On Mindfulness: How this practice changes lives

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~ Victor Frankl


I. Introduction

It's moved far beyond the realm of esoteric and is now well within mainstream acceptance. By now, even military units tout the powerful, simple practice.  It's gaining steam for good reason. 

The benefits are well-documented.  Neuroscience, psychology, and a great number of social studies now confirm with confidence that introducing the practices of Mindfulness can measurably impact the life and results of an individual, team, or company within the first 8 weeks.  It brings positive impact in 3 main areas: 1) Personal Well-being; 2) Relationships; 3) Performance.   Major media (e.g. Time and CNN), corporations (e.g. it started with Google and has since spread to many others, especially in Silicon Valley), and pro sports teams (e.g. Seattle Seahawks) are among those affirming mindfulness.

For people like me who practice mindfulness, it’s great to see this rapid, extensive growth. Practitioners know that there are few habits which create greater impact on quality of life, and thereby collective high performance in a company and greater harmony and peace within a society.  It has this power because it is a meta-competence, a competence which supports the development of all other competencies.  I would like to share a simple anecdote that helps us understand why from a very human angle.

Before we go there, however, I would like to offer a bit of additional context. 


II.  Context

A flurry of studies on the brain and our behavior made during the last 20 years has shown us the possibly surprising fact that the physical brain is not static and unchangeable.  These studies reveal perhaps an even more shocking fact – that our thoughts, attitudes, words and habitual actions have a physical effect on the brain’s structure and shape.  Neuroscientists call this quality of being able to rewire our neural networks through thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions neuroplasticity

In practical terms, we have around 50,000 thoughts every day, and around 95-98% of those are the same as we had yesterday.  (Yawn.) And perhaps even more surprising, 80% of our daily thoughts are negatively-oriented, such as chewing over things that went wrong, or our habitual worries about having locked the door on the way out, having said the wrong thing, and so on.  Day-by-day we reinforce our brain's hard-wiring for worry.  We overgeneralize that worry is helping us but it's actually just based on habit and self-reinforcing negativity. 

It's a little scary that we strengthen negative thought patterns unless we learn to do something about it. We sometimes are tempted to think that if we just achieve enough outwardly, the negativity will go away or transform on its own and we will have a happier inner climate.  But we now clearly understand that that's false.  We need to work on the way we think directly.  

In neuroscience terms, our amygdala (often called the lizard brain, the most unevolved part of our brains) --the source of fearful, stressful, and worrisome thoughts-- actually gets smaller through mindfulness.  And the most evolved parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, gains strength (i.e. actually gets thicker) through mindfulness.  In everyday words, we gain power and freedom. 

It's exciting to know that mindfulness provides a path by which we can change negativity and habitual patterns.  Through mindfulness practice, we increase our capacity to relate to situations in ever more constructive ways.

Mindfulness has gained traction amongst individuals and companies for exactly this reason.  We are all interested in accessing the deeper potential that we know is there.  Sometimes we get in our own way.  Mindfulness helps us change that. 


III. Story

A client of mine began practicing mindfulness meditation 1 mere week ago. I was congratulatory and excited when he shared the following story with me at the end of our most recent session. It’s a simple story. His tiny tale of mindful triumph helps us immediately grasp what it is that mindfulness can do in our lives, at work and otherwise.   (I always like it when a client or anyone else for that matter cries tears of joy.)  It is a concrete example of creating a space of freedom in which to relate to events more constructively. 

He was out with his girlfriend on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. She made a comment that normally would challenge and irritate him. (His omission of details indicated irrelevance of details even though part of me wishes I had more specifics to share.)

Despite our love for our partners, we've all been there. We’re all familiar with those voices of our lesser selves.

He was struck in that moment by something he remembered from his nascent mindfulness practice. He realized the thought connected to irritability was simply a negative interpretation and fleeting.  He realized he could simply notice and observe the thought pass. He could thereby have the freedom to choose how he wanted to relate to his girlfriend in that moment. That’s what he did. He expressed his better self instead of putting a damper on the afternoon.


IV. Elaboration

It’s that simple. Often times when we are irritated or experiencing any other negative emotion, we completely identify our selves with the narrative which passes through our mind and the emotion which passes through our body. We take our story as though it IS REALITY.  In fact, it’s one of infinite ways to see and experience that situation.  Not everything we think or believe is true.  When we are somehow triggered, our thoughts are reactive and habitual. In Frankl's terms, sometimes the space between stimulus and response is miniscule indeed and the reaction is automatic.

Different negative emotions take different forms in each of us. But whatever the form, we are not in these cases bringing conscious attention to what passes through our mind.  We are prisoners of whatever old defenses and well-worn neural networks we have. Prisoners may be a strong word, but it indicates exactly where we lack freedom.  Mindfulness is a key out of the prison of old behaviors and habits of thought, words, and actions which no longer serve us.  When we are interested in change and inviting in something new in our lives, we might consider the importance of mindfulness practice. 


V. Change through Mindfulness

We may assume we’re an impatient type of person (for example), but it’s amazing to realize that that can be changed. Our qualities and ways of being are malleable! There are actually paths by which we become more established in who we know ourselves to be.

Mindfulness amplifies the space between stimulus and response to create greater freedom. We’re able to choose more constructive responses which express how we actually want to show up in the world. As the new neural networks form, and our ability for self-observation grows, we have greater freedom to become more and more anchored in our own deeper human values. We obviously enjoy life more when we are more responsive than reactive. Sometimes our annoyance with ourselves comes when our reactivity gets in our own way.

Mindfulness is a practice which opens up no less than the possibility of personal mastery. It helps us to become responsive to situations and show up at the height of our capability. Of course, this has untold value in our lives and professions.

Reclaim the Steering Wheel: 6 Practical, Powerful Tools of a Comprehensive Time Management System (Part 2 of 2)

**Tool #4: Weekly Planning**

We all have the same number of hours in the day. Some people seem to be better at using it than others. The theme throughout this post is that the #1 difference is simply how deliberate and intentional people prioritizing their time towards the highest impact tasks and activities. Planning becomes of paramount importance in high quality prioritization. Planning gets us out of reactivity, and is precisely about reclaiming the steering wheel of how we want to spend our time.

A central pillar of this system, something I came across several times in my research, and something I have found to be a real game-changer is good planning on a weekly basis. Having an overview on the weekly level is like Goldilocks sleeping on Baby bear's bed and eating baby bear's porridge. Focusing on day's alone is too short, and trying to manage our whole month at a time is too much. Weeks are juuuuust riiiiight! Weeks give us a segment of time that is manageable and when done well with practice can transform our effectiveness. When we bring our attention to the weekly level, combined with the other tools, we will surprise ourselves with how many of our top priorities we can realize.

Over time, weeks turn into months and months into years, and our lives become more fulfilled as we accomplish more and grow more.

Just a quick disclaimer, let's keep it clear that this does not necessarily mean being over-scheduled and rigid, without space and flexibility. The space and flexibility can be factored into plans quite simply.

The Weekly Planning Process:

Set-up: Personally, I set about 1.5 hours aside on Sunday to create my weekly plan. It becomes a kind of ritual. You may choose to listen to music, light a candle, drink tea, or none of that. Personal preference is the only rule here.

I have a blank template in word I use. If you want it, just contact me through the site and I'll send it to you. But all the relevant questions are here below. This approach starts with the premise that you have a longer-term vision and goals. If enough people ask me, perhaps I'll write about that separately.

Part 1: Remember your longer-term vision and goals, visualize them, and connect more deeply to the why underlying and informing your daily tasks. Check in with yourself regarding your values, principles, and guiding purpose. It's not uncommon to lose sight of these foundational elements of our lives, check in, and re-align ourselves.

Perhaps something happened this week which leads us to revise or tweak our long-term vision. Most of the time, however, this reminder can transform the quality and energy which we put into our work throughout the week, and also help us to feel more fulfilled as we go about our workweek. (Another oldie but goodie here is the story of the three stonecutters.

Part 2: Review and Celebrate the Previous Week

A) List everything for which you are grateful from the previous week
B) What are the major lessons you learned last week?
C) What ideas, quotes, or other sources of inspiration did you come across last week (books, ted talks, conversations)?
D) What didn't happen last week that you planned or hoped for? A bit of analysis here can help you make necessary adjustments in weeks to come.

Part 3: Plan the Week Ahead

A) What are the 5-6 (max) Top Priorities you would most like to realize this week? (The focus is not on results, but on accomplishing your priorities. Priorities are in your control, results are not necessarily in your control)
B) Schedule everything: This is the heart of the weekly planning process.

For the 7 days ahead, plan your time. It may be helpful to break each day down into morning, afternoon, evening. The key is to decide which of your top priorities you will focus on each day, scheduling those to have the important space they require alongside other meetings and commitments.

It's easy to underestimate how long things take. One rule of thumb is that almost everything takes longer than we expect it to. So as we evaluate our top priorities, we look at the meetings we have scheduled, and we look at personal errands we have to run, we build in a sense of spaciousness.

Getting started, we may choose not to schedule whatever full-time means to us. We may start with 25 hours, for example, and start more conservatively with the priorities we are attempting to accomplish in a given week. As we get more acquainted with this process, and get more in tune with our rhythms, then we can gain precision and productivity over time. In general, life is going to happen, things are going to arise. Since we can expect that, we build in some space in our calendar to address loose ends. How much is up to you, it is a matter of finding a fine balance.

The recent client who gave rise to this post told me, for example, how much it nourished her to spend time setting up her room with flowers. She sometimes felt guilty that she should be doing something “more productive” with that time, even though it was clearly a quadrant 2 activity for her. If she sets aside 1-2 hours, 2x/week, then she can really enjoy that time more, without negative thoughts encroaching.

I for example schedule which yoga class I will attend. It isn't set in stone, but more often than not I stick to it and spending the energy upfront helps me stay on track and focus during the week.

As each day arrives, it becomes standard practice to review the plans and make adjustments based on whatever information has arrived during the week. But to the extent your plan can stay in place, then it's simply a matter of execution.


Tool #5: The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique was created by Francesco Cirillo as a university student to improve productivity and measure his work back in the late 1980's. In essence, it's working with timed intervals, without distractions, with focused intention. Each interval is followed by a short-break. He named it after the shape of the kitchen timer he used.

For me, I've found it to be a very powerful, even revolutionary method, which takes a bit of getting used to. There are no shortage of pomodoro apps out there. The most often used periods are 25 minutes on, and 5 minutes off.

When we spend 4 straight hours working on something, for example, our attention comes and goes and it can be difficult to maintain consistent quality of effectiveness. When we use the pomodoro technique, we work in short bursts without allowing ourselves to get distracted. We can adjust the interval to suit our own needs. For me, 25 minutes is juuuuust riiiight.

And the five minutes off is excellent and actually increases our overall effectiveness. It refreshes and recharges for each 25 minute segment to be its best. But not only that. How often have creative ideas come to you when you are shopping or in the shower, or not in the midst of your work? The five minutes off gives a chance to disconnect, let go, and let neural pathways fire to create new connections. I get up and get a drink, use the bathroom, and/or close my eyes and empty myself.

One additional benefit is that it enables us to track very concretely how much we have actually done. Because our work is of a more consistent quality, and in discrete concrete units of time, we have a standard to work with which is helpful for many people. For example, 3 hours on Tuesday might not be the same thing on Thursday depending on any number of variables. And the same can be said for 6 pomodoros, but they are much more apples-to-apples.

When we set aside a few hours in our weekly plan, during an Einstein Window, for an important quadrant 2 priority, we can use pomodoros to make the most of that time. (I think we just developed a whole new language.)


Tool #6 The Seinfeld Rule/ Habit Building

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.” ~Steven Pressfield

By various written accounts, Seinfeld had one big secret to his enormous success as one of the greatest comedians of our generation.

Brad Isaac, a young comedian, was in the right place at the right time to receive some sage advice from Jerry. This is what he told Lifehacker,

“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

“After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

The key isn't anything other than showing up everyday, something absolutely every one of us has in our power. That's the trick, focusing on what we can do rather than losing energy focusing on results. It's simple logic that if we bring our attention to something over a period of time, we are going to learn and grow and gain mastery regardless of what the activity is.

Consistency develops habits which make us successful, and help us grow in confidence over time. Wherever any of us wants to go starts with us taking one step and the next step and the next. We can't be afraid to be a beginner. Knocks are going to come, there are going to be days when we don't feel at our best, but just showing up and marking the calendar with a red x is rarely too difficult to manage.

I recommend starting with 1 habit at a time that you feel will make the biggest difference in your life. Focus on that for 21 days, which almost all accounts say is the time necessary to anchor a new habit. My experience verifies that. After the first habit is settled, you can bring your attention to expanding to one additional habit. And then you make a habit of cultivating good habits. The danger is taking on more than one at a time, or underestimating the challenge of change. Consistency begins with modesty and commitment. It's much more tortoise than hare.

I recommend using Joe's Goals (online) or Loop Habit Tracker (on Android), both free. Both are elegant in their simplicity.



In the classic German children's story of Momo, a contented village comes to the brink of ruin, as the villagers forego their easygoing yet balanced perspective on life. They get turned-around in a twister of time-saving. The craze disrupts calm, incites anxiety, and destroys quality of life. The more they attempt to save time for the future, the less time they experience themselves as having in the present. The arrival of some city-slickin' type outsiders is the culprit.

The message is straightforward—the more time takes control of us, the more our relationship with it grows unhealthy, the less enjoyable our lives. It is a topic which merits reflection and our best efforts, because our quality of life depends on it.