Reduce Your Stress in Two Minutes a Day – Harvard Business Review

Bill Rielly had it all: a degree from West Point, an executive position at Microsoft, strong faith, a great family life, and plenty of money.  He even got along well with his in-laws!  So why did he have so much stress and anxiety that he could barely sleep at night? I have worked with Bill for several years now and we both believe his experience could be useful for other capable, driven individuals.

At one time, no level of success seemed enough for Bill. He learned at West Point that the way to solve problems was to persevere through any pain. But this approach didn’t seem to work with reducing his stress. When he finished his second marathon a few minutes slower than his goal, he felt he had failed. So to make things “right” he ran another marathon just five weeks later. His body rejected this idea, and he finished an hour slower than before. Finally, his wife convinced him to figure out what was really driving his stress. He spent the next several years searching for ways to find more joy in the journey. In the process he found five tools. Each was ordinary enough, but together they proved life-changing and enabled his later success as an Apple executive.

Breathing.  He started small by taking three deep breaths each time he sat down at his desk.  He found it helped him relax. After three breaths became a habit, he expanded to a few minutes a day. He found he was more patient, calmer, more in the moment. Now he does 30 minutes a day. It restores his perspective while enabling him to take a fresh look at a question or problem and come up with new solutions. Deep breathing exercises have been part of yoga practices for thousands of years, but recent research done at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital document the positive impact deep breathing has on your body’s ability to deal with stress.

Meditating.  When Bill first heard about meditation, he figured it was for hippies.  But he was surprised to find meditators he recognized:  Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Marc Benioff, and Russell Simmons among them. Encouraged, he started with a minute a day.  His meditation consisted of “body scanning” which involved focusing his mind and energy on each section of the body from head to toe. Recent research at Harvard has shown meditating for as little as 8 weeks can actually increase the grey matter in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and learning. In other words, the meditators had increased their emotional control and brain power!

Listening. Bill found if he concentrated on listening to other people the way he focused when he meditated his interaction immediately became richer. The other person could feel he was listening, almost physically. And when they knew he was listening they formed a bond with him faster.  Life almost immediately felt richer and more meaningful. As professor Graham Bodie has empirically noted, listening is the quintessential positive interpersonal communication behavior.

Questioning.  This tool isn’t about asking other people questions, it’s about questioning the thoughts your mind creates. Just because your mind creates a thought doesn’t make it true. Bill got in the habit of asking himself “Is that thought true?”  And if he wasn’t absolutely certain it was, he just let it go. He said: “Thank your mind for coming up with the thought and move on.  I found this liberating because it gave me an outlet for negative thoughts, a relief valve I didn’t have before.” The technique of questioning your thoughts has been popularized by Byron Katie who advocates what she calls “the great undoing.” Her experience and research show there is power in acknowledging rather than repressing negative thoughts. Instead of trying to ignore something we believe to be true, questioning allows us to see our thoughts “face to face” and to discredit them because they are untrue.

Purpose.  Bill committed to living with purpose. Not so much a Life’s Purpose — it was easier than that. He committed to purposefully doing whatever he was doing. To be doing it and only it. If he decided to watch TV he really watched it. If he was having a meal he took the time to enjoy the meal. There is research to support Bill’s experience. In “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email” Gloria Mark and Armand Cardello cite evidence to suggest knowledge workers check email as much as 36 times an hour. The result is increased stress. Giving each activity your undivided attention ensures you’re in the moment and fully living that experience.

An important key for Bill in all of this was starting small—very small. It’s important because you can’t take on stress in a stressful way. Often we try to bring about change through sheer effort and we put all of our energy into a new initiative. But you can’t beat stress using the same techniques that created the stress in the first place.

Instead, the key is to do less than you feel you want to. If you feel like breathing for two minutes, do it for just one minute. If you are up for a day of really listening to people deeply, do it for the next meeting only. Leave yourself eager to try it again. What you want is to develop a sustainable habit: a stress-free approach to reducing your stress.

Originally posted on Harvard Business Review.

Photo: Kryvenok Anastasiia / shutterstock

14 thoughts on “Reduce Your Stress in Two Minutes a Day – Harvard Business Review

  1. Anshu Sharma says:

    Thanks for the excellent post on mindfulness and living in the moment. Personally, I witnessed the power of being present with some of the smartest people in our industry. I look forward to reading your book!

  2. George says:

    Mindfulness is an investment with immediate returns. Its worth thinking about. Its worth the effort of giving up as you give in. Thanks for the encouragement to excel in the most fundamental way. Life speaks to those who look to see; to those who listen to the silence.

  3. Shad G. says:

    This is a great post; I especially agree with the idea of doing less than you feel. When I first began the process of meditation, I tried meditating for hours a day — but I found that it was completely useless to do so because it made me even more stressed. Instead, I found it much more helpful to start with sixty seconds and work my way up. Thank you for the additional advice.

  4. Ainee Beland says:

    I like all that is stated; especially the part about doing more than you feel you want to. If you feel like breathing for two minutes, do it for just one minute. This way there is not the feeling that I have to do this; simply just that i want to take a deep breath for a minute; stop what you are doing and simply breathe/exhale even. Ahhhhhhhhh!

    Thank you for this.

  5. İsmail ÖGE says:

    It has been a very nice sample of practical process for Nero Linguistic programming (NLP). It has written by the method of very impressive and fluent.
    I can strongly recommended it to my colleague.

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  11. maria brinia says:

    Great! My husband is like your “hero”.
    I will send him the article and pray to give it the proper attention.

  12. Lori says:

    All well said, I’ve been in senior leadership roles in a high pressure, fast paced environment for years, have been meditating and practising yoga for at least eight. The tools I’ve learned from these Practices, the breath and the focus, knowing how actions, words and tone can impact… paramount to a quiet mind, and to successfully regrounding ourselves in the stickiest of situations.

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