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If You Want to Become More Mindful, Check Your Watch

It helps to have a mindfulness reminder.

The idea of mindfulness—often defined as a state of neutral, non-anxious attention to present experience—is increasingly becoming a part of our popular conversation. New age philosophers advise us to work on our mindfulness, to practice it, and to try to spend more of our waking time in the “here and now.”

But becoming more mindful is not so easy. Neuroscientists advise that our brains are not really wired for continuous attention to immediate experience. The simple fact is that all minds tend to wander. Consider your own daily experience.

At any particular moment, you might be reminiscing about some previous experience, fantasizing about something you’re planning to do, or even just staring off into space. When driving your car, how often do you find yourself coming back to reality, and possibly wondering “where you went?” Reading a book or magazine, do you sometimes find yourself re-reading the same paragraph several times, and still not quite grasping what it says? Have you ever found yourself standing in some particular room in your house, with no idea why you went there?

The simple truth is that we humans “zone out” many times in a typical day. We go into and out of micro-trances, mostly without realizing it.

Brain-scan research shows that all normal human brains go through an attentional cycle of about 90 minutes, during which the focus of attention shifts back and forth from the outer world of people, places, things, and experiences, to the interior world of memories and fantasies. The next time you’re in a restaurant, look around and notice which of the other patrons have that vacant expression on their faces, with their bodies present but minds unaccounted for. Continue watching for a few moments— unobtrusively, of course—and you’ll probably see them “tune in” again, returning to the conversation.

So, if the “monkey mind,” as the Eastern practitioners call it, has a mind of its own, how does one become more “mindful?” How can your mind remind itself to be mindful, when it loves to wander? Isn’t mindlessness the more typical—and even normal— condition?

Here's an easy way. Let’s imagine that you have a special relationship with a helpful little bird, one that likes to keep your attention in the now. Imagine that your feathered friend takes on the mission of reminding you, periodically, to just "tune in." Only you can see and hear her, of course, and she comes to you only during your waking hours.

Imagine that once every hour, she lights on your shoulder, politely chirps into your ear, and flies away. That little chirp is your signal to interrupt whatever you’re doing, however engrossing it might be (unless it’s reacting to a dangerous situation), and take five or ten seconds to look around, reorient to your surroundings, and remind yourself how great it is to be alive.

This can be your moment of gratitude; or your moment of acknowledging the wonderment of the experience of life; a moment of giving thanks for all that you have in life; taking joy in the rewarding relationships you have with others; recommitting to taking care of your health; and for living wisely and gently. Just five or ten seconds, every waking hour, can have a remarkable effect on your sense of well being, and it can begin to condition you to return to immediate reality more often, and to appreciate what joy there can be in just living.

“But,” you ask, “where is this magical little bird, and how do I make a deal with her to wake me from my trance every hour?”

In the short run, while you’re training yourself to become more mindful, and until that magical little bird takes up residence in your unconscious mind, there’s a practical— and mundane—solution. If you’re wearing a watch, it’s probably right there on your wrist.

Most digital watches these days have a “signal” feature—an hourly beep—that you can switch on or off as you prefer. It can substitute for that little bird, which would otherwise give you a perfect, polite, and unobtrusive alerting signal that brings you back to the present reality.

I use this little reminder method just about every day. As soon as I get out of bed, I set the signal beeper on my watch to the “on” position. Through the day, it emits a quiet, polite chirp every hour on the hour, like that of the friendly bird. Whenever I hear it, I make it a point to stop and refocus. Even if I’m in a hurry, or engrossed in writing something or calculating something, I try never to brush off the opportunity. I don’t tell myself “I’m just too busy at the moment; I’ll catch up on my mindfulness later.” I want to stop and enjoy this brief moment of mindfulness.

This little ten-second pause feels to me like a special gift—a reminder that I get to create my own reality, and that I have the right to focus my attention as I choose.

Try it—and let me know how it works for you.


Wherever You Go, There You Are. John Kabat-Zinn. New York: Hachette Books, 1994

The Author:

Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.

He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.

The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.

Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.

His website is

Order Karl's book, "Brain Snacks: Fast Food for Your Mind"