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Mindful Work

March 10, 2015


David Gelles captures what the "mindfulness movement" means for, and in, business.

An investigation into the growing trend among major companies, including Fortune 100 giants, to promote mindful activities like meditation and yoga in the workplace, and its often surprising effects on productivity, strategy, and employees' mental health.

One of the most surprising and promising trends in business today is the rise of mindfulness in the workplace. From small companies to multinational corporations, more and more people are meditating on the job, and with good reason: mindfulness can make us more focused, more effective, and happier. In Mindful Work, New York Times staff writer David Gelles injects Eastern wisdom into Western business and charts this development, plots its future, and weighs its benefits, while showing readers how to become more mindful in their professional and personal lives. One of Gelles's main goals is to show us how to remain focused on the task at hand and to stay truly present in our jobs, instead of allowing distractions like the night's meal and laundry list of to-do's hinder our productivity at work.

Aside from his years reporting the business beat (first at the Financial Times, and now at the New York Times), Gelles brings fifteen years of mindfulness training and practice to this book. And he blends it all together with engaging stories that take us from meditation retreats in Bodh Gaya to neuroscience labs mapping mindfulness with an EEG, from Eileen Fisher's integration of meditation, Pilates, and yoga into office life to Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard's focus on mindful consumption and sustainability.

This is a book that appeals to readers looking to increase productivity in the workplace and boost morale; improve their own health in the workplace; put practices learned in the book toward balancing home life and personal relationships; explore future economic ramifications; and pass down a legacy of mindfulness to their children.

A Conversation with David Gelles

Q: How did the idea for Mindful Work originate?

A: Fifteen years ago, I traveled to India and learned how to meditate. After spending the better part of a year living in monasteries and going on silent retreats, I returned to college and eventually became a business journalist. But even as I wrote about Wall Street for the Financial Times and the New York Times, meditation remained an important part of my life. Then a few years ago, I started to hear stories about office workers meditating on the job. I was curious, and even a bit skeptical: could office workers really be as mindful as the monks I knew in India? Soon it was clear that the answer was yes. From General Mills in Minneapolis to Google in Silicon Valley, workers are embracing mindfulness and meditation. Once this much was clear, I had to bring these two parts of my life together and write this book.

Q: What are the essential takeaways about mindfulness in the workplace?

A: Meditation isn't just for white-collar executives or eccentric tech companies. It's something that can be valuable from the boardroom to the factory floor, in multinationals and small businesses alike. Finding time to practice mindfulness at work isn't easy—as with any new discipline, it takes dedication and practice. But for those who commit to becoming more mindful at work, the benefits can be profound—less stress and more focus are just some of the regular benefits of a meditation practice.

Q: How can mindfulness help outside of the workplace?

A: In the same way that mindfulness and meditation can change the way we work for the better, they can also change the way we interact with friends and family. As I interviewed subjects for the book and heard their stories, it became clear that some of the most meaningful impact of a meditation practice was felt not at the office, but at home. Mindful Work includes stories of parents who became closer to their children through mindfulness, and husbands and wives who learned to communicate more effectively, all thanks to meditation.

Q: Can you talk about your experience with mindfulness training?

A: I've been meditating on and off for more than fifteen years. I spent many months in India, where I lived in a monastery in Bodh Gaya and studied with Zen, Tibetan, and Southeast Asian meditation teachers. In southern India I went on a grueling ten-day meditation retreat with S. N. Goenka. And in the United States, I've gone on retreats at Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock, outside San Francisco. More recently, I took a class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction here in New York City.

Q: What kind of research did you perform?

A: To research Mindful Work, I traveled the country for more than a year, interviewing executives and everyday office workers who are incorporating mindfulness and meditation into their routines. In Silicon Valley, I spent time at companies such as Google, Adobe, and Medium, meditating with employees and trying to understand the fascinating intermingling between new technologies and contemplative practices. In the Midwest, I visited General Mills in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a gathering of mindful leaders in Madison, Wisconsin. And on the East Coast I went as far north as Vermont, where Green Mountain Coffee has rolled out an impressive mindfulness program for executives and factory workers alike.

Q: What did you find most surprising while writing the book?

A: The growing mainstream acceptance of meditation and mindfulness continues to amaze me. In just a few years, what was once a fringe movement has become an accepted line of research for academics and scientists, a valid treatment for soldiers and sick patients, and a reliable performance enhancer for groups such as the Boston Red Sox and the U.S. Marines. And it's just getting started.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: It's a lofty goal, but my aspiration is that Mindful Work can help make offices and factory floors around the world a bit more humane, a bit gentler, a bit more kind. If more workers embraced meditation and mindfulness, I believe we might make it a bit easier on ourselves, and a bit easier on each other. I also hope anyone who is interested in beginning a mindfulness practice can find some inspiration here to get started. And for those curious about the topic but not interested in meditating, I hope Mindful Work can at least be a useful guide to explain the emerging world of mindfulness at work.

Q:What are you working on now?

A: My day job! As a business reporter for the New York Times, I stay busy, covering mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street, and more. It's a very intense beat, and I'm always working on several stories at once. That said, I've got a few ideas for my next book, but nothing to share publicly just yet.

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