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Learn the Power of Mindfulness with Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom from Break Together – 004

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Patrick:            Hi, Elizabeth. Thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with me on the podcast Rise Above Your Best. I have been looking forward to this for quite some time in regards to talking about your company, Break Together, and all the work that you’re doing in regards to mindfulness, whether its with companies or with individuals because I think in the environment that we’re in and the research that sort of backs up what you’re doing and the mission that you’re on, the benefit that that has to us is so great. So, again, looking forward to really hearing more about your company and what inspired you to start Break Together.

Elizabeth:         Patrick, I am so excited to be here and I absolutely love the name of your podcast, Rise Above Your Best, and I know that’s at the heart of the work you do, so thank you for inviting me.

Patrick:            Yeah. Thank you for that compliment.

Elizabeth:         What inspired me to start Break Together actually resulted from working in well-being and health and wellness benefits for employees for the last 20 years. And I was working with a large national company and we were spending about a half a billion dollars a year on health benefits for employees. So that’s about $4,000 per employee-

Patrick:            That’s amazing.

Elizabeth:         …just for health benefits. And what I was noticing was that we were doing all the things that we were supposed to be doing, trying to manage trend, it’s what it’s called, trying to manage your healthcare spend. And I’m looking outside of my office and people are stressed. I was literally on call getting approval for a budget, looking out of my office one day, and a woman was crying. And so, I thought, oh my gosh, something must have happened to her family, right? Or someone. As soon as I could get off the call I rushed out to find out what was going on and what I learned was that it was work-related. She had been working on a project for a really long time, for several months, and a file had not been transported properly from one system to another and that was enough to put her over the edge. And to me, I was like this isn’t brain surgery that we’re doing here. This is work, and it’s important work, but I was just struggling with, you know, a lot of people, if I was really paying attention, were really at that edge, at that edge of just one thing could set them off.

Elizabeth:         And so, I began researching that and at the same time, our CEO had gone to a resiliency or a mindfulness retreat and he came back and shared that with us, with our team, and said gee, how can we look at introducing our population, which was like 26000 employees, to mindfulness? And at the time, back in 2014-15, there weren’t a ton of programs out there. Google’s had Search Inside Yourself and there are many wonderful programs out there now that are focused on leadership development. I really didn’t have a lot of resources at that time focused on the individual and I’m on smaller teams and getting out of the t-suite and that really inspired us to do a pilot at the company I was at that was a very successful pilot. We put in some really simple practices. We partnered with our vendors to help educate people about the importance of pausing and of taking breaks.

Elizabeth:         Breaks have been something that, from a research perspective, back in 1908, Sydney Chapman wrote a piece and did a study on the hours of labor and it was very fascinating because he identified that after eight hours in a day and 40 hours in a week, we human beings lose our productivity rates. And so we stop being as productive as we think we are. And so that was something that helped feed our own pilot, is we need to make sure people are taking their breaks, and what we noticed was that they might be taking breaks, but they’re going straight to another source of stress, which is our addictive telephones.

Elizabeth:         And so we really started this pilot by just helping people unplug. And it turns out that was in alignment with all the science out there about being mindful and unplugging. And that, to me, was really inspiring, is that this is not complex, but it takes action, and when we were at the end of our pilot, what happened was is that there were some other really important projects that needed to happen before we could get to this larger work at that company, and by then I felt like this is my mission, this is what I need to help other companies do, because not everybody like Google can afford a chief mindfulness officer, right? So that was how I began and my focus is on small and mid-size companies.

Patrick:            It’s interesting, when you talk about the work around mindfulness, when I think of it in regards to controlling stress. And to me, that’s really what stress is all about, is stress comes from our lack of control, whether it’s lack of financial control or lack of business control, right? That’s what brings about stress, and to me that’s the beauty of what you talk about in terms of mindfulness. I think it gives us that sense of control back.

Elizabeth:         That’s exactly right, Patrick. And after three years of doing this research, one really simple observation is that we have spent 30 years building ways of connecting people, right? When I started in the workplace, I had a typewriter and a phone and mail. And all the things that we’ve added in terms of how we connect with email and IM and texting and all those other layers, have not replaced anything else, so we have all these things coming at us and I think we’ve become really, we’ve impressively adapt technology to help us streamline work. The piece that is missing is helping people and human beings adapt to that technology. Helping them understand that these are tools and that we are not machines, that we have to pause and have these breaks in order for our human machines to perform their best.

Patrick:            Yeah, ’cause you can look at it and think, I now have all these additional resources, yet I still don’t have control over this.

Elizabeth:         Yes. That’s exactly right.

Patrick:            In the opposite direction. Now you mentioned, obviously, you had a CEO that was behind this. As you’re going out to organizations now, how do you deal with that in terms of making sure that this is gonna be adopted, because we certainly work in similar areas around development of organizations is there’s an intellectual understanding of it and then there’s the doing piece. How do you bridge that?

Elizabeth:         You’re good, Patrick. That is the biggest challenge. So, I’ve had companies, I’ve had the owner of a law firm actually, call me in and say, I want you to do this for my people. I like what you’re doing, I’ve read about it, I want you to do it for my people. And this person wasn’t willing to be engaged in it. And so, permission is huge, as you know, in behavior change. You can say anything you want, it’s like this at work, it’s like this in our families, when we’re raising our kids, if you’re not walking the talk and if you’re not demonstrating the behavior you wish to see, then it’s not going to be widely adapted, right? There are always gonna be the early adopters. You’re gonna bring something into a company and you’ll have like 20 people out of 100 say, oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting for you to do this, right? And they’ll try it and they’ll be there. But to get that other 80% really has to be strategic and the leadership has to be engaged to deliver the vision and to demonstrate the behaviors that are desired.

Elizabeth:         And so, I actually make sure that when I’m doing this work, if it’s just, not just, but if it’s with a team and not an entire organization, then the leadership of that team is engaged, and if it’s with an organization, then all of the leaders have to be engaged in order for it to be effective.

Patrick:            Total congruence. You need to walk the talk. I see it on my end as well of organizations that say, this is important for you, but I won’t be doing this.

Elizabeth:         Exactly. And I get it. You and I are not making light of that situation, right? It is really hard when you feel like everything is on your shoulders and you’re just trying to stick it out and do the best thing you can to run your company, that is stressful work and I think what we’re learning today is that that boss leadership in this, it might’ve been effective in the past when we were doing different kinds of work, but in a, they call this a knowledge worker society because people are really using by and large their brains to get their jobs done in a way that’s less manual to some degree. And even then, if you’re working with a machine, there’s technology involved today so everything’s engaged. And so I think what we’re learning is that the power needs to be pushed out from that singular leader and so we’re bumping up against a shift in the way our companies are gonna be structured over time.

Patrick:            I would agree. I think our landscape continues to change in a lot of areas as it relates to this. So when you were going into an organization, what’s the first thing that you do?

Elizabeth:         The first thing I do is have a conversation and really get to understand how the organization works. So let’s say I’m working with a team, I’ll start there, what are the roles on the team and how is the team functioning today? Because the specific work that I do is teaching people how to find just two minute intervals throughout their work flow and that work flow looks like one thing for a CEO and looks a little different for somebody that’s sitting in a call center being monitored every moment, so I help people look at where are their natural stops and starts and pauses in the day and their particular work flow. We look at setting a vision with the leaders to say, or the manager to say, this is how we want people to have permission to take time for thinking and for refueling. And then there’s a whole process of setting forth the communications and the training and then giving people tools to practice. So, it’s a flow.

Patrick:            So if I’m listening right now, I’m with an organization that hasn’t adopted mindfulness or the ability for somebody like yourself to come in, what are some things that I could do on my own that you’d recommend just to help get me into a better place?

Elizabeth:         So, number one, I would Google mindfulness or you can go to my site, at BreakTogether.net. There’s a resource page that has the research. Because I feel like once you start reading about it, it helps you to understand how it impacts professionals, how thinking and giving yourself pause really is scientific and there’s a millennia of research behind it. In terms of individual things to do each day, I start with just when you get into your office, think about how your day is structured. So when do you go from meeting to meeting? When are you stopping one email or one project and moving to the next? Those are the perfect places to just try a moment of reflection. And a moment of reflection looks like, it can be a couple different things.

Elizabeth:         I really like people, most of us are sitting too long during the day, so I like to people to maybe just stand up, anchor your feet to the floor, and take three deep breaths. And it might sound, oh that’s so simple, how could that matter? If you take a deep breath into your diaphragm, you’re really triggering what’s called the vagus nerve and that is an immediate trigger to reduce cortisone, to reduce your stress hormone, by taking a few deep breaths. So that’s a wonderful place to start. And by and large, even after hundreds of people providing me feedback on the practices each day, stretching and deep breathing are the number one activities that the find helps them manage their work.

Patrick:            So simple.

Elizabeth:         It is simple. It’s just behavior change, right? That’s hard.

Patrick:            Right.

Elizabeth:         In our minds, we make behavior change hard.

Patrick:            I am always reminded, I listen to a podcaster, Gary Vaynerchuk, and he speaks about reading about pushups you don’t get any stronger, you have to do the pushups to get stronger, and I think it’s with any of these behaviors, right? Intellectually I think we understand this, it’s making the space for that to happen.

Elizabeth:         Exactly.

Patrick:            And really, to me, I had heard somebody else say this is about to be’s and not to do’s. To do’s are sort of checklist things to do whereas to be’s, you start out the day with a place of how can I find time to be more mindful today? As opposed to a checklist.

Elizabeth:         Exactly. I love that.

Patrick:            So, to be’s versus to do’s.

Elizabeth:         That’s exactly it. Just trying.

Patrick:            So with that said, how do you find time to apply mindfulness in your own life?

Elizabeth:         That is challenging for me just as it is for anyone. The places that I’ve found really are three areas. So, when I wake up in the morning, I have decided to just set my alarm clock for 15 minutes before when I used to wake up. So instead of six, it’s 5:45. And I use an app call Whil, w-h-i-l, and I actually also represent that. So just to be fair, but they have a tool, Headspace is a free one for individuals. Whil is an employer-focused tool they have reporting it, et cetera. So I like to track it, I like to track what I’m doing, and so I use a meditation each morning and you can choose what you want to think about. So I wanna be calm, I want to lower my stress, I want to practice self-love, there’s all different things you can choose and then you plug in how long you want to do that thing. So, I try to do 10 minutes. And so I do that first before I get out of bed and before I start checking anything.

Elizabeth:         And then I’ve been trying to also incorporate five minutes of yoga poses, or just any kind of stretching, just to get your body moving. My grandmother did that until she was 95 and I really think it makes a difference in how we age. So that’s a great place to start because hopefully it’s before anyone is able to get to you, that wake up time.

Elizabeth:         The other times for me is in between activities, like I said. We automatically seem to schedule meetings for an hour. Why do we do that? Or half an hour, right? There’s no reason you can’t really, if you’ve prepped, to get a meeting done in 20 minutes or 40 minutes. And so I try to use that time in between for taking a walk around the building or just thinking and allowing my mind to drift, because that’s when we do our best problem-solving. And so those are the places where I practice really every day now and then I also try to get out into nature every day.

Patrick:            Yeah, I think routine is so important in terms of being able to … Because then once you’re in it, it’s like anything else, right? It just becomes part of who you are. It’s not to say you don’t miss certain days, but all in all you do the same thing every day.

Elizabeth:         Yes.

Patrick:            Which is important.

Elizabeth:         And it’s better for my family. My relationships are so much stronger now that I’m applying some of these practices in my own life, like listening.

Patrick:            Yeah. You mentioned another great point there, Elizabeth, in terms of the transferability of this practice. And I see it in my own work in terms of what I’m doing, is to say that we’re not compartmentalized or we really can’t be in terms of what we do at work and what we do at home, and I’m just curious, do you hear that quite often in terms of the work that you do and people say, it’s certainly helped me at work here but my life at home, I’m hearing it there too that I’m a different person when I show up?

Elizabeth:         Absolutely. I actually find that sometimes, depending on the work situation, people may experience it more quickly at home because a lot of people work independently today and so they’re not necessarily interacting with other people. So there’s two areas that you’ll see immediate impact as you start practicing. One is just the quality of work that you’re doing, the ability to maybe break through in creative thinking. The other immediate impact is just how you …

Elizabeth:         Mindfulness to me, I’ll just go back to that definition, is around self-awareness and being present with yourself in any given moment. And if you can take that pause and be present with yourself, it gives you space to really allow others to do the same, to just maybe listen to your husband when he’s walking through the door, or your partner, or your child when they’re walking through the door, and instead of being ready to pounce and get everything out that you’ve been waiting to say to them all day, and I have found that to be really amazing. Like, just be quiet as the person comes in the door and allow them to … ‘Cause I work at home sometimes, right? And so sometimes Jeff would walk in the door and I’d be like, [inaudible 00:17:43] here’s all the things that happened ’cause I didn’t have another human being in front of me that day. And now it’s like so nice, I plan to do something else while he comes in and just gets his space. It’s amazing.

Patrick:            Yeah. So, as you know, a lot of the work that I do is in leadership while dealing with emotional intelligence too, and certainly mindfulness is a key component to that idea of both awareness of self, emotional self, expression and awareness of others, this space that you’re able to get out of mindfulness, so I can totally see that.

Elizabeth:         Yes.

Patrick:            It’s great stuff. So, a question for you. Any particular book that you think too that has really sort of shaped who you are? Anything that you’ve read that you’ve said, these one or two books are two that I think have been instrumental in what I do or certainly ones that you recommend to other people?

Elizabeth:         Well, communication is one of my favorite things, and behavior change, kind of neck and neck. And so, have you heard the Heath brothers? Chip and Dan Heath?

Patrick:            I have, yeah.

Elizabeth:         They have three books that I’ve read that I keep going back to. Made to Stick, which is really about sticking messages because I’m really always interested in communication and how we communicate our ideas and our visions. The other one is, well their newest one is The Power of Moments, and that is just a fantastic book around the ability that we have, because I always, most of my work hinges around the power of one or two minutes, two for you, The Power of Moments is beautiful and the impact that we as human beings can make when we’re serving other human beings in just a minute. And so those are newer books, but I use them all the time because their vision and the examples that they use are really powerful that we can apply really quickly to the work that we’re doing.

Patrick:            Yeah. I haven’t read their latest book, but I did read Made to Stick and the whole concept of stickiness, I think it was a great book.

Elizabeth:         It’s good.

Patrick:            Very good stuff. Another question is around the idea that as I do this work and listen to what people do and how they’ve gotten to where they are, sort of their journeys, most often it comes back to the challenges that they’ve faced at some point in their lives, and found that those are really the points of our lives that are our power. I say, our past is our power, and those are the things that often have shaped who we become later on and I’m just curious, from your own experience, is there any one or two sort of challenges that you look back on and obviously in the moment, not something you’d want to experience again, but you look at it now and say, those things really were defining moments in terms of who I am?

Elizabeth:         Yes. Of course. If you’re anywhere in life, if you’re paying attention, there are things that are happening. And not to be flip, but for me there are probably 500 of those moments, but the two that really always rise up for me are … The first one was that I, for a variety of reasons, had to leave home very early and I wasn’t able to go to college right away, and so I was a secretary. And when I moved to Maine 30 years ago, the president that I worked for, I was his executive secretary, really saw something in me that I had not yet seen, and inspired me to go back to school and to take courses and to move from being a secretary. By the way, I was not that great of a typist, but I really loved working with the customers, which he noticed, and so I moved into sales and marketing and that was his vision of me that I didn’t have and I love working within communications and relationship development.

Elizabeth:         And then that, over time, over many years, led to a job that really put me in a position to do what I’m doing now is I was responsible for a national insurance company, responsible for building a program and having a relationship with a large private equity firm in New York City and helping to oversee a multi-faceted program that was health benefits for several of the companies that the equity firm owned. And I was really nervous about my ability to basically work with people that I viewed to be many levels up from the work that I had done previously, and that lesson, just going in and using the same tools that I use for everything else, right? Like if they say, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, right? And so, it looked to be this enormous project and I was feeling like oh my gosh, why did I say yes to this? And then I realized that the tools are the same. You break the project down, you collaborate with others, and then you march through and get the work done. And I was just really lucky to work with a phenomenal group of people. There were 70 different work groups on that project and now I feel like I really could handle any project that came my way and that would not have happened without the trust of those two leaders that I worked for.

Patrick:            It’s interesting, we rely on that primitive part of our brain so much, this self-preservation part for fight or flight and it often overreacts to protective ourselves. I liken it to a broken smoke detector.

Elizabeth:         Yes.

Patrick:            It goes off all the time but there’s really not an emergency. And unless we understand that, which it did now, of saying that I’ve been there before, this isn’t really a threat, I can do this, this is like burnt food on the stove. I don’t need to call the fire department. I can take care of this myself.

Elizabeth:         Exactly.

Patrick:            We can recognize those, so that certainly is a great example. So if you were to go back to that 20 year old person, what would you tell yourself today?

Elizabeth:         I would tell myself to read more, listen more, and just get in and do it. Sometimes I would get in and do things when I was 20 without any research and now research is at our fingertips. And it’s so much nicer to start at a place where you at least have some idea of what you’re trying to go after. So, I would say that and the doing is so important. Trust that inner voice and follow it because it’s there for a reason and the pausing allows us to actually hear it and then to listen to it and possibly even act on it, ideally.

Patrick:            Good advice. So, as we sort of wrap things up, any one saying or quote that you tend to rally around?

Elizabeth:         Yes. Every human matters. Every single one. And I find that my vision and my work is around helping empower individuals so that work does not feel like work. We’ve just, I think, come a long way from … You know, there’s a lot of folks at the different levels of the organizations that don’t feel empowered and I believe that it’s not hard. It takes effort to bring everybody into a place where they do feel empowered and that they matter and that’s my mission.

Patrick:            Well, it’s a great mission, and helping people understand that you always have the ability to do just a little bit more than whatever you did today, this idea of rising above your best falls directly into what you’re talking about here in terms of mindfulness and just being able to do a little bit more every day to get where you need to go. And thank you for the work that you do. It’s exciting. I love hearing about the stories and the success that you have and the environment that we’re coming into where I think this is becoming more mainstream and understood as not a nice to have, but really a need to have, both organizationally and personally. So, thank you for that and I look forward to speaking with you in the future, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth:         Thank you so much, Patrick. I really appreciate the opportunity and I love the work that you do and I believe that one day that if the companies that are not doing this work will be the anomalies, so thank you for your journey in this.

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