Need a Reset? Try This One Quick Meditation Session (Bonus)
You’ve probably heard about the benefits of mindfulness and how meditation can help you achieve it. But you still can’t find the inclination to start or the time to practice regularly. In this short bonus episode, Rasmus Hougaard, the CEO of Potential Project and a meditation expert who has studied with the Dalai Lama, takes us through a short exercise and explains why mindfulness is a game-changer for our careers and well-being. Skeptics welcome!
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to this bonus episode of the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard business review. I’m Alison Beard.
So we’re about a month into the new year after a few extremely rough ones. We’ve struggled through a pandemic, social unrest, radical changes at work and at home, stress and even burnout. At this point, we’re all looking for new inspiration and energy. We all want to gear up and get ready for a better future. So we decided to give you, our listeners an opportunity to reset and recharge.
Here to help is Rasmus Hougaard. He’s the CEO of Potential Project, a consulting firm that’s trying to make work more human and the author of a new book, Compassionate Leadership, but most importantly for us today, he is an expert in mindfulness meditation and he’s going to guide us through a short exercise. Rasmus, I’m so excited for this. Welcome.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Thank you very much, Alison. Very happy to be here today.
ALISON BEARD: First, let’s do a little mini lesson for those who have maybe heard the word mindfulness, but don’t pay much attention to it. What does it mean to you and why is it important for our work in particular?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Well, mindfulness is really the ability to be mentally present with what you’re doing. It includes being able to be focused on the task at hand not being distracted, which is the case for around 75% of our time. We are basically distracted thinking about other things that we are doing. So mindfulness is the ability to be present and focused with what we are doing right now.
ALISON BEARD: And how does it make us better as leaders?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Well, those that have had leaders that were not mindful sitting in meetings not paying attention to the people they’re leading, having one to once, but actually you can see they’re either tapping away on their phone or their mind is somewhere else. It’s a really, really not engaging experience. It is an experience of, hey, I’m will my leader and my leader don’t care. So for leaders, having the ability to actually be pressing with people is incredibly important for engagement, what our research shows also for performance.
ALISON BEARD: And it’s this building block to compassionate leadership?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Absolutely. What our research was very clearly showing is that leaders that are practicing mindfulness training become by default, more compassionate, more caring leaders.
ALISON BEARD: And what exactly do you mean by compassion versus other things like kind or empathetic?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Right, so compassion is the intent to be of benefits to the people that we are with and it is very different from words like sympathy, empathy – in that sympathy is when we are just seeing someone that suffers and yeah, we feel for them. Empathy is when we see someone who suffers and we take on their suffering. Compassion is when we take that a step further and we say to ourselves, how can I help this person? So compassion is in short empathy plus action.
ALISON BEARD: How has the pandemic made it more difficult for us to be mindful and then to get all the way to compassionate?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: I think the pandemic obviously has sped up things in many ways. All studies are finding that we work longer hours, that we have more emails, more meetings, the more busy we get the harder it is to be mindful because our mind is literally full of stuff, which is opposite from being mindful. When our mind is very full or when we are busy, we are basically losing a connection to our, let’s say our sense of humanity and therefore being a little less or becoming easily a little less kind to others.
ALISON BEARD: And do you have to meditate to become more mindful?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: No, you don’t. To become more mindful there are two things you can do, either you can start a meditation practice. Most meditation practices are really mindfulness practices, whether you’re focusing on your breath or a candle or whatever, doesn’t matter, meditation practices make you more mindful, but you can also become more mindful by simply doing acts of mindfulness throughout the day. Like before you go into a meeting, you take a 10 or 30 second break just tuning into your breath so that your mind gets more calm, more clear, more relaxed, more focused, and thereby more mindful and ready for the conversations you’re about to have.
ALISON BEARD: Got it. Okay. So meditation is not mandatory, but it does help a lot. So let’s get to it. Will you take us through an exercise?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: I would be very happy to. Let’s do a short mindfulness practice together just for a few minutes to get us all little bit settled and grounded. So I invite you to start by simply noticing your body, allow yourself to sit in a comfortable way, whatever that is for you. Bring both feet on the ground and take a moment just to notice your feet.
Notice your legs, your hips, your belly, and chest, noticing your shoulders and arms, noticing your head and your face and then with a little more body awareness, I’ll invite you to direct your attention to the experience of your breath. Simply notice the inflow and the outflow of your breath. Notice how each out breath naturally is an act of releasing, relaxing, calming down, centering.
So allow yourself with each out breath to get more grounded, more centered, more relaxed, and also notice how each in breath brings more oxygen to the brain, more aliveness, more alertness, more focus.
So with the in breath, increase your focus, your presence, and with the out breath get more grounded. And if you find that you get distracted by thoughts or sounds, that’s a moment of success. That’s your mind has wandered off, but you’re becoming aware. So simply let go of the distraction, bring your attention back to your breathing again. And again, every time you get distracted, just notice, come back to the breath that the out breath help you to get grounded and the in breath to get really vigilant and present. And then now to end this short little mindfulness practice, take a moment to reflect on what is your intention for listening to this IdeaCast today and with that intention mind, let’s get back to the conversation.
ALISON BEARD: Thank you. That was very relaxing.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Wonderful.
ALISON BEARD: And I do feel I’ve done this a couple of times now as someone who is sort of a meditation skeptic, I do find that when I probably first tried it, I want to say a couple of years ago. I was totally distracted the entire time. Like I was constantly thinking about everything I needed to do. And now I’m much better about focusing on the breath, like how it’s coming into my body and how it’s coming out and I can really tune distraction out. So it’s great. Now, is that enough? Just that couple of minutes for someone to become more mindful, more centered, sort of more effective at work and at their leadership responsibilities.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: I would say a good time, a good quantity is around 10 minutes. So we have done extensive research on some 35,000 leaders around the world finding very clearly that 10 minutes is sweet spots. If you do more-
ALISON BEARD: 10 minutes per day.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: 10 minutes per day, exactly. So finding a spot, finding a time every day that you sit down for 10 minutes and do just what we did now, you can also download any app. That’ll help you. But 10 minutes we have found help people to be more grounded, more focused, to be more like as leaders, more respected as leaders helps them to be more compassionate and ultimately deliver better results in terms of their employees experience. So 10 minutes is all it takes.
It doesn’t have to be any time. Because we are habitual creatures. It’s very good to set a time by which you do it every day and a place, whether that’s in the morning, lunch break afternoon or evening, fully up to whoever is doing it.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. How often do you meditate? How long do you do it for?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Well, I have been doing this for some 30 years and it’s been a big part of my life path. I do it about how half an hour every morning. I do a number of segments of some five, 10 minutes during the day and I always do some 15 minutes before I go to bed, but I also live a very, very busy life leading a global organization, serving a lot of clients. So, I need a lot of focus and presence.
ALISON BEARD: Right, right. And it gets up to sort of monks who do it for much longer time and so, what do they do? Because you’ve studied with monks, right?
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Yeah, I’ve studied with a lot of monks and I’m close to Dalai Lama and other renowned meditation masters. There are many meditation techniques at the core of most of them is what we just did now, harnessing your presence in this very moment, that is at the core of all of it.
ALISON BEARD: And you have worked with lots of leaders who now use it as a daily practice.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: That’s correct. So, our work is to help organizations create, as you said, a more human world of work and that starts with having good leaders. Good leaders start with people that are actually present so that they can choose to bring their best attitudes, their best human qualities to work. So, we work with hundreds of thousands of leaders from everything from IKEA, Unilever, Accenture, and so on to help their leaders to be more grounded, more mindful and thereby kinder leaders.
And especially, I would say in, after the pandemic and the whole great attrition that everybody’s seeing everywhere, people don’t leave companies, people leave bosses that are not great to work with. This is a real opportunity for companies to establish leaders that makes it the great attraction rather than the great attrition. And so that’s what we are very busy doing these days.
ALISON BEARD: Tell me about one sort of busy executive skeptic that you’ve won over to this practice.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Pretty much all of them, the mindset of the people that we work with is one of, I got to get stuff done because that’s how I became successful. And I became successful by doing it fast. And I don’t have time to sit for a few moments every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes. So I can tell the story of one of our earlier clients, Jacob, who actually wrote a whole book about, because I love the case of it. He didn’t really have time for this, but he had to do it because he was incredibly busy and his boss said, you got to do something different. So he started to engage with us and start doing this 10 minutes a day. After a few weeks, I had a conversation with him and I asked Jacob, what did you get out of it? And he said, I got one second.
And at first I was startled. I thought this really, really, really poor business outcome. You spend 10 minutes every day for a few weeks and you just get one second back. But his answer was really smart. He said, I gained one second of freedom in my mind to be able to choose the most appropriate response to any situation rather than falling into all to pilot reactivity mode. So when someone enters my office, I can choose to pay attention rather than keep going on my computer. When someone triggers something in me, rather than becoming angry, I can choose to ask questions and listen with patients and get a win-win out of the situation. So it basically said these 10 minutes is what transformed him from being reactive and an autopilot to being a responsive leader that could choose to respond with empathy and focus. It changed his entire view on himself and the people he worked with and his work and he was brought in. In other words, this is more or less what most of the tens and hundreds of thousand leaders that we work with are experiencing.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Rasmus, thank you so much for leading us through this exercise. I hope it helps people as we embark on a new and better year.
RASMUS HOUGAARD: Wonderful. My big pleasure. Thank you.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Rasmus Hougaard, CEO of Potential Project and co-author of compassionate leadership how to do hard things in a human way? If you like this show, check out my interview with Amishi Jha, “Find Focus in a Chaotic World” from October, 2021. It’s episode 825 and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe and we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.