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In my work leading teams at Alley as a director and scrum master, I’ve often gone back to lessons learned from storytelling. The stories we tell ourselves can actually affect our work. Considering what we do in terms of plot and shared narrative can be a powerful tool.
Whenever I feel myself losing perspective, I come back to this. As comic-book writer Matt Fraction once wrote: “Asking myself what happens (‘Batman fights Riddler’) and what’s it about (‘Mental illness affects all socioeconomic strata’) serves as my dumb little compass… Recentering and refocusing. Wait, what happens? Wait, what’s it about? Oh, right. Punching the Riddler.”
In June 2017, I was definitely recentering and refocusing, as I transitioned into my current role as director of editorial projects and rethought my work habits. As a scrum master, I’d enjoyed the rush of context-switching every half hour — and I still do enjoy that many days. (If you’re ever bored at Alley, well, just wait half an hour!) But as a director, I needed to manage my time differently to get what I needed out of each day. What happens? What’s it about? For me, it was about regaining focus.
In a coaching session, Partner and COO Bridget McNulty and I discussed this Wired article about how team members at Google avoid burnout and foster creativity. Thinking about the work in terms of mindfulness completely changed the conversation. Here was a framework that could shape my days! In that context, I could consider how to avoid distraction, find unbroken time, be aware of when I wouldn’t be as productive, and guide myself to better habits.
Before I knew it, I’d written more than 800 words about how this might work. We soon realized mindfulness could be a framework for not only rethinking my personal practice area at Alley, but also engaging others across the company in rethinking their work habits. From research, we knew mindfulness practice had helped a number of companies refocus and foster an open, candid work environment. (Google, for instance, found that teams that fostered psychological safety through mindfulness practice excelled in terms of creativity and productivity.) Intrigued, I attended a MNDFL Breath session at the Upper East Side location of MNDFL in New York City (yep, I followed one of those subway ads) and found it difficult but rewarding.
First Mindfulness Session
The next month, at our July 2017 all-staff retreat at The Essex Resort & Spa, I led Alley’s first mindfulness session, Mindfulness in Client Situations, as part of the retreat’s Accountability track. The 90 minutes of intense learning and sharing included 4 of Alley’s partners and several directors in a candid, wide-ranging discussion.
After a 10-minute intro to mindfulness, we engaged in a mindful breathing exercise and follow-up discussion on a shady patio. We moved to the fire circle to discuss mnemonics and checklists for mindfulness, including HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired), shisa kanko (“pointing and calling,” a Japanese railway occupational safety method), emergency checklists, the Pomodoro Technique for time management, and a concentric circles exercise (drawing on Post-its where we saw ourselves within our circles of home, work, family, society, etc.).
This first session led to some personal and professional breakthroughs for attendees. As we began to plan for 2018, we decided to add a mindfulness series to our internal Alley Learn Stuff calendar, with one session per quarter.
“By Letting It Go It All Gets Done”
In January 2018, I convened with Senior Agile Process Leader Taylor Fargo Strachan, UX Developer Gabriel Luethje, and then–Software Developer David Ramirez, all of whom had separately been engaging in their own mindfulness practice. In a series of meetings, we planned our first all-staff mindfulness session, to be held in February 2018 via Zoom. The session took its title, “By Letting It Go It All Gets Done,” from a Lao Tzu quote that David shared: “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.” We thought that embodied the spirit of the endeavor quite well.
This first session, like every subsequent session, was planned via open discussion and collaboration. All of us in what we informally dubbed “the mindfulness crew” have undertaken regular mindfulness meditation practice on our own, read separately, conducted discussions in Slack, etc. to gather ideas. Then we’ve come together to collaboratively plan quarterly sessions, along with a challenge or activity staffers can join before or after.
This first all-staff session, like the summer retreat session, started off with some basics: what was important to know about mindfulness, why we each practiced mindfulness personally and professionally, and how our respective practices took shape at home and at work. Taylor noted that she practices mindfulness “to be the person I want to be and avoid defaulting to some of my habits and tendencies that I am working to avoid.” Gabe discussed finding ways to improve his state of mind and physical well-being, while increasing his self-awareness and better using his mental bandwidth.
David encouraged those who might find the practice difficult: “You’re not supposed to be good at this already or it wouldn’t be of much benefit in the first place. Think of it like exercise. How much are you getting out of it if it’s easy?” I discussed the ways that my practice is much more of “an anytime, artist’s, rock ’n’ roll mindfulness.” I get some of my best ideas when I can lose myself and find myself again, through showers, walks, nature, music, dreams, art, and movement. For me, it’s also about a personal concept of “gingersnap,” which I shared the story behind — recognizing when I’ve needed to stop working on something, a.k.a. eaten enough gingersnaps. We then led participants through a mindful centering exercise and discussion.
At the end of the session, we unveiled a new community channel in Slack, #cc_mindfulness, where session participants could continue the discussion. Two months later, that channel became the site of a challenge we posed to the entire staff.
First Mindfulness Challenge
On April 24, 2018, we kicked off our internal Mindfulness Challenge via #cc_mindfulness in Slack. We invited everyone on staff to try a 7-day challenge for just 5 minutes a day.
We asked everyone to emoji vote to commit to one of the following options. There was no pressure to do this for anyone in the midst of heavy deadlines or any other difficult life events — nor was anyone required to attend the Learn Stuff session if they participated. We simply hoped this could give our teammates tools to cope and stay sane amid difficulty.
A number of team members committed to one of the following options:
- Headspace: Download a free trial of the app and follow a daily short, guided meditation.
- Meditation for Beginners: Practice the included daily short, non-guided meditation.
- Meditation Timer App: Calm or Insight Timer: Download an app and practice with it daily
- Interested, but Not This Week: These participants couldn’t commit to trying something new that week, but indicated they were still interested in learning more
On May 1, 2018, we held a session where we discussed each of the options for mindfulness practice included in the challenge, then recapped our experiences as a group. We discussed ways the challenge was difficult, changes we experienced in our thoughts and actions during the challenge, and our plans for continuing this practice. At least one partner continued their practice for more than 225 days (!) from when this challenge began.
Advanced Session: Applied Mindfulness
By the time August rolled around, we’d already done an intro to mindfulness with everyone, where we introduced a lot of basic concepts. We’d established a Slack channel where we could continue discussion of these concepts. We’d gotten a lot of folks involved in a trial meditation exercise and done some hands-on work. And we’d gotten Director of Development Operations Ben Bolton to create a new feature for our Slack bot, Alleybot: the gratitude list. This feature gives everyone on staff with a place to make gratitude a part of their mindfulness practice.
So in this August session, we discussed how to apply these ideas in the midst of a busy, hectic workday. Each of us on the mindfulness crew explained our approach to a given method, then solicited discussion from the staff. We covered how to be a single-tasker; how to approach our work with the mind-set that everything is already OK; how to adopt a growth mind-set and give props/express gratitude to team members; and how to let go of the wheel and relax and recenter amid busy days.
In 2019, our mindfulness series continued. We kicked off our 2019 sessions with Mindfulness for Clients and Teams, discussing how we could more fully integrate a mindful approach to building work relationships into our practice. That one really brought us back full circle, covering the narrative arc of projects and how we can recenter and refocus on what’s important.
Another highlight of the year in mindfulness was a cathartic session in June, Mindfulness for Dealing with Burnout, that taught team members to recognize, reverse, and build resilience against burnout. With several teams facing challenging deadlines, the session gave us space to share challenges and learn more about emotional, physical, and behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout. We taught evidence-based mindfulness strategies and techniques for combating burnout, such as STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe current state of mind and body, Proceed); how to do a progressive body scan; and how to recognize “unwelcome party guest” stimuli.
Next for 2020
In February 2020, our mindfulness series returns, as we celebrate Alley’s 10th anniversary. We plan to share more lessons learned and practical tips on mindfulness for companies and teams. Has mindfulness informed your company’s practices? Interested in learning more? Let us know.