Notes on How We Work

How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind by Leah Weiss

This title got my attention because it takes mindfulness out of the meditation room and into the workplace. I love finding anything written about active mindfulness because we know from our own experience teaching juggling and other skills that taking a mindful approach makes all the difference in getting out of our own way. As author Dr. Leah Weiss states, “The experience we have doing a job depends largely on what we bring to it.”

As I began reflecting on the book, I realized that many of the ideas and practices included have been mentioned in other books on this blog. I don’t want to be repetitive, but if you’re at all like me, revisiting ideas and hearing different perspectives can help deepen understanding. Weiss’s perspective in particular reminded me to take advantage of the micro-moments that fill the day and provide the opportunity to pause and reset. 

Weiss draws on examples and research from a variety of work environments, but it would have been invaluable to me years ago when I taught high school. Many mornings, I went into the building buoyed by my best intentions and love of learning, but would quickly let the latest county-wide initiative, administrative directive, or social drama overwhelm and derail me. It felt like so much of it was out of my control. I lacked something important which mindfulness provides - agency. Weiss puts it this way, “As workers, we must take responsibility for our own sanity.”

You’re probably familiar with the scientific method and maybe even design thinking. Weiss introduces us to the Tibetan concept of dampa sum which has a similar 3 step process: good in the beginning (clear intention & purpose), good in the middle (bringing whole self to practicing or experimenting), and good in the end (reflecting on how it went). To help illustrate these 3 parts, I’ll use examples from my teaching days.

Good in the Beginning: Ever get bogged down in the details of the day? Or have your attention swayed by an email or someone stopping by your office? In both the school building filled with hundreds of people where I used to work and now working in a company of two, this repeatedly happened and still happens to me. Weiss suggests having clarity about purpose, placing attention on things that support that purpose, and staying mindful of what you're doing and why. 

I didn’t do that much while teaching, but I do remember one incident when I followed this practice. During my first year teaching, the school system decided to modernize and adopt new software for recording attendance on-line. The initial phase that we adopted in August didn’t go smoothly to say the least. At one point due to no fault of ours, teachers had to re-enter 2 weeks worth of attendance for 6 different classes (approximately 175 students). That January, they rolled out the grading segment of the software and strongly suggested that we begin using it.

Luckily, I heard the “suggested, not required” part of their announcement loud and clear. I knew that the time and attention that I would spend helping to pilot the software and work out the bugs would significantly impact my teaching especially since the new semester brought new classes for me to teach. Student learning was my purpose, not problem solving software issues (it had lots of issues) or complaining with the other teachers about the substandard system that the county selected (and there were lots of reasons to gripe). Remembering my purpose and choosing to focus my energy on the students made a huge difference in my well-being and effectiveness as a teacher.

Good in the Middle: How much time and energy do you spend beating yourself up and/or reacting to other people while working, learning, or doing? How does that impact the process? I’m definitely guilty of wasting lots of time in both ways which usually results in a lot of frustration and opting out. When I taught, I hadn’t yet learned the mindful practices which Weiss includes in this section such as compassion, curiosity, and asking for help. If I had, I may not have burned out and left the classroom.

If you think back to your school days, you probably remember the not-so-fun climate of the school during testing time. Believe it or not that goes for teachers, too. My school had a testing coordinator that made us jump through all sorts of hoops. I mindlessly complained along with other teachers not recognizing that this person who also served as a guidance counselor probably only took on this additional role for a needed income supplement. 

We didn’t exercise compassion to recognize that she didn’t enjoy the thankless role or curiosity to understand more about how the process worked. I also didn’t have enough awareness to realize that the negative knee jerk reaction that I had whenever she approached had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the county testing procedures that she had to abide by. She also didn’t know how to ask for help. Unfortunately due to the stress of her role and an unhealthy school climate, she ended up working herself sick and spending a day in the hospital. 

It’s critical to our well-being that we get out of our heads and pay attention to the signals our body sends us especially when we start to feel overwhelmed. Having the clarity to recognize our own physical triggers or the negative verbal scripts in our heads gives us the power to choose a different outcome.

Good in the End: Do you spend more planning or reflecting on a project? What processes do you have in place to support reflection? According to Weiss, “Reflection is clearly valuable, but it isn’t necessarily valued.” Of course, teachers get evaluated. I created growth plans, got evaluated based on student scores, and had observations by administrators. The value of this feedback varied. In one school that I worked in, the growth plans got thrown in an administrator’s drawer never to be looked at again and the observation notes didn’t provide any helpful guidance. 

That said, I agree with Weiss on the importance of feedback and the importance of unlearning self-criticism and perfectionism. If in your personal reflection you tell yourself “I stink at this” or “I’m never going to be good enough” - well then no growth can happen. Instead, she advocates for focusing on things within your control and accepting responsibility for it.

I didn’t always do great with the perfectionism part, but in one way I did. I focused on the feedback that mattered most - the students. From my first year of teaching, I would do my own informal student feedback form at different points throughout the year instead of waiting until the end. It was always such a great reminder of the diversity of students in my room. Some loved group projects (which I did a lot of) and some definitely didn’t! So I adjusted a bit. Some needed the overhead with notes (yes, I know I just dated myself with “overhead”) whereas others processed through the group discussions. 

Whenever I would try out a new group project idea, I learned to also do a quick feedback check (three easy open ended questions). Those often surprised me because the projects I spent a lot of time developing weren’t always the ones that landed with the students. Often the project that I came up with on the fly and left room for flexibility (my own and the students), got the best reviews and had the biggest impact. Regardless, their comments always gave me ideas for how to tweak the project for the next group and what elements to feel good about and preserve. 

Wrap Up: I left teaching over 10 years ago. I did have moments of mindfulness even before I had ever heard the term. Would I still be teaching if I had read Weiss, Langer, Brown, and others on this blog? I don’t know. What I do know is that practicing active mindfulness has been beneficial to my personal and professional growth over the last few years. And I love that I get to teach and introduce these ideas to a variety of groups through our work.