Nutshell: The free throw effect: how mindfulness can help us re-set our self-control

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
01 Jun 2020

01 Jun 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

When we’re feeling the effects of ego depletion, practising mindfulness offers a self-control boost that can help not just ourselves, but others too. 

The US’s National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the most famous and celebrated sporting leagues in the world. Attracting the world’s best players, it’s an arena where the rewards are high – but so are the stakes. So, consider a not-unfamiliar situation where a player is fouled in the dying seconds of a late-season play-off game, and has the opportunity to put his team ahead with two free throws. The clue is in the name: free-throws are undefended. There is an expectation that they will mostly be scored. In training, elite players will score them at a high percentage success rate. But, in the heat of battle, when a player is tired, when he may be regretting missed chances earlier in the match or have had just about enough of keeping his cool with an aggressive opponent, then the 15 feet between the free-throw line and the basket might start to seem like a very long distance indeed.

What even elite basketball players might be feeling at that stage of a game or season can be described as ego depletion. It’s a term coined by social psychologist Roy Bauermeister who believes that our ability to self-regulate, to continue to perform under pressure, to exert self-control, is finite. Consider that basketball player who has had to use every ounce of willpower not to show his frustration at an opponent or the referee or the crowd. That kind of willpower takes a great deal of mental effort. Combined with the energy-sapping challenges of an average NBA game, little wonder that scoring those free throws under such pressure can be hard.

Bauermeister’s thinking has been challenged in recent years, with researchers suggesting that ego depletion is as much a matter of shifts in motivation, attention and emotion as draining limited self-control resources. But whatever the contributing factors might be, we can all recognise that feeling of overwhelm, of reaching the end of our self-control tether at the end of a particularly trying day. But there is some good news too. Bauermeister compares ego depletion to the tiredness that comes from physically exerting a muscle. The upside of this is that, like a muscle, we can build and strengthen how we anticipate, respond to and mitigate ego depletion’s debilitating effects.

There are a number of tips and techniques available to support this process. One in particular has been proven to work when it comes to those free throws. Research published by the American Psychological Association shows that a player’s free-throw performance decreased after ego depletion but could be improved by a brief mindfulness intervention. In the experiment, players had to shoot 30 free throws after an ego-depleting cognitive test – with predictably negative results for their percentage success. But after a simple 15-minute breathing and body mindfulness exercise, their performance improved substantially on a par with a non-ego-depleted control group. Not, perhaps, the same as being on that NBA front line, but not a bad starting point to explore what mindfulness is and how it might be deployed as another tool for improving our self-awareness and self-control, even in the most trying of circumstances.  

What is mindfulness?

Based in the tradition of Buddhist contemplation, mindfulness is a state of mind where we’re fully focused on the present so that we can acknowledge and accept our thoughts, feelings and sensations – but without judgement or a sense of being reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. It’s an innate human characteristic, but it’s not necessarily always front of mind. We’re generally much too preoccupied with being busy. Even when we’re close to being depleted, we often choose to grit those teeth and try to power on through. Or we might avoid situations and people that we know might trigger feelings we’d rather not acknowledge. Mindfulness offers an alternative approach to tackling overwhelm or avoidance that might seem counter-intuitive in asking us to stop, notice and reflect. But, in the words of mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” 

That’s why mindfulness is so often considered to be a practice. We generally need to be intentional about accessing it, deliberately bringing our full attention and awareness to the present moment. It’s also why it’s closely linked with mindfulness meditation, although it can also be as simple as taking some time out to reflect, or heightening our awareness of even the simplest of everyday tasks, such as brushing our teeth or eating a sandwich (of which more below). Neuroscientist Stan Rodski likens mindfulness to a rest in music. It offers the chance to put a brief hold on our “brain chatter”. Like letting the snow in a snow globe come to rest, mindfulness clears our thoughts and feelings to help us feel more relaxed and better able to cope and concentrate.

If that all sounds a bit hippy, a bit too out-there for the average workplace, it’s hard to ignore a growing body of evidence for the relationship between mindfulness and self-control. In his book, Mindful Work, author David Gelles explores how the emerging discipline of contemplative neuroscience is charting the effect of mindfulness on brain activity. Leading researchers have shown how mindfulness increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher order thinking, such as judgement, decision-making and planning, as well as pro-social behaviour, including compassion, empathy and kindness.

It’s certainly makes sense when we consider that two central elements of mindfulness – attention and awareness – are crucial for regulating our thoughts, emotions and actions, even while under duress. Given that the effects of emotional contagion in groups are amplified for anyone in a position of authority, more mindful leaders may well have a distinct advantage when it comes to falling prey (or not) to ‘amygdala hijack’. Research conducted by the Massachusetts General Hospital demonstrated that even just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation reduced the size of the amygdala, meaning those people were much less likely to overreact or let their emotions get the better of them.

Mindfulness is about breaking patterns and habits about how we perceive the world. It helps us to realise that, while we can’t control everything that happens to us, we can control our reaction to it. It might not top up our supply of self-control in itself, but it gives us a tool we can use to hit the pause button, to stop and notice what’s going on, how we might feel about it and to choose – if we wish – to change what might otherwise be a more immediate, less thoughtful response. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that mindfulness is closely associated with self-awareness and self-control – and that science is increasingly able to tell us why.

McMindfulness

That’s not to say that mindfulness is not without its detractors. There are some very real fears that, in our rush to popularise it, some of the essential characteristics of the practice are being lost. Many are concerned that a Buddhist culture aimed at reducing suffering – other people’s as well as our own – is being appropriated in ways that are at odds with its origins.

Ron Purser and David Loy tackle this perceived commoditisation of mindfulness – often known as “McMindfulness” – in a seminal HuffPost article. In it, they talk of a booming mindfulness “cottage industry”: business consultants who posit mindfulness as the answer to all manner of corporate ills, from improved work efficiency to reducing absenteeism; brands that appropriate the words “mindful” or “Buddhist-inspired” to enhance the appeal of a whole array of products; mindfulness sold as a therapeutic panacea for all sorts of personal challenges and transformations.

They remind us that Buddhists differentiate between right mindfulness (samma sati) and wrong mindfulness (miccha sati). The distinction is about intention. A sociopath committing a premeditated crime could well be exercising mindful attention and single-minded concentration, but that’s not the same quality of mindfulness associated with the likes of the Dalai Lama, who would rather we focus our minds on human flourishing and compassion for others as well as ourselves.

Purser and Loy also express concern that a focus on mindfulness as a private, internal affair shifts the responsibility for facing the challenges of our working lives from organisations to individuals. Stress is framed as a personal issue rather than a more structural problem of toxic workplaces, and mindfulness a convenient medicine to help people work more calmy and efficiently, even a method for subduing employee unrest or promoting acceptance of the status quo. McMindfulness is a far cry indeed from the Buddha emphasising that his teaching was about understanding and ending dukkha (“suffering”) in the broadest sense.

Mindfulness in action

An understanding of the perils of McMindfulness can be helpful when we want to think about how best to develop and deploy mindfulness practice for those right reasons. It helps to consider the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, and to understand that it should not just be a selfish pursuit. It can certainly help us, as individuals, to perform better at work, to achieve more harmonious workplaces and to lead better. But, in a broader sense, it’s also about cultivating compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others.

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sees mindfulness as being about insight: “It’s not just to enjoy your tea more as you’re drinking it mindfully. It’s not just to have a better day, although that’s wonderful. At some point, people need to have the sense that mindfulness is about insight, and you can have a better cup of tea as well.” Using mindfulness to identify patterns of thought can help us not just to acknowledge how we might be feeling, but also to do something about it. Once we’ve become aware that we’re regularly frustrated by Dave from Accounts, for example, and spend some time figuring out why that might be, we’ll also be in a much better position to try to reset the relationship. The insight we can gain from mindfulness not only helps us to regulate how we feel about ourselves, and manage our emotions and reactions; it also helps us to understand, appreciate and support others.

All that might seem like quite an ambition. Remember, though, that mindfulness is a practice, so it’s never perfect. For Salzberg, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it”. And that means that we all have to start somewhere. Here are a couple of core practices to get us started.

Mindfulness meditation

As the name suggests, mindfulness meditation combines meditation with the practice of mindfulness. It’s a way of training our minds to slow down, let go of negative thoughts and calm our minds and bodies. It offers a framework for us to access the mindfulness we often find so elusive.

Techniques vary, but, in general, mindfulness meditation involves deep breathing and a deliberate awareness of body and mind. Andy Puddicombe, founder of the mindfulness app Headspace, reminds us that it’s not about controlling our thoughts, but about taking a step back so that we can gain some perspective and see those thoughts more clearly.

Learning mindfulness meditation with a teacher, online guide or app can help to get us started, but it’s also possible to practise a simple breathing meditation on our own using some simple steps.

  1. Find a space and posture that’s comfortable. Sitting upright with a straight back is ideal.
     
  2. Set a time for your meditation.It could just be five-10 minutes to start with.
     
  3. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, settling into the seat. Feel the weight of your body. Relax your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms and legs. Breathe gently.
     
  4. Notice the sensations in your body, from head to toe, but try not to change your posture. Just be aware.
     
  5. Focus on your breathing. Try to breathe from your stomach or diaphragm rather than from your upper chest. You might find it helpful to count your breaths, from one to 10 then start the count again.
     
  6. As you breathe, your mind will likely start to wander, to particular thoughts or feelings. When you notice your mind has drifted, acknowledge whatever thought or feeling it is, gently let it go and return your attention to your breathing.
     
  7. It’s likely your mind will wander for the majority of the meditation. In fact, when you first start, it may be a struggle to keep your attention on your breath for more than a few seconds at a time. The key is not to give yourself a hard time about it. Just keep returning to your breathing. Regaining control of your attention is at the heart of the practice.
     
  8. When your time is up, open your eyes and take a few seconds to orient yourself before moving on.

Mindful eating

Mindfulness doesn’t always have to be about meditation, although meditation will undoubtedly help us to access it in other ways too. When we’re brushing our teeth, we can feel our feet on the floor, the brush in our hands, and the sensation of our arm moving up and down. When we’re tackling the washing, we can pay attention to the smell of the clean clothes and the feel of the fabric and focus on our breathing as we fold laundry. And we can all learn to eat more mindfully.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s raisin-eating exercise is a famous benchmark here, but we’re going to focus on that humble lunchtime sandwich, so often consumed at a desk or on the go when we’re at work. But spending time eating our working lunches more mindfully can be a great way of building mindfulness into a busy working day.

  1. Find a clear space (not your desk), preferably a table, and sit at it.
     
  2. Take a few deep breaths: get relaxed and grounded, so that your body can digest and extract the maximum nutrition from what you eat.
     
  3. Sit tall: don’t hunch over your sandwich or plate. Plant both feet on the floor and keep your back straight – providing a gravity-friendly way for your food to digest.
     
  4. Ditch the distractions: no phone, laptop, even books or magazines. Just you and the food.
     
  5. Take your time: slow down. Put your sandwich or cutlery down between bites.
     
  6. Chew, chew, chew: focus on the action of chewing. Chew until the food is smooth and loses all texture before you swallow.
     
  7. Savour it and notice the different aspects of your food: how it looks and smells; its taste and texture.
     
  8. Check in with yourself: pause after a few minutes to check in with your body and assess how full you are. You may not want to eat the whole sandwich in one sitting.

It’s easy to be sceptical about the many claims made for the effectiveness of mindfulness, let alone its commoditisation and misappropriation. But it’s important to see it for what it is: an extension of a natural part of being human that has tended to get lost in our busy lives. It’s about slowing things down so that we can pay attention to the things we might not otherwise notice, whether about ourselves, others or the situation we might find ourselves in. It’s about acknowledging and accepting how we feel – and cutting ourselves and others some slack. It’s about pausing, creating psychological distance between our knee-jerk reaction and a more considered response. It helps us to look beyond our own narratives and worldview by developing our awareness. It gives us the perspective that things aren’t always as they might first seem.

Author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield reminds us that “when we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another – and ourselves”. Whether we’re taking high-stakes basketball free throws or simply navigating the average workplace, mindfulness is a way to reset and reconnect, to boost our depleted egos and build more of the self-awareness and self-control we need to bring our best selves to our work.

 

Test your understanding

  • Describe what Roy Bauermeister means by ego depletion.
  • Identify two criticisms of mindfulness in the workplace.

What does it mean for me?

  • Try eating your next working lunch in a more mindful way. How did it feel? What did the process teach you about mindfulness?

 

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