Close your eyes and slowly count to three. One. Two. Three. When you reopen your eyes, what is the very first color you notice? Which objects in your field of vision appear to have a rough texture? Which appear smooth? What sounds do you hear most clearly? As you begin to notice some of these immediate details, you are engaging in mindfulness.

In the context of talent development, the benefits that result from mindfulness are increasingly cited. Ellen Langer, in her book, Mindfulness, describes ways in which a mindful outlook contributes to our ability to recognize opportunities. Langer counts “openness to new information” among the “key qualities of a mindful state of being.” Remaining attuned to the present enables us to regard the possibilities or solutions that may result from new information. Mindfulness lets us be present, fully engaged, and receptive. As a result, we develop a richer pool of data from which to make decisions.

Acknowledging the benefits of mindfulness in this way emphasizes the role of active observation. Consider how important it is to observe and collect the dots, before attempting to connect the dots! There are numerous ways to engage in active observation. For example, research has demonstrated that there are eight distinct habits of mind developed as a result of learning that takes place in the visual arts, and observation is among them. In the publication,Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, researchers describe the practice of mindful observation learned in the art studio. Learning to observe details more closely helps us to move beyond “habitual ways of seeing.”

Four steps for increasing mindfulness

Here are four easy steps each of us can take to increase our capacity for noticing and mindful observation. The example below only requires 10 minutes and paper and pencil. Because of its simplicity, this exercise can be repeated often and in a variety of locations.

  • Choose a comfortable location to sit or stand. Spend three minutes noticing the details around you. Take notice of the lines, colors, and textures. After three minutes, see if you can identify additional details, such as contrasting colors or value tones.
  • Using a single sheet of paper, fold the paper in half vertically and horizontally. Open the page again so that there are four quadrants.
  • Pick two objects that are in your field of vision and use a pencil to sketch a loose outline in each of the top quadrants—one object per quadrant.
  • Next, without shifting your field of vision, choose two different textures that are within your view. Using a pencil or some other writing instrument, mark each of the bottom quadrants in a way that captures the texture you chose.

Tip: Avoid any temptation to critique the drawings after they are complete. Judging the drawings shifts focus away from the purpose of the exercise, which is an invitation to practice active looking and seeing anew. Often in the environments we find most familiar—the spaces and places we frequent each day—we begin to notice less detail. The benefit of an exercise like this is that it enables us to shift our focus from cursory observation long enough to become absorbed in the details. In doing so, we practice noticing that is more active rather than passive.

In the context of organizational learning, mindfulness and the disposition of mindful observation provide useful means of engagement that can stimulate new ideas or ways of looking at a familiar topic. Important 21st century competencies, such as creativity and critical thinking, are aided by those habits of mind that promote receptivity to novel information or ideas. Establishing time to more fully explore the visual qualities we encounter in both new and familiar environments is one way to direct attention to the present.

Active looking is a skill that artists and designers rely upon on a daily basis, a skill that enables them to cultivate alternative perspectives. Envisioning something new—an idea, product, or system—is easier when we remain open to diverse methods of receiving new information.

Active looking is one way to expand the quality and quantity of data that is available to us. Mindful observation leaves us more attuned with our surroundings, and, as a result, can prepare us with additional ways to define or think about a problem or challenge.


Langer, E.J., (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S. &Sheridan, K. M. (2007). Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


(Note: This post was originally published on the ATD Links blog, June 2014)