At age 40, Joe Burton was not a mindful leader.
He was the COO of an $2 billion company, working 12-hour days and weekends and making more than half a million dollars a year. But his body was paying the price: He was suffering from insomnia, asthma, and eight years of chronic back pain that was so bad it sometimes brought him to tears.
“I was frustrated, angry, competitive, and hurting,” Burton writes in his 2018 book Creating Mindful Leaders: How to Power Down, Power Up, and Power Forward.
Among his doctors’ recommendations were major surgery or meditation—and, begrudgingly, he chose meditation.
Now, meditation is his job. After spending time as the president of Headspace, he founded Whil, a training platform that helps professionals become more resilient to stress and improve sleep and performance. He wants to help the people who are suffering as he did—the nearly 40 percent of Americans who feel angry due to stress and the third of us who are sleep-deprived—to reap the benefits of attention, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness.
I spoke with Burton about how to cultivate mindfulness at work, where to start when your schedule is already packed, and how it can change your work life.
Kira Newman: Before we dive into mindfulness, what does the typical unmindful work day look like?
Joe Burton: I think the average workday is not mindful. It’s full of ongoing distraction, mistrust, multitasking, a wide range of emotions that can change from a text to a cell phone call to a Slack message. Increasingly in these open office environments, people take their own inability to focus and share that as a gift with everyone else, creating this domino effect of constant distraction and interruption and checking devices 50-100 times a day.
People [distract] each other all the time: They go into each other’s offices and cubes—Can I interrupt you? They get a text and scream out in the meeting, “Oh my gosh! This just happened!” It’s almost like we’re in a video game and little villains keep popping up trying to throw us off course throughout the course of the day. It’s to the point where the work setting has become an incredibly unproductive and unfulfilling experience for most people.
KN: In contrast, what does a mindful workday look like?
JB: I think a mindful workday is intentional. That means you start the day understanding what it is you’re going to accomplish, you stick to that agenda, and you limit or avoid distractions to the greatest degree possible. Imagine starting and ending meetings on time, not being drawn into emotional battles or giving way to your own emotions, but actually being in control of them, and maintaining a sense of balance as you go through the day. Yes, there’s going to be highs or lows, but you don’t have to get too excited about either because it’s just another day.
KN: Can you tell me a little bit about your personal experience practicing mindfulness at work? What works well for you and your team?
JB: For me personally, I do a 10-minute meditation practice (which is a form of attention training) at the start of each day. I’m an early bird, so I tend to do a practice before anyone else gets in [the office], just to calm my mind and set an intention for the day.
I look at my schedule for the day and ask the question, Do I need to have these meetings or not?, and finalize my schedule. Our team comes together at 3:00 each day for a 10-minute practice, and it’s a good break towards the end of the day. We usually have about five minutes of conversation after that: What did the practice mean to the group? What does it mean to the company? This ranges from things like emotional intelligence skills or self-awareness all the way through to things like managing stress or calming anxiety.
Beyond that, the really basic things—like drafting emails and letting them sit overnight before you send them, sharing something that’s going to be seen by clients or staff with other members of the team before it goes out to get their thoughts, to be more inclusive, and to pressure-test for blind spots for myself.
KN: What are some areas you want to improve?
JB: I’ve been in a mindfulness practice for a little over eight years or so, and I’m constantly learning new ways to manage my emotions, improve relationships. You never master these things; I’m still a novice in many of these areas. Because we’re talking about matters of the mind, it’s a fairly complex topic—what works for some people may not work for others—and the tips and techniques that are your guaranteed winners may not be successful for other people at all.
I think that’s why they call these techniques practices, because you have to practice them, learn them, try different ways to actually get better and better to the point where they actually do become routine. Certainly, I run hard myself to keep up and learn the kind of skills that will keep me fresh and relevant and a different kind of leader than I was raised to be.
KN: What do you think are a couple of the most impactful mindfulness practices?
JB: One of the most impactful is something called an SBNRR practice: Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect, Respond. This is a long way of saying: Bring your thinking brain online.
When things happen, it’s very easy for us to take the bait and be led by our emotions. If we can stop ourselves more regularly, take a deep breath, notice what’s happening, reflect on How do I think about this? Does this even relate to me? before being drawn in, and then respond or choose not to respond, life is so much better. Otherwise, we can go through the entire day taking the bait.
So, start asking questions about what’s going on before the emotions kick in. If the emotions have kicked in, ask yourself things like, Why do I feel this way? Should I feel this way? Is there any reason to take this personally? How can I help the situation? And then you have a different conversation on your hands. In the absence of that, someone drops a stink bomb on you several times a day, then that’s your conversation, that’s what you react to. And if you get stuck in that routine, it’s not fun over the course of time.
Another one that’s really powerful is mindful listening: literally just giving someone the floor for two to three minutes, letting them finish their entire thought stream. If you’re going to respond, respond with questions instead of answers, respond to help them further their thinking instead of shut it down. Making that a routine is really healthy because then you’re listening, you’re actually giving your own mind time to recover.
These are routines that can be learned, and we have to unlearn any existing routines. In the case of mindful listening, our existing routine for the vast majority of people is, I have been well-trained to interrupt people every 15-30 seconds without fail. I’ve been trained to take over conversations and lead the conversation in my direction. I’ve been trained to show how smart I am and not wait for someone else to showcase how smart they are. We get stuck in that routine where we don’t even realize it—which shuts down conversation and leaves people feeling disrespected.
KN: What tips would you offer someone who wants to start implementing mindfulness at work but can’t do it all at once?
JB: I’d challenge people to look at their phones 10 times a day, once an hour, which actually sounds like a lot but is a fraction of what most people do. Because our phones are our #1 source of distraction; the whole day can rise or fall based on what happens through our devices. So, take that challenge: once an hour.
For every 50 minutes’ work, take a five- to ten-minute break. That can be a meditation, stop and read something, go outside and take a walk, but do something that gives your brain time to recover. You would never run for 50 minutes and then just keep running. But we do it with our cognitive abilities every single day; we just sit down and plow through without giving our minds a break so that we can get back in and be more productive. Recent research shows a break for every 50 minutes of work increases productivity by 30-40 percent. In other words, you go back in fresh, you can focus, you’re more equipped.
When it comes to meditation practice, start a group at work. Meet for five or ten minutes a day, make a commitment. You can use an app like Whil or someone can lead a live practice; there are practices in the book that can be read and shared. But bring people together to create community and conversation where there is none. In the absence of that, we’re all living our lives through email, Slack channels, texts, when we sit right next to each other. And people are desperate for human connection.
There’s a lot of research around social isolation and what that does to people. Even sitting in an office full of people, you can go through social isolation where you feel disconnected, and then you start not trusting people, then you start doubting yourself, and you end up in a spiral. With more and more people working remotely, the opportunity for that to occur is even worse.
KN: Can you share a story from the companies that you’ve worked with where training in mindfulness had a major impact?
JB: We work with a number of hospital systems, and it’s an incredibly high-stress industry; doctors and nurses are among the top five most stressful jobs. And the biggest reason for that is something called compassion fatigue, where they’re dealing with the worst that humanity has to throw at us day in and day out: death, loss, illness, disease, you name it. And over the course of time, that takes a toll on anyone’s physical and mental well-being.
One particular hospital network has made it a practice of bringing doctor and nurse teams together once a day to do a 10-minute practice as a break in the afternoon with some conversation around that. Our digital programs are themed, with themes like self-care or resilience or calming anxiety. And they share that it’s opened up a completely different conversation in the hospital, where doctors and nurse teams work much more collaboratively. The doctors for a long time had this commanding attitude—we’re in charge and everyone else get in line—whereas anyone who knows anything about hospital networks knows that the nurses are doing all the heavy lifting.
On average, nurses are now missing two and a half days less of work a year, from having to take sick days for themselves, which is a significant benefit. And then there was a 40 percent increase in employees reporting that they feel the hospital cares about them, that it’s a good place to work.
KN: Any last thoughts or advice?
JB: For anyone who’s interested, I would just challenge them to start with five minutes a day—it doesn’t matter if it’s a minute at a time or five minutes all at once—just to take better care of themselves.
One of my favorite quotes is “To have the things in life that other people won’t have, you must be willing to do the things in life that other people won’t do.” And top of that list is actually taking care of yourself. Whether it’s mindfulness or meditation practice or training in emotional intelligence skills, start down the road of self-care for five or ten minutes a day and then go from there. In the absence of that, we’re all training the wrong things pretty much all the time. Injecting the right things can put you on a path that makes everything else a little easier.