Technology & The Mind: What is Lost & What is Gained

In The Beginning: Mindfulness at Myplanet

Back when Myplanet was just a few wide-eyed staff members with big ideas, founder Jason Cottrell brought in mindfulness practitioner and coach Michael Apollo to introduce the emerging practice of mindfulness to the organization.

At the time, very few companies were investing in mindfulness initiatives, and the efforts of those that did were often scattered, lacking in direction or a clear objective. Still, Jason saw the potential for a meaningful, worthwhile resource for his staff and the resulting benefits to the company, so he gave it a go.

“Initially, Jason and I simply wanted to provide something new and unique at Myplanet that could engage employees and actively provide them with some tools and skills to deal with the pressures of a startup environment,” says Michael.

Fast-forward to today and Myplanet’s Mindfulness initiative has evolved and grown to become as much a part of our culture as geeking out over UX interactions or the latest updates to Drupal.

“Michael's work has been truly transformative for our team at Myplanet,” notes Jason. “We were fortunate to bake Mindfulness into our culture early on. We have since been able to quantify lower turnover and higher rates of creativity and customer satisfaction as a result.”

Continuing Along: Community-minded Mindfulness

Having seen the benefits within our own organization—and the rapid growth of the field alongside it—we often find ourselves advocating for the practice to others and in particular, to those in similar, tech-driven environments.

As members of the tech community ourselves, we’re particularly attuned to the delicate, yin-yang like balance we must strike in the pursuit of a more mindful life in a tech-dependent world.

At school, at work, at home— everywhere we are, we’re connected via mobile devices, and the seeming omnipresence of the web keeps us caught in an information eddy, never quite able to shut it off and tune out. The effects of this on our mental health, our stress levels, our productivity, and more can be detrimental.

But to tar technology as universally bad for our minds and lives would be inaccurate. Technology has the ability help us, to make connections and provide insights that can inform more considered and thoughtful approaches to nearly every aspect of our lives.

To dive deeper into this topic, we’re hosting a Mindfulness Meetup on Aug 10th at our Toronto office, and we’ve invited three expert panelists (as well as our own Michael Apollo) to discuss the intersection of those fields and their impact on one another. As a primer, we spoke to the panelists in advance to get a sense of some of the issues and ideas they have about the overlap of mindfulness and technology.

Here & Now: Intersection, Overlap & Understanding

Norman Farb PhD, Neuroscientist, Mindfulness Teacher and Assistant Professor Department of Psychology at University of Toronto, is among the panelists. He sees the impact of the prevalence of technology in our work and private lives in his research every day.

“We have let technology vie for our attention in a way we would never let other people, constantly interrupting us and selecting for us when we should pay attention instead of us deciding to attend,” he says.

Though the issue is nuanced and there are many elements to consider, he also notes that we’ve allowed this shift to occur, and if we want to change it, we can. “Pick technologies to use and use them the way you want to use them, rather than following some one size fits all mandate. We have way more power than we give ourselves credit for,” says Farb.

Jay Vidyarthi, MSc, Human Centred-Design Specialist and part of the team that innovated Muse, will also be on the panel. His take on the prevalence of technology in our workplaces and lives is similarly fraught. “It's a double-edged sword. In some ways, technology can really help you be in the moment. At the same time, always-on notifications and relentlessly overflowing inboxes become huge distractions.”

Finding the ways to use technology to our benefit while limiting the detrimental effects of split-focus and the “always-on” mentality is an ongoing challenge. But as digital creators, understanding the constant demands being placed on our attention makes us more considerate, careful, and ultimately successful in our work.

Mark Thoburn, Founder and CEO Wildflowers Mindfulness, Developer, and Documentary Director/Producer, is the final member of the panel. He sheds some light on meditative practices in day-to-day environments, which are quickly emerging as a research-based approach towards training the brain and familiarizing ourselves to how our minds function.

“It’s less about the impact of technology on health and wellbeing,” he says, “And more about the feedback that technology can provide as you engage in wellness practices, like meditation.”

“Technology is an enabler in this context. The role it can play in a feedback loop between the content we consume (and the activities we pursue), and the effects that this content and activities have on ourselves.”

Already we’ve seen the potential for applications and programs engineered to help, rather than hinder. Muse, the meditation-assisting headband, and Wildflowers, a mindfulness app, are two such examples of the power of technology to assist us in a more balanced and mindful approach to our work and private lives. But even simple actions, like setting a timer to remind you to take breaks can be enormously effective uses of technology.

The potential for harnessing technology for our benefit is enormous.

Looking Ahead: Blending & Learning

In his research, Farb uses fMRI studies to discern the impact of mindfulness training. “We have found that mindfulness training engages a more visceral/sensory pathway for understanding the self as embodied rather than conceptual, and that this form of self-reference appears to be protective against depression relative to more elaborated, conceptual forms of knowledge.”

By studying the impact mindfulness practices have on our brains, Farb and his team aren’t necessarily able to stem the tide of tech overwhelm, but they are able to inform us on how better to protect ourselves from it through focused training of the brain.

Incorporating mindfulness into our own workplace has had lasting impacts on both our bottom-line and on the engagement and well-being of our staff. Moreover, it has helped shape the way we think about what we develop for our clients.

In an enterprise setting, your design and development decisions have the potential to impact thousands and thousands of employees every single day. Finding ways to incorporate simple, more mindful approaches to the experience being built—something as simple as the power to turn off notifications outside of work hours—can shape the employee experience in pretty profound ways.

For Thoburn, the potential to use technology to improve quality of life is central to his work. “At the end of the day, it’s all about our relationship between our bodies, minds and meditation. We see our technology plugging into the circle of care surrounding patients. In this context, the opportunities for mindful tech are numerous, from cost savings and usability perspectives.”

And Vidyarthi sees the hope for a more mindful approach to harnessing technology as well. “We need to take a holistic view of how we engage people when we innovate any new technology. Technologies need to be designed in a way which is functional, but also takes health and well-being into account. As a society, we need to think carefully about how to regulate the use of harmful technologies and how to incentivize tech giants to value the mental health of their users.”

As we look to the future of things like wearable technology and the ever-increasing role mobile and social technologies play in our lives, mindfulness not only helps us find balance and equanimity, but helps us to better understand the demands placed on our enterprise users and how we can incorporate purposeful and focused elements into the UX of what we build.

Learn More & Join Us

When we started Mindfulness at Myplanet, we knew what we were up against: “The tech-industry is a ripe ground for your attention and awareness to be hijacked,” says Michael, “Intense teamwork, remote communications, tight timelines, long coding hours. It's a pressure cooker for the mind.”

As we’ve refined our internal practice and as the field at large has grown (“There are now thousands of academic research articles on it, Google's most successful leadership program is based on it and many of the world’s top executives are bringing it to their employees,” notes Michael), so too has our ability to bring both the practice and the insights it offers to our client work.

In our upcoming panel discussion, we’ll be looking not only at the current trends in technology and the overlaps with mindfulness, but also to the future of how these two sometimes disparate things can work together.

Join us at our Mindfulness Meetup on Aug 9th. Register here.

Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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