Before the COVID-19 turned our world of its axis, many people regularly felt stressed and overstretched. Now, in the midst of a crisis that has led many organizations to restructure and reduce headcount, 82% of workers reported being asked to do even more with even less according to a recent study by VitalSmarts. This has resulted in a spike to stress lesses and an increasing toll on mental health and state of mind.
Clearly there is no magic bullet for combatting the pressures of work overload or the challenges of operating across virtual teams. However, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or more anxious than usual, practicing mindfulness can make all the difference to your state of mind.
Over the last decade, mindfulness has become a new buzzword. Yet the practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years. Biblical scriptures encouraged us to “be still” and become present to God. Perhaps one of the most profound mindfulness practices of all.
Of course unlike our ancestors who sat around a fire each night gazing into a flame while sharpening implements, most people today spend their lives staring at a screen, racing to keep up. As a client recently shared with me, “Each day feels like I’m drinking from a fire hose trying to keep up.” It explains why a recent study found that 96% of respondents made about 15 mindless decisions each day.
While busy people often feel it’s indulgent to press pause on their busy productive ‘doing’ and connect to who they are ‘being, research proves otherwise. That is, practicing mindfulness doesn’t take time out of your day—it expands your ability to effectively utilize your time so you can fit more of what truly matters into your day. More time on Pareto’s ‘vital few’ and less on the ‘trivial many.’
There are as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are mindfulness experts (of which, I am not.) Yet as a student of mindfulness I’ve found that the most effective are usually the least complicated. All of them flow from “paying attention to what we are paying attention to” – becoming a more attuned observer of our own inner world. Here are a few of the simplest yet most powerful ways for helping you to do just that.
1. Mindful breathing
If you get nothing else from reading this article, I encourage you to pause right now, and follow your breath in and out three times, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allow your breath to settle into its own rhythm. Then as you simply follow it in and out, observe the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. Pretty simple, huh? Once you’re done, notice the subtle way it shifts how you’re feeling.
While mindful breathing is clearly not anything new, we can easily forget to take full breaths when we are flying from one thing to the next, powered along by a false sense of urgency that stimulates our fight-or-flight responses, shallows our breathing, and leaves us operating in a perpetual state of emergency.
A few long, calm, deep breaths can disrupt your default stress response and enable you to see your situation more objectively and respond more rationally. In doing so it also spares you the negative fall out that often occurs when you are operating mindlessly – firing off a heated email, snapping at someone or just doing something you’d never do if you were truly grounded.
2. Practice your inner observer
You don’t see the world as it is, but as you are. Through your own lens that has been shaped by your past experiences, social conditioning, cultural norms, personality and a myriad of other factors.
So a key aspect of building mindfulness is “looking at how you’re looking at life: This is about practicing being an inner observer of how you are perceiving, processing and interpreting the world around you; becoming more in tune to your own cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses. Broken-down into parts, it is about
a) Noticing what you are observing
b) Noticing what you are thinking about what you are observing
c) Noticing how what you are thinking about what you are observing is making you feel
For example, what are you telling yourself about the person who just sent the email about sales numbers that has triggered you? How is that interpretation showing up in your body—in your physical sensations, in your posture, your breathing and facial muscles? How else could you view what’s going on? What might be going on for them? What could be a more constructive way of responding?
These sorts of questions lay at the heart of developing the soft skills that are so paramount to success in every domain of life.
3. Cultivate compassion
Cultivating compassion calls on us to look both inward and outward.
Inwardly, to reflect on where we can be more self-compassionate – embracing our own humanity, forgiving our fallibility and being gentler with ourselves in our fallen moments.
Outwardly, to consider what is going on for others— their anxieties, insecurities, fears, hurts, hopes and aspirations.