How Meditation Helps Entrepreneurs Avoid Burnout
Imagine starting your day with a fresh mind – no burden from the day before, no worries about what’s to come. Imagine ending it the same way. Believe it or not, some of the most powerful CEOs in America do just that. Instead of falling asleep to the ping of yet another urgent email, Padmasree Warrior, former CTO of Cisco Systems and Motorola takes some time every night to escape the stress of running a multi-national company to do just one simple thing: meditate.
Follow me on my journey as I discover what meditation really is, how it’s done and the myriad of benefits that can come together to help ambitious entrepreneurs, or anybody for that matter.
Focus on Wellbeing
Being an entrepreneur means constantly thinking about work. A waking hour is a working hour. In fact, executives, managers and professionals are working an average of 72 hours a week.
We’re always problem-solving, coming up with new ideas, communicating and implementing them, etc. But, we neglect the one thing that allows us to put our energy into work in the first place – our wellbeing.
For many years, my routine was to get up, eat cereal and milk, watch TV for an hour, then go to work. I wasn’t taking care of my body, my mind or my soul before starting my day. I would start the day already stressed – projecting my thoughts far into all the potential problems the day would bring and dreading the hundred and one to-do items impatiently waiting to be crossed off the list.
I burned out before the day was over – every day. It was an unsustainable routine that was beginning to have a negative snowball effect on both my productivity and my happiness. Something had to change.
I began to focus on taking better care of my body, my mind and my soul. Today, I want to share how I take care of my soul. Spoiler alert: I meditate.
The word “meditation” today has a trendy connotation: the hippies made it hip; the millennials made it practical.
But, meditation isn’t a new concept. It has been around for over three millennia and spans various cultures. It’s one of the most, if not the most, tried and true methods of taking control of your mind.
What is the Soul, Anyway?
Put your heart, mind, and soul into even your smallest acts. This is the secret of success. – Swami Sivananda
Let me explain. I’m not talking about the religious soul. I’m talking about the soul that is in the proverbial heaven or hell right now, as we speak. Your state of mind, your temperament, your ability to take control of your thoughts, actions and happiness – that’s your soul.
Unfortunately, most people are on auto-pilot (or what neuroscientists call “mind-wandering”) about half of their waking time; they go through the motions, but are not in the motions.
When in this default state, you experience the world through a narrative. When something happens, you take it in, attribute your own narrative to it and move on. It’s easy to dwell here, it doesn’t take any effort – hence ‘default state’. Unfortunately, this state doesn’t bring in much happiness either.
The other state – the one that does bring happiness and fulfillment – is one in which you experience incoming information in real time, through your senses. You’re in the moment, you’re aware. You’re not narrating, just experiencing.
That’s where meditation comes in.
People who meditate are able to deliberately switch between these two states because they notice when they go into the default state.
You’re not just a sum of your thoughts
Most people define themselves by their thoughts. But really, thoughts are just as outside of your control as the environmental factors that provoke them.
Consider this: say you’re standing on the edge of a cliff (it’s a beautiful cliff overlooking an ocean); you might have a pop-up thought that says, “I should jump.” Of course, you know and I know that you don’t want to jump.
Neither did Winston Churchill. Yet, every time he stood on a balcony, got on a ship or walked by a train, the thought of jumping intruded his mind.
These thoughts aren’t some big revelation into your true self. They’re a result of your idea-generator gone awry. Your idea-generator, for the most part, serves you well. It helps you solve problems and think outside the box during unfamiliar situations.
Beethoven, for example, had a very strong idea-generator. He claimed that it was the mysterious source of his musical genius.
But, sometimes (because our brains are products of evolution) that idea-generator glitches and generates very unpleasant thoughts.
The problem is that if you’re on auto-pilot, you’re not paying enough attention to differentiate between a glitch and an actual constructive idea. That’s when those thoughts lead to disproportionate reactions, false beliefs and actions with serious consequences.
When you allow your actions and reactions to be dictated by these random thoughts – and in turn define yourself by these – you allow your reality to run wild and escape your control.
Taming the Wild Horse
In the book Turning the Mind Into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham likens the mind to a wild horse:
When riding a horse, you have to be awake and aware of what you are doing each moment. The horse is alive and expecting communication, and you have to be sensitive to its mood. To space out could be dangerous.
If you don’t meditate regularly, you’re probably living in a perpetual “spaced out” state. And it’s dangerous. Your mind is running rampant and dragging you behind it. You have to tune it all out or else you wouldn’t get anything done. So, you’re constantly fighting yourself off. It’s exhausting – it’s why people burn out.
What sitting in meditation for 20-40 minutes a day does is clear out all the unnecessary clutter and slows down the impulsive and meaningless pop-up thoughts to a point where you can actually see them coming and stop them if you want.
For example, if you have certain triggers (i.e., some things make you uncontrollably angry), meditation helps you identify your trigger point so that when an event is about to pull that trigger, you know it’s coming instead of being blindsided by it.
This ability to emotionally self-regulate is a quasi-immediate result of meditation training. All it takes is five days of engaging in a 20-minute meditation session to lower anxiety, depression and anger. Even stress hormones, called cortisol, begin to decline after five days.
Self-knowledge plays a huge role in taking control of your mind.
Knowing your reaction patterns and their triggers, your thoughts and their impact, your actions and their consequences, is like having a roadmap and live weather report of your daily life. If you turn here, you’ll end up there. If it rains here, it’s probably sunny over there. You can use this information to dwell in an optimal state of mind, regardless of what the day throws at you.
Meditation creates a space and a time for you to clear your mind and get to know yourself.
Different Kinds of Meditation
Meditation has had 3,000 years to take many different forms. There are many branches out there, but they all share one core goal: take control of your mind.
Personally, I practice Zazen Meditation – which you can learn all about at meditationshift.com or quietkit.com. Others, like Tim Ferris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, practice transcendental meditation (better known in the in-circles as TM). You can listen to the two of them talk about TM in a recent Tim Ferriss podcast.
The type of meditation you get into is a very personal choice. And, it might take some trial and error before you settle on one that resonates with your personality, needs and lifestyle.
Benefits of Meditation – According to Science
Yes, meditation is highly beneficial, and yes you can see results rather quickly.
Science has gotten a hold of this and is beginning to become very interested in how meditation affects our brains. So far, it has found some pretty interesting stuff.
Researchers at UCLA found that there’s a correlation between holding a long-term meditation practice and developing an optimized formation of the insula – an area of the brain associated with self-awareness, information processing and decision-making.
At UC Davis, researchers are amassing an enormous amount of data that shows that meditation actually wards off aging through de-stressing techniques. Think about it: stress is associated with so many illnesses and early death especially for people leading high-pressure careers. If meditation does nothing but help de-stress, it’s a worthwhile time investment in the long-run.
You’ll be pleased to learn that it doesn’t just help you de-stress and that you don’t have to be a long-time practitioner to reap the benefits. Meditation has some very noticeable short-term benefits.
In his TED talk, Shawn Achor talks about a study in which for 21 days people wrote down three things they were grateful for. After the 21 days their brains turned that activity into a pattern. Those people adopted a more positive view of the world, seeing the good in situations before seeing the bad.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. ― Nelson Mandela
These are concrete, practical benefits that have a direct impact on your daily life. This article in Forbes talks about how 90% of successful people are good at emotionally regulating during stressful times. Many of the methods they list, like appreciating, disconnecting, sleeping and staying positive, are most easily achievable through a consistent meditation practice.
Of course, stress has its place in the business world. There is a difference between good stress and bad stress. Good stress comes in short bursts that kick us into gear during times of low motivation. Bad stress is chronic and takes over our lives.
I can feel a whole post about stress beginning to brew – but for now, know this, meditation makes it a whole lot easier to channel stress and keep a lid on it when the good bursts of stress begin to grow unwieldy.
But you have to know how to channel it and use it to your advantage – can’t let it take over your day. If it takes over your day, every day, it’s essentially taking over your life.
Chasing Benefits vs Building a Habit
I think we’ve established that meditation is good for you. But that’s not why you should do it.
Just like with any other personal growth activity, if you use it as a means to an end rather than a lifestyle change, its benefits will fizzle out quickly. That is if they ever kick in at all.
To experience the transformation that meditation offers, you have to build it into a habit. Or else, it becomes a stressor in itself. Habits are painless, but the process of building that habit, might not be so pleasant.
Consider this: you have a goal to meditate every day because it’s “good for you.” So, one day you sit and meditate for 20 minutes. It was a difficult task, but maybe you felt a little bit of a difference that day. Maybe that annoying intern didn’t bother you as much as he usually does. But, tomorrow, well, tomorrow you have an early meeting and you just don’t have time to meditate, so you skip a day. You keep repeating this on-a-whim on/off pattern for a month and find that it’s not getting any easier over time; that each decision to meditate takes as much willpower as the first day. Eventually, you’ll stop altogether.
This happens because you didn’t prioritize this new activity or put in the time and effort upfront. And, the reason you didn’t was that you were doing it for an immediate benefit, rather than building a mindset around it.
To get to the point where meditation (or any new habit) is painless, you have to adopt a mindset of personal growth and change first. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and give that activity mental priority until it settles into your daily routine.
Don’t Burnout – That’s the Point.
Make sure that you build the habit in a sustainable way.
Though it looks like the easiest thing from the outside – all you’re doing is sitting still with your eyes closed – meditating is really hard at first. Your brain screams at you to get up, go do things, scratch your face, think about this, think about that, stop thinking. Memories you haven’t seen in years will show up to say hello.
So, unless you have superhuman motivational abilities or have already mastered the art of habit-building, you’ll probably want to start slow and build up to a meditation routine that works for you. No one goes from zero to meditating for 40 minutes a day consistently overnight; no matter how much resolve they had one night.
Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. – Charles Duhigg
Sitting in silence is a surprisingly loud endeavor for most people, especially the creative, business-minded types constantly on-the-go. It takes time to turn down the volume of your brain to the point where you can actually start directing it. The mere noticing of that ability to turn down the volume, though, is really powerful.
So, start with maybe 5 minutes each day in the morning and/or night and slowly build up your tolerance for sitting in absolute silence. If that’s not working for you, bring it down to two or even one minute a day. It’s better to start slowly and build it up then burn out and give up altogether.
You see, building a habit is like building muscle memory, but for the entire body instead of a muscle group.
The concept of muscle memory is simple. Take a piano player: as beginners, their fingers fumble across the keys, their timing is off and they sound awful. But, over time they practice the same song hundreds of time, and eventually, their fingers play without much conscious involvement.
That’s because their brain has strengthened the network of signals that become activated when they play that song, so they don’t have to involve their frontal cortex (rational thought) in their next move, the brain just knows what’s next and sends the message along to the fingers.
Piano players, including this one, will warn that “If you don’t bother correcting your mistakes when you play, you’ll form memories of the wrong habits– this is deadly.”
When you engage in an activity (any activity) dozens or hundreds of times, you strengthen that activity’s neural networks in the basal ganglia and the brain stem, essentially automating it. That’s why you want to make sure that the activities you are engaging in are the habits you want to form. And, conversely, when you’re in the process of building a habit, you want to make sure that you’re building it right, from the ground up.
That’s why it’s important to meditate every day, even if for just two minutes a day. Since two minutes of meditation doesn’t sound like a particularly daunting task, you can attribute more motivational resources to all the other steps involved: loading an app, getting into a meditation stance, setting an alarm, etc. Those are the difficult parts of building the habit, and yet make up a huge portion of the habit.
Once you find that you’re going through all the steps without much resistance, then you can start to slowly increase the difficulty level of the task itself.
If you’re the kind of person who benefits from seeing your progress, Jerry Seinfeld has some good advice for you. He uses the technique for writing jokes, but you can easily apply it to meditation. Here’s what you do: hang a big calendar – one that holds the entire year on one page – on a wall. Then, put a big red X over every day that you meditate. If you do it consistently, eventually those Xs will begin to resemble a chain and your one job is to not break the chain. Whatever you do, he says, “Don’t break the chain.”
Eventually, you’ll be able to create dividers around your day – meditate before diving into work as a way to set a tone for the day, then end the day with a session.
Think of it as a hygienic habit, like brushing your teeth, but for your mind. Every day, you clear out your mind – you get rid of the buildup and the bad smells left behind from the day (or, in the case of someone who has never meditated, a lifetime) before.
One of the great benefits of ending the day with meditation is it helps with falling asleep. Those of us who lie awake in bed indulging in our racing thoughts can really use the help of meditation to quiet our minds at night.
Resources to Help You Build a Meditation Habit
It’s a relatively well-established fact now that for a new activity to become a habit, you have to stick with it for 21 days straight. During those 21 days you use willpower to complete the activity – it’s difficult, you have to pull resources and maintain a strong mind. But, make it through the 21 days and the activity will embed itself into your daily routine and will no longer require willpower.
The site 21habit.com is an online tool that uses monetary incentives to get you over that steep 21-day incline. You tell them your goal and give them $21. You get $1 back for each day you complete the activity and you forfeit $1 each day you fail to complete it.
Combine 21Habit with apps like Headspace or Buddhify which guide you through specific kinds of meditations. If you’re having a particularly stressful day, you can find a de-stressing meditation. Or, if you feel like you’re out of balance, the apps can help bring you back to that steady center.
If you’re reward or stimulus-driven, you’ll enjoy Headspace. They integrate flash animation and rewards for meditating several days in a row.
Soul – check. Mind and Body?
Of course, truly attending to the whole of your well-being takes more than a daily 20-minute meditation session. Meditation addresses the soul, while exercise and learning address the body and mind.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the two remaining aspects of personal wellbeing.
This post has not been revised since publication.