Connor Swenson, Mindfulness & Productivity Coach: “People need to understand their goals and how they will be measured”

Connor Swenson teaches mindfulness and meditation practices that help people be more productive and find greater wellbeing in their lives. He previously worked at Google for more than seven years, holding various partnerships, marketing, and operations roles.

While working at Google, Connor felt the pressure to work harder and harder to keep up with the talented, driven colleagues around him, which for him meant working longer hours. That had an impact on his personal wellbeing and productivity, which paved his way to mindfulness and productivity.

Today, Connor is teaching mindfulness and productivity to those who believe that they need some refreshment. We talked with Connor about how to spot that you're in the early stages of burnout and how to tackle it. According to Connor, the leading cause of the low level of productivity is that people don't have a personal mission, and they lack a clear sense of what they want to achieve. Read the article, and you'll find out the best way to tackle the excessive noise in the Age of Information.

This interview was written by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

What’s your story? How did you find your path to mindfulness & productivity?

I learned the hard way what happens when you work mindlessly. After starting at Google in New York City, I felt the pressure to work harder and harder in order to keep up with the talented, driven colleagues around me. At that time, working harder and harder to me meant working longer and longer works. The impact on my personal wellbeing and productivity was extremely negative, and I hit a wall.

I feel fortunate looking back that I hit a wall so early in my career.

I feel fortunate looking back that I hit a wall so early in my career. This taste of burnout was the reason I came into contact with mindfulness, through various programs and teachers at Google. I started to learn what really drives increased productivity, and most importantly, how to sustain that for the long-term.

Many of us have reached the point of burnout in their professional lives. Burnouts are bad since they will eventually leave people feeling stressed, empty, exhausted and eventually unable to cope with the demands of life. How to spot that you’re in the early stage of burnout and what steps should you take to make sure that it doesn’t go further?

I believe burnout is a very personal experience and it’s hard to generalize as to how it will show up in an individual’s life. For me, I noticed that I had really started to neglect my personal life in favor of my professional life. Over time, deprioritizing my friends meant that I wasn’t replenishing that wellspring of energy that I get from social interactions.

Ultimately, I started to lose complete connection with the motivation that drove me in the beginning of my journey at Google. I wasn’t feeling excited or inspired by the work. This is turn meant I performed worse and worse.

Now this is what I see as a major consequence of burnout. It starts spiralling from one area of your life to the next, and this makes everything suffer.

Early signs of burnout can include a lack of motivation, lower energy levels, disinterest in social life, unhealthy eating patterns, and more.

That is why I believe we need to take a holistic view of our wellbeing, and spend time reflecting and prioritizing on different aspects of our life. For me, these areas include my health, wealth, career, spirituality, and friends and family. By getting clear on my priorities in each, and seeing how these areas are inherently interconnected, it allows me to see the bigger picture and avoid falling into the depths of burnout.

In today’s world, even though we are more connected than ever through social media and our digital devices, people are becoming more and more disconnected in real life. According to Psychology Today [1], social media contributes to issues like loneliness, depression, anxiety, isolation and other kinds of mental health problems. How could we tackle that problem and make sure that this isn’t the case in the future since it looks like we’re even more connected digitally then?

Technology is just a tool, and we can use it to better our wellbeing or it can be a source of problems. The most important step in tackling this problem is building awareness about the negative impacts surrounding the unchecked use of technology. For example, many people are just unaware of the simple dopamine-inducing cycle they are engaging in every time they open up social media.

As awareness grows, then consumer behavior starts to change, and ultimately the consumers can influence the companies in significant ways. We’ve seen this happen in the past few years as Apple, Google, and Facebook have all begun rolling out ‘digital wellbeing’ tools in their ecosystems.

This is a really complex issue, and I don’t see a magic bullet. Consumers, companies, governments, and social organizations all need to play a part. I’m optimistic that we can build a better future, and organizations like the Center for Humane Technology are doing great work at the forefront of this issue.

In your opinion, as a productivity coach, what are the main causes of low levels of productivity and how to tackle them?

I believe the main cause is that most people don’t have a personal mission and a clear sense of what they want to achieve. Without this, it’s too difficult to have clear goals and to prioritize amongst them day-in and day-out.

Most people I work with have a hard time creating the space to think deeply about their vision. Silence is foreign to them. That’s why I believe that cultivating mindfulness is a fundamental skill. Mindfulness allows you to see things more clearly, and begin to respond to life rather than react.

I believe the main cause is that most people don’t have a personal mission and a clear sense of what they want to achieve.

When people lack clarity, they easily fall victim to distraction and poor planning, which then results in low productivity at work and in life. As they feel less productive, many people then experience a rise in stress, which might result in poor eating habits, or deprioritizing physical and mental fitness. This is a nasty cycle to get caught in.

The first step to solving this problem is actually to stop doing anything at all. Sit in quiet and begin to investigate the nature of your mind. This is meditation, and this practice will build the skill of mindfulness which will allow you to make more effective decisions and ultimately be more productive.

What are the best mindfulness & productivity tools out there that everyone should sign-up to / download today?

I don’t believe that one app or tool is going to fix the productivity problem for most people. You need to start mastering your mind, and practically all of the meditation apps out there are a good place to begin.

Then, you need to have a tool to capture all the information floating around in your mind. All of those things you want to do, need to do, and might do. This can be a journal, or a digital tool. It doesn’t matter. It just matters that you consistently use that tool to unload your mind.

If you don’t schedule your life, somebody else will.

Finally, you need a calendar. If you don’t schedule your life, somebody else will. Again, I don’t know what calendar you will prefer, and I don’t think the differences between them are huge. The important aspect is that you proactively schedule your priorities into your life and use your calendar as a tool to give you time, not as an invitation for others to take your time.

Many people mix and confuse mindfulness with meditation. Could you describe, what’s the main differences between those two?

This is a good question, and one that gets asked a lot. Mindfulness is simply being aware. It is paying attention to the present moment, in a way that is non-judgemental. We all inherently have the ability to practice mindfulness at any moment, simply by paying attention.

Meditation refers to a huge variety of mental practices that have different aims and purposes. We often use the analogy of exercise to further clarify. Just as there are many different types of exercise, there are many different styles of meditation. Each type of exercise will have a certain result. Jogging will be different than weight lifting, for example. The same goes for meditation. Some techniques train attention, while others train qualities like compassion.

Where people often get confused is that there is a specific style of meditation called ‘mindfulness meditation’ that is commonly practiced these days. As you might have guessed, the aim of this technique is to develop mindfulness.

We live in an Information Age, which eventually also causes information overload. With so much noise and information out there, what activities/tasks would you recommend people to practice to tune out the excessive noise, so we could focus on the one that’s the most important?

Here again, I can’t stress the importance of practicing meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, enough. This will give you the underlying skillset that is needed to block out distractions, and it's important to notice when you are no longer focused on the task at hand.

Second, I would encourage people to practice mono-tasking instead of multitasking. Be ruthless about working on only one thing at a time, and work on it until it’s complete.

Third, have a conversation with your team about working styles. Do you prefer quiet work time in the mornings or afternoons? Would you rather have face-to-face catch-ups or use chat? Many people neglect these conversations because they are difficult and sometimes awkward, but ultimately you need to set expectations with your team otherwise all the work you do personally to become more productive can be for naught.

Stress in the workplace is, unfortunately, a common thing. While most managers haven’t studied stress management and how to prevent it, then how should leaders/managers approach the issue? Should they contact a person who’s evidently stressed out and comfort them, offer help or is that a bad idea? What should and could leaders/managers do to reduce work-related stress?

My experience at Google has led me to believe that culture is set by the leaders. If you have a leader or manager who is stressed, their team will likely be stressed. If you have a leader who shows that it is OK to prioritize physical and mental health, perhaps by going to the gym during the day, then the team will follow suit. So you must encourage and incentivize good behavior for the top.

Second, is that you need clarity amongst the team. People need to understand their goals and how they will be measured. Without this, people will start working extra hours and failing to prioritize because they don’t know what’s most important.

Teams need to feel psychologically safe to speak up.

Finally, communication. Teams need to feel psychologically safe to speak up. You need to be able to have honest conversations around things like burnout, and employees should not feel scared that it will impact their performance rating. Empathy and compassion are important skills here, so that leaders can have these conversations with their teams in a way that is supportive and understanding.

Connor will be one of our speakers stepping on the stage on the 30th of January at sTARTUp Day 2020. His presentation will be on a similar topic, titled “Forget Productivity”. 
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