I’d first developed a practice during yoga school in 2013, but it waned over time and stopped when I became overwhelmed at work in 2018. I was a marketing writer for a retailer going bankrupt, and we were using a frantic, throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to win back customers. To free up time for the work, I stopped meditating, exercising, sleeping enough, and so forth. You can imagine what this did to my physical and mental health—and the quality of my work.

About a year later, I felt overwhelmed again—this time as a UX writer at Dropbox. After five months as a contractor on the Growth team, I had switched to a full-time role supporting three core product areas. Dropbox was about six months out from one of the largest product launches in the company’s history: I had a lot to learn and a lot to write.

I didn’t consciously think: “Better strengthen parts of ye olde brain if you’re gonna take on these challenges.” But after a few months, I knew I had to find a way to calm down. My mind was swarming with anxious thoughts, and it was harder and harder to focus, make effective decisions, and be present with my teammates.

At a party one Saturday, a friend suggested the Daily Calm—a 10-minute guided practice. “But I think something’s wrong with me,” I said, swigging an Irish coffee. “My mind’s too busy right now to meditate.” “Sarah,” she said, offering me water, “Everyone’s mind is too busy.”

The next week, I tried the Daily Calm during my morning commute. About a month later, I started practicing at work with Jennie Tan, a UX writing lead and mentor to me. Also, my manager and some kind writing souls helped me get a handle on my workload. Then, one day in the library at our old office, I looked up from my laptop at the leaves blowing outside, and I had an unfamiliar, quiet feeling. I thought: “Wait… I‘m not panicked. I’m. Not. Panicked.” With this calmer mind, I could focus more, react less, and listen better in my work life—and my life life.

Want to bring these qualities to your days? I’ll share how meditation can help, and how you can start a work practice too.

Find focus, again and again

When I open my laptop to write, it seems like a supervillain has set a minefield of distractions: red badges appear like warning lights, notifications fly to the top of the screen. My phone buzzes—probably my husband has lost the grocery list, but what if…

Even when I snooze the outside world, I have to deal with the loudest notifications of all—my thoughts. I’ll start to revise onboarding screens, and the mental heckling begins: “Hey, what about those error messages? Better write ‘em! And the gym schedule’s right there—you should work out more. Oy, will he remember the Sriracha?” It can feel like my mind is tuned to 11 different radio stations, the volume maxed for all.

When I started meditating, I hoped with a big "Pretty please, universe” that the distracting thoughts would disappear. Maybe you get focused enough and it all just fades away. But I’ve learned that “focus” isn’t the absence of all thoughts but one; it’s the commitment of your attention to one thing, again and again, while a crowd of other thoughts demand: “Pay attention to me!”

 Respond, not react

How meditation helps

With practice, you notice faster when you’ve become distracted. At the start of meditation, I commit my attention to my breathing (you can choose a sensation or word instead). When my attention wanders, I notice, and then I come back to my breathing. My mind’s a puppy learning to stay.

What’s key: I notice the distracting thoughts and try to not bat them away or judge myself for having them. Over time, just noticing turns the volume and frequency down. It’s like the thoughts are needy; they just want to know that I hear them.

In my morning meditation at work, I warm up this focus muscle, then flex it throughout the day. A chorus of “Tooltips! Dentist! Sriracha!” starts up, but I catch it and come back to onboarding screens—or whatever I’ve decided to concentrate on. The more I meditate, the more I make progress on my top priorities rather than flit between worries and half-start a bunch of tasks.

Respond, not react

Two weeks after I started my full-time role at Dropbox, a colleague swung by my desk and said I needed to make a big, hard-to-reverse decision by the end of the week. I reacted immediately and said, “Sure, no problem!” I didn’t pause to consider the request, didn’t consult others who had more context. I was new to the team and was having an Enneagram 9 pleaser-palooza. Coming across as helpful and agreeable seemed most important.

After a few frenzied days—and my colleague’s announcement that I was “actively blocking the project”—I made the decision. And guess what? I later reversed that decision, which was much harder on the team (colleague included) than if I'd considered the request longer and responded that I’d need more time.

So what’s the difference between reacting and responding?

When you react, you move forward without thinking and do what’s reflexive. Often your emotional instincts and entrenched patterns are driving, and you don’t consider the twists and turns on the road ahead.

When you respond, you pause, even for just a minute, to consider your next move. You get some perspective and think about long-term effects, your goals, the goals of people around you—and then you take action.

If I had paused in the scenario above, I might have realized that promising a quick decision on something big and hard to reverse wasn’t the best way forward. And even if I didn’t realize it on my own, I could’ve consulted with more-experienced team members before committing to a deadline.

How meditation helps me

How meditation helps

To stay with one point of focus during practice, you have to train your mind to stop reacting to the thoughts zooming through your head.

Let’s say I commit to focusing on my breathing for 10 minutes. Thirty seconds in, I remember that performance reviews start next week, and I need to put together a list of projects I’ve completed. I can pause, remember that I’m here to meditate, and respond to the thought: “Hey, I’m busy now. I’ll work on that after I meditate.” Or I can react and begin compiling a mental laundry list of everything I’ve worked on during the last year.

In my morning meditation, I practice not reacting to my thoughts—and I get about a million thoughts to practice on in only 10 minutes. Later in the day, when I get requests or unexpected feedback, there’s a better chance I’ll pause instead of just reacting, and then I’ll give a more informed, reasonable response.

Listen up

Suppose it’s 10:00 am and I’m in a kickoff meeting for a doozy of an OS update. I need to understand the nuances so I can prepare and reassure our users. But I also have to present a project to a big group at 4:00 pm, and I can’t stop thinking: “WilI I be ready in time? Will they think my work is rubbish?” I blink and realize that I’ve missed the last 5 minutes of the meeting I’m in. Now I’ll have to follow up with the product manager and ask questions that she probably just answered. I’ll use up both her time and mine. And the product manager may wonder if I was on Slack the entire meeting.

Just this week, as I observed some user interviews, my mind kept wandering. Even though I wanted to hear how the participants managed their medical and financial info, my mind was intent on worrying about everything else. Luckily, I’d meditated that morning. I quickly caught my attention as it tried to run away and led it back to the interviews—again and again. I didn’t hear everything, but I did catch a great quote: “I just want someone to clean up the clutter for me.” Before I started a regular practice, I might have missed that insight into a big user pain point.

How meditation helps

Listening to someone is a kind of meditation. Instead of returning to your breathing (or another point of focus), you return—again and again—to the person who’s talking. When I recognize that I’m distracted in a meeting or that I’m planning my response to someone while they’re still speaking, I flex that focus muscle. I anchor my attention to what they’re saying, remind myself that their words are more important than the thoughts pinballing around my mind.

My ability to notice that I’ve become distracted is just as important as my ability to focus again on the person speaking. In my morning meditation, I turn on my radar for distraction. I set an intention to concentrate on my breathing, which increases my awareness of when I get lost in a daydream about ramen. Throughout the day, when I’m in meetings or just having a hallway chat, I’m faster to notice my wandering mind and bring it back—over and over—to listening.

Flower and prism

How to meditate at work

I started doing the Daily Calm with Jennie (the ultimate accountabilibuddy) last July, and after a few weeks, we invited others to join us. The Daily Calm is available with subscription to the Calm app (yes, they have a free trial). The ever-wise Tamara Levitt leads a period of focus on breathing, and then ends with a brief teaching related to meditation—how to manage stress, let go of judgment, and other valuable life stuff.

We practice in the meditation and prayer room at Dropbox, lucky to have a quiet, bookable space with all manner of cushions. Jennie and I take turns hosting at 9:00 am.

When I host, I show up 10 minutes early, tape a sign to the door that says, “Shh… meditation in progress. Join us next time!” I turn off the lights, and at 9:01 am (in case there are stragglers), I play the Daily Calm on a Bluetooth speaker connected to my phone. Before and after, we remain quiet. We say hello, but try to keep the time geared to going inward—early on, we decided not to talk about work in the meditation room. We usually finish by 9:15 am, and just like that, we’re calmer and ready to dive into our respective workstreams.

To keep meditators connected, Jennie created an internal wiki, calendar invite, and Slack channel (see: she’s the ultimate accountabilibuddy). In Slack, we post the weekly meditation topics, send a reminder 10 minutes before each session, and share quotes from the Daily Calm.

Want to start a work practice but don’t have the luxury of a meditation room? Maybe you can book a small meeting room that has frosted glass or curtains. Another option: sit at a nearby park and listen to the Daily Calm with headphones.

If the Daily Calm doesn’t do it for you, the app has a bunch of other meditations. You can also access free guided meditations at Tara Brach’s site and the Headspace app. Not up for daily practice but need a quick way to calm your tornado brain? Try Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 Breath.

Why practice at work

  1. Gives you accountabilibuddies

Before I started meditating at work, I would listen to the Daily Calm during my bus ride to the office. Buuuut, sometimes I’d skip it if I was tired or The New York Times hooked me. I knew that committing to someone other than myself would lead to a more consistent practice.

  1. Builds community

Along with accountabilibuddies, you can connect with new people at work and get that ever-important reminder: you’re not alone, struggling in the muck. Jennie says, “I meditate at work, rather than before I come into the office, because I want to share the practice with other people. I know I’m not the only one who deals with stress and anxiety at work, so the more I can turn other people on to it, the happier I feel!”

  1. Don’t have to squeeze in another activity before work

The hours before work are hectic—feeding kiddos and pets, navigating the commute. It’s hard to imagine finding extra time to settle into meditation. Eric Alves, a wondrous UX writer, explains, “My going theory is that I’m too geared toward getting ready and making it to work in the morning, whereas once I’m at the office I can then take better advantage of the benefits of meditation.”

You can calm your mind—yes, you!

Is meditation for everyone? Maybe not. I still can’t convince my mom, who prefers The Sopranos and a splash of Japanese whiskey. Maybe gardening, papier-mâché, or rhythmic gymnastics is your path to a calmer mind.

If you want to start but feel hesitant, here are a few final things to keep in mind:

  • Like my wise friend said, “Everyone’s mind is too busy.” And no one’s mind is too busy for meditation.
  • As with a puppy, teaching your mind to stay is challenging. When meditation feels difficult, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong—in fact, you can’t do it wrong.
  • When you’re super busy, meditation is even more important. It’s tempting to skip it to “save time,” but warming up your focus muscle before work will make you more efficient.
  • If you miss a day, a week, or a month, you can start again. Meditating every once in a while is waaay better than not at all.

We want to hear about your experience. Share your medidation journey with us on Twitter @dropboxdesign!

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