Managing stress, wellbeing, inspiring others, leadership, mindfulness
Managing stress, wellbeing, inspiring others, leadership, mindfulness
Managing stress, wellbeing, inspiring others, leadership, mindfulness

Mindfulness Strategies for Overwhelmed Leaders

2-minute techniques to help you manage stress and inject peaceful pauses during your workday.  

How quickly did that novelty of working from home fade for you?  Initially, we were full of appreciation for losing the commute or avoiding the forced conversations with co-workers with whom we did not care to interact.  And although the prospect of interacting via video calls made us weary, there was still the potential to be more productive in our work while winning back flexible time in our personal life.  

Before we knew it, we were nudged towards working longer and starting earlier. Some of us might have justified the sustained long hours as making up for time spent supporting home-schooling. Many of my clients are high achievers who often default to working harder to manage stress. Throw in a global pandemic and radical changes to the work environment.  Most leaders are now at risk of burnout or already struggling with this.  

If you did not get a chance to reset and design your home-working day more thoughtfully and intentionally, you might be caught in this unhealthy cycle of waking up, walking a few steps to your laptop, and burning that proverbial candle. While you might think that this is beneficial to your organisation (in the short term, at least) this is not an effective and healthy work pattern for yourself, and it is not a responsible and fair expectation of your team.  

Ideally as a leader, you want to set your day up in a way that benefits your wellbeing, supports you to show up at your best, and enables you to inspire the best in others. This requires a bit of coordination, and perhaps consultation with your team and family. For now, here are a few strategies that you can implement immediately to punctuate your day and bring that overwhelm under control.  

Why mindfulness? Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It is particularly linked to the Buddhist practice of accepting reality for what it is. In Buddhism, pain is accepted as part of the human experience, but suffering is seen as one’s attachment to that pain and one’s desire to change it or not feel it. The first step towards spiritual enlightenment is cultivating an awareness that is accompanied by an attitude of equanimity, even in the face of pain. Applied to the modern, secular context, mindfulness is simply being in this moment with full awareness without emotional reaction or judgement. We have become so adept and accustomed to multitasking, distracting ourselves, and being super productive, that we find it almost unbearable doing One. Thing. At. A. Time. When was the last time you watched TV without occasionally looking at your phone? Or took a walk or run without listening to a podcast or music? Or tried to escape from the difficult emotions you were facing? Being present is such a simple concept and yet has become so elusive. Just be here now. Without judgement – so that you are not making comparisons with some past experience. Without expectation – so that you are not thinking about the future.  

The best leaders I have interacted with had this ability to be beautifully present. It was like I was the only person that mattered in that moment, or that the issue at hand was the only thing on their mind. We all know this was not the case, but the attention and clarity they are able to bring to the unfolding moment is what sets them apart from their peers. This is an invaluable skill, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar or the unpredictable.  

Mindfulness, as a personal resource, is known to buffer against burnout and minimise the effects of emotional exhaustion. Furthermore, mindfulness strategies can help leaders to cope more effectively through adversity and build resiliency by conserving mental and emotional energy to deal with relating to others, managing complexity, and motivating self and others.  

The ask is to simply Be. Here. Now. (Starting with 2 minutes at a time) 

  1. Breathwork  

You have 2 minutes before your next meeting. Before you dive into emails that you noticed coming in while you were on your call, seize the opportunity to take a moment and follow your breath. Nothing fancy. Open eyes or closed. The only goal is to give attention to your breath flowing in and out. There is no need to alter it. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn says, it does just fine when you are not noticing it. If you get distracted, gently bring yourself back to your breath.    

  1. Grounding exercise  

Ground yourself in 2 minutes by making contact with your senses. Look around your space and name and notice 5 things. Think about colour, shape, position, and size. Take a few seconds to notice the object in a way that you do not usually get a chance to. Next notice four things that you can touch. Feel different textures around you, pay attention to the temperature, clothes on your skin, feet in your shoes, or hair on your neck. Next listen out for 3 things. Try to hear things in the distance as well as the sounds that are the closest to you that you may have drowned out. Then it’s time to observe 2 smells and finally one thing you can taste. You have now come fully back into your body and ready to make full and present contact with your next obligation.   

  1. Mindful drawing  

If you are looking for a more physical or creative strategy, then you can use your 2 minutes in-between meetings to pick an object in your view and do two 1-minute sketches of it. In the first minute, draw it with your non-dominant hand. In the second minute, draw it with your dominant hand but without looking at your page. In both instances the drawing gets you out of any unhelpful thought loop you might be stuck in, interrupts the automaticity of your thinking, and forces you to give full attention to the task at hand – you cannot help but complete it mindfully.   

  1. Name it to tame it  

This phrase was coined by Dr. Dan Siegel psychiatrist, mindfulness expert, and author, as a reminder to label strong emotions at the moment, to avoid becoming reactive and overwhelmed. Neuroscience research shows that just saying out loud the strong emotion you are feeling, for example, “I’m feeling angry”, helps you to regain control over how you react to that emotion. It is this simultaneous acknowledgment that it is an emotion you are experiencing, and the creation of distance between emotion and reaction that stops you from ‘becoming’ the emotion or embodying it (as with “I am angry”) and getting swept away in overwhelm. Labelling your difficult emotions moves you to a cognitive space where you can be more resourceful.   

  1. Gratitude gap  

Start a gratitude practice with your 2 minutes. Play around with moving your focus from micro to macro reflections. Perhaps you want to write down 3 things that went well in that last conversation you had. Or maybe this is an opportunity to consider positive things that stood out in your day or your week. Or you could make observations that you are thankful for in your life and family, your community, or even the planet. What matters is connecting with the things that are going well for you. We are hardwired to dedicate so much energy and time to sensing for and perceiving threats that we end up dwelling in negative or inflexible mindsets. A simple practice of turning attention to what is going well helps us to maintain a balanced approach to our challenges. Research has shown that practicing gratitude and connecting with what is most important to you is associated with optimism and enhanced wellbeing.   

What positive ripples could you activate just by repurposing 2-minute bites in your day into mindful practices? Email me for a discounted 2-hour Re-Purpose Your Workday Consultation.  

Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward, 248-262.
KabatZinn, J. (2003). Mindfulnessbased interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 10(2), 144-156.
Maslach, C. (2018). Burnout: A multidimensional perspective. In Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research (pp. 19-32). CRC Press.
Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(3), 373-386.
Siegel, D. J. (2009). Mindful awareness, mindsight, and neural integration. The Humanistic Psychologist, 37(2), 137.
Taylor, N. Z., & Millear, P. M. R. (2016). The contribution of mindfulness to predicting burnout in the workplace. Personality and Individual Differences, 89, 123-128.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 890-905. 


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