Mindfulness Skills: How You Do It

Mindfulness How Skills

What you are supposed to do to be mindful has already been explained in a previous post. Observe, describe, and participate are three different ways of engaging in life in a mindful way. To make those experiences more powerful, you need the “How Skills,” or instructions on how/the way you are to practice the “what skills.”


One-Mindfully is the opposite of multi-tasking. For most of us, the majority of the day we do several things at once. Our culture seems to value this “skill,” and many of our jobs require that we do this at least a portion of the time. Although it feels we are getting more accomplished when we are doing more things simultaneously, what is actually happening is that we are doing a lot of things poorly. Having our attention splayed in this way, our mind bounces from task to task, from topic to topic. This is problematic for a number of reasons. When we train our mind to bounce around in this way, it is harder to recognize when we are distracted. If one of the places your mind goes when you are distracted is worries about the future, or past painful experiences, you are more vulnerable to a negative shift in your mood. Doing one thing at a time with deliberate, focused attention makes it easier to recognize when our minds have wandered. We are then more able to turn it back toward the task at hand.

Making a practice of doing only one thing, and doing it fully can be transformative. Many people notice the time they spend worrying or ruminating is significantly cut down by making an effort to do one thing at a time. Often people find that activities they used to find frustrating take on a different quality, and are sometimes even enjoyable. For instance, most people do not enjoy sitting in traffic. For them, listening to the radio seems like an essential distraction. For others, checking email, eating breakfast, putting on makeup all make traffic time seem more tolerable. However, if you experimented with turning off the radio and limited all distractions, sitting in silence, bringing the mind to sitting or breathing, you might find all of these distractions are not necessary. You may even discover that the silence and simplicity of sitting in your car is a welcome respite from the busyness of modern life. By deliberately choosing to do just this one activity mindfully, you will recognize when your mind wanders to an unpleasant responsibility at work, or a stressful situation you anticipate later in the day. Rather than priming yourself for stress and anxiety all the way to work, you can use the opportunity to rest and recuperate. Doing things one-mindfully allows you to set the tone for what you are doing, and engage in it in a way that is therapeutic. 


Non-judgmentally refers to the way in which you describe things in your mind when practicing mindfulness. It has been found through extensive research, to be one of the most important components of dialectical behavior therapy. Judgment refers to thinking about something in value terms, or thinking in terms of either good or bad. Judgments can be a helpful shorthand when we’re making quick decisions, such as whether to buy the spoiled banana or the ripe banana. Judgments are helpful in this case, because we know a bad banana is one that would be unpleasant to eat or make us sick. However, there is nothing that is inherently “bad” in the banana, so in a sense, there is no “badness” we can point to in the banana itself. The judgment really only exists in the mind. We can point to the spoiled parts, the discoloration, the mushy pieces. But there is nothing we can point to as inherently “bad.” Someone else might judge the same banana to be “good” if the goal is to find fertilizer without wasting edible food. Or if you are making banana bread, a soft, brown banana is a “good” banana to use. Good and bad really only exist in the mind of the beholder. 

So how does judgment enter into our discussion of mindfulness? Well, if part of being mindful is connecting to reality rather than our thoughts about reality, holding judgments gets us further from this goal. One of the goals of mindfulness is to help us move closer to what is actually happening, rather than merely connecting to the thoughts we have about what is happening. As judgments really only exist in our minds, they do not move us toward a mindful experience. Because emotion dysregulation is usually triggered by the meanings people make of situations rather than the actual situations themselves, the non-judgmental component of mindfulness helps people regulate their emotions by putting them back in contact with the situation. 

For instance, if you have a fear of experiencing anxiety, the moment you sense a symptom of anxiety, you probably place all sorts of judgments on the experience. “This is horrible.” “I can’t stand this.” “I am weak for feeling this.” All of these value statements serve to increase negative emotions about the anxiety, probably causing increased anxiety, as well as shame, anger, etc. Instead of buying in to all of these judgments, if you were to instead mindfully describe them, non-judgmentally, you might avoid this downward spiral. “Noticing tightness in my chest. I notice I’m having thoughts about not being able to handle anxiety. I notice my heart beating.” You won’t necessarily immediately eliminate the anxiety, but by actually describing what is happening without judgment, you contact the emotion without all of the undue suffering you might normally experience when fixating on the judgments instead of the actual situation. Taking this objective perspective, describing “just the facts,” allows us to increase our willingness to tolerate difficult moments, and as a result, prove to ourselves they we can handle them. 


Effectively means to be willing to do what works to achieve your objective. Rather than focusing on what is “right” or what you “deserve,” effectiveness is about playing by the rules dictated by the situation. If you feel you are unjustly pulled over on the freeway, you can assert your rights, instruct the police officer on where he/she is wrong, and threaten litigation. Those are all ways of reacting to the situation. And if your only objective is one of social justice and defending the constitution, those behaviors may be the effective ones. However, if your objective is more to get out of paying a ticket, the effective thing to do in this situation would probably be to be polite, apologize, validate the officer’s point, etc. It may not be the “fair” thing, but it is the effective thing. 

Being effective is a mindfulness skill, because it requires a mindful mode of operating. It is a stance of willingness, and one that accepts the current situation in order to effectively maneuver through it. One definition of mindfulness is acceptance of the present moment. Effectiveness captures the spirit of both accepting the present moment, and reacting to it in a fluid way to reach your goals. Effectiveness is about achieving your objective not in spite of the current situation, but because of the current situation. 

That is not to say that you should sacrifice your values in the service of doing what works. That isn’t effective. What effectiveness is, is being willing to do what works when the cost is tolerable, rather than rigidly holding to some ideal that is “right.” There is an old expression that you can “right” yourself “right” out of a relationship. Being right is nice, but if you sacrifice everything in the service of being right, you end up losing a lot. It is captured by the analogy of being on the freeway where the speed limit is 65, and the person in front of you is going 45. You can refuse to accept this situation, honking, riding the person’s tail, hurling insults and fingers, even insisting on continuing to drive 65 as you plow into the car. Or you can take a deep breath, change lanes, and move on. What seems more effective?


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