Applying Mindfulness to “Break Through the Wall”

Jul 8, 2023 | Articles, Director Insights, Leadership

By Christianna Kearns

Recently, I was a panelist at HFMA’s Women’s Conference held at Danville, CA on May 5, 2023, discussing mindfulness in the workplace. As we prepared for the event, the other panelists and I discussed what mindfulness meant to us. From a  research perspective, we noted that mindfulness is often associated with meditation and yoga, but it can also include various techniques that help keep you centered and in the moment. We agreed that mindfulness can be defined as a means of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. With this broad definition in mind, I began to think about how I had used mindfulness to deal with work-related stressors and in my personal life as an amateur athlete and marathon runner. I quickly realized that the same tools applied to both activities in my life.

As I planned my presentation leading up to the panel event, I thought about the last few months and how I used mindfulness to evolve through a few tricky situations. Work had been going well; my leadership team was developing beautifully into their roles, and our projects were going smoothly. Outside work, I was in maintenance mode training. I ran and trained in my comfort zone, not too fast or slow, breezing through workouts with efficiency and purpose.. Life was good; no complaints. Smooth sailing, right?  Then came the chaos. 

 Modeling Ohio State Professor and psychological researcher, Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s FSNP stages of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing), one of my larger direct report departments at work entered the storming phase. Behaviors were less than polite, staff argued amongst themselves, and frustrations were high. At the same time, I had just started a new marathon training cycle preparing for the Tokyo Marathon, and I was suddenly hitting the wall every single run. (For the non-runners reading this, that means completely running out of energy and literally feeling like you ran into a brick wall). Starting each training session, I felt stressed and was telling myself the prescribed workout was too hard before I’d even begun. Needless to say, things were not going well. These moments led me to tap into the mindfulness techniques my running coach had taught me before my last race.  

As part of my coach’s training program, she taught me about mantras and being mindful of how we communicate with ourselves and others. I realized how telling myself something was hard before I’d even tried was setting myself up for failure. I had to check the message I was telling myself, shifting from negative thoughts to a positive mantra. Peloton fans can relate, using Christine’s mental calisthenics of “I am, I can, I will, I do” repetitions. Keeping my thoughts positive and saying that mantra repeatedly in my head during training sessions allowed me to enter into a flow state where every step felt easy (or at least easier, since my initial state of mind was, “this is not enjoyable!”). Finally, I was making progress and ran one of my best races, nearly matching a PR best time using positive self-talk throughout the run. 

In the work environment, this meant actively listening to others and being present in conversations rather than becoming distracted by miscellaneous thoughts or multitasking while discussions were taking place. Before I went into meetings, I used a mindfulness technique called “box breathing” to calm the mind and increase focus. Box breathing uses the rule of “4’s” and is as simple as inhaling slowly over four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and then holding your breath for four seconds. 

Being mindful during the difficult conversations I was having with my departments (cost reductions, increasing quality, increasing patient satisfaction) helped keep my emotions in check and allowed for more thoughtful, productive communication with staff and other leaders. The more mindful I was, the more receptive the staff was to improving processes. To assist the department in improving their communications with each other, the leadership team taught them to be mindful of the words they chose and to utilize a peer feedback model. In the words of Ted Lasso, this meant “being curious, not judgmental.” For example, instead of saying, “The email you sent me was so rude,” try, “Last Tuesday, you sent me an email regarding our project. Can we talk more about that so I can better understand where you’re coming from and what you’re thinking?” After some practice during department meetings, we started to see improvement in staff relationships. Using these techniques had worked. The teams moved into the norming phase, the arguing began to subside, and some fantastic new ideas began flowing. 

Finding mindfulness techniques that work for you can be very empowering. The use of these tools can be applied to various activities, from job-related tasks and dealing with stress, to running marathons. By staying present and focused, using positive self-talk, and practicing mindful breathing, one can reduce stress, increase well-being and improve performance. Whether you are facing a challenging project at work or have decided to pursue one of those big, lofty goals you’ve set for yourself from a professional or self-improvement standpoint, mindfulness can help you stay calm, focused, and motivated to get to the finish line.

Christianna Kearns, MBA, FACHE, is Senior Administrative Director, Salinas Valley Health. She chairs the CAHL Career Development & Transition Committee.