We've all heard it: Business is War. Business is Chaos. Business is unrelenting. Any way you cut it, business is increasingly complex, high pressure and 24-7. If there's anything we can probably all agree on it's simply: Business is Stressful. So if you've occasionally found yourself exhausted, confused or simply staring at the ceiling of your bedroom at 2am you're not alone. When you combine the nature of business with advances in technology, things can become even more challenging. Whether it's AI, Edge Computing, robotics or Machine Learning, there is more and more for us to learn and only a finite number of hours in the day for us to learn it.
The data tells the story. A recent story on CBS news highlighted the fact that an estimated 51% of Americans are unhappy and unengaged at work. A further 16% are so unhappy and resentful that they do more harm than good in the office. In addition, an article in the Harvard Gazette last year suggested that some 36% of American workers suffer from stress at work, costing the economy an estimated $30 billion a year in lost productivity. Aside from the loss in productivity, the impact of continuous stress on individuals is also well documented and includes:
- Increased blood pressure, which increases the probability of strokes and heart attacks
- Increased likelihood of unhealthy behaviour (consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, poor eating and even the use of pornography) which saps energy and affects health
- Weight gain (which has all sorts of negative side effects)
- Minor ills such as catching a cold (people under constant stress are 3 times more likely to get sick)
So how can we better manage our stress to lead happier, healthier lives? We can certainly try to change jobs and/or companies. We can also engage in or increase the amount of exercise we do. We can even look to improve our quality of sleep as well the type of and amount of food we eat. But new research that's been released the past few years also shows another surprising tool that many of us might not have considered. For that, let's do a little exercise first:
1. Try and find some place quiet or put on noise cancelling headphones
2. Sit up straight, shoulders back, eyes facing forward, feet flat on the floor, palms flat on our thighs
3. Slowly begin to close your eyes
4. Start to breath in deeply; Breath in through your nose for about 4 seconds
5. Slowly exhale through your mouth for about 6 seconds
6. Try to repeat this for 2 minutes
7. As you repeat this breathing, be mindful of the sensation of your palms touching your thighs. How does this feel?
8. Now, while keeping your palms flat against your thighs, trying raising and spreading your fingers as wide as possible. Do that 2-3 times, then gently lower your fingers back to rest on your thighs. Do your fingers suddenly feel a bit tired? A bit heavy?
9. After a few minutes, slowly begin to open your eyes. Breath in the deepest breath you've inhaled all day and slowly exhale through your mouth.
Congratulations! You've just experienced your first mini session of mindfulness meditation.
What is Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation has its roots in ancient buddhism and many religions have adopted some form of meditation as part of their teaching philosophy. The idea is to center and focus the mind on the present moment. At it's most basic level, mindfulness has us focus on our breathing but in reality its application is broader than that and also involves us focusing on our general environment which could include focusing on the smell of the air around us, listening to particular sounds or even being mindful of the activity we might be engaging in at the moment (for example, on the heaviness of my fingers as I type on this keyboard).
Mindfulness as a form of meditation has become all the rage here in Silicon Valley, with tech leaders such as Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Larry Page of Google and Marc Benioff of Salesforce all practicing its use and encouraging its adoption across their organizations. It's also been widely adopted in other organizations such as General Mills, The US Marines, the Seattle Seahawks and insurance provider, Aetna.
A profitable way to decompress
A 2015 Harvard Business Review article on the subject discusses how Aetna actually introduced a mindfulness training program to its employees designed to help them take short breaks throughout the day and to manage their stress through mindfulness meditation and yoga. According to the article, Aetna saw some impressive results: "Stress levels dropped by 28%, reported sleep quality improved 20%, and pain dropped by 19%." Importantly, the financial impact for Aetna was meaningful as well. Apparently, "individuals in the top 20% of stress rankings have nearly $2,000 more in medical costs for the preceding year, so this intervention could create significant medical savings." These savings didn't even factor in other things such as the cost of losing some of these employees and the resulting cost of rehiring and retraining these people.
So meditation can not only act as a great stress-buster for employees but it can also have a direct and meaningful positive financial impact on organizations who make it part of their culture (Tweet this).
Use the force Luke
Anyone who's watched Star Wars remembers how much focus and concentration Skywalker needed to use the force in his early days as a padawan. Focus is crucial to productivity and success in business, whether you're working for Google or for a startup. If you recall my article a few months ago on how millennials are getting "candy crushed" at work, you'll remember that a big part of their struggle lies in the challenge of simultaneously trying to do too many things at once while maintaining focus given all the distractions around them.
New research and scientific data also shows how mindfulness meditation affects certain regions of the brain which can help us be more focused on what we're doing. For example, a study conducted by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, which was covered in Scientific American, shows that after 8 weeks of mindfulness training, MRI scans in individuals who had undergone the training showed noticeable changes in the amygdala, the brain's "fight or flight" center. The amygdala would actually shrink which would, in turn, allow the brain's prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for things such as concentration, awareness and decision-making, to thicken. The result: An increased ability to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
When we meditate, not only do we reduce stress and anxiety but we're also much more able to focus on what we're doing. As a business person why on earth would you not want to do this? (Tweet this)
A boon for Emotional Intelligence
Have you ever noticed in Star Wars how many of the generals in the Alliance are Jedi? Or how respected they are by others? Or how others look to them for advice or leadership? These guys are calm, self-aware, controlled under pressure and also empathetic to those around them. What do these things have in common? They require a high degree of emotional intelligence. According to Psychology Today Emotional Intelligence or EI is "The ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others." In the CBS News study I highlighted above, I talked about how 51% of Americans are unhappy at work. What I didn't mention is that the number 1 reason those people were unhappy was due to poor management. That's right: their bosses are the problem. There can be many reasons why you might be unhappy with your manager (see my post on surviving Tyrants at work) but one of the most cited reasons, particularly here in Silicon Valley, is due to their lack of EI. The lack of EI is endemic in Silicon Valley culture and a real challenge for more introverted types of people attempting to make a career change from individual contributors to people managers.
Fortunately, a number of leading tech companies in the Valley have recognized this challenge and also come to realize how mindfulness meditation can help existing managers become even better leaders. At Google for example, the company's self-designated ambassador and resident mindfulness expert, Chade-Meng Tan, even wrote a book on the subject (well worth the read) called Search Inside Yourself. The book proved so popular and Tan's teachings so profound that it spawned the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute , an independent non-profit, which a number of senior leaders attend each year to hone their leadership skills. To date over 3,000 Googler's have attended the program.
“Mindfulness is the foundation of emotional intelligence,” meditation teacher Mark Coleman said at a Google Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute training event to the Huffington Post.
Emotional Intelligence is the foundation for people to be successful managers and great business leaders. It should be a required course that's taught at business schools across the world. (Tweet This)
A number of schools, such as France's Insead (which was ranked the world's top MBA program by the Financial Times the past two years running) already seemed to have recognized the pivotal role mindfulness can play in management. Randel Carlock, a former public company CEO and now professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at Insead, has even incorporated mindfulness into how he teaches his classes and actively encourages students to embrace the practice. (click to play the video below)
Getting started with Mindfulness
Perhaps the best thing about mindfulness meditation is that it's simple to get started. There's also no excuse to try it since you can do it virtually anywhere (I just spent 15 minutes meditating in my car prior to writing this post). If you're keen to get started, some experts state you can already start to feel the benefits with short sessions of 5 to 15 minutes a day (though 40 minutes is recommended). Personally, I do 20 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes before going to sleep. Here are some ideas to get you in Zen mode:
Mobile Apps: There are a number of great apps out there to get started and carry your personal mindfulness trainer with you everywhere you go. These include well known apps like Headspace and Calm as well as new apps like Simple Habit. Most apps have some sort of limited trial version which subsequently defaults into a paid monthly subscription. You can select different types of meditations, with different durations and follow along as the instructions play in the app.
Muse - Muse is a cool sci-fi kind of experience that includes an app plus hardware for your forehead that records a snapshot of brain activity as you meditate. Right after each session, the app gives you mindfulness feedback. Not exactly cheap but have a look.
YouTube - The video giant has hundreds if not thousands of videos on the subject of meditation and mindfulness. Two of my favorites include this 10 minute guided meditation by the Honest Guys as well Michael Seely's 20 minute guided meditation (which I also like though I'd prefer he talk a little less).
I would also include Chade-Meng Tan's book as well if you have the chance, since he talks about the practical benefits of mindfulness and how you can even apply mindfulness to everyday mundane tasks such as walking and even eating.
Mindfulness meditation has been a real life changer for me personally. I've now incorporated into my daily routine and it's one of the first things I do after my 10 mile bike ride in the freezing cold (followed by a freezing cold shower). I've found that I'm better able to concentrate, more self-aware, less stressed out and more emotionally aware of the the feelings of those around me. I now recommend it to clients I work with as well.
So given the obvious benefits, our desire to live happier and more productive lives and the cost / low friction to practicing mindfulness meditation why would you not want to at least try it? (Click to Tweet)
So that's it for me folks. I hope this post has been useful. If it's been helpful please like, share and comment below.
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