Ever think about how your down time affects your productivity and success? In today’s busy world, it’s not always easy to disconnect and really relax and refresh your thinking, your body, your emotions. To be a fearless leader, you need to be able to rise above your fear-based gut reactions, and strengthen your personal resilience and emotional reserves. Mindfulness is a set of practices that focuses your activity and energy on your higher objectives and state of being, rather than so much day to day “doing” and busyness. While it takes time to cultivate mindfulness, it can be improved in just a few short minutes each day.
At Transcend, we work to create breaks in our work, and share these ideas with clients to help them access their best thinking. Too often, time away from the action of work can feel like we are simply allowing our inbox to fill up in our absence, and we dread coming back to a backlog of reading, responding, writing, meeting and generally getting caught up on all that didn’t get done while we were away or taking a break.
There is ample research to show that real vacation time helps overall productivity, and mindfulness habits help create that “vacation” feeling every day. Here are a few of our favorite practices (many clients resist these at first, and then embrace them as they see these simple strategies at work):
Mindful Leadership Strategies that Work
Journaling is the act of writing down what is in your head. For some, this is a natural way of expressing feelings, capturing thoughts and observations, or capturing ideas and snippets of conversation to use later. If you’ve never been one to write things down, here’s the simplest version of our journaling exercise:
- First thing in the morning, write 3 specific things for which you are grateful
- Before going to bed, write 3 specific achievements of the day
- Write down thoughts and emotions when you feel particularly upset or stressed (get it out of your head!)
You can write anything you want, and you may find it addictive once you get started. The 3 things can be small and personally meaningful, or major accomplishments – as long as they are relevant to the day at hand. This small period of focus on what is going well, and how you are winning personal victories each day, shifts your mindset to appreciate the positive and worry a little less each day. Getting emotions and thoughts out on paper helps you let go of thinking about them, and lets you move past your emotional reaction and take productive and proactive action. It’s the worry that eats away your mental energy and erodes your leadership – a few minutes of writing can help you build leadership reserves. Fearless leaders reflect.
Once a practice of eastern mystics and new-age groups, meditation has gone mainstream with CEOs and leaders from Bill Ford (Ford Motor Co.) and Rupert Murdoch (News Corp) touting the benefits of meditation. With as little as 10 minutes of meditation, you can make better decisions, focus more clearly, decrease your anxiety, grow brain power and boost your creativity and compassion. Our clients who take up 10 minutes of meditation say they sleep better, worry less and feel calmer at work and at home. So what’s not to like? Here’s how you can get started:
- Find a quiet place and sit comfortably
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, slowing down your breath, relaxing your muscles
- Visualize a calm and happy place and bring your mind back to this place when it starts to wander
There are some great apps that help get your meditation practice started if it feels a bit new and unfamiliar. Some of the ones we like include: Headspace (free Take 10 program), Pranayama (timer to focus your breathing), or Meditations (guided meditations). Meditation loosens the neural connection to your fear response and strengthens the connection to your reasoning, allowing you to assess your responses better and manage your own emotions and stress. Fearless leaders manage their own stress and mental capacity.
It seems obvious. Start treating daily exercise like it’s your job. It is. To be productive at work, you need to exercise daily just as much as you need to get good sleep (more about that in a minute) and eat properly. Every day you don’t get exercise, you are withdrawing from your physical reserves and will need to replenish them, like a good clean diet after a week of takeout food. Not only does good exercise help keep your muscles and joints in good working order, exercise releases endorphins that stabilize your mood, and helps burn off stress chemicals (since your stress wasn’t about physically fighting or running away from anyone, now was it?). While our lifestyle has changed dramatically, our biology has not, and you were built to move. So schedule this important daily meeting with your body and get ready to be more productive as a result. Your leadership is built one habit at a time, so make this a linchpin habit. Fearless leaders maintain their physical bodies to support themselves.
Your mind works best in 90-minute intervals. If you have serious brainwork to do (a proposal to write, a report to produce, an idea to generate, etc), schedule 90 minutes of uninterrupted time to do that work, and then get up, move around, take a walk, stretch and do something else. Come back to the task after you’ve had the chance to clear your mind and get a real break. When we do offsite events, we try to schedule a 15-minute break every 90 minutes. This isn’t random, we know that our groups get restless and lose creativity and focus after 90 minutes. Continuing on is counter-productive. A good break gets the result faster. Research on unconscious thought theory shows that taking a break and distracting the mind can lead to better decision-making. Fearless leaders know when to call a time-out.
How many hours of sleep are you getting? Do you brag about getting less than you actually do? A recent study done with basketball players improved their free-throw and 3-point shooting by 9% just by committing to 10 hours of sleep a night. Getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night is the best predictor of burnout, and even short naps have been show to improve concentration, memory and reaction times. Some offices have created rooms for naps or meditation during the day – because it has been shown to boost productivity and results. Take a look at your own sleep habits and commit to making changes that let you get better sleep and at least 7-8 hours each night. You may need even more. Having trouble sleeping? Most of these other Mindful Leadership Strategies will help in this area, too. Fearless leaders know the value of sleep.
Feeling harassed by your iPhone, Blackberry or email? You are not alone. The incessant beeping, pinging and notifying of our connected lives is a stressor in and of itself. The higher that baseline stress level, the harder it is to lead fearlessly in those very situations when we need a calm head and an open heart. So keep your everyday electronic stress manageable. If you can, set hours when you will be connected. Check your email three specific times per day, and then close your email application. Set your phone or tablet not to make noise when you receive email. If that seems too extreme for your work environment, then create “free zones” in your calendar when you will be disconnected, and a backup for true emergencies. Most of your notifications are not so time sensitive they can’t wait an hour or three. As long as someone can reach you when it’s really that urgent, turn it all off and focus on important strategies, tasks and relationships during your “free zones”.
This is particularly important when you are resting, meditating, journaling, etc. Give your mind time to quiet itself, and focus on the single activity in front of you. You might be surprised at how much this single action improves the quality of your thinking and your connections to others as you become truly present in each moment and stop getting distracted. Fearless leaders focus on the moment at hand.
Perhaps the hardest strategy to implement for many of our clients is taking vacation time and really using it to refresh and rejuvenate. In 2006, Ernst & Young did an internal study and found that for every 10 hours of additional vacation an employee took, their performance rating went up 8%. Employees who took more vacation were also less likely to leave the firm. If you leave vacation days on the table, you are sacrificing opportunities to look outside your daily work and competitive environment and bring in new ideas from tangential fields, connections to other relationships or networks, and time for new ideas to percolate up while you are honing your wind-surfing skills, making plans with a loved one, or listening to the life-story of a distant relative.
One client is planning to take all of her vacation this year, including a couple of week-long trips just after big deadlines in her field, and some Fridays off during her busiest season to decompress and take care of needs outside the office. We regularly plan out longer vacations through the year at Transcend, and long weekends at regular intervals to recharge our batteries, stretch our legs, see new sights and ponder entirely different questions than those that arise at work. We always come back with new ideas and fresh energy for our clients and projects. Fearless leaders take the time to recharge and gather ideas from all their experiences.
Feeling overwhelmed looking at this list? You are not alone. So start with one thing. Look at the list and pick one item that feels interesting and helpful to you. Commit to one action you can take today, and keep it up for at least three weeks. Then decide what the impact has been and decide to commit going forward. It takes between 3 and 12 weeks to really consolidate a new habit. Once you have one in place, look at the list again and pick another strategy and commit to a new habit. Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole new perspective on leadership.
Fearless leaders are always learning. What will you learn today?