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Be still and be a better leader

March 18, 2015

I was reminded of the importance of taking the time to “be still” recently when teaching a class on emotional intelligence and after reading an excerpt of Pico Iyer’s new book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. In the class we discussed the concept of practicing mindfulness (quieting the mind of all its chatter) as a way to learn how to effectively manage our emotions. Pico’s book reinforces the fact that our brains need quiet time and space to create. Just reading the book will quiet your mind.

But, the fact is, we’re a society obsessed with activity and view inactivity as being lazy. After all laziness (a.k.a. sloth) is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Oh my! And there isn’t a place more evident of this obsession with activity than in the workplace. In fact, I get very odd looks from people I coach and teach when I ask how much “quiet” time—time to reflect and reenergize their brains—they schedule into their calendars. We’re conditioned to be overworked and to believe that if, at any point, we aren’t doing something that resembles “work,” we’re not being productive.

In fact, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Virginia, people would rather shock themselves than sit alone with their thoughts. Now that’s shocking! In a series of eleven studies, UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson and his colleagues found that study participants (men and women from a wide range of ages) generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time (from 6 to 15 minutes) alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder, or daydream. “Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think will likely find the results of this study surprising. However, the study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a brief period of time,” Wilson said. You can read more about the study, published in the journal Science in July 2014, by clicking on this link: http://tinyurl.com/ks3nwry.

In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock describes what happens to our brains when they get overstimulated due to non-stop activity. That non-stop activity reduces the resources available to our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) functions such as memorizing, processing and comprehending information, problem solving and decision making. The other problem with an overstimulated brain is we have a greater tendency to respond negatively to situations. We say and do things we later regret.

Imagine flying in a plane, looking down on LA traffic at night. There is a maze of colored lines going every which way…not an inch of blackness to be found anywhere. That’s your brain in non-stop activity mode. Now imagine flying in that same plane, but this time you are flying over an open meadow…all you see is darkness or perhaps a few lights from the homes scattered over the landscape. That’s your brain when still. In the stillness our brains have permission to just wander and wonder. In this resting state, neural networks can process experiences, consolidate memories and reinforce learning. Creativity thrives in stillness. I find my best ideas come to me when I’m out jogging, taking a walk or even taking a shower. That’s because my mind is not focused on a task per se—it’s quiet—which makes room for those great ideas to come flowing into my consciousness.

We forget that we are called human beings. Not human doings. Tony Schwartz cited a study in his piece in the New York Times (on productivity and restfulness) which proved that not getting enough sleep, or having “do nothing” time, was the highest predictor of on-the-job burnout. In his bestselling book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, he likens the way we currently work to that of a computer that’s running at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

But we aren’t computers and this way of working is detrimental to our health and well-being. Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

So, remember to take time for stillness. You will be happier and more productive, both at work and at home.

What do you do to quiet your mind? Please share your thoughts with us below.

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