This Will Keep You Calm in Chaos
As leaders, we never have a shortage of activities. There are always more tasks to complete, more emails to return, and more employee issues to solve. If we’re lucky, our team is in one office rather than spread across time zones. Many leaders find themselves up at 3 AM tracking down people across the world. Keeping our heads above water, and our sight-lines focused ahead, takes every bit of time and energy we have. When someone suggests that we take a break we agree, sigh, and put it off for another day. There’s simply too much to do.
Most of us know that this kind of pace is unsustainable even while we are giving everything we have to sustain it. As a friend once said to me, the work is infinite but our time is finite. We do eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. In order to stay productive and effective, we need to foster moments of calm.
Mindfulness is a buzz word heard in companies from Google to stodgy law firms. It’s an alluring concept as it promises to bring us back to a relaxed state, wherever we find ourselves.
While the term may be trendy, the idea is ancient. Meditation has been used for thousands of years to calm the mind. Now science shows that these moments of contemplation change our brain to reduce stress over the longer term.
If mindfulness or meditation sounds too out there for you, there’s another way to consider it. Executive coach and author, Scott Eblin defines mindfulness as “awareness plus intention.” It means slowing down and paying attention to what’s going on around us. Eblin argues: “Many professionals and leaders today are in a chronic state of fight or flight because they’re trying to cram so much into the 168 hours of a week that they end up in a state of low-grade or maybe even high-grade fight or flight. They don’t make good decisions, they don’t make strong relationships, and they don’t have good health.”
Being mindful, then, is slowing down and paying attention in order to refocus our energies and our priorities. If you’ve ever been around someone who is distracted and scattered, you understand the effect that kind of energy has on the environment. When we sense that someone’s energy is unfocused and all-consuming, we distance ourselves in a sort of psychic protection.
So how do you get a calmer mind so you’re fortified against overwhelm at work? Try these strategies.
Learn to breathe.
We’ve heard since we were kids that taking a deep breath helps us to gain composure, and it remains sage advice. When we take deep breaths we reap several benefits: we offer our brains more oxygen, lower our blood pressure and stimulate our parasympathetic nervous systems. It also helps us to refocus our energy and relax.
When you find yourself stressed at work or need to reset, use deep breathing techniques. You can do this wherever you are. If you’re in your office, sit up straight with both feet flat on the floor. With your arms out to the sides, breathe in for four counts and then out for four counts. Repeat this a few times until you can feel your energy shift.
Take more frequent short breaks.
Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project, says that taking short, rejuvenating breaks during the workday is crucial to managing our energy levels and ultimately being as efficient as possible. A few minutes of break each hour can actually help us to be more productive overall.
He advises: “The length of renewal is less important than the quality. It is possible to get a great deal of recovery in a short time—as little as several minutes—if it involves a ritual that allows you to disengage from work and truly change channels. That could range from getting up to talk to a colleague about something other than work, to listening to music on an iPod, to walking up and down stairs in an office building. While breaks are countercultural in most organizations and counterintuitive for many high achievers, their value is multifaceted.”
So if you’re feeling hungry, get a healthy snack. Feeling fidgety? Go for a brief walk. Even a quick check on social media can help to prepare you for your next task. It’s important to listen to your body; it knows when it needs a break.
Get a change of scenery.
One reason we can get overwhelmed is because we’re stuck in a mental rut: solving the same problems, in the same ways, with the same people. We need new inputs to trigger inspiration. Forward momentum fuels positive emotions, and that may require us to change our surroundings in various ways.
Consider reaching out to new colleagues to have as thought partners. Take a leadership program or engage in a fun outside activity in the evening. Join a professional organization and volunteer to chair a committee. New things encourage growth.
Even small changes of scenery can be uplifting. Get away from the office to work outside or head to a coffee shop to knock out some writing. Do your planning in a sunny conference room instead of behind your desk. Shaking things up can facilitate a more creative headspace.
Do something physical.
Exercise has been proven to clear the mind and ease anxiety. Whatever your favorite form of physical activity—walking, running, yoga, cycling—it’s important to integrate some kind of motion into your daily life.
Eliminate all-or-nothing-thinking. (I’m looking at you, Type As.) It doesn’t have to be CrossFit level to be beneficial! Even a walk at lunchtime energizes us physically and mentally. Adults need recess just like kids do.
Focus on a positive.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overstressed and overworked, practicing positivity can help to refresh your mind. Studies have shown that focusing on gratitude reduces toxic emotions and stress, increases our sense of wellbeing and happiness, improves our sleep, and fosters a host of other benefits.
This can take many forms. Some people start or end each day with a gratitude. Another tactic is positive framing. When you feel stress or frustration, before reacting, come up with an alternate explanation that focuses on the positive. For example, if you have a challenging employee, you may counter that with the thought that everyone wants to do well at their job. If your company is stalling on promoting you, then you consider that it’s giving you an opportunity to learn to advocate for yourself.
It doesn’t mean that you have to completely buy into the idea that everything is positive, but rather, that you stay open to other possibilities instead of rehashing the same frustrations. Even being willing to engage in gratitude or positive thinking opens our perspectives. And it sure beats the alternative.
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