Mindfulness for #Success: It Takes Three Simple Steps and No Meditation

Did you hear about executives taking up mindfulness for success?

I learned about mindfulness at University. From day one I was hooked and proceeded to spend all of my time into pouring over journal articles on the topic. The more I did, the more value I saw in it — it bolsters up your immune system, improves concentration and productivity, and relieves stress. It could even be one of the keys to longevity.

However, there is a problem when it comes to pitching mindfulness to modern people. The modern person is more data-driven than heart-driven. So what’s the first thing you imagine when you hear mindfulness?

meditation

You’re also thinking there’s no way that could help your day-to-day routine, right? Don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for: to break the association. 

There has been a misconception about mindfulness — that it is a spiritual thing, which is not entirely true. While you can make it whatever you want it to be, data-driven people tend to steer clear from heart-driven practices.

If you have heard of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, you probably know that he’s been consulting a bunch of high-profile tech companies in Silicon Valley. CEO’s have spent a lot of time and money on “turning towards their inner selves and realizing the truth of our inner-connectedness”.

That’s a beautiful concept but… it’s definitely a good way to lose a skeptic. Not to mention, there are wildly inaccurate definitions like:

Mindfulness is a form of meditation rooted in spiritual teaching in which people focus their full attention on the present moment.

This is why you might think mindfulness is bullshit — because it sounds so far removed from your modern values. But let’s see…

What mindfulness really is

The best working definition is:

the ability to cultivate a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment

It’s not about connecting to your inner self or your spirit animal or God. It doesn’t even require you to meditate! It’s about being present. Simply, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Examples of mindlessness:

  • Rushing through activities without being attentive to them.
  • Breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, inattention, or thinking of something else.
  • Failing to notice subtle feelings of physical tension or discomfort.
  • Forgetting a person’s name almost as soon as we’ve heard it.
  • Finding ourselves preoccupied with the future or the past.
  • Snacking without being aware of eating.

How often do you experience those? Yeah, me too.

When it feels like everything is vying for your attention — the media, the family, the boss, the past, the future — you split yourself in so many ways that you don’t even realize what the consequences are — lower productivity, shorter attention span, inability to enjoy a pleasant moment, etc.

This is why you need mindfulness to anchor you to the present moment.

undivided attention

Wouldn’t that be something? Anything you’re doing right now could be enhanced into something magnificent.

If you recall, there’s a powerful read called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who talks about this wonderful state of consciousness where you’re immersed in the moment, completely satisfied by what you’re doing. And while that usually happens when you create things, it could be achieved in other contexts, too. Mindfulness can take you there because it makes you an active participant in the process, as opposed to a distracted one that only does a half-ass job.

Not to mention… when you make decisions and assign tasks, you’re always hung up on all the details and people involved. It’s a good break for the brain to simply look at something as it is, as opposed to how you see it — sometimes creativity and innovation depend on it.

How can you become more mindful?

Now we’re getting to it. I’m not really a fan of meditation, so it’s good news that I don’t have to do it to achieve mindfulness. Sure, there are mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) and loving kindness meditation, but you and me can learn to be present by following three simple steps:

  1. Noticing
  2. Accepting and —
  3. Practicing

What are you doing right now? Stop. Look around you. Smell the air. Is it fresh? How does it feel against your skin? How does breathing feel?

Focus on those questions and the answers that come naturally. Don’t get distracted. The moment your mind starts veering off into its previous routine of round-and-round thinking, pinch yourself and go back to feeling the air and seeing your surroundings. Right now, you’re aware of everything — you’re noticing things without the interruptions of your mind, and noticing is the difference between looking and seeing.

Whatever you’re seeing or feeling right now, I want you to accept it.

This is the tricky part because we are all a bit of control freaks. But when you accept things, you feel like a huge weight has been lifted. This is because you’ve been carrying the weight of judgment. When you remove judgment from seeing, it’s just experiencing. Nothing more. And it feels light because your mind is unencumbered by something it wasn’t built for.

programming

Finally, if you want to be able to be mindful at will, you have to habitualize the process. They say it takes 10,000 kicks and 30 days to internalize a process, but that’s a number’s game. Instead, try with a trigger and routine. (Borrowed from The Power of Habit and Hooked.)

The trigger might be a yawn during the day or a headache at the end of it. It could a time of day or someone saying a particular word. The trigger will act as an alarm to wake you up from your default autopilot program.

For example, it could be blue buttons you stick around you, and you have to pause and be mindful when you see them. (But that could be quite often.)

Whatever trigger you chose, you have to always follow up with your routine — which can be anything involving noticing things and suspending judgment. If you can be mindful for one minute every day, you’ll get the hang of it, and the results will last you a lifetime. The rest is just practice.

Personally, I have benefited from mindfulness in two instances:

  1. When I have to wait in line and —
  2. When I’m enjoying good time with friends

In the first instance, my trigger is queuing up on a line. While I’d usually get worked up and impatient about it, not I’m just quiet and calm.

In the second instance, it’s helped me to stop and connect to a happy moment. I mean, there’s all this wonderful energy around me and I’m reminded of work or checking my phone or thinking about what I’m going to say next. Now I have to stop and look around —marvel at how perfect my life is at this moment in time. It’s a much-needed treat.

Do you have your trigger and routine in mind? You can wing it, but it would be even better if you took the time to write them down now. I’d be super-happy to see them in the comments below. 🙂

When to Listen to Your Gut and When to Tell It to Shut Up

Many a business has been conceived, born, and grown on a hunch. Consider the typical story of the young rebellious founder who invested all of their time and effort into a risky idea and won out big. Or the precarious businessman who has somehow developed an intuition for the “ways of the business”. Or even the person who dreams of something and it happens.

Most of it is just residual from the time we needed instinct and intuition to navigate the dangerous lands and avoid animals that could kill us. But ever since we became intelligent and reasonable beings, the need for this “sixth sense” has been less pronounced. Nevertheless, it has stuck with us. Just look at the successful people who swear by it. Steve Jobs called intuition “more powerful than intellect”. Another intellectual who valued it was Einstein:

There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.

So there is something there, something that invites a deeper look. In my own personal experience — which is not that much — I have found that not everything I consider a hunch is one. On the other hand, almost every time I’ve had a hunch and not acted on it, I’ve lost ground.

So should you listen to your gut? The answer: it depends. So what I’ll do is list five instances and go with either yes or no or both.

Ready? Go.

When It’s a Big Deal – Yes

So you have to buy a house. Or a car. Or there’s a big merger on the horizon. In other words you have to make a big choice, so you start weighing all the pros and cons. You ask your partner, your friends, your boss. And the more you think about it, the hardest the choice becomes. Stop.

What you have to do in this instance is trust your first instinct.

Science tells us that you’ll be happier if you decide quickly and intuitively. So when a bunch of car-buyers were choosing, the ones who took their time were on average less happy than the ones who chose quickly.

overthinking-gif

It has something to do with over-thinking — the more information piles up, the more confused you get, and your decision-making ability becomes stunted. It’s important to be able to decide quickly and firmly. Otherwise you’ll be like me — spending two hours on a birthday card.

When You Have a “Bad Feeling” – No

So you’re working at home, you’re tired and stressed, and you’re on the brink of a major deal… except suddenly you get the “feeling” that it’s not going to happen. It’s going to slip through your fingers.

Relax. This is a classic case of fear-induced inference. What your brain does is start worrying on a rational level, which then spirals into irrational fast. It’s because of the emotional feedback you’re sending to your brain when you worry continuously. Consider the jealous boyfriend who becomes convinced that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and the more he suspects, the more he thinks he “knows” that it’s happening.

Furthermore, when it comes to emotions (and stress), the brain can get easily confused — we all know it’s true when we’re in love. I mean, of course your brain will get confused — you feel the same in the gut when you feel scared and when you feel excited. Have you thought about that?

So next time you have a “bad feeling”, make sure it’s grounded in logic, not in your gut. The gut can be a deceiving devil.

When Something Could Harm You – Yes

Evolutionary speaking, we’re animals, and animals process cues from their environment to look out for dangerous elements, like bigger animals. When all signs lead to CODE RED, we crank up the biological alarm. Sometimes it’s not as bad as “fight or flight”, but just a tiny alert saying “something’s not right here”. Then you look around and everything seems fine.

My advice? Get to safety fast. Your brain is a complex machine. It’s able to process cues at a very fast speed, which sometimes get stuck in the unconscious part, but manage to manifest into a gut feeling.

One such example is the case of a Formula One driver, who braked just on time to save his life — without any initial warning, just a sense that something was wrong. What happened was that his brain processed the cue — the crowd not cheering — and “sensed” that something must be off.

Indeed, this very ability of ours to sense danger and act on it in a split second is what keeps us alive sometimes. So listen to your gut when it warns you about danger. They say, better safe than sorry, for a good reason.

When You Jump to Conclusions – Both

So you have just met a candidate for a job and something about the way they talk makes you “feel” uncomfortable. It’s a hunch.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible book Blink, you’d know that you’re actually amazingly good at thin-slicing — which means judging something without having any information about it. So, for example, you see a person and you can instantly judge what their personality is.

But there’s another side to this — stereotypes. Some preconceived ideas that we hold about certain groups can harm us or those around us. Even though these ideas are not true, we have the feeling that they are. So when you meet someone for the first time, give them a chance to show you what they’re like. Especially if you’re aware of any prejudice that you might have.

Also, Gladwell specifically stresses the danger of thin-slicing when you don’t have enough experience. For example, an experienced trader can immediately predict what’s going to happen before it does, and while some may call this a hunch, it’s just their mind thin-slicing — processing the information they have in a very fast, practiced way.

So the more experience you have, the more you can trust your gut. 🙂

When Someone Might Be Lying – Both

Sometimes you know in your gut something’s wrong with someone, but there’s absolutely no evidence. They act nice, they smile at you, and they’re nice to your friends. But your gut just won’t let go of this feeling.

Then it turns out that person is a psychological liar. Ouch.

It happened to me a few years back. One of my so-called friends was lying about literally everything, but instead of disappointment, I felt relief, because my gut had known it all along.

social_psychopath-vs-sociopath

If your gut tells you there’s something wrong with someone, you should listen. (Especially if this feeling lasts a long time.) Even if you can’t see any evidence to support your case, your brain is picking up cues — body language, visual discrepancies, mistakes — which it then processes and makes its conclusions on a subconscious level.

Research suggests that we’re bad at spotting liars, but we’re better when we take away information. So if you know this person, you’re less likely to figure that they’re lying than if you’ve just seen their photo.

Moral of the story? Whether someone’s really lying to you or not, you should always listen to your gut when it nags you.

In conclusion,

A great rule of thumb: Trust your gut when you have no reason to believe it is deceiving you. And I’ve only shared a few scenarios here, but there are many more out there. What are your experiences of trusting or ignoring your gut?

Fearless Searching – manage your fears to get more of what you want.

Full Disclosure: I’m not one for all the commercial hippy dippy positivity stuff. When I have read many of the self improvement style books in the past, it has felt unreal and disconnected. And don’t get me started on the tapes – the schmoltz is enough to make you wretch.

Life is all about searching

search ,  photoOne of the most transformative discoveries I made was from Steve Blank – the tireless mentor of generations of entrepreneurs. It was about how Steve defined a startup as being:

.. a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

This idea of a search – and consequently a search space – was very profound for me. It means I could be systematic in getting more of the things I want.

Steve was pivotal for me in a couple of ways. Firstly by framing the entrepreneurial work as a search and, secondly, for naming what the startup founder is searching for.

Think of everything you have done in your life – what was it for? Why go to school and university or dates? Why travel and explore?

There are a number of ways to frame these experiences  – I prefer to frame them as a search.

I went dating because I was searching for companionship. I went to university in search of knowledge and a basis for a profession. I go to the cinema in search of some entertainment.

How do you find a needle in a haystack?

Haystack ,  photoImagine you lost a golden needle in a haystack.  How might you find it?

Imagine also that you have an irrational fear of hay or extreme hay allergies – how might this help or hinder your search for the needle?

Or perhaps you fear looking silly sifting through hay for a needle?

Any of the above would probably stop you finding your needle.

Now imagine if you had a fear of flying that would limit – pretty severely – how far you might travel to search for new cultural experiences.

Or if you had a fear of conflict, you might never have your ideas challenged and improved through healthy debate.

Name your Search, name your fears

list ,  photoDo this little experiment – you’ll need a pen and some paper.

First,  write down what you are searching for by going to work. For example: I go to work because I’m searching for financial security.

Next, write down 3 things that you are afraid of that apply to that search. For example: I’m afraid of appearing ‘unprofessional’ by arriving late for meetings

Finally, for each 3 things you are afraid of, come up with 3 things you are almost uncomfortable with to try and make it a little better. You might need to ask a friend for suggestions or do some research about how you might manage the fear. try and keep the actions mostly dependent on things you will do i.e not waiting on someone else.
For example: I’ll set an alarm so that I can arrive at meetings 5 minutes early.

How was that? Don’t worry if you didn’t get  absolutely 3 things per fear – the goal is to think through this and find the smallest steps you can take towards managing your fear so that you can minimize their ability to affect your search. Remember – you do not have to conquer your fears entirely in order to prevent them from affecting your search.

3 things you can do now to make fearless searching a habit

brush teeth ,  photoThe above was a simple exercise, but for it to work, you have to do it for real and review regularly. To get the benefits of fearless searching, you have to get habitual. It can be pretty hard at the beginning , however you can use a little bit of will-power now to avoid using much more in the future.

Here are 3 things you can do right now to help you build the habit to help you get good at fearless searching.

  1. Keep your output from the previous exercise – this is as good a place to start. Pick one thing you will do and by when you will do it.
  2. Make an appointment in your calendar to review your list and the action you took. A week away usually works best.
  3. Send the appointment to a friend and ask them to call you on the day as though you were meeting. If you don’t have someone to do this with – I’m happy to help – add me to your calendar

Go forth and be fearless in your search. I’d love to hear how you get on with this.

Why Walking Meetings Are Good for Your Brain, Your Life, and Your Job

What are you doing right now?

I bet my butt that you’re sitting. You might think I’ve gone bonkers, thinking ‘how is my sitting any of her business’. It’s not my business.

It’s your problem.

We sit for about 9.3 hours per day — that’s more than the 7.7 hours we spend sleeping. Sitting has also been found to increase the likelihood of developing some diseases like cancer and diabetes. Horrific, really.

In the words of Nilofer Merchant (from her TED talk):

Sitting is the smoking of our generation.

This is why people all over the world have been thinking of solutions like the standing desk — remember when that was trending? Another simple enough solution is: just stand up and walk about a bit. It’s a common practice at Wellness & Prevention, where employees are required to do so for one or two minutes every half hour. It was found to increase productivity.

Nilofer herself adopted the practice of walking in her busy schedule: by turning one-on-one coffee meetings into “walking meetings”, which were also popular with tech giants like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

So let’s see why you should add walking to your busy schedule.

A change of scenery

Context shapes behavior. You’re like a walking reflection of your surroundings, and the more you stay inside the stuffy office or board room, the more you’ll feel stuffy and closed up.

If you’re looking for a re-charge or new ideas, walking outside can literally boost your cognitive function and even your memory. Furthermore, changing the scenery makes you snap out of your “work stupor”.

But beware, if you walk out into a busy street, you’ll probably start to feel stressed, so it’s better if you find a park. Stepping into Nature provides immediate relief, acting as a “reset” button. And because we spend our lives in artificial environments, our brains become even more eager to reconnect with Nature. This is why some people surround themselves with green — to trick the brain into believing it’s there, but the real thing is better.

A blast of fresh air

How many times have you taken a deep breath today?

Your brain needs tons of oxygen to operate properly. While breathing is mostly an unconscious process, you must remember that you CAN control it.

Like, for example, when you’re stressed. When you’re stressed your heart rate goes up, pumping blood like there’s no tomorrow, making you take shallow breaths. If you want to de-stress, you need to take deep breaths. Then the heart goes back to its normal rate, the adrenaline subsides, and the brain calms down, ready for the rest of the work day.

Obviously, the quality of air you inhale is also important — the stale, recycled air of the office is not good enough —  so I suggest taking a walk in the park (don’t forget the sandwich on your desk). And breathe deep.

A dash of creativity

Research shows that walking enhances creativity. In a study of students completing tasks, those who walked showed greater creativity than those who sat. When you walk, your mind naturally wanders and comes up with new ideas. Perhaps this is why so many famous creators of the past took long walks in Nature — to get their creative juices flowing.

It’s an amazing discovery, especially now that the bulk of our working lives is sedentary, both for office workers and remote workers. Also, this changes the game for brainstorming sessions. They shouldn’t take place inside the office, after hours and hours of work, they should follow a power walk!

Granted, I’m not impartial on this subject — I am an avid walker. Which is why this article — Why Walking Helps Us Think in The New Yorker — sparked the idea for my own. Give it a read if you’ve got the time.

A bit of perspective

This is where things get interesting.

Your brain makes powerful associations. For example, your desk screams work and your bed screams rest, right? Right.

What happens when you walk side-by-side to someone?

They become your equal. The brain automatically throws away the hierarchy, the prejudice, and just assumes that the person sweating and puffing next to you is someone who is working with you.

Perhaps this is why Mark Zuckerberg likes to walk new hires around Facebook Headquarters. Maybe this is his way of bonding with them. Whatever the reason, if you want to meet with someone face-to-face and drop the corporate mumbo-jumbo, try a walking meeting.

Just remember, walking too fast or too slow might not produce the best results. The perfect pace is your natural pace. Hopefully, your walking buddy will have one that’s similar to yours.

A few considerations

First of all, if you’re considering to pick up walking meetings, you know that they’re most effective when it’s just you and somebody else. A whole group of people walking together will never reach any consensus because they’ll have to out-scream one another and make a scene on the street.

Secondly, I have found that if you’re considering to taking these walks alone, the process itself is not only beneficial for creativity, but it can also act as an incubation period when you’re solving a problem or making a decision.

Finally, you need to stop making excuses — I’m not fit enough, I don’t have enough time, people won’t like that — and start taking care of your health. You don’t have to compromise your health for the sake of your job.

So start today. Set an example. And stay healthy. 🙂

Why You Should Encourage Conflict at Work and Women Speaking Up

When I was in University, I learned a lot about myself.

For instance, for a person who shies away from conflict at all costs, I sure liked it a lot when it came to ideas. While everyone else would stay silent in debates, I would argue to the death. Even though it’s not typical of me, it just seemed that somebody had to. I mean we’re not sheep.

Did you hear about women staying silent in meetings so that men could not interrupt them? Sadly, not just women, but people in general do this: they hold back for fear of saying the wrong thing, being perceived as a nay-sayer, or just because they don’t like conflict. I mean, who does?

mime

The problem in this scenario is: There could be no progress without conflict. With conflict comes creative thinking, innovation, change. If you stay silent long enough, you might as well become a —

<mime.

Sure, there is the bad kind of conflict — nobody would invite it in their office or during their lunch break or from their boss. But that’s generally the kind where someone is arguing just to argue. This is completely different from disagreeing with a point. And as long as nobody takes it personally, a disagreement can kick off a discussion.

Staying silent is just another problem in organizations that needs to be given top priority. Especially when it turns into a gender issue. And it’s not always driven by fear either. Sometimes people will agree because of bad politics, sheer laziness, or even blind faith.

There’s a term in Social Psychology related to this; every team encounters it sooner or later — when you’re in the meeting room, you are a team. You know it as ‘groupthink’. It’s when members of a team agree on a decision, whether it’s the right decision or not. For example, the poor CEO below can’t get any counter-arguments from his team because they would agree with anything, whatever the reason. (Maybe to leave early?)

According to research, this process has lead to many dysfunctional and irrational decisions throughout history. A few would be:

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 — the explosion was caused by the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) o-ring, however, NASA was warned about abnormally cold weather the previous day, and because they had postponed once, they were reluctant to do it again. Pressured by NASA, the engineers agreed to proceed as planned.
  • The 2008 financial crisis — Wall Street CEOs, investors, bankers and homeowners all believed that the credit system was working, even though accountants and economists voiced their concerns. The former groups of people held the false belief that nothing could go wrong, but if history is any indication, that’s exactly when it does (i.e. Titanic).
  • The attack on Pearl Harbor — many of the senior officers did not take the warnings seriously because they thought the Japanese would never dare attack U.S. soldiers, that a war with the States would be futile.

And so on. While not as serious as a mistake of war, a faulty decision made in a board room meeting could result in disaster for any company. If the people on top weren’t so quick to judge without backing it up, the middle people would not feel the pressure to comply, and these mistakes would not be present.

So, it seems, it all depends on management.

You’re the manager, or CEO, or whoever you are, you threw the meeting, so you’re in charge. Take matters in your hands and make this meeting count. If your coworkers will not argue, then encourage them.

In case you think all of this is mumbo-jumbo, I’m going to point you towards a video I watched on TED.com, which completely threw me.

It’s called Dare to Disagree and this is the summary:

Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

In her speech, Margaret Heffernan, gives a great example of a good team —Dr. Alice Stewart and a statistician called George Neale. Back in the 1950s, Alice discovered that X-raying pregnant women caused cancer in their children, and she fought to spread awareness (which took 50 years!).

Now, Alice and George were great collaborators because they were completely different. Whatever Alice thought, George disagreed with, and vice versa. But they saw it as a good thing — as a breeding ground for thinking. They knew that arguing with each other made their ideas more informed, more creative, and in the end, more valuable.

And when George didn’t argue about her cancer findings, Alice knew she was right. Isn’t that great? Having a compass telling you you’re on the right track? This could be your colleague, your employee, your wife…

Whoever it is, it’s important to have a person who challenges you.

In terms of teams, project managers can ensure that there’s an open-argue or a ‘must-argue’ policy. You can call it a challenge — people love challenges. It’s up to you to encourage the right behaviors. Make debating a game. Make it fun. Make it a part of the company culture. You hear the buzz phrase ‘company culture’ everywhere, and for a good reason. Companies with a healthy culture produce happy relationships and happy employees.

These days everything’s up in the air and there’s a rug underneath your feet, waiting to be pulled, so do something about it. Without risk there’s no reward. And without conflict, there’s no progress.