Not Enough Time? Try Doing Nothing

It was a beautiful, sunny day in New York City as I rode my bike into Central Park. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, pumping my legs hard to work up speed, excited to join the flow of other cyclists I expected to see on the six-mile loop road.

But when I arrived, my mood plummeted. The road was filled with runners in a race while the cyclists were relegated to a single lane. I slowed down, annoyed, as I made my way onto the bike lane.

Soon, though, my mood lifted: the cycling wasn’t as slow as I had feared. I picked up my pace and got back into a rhythm, feeling my pedal strokes and paying attention to my breath.

“Anyone who wants a high five, just let me know,” yelled one of several race volunteers who were standing along the boundary between the runners and the cyclists. Their job was to protect and cheer on the racers. I couldn’t help but smile, thinking what organizations would be like if there were designated cheerers offering high fives to anyone who asked.

Then, suddenly, a shot of fear: three people ran directly in front of my speeding bike. “Watch out,” I screamed, adrenaline spiking, as I veered and narrowly missed them. I looked back, shaking my head at them angrily.

When I looked forward again, I had to slam on my brakes; I had come dangerously close to the biker ahead of me. I berated myself for getting distracted.

Finally, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I looked around, noticing the sun shining through the trees. My body relaxed and returned to its even, steady rhythm. I focused on the road ahead.

Welcome to life.

I thought I was taking my bike on a ride. But really? My bike took me on one.

My experience changed many times over the course of a few minutes as external forces determined my mood. Happiness anticipating a great ride, frustration imagining it would be ruined by the race, relief when it wasn’t, fear when people ran in front of me, fear again, followed by guilt and self-criticism, when my distraction nearly led to a crash. All in the course of a few short minutes.

Which is how most of us go through our day. An angry comment puts us in a bad mood; an unexpected compliment cheers us up. And it’s not just things that happen directly to us (ever walk past an argument that other people are having?) or things that even seem to matter (ever walk into a cafeteria and feel like there’s nothing you want to eat?)

The truth is, it all matters to us. Which is why the smallest comment can unhinge us.

That’s dangerous because it affects our business decisions, our interactions with colleagues, the quality of our work, the way we manage others, and our attention.

The solution, though, is simple. All we have to do is nothing. But here’s the trick: it’s important to do it regularly, at least a few minutes a day.

I’m talking about meditating. Which just means sitting quietly, with your eyes closed, following your breath as it enters and then leaves your body.

Your mind will, of course, wander. The goal isn’t to stay focused on your breath the whole time. It’s to return to your breath when you’ve noticed that you’ve wandered. It’s all about the noticing.

I’ve only just begun to practice meditating regularly. What I’ve noticed is that my mind spends most of its time planning and worrying about the future or going over and over the past. How will I approach that conversation? What will I say to that employee? What time should I leave for the meeting? Or Why did I say that? Did I respond appropriately? I should have acted differently when she asked me to help.

It’s insane. I’m insane.

Which I think is the point, actually. We’re all a little insane. We’ve got this fascinating present we’re living in, and we can’t seem to be present in it. We’re so worried about either not having lived the last moment well or not living the next moment well that we end up missing the current moment entirely.

It’s ironic because the less we live in the current moment, the more mistakes we’ll make in it and the more material we’ll have to stress about in the next moment.

My biggest obstacle? Time. With so much to do, it’s counterintuitive to take time to sit and do nothing.

Here’s the most interesting thing: sitting and doing nothing has made me significantly more efficient. 20 minutes of meditation helps me avoid hours of time lost in unproductive thought, unconstructive comments, and unstrategic actions.

A few days ago, in a meeting, someone interrupted me. When I asked to finish, he criticized me, in front of fifteen other people, for talking too much. I was embarrassed, angry, offended, and a million other things. But I took a breath, allowed him to continue with his interruption, and then, when he was finished, said what I had wanted to say. If I had reacted — told him off, called him out for interrupting me, stormed out of the meeting, talked over him — all of which I considered — it would have taken me, and everyone else, off track.

So, how does the practice of sitting and doing nothing help? It’s practice. Each time we notice that we’ve left the breath, and we return to it, we’re strengthening the muscle of living in the present and noticing. Which helps us return to the present when we’re biking. Or listening. Or working.

Some people have a hard time just sitting. If that’s the case, try this: next time you drive alone, shut everything off — phone and radio — and just breathe (with your eyes open, of course). Lots will happen — you’ll get caught in traffic, someone will cut you off, someone will let you in her lane. As feelings arise, notice them. It’s the perfect laboratory because you’ll feel all sorts of things and yet there’s nothing you can do but sit. Next time you have a strong emotion or inclination to act, you’ll have a little more presence to help you evaluate whether that action will, ultimately, help or hurt.

There are all sorts of good reasons to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his wonderful book Full Catastrophe Living, offers good instructions on how to meditate and examines persuasive research into how it reduces stress, speeds up healing, decreases pain, and increases presence.

But I’m suggesting meditation for business reasons. Losing awareness of how we’re feeling or what we’re thinking affects our relationships, our decisions, and our actions. Those are business issues.

As I exited the park at the end of my ride, I felt energized. Present. Aware of my feelings but not controlled by them. Which was good practice because when I got home and Eleanor was justifiably annoyed that I had taken such a long ride, I had the presence of mind to recognize that she was right and apologize.