Jonathan's Blog

Jonathan's Blog

Mindful Leadership and Technology (Mostly Software)


Leadership Mindfulness

Personal Energy and Leadership - How Are You Feeling Today?

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As I've mentioned in the last couple posts I'm reading Dr. Alan Watkins' Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. It explores the connections between body and mind in detail as it relates to business leadership and management.

This is a subject matter that I've written about extensively on this blog.

The book has a lot of insights based on Dr. Watkins extensive medical and consulting work with business leaders, as well as brining together a lot of other science related to behavior and personal growth.

It's a powerful book and worth reading, even if you aren't interested in mindfulness or meditation. If you're interested in being a more effective leader, this book is for you, though it will almost certainly challenge your preconceived notions of what leadership consists of; how one approaches making improvements as a leader, and what a leadership book consists of.

You have never read anything like it.

One of the primary, liberating insights of this book is that time management is unimportant comapred with energy management. Our ability to be our best selves, project constructive energy, and unlock the discretionary efforts of ourselves and others is what matters as a leader in business. Managing a calendar pales in comparison to this.

How do you do this? And what are the revelatory insights presented?

You probably need to read the book to really understand them, but I will give you a brief glimpse.

Before you even begin to look at behavior or think about business results, you must consider the physiology and emotional components of our human bodies. Our higher brain functions and behavior rest on top of these foundations. If you ignore them then you are ignoring key pieces of the puzzle that affect our behavior and the behavior of others.

The book provides positive, concrete steps and exercises that can help you understand these things and use them to your advantage.

Give it a read, it is worth the time.


Mindfulness Leadership Negativity Bias Know Thyself

Happiness and Survival - Conflict in the Body in Mind

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Happiness is very different from survival. The human machine - our bodies and minds - evolved to increase the chances of our survival and the continuation of our genes and our species.

The mechanisms that helped us to survive don't promote happiness. In fact many mechanisms that helped us survive do just the opposite - they make us unhappy. They also promote illness and a loop of perpetual stress. Here are some examples:

  1. Negativity Bias - this is the tendency to see or seek out possible dangers in any given situation. The mind evolved this capability in order to protect us from danger - real or imagined. Better to imagine a danger that isn't there than to miss a danger that is. By being ever vigilant to danger, we prevent ourselves from being eaten by bears. We also increase our own tendency to see the negative side of our client's request for changes and that new corporate policy.
  2. Fight or Flight Hormones - These are hormones that are put into the body when you are under stress. They help you handle short term bursts of danger, but they cause long term break down of the body's systems. They were designed to be introduced when very significant immediate stressors were placed on an individual to power survival, they did not evolve to meet the demands of day-to-day stress of the modern work place where fighting or fleeing is not terribly useful.
  3. Chaotic Heart and Breathing Rhythms - this was also part of the fight or flight response and it evolved to AVOID the use of higher brain functions in times of immediate physical danger. When heart and breathing become chaotic they suppress higher brain function, this is why we may feel like our brain is not helping us out when we are 'on the spot' or 'on stage'. This is because the stress is causing erratic heart and breathing rhythms which impair our higher brain function.

The good news is that we understand all of these things now. We know that it is happening and we can do something about it.

The trouble is there isn't a traditional class you can take or procedure to address these things. They're emotional and physical and you must practice self-awareness in order to be aware that they are happening to you and do something about it.

The last two points come from Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins, which I am currently reading. It is an excellent book and I recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in the human condition, physiology, business leadership, and the overlap of all those things.


Mindfulness Racing Thoughts

Mindfulness, Racing Thoughts, and Some Ways to Slow Down and Take Note

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When I sit down to meditate or do some type of mindfulness exercise I often find that once my mind is not occupied with some other task, it begins to race.

It's as though, once I stop occupying it with the million other things required in a day (driving, watching the kids, writing blog posts, managing a team, writing emails, meeting with clients, etc), the first thing it wants to do is tear into all those topics and unfinished to-do list items at light speed.

The end result is that I can feel less calm at the end than when I began. Yes, it is helpful in practicing recovery and improving awareness. And I understand that these are important skills and I am happy to practice them, understanding that this is not failure.

However, I'd like to be able to settle in more quickly and bring such mind racing a little bit more to heel. Or just get better at noticing and recovering faster. Which I think is an OK thing to want to do. Here is an example from the Muse app of what I am talking about:


In the beginning at the blue arrow, I actually start out fairly calm. Think, "I'm sitting down to focus - I'm relaxed and happy I'm making time to do this in my day because it's important." This is a nice feeling.

But fairly quickly, between the blue and red arrows, and during all of the session after the red arrow, my mind begins to race and I have a hard time feeling calm or staying calm for any length of time. You can see this in the upward trend of the line between the blue and red arrows. Also in the fact that the line does not trend down anywhere, but stays at the higher level through the duration of the exercise.

I'm currently using three techniques in order to manage this:

  1. Noting - by taking note of this tendency and also using basic 10-count breathing (in the Headspace-style) I simply try to remember that within each breath and between each breath I am staying focused on my breathing. Also, for one reason or another I have much more of a tendency to stay focused on the 1-2 and 9-10 breaths, and therefore I make special note on the 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 breaths to stay focused on breathing, while allowing my bookend breaths (1-2, 9-10) to flow more naturally and without note. This means that even if the exercise doesn't particularly call for it, I need to try to incorporate the 10-count element.
  2. An Inner Appeal - Another technique (this one a more recent development) is that when I notice I seem to have a 'mind-racing' challenge on a particular day, I make an internal appeal. Something along the lines of, "Dear Brain, It's important to integrate the whole body and make room for emotions and other types of awareness. I'm really focused on breath in order to make space for this in my life so that I can be healthier. Can you please help me out with this by also focusing on the breath?"
  3. I'm using the coherence techniques from Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence. The goal of this is to get into a coherent biofeedback loop where you control your stress level by directly managing your breath in a fairly specific way. I'm not going to describe it exactly - you can buy the book or use their app: link to website that can get you to either iOS or Android. The app costs money ($7) and requires an external heart rate monitor, so it isn't exactly a cheap thing to use. You don't need the app, you can read the book and follow the instructions in the app - no app or heart rate monitor required.

When I actually write down number 2 like that it is a bit strange and implies some boundaries and distinctions between mind and self that I'm not sure I agree with or endorse. Nonetheless, it helps so I do it.

Number 3 has started to yield longer term results - i.e. I feel calmer from doing it. However, it hasn't helped much directly on the problem of racing thoughts that seem to happen during a session. But I've only been doing it for a few weeks and it is a skill that takes some getting used to. Also, I'm not sure that it is fair to judge the technique against something that it was never specifically prescribed to do. It just seems like it should work as the racing thoughts definitely cause the opposite - a negative loop where the racing thoughts causes stress that leads to more racing thoughts which leads to more stress.

I have no idea if any of these techniques are tried or supported by anyone besides me. I know of the idea of noting from reading something about it on the internet. Here is a link to article about it, though it is not the original one that I read: Noting. I included a link to Dr. Watkins' book above. If you are interested in mindfulness, mind-body connections, mindfulness and leadership, or stress management you should read that book.


Bots Conversational UI

Bots Rising - Part Next - Google Assistant App Published

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My Google Assistant App was approved within about 24 hours. That's pretty fast and beat the expectations they set at 'a couple of business days'.

It's published under 'Games & Fun' which pretty accurately describes the content - it doesn't contain anything useful, but is intented to be humorous.

The app brings to life a character I created with my kids named Chuckles the Dirt Chip Muffin - The Worst Muffin in the World. It has a bunch of quotes and silly commands.

Anyway, they approved it. It was fun to make and educational. Here is the link in the Google Assistant App Directory: Chuckles the Dirt Chip Muffin.

You can also reach him by saying 'OK Google Talk to Chuckles Chat' in Google Home or in the Google Assistant App.


Bots Conversational UI Software Development

Bots Rising Continued - Creating a Bot with Dialogflow for Google Assistant and Google Home

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I wrote some blog posts way back in the good old days of 2016 about a bot we developed for an intenral work tool. It ran inside of Slack. When we did the development we were basically writing code to handle all the states of the conversation. It was clunky and had some real limitiations.

Fast forward to more recent times - we bought a Google Home at the end of last year. Because I usually want to make something and not just consume information, I started to play around with Google Assistant and how to create an Assistant App for Google Home with tools on Google Cloud.

So right away I found myself working in the Dialogflow ecosystem. This was a big improvement over how we built our Slackbot in 2016 where we were hand-coding our state and writing a million if/else statements to handle the user interaction.

The Dialogflow designer interface is intuitive for creating your conversation. My biggest sticking points were working through the integration between it (Dialogflow) and my existing webservices. The answers were there in the documentation but it took some time to work through my SSL issues (doesn't allow self-signed certificates) and formatting of request. This was a little frustrating at times, but nothing out of the ordinary for using a tool that you haven't worked with before.

I also came across Let's Encrypt for solving my SSL issues. Let's encrypt allows you to get a real-ish certificate for development and test purposes. It is fast and automates several parts of the SSL cert process I've never seen automated before - very handy!

My Google Assistant App is submitted now and waiting for approval. I believe I adhere to all their guidelines, so hopefully they will approve me! Fingers crossed!


Mindfulness Leadership Business

Now Reading - Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins

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If you've read almost any blog post on this site in the last year then you know that I'm interested in the overlap between mindfulness practice, leadership, and business sucess.

Most recently here a couple of weeks ago.

What a treat and a revelation to find this book: Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins. Dr. Watkins (a cardiologist) has thought a lot about the connection between body and mind. He takes a deep look at how to improve your business results and energy management.

I don't know if Dr. Watkins himself would consider his book to be about mindfulness, necessarily. However the techniques recommneded in the first section are similar to mindful breathing techniques.

For the veteran of meditation, what will be interesting here is a focus on the physiological and some of Dr. Watkins' reasons 'why' it is importnat to engage in these practices. He is interested in your happiness, but the physiological mechanisms at play are something wholly different than you may have encountered.

I am only about 100 pages into it, but I am really enjoying it. More when I finish the book.