Mindful Leadership in the University

Last year I ran a session on “mindful leadership” at a conference for academic leaders in my university. I decided to write this article as a way to help me prepare for the session.

Academia, like many other sectors, is a complex work environment. Although universities vary in terms of their size and objectives, the average university in Canada and the US must simultaneously serve the interests of undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, basic research, applied research, public policy research, and basic scholarship. A university receives its operating funds from tuition payments, governments, from research funding agencies, and from private donors. Faculty are at the center of this diverse institution, providing the engine of teaching, research, and service. As a result, faculty members may find themselves occasionally struggling to manage these different interests. This article looks at the challenges that faculty members face, paying particular attention to the leadership role that many faculty play. I then explore the possible ways in which mindfulness practice can have a benefit on faculty well-being and productivity.

Challenges of Leadership in the University Setting

Although most work environments have similar challenges and issues (being pulled in different directions, time management, etc.) this article focuses on the challenges that faculty members face when working at and leading the average, mid-sized university. The specific challenges will vary in terms of what role or roles a person is serving in, but let’s first look at challenges that might be common to most faculty members.

Shifting Tasks

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” — Donald Knuth

I love this quote from Donald Knuth, a professor of computer science, because it encapsulates the main challenge that so many of us have. We want to be on top of things (teaching, Twitter, emails from students, cutting-edge research) but we also want to be on the bottom: digging deeply into a problem and finding a solution.

The average faculty member has, at a minimum, 2–3 very different kinds of jobs. We’re teachers, researchers/scholars, and we also help to run the university. Within these broadly-defined categories, we divide our teaching time between graduate and undergraduate teaching and mentorship. Research involves investigation, applying for grants, reading, investigation, analysis, writing, dissemination. And running the university can make us managers, chairs, deans, and provosts and as such we’re responsible for hiring research staff, hiring other faculty members, and managing budgets.

These three categories require different sets of skills and shifting between them can be a source of stress. In addition, the act of shifting between them will not always go smoothly and this may result in a loss of effectiveness and productivity as the concerns from one category, task, or role bleed into another. Being mindful of the demands of the current task at hand is crucial.

For example, I find it especially difficult to transition after 2–3 hours of leading a seminar or lecture, and I like to have some time to unwind. But many times, I need to schedule a meeting in the afternoon and find that I have only a short amount of time to go from “lecture mode” into “meeting mode. I am still thinking about my lecture when the meeting begins. Even among leaders that have little or no direct teaching requirements, it is common to have to switch from and to very different topics. One day you might start the day answering emails (with multiple topics), a morning meeting on hiring negotiations, a meeting about undergraduate planning, then an hour with your PhD student on a very specific and complex analysis of data for her dissertation research, followed by phone call from the national news outlet asking about the research of your faculty members. Shifting between these tasks can reduce your effectiveness. The cognitive psychology literature refers to this as “set shifting” or “task-shifting”, and research has supported the idea that there is always a cost to shift (Arrington & Logan 2004; Monsell, 2003). These cost will eventually affect how well you do your job and also how you deal with stress. It’s difficult to turn your full attention to helping your student with an analysis when you are also thinking about your department’s budget.

The primary challenge in this area is to be able to work on the task at hand and to be mindful of distractions. Of course they will occur, but through practice, it may be possible to both minimize their impact and also reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the distractions.

Shared Governance

One aspect of academia that sets it apart from many corporate environments is the notion of “shared governance”. Though this term is common (and has been criticized as being somewhat empty,) the general concept is that a university derives its authority from a governing board, but that faculty are also vested in the institutional decision-making process. This means that most universities have a faculty senate that sets academic policy, dean’s level committees that review budgets and programs, and departmental committees that make decisions about promotion and tenure, hiring, and course assignments.

From a leadership perspective, this can mean that as a chair or dean you are always managing personnel, balancing the needs of faculty, students, budgets, senior administrators, and the public image of your university. There may not be a clear answer to the question of “who is the boss?”. Sometimes faculty are asked to assume leadership roles for a set time, and will need to shift from a collegial relationship to a managerial one (then back to a collegial one) for the same people. That is, one day you are colleagues and the next you are his or her supervisor.

The challenge here is to understand that you may be manager, colleague, and friend at the same time. In this case, it’s very helpful to be mindful of how you interact with your colleagues such that your relationship aligns with the appropriate role.

Finding time for research and scholarship

One of the most common complaints or concerns from faculty is that they wish they had more time for research. This is a challenge for faculty as well as leaders. Although a common workload assumes that a faculty member may spend 40% of his or her efforts on research, most faculty report spending most of their time in meetings. However, promotion and tenure is earned primarily through research productivity. Grants are awarded to research productive faculty. That is, most of those meetings are important, but do not lead to promotion and career advancement. This creates a conflict that can cause stress because although 40% is the nominal workload, it may not be enough to be productive. Other aspects of the job, like meetings related to teaching and service, may take up more than their fair share but often feel more immediate.

Academic leaders also need to consider these concerns from a different perspective. For example, as a department chair, I need to balance the needs of faculty to have adequate time for research with the needs of my department to be able to offer the right amount of undergraduate teaching. Being mindful of these concerns and how they come into conflict is an important aspect of university leadership.

Mindfulness and Leadership

I’ve listed three challenges for leaders in an academic setting: switching, shared governance, and finding time for research. There are more, one course, but let’s stick with these. I want to now explain what mindfulness practice is and how it might be cultivated and helpful for academic leaders. That is, how can mindfulness help with these challenges?

The challenge is to create the necessary cognitive space for thinking about research questions and working on research.

What is mindfulness?

A good starting point for this question is a definition that comes from Kabat-Zinn’s work. Mindfulness is an open and receptive attention to, and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. For example, as I’m writing this article, I am mindful and aware of what I want to say, aware of the sound of the office fan, aware of the time, aware that I am attending to this task and not some other task. I’m also aware that my attention will slip sometimes and I think about some of the challenges I outlined above. Being mindful means acknowledging and being aware but not being critical or judgmental about my occasional wavering. Mindfulness can be defined as a trait or a state. When described as a state, mindfulness is something that is cultivated via mindfulness practice and meditation.

How can mindfulness be practiced?

The best way to practice mindfulness is just to begin right away. Mindfulness can be practiced alone, at home, with a group, or on meditation retreat.

If you are technologically inclined, the Canadian company Interaxon makes a small, portable EEG headband called MUSE that can help develop mindfulness.

The basic practice is one of developing attentional control and awareness by practicing mindfulness meditation. Many people begin with breathing-focused meditation in which you sit (in a chair or on a cushion) close your eyes, relax your shoulders and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is always there, and so you can readily notice how you breath in and out. You notice the moment where your in-breath stops and your out-breath begins. This is a basic and fundamental awareness of what is going on right now. The reason many people start with breathing-focused meditation is that when you notice that your mind begins to wander, you can pull your attention back to your breath. The pulling back is the subtle control that comes from awareness and this is at the heart of the practice.

Benefits of mindfulness to academic leaders

A primary benefit of mindfulness involves learning to be cognitively and emotionally present in the task at hand. This can help with task switching. For example, when you are meeting with a student, being mindful could mean that you bring your attention back to the topic of the meeting (rather than thinking about a paper you have been working on). When you are working on a manuscript, being mindful could mean keeping your attention on the topic of the paragraph and bringing it back from other competing interests. As a researcher and a scientist, there are also benefits as keeping an open mind about collected data and evidence which can help to avoid cognitive pitfalls. In medicine, as well as other fields, this is often taught explicitly as at the “default interventionist” approach in which the decision-maker strives to maintain awareness of her or her assessments and the available evidence in order to avoid heuristic errors (Kahneman, 2011). As a chair or a dean, being fully present could also manifest itself by learning to listen to ideas from many different faculty members and from students who are involved in the shared governance of academia.

Cognitive and clinical psychological research has generally supported the idea that both trait mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are associated with improved performance on several cognitive tasks that underlie the aforementioned challenges to academic leaders. For example, studies have shown benefits to attention (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007), working memory (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010), cognitive flexibility (Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012), and affect (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2007; Jha et al., 2010). And there have been noted benefits to emotional well-being and behaviour in the workplace as well. This work has shown benefits like stress reduction (Grossman et al., 2004), a reduction to emotional exhaustion (Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013), and increased job satisfaction (Hulsheger et al., 2013).

Given these associated benefits, mindfulness meditation has the potential to facilitate academic leadership by reducing some of what can hurt good leadership (stress, switching costs, cognitive fatigue) and facilitating what might help (improvements in attentional control, better engagement with others).


As I mentioned at the outset, this article was written to help me organize my thoughts and ideas. This is an informal article, not a scientific one. Mindfulness is not a panacea or a secret weapon. Mindfulness will not make you a better leader or a better scientist. Mindful leaders may not always be the best leaders.

But the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of a mindless state has been shown to reduce stress and improve some basic cognitive tasks that contribute to effective leadership. I find mindfulness meditation to be an important part of my day and an important part of by role as a professor, a teacher, a scientist, and an academic leader.


Arrington, C. M., & Logan, G. D. (2004). The Cost of a Voluntary Task Switch. Psychological Science, 15, 610–615.

Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2007). The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322.

Greenberg J., Reiner K., Meiran N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36206.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35–43.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., Lang, J. W. B. (2013) Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98,310–325.

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109–119. Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10, 54–64.

Kahneman, (2011). Thinking, fast and slow, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 134–140.


Does This Project Bring Me Joy?


I think I have too many research projects going on.

It’s great to be busy, but I’m officially overwhelmed in this area. As a university professor, some of my job is well defined and other parts not so much. My workload is divided into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Within each of these, I have some say as to what I can take on. I can teach different classes and volunteer to serve on various committees. But the research component is mine. This is what I really do. This is supposed to be my passion.

So why do I feel overwhelmed in that area? I think I have too many projects going on. And I don’t mean that I have too many studies or am writing too many papers. I’m most certainly not doing that. I mean I have too many different kinds of projects. There are several projects on psychology and aging, projects on the brain electrophysiology and category learning, a project on meditation and wellbeing in lawyers, a project on patient compliance, a projects on distraction from smartphones, plus 4-5 other ideas in development, and at least 10 projects that are most charitable described as “half baked ideas that I had on the way home from a conference”.

Add to this many projects with students that may not quite be in my wheelhouse, but are close and that I’m supervising. And I’ll admit, I have difficulty keeping these things straight. I’m interested in things. But when I look at the list of things, I confess I have a tough time seeing a theme sometimes. And that’s a problem as it means I’m not really fully immersed in any one project. I cease to be an independent and curious scientist and become a mediocre project manager.

Put another way, sometimes I’m not really sure what I do anymore…

So what should I do about this, other than complain on my blog? I have to tidy up my research.

A Research Purge

There is a very popular book called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up“. I have not read this book, but I have read about this book (and let’s be honest that’s sometimes the best we can do). The essence of the approach is that you should not be hanging on to things that are not bringing you joy. Nostalgia is not joy. Lots of stuff getting in the way is not joy. And so you go though things, one category at a time, and look at each thing and say “does this item spark joy“? If the answer is no, you discard it. I like this idea.

If this works for a home or a room…physical space…then it should work for the mental space of my research projects. So I’m going to try this. I will go through each project and each sub project and say “Does this project bring me joy?” or “Is there joy in trying to discover this?” Honestly, if the answer is “no” or “maybe” why should I work on it? This may mean that I give up on some things and that some possible papers will not get published. But I will not be compelled to carry out research an writing if it is not bringing me joy. Why should I? I suspect I will be more effective as a scientist because I will (hopefully) focus my efforts on several core areas.

The Psychology of the Reset

Why do we like this? Why do people want to cleanse? To reset. To get back to basics? It seems to be a theme in so many pop-psych and self help books. Getting rid of things. A detox or a “digital detox. Getting back to something. I really wonder about this. And although I wonder why we behave this way, I’m not sure that I would not find joy in carrying out a research study on this…I must resist the urge to start another project.

I’m going to pare down. I still need to teach, and supervise, and serve on editorial boards, etc: that’s work. I’m not complaining. I like it. But I want to spend my research time working on projects that will spark joy. Investigating and discovering things that I’m genuinely curious about…curious enough to put in the hours and time to do the research well.

I’d be curious too, to know if others have tried this. Has it worked? Have you become an better scholar and scientists by decluttering your research space?

Thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

Thinking about Vacations

Summer is when most people take a vacation. The weather is usually nice, so there are many options for most people. And of course, children are usually home from school for a few months so families tend to take a vacation during this time. And even people without children probably still have a residual rhythm to the year that was forged during their own childhood and school time. Those early patters leave their mark.

I’m fascinated by how people choose to spend their vacation time. When I was a child, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we tended to spend most if the summer at home since my mother was a schoolteacher. But we did go away on vacations. They tended to be road trips to stay with family in other areas of the country and we’d take in attractions like the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains in NH or the beach in North Carolina along the way. One year, we visited family in Northern Virginia and spent some time at the Smithsonian Museum. I was 12 and younger siblings were 11 and 8. I remember we had to all wear the same bright yellow Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt so that my parents would not lose us in the crowds. I remember being embarrassed but don’t remember the crowds.

Crowds are bigger these days

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really started notice the crowds more. As an example, my famliy and I often spend time on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. There is a wonderful national park and fantastic hiking along the Niagara Escarpment. The first year we visited, 2004, the place seemed so remote, so pristine. But ever year, the crowds have steadily increased. So much so that one of the most popular attractions, “the Grotto” has summer restrictions now. It can only be accessed you are given one of the parking passes that are handed out at 7:00am each day. When the passes are gone, the park is closed to anyone without one. The Grotto is magnificent, but hard to enjoy when it’s teeming with people.

A quiet evening on the Bruce Peninsula, looking out over Georgian Bay

The traffic at the big American parks (Yosemite, Smokey mountains, Yellowstone) is legendary and a growing problem, In some parks, campgrounds are so popular that some entrepreneurs have set up permit bots to buy the site permits when they are available and resell.

Personal preference

So what makes some people crave a vacation in a crowded area and others choose solitude? Some people plan for big crowed locations like Disney, Las Vegas, or a music festival like Coachella or Osheaga. And of course, some events are crowded by nature, such as a ball game. I tend to want to avoid crowds (an ideal vacation is winter camping…crowds are low).

Maybe it comes down to what you want to get away from or back to? I work at a large research university and teach classes up to 200 students. With 30,000 students enrolled at Western, I find that I’m always in a crowd. I suppose the last thing I want to do to recharge is be in another crowd. But if you tend to work in a less crowded place, maybe the fun of being in a bigger crowd on the beach or a park is what you enjoy.

Vacations are needed

Regardless of whether you like a crowd, a beach, the city, or solitude, we all need some time to get out of our comfort zone (or sometimes time to get back into it). Project:Time Off tracks research on vacations and the general message is that we’re not doing it enough. I I hope you are able to get away for a few days. Unplug. Reconnect with your friends or family. Or head to a big crowded festival if that’s your thing (I won’t see you there…). Either way, enjoy your vacation!




Cognitive Psychology and the Smartphone

The iPhone was released 10 years ago and that got me thinking about the relationships I’ve had with smartphones and mobile devices. Of course, I remember almost all of them…almost as if they were real relationships. The first one, the Qualcomm QPC 860, was solid but simple. That was followed by a few forgettable flip phone and a Motorola “ROKR” phone that never really lived up to its promise.

But then came the iPhone, and everything changed. I started really loving my phone. I had an iPhone 3GS (sleek and black) and a white iPhone 4S which I regard at the pinnacle of iPhone design, and I still have as a backup phone. A move to Android saw a brief run with an HTC and I’ve been in a steady commitment with my dependable and conservative Moto X Play for 2 years now. It’s with me every single day, and almost all the time. Is that too much? Probably.

Smartphones are used for many things

There is a very good chance that you are reading this on a smartphone. Most of us have one, and we probably use it for many different tasks.

  • Communication (text, email, chat)
  • Social Media (Facebook, Twitter)
  • Taking and sharing photos
  • Music
  • Navigation
  • News and weather
  • Alarm clock

One thing that all of these tasks have in common is that the smart phone has replaced other means of accomplishing the same tasks. That was original idea for the iPhone, one device to do many things. Not unlike “the one ring”, the smart phone has become the one device to rule them all. Does it rule us also?

The Psychological Cost of Having a Phone.

For many people, the device is always with them. Just look around a public area: it’s full of people on their phones. As such, the smartphone starts to become part of who we are. This ubiquity could have psychological consequences. And there have been several studies looking at the costs. Here are two that piqued my interest.

A few years ago, Cary Stothart did a cool study in which research participants were asked to engage in an attention monitoring task (the SART). They did the task twice, and on the second session, 1/3 of the participants received random text notifications while they did the task, 1/3 received a random call to their phone, and 1/3 proceeded as they did in the first session, which no additional interference. Participants in the control condition performed at the same level on the second session, but participants who received random notifications (text or call) made significantly more errors on the task during the second session. In other words, there was a real cost to getting a notification. Each buzz distracted the person just a bit, but enough to reduce performance.

So put your phone on “silent”? Maybe not…

A paper just published by Adrian Ward and colleagues (Ward, Duke, Gneezy, & Bos, 2017) seems to suggest that just having your phone near you can interfere with some cognitive processing. In their study, they asked 448 undergraduate volunteers to come into the lab and participate in a series of psychological tests. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: desk, pocket/bag, or other room. People in the other room condition left all of their belongings in the lobby before entering the testing room. People in the desk condition left most of their belongings in the lobby but took their phones into the testing room and were instructed to place their phones face down on the desk. Participants in the pocket/bag condition carried all of their belongings into the testing room with them and kept their phones wherever they naturally would (usually pocket or bag). Phones were kept on silent.

The participants in all three groups then engaged in a test of working memory and executive function called the “operation span” task, in which participants had to work out basic math tests and keep track of letters (you can run the task yourself here), as well as the Raven’s progressive matrices task which is a test of fluid intelligence. The results were striking. In both cases having the phone near you significantly reduced your performance on these tasks.

A second study found that people who were more dependent were affected more by the phone. This is not good news for someone like me, who seems to always have his phone nearby. They write:

Those who depend most on their devices suffer the most from their salience, and benefit the most from their absence.

Are Smartphones a Smart Idea?

Despite the many uses for these devices, I wonder how helpful they really are….for me at least. When I am writing or working, I often turn the wifi off (or use Freedom) to reduce digital distractions. But I still have my phone sitting right on the desk and I catch myself looking at it. There is a cost to that. I tell students to put their phones on silent and in their bag during an exam. There is a cost to that. I tell students to put them on the desk on silent mode during lecture. There is a cost to that. When driving, I might have the phone in view because I use it to play music and navigate with Google Maps. There is a cost to that.

It’s a love hate relationship. One of the reasons I still have my iPhone4S is because it’s slow and has no email/social media apps. I’ll bring it with me on a camping trip or hike so that I have weather, maps, phone and text, but nothing else: it’s less distracting. Though it seems weird to have to own a second phone to keep me from being distracted by my real one.

Many of us spend hundreds of dollars on a smart phone and several dollars a data for a data usage plan and at the same time, have to develop strategies to avoid using the device. It’s a strange paradox of modern life that we pay to use something that we have to work hard to avoid using.

What do you think? Do you find yourself looking at your phone and being distracted? Do you have the same love/hate relationship? Let me know in the comments.


Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. https://doi.org/10.1086/691462

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 41(4), 893–897. http://doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000100