Welles: Mindful work

Many of us have a growing sense that too much information is coming at us too fast.

Information technologies, including e-mail and the Web, have transformed the way we work, but the stress of living in an accelerated, information-loaded environment is taking a toll.

Judy Welles

Although most people would agree that IT has improved our quality of life, many of us also have a growing sense that too much information is coming at us too fast. Life seems to be speeding up, and we are losing time to think and focus our attention.

“It seems natural to explore how contemplative practices might help us design workplaces and work technologies that support more healthful and productive forms of work,” said David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School.

Levy spoke about IT and what he termed “mindful work” during a recent forum at the Library of Congress. An IT scholar and researcher, Levy said we should practice “information environmentalism” and balance our “inner landscape” with the speed and quantity of information confronting us.

He called for a new approach to interacting with IT. If e-mail is a constant source of distraction, people should view messages only at designated times to allow for greater concentration. And they should adopt technology that enables them to stand or walk around while working, instead of always crouching in front of a screen.

“Life is more and more a task schedule,” Levy said. Mindful work means setting aside contemplative time. Some companies and government agencies already make yoga classes available to help employees do just that. A mindful approach to work might also mean changing habits to allow for a greater focus on what matters.

Here are four areas Levy said we should focus on:

1. Humanity matters. Work practices could be better tuned to people. Levy argues that we need to bring a sense of humanity back into the workplace to guide practices and technology.

2. Attention matters. Although many of us routinely multitask, error rates increase with the number of activities we try to perform simultaneously. We must find ways to slow down and focus on what we are doing. We also need to slow down so we can connect with others.

3. Body matters. Increasing evidence suggests that stress affects health. Simple activities such as concentrating on our breathing for 60 seconds can be calming. Out of the office, we need to make time for leisure.

4. Connection matters. Although technology can help people connect, the volume of e-mail messages, instant messages and phone calls often disconnects us from one another. Taking time to reflect can help people feel more connected and productive.

Levy envisions a busy virtual environment that is also calming. He advocates technology advances that will bring a new understanding of work. Mindful work might be easier said than done for most of us, but it is worth considering.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.