He arrived at the building flustered, hot and sweaty. His thoughts were all jumbled, racing for the win in his mind, each one fighting to be first. He’d just taken a call from a client he wished he hadn’t responded to. His mind was on the next meeting so he didn’t handle the call well. The client wasn’t happy and was seeking reassurance and new solutions. In a rush and on the go, his mind was blank and overloaded and he couldn’t think straight. His heart started to race, the recurring pain in his side now flared up - and that’s when he remembered he’d left his sandwich lunch behind…His habit of being late for meetings had become so entrenched that he couldn’t seem to break it. How do you change the fact that there’s never enough time in the day to do everything that urgently needs doing? Or so it seemed...
Familiar? It’s likely that at least some of this scenario will resonate and I’m sure most of us can relate to the notion of ‘running’; of running after time - after ‘more’ time. Or simply the notion of longing for more time to experience life more fully - at an enjoyable and fruitful pace - less dominated by pressure and stress.
Unfortunately, time is not expandable. It is what it is, at any point in time. And when you feel the pressure of time, it’s because you’re not living in the present. Your mind is probably busy worrying about what you haven’t achieved in the time just passed or about all the things now piling up ahead of you in the time to come…yes?
The solution is counterintuitive. In order to be ‘faster’ - i.e. more effective and productive and better at what we do - we simply need to slow down and focus on bringing the best of our abilities and our whole attention to the present moment. Sounds simple, right? Yet most of us stuck on the merry-go-round of our overcrowded and ‘busy’ lives, know how hard it can be to get off.
There is something addictive about being and feeling ‘busy’. It makes us feel like our lives are more purposeful. This is due to specific hormones – endorphins in our body - which keep rushing in at times of stress to make life seem more pleasurable. But long-term, the hormonal overload becomes lethal (for more info on the longterm impact of cortisol on the body, see this Psychology Today article).
When I tell people this, they usually either look at me with a big ‘How?’ marked on their forehead, or lower their gaze dismissively. When coaching or training, I typically then quote a major piece of research and a book:
- There is now plenty of well documented research providing evidence - for starters, this article on the American Psychological Association’s website is based on research that has shown how we expend about 25% more time trying to complete two tasks simulataneously. Let’s consider this in relation to the scenario of answering the phone while you’re walking to the next meeting. Rather than attempting to do these two tasks at the same time, you could stop, take the call, sit or stand in a quiet area to respond to it with your full attention, and once finished, walk consciously, in your body (and not in your mind) to the meeting. 25% of your time in a normal eight-hour day is a whole, amazing 2 hours! Imagine all the things you could finally finish off ‘on time’ if you freed up those two extra hours each day… And no, it’s not a dream or a joke, it’s fully achievable.
- In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman makes many useful suggestions for achieving high performance, and starts by pointing out the value of being mindful and ‘pausing’ - of learning to breathe deeply again. For me, the word “mindful” is actually a contradiction in terms. The point of mindfulness is to bring awareness to what is happening within and without at any point in time as we experience our lives. In my experience, the best way to achieve this is by emptying my mind rather than allowing it to continuously fill up. This is often the greatest challenge for many of us. It’s hard not to think! And it’s even harder to notice and observe the many thoughts that our mind produces when we are mindful of it…The point is to be in the here and now, and to practise it relentlessly until it becomes part of who we are and how we live our lives.
So why not try learning to do one thing at a time, again?… And why not learn to shift your breathing from shallow to deep breathing while you’re at it?
For those of us that don’t have time to take a mindfulness course (!), you can start by just practising taking pauses, and breathing deeply – from your stomach, not from your diaphragm. Close your eyes, if you can, to limit visual distractions, go within and listen to the noise within you. You will be surprised how noisy it is to start with, you may even be appalled or feel a sense of despair. But please don’t! Focused attention is a skill that takes time and practice. Be kind to yourself. The more often you do it, the more peaceful and relaxed you will feel, and the more focused attention you will have. And most importantly, it hardly takes up any time - you will be amazed how much better you will feel from just taking 2-3 full minutes of pausing and deep breathing… Just try it!
So, the most important thing to remember is to breathe. Really breathe, to bring fresh air into the deepest realms of your being. Firstly, to activate the best of who you are. And secondly, to bring your full attention to what is required from you at each moment of your life, so you can respond to it with the best of your abilities, efficiently and timely.
Breathe! It’s the start of everything!
Caroline Päkel is an executive and life coach who delivers training in dialogue, collaboration and co-creation. Her work is in supporting others to open, connect and engage.