3 mindfulness exercises to try when you feel overwhelmed

A leader’s brain will race for many reasons. Try these techniques to focus – and maybe even improve conversations with difficult people
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IT leaders grapple with challenges coming at them from all sides: people, processes, budgets, politics, timelines, and technology. Juggling those demands can certainly feel overwhelming.
One method for managing all those pressures is mindfulness – the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present and acknowledging and accepting the feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations happening in the moment as a way to calm or clarify the mind.

“To have a few very practical mindfulness exercises that they can use at any time can help leaders better manage all these stressors and engage their teams,” says Wendy Quan, founder of The Calm Monkey, which provides mindfulness training and facilitation for individuals and organizations.

“Practicing mindful leadership pays off in creating a more engaged team.”

Mindfulness exercises help you increase awareness of what is happening within and around yourself and snap out of the autopilot mode in which you flit from one urgent issue to the next. “It is attention-training,” says Quan, who has worked with organizations ranging from Google to the government of Dubai. “If we are able to dwell less in the past or worry about the future, it allows us to be more in the present moment, giving attention and focus to what we are doing in the moment. Practicing mindful leadership, giving your full attention to those you lead, pays off in creating a more engaged team.”

[ How one skeptical CTO became a mindfulness fan: Read also Mindfulness: 3 ways leaders can get started. ]

Results vary from calming to life-changing, says Quan, adding that the CIOs and IT leaders she’s worked with have been some of the biggest fans of these practices. Here are a few straightforward mindfulness exercises IT leaders can keep in their back pocket to pull out when the going gets difficult.

Mindfulness exercise #1: Do I need to think about this right now?

When to use it: When you find your mind racing over all the things you need to get done.

How to do it: Stop and ask yourself: Do I need to be thinking about this right now? “This simple question draws your full attention to observing what is going through your mind,” says Quan. “Pause just for a moment and see what your thoughts are and what is stressing you out.” Then decide which thoughts are functional and which are not. Functional thoughts serve a purpose, like planning an agenda. Non-functional thoughts serve no purpose other than to create stress, like as replaying a past conversation over and over again in your head.

Once you’ve taken a moment to acknowledge and categorize your thoughts, you can consciously choose what to do with them. “If the thought has no value, choose to think about something else,” advises Quan. For example, if you have decided on how to deal with a problem employee, it’s time to stop devoting precious brain power to it.

Benefits: This mindfulness technique is a great way to clear the mental deck. It’s one of Quan’s favorites for dealing with “monkey mind”– a Buddhist term for a brain that is unsettled, restless, or confused, characterized by endless internal chatter that can cause stress.

Mindfulness exercise #2: Body scanning

When to use it: When you’re waiting – for a meeting to start, for an important decision, for the elevator to come, at the airport.

How to do it: “Mindfulness exercises often use the body as a way of becoming present,” says Quan. “Take advantage of all those short moments of waiting during the day to switch your attention to what you are feeling in your body at this present time.”

There are a number of ways to bring full attention to your body’s sensations. Start by taking a few intentional, deep breaths into your chest and down through your abdomen, counting silently if desired. (If the wait is short, stop there; even a few breaths can be quite centering, says Quan.) From there, you might simply feel the weight and the connection of your body to the chair you’re sitting in or your feet to the ground.

Another option is to notice how you are in your body. Are you holding your torso, abdomen, or shoulders tightly? Is your jaw tense? “Check in with where you might be holding tightness in your body, then release it,” says Quan.

Benefits: These techniques can be great for releasing physical tension, says Quan. If nothing else, she notes, they also give you a “mini-mental break from your busy day” and can increase relaxation.

Mindfulness exercise #3: Give full attention to a difficult person

When to use it: Anytime you will be interacting with people you do not particularly enjoy.

How to do it: “The quality of your interactions with others can change dramatically when you give them 100 percent of your attention in a non-judgmental way,” says Quan. The next time you have a meeting with a challenging personality, an unwanted phone call, or a discussion with an unhelpful business partner, challenge yourself to avoid bringing all your preconceptions of the person into this interaction. “No matter how stressed or busy you are, notice how the other person is behaving, their facial expressions, their animations, their emotional state,” says Quan. “Pay attention to them fully so they feel seen and heard.”

Benefits: While it might not seem like being fully present with people who annoy you would feel good, Quan says that many people report very positive shifts in their work and personal relationships once they start practicing this exercise.

[ Are you taking care of yourself? Read our related story, 8 self-care tips for CIOs. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.