This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view Leah and Caroline’s full conversation, click the video below.
Caroline: We both share a strong interest in what the research suggests about how you can be at your best every day in the working world. The particular area of overlap that we’re going to talk about today is our shared interest in mindfulness. Could we, first of all, get a picture of what mindfulness is and how and why it’s so good for us?
Leah: My favorite definition of mindfulness is a simple one: the intentional use of attention. You can do that with anything that you’re doing, talking, working, anywhere, anytime. Meditation can help you do it, but there are also other ways.
“My favorite definition of mindfulness is a simple one: the intentional use of attention.”
Caroline: I especially like that definition of mindfulness because, like a lot of people, I had tried meditation. I really relish doing it when I’m in a group, but on my own, I always found it difficult to build any kind of meaningful daily practice that went beyond a minute or two.
So, I became really interested in the research around, “How little meditation do you need in order to get the benefits?” The research on meditation is quite compelling—it shows that we have greater emotional regulation, more stillness, more ability to be calm in the face of stress. It shows all sorts of cognitive benefits, analytical capacity improving, and so forth. That all sounds pretty great.
I started to look at studies that showed you only have to do 20 minutes, 3 times a week—that’s still quite a lot. What would it look like if it were less than that? The magic of the way that this seems to work for our brains is that even a moment or two of stillness, of directing your attention to where you want it to go, is going to reap some benefits for you.
“The magic of the way that this seems to work for our brains is that even a moment or two of stillness, of directing your attention to where you want it to go, is going to reap some benefits for you.”
Leah: I think that’s an important way that you’re framing it. I spent most of my 20’s doing long meditation retreats in graduate school. Then came my 30’s and three kids—ages five and under. For me, the questions became “What is the research?” and “How can I apply these skills that I’ve found in the context of meditation in the day-to-day churn?” What you’re saying is consistent with what the research suggests and what I’ve been finding—we can put these frequent light touch anchors in our day, and they make such a big difference.
Caroline: I came to call them mindfulness moments. The practice I could actually work with was every time I’m walking somewhere, [I begin] to notice the way that my feet feel on the ground and to, in particular, notice the way that my toes grip the ground. That brings my attention to a single point of focus that quiets everything else down. That was transformational for me, to realize I could have this as part of everything I do in the day. Even in an office, you [walk around] from time to time, so as you go to the bathroom, you can notice your toes on the floor.
There was one client of mine who was trying to find a daily practice that would give her a moment for mindfulness, and she decided that she would hold a pen in her hand and just turn the pen. She would look at the pen, and that would be her mindfulness moment. I love that, because in any meeting, she can do that.
“Every time I’m walking somewhere, [I begin] to notice the way that my feet feel on the ground and to, in particular, notice the way that my toes grip the ground. That brings my attention to a single point of focus that quiets everything else down.”
What’s your favorite small way of bringing mindfulness into your day?
Leah: For me, my [mindfulness moments are] anything that is bringing attention into the body while I’m working. It’s so easy for a lot of us who are working in the world of ideas to have a very disembodied experience the majority of our day. So paying attention to things like posture, or even taking the transitions from sitting to standing to [walking] to meetings, these moments [can bring us] back in our [bodies]. A lot of my students, when I ask them about their goals, they want to find ways to be authentic leaders and handle their emotions in an authentic way that’s also appropriate for work—that’s not always easy to do. The key to doing that is recognizing that emotions exist in our bodies, and that if we can get more clear on our physical sensations as emotions are happening, then we can use that to help regulate how we are behaving in response.
Caroline: Beautifully put. I have to say, [you] had a nightmare travel experience just on the way to this conversation—did you use your mindfulness techniques as you were stopped in traffic?
Leah: I did. For each extra five minutes the trip took, my body was uptight and my head would start to spin. In these kinds of situations, I have to keep coming back to body and breath—freaking out isn’t [going to] get me there any faster. [So I thought,] “What could I do? I could pick up the phone and call Caroline, and we could make a plan, which would be much better than my spinning out on my own.”
Caroline: There’s such a long tradition of breathing being the way that you put yourself back in the body and bring your attention to a single point. Lots of people have different preferences on breathing—some people swear by the simple one-two in, three-four out. There are others who like triangular breathing—you breathe in for two, then you breathe out for two, and then hold two, and so on. Do you have a little technique that you use?
Leah: My background in training and meditation comes out of the Tibetan tradition, and there’s a whole system of Tibetan yoga, which focuses on breath retention. So that’s often my habit, to breathe in, hold the air in the abdomen for a few moments, and then a really full exhale. I find that very helpful.
Caroline: That’s great. This is the sort of thing that you can build into every day. There’s also another dimension that I think both of us are interested in, which is compassion. Where do you put your attention when you’re dealing with other people, or when you’re dealing with yourself?
Leah: This is one of the places that people get tripped up. “What does it look like to recognize the humanity in relationships when we’re working with people and we have to get stuff done? How do I balance taking care of myself and getting my own things done, versus being supportive to the people around me?” Those are two of the key questions that people ask.
[There are] small mindset hacks to recognize that the people we see in one role have a much fuller life than we may be aware of. They have families, they learned to tie their shoelaces when they were kids. When we think about the bigger picture, even with the people who are driving us nuts at work, it can really impact how we approach them and how a relationship goes.
Caroline: I like the way that your focus on compassion joins up with my focus on assuming “good person, bad circumstances” because of confirmation bias, and the fact that whatever we expect of someone will likely be what we see. If you go into a conversation with someone and you are looking for evidence that they’re a jerk, you are more likely to see it, and you might miss the one moment where they’re a bit more considerate and friendly. You can be deliberate about the quality of attention that you bring to the conversation.
One thing that I know you’re interested in is the way that mindfulness can help you think about bigger career decisions. How have you helped the scores of students that have come through Stanford think about their careers using mindfulness?
“We’ve replaced the era of ping pong tables as the perk, and now people are looking deeply at the signs that an organization has [compassion] and long-term care for its employees.”
Leah: One of the things that’s really begun to stand out for me is watching the students as they’re leaving business school and making choices about which work environments they’re going to go into. I see them asking questions like, “Which environment feels the most purposeful to me? Which environment is going to support me as a full person?” I think that we’ve replaced the era of ping pong tables as the perk, and now people are looking deeply at the signs an organization has [compassion] and long-term care for its employees.
Caroline: One of the connections between this very small habit of a mindfulness moment and making big career decisions is that we don’t make great decisions when we’re freaking out. When people are stressing and the opposite of calm, we know that they aren’t thinking as clearly. So at the very least, learning how to quiet your mind [will help you] think more clearly and pay more attention to the things that really matter.
I’ve also seen, in the work that I’ve done with people over the years, how a guided meditation on some interesting questions can bring insight to what you are really looking for in your job and in your career.
There was time that I was working with a large group of lawyers. Lawyers mostly stay lawyers—once they’re in a career as an attorney, that’s what they do. But there are still some choices about what they might focus on within that. I was working with these guys, and I explained that they would think more clearly if they were calm, and that what we were going to do would help bring that clarity of thought.
I got them to look at their feet on the floor, and I asked them to think about their life as a child, and to think about a time that they were playing a game or doing an activity that they absolutely loved, with no constraints, and what it was about that experience that gave them so much energy and joy.
There were three or four more questions, but the point is, “When do you take a moment to step back and think about that? When do you take a moment to give yourself the quiet time to think back to that?” It was one of the most beautiful sessions I remember having. The quality of thought, the depth of reflection was something quite special.
“It’s quieting the should, and amplifying the could. ‘What could I be doing if I were playing more to the strengths and passions that come up in these moments?’”
Leah: That’s a lovely example. One of the tools I’ve been using more over the last few years, following the research about envisioning our future selves and how it impacts the choices that we make today, [is to ask,] “What does it look like 20 years from now, when you have found your ideal work in life?” To your point, we don’t take the time to really envision that, but professional athletes will, and it increases their performance. We can learn from this skill and start using it.
The students and the organizations I do this with have amazing conversations with each other, and learn so much more about what brings them passion and purpose as a result.
Caroline: One simple way that you could get started, if you are [reading] this and thinking, “I don’t know whether I’m ready for visualization,” is to get yourself in some quiet space, and give yourself a chance to deeply reflect. Think about moments when you’ve been at a real peak. Not where you’ve been ticking other people’s boxes, but where you feel truly energized. It might be with your family, it might be at work, it might be the community. Start to pay attention to what was going on at that time as you visualize this in your mind’s eye. What was the setting? What was the type of interactions you were having?
Then get into the habit of doing that from time to time, so that you start to build up a really rich picture of what your peaks truly are. You’ve got some fantastic data to sit and think, “So this is me when I’m unconstrained, and bringing my attention quietly without judgment.” It’s quieting the should, and amplifying the could. “What could I be doing if I were playing more to the strengths and passions that come up in these moments?”