Maria, a senior executive at a national insurance retailer, loved her job — or at least she used to enjoy it until last year’s budget cuts and layoffs. Now, she and her remaining team members were responsible for handling their own work loads, along with those of their former colleagues. Maria had begun to notice the toll of the increased workplace stress, not only on herself, but on her team as well. But the steady stream of meetings, conference calls and report deadlines were depleting her energy and clouding her ability to lead effectively — until she discovered the power of mindfulness.
Leaders are bombarded by “noise” all day long. “In addition to information from an increasingly competitive marketplace, leaders also have to process other people’s judgments, assumptions, agendas, insecurities and engrained patterns of thought and behavior,” according to Nancy Scheel, an executive and career coach who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office. “They are also required to act quickly and decisively.” From alleviating the symptoms of stress to improving memory and increasing empathy, the myriad benefits of mindfulness have captured the attention of neuroscientists and wellness practitioners alike. Yet many executives are still cynical, holding on to outdated notions of what mindfulness really means — and missing out on its tremendous power to make them a better leader.
WHY DO LEADERS BENEFIT FROM MINDFULNESS?
The path of least resistance is for leaders to fall into their own patterned, reactive habits — which may or may not be the ideal response to the given situation. Mindfulness produces clarity and creativity, profoundly impacting their internal reactions, interpersonal exchanges and overall leadership abilities. As Nancy explains to her executive coaching clients, “There are really two ways to think about mindfulness: ‘mindfulness in the moment’ and ‘the practice of mindfulness.’ Both are extremely powerful. Mindfulness in the moment is like driving around with all the car windows down — and the windshield removed. You see and experience everything around you more directly. You get a better understanding of what’s going on — in that very moment — and you can respond appropriately to the circumstances. As a result, you become much more effective in what you say and what you do. You naturally discover a much greater range of options, instead of forcing yourself to work around the dirt or scratches on the windshield, which represent your judgments, assumptions and defense mechanisms — in other words, your habits of thought and behavior.”
THE GREAT CHALLENGE: LIVING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT
“People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.” – Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
Why, then, is it so hard for people to stay focused on the present? It seems much easier for our minds to wander either into the past or the future. Nancy explains: “The reason it is so hard to remain present is that, for years, each of us has been practicing everything but that. As infants, we started out ‘in the now.’ But as we grew and experienced successes and failures in getting our needs met from others, we began to adjust our behavior based on our relationships, circumstances and environments. As adults, we believe that the past informs us about what worked and what didn’t in getting those needs met. We think that if we strategize the future, we can control what happens. That’s why mindfulness is a practice — a journey — of learning. And an incredibly rewarding one at that. By bringing our minds into the present — and staying focused there — we allow ourselves to fully experience the moment.”
How do you develop this type of mindfulness? “The practice of mindfulness is what enables you to be mindful in any given situation or environment,” Nancy says. “It takes practice because, generally, we spend all of our waking moments in the exact opposite state! Mostly, we practice workarounds to get through life with a scratched windshield — so much so that we don’t ‘see’ the scratches anymore. We don’t know that it can be any other way. It can.”
5 EXECUTIVE COACHING STRATEGIES TO START A MINDFULNESS PRACTICE
The benefits of mindfulness impact you as a leader — and your team as well. “People are at their very best when in the presence of someone who is demonstrating mindfulness,” according to Nancy. “Mindfulness changes the energy of the immediate environment, even if in subtle ways. When an executive coaching client expresses a desire for others to be different, better or ‘fixed,’ the most important place to start is usually by looking inward.”
These strategies can help you develop — and maintain — a mindfulness practice:
1. Find five minutes
The most common reason leaders give for not developing a mindfulness practice is … you guessed it: time. Every waking minute of their day is scheduled. If that’s your excuse, you’ll have to find another one, because devoting as little as five minutes a day to a mindfulness practice can make a difference. “I’m a huge proponent of setting achievable goals. For some people, what’s achievable is just three or four minutes a day — and that’s OK,” Nancy says. Many people find that incorporating a mindfulness practice into an existing routine works best. At work, you can practice mindfulness while walking to the bathroom or to a meeting — or by tacking a few minutes on to the end of your lunch hour. If you drive to work, sit in your car for a few minutes when you get to the office, or before you drive off at the end of the day. Once you begin to practice mindfulness — and the benefits become apparent — you will, more than likely, become able to find other times and ways to fit it into your life, even if that means giving up 10 minutes of playing Candy Crush!
2. Practice mindfulness in all emotional states
“By practicing mindfulness when you feel good — and when you feel frustrated, angry, sad or overwhelmed (to name a few) — you develop the ability to become more mindful in the moment,” according to Nancy. “The practice also fosters great awareness of our own patterns of thinking and feeling — ultimately proving that you have the power to change these things for yourself. Empowering yourself to alter how you feel — physically and emotionally — and what you think is fundamental to making changes for ourselves and others.”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” — Lao Tzu
3. Aim for practice, not mastery
When people say, “It won’t work for me,” they usually mean, “That sounds too difficult.” Mindfulness is developed through practice. If you approach mindfulness as something to conquer or master, you set yourself up for failure. As Nancy reminds clients, “No one is 100 percent mindful 100 percent of the time! The good news is that a little bit goes a long way.”
4. Accept “monkey mind”
If you notice that your thoughts jump from one thing to another — like a monkey racing from one tree branch to the next — congratulations! That awareness means you’re already on your way to developing your own mindfulness practice. “There is no point in fighting ‘monkey mind,’” says Nancy. “Our minds make thoughts; that’s what they do — just like our intestines break down food and our heart pumps blood. The key is to watch those thoughts but not actually engage in or ‘hook into’ them. Let’s say that during a mindfulness practice, you start thinking about what’s for dinner. At that point, you have a choice: You can fantasize about what you want, think about what you’ll prepare or let your thoughts wander off on a tangent, like your weight or a fitness article you read this morning … Or, you can simply note to yourself that you are thinking, and let it go. That’s it. That’s the practice. Noticing. Paying attention. And choosing, moment after moment after moment, not to hook into the thought.” (See Quieting Your Mind, below.)
QUIETING YOUR MIND
One of the greatest challenges for leaders to overcome when beginning a mindfulness practice is keeping distracting thoughts at bay. From “How can we meet this quarter’s goals?” to “Don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home,” finding a way to stop a seemingly endless stream of thoughts can be more difficult than managing a team of 25 employees.
The following strategies can help:
- Hone in on your breath — Engage in diaphragmatic breathing, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Notice how the air fills your abdomen as you inhale, and deflates it as you exhale.
- Focus on your “third eye” — Known as the center of intuition, the third eye is located in the center between your eyebrows. When you find your thoughts wandering, bring them back to the third eye — or to another spot on your face, like the tip of your nose or the center of your upper lip.
- Use visualizations — Imagine your thoughts drifting off, like puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. Or simply observe your thoughts as they whiz past you like cars on an expressway.
- Count — Some people find it helpful to count to one as they inhale, and to two as they exhale as a way to bring their focus back to their breath and away from distracting thoughts. Others find it helpful to count up to 100 during a mindfulness practice because the forced concentration leaves no room for uninvited thoughts.
- Find a calming mantra — And repeat it. Your mantra might be as simple as “relax,” “find tranquility,” or even “shhhhhhhhhh.” When you notice that your mind is wandering, recite your mantra over and over until it becomes your only focus.
5. Approach mindfulness with curiosity
Whether you are exploring mindfulness on your own or with the help of a coach, step into your practice without judgment or expectation. Instead, approach it with curiosity and a sense of experimentation. Quiet your inner cynic and let go of outdated notions of what mindfulness “should” or used to be. The right way to practice mindfulness is to find the right way for you.
“Simply note to yourself that you are thinking, and let it go. That’s it. That’s the practice. Noticing. Paying attention. And choosing, moment after moment after moment, not to hook into the thought.”
— Nancy Scheel, Executive and Career Coach, Jody Michael Associates
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