By Christopher Lyddy and Darren Good
If you’re like most people, you’ve had the experience at work of sitting at your computer and suddenly coming to realize that you haven’t typed a word in ages. Instead, you may have just been mindlessly ruminating about a past incident with a colleague, or imagining the next encounter.
Getting “stuck” in this thought process, according to numerous interviews we conducted in a study of working professionals, can really interfere with being mindful at work. If this has happened to you, you’re not alone – in fact, it happened to everyone we spoke to. Our study helped us to understand when this happens – and how to get yourself out of this kind of thinking.
What is Doing mode?
Psychologists describe two different modes of mind: Being and Doing. Being mindful involves directly experiencing the present moment with acceptance, and as you likely know, is associated with a wide range of beneficial outcomes for workplace well-being, performance, and relationships (JOM). If we were only concerned about well-being, it would be easy to say “be mindful all the time.” They can’t simply be mindful “on the cushion” all day long.
Yet while working, we need to think in order to act, and that’s where Doing mode comes into play.We use this mode to recall ideas and memories from the past, use them to process our present, and then plan for the future. This capability enables us to perform almost any kind of work.
Using this mode, however, can be a trap. Often Doing mode shifts from helpful tool for planning action to “revving up” and dominating how we function. How does this play out? We become caught up in our concepts, our narratives, our selves, and our judgments and habits. We don’t just think through an email responding to our colleague, we become caught up in our own story about their faults and our interests, and then instead of writing an email correcting the issue, we write a nasty one pouring fuel on the fire. Just like in the example above, our thoughts rule us, keeping us from engaging the situation intentionally, and undermining how we feel and function. Doing mode offers only a limited set of tools, and often it’s the wrong mental toolbox for the task at hand.
At times like these, we need less Doing and more Being – but how is this possible? Our interviews suggest the need to identify we are stuck in Doing mode, shut it down momentarily to activate our Being mode, and then re-engage with both modes active. We can then work in a more mindful way, with greater acceptance, intention, and effectiveness. Inspired by our research and emerging clinical psychology practices, we suggest doing a new practice to help you get out OUT of your Doing mode.
How do we get OUT of Doing mode?
Specifically, we suggest doing what we call an OUT practice. This has three steps: Observe, Undo, and Transcend. How did our interviewees know they were getting stuck in Doing mode, and in those moments, how did they find a way to engage their Being mode? While our findings are preliminary, our interviewees reported a few steps for how they got unstuck. First, they noticed themselves getting caught up (or on the verge). Then, they disengaged and stepped back from whatever stream of thought and emotion was occurring. Sometimes this was a quick mindfulness practice, sometimes this was just an awareness they were stuck. Whichever they did helped reground them in the present, allowing the thoughts and emotions to dissipate, providing greater peace and intentionality. This allowed them to reengage their Doing mode, but within the context of Being. Based on these experiences, we now detail the suggested three-step process for dealing with these inevitable moments of getting stuck in our Doing mode.
The starting point for getting out of Doing mode is to Observe that you are stuck. This can be surprisingly difficult because a big part of being stuck is believing in the trap we have built for ourselves!
Here’s an example from our interviews capturing this experience. A restaurant owner described that: “Your brain is just on top of itself, telling you all that you’re doing wrong, that you need to be doing. I didn’t know how to quiet all that chatter. It was getting in the way of my creativity and functioning.”
Some emerging research points to hallmark signs of this state, which you can use to gain clarity and at least notice you are stuck in the trap. Two of the psychologists who pioneered Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) offer some ways to diagnose if you are stuck. Zindel Segal writes that “Whenever there is a sense of ‘have to,’ ‘must,’ ‘should,’ ‘ought,’ or ‘need to,’ we can suspect … doing mode.” His colleague Mark Williams describes the hallmarks of this phenomenon in four domains: thinking, feeling, action, and body. He suggests that when you tune into your experience, you can observe each, noting if you are, for example, ruminating about something bad in the past or fixated on some goal, avoiding feelings, acting on autopilot, or that your body is tense.
But rather than simply accepting words from other people, why not explore your own experience on this? Sometime today, pause for a moment and check-in. Do you experience yourself getting stuck in Doing mode? Is your mind revving about goals, fears, frustrations, or dissatisfaction? If so, you could be stuck! And that’s great, it’s an opportunity to Observe.
So you’ve observed that you’re stuck in Doing mode and starting to notice the characteristics of this state. At this point, you can begin the second stage of an OUT practice: Undo.
Rather than selecting actions based on your overactive Doing mode, engage the situation first fully from your Being mode. Here’s what that looks like, according to an interview from an analyst with a demanding boss. She said, “My boss called me really angry with a list of things to do. Instead of immediately my brain going into ‘I don’t want to do that,’ it was kicking into ‘uh-huh. Yeah.’ Just taking it in. What mindfulness tells me is accept what’s coming in.”
Undoing often involves straightforward mindfulness practice. You should stop conducting whatever action you are doing, then get grounded however you like to do this. You could mindfully breathe for 30 seconds. You could really tune in to one of your five senses, or focus your experience on whatever emotions you are feeling in that moment. Whatever you do, make sure you connect fully and richly with your present-moment experience. This step is all about being mindful, NOT about doing anything in the situation.
Where our advice goes beyond the clinical realm is recognizing that at work, you can’t simply shut off your Doing mode – you actually need it to work effectively. After you finish the Undo stage of the OUT practice, you need to “turn on” your Doing mode again – but from a different place, one grounded in the state of Being. This allows us to Transcend the limitations of being stuck in Doing. Instead, we experience Being While Doing, what our interviews show is the core experience of mindfulness at work.
What does this look like? A relief worker dealing with hurricane recovery found herself struggling to communicate and work with teammates. She reported that:
I found myself getting upset. These thoughts were taking over, I assumed that there was going to be an issue. Instead of losing it, I was able to do meditation, and get to this calm place where I can really see the steps that I can be taking. I texted him, ‘Hey, did you get this and that?’ He was like ‘Sure did!’ In my mind, I had made it this big thing. It was never an issue.
In this situation, she was able to first Observe herself getting stuck in Doing mode, then Undo that desire to judge her teammate, and finally Transcend this by selecting actions from a more mindful place. This led her to identify and fix a miscommunication in a calm way, leading to better relationships with her colleagues, a better team outcome, and most of all, peace of mind. This is the essence of OUT practice – neither Being nor Doing by itself, but rather, finding a way to engage in what we call “Being While Doing” – enacted mindfulness at work.