Ironies abound as I turn to this review of Scott Eblin's Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. I've been meaning to write about it for months, but have continually delayed, feeling too busy with students, clients, my own writing and life in general. It would be inaccurate to say that I'm "overworked," but my plate's been pretty full for a while. (Irony #1.)
I finally made time for it when a recent cold left me feeling capable of reading and writing, but not well enough to hold any coaching sessions, so I had an unexpectedly empty calendar for a few days. I know myself well enough to be confident that I got sick because my self-care practices have fallen apart the last few weeks. To take the most relevant example, after meditating roughly every other day from August 2014 through mid-February, I've meditated just 3 times in the last 5 weeks. (Irony #2.)
And all this has happened as I prepare to teach The Art of Self-Coaching, a new course at Stanford aimed at helping MBAs manage themselves more effectively through periods of difficulty and transition. (Irony #3. Coach, coach thyself.)
Some disclosures: I've met Scott and consider him a friend, and we've occasionally referred potential clients to each other, although we don't have a business relationship. But even if I didn't know Scott at all I'd be a fan of this book because I believe in its message--as he writes in the Introduction,
[M]indfulness is the intersection of two qualities: awareness and intention. By awareness, I mean awareness of what's going on both around you and inside of you in any given moment. Being aware enables you to act in the moment with the intention of creating a particular outcome or result.
The purpose of Overworked and Overwhelmed is to make the practice of mindfulness easy, accessible, and relevant for people who feel like they're trapped on the gerbil wheel. The goal is not to turn you into a Buddhist monk or nun but to offer the knowledge that, along with simple, practical, and applicable routines, will help you align your work and the rest of your life with the results that matter most. The emphasis here is on small steps that, when taken consistently over time, lead to big results."
This is exactly how I talk about mindfulness with my clients and students. A tremendous amount of research has emerged in the last few decades, which Scott cites in the book, that suggests the power of mindfulness practices to improve our ability to cope with stress, manage our emotions, focus our attention, and perform effectively under difficult circumstances. To reap these benefits we need not embrace any spiritual principles that have historically been associated with mindfulness or meditation, nor do we need to make major changes in our daily lives. As Scott notes, all that's required is a consistent commitment to some simple, regular routines.
The centerpiece of this process is meditation, but Scott discusses a wide range of other activities that contribute to a heightened state of internal and external awareness, from regular physical activity and better sleep habits to breathing exercises and listening skills. And one of the book's great strengths is its open-ended, non-prescriptive approach to these practices. I talk about mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction with almost all of my coaching clients, but I don't prescribe any particular set of practices for a given individual. We're much too complex for any single formula to apply to everyone, and Overworked and Overwhelmed respects this complexity, providing readers with a thoughtful set of possibilities and yet also recognizing that each reader must decide what will work best for themselves.
Another strength of the book is Scott's voice as an author, which shows up not only in his informal, conversational style, but also in his level of personal disclosure. He reveals that in 2009 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and that his commitment to meditation, yoga, and an improved diet in recent years "literally saved my life." And he's not merely surviving; he writes that today, "I'm stronger than I've ever been before and savoring each moment of life in a way that I never have before."
If you're already a committed meditator or actively engaged in other mindfulness practices, I suspect you'll still find something of value in Overworked and Overwhelmed, particularly in Scott's discussion of how these practices can contribute to a greater sense of meaning and purpose. And if you've been curious about (or skeptical of) the value of mindfulness as a personal management tool, I recommend Scott's book as an engaging introduction to the topic.