Have you ever spent time with a puppy? It’s never still! It’s running in circles, barking, maybe chewing on the furniture or peeing on the rug… busy all the time. My mind feels like that sometimes—a million things moving at once, distractions everywhere, full of crazy energy. This isn’t very helpful when I’m trying to focus, think about things, solve problems, or have a meaningful conversation.
I’ve been trying something lately that seems to help. Although some people might call it “mindfulness practice,” I just call it “sitting and breathing.” I set a timer on my phone for 6 minutes, and then I close my eyes and just sit. And breathe. I focus on my breathing, but it doesn’t take very long for the puppy to start running around—my thoughts start going in all directions. Instead of getting upset or trying to put the puppy in a cage, and making myself stop thinking, I just pay attention to what’s going on. “Oh, I’m thinking about what’s for dinner.” “I’m worried about next week’s presentation.” “I’m remembering yesterday’s argument.” Once I notice something like that, I come back to focusing on my breathing. When the timer goes off, I go back to my regular day. That’s it.
When I do this day after day, I find myself getting a little better at noticing the thoughts quickly, before I get too caught up in them, and returning to my breathing. And I find that I can use this skill at other times—when I’m talking to someone and get distracted, I can notice it more quickly and bring my attention back to the conversation. When I’m feeling angry or confused, I can notice what’s happening and shift to a more balanced emotional state. It feels like my inner puppy is learning to sit, and stay, and shake hands rather than trying to escape and run down the street.
Why six minutes? Well, many people who talk about mindfulness practice describe doing it for twenty minutes or more. I started doing that but found that on many days I just couldn’t find the time. I decided that (almost) every day for 6 minutes was better than once or twice a week for 20 or 30 minutes. It works for me.
I invite you to try it, too. In my book Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World, I talk about four building blocks that help you prepare to deal with life’s challenges. The first one is calming yourself. Sitting and breathing is one of the ways you can get better at calming yourself. It’s not the same as relaxing (which can easily lead to falling asleep if you do it very effectively)—it’s more about being alert and fully connected to what’s going on, and not experiencing a lot of distracting thoughts and feelings. When you are calm, you can engage more of your brain, and this will help you in many ways.
So here are three steps for training your own inner puppy:
1. Get a timer.
2. Set it for six minutes.
3. Sit, breathe, and when you notice thoughts coming up, just let them go and focus on your breathing.
4. Do this every day (or as close to every day as you can).
See if you notice yourself getting better at returning to a state of calm.