The worst deskmate: office stress

Hardly back from your hard-earned vacation and already drowning in tasks? The feeling isn’t unique to startups or even to office workers, but to anyone trying to make their daily bread. Even if you manage to bring that summer break spirit back with you from the beach for a day or two, the deluge of emails and messages on Slack can quickly drag you back into the riptide of work stress.

One proven remedy for work stress is meditation. It may seem like a trend, with apps like Headspace that help you paradoxically use your phone to take a break from all the notifications. But it’s more than just a trend, conscious breathing exercises and mindfulness practice slow down the physical symptoms of stress and help you detach from daily anxieties.

Enlightenment under capitalism?

It is possible. You may ask, “But how can I find time for meditation when my day is so packed? Isn’t this just another responsibility to add to my to-do list?” If you want to save time and get your mind right, how about meditating on the clock?

You don’t have to sit in lotus position on top of the printer to meditate at work. There are some tried and true mindfulness techniques you can work into your everyday activities so that no one in the office will even notice you’re pursuing enlightenment while making your paycheck. Well, they might notice a few less passive-aggressive emails – and that’s a good thing.

Don’t forget to breathe

You’re probably doing it right now. But when the train is late, your deadlines are looming, and everyone else is freaking out about the latest drama with the coffee machine, sometimes your lungs go on strike. Recognizing when you’re stressed, anxious, or fearful throughout the day is the first step to taking control of your emotions. Identify the fears that lurk at the root of your stress: fear of disappointing the boss, fear of unsatisfied customers, fear of not doing your best. The fear must be named before it can be conquered.

One method to bring these lurking fears to light is recommended by Google’s in-house meditation and mindfulness coach Chade-Meng Tan. In his book, “Search Inside Yourself,” he recommends a technique called the “Siberian North Railroad,” or SBNRR. It may sound strange, but it’s a simple mnemonic for device to remind you to Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect, and Respond.

Let the railroad rush by

The next time you feel nervous, angry, or anxious, try to notice the feeling and Stop what you are doing.

Then Breathe deeply in and out – the technique is so simple and subtle that you can do it in traffic or at your desk.

Now Notice where the feeling is coming from in your body: are you holding tension in your neck or shoulders?

Is your heart beating faster or breathing more shallow? Without judgement, watch your physical reaction and Reflect on it. Where did the feeling come from? Try to consider the situation from another person’s perspective. What’s the worst that could happen? Is it really that bad?

Concentrating on breathing momentarily will distract you enough to calm down and make better decisions about how you want to Respond. Imagine how you would respond if you did the opposite of how you feel: what if you offered to bake that coworker cupcakes in response to their passive-aggressive reminder, instead of a knuckle sandwich? By not engaging with negative emotions, you let them pass by without letting them dictate your actions.

Go with the flow

With conscious breathing, you can give yourself a mental break without breaking your concentration on tasks at hand. While it may seem contradictory, you can relax and still be productive – maybe even more productive with the right state of mind. When we are motivated, challenged, and pursuing tasks with passion we enter a state called Flow.

Positive psychologist Mihály Csíksyentmihály recognized the “Flow” state in 1975, and since its discovery, it has become the gold standard for productivity. To reach the flow state with work, where time and thoughts fly effortlessly, we must eliminate distractions. Focus is key. Ironically, although the tools and research about how to achieve this mindset have advanced considerably, technological distractions are one of the biggest obstacles to achieving flow. Slack, smartphones, and open-plan offices with chatty colleagues offer many distractions, and social pressures to be approachable and open to all requests make it hard to turn down a quick chat or jumping from task to task.

If you can achieve a flow state, you will be meditating while you work. Both working in the flow and meditation require a demarcation of time, drilling down to essential experiences, and allowing distracting sensations to drift past without grabbing your attention. So how do you reach this peak state?

First, find a task that challenges you without being overwhelmingly difficult. Find the right time and place to work that will let you maintain your focus. Turn off notifications for your chat and email programs, and just go for it. If you get distracted by the occasional email or chit-chat, don’t be hard on yourself. Focus takes practice and dedication. And if you’re struck with fear that you aren’t working hard enough, or anxiety that you’ll never maintain perfect flow, let that train pass you by on the Siberian North Railroad.

Take a break

When you’re in the flow, nothing going on around you seems to matter. But don’t go so deep that you also ignore yourself. Passionate focus can cause you to neglect hunger, thirst, or other biological needs that will come back to bite you when you snap out of the flow state. Pushing physical limits like this consistently is not the goal of the flow state and can cause the quality of your work to suffer, even if you think your productivity is still through the roof.

So take breaks mindfully. You can always do better work when you’re taking care of your mental and physical health, and doing certain things that are both restful and creative can also boost your productivity in the long run. If perfectionism is the monkey on your back, it’s particularly hard to snap out of the flow when it’s healthy to do so. But take a break, a breath, and focus on your body. If you belong to the quarter of the population that isn’t moving enough to stay healthy because of a sedentary job, it’s particularly important to get up from the desk now and then. For a quick break, you don’t have to sprint the closest set of stairs – it’s enough to take a lap to the water cooler.

And don’t forget: the right tech

Congratulations, you read this text to the end! If you have focus enough to read a whole blog post on mindfulness, you can definitely learn to take the time to balance your emotions at work. Like any habit, meditation takes practice, some hard work, and consistency – but fortunately, technology is also here to help with that.

For example, you can rent an Apple Watch with Grover that reminds you to get up from your desk at least once every hour. Once you’ve made that a healthy habit, you can simply send the watch back. Or rent a new laptop that lets you work in the flow without annoying software or hardware failures that increase your stress. No matter how much you keep your breath slow and steady, error messages and faulty Internet connections knock the zen right out of you.

This post originally appears in German by Sarah Eichner


Chade-Meng Tan: Search Inside Yourself. The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), 2012.