BY CHADE-MENG TAN mindful.org
All you need is a single breath.
Some days it’s really draining to be a senior executive. You sit in meetings for hours on end, and every decision you need to make is difficult—all of the easy decisions have already been made at levels below you. On those days, you know you could be a much more effective leader if you could approach each meeting with a fresh perspective. But in order to do that, you first need to put down the baggage you carried in from all your previous meetings. You can do it. And you can do it in just six seconds.
I led the creation of a Google training program called “Search Inside Yourself,” which was designed to help people put down that mental baggage and approach each new situation with a present, focused mind. It quickly became the most highly rated course in all of Google, with huge waiting lists. Search Inside Yourself works in three steps. It begins with attention training to create a quality of mind that is calm and clear. We then focus on developing a depth of self-knowledge that leads to self-mastery, because when you can clearly and objectively see when and how you are triggered, you can begin to effectively deploy mental and emotional strategies to skillfully navigate those situations. Finally, we cultivate mental skills such as empathy and compassion, which are conducive to better social skills.
Many participants have told us that they became better leaders and gained subsequent promotions thanks to the skills they learned from Search Inside Yourself. For example, one engineering executive learned to manage his temper and gain increased clarity by, in his words, “learning to discern stories from reality.” He became so effective that he was promoted, even after transitioning to a part-time role. Another participant learned to handle stress so much better that her physical health visibly improved. A sales executive, already a good communicator due to the nature of his job, learned that when he listened with empathy, spoke with moral courage, and held a caring attitude for the person he was interacting with, he became an even more effective communicator and executive. Over and over again, our participants tell us the training changed their lives.
These skills did not take long to learn. In every example above, the benefits were realized with fewer than 50 hours of training. But getting the training’s earliest benefits doesn’t even require 50 hours.
My colleague Karen May, vice president at Google, developed the ability to mentally recharge by taking one “mindful breath” before walking into every meeting. It takes her roughly six seconds, and in that time she brings her full attention to one breath, resetting her body and mind.
There are two reasons why taking just one mindful breath is so effective at calming the body and the mind. The physiological reason is that breaths taken mindfully tend to be slow and deep, which stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It lowers stress, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, and calms you down. The psychological reason is that when you put your attention intensely on the breath, you are fully in the present for the duration of the breath. To feel regretful, you need to be in the past; to worry, you need to be in the future. Hence, when you are fully in the present, you are temporarily free from regret and worry. That’s like releasing a heavy burden for the duration of one breath, allowing the body and mind a precious opportunity for rest and recovery.
This skill is used by some of the world’s best athletes. For example, I once asked tennis superstar Novak Djokovic about it, and he confirmed that the mental technique has game-changing consequences (literally, for him). The ability to reset and calm the body and mind in mere seconds is how athletes like Djokovic sustain high performance for extended periods.
The ability to calm the body and mind on demand has profound implications for leadership. Imagine that you’re responding to a severe crisis with your peers and everybody but you is frazzled, because you alone can calm down and think clearly. The ability to think calmly under fire is a hallmark of great leadership. The training and deployment of this skill involves paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. The more you bring this quality of attention to your breath, the more you strengthen the parts of your brain involved with attention and executive control, principally the prefrontal cortex.
This ability is one in a collection of mental and emotional skills that form the foundation of highly effective leadership. Another such skill is the ability to assess yourself accurately, beginning with your moment-to-moment experience of emotions, and culminating in you clearly knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and purpose in life. Studies show that accurate self-assessment is a necessary condition for outstanding leadership because it enables people to build effective teams around them that add to their strengths, complement their weaknesses, and contribute to a clear, common purpose.
Learning to calm the mind starts with being more mindful of the body. By bringing mindful attention to the body, you strengthen the part of your brain called the insula, which is highly correlated with strong emotional awareness and empathy. When combined with practices such as journaling, this improves self-assessment, and when combined with practices such as mindful listening, it strengthens empathy, all of which lead to higher emotional intelligence.
Even if your company doesn’t have a mindfulness training course like Search Inside Yourself, you can begin to benefit with your first mindful breath, in the first six seconds. Try it today, and see how much more present, effective, and productive you can be.
Keywords; breath, mindfulness,
This article originally appeared on hbr.org, the website of the Harvard Business Review.