Mindfulness and entrepreneurship: how breathing can help our work

We live in the age of distraction, and to be a successful entrepreneur requires razor sharp focus. Our attention is jostled around like a pinball by technology, our surroundings and our work. Then there are moments when we’re consumed by overwhelming stresses like the omnipresent pressure of being a new business beholden to investors or the challenge of having to do things outside our skill set. Since entrepreneurship doesn’t conform to a nine-to-five framework, coping can’t always come in the form of an after-hours stress reliever. Weaving mindfulness techniques into the workday can provide an immediate release of the pressure valve of stress, diminish distractions and allow us to do better work.

Entrepreneurs are increasingly embracing mindfulness as a way to cultivate focus and productivity, think creatively and effectively manage the stress of starting or managing small businesses in a competitive space. Mindfulness can help us achieve all of these things because it forces us to enter the present moment—where creativity, productivity and calm happen—rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, two places where stress and discontent lurk.

While we typically associate mindfulness with a seated meditation (and this is undoubtedly the most effective way to practice it), we can also intersperse it in brief moments throughout the day. Mindfulness can take many forms but the fundamental tool in the practice is the breath, something that every living person has access to at all times. With just one deep breath, our attention is immediately redirected to the present moment. By taking just a few seconds to focus on it, we are forced to create a pause between the stimulus—whatever is stressing us out at that moment—and our reaction. During that pause we notice what is happening with our thoughts and our bodies. When we notice, our tendency is to automatically release the stressful thought or place of tension. The act of simply taking a deep breath helps us calm down by regulating our nervous system, allowing us to get out of fight-or-flight mode and instead utilize the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls planning, judgment, decision making and social behavior).

Coming back to the breath can also help us with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of distraction. Particularly in an open, shared workspace, distraction can come in many forms and hijack our senses. Noise, visual stimulation and smells combine with the pull of multiple screens beckoning us to communicate or be entertained. We come back to the breath again and again as our thoughts and attention wanders (and it wanders quite a lot). Each time we redirect our focus to the breath, we notice that our attention has wandered and bring ourselves back to our work. Mindfulness asks us not to judge or label our mind’s wandering as “bad” or “wrong”. Since the brain behaves much like our muscles, over time and with repeated practice we can train it to focus more quickly and efficiently.

By practicing mindfulness we aren’t removing stressors and distractions, we’re finding a new way to cope with them. And since stress and distraction are constant, our mindfulness practice must also be frequent in order to be effective. Luckily, mindfulness is very simple to learn. Here’s a breath awareness exercise to get started:

  • Take a moment to become aware of your posture. If you are sitting, feel yourself being supported by your chair or the floor. If you are standing, feel the floor beneath you.
  • Start to notice your breath. Is it shallow or full? Slow or fast? Are you breathing through your nose or through your mouth?
  • Notice the temperature of the air as it moves in and out, and how the air becomes warmer as it leaves your body.
  • Pay attention to where you feel your breath the most. You might notice it in your throat, your chest, your belly or elsewhere.
  • Become aware of your lungs and rib cage as you inhale and exhale. If you are sitting in a chair or against a wall, you might feel your back ribs pressing into whatever is supporting you. Feel the movement from side to side and back to front.
  • Imagine your diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of your rib cage) pressing down as you inhale and doming up when you exhale.
  • In between your inhalation and exhalation, take a brief pause. Notice what happens in your soft palate and jaw.
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