Some days are so packed - with meetings and schedules that are inevitably interrupted by drop-in chats, phone calls, and even the occasional real emergency - that trying to accomplish anything can feel like swimming against a riptide. Even when things aren't that intense, how many times, in the course of a normal busy day, do you finish one task and, without taking a moment for a sigh of accomplishment, ask yourself what's next?
For most of us, the perpetual to-do list looms large and our strong inclination upon completion of one task is to jump right into whatever one happens to be closest at hand; after all, then we'll be able to check off yet another item. But just as smart ocean swimmers know you sometimes have to go parallel to the shore until the current weakens, so excellent leaders discover that sometimes forging straight toward your objective - checking things off the list - isn't necessarily the best way to get things done.
For many of us, the strongest current we face is the flood of thoughts and reactions filling our mental space and making us distracted or preoccupied. One of the tools the Institute for Mindful Leadership encourages people to explore is what we call a Purposeful Pause. Pausing in this way needn't interrupt your activity; indeed, the purpose of a purposeful pause is to create space in the midst of momentum. Practicing purposeful pauses - intentionally interrupting mental busyness by taking a few moments several times a day to simply pay attention to being present, to repeatedly synchronize our minds with our bodies - cultivates leadership presence.
It does this because being synchronized affects how you function. And because of the ripple effect, that affects how others around you function. And all this happens without bringing your active day to a screeching halt. In fact, you can do it without even breaking stride if, for example, you use walking to the water cooler or a meeting as a time to let preoccupations drop and notice instead the sensations within your body and in your environment as you move along your way.
From the time we wake in the morning until we climb into bed at night, we can enhance leadership excellence in our own lives by using everyday activities as reminders to simply be present: brushing our teeth, having our morning coffee, or waiting for the train or at a stoplight; pausing before we answer the phone or enter a meeting; stopping to really notice when someone asks for our attention or when we make eye contact with someone; taking a deep breath and checking in to see how we feel as we finish something on our list. The opportunities are endless and ever-present; we just have to remember to do it.
If we do, especially if we complement the practice of purposeful pauses with other contemplative exercises, like meditation and reflection, we find the current begins to shift. Instead of struggling to gain focus and clarity while being buffeted about by waves of thoughts and emotions, it becomes easier to remember to use our bodily sensations to help us stay in the moment so we can see what's called for now. Sometimes that's even to go with the flow.
Swimming parallel to the shore when we're afraid of being swept away isn't usually our first inclination. It takes courage, but the potential payoff is not only release from the compelling current, but also a different perspective on how to best accomplish one's objectives. Just so, when you take a few moments to become fully present whenever the question, What's next? arises, you may find yourself enjoying again and again the kind of pause that truly refreshes.
Carol Hyman is a senior instructor for the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
Within each of us is the potential to lead with excellence, to influence those around us in ways that make a truly positive difference to our organizations, our families, and our communities. Join the Institute for Mindful Leadership for a live online course to learn accessible and scientifically proven meditation practices and explore how to bring mindful leadership training into your life- at work and at home. Click here for more info.