Mindfulness Exercises for the Overly Connected, Under-Vacationed Business Owner

  •    Anne is a marketing consultant who specializes in content strategy. Before becoming her own boss, she led the marketing team for a Fortune 500 brand.

What's life like at your desk? You likely sit down each morning with an objective or two, but first you notice a slew of emails you should really respond to. Then your phone rings. You take the call. When you hang up, there are a few text messages waiting for your attention. Before you know it, an hour has passed. You may feel like you got a lot done, but did you? Rather than achieving what you set out to do, you simply reacted to distractions. Does this sound like you? Perhaps your days could use a little more intention. Lucky for you, mindfulness is here for the rescue.

Mindfulness: Business Leaders' Secret Weapon

Bobby Axelrod's meditation room on Billions isn't' just a weird character quirk — it's his edge — and it's no mistake that Salesforce sports a mindfulness room on every floor. Mindfulness is becoming a not-so-secret business weapon used to unlock creativity and increase productivity. Some companies, from startups to large corporations like Aetna, Google and Intel, are even working mindfulness exercises into their training and benefits packages, and all claim to have enjoyed measurable success.

Why? Numerous studies have linked mindfulness practices to improved concentration, memory and communication, all of which increase one's productivity. Mindfulness has also been shown to nurture imagination and improve innovative thinking. People who regularly practice mindfulness react better to stress, improve their ability to handle conflict and better collaborate, helping them make better decisions overall. Sounds great, right? As a small business owner, you could benefit from all those things. But as an entrepreneur with sole responsibility for your business's success, do you really have time for it?

Well, consider the alternative: mindlessness. We spend nearly half our day thinking about something other than what we're actually doing in that moment. Plus, when we carry technology — our mobile distraction — with us everywhere we go (even the bathroom), we're always presented with something to distract us. In fact, on an average day we unlock our phones 80 times. Can this constant occupation possibly lead to your best work?

Combat the temptation to be constantly — and unproductively — occupied. Use mindfulness as your own new secret weapon. It's completely doable, even for the busiest entrepreneurs. As Ariana Huffington notes, practicing mindfulness isn't just another thing to add to your to-do list. It's an ongoing practice, weaving mindfulness throughout your day and in all that you do. So being mindful isn't adding another task to your day; it's enhancing your day.

Use These Mindfulness Exercises Throughout Your Day

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can reap the benefits of mindfulness by scheduling a weekly half hour for meditation. Focused time for meditation can be helpful, but don't confuse it with developing mindful habits that help you focus at any given moment. Consider the following ways to start practicing mindfulness throughout your day, so that you can train your mind to be more focused, helping you approach work with intention.

First thing in the morning. When you wake, avoid immediately thinking about the tasks ahead, which can release cortisol and increase your stress levels. Instead take about two minutes to practice being aware of the current moment, turning distracting thoughts away and returning your focus to your breathing.

Arriving to the office. Before jumping into work, use five to ten minutes at your desk or in your car to train your focus with a mindfulness exercise. Relax and close your eyes, fully focusing on your breath. Listen to each breath and count silently each time you exhale. Release any distractions that come to mind.

“Allow yourself to enjoy these minutes," suggests Rasmus Hougaard, author of One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness. “Throughout the rest of the day, other people and competing urgencies will fight for your attention. But for these 10 minutes, your attention is all your own."

Midday mindful meal. Make time for a mindful lunch away from work. Rather than swallowing before you're finished chewing, or preparing your next bit before you've even tasted the one in your mouth, focus on chewing each bite. Consider how it tastes and how this nourishment helps you continue your day.

If you share this time with someone, practice mindful listening — pay attention to what they're saying and how they're feeling rather than thinking about what you'd like to say next or even nodding your head while mentally building your afternoon to-do list.

If dining alone, practice mindful observation. After focusing on your meal, take some time to observe your surroundings, especially if you can get outside. Notice how each part of nature exists in and focuses on what's necessary only during this moment. A blade of grass soaks up sunlight. A bird senses air currents to stay afloat, flapping its wings when necessary to stay aloft.

Before meetings. Practice mindfulness on your way to meetings to prepare to be present and productive. Table any unrelated thoughts and focus your mind on the meeting's purpose. Leave your phone behind and train your attention to the people in the room, so you'll be fully present before the meeting begins.

Afternoon. To maintain a focus on mindfulness, Houggard recommends setting a timer to ring every hour. Each time you hear it, stop what you're doing to practice mindfulness— focus and awareness — for one minute. These breaks, he says, will remind you not to launch into autopilot, but to maintain purpose and focus on each task.

During your commute. Put your phone on airplane mode and turn off your radio for at least 10 minutes. Simply breathe. Practice letting go of any thoughts that arise, especially ones with a false sense of urgency. In this given moment, let go of what you cannot act upon, so that by the time you arrive home you will have released the stresses of the day and can be fully present. Having a restful evening will better prepare you for the next workday.

Associate certain activities with mindfulness. Beyond mealtimes, practice mindfulness exercises at other times of day by giving your full attention to whatever you're doing— even if it's a mundane task like dialing a phone number, cutting an apple or making a cup of coffee. Taking time to consciously connect with the task at hand makes for more a more mindful day overall.

Anytime. If you find yourself growing overwhelmed or are trying to focus on more than one thing at a time, stop what you're doing. At any point during your day you can sit quietly for two minutes to focus on your breathing. This will help you reset and return your focus to the present moment.

Do This, Not That, to Achieve Mindfulness

Common productivity- and mindfulness-killers are email, smartphones and the temptation to multitask. Practice noticing these distractions and retrain yourself for more mindful behaviors.

Don't succumb to email addition. Email is a tool to use, not the director of our day. Apply mindfulness when opening your inbox. “Focus on what is important and maintain awareness of what is merely noise," says Hougaard, who also suggests not checking email first thing in the morning.

Don't mindlessly unlock your phone. If you are unlocking your phone, consciously remember your purpose for doing so. Focus on achieving what you planned to do, then lock your phone and place it out of reaching distance.

Don't try to multitask. To practice mindful work, you must apply focus and awareness to each moment. Think of your work style as single-tasking. Do one thing at a time, so you can concentrate on what you're doing. You'll be more productive and successful when you allow yourself to stop switching back and forth between tasks.

Try a Mindfulness App

If you're used to rushing from one thing to the next each day, you may find it helpful to get friendly reminders or use a mindfulness app as a guide.

Stop, Breath & Think is a good one to try if you're a mindfulness beginner. You'll have the option to start with a "Learn to Meditate" course and gain access to dozens of free meditation sessions of various lengths and topics.

Insight Timer is one of the most popular mindfulness apps — and you'll see how popular at any given time because the app tells you how many other users are activity meditating. Not only are there thousands of guided meditations, but you can also set your own path with timers, intermittent bells and your choice of ambient noise.

Finally, Mindfulness Daily allows you set your own mindfulness schedule, with an emphasis on taking some time in the morning, around noon and at night to live a more intentional day.

When woven throughout each day, you'll turn your mindfulness exercises into effective habits of mind. Your work will benefit from your increased focus, and you'll be more aware of when distractions nearly derail your productivity. Remember, mindfulness isn't about slowing down — it's about being aware and acting with intention. Over time you'll develop a sharper, clearer mind. Your business is likely to be more successful, and you'll be happier and less stressed.