years. She’s written nearly a dozen books and more than 200 articles on the subject. Recently, she shared her thoughts on why mindfulness is crucial in life with Alison Beard, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review. Here are a few tips for how to be more mindful at work and in life:

Rules should guide, not govern.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” (Gross.) In other words, there’s probably several ways to do something. At work, one person might approach a problem one way, while another comes at the problem from an entirely different perspective.

“When someone says, ‘Learn this so it’s second nature,’ let a bell go off in your head, because that means mindlessness,” Langer told the Harvard Business Review. “The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them. When you’re mindful, rules, routines, and goals guide you; they don’t govern you,” she said.

Mindfulness encourages better performance.

In a study of symphony musicians, who play the same music night after night, Langer and her team asked one group of musicians play something they’d previously performed, while another group was instructed to change the piece a bit. The theory was the first group would play mindlessly, while the other would play mindfully. When the pieces were played back to people unaware of the study, the preference was for the mindfully played pieces, Langer explained.

“There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign. But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance,” Langer told HBR.

Mindfulness can create new opportunities.

Langer has consulted for companies and encourages leaders to examine whether there are other ways of doing things. She recalled an experience working with a nursing home where a nurse was upset that a resident refused to eat in the dining room, choosing to remain in her room and eat peanut butter instead. Langer questioned why that was a problem, and the nurse was concerned other residents would follow suit.


To Langer, the “problem” represented an opportunity: if it was an one resident, no big deal, but if it was a number of residents, perhaps there’s an issue with the food quality, allowing an opportunity to evaluate and potentially improve a process.

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.