9 Conventional (and Not So Conventional) Mindfulness Techniques of Top Performers
by Kevin Evans — 14 min read
In 1979, inspired by the teachings of the Eastern World, professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn taught an 8-week course at the University of Massachusetts Medical School on stress reduction. The science of mindfulness was born.
Kabat Zinn’s original definition of mindfulness was as follows: “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
While the word mindfulness has taken on a life of its own, applied to anything and everything from mindful dishwashing, McMindfulness in the corporate world, to mindfulness without morals, we simply view mindfulness as not getting carried away by knee jerk emotions and judgments, and not obsessing about the past or future or even the now, for that matter.
The core of mindfulness then broadens its lens from being a mere meditation technique or being present, always. If you are obsessing about being mindful, by definition, you are not being mindful, you are just obsessing.
I therefore sought “mindfulness” techniques, both conventional and unconventional, used by high achieving performers in their field from best selling authors, entrepreneurs, business leaders, actors, musicians, and others.
I divided the techniques into two categories: Proactive vs Barrier Removing
Why “removing barriers?”
Charlie Munger, partner to famed investor Warren Buffet, is famous for popularizing the “inversion principle” in which you flip an issue on its head. Instead of asking, “how can I become more mindful,” you flip the question and ask, “what causes me to have a busy mind?” Barrier removal now engaged.
While this list certainly is not exhaustive, it provides a good start for the novice and advanced practitioner alike. I recommend you choose 1-2 and stick with it for awhile.
I have personally tried every technique listed and give a range of difficulty adopting the practice, based on my experience.
Meditation is like a daily massage for your mind. In a practical sense, it helps you gain distance from your thoughts and emotions like a 3rd party watching your thoughts in emotions as they pass by. Gaining this distance can be the difference between taking a dip in your anxiety and quickly recovering versus drowning in a sea of emotional reactions. Mindfulness becomes your sanity preserver, so to speak.
While people’s experience with mediation varies wildly, there does seem to be strong supporting evidence showing the reduction of depression, and anxiety. While we have yet to see a conclusive study, the fact that mediation has been practiced for centuries as a means to better one’s life, provides enough ‘real-life’ evidence for its utility.
On its surface, meditation looks intimidating because there are so many different styles: Transcendental Meditation (TM), Guided Visualization, Zazen, Qigong, Vipassana, and (ok we made that one up).
Where should one begin?
Learning Curve: Moderate to Difficult
For the first few weeks, perhaps even months, meditation can appear as though it has no noticeable effect on your life. Unlike adopting a new diet and workout plan, you will not visibly see your mediation 6-pack so fast. It’s subtler than that and will probably take more time.
Both offer guided meditations and enough variety to keep meditation interesting for the long haul. If you prefer a more quantified experience, choose headspace which is free for 10 days then ranges from $7.99 - $12.99/mo after. If you want a more choose your own adventure, Tara Brach is also a great option (and free).
Oprah - Offers herself for 5 to 15 minutes every morning of her Oprahness and is similar to Mindfulness Meditation.
Lady Gaga - Recites a mantra: Breathe in (no thoughts), Breathe out (“I am calm mantra)’ Breathe in (no thoughts); Breathe out (“I am light) for 20 minutes. (Primordial Sound Meditation).
Martin Scorsese, Jerry Seinfeld - They use a personalized mantra or series of Sanskrit words to help the practitioner focus during meditation in lieu of just following breath. (Transcendental Meditation).
2. The Five Minute Journal
What is it?
At its core, The Five Minute Journal is about gratitude. Based loosely off of positive psychology research, it was designed as a simple, effective, and efficient means to focus on the good, set intention for the day, and reflect.
The journal contains 5 questions broken up into two sections: A morning section to be filled out after you get up and a night section to be filled out right before bed. Doing this first thing in the morning primes your day to positive thoughts while the evening section helps you end your day on a high-note, helping you fall asleep much more easily!
Here are the 5 daily questions:
IN THE MORNING
(1) What are you grateful for?
(2) What would make today great?
(3) Daily affirmation. I am…
(4) 3 Amazing things that happened today…
(5) How could I have made today even better?
Learning Curve: Easy - Moderate
As someone who started and stopped at least a dozen journals in the past, The Five Minute Journal proved to be the one journal I could stick with. Is it because it only takes 5 minutes? It’s guided format? Something else? Who knows, but it works if you stick with it.
I highly recommend you read the introduction of the journal to get the most out of filling it out each day. In the beginning it will probably take more than 5 minutes to fill out as the most important thing is connecting with your thoughts. There will also be days where it feels repetitive. Get through it. Over time, I found I became more appreciative for the little things and less pulled by the everyday stress of life. Leave a section blank if you have to. It is not a competition!
Tim Ferriss- "It's easy to become obsessed with pushing the ball forward as a Type-A personality and end up a perfectionist who is always future-focused. The Five-Minute Journal is a therapeutic intervention, for me at least, because I am that person. That allows me to not only get more done during the day but to also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person — which is not something that comes naturally to me."
Emma Watson - “I love the idea of starting my day by listing three things I’m grateful for. And going to bed thinking about the three amazing things that happened in the day. I’m a big believer in the transformative practice of gratitude.”
Pat Flynn - "I do The Five Minute Journal every morning and it puts me in the right frame of mind to start the day."
3. Morning Pages Journaling
What is it?
Introduced in the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, morning pages are three stream of consciousness pages written after you wake up where you keep moving your pen no matter what. No censoring, crossing out, or editing. It does not matter that your writing makes sense.
The purpose? Trap your problems onto paper so you can move on with your day.
These pages are not meant to be read. In fact, Cameron advises that you yourself shouldn’t even read the pages in the first few months. The goal is not to aim at “something.” You are merely doing a brain purge.
Learning Curve: Easy
Morning pages is just that. Keep writing until you hit 3 pages. Many days I only wrote gibberish, but every now and then I either have an amazing insight or put on paper feelings I did not know I had.
Of all the mindfulness techniques, I found this one to be one of the most therapeutic.
Tim Ferriss: On his blog, Tim wrote: “Morning pages don’t need to solve your problems. They simply need to get them out of your head, where they’ll otherwise bounce around all day like a bullet ricocheting inside your skull.Could bitching and moaning on paper for five minutes each morning change your life? As crazy as it might seem, I believe the answer is yes."
4. Long Walks
What is it?
In short, taking a long walk with no other purpose than to wander.
How often do you walk for its own sake without intention to be someplace?
In a similar vein to how many report ideas coming to them in the shower, long walks work a similar magic.
Could it be due to the mental break from our busy lives? Could it be that once our bodies are in motion, it cues our creative faculties to take over? Perhaps. But what we do know, is it works for clearing your mind.
Here are some ground rules:
Walk for at least 15 minutes (the longer, the better)
Walk with no fixed route
Preferably leave your phone at home or set it to airplane mode.
Don’t listen to music or podcasts
Find walkable places (busy city streets may cause too much “noise”)
Stop to notice your surroundings.
Learning Curve: Easy
As someone who has been taking long walks for over a decade, the hardest part is communicating to your loved ones you are just going for a walk. They will ask where to? To which I say “to clear my head or think of how to solve a problem”. In the beginning, it may arouse suspicions as if something is wrong in the relationship but through reassurance, my loved ones know I just like taking long walks.
Ryan Holiday: “At first these walks were just inferior substitutes for the exercise I was missing, and I disliked the experience. But as they went on—and the distances grew longer—walking grew on me. I came to notice and love the beauty of the city I had moved to. (There is no better city for walking in America than uptown New Orleans, even in the swampy summer heat.) I also found that words for the book that I was writing seemed to just flow into my head from nowhere. Even difficulties I was having in my relationship started to feel less serious, and solutions followed. It was exactly as Thoreau said, “the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.”
Nikola Tesla: Discovered the rotating magnetic field on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.
5. Wim Hof Breathing
What is it?
Wim Hof aka the Iceman through his breathing method was able to control his heart rate, breathing, and circulation. And he backed it up. He holds the record for the world’s longest ice bath, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in nothing but shorts and shoes, and completed a marathon in the arctic circle in nothing but those shorts!
Why breathing? Breath is the key to physical and mental well-being, and if done properly, it can boost energy, relieve pain, and transform our lives.
Now, while this is not a traditional mindfulness technique, his method has shown to help alleviate Depression, Anxiety and PTSD.
Wim’s breathing method is broken up into three basic phases(from Wikipedia):
(1) Controlled hyperventilation
The first phase involves 30 cycles of breathing. Each cycle goes as follows; take a powerful breath in, fully filling the lungs. Breathe out by passively releasing the breath, but not actively exhaling. Repeat this cycle at a steady rapid pace thirty times. Hof says that this form of hyperventilation may lead to tingling sensations or light-headedness.
After completion of the 30 cycles of controlled hyperventilation, take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. Hold the breath for as long as possible.
(3) Breath retention
When strong urges to breathe occur, take a full deep breath in. Hold the breath for around 15 - 20 seconds and let it go. The body may experience a normal head-rush sensation.
Learning Curve: Easy to Difficult
Doing the the technique is fairly simple. Aside from the explanation above, I highly recommend you watch it in action (see the video here).
The first time I did this I was able to hold my breath for 2 minutes (I previously could barely hold it for 45 seconds).
More importantly, for the 7-10 minutes or so I am doing the breathing exercise, I am 100% focused in the moment and feel incredible after. As for breaking world records in the cold, I have a long ways to go.
Perhaps there is no bigger modern day obstacle to mindfulness than smartphones and more specifically, social media, news, and email.
Social media and news have been engineered to keep you glued to your screen for the longest time possible. Email makes you feel productive, but often just reveals a compulsive behavior.
To do the purge, I recommend 3 steps:
Recognize the signs. Do you feel a compulsive need to check news, email, or social media. That’s a signal that technology is dominating your life. Start Slow: Try going for a short period of time without any screen time.Use site blockers if necessary: Try RescueTime or a host of other time management apps that can limit / reign in your web browsing.
Learning Curve: Easy to Difficult
For me, the best solution to declutter my electronic closet was batching email, installing site blockers for a number of months before I broke my addiction to news sites, and uninstalling social media apps on my phone.
Doing the following has significantly reduced the compulsive relationship (FOMO) to technology I once had.
Ed Sheerantook an extended break for a long time from his phone, emails, and Instagram (his main communication channel with his fans) for 50 weeks.
Richard Branson instituted a 24-hour digital detox of complete unplugging to become more present. Branson has even test piloted a small group of employees to take a 2 hour digital detox every Wednesday.
Neil Strauss uses FreedomTime and turns off the Internet when writing.
7. The Thinking Block
What is it?
If you complain of constantly being busy, the “thinking block” is scheduled time to pull yourself out of your hectic lifestyle.
As we fill our schedules with more and more activities, we often miss out on the opportunity to step back and reflect. Is the path you are on the right one for you?? Are you simply reacting to things rather than being present?
While in a sense scheduling time to simply think does pull you out of the present moment, the aim is to give you more calm and mental clarity for the long haul.
While the below examples are all CEO’s who have the luxury of dictating their workday, how would scheduling time once a week or for a period of your day move you from busy to “what would this look like if it were easy?”
Learning Curve: Moderate to Difficult
As my current role involves a fair bit of strategy, “thinking blocks” become necessary so taking the time during the workday to be mindful can fit in. Prior to this, however, I reserved Sunday nights for taking a long stretch of time (twoish hours) to think through issues.
Whether you can carve out a bit each day or one day a week, there is perhaps no better use of time I’ve found that has returned more rewards.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin, holds a lot of responsibility as head of a multi-billion dollar organization. And yet, he regularly takes 90 minutes to 2 hours each day to just think.
Instead of taking another meeting or solving senior leader’s problems, he takes time to think about the big picture of this company’s current and future strategies. If he did not do this, he would be like many CEOs and senior level managers who talk about constantly being busy.
Bill Gates is famous for taking a week off twice a year just to reflect deeply, without interruption.
Tim Armstrong, Former AOL CEO made his executives spend 10 percent of their day, or four hours per week, just thinking.
8. The Anxiety Retrain
What is it?
Anxiety left undefined can remain a vague shape-shifting monster wreaking havoc on your mental well-being. By identifying the sources of your anxiety and listing them on paper you are one step closer to moving beyond the stress
Learning Curve: Moderate to Difficult
Actually doing the practice is easy. Retraining your brain to accept and move through your anxious thoughts? A different thing entirely. That takes time and a combination of other techniques, listed here.
In general, I have found that when I, in detail, get specific about my fears, anxieties, and worries, they often dissipate or at least lose some of their power. Remember, you choose to let things worry and aggravate you, or not! These ‘things’ have no power. YOU do.
The singer Jewel did not have the funds to afford therapy so she had to develop internal skills to move through her persistent anxiety. One of the tools she developed was “antidote thoughts.”
Ask yourself: “What negative things do I say to myself?” The thought that comes up will usually start out very broadly but keep asking until it pares down to a specific core. Once you find it, the antidote is easy. It’s literally just the opposite of the negative thought. Write it down!
As Jewel says, “Anxiety usually means my mind is telling me lies about myself or a future that hasn’t happened yet. And this fear cycle and anxiety robs me of the opportunity to have a say in my day and my life – because it keeps me distracted and inactive, obsessing and worrying and ruminating – spinning my wheels as it were. How do you get back in the driver’s seat? Get still, tune in, and curious.”
Seth Godin: Seth Godin recommends a very similar practice to Jewel’s program, with what he calls a “catastrophe journal” - a blank notebook in which you write down every time a catastrophe occurs (real or imagined):
What you did that was so horrible.
The consequences you expect since the world as you know it is now coming to an end.
“What you’ll find, pretty certainly, is that two things happen: (1) You will realize over time that your predictions of doom don’t occur, and (2) As soon as you begin writing down the details, the cycle we employ of making the details worse and worse over time will slow and stop. A month of persistence is usually all you need to begin to break the habit.”
9. The Hard Choice
What is it?
With a multitude of options from choosing careers to romantic partners, you can quickly fall into analysis paralysis.
Often the hardest part of choosing is the fear of making the “wrong” choice. Fear of wasting time. Fear of failing. The dreaded FOMO. This indecision can last for years.
If one of the tenets of mindfulness is not obsessing about the past, learning how to commit to a hard choice and not obsess about “what could have been” is key.
Learning curve: Moderate to Difficult
I am certainly not an expert in this area, so I will leave my commentary to a minimum. However, making the mental commitment to my girlfriend has been one of the most rewarding decisions of my life, both mentally for me and relationship-wise for us.
Instead of constantly wondering, “what if I could do better?” “does she think she could do better?” or “can I deal with the way she does ‘x’ for the rest of my life?”, making the mental commitment has eliminated 1,000 smaller anxieties eating away at my happiness.
Ruth Chang: Ruth is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. She is widely known for her work on 'hard choices' and decision-making. Prior to becoming a philosopher, out of fear of not being able to make a living as a philosopher, she decided to become a lawyer. Except she did not put her agency behind becoming a lawyer. She constantly questioned if it was the right path for her.
What Ruth discovered in her research on decision making was whether she chose to become a philosopher or lawyer was not the point. Committing to one or the other was. For the big choices in life, there will be no “best” option, but simply options that are “on a par” with one another, each having their respective pros and cons. At some point, you choose and make whatever you decide upon the best option.
Ruth adds, “What makes it true that the person you are in fact with is best for you is your commitment to him or her. By committing to your partner, you have now made it true that your partner is the best person for you.”
Jeff Bezos: “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.” (2016 Letter to Shareholders)
To build off of #4, I love this story from Basecamp founder Jason Fried on what he learned about paying attention to what’s under his feet from a wise gardener on a visit to the Philip Johnson Glass House.
To me, the following story illustrates the core of what mindfulness is all about (paraphrased):
"A number of years ago, I was invited to this thing (a summit on simplicity) at the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut...There was, I think, 10 or 15 people invited. One of the people invited was this older man, this Japanese man. I think he was in his 80s or close to it. Almost everyone else was much younger, much, much younger.
Philip Johnson had this idea and that it’s actually one building and the hallways are just outside, which is kind of a cool thought. But really, it’s like 12 different buildings. Anyway, we were talking between these houses and you have a 50-acre site, so there’s a bit of distance between these buildings. I noticed that this guy was always last in the line to walk. I kind of sat back with him on one of the walks. It wasn’t because he was old. That would be the first thing you would think. That he’s just older, so he’s going to walk slower. But actually, he’s like no, and I could tell that he was physically able to walk as fast as everybody else. It wasn’t that.
He goes, “No, everyone’s just walking too fast and they’re missing things as they go.” He just kneeled down and he looked – he took like this square foot of ground. By the way, I noticed as he was walking, he was looking down as well. So he’s walking slowly and looking down. He kind of took this square foot of land and pointed out some flowers and some insects and some shapes and some stuff. He says, “This is beautiful. People feel like they have to go all over the world to see something new. All they have to do is look down.” If you walk slowly and look down, there’s a world under your feet all the time. An interesting world.
He goes, “These people ahead of me, they’re younger. Yeah, maybe they can walk a bit faster, but look at everything they’re missing.”