Disclaimer: I am not a guru, nor do I pretend to be. What you will read here is how mindfulness practice has changed my outlook. If you’re interested in my story, read on. If you want some tips to tune-up, skip to the bottom of this piece.
Like everyone else back in 2020, I found myself stuck in a cycle of worry, anxiety, lack of control, doom-scrolling, etc. There was no avoiding it. Right now, it’s still hard to look away at times. Luckily, at the start of that year, blind to what was coming, I had already resolved to find a mindfulness practice that works for me. Two years later, I still practice. I think, in some ways, it’s saved me from myself. Allow me to explain.
How practicing mindfulness has helped me.
I’m known for my ability to appear oblivious when situations are within my control. Take travel, for example. If you’re driving with me somewhere, chances are I’ve pre-planned the trip in my head and memorized the route I want to take. If you’ve been there before, I might go a different path than you would have, but we’ll get there just the same. Along the way, it may seem like I’m spaced out, just gazing into the distance. You might think we’re about to get lost or that we’re going the wrong way, but we’re not. This constant need for control is also why I’m uncomfortable flying or riding in the passenger seat. There’s nothing about being a passenger that is within my control.
Ah yes. There it is. Control.
Control is one of the reasons why I started practicing mindfulness. The best way to describe how mindfulness has changed me is that now I’m far more accepting of being a passenger. I attribute this to a learned ability. If I stay with the practice, I can “steer” myself away from worry and anxiety. Easing up on control is essential in creative leadership (you have to let the feedback, the questions, etc., pass through because thoughts are just thoughts, you can be the beneficiary of a review or the victim of it), as is the ability to focus.
When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
So you need to buckle down and be present, whether that means actively listening in a meeting or seeing a project to its completion. To be an effective creative leader, you have to accept that you aren’t going to always be in control (especially right now), let interruptions happen, then steer yourself back to your work.
I’ve had trouble focusing in the face of distraction, especially if the ideas aren’t forming. A text, meeting, anything really would be an excuse to break from the challenge of staying focused. Now, I can leave distractions behind and steer myself back to my work with a greater focus. That means that I can keep a steady pace instead of working in bursts. Bursts are fun when you’re 23. Less so at 39.
I could talk for days about how this has helped me, but my goal is to provide some value to this piece.
Here’s a list of sources I’ve used and places I go to practice mindfulness.
Find a guide.
Let me clarify this a little bit; I’m not suggesting that you fly to some remote place, climb 6000 steps to the peak of a small monastery, and beg a master to teach you. There are many ways to learn, but the easiest way to get started is with an app on a device. My two favorites are “Headspace” by Headspace and “Waking Up” by neuroscientist and author Sam Harris. Both are guided at first because, well, you will need that. Each is subscription-based.
Headspace allows you to pick a male/female guide voice and offers quick practices as short as 3 minutes. I’d start with their introductory course for your first attempt, but please lean in and look at the full offering.
I will often invite my 6-year-old daughter to do a 3-5 minute meditation with me because, right now, that’s as long as she can sit still. Sam Harris’ offering is much more profound, a headier approach. I suggest his app if you have some experience meditating and want to learn more about the practice. Harris also goes into different types of meditation, like Metta Loving Kindness or reciting Zen Koans.
Practice on your own.
After practicing guided meditation for a while, you will learn a few tricks to help steer your wandering attention back to the present. Don’t be afraid to try it without a guide. Sometimes it allows you to focus more. I’ve even had the guided apps startle me right out of a mindful state.
Go outside. Long walks are great for being present. Leave your phone home if you can. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to do this for “physical exercise.” Some people find exercise is a part of mindfulness practice, but here our mental activity is being present. You’d be surprised by what you can notice, even if you’ve made the same trek several times.
If you’re looking to tune in and tune out, a simple 10-minute mindfulness practice is a great to way to focus.
Matt Maguy is co-founder at JXM, an advertising agency located in Massachusetts.