“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.” – Eckhart Tolle
Life is moving fast. We’re rarely, if ever, more than an arm’s reach away from at least one of our many devices—phones, tablets, laptops, desktops—all of which enable us to instantly access a tsunami-like flood of information. And while this type of technology has enabled us to make significant societal advancements, it comes at a cost, because many of us don’t know how not to focus on the anxiety-producing, stress-causing, ever-present noise long enough to tap into the calm oasis that is the present moment.
Today, young children are learning how to meditate, do yoga, and practice mindfulness in school. But, these topics weren’t part of the curriculum for people in my age group or older—at least not in the Western world. And that’s too bad, because they’ve been an integral and incredibly beneficial part of Eastern culture and tradition for eons. In that regard, we have a lot to learn, but now is the perfect time to catch up on what we’ve missed. In fact, now is the only time, because with the ever-increasing volume of potential distractions in our modern world, practicing presence is becoming increasingly important (both for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us). If you’re still unsure about the efficacy of being present, let me reassure you that the benefits extend well beyond your personal life; living more in “the now” will help you be a better leader.
Presence on Purpose (a.k.a. Mindfulness)
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society; the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic; and professor of medicine emeritus—all at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn transformed what he learned from studying Buddhist teachings on presence and awareness into a scientifically grounded framework—called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—that he teaches around the world. According to Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Being Aware of Potentialities
In this Harvard Business Review article—titled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Mindfulness”—happiness experts Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan quoted Harvard psychologist and mindfulness research leader Ellen Langer as saying that mindfulness is “noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms.” In their work, Achor and Gielan define the term as “the awareness of events and potentialities within an environment.” Regardless of the words you use to explain mindfulness, though, the benefits of developing that level of presence are outstanding—and they include everything from responding more resiliently to stressors and making better decisions to improving health, wellbeing, and patient-provider relationships.
Becoming a Better Leader
In fact, researchers have been trying to figure out why some leaders seem to handle the pressure of “today’s highly competitive and extremely complex global economy” better than others—and it turns out that the ability to remain present and mindful are big contributing factors. For CEOs, presidents, and managers at all levels, “mindfulness was found to be negatively related to various dysfunctional outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and negative affect.” It also was negatively related to “burnout (i.e., emotional exhaustion and cynicism)” for entrepreneurs. According to this Forbes article, a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School study also found that mindfulness can lead to “improvements in innovative thinking, communication skills, and more appropriate reactions to stress.” Those are big wins for any leader—and that’s not even a comprehensive list.
WebPT’s co-founder and president, Heidi Jannenga, recently published an article for Evidence in Motion on the importance of presence, and in it she discusses a book she read on the subject: Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. As Jannenga wrote, one of the Harvard Business School professor and researcher’s main points as it relates to leadership is that developing a practice of presence is instrumental in building trust. That’s because when you are being fully present with another person, you are essentially saying, “I’m here; I care about you. I’m listening, and what I am telling you to do is not just based on my own personal opinion, but what I’m observing and hearing from you.” Based on Jannenga’s own experience with putting presence into practice in her leadership role, she says this is “pretty powerful stuff.” On the flipside, she said, failing to remain present can significantly hinder your ability to:
- Really hear what others are saying;
- Be aware of your environment;
- Understand how your work fits into the bigger picture; and
- Stay engaged with, interested in, and excited by your life and the people with whom you interact—all of which are essential for successful leadership.
Presence in Action
So, how do you put presence into action as a business leader? To put it in (perhaps painfully) simple terms, you focus on the now. In her article, Jannenga uses this quote from the Buddha: “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Thus, she says, “the first step to achieving presence on a more consistent basis is simply becoming aware of the times when you aren’t present—when your mind is wandering to something that already happened or thinking about something that might.”
Remaining Mentally and Emotionally Connected
Not sure how often your mind wanders? Keep a pen and sticky note with you and make a little check mark each time you catch yourself thinking about something other than the present moment. Then, gently bring your attention back to the here and now. You can practice being present anytime, anywhere. Try it next time you’re eating a meal, attending a staff meeting, or performing a patient’s initial evaluation. Shut off distractions and focus solely on what you’re doing or what’s happening around you. You may be surprised to discover a new sense of appreciation for the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of your life. And you most certainly will become aware of more opportunities for you to better serve your patients, team, family, and community. After all, how can you really know what’s needed if you’re physically present but mentally and emotionally disengaged?
Looking for a more regular presence practice? There are plenty of options to choose from, but here are three we like:
1. Listen to a Guided Presence Practice
Jannenga recommends going through this five-minute exercise from Nilima Bhat—esteemed speaker and trainer specializing in organization culture, conscious business, women in leadership, and self-awareness—at least once daily (and immediately before any event throughout which you’d like to remain present).
2. Start Your Day With a Ritual
Achor and Gielan recommend committing to the following daily ritual, which is so easy and unobtrusive that you’re bound to follow through: when you first arrive at work, spend two minutes “doing nothing except watching your breath go in and out and being aware of your surroundings.” (That’s all. Told you it was easy.)
North Dakota University’s Counseling Center adapted this meditation process from a book Kabat-Zinn wrote (you can do this for as long or short of a time period as you’d like):
- “Bring attention to the breath.
- Give full attention to the feeling of the breath as it goes in and out.
- Dwell in the present, moment by moment, breath by breath.
- Observe your mind with moment-to-moment awareness. When attention wanders, note it and then gently bring awareness back to the breath.
- Continue to watch the breath, accepting each moment as it is.”
Jannenga said that being present can improve not only “the quality of your relationships and your work,” but also “your ability to find deeper meaning in your interactions and, ultimately, your life.” And isn’t that what we’re all reaching for, anyway?