With January marching forward and kids back to school, the holiday frenzy feels far behind and a nice contrast to the those days leading up to Christmas, driven by a dozens lists with next year’s business plans, year-end deadlines, shopping strategies and that last-minute online order you hope gets delivered on time. And then there’s the wrapping, food prep and toilet cleaning protocol in time for guest arrivals.
One of many strategies this year was a food prep power session the day before Christmas, so I could “relax” in the days to come. Before my kitchen lock-down, I zipped out for a dog walk to get some fresh air and “clear my head”. I set out with Rosie (our wee Boston) taking my mental lists, business plans, oven temperatures and cleaning deadlines along for the ride. I also chewed on a couple of last week’s stressors and next month’s worries for good measure. Here’s the thing - it’s hard to focus on what’s around you when you are living up in your mental lists. You miss the path under your feet, and you can slip and fall. Hard.
Suddenly, I was painfully present.
I was on the ground and I couldn’t figure out how I got there. By not connecting with my surroundings, I failed to notice the strip of ice that had me on my backside waving a broken ankle in the air, then a nauseating hop home, hours lost in the ER, a fridge full of unprepared food and a new-found hatred of stairs.
As leaders, professionals, parents, community members and more, most of us manage several to-do lists, project plans and strategic goals while cultivating the motivation, vision and strategies to get these lists done. Finding the right balance between the structure (and comfort) of planning with focused attention on the action, task or person in front of us is challenging yet crucial because when we fail to be present we miss out on critical details, awareness and emotional data that can lead to better decisions and results. Research (and recent experience) is telling us that the ability to be present might be vital to our well-being and leadership effectiveness too.
In a recent study of 2000 employees, Bain and Company found that centeredness - “the state of greater mindfulness, achieved by engaging all parts of the mind to be fully present”- was the most important attribute for inspirational leadership. Being centered was instrumental to using other leadership strengths effectively. I’ve seen this in action with one of the most inspirational and successful leaders in my early career who has the uncanny ability to shift her focus and wholeheartedly listen to you no matter she was doing, what the issue or how busy she was. (she was the busiest person in the department by far). It stood out to me then and still does today. Centered leaders are able to listen deeply to take in more ideas, information, viewpoints and emotional signals which guides their strategy, decision making and execution.
Research in areas of emotional intelligence and attention shows a link between mindfulness (actively practicing being present) and improved working memory, stress responses and cognitive functioning all of which can impact decision making, coping skills and general well-being. Mindfulness, often developed by meditation practice, has scientifically proven benefits for mental health by reducing anxiety, distraction and improving mental functioning, which has significant implications for leaders, individuals and workplaces.
Planning and organizing is still critical for successful execution. When I was benched and elevating my ankle at holiday time, my detailed (ok, excessive) planning made it easy to delegate to my very helpful family and our holidays were still happy as heck. But focusing on planning when I should have focused on my own two feet was a serious distraction leading to suffering and stress.
Letting our attention be controlled externally instead of actively choosing where to focus can increase anxiety, lower productivity and potentially lead to burnout. There are many social, technological and systemic factors that contribute to attention overload and coincidentally, while drafting this post I found this an eerily common theme in social media this month (check out Talent Vanguard’s post “Drowning in the Daily Grind” and Anne Helen Peterson’s valuable commentary on Millennial Burnout). While I agree that there are substantive societal and system changes needed to address our collective distraction (more on this in future posts), I also believe it can’t hurt to take some responsibility for a few different choices or habits too. Humans are adaptable creatures after all.
As a compulsive planner and organizer and also continuous daydreamer, I spend a lot of time in my head and it will admittedly take some work to build new habits. I’m going to keep it simple by focusing on 3 habits to start:
Stop and ask, “what’s important right now? Consciously checking in on what I’m focused on, to make sure it’s intentional and the best thing to be doing in the moment. Also, setting specific time each day and week for “planning” work and “doing” work and noticing when planning starts interfering with other activities.
Stop to breath deeply, more often. Noticing your breath seems to be where many meditation practitioners (or top apps) start and when I’ve tried it, it does help me feel less like things are careening out of control. It also gives some much needed oxygen to my busy brain. So when I stop to make coffee, change activities or prepare for a meeting, I will add a couple extra deep breathing moments too.
More Eye Contact. Conversations and connections count for more than we think and can help keep us centered. Being intentional to find opportunities for simple eye contact with family members, colleagues, clients and strangers is something I will practice, whether it is embracing video meetings more often, taking a break from monitoring my phone or foregoing the note-taking to really listen in a meeting.
My ankle crisis created some chaos, but it provided some unexpected clarity as well. It’s helped me identify a real need to be more present in some key areas of my life and be conscious of situations where multi-tasking is actually destructive to my goals.
Neuroscience suggests that focusing on building habits can be more effective than setting goals or making resolutions and I’m approaching my new year with the intention of practicing a few new habits. We’ve also embedded habit building and practice into all of our emotional intelligence and communication learning programs here at Vibrant Work, because most learning and change happens outside the classroom one conversation and experience at a time.
I’m looking forward to exploring ways to be more present this year and to sharing and learning from others for greater clarity, focus and connection in 2019.