bringing stillness to the workplace
three techniques to stop forcing work
Here’s a trick that every teacher worth their marbles learns early.
If you ever ask a group “Does anyone have any questions?” slowly count to 20 before you move on.*
You have just gifted your people the gift of stillness.
In that silence, people’s thoughts are not racing, searching for questions to ask. It’s pretty quiet out there, actually. It might feel awkward as a result.
But in the awkwardness, your people’s bodies are settling, gently creating space for what you just shared with them. Something is afoot, and if you pay close enough attention, you might feel it, even if it doesn’t manifest as thought.
And then, almost inevitably, by the 15th or 16th count, a voice from the group will call out, “Hmm, I had a question about…”
Where exactly did that question come from?
From the space of conscious thought? Or somewhere else?
In the field of contemplative neuroscience, there’s some very interesting work being done to find an answer to this.
But these types of things I’ve found are just as easily explored in the majesty of your own personal experience. You don’t need a Harvard Business Review article to give you permission to explore your own mind.
I’ve found that I do my best work when I prioritize time to invite stillness** — moments where thoughts fall into the background as just another sensory input.
Here are a few “techniques” that have become my faithful steeds over the years.
I. Sit quietly with a problem.
In the past, I used to start work tasks by manically typing. To jump start the idea machine. This is what solving problems is supposed to look like, right?
With this approach, I consistently stumbled into cul-de-sac solutions, sloppy thinking, and a lot of wasted time.
So I began to resist the urge to type or speak or think when first chewing on a problem.
I sit with the problem.
It’s quiet, I feel my heart, I shiver, I sense something arising within me, and then it goes away, and I get a sense that the problem is somewhere inside me, sorting itself out without my direct involvement.
After a few minutes of this, sometimes longer, I feel ready, and the next steps seem to unfold on their own.
Other times, I get pissed and manically type anyways. C’est la vie.
II. Write important things by hand first.
“One kind of aggression happens because you have stuffed so much stuff into your head and you want to let it out, to make a display of it.”
Chogyam Trungpa, True Perception
Writing by hand is slow.
We’re accustomed to try to keep up with the speed of our thoughts, so maybe there’s some frustration that we can’t handwrite as fast as we can think thoughts.
But the slow speed of handwriting is a feature, not a bug. When I take the time to write by hand, my thoughts slow down as I focus on the sensation of writing one word at a time.
I sense that there’s something else going on I can’t see or touch, but that I can feel. So I focus on writing. And then the words seem to just slowly spill out.
Rather than trying to squeeze myself like a lemon for thoughts, I go along with this quiet process. I write when I get a general sense of where I’m headed, and then I don’t rush the words out of the pen.
I’ve found this to be an invaluable tool for exploring new ideas and sticky problems. Something about it makes me less self-censoring. No idea too sacred, no idea too profane.
(Aaaand I often use this technique as an excuse to be lazy when on a deadline 😬)
III. Reserve collaboration for transforming existing work.
This one is a recent addition, and I borrowed it from the team at Levels Health:
“Some situations are better suited for synchronous meetings, particularly when there is a need to transform information instead of just transmit it.”
I try to avoid the classic “brainstorming” session, in which a group of people set up a meeting time to think through some ideas together in a vacuum.
What this supposedly collaborative free-form approach really does is force people to generate thoughts. It forces participants to create noise in their heads. There’s an anxious performative aspect to it: “Am I doing this right?”
Instead, brainstorming should only happen as a function of transforming existing work.
People go heads down sometime prior to the meeting to explore and percolate their own thoughts and notions (maybe using the two techniques I mentioned earlier).
When they meet, they can work together to transform each other’s existing work. Shared Google Docs, Figma pages, Miro whiteboards — these are spaces for playing with each other’s contributions. There’s less pressure to come up with ideas on the spot.
Here’s an example of the Figma design team doing this extremely well:
The task is to use existing work to inspire the group to engage with each other. If the team develops a tight bond, something awesome happens. Great work emerges.
Some very talented facilitators are able to make both heads-down and all-together processes occur in the span of a single meeting. There are ways to invite stillness in group settings. That’s some next-level shit I have yet to crack.
There’s a whole wall of text I wanna send you about Building a Team Culture That Honors Stillness. But my time is up and I’ve gotta hit send.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend.