Srikumar Rao has spent his decades-long career teaching Fortune 500 executives and students at the world's top business schools how to be happier at work.
He's discovered that much of the stress and frustration people experience at their jobs comes from the same source: distractions.
"People ask me all the time, what's the number one tip you can give me to be happier at work, or happier in my life? And I always say, 'Whatever you're doing, do it. Just be present,'" Rao, 72, tells CNBC Make It.
Rao, who has a Ph.D. in business from Columbia Business School, has taught at London Business School, the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia Business School and elsewhere. He's also done pioneering research into workplace motivation and led employee workshops at Google, Microsoft and Merill Lynch, among other companies.
Whether you're a student or a CEO, "dealing with constant distractions at work adds to the unhappiness in your life," he explains. "Take technology, for example: We have all of these apps that are supposed to make our lives easier, but instead, they're spreading our attention thin across different sources, depleting it and making us unhappy."
Cutting out distractions is a research-backed happiness hack, too: Several studies have shown that a person's ability to focus and be present is linked to a number of health benefits including lower levels of stress, improved cognitive flexibility and higher relationship satisfaction, among other benefits.
Increasing your happiness is essential for all aspects of life, but it is especially important at work, Rao notes, because "we spend so much of our waking moments there."
Being unhappy at work, he adds, can spill over onto other spheres of life, hurting your relationships, your sleep and your overall mental health. As Rao points out, "Those bad feelings don't go away just because you're off the clock."
Rao recommends two tactics to reduce distractions and become happier at work.
The first is called "interrupting your mental chatter." Observe whatever thoughts and feelings you're experiencing, recognize negative, intrusive thoughts as distractions, and refocus your attention on whatever activity you're doing in the present moment.
Rao offers the following example: "Imagine you're sitting at your desk responding to emails, you might find that your mind is going in a million different directions, thinking about a meeting that just got added to your calendar, or a text notification that pings on your phone. Suddenly, you might be thinking, 'Oh my god, there's so much I have to get done, I can't do all of this in 24 hours.'"
When your thoughts start to spiral at work, pause, take a deep breath, and try to draw your attention back to the task at hand.
"If you become good at observing your mental chatter, you create distance between yourself and negative thoughts, giving that chatter much less power to make you unhappy and take you, mentally, to places you don't want to go," Rao says. "It helps you build your self-awareness and regain confidence."
You can't always avoid workplace conflict and stress — perhaps you have a toxic boss, or a schedule that requires 12-hour shifts — but focusing on cutting down the distractions and stressors that are within your control can also help you feel happier and calmer at work, says Rao.
"Maybe you can't say 'no' to your boss, but you can set up time blocks in your calendar so you have breaks in between meetings, or turn off your personal phone during work hours, so you don't get sucked into a social media scroll," he adds.
Once you practice these two habits — observing your mental chatter and limiting interruptions at work — Rao says, "you'll quickly find that whatever task you're doing becomes much less distasteful, and in some cases, it actually becomes enjoyable."
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