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How Connecting With Yourself Fuels Your Performance

Scientists, CEOs and top athletes agree: meditation and mindfulness can help you live a healthier, fuller, more productive life.

The relentless pace and always-on nature of the modern workplace can make each day feel like a treadmill you can’t turn off. It’s more than just overbooked schedules—we think, talk and even brag about how busy we are. There’s even a vocabulary for it: we’re swamped, tied-up, slammed. We’ve collectively convinced ourselves that being busy means we’re being our most productive, effective selves, operating at the peak of our potential.

But a mountain of new performance-based research shows otherwise. When you’re up against meetings, deadlines, expectations and stress, the best thing you can do is step off the treadmill. Research shows that by building habits around breathing, mindfulness and meditation, you can lower your stress, enhance your focus and decision making and even live longer. All it takes is giving yourself a moment to pause, breathe and reconnect with your own sense of clarity and calm.

Pausing in the midst of a busy day to breathe or meditate might not feel natural at first—after all, it goes against the misguided, just-push-through principle that has dominated so many of our work lives for so long. But once you begin, you’ll find that building these performance-enhancing habits is easier than you’d expect—and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Mindfulness and Meditation

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you exactly how to make mindfulness and meditation a regular part of your day so you can increase your performance, create rejuvenating moments throughout the day and operate from a place of greater calm, clarity and wisdom.

If you’re someone who aspires to be productive, focused and successful, stepping away from your work is hard— specially when everyone around you appears to be charging full-speed-ahead without ever taking time to pause, reflect or even take a non-work-related break. But what the most successful people know is it’s not only critical to make time for these pauses—it’s actually easy. That’s where the Thrive Global Microsteps come in—small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact.

Fortunately, successful people in every profession are already putting these microsteps into action. Thrive Guides feature New Role Models, introducing you to those who have embraced meditation and breathing and reaped the benefits. For example, Manish Chopra, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, told Thrive Global that regular meditation and an annual meditation retreat help him reduce stress even as his job responsibilities increase. Glennda Testone, the Executive Director of New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, told Thrive Global that meditation is her activity of choice if she finds herself with an unexpected 15 minutes. And entrepreneur and model Miranda Kerr says her secret life hack is “meditating whenever I have a spare moment.”

Along with all of the new science and research around the benefits of meditation, mindfulness and breathing, new apps and products have arrived to help us incorporate them into our daily lives. In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology out there to help you reconnect with what really matters.

Since the prevailing workplace culture still rewards an always-on mentality, it’s especially important for leaders to support and encourage others to pause, breathe and look inward. The Managerial Take-aways section offers advice to managers on how to create an environment that prizes mindfulness and introspection—both in leading by example and by starting the conversation on just how transformative these habits can be.

In the guide that follows, we’ll share research, data and practical advice to help you build and maintain your own habits. We’ll look at the culture shift that has, in a remarkably short amount of time, taken mindfulness and meditation from a New Age curiosity to a mainstream phenomenon embraced by the most productive, high-achieving people in the world. But first, let’s look at the simple process that’s the key to it all: your own breathing.

The Simple, Transformative Power of Your Own Breathing

Think about the last time someone told you to take a deep breath or to calm down. You likely didn’t respond very well because, well, we don’t usually take that advice as a compliment. But that offhand comment could actually transform your day.

The simple process of inhaling and exhaling is at the root of everything we do. At any time we choose, we can take a moment to bring our attention to the rising and falling of our breath. It’s like an engine inside us, a source of energy and potential waiting to be harnessed. To reap its benefits, all we have to do is become present and pay attention.

So why does it feel so difficult? In our always-on world, it’s much easier to forge ahead without reflection, losing yourself in the whir of constant activity and distraction. For example, two-thirds of British workers in a 2015 study said they weren’t always able to stop working to take a 20-minute lunch break.

For most people, being alone with their thoughts is hard, even intimidating. But it’s only by going deeper that we open ourselves to possibilities that are more fulfilling and can lead to bigger breakthroughs, innovations and inspiration. It’s no coincidence that some of our most admired innovators are the biggest mindfulness advocates. For example, Steve Jobs, a lifelong practitioner of meditation, said that when you consciously calm your mind, “there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.”

That’s why breathing is at the center of meditation and mindfulness. It’s more than a biological function. It links us to something eternal—whether you call it your soul, your spirit or something that defies description. That’s a worthy end in itself, but it also propels us to new heights of performance.

Throughout this guide, remember one thing: when you consciously inhale and exhale, feeling the rising and falling of your own breath, you’re not just relaxing or taking a break. You’re at the gateway to your inner calm and wisdom.

The Science Behind the Mindfulness Revolution

Until relatively recently, meditation and mindfulness were considered new-agey, a bit weird, even punchlines. And even for those who openly (or secretly) embraced them, these practices were generally viewed as incompatible with a life of productivity and success.

But a growing body of research has changed all that. Study after study shows that meditation and mindfulness training affect every aspect of our lives—our bodies, our minds, our physical health and our emotional and spiritual well-being. When you consider the benefits, it’s no exaggeration to call meditation and mindfulness miracle drugs.

Meditation is the Swiss army knife of medical tools, for conditions large and small, when it comes to our physical health. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that meditation can decrease the severity and length of colds. Meditation and other mindfulness exercises can even change us at the genetic level, reversing changes in our genes linked to stress, depression and poor health. And not only does meditation improve your life, it can actually help you live longer. A study of older Americans with high blood pressure showed a 23 percent decrease in mortality during the study period in people who meditated versus those who did not, a 30 percent decrease in death due to cardiovascular problems and a significant decrease in cancer mortality.

The esteemed neuroscientist Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is among the pioneering scientists showing how meditation physically changes our brains. And Matthieu Ricard, the French Buddhist monk and molecular geneticist who has worked with Davidson, has perfectly captured the shift in how we understand meditation and mindfulness. “Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree,” as he puts it. “It completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are.”

If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry. The way we experience the benefits of meditation is actually very simple and down-to-earth, and the impacts are wide-ranging. A University of Washington study found that when human resources managers took an eight-week mindfulness and meditation course, they were less distracted, less stressed and better able to concentrate on office tasks than those who didn’t take the course. “Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym,” said David Levy, a computer scientist and co-author of the study. “It strengthens your attention muscle.”

It can even make you a better, more compassionate person. Harvard University and Northeastern University researchers found that meditation “made people willing to act virtuous—to help another who was suffering—even in the face of a norm not to do so,” said study co-author David DeSteno. Stressful situations can make us reactive, but with meditation, we’re better able to channel our emotions and frustrations, and therefore less likely to lash out or say something we regret.

As crucial as the science is, it’s not just scientists making the case for meditation. In every part of our culture, top-performing individuals—from world-class athletes and entertainers to CEOs and hedge fund managers—have demonstrated that breathing, meditation and mindfulness can enhance every aspect of your life and work. For example, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, has been meditating for more than thirty-five years and considers it “the single most important reason” for his success. Padmasree Warrior, the former chief technology officer of Cisco, calls meditation “a reboot for your brain and your soul.” Oprah Winfrey’s 21-day Meditation Experience program with Deepak Chopra has had nearly two million participants in more than two hundred countries. Superstar athletes including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James all swear by the performance-enhancing magic of meditation—and that’s just in the NBA.

If you’re still on the fence, or worried that making meditation a part of your life will somehow clash with your ability to perform at work, consider that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps use mindfulness training to improve soldiers’ resiliency. In high stress, life-or-death situations, it’s especially important for them to be outfitted with the “mental armor” that mindfulness provides.

Even though meditation and mindfulness are becoming more and more mainstream, it’s not always easy to find your way in. Different practitioners take different approaches. Ellen Langer, for example, a prominent author and Harvard psychology professor, has for decades advocated mindfulness without meditation. Discussing Langer’s approach, the author Adam Grant wrote, “For some people, meditation might be the most efficient way to reduce stress and cultivate mindfulness. But it isn’t a panacea.” There are many paths that lead to mindfulness, and many individuals will find that simply bringing your mind into the present and sitting alone with your thoughts is a perfectly good way to get there.

What matters is finding your entry point—any entry point—and diving in.

Changes You Can Make Today

Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to start incorporating microsteps into your life.

1. Introduce five minutes of meditation into your day.

Eventually, you can build up to fifteen or twenty minutes a day (or more), but even just a few minutes is the beginning of a new habit, and enough to experience all the many proven benefits of meditation.

2. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for ten seconds.

Whenever you feel tense, rushed, or distracted, this allows you to become fully present in your life.

3. Observe your breathing as you deal with your emails – to pull yourself out of automatic pilot. 

It might sound trivial, but it’s not. Eighty percent of us hold our breath for short bursts of time while reading our emails, which disrupts our breathing and increases stress. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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