What does it mean to be mindful and what does it have to do with reducing stress? I’ve been practicing mindfulness every day for the past few years, after many years of wishing I practiced. To practice mindfulness, I had to separate myself from some of the activities and circumstances that increased my feelings of stress. After a few years of better managing my environment, instead of it managing me, I slowly went back to all activities with a new sense of presence and awareness, with a new ability to notice and respond to my sense of stress throughout the day.
What did I do to separate myself or better manage my environment? In the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I asked myself to simply notice what was causing stress for me? I knew that I hated being late for appointments and that included driving in unpredictable traffic to work every day. I made a simple commitment to not be late for meetings by showing up 10-15 minutes early whenever possible. If I have meetings in the city (an hour away by car) I leave home a half hour earlier than usual. That way, if I’m stuck in traffic I won’t stress about being late and if I’m lucky enough not to be delayed by traffic, I can take a walk, grab a cup of coffee or prepare for meetings before they start. That way, I show up rested, relaxed and ready.
Another way I manage my environment instead of it managing me, is to pay myself the gift of space and time in my mornings and evenings as much as possible. This practice requires me to get out of bed a half hour earlier each day to meditate, write, enjoy that first cup of coffee and be present to what my body is telling me it wants today. Sometimes, that means I need a little more time to drop-in, meditate, reflect, write or take a longer stretch to get into my body before the day starts. The days when I can book-end this time for myself, after work as well as before, are banner mindfulness days, even if it’s only ten minutes of extra time for me. I started to notice, not only am I relatively stress free on those days, but I’m much better at my job, more able to attend to clients, intuit more and be a better listener as a coach.
What little tricks of space and time can you find in your days to practice being mindful? The mindfulness gurus say we can aspire to live without stress at all. That’s an aspiration that might take a lifetime for me or perhaps I will never find it, however I believe it’s worth trying!
Life has felt a whole lot better, with a little mindfulness practice each day, or longer practices that I make time for, so these precious moments are not consumed by other demands. By separating myself from mindless activities that create stress and showing up for myself several times a day, there are some simple tricks that also work for my very busy executive coaching clients.
Simple Mindfulness Practices
When you move, practice being more aware of the pace you’re moving, either in your car, walking to meetings, running to the bathroom or noticing that you’re racing through lunch or not really attending to the needs of others. Conversely, my wrist watch reminds me to move, if I’ve been sitting too long at my desk or in meetings. This helps me to center my attention or take an essential deep breath or stretch, to bring my attention back to the present moment. Again, these reminders are about the pace I’m moving or not moving that allow me to get back to myself and into my body.
I keep a sticky note at my desk to remind myself to slow down, just a little, or a perhaps a lot! This reminder has helped me to notice when I’m holding my breath to get through a few dozen emails before a next meeting, or to regain awareness that I can choose how fast I’m going, knowing that no one else can or will do that for me.
A reminder on my phone every two hours says – what is (actually) here now? This short phrase supports me to stop what I’m doing and be mindful in the moment. The text reminder jars my attention back to my breath, so I can take a few deep ones, to regain a sense of myself that I can so easily throw away when responding or reacting to the world around me. These simple practices may seem remedial or unnecessary, however, in utilizing them to kick-start a mindfulness practice, I’ve extended my ability to be aware and present for many months instead of dropping the habits entirely.
One of my favorite practices is to remember to pause whenever I’m making a transition in time or place, such as entering a room for a meeting, getting out of my car, stopping at a traffic light in my car, preparing for my next conversation or readying my head and heart to give my next activity or person the full attention it (he/she) deserves. These transitions between times or activities are what I call “white spaces” that offer moments to practice, take deep breaths, set intentions for what I’m about to do next. Paying attention to the multiple transitions we make throughout a day can relieve stress or lower anxiety that might be held in your body as you move from one moment to the next. These many invitations in a day have become the barometers for how I’m feeling and what I might need in this moment. They are small gifts of time that are ours for the taking. I think of them as training wheels in my mindfulness practice.
The practice of mindfulness for stress reduction is a way of living and moving throughout our days. The reminder that, “we are what we practice,” is what stress reduction is all about. It’s about being simply present throughout the day for ourselves and no-one else. A selfish act perhaps, but well worth the investment for the payback we and others receive from our deliberate practices. It’s all about feeling and being great!
There’s no doubt the conditions for leadership have changed in today’s volatile, uncertain, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) world. An essential capability for leadership success is emotional intelligence (EQ) - the capacity to recognize our own feelings and those of others, and the ability to regulate our own emotions and effectively manage relationships with others (Daniel Goleman).
A lot has been written about the power of emotional awareness to impact business results and to create the conditions for employees to be engaged in meaningful work. Goleman’s research shows that EQ has double the impact on business performance, compared to IQ. In fact, 67% of competencies essential for high performance are related to EQ and it is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining 58% of success. In times of constant change, when employees experience even more stress than usual, managing the emotional context of work becomes even more important.
The EQ capability of self-awareness is essential - being able to recognize our own emotions, especially under stress or change, being open to feedback from others and being open to understanding our impact on others. It makes sense then that demonstrating emotional awareness and flexibility when our everyday work environment is ambiguous, allows us to self-regulate or demonstrate higher levels of self-control while remaining open to new ideas and being empathetic to the experiences of others. The resulting ability to manage work relationships effectively makes it possible for everyone to do better work in times of ambiguity.
Managing the turbulence of VUCA business environments, allows a higher range of openness to relationships and new ideas, and the ability to consider multiple perspectives, experiences and possibilities – skills required for continuous improvement and large scale innovation. The very good news is that EQ can be learned through practice, by developing self and other awareness, and learning to self-regulate our own emotions to effectively manage our relationships with others.
In my coaching work with leaders, EQ practices build these capabilities as leaders learn to pay attention to emotional triggers, understand the assumptions they hold and ask for feedback from others about their impact. When under stress our key relationships can be compromised by emotional volatility or reactivity, and our openness to new or alternate perspectives and possibilities becomes limited or shut down as we revert to what we know. Curious leaders that build their EQ capabilities set a higher bar for business performance and innovation, setting the conditions for people to ask questions, test assumptions, create experiments that will inevitably fail and enable the organization to learn, even or especially in VUCA conditions.
Emotional Intelligence is the Essential Fuel for Innovation and perhaps the most important capability for leadership success.
I’ve been thinking about the critical link to our mind-body awareness, and what an amazing information system it is, should we listen to it. Our body as an information super-highway, can and does signal important information to us about our emotional experiences and as a barometer about our stress levels. So why don’t we listen to the information our body tells us?