Over the past few years, the practice of mindfulness has been on the rise in the business world. As the benefits of this Eastern mindset started to emerge, companies like Google, General Mills, Target, and Aetna have all been taking advantage. These companies have implemented mindfulness institutes, courses, and programs; encouraged and promoted meditation in the workplace; and offered employees access to retreats.

Sounds great, but what exactly is mindfulness? Is it meditating? Is it just being aware of your current surroundings? There are a variety of different answers to these questions, but I find all of them to be a bit conflicting.

Overall, there is something innately paradoxical about the practice of mindfulness. It's about fully living in the present and taking control of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but it's also about emptying your mind. I find that the Japanese term and practice "mushin," which translates to "no mind" in English, sums this paradox up nicely.

The mind without mind

Mushin is the supposed mental state that trained martial artists enter into during combat. During this state, the mind is not occupied by thought or emotion, and it enables the fighter to be open to every possibility both in the present and future.

How does this translate into our everyday lives? Well, the overall practice of mindfully emptying your thoughts allows your subconscious the chance to incubate new ideas. This is why we often experience breakthrough or "aha!" moments while washing the dishes or taking a shower. These activities are almost meditative--they put our conscious brain on auto-pilot and allow the subconscious to bubble up innovative thoughts.

And I believe this paradoxical nature of mindfulness or "mushin" is what can help business leaders live in the present while preparing for the future. In fact, this is the way in which I balance my professional life as a CEO--I think long-term, but I also react daily. With that said, I can't afford to get too caught up in long-term thinking because it's a distraction. If I'm too busy mapping out every possible outcome, then I'm giving my competitor the opportunity to strike now.

Fortunately for business leaders today, there are several ways for us to balance both living in the present while predicting the future.

Take advantage of data and predictive modeling

Our seemingly infinite access to data is what can help business leaders live in the moment while exploring potential outcomes. For smaller companies, this means tracking, storing, and contextualizing data both externally and internally. For larger corporations, this means implementing dashboards that contextualize the data you have into digestible information. These dashboards should enable you to gauge the current trends happening in your company in real time.

From there you should also take advantage of predictive modeling. This is a process that uses data mining to forecast or "predict" potential outcomes. The larger the dataset, the stronger your predictions will be so it's imperative to make sure your company is capturing as much information as possible.

However, even if your predictive analytics are indicating that sales are about to drop, don't panic. This is where we circle back to the concept of mindfulness. It's important to be aware of the current state of business and the future possibilities, but you need to prevent the tendency to make reactive fear-based decisions. Which leads me to my next point...

Check your gut

Carefully monitoring data and current trends is important for your business, but as the owner, CEO, president, or founder, you need to check your gut.

There's an interesting anecdote in Martin Lindstrom's Small DATA: The Tiny Clues that Uncover Huge Trends that emphasizes the need for these check-ins. In 2002, Lego was struggling with declining sales. As they were trying to figure out what the problem was, they collected data from a customer study and it revealed that, along with sales, customer attention spans were on the decline.

Lego reacted to the data by creating larger blocks in order to appease the instant-gratification demographic. But sales continued to drop. Finally, Lego conducted a one-on-one study with a loyal customer and realized that despite declining attention spans, kids would spend a ridiculous amount of time on their passions when they felt like they were in control. So, the company decided to eliminate the larger blocks and made tweaks to their strategy that put the customer in the driver's seat.

But my question here is: what would have happened if Lego had taken the time to consider if creating larger blocks was really the right move for their business? Would it have been possible to sidestep the product shift and save the company money? Is this something a simple gut check could have solved? While there is no clear answer, it's important to ensure you're doing this in your business to prevent potentially jumping on a bandwagon trend or changing the entire mission of your company based on unpleasant data.

So, before reacting to any data, prediction, or trend, take a moment to ask yourself:

  • Is this the right move for the business?
  • Does this change resonate with our mission, goals, and values?
  • Are we only making this decision out of fear or to jump on bandwagon?

Conducting these periodic gut-checks could save you time, money, and effort.

Final word

Here in the Digital Age, change happens in the blink of an eye. Trying to keep up with the latest technology and trends is exhausting. But, amidst so much chaos, how can you justify jumping out of the race and practicing mindfulness? Well, there's a famous Ghandi quote that goes something along the lines of: "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one."

While I'm not literally encouraging you to go and meditate for two hours a day, the point here is that when we're at our most frenzied, it's important to take a step back. Use data to be aware of what's currently going on in your business, monitor predictive analytics to see where things are headed, but perform mindfulness checks to ensure potential options align with your company's goal or vision. This is how business leaders can both live in the present while trying to predict the future.