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Overworked and overwhelmed? Try the mindfulness alternative


So many of us are overwhelmed by what feels like nonstop, never-ending demands at work and at home, with smartphones keeping us always on and workplaces that often demand we do more with less. Scott Eblin, a former corporate executive and now executive coach and author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, says people feel they can’t ever step off the spinning gerbil wheel. But they can. He explains how:

Q: Why write about being overworked and overwhelmed?

Eblin: In my work over the last 15 years, I have been focused on leadership coaching and leadership development with executives and managers of Fortune 500 companies.  I’ve noticed, especially over the last seven or eight years,  when  I ask the question, ‘How many of you think it’s crazier this year than it was before?,’ everybody raises their hands.

I just started seeing the pain points with my clients more and more.

[Related: Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain]

Q: You write about your own pain point.

Eblin: In 2009, I was, very surprisingly, diagnosed with MS. I’d been a pretty active runner and marathoner my whole life. I kind of started having these weird symptoms. Aches and pains. Then, after a few weeks, I could barely walk around the block.

That year and a half after the diagnosis was really, really rough. I was on heavy-duty drugs that almost destroyed my liver. My brain felt like a wet sponge inside my head. It was just getting worse and worse.

My wife has a friend who’s a holistic health teacher. She said ‘Scott should try yoga.’ I said, ‘How can I even do that? I can barely stand up?’

She said, ‘If you come three days a week, it’ll change your body. If you come more than that, it’ll change your life.’

I started going more than three times a week. I started learning how to take care of myself. Most people, when they start yoga, they approach it as purely another exercise routine. But there’s so much more to it.

I’m on a mission now to share what I’ve learned from people, from the research, and from my own experience.

If they’re overwhelmed, in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, the impact of that is devastating on health and wellbeing: we die earlier, and in the meantime, we’re not nearly as productive and happy as we could be.

People have heard of fight-or-flight. But very few have heard of ‘rest and digest’ – the parasympathetic nervous system.

The good news is, we can activate it when we choose to.  The practice of meditation and breathing and rhythmic, repetitive movement activates your parasympathetic nervous system. And that helps us show up at our best.

Q: What are some of those practices? What can people do to keep from feeling overwhelmed and out of control?

[Related: You’re missing out on your experiences. A meditation expert explains how to live in the moment]

Eblin: First, I tell people to come up with a one-page “Life GPS.” Think about when you are at your best, in peak performance mode. What routines help you show up as your best more often than not, in the physical, spiritual, mental and relational domains? And what are the outcomes you are seeking at home, work and in your community?

Then focus on developing the “Killer Apps” in each of the four domains:

Physical – Movement is the killer app. It’s not just going to the gym three times a week, but moving throughout the day. Sitting is the new smoking. You really do need to move throughout the day. Once an hour, do five or ten minutes of intentional movement. That activates the parasympathetic system, your body’s braking system, so you don’t get so spun up that you’re not thinking clearly and performing well.

The research shows that when you come back to your desk, you’re 30 percent more focused than before.

Mental The killer app is breathing. The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California estimates that the average person has 70,000 thoughts a day. That’s a lot of chatter in your brain. Breathing – three deep breaths is enough – activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It clears you out. It’s great if people meditate 10 or 20 minutes a day. Maybe that’s not for you. But everyone can take three deep breaths.

Relational – The killer app is listening. There are three kinds of listening:

Transient –none of us need any practice on that – it’s when you’re not really listening, you’re just on the way to something else.

Transactional, which is useful, problem-solving, outcome-oriented listening, used most in the workplace

Transformational, or listening with the intent of just connecting. Brigham Young University did a meta analysis of 140 different studies. They found that people who are in strong, healthy relationships, with strong social ties, are 50 percent more likely to be alive seven and a half years from now. So how do you connect with people? You’ve got to listen, and take time to do that.

Spiritual – What are the routines that connect you with the biggest questions, the limited time you have on earth – why are you here? You need a really accessible Routine of Reflection. It could be meditation, prayer, journaling.

Where I usually try to get people started with is some reflection on what are you grateful for. Anyone who’s reading your book, or my book, or coming to my workshops, I guarantee, they’ve got more to be grateful for in their lives. But when you get so spun up, it’s so easy to lose sight of that. Just come up with one thing that’s going right. And if you start getting going on that, you’re going to go way past one thing.

Q: What about you? What are your own killer apps and your own routines?

Eblin: Since being diagnosed with MS, yoga is my rock. I do yoga everyday. Usually in the afternoons.

I hardly ever miss a day of meditating anymore. Nobel prize winner, Elizabeth Blackburn, was studying mindfulness-based meditation and discovered that 12 minutes a day of formal meditation increases the amount of telomerase, an enzyme, in your body that helps telomeres – [regions of DNA at the end of chromosomes that protect genetic data and make it possible for cells to divide] – stay long and healthy over the course of your life. Telomeres tend to shorten and degrade under stress or as part of the aging process.

When I heard that, I thought ‘Holy Crap, if I’ve got MS, I’ve got to meditate every day so I can keep my body highly functional.’

I use an InsightTimer app with little chimes to keep track of it. My average length is 13.9 minutes. I try to meditate in the mornings, before my days get started, because I find I’m more likely to do it. I’ve also done it on airplanes. I just put on noise-canceling headphones.

I also walk a lot. Two to three times a day, I’ll go for a 10 or 15 minute walk. It’s good to renew your mental focus, and I find it helps me feel better physically.

For reflection, I’m a journaler. I journal maybe two or three times a week. I’m a saver. I’ve got decades worth of journals. It’s just such a great perspective check. I’ll go back and read from earlier in the year, or three or four years ago. What I realize is, all the stuff I was worrying about, always worked itself out. It may not have been my ideal, but it was resolved.

For listening, I don’t think I’m alone in this, I realize this is where I always have an opportunity to really just be here now, and be with the person I’m with. I have a little game I play when I travel. I try to take an extra moment or two when I meet people – the woman at the counter at Panera Bread, or the woman at a news stand in the airport. And I just try to say one more thing. Make a comment. ‘Wow I really like your scarf.’ Just to establish a little bit of human connection. I feel better. They feel better. It’s really easy to do, and I think it makes a difference.

[Related: How to build good habits – and actually make them stick]

Q: Your audience is corporate America. How do these tough ‘Corporate Warriors’ respond to a more New Age-y message of mindfulness?

Eblin: I say the title of my book is Overworked and Overwhelmed, and people say, ‘Oh my God, did you write that for me?’

There are two big exogenous factors causing so much overwork and overwhelm – the financial crisis, and the ‘do-more-with-less’ environment. That’s affected 80 to 90 percent of the audiences I work with.

But the other factor is the introduction of the smartphone, with gazillions times more computing power than the lunar module. So you can always be on.

The combination of those two things has caused people to lose sight of any boundaries they ever had.

There’s a lot of wasted time in those 70 to 80 hour work weeks.

If you’re operating mindlessly and just going about doing your stuff, you’re not going to be able to see how you can do it differently. That’s what I’m trying to help people to do.

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