Episode 021: Bringing Mindfulness into the Workplace with Dana Pulley

Episode 021: Bringing Mindfulness into the Workplace with Dana Pulley

In this episode, I’m joined by Dana Pulley.

Dana is an accomplished leader, coach, and consultant who has learned first hand how mindful awareness enables you to lead and live in a more fulfilling way.  She founded Stillwater Leadership in 2012 to help her clients cultivate presence, build resilience and create the space to be more centered and intentional in their commitment to growth, day-to-day choices, and interactions with others.  

A frequent speaker and workshop facilitator on mindful leadership, embodied learning, and the intersection with neuroscience, she incorporates these elements in all her coaching and development work.  She is a certified corporate-based mindfulness instructor with the Potential Project and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.  She also holds certifications in leadership coaching from Georgetown University and somatic coaching from the Strozzi Insitute.  

Prior to founding Stillwater Leadership, Dana held senior leadership positions with Booz Allen Hamilton and began her career with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Dana holds a Master of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from George Mason University.  She lives in Arlington, VA with her husband and two teenage sons.

You’ll hear Dana share how she began practicing mindfulness, as well as hear us discuss what is mindfulness, what’s the neuroscience behind it, what’s the beginner’s mind and how we can bring all of this into our offices, practice mindfulness in our workplaces and use it to create more enjoyable work environments.


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Naomi Nakamura: In the last episode, Episode 20, I talked about how to align your work with your core values. Continuing along with the theme of learning how to have a work/health balance, in this episode, I'm joined by Dana Pulley.

Dana is an accomplished leader, coach, and consultant who has learned first-hand how mindful awareness enables you to lead and live in a more fulfilling way. She founded Stillwater Leadership in 2012 to help her clients cultivate presence, build resilience and create the space to be more centered and intentional in their commitment to growth, day to day choices and interactions with others.

A frequent speaker and workshop facilitator on mindful leadership, embodied learning, and the intersection with neuroscience, Dana incorporates these elements in all of her coaching and development work.

She's a certified corporate-based mindfulness instructor with the Potential Project and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. She holds certifications and leadership coaching from Georgetown University and somatic coaching from the Strozzi Institute.

Prior to founding Stillwater Leadership, Dana held senior leadership positions with Booz Allen Hamilton and she began her career with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Dana holds a Masters of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Mason University and she lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband and her two teenage sons.

You'll hear Dana share how she began practicing mindfulness, as well as hear us discuss what is mindfulness? What's the neuroscience behind it? What's the beginners mind? Something I really love by the way, and how we can bring all of this into our offices, practice mindfulness in our work places and use it to create more enjoyable work environments.

I feel like mindfulness has become somewhat of a buzzword lately and I also think it could be really vague. I love how Dana breaks it down into just two simple words. Want to know what they are? Well, let's get to the show.

Hi Dana, welcome to the show.

Dana Pulley: Hi Naomi, thanks so much for having me, I'm so delighted to be here.

Naomi Nakamura: I am thrilled that you are here. Today we're going to be talking about mindfulness because that is your area of expertise. Why don't we start out by sharing with us how you got into this business of practicing mindfulness.

Dana Pulley: Well, I had a fairly big job at a consulting firm. I was managing upwards of 100 people. I had a direct team of 30 people and many more contractors, and at the same time I had very small children and frankly, I was losing it. I was suffering. I needed something to help me.

I had dabbled with meditation in the past, but it had never really stuck, but I went on a retreat up at Omega, in New York and I went to a weekend retreat with Pema Chodron and the session was all about mindfulness and teaching you different ways to practice. That was about 10 years ago and I have been practicing almost every day since. Not every single day, but almost every day. It really changed the way I was able to live my life and meet other people and be at work.

Naomi Nakamura: Mindfulness tends to be a buzzword these days, so how do you define mindfulness?

Dana Pulley: Well, at its really basic level, I consider it present moment awareness. Just being aware. Now, John Kabat-Zinn, the guy who popularized the notion of mindfulness, the secular notion of mindfulness in the west, he calls it present moment awareness or excuse me, let me back up. Paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment. That without judgment's really important. That not judging ourselves, not judging our thoughts.

I'll give you one more definition and this is by a guy named Dan Harris and you or many of your listeners may know Dan Harris who's an ABC News anchor.

Naomi Nakamura: I heard him on another podcast before.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, he has his own podcast. Well, Dan had a panic attack on national television. It's the worst thing that could probably happen to a journalist or a reporter ever. Like a good journalist, who goes out and researched and found mindfulness to be a really great solution for him and he says that it's about not getting hooked by the thoughts in your head. Not getting carried away with them. We have all these thoughts, our mind's going lots of places, but often time, unconsciously, we just get carried away with them, so knowing they're there, but not allowing ourselves to go away with them.

Naomi Nakamura: That's really hard to do.

Dana Pulley: I know. We can get better at it.

Naomi Nakamura: It sounds so simple when you say it, but when you actually think about, "Well, how do I put this into practice?" How do we do that?

Dana Pulley: Well, why don't we talk about if you don't mind, what is the practice of mindfulness or mind training? So I've defined it, but how do we cultivate it? The practice of mindfulness is simply about noticing when we're getting distracted and bringing ourselves back.

We set an intention to do this thing, whatever we're going to pay attention to, we decide what our focal point is. A lot of us are going to choose the breath, but there's many other focal points that we could choose to use. It could be a sound, it could be a particular thought pattern, but let's just say it's our breath. We try to stay focused on that when we get distracted and we will get distracted, because that's how our minds work. We just notice whenever we notice and then we bring ourselves back.

There's a really common misconception that the goal of meditation or mindfulness is to clear our minds, but that's not the case. If we get a clear mind, that's great, but really what the goal is to build this muscle, or build this capacity or capability to notice when we get distracted and then bring ourselves back more quickly. When we do that over time, going back to your original question, in our everyday lives we're going to notice when we get hooked more easily and then be able to not go away with it, to bring ourselves back.

Naomi Nakamura: I'm really glad you said that. I tried meditation for the very first time in 2013. I signed up for the Oprah and Deepak Chopra challenge and I really didn't know what meditation was and I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know if I was doing it right, my mind was going all over the place with all these distractions and like you said, I thought I had to clear my mind and I had no idea how to do that, so I'm really glad that you brought that up.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, a lot of people get frustrated and then they give up because they think, "Oh, this is what the goal is and I'm bad at it," and then they start judging themselves and critiquing ourselves. Lots of us, let's just face it, we're high performers and we want to do something right, we want to do something perfectly, and that's not what this is all about.

Because our minds are as human beings, we're wired to be distracted and notice threats, and just notice everything that's going on and we have gotten worse and worse with all our devices, our weapons of mass distraction. Our attention span has really gotten really limited, so you need to just practice and not judge ourselves.

Naomi Nakamura: Speaking of high performers, you teach how to bring this into the workplace. How do you recommend do we doing that? Because, the work place, especially if you work in a big corporation in corporate America. It's a very good thing if you know how to multi-task, that's a key word on a resume. We have emails popping up every hour, we have meetings, we have instant messages, all these things are going on, so how do we bring this into the workplace and why should we bring this into the workplace?

Dana Pulley: Well, let's talk about how we bring it into the workplace first. You mentioned, a lot of jobs they say that you should multi-task right? They're looking for multi-taskers, but what we know now based on scientific research, is that when we multi-task it actually has a lot of bad results. We take longer to do things, we feel more pressure, we make more mistakes, so multi-tasking actually doesn't work. It's a fallacy, but we've got so much coming at us at work, we think that we have to.

What we can do is apply just what I explained to you in terms of the practice, when we think of meditation or mindfulness practice and we're sitting down and we're focused on our breath and we notice when we get distracted and we bring ourselves back. That's sort of a dedicated practice. We can bring that same practice and integrate it into work.

Let's just give the example of, let's just say it's a Monday morning at work and you really have this big report you have to write and you need to focus on it and not be distracted. You get in really early, you're working, working and working on it and you decided, I'm really going to focus. Then your colleagues start coming in and they're chatting about what's going on over the weekend and your mind starts to wander.

Just like we would do in our practice, we notice when we're distracted and we just bring ourselves back. We bring that same intention into the workplace, then our mind might go towards, "I didn't go to the grocery store this weekend. What am I going to have for dinner tonight? I don't have any time." Okay, that's a distraction. I notice it, and I bring myself back.

That's how we can do it, and sometimes, big distractions come up that we need to go towards like maybe your boss comes in and their hair's on fire and they say, "Our most important client is in my office." You wouldn't say, "Oh no, I'm just going to focus on this." No, you decide to switch your focus. Those are two ways that we can actually bring that mindfulness piece tactfully into work. That's one way of how you can do it, but there's lots of other ways. Why would we do it? I don't know, why do you think we should do it?

Naomi Nakamura: Because we're so frazzled and running around all the time. About a year ago this time, I set out to do what I called the hundred conversations project, which I never got to 100, but I talked to more than 40 people about how stress shows up in their life, because for me on my wellness journey, it was a big aha when I realized that stress shows up in a lot of different forms that I never considered.

I got curious and I thought, "Well, what kind of stress do other people experience? Or how do they perceive their stress and how does it show up for them?" Upwards of 40 people that I spoke with, every single person said that their work was the biggest source of stress in their life. We're talking to people globally. I talked to people in the US, West Coast, Midwest, East Coast, I talked to people in Europe, it was pretty fascinating.

Dana Pulley: I agree. I think that work places can be really stressful, and we know that mindfulness can support us in managing our stress. We feel we typically, when we practice this over time, we feel less stress, more calm, less reactive. We have a lot of research on that.

Naomi Nakamura: Can you talk to more about the research and maybe the neuroscience behind this?

Dana Pulley: The research on mindfulness has exploded in the past 15 years. It used to be that there was hardly any research and now if you go on Google Scholar, there's thousands and thousands of studies each year on different aspects of mindfulness. What's most interesting to you?

Naomi Nakamura: I think the part when you talked about multi-tasking is actually a fallacy, and not productive. Then also, just what the overall, I guess impact on our health is with all of these distractions everywhere and just being so out of touch with this practice.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, so in terms of multi-tasking, the thing of it is, is that multi-tasking as I was alluding to before is actually a myth. The term actually came up in the 60's when they were first starting computers, or to develop computers and when they had multiple processors. Well, we have one processor. That brain is just one processor and what it does, it rapidly switch tasks. It doesn't multi-task, it doesn't do two things at the same time, or multiple things at the same time, so every time it switches a task, we're losing several seconds.

In some cases, 20, 30 seconds, 60 seconds and even several minutes, depending on the tasks that we're switching between, so we know based on that, that some of the research about multi-tasking is it definitely takes more time to multi-task even though we think that we're doing it faster. Because our brains are so full, it kills our ability to prioritize. We're so full, we can't think of, "Oh, what's most important to us." We make more mistakes, it actually shrinks our brain.

What we know is with the practice of mindfulness, it increases our gray matter and they look at people who are doing multi-tasking, the gray matter actually decreases in the brain. It drains our energy, we feel more stress as you were mentioning. Then actually, once we start multi-tasking, we are more wired to multi-task more and more, so that's that piece, the multi-tasking science. Then you also had a question about just well-being in general?

Naomi Nakamura: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dana Pulley: There's a lot of science related to the benefit of mindfulness for our bodies, so what mindfulness can do is it can help increase our sleep quality. It can actually decrease our experience of stress. It can improve our heart rate and our blood pressure. There's actually been studies that our immune functioning increases when we practice mindfulness.

Naomi Nakamura: I personally feel, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but bringing this into the workplace really requires one to be able to establish boundaries, especially if we're trying not to be distracted. We really need to establish the boundaries about, "I'm not going to answer emails during this time." Or "I'm going to shut this off at this time," or ... How do you recommend or what are the best ways that we can bring that into our work life when it is not the typical culture of our office?

Dana Pulley: Well, I think that you can try new practices and then you actually have to communicate about them, right? We can't just slip them in and expect people to get it. We have to communicate about them and we have to get agreement. We can role model some different behaviors too.

Let's talk about emails and meetings. Some of the things that drive us most nuts at work, right? Do they drive you most nuts?

Naomi Nakamura: Well, I'm laughing because I'm usually the one running the meeting.

Dana Pulley: I'll give you some tips for better running a meeting.

Naomi Nakamura: Please. I mean, I try to have my agenda and I try to have a lot of time on the agenda for each item, and I try to start on time and end on time, because I want to be respectful of those who are respectful of the agenda.

Dana Pulley: That's a great start Naomi. A couple of other things I would add is, what if we take a few moments to practice some mindfulness before we go into a meeting. We take just 60 seconds to collect ourselves, breathe, attend to our breath to calm our nervous system and recenter and refocus us, because often times we're moving from meeting, to meeting, to meeting, and our brains are a mess, so we have meeting hangover. We're in one meeting, but we're thinking about the last meeting or the next meeting.

What can we do to just do a little mental shift to recenter ourselves? And if you're the meeting leader, you can suggest that everybody take a moment to pause and ask them what's going to enable them to be present for this meeting. Or, you could take one minute and put a timer on and allow people to just take a deep breath or two before we get started. That's something you could do.

I would also say, I love how you say starting on time and ending on time, but what if we ended five minutes earlier? That could give us a more adjustment time. That's another thing. It gives us adjustment time and it gives the folks that we're working with adjustment time. Another thing is that we can really pay attention to the quality of how we're listening to others. Half the time our mind is wandering, right?

Naomi Nakamura: There is nothing that drives me more crazy on a meeting than when someone is speaking and I can hear someone else typing in the background.

Dana Pulley: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, in a virtual meeting.

Naomi Nakamura: In a virtual meeting.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, so can we use that person as our focal point? Just as I was talking about our breath. We're going to get distracted, they're talking, just notice in our minds, "I'm distracted, let me bring myself back to that person." Then, you can start some rules, like in virtual meetings, let's all put our video on. We're much less likely to be multi-tasking when we've got video on. You know, have some agreements if we're in person, maybe we put our phones in a basket or agree to have laptop free meetings or something like that.

Naomi Nakamura: I love these tips. These are all great. We did try an experiment where we would try to start meetings 10 minutes after the hour and finish them 10 minutes before to give people passing time and it really worked, because people would just show up 20 minutes after the hour so that was a hard shift, but I like the suggestion you gave about giving people a minute to gather themselves and then take a deep breath and get focused for the meeting at hand.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, because most of us are running. We're moving through our days like locomotives. Whatever we can do to help ourselves and others be present is a gift.

Naomi Nakamura: It really is.

Dana Pulley: Experiment, not everything's going to work and not everything's going to work in every environment, but try some different things and see what works.

Naomi Nakamura: Well then it takes time to shift the culture of it as well. But if you can get everyone on board, that would be pretty awesome work environment.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, definitely. You also asked about emails and there's a lot of tips that we can talk about in terms of emailing. First of all, I just want to acknowledge that our emails and these devices that we have are really addictive. They're really addictive.

I don't know how much you notice, but we're often just drawn to check all the time right? I think one of the first things with emails is just being aware of our craving. A wise teacher once said to me, "It's the latest addiction in our human evolution."

Naomi Nakamura: It's funny, there was some talk a little while ago how email was dead. I said, "No, it's not." What I've done is I've turned off all notifications on my phone except for phone calls and text messages.

Dana Pulley: I think that's great. I would say that that's the number one thing that I would recommend for people, go back to the multi-tasking and how we switch. If those notifications are buzzing all the time, or beeping or coming up on your phone, your mind is going to that and then it has to readjust back to the task that you're on, so you just lost multiple seconds or minutes there with all those notifications. Either turn them all off or take periods where you're going to turn them off. If you don't feel like you can turn them off entirely, turn most of them off or turn them all off for certain periods so that you can truly focus.

Naomi Nakamura: I've also tried just closing out Outlook altogether and only opening it during certain points of the day. It doesn't always fly, but I've experimented with it a few times and I will say, I've done it in times where I've really had to focus and had to write a project plan or use a lot of my brain cells. It's been really effective in helping me be more productive during those hours.

Dana Pulley: I'd highly endorse that. Choosing some times when you can just focus. There's a lot of research about taking time or blocking out segments of your day so that you can just focus. This goes back to communication too. If you have a team that's expecting you to respond within two minutes to everything, perhaps you need to give them a little heads up, "Hey, I'm going to be offline for 90 minutes," or 60 minutes, or two hours, or whatever, "I'm trying to really focus here so I can crank this thing out." Making sure you're communicating more, but blocking out some good chunks of time so that you actually can focus.

Naomi Nakamura: I want to pivot a little bit and talk about ... Actually this Sunday is 10 years that I've been in with my company. It's a long time, it's the longest job I've ever had. I know for a lot of people, when they're in a job for so long, they just get stuck in a rut. A lot of people may be thinking, well, these are great, nice ideas, but they just are so ... I don't want to say jaded, but they've been there for a long time, so how do you recommend people who are in those type of situations try and find mindfulness at work?

Dana Pulley: Well, you know Naomi, we all get stuck in a rut and our minds go into grooves. They go in habitual patterns of thinking and behaving, and one of the things that I think is really helpful about mindfulness is that it can help us see things, or help broaden our perspective and one of the aspects of mindfulness or qualities or mental strategies that I really like to talk about is something called "Beginners Mind."

Really how our brain works is that once we experience something the first couple of times, we stop paying attention fully. We go on autopilot and it's like if you've ever gotten in your car in the morning and you're going to work and you go the same way to work every day, after a couple of times, we'll get in a car, we'll turn on the ignition and we won't remember a single thing until we drive into the parking garage. Have you ever had that experience? Naomi Nakamura: Yes. I have also had it where I get in the car and I drive to work and it's not a work day or that's where I was not going.

Dana Pulley: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Our minds go on autopilot. Not only does it go on autopilot for repeated tasks, but it goes on autopilot for how we experience another person, or how we experience how we do our work, like you're talking about a job that we've done for a long time, or experience problems. Problems, things that we have to perform at work when we've done them a lot, maybe when we have some expertise.

One of the things that we like to suggest is bringing a different kind of perspective. We call this different kind of perspective beginners mind, so coming at it with fresh eyes, kind of like if you know any young children, it's like they're so filled with wonder and they're experiencing things for the first time.

When you can bring our experience back to that level, we're intentional about it. I'm going to be more open and I'm going to be more receptive and I'm going to see more possibility here. We often will experience something different. When we are on autopilot and sort of a little bit more mentally rigid, we're only going to see what we've always seen. We're only going to experience or do what we've always done. Does that make sense?

Naomi Nakamura: It does. I love that, the Beginners Mind is looking at things through fresh eyes. I know we've had this conversation before, but I really likened it to when you have an established team and you have this new person coming and joining the team and they have fresh eyes. Everyone else might be, "Well no, we're not going to listen to your way because we've always done it this way." It may not be the best way to do it, but I think being open to just hearing it is a way for us to have a beginners mind.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, I mean we tend to once we've experience something for a long time, we just poo-poo new ideas. Because "Oh, we know it, we have expertise there," or "We tried this 100 times before, we don't need to rehash this again." I'm not suggesting that we want to embrace this beginners mind in every single thing that we do, because we'd probably be incapacitated, we can't experience everything like fresh eyes, every experience we have.

I would invite you and all your listeners to think about, when are some times that it would be really valuable for me to bring a fresh perspective? To commit to and have an intention around being more open and seeing things from this beginners mind perspective. Can you think of some areas in your life or in your work life that would be really useful?

Naomi Nakamura: I think when I start feeling resentful towards someone or something, or my job, or my situation, or someone that I work with, one advice that was given to me a few years ago, at the time, I was not very open to it, but it's proven to be one of the best pieces of advice I ever got and that was to put yourself in the other person's situation.

I see that as a way of having the Beginners <ind, data-preserve-html-node="true" because you're looking at it from a different perspective. I found that when I've done that, especially with someone who I was in a conflict with or we had an adversarial relationship, when I put myself in their ... I guess their shoes, and try and look at the situation from their perspective, I found myself being a lot kinder to the person, because I had a lot more compassion and empathy for the situation that they were in, regardless of how it affected me.

I think whenever we lean into and hear, or even just be open to someone else's story, we have a lot more difficulty being mean or upset or resentful to them.

Dana Pulley: Yeah, I think that's a great example. Thanks for sharing that.

Naomi Nakamura: It was really good advice that I got from someone who I really needed to see things from their perspective.

Well, I have so enjoyed our conversation and I feel that bringing mindfulness into the workplace can be a way of a beginners mind, because it is not something that's typically discussed in the office.

Dana Pulley: No, it isn't often discussed in the office and I like to think of it as we can practice in a dedicated way. It's kind of going like going to the gym for your mind. So being at home, you would think of sitting on a cushion or sitting on a chair and attending to your breath and focusing on that and then we could bring those great practices into the workplace too.

Naomi Nakamura: What I love about everything you shared is that these are all things that are already within us. We have the tools to put them into practice now.

Dana Pulley: Oh yeah, we do. It's just about paying attention-

Naomi Nakamura: Paying Attention!

Dana Pulley: ... in a different kind of a way.

Naomi Nakamura: How can people reach out to you and connect with you and learn more about the mindfulness that you teach? Dana Pulley: You can reach out to me on my website - stillwaterleadership.com.

Naomi Nakamura: I will link to it in the show notes.

Dana Pulley: Thanks so much Naomi. I really have enjoyed our conversation and I appreciate you asking me to join you.

Naomi Nakamura: Thank you.

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Naomi Nakamura is a certified Holistic Health Coach who takes a holistic approach through functional nutrition. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, coaching programs, and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with acne and other chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop! Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest.