Achieving mindfulness in our crazy startup world; advice from the experts

Kevin McSpadden

Find your moment of Zen

From the perspective of traditional business, the startup economy is often defined by the propensity to deck-out our offices with pool tables, beer-on-tap or hammocks.

While the strategy is used to attract talent, the trend also exposes a dark side of working at startups — the gigs usually come with a lot of stress and burn-out. Yes, a hammock is nice, but is it really necessary for a job in which the boredom is a problem?

Part of managing stress is finding little adjustments in our day-to-day life to help slow down our brain and relax a bit. One of the most common examples is cooking; people who love to cook often point to the meditative nature of the process as a major mental health benefit.

Recently, the business world has become increasingly transfixed by the idea of achieving ‘mindfulness’. The most simple definition of the term is, “An active, open, attentiveness to the present”.

With the rise of smartphones and the phenomenon of always being ‘On’, people can often get caught up in life, stop paying attention to the world around them and look up one day to realise they missed a lot of life’s little pleasures. Training oneself to pay attention to these moments can help people infuse a slice of calm (and possibly happiness) into a stressful day.

Over a month ago, the Singapore chapter of General Assembly hosted an event at Spacemob which discussed mindfulness in our modern work culture. (Publishing this today probably says something about my own personal ability to maintain mindfulness).

Let’s break down some tips.

As with exercise, start slowly

If the goal is to spend 20 minutes every day performing mindfulness exercises (which is a lot), immediately starting at 20 minutes is a sure way to fail.

According to Yizhao Zhang, who has spent her career teaching corporates (including Google) the value of mindfulness, it is best to start off small.

“Do mindfulness for one minute per day, everyday. There is no excuse…Just observe. I recommend that you tag it along with an existing habit that you already have. Once you have a regular habit, then the time becomes more elastic,” said Zhang.

She also mentioned that it’s important do do the exercises every day; not three times a week, but every day. The reason, she says, is because it won’t become sticky and thus is just a waste of time.

Toby Ourvy, an ex-Tibetan month who is now a small business owner, used the metaphor of jogging to explain the approach.

“If you go running at a high intensity every day, intitially [your improvement] will go up steeply, but then it will plateau and eventually go down,” he said.

“A little bit often is better than a big session once a month. 5 minutes done per day, 6 days a week, is quite a lot of mindfulness over a year — and by and large you will enjoy it because it’s only five minutes.”

Find those ‘slices of joy’

Evangelising the idea of active mindfulness was Bjorn Lee, the Founder of Stealth, a company that builds products that try to help people with productivity and mindfulness in a phone-addicted world.

“During a break, during work, or even as you are eating. Learn to really focus on what you are doing and staying present in the moment,” he said.

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Mindfulness does not necessarily mean sitting cross-legged and meditating in a quiet room, but rather taking a moment to really embrace the moment.

“In the shower, focus on the first drops of water or applying the soap. A lot of times today, we say we have no time. It is not time, it is priority,” said Lee

“Learn to adopt simple things [for what] you do anyways. Pay more attention…Introduce small slices of joy into daily life by introducing focus into things you were already going to do”.

Zhang said the goal is to achieve a certain level of self-awareness. With the ability to recognise what is happening inside ourselves (be it strong emotions or going on auto-pilot) we can improve our personal self-management. Eventually, understanding our own emotions can help us treat other people with more respect and empathy.

“When we begin to connect ourselves to people around us, it enables us to become a better human being to other people – which then kicks off other sensations,” she said.

Explore and find something that works

Despite the preconceptions, meditation and mindfulness are not an Eastern phenomenon. The practice has a long tradition across the globe.

“It is a moving and hopefully evolving object and experience. I suppose with regards to meditation, one thing that is quite important to understand, it is not just a Buddhist thing, and it is not just an Eastern thing,” said Ourvy.

There are hundreds of variations ranging from a active breathing to a broad exploration of consciousness. But across the various types of mindfulness is one common thread — focussed relaxation.

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This means that there are practices that work better for each individual.

“Stick with one you enjoy, but it doesn’t mean you have to stick with it forever,” said Ourvy.

One quote

Before we break down some quick-hits, let’s wrap up with a quote from Ourvy. It is a bit complicated, but worth pondering.

“One thing to consider. When I first learned mindfulness, the definition I learned was, ‘an all encompassing mental factor that focusses on remembering the object’. The question is, is it worth my while to do formal mindfulness to improve that capacity for remembrance? We are doing it every day, but the question is, is it of practical use to me?”

That, in my humble opinion, is up to the individual to decide.

Quick hits

Alright, everyone wants some cheats to help them achieve mindfulness. Sure, the overall lifestyle change is the ideal, but what are some little tricks that will help a person feel less stressed at work?

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The panel made the following recommendations:

  • Mindful breathing.
  • Stand in ‘Mountain Pose‘ (basically standing upright with the arms outstretched at a 30 degree angle and palms facing outwards). Mentally check-in with the posture.
  • Mindful eating, notice how the food is coming to you. How did this food get on your plate? Notice the portion. Chew, smell, touch. Then feel the sense of gratitude.
  • Journaling. Take the time to write to ourselves, for ourselves. The reason is because it helps people notice minor events in their day — and ideally be grateful that they happened. When people appreciate these little moments of gratitude, it improves the individual’s overall aura and other’s will take notice.
  • Mindful Awareness Practice: Exercises that help promote heightened awareness in a moment-by-moment experience. It is like the ‘slice of joy’ strategy mentioned above.
  • One mindful breath before sleeping.
  • Put hand on tummy and focus on the stomach going up and down.

Copyright: jpldesigns / 123RF Stock Photo

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