The Importance of Practicing Mindfulness While Leading a Startup

This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”  – Alan Watts

When it comes to leading a startup, entrepreneurs wear many hats. A startup entrepreneur often takes on the role of acting CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CLO, CCO, Creative Director, Marketing Manager, Head of Sales, and the list goes on. With all of the different roles that an entrepreneur must fill, both work and personal life can get a bit hectic. It’s exhausting just thinking about all of these different roles, let alone executing the duties required of each.

In addition to juggling many hats, the ways individuals of a team interact with one another at the workplace can oftentimes be improved while leading a startup. What one person perceives can vary drastically from the next, and without clear and concise communication, as well as empathy for others, working with a variety of personalities from various backgrounds can become an added challenge.

Juggling many duties and working with a variety of different employees, vendors, and clients can get complicated and busy. Just one of these roles is enough to fill up an entire day, so what is a startup entrepreneur to do when there are multiple tasks to accomplish in a limited amount of time while keeping relationships with others in good standing?

To help answer this question, let’s take a look at Brighton, a startup entrepreneur launching a new app. Brighton feels overwhelmed by the day-to-day duties of leading a startup. From beta testing and fixing bugs to managing tech engineers and designers, marketing the app, sending out press releases, managing a budget, and coming up with an elevator pitch, he’s been feeling bogged down—like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.

On top of this, Brighton just had a disagreement with one of his vendors over the price he was charged for the services he received. Brighton thought that the vendor was overcharging him, and when he challenged this, the vendor became defensive and told him that it is the price that is charged for the number of hours the job required. Little did Brighton know that his vendor’s computer had crashed the night before—causing all of his data to be lost, and so the pricing issue, was merely an oversight during a stressful situation.

What if someone were to tell Brighton that his time-management problem is merely an illusion and that there was a simple solution to help him not only get more done in less time but also improve his relationships with everyone he comes into contact with?

But how?

The biggest factor in establishing and maintaining a healthy work-life balance while nurturing relationships lies in the ability to tap into the power of mindfulness and self-awareness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness encompasses the basic human ability to be fully present in the moment—aware of where we are, and what we’re doing. It also means staying grounded and not becoming overwhelmed by what is going on in the environment, or reactive toward other people or situations that are beyond our control.

With mindfulness, we’re able to bring into focus the fact that we are in control of how we react to situations that might normally trigger an emotional outburst. We can take a step back from merely reacting by being present; realizing what is being felt and why. Once we realize that we have the freedom, power, and choice in how to react moving forward, instead of being at the mercy of our emotions without much thought as to why they are occurring, a greater sense of self-awareness and control that might otherwise be lacking is realized.

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on mindfulness over the years, and many research studies show that this practice creates changes in social environments through improving emotional connections with others while promoting empathy, however research has yet to tell us about the impact mindfulness can have on social cognition, or how we process, store, and apply all that we learn about individuals, groups, and social situations. To help determine whether or not this practice has an impact on social cognition, research by Campos and his colleagues (2019) focused on exploring how mindfulness influences social cognition by studying 60 participants grouped by age, sex, and ethnicity who practiced mindfulness via meditation, and those who did not.

The participants were then analyzed using a variety of related assessments including the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Score (MAAS), the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire Short Form (FFMQ-SF), the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), the Revised Eye Test, Hinting Task, Ambiguous Intentions and Hostility Questionnaire (AIHQ), the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), and Screening for Cognitive Impairment in Psychiatry (SCIP).

The results showed that the meditators self-reported higher levels of empathy and emotional regulation with lower levels of hostile attribution bias. Research also discovered a link between social cognition and mindfulness; however, it wasn’t an equal correlation with all social cognition outcomes. In fact, the patterns of correlations varied significantly between those who meditated and those who did not. According to researcher Daniel Campos, PhD, from the Psychology Department of University of Jaume I Castelló de La Plana, Spain:

Findings from the present study contribute to understanding the mechanisms related to how we see and navigate to the world and add exploratory data in order to develop future conceptual models explaining the role of meditation and dispositional mindfulness on social cognition domains.”

It is true that mindfulness is related to social cognition, but more research is needed to gain further insight about this relationship.

Mindfulness is at the core of various religious beliefs and practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. This Eastern practice was first introduced into Western culture in the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970’s through his Stress-Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he combined the practice of mindfulness with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Your Brain on Mindfulness

In addition to making the mind present in the moment, in touch with thoughts and feelings, and able to control reactions, mindfulness in practice can physiologically change the structure of the brain.

Neuroimaging meditation studies have shown that after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditations, the brain was rewired to be more focused on positive thinking and emotions. This is because mindfulness brings the brain from higher to lower frequency brain waves—activating different centers of the brain, such as the areas that allow for rational thinking, perception, controlling emotional reactions in response to fear or physiological changes, pain tolerance, introspection, sense of self, and also having a sense of empathy and understanding for others.

Mindfulness changes the shape of the brain by making some of its sections stronger, while weakening others. It also decreases the connection to the prefrontal cortex, neurologically, which is the area of the brain that focuses on self-preservation and responding to fear, stress, and anxiety.

Eight or so areas of the brain were shown to have changed consistently across the board upon analysis of data from over 20 research studies. Of these eight, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the hippocampus are included. The ACC is responsible for self-regulation, attention control, controlling inappropriate responses in social situations, and learning from past experiences. The hippocampus stores gray matter, and it’s also covered in cortisol receptors. For those of you who are not familiar with cortisol, this is the stress hormone. Chronic stress can impact this part of the brain, and those with PTSD and depression have been found to have a smaller hippocampus. This part of the brain also influences resilience.

Grey matter, which helps manage emotions, problem solving through critical thinking, and planning ahead becomes denser, as does cortical thickness and the amygdala from after eight weeks of practicing mindfulness. Cortical thickness impacts memory and learning, while the amygdala is responsible for controlling fight or flight responses to fear, and also the ways we relate to stress and anxiety, cognitive behavior, personality, decision making, and social behavior.

What Would a Mindful Leader Do?

Let’s circle back around to Brighton for a moment. If Brighton wants to become more mindful and begin using mindfulness in his day-to-day role as the leader of his startup, what are some of the things he might do?

First off, he would be able to separate himself from stressful events as they relate to him personally so that he is observing from a neutral position and not becoming emotionally engaged. He would also be able to control any reactions he may have to threats or difficult situations—processing his options as opposed to reacting to them.

Research from Harvard Business Review suggests that leaders who are more mindful and self-aware are able to effectively manage stress and are, in effect, lowering the stress of their employees, improving the work environment and company overall, and are seen as more effective in the workplace.

If Brighton wants to get more done each day, being mindful is a great place for him to start. Once there, this self-awareness will allow him to focus on how much time he is spending on each task throughout day. From a place of mindfulness, he can then make adjustments according to his priorities and focus on the tasks that are most important first. By being mindful and living in the moment, Brighton can complete his work efficiently, and may even find that he has more time for work throughout the day than he ever imagined simply from consistently staying focused on each of his duties.

Shifting from Reactive to Resourceful

Using mindfulness, Brighton should be better equipped to handle any stressful situations or obstacles that arise throughout each day. By taking some time to focus on the present and relax, he is shifting his mental and physical state from reactive to resourceful.

One way that Brighton can move from reactive to resourceful is by implementing relaxation techniques into his toolbox of coping mechanisms. Once Brighton does this, he is activating a response opposite to the body’s fight or flight response to stress or fear.

The Relaxation Response is a term that was first used by Dr. Herbert Benson, an author, professor, and cardiologist who started the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard. Through his research in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he found various health benefits realized through meditation and mindfulness, including reduced stress and hypertension.

When we’re stressed, the fight or flight response is oftentimes activated, which can have a far-reaching negative impact on overall health including headaches, gastrointestinal upset, changes in breathing and heartrate, and the release of cortisol. By activating the relaxation response, fight or flight is no longer an option.

Breathwork is a wonderful way to induce a relaxation response. Other techniques that can assist with bringing the body and mind into a relaxed state of focus include acupuncture, visualization, energy healing, progressive muscle relaxation (such as yoga nidra), prayer, meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and yoga.

Barriers to Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a practice that a person can simply go through the motions of and add into their routine without thought in an effort to reap the same benefits as those who are actively engaged in its practice both physically and psychologically. It is possible for there to be psychological barriers that impact a person’s ability to engage in practicing mindfulness.

Recognizing that there are oftentimes barriers that impact a person’s ability to engage in the practice of mindfulness-based interventions, one study aimed to pinpoint specific barriers that play a role in both a person’s physical and psychological engagement of mindfulness-based interventions. Physically, engagement relates to a person either being present for a mindfulness-based intervention or not, and psychologically, this refers to whether or not there are mental blocks that prevent a person from entering into a mindful state.

In this study, conducted by Banerjee and colleagues in 2018, psychologists focused on measuring worry and rumination as psychological barriers to mindfulness. The researchers studied 124 participants during a two-week mindfulness-based self-help (MBSH) intervention. They also measured any positive thoughts surrounding worry and rumination, as well as physical and psychological participation.

The results showed that physically, being present only impacted the non-reactive nuances of mindfulness. And according to Moitree Banerjee, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex:

Psychological engagement predicted change in the describe, act with awareness, non-judge and non-react facets of mindfulness while physical engagement only predicted changes in the non-react facet of mindfulness. Thus, rumination and worry may increase risk of psychological disengagement from MBSH which may in turn hinder cultivating mindfulness.”

Since it is possible to have mental blocks that prevent the mind and body from entering into a meditative state, its sometimes helpful to engage in practices other than mediation for achieving the same effect and benefits. It may also be necessary to engage in therapeutic interventions that help challenge and change negative thought patterns that become mental blockages.

CBT vs. Mindfulness

Engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another way to reap some of the benefits of mindfulness, as this therapeutic intervention is designed to reduce stress and promote positive thinking. A research study conducted in 2017 by Garland and colleagues compared the effectiveness of mindfulness for regulating positive emotions using CBT versus mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, as it relates to the Mindfulness to Meaning Theory (MMT).

The MMT promotes controlling attention in the face of stress, decentering from stress by entering a metacognitive state, broadening awareness to include internal and external sensations, integrating this new information, and having a new positive take on life with a sense of meaning or purpose. CBT is a therapeutic tool that has long been believed to help promote mindfulness as an alternative to meditation.

This research studied the impact of CBT to reduce stress vs. mindfulness-based stress reducing techniques (MBSR). According to Eric Garland, PhD, of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah:

Results suggest that the mechanisms of change identified by the MMT form an iterative chain that promotes long-term increases in positive affectivity. Though these mechanisms may reflect common therapeutic factors that cut across mindfulness-based and cognitive-behavioral interventions, MBSR specifically boosts the MMT cycle by producing significantly greater increases in decentering and broadened awareness than CBT, providing support for the foundational assumption in the MMT that mindfulness training may be a key means of stimulating downstream positive psychological processes.”


How to Begin Practicing Mindfulness

One of the best ways to begin practicing mindfulness is through meditation. Meditation and mindfulness are not exactly the same, as mindfulness is a state of being that can be achieved without meditation, however practicing meditation for five to ten minutes each day is a great way to get the mind into a state of mindfulness, or present awareness and calm, so that this state of mind becomes familiar. The goal of this practice is to eventually achieve this state of mind for extended periods of time throughout the day.

When the mind is focused on the past or the future, we can become sad, anxious, etc. over situations that do not exist, as the past and future do NOT exist, all we have is the present moment. These constructs have nothing to do with our present moment and leave no room for awareness of the present where peace and calm reside. By clearing the mind of the past and future, it is possible to make space for the present. Being mindful and present includes being aware of our feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, movement, behavior, and the way others react to or are impacted by each of us as an individual. Meditation offers a wonderful way to begin doing this.

Journaling is another great way to become more self-aware and mindful. Journaling for a few minutes each day, or for twenty minutes or so every few days, helps with emotional regulation, sheds light onto relaxation strategies that work, and also those that don’t work as well for each unique individual. Journaling also helps us identify opportunities relevant to leadership, aids in self-exploration and discovery, and helps overcome any obstacles or struggles that create setbacks.

Measuring Mindfulness

If you’re wondering how many times throughout the day you are operating from a state of mindfulness, a MAAS can be calculated based on a 15-question assessment that was created by psychologists. Once you know your mindfulness score, you can focus on the areas where you will most benefit from activating a mindful state and working toward sustaining it throughout the day. It takes time and practice, so be kind to yourself. Mindfulness is a practice that cannot be instantly achieved over night.

Engaging in mindfulness as a practice can have long-term positive effects on the body and mind, as research has shown. Despite the fact that there is a plethora of research available on the powerful impact mindfulness can have on the body and mind, there has been a lack of research surrounding the long-term impacts realized from mindfulness training until recently.

Researcher de Vibe and his team decided to examine the long-term impact of mindfulness by conducting a longitudinal research study that was published in 2018. This study followed 288 Norwegian medical and psychology students over the course of six years. Half (144) of the students received a 15-hour mindfulness course over the course of seven weeks during their second and third semesters with two booster sessions per year thereafter. The other half of the students did not receive the mindfulness training.

Six years later, researchers analyzed and studied all 288 students using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, as well as the Ways of Coping Checklist. The results found that those who received the 15-hour mindfulness course, even though they no longer exhibited that they were strictly following the principles of mindfulness, had greater overall wellbeing than those who had not completed the mindfulness course. Furthermore, those who took the course had a greater tendency to engage in mindfulness techniques, had better coping skills, and engaged in the unhealthy practice of avoidance-focused coping far less than those who had not taken the course.

According to Michael de Vibe, MD, PhD, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health:

The findings demonstrate the viability of mindfulness training in the promotion of well-being and adaptive coping, which could contribute to the quality of care given, and to the resilience and persistence of health care professionals.”


The Takeaway

It’s undeniable that the practice of mindfulness has far-reaching, long-lasting benefits that extend beyond getting more done throughout the day while running a startup. From managing emotions, engaging in healthier coping skills, connecting with others on a greater level, and increasing resilience, mindfulness is a wonderful recipe for a healthy body and mind. This practice is essential for improving our mental state and also for lower levels of stress in the body, as well as the negative physical side effects that occur when operating under large amounts of stress for extended periods of time. If Brighton is able to include mindfulness techniques into his daily routine, and fully commit to them both physically and mentally, he should find that he is able to execute all of his daily tasks with greater ease, have more time in his day, feel better overall both physically and mentally, and improve his relationships both in and out of the office.



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Harry Schechter

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