Be still and be a better leader

By Marty Jordan on March 18, 2015

I was reminded of the importance of taking the time to “be still” recently when teaching a class on emotional intelligence and after reading an excerpt of Pico Iyer’s new book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. In the class we discussed the concept of practicing mindfulness (quieting the mind of all its chatter) as a way to learn how to effectively manage our emotions. Pico’s book reinforces the fact that our brains need quiet time and space to create. Just reading the book will quiet your mind.

But, the fact is, we’re a society obsessed with activity and view inactivity as being lazy. After all laziness (a.k.a. sloth) is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Oh my! And there isn’t a place more evident of this obsession with activity than in the workplace. In fact, I get very odd looks from people I coach and teach when I ask how much “quiet” time—time to reflect and reenergize their brains—they schedule into their calendars. We’re conditioned to be overworked and to believe that if, at any point, we aren’t doing something that resembles “work,” we’re not being productive.

In fact, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Virginia, people would rather shock themselves than sit alone with their thoughts. Now that’s shocking! In a series of eleven studies, UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson and his colleagues found that study participants (men and women from a wide range of ages) generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time (from 6 to 15 minutes) alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder, or daydream. “Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think will likely find the results of this study surprising. However, the study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a brief period of time,” Wilson said. You can read more about the study, published in the journal Science in July 2014, by clicking on this link:

In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock describes what happens to our brains when they get overstimulated due to non-stop activity. That non-stop activity reduces the resources available to our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) functions such as memorizing, processing and comprehending information, problem solving and decision making. The other problem with an overstimulated brain is we have a greater tendency to respond negatively to situations. We say and do things we later regret.

Imagine flying in a plane, looking down on LA traffic at night. There is a maze of colored lines going every which way…not an inch of blackness to be found anywhere. That’s your brain in non-stop activity mode. Now imagine flying in that same plane, but this time you are flying over an open meadow…all you see is darkness or perhaps a few lights from the homes scattered over the landscape. That’s your brain when still. In the stillness our brains have permission to just wander and wonder. In this resting state, neural networks can process experiences, consolidate memories and reinforce learning. Creativity thrives in stillness. I find my best ideas come to me when I’m out jogging, taking a walk or even taking a shower. That’s because my mind is not focused on a task per se—it’s quiet—which makes room for those great ideas to come flowing into my consciousness.

We forget that we are called human beings. Not human doings. Tony Schwartz cited a study in his piece in the New York Times (on productivity and restfulness) which proved that not getting enough sleep, or having “do nothing” time, was the highest predictor of on-the-job burnout. In his bestselling book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, he likens the way we currently work to that of a computer that’s running at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

But we aren’t computers and this way of working is detrimental to our health and well-being. Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

So, remember to take time for stillness. You will be happier and more productive, both at work and at home.

What do you do to quiet your mind? Please share your thoughts with us below.

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About Marty Jordan

Marty Jordan is an accomplished senior HR/OD professional with broad-based experience in multiple industries and has worked in diverse business functions and corporate environments.
7 comments on “Be still and be a better leader
  1. RobertaHelene says:

    This takes time and discipline and the rewards are significant.
    When I am “still “it is something I have to come to … First I usually prefer to lie down , but sitting is ok too if necessary.
    Then I close my eyes take long breaths and move around my body and arrange it after stretching in such a manner that everything from top to bottom is totally comfortable and relaxed.
    (For some bio feedback is helpful at first)
    I then begin to think about my God in Heaven and I begin to praise him and thank Him.
    I let the Holy Spirit take me where He will.
    Then am utterly still in presence and thought to know He is God. And
    The wonderment of it all and being in Gods presence is so relaxing and thrilling at the same time. My body and mind are energized and relaxed equally.
    When I am in total union W The Lord God everything is in perfect harmony and I am at peace and well.
    This is what I do.. (There are times when one just mellows out for a moment and that also rests ones mind)
    If one does not have an intimate relationship w the living God…
    Then do all the physical things and there will be some physical benefits for sure.. As you stated in your great article.

  2. Maureen Edmond says:

    Yes – I take time daily to either walk or go into a dark room and shut out everything. It’s critical downtime, but more meditative. I’ll focus on my breath or on my heart beat, but I will not think about anything else. This time, about 10 – 15 minutes, helps me to get in touch with myself and to prepare for the 2nd part of my day. It gives me a lot of positive energy. I’m also working in a very fast-paced, stressed environment, so the time out really helps.

    • Marty Jordan says:

      Good for you! What people don’t realize is that taking 10-15 minute breaks throughout the day actually makes you more productive than the folks that stay at their desks all day…head down, pedal to the metal. I’m guessing you also leave work and come home feeling better as well. And if you are part of a family unit – they also appreciate your taking that time as you then have the physical and emotional energy to be present with them when you are at home.

  3. Marty, really appreciate your comments about stillness. Thank you for all of the sourced references and I really resonated with the airplane metaphor. I struggle with a fear of flying and I love the stillness of a calm flight over open land. That image will remain with me as an aspirational place for my mind.

    • Marty Jordan says:

      Matt – so glad you found the blog helpful. Your comment about flying made me think of something a friend told me recently about flying. I was complaining about my travel schedule and she helped me reframe all my time in the seat…to think of it as reflection time and time to read, meditate, etc. That has helped me be more accepting of all those hours of flying.

  4. Great stuff. As a meditator of 47 years I escape to my local 65-acre park every chance I get, e.g. taking sundown walks, etc. Getting away from the electric grid (to the degree possible in the Wifi world) has been vital for me in recovering my health. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot of similar stories in the years ahead.

  5. Dr Jove says:

    I love the concept of the quiet mind. God knows I could not survive without my quiet times! I pray, read a book, or do yoga! If I’m on vacation, I seek out the quietness of the gentle breeze, the fresh ocean air and the soothing sounds of the incoming tide. It is tough to make time for the quiet moments; when I can just be in solace with God, nature and my own thoughts. In these days and times it’s so rejuvenating.

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