Without mindfulness, too many type-A career overachievers end up killing their workplace and leadership dreams.
These star performers burn out before they get the corner office or that seat at the table, as chronicled in the article “The Talent Curse” in the current issue of Harvard Business Review.
Mindfulness isn’t multitasking, working ridiculous hours, or answering every email or message the second it appears. But mindfulness isn’t yoga, inspirational quotes or serene music, either.
And it’s not just meditation, though that is a worthy exercise. The goal with mindfulness is training the brain to allow higher-order mental processes to be in the driver seat. (Think superego over id, if you want to get Freudian).
It’s hard work. It’s like CrossFit for the brain. My patients hate it. But when they commit to it, they find they’re better able to use their talents and are scrambling less to prove them.
For the first time in their careers, they realize they’ve made it, and there’s no need to fake their success or accomplishments.
Here are three ways many professionals are fast-tracking their career downfalls, along with three mindfulness hacks we can use to reverse course.
1. You Need to Stop Multitasking
Everything is urgent. At work, we’re simultaneously responding to emails and texts, participating in or leading a conference call and scanning news headlines, Twitter and Facebook.
When we’re driving, we’re dialing into more meetings and thinking about the next day’s presentation. In the shower, we’re noting changes to a proposal and formulating to-do lists. We. Can’t. Turn. Off. Work.
“The mindfulness hack…” Do one thing at a time. Period. Your morning commute exists only to get you safely from home to office. Stop reading emails while watching TV at night, and consider a curfew for email altogether!
For CrossFit-level brain training, pay attention to nothing but your breath for 10 minutes, redirecting your focus every time your brain drifts away. Hard as pull-ups.
Greater so-called attentional control — a.k.a. to think and act like a leader. Our executive function is mostly housed in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, and this activity of focusing on one thing at a time increases gray matter in the ACC.
“Do one thing at a time. period.”
2. Turn Off Your Racing Thoughts
We all have an internal narrator. It knows all our failures and all the stories about who we are, and it can be our best friend or biggest enemy.
When we’re growing our career, we can often gain encouragement from our sense of personal struggle, that taste for victory we know we can push ourselves to attain.
“The mindfulness hack…” Spend time each day listening to your thoughts. Try to imagine that these thoughts can come and go, and you can even assign images for their departure.
You imagine thoughts as clouds passing by, but I like to picture leaves on a stream of rushing water because my thoughts move way faster than clouds. Allow yourself to hear this narrator without feeling bad or sad by the stories it tells.
Greater control over emotional expression, particularly during a crisis. Emotional information is fast, intended to encourage irrational decision-making, which can lead to mistakes and second-guessing personal judgment.
“Spend time each day listening to your thoughts.”
3. You Don’t Need to Be Valuable and Indispensable 24/7
Our image of who we are constantly evolves with our relationships and life experiences. As we climb our career ladders, we often whittle our sense of who we are to the traits and narratives that many find acceptable or respectable.
For example, we learn to golf because it can help form business connections. But we stop practicing guitar because it’s unusual. The “successful” version of self-fits into a very tight mold.
“The mindfulness hack…” Tinker with the version of yourself that you present. Engage with some of the traits that make you unique and push yourself to rebel against norms in appropriate situations.
Maybe you wear jeans on casual Friday or you skip one after-hours work event to go to book club.
Practice non-judgment of yourself and others, which disengages from one of the ways that the brain creates distress. Negative self-judgment draws resources to lower regions of the brain and away from higher-level thoughts.
Allow yourself to be fully engaged with activities so you can ignore that internal narrator judging your every move.
We can relax. We have nothing to prove. We’re pretty great just as we are. At the brain level, our insula, which houses our sense of self, becomes more integrated. Our physical definition of self is more flexible, which is the best form of resilience.
These mindfulness hacks are about bringing the best version of ourselves to our work, our family and our play. The best version of self is the top of the pyramid anyway, right? Deep breath. We have arrived.
“Tinker with the version of yourself that you present.”