After driving to the office the other day, I realized that while I remembered getting into the car, the next thing I knew I was pulling up to my parking space. It was as if I was on autopilot. Clearly, it's dangerous to be mentally checked out while driving. But it occurred to me that it's just as dangerous to be less than fully attentive while working with clients.
Psychologists refer to attentiveness and "staying in the present" as mindfulness. There is more to mindfulness than just being present, though. In fact, practicing this technique allows us to be observers of our own thoughts and feelings, remaining distant, objective and nonjudgmental. This can be useful in your practice and in your life.
During the dot-com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, practicing mindfulness could have helped you with the stress from the barrage of calls from disgruntled clients. Being able to step back from an emotionally charged situation and examine it without judgment would probably have helped you find the right soothing words to keep clients calmer. As a bonus, you would likely have been less drained at the end of the day.
This practice is important with staff as well. When deadlines approach, tempers may flare and the tension in the air can become palpable. Practicing mindfulness and meditation keeps you centered and in control of your staff's escalating emotions. In fact being more "in the present" makes you more acutely aware of the emotional environment and promotes a more peaceful office atmosphere.
Last year, I took a day course from a group called New Peaks, a division of Habit Change Co., which hosts retreats, primarily for the medical industry. New Peaks is a program designed for business owners and individuals. A friend and fellow advisor, Russ Bishop, who started New Peaks along with the Habit Change team, called one day to ask if I would participate in the pilot program. Intrigued, I agreed - if I could persuade my husband/business partner to join me. My husband, Harold Evensky, is a typical left-brain thinker, very logical and analytical. Anything remotely related to self-examination - really, anything touchy-feely - is as appealing to him as torture. With some encouragement, he agreed to go.
IN NEED OF CHANGE
The four-day retreat focused on eight habit areas: resilience, nutrition, exercise, sleep, learning, friendship, simplicity and spirituality. Before the retreat, participants were given a medical assessment and an extensive battery of online tests in each area to guide us in our focus for the next few days. I got the sense that most of us were overworked, stressed out and needing some changes in our lives.
In our classes, we learned about mindfulness and the power that practicing mindfulness can bring to our lives, both at work and outside of work. We meditated and practiced "staying in the moment" each day, learning to become aware of our breathing, letting our thoughts and feelings drift in and then away. We all found it unnatural at first - especially Harold, who really struggled to corral his brain to stop running from the immediate.
So how do you achieve mindfulness, and how will it improve your personal and professional life? There are various methods for practicing mindfulness. It usually involves meditation, where you sit quietly and focus your attention on your breath.
I recommend two short books to help get started: The Three-Minute Meditator by David Harp and One-Minute Mindfulness by Donald Altman. These provide easy exercises to get you in the habit of meditation.
By the retreat's fourth day, we weren't reliving the past and projecting that into our future actions but were actually aware of our environment and the people in it. We had learned that shedding the clutter of past and future concerns relieved stress and made us acutely aware of the present. I'd like to tell you I can stay mindful every minute of every day, but my absent-minded driving example reflects reality.
APPLICATIONS AT THE OFFICE
I found that once I understood the meditation process, I could practice mindfulness to help me deal with almost any situation.
First, mindfulness promotes civility. Have you ever gotten an email from an irate client and sat down to respond immediately? You spend time reacting emotionally, perhaps defensively, to the client's words and then you push that fatal button that sends your fiery words into cyberspace. Almost immediately, you'll likely regret it and agonize over it until you can reach the client and clear the air. Detaching from the emotional reaction, and spending a few minutes to reflect upon it quietly and without as much emotional judgment, helps avoid an impulsive action you may later regret.
Second, mindfulness reduces stress. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital carried out an eight-week study recently during which participants practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day. At the end of the study, brain images showed a distinct decrease in the density of the amygdala, the area of the brain that is responsible for anxiety and stress.
Let's face it, we work in a field that can hijack our amygdala every hour. The acts that dominate our workday - handling other people's money, striving to provide superior service, and training, mentoring and satisfying our staff - can trigger an abundance of stress. Then we often take the stress home and share it with our spouses and children.
Third, mindfulness enhances our performance. A study completed this year at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested undergraduates in the areas of reading ability, task focus and working memory after mindfulness meditation practices. All areas improved considerably.
Often, in conversations with staff or clients, it's easy to skip to the solutions without hearing the problems. In a consultative service practice, we feel compelled to drive change, ease the pain or move the situation forward. It's not easy to sit and reflect on what is being said before we formulate the answers in our mind. Mindfulness allows us to be more intentional in our advice and counsel.
The practice of mindfulness allows you to pause and to reflect on what is currently happening - preparing you to respond in the best interest of your client or staff.
Think of a time in your practice when you have had a particularly stressful day. Reflect on that event and on what fired up your amygdala. Learn to recognize the thoughts and feelings that surrounded this event so that when you experience these again, you can examine them objectively, then release them. Once you know your trigger points, it will be much easier to change the way you respond to them.
And change is what this is all about. One lesson from my work with Habit Change is that to effect change, a small step is a gain. My husband hated exercise, so his first small step was to go to the gym. He just had a look around. He stayed five minutes. The next time, he walked into the gym and talked to a fitness coach. Finally, after a few visits, he scheduled a 30-minute workout. He now visits faithfully, three times a week.
He also started the small-step approach with clients. For example, we have a rather large allocation to international equities. With clients who are uncomfortable, he suggests taking "small steps" - say, agreeing to a 5% allocation to get started.
We also suggest the small-step approach in client data gathering. How many times have you been frustrated waiting for clients to send missing info? Giving them smaller steps to complete the information you need makes the process less overwhelming.
A small step toward mindfulness may be a one-minute meditation that leads you to a 30-minute mental pause and a more fulfilling personal and professional life.
Deena Katz, CFP, is a Financial Planning columnist and an associate professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. She is also chairwoman of Evensky & Katz, an advisory firm in Coral Gables, Fla.