I'm an executive coach, not a meditation teacher, but I regularly discuss mindfulness with my clients, all of whom are busy professionals in demanding leadership positions. This aspect of my practice has evolved over the past decade as a combination of research, my clients' experiences, and my own life have highlighted the role that mindfulness can play in our overall well-being and our professional effectiveness. While I don't advise clients on specific mindfulness programs, here are a set of concepts that guide my approach:
Mindfulness need not be viewed as an esoteric or mystical subject, although it's often perceived that way. It's merely the process of noticing what's happening around us, observing where our attention is going as a result, and sensing our cognitive, emotional and physical responses. A heightened sense of mindfulness allows us to direct our attention toward an intended object of focus and away from undesirable distractions, which can have a significant impact on our professional effectiveness. We can cultivate this ability through a number of practices, most notably meditation. A key is viewing meditation as a workout in attention management rather than as a break from the stress of daily life. It can be challenging, but like any workout, the difficulty is the point of the process. Consistent practice is essential, but meditating for just a few minutes a day can be sufficient.
2. Getting started
One way to begin is to block off just a few minutes--no more than 5--at a regular time of day when you won't be interrupted, set a timer, sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on what it feels like to breathe. You will almost immediately be distracted by a thought, feeling or sensation--this is expected and part of the process. Notice what's distracting you, acknowledge any response you're having as a result, and return your attention to your breathing. This will happen repeatedly and probably throughout the entire experience, which will make it mildly stressful and somewhat unpleasant. Again, this is expected and part of the process. When the timer goes off, you won't feel anything other than a sense of relief that it's over and a concern that mindfulness is a waste of time. You'll be reluctant to repeat the process because you're a busy person, and this is the critical moment: You can allow those feelings to dissuade you from trying again, or you can try again despite your resistance. If you persist and make this practice a regular habit, your feelings about the process will not change much, nor will you observe any obvious results, for weeks or even months. But slowly, eventually, it will get easier, and you will likely notice subtle shifts in your ability to manage your attention, maintain focus, and remain calm under stress.
I know I'm not making it sound very appealing, but I think it's essential to be blunt here. Too often mindfulness is portrayed as a sort of spa treatment, which gets people engaged but also leads them to give up when it turns out to be something quite different. The remainder of this essay explores the concepts referenced above in greater depth, but you need not read any further to get started.
3. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
I use this line from Voltaire in many different contexts, and it's highly applicable here. Mindfulness practices--and meditation in particular--can seem like the domain of experts, inaccessible to people lacking specialized training. Many clients and students I talk with are interested in the concept, but also feel daunted at the prospect of getting involved with something that seems to require major investments of time and effort, or even a radical change in lifestyle.
In part this stems from our association of mindfulness with figures at a distance from contemporary professional life--master monks and spiritual seekers. While we may admire their dedication and commitment, we may also mistakenly conclude that mindfulness is for people have little interest in following an ordinary career path. My own perspective on this changed when I heard Bill George talk in 2009, and he noted that he and his wife had meditated daily for the past 30 years. Bill was the CEO of a public company for over a decade and has taught at Harvard Business School since 2004, and he comes across as a grounded, straightforward person who's squarely in the mainstream of corporate life. I've met many others like him over the past decade who view mindfulness as not merely compatible with their identity as professionals, but as a contributor to improved performance.
Even after we've begun exploring mindfulness practices, Voltaire's warning remains relevant because of the all-too-common feeling that we're somehow inadequate and not up to the task. We may begin meditating and find it impossible to "clear our mind," leading us to conclude that we're just not "good" at it. But the idea that "clearing the mind" is an achievable goal is rooted in a misunderstanding. Unbidden thoughts and feelings will constantly distract us when meditating, and the task of noticing these distractions and returning our focus to its intended object is the whole point of the process. The distraction doesn't make us a "bad meditator"--it makes us a human being.
4. Mindfulness and Attention Management
The definition of mindfulness that I find most helpful is nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of experience. There are many different purposes this awareness can serve, but the function that's been most relevant to my clients and students over the past decade is attention management. As a coach I've come to view attention as our most precious resource (and quite distinct from time, which we often use as a proxy for our attention because it's easier to measure.) But we often have little awareness of where our attention is going or find it difficult to maintain our desired focus.
We can overcome these challenges through conscious effort, for a time, but that's fatiguing and impossible to sustain indefinitely. What’s needed is a heightened ability to sense where our attention is being directed and to assess whether that focus is aligned with our intentions, both in the moment and over time. Here mindfulness practices can play a uniquely helpful role. The definition I cite above refers not only (or even primarily) to our external experience--the world around us--but also to our inner experience--our thoughts, emotions and other responses to our environment. And a greater capacity for mindfulness not only allows us to take in more information about the world around us, but also to more fully sense and understand how we’re interpreting this data and where our attention is being directed as a result.
5. Mindfulness and Systems 1 and 2
In 2000 psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West coined the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe the our distinct reasoning processes, a model popularized by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is automatic, unconscious, and fast, while System 2 is controlled, conscious, and relatively slow. It's inaccurate to characterize System 1 as "emotion" and System 2 as "logic," because emotion plays a role in both processes, but the former generates a host of “impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings,” in Kahneman’s phrase. Some of these System 1 responses prompt immediate action, while others are assessed more deliberately by System 2.
An advantage of this arrangement is that System 1 can take in a tremendous amount of data from our environment and generate numerous responses simultaneously, which allows us to take action quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of conscious thought—in effect bypassing System 2. But in some circumstances, particularly when we’re under stress, we’re better served by slowing down our automatic System 1 response and engaging System 2 to assess the situation more thoughtfully and choose our response more deliberately. A challenge is that System 2 lacks System 1’s parallel processing capacity and must work sequentially, focusing on one issue or problem at a time, which can create a bottleneck when we’re operating in a fast-paced environment. In addition, both Systems 1 and 2 are subject to a number of cognitive biases, systemic errors in how we think that lead us astray even when we believe we’re being careful and deliberate.
A greater sense of mindfulness helps us manage these difficulties in a number of ways: we’re better able to acknowledge our System 1 responses without immediately putting them into action, we can slow down and engage System 2 more readily, and we’re more aware of the cognitive biases that distort our thinking in both modes.
6. The importance of feelings
One of the most significant benefits of mindfulness practice is heightening our awareness of feelings—not only emotions, but also physical sensations. The two are directly connected—emotions manifest themselves as physiological events before they register in consciousness. As noted above, such heightened awareness can at times allow us to bring our deliberative System 2 to bear on an automatic System 1 response, but the goal isn’t to try to bring our emotions under conscious control, which would be neither possible nor desirable. A critically important role that emotions play is to act as “attention magnets”—to interrupt conscious thought and orient us toward something in our environment that is likely to be significant. The ability to control our emotions would undermine this function and actually jeopardize our survival, given the slowness and inefficiency of conscious reasoning. Nor would we want to heighten our awareness of physical sensations too far--beyond a certain point such sensitivity can be uncomfortably distracting and even painful.
But most of us typically operate at the other end of the spectrum—we’re out of touch with our emotions and poorly attuned to our bodies, and so we have difficulty interpreting our feelings, or they build in strength and then catch us by surprise. Mindfulness practices create an environment in which there are fewer external distractions and it’s easier to sense our inner feelings. We can pay close attention to our breathing, feel our heart beat, and be more aware of visceral responses or muscle tension—and we can more clearly grasp the emotions that accompany these sensations. We begin to make associations among these various feelings and the thoughts and ideas that may have triggered them. I think of this as “lowering the waterline”--increasing our ability to notice and observe mental and physical processes that ordinarily occur on the margins of consciousness.
7. Meditation is the most powerful mindfulness practice…
There are other ways to pursue mindfulness—see below—but meditation deserves special mention. We often think of meditation as a complex process shrouded in mystery. In part this derives from the historic connection between meditation and spirituality—most religious traditions possess a set of practices that either involve meditation or evoke a meditative state through prayer or ritual. And yet while some people find it beneficial to integrate meditation more fully into their spiritual life, the two are not inextricably linked. When we examine meditation in isolation from any spiritual context, it emerges as the straightforward process of simply noticing where our attention goes and observing our response. This is a reductive description, to be sure, and there are many different views on the practice, but demystifying it in this way can make it more approachable for those who haven’t tried it before and help to clarify the potential benefits for professional effectiveness.
From this perspective meditation is a concentrated form of attention management with minimal distractions other than our endless stream of thoughts, emotions and sensations. While the absence of a concrete task to accomplish may seem disorienting, the process is directly related to the challenge we face when we are trying to complete a cognitively demanding task or work in a stressful or overly stimulating environment: Tune out unhelpful distractions and direct our attention toward an intended object. This is precisely what we’re doing when we meditate. And while we may question the ability of merely noticing where our attention is going to have an impact on our experience, a substantial body of research has emerged showing meditation’s positive effects on mood, anxiety, sleep, happiness, and even pain.
8. …And there are other paths as well
Meditation isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t the only way to pursue mindfulness. If you find meditation particularly challenging, I encourage you to consider the point below before abandoning it entirely—as with any workout, the difficulty of the process is the point of pursuing it. That said, while other mindfulness practices might not serve as a direct substitute for meditation, we can certainly pursue greater self-awareness (or augment a meditation practice) through a number of means:
- Exercise: Certain types of physical activity lend themselves well to a mindful state, in which we’re better able to reflect on our experience, sense our unbidden thoughts and emotions, and attune to our bodies. Any activity involving repetitive motion in an environment that supports sustained focus has the potential to serve this purpose. Note that the need to consciously navigate the outside world—on a busy road, or in a noisy gym—will diminish this impact.
- Time in nature: While walking itself can be a form of mindfulness practice, there’s a particular benefit to being outdoors in a natural setting. Again, it’s important to minimize external distractions, but even if we live in an urban environment (as more than 80 percent of the people in the United States do) we can still take advantage of this process. Recent research suggests that as little as one hour a week in nature has a positive effect on our mood and ability to focus.
- Journaling: Writing about our experiences can serve several purposes related to mindfulness. It allows us to see our thoughts and emotions from a new, more structured perspective. It helps to reinforce memories, enabling us to access them more readily in the future (even if we never return to the written document). And if we allow ourselves to write in a more spontaneous, automatic way we tend to discover unexpected ideas and associations that couldn’t have been accessed via conscious effort. Note that we often find the idea of journaling unappealing because what comes to mind is a sort of daily diary--“This happened, and then that happened…”—which most people find uninspiring and unsustainable. What I’m recommending here instead is any form of consistent practice that we do find both inspiring and sustainable. This can be as simple as jotting down three bullet points at the end of the day.
Another challenge with mindfulness is the way that it’s portrayed in popular culture. It’s typically associated with rest and relaxation—a break from the stress of daily life. This poses a dilemma, especially for beginners, because mindfulness practices—meditation in particular—can be stressful. The approach to meditation that I’m discussing here involves focusing our attention on a given object, such as our breathing, or even just a spot on the wall. Almost immediately after beginning to meditate we’re inevitably distracted by a thought, an emotion, or a physical sensation—and this will happen repeatedly in the course of every meditation session.
The task we face is to notice that we’ve been distracted, to let go of this new object that our attention has been drawn to, and to return our focus to its original object. And we’ll have to do this over and over and over again. This is repetitive, boring, and even stressful. And that’s the point, because meditation is a workout in the process of managing our attention. It’s not a break—it’s not a soothing shelter from distraction, but rather a stressful, head-on encounter with all of the spontaneous thoughts, feelings and impulses that distract us constantly.
10. Consistent practice > Long sessions
A dynamic that’s common to the primary activities I recommend to clients and students—including exercise and sleep, in addition to mindfulness—is the importance of daily practice. These activities contribute more to our ability to do our best work and to our sense of fulfillment when they’re consistent habits. But even when we have the best of intentions, we often allow these important activities to get bumped off our calendars by more urgent ones, and we tell ourselves we’ll “make it up later,” with a harder workout, more sleep, or a longer meditation session at some point in the future.
This approach is problematic in two ways: First, it’s much easier to commit to a mindfulness practice when it’s truly habitual—when we’ve created a set of routines and triggers that generate an automatic response that makes it more likely that we’ll follow through on our intention. The more we have to stop and consider whether or not we’re going to meditate, the less likely we are to actually do it. The second problem is that inconsistent practice doesn’t appear to yield the same benefits as a daily routine, even if we meditate for longer periods of time. Current research suggests that there’s something important about a consistent practice—the closer to daily the better.
This is a companion piece to Get Moving! (Exercise for Busy People).
- The Emotional Life of Your Brain (Richard Davidson)
- Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (Daniel Siegel)
- Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being (Linda Graham)
- Developing Mindful Leaders for the C-Suite (Bill George)
- Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
- Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
- Full Catastrophe Living (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
- Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st Century View of Meditation (Rick Hanson)
- White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts (Daniel Wegner)
- Daniel Wegner's work on mental control and thought suppression
- A Simple Way to Stay Grounded in Stressful Moments (Leah Weiss)
- The How of Happiness (Sonja Lyubomirsky)
- Mind Sculpture: Unlocking Your Brain's Untapped Potential (Ian Robertson)
- The Compassionate Brain (Gerald Hüther)
- Meditation Techniques for People Who Hate Meditation (Stephanie Vozza, Fast Company, 2014)
- 26 Scientifically Proven Superhuman Benefits of Meditation (Jon Brooks, ComfortPit, 2014)
- This is what eight weeks of mindfulness training does to your brain (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest, 2016)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
- The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (Richard Louv)
Tools I Use
Other Tools I Recommend (But Don't Use)
We've all heard variations on this post's title, but it's often mistakenly attributed to Dwight Eisenhower or Lewis Carroll. Actor, director and producer Martin Gabel deserves the credit.
Photo by Strevo. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.