Practising mindfulness: increasing focus and clarity

Wednesday 20 January 2016

By Emma Agyemang

There’s a lot of hype around mindfulness these days. Once the preserve of Buddhist monks – the ancient eastern meditation practice has grown in popularity in the West as a result of modern secular programmes which aim to bring the benefits to a wider audience.

Many of the advocates of mindfulness can increasingly be found in the City, as firms seek to improve their employees resilience to stress in high-pressured environments.

The growing popularity of mindfulness has been fuelled by several scientific studies which have shown regular practice can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, among other benefits. Indeed CFA UK recently ran an event looking at the science behind mindfulness.

Improvement at work

But can a discipline with its roots in Buddhist devotional practice really help investor professionals be better at their jobs?

Yes, is the unequivocal answer given by former investment analyst Louise Chester.

She was previously a Director at UBS and Head of Research and Global Head of Telecoms and Media for Dresdner RCM. However five years ago, she gave up her investment career to establish Mindfulness at Work, a mindfulness training organisation which offers programmes to more than 150 corporates.

Defining mindfulness as the ability to be more aware, by dispassionately paying attention to what’s happening both internally and around us, she cites the key benefits as increased focus and clarity.

She said: “Practising mindfulness gives us the ability to choose where we focus our attention and to sustain it there. The average attention span is now down to eight seconds, which is actually one second less than a goldfish.

“And research has shown that we are off task on average, 46.9% of the time. So being able to increase our ability to sustain our focus is really important to increasing our productivity.”

Happier and calmer

Ms Chester began her own mindfulness practice in 1994 after a chance encounter with a neighbour, who introduced her to the subject. At the time she was working as a telecoms sector investment analyst and feeling overwhelmed by her workload. But, she says, after establishing a daily mindfulness routine she quickly noticed improvements to her performance at work.

“Within a couple of weeks I started to notice that I was feeling happier and calmer,” she said.

“The ability to focus my attention where I chose, and sustain it there, was really marked, as was the ability to be more insightful. Within six months I had achieved top Extel ranking and was headhunted by UBS to be one of their youngest directors.”

She credits her mindfulness practice for her career success, saying: “It just gave me that extra gear, that ability to achieve peak performance more often. It also helped me be a more caring person and better team player and leader.”

Better decision making

The performance-enhancing benefits of a mindfulness practice are something that Steve Ward, a performance and psychology coach who works with traders and fund managers, recognises.

He’s been coaching traders using mindfulness and other techniques for the last decade and has recently written a book titled: “TraderMind – Get a Mindful Edge in the Markets.”

He says practising mindfulness can help investor professionals perform better at work by supporting their health and wellbeing and facilitating better decision making.

“Neuroscience shows mindfulness has a big impact on brain function through stress and fatigue. For some traders and investors, it’s not uncommon to see signs of burnout under the intense pressures and fatigue that come with the job,” he said.

“Some are getting very minimal recovery. Their systems are on all the time– they are rushing around doing all the time. When we have access to tools like mindfulness, it can give us some chance to pause.”

The ability to look at issues from multiple angles and notice when emotions are clouding decision-making can also be enhanced by mindfulness he explained.

He said: “Very often traders and investors get caught up in their own thoughts around things that just happened or might happen in the future. Mindfulness helps us to be able to sift through our thinking, so we don’t have to buy into those thoughts as though they’re facts.”

Mr Ward says time-pressed investor professionals can realise the benefits of mindfulness in only a few minutes a day, with many of his clients practising for just 10 minutes a day.

He said: “Even if you can take 60 seconds two or three times a day, it gets you started. Mindfulness in small doses–even a mindful breath–can help.”

To find out more on mindfulness in the City, click here.