‘Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things … since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply.’ Seneca

How did you and the breath meditation?

When you’re new to meditation you may discover that focusing on the breath feels uncomfortable, or even makes you a bit anxious. Don’t worry – that’s common. If this does happen, just silently label the experience with the words ‘feeling tightness’ or ‘feeling anxious’ and remind yourself that it is simply an unpleasant feeling that will pass. If it’s too challenging to stay with this feeling, you can return to the guided sound meditation.

Touching base with the breath throughout your day, even if just for one minute, can be a helpful way to literally catch your breath. Our everyday life and particularly the outer world of work can become so demanding that we lose touch with ourselves. Mindfulness training helps us balance being and doing, and offers us a space to reconnect with our deeper selves amidst the pull of our busy world.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer explores this dance of ‘being and doing’, describing what he calls the ‘work before the work’. He writes: ‘Before I turn to my work in the world, I have inner work to do.’

Paradoxically, carving out time for regular stillness amplifies our creativity and offers access to a deeper source for the work and impact we hope to have in the world.

During an interview for Mindful in May, Tara Brach, leading meditation teacher and writer, shared her perspectives with me on how mindfulness can actually support more meaningful and impactful ‘doing’ in our lives:

I actually think of mindfulness and meditation as the grounds of impactful activity that can make a real difference in the world. I sometimes think of Gandhi, who took a day off each week, no matter what, to pray and meditate. He’d get in touch with what he said was his wisest self. All of his actions would spring from his most clear and compassionate inner life. In the same way, if we take time to pause and reconnect, we are actually more in touch with our intelligence and with our heart. And then whatever activity it is – whether it’s creative and in the arts, or serving other people, or mathematical – whatever we are doing, we are more aligned and more effective.

Another way in which mindfulness can support us in being more effective in our work is through the improved focus we develop.

Take a moment to reflect on these questions

  • How often are you multitasking?

  • Do you believe that multitasking is making you more efficient?

  • What are your habits when it comes to working? Do you have strategies or practices that help you stay focused?

During my medical training, I remember the overwhelm I often felt during a busy hospital on-call shift. My pager beeped without a break, nurses constantly calling for urgent help. It was impossible to meet all of these emergencies at once, and so I learned the art of triage.

The key to triaging is remembering that there is always time to pause and breathe before you decide what action is required. The problem is that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, the brain goes into fight-or- fight mode, bringing an inner sense of urgency.

In this anxious state, most of us automatically multi-task as a way of trying to manage the competing demands. However, there has been a huge amount of research done around the impact of multitasking on our brains and our effectiveness. Here are just a few findings:

  • Multi-tasking has been demonstrated to reduce brain density in areas that control empathy and emotions (the anterior cingulate cortex).

  • A study at the University of London found that subjects who multi- tasked experienced drops in their IQ comparable to someone who missed a night of sleep.

  • A famous study at Stanford led by Clifford Nass revealed that multi-taskers were not as effective at remembering and learning new information.

That’s where mindfulness really comes to the rescue. It won’t necessarily stop you from getting overwhelmed, but it will help you know that you’re overwhelmed, so that you can take a moment to pause and prioritize. The increased self-awareness that develops through a regular mindfulness practice helps you recognize changing states of mind more quickly and manage them more effectively.

TODAY’S PRACTICE Mindfulness at Work

Today, experiment with this simple way to stay focused, manage the overwhelm and move from multi-tasking to mono-tasking in order to maximize your efficiency.

  1. Choose one task that you will focus on during the set time period.

  2. Get a plain piece of paper and pen and have them by your computer or workspace.

  3. Set a timer for thirty minutes.

  4. Set an intention to stay focused for your set period of time.

  5. When you notice yourself getting distracted or feel an urge to move to another task (such as checking your email), simply note down the task or distraction on the paper and bring your attention back to the task you intend to focus on. At the end of the thirty minutes you can review your list and set your next priority. 

For further time management and productivity hacks, consider downloading a pomodoro app. The Pomodoro Technique was created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, and it involves dividing your work time into twenty- ve-minute increments of focused attention with regular breaks in between. This technique helps bring more mindful awareness to the way we work, and supports efficiency and focus. There are several apps available to help you practice the Pomodoro Technique, many of them free.


When you notice you’re in ‘doing’ mode and feel agitated or on edge, set a timer for three minutes before you meditate to ‘brain dump’ and get your to-do list down on paper. This can give you a sense of greater freedom and mental space before you sit down to meditate. Of course your mind won’t necessarily stop planning, but it may reduce the intensity of the list-making and allow you to settle into the practice with ease. Once your meditation is finished you can come back to your to-do list with increased calm and clarity. 

This is an extract from The Happiness Plan, $24.99 available now. Dr Elise Bialylew is a doctor and founder of the Mindful in May program.