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How much of your day do you spend mind wandering?  How engaged are you in meetings?  According to research completed by two Harvard psychologists in 2010  we spend 47% of our time mind wandering and 70% of leaders admitted to being regularly inattentive in meetings.

Last month I attended ‘Search Inside Yourself’, a Google programme brought about from an original Google leader, Chade-Meng Tan who bought in a mindfulness expert and neuroscientist to create a programme focused on well-being and sustained high performance leadership in the workplace. SIY is one of the most popular courses at Google & after being immersed for a couple of days in the foundations I can see why. And Google isn’t the only company doing flips over mindfulness – it’s very much en vogue with forward thinking companies adding training to their wellness programmes to increase employee engagement.

But what is mindfulness really about and without a fancy training scheme at work can you start doing it?  Here’s my key outtakes from SIY and simple techniques you can try from your couch to your desk.

The Brain.

Contrary to what was thought previously our brains are like plastic and their neuroplasticity means they are shaped by what we consistently do. For example studies on London black cabbies have shown their brains have increased in size after having had to memorise the London streets. It’s also been proven by many neuroscientists including Richie Davidson that when practicing mindfulness the grey matter/ cortical thickness in many key areas of the brain increases in size and has also been associated with the decrease in the activity of our ‘monkey minds’ (where we swing directionless from thought to thought).

person on cliff meditating

So when you start practicing mindfulness what are the benefits? Try less stress and panic moments. More clarity, focus and resilience plus it’s also been shown to improve our creativity. It’s a win win basically.

Emotional Intelligence

Another buzz topic we discussed was our ‘EQ’ and the  connection between our emotions and decision making. More often than not we believe we are making rational pragmatic decisions but our emotions are working us. Growing our awareness as to when this is happening means we can beging to make active choices vs reactive based on our emotion. Tying into this is having an awareness of what is happening in our body as we experience certain emotions for example I am angry vs I am having the sensation of anger in my body. And while the concept of ‘self-management’ may sound overly dull it does have benefits. Here’s an exercise in self management we learnt for when we can feel ourselves experiencing an unwanted emotions.

Stop (the secret pause). Breathe (this is under my skin). Notice (my jaw is tight etc). Reflect (what’s really going on for me and who I’m speaking with here?).  Response (what’s an appropriate way to respond).

Throughout the workshop we also practiced active listening to really engaged in what perfect strangers were saying. Many participants new to this concept were impressed with how much more of the conversation they retained and the greater connection felt with their partner.

Leadership

When discussing leadership the standout point for me was the research revealed in The Harvard Business Review in 2013 which demonstrated that people who show warmth first then competence are much more likely to succeed as leaders. The importance of compassion was also highlighted as being more sustainable than empathy which results in burn out. Compassion does not mean avoiding confrontation but rather leveraging strengths of wisdom & clarity to arrive at a conclusion for the greater good.

Exercises to try out:

You can put these into practice at work or home right away but first a quick note: Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind to nothing at all. That’s even tricky for the monks! Think of it as having a breather from the monkey mind and simply observing thoughts without judgement or attachment.

  1. Just look at your hand for 30 seconds. When you notice judgements arising let them go.
  2. Set yourself triggers for mindful moments while doing everyday things. Brushing your teeth, driving the car, riding in an elevator. Slow down the ongoing stream of internal dialogue and spend time noticing things you’d never normally notice about the activity.
  3. Here’s a 2min guided meditation from the SIY team to get you started or if you have just ten minutes try this body scan for an ‘insular’ workout.laptop
  4. For those who enjoy putting pen to paper giving yourself 5-10 minutes to write. Use these prompts to get you going. a) What I’m surprised about in my life is… b) A challenge I’m working with is… c) What I value is…

4. Check out this 2 min explanation on meditation and how it helps with your creativity.

5. With a colleague or partner pick a topic. While you listen they speak for 2 minutes – no interrupting. Be fully engaged giving them your full attention (see how Richard Branson does this) and once they’ve finished say back here’s what I heard you say. If you want to challenge yourself even more you could try ‘here’s what I heard you feel’. Then reverse the exercise.

Further mindfulness and meditation resources

Here’s an excellent free online mindfulness course recommended by the SIY team or for a simple start download the renowned Headspace app. I had a excellent experience learning meditation last year with Emma at One Meditation in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and I can highly recommend the benefits of feeling more calm and centered from my practice.

The Daily Gratitude Project

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. She’s about to go all ‘Oprah’ on me.  But as many of you know I have read a few (!) books on happiness and one of the biggest takeaways is that gratitude is an essential ingredient for feeling happier.

For those of you who read my blog about my bouncing time with Tony Robbins you may recall I committed to 90 days of practicing gratitude following his routine. Every morning for 10 minutes (I’m taking his word for it) he meditates on what he is grateful for. Controversial in itself as for most meditation is about clearing the mind as much as possible. However here’s what he suggests:

Dedicate 3 mins to thinking about what you are grateful for right now, today, yesterday. So that’s everything from the wind in your hair, the colour of the green leaves, a beautiful sunset to a good cronut (!), a big break through you’ve had, your bed, the laughs you recently had with a friend. Whatever.

This is followed by 3 mins of being grateful for those outstanding folk in your life and/ or sending people love who come up for you and you feel may need it (hint: they may not be close friends and family – it’s fascinating who ‘shows up’). Just the act of sending love and good feelings has been quite transformative for me.

Finally 3 mins meditating on gratitude for what is coming into your life. So if you have a vision board – it is that! Spend time feeling yourself achieving your goals and being grateful for them coming into your life.

I realise this does not add up to 10 mins but by the time you drift from gratitude for the hot chups you ate last night, to sending your over-friendly neighbour some gratitude then launch into visualising your ridiculously amazing future you’ll find ten mins goes like that!

A couple of key points.

  1. Doing it when you first wake up in bed usually ends in you falling back to sleep. Get out of bed or at least sit up. Do it somewhere comfortable but not so comfy you end up dribbling on yourself.
  2. To help with timing I use the Simply Being appmusic so I know when my time is up – nothing like a bit of ‘calm ocean shore’ to keep one focused.
  3. I love a good multi task so I attempted the ‘gratitude-drive’ – though potentially talked to myself so not the best look let alone the concentration levels. I had a few gratitude ‘runs’ though sometimes was side tracked by the ‘vistas’ en route to Bondi.  My favourite locale is a little spot above a local beach first thing in the morning where nobody goes and the ocean just stretches out forever. The only distraction is the odd large Aussie ant crawling scarily close to my shorts.
  4. When you notice yourself drifting off thinking about whether you needed that cronut or not – just observe it (don’t freak out and tell yourself off) and bring your mind back to your gratitude.
  5. I get it. Some days are completely rubbish & you really don’t feel like it. Or you have those well meaning folk who tell you how you should be grateful for something that in that very moment you are not feeling so grateful for – perhaps a screaming child or a horrific flu that is ‘just telling you to slow down’. Hmph. Perhaps on that day you just focus on very simple things that are good – like the sun, a fresh towel or one nice thing someone said to you.

I can 100% say that incorporating this 10 mins of daily gratitude has had a huge impact on how I deal with the everyday especially those days when I’m a bit flat or running low on the happy tank. I can tell you that because at the start of this year it slid out of the habit pattern (oops) and I really noticed the difference.  I’m pledging to do another 90 days it felt so good. Thanks old mate Tony!

Try it for 7 days and let me know how you go.

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The Happy Buddha, Mekong Delta. Vietnam.