Companies in the U.S. spend over $160 billion on training and development, according to the Association for Talent Development. This includes investment in courses, facilities, systems, and tools. But precious little time or money is spent on preparing and enabling the mind of the learner. The fact is, if the learner doesn’t have the “in-the-moment” mental capacity to pay attention, these investments aren’t paying off.
Too many people enter learning experiences with too much on their minds. It’s like their brains are full, with little or no room for more information or new ideas. For organizations to maximize their return on investment in training, we believe that all development professionals — as well as all learners — must pay attention to paying attention.
How can you do this? With mindfulness training. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and executive function. All of these traits are critical for learning. Learning to manage attention is at the very core of mindfulness. But not all employees have the time — or the desire — to start a mindfulness program. So it’s up to development professionals to bring mindfulness into their classroom experiences. Here’s how.
Don’t underestimate the importance of creating a conducive container to optimize the learning experience. Ideally, learning environments should have minimal clutter, open spaces for introspection and collaboration, large windows for optimal daylight, and quiet nooks for personal reflection or mindfulness practice. In addition, if meals or snacks are served, they should be nutritious and aligned with the latest brain science on food that enhances energy and performance; i.e., more greens, grains, nuts, and berries and less sugar.
Research shows that when people get distracted, it can take nearly 30 minutes for them to come back to what they were doing. And, the more complex the task — learning something new is one of the most difficult tasks for the mind — the longer it takes. Knowing you should minimize distractions and actually doing it, however, can be distant cousins. In a classroom setting, this includes having people turn off all devices unless they’re part of the learning experience. During a crowded course, it can be tempting for participants to read an incoming text or email (no one will notice, right?). Stress to them the importance of being disciplined. Have them make a commitment to their learning experience by turning off all notifications and putting away any distracting devices or objects.
A few minutes of mindfulness training at the beginning of a learning experience, and in between each new learning segment, can help participants clear mental clutter and be open to new ideas and content. This can be as simple as two minutes of sitting still, inviting a sense of relaxation in the body and mind, focusing on the breath, and letting go of distractions. To help, you can use this app or just integrate moments of practice into the formal agenda.
Be deliberate about what participants do during breaks. Too many people use breaks as an opportunity to check in on work activities, which is detrimental to learning for two reasons. First, it doesn’t provide an opportunity for the information to settle and marinate in the mind. And this hinders the transition of information from short-term to long-term memory. Second, it creates more mental clutter. Help participants resist the urge to check their phones. Instead, encourage them to enjoy a mindful break, which could include a walk outside, writing in a journal, or an opportunity to reflect on learnings with a colleague.
After the training, encourage participants to practice 10 minutes of mindfulness training every day. If their minds are clearer, more focused, and calmer, they have a better chance of retaining what they learned.