It seems everywhere you look these days someone is touting the benefits of mindfulness — a practice that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, describes simply as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Research shows that people who practice mindfulness are less stressed, more focused and better able to regulate their emotions.
But, if you’re a busy working parent, how do you build mindfulness into an already-packed day? Those of us with kids and jobs often feel tired and rushed. We’re constantly multi-tasking, juggling personal and professional responsibilities, and feeling stressed about all we can’t get done. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, 56 percent of working parents say they find it difficult to balance their time between work and family. Though I now counsel others on how to break this cycle, I can certainly relate to it.
Years ago, I worked as Twitter’s head of learning and development when the company was growing 350% year after year. It was like being on a rocket ship, and I loved the work. But I found myself struggling to stay connected to my family. I can remember the afternoon my son’s school called to make me aware that no one had come to pick him up. He was in first grade at the time, and I burst into tears.
Although I was already committed to a mindfulness practice (I would sometimes sneak away to the meditation and yoga room we had in the office), I was still having trouble figuring out a way to weave presence and awareness into my day. Here’s the solution that I came up with and now recommend to others:
Start by spending a few minutes writing down what you do each day. It might look something like this: wake, coffee, family breakfast, pack lunches, prep for school day, walk dog, shower for work, drive car, train ride, walk to office, work all day, walk to train, car ride home, dinner, bath time, family reading or games, bedtime.
Now consider where mindfulness practice can fit in. For example:
Coffee: Make sure to pause before the first sip. Smell the aroma, feel the heat of the mug on your hand, and take three intentional breaths. Now enjoy.
Train ride: Once you’re settled into your seat, set a timer for five to ten minutes and practice mediation. Sit in silence and focus on your breathing or use a mindfulness app on your phone to listen to a guided meditation. Your eyes can be open or closed depending on the situation and what feels safe or comfortable.
Work: Each time you sit down to your computer, take a pause. Close your eyes, notice the sensation of your feet on the floor, your body in your chair, feel your breath come in and out of your body. Continue with your day.
Dinner: As you are preparing the meal, spend a moment reflecting on where the food came from. Imagine who planted it, picked it, or drove it to the store where you purchased it. On occasions when your entire family is sitting around the table at the same time, take a moment to feel grateful.
Bedtime: Decide on a ritual that cultivates mindful awareness. For younger children, consider having them put a stuffed animal on their belly as each of you count how many times the animal rides up and down with their breath. If your children are older try a head, heart, gut check-in at bedtime. Is the mind busy or calm in this moment? Are any emotions present or lingering from the day? Is there anything that needs to be shared or said that has not been already?
Does mindfulness seem a little more doable now? Research indicates that it takes just eight weeks of relatively regular practice to make positive changes to the brain. But if we wait until we have enough “bandwidth” to devote big blocks of time to it, we may never start. For working parents, my advice is to instead insert just a few small moments of mindfulness into your day, even — and especially — when life seems too busy, hectic and out of control.