By Laura Mahr
Most of us need more time, not more on our to do list. If increasing your wellbeing feels like another thing to do, it may be helpful to invite wellbeing into mini-moments during your day, such as the moments while you wait. Improving your wellbeing when you’re already engaged in a task on your to-do list may make feeling better more realizable. The “mini-moments of wellbeing” approach provides an opportunity to do something that you are already doing, but to do it better. This is done by first paying attention to what you are thinking, and then by consciously “turning your thoughts around” so that your thoughts are working for you and not against you. In this way, you shift your mind away from stress-producing thoughts and toward wellbeing. An easy place to start is by bringing “mini-moments of wellbeing” to times in your day that are already scheduled, but in which nothing specific is being demanded of your mind.
1. Make a list of all of the places/times during your day when you are waiting (e.g., for an appointment or for a meeting to start, for your case to be called in court, at a traffic light, in your child’s school pickup line).
2. Think about your current pattern of thinking while you’re waiting (e.g., going over what you will say; worrying about “what if” scenarios; ruminating about things that happened in the past).
3. Choose three of the places/times on your list to practice a “mini-moment of wellbeing” in the upcoming week.
Then try “turning your thoughts around” while you are waiting by doing this:
1. Notice (be mindful of) what you are thinking while you wait.
2. Notice your physical sensations (e.g., tight shoulders, sore low back, clenched stomach).
3. Notice your emotions (e.g., fear, worry, overwhelm).
4. Think thoughts that instead help you feel calm and promote a greater sense of wellbeing instead of those that increase your discomfort or stress.
5. If all else fails, focus on your breathing.
Note: As you experiment with this technique, you may notice that the more stressful the circumstance, the less success you have “turning your thoughts around” and the more challenging it is to think of things that promote your wellbeing. You may want to try this technique when you’re under less stress. For example, when you’re waiting for a friend for lunch or in the checkout line at the grocery store.
Here’s how a young lawyer recently put this technique to work. A few weeks after I shared this concept at a mindfulness and neuroscience CLE I taught in a North Carolina Judicial District, I spoke with one of the attendees. Charles (not his real name) shared that he had been “turning his thoughts around” with great success. With his permission, I share here how Charles shifted his thoughts from those that increase his stress to those that foster calm and confidence, creating a “mini-moment of wellbeing.”
Before applying the technique: Charles appears in court frequently. Prior to learning the “turn your thoughts around” technique and using it to create a “mini-moment of wellbeing,” his typical pattern was: get to court, meet his client, wait for the judge, worry until the case is called. While he sat with his client waiting for the judge, Charles’s mind would start to churn, going over all of the worst-case scenarios that could happen while arguing his case, such as, “The judge may do this...opposing counsel may do that…something unexpected may come up.” He reported that his internal dialogue sounded like this, “What if I missed something…what if I forget what I want to say...what if I don’t know the answer?” Charles shared that after going through the mental churning process, he felt more stressed and experienced shortness of breath, a tight throat, and less optimism about winning the case than when he was preparing the night before.
While applying the technique: Charles’s first step in “turning his thoughts around” was to pay attention to his waiting-for-the-judge pattern. He decided to be “mindful” (pay attention to what is happening in the present moment without judgment) of his habit of thinking about all of the unknowns and potential awful scenarios while he waited. He did this by noticing his thoughts (“Wow, I’m completely focused on all of the things that could go wrong.”) Second, he noticed his physical sensations (“When I think about all of the things that could go wrong, I feel increasingly tense, my shoulders get tight, and my heart rate elevates.”) Third, he tuned into his emotions (“I feel dread and then my thoughts begin to scatter; I feel less clear about my arguments.”)
Once he completed this mindful thoughts/physical sensations/emotions inventory, and concluded that his thoughts and the correlating physical sensations were decreasing his feelings of wellbeing, Charles then tried to “turn his thoughts around.” He started shifting his thinking from stress-producing thoughts to wellbeing-promoting thoughts (“I know my arguments, I know the facts, I’ve done what I can do to prepare, and there’s nothing more for me to do right now except wait for the judge and breathe.”).
Results from applying the technique: As Charles “turned his thoughts around,” he noticed his breathing slowed and his body felt more relaxed. He also noticed that he felt more focused, clear, and confident when he entered the courtroom.
A coaching client shared with me that she uses the “turn your thoughts around” concept when she walks her dog. The first few times she went for a walk after learning the technique, she focused her attention on what she was thinking as she was walking. She was surprised to notice that she spends the entire walk thinking about her to-do list and how little time she has to do it, resulting in feeling physically “worked out” but mentally exhausted at the end of her walk. Now, to create “mini-moments of wellbeing,” she “turns her thoughts around” when walking by focusing on a simple positive phrase, such as, “relax now, do later.” She notes that after focusing her mind in this way, she now feels mentally clear and energized after walking, and delightedly more connected to her dog.
If you’re interested in research related to the brain and downtime, peruse this article, which links to numerous research studies on the subject: bit.ly/2F06pDV. If you’d like to hear leading-edge neuropsychologist Rick Hanson define wellbeing and explain why cultivating it a few seconds at a time can enable lasting happiness, tune in to this three-minute video: bit.ly/2Hl0Ou0. If it would be helpful to hear a more in-depth explanation of how this technique works, listen to episode 82 of The Resilient Lawyer podcast, in which I am interviewed by Jeena Cho on becoming more resilient through mindfulness and neuroscience: bit.ly/2HMzLZu.
If the “turning your thoughts around” concept doesn’t resonate, try something else. For example, create a “mini-moment of wellbeing” by doing a few stretches to release tension in your neck and shoulders while waiting for a meeting to start. Or think of all of the things you’re looking forward to doing over the weekend while waiting in line; look at the sky (or something else that lets your mind wander) instead of checking your email when waiting for someone to text you back; recall the best moments in your day when you’re waiting to fall asleep. Over time, you may notice that giving yourself “mini-moments of wellbeing” is no longer on your to-do list as it has become the way you live your life—and that life feels all the better because of it.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Laura’s cutting edge work to build resilience to burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma in the practice of law is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, two decades of experience as an educator and professional trainer, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. She is an advisory member of the 28th Judicial District’s Wellness Committee and the author of the Mindful Moment column in the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program’s quarterly newsletter. Find out more about her work at consciouslegalminds.com.