Mindful in the morning

Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 10 June 2015

I was recently on the London Overground on my way to visit my lovely clients at Unilever.  After boarding I had immediately buried my head in my copy of The Week for what I thought would be 17 minutes of world news indulgence. However, straight away it was obvious that something far more interesting was happening on the train.

Two ladies opposite were staring at the man next to me. I hadn’t even looked at him yet but they looked horrified and were shaking their heads and sniggering in a mocking tone. I thought to myself that I must have someone really strange next to me, perhaps someone with an abusive tattoo or someone still drunk from the night before. I subtly turned my head to see a very normal looking man. He had his iPhone on and his eyes closed and the only remarkable thing was that his palms were placed on his lap and were facing upwards. He was meditating, slow breathing and was calmness personified.  

I immediately gave the staring ladies a disapproving look. They hid behind their trashy novels but continued checking their phones every few seconds.  

When we all got off at Blackfriars, I thought to myself: “Who is in the best place now to start their working day?” It was obvious the winner on readiness was my meditating neighbour as he bounced off the train, focused and happy.

Serendipitously I was writing my blog about this and turned on the radio to hear the story of Matthieu Ricard, a French-born scientist who then retreated to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal. He was talking about how your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. He says: “You can be miserable in paradise or happy in adversity.” 

He talks about how you can re-train your mind in order to feel more calmness and focus. He is very down-to-earth about this approach and he thinks that the biggest barrier to people adopting mindfulness is a perceived lack of time. He was describing how he encourages people to spend 10 seconds every hour to stop, look around, spot somebody and wish them happiness. Compassion for others is a huge route to happiness in life and this small act could go a long way to help you find it. In Buddhist terms, “a big jar is filled with a series of little drops”.

Why is any of this important for leaders?

How you start your day can pretty much dictate your energy and behaviour for the rest of the day. If you start tense, busy and distracted then it is very hard to retrieve the calm and focused state you desire and need to be most effective. However, if you get yourself into a good state of mind before the flood of emails and knocks on the door begin, then you have a much better chance when things inevitably get out of kilter.

My best advice is to be mindful in the morning, a bit of self-indulgence can set you off on the right track so you can be better for others. We could write encyclopaedias full of tips on how to do this, and I’m certainly not zen-like all the time, but here are some things I, and friends around me, choose to do:


We spend most of our life using only the top third of our lung capacity, with quick shallow breathing. However, most oxygen resides in the bottom third of our lungs so we should access it. Slow your breathing down at the beginning of the day and gain more awareness of everything around you. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven and breathe out for eight.  This is known as the 4-7-8 technique devised by Dr Weil. Do that three times and you’re there!


I know people who check their emails as soon as they wake up. This immediately triggers a busy, multi-tasking state before your body has really had time to acclimatise. Have an email-free chunk of time to get you started - do some exercise and eat a good breakfast before you engage with emails. It’s very rare that any will need answering at 7.15am.  Bob Geldof never even checks in on his email in the morning. He allows himself time in the morning to think and get himself focused before he opens up to the rest of the world’s demands. He talked about this (and much more) in an article published in The Guardian late last year:


Jim Lusty, my partner at Upping Your Elvis, arrives at every morning meeting 30 minutes early. I join him, sometimes a bit hurried, and envy the fact that he’s read the paper, had a good slow breakfast and seems in a much better place to start the day. I used to think it’s what old people did, but Jim’s only 43. He must be wise beyond his years!


As the world has become far more dynamic and flexible, there are endless things you can get involved in and endless ways of working. This is great for making our day-to-day work more interesting but can also dilute our thinking and make it shallower. At Upping Your Elvis, our team all work remotely, so when we check in with each other we have a favourite question to help each other out and make the most of the time we have: “What’s the big thing you are on today?” It may sound intrusive but if you can’t answer it you’re probably not in a focused, calm state. Today’s focus, in case you were wondering, is blog writing!


It sounds harsh but your state at the beginning of each day is largely down to you. Yes, there are external factors like late trains, bad coffee and that idiot who stood on the left hand side of the tube escalator, but how you process those is up to you. How you show up is up to you and as a leader it can have a massive impact on other people’s days. One of the big learnings our clients take away them is that in order to give a great business performance and engage others, it’s really about getting yourself in the right state to do great work. We often forget that but that guy on the train doesn’t. I want to work with him!

Matt Bolton-Alarcón is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at matt@uppingyourelvis.com


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