Software engineer. Human. From Brooklyn NY.


Lost in Thought


I’ve been a huge fan and user of the Headspace app for a couple of years now. And this year at South By Southwest, I couldn’t have been more excited to find out that the founder of Headspace himself - Andy Puddicombe - would be delivering the closing keynote for the festival’s Interactive segment. One of the reasons I’ve stuck with the Headspace journey is Andy’s ability to demystify the practice of meditation and make mindfulness incredibly accessible: being mindful is always available to us, any time and everywhere, "and isn't about sitting crossed-legged on the floor." Andy delivered an amazing talk which concluded with him guiding over 2500 attendees through a 5-minute meditation session!

Afterwards, I had the honor of meeting Andy in person and took the opportunity to ask him a question that had been bugging me for a while:

As knowledge workers, how can we step back from thought when thinking defines our jobs moment-to-moment?

Case-in-point, I'm a programmer (although I'm sure many others in all kinds of disciplines can relate).

Throughout the Headspace journey, Andy makes excellent use of numerous metaphors to describe mindfulness and how we should approach incorporating it into our everyday lives. Key is the idea that being present is not about creating a state of mind. Rather, we create the conditions that allow this state of mind to occur naturally. By allowing ourselves to experience our thoughts and feelings without holding on to them, we can not only see them more clearly, but we can let them go and be more fully present with whatever and wherever we are in the moment. It’s a simple yet powerful concept.

Essential to the practice of mindfulness is anchoring one’s awareness in the physical sensations. By learning to shift toward a greater awareness of the body, we naturally step back from thought and are less inclined to get carried away by the busy-ness of the mind. Headspace emphasizes that mindfulness practice doesn’t end with one’s daily sitting meditation, though. Instead, Andy gives lots of practical advice with respect to incorporating mindfulness into everyday life - little ways we can cultivate “little bites of mindfulness” that add up over time. Making it a habit to pause and get some headspace can make a profound impact on how we feel and the way we relate to the world.

However, as a software engineer, it feels like the nature of my work is to solve problems and be very much in the mind on a moment-to-moment basis. How can we create the conditions for mindfulness to exist, when being swept away in thought seems like the very nature of the job? Andy was very gracious in his response and mentioned a couple of things worth sharing:

  • Awareness of intensity. There is a degree of mental and emotional exertion with which we engage our thoughts and feelings at any given moment - a spectrum between effortlessness and a complete mental or emotional exertion. I think what Andy might have been hinting is that over time, mindfulness practice helps us develop a greater awareness of how intensely we’re engaged with something. Gradually, we learn to develop a relaxed sense of focus such that we can find a healthy balance in our degree of effort.
  • Prioritizing mindfulness. Andy stated that at Headspace HQ, it’s company policy to take scheduled mindfulness breaks: 1 minute every hour and 10 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. In a busy world that makes ever-increasing demands of our time, at the very least we need to prioritize taking care of our minds like we would schedule time to go to the gym. As much as our bodies need to be nurtured and rejuvenated, so do our minds.

I’m hoping that on my own mindfulness journey, I’ll develop a greater awareness to find that sweet spot between focus and relaxation with each line of code that I write (or bug that I have to fix!). But I do think prioritizing mindfulness is something we can all address now. In fact, inspired by Edmond Lau’s The Effective Engineer, I recently began playing around with the Pomodoro Method to manage my coding/”deep work” sessions in a healthier manner: 25-minute work sessions interspersed with 5-minute breaks (and a longer break of 15 minutes after 4 sessions). I think this could be a great rhythm to ensure I can more consistently check in with myself and make brief 1- to 2-minute mindfulness breaks part of my everyday workflow.

How about you? How do you make make mindfulness a part of your every day? How do your rest your mind?