Before the COVID-19 turned our world of its axis, many people regularly felt stressed and overstretched. Now, in the midst of a crisis that has led many organizations to restructure and reduce headcount, 82% of workers reported being asked to do even more with even less according to a recent study by VitalSmarts. This has resulted in a spike to stress lesses and an increasing toll on mental health and state of mind.
Clearly there is no magic bullet for combatting the pressures of work overload or the challenges of operating across virtual teams. However, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or more anxious than usual, practicing mindfulness can make all the difference to your state of mind.
Over the last decade, mindfulness has become a new buzzword. Yet the practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years. Biblical scriptures encouraged us to “be still” and become present to God. Perhaps one of the most profound mindfulness practices of all.
Of course unlike our ancestors who sat around a fire each night gazing into a flame while sharpening implements, most people today spend their lives staring at a screen, racing to keep up. As a client recently shared with me, “Each day feels like I’m drinking from a fire hose trying to keep up.” It explains why a recent study found that 96% of respondents made about 15 mindless decisions each day.
While busy people often feel it’s indulgent to press pause on their busy productive ‘doing’ and connect to who they are ‘being, research proves otherwise. That is, practicing mindfulness doesn’t take time out of your day—it expands your ability to effectively utilize your time so you can fit more of what truly matters into your day. More time on Pareto’s ‘vital few’ and less on the ‘trivial many.’
There are as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are mindfulness experts (of which, I am not.) Yet as a student of mindfulness I’ve found that the most effective are usually the least complicated. All of them flow from “paying attention to what we are paying attention to” – becoming a more attuned observer of our own inner world. Here are a few of the simplest yet most powerful ways for helping you to do just that.
1. Mindful breathing
If you get nothing else from reading this article, I encourage you to pause right now, and follow your breath in and out three times, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allow your breath to settle into its own rhythm. Then as you simply follow it in and out, observe the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. Pretty simple, huh? Once you’re done, notice the subtle way it shifts how you’re feeling.
While mindful breathing is clearly not anything new, we can easily forget to take full breaths when we are flying from one thing to the next, powered along by a false sense of urgency that stimulates our fight-or-flight responses, shallows our breathing, and leaves us operating in a perpetual state of emergency.
A few long, calm, deep breaths can disrupt your default stress response and enable you to see your situation more objectively and respond more rationally. In doing so it also spares you the negative fall out that often occurs when you are operating mindlessly – firing off a heated email, snapping at someone or just doing something you’d never do if you were truly grounded.
2. Practice your inner observer
You don’t see the world as it is, but as you are. Through your own lens that has been shaped by your past experiences, social conditioning, cultural norms, personality and a myriad of other factors.
So a key aspect of building mindfulness is “looking at how you’re looking at life: This is about practicing being an inner observer of how you are perceiving, processing and interpreting the world around you; becoming more in tune to your own cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses. Broken-down into parts, it is about
a) Noticing what you are observing
b) Noticing what you are thinking about what you are observing
c) Noticing how what you are thinking about what you are observing is making you feel
For example, what are you telling yourself about the person who just sent the email about sales numbers that has triggered you? How is that interpretation showing up in your body—in your physical sensations, in your posture, your breathing and facial muscles? How else could you view what’s going on? What might be going on for them? What could be a more constructive way of responding?
These sorts of questions lay at the heart of developing the soft skills that are so paramount to success in every domain of life.
3. Cultivate compassion
Cultivating compassion calls on us to look both inward and outward.
Inwardly, to reflect on where we can be more self-compassionate – embracing our own humanity, forgiving our fallibility and being gentler with ourselves in our fallen moments.
Outwardly, to consider what is going on for others— their anxieties, insecurities, fears, hurts, hopes and aspirations.
In my podcast with Rich Fernandez, CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, he shared that “once you understand what will be of greatest service to another person, you can decide how best to take care of what they care about.” This isn’t about giving up on what we want, but being more thoughtful in how we manage trade-offs, conflicting concerns, motivations and intentions.
As I wrote in a previous column about leading with empathy, putting the heart of others at the heart of what we do is essential to build trust and unlocking the full talents of others. Unfortunately, when pressures kick in, many people become so preoccupied on achieving their own goals that they fail to adequately consider the goals and concerns of those around them; to look for common ground and lead from that place—with head and heart.
4. Seek progress, not perfection
Just before writing this article I sat down and did a guided meditation with psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach on Insight Timer – one of the world’s most popular free meditation apps for good reason. As I followed her instructions to pay attention to my breath my mind kept wandering off. I’m flying from Singapore to the USA tomorrow – my first 24 hour trip in a mask – and I’ve yet to finish packing. So my busy mind is particularly monkey like today. Will the Singapore government approve my re-entry back in September? What if flights are cancelled? What if…? On and on my thoughts wandered… until I caught myself… and, following Tara’s instructions, I brought my attention gently back to my breath, back to presence.
The cycle repeated itself several times. It always does. (Tara is very patient with me.) Yet over the last few years of practicing mindfulness, I’ve got better at noticing when my mind has wandered off and then, on reeling it back in and returning to ‘center’. And while I’m a long way from a mastery, I’m also far less prone to experiencing a ‘neural highjack’ – being pulled into primal ‘fight, flight, freeze’ reactions.
So I focus on progress, not perfection.
After suffering a severe stroke, world renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass said that he “flunked the test” in practicing the mindful compassion he’d taught to millions. The reality is, none of us are going to be mindful and present and compassionate—with ourselves or others—at every moment, of every day. Not even the most masterful.
By regularly practicing mindfulness however, you can strengthen the pull of your “higher order” intentions—mastery, growth, service, contribution or connection – so that the lower order ones which operate from fear aren’t pulling the strings.
And when fear does take, just notice with friendly, light curiosity, take a few mindful breaths and bring your attention back to who it is you most want to be in that moment. Doing so will enable you to respond more bravely, less anxiously; more thoughtfully, less reactively.
If you do nothing else now as a result of this article, please do this:
Take one deep breath and simply notice yourself inhaling, and exhaling… right down into the bottom of your belly.
Then notice how that makes you feel.
Then notice yourself noticing.
There you go, you’re already on your way.
Margie Warrell speaks on living and leading with courage and author of You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself