Mindfulness in the Hyper Speed Startup Environment


As a culture we celebrate multitasking, busyness, and being overbooked.  We glorify long hours, a lack of sleep and putting every ounce of energy into our jobs, particularly if our job happens to be a start-up.  We make ourselves available 24x7.  We are over-caffeinated and under nourished, mindlessly eating lunch over our keyboards.  For those working in a start-up, the level of stress can be tremendous and the sound of “speed to market” rings constantly in our ears like a bad case of tinnitus.  

For those who have spent enough time on the adrenaline rollercoaster, the concepts of pause, contemplation and calm seem antithetical to success.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  Subjecting ourselves to a constant state of stress, multitasking, and foregoing sleep for greater production is not only bad for our health, it is bad for the bottom line.  What a growing number of highly successful entrepreneurs, business leaders, athletes and artists have come to understand is that mindfulness practice directly translates into higher performance.

Before delving into the benefits of a mindfulness practice, let’s first understand the physiological and psychological effects of our glorified, habituated work culture:

Multitasking.  In computers, it is the concurrent performance of two programs at the same time.  In humans, it’s a terrible idea, yet an activity that most of us engage in for most of our waking hours.  When we multitask, we get a reinforcing shot of dopamine, but our bodies also automatically increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, as we try to manage competing priorities that exact a mental toll.  Each time we switch between tasks, our executive control functions have to turn on, an action that might only take a few tenths of a second each time, but those seconds add up.  Researcher David Meyer, PhD reports that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time”.

Stress.  Our bodies react to stress as a perceived physical threat in much of the same way they did in prehistoric times, and we are thrust into fight or flight mode where our senses sharpen, our heart rate increases, our metabolism changes, endorphins are released and our judgment system is turned down so more primitive decision-making can occur. Stress causes the adrenaline high that start-up employees know all too well.  Ultimately, though, continued and continuous subjection to stress can lead to adrenal gland issues such as constant feelings of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, poor hormone regulation, and a diminished ability to metabolize fat and carbohydrates.  

Sleep. During sleep our body restores itself, repairing the damage of the day.  It is during this restorative process that the body is able to replenish hormone levels that modulate insulin and appetite, build new neural pathways that help with creativity and problem-solving, and prop-up the immune system in addition to many other important regulatory functions.  Consistently getting fewer than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night presents in the workplace as poor decision-making and an inability to manage emotional responses.

So how can mindfulness help?

There is a significant and growing body of science that validates the benefits of meditation.  Demonstrable effects include, but are certainly not limited to, a lessening of depression, increase in immunity, improvement in sleep patterns, marked improvement in focus, increase in memory and recall, and heightened sense of optimism and well-being.  Through the use of functional MRIs, researchers have found that meditators have increased gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and response control, learning, memory, and attention.  These benefits have a direct mitigating effect on the pervasive workplace culture.  Meditators in the workplace find that they are not only better able to manage stress, but that stress is significantly diminished through a new found ability to establish emotional distancing and objectivity.  They are better able to make decisions, listen, and concentrate, and find that activities take less time than before, with better results.  

So it is easy to see why, for those leaders who have found meditation, they credit so much of their personal and professional success to it.  They have fundamentally changed their brains, health, and work habits for the better.

Mindfulness practice can begin with as little as 3 to 5 minutes per day of quiet breathing exercises, practicing concentrating on the breath and letting go of thoughts that enter the mind.  It can also start with the help of technology, through the use of apps such as Headspace or 10% Happier.  On my next Illume Insight, I’ll delve into what a meditation practice looks like.