Category Archives: Mindfulness

A mini-mindfulness technique you can count on

When I attended a Workplace Wellness seminar down in Santa Clara this past Friday, mindfulness was definitely front and centre.

Although I sheepishly admit that mindfulness has never truly been my thing, I know it’s a practice that works really well for many, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising to hear several speakers advocating its use in the workplace.

Despite my lack of personal application of mindfulness, I’m happy to pass on one small but great tip that’s easy to adopt. I’ve been using it this week.

One speaker asked the audience to close their eyes, concentrating solely on their breathing. In, and out. In, and out. He explained that he would time us for thirty seconds.

So far, so usual. It’s a common way to introduce people to mindfulness.

But then we were asked to repeat the exercise, this time counting the cycles of our breathing, with one inhalation and its accompanying exhalation making up one breath. He’d time us again.

Finally, the idea was to make a note of this number. Some in the audience reached five. I was apparently more chilled out, making just two-and-a-half breaths in thirty seconds.

The number itself doesn’t matter. What’s important is establishing your own number.

You can easily do this yourself, setting a gold standard for your breathing rate by timing yourself with your phone, computer, or watch. Do it once, then you’ll be able to repeat the exercise whenever you wish, without requiring a timer.


What seems most valuable about the technique is that it enables you to fit in thirty seconds of this kind of “mini-mindfulness” whenever you wish, without needing to time yourself, simply counting breaths instead.

It could be while you’re on a bus, waiting at traffic lights, watching TV, or immediately after a phone call.

Counting your breaths, of course, also helps you to f-o-c-u-s on them, rather than on anything else.

It’s simple, and simply applied. And I can thoroughly recommend it.

How about giving it a try?

Feelings about feelings.

Knowing how you feel is one thing.

Knowing how you feel about how you feel is another.

(We’ll stop right there before this whole message begins to resemble one of those sets of nesting Russian dolls.)

Although whole (good) books have been written about mindfulness, an excellent and rapid start is to take a metaphorical step back from your thoughts to ask yourself (a) what they are, exactly, and (b) how those thoughts make you feel.

Neither task may come naturally at first, but the second can prove an excellent way of helping you come to terms with the idea that you may have more freedom than you think to actually choose how you feel about life’s trials and tribulations.

From the little (noisy neighbours, say) to the large (the loss of a loved one, perhaps) we may not always be able to control how we initially react.

But it can often be possible to steer your own feelings about your reaction in a more positive direction.

Perhaps, then, a little thinking about your thinking could be in order today?

In the length of just one tweet, how are you?

If you’re a tweeter or texter, you won’t need me to tell you that it’s not always easy to restrict yourself to just 140 or 160 characters.

It’s a bit like the précis-writing you may have done in your school days, when your comprehension of a piece of text was tested by asking you to produce a shorter summary, containing all the salient points, and generally having to keep to a fixed number of words.


Composing a tweet or text message requires you (or should do) to think carefully about what you want to say, so you get it all in before you’ve used all your characters.

The fun is spoilt somewhat by smartphones that let you keep on tapping away for as long as you like, but behind the scenes your longer message is still generally sent as a series of briefer ones, generally being reassembled at its destination.

I thought about this process the other day when reflecting on what can sometimes happen when one person asks another how they’re feeling.

Very often, up until the point of being asked, we may not really have thought much about it, so perhaps we use the process of answering to work it all out in our own head.

Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this.

After all, isn’t this how psychotherapy and counselling generally works? A series of gently probing questions may help us make meaning out of mental mayhem.

When a friend enquires about your state of mind, however, they may not always have time for you to talk it all through.

Perhaps you need to give them the tweet-length version of your mood?

This, of course, requires considerable effort from you.

Making a brief summary is nearly always harder work than simply pouring everything out.

The process can be a useful one, however, and perhaps its value extends beyond producing succinct mood bulletins for friends.

Maybe it also has value when it comes to helping you work out how you’re feeling, just for your own benefit.

Try it, perhaps.

Next time you’re able to have a few minutes of self-reflection, see if you can boil down your current state of mind to the briefest of summaries.

It might just help you make sense of things.

Ladies and Gentlemen. The Stanford Marching Band.


Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can give your mood a lift.

So here’s a suggestion.

I’m reasonably confident that as you go about the coming day you’ll come across something a little out of the ordinary.

It might be a tiny bird perched where you’d normally not expect it.

It could be a new building suddenly sprouting up, or fresh flowers somewhere new.

So when you spot this kind of thing, stop.

If you’re carrying something, put it down.

If you’re driving (and it’s safe) pull over.

Then just pay attention.

Enjoy the novelty and newness.

Shut out whatever you were thinking about before, especially if it was something unimportant.

Double-especially if it was something unhappy.

Then give yourself a few minutes to simply focus on this new thing that wasn’t there yesterday, and may not be tomorrow.

Last week I left the Stanford University library at 10 pm after another long day.

I was tired, ready to go home and get to bed.

But as the door closed behind me, I was delighted to hear, and then see, the Stanford Marching Band.

They’re a raggle-taggle bunch of high-spirited (and actually highly accomplished) musicians who perform at university sporting events.

I guess they were making their way back across campus after a sporting fixture of some kind.

Some had coloured lights on their instruments, and they played as they marched.

To an audience of…


Spectacular, and a complete gift.

I put my bags down and watched through the semi-darkness with a wide grin on my face, then walked back to the car with real spring in my step.

You’re probably not going to come across the Stanford Marching Band today (although if you do, please tell them I said hello) but I’d put money on there being something or other that’s different on your path through the next 24-hours.

So please, stop and pay attention.

It’ll be good for you, I promise.

How to breathe with purpose

I’ve always wondered about this.

When someone sees you squeezing yourself through a narrow gap, why do they tell you to ‘Breathe in’?

If you do so, your lungs fill with air and from what I know about the way balloons work, this expands your chest, making you bigger, not smaller – and therefore less, rather than more, likely to get wherever you want to go.


Call me old-fashioned, but wouldn’t it make more sense to tell you to breathe out?

After all, in one of those lateral thinking puzzles, it’s letting the pressure out of a truck’s tyres which allows it to pass under a bridge which is otherwise slightly too low.

Now, until I raised this subject, it’s pretty unlikely that you were aware you were breathing.

We both know you are, though.

(If you’re not, I’m talking to myself.)

Respiration is one of those essential things you generally do without thinking, but perhaps there’s sense in making yourself rather more conscious of it now and then?

Really deep breaths feed your brain and body with vital oxygen, and breathing out expels carbon dioxide.

That’s a pretty neat trick.

Who knew you could turn one gas into the other so quickly and effortlessly?

Anyway, taking more mindful deep breaths can also be a smart way to imagine yourself taking in goodness, and getting rid of badness by breathing out again.

So breathe in through your nose, breathe out through your mouth, deliberately filling and emptying your lungs while you tell your worries where to go.

(To avoid strange looks, probably best to do this last one under your breath, though.)

Try to take the time to breathe consciously today.

When the right thing is doing one thing

At the risk of sounding eccentric, can I just place on record how little I love the word ‘multitasking’?

We have IBM to thank for it, for it was in a paper published by the computer giant fifty years ago that the word first appeared.

Back in 1965 IBM used it to describe the way in which a computer might handle more than one job at a time, an idea rather novel at the time. I admit this was probably rather big and rather clever.

Now, however, we also use the word to celebrate humans’ ability to do several things at once.

We think this is rather clever too.


But I wonder. You see, psychology experiments have shown that although we are indeed able to juggle several balls at once, we tend to make a better job of tasks when we take them sequentially, something my own experience bears out.

Of course life has a tendency to throw a lot of stuff at you simultaneously, so you’ll probably find yourself having to switch from one thing to another, demanding though this may be.

What I’m going to strongly recommend right now, though, is that you avoid doing what I very nearly did this morning.

I was taking a short break, and believe it or not began to ‘multitask’ (YUCK).

Can you believe it? I sat down for a coffee and was pulling out a notebook when I suddenly realised what I was doing.

Oi Jon! No! Putting away the notebook, I had to force myself to sit back and enjoy the moment, single-mindedly.

Savour the taste of the coffee. Listen to the chirping birds (and before you accuse me of hallucinating as well as being eccentric, I was sitting outside).

Just stop. Let go of the urge to overfill every single minute.

And I wonder if you might join me in this mission today? It is OK, you know, to do just one thing. At. A. Time.

Even (especially) if that thing is resting.

Why to focus on this moment

The popular myth that goldfish have no more than three-second memories is just that, a myth. The truth? They’re actually rather good at remembering stuff way beyond this, almost certainly for three months or longer.

And in some ways this is unfortunate, because the idea of being unable to remember the past should in theory be an excellent way of reminding yourself to live in the present.

In fact, though, the present moment is the only moment over which you and I have complete control.

Can we change what happened ten days, or even ten minutes ago? No. What’s passed is in the past.

Can we truly predict what’s going to take place in ten days, or ten minutes? Again, no. In many ways the future lies beyond our control.

It’s in this current, present moment that we’re most able to choose what we do, and more importantly how we feel.

For instance, if you simply make yourself smile right now (and why not go ahead?) there’s pretty good evidence that you’ll trigger some of the same feel-good neurological responses that your brain experiences when you’re in a longer-term better mood.

Imagine. The only moment over which you have control is the present one, and you’re completely at liberty to decide whether it will be miserable or happy.

I think I know what I’d prefer, particularly when we also recognise that the longer-term future can simply be seen as a succession of present moments. It seems you and I have a lot more control than we might think.

And a lot more freedom than the average goldfish.