PRESENCE & BALANCE
“Next to love, balance is the most important thing.”
– John Wooden, American Basketball Legend
We all face tough times when life and work become so frenetic, stressful and overwhelming. Our thoughts are trapped in obsessing about past mistakes and bad breaks or cycling through the worry of the hypothetical future. The stresses of work and life have us seemingly teetering on a tightrope 1000 feet high in the sky with no net. In these times, it is important to take a step back and find solid grounding by embracing presence and balance.
What does it mean to be present and balanced?
This is how the brain works. If you are thinking, you are not present and living in the moment. The mind can only think about the past or the future, not the present. No pun intended, but take a moment and think about this. You can only truly be in the present when you feel and embrace one of your senses, hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling. When you begin to live in your head, you need to ground yourself back into your senses, into being present, living in the moment. That is why most advice on being present starts with focusing on the breath.
Strategic leaders are first and foremost thinkers, constantly analyzing the past and trying to paint the elegant path to the future. At McKinsey, the thinker vs. feeler dimension of Myers Briggs was the one dimension significantly skewed versus the general population, with ~85% of McKinsey consultants being thinkers versus 50% of the general population. As a thinker, it is important to try and spend more time in the present, and when thinking, not think too negatively about the past or the future. For, obsessive negative thoughts of the past are the realm of depression and obsessive negative thoughts of the future are the realm of anxiety.
A balanced life is one where we feel calm, energized, grounded, and fulfilled. We all find balance in different ways, but it typically involves filling your life with your fair share of work, friends, family, interests, hobbies, spiritual and healthy activities. Typically, stress and being overwhelmed happens when you find yourself unbalanced in your life and focused too much on one dimension of your life, whether it be work, a serious relationship, unhealthy habits, etc.
Why is being present and balanced important?
I’ve lived through some tough times when I wish I had the mindfulness to realize how much I was living inside my head and unbalanced in my life. For strategic leaders, who have so much to balance and think about, it is critical to the longevity of our career that we learn how to be more present and balanced. Life is not a sprint, it is a very long marathon, and if you find yourself sprinting day in and day out, you’ll find yourself burned out one day.
What are the tools for being present and balanced?
The first and most crucial step to being present is growing mindfulness, or simply the ability to understand, monitor, and evolve your thoughts. Before people become mindful, they often believe they are their thoughts, and can’t change how they think. Think about thoughts as the water in a stream. Observe your stream of consciousness paying particular attention to what the thoughts are about, how fast they are, the split between negative and positive thoughts, repetitive thoughts, etc. Over time, you can build the capacity to change what is in the stream and how much flows through it. The primary tools to build mindfulness are meditation, yoga, positive psychology and deep breathing. These tools can help you decrease your negative thought patterns, and increase your positive thought patterns.
Find your inner kid
Children are typically happy and full of joy because their consciousness is wrapped up in their senses. They live their lives in the present and through their senses. Over time, as we “grow up” we begin to value thinking over being, and in doing so, lose our childhood wonderment of the world and ability to thoroughly enjoy every moment. You have to find your inner kid, the one who made those happy moments we fondly look back on.
Enjoy the journey, not the results
One of the keys to being present in our work life is to enjoy the journey and not obsess and worry about the results. If you and your team are truly present, doing your best work, day in and day out, that is all you can do. The results will be the results, but focusing on the journey will always produce better results. Worrying about the outcome isn’t going to get the work done to produce good outcomes.
Don’t spend time thinking about how others may think about you
One of the most wasteful uses of time is thinking about how others may think about you. First, I’m sorry to inform you, but others don’t actually think about you too much. People are too self-absorbed to think about others. Second, it doesn’t matter what others think. A critical part of any foundation of being more present and balanced is to not worry about how others “may or may not” think about you. A corollary to this is to not compare yourself with the successes or failures of others. You have no idea if the people you are comparing yourself to are happy, fulfilled, loved, etc. Your happiness is a product of your thought processes, actions, perspective, and relationships, not others.
It is in many of our natures to please our boss, peers, and others. And, in trying to please, we often take on way too much. If you are a pleaser, you have to learn to politely say no to more work or learn how to delegate more. The easiest way to say no is to be transparent about your priorities, “I would love to, but I’ve got this, this and that to get done here over the next few weeks…I like to put my best effort into everything, and I won’t have the time to do that.”
Build boundaries for your life
How can you have a balanced life if you check your work email every 10-20 minutes, even on the weekends, or when eating a great meal with loved ones? Balance and presence go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. If you are going to dinner, go to dinner. If you are going on a hike, go on a hike. If you are going to hang out with friends, go hang out with friends. Stop interrupting your own life. Building boundaries is one of the most difficult, but rewarding things to do with your life. Don’t do any work activities past 7 pm. Don’t check email on the weekends. Exercise from 4+ days a week. Start doing and building boundaries for those activities you think you need to have a balanced life, and voilà, you’ll start having a balanced life. And, don’t worry about how others might think about your balanced life and boundaries, they’re just jealous and will probably follow suit.