What IS Mindfulness?

When I started doing some research to write this post, I thought it would be interesting to Google the word “mindfulness” to see what might come up. Naturally, the first thing I got was a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary and I think the way it describes both meanings of the term are the perfect way to set the stage for this post:

Mindfulness | mīn(d)f(ǝ)lnǝs | :
1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something
2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations

Mindfulness is something about which we’re hearing more and more, especially recently. An April article in Psychology Today discusses Gallup’s World Emotions Report, which in 2019 showed the U.S. as one of the most stressed countries in the world. At the end of the article, you’ll find mindfulness cited as one way to help manage this anxiety. Mindfulness is showing up in the workplace, in schools, and if you needed further convincing that mindfulness really is a hot topic, Oprah.com just published an article on “Mindfulness Techniques for the Holidays” (did you all bookmark that one as quickly as I did?).

The Oxford definition I posted above explains two meanings of the term. I’m going to focus mostly on the first one for the purposes of this post: “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” In my own words, I’d describe mindfulness as actively engaging in what you’re doing, or more simply, tuning in. When you’re eating, it’s thinking about the food on your plate, the way it looks, the way it feels when you chew, what flavors are coming through; when you’re going for a walk, noticing your breathing, the way your shoes feel on your feet, what sights and sounds are around you; and so on.

So, What Does Mindfulness Have to do with Health Behavior Change?

Mindfulness – both in the sense of being conscious and also as a meditative practice – has wide-ranging implications for health. There are many constructs that play a role in behavior modification, but there are several attributes that we see more frequently when it comes to health behavior change.


How familiar does this sound to you: it’s January 1, and you’re writing the date but you write the wrong year. Silly you, that’s last year’s date! How could you forget it’s a new year on New Year’s Day? Well, there’s this lovely unconscious decision-making-system developed by our brains often referred to as autopilot. To a degree, autopilot is necessary to take care of routine tasks and make sure we don’t overload, but unfortunately it often bleeds into other tasks and areas of life where we’d rather it not. Autopilot is designed for quick decisions that don’t require much information: doing laundry, cleaning, etc. For more complicated mental activities – logical reasoning, managing relationships, learning new things – autopilot is not ideal. To turn autopilot off, you have to be conscious that it’s happening and this is where mindfulness can help. Tuning in to what you’re doing, being aware of the process and not just the end result, and taking a moment to ask yourself “why am I doing this?” or “will this help me reach my health goals” can help re-engage your brain and redirect your actions to conscious decisions.

Cognitive Depletion

Another concept closely linked with autopilot is cognitive depletion. Cognitive depletion is the idea that cognitive resources are limited and as those resources are depleted our decision-making is affected. Have you ever noticed how you’re more likely to drop you goal of getting to the gym, or eating better, or not having that post-work cigarette when you’re tired or you’ve had a very demanding day? That’s cognitive depletion in action and in order to stop it, we have to first be aware of it. Again, enter mindfulness. Making an extra effort to really tune in when we know we’re in these more cognitively depleted moments can help stop us from making snap decisions or turning on autopilot, which diverts us from our goals.

Learned Helplessness

Have you ever experienced or known someone who has experienced failure with a goal often enough that they no longer believe that goal is attainable for them? Even when a possible solution is available, they assume that because they’ve failed several times previously, it isn’t even worth trying any more. This is learned helplessness and again, mindfulness is crucial to breaking out of this cycle. Opening your mind to new information, such as a changes to the context in which you’re trying to reach the goal, can help you see new pathways forward.


Okay, so one of these things is not like the other, right? Yes, after reading the preceding sections, categorization may not initially seem like it belongs here. BUT IT DOES! Here’s why: many of our opinions are founded on global (large-scale) categories. For example, take the categorization “I hate exercise”. This is a pretty broad statement, and as we flip the mindfulness switch and dig more consciously into the “why” behind this large categorization of all exercise as something you hate, you often uncover a more nuanced reason as to why you might feel so strongly negative on exercise.

Why do you hate exercise?
It makes me uncomfortable.
Why does it make you uncomfortable?
I don’t like a bunch of people watching me while I work out.
What if you were in a private environment like your home with no one else around?

In this (over simplified) example above, after a few rounds of asking “why” you discover that you don’t really hate exercise but rather feeling like you’re being watched while you do it. By consciously digging deeper you can find a different solution that you might have previously missed.

It’s about the journey

I know, that’s cheesy, but when it comes to practicing mindfulness (especially in the context of health behavior change) we need to have what Ellen Langer refers to in her book Mindfulness as “process orientation”. From a young age, we are conditioned to be goal-oriented: reach for an outcome, accomplish, reach for a new outcome, accomplish, reach for a new outcome, accomplish, and so on. Unfortunately, this way of thinking pushes aside a very important point: every goal was reached through a process. Social media is a major culprit when it comes to displaying a deluge of successful results, but as we all know, it’s rare to see someone post their failures and iterations along the way. When we’re stuck in this echo-chamber of others’ successes, it can make our measly first steps seem pointless. Adopting a process orientation, however, can help you tune in to the fact that EVERYONE followed a process to get to their end result and their first steps were likely not identical to where they are now. Remember, “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” (see what I did there?). Additionally, the context you gain about what works for you and what doesn’t in paying attention to your process is arguably more important than the fact that you accomplished the goal, because being able to lean on those lessons learned in the future will be essential to maintaining what you achieved, making additional changes, or tackling new challenges.

Okay, Let’s Bring This Home

I packed a lot into a few short paragraphs, but here’s the overall point: our brains are efficient. They have to be in order to process the myriad of information we’re given every day. Unfortunately, that efficiency results in mental attributes like autopilot, cognitive depletion, learned helplessness, and categorization that can work against our health goals. Mindfulness is the key to bringing awareness to mental processes that, while still beneficial in many other circumstances, are a road block when trying to change behaviors.

I’d challenge everyone reading this to give mindfulness – in the sense of being more conscious – a try this week. Pick one area of your health in which to be more actively engaged for one day (just start with one, and if you want to do more after that, excellent). Throughout the course of that one day, try really tuning in to your actions, thoughts, and feelings about the behaviors you’re exhibiting around the area of health you chose. If it works for you, try jotting down a few insights you pick up throughout the day. At the end of the day, read through or reflect on what you noticed and consider how that might influence your behavior for the next day. I’d be interested to know what you learn!

To wrap this up, there is A LOT to unpack with mindfulness and all that it means for health behavior change. This post barely scratches the surface, and there are many other components of mindfulness that I want to dig into, like the importance of context. So, while I wasn’t originally intending to do a second post on mindfulness with this kind of focus, I’ve decided to build into my content calendar a follow-up post in early December. If you found this post interesting or helpful, then keep an eye out for part two. In the meantime, if you have questions or if you’d like to start working on strategies to bring mindfulness into your health behavior change goals, send me an email. I’m more than happy to help!