I recently spoke with my thoughtful — and hilarious — friend Anne Grady. Anne is an internationally recognized speaker and author. Her latest books are Mind Over Moment and the Mind Over Moment Journal, which focus on how mindfulness can help us with resilience. Watch the video above to see our full discussion, or read the post below for some of my favorite excerpts from our conversation.
On the Practice of Mindfulness…
Anne: What I’ve found is that it’s really easy to get caught on a hamster wheel, where you’re just busy all the time…We forget “busy” doesn’t equal “productive.” “Busy” equals “exhausted”….
Mindfulness to me used to mean sitting in a full lotus and finding your Zen and eating tofu and drinking green tea. And so it really didn’t appeal to me because I’m a very Type A, fast-paced, goal-oriented, achievement-driven person. And every time I would sit and try to be still, my mind would race. Until I learned that meant it was working.
Mindfulness is really paying attention in each moment, and no one can do it flawlessly all the time. But pay attention on purpose to whether your thoughts are serving you, to whether your habits — the ones that you’ve cultivated throughout the course of your life — are helping you or hindering you.
It’s a way to step out of reactivity and really be purposeful about where you invest your time, your energy, and, like you say, your attention, because that’s really all we have.
Maura: I know that there are many different definitions of mindfulness. A lot of people sort of equate it with meditation, but you can be mindful without meditating. Although the two are certainly related.
I took a meditation class once, and I said to the teacher… “I can’t do this.” And he said, “Tell me what happens when you do this.”
I said, “I sit down. I try to clear my mind. And before I know it, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner or, you know, the phone call I have to make or what I have to do.”
And he said, “What do you do when that happens?”
I said, “Well, I try to clear my mind again, and I start all over.”
He said, “Guess what? They call it the practice of meditation for a reason. You’re doing it.”
Anne: Right. And that means it’s working…I’m a big science geek and a brain geek. The science behind it is that when we’re stressed and as we age, we lose gray matter density in our brain. The gray matter in your brain is the part that’s responsible for emotional regulation and managing your attention. Meditation and mindfulness are nothing more than brain training.
So when your mind wanders and you catch it and come back to being in the moment, you’re training your brain to direct your attention where you want it to go instead of where it naturally goes on its own.
….When you bring yourself back to the present over and over and over again, you expand the gray matter density.
They’ve done research where people in their 40s and 50s who meditate have the same gray matter density as people in their 20s and 30s….
So I practice mindfulness every morning. I get up and I have a sip of coffee, and I have my dogs. And I just pet them. And I smell their puppy breath, and I pet their fur, and I just feel how soft it is, and I think about the fact that I’m grateful that, even though they drive me crazy, they’re my therapy dogs, and I love them.
So even just something as simple as when you’re taking a walk, look around and pay attention to the leaves and the birds. You could walk down the same street 100 times, and if you’re being mindful, you’re going to see something different every single time.
On Technology and Distraction…
Maura: I talk a lot with my clients about how our technology has created in us a habit of distraction. I love that the work you do teaches us how to reset those habits.
Anne: And I don’t know about you, but for me, the phone is like the world’s smallest slot machine. It is this constant dopamine rush, like “Who’s going to email me?”
We’re constantly waiting for the next shoe to drop. We think, “Oh, it won’t be so bad if I just wake up and check my email,” but what you don’t realize — I’ve never woken up and gotten an email that said, “You just won the lottery. Congratulations.”
Cognitively, when we wake up and we start checking email and social and watching the news, we’re hijacked. And…our built in negativity bias causes us to focus more on what’s wrong than what’s right.
Think about how many times you’ve woken up, something bad happens, and then the rest of the day just spirals. The lights turn red, and people drive you crazy, and something goes wrong. It’s really easy to attune your brain to that.
But when you start paying attention to where your brain is going, you get to ask yourself that question, “Is this serving me? Is this a habit that’s helping get me closer to where I want to be, or am I just caught in this wheel doing the same thing over and over again?”
The thing I don’t want is to look back in 20 years and say “Wow, I had so much to be grateful for. But I worked right through it.”
On Attention Management…
Maura: I think that mindfulness is part of an attention management practice. I look at attention management as a collection of behaviors, kind of like healthy living is a collection of behaviors, right? You can count calories, and you can exercise, and you can drink water. You can do all these things under the heading of “healthy living.”
That’s how I define attention management. It’s focus, it’s concentration, it’s resetting your habits, it’s being mindful. It’s getting in flow, it’s daydreaming. It’s all of these different brain states that you can practice.
But I think the ultimate goal of attention management is how you’re describing mindfulness or — correct me if I’m wrong — but I think that once we practice all these behaviors that I put under the umbrella of attention management, the ultimate benefit we get is recognizing when our attention is being stolen, recognizing what brain state we’re in, and intentionally switching to a more productive brain state.
Anne: Exactly. And I think that the problem is that we think if we just work harder, we’ll be happier. And our measuring stick for happiness is how much we get done.
I constantly have to remind myself that your resume and your eulogy shouldn’t be the same thing. No one’s going to stand over your grave saying, “Maura worked 80 hours a week. She rocked it.”
Anne: I think for me, mindfulness is a collection of tools just like for you, attention management is. So mindfulness for me is really being purposeful about where you direct your attention. It’s paying attention to your brain and whether the stories that you tell yourself about yourself are serving you.
On Productivity and Priorities…
Anne: Our life is nothing more than a collection of moments. And that’s why I named the book Mind Over Moment….
I love bingeing and “Netflix-ing” and cheeseburgers and beer just as much as the next person. And I enjoy all of those things. And then I think, “Okay, what’s the next best thing I can do for myself? Is it another six hours of Tiger King, or is there something more productive?” Or not even more productive.
I think — and tell me if you agree with this or not, it’s just something that I’ve been noodling a lot on lately — my measuring stick has always been productivity and tying your worth to what you produce.
Talk to me about your philosophy on that because I think being productive is fantastic. But when you create your identity around what you accomplish, then you create gaps in happiness and fulfillment and social connection and other areas.
Maura: What I tell people is how productive you are is how much progress you have made on the results that are significant to you. And the best part of that is that you get to decide what is significant. Significant today might be taking care of yourself, significant today might be spending time with your family.
….For most people, significant things for us are to be a good person and to be a good parent and a good spouse and a good friend and a good volunteer and a good global citizen, right?
We have all of these parts of our lives, so the ultimate results for us are to do good and to be good and to be kind. And it all comes back to what kind of person we are. What I tell people is, if you become empowered over your productivity, you can live a life of choice instead of a life of reaction and distraction.
Anne: Amen, sister! Yeah, yeah.
And something I tell people all the time is we’ve gotten so good at prioritizing our schedule, we suck at scheduling our priorities. Right? Like, if I were to track my time for a week, would it be reflective of what I say is most important?
Quite honestly, if I’m not deliberate, you would think my computer and phone are my best friends. You’d think my phone is my lover. I spend more time with my phone than my husband, and it’s so easy to do that because it allows you to just go on auto so you’re in line checking out at the grocery store….
Maura: You’re standing in line, and so you pull out your phone….In any pause of activity now, we think, “This is a waste of time. I can be productive! I’m waiting in line, I’ve got a minute.” Even stopped at a red light, right?
Anne: I can knock out a quick email….
Maura: And the real problem with that — the reason that it makes it even more unproductive to do, do, do, all the time — is because in those in-between moments, during those daydreaming or mind-wandering moments, if we just pause and we just be, then our mind wanders, and that’s when insights are created.
You can’t say to your brain, “I will now have an insight.”….You have to let your mind wander. It’s those in between moments, and they’re almost gone. We’ve squeezed them out of our lives entirely.
Anne: Right. And I think that’s where creativity happens. That’s where introspection happens. We went from a world where there were no digital devices to relying on them for everything.
On the Link Between Resilience and Mindfulness…
Anne: Resilience. A lot of people define it as the ability to bounce back, but I think it goes further than that.
Resilience is using the adversity in your life, which we all have. We all experience five to six traumas in a lifetime. I’m an overachiever; already knocked that out….But for me, resilience is using the difficult stuff — the tough stuff, the adversity, the tragedy, the trauma, the sadness — to get stronger.
The only way you can do that is to be deliberate about how you’re thinking and how you’re growing and the skills that you’re building and the habits that you’re cultivating. Resilience is just a set of habits. Period. Not just one habit makes you successful. Not one habit makes you healthy. Well, not one habit makes you resilient.
Mindfulness, for me at least, is the ability to come back and say, “Is what I’m doing building my resilience muscle or depleting it?”
I just got my first tattoo. I’m 45 years old, and it’s crazy because I’ve been telling everybody all year I’m 46. And I literally believed I was 46. I feel like I get a free year. But I got my first tattoo. And I know I shared this with you already. It’s a mindfulness symbol. It’s to remind me to breathe. It’s to remind me to come back.
What sabotages our resilience is when we are not in control of our brain. When our nervous system is so out of whack that it’s spending more time trying to protect itself than it is growing.
You can’t be resilient if you’re constantly irritable, distracted, ungrateful, not connected. All of those things build resilience. Mindfulness is just a huge bucket of that with a lot of different ingredients inside of it….
And so for me, resilience and mindfulness mean being aware of where you’re directing that attention. And, “Is it serving you?” Everybody has crappy stuff that happens to them, right? You get to choose — “Am I going to be a victim of it?”
The way I talk about it is, “What is the story you’re telling yourself?” So, for example, your brain doesn’t know the difference between being excited or stressed. Same exact physiological, neurological thing happens. The only thing different between being excited and being stressed is the story you’re telling yourself about it.
Mindfulness is thinking, “I didn’t even know I was telling myself a story, but I am and I tell myself the story all the time. Is it helping me?”
“No.” Okay. Well, next time I tell that story to myself, I’m going to catch myself. And if I forget that time, then I’ll do it the time after that.
On Creating Joy…
Anne: The last thing that I’ll say is something that I’ve learned just very recently. We’re so fixated on managing stress. We have stress management books and tools and everything else to go with it.
But it’s kind of like saying, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Right when you tell your brain not to think about something, that’s where it centers. And so when we say, “Don’t be stressed,” we’re more stressed.
And we’re inviting it. So what I have learned recently that I just love — I didn’t even have this in the book because it’s literally so recent — instead of focusing on managing stress, focus on creating joy.
Instead of focusing on reducing stress, focus on increasing positive emotions. One of the things really resilient people do is they proactively cultivate positive emotions.
Gratitude, optimism, social connection, self-care, doing for other people. All of those things create dopamine and serotonin, and the unintended side effect of that is reduced cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones.
So instead of trying to stop doing something, think about what you can start doing that has the same side effect.
Maura: Absolutely. It’s great advice. I know that you study habits, as I do.
That’s one of the key ingredients to changing habits, because you can’t really stop a habit. You can only interrupt it, disrupt it, change it, change the way it happens, replace it. Exactly. Yes. So I love that reframing from stress to joy. It’s awesome.
Anne: Well, I am so grateful for our friendship and I’m so grateful we got to spend this time together, and to be able to see you. As always, I’m proud of you….
Maura: It was so good to chat with you, my friend. Go get Anne’s book Mind Over Moment and the journal because there are some great exercises in there!