When I start to feel overwhelmed at work, with too much information to take in and too little time to process it all, I rely on mindfulness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the fathers of modern mindfulness, describes the practice as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” It’s all about tuning into your sense of inner calm so you can be a better conduit for new insights and solutions.
I’m not alone in turning to mindfulness during the design process. Here’s how my colleagues and I use mindfulness to move from overwhelmed to optimistic, even during the toughest projects.
When you're approaching a new design challenge, it’s easy to bring your biases and baggage to the table. But this is the moment to stay open: The root of creativity is embracing the millions of possibilities at your fingertips.
The “beginner's mindset” is a Buddhist principle we practice at IDEO. It means starting fresh, assuming nothing, and living the question. We see a lack of deep expertise in a new topic as an opportunity to get creative. Anyone can adopt a beginner’s mindset—all that’s required is openness and receptivity.
When I first learned about acceptance, it seemed to me it was just another word for complacency. As if to say, “That’s the way things are! Why bother trying to change them?” But on closer reflection, I realized that accepting the world as it is today requires a willingness to sit with uncomfortable truths and to see problems from all angles before jumping in to solve them.
By accepting a situation, you’re able to design a better approach from a place of non-resistance. At IDEO, we have a bias toward action: We make lots of tangible designs as a way of imagining the future. But action can be so much more impactful when it’s grounded in reality and driven by clear intentions.
Mindfulness teaches us that the ego—the part of us that demands to be “right”—is not our true self. Our true self is found in the in-between moments when we’re able to just be—the times when we take in what’s around us, quiet our minds, and open ourselves up to feedback from the people we’re designing for.
One way we try to drop our egos at IDEO is by creating “sacrificial concepts”— prototypes that we design but ultimately cast aside in service of learning. Critiquing a sacrificial concept is an invitation for people to share their reactions without hurting anyone else’s feelings.
I sometimes suffer from the “disease to please,” wanting people to like everything I’ve made. But as I’ve leaned into mindfulness, I’ve realized that my ego can slow me down, and I've learned how to set it aside.
Have you ever noticed during a conversation that the person you’re talking to is mimicking your posture? If you put your hands on the table, so do they; if you sit up straight, they follow suit. In conversation, people are often looking for an opening to make their next point, rather than paying attention to what’s being said. But if you focus on your own replies, you miss out on the words, tone, and body language of the people around you.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says that when you practice judgement-free listening, you’re giving another person the power of your presence. At IDEO, every project starts with listening. Our human-centered, interdisciplinary design approach means that the whole team learns empathy skills and joins in the design research process. Listening elevates the voices of the people we’re designing for and ensures that their dreams and worries are our starting point.
One of the biggest misconceptions about creativity is that creative people always wake up feeling compelled to create. The truth is that this compulsion is often blocked by insecurities or external pressures. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer describes these as “samskaras,” or energy blockages, which can be cleared by acknowledging them and focusing on your breathing. Tolle suggests that when you want to be creative, you should go back and forth between breathing and the task at hand every few minutes. Only when you’re clear-headed can you make.
At IDEO, we have a meditation group that meets every day, and any designer is welcome to be in the presence of others and connect inward. This ritual, and the support of the wider IDEO community, are wonderful reminders that everyone still has room to learn and improve.
By making mindfulness a regular part of my design practice, I’ve not only become a better designer, but hopefully a kinder, more patient, and more empathetic person. It’s been a journey well worth taking.
Illustrations by Cassandra Fountaine