164: Sustaining Your Peak and Avoiding Burnouts with Brad Stulberg

By June 7, 2017Podcasts

 

 

Human performance guru Brad Stulberg illuminates the essential ingredients that lead to peak physical, emotional, and mental states.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Brad’s ultimate growth equation
  2. How to get comfortable with being uncomfortable
  3. The huge difference that making a difference makes

About Brad

Brad Stulberg researches, writes, speaks, and coaches on health and the science of human performance. He is a coauthor of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, and is a columnist for New York and Outside magazines. Follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg and learn more on his website www.bradstulberg.com

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brad, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Brad Stulberg
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, my gosh. I’m so excited to dig into your stuff. You have committed the crime of having too much great content in your book for the time we have available, so I might have to jump right in.

Brad Stulberg
All right. That sounds good. I guess that’s a good crime to commit.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, man. Well, it was one sentence that really gripped me. It was, “Both runner and consultant shine extremely bright only to see their performance plateau, their health suffer and their satisfaction wane.” Ooh, daunting. Now you are the consultant in the story. Can you share that narrative with us?

Brad Stulberg
Yes, I can. So about 10 years ago, straight out of undergraduate school, I went to work for McKinsey & Company, which is considered one of the big three large management and strategy consulting firms, and I loved the work. And I wouldn’t say I was great but I was good, I was good enough, and just threw myself completely into it.

And, for as easy as it was for me to turn it on, I struggled mightily to turn it off. And really over an 18-month period I was just constantly working, and even when I shouldn’t have been working, when I was on the phone with a family member, my mind was kind of on page 15 of the PowerPoint slide deck or in third tab of the Excel spreadsheet trying to figure something out. So it wasn’t even external pressure, it was just I personally struggled so much to turn it off. And we can only do that for so long. At least I could only do that for so long.

Probably around the two-year mark of my time there, a little bit before that, I just was tired, physically, psychologically, emotionally and it was nice that I had the opportunity to go to grad school which served as, not an escape route, but pivot point to kind of re-evaluate. And it was actually during graduate school – I studied public health – that I started looking more and more into some of the science behind burnout and why I might’ve been feeling the way that I was.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so you found some conclusions there. And so let’s maybe talk about both sides of that. So there’s some principles and science behind burnout and you also say that there are some principles on, the flipside of peak performance that cut across athletics or creativity or all kinds of work. Can you sort of share which of these principles are really universal there?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, absolutely. So that was the book is about. The book is about those principles and, like you said, they cut across world-class performance whether someone is using their body or their mind. Coming back to my story, I guess, in shining so bright, the first principle is what my co-author and I have called the growth equation. And the growth equation is stress + rest = growth.

And the basic notion behind that is that if you’re stressing yourself, and whether that’s physically you’re stressing your body or psychologically you’re stressing your mind, if you don’t follow that stress with a period of rest you’ll have injury, illness or burnout. The flipside is if you can figure out how to stress yourself at the right intensity and the right dose, and then follow that with enough rest and recovery, you grow stronger.

So the analogy that I like to use is if you think about how you grow your bicep muscle in a gym. If you pick up a weight and the weight is way too heavy you’re likely to throw out your back, you’ll likely to hurt yourself. If you pick up a weight and all you do is lift weights, seven days a week, five hours a day, again, odds are you’re going to hurt yourself or maybe you’ll just get tired, you’ll get sick of it, you’ll burn out.

The flipside is if you pick up a weight that hardly weighs anything at all your muscle is not going to grow. So you really got to find the Goldilocks ratio of a weight that’s going to stress your muscle almost to the point of fatigue and burnout but not quite there, and then ensure that after you work out you rest and allow your body to recover. And, like I said, what’s fascinating is it turns out that the brain, the mind, works very, very similarly to the body in that respect.

Pete Mockaitis

Interesting. All right. It’s funny. Now I’m thinking about weight training and I’m thinking, “Yes, you want to do approximately two to four sets of a weight that will fatigue your muscle and four to 20 reps or something to have a sort of a safe yet challenging thing.” I learned that growing up and have applied that. So what are those ratios or dosages kind of look, sound, feel like in the mental game?

Brad Stulberg
So actually I was shocked, as I was researching the book, what a wide body of research underlies this topic, and it all converges around periods of between 45 to 90 minutes of very intense deep-focus work followed by breaks of between five to 30 minutes. And, again, the break tends to echo the intensity of the working period. So for the more intense longer-working periods the break should be a little bit longer.

That is how I’d recommend vacillating on a daily scale but the same concept applies over the course of a week, month and, really, you could argue, your career. There was a time when people would actually take weekends off and for good reasons, right? That’s an opportunity to recharge and really just to allow your subconscious mind to tick in which doesn’t really work when you’re effort-fully consciously thinking. So it’s not just about sustaining performance but it’s also about improving it with creative thinking and creative ideas.

So, like I said, the concept can really apply over the course of a day on more minute scale but you can also look at it over the course of your life. Are you challenging yourself and taking on projects or new assignments that are making you uncomfortable? But at the same time, if that’s all you ever do and you never disconnect and you never kind of recharge and reflect, that’s probably not so sustainable either.

Pete Mockaitis

And I like that word “uncomfortable” there. It seems like that is sort of your Goldilocks dumbbell. For me, 25 or 30 or 35 pounds is we’re sharing auto bicep curl in that window per arm. So that’s kind of uncomfortable is the word. So could you maybe help us maybe dial into that a little bit? Like, in the mental game, what’s an amount of stress that’s sort of insufficient, not enough for growth, and pretty good for growth versus too much, like you’re risking some, I guess the mental equivalent of physical injury?

Brad Stulberg
Yes. So I think that this is definitely a fascinating topic. To me, this applies less on the micro scale, which we can come back to on how long over the course of a day you want to work, and more on the macro scale of career progression and personal growth.

So how I like to think about this is that if the challenge is provoking true anxiety, so you feel like your pulse go up or your blood pressure rises or you’re losing sleep at night because you’re thinking that, “Oh, my gosh, how am I going to get this done?” or, “How am I going to get the deliverable on time?” Too me, that’s too much stress because that’s not sustainable, right? And it’s kind of like how I was as a consultant. If that compounds over weeks and months, eventually you’ll likely to burn out.

Now the opposite end of this spectrum is the work that you’re doing is quite boring and you kind of show up and go through the motions and you do the work. That’s not enough stress to stimulate growth, right? You’ve kind of become complacent in that scenario. So I like to think about this, I guess, is I call it just manageable challenge. So it’s something that’s just ever so slightly outside of your comfort zone, so nothing that’s going to make you truly anxious but nothing that you can really go through the motions with either.

For me, writing a book was a perfect example. So we had a deadline, my co-author and I, and that deadline absolutely caused some angst at times but throughout the process I never felt like failure was completely imminent but there was always a chance of failure, and the whole process of writing a book, it was something new for me and absolutely pushed me outside of my comfort zone. But, like I said, it didn’t provoke anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis

I like that. And I’m so sort of emotionally calibrating to what you’re saying right there in terms of true anxiety. I think losing sleep is a good indicator. And yet I think that, is it fair to say, I would hazard a guess, that most of us don’t push ourselves hard enough? I mean, as a US population as a whole. I’m thinking you got your bankers, you got your consultants, you got your hard chargers. But, I guess, I’m thinking that sometimes your work environment is kind of easy. What’s your take on that?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, it’s tough for me to say because I’ve only been in the work environments that I’ve been in which tend to be pretty high intensity. But I do, I hope that I never end up in a role where I feel like I’m just going through the motions. And if I am in a role like that I would look to try to move out of it.

Back to the basic premise that we’ve been discussing around the stress + rest = growth, we only live once and we’re all going to die, so if you’re not constantly growing and moving, at least that I feel, in a nice progression, life kind of can get boring. So, again, without assigning value across various industries, yeah, I do think that, unfortunately, there are probably people that feel like they’re stuck going through the motions.

Pete Mockaitis

I hear you. I’m certainly thinking about sort of the positive growth moments. In the consulting career it was someone handed me an assignment, and it’s like, “How am I going to do that? I don’t know.” But then it’s like, “Well, I guess I’d probably do A, B or C, and then maybe D and F, and maybe I’ll just reorganize an outline. But, sure enough, hey, I have a plan.” It’s like it just materialized. And once that happened a few times I got sort of comfortable with the discomfort, if you will.

Brad Stulberg

Yeah, to me, that parallels to I’m more of an endurance athlete so that’s like doing a really hard running workout, so maybe it’s five by one mile at an extremely hard pace. And you sit there looking at that workout and it’s like, “Oh, boy, how am I going to get through this?” But then you find a way and then when you come out the other side you gain confidence and you’re actually physically stronger. And I think, in the example you gave, you gain confidence and your problem-solving ability probably improved.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so then I want to hear a little bit about, so you talked about intensity and focus. So are there some keys to that? I imagine there are some things to be said about single-tasking and putting the phones away. What should we think about when it comes to intense focus?

Brad Stulberg
Yes. So this tracks back to those 45- to 90-minute working blocks throughout the day. I like to recommend, I think in an ideal day you’d have about four 90-minute working blocks which if you do the math it only adds up to six hours so it’s definitely less time than the traditional day but I think the quality of the work easily makes up for the lost in time.

But, yeah, so during those blocks, single-tasking is absolutely critical. I was somewhat surprised to find, in researching the book, that only 1% of the population can successfully multitask. So some neuroscientists had people go on an FMRI machine which allows them to look at brain activity. And even individuals that said that they were great multitaskers, that swore that they can multitask, they couldn’t.

So what’s happening when you multitask is your brain is literally switching back and forth between tasks. And there’s a researcher out of the University of Michigan, I’m forgetting his name right now, but he found that up to 40% of your time when you’re multitasking can actually be wasted. So the great irony is, when you think that you’re multitasking and you’re getting more done, but there’s a chance that you’re getting basically close to just half as much done. So multitasking is bad.

Now it’s extremely tempting to multitask particularly in this day and age when it’s just constant alert. So if you have a desk job, I should say, and you’re looking at a computer and you have a smartphone, it’s very, very hard, at least for me, to go more than 10 minutes without actually receiving something, or at least being tempted to scroll down on my phone and see if something happened whether it’s an email, a Twitter feed, I mean, I could go and on right there. Endless apps.

So what I found, and what the research supports, is that rather than relying on one’s willpower the best way to single-task and avoid the temptation of multitask is just to remove what could distract you. So when I sit down for a deep focus block of writing I don’t have my phone in the room. If I’m working out of my home office it’s turned off in another room. And if I’m in a coffee shop I don’t even bring my phone with me. And that, in a personal level, has paid enormous dividends. I also turn off my internet quite frequently as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a matter of just clicking over that little Wi-Fi symbol and saying, “Off.”

Brad Stulberg

Yes. And I’ve talked to friends that are in consulting jobs and other corporate jobs, and just turning off your email client can be huge, because for folks that are on email on day, and are in jobs where there’s constant email, it can be really distracting. And I think that it’s challenging to do that in certain corporate cultures because the expectation is that you’re constantly online, you’re on email, you’re on the messenger that might happen, the interoffice messenger and all that.

And what I’m hoping that this book does is it kind of raises some eyebrows about those practices and make folks question if we shouldn’t re-evaluate those norms and move towards maybe more batch processing of emails to allow individuals to really get in the zone on what they’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, I think that’s so true and right. And when it comes to these norms what’s intriguing is I have a number of times facilitated training sessions with my Enhanced Thinking and Collaboration program, and what’s interesting is that sometimes people just imagined the expectation upon themselves to respond to the email every time in under two hours or whatnot. And it’s a phantom. It’s not even a real norm. It’s just something they’ve dreamt up and feel bad about.

Brad Stulberg

Love it. I totally agree with you. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Because the email comes in and it’s sitting there, and you’re like, “Okay, I owe this person a response.” But do you really owe them a response, and do you owe them a response immediately? And I think very, very, very rarely is that the case. I mean, one can make an argument that unless you’re like an intensive care physician, very rarely is an immediate response warranted to anything.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yes. That’s a nice quote right there. And so I also want to hear you say, when it comes back to the rest side of things, what are some of your research findings in terms of what makes a rest effective whether it’s short or long?

Brad Stulberg
So I break that down into two categories. We can discuss sleep which is kind of in its own bucket because you could maybe take a power nap during the day but for a lot of folks, myself included, that’s just not very practical. But then there are these micro breaks. And micro breaks are those that range, like I mentioned, really between six and 30 minutes.

The most convincing micro break, to me, is just a simple walk. So there’s some research out of Stanford that has shown that just a five- to 15-minute walk can increase creative thinking and problem-solving by up to 40% which is quite phenomenal, right? It’s really fascinating and I thought about it in my own life. And when I’m stuck on a problem, and I sit there staring at the screen trying to figure it out, I rarely do.

But when I step away from the screen and I go run an errand, or even if it’s just walking around the office to get some water and going to the bathroom, way to have an a-ha moment and the answer just kind of comes to me. Or when I come back I feel like I’m much more productive. Speaking with mathematicians and a whole bunch of writers in reporting on the book, I learned very much the same thing that the temptation, when you’re stuck, is to continue grinding but that’s often the best time to step away, and a short walk is a really practical simple evidence-based tool.

Another kind of rest tool is looking at pictures of nature, or even better if you are in an environment where the weather is friendly and you can get outside and actually put yourself in green space. The line of research is called Attention Restoration Theory and, in short, it states that immersion in nature helps your brain transition from a mode of effortful thinking to what is called the default network mode which is just kind of almost like a mind-wandering mode. And it’s when you’re in that mode that your subconscious kicks on and you’re likely to have creative insight.

So nature and nature experiences and, like I said, if you can’t actually immerse yourself in nature there’s some research that simply looking at pictures of nature can have similar effects.

Pete Mockaitis

You know, Brad, I don’t think I mentioned this before to most anybody but I will often, when I am doing some coaching over Skype, we’ll have a big old Apple monitor. And so half of it will have sort of the relevant documents that we’re reviewing, and the other half has a gorgeous mountain scene.

Brad Stulberg

Love it.

Pete Mockaitis

And I have a PowerPoint full of these nature photos that I just have to keep me from – I don’t know. I just feel so much more soothed, I guess, when I’m beholding this.

Brad Stulberg

Yeah, I love it. And nature is something that’s been studied a lot so there’s research, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s somewhat person-dependent. So for some individuals it might be listening to classical music. For others it might be doing 10 minutes of meditation. So I hesitate to get too specific with what the best type of break in. To me, the research really points itself towards a short walk or some kind of nature experience but I think the concept is that you just want to help your brain transition out of that effortful thinking and problem-solving mode to a more humming-along mind-wandering mode.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Excellent. And so now I want to talk a little bit about the world of health, and here we talked about walks. And so I’ve heard you mentioned before that kind of a perspective on conditioning when it comes to sort of practicing physical suffering or discomfort. Can you give us a bit of your view on that?

Brad Stulberg
Yes. So this is one of my favorite topics to think about. So if you look at the research, there have been now a handful of studies that show that when you train yourself physically and you make yourself physically uncomfortable and push through that, it translates to you being more resilient and more able to endure psychological discomfort.

So lots of these studies use students and they’ll have one group of students will just continue with their lives as normal, and the other group of students will be put on a fairly intensive gym program and then they will have the students rate their stress and anxiety levels during exams. And for those that have “suffered physically” they tend to become almost stress-proof during exams.

And the basic theory is that pushing yourself physically as a constant battle to keep yourself calm and to say yes when your body is screaming no. Right? You’re becoming extremely uncomfortable yet you’re learning that it’s okay to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And it turns out that that tends to translate far beyond the gym or if you’re running the road into other areas of life.

Someone has called, but I’m forgetting who, a keystone habit. So that when individuals start to exercise they become more likely to change their diet, if they smoke, to quit smoking, to better manage their finances. So all of these spillover benefits follow. So much that there are now programs that help homeless individuals and people that are experiencing homeless to get back on their feet through running, which I just found like really, really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis

That is interesting. And so for these exams piece, I’ll put you on the spot a little bit with regard to the research, I guess I’m thinking when it comes to stress, I think on the one hand there’s sort of like the biological, physiological stuff that’s going on by exercising and sort of mopping up free radicals and all that from the actual exercise. But this study it was the exercise happened prior to the stressful period?

Brad Stulberg

Yes, exactly. So the exercise happened prior to the stressful. So I believe it was over the course of a semester, and then the exams came at the end of the semester.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s great. So certainly it seems like a new capability, sure enough, got installed there as opposed to, yeah, mopping up the stress as it comes via a run or something.

Brad Stulberg
Exactly. And actually I just pulled up the study to make sure that I was remembering correctly. So not only did they self-report feeling less anxious but their heart rate variability was greater. And heart rate variability is a physiological indicator of stress, and you want more of it. So if you have greater heart rate variability it means that your body is feeling less stress. So it actually changed their physiology, as they were taking the exams, not just their psychology. Really pretty interesting stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is. Now, Brad, I have no knowledge whatsoever of this concept of heart rate variability, and I’m a Fitbit wearer, so shame on me. But you’re telling me that having more variability between chilling low 53 and going high 200 is a good thing.

Brad Stulberg
Ah, so I’ll explain. I’ll try to explain. So heart rate variability isn’t necessarily the range between a low heart rate and a high heart rate. It’s actually the space between beats of your heart. So if you think of like an EKG, a healthy EKG it bounces up and down, there’s a lot of variability. And if somebody comes closer to flat-lining that variability goes away. So it’s a much more precise measure than just like taking a resting heart rate and then a max heart rate. It’s actually the milliseconds in between heart beats.

Pete Mockaitis

The milliseconds in between heart beats which is different than something I can just derive from my heart rate.

Brad Stulberg

Exactly. Now there are, if you just were just to Google heart rate variability apps, I can’t name any off the top of my head, but I think one might be called Whoop. But there are starting to be trackers similar to a Fitbit that will also measure your heart rate variability.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so if I have more of that, sort of more milliseconds, or was it the variability between the milliseconds that I’m going for?

Brad Stulberg

Bingo. Variability between. So not to get too far into the weeds but it’s almost like you want to think of it like a jazz per session, your heart rate. So some beats are quick milliseconds in between, others have more expansive. Bingo, so we’re moving all over the place. Or your heart is, I guess. I don’t want to say it means you’re healthier but it means that your body is not in your flight or fight response. It’s not turned on, so your body is not experiencing stress.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, that’s cool. So that just gives an extra data point saying this effect is for real and that’s cool. Thank you. So can you tell me then, when it comes to this adaption that you’re going for in terms of comfort with discomfort, are any particular forms of exercise better than others at getting it done?

Brad Stulberg
So I’m a runner so part of me wants to say running but that would be lying because the truth is that it really doesn’t matter. I think that the key is that you’re pushing your body in a way that is making you uncomfortable, and whether that’s through CrossFit, through lifting weights, through running, through cycling, through swimming, it doesn’t much matter.

And what’s so neat about this is it’s like so person-specific. So, for me, being uncomfortable running might be six-minute pace. For someone else it might be five-minute pace. For someone else it might be eight-minute pace. None of that matters. I mean, you know when you’re working out hard and you’re uncomfortable, and when you get to that spot and you experience that, and you do so regularly, that’s when the benefit started growing.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s very good. And so I guess, I’m wondering, in the world of, I could sprint and be uncomfortable for a moment, or I could run quickly over the course of a number of miles and be sort of less uncomfortable for a longer duration. Do we know anything about that?

Brad Stulberg
I do not. I’m not sure if there’s any research there. As a lifelong athlete I’ve come to learn that there are many different flavors of discomfort like you said. But I do think the big takeaway for listeners, at least certainly this is my belief, is just if you can cultivate a physical practice in your life not only is it going to make you physiologically healthier but I think it comes with all kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that the research is just starting to measure.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, now, I was so fascinated. Something you mentioned in your book that has not come up from the two prior extensive grilling of sleep doctors that have happened on this program. You said that there’s some indication that sort of the seventh or eighth hour of slumber is more potently beneficial than, say, the fifth hour of sleep.

Brad Stulberg
Yes, that is the case. So there are a whole handful of hormones that are released when we sleep, and these hormones are quite beneficial mainly for physical growth but there’s some evidence that one of the hormones, testosterone, is also quite helpful for, I guess what we could call, mental growth. And with each cycle of our REM sleep, which is I guess what you could, just in layman person, call deep sleep, more of those hormones are released.

So let’s say your first cycle of REM sleep, and I’m just going to make up an arbitrary scale, you get five units of hormone, in your second cycle you get 5.8, in your third cycle you get seven and onward. So what we learned is that our seven to nine, which is the hours of sleep that most people don’t get, actually tend to be the most beneficial. So, I guess, for your audience what might make sense is to say that instead of diminishing marginal returns to sleep there are increasing marginal returns to sleep.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love every bit of encouragement I get to that, that more sleep is beneficial. Brad, you tell me, do you still have a little bit of the hardworking consultant I’m-not-working-hard-enough-and-I’m-sleeping-too-much guilt in your life or have you purged it fully?

Brad Stulberg
Oh, I purged it. I try to sleep between seven and a half and nine hours a night. And it gets back to me you said earlier about the working blocks. What I’ve realized is that if you were to follow me around with a timer and clock the number of hours and minutes that I’m working, it’s probably a lot less than even just two or three years ago. But I would hazard a guess that if you were to measure my output it’s twice as much.

So just simple tweaks, right? Spending more time sleeping, not trying to work for four hours straight without taking a break, but in those four hours, be on email, be on Facebook, be on Twitter, be text messaging on my phone, and swapping that for a much more intensive focus period of work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. That’s great. I’ve mostly purged it but it comes back from time to time. I’m like, “Can I really just stop working at 4:00? I don’t feel right about this.”

Brad Stulberg

Yes, so it’s funny. I will have a caveat. I say all this and I do try to practice what I preach but I also am a firm believer that if you’re working on something and you’re in the zone, and whatever you’re working on has just got a hold of you, and like if you’re a writer the words are pouring out, whatever the example might be for someone’s field, just go for it. Like I very, very rarely will step away from a nice groove, and I don’t like to encourage other people to, especially in creative pursuits because you don’t know when that groove is going to come back.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. Yes. So you’re saying, “Hey, this 90-minute maximum focus time, forget that rule if it’s flowing. Just roll with it.”

Brad Stulberg
Exactly. And I don’t know about other people but for me those moments of flow don’t come too frequently so it tends not to be a problem.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, understood. Well, so then, tell us now, I want to hear about flowing and writing. So you’ve taken a page, if you will, from Stephen King’s book – that was such a terrible pun but I went there. But you’ve got some perspective on how to sort of prime your body and your mind to deliver when you want to actually sit down and accomplish a particular thing with a chunk of time. What are some of those takeaways?

Brad Stulberg
So Stephen King, his setup, he has a writing cave and he listens to heavy metal music, and I would not say that the takeaways that if you want to be a more effective writer you should listen to heavy metal music. I’d say the takeaway is in Stephen King’s words, “You should create a space of your own.” And what I mean by that is that the environment in which you surround yourself has enormous potential to influence your performance.

Some of it is very practical, like we discussed, removing distractions, that just makes sense. But there’s this other theory that it’s almost like behavioral conditioning. So if you walk into the room that you always write in, your brain just kind of knows that you are about to sit down and write and you’re more likely to write well. So it’s pairing an activity with physical surroundings and perhaps even a routine leading up to that activity.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so good. I’m thinking now about one of my favorite authors, is Catholic priest Father Michael Scanlan who just passed away just a few months ago, and he says, “When I sit down in this chair my whole body just knows it’s prayer time right now.”

Brad Stulberg

Yes.

Pete Mockaitis

So that’s like for running or writing something or figuring something out or slides. So maybe can you share with us a little bit what have been some particular setups you’ve used for particular activities?

Brad Stulberg
So I tend to write out of two coffee shops, and I write at the same time every day, and I take the same walks to those two coffee shops every day, and I order the same coffee, and if I’m going to listen to music I have the same playlist. So it’s just the entire, like I said, the entire routine leading up to it and then the physical area is all connected with the act of writing.

To nerd out for a second, because I can’t resist from doing so, the science here is called the science of affordances. And what that says is that over time physical objects can afford you a behavior. So the example that we used in the book is when a baby is first born and a baby sees a chair, that is just a physical kind of gob of mass or matter, excuse me, and nothing is really happening in the baby other than maybe they’re realizing, “Well, there’s this matter in front of me.”

But by the time that baby is 20, when they see the chair, their motor neurons in their brain, which are basically the part of the brain that’s going to tell them to sit down, it’s already firing before they’ve even started to sit down. So you can take that and extrapolate out where if you have, let’s say that you have your writing laptop that you only use for writing. And, again, this is very particular to the example of a writer. When you look at that laptop, in theory, the parts of your brain that need to function well for you to write well, they kind of get like a little nudge to start working more maybe at a level more than they would otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. Thank you. Well, so now, I’d like to get your take here when it comes to you had a compelling section about, “Is it possible that fatigue is really just in our head?” What’s the story behind that?

Brad Stulberg
Yes. So this is probably, to me, the most fascinating portion of the book certainly from a research perspective. So the theory in exercise science is called the central governor of fatigue model, and what that says is that the brain shuts down the body when the body still has more to give, and it does so as a protective mechanism which actually makes a lot of sense.

So it’s the brain’s way of saying, “Whoa, if you go any harder, you push yourself any harder you could risk organ failure. So we’re going to shut you down before you even get close to that point.” Physiologists, they hypothesize that it’s between 1% and 4%. So athletes could have 1% to 4% more to give before they’d actually cause harm but the brain shuts down their body before they can push through those additional percentage points.

What’s really, really interesting is that individuals that reflect on something called the self-transcending purpose which is just a fancy way of saying something, a cause beyond themselves. They tend to be able to override a significant amount of more fatigue than individuals that don’t. So to make this real with a practical example.

So many athletes will set a world record or do something that is unfathomable, not thought possible, and when they cross the finish line, rarely do they say, “I was thinking about how great it would be to be champion,” or, “I was thinking about all the positive media attention I’ll get.” Generally, what folks tend to hear, or sorry, what folks tend to say is, “I was thinking about my family,” or, “I was thinking about my brother that has cancer to whom I dedicated this race.” Or if it’s a religious individual, “I was thinking about God.”

And by calling upon that higher power and “transcending themselves” they’re able to perhaps dull the part of their brain that’s so focused on protecting their self because they’re literally transcending that. Fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s so good. And what’s intriguing there is it’s not just a matter of focusing on something else, like, “After this I’m going to have a steak dinner.” It’s a matter of focusing on something else that is not you.

Brad Stulberg

Yes, and really, really believing it. You can’t just pay a lip service. You have to really believe in that purpose. So, in the spirit of the book, which looks to look across domains, my co-author and I, we started to think, “I wonder, could this be applied outside of sports?” So we started to look at the research on motivation in the workplace. And, sure enough, there are a handful of studies that show that individuals who feel that their jobs have meaning and/or benefit, greater causes or people other than themselves, they tend to perform better and they tend to perform longer.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, absolutely. And my buddy, Arthur Woods, way back in Episode 6, his whole company imperative studies this phenomenon in consulting, and they’ve sort of proven it and matched up all kinds of data sets showing just that again and again. So it’s powerful stuff and part of me can’t help but speculate that it makes sense adaptively, biologically in the sense of when we have a purpose beyond ourselves we are supporting a herd or a clan and that’s good for survival.

Brad Stulberg

Yeah, well-said. I couldn’t agree more.

Pete Mockaitis

And then there’s also sort of spiritual connections as well in terms of like that dimension of the human experience. So that’s such a cool distinction there that it’s a purpose and not just a purpose which is you but a purpose that is beyond yourself. So then you said, “Okay, but you can’t just pay it lip service.” So how could make that connection?

Brad Stulberg
So, for listeners that are very interested in this topic, there’s an entire chapter in the book on basically constructing your purpose. And, like most things these days, there’s a researcher at the University of Michigan, his name is Dr. Victor Strecher that actually studies how people find purpose in their lives, and he’s put together an evidence-based model to help people come up with a purpose, and that’s included in the book.

The cliff notes version, for the time that we have here, is you want to reflect really deeply on, “What are your core values?” So what are the things that kind of define you and make you tick? So that could be community, it could be courage, it could be creativity, it could be intellect. So really like things that you hold near and dear to your heart.

And come up with a list of, I don’t know, between three and six of those and then start to personalize this core values. So community as a core value, “How is community a core value in your life?” If creativity is a core value, expand upon that. And once you come up with these personalized core values then think about how you can bring them together in a one- to three-sentence purpose that really encapsulates what you stand for. Like I said, there’s far more in the book, we walk readers through it in a fairly step-by-step fashion, but that’s the basic gist.

Pete Mockaitis
So could you give us an example of the personalized step? Is that just part of your reflection in order to arrive at what makes this real for me?

Brad Stulberg
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

So it’s not so much that that could become one of your sentences and the purpose although it may. It seems like it’s sort of the intermediate step that takes abstract values into concrete articulation.

Brad Stulberg

Yes, exactly. So let’s say that I value, one of my core values is creativity. So, for me, in my purpose statement it could be, “Explore new ideas, keep an open mind and try to connect with people that will challenge me.” So that’s how I would personalize that core value of creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well then, if you may, can you share with us then the final purpose statement?

Brad Stulberg

Ah, so my final purpose statement. So I have one for writing the book, which I’ll make readers actually open up the book and read. My overarching purpose statement that I try to live by across all areas of my life is to cultivate positive energy and share it.

Pete Mockaitis      

Oh, that’s good. And I like the distinction you made you there. It’s like you got one purpose for the book, another purpose for your life overall, and this is so fun. I don’t think I’ve really visited this for myself recently.

Brad Stulberg

It helps. It helps, Pete. I tell you what, so on a sticky note I would write down my purpose and when there were times where it was really challenging in the book-writing process, just having that there as a visual cue to look at and kind of become a reminder of why I’m doing this, I’m positive it helped.
One of my favorite examples, in the book we met someone that works for a large healthcare delivery system. And a part of her job is publishing a report in Excel, and she described it as just extremely cumbersome. And after publishing the report she constantly gets calls from various nurses and doctors that use this report. And, to her, the questions that they’re asking are ridiculous and she just gets extremely annoyed with this.

But she told us that then she wrote down that this report is actually driving practices that are saving lives, and she put that on her phone. So when the phone rings, and she sees one of these people calling to question this report with questions that she doesn’t understand how they could have, she remembers that by giving them an answer and by having patience and being there for them, the ultimate result is lives saved. And she said it just totally changed her energy throughout the day.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is money. Thank you. So good. Well, Brad, tell me, we’ve covered a lot of territory, is there any quick thing you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?

Brad Stulberg
No, I don’t think so. Yeah, there are just so many fascinating little tidbits that I learned and I’m glad that we got to go through probably the majority of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Super. Well, I am, too. So I thank you for that. Well, now, tell us, can you share a favorite study?

Brad Stulberg
So I think that my favorite study would be the one that we discussed on how exercise can shape you beyond the gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg
So my favorite book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and its author Robert Pirsig actually just passed away recently which is quite sad. He’s kind of my intellectual hero. But just a phenomenal book.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Brad Stulberg

So I’m pretty old school. I think that my favorite tool is – I was cursing my laptop but I like Twitter. And I know it’s so funny that I went on a rant about how Twitter can be so distracting but I found that I’ve really connected with a fair amount of people via Twitter that have turned into longstanding relationships.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. And how about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that helps you flourish?

Brad Stulberg
I would say my daily exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular articulation of your message that seems to really get folks nodding heads, resonating, taking notes?

Brad Stulberg

So I think it’s that stress + rest = growth, and figuring out what that means in their own life, and even for various pursuits. So what that might mean in their relationships, what that might mean in their job, if they have hobbies, what that might mean for their hobbies, but really trying to apply that equation across all areas of their life.

Pete Mockaitis

And what would you say is your ideal contact information if folks want to learn more or get in touch? Where should they go?

Brad Stulberg
I’m on Twitter @bstulberg, just like my name, and then my website is www.BradStulberg.com.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And is there a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Brad Stulberg
So I would say, really, stress + rest = growth, and figure out what that means for you and figure out where you think you want to be in one year, five years, or 10 years, and then how you can manipulate that equation with the projects that you take on in ensuring that you’re building in enough time to recover and recharge to get there.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect. Brad, this has been so much fun. Good luck on your huge runs and all you’re up to.

Brad Stulberg
All right. Thank you, Pete. This is a pleasure. I really enjoyed our conversation.

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