The Importance of Practicing Mindfulness While Leading a Startup

by Harry Schechter | April 27, 2021

"This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” – Alan Watts As entrepreneurs leading a startup, we take on many hats. At any given moment, you might be the acting CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, Creative Director, Marketing Manager, Head of Sales… the list goes on and on. Add to that the hats we wear at home, like Parent, Sibling, Director of Doctor’s Visits, CDO (Chief Dogwalking Officer) It’s hard to balance all these hats without at least a few tumbling down. But that’s why we have our incredible teams, right? Except balancing the different personalities on our team can be a challenge in itself. Clear and concise communication, as well as large amounts of empathy, are necessary every day. Even with our best intentions, differing perceptions can lead to massive conflict. Juggling many duties and working with a variety of different employees, vendors, and clients gets complicated. Just one of these roles is enough to fill up an entire day, so what is a startup entrepreneur to do when there is so much to accomplish and so many relationships to manage? Meet Brighton   Let’s take a look at Brighton, a startup entrepreneur launching a new app. Brighton feels overwhelmed by the day-to-day duties of leading a startup. Brighton is a very relatable kind of guy. From beta testing and fixing bugs to managing tech engineers and designers, marketing the app, sending out press releases, managing a budget, and coming up with an elevator pitch, he’s been feeling bogged down—like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. On top of this, Brighton just had a disagreement with one of his vendors over the price he was charged for the services he received. Brighton thought that the vendor was overcharging him, and when he challenged this, the vendor became defensive and told him that it is the price that is charged for the number of hours the job required. Little did Brighton know that his vendor’s computer had crashed the night before—causing all of his data to be lost, and so the pricing issue was merely an oversight during a stressful situation. What if someone were to tell Brighton that his time-management problem is fixable? What if he knew a way to not only get more done in less time but also improve his relationships with everyone? Brighton would probably think that sounds like a fairy tale. But it’s true. There’s a simple way for him to improve his work-life balance, nurture relationships, and feel more fulfilled and happy. It’s called mindfulness   What is Mindfulness?   Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment—aware of where we are, and what we’re doing. It also means staying grounded and not becoming overwhelmed by our environment, or reacting too hastily toward other people or situations that are beyond our control. With mindfulness, we’re able to feel in control of our reactions, even in situations that would usually lead us to an emotional outburst. We can take a step back from merely reacting by being present; realizing what how we and others are feeling, and why we’re feeling this way. Once we realize this, we have the power to choose how to react, instead of being at the mercy of our emotions. Our feelings of contentment and self-awareness grow when we practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is at the core of various religious beliefs and practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. This Eastern practice was first introduced into Western culture in the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970’s through his Stress-Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he combined the practice of mindfulness with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Since then, many psychologists and social psychologists have studied mindfulness’s effect on our psyche, particularly through meditation. What Does Mindfulness Change About Our Emotions and Behavior?   A considerable amount of research has been conducted on mindfulness over the years. Research shows that this practice improves emotional connections with others while promoting empathy. However, we’re only beginning to learn about the impact mindfulness can have on social cognition. Social cognition is how we process, store, and apply all that we learn about individuals, groups, and social situations. To help determine whether or not mindfulness has an impact on social cognition, research by Campos and his colleagues (2019) focused on exploring how mindfulness influences social cognition by studying 60 participants grouped by age, sex, and ethnicity. They recorded who practiced mindfulness via meditation, and who did not. The participants were then analyzed using a variety of related assessments including the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Score (MAAS), the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire Short Form (FFMQ-SF), the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), the Revised Eye Test, Hinting Task, Ambiguous Intentions and Hostility Questionnaire (AIHQ), the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), and Screening for Cognitive Impairment in Psychiatry (SCIP). If you’re interested in more details on any of these scores or how these tests are administered, you should check out the study write-up by Campos and the team. If you’re more interested in the bottom line, here’s what they figured out: The results showed that meditators self-reported higher levels of empathy and emotional regulation with lower levels of hostile attribution bias. Hostile attribution bias is the tendency to think other people are doing things with hostile or malicious intent. It’s the difference between calling someone who cuts you off in traffic a bad name, and thinking “maybe they just didn’t see me.” Research also discovered a link between social cognition and mindfulness. However, it wasn’t an equal correlation with all social cognition outcomes. In fact, the patterns of correlations varied significantly between those who meditated and those who did not. Based on their findings, it is true that mindfulness is related to social cognition, but more research is needed to gain further insight about this relationship. Am I Full of Mindfulness?   If you’re wondering how many times throughout the day you are operating from a state of mindfulness, a MAAS can be calculated based on a 15-question assessment that was created by psychologists. Once you know your mindfulness score, you can focus on the areas where you will most benefit from activating a mindful state and working toward sustaining it throughout the day. It takes time and practice, so be kind to yourself. Mindfulness is a practice that cannot be instantly achieved overnight. Long-term Effects of Mindfulness   Despite the fact that there is a plethora of research available on the powerful impact mindfulness can have on the body and mind, there has been a lack of research surrounding the long-term impacts from mindfulness training until recently. Researcher de Vibe and his team decided to examine the long-term impact of mindfulness by conducting a longitudinal research study that was published in 2018. This study followed 288 Norwegian medical and psychology students over the course of six years after a portion received mindfulness training. Half (144) of the students received a 15-hour mindfulness course over the course of seven weeks during their second and third semesters with two booster sessions per year thereafter. The other half of the students did not receive the mindfulness training. Six years later, researchers analyzed and studied all 288 students using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, as well as the Ways of Coping Checklist. The results found that those who received the 15-hour mindfulness course, even though they no longer exhibited that they were strictly following the principles of mindfulness, had greater overall wellbeing than those who had not completed the mindfulness course. Furthermore, those who took the course had a greater tendency to engage in mindfulness techniques, had better coping skills, and engaged in the unhealthy practice of avoidance-focused coping far less than those who had not taken the course. According to Michael de Vibe, MD, PhD, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health: The findings demonstrate the viability of mindfulness training in the promotion of well-being and adaptive coping, which could contribute to the quality of care given, and to the resilience and persistence of health care professionals. The study focused on health care professionals, but obviously these benefits could extend to anyone in any profession… Even a stressed-out entrepreneur like our friend Brighton could benefit. Your Brain on Mindfulness: Physiological Changes   In addition to helping you feel more positive, self-aware, and in control, mindfulness in practice can physiologically change the structure of your brain. Neuroimaging meditation studies have shown that after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditations, the brain rewired to be more focused on positive thinking and emotions. Mindfulness brings the brain from higher to lower frequency brain waves—activating different centers of the brain, such as the areas that allow for rational thinking, perception, emotional control in response to fear or physiological changes, pain tolerance, introspection, sense of self, and also having a sense of empathy and understanding for others. Mindfulness changes the shape of the brain by making some of its sections stronger, while weakening others. It also decreases the connection to the prefrontal cortex, neurologically, which is the area of the brain that focuses on self-preservation and responds to fear, stress, and anxiety. Eight or so areas of the brain were shown to have changed consistently across the board upon analysis of data from over 20 research studies. Of these eight, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the hippocampus are included. The ACC is responsible for self-regulation, attention control, controlling inappropriate responses in social situations, and learning from past experiences. The hippocampus stores gray matter, and it’s also covered in cortisol receptors, AKA the receptors for the stress hormone. Chronic stress can impact this part of the brain, and those with PTSD and depression have been found to have a smaller hippocampus. This part of the brain also influences resilience. Grey matter, which helps manage emotions, problem solving through critical thinking, and planning ahead becomes denser with meditation, as does cortical thickness and the amygdala from after eight weeks of practicing mindfulness. Cortical thickness impacts memory and learning, while the amygdala is responsible for controlling fight or flight responses to fear, and also the ways we relate to stress and anxiety, cognitive behavior, personality, decision making, and social behavior. It’s clear that not only do you feel better, your brain gets buff in all the right places when you take time to practice mindfulness. What Would a Mindful Leader Do?   Let’s visit our friend Brighton. If Brighton becomes more mindful in his day-to-day role as the leader of his startup, what are some of the things he might do? First off, he would be able to separate himself from stressful events as they relate to him personally so that he is observing from a neutral position and not becoming emotionally engaged. He would also be able to control any reactions he may have to threats or difficult situations—processing his options as opposed to reacting without thinking. Research from Harvard Business Review suggests that leaders who are more mindful and self-aware are able to effectively manage stress and also lower the stress of their employees, improving the work environment and company overall. They’re also seen as more effective in the workplace. If Brighton wants to get more done each day, being mindful is a great place for him to start. Once there, this self-awareness will allow him to focus on how much time he is spending on each task. From a place of mindfulness, he can make adjustments according to his priorities and focus on the tasks that are most important first. By being mindful and living in the moment, Brighton can complete his work efficiently, and may even find that he has more time for work throughout the day than he ever imagined simply by staying calm and focused. Shifting from Reactive to Resourceful    Using mindfulness, Brighton should be better equipped to handle any stressful situations or obstacles that arise throughout each day. By taking some time to focus on the present and relax, he is shifting his mental and physical state from reactive to resourceful. One way that Brighton can move from reactive to resourceful is by implementing relaxation techniques into his toolbox of coping mechanisms. Once Brighton does this, he is activating a Relaxation Response to stress or fear instead of the body’s fight or flight response. The Relaxation Response is a term that was first used by Dr. Herbert Benson, an author, professor, and cardiologist who started the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard. Through his research in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he found various health benefits through meditation and mindfulness, including reduced stress and lower likelihood of hypertension. When we’re stressed, the fight or flight response is often activated, which can have a far-reaching negative impact on overall health, including headaches, gastrointestinal upset, and the release of cortisol. By activating the Relaxation Response, fight or flight does not occur. How to Begin Practicing Mindfulness    Breathwork is a wonderful way to induce a relaxation response. Other techniques that can bring the body and mind into a relaxed state of focus include acupuncture, visualization, energy healing, progressive muscle relaxation (such as yoga nidra), prayer, meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and yoga. Meditation has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to practice mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness are not exactly the same, as mindfulness is a state of being that can be achieved without meditation. However practicing meditation for five to ten minutes each day is a great way to get the mind into a state of mindfulness so that this state of mind becomes familiar. The goal of this practice is to eventually achieve this state of mind for extended periods of time throughout the day. Why Does Mindfulness Help?    Oftentimes, we focus on what’s gone wrong in the past, or what could go wrong in the future. When we focus on the past or the future, we can make ourselves sad or anxious, even over things that will never happen or will never happen again. These constructs have nothing to do with our present moment and leave no room for awareness of the present. By clearing the mind of the past and future, it is possible to make space for the present. In the present moment, we can find pleasure and peace. Being mindful and present includes being aware of our feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, movement, behavior, and the way others react to or are impacted by each of us as an individual. Meditation offers a wonderful way to begin doing this. Next Steps    It’s undeniable that the practice of mindfulness has far-reaching, long-lasting benefits that extend beyond getting more done throughout the day while running a startup. From managing emotions, engaging in healthier coping skills, connecting with others on a greater level, and increasing resilience, mindfulness is a wonderful recipe for a healthy body and mind. This practice is essential for improving our mental state. It also lowers stress and helps us avoid the nasty side effects of operating under stress for extended periods of time. If our friend Brighton is able to include mindfulness techniques in his daily routine, and fully commit to them both physically and mentally, he’ll find he is able to execute all of his daily tasks with greater ease. He’ll have more time in his day, feel better overall both physically and mentally, and improve his relationships both in and out of the office. Download our free interview guide here!