Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr
You get to work and start going over the day’s schedule and there it is in big, bold letters. You have a meeting. A long one. And then you have another one. Your week is actually chock-full of meetings.
Though you know they are necessary sometimes they seem absolute counterproductive as people can just not get on the same page and there is too much you are trying to cover. Research shows that 67% of workers say that fewer than half the meetings they attend seem to be worth their time.
Though banishing all meetings sounds like a nice solution, it’s just not realistic. But if you really want to try to bring the focus level up in a meeting, whether you are leading it or just participating, you may actually want to consider incorporating some meditation practices.
Justyn Comer, author of Meditation for Life and the co-founder of RWM Education, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to making meditation available to as many people as possible, has found that meditation can have tremendous benefits for the working mind, including focus. However, trying to get even a small group of people in the middle of the workday to do a full meditation session seems rather implausible but Comer says even a really, powerful pause can make an impact.
Comer spoke with Ladders on what he’s learned over two decades of teaching meditation:
Meditation shows us how hard focusing is
“The first way meditation helps is to start by showing us just how hard it is to focus. We sit down, close our eyes and try to hold our attention on our breathing. Only for a few seconds does that work, and then the mind is off thinking about other things. When we notice that we are distracted we return the focus back to the breath but once again, after a few seconds, the mind is off thinking about something else.
“This recognition about the distracted nature of our mind is huge. It helps us see how difficult it can be to hold focus, but we also learn a few other key lessons. First – we are training ourselves to notice when we are no longer focused. Second – we are training ourselves to return our focus back to the thing we want to be focused on. And third – over time we learn some of the tricks and techniques for holding focus for longer periods of time such as using curiosity, setting the right intention, and raising the stakes for the mind.”
The power of the pause
“A meditation session is probably not realistic for most organizations (although it would be fascinating to see the impact if it happened). However, a pause makes eminent sense. When we try to sit and meditate we are usually surprised at just how much is going on in our mind. Work problems, deadlines, office politics, as well as personal issues with our relationships, finances, health, and kids are all trying to get attention in our minds, all the time.
“One of the benefits of meditation is that we become fully aware of how much is weighing on us. When people walk into a meeting they are all walking in with all these issues on their mind. They are also processing whatever just came up in the meeting they’re coming from, as well as all the most recent requests they’ve just seen on their email or messages.
“A pause at the beginning invites people to reset. It acknowledges that they are under these enormous pressures. Then it gives them an opportunity to be fully aware of that, and to make the intention to put it all on pause. None of it is going away, but everyone will be better served if they can at least give this meeting their attention.
“Eileen Fisher has said that her external consultants were pretty cynical about it when she introduced this practice of having a ‘purposeful pause’ before each meeting. But now those same consultants are introducing the concept to their other clients as part of the consulting package.”
“Yes, meditation does help with stress, which is a huge problem in the workplace.
“It is helpful to recognize that ‘stress’ is a physiological response to a perceived threat. When we start to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, or just afraid we will not be able to succeed as well as we want to, the body reacts as though our very survival is threatened. We feel uncomfortable, nauseous, and shaky because adrenaline is being released and blood is diverted away from our stomach and towards our big muscles. We want to run, hide, or fight because that is the body’s prehistoric response to a threat.
“One of the other side effects of this perceived threat is that our thinking gets cloudy. Historically action was prioritized as the best response for our survival, hence the blood going to the big muscles, but cognitive function wasn’t the priority. Yet in the modern world, in the face of the stress, we feel in response to the overwhelming pressure of our professional and personal lives we need to think more clearly, not less. This is why meditation helps. The act of pausing, taking a few intentional breaths and slowing things down, even if just for a minute, counteracts the stress response and helps the body start to relax. The adrenal response decreases which will make us feel better and think more clearly.
“Additionally, by slowing down the relentless thinking and worrying in our mind we give our mind a breather, from which we can then make better decisions.
“In addition to helping manage stress, meditation also helps improve other useful attributes for the workplace such as focus, concentration, creativity, self-awareness, emotional regulation, confidence, self-esteem, and improved interactions with colleagues.”
“Meditation rooms are nice, but the truth is that meditation can be done anywhere; it can be done on the bus, in a crowded room, or at a desk in the middle of a trading floor. In my experience meditation is easy to learn, but hard to remember to do. So I think nudges are really helpful to consistently remind people to take a moment here and there to pause.
“Ideally, an organization would host periodic classes allow people to check in, such as having 45-minute sessions once a week at lunchtime. But then supplement that with several reminders such as sending a daily email reminder to take a breath at a different time every day, or having the lead article on the Intranet be mindfulness related at least once a week.”
Using PowerPoint to make your point
“The first thing we learn in meditation is that minds like to wander. Everyone’s mind likes to wander. Once we realize this we can craft far better presentations. Most people spend all the time on a presentation worrying about what they are going to say.
“They focus on making the slides accurate, concise, and comprehensive. The problem is that only half of communication is about delivery, and the other half is about the receipt of that information. If people’s minds are distracted then they are not receiving the information being delivered.
“One of the most useful things we learn in meditation is the power of curiosity. Holding attention on breathing is hard at first because the mind gets bored and wanders off to something else. When we apply curiosity to the breath, noticing the texture of the air in the nose, or noticing how far you can feel the breath as it travels into the lungs it becomes easier to hold our attention. We can use this curiosity as a powerful trick when presenting.
“One simple technique is to put up a photograph of something apparently unrelated to what you’re going to talk about. Maybe you’re talking about budgets (everyone’s least favorite subject), and your first slide is of a child on a sandy beach with a bucket and spade. Immediately the audience is hooked. They are curious as to what the heck this has to do with a budget. They want to see where you’re going with this. For the next few minutes at least you have their focus. It doesn’t even matter how well you tie the photo to the point – the key is that you have their attention for a while.”