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The Benefits of Blankness

If you spent a moment without thinking, would you cease to exist?

As I mentioned earlier, when I give talks about using mindfulness practices to focus on your work, at least one person usually tells me they “can’t meditate” because they can’t seem to force their mind to quiet.

But often, if I get the chance to dig deeper into what’s going on for that person, what I discover is that they don’t really want their mind to be silent.  They’re afraid that, if they stopped thinking for a moment, they wouldn’t be able to start again.  And if that happened, they’d become stupid or comatose, or perhaps even disappear.

Their solution, then, is to keep up a constant stream of thought.  One problem with this approach is that the clutter in their mind creates distraction — particularly when they’re trying to do a task at work.  Also, as I’ll bet you know from experience, much of the thinking we do is repetitive and unpleasant.

Relaxed Body, Relaxed Mind

Many people think emptying the mind takes hard work, which is why I get questions about how to “force my mind to empty.”  But over time, what I’ve discovered in meditation is that it’s more a matter of, if you will, taking a break.  In fact, thinking is what takes work — mental blankness simply happens when we relax.

To experience what I’m talking about, next time your mind feels cluttered, take a moment and notice whether some part of your body is tight.  For example, one thing I usually observe when my mind is teeming with thoughts is that my jaw is tense.  When you notice where you’re holding onto tension, see if you can relax that area.

What I’ve noticed in myself, and in others I’ve worked with, is that relaxing those tight muscles actually helps relax the mind.  It’s as if we need to tense up to produce a constant stream of thought, and letting go of that tension helps us drop the compulsive thinking.

I think this is one reason why yoga, bodywork, and other methods that help loosen up those tight spots can bring such peace.  When constricted places in the body open up, it’s as if the mental storm abates and the sun peeks through the clouds.  I had a striking experience like this last weekend (in a workshop by Robert Masters, whom I highly recommend), when tight spots I wasn’t even aware of in my jaw and throat unraveled, and my mind became blissfully clear.

Thinking Versus Insight

But if we let our minds empty, how do we come up with the ideas we need to do our projects?  This is where, for me, the difference between thinking and insight comes into play.

Thinking, as I said, seems to require effort to produce.  Insight, on the other hand, seems to arise without effort — in those moments where “inspiration strikes” without warning.

My sense is that, when our minds are clear, there’s more space for insight to enter.  But when they’re clogged with ceaseless thinking, there’s no room for inspiration.  It’s no surprise to me, then, that my most powerful ideas have spontaneously come up during meditation.

I think this is one meaning of the story you may know about the professor who visited a Zen monk.  The monk served the professor tea, but he kept pouring even after the cup was overflowing.

“You are like this cup,” said the monk.  “I cannot show you Zen until you are empty.”

Inner Productivity Intensive Workshop

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be holding a full-day workshop, which I’m calling the Inner Productivity Intensive, in the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday, June 12, 2010.

This will be an intimate, small-group affair, limited to ten people, where we’ll be deeply exploring the challenges each participant is facing in their work, and how mindfulness practices can help them stay focused and inspired in what they do.

You can register for the event here.  More information about the workshop is below.

Supercharge Your Focus And Motivation In Your Work!

Why do you know what you want to do in your work, but you still don’t do it?

Why do you know you want to work more efficiently, but you end up wasting time on e-mail and social media?  Why do you want to write that book or start that business, but it’s never gotten off the ground?  Why do you want to change jobs, but you can’t seem to begin your search?

I think we’ve all asked ourselves this kind of question at some point, and the answer often seems maddeningly unclear. What is clear, however, is that the usual organization and time management literature doesn’t shed much light on it.

Yes, there are neat tricks and “hacks” out there for organizing your e-mail, color-coding your folders, and finding the right iPhone apps.  But as I think you know from painful experience, these tricks are useless if you aren’t focused and motivated enough to put them into practice.

What Are You Running From?

So how do you find the focus and motivation you’re looking for?  In my experience working with people around their productivity issues, to really get what we want out of what we do, the first step is to take a close look at what we’re avoiding.

What do I mean?  You’ll see for yourself, I think, if you carefully watch what’s happening when you’re at work, and you’re about to start procrastinating.  You’ll notice that, in that “clutch” moment right before you put off a task to do something else, you start having some thought or sensation — some inner experience – that feels uncomfortable or even dangerous to you.

The thought or sensation I’m talking about is different for each of us.  For some, it’s tension in their body — maybe a tightness in their neck or shoulders.  For others, it’s a painful memory or a worry about the future.  Perhaps, for you, it’s something else.

While the inner experience I’m talking about is unique for each person, the way people tend to deal with that experience is pretty much the same.  Because it’s scary and uncomfortable, we try to distract ourselves from it — perhaps by checking e-mail, playing Minesweeper, surfing the Web, or something else.

The trouble with this approach is that, when we distract ourselves, we take our attention away from our work.  We can’t code that computer program, paint that painting, or do anything else that’s productive when we’re messing around on Facebook.

The Art Of Allowing

As it turns out, there’s a better way to relate to this inner experience:  to fully allow it.  When you feel that tension, painful memory, or whatever it is coming up, simply hold your attention on your work, keep breathing, relax your body, and allow that experience to pass away on its own.  If you’ve done meditation, you probably have some idea what I mean.

The more you practice this, the more comfortable and familiar that experience will become.  You’ll start to realize it isn’t as scary as you’d thought.  More importantly, you’ll become able to move forward in your work, even in the face of that pesky experience.

Of course, this is easier said than done.  Usually, we’ve become so accustomed to running from that troublesome inner experience that we’re no longer aware we’re avoiding it.  We just “find ourselves” checking e-mail, playing FreeCell, or whatever our favorite distraction is, totally oblivious to why it’s happening.

The Inner Productivity Intensive is about getting conscious of that difficult inner experience, and developing a new relationship with it that gives you a new sense of purpose and freedom in your work.

What This Workshop Offers You

As you may know, I wrote a book called Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your WorkInner Productivity, which Getting Things Done author David Allen calls “a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging,” is all about learning to allow – rather than resist — the thoughts and sensations that tend to disrupt our focus.

In this full-day workshop, we put the book’s ideas and techniques into practice.  Basing our approach on meditation, yoga and other mindfulness practices that have improved people’s lives for thousands of years, I and my skilled facilitators will help you notice, and transform, the patterns of thinking and behavior holding you back in your work.

You’ll come out of the workshop with an increased ability to focus on your work, a stronger sense of mission, and a deep-seated knowledge that you’ve got what it takes to face the challenges that arise in what you do.

This workshop is unlike any other seminar on organization or time management.  I’ve designed the course to be small — ten people or so — to make sure each person gets the individual attention they need, and the breakthrough they want.  This won’t be a lecture — you’ll be diving right into exercises that make you aware of the places where you’re limiting yourself.

I’d recommend this workshop to people who are ready to take a deep look at what’s really holding them back in their work.  If that’s what you’re interested in, this course will radically change the way you think about and relate to what you do.

Logistics

The workshop will be on Saturday, June 12, 2010, in San Jose, California, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Registration for the workshop is $135.00 per person.  You’ll receive more information, including directions and the schedule, when you register, which you can do by clicking here.

Guest Post at The Change Blog: 3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity

I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity,” which is about using conscious breathing techniques to get focused and motivated while you work.  I hope you enjoy it.

Your Inner Productivity Questions Answered

As some of you know, I recently released a book called Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work.  While most productivity books are about techniques for rearranging your outer circumstances, like making to-do lists and organizing your inbox, Inner Productivity is about dealing with obstacles to getting work done that come from inside — the stray thoughts, difficult emotions, discomfort in the body, and so on that make it difficult to stay on task.

Inspired by mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, Inner Productivity offers forms of visualization, movement, conscious breathing and more to help you find peace and focus in your work.  As Getting Things Done author David Allen puts it, Inner Productivity is “a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”

Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and no two people seem to face exactly the same productivity challenges.  So, I think the best way to illustrate what the book has to offer is to show you how it applies to real-world problems people are dealing with.

In this post, I’ll open the floor to you to bring me the productivity issues you’ve been facing.  Whether it’s your pattern of procrastination, lack of inspiration in your work, anxiety about whether you’ve “got what it takes” to complete a project, or something else, I’d welcome an opportunity to work with you and illustrate how the techniques and perspectives in Inner Productivity can help you find efficiency and enjoyment in what you do.

So, I’m inviting you, in the comments to this post, to ask questions about the challenges you’ve been having.  Feel free to comment anonymously if you’d feel more comfortable that way.  I’m looking forward to talking with you.

Best,
Chris

Inner Productivity (My New Book) Is Now Available

innerproductivity

I’m excited to announce that my new book, Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work, is now available in both paperback and Kindle format.

The book is a compilation of the techniques and perspectives I’ve successfully used to help people find—you guessed it—efficiency and enjoyment in their work.   The book approaches productivity from a unique angle, using insights from psychology and mindfulness practice to help you stay focused and motivated.

I’ll say more about the book, and give you a taste of what others have said, in this post.  More information about the book, including videos and interviews, is also available on a separate site I’ve created.

About The Book

As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to bone up on all the productivity “tips and tricks” out there—learning creative ways to make to-do lists, declutter your desk, hold shorter meetings, and so on.  It’s quite another to actually stick with those techniques and make them work for you.

A major reason for this is that productivity techniques usually don’t address the biggest obstacle to getting our work done:  our own minds.  If you find yourself mentally replaying an argument with your spouse, daydreaming about your next vacation, worrying about how big the bonus will be this year, and so on, simply knowing the latest “Top 100 PDA Hacks” won’t do much to keep you on task.

A Deeper Look At Procrastination

What’s really going on in moments when we find ourselves getting “off task”—becoming distracted or putting off your work?  In coaching individuals and groups on overcoming inner obstacles to productivity, what I’ve learned is that we often get off task because some inner experience—some thought or feeling—that we don’t want to be with is coming up.

Here’s a common example.  Suppose your boss assigns you a project, and you accept it but feel resentful that it wasn’t given to somebody else.  Naturally, as you do the project, you feel the resentment, which shows up as a tightness in your shoulders.  Because you don’t like that feeling, you distract yourself from it by checking e-mail, playing Minesweeper, or whatever your favorite procrastination technique happens to be.  Unfortunately, although you take your attention off the unwanted experience, you also get nothing done.

This is the “normal” reaction to uncomfortable inner experiences in our culture—procrastinate, take a drug to numb the feeling, go do something else, and so on.  In other words, we might say, we run away from ourselves.  The trouble is, of course, that we can’t get any work done while we’re fleeing from our inner experience.  And so we find ourselves spending large chunks of time accomplishing little, and feeling frustrated about it.

Accepting Your Inner Experience

Inner Productivity offers a different approach to dealing with these difficult inner experiences—allowing them to be, just as they are, without distracting yourself or pushing the experience away.  To understand what I mean, try this simple exercise.

The next time you’re working, and you start experiencing some uncomfortable thought or feeling, try breathing deeply, relaxing your body, and just letting the sensation move through you.  Where you would have run away from the sensation before, see if you can stay with it and welcome it for a little while.

What I think you’ll find is that the feeling actually passes away pretty quickly when you let it.  For instance, if you’re feeling resentful about working, and you breathe deeply and allow that tense sensation to simply move through you, it’s not like you’ll stay angry forever—the tension in your body will relax, leaving you in a calm and focused state.

The more you do this exercise, the more you’ll come to realize that the thought or sensation isn’t actually dangerous to you, and you don’t have to run away from it.  And when you understand, at a deep level, that you don’t have to flee from your inner experience, you become able to stay on task even in the face of intense sensations.  You become able to calmly respond “yes, I’m feeling angry or sad or afraid, and I’m going to continue with this project.”

The Yoga of Productivity

Yoga, one of the practices that inspired Inner Productivity, offers a good analogy.  People who are starting out doing yoga tend to assume that a pose is difficult because their bodies aren’t flexible enough to get into it.  But interestingly, surgeons have found that, under anesthesia, the human body can bend in all kinds of ways we’d usually see as impossible.

In other words, the problem often isn’t a lack of flexibility at all—it’s that we don’t want to be with the discomfort we feel while we’re doing the yoga pose.  But as we ease ourselves into the pose, and realize that the sensations we feel while doing it aren’t going to harm us, the pose starts to feel natural and even enjoyable.

We could think of the techniques in Inner Productivity like a form of yoga.  As with a difficult yoga pose, when we learn to accept, rather than flee from, the thoughts and sensations that come up as we work, working starts to feel more easy, natural and fun.  That’s what I want for you, and that’s why I wrote the book.

So, if you aren’t getting enough out of conventional productivity techniques, and you’re ready to take a deeper look at what’s really holding you back in your work, I think you’ll find Inner Productivity eye-opening and valuable.

What Others Have Said

I was amazed at the enthusiasm and generosity of the authors I asked to provide advance quotes for the book.  Here’s a sample:

“Chris Edgar has taken an exploratory dive into the procrastination pit and come up with a cogent explanation of this phenomenon as well as an elegant set of techniques to transcend it. It’s a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”

David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Inner Productivity will show you how to clear your inner clutter and create a pathway to success!”

Marshall Goldsmith, bestselling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

“Real productivity doesn’t come from forced behaviors. Inner Productivity can help you connect with the inner state of being that can empower you to act in new ways, choose new perspectives and have a different experience. There is no greater productivity than connecting with your true self.”

Tama J. Kieves, bestselling author of This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love (How One Harvard Lawyer Left It All to Have It All)

Inner Productivity is packed with practical examples of how to achieve greater results and peace of mind at work.”

Laura Stack, bestselling author of Leave the Office Earlier: The Productivity Pro Shows You How to Do More in Less Time . . . and Feel Great About It

“A wonderful guide for organizing both your physical and your head space.”

Peter Walsh, bestselling author of Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You

Order The Book

You can order the book in either paperback or Kindle format—I’ve posted the links below.  (Note:  If you see an “out of stock” notice on the Amazon page for the paperback, don’t worry, it’s still available — just click on the “2 new” link and order the book from “Cruzado Press.”)

Print Edition

Amazon Paperback

Kindle Edition

Amazon Kindle

I’ve also created a separate site with more information about the book, which you can view here.

Reviewers Wanted

I’m always interested in constructive feedback on my work.  If you’d be interested in reviewing my book on your blog, please let me know, and I can provide you a copy in paperback or electronic form.

Videos of My Recent “Transcending Procrastination” Talk

I’m excited to share six short excerpts from my recent “Transcending Procrastination” talk at EastWest Bookstore in Mountain View, California.

The talk was about how you can use mindfulness and spiritual practices, like meditation and yoga, to stay focused and motivated in your work.  The turnout was great, and EastWest is one of my favorite bookstores, so I was very pleased to do this engagement.  I’ll explain what each of the excerpts is about below:

In Part 1, I explain how I got into incorporating mindfulness practices into my job, and teaching that work to others:

In Part 2, I discuss why it’s important to develop motivation and focus on the inside, in addition to having an organized workspace:

In Part 3, I discuss how we normally deal with disruptive thoughts and feelings that come up in our work — pushing them away or running from them.  I offer a healthier, less stressful option:  allowing those inner experiences to be, just as they are, until they pass away:

In Part 4, I talk about how mindfulness practices can help us stimulate our creativity when we’re feeling mentally blocked:

In Part 5, I explain how getting accustomed to more silence in our lives can help our concentration and productivity in our work:

In Part 6, I explain how taking a step back and looking at the bigger reason why you’re doing the task you’re working on can be a great source of motivation and focus:

In Other News:  I Deleted My Last Post

For those of you who noticed the mysterious disappearance of my previous post, “A Meditation for Exercise Pain,” I deleted it because I decided, on further examination, that it did not meet the ruthless quality control standards of this site.  I hope this didn’t cause too much confusion or any international incidents.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the videos and I look forward to your feedback!

Best, Chris

How Meditation Increases Productivity

When I tell people I write about the connection between productivity and spiritual practices like meditation and yoga, some are skeptical or confused.  “I thought meditation was about relaxing, not getting things done,” some say.  Others assume the practices I’m talking about have to do with becoming enlightened or seeking ultimate truth, and don’t have practical, down-to-earth benefits.

In fact, there’s plenty of research suggesting that meditation benefits our ability to pay attention and our motivation, which of course are key to doing our work efficiently.  It also helps prevent stress and resulting health problems that sidetrack us in our work.

As one goal of my work is to raise consciousness about how spiritual practices can help us find career satisfaction, I’ll talk about some of this research here.

Attention. A Massachusetts General Hospital study reported that meditation thickens parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decisionmaking, attention and memory.

Motivation. A study at the University of Wisconsin showed that regular meditation leads to significantly increased levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with “positive emotions and goal-seeking behaviors.”

Efficiency. Three years after it implemented a meditation program for its employees, a Detroit chemical plant reported that productivity at the facility had increased by 120%, and absenteeism had decreased by 80%.

Freedom From Distractions. An Emory University study reported that meditation enhances the brain’s capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts.

Stress Reduction. A Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study suggested that meditation reduces blood pressure levels, thus reducing worker absenteeism due to stress-related medical problems.

Pain Tolerance. According to a University of Montreal study, meditation reduces sensitivity to pain, and thus helps people focus on the task in front of them even in the face of physical discomfort.

Some people tell me they’d like to take up meditation, but they don’t have time given all their other responsibilities.  However, there’s lots of evidence suggesting that, when we regularly meditate, we develop a sense of inner peace and focus that actually helps us get more done in a shorter period and thus save time.

In other words, if you meditate, you may end up less overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to do.

Getting To The “Heart” Of Public Speaking Anxiety

I’ve been doing a bunch of speaking engagements recently, and feeling inspired and excited by them.  I’ve always loved appearing in front of audiences—whether it was playing drums in rock bands as a teenager, debating in college, or any of the other performance-style things I’ve done.  When I realized public speaking would be a great way to promote my business, I jumped at the chance.

I seem to be wired a bit differently from a lot of people in this area.  It’s often said that, for many of us, having to speak to an audience would be worse than death.  I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, and I’ve come to believe people’s hangups around speaking often have to do with fear of showing their hearts to others—in other words, sharing with a group something they deeply care about.

Our “Fear Of Feeling”

I’ll use my own example to illustrate what I mean.  When I’m speaking to a group about using meditation and yoga to transcend procrastination, I’m talking about practices that, I believe, can really make a positive difference in people’s lives.  And when I’m discussing something I have such deep-seated conviction about, I physically feel that conviction, and how much I care about bringing peace of mind to the world, in my heart.  My chest area feels like a spacious chamber filled with warm liquid.

I used to be afraid of this sensation.  After all, it was such a departure from my usual experience of living.  Up until a few years ago, I didn’t feel much in my chest area at all—I was fairly emotionally numb.  So when that warm, spacious feeling came up, I’d assume it was because I was embarrassing myself, or perhaps even in danger.  Over time, I came to understand that this feeling wasn’t dangerous to me—I could experience it and survive—and that, in fact, it was pleasurable.

I think many of us fear this open-hearted sensation because it has us feel vulnerable to getting hurt.  This sensation may bring up memories of moments when we felt attacked or scorned for being emotionally vulnerable.  Maybe, for example, we told someone we loved them, and they acted like they didn’t care.  Or maybe we confessed something deeply personal to a friend, and they laughed or mocked us.  So, we came to associate that open-hearted feeling with “getting our hearts stomped on.”

Or perhaps feeling our hearts simply reminds us of being children, and being openly affectionate, curious, joyful, and so on.  And perhaps we decided, somewhere along the way, that adults keep those kinds of emotions to themselves, and being mature means being perpetually serious and composed.  In other words, we started seeing that open-hearted sensation as “childish.”  Today, we try to avoid any situation that might bring up that feeling—and public speaking seems to have that effect for many of us.

Getting Comfortable With Compassion

So my sense is that the best way to transcend anxiety about speaking to a group is to learn to accept, rather than pushing away, that sensation of feeling your heart.  To do this, the next time you notice you’re feeling a lot of sensation in your chest area, just hold your attention there, keep breathing, and notice that feeling this sensation hasn’t killed or hurt you.  And consider the possibility that what you’re feeling isn’t really “anxiety” at all—it’s actually your deep-seated concern for others’ wellbeing.

You don’t need to be standing in front of an audience to get more comfortable with feeling your heart.  You can do this while you’re sitting alone in silence.  Just bring to mind an experience you had when you felt all “mushy,” “cuddly,” “snuggly,” or whatever word you associate with what I call feeling your heart.  Relax your body, keep breathing, and allow that rich, warm sensation to wash over you.  Notice that, even though you’re giving yourself total permission to feel how deeply you care, you’re still fully alive and intact.

One advantage I’ve noticed of learning to accept, and fully experience, this open-hearted sensation when I’m speaking to groups is that it makes the talks I give more engaging for the audience.  When I’m fully feeling my heart, it seems that people listening are more able to feel theirs as well.  I get a deeper emotional response from the audience—people laugh more often, ask more questions, and generally get more uplifted by the experience.

Moving Beyond “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”

Coming from this heart-centered place also renders unnecessary many of the techniques we read about in books and articles on public speaking.  Much of that advice, I think, is intended to help us imitate someone experiencing genuine love and compassion for their audience and what they’re talking about.

“Keep your body language open,” these authors often advise.  “Hold eye contact with each audience member for three seconds to look sincere.”  “Remember to smile.”  This may be sound advice, but there’s no need to consciously follow these strategies when we’re feeling our hearts, because they come naturally.  In other words, you don’t have to simulate a person who cares about their subject matter and audience when you already are one.

In the end, I think effective speaking is about transcending our fear of feeling, and showing, our hearts.  When we get comfortable feeling open-hearted as we’re speaking, we not only become able to tolerate talking to groups—we actually begin to enjoy it.

What comes up for you when you’re doing (or thinking about doing) public speaking?  What kinds of thoughts and sensations?  I’m curious to hear.

Guest Article At The Change Blog: “Learning To Listen To Our Inner Wisdom”

My latest guest post at The Change Blog, “Learning To Listen To Our Inner Wisdom,” which is about how paying attention to our emotions can help us make better decisions, is available at http://www.thechangeblog.com/inner-wisdom/.