How to Use Mindfulness to Achieve Peak Performance, from Labs WeIR Amy Jin

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There are a lot of tools at your disposal to improve your performance, but mindfulness may be the most underrated of the bunch. WeWork Labs entrepreneur in residence and mentor Amy Jin, public speaking expert and executive coach, led a session about how mindfulness can unleash your entrepreneurial superpowers. “There’s a cost to not knowing where your focus is, and focusing on the wrong things,” Jin says. “But if you can become aware of where your focus is as an entrepreneur, you can manage your energy and your output, you can get more done.”

What “mindfulness” really means

“Mindfulness” is a wellness buzzword these days, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation that surrounds the term. But its meaning is simple: “Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the body, mind, and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness,” Jin says.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor

The goal of mindfulness, and the meditation practices that can help you become more mindful, is “to develop a skill called meta-cognition, which is the ability to be aware of your own thoughts,” Jin says. Rather than reacting to your thoughts without awareness or choice, mindfulness enables you to watch your thoughts, then choose how you want to react. “Say you’re in an investor meeting and the investor points out a weak part of your business,” Jin says. “Mindfulness gives you the chance to choose your reaction. Perhaps their comment triggered your stress response. Perhaps you're now more anxious or nervous than before. Instead of simply reacting with stress or anxiety, your awareness lets you say to yourself: hmm, stress is here. And choose a reaction, such as deciding to calm down in order to answer clearly and with confidence, or redirect the focus to other parts of your business.”

How meditation builds mindfulness

“In every meditation, whether you’re focusing on your breath, doing a body scan, or taking a walking meditation, you’re developing your meta-cognition skill,” Jin says. You’re training your mindfulness muscle, “and it’s not about how long you can focus on your breath, or focus on one thought,” Jin says. “What really builds the muscle are the moments where your attention has shifted or wandered and bringing it back to the present moment. Every time your attention wanders and you refocus it, that’s the rep. That makes the muscle stronger.”

It’s possible thanks to neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways. Scientists used to believe that after our early 20s, our brains were done growing. But research has shown that “that belief is false,” Jin says. “We have the ability to change the structure and function of our brain and by mediating we’re redirecting neural pathways.”

Why mindfulness is the key to operating at your peak

As an entrepreneur, your ability to perform long-term is governed by two things: your energy levels and your emotional state. Mindfulness creates greater awareness of where you’re at in both areas, and gives you the tools to increase your energy and get yourself into a more positive state of mind.

“Think of yourself like a beautiful piece of machinery, like a Lamborghini,” Jin says. “To get a car like that to function at peak performance, you have to maintain it—put in the right fuel, repair or replace the parts that are wearing down. As entrepreneurs, we think we’re supposed to drive as fast as we can as often as we can, but that sort of sprinting can cause burnout and diminished returns on time spent. Instead, if you’re aware of how to care for your instrument, such as your creativity or insight, you’ll go farther.”

That brings us back to the two critical factors for entrepreneurial performance: your energy and your emotions. Entrepreneurs exist on a spectrum: when your energy is high but your emotions are negative, you’re in survival mode; when your energy is low and your emotions are low, you’re in burnout mode; when your energy is high and your emotions are positive, you’re in performance mode; and when your energy is low but your emotions are positive, you’re in renewal mode. “Mindfulness helps you understand where you are on that spectrum,” Jin says. “If you can build your awareness of where your energy is through mindfulness, you can replenish it. If you know where your emotional state is, you can take action to improve it. It all starts with being aware.”

How mindfulness can help lower your stress levels

“Having a mindfulness practice allows you to be aware of your stress when it starts to happen, not just when you’re in the throws of it,” Jin says. “You can actually hijack the stress response in three specific ways.”

  1. Your physical response - “When something stressful happens, whether it’s a stress-inducing email in your inbox or an actual physical threat, your body’s fight or flight response turns on,” Jin says. “Your body is literally going into survival mode. But if you’re aware of the fact that you’re having a physical stress response, you can combat it by changing your physicality. Go for a walk, do a deep breathing exercise, take on a power pose. You’ll stop the hormones from surging and start to relax. In fact, breathing is the body’s built in relaxation response. You have a choice.”
  2. Your thought response - When your stress response is triggered, instead of letting your thoughts jump to the worse case scenario, “acknowledge that you’re feeling stressed, then ask yourself what could go right instead of what could go wrong,” Jin says. Being aware of your thoughts also opens up different strategies for stress management. One is time boxing. “Tell yourself that you’re going to spend 20 minutes or hour hour working on the stressful problem, then move on,” Jin says. Or try shifting your focus away from yourself and think about the other people involved in your stressful situation. If the stress trigger is a potential investor grilling you, “Ask why they’re worried about that,” Jin says. “Where is that coming from for them as an investor? Have they had a bad experience in the past? Switching your focus to them changes the way you experience the stress. It allows you to listen, which helps you more effectively connect with your audience.”
  3. Your long-term health - Research shows that chronic, long-term stress harms our health. “But there’s one group of people who don’t show any long term health damage, despite having the same levels of stress as most people,” Jin says. “It’s people who believe stress is there to help them. They believe their stress is there to help them. They view stress as extra energy, and that’s a choice they make to use their stress as as tool for better performance.”  (See Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk.)

(Here are three more strategies to manage stress when you're feeling overwhelmed.)

“When you can train your focus and you know where your attention is, that enables you to operate like a well-oiled machine,” Jin says. “Your job as an entrepreneur is to create and bring into the world the best that you have to offer. Mindfulness allows you to access your greatest talents and gifts.”

This post is based on content from a WeWork Labs programming session.

Interested in connecting directly with this mentor? Ask your Labs Manager for help.

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