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Taking a Breather — Scott Eblin

Contributor: Morgan Motzel

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Scott Eblin, an executive coach, speaker and author, who works with senior and rising leaders in some of the world’s best known and regarded organizations.  His most recent book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, offers a potential solution to the stress and strain that many experience in different parts of their lives.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Scott, how did you first come to understanding mindfulness as a way of managing stress and reducing strain?

Scott Eblin: scott eblinLike many people, my first real introduction to mindfulness was a book Jon by Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are. It is comprised of little chapters and essays on mindfulness, and he has such a wonderful way of making it conversational and thought-provoking. In the nineties, that was my morning book. For a couple of years, I would read parts of it to start my day, and then I would contemplate what I read and usually journal a bit. That was the beginning for me.

It really accelerated for me in 2009 when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I was an athlete and I ran all the time, so it was a real shock to develop that disease. It put me on my back, almost literally. I could barely walk around the block, and I was having trouble getting up the stairs to bed. After about a year and a half of that, my wife and I read that yoga can really help people with MS, and so I went to try the studio close to our house. I thought, “I don’t really think I should be here. I can barely stand up, let alone do tree pose or whatever.”  But the instructor said, “Listen, we have people like you in here a lot. If you can come here three days a week, it will change your body, and if you come here more than three days a week, it will change your life.” I chose the more-than-three-days-a-week option, and she was right; it changed my life. Initially, yoga was just a physical practice for me, but I found the deeper you go with something like that, the more it affects other aspects of your life too. It really taught me the importance of baby steps—little steps, bit by bit. I´ve seen that practicing the physical aspects of yoga, and then I started bringing that observation to my work as an executive coach and consultant after reading research on the impact that mindfulness meditation has on strengthening our genes’ ability to express themselves.

SF: When you first started out with yoga, what changes did you see when you started practicing? How much of your life was devoted to yoga at that time?

SE: I was going to three or four classes per week. I always say that the changes are incremental and then they´re sudden. For example, you´re trying to learn to do a yoga pose, like Upward Facing Bow.  For the first three months, I couldn’t even get my shoulders or head off the floor, and then one day, suddenly, I´m just like up in Upward Facing Bow with my head and shoulders off the ground.

SF: So you´re working at it, working at it, working at it—and then all of a sudden you can do it.

SE: Yes, bit by bit. Four years later, I do handstands and headstands regularly. I had never done one of either of those in my life before I started four years ago. I´m still the guy with MS, but yoga helps me manage the MS effectively. You have to manage your stress if you have MS, otherwise your body is going to let you know immediately. It´s been a learning-by-doing type of process. I began to see the impact of the yoga almost instantly.  I literally felt better at the end of the first week.

SF: That’s great that you feel the effects right away. Mindfulness is more than yoga though, right?

SE: Totally. The way I think about mindfulness is that it equals two things: awareness plus intention. Awareness includes what’s going on around me extrinsically, while at the same time I´m also aware of what’s going on intrinsically inside of me. These thoughts occur not just physically, although that’s very important, but also mentally and emotionally. First, what is my mental thought process right now? And, second, what is my emotional state a response to or reaction toward what’s going on around me? Once I´m aware, I can then choose to be intentional about what I´m going to do, or maybe more importantly, what I´m not going to do. In the face of the problem of being overworked and overwhelmed, not doing anything is maybe more important than doing something.

SF: You´re choosing what to exclude from your intention, and your subsequent action is just as, if not more, important than choosing what it is you will do. Why do you say that?

SE: First of all, research shows that multitasking is a myth. In my own research with our leadership—the executives and managers we work with in our programs—we´ve been running a 360 with them for years which tends to mirror the 72 different leadership behaviors outlined in my first book The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. So many of those behaviors are things like ¨pacing myself by taking regular breaks from work,¨ ¨giving others my full presence and attention during meetings and conversations,¨ ¨regularly taking time to step back to define or redefine what needs to be done¨—all of these are behaviors that mindfulness can really address. People are generally very good at getting stuff done, but they´re not so good at stepping back and asking themselves what really needs to be done.

SF: Yes, and it´s a hard thing to begin to do, isn’t it? How do you get people started in taking a step back so they can become more conscious and deliberate about the choices they make, about the focus of their attention, and where they invest their energy? What´s the first step if somebody comes to you stressed out saying, “I need to be more mindful, help me Scott.”

SE: First of all, it´s good that you’re recognizing that you’re stressed out as opposed to continuing to put your foot on the gas pedal driving forward with your head down. It´s like Dear Abby used to say, ¨Recognition of the problem is 90% of the solution.¨ The next thing I want to do is to look for things to prioritize. If we think of an XY graph with the vertical axis representing ¨easy to do¨ and the horizontal axis being ¨likely to make a difference,¨ I would recommend people look for things that are in the upper right hand corner of that graph: things that are relatively easy to do and yet likely to make a difference.

SF: For people who are listening right now, in their cars or in their homes, tell them where somebody could really begin now.

SE: First, just breathe. Slow down your breathing. When I first started teaching about mindful leadership, I was going through yoga teacher training myself. I asked my 25-year-old yoga teacher trainer to think if he were to be conducting the same executive coach training program as I was, what he would focus on for the corporate people in this program. He answered, “I´d focus on their breathing—ambitious people don´t know how to breathe.” What does he mean by that? That they breathe from their chest, and it´s really shallow. Sometimes you even forget to breathe when you´re stressed, and you´ll hold your breath.

What I talk a lot about in my work now is that I think people are in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. It´s not the acute “oh my gosh, there´s a saber-toothed tiger around the corner, let me run” fight-or flee response. Rather, it´s all the input we’re trying to deal with all day long which puts us in a constant state of fight-or-flight. In the end, what I think the mindfulness stuff really does is activate our bodies´ opposite response, nicknamed the rest-and-digest, your body´s para-sympathetic nervous system. Think of fight-or-flight as the gas pedal, and rest-and-digest as the brakes; you need both. You would never drive a car and only use the gas—that’d be a recipe for disaster.

SF: So the way to consciously activate the rest-and-digest system, as we´ll call it, is to simply breathe?

SE: Yes, start with breathing deep breaths from your belly.

Navy SEALS are trained to breathe like that when they´re deployed. They have a little exercise called the ¨Four by Four by Four¨: four minutes of deep breathing with four counts on the inhale and four counts on the exhale. Repeat until your four-minute timer goes off. Clearly when SEALS are deployed, their fight-or-flight response is going off, but they also want to have rest-and-digest so they make really clear, sound decisions in critical life-threatening moments. Breathing this way helps them do that.

SF: When you stop to focus on your breathing, you become actively conscious of it.  How does actively thinking about your breathing change your mindset and your physical condition?

SE: It focuses your attention in the right places. Recently I came across a study on neuroimaging from USC which found that the average person has 70,000 thoughts a day. If you think about it, most of those thoughts are probably the same thoughts you had yesterday. There’s a word in the Sanskrit language (which dates back thousands of years ago in India) called pritti which means “mental chatter,” commonly known as the monkey mind. With all the distractions we face in our hyper-connected lives with smart phones and everything else we’re dealing with, it’s very easy to have chatter-filled lives. Focused breathing can help us clear that. I think it’s the easiest and most accessible thing you can do to be more focused and center yourself in the moment because you carry your breath around with you all the time.

SF: So you start with that, but the chatter and the tools competing for your attention pull you away from that state of awareness quite quickly, especially for people just starting out with mindfulness exercises. How can you build the capacity to sustain consciousness of your breathing and still be able to undertake all the things that need your attention?

SE: Breathing is just one way to become more aware and more intentional. I think movement is another good way. So many of us now sit at our desk in front of screens for hours on end. It’s not good for your thought process, your decision-making, or your productivity, and it’s definitely not good for your health and well-being. All of the studies now are saying that sitting is basically the new smoking—it´s the same impact on your life expectancy if you sit for 8 or 9 hours per day versus smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. You really want to get up and move 5 to 10 minutes every hour at least. It helps you mentally, and it also helps you physically. The research shows that a little bit of movement every hour helps you focus mentally when you come back.

SF: It would depend on what you do with your movement, right? Are there particular things that would be useful for the beginners out there—people who are just getting into the idea of finding a greater sense of calm and reducing strain in their lives? If you were to start getting up for five to ten minutes each hour, what should you do exactly?

SE:  Something as simple as a walk around the building. And leave your phone behind when you do. I know that’s radical, but it will be there when you get back, and even if you miss something, it’s only a ten-minute break. You can also get up from your desk and stretch. Raise your arms up toward the ceiling. Turn the palms of your hands like you’re stretching up toward the ceiling and bring them down and back up again three times.

Look for those little still points throughout the day. That’s a term I learned from David Kuntz—he’s got a number of great books, but the one that I really love is called Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going. David talks about different kinds of breaks, and the shortest of these he calls a “still point,” which is a little interlude or brief pause throughout the day. I don’t care how busy you are.  Even the most back-to-back calendared people have brief 5 to 10 minute interludes throughout their days if they pay attention to them and are looking for them. Then the question is, when you get that 5 or 10 minute break, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to try and answer ten more emails? Because you know that if you get 200 emails per day, responding to 10 more in that five-minute period is not going to help you that much. What is going to help you much more is to give your rest-and-digest response an opportunity to perform. You’re going to think more clearly when you get back to work, you’re going to feel better, and you’re going to be more fully present for the people you’re working with. There are lots of benefits to be had if you just take that free minute to move or to breathe.

SF: What’s the most important word of advice you could give about accessing greater mindfulness in ways that could help people, not just at work, but in all different parts of their lives?

SE: I would want people to think about three quick questions. First, how are you when you’re at your best, and what does it look like when you´re in zone, in the state of flow? Second, what routines are going to help you show up and be your best, physically, mentally, relationally, and spiritually? Third and finally, what outcomes are you hoping for from showing up at your best? These should be outcomes in three big areas of your life: your life at home, your life at work, and your life in your community. Stew, I know you talk about this in your work. If you can get those answers on one sheet of paper, then you’ve got a reference point. Don’t try to do ten things, but start with just one thing that’s going to make a difference for you now. Begin with baby steps because progress really does comes incrementally and then suddenly, like we discussed at the beginning of the hour. If you´re consistent with improving just 5% per week, then in one month you’re 20% more mindful.

To learn more about Scott´s work, check out his recent books Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative (October 2014) and The Next Level: What Insiders Know about Executive Success (October 2010) and follow him on Twitter @ScottEblin.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Morgan MotzelMorgan Motzel is an undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America

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