This Podcast Will Help You Flourish At Work

Each week, I grill thought-leaders and results-getters to discover specific, actionable insights that boost work performance.

498: Nourishing the Relationships That Nourish You with Dr. John Townsend

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Dr. John Townsend says: "You need people just like they need you."

Dr. John Townsend discusses how to build the relationships that keep you motivated and productive.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one need leaders often ignore
  2. How to engage in nourishing conversations
  3. The five relationships you need in your life—and the two to prune

About John:

Dr. John Townsend is a nationally-known leadership consultant, psychologist, and New York Timesbestselling author. John is the founder of the Townsend Institute, Leadership and Counseling, and the Townsend Leadership Program, which is a a a  nationwide system of leadership training groups. He developed the online digital platform TownsendNOW and the online assessment tool TPRAT. Dr. Townsend travels extensively for corporate consulting, speaking, and helping develop leaders, their teams and their families.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. John Townsend Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Dr. John Townsend
Thanks, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re going to be talking a lot about people fuel and being empty, being full, and the nutrients, so I’d love it if you could kick us off by maybe sharing an inspiring story of someone who really made a transformation here and what that looked like in practice.

Dr. John Townsend
I’d be glad to. Now, it’s a little long but not too long, but it’s like over 30 seconds. Is that okay?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll take it. Absolutely.

Dr. John Townsend
This person was a business owner, he owned a business he started. And he said, “You know, I’m getting ready to sell the business and it’s been successful. I’ve got a really good marriage and I kind of want to go to phase two, maybe a few more years in this program, but somebody said that you can kind of optimize leaders. And I just wanted to know if there’s anything else. I like golf but I don’t want to do it every day. I like work but I don’t want to do it 70 hours a week and all that.

So, I flew over and we had a day, and I do an analysis with the leader where I talk about, “What’s your vision? What’s your mission? What’s your strategy in life? What’s your strategy in business? Where do you want to go?”

And I said, “Now, let me get to know you and your relational context because that’s important.” And he said, “Oh, I got lots of relationships, no problem there.” And I said, “Well, tell me about your relationships.” And he said, “Gosh, I’ve got people I’m mentoring, and people I’m guiding and leading and developing, and people that report to me. And I’ve got great relationships.”

And I said, ”Now, that’s great. But I’m struck by the fact that all those relationships are outgoing relationships. It’s you outsourcing them with your wisdom and help and mentoring and leading.”

So, he said, “Isn’t that what leaders are supposed to do? We’re supposed to be givers.” And I said, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t treat your car that way. I mean, sooner or later your car is going to be at the gas tank and you’re going to have to give some fuel to drag your car. So, what about people that are inputting to you as well?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. My wife, she’s great. She listens to my insecurities, she’s a safe person, she’s there to encourage me. And, also, my Labrador Retriever, Max, and he’s there for me, never judges me.” And I said, “Well, that’s good. We need a spouse that’s supportive with our fears and insecurities, I’m a dog person too.” I said, “But I would consider you in the relationally-deficit category.”

And he kind of got a little upset about this, he said, “No, I got lots of friends.” And I said, “Yes, you do. Yes, you do. But you don’t have a lot of people that you need. And I don’t mean need for, ‘Give me a ride to the store,’ or, ‘Let me borrow a couple of sugars.’ You don’t have a lot of people that need in the way that when you need encouragement, wisdom, somebody to be there, somebody to challenge you.” And he said, “Well, maybe I don’t, but that feels selfish.” And about this time the wife came in, who was listening, and she goes, “Joe, you better listen to this guy because I really don’t like being the only person you can talk to.”

And I said, “Joe, she’s right.” I mean, the way the neuroscience works. It says we got to have more people in our tank. And I said, “You know, your spouse is a little overwhelmed. She’s a nice person but she’s not everything. And, by the way, your dog is genetically engineered to lick your face and be nice to you because he won’t eat otherwise so you need more.”

And he said, “What am I supposed to do?” I said, “You need a life team,” and that’s a concept in the book. You need three to ten people who love work like you do, but also want to self-improve. And when there’s a time for a challenge, you can have that eight-minute windshield wiper call or you can have a dinner with, and you’re not always mentoring and guiding and developing these people. You’re being vulnerable with them and they’re being vulnerable with you. You’re talking about what’s really and truly in reality going on and take the leadership hat off, and that’ll change everything.”

He said, “Nah, that just sounds like kind of touchy feely and it sounds like I’m being too weak.” I said, “Well, give these people a chance because my hunch is that when you tell people, ‘I’d like to have some more relationships because I tend to be the giver, and all I got is my wife and my dog,’ they will say to you, ‘I am honored to be on your life team. You’ve always given to me, you’ve always mentored me, you spend so many hours with me on my business, on my marriage, on my parenting, sign me up.’” And he did it, and he came back, and he said, “I could not believe the response and it’s great.”

So, that’s kind of the catalyzing story of the model here, is that what I tell leaders. What I really tell leaders is, “You need to need. You need to need other people and it’s not being selfish. And here’s how to do it. And here’s what the research says. People, and especially leaders, that don’t have a lot of long-term vulnerable relationships, you don’t need a lot because you don’t have much time, but if you don’t have a few of these life team people, you’ll end up with worse problems and performance in your business, more health problems, stress problems, that and the like, more psychological-emotional problems, and a higher mortality rate so it’s not even touchy feely, “Oh, go to HR and talk about it.” It’s really hard science that says, “We all need it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m a huge believer of that, absolutely.
I’ve got a men’s group, or however you call it, or slice it, or arrange it, I think it’s absolutely huge to be able to kind of share those things. So, I like it, you sort of have broken down the particular things we need into what you call relational nutrients. And I understand you’ve identified 22 of them, that’s a lot. So, could you maybe share with us what are the most essential and maybe the most overlooked for professionals in particular?

Dr. John Townsend
A coaching client of mine said the same thing. He said, “That’s a lot. Can you do two categories?” And I thought, “Yeah, everybody’s busy.” So, let me give you the four categories.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Dr. John Townsend
Much more palatable. The 22 are arranged, there’s five or six in each category. The first one is be present. And be present to a leader means sometimes you’ve got shut up and listen. Now, we leaders love to talk, and we got nuggets of wisdom and all that, and that’s great. But sometimes that’s not what a person needs, and sometimes that’s not what you need.

What we found out is that there’s so much research about a person just being empathetic and authentic, and saying, “I get you. Tell me more about it.” Instead of three pieces of advice and fixing and fixing and fixing, just saying, “I’m here and you can vent to me and you can tell me whatever you need to tell me, how you’re feeling, and I’m not going to preach at you now. I’m just going to tell you I’m your friend.” And you keep eye contact if you’re face to face. If you’re digital, you keep connected, and say, “I’m with you.”

And we found out that there’s so much for a person to get, “I didn’t need three steps to solve my problem. I can solve my problem by just knowing you don’t judge me and you’re my friend and I can be as messy as I want.” People come out feeling like they’ve lost 30 pounds and they’re motivated. Be present.

The second one is to convey the good. Sometimes we’re down. You know, work is stressful, business is stressful, life is stressful, family is stressful. Sometimes we need somebody, when we’re discouraged, overwhelmed, just to say, “I believe in you and I want to encourage you. You’re doing the right thing. And I got a lot of respect for you. And I got like hope for your business to change in this turn it’s having, or your family to change.” It’s sort of like a little shot of Prozac, where somebody just says, “I know you’re down, and I know you don’t believe in yourself right now, but I believe in you, and I see reality there.” That’s convey the good.

The third one is deliver reality. And reality means sometimes we don’t need just people being present with us, or people just encouraging us. We also need like a Yoda, somebody to say, “Hey, why is that happening? Let me tell you some research I saw and here’s some information. Kind of give me the data.” Sometimes we do need data, wisdom, insight, perspective from somebody that really has been down there, and is a deeper person, like Simon Sinek’s great TED Talk about the power of why. People can help us with the why that we’re having some challenge.

And then the fourth one is call to action. And call to action means, you know, businesses and life and leadership changes when we get off our butt to do something. So, sometimes it means, “I want to challenge you to take this step. I know you’re afraid to, I don’t know, make this change in your business, or confront this person, or do this restructuring, or have this tough conversation with a person in your culture, whatever.”

But we call, sometimes, people to action, say, “Listen, there’s something we got to do. I know you’re getting it but you’ve got to do a tough scary thing right now.” And every week, we need people being present with us, conveying the good, delivering reality, calling us to action. And also, as leaders, we need to deliver those nutrients to other people, and I promise you, the people that you’re responsible to take care of, they need them as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about these people, are you envisioning that you recruit them from all over? They could be colleagues, they could be friends, they could be related to you.

Dr. John Townsend
You mean for the life team?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Dr. John Townsend
I was speaking about giving the nutrients also to your directs, to your workers, to your children, to your spouse. So, the ones we give those things to, that’s just everybody we feel like we’re with. But in terms of that special three to ten people life team, the way I work that out, Pete, is I always like to start with the blue sky. Okay, what’s perfect? What’s ideal? And the blue sky would be those people who are all in some, you know, drive a distance, a view. You all get together for, I don’t know, lunch once a week, or dinner, and you just kind of talk about how life is going and the challenges, and you give each other grace and truth and support, and that’s great.

Now, I don’t have that because I’ve got people in my life team, a couple of them are in other parts of the country, don’t even know each other but I kind of went for the quality. So, we stay in touch when I’m in town, or they’re in town, or Skype, or texting. Texting is wonderful. Texting is very, very connecting. People say texting doesn’t work with connection but it really does. You could be very encouraged and encouraging with a text.

And so, like in my situation, some of them are in a group that I’m in, and some of those are just people that I know are high-quality people. So, for some people, their life team is going to be maybe people that they know that aren’t getting together. And for some people it’s going to be, “Yeah, I assemble a group of five people that said we’re going to get together twice a month and really dig into personal growth as well as professional growth, and it’s kind of transformational.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you are engaging in these conversations with folks, I’m curious, is there a particular set of things that you always like to cover or kind of prompts or questions, or is there any kind of structure or agenda, or is it just kind of like letting her rip?

Dr. John Townsend
Well, there’s certainly a let her rip because if we’ve got too much structure, people get more into the, “Okay, it’s 2:15. We didn’t read this book yet,” and then they don’t do what they need to do. There’s got to be a place where there is a reasonable structure but also there’s room to veer off the structure when people say, “Look, I’ve got a 911. I’m a mess here. My kid is on drugs,” or, “I’ve got a big cashflow problem.”

So, what I always recommend is the ideal would be 90 minutes. People are busy. And that 90 minutes kind of a check-in, “Let’s just go around the circle. How is everybody doing? What’s your wins and what’s your challenges?” And then sometimes people say, “Well, I want to study a book from John Maxwell, or Brene Brown, or Jim Collins, or something,” and they’ll tell you a chapter of the book, and that’s fine. And then people will also say, “I’d like to talk about it but I’d like to talk about what I’m learning.” So, it’s what’s called the content piece. You’ve got the check-in, “How’s everybody doing? Do you have a content piece?”

And then I think what’s really good is to say, “Okay, we’ve got 45 minutes to go, let’s talk about what’s really going on.” And people do a deeper dive. People come away going, “I learned something, I felt like I’m caught up with these people I care about. And also, on a personal growth level, I could be vulnerable and I don’t feel like I’m judging myself, and I feel like people are with me in the next week that I have.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to these people, you’ve sort of given some names of different roles to folks, the seven Cs. Can you give us the rundown of that?

Dr. John Townsend
Yeah. Because people say, “Hey, where can I get these people?” So, the seven Cs are if you look at the four quadrants of relational nutrients, I look at them like the way I look at bio-nutrients. In fact, that’s where I got the idea because we all need calcium when we get bone problems. We all need iron when we get blood problems. So, I thought, “Okay, there’s bio-nutrients but there’s also relational nutrients.” I trademarked the term because it’s so valuable for me that we need to get those things back and forth to each other just like we do calcium and iron, but not with a pill but with a conversation.

So, the seven Cs are who has those relational nutrients and what level from a nutrient-rich person to a nutrient-deficient person. And it goes like this, the first level is coaches. Coach is the highest level of nutrient-rich because they know some things, you hire them, or they’re pro bono or whatever, because of their expertise in business, or leadership, or personal growth, or spiritual growth, or self-help, or parenting, or whatever. And they don’t need you to be their buddy, they’re there to coach you, so it’s all about you.

Second level is what’s called comrades. Those are the people that are your brothers and sisters-in arms, like they go through life together, and you want to help each other to be the best person you can be, and that’s kind of like that life team concept I mentioned. Very mutual, very honest, and very safe. Third level is casuals. We all need people in our life that we just sort of stop and smell the roses with. Maybe you go make a friend out of somebody whose kids are at your soccer game and you like them, or you see somebody at a community meeting, and you all get together. And not really a life team member, a comrade, but really sort of a nice positive person. They’re also a farm team for the life team because you might think, “You know, this person is into self-improvement, being better, being a better leader. Maybe we need to talk.”

Next level is colleagues because so much of life is about work and we need people who are, even if you can’t pick who you work with, if you owned the business you can, but if you don’t and you get assigned those people, either way they’re going to have three qualities. They’ve got to be really good at what they do and competent,. They’ve got to be also relational people, really good relationally. And third, they’ve got be able to work on teams well. And you always push for that as much as you can get to get the best out of those relationships as you can.

Next level is care. And care are those people who are without. You know, there’s people in developing countries that have nothing and we’ve been given a lot, and leaders have a responsibility to be on board, to go to trips to serve, and also to mentor young professionals that are just starting out and need somebody to tell them how to do a SWOT analysis and how to start up a marketing campaign. So, we’re supposed to help other people. That’s care.

The next one is chronics. And chronics, I’ve been in California, I raised the kids here in California, but in the beginning of my life, I was from the South. And we have a phrase in the South called “Bless her heart,” and “Bless her heart” means they’re kind of a hot mess all the time. They have chronic problems with money, and their job, and their marriage, and their kids, and their friend. They just are always in trouble.

And we spend a lot of time with these people, supporting them and having lunch with them, giving them advice and all sort of thing. But the only problem with chronics, bless their heart, and they’re not mean people, they’re nice people, is that they have what I call from psychology a flat-learning curve. They don’t take any insight from the homework you give or the advice. They keep making the same mistakes over again. It’s chronic. And we tend to give a whole lot of time to those people.

And then the last category is contaminant, and they’re those dangerous people. I mean, people that should be in prison and people who have serious character disorders that they want to destroy your business and your family, and you can’t spend any time with them. So, what I say in that is, so, to get the nutrients you need to have a balanced life, most of us look at those seven Cs and go, “Goodness gracious, I’m bottom heavy. I don’t mean physically bottom heavy, but I’ve got a lot of contaminants and chronics and care, and I don’t have very many at the top. I don’t have many coaches and comrades.”

And I tell people, “We’ve got to right-size this. Where’s your coach or your coaches?” I’ve got two or three because The Harvard Business Review says they bring about three times the value of what you pay for them, and that’s been my experience in the very least. So, where’s your coaches, business directors, advisors, personal directors, spiritual directors. And then where’s your comrades? Where’s that life team? And if you build that up then you start pruning back the bottom, that’s a pretty good life.

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s talk about the pruning process. How do you recommend establishing boundaries and doing that well?

Dr. John Townsend
Tell the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Go on.

Dr. John Townsend
Well, let’s look at the chronic category. Most leaders I work with have a whole bunch of people they’re spending enormous time with who really aren’t changing. They just really want to be around the leader because the leader is warm and wise and accepts them, and that’s great. But when they give them hard things to do and assignments and this sort of thing, they kind of come back and say, “No, I didn’t do it. I was busy. But what else you got for me?”

We have to realize we’re sort of just, in some nice way, we’re kind of enabling them not to change. And so, when you start finding that pattern, I mean, when people are doing what you’re saying, they’re saying, “Oh, gosh, I had that conversation and my business is doing great, my family is doing great.” Great. But a chronic is just not going to change. They’ll just keep kind of complaining that the world is against them.

So, sooner or later you’ve got to have a conversation saying, “I care about our relationship and our time is valuable, but I’ve noticed that things aren’t changing and you have real challenges in your life, and they’re real. But I’ve noticed that you really do a small percentage of what I’m asking. And so, we need to consider if this is really working for us, and let’s try it again, and I’m going to tell you three things to do this week, blah, blah, blah.”

So, you give everybody a chance like you would any kind of a conversation. And if they come back and there’s just more excuses after a couple of times, then you say, “Honestly, I really like you but I kind of spend a lot of time with people who really want to grow and change. So, instead of meeting you once a week, it might be once a quarter. But here are some other people or organizations you can go to.” You’ve got to be nice about it. I never cut anybody off, but I do resize things when I notice that a person is chronic.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m wondering about sort of energy drains in terms of colleagues at work. How do you think about interacting there?

Dr. John Townsend
There are people who are energy drains and it happens because there’s energy given and taken at work. But I kind of say it’s our problem. It’s not them, it’s our fault because you only experience at work what you tolerate at work, right?

So, if I’ve got somebody coming in and they’re, I don’t know, complaining or negative or whatever, and I give them 45 minutes that I don’t have, well, I tolerated that so I got it. But if I say, “I only got three minutes here, or five minutes, or whatever,” or I even have a tougher conversation. You know, Henry Cloud and I wrote a book called How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding, that sometimes we could say, “I don’t have a lot of time. Sorry. I’ve got to get back to work.” Sometimes we have to say, “Can we really talk about this because there’s some things going on? And you can give me any feedback you need to but some things that are difficult that I want to talk about,” and you head to talking.

I think in terms of people that are mild, moderate, or severe, I mean, you always want to be mild. I don’t want to be moderate or severe. A mild person will say, “Yeah, sorry. I didn’t mean to bellyache so much. And, yeah, thanks. That’s good advice.” And they change, they’re mild. Moderate and severe might say, “Well, gosh, I thought you’re my friend, and you’re against me too.” And you go, “I’m not that but I got to see some changes.” There’s eight steps for that of how to deal with that in the book so you’ve got to determine what the drain is and whether you just take a mild approach or a moderate approach, but there’s tips for that.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Well, so then maybe before we get to that final bit, John, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Dr. John Townsend
Yeah, I would invite and challenge business leaders to rethink how you are about your relationships and not to shame yourself because you might need to have a friend. We try to be so strong, we try to be Superman, we try to be Wonder Woman, but the reality is all the neuroscience says, “You need people just like they need you.” And I promise you, when you say to some people, “Can we make lunch about me? I just got a challenge.” It can’t be anybody.

It can’t probably be somebody who works for you, that’s not really appropriate, but somebody that’s a friend, outside or inside of business. I promise you, 95% of them will say, “You know, you give so much to me, you’re so much there for me. It’s an honor to be there for you.” Take a little risk and see what your people are made of.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Dr. John Townsend
I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker. He was called the Moses of management. He’s the guy that started all the management research that we now follow, and he was right just about everything. And I sort of read his stuff and learn from his stuff. He has a great statement, he says, “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast,” meaning we all need a strategy to grow our businesses, we all need to be great leaders and do the right things and the right products, service, mission, vision. But culture, which is relationships, if our relationships aren’t in place, it’ll sabotage it. So, always, always take the people part in consideration.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Dr. John Townsend
There was a study done by some Italian researchers about how people connect, and they used monkeys. And they had a computer with electrodes that went to your head. And so, they put computer electrodes on one monkey’s head and on the others, and the monkeys could see each other from a few feet away. And then they began looking at the brain mapping of what the heat points in their brain was because that’s how you know where there’s activity.

And what they noticed was when one monkey was, let’s say, anxious, the other would look at it and get anxious, and he had the same red spots in the same place as the other one. When one would get happy, the other one would feel happy. When one got angry, or sad, the other one did too. And they basically figured out that there are neurons that are called mirror neurons, like when you’re shaving, you look at a mirror.

These mirror neurons travel back and forth through eye contact where you see something in somebody else and you have a similar response. And they think they might’ve discovered the neurological basis for what’s called empathy. And every leader must be empathy. Some of us are gifted in it, some of us aren’t gifted in it, but everybody, every leader must learn the skill.

And from that we figure, we’re finding out that the leaders that could just pay attention to their people, I mean, you still make them accountable, you still got to have KPIs and goals and all that, but if you also can be a mirror neuron to them so you can understand what their life is like, your company becomes more successful.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Dr. John Townsend
I’m currently revisiting a book by Pat Lencioni, who’s a friend and a guy who really has helped us in the business world, it’s called The Advantage. It’s a great book that is worth several reads on how to have your company be high-performing through the right relationships and engagements.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Dr. John Townsend
Actually, it’s an assessment tool I developed called the TPRAT, Townsend Personal Relational Assessment Tool. My company uses it and I use it for clients. It measures how a person’s four, what we call, capacities, capabilities in life. One is bonding,
The second one is boundaries.

And then the fourth one is capability. It measures all the four of those categories – bonding, boundaries, reality, and capability – on a scale of one to ten, and you get a profile of four numbers.

And it’s like all these skills that you’re going to have to move up the ladder on that. And people like it, it makes sense. You can get it on my website, but it’s kind of a nice way for a team or a group to say, “Oh, okay. Here’s what we’re all working in, and here’s the ones that are strong in this. How can we relate better given these scores?”

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and you’re known for?

Dr. John Townsend
Yes. It’s probably a mantra that I use in my company that we train other companies with, and it’s that we all need competence and character. Competence means you’ve got to be good at what you do. You’ve got to get the training. You’ve got to do the elbow grease and really learn things at a highly-skilled level. But you’ve also got to have character. You’ve also got to be a person that has integrity, has great relationships, and can inspire other people.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Dr. John Townsend
My website is DrTownsend.com. It’s got a lot of information. We’ve got the blogs and the advice, and information. We’ve also got information about the Townsend Institute where you can get a masters in leadership or masters in coaching, all online with us, Townsend Leadership Group which is our cohort-based program around the country where a leader can meet with other leaders and with a person that I’ve trained to help them grow in their professions and SWOT analysis and EQ and all those things – DrTownsend.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Dr. John Townsend
I think of it this way. We’re all meant to be F-16s, it’s like those pilots, they go halfway around the world at very high altitudes and very high performance. And every leader wants to be that and should be. But you’re only as good as your fuel. So, consider who are you hanging out with? And who’s hanging out with you? And is it high-capacity fuel versus low-capacity fuel? You want to be with the highest octane possible.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. John, thanks for this, and good luck in all of your leading and relationships, and I hope you’re well-nutriated.

Dr. John Townsend
I think you just made up a new word. Thank you.

497: How to Prevent Burnout by Shifting Your Focus with Aaron Schmookler

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Aaron Schmookler discusses how a service-oriented mindset keeps you from burning out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A powerful phrase for de-escalating conflict
  2. How to stop feeling so self-conscious
  3. How to make work more fulfilling

About Aaron:

For over 20 years, Aaron has been striving to help people find their own intrinsic motivation, their capacity to collaborate, and the fulfillment that comes from harnessing the creative impulse in us all to serve others.

In 2014 Aaron and business partner, Adam Utley, co-founded The Yes Works and developed the Adeptability Model of collaboration and leadership training and the Adeptable Culture Audit. Aaron and The Yes Works serve clients across the country and across industries including Microsoft, MOD Pizza, DiscoverOrg, Burkhart Dental Supply, SOG Knives, 9th Gear, and Textainer to make work good for people and people good for work.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Aaron Schmookler Thomas Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Aaron Schmookler
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’ve been listening to your show for years, learning a lot from it, admiring you from afar, we’re birds of feather, you and I.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I appreciate that and, well, thank you. I’d love to get started by hearing a little bit about your background. It seems like one of your formative experiences and key credential is that you worked in the Elephant House of the National Zoo. What’s the story?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, if I’m really going to tell the story, it goes back to that my mother actually was dating the curator of mammals at the National Zoo. I had to, in order to graduate from high school, find some way to do community service. A number of my friends had done envelope-licking and envelope-stuffing and things like that. That sounded like an unbelievable drag to me. And he said, “Well, I can’t get you a gig but I can introduce you to the head of the Elephant House.”

Pete Mockaitis
Power broker.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. I met the assistant curator of mammals he told me that they don’t permit people my age, at 16 at the time, to work in the Elephant House because it’s too dangerous. And after an hour’s conversation, he changed his mind and permitted me to work in the Elephant House. I shoveled, I did the calculation at one point, I don’t remember what it was, but it was many thousands of pounds of poop.

And I got to ride the elephants and it was a fantastic, remarkable, fun experience, and I learned a lot about leadership actually there because of how consistent you have to be as an elephant keeper, which I was not. But as an elephant keeper, as an elephant trainer, you’ve got to be incredibly consistent or the elephant will kill you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that can really be a formative experience and one that probably certainly beats the licking of envelopes for your volunteer requirement.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, I don’t make a good envelope licker.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s dangerous. I guess the sponge is a better approach. Better.

Aaron Schmookler
Indeed, yeah. No paper cuts on the tongue for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so nowadays you’ve moved onto different career path outside of elephants, but your company utilizes the work of improv, “Yes and,” something you call adeptability. Kind of what’s the story here and how does improv stuff help us be awesome at our jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, the story, again, I’ll go to my family. My wife told me she was pregnant, I looked around the work culture and the place that I was working at the time, and thought, “Man, is this a drag.” People clock-watching, it wasn’t particularly cool to be glad to be there, although I was. I loved my work. And I just thought, “I can’t stand the idea that my daughter is going to inherit the prevailing work culture in this country.”

And so, I reached out to a friend of mine who’s the best improvisor I know, Adam Utley, and I said, “I want to change work culture. I want to use improv to do it. I need you to help me. I can’t do this on my own.” And so, we started actually doing what we called improv for business which we knew other people were doing.

And as we got into further along in our business, we realized that the other people out there doing improv for business were doing something different from what we were doing. And so, we had to come up with a different name for it and we thought about the folks who had hired us, what they were looking for. They wanted their teams to adapt, they wanted their teams to be excellent communicators, to be excellent collaborators. They wanted really people to be adept at teaming.

And so, we took adaptability and adept, and we smashed them together. And so, we called our training program Adeptability.

Pete Mockaitis
Clever. All right. And so then, tell us, what does it mean to be adeptable and how can we be more of that?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, when we defined this for a team, an adeptable team is, and I supposed it would stand for individuals as well, somebody who is adeptable. A team that is adeptable is exceptionally good at doing what they do regardless of the circumstances. And what we know about what it takes to do that is that you really need to take in input, you need to take in the input of your fellow collaborators, you need to give input, when I think about, what’s the name of the book, Good to Great, and he talks about how important it is to have an open system, a collaborative system is an open system, so you need to be an exceptional collaborator.

And also, to collaborate with reality. I think one of the things that prevents companies from being adeptable teams, and people from being adeptable, in my own life where I am not adeptable, where I get myself into trouble is where I am not allowing myself to see reality. And so, where teams, where companies resist reality that’s where they run into trouble, and you can ask Kodak about that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reality, like, “Hey, the marketplace is changing. Customers don’t want this thing anymore.” What are some other realities we might ignore and why do we do that?

Aaron Schmookler
One of my clients is a CEO who had an important director in his company who was an incredibly strong performer, who had connections in the community that really mattered to their company, and who engaged in a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, who did a lot of things that offended people that really created an environment of fear and manipulation on her team. And rather than look that reality square in the face, this CEO spent a lot of time kind of making excuses for her. So, that’s one example.

Another example might be, you know, I could think of my own efforts to prospect, to find clients, and I might write an email that I really like. And so I will send it out to lots of folks that I’ve met, lots of clients from the past, and I’ll just keep sending this email out even though it’s not getting me any results because I like it, I’m closed to the fact that it may not giving me the results that an email where I’m paying more attention to my audience might get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, how do you open yourself up to receive and adapt to that reality well?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, it takes discipline and, to me, it really takes systematizing collaboration, and that’s what improvisors are great at doing. There are principles behind improv. A lot of people think that improvisors get on stage together and they wing it, and they just kind of make it up as they go along. The fact is that they don’t make it up as they go along.

What they do is they listen really hard both to their scene partners, in the case of theater improvisation, and they listen also really hard to the tiny little tickles in their brain that erupt as a result of what they’ve heard from their partners. So, they allow themselves to be inspired, they allow themselves to surprise themselves, and they allow themselves to not be attached to where they think this thing might go.

And, speaking for myself, I find it very difficult to let go of that attachment. I find it very difficult to let go of the plan. Some of the habits that I formed are to also listen both to my improvising partner, whether that’s on stage, or whether that is a CEO whom I’m coaching, and allow my plan to kind of sit beside me while instead I react, I respond to the moment. And I forget, was it Churchill who said that planning is imperative, and plans are nothing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is ringing a bell. That’s like the process of planning means that you’re thinking through a lot of great stuff but the actual output of it is very, very well not at all be what you end up doing but you’re enriched by having thought about it.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. It goes right along with the quote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Otherwise you end up like, I guess, Michael Scott who always had a plan in his improv to have a gun in every scene is what I’m thinking about from The Office, and it didn’t work so well, and his improvisors didn’t like working with him and excluded him from the fun they were having.

Aaron Schmookler
I don’t know the particular context that you’re talking about and I imagine that what happens when you bring a gun into every scene is that people simply get shot and you railroad the scene, you determine what’s happening, and nobody else really has any input.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Yeah, they’re all just on the floor pretending to be dead.

Aaron Schmookler
Isn’t that fun?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, that’s talking about improv, we were going to talk about burnout. But I suppose there really is a healthy bridge, an overlap here associated with, I understand one of your foundational principles here is that when you’re focused on yourself and you plan how it should go as oppose to the other, you naturally get more exhausted. Can you unpack some of these ideas here?

Aaron Schmookler
So, there’s this concept emotional labor that’s getting a lot of attraction in some of the research these days. Basically, there are a number of forms of emotional labor. We have a big tech client out here in the Pacific Northwest, for example, where we surveyed the leaders, and most of them answered the question, “Do you feel like you can be yourself at work on a scale from one to ten?” They were down in the three to four range thinking that’s not very much yourself.

So, if you’re not being yourself, that’s emotional labor. Or I think about folks in customer service, we work with folks in customer service who feel like they have to smile and act chipper, and they’re putting on this disguise, they’re putting on these adjectives that fit their picture of how they’re supposed to be with their clients.

And I’m not suggesting that they’re not correct, and it’s exhausting to, for example, if you’re already tired because it’s the end of the day, it’s exhausting to decide for yourself, “I’ve got to be chipper. I’ve got to be energetic. I’ve got to be cheerful.” And, in fact, my degree is in theater, I’m a theater director, and what actors know is that you don’t go on stage and be angry. You don’t go on stage and be or pretend to be cold. You don’t go on stage and pretend to be happy. You go on stage and try to affect the people on stage with you.

And when you invest stakes in accomplishing affecting the other person, then the way that you must be bubbles up naturally. And so the implication for folks at work is that if you go in to work to serve people, if you’re in a call center and you get on the phone and you’re dealing with an angry customer, and you think, “I’ve got to be cheerful,” that will feel very, very difficult and it will wear you down. To have somebody yelling at you, and in the face of what feels like belittling behavior from them, you are just all smiles. It will feel incongruous and incongruent, and it will be exhausting.

If, however, you think of it as your responsibility, your duty, your mission to serve them, then that cheer will both be easier, less exhausting, and it will also be much more fitting, much more relevant to the situation. So, instead of responding to anger with cheerfulness, which might actually get you more anger, you respond to anger with service that may also sound light, that may also sound cheerful, and it also be organic. We’re incredibly sophisticated tools. We’re incredibly sophisticated measuring tools, we humans, and we pick up on very subtle things.

And I’ll give you an example from my week. I hired somebody to send out, to craft and send out some marketing messages. The name of my company is The Yes Works. He was supposed to send me this message, I was going to review it, approve it, and then he would start sending it out. And instead he just started sending it out, and instead of saying, “Hi, I’m Aaron, a co-founder of The Yes Works,” it said, “Hi, I’m Aaron, co-founder of Yes, It Works,” and I was not happy.

And I called him and he certainly acknowledged it as a mistake, and the more I kind of tried to get him to respond in the most relevant way that I could imagine, he was becoming more and more defensive. And in response to his becoming more and more defensive, I noticed I got my dander up. And I was just about to kind of raise my voice when I took a page out of my own training book, and said, “How can I serve him?”

And in that moment, I also kind of recognized how difficult it would be for me as a business owner to get this call from one of my clients, how ashamed I would likely feel, how tempted I would be to try to save face in whatever way that I could. And in that moment of service, I calmed down, not in effort, it was an effortless calm down, just all of that chemistry drained out of my body, and I said, “You know, I can imagine how difficult this is and how much your mind must be spinning. So, I tell you what I think we should do. I think we should get off the phone, I’ll give you 24 hours to just consider how you would like to respond because I think I’ve been putting you on the spot and requiring that you respond to me right away.”

And it was no effort for me to pretend to be calm in order to get that response from him. It was simply I decided to serve him instead of requiring that he serve me exactly as I wanted to be served, and it changed the whole relationship right there in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just because we have to have completion for a story, what happens within the 24 hours with the response?

Aaron Schmookler
He came back in a much more relevant fashion, and stopped defending, and stopped kind of trying to retry questions that we had already answered earlier, and it is an ongoing thing because it’s actually very recent. So, I gave him to the end of today to give me a response, and we haven’t quite got there yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s powerful there with regard to that mindset shift with regard to, “How can I serve this person?” And then, in doing so, I guess it’s just natural that you’re focused less on yourself, and how you’re angry, and you’ve been wronged, and this is ridiculous, and you’re spending this good money, and this is a rookie mistake, and aren’t they supposed to be good at their jobs, into you’re in their shoes. I can see how that would just sort of change your whole emotional being in a hurry.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah. And one of the objections that we get when we talk to clients about adopting this mind of service, just as you said, “I’m the one paying. Why am I going to serve him?” Well, because it’s less exhausting for me, because it’s more effective. We actually started to make progress when I started to serve him. And I’m not talking about being walked on. I didn’t say, “You know what, it’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I thought, “How would I want a client to treat me?” And part of how I want a client to treat me is to hold me accountable, and part of how I would want a client to treat me is to give me the opportunity to come to wisdom, right?

So, serving people is not soft, it’s not laying down. It’s calling people up to their highest selves, sometimes. Sometimes it’s bringing somebody a glass of water.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so this is great in terms of you’re less exhausted and you’re getting better results. So, I guess my impression here is that this seems like a great principle, which is wise and proper and we should do. However, in the heat of busyness, lots of obligations, lots of distractions, and things pulling for our attention, and our own sort of emotional triggers, it’s probably hard to do with great consistency. So, do you have any pro tips on how we can keep coming back to this again and again when forces try to pull us away?

Aaron Schmookler
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. I am really good at this in my professional relationships. I’m a lot less good at it in my personal relationships, and so I practice there as well. Asking for feedback, taking timeouts, adapting tools. One of my favorite tools, and I know we’re going to get to this again later, is, “Tell me more about that.”

When I find myself getting my dander up, I go, “Okay, I’m going to choose to say, ‘Tell me more about that.’” And what I get often is an opportunity to, as they say, listen to understand where I can feel that kind of hijack coming, that neurochemical hijack coming, I say, “Tell me more about that,” and then I get more information. So, that’s another thing.

Vocabulary and, “Tell me more about that” is a piece of vocabulary is an incredibly powerful mind-shifter, or mind-crafter. So, we can craft our minds by disciplining ourselves to certain kinds of vocabulary.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And what’s so great about that is you can, well, that piece of phraseology there, “Tell me more about that,” is very flexible and that can go anywhere and it gives you a pause because even if someone said the most offensive, outrageous things to you, like, “Aaron, you are a moron and your entire company sucks and is this a big rip-off. I think it’s a big rip-off fraud scam and I need all of my money returned instantly.”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know. I tried to conceive of the most outrageous things someone could say to you. And when you’re about ready to yell, you could say to them, “Well, tell me more about that.” Even just say so you can take some breaths.

Aaron Schmookler
And it’s incredibly disarming. And you really are right on the money. We were working in a call center just last month, and some of the call center reps were telling us some of the horrendous things that people say to them when they call.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, example please. Dirt. Give me the juicy details. You can skip the profanities if possible.

Aaron Schmookler
Okay, yeah. So, yes, skipping the profanity, “You are a bleepity bleep. Your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep and I can’t believe that you have the audacity to steal my money,” right? That’s one of the things that this person said. And I’m toning down my voice, also as I understand it, that was pretty well hollered. The person had to take their headset off in order not to get their ears damaged. And this is exactly the tool that we recommended to her, “Tell me about that.”

And the way in which, I mean, that’s a tremendous act of service. To say to somebody who is in that frame of mind, “Tell me about that,” is such a tremendous act of service. You can hear the fear and the expectation that they will not be received, the expectation that they are out there on a limb all alone, you can hear it in the vocabulary, you can hear it in the tone of voice, you know that’s what’s happening from afar. When you’re the receiver of that, it just feels like an attack.

But to serve them in such a way as to say, not, “Hey, screw you,” or, “I’m going to hang up,” or, “You can’t talk to me like that,” to say instead, “Tell me about that,” is so disarming because it is such an act of service in a moment when they’re expecting a battle.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s great for feedback too just within a workplace. If someone says, “Hey, Aaron, I think that this podcast interview, you’re really scattered, you’re all over the place. Have you done any prep whatsoever? Your sound quality is dismal. Did you read any of the documents I shared about a proper mic?” Whatever. So, even if I give you feedback that might be true, it’s not, you’re doing great. It might be true even if it’s not overtly hostile, I think “Tell me about that” works there too just because, like, “I cannot believe the way I bend over backwards and this is the lack of appreciation I’m getting, to tell me that I’m not meeting expectations after this guy gave me zero guidance whatsoever,” whatever.

You can sort of go start spinning with regard to why you’re mad about the feedback you’re hearing, then “Tell me about that,” one, might get you some actionable wisdom and, two, lets you calm down and, three, I think would really just, as a manager, I’d appreciate it, like, “Well, thank you. Here’s a person who is actually interested in my feedback as opposed to putting up all the excuses and defenses.”

Aaron Schmookler
And we both get to learn that way, right? If you as my manager come to me and lambast my work, and I say, “Tell me more about that,” I mean, you’re likely to come out of that lambasting posture because, again, it’s unexpected. We expect resistance. It’s Aikido, right? Aikido is a martial arts wherein you absorb the energy of your combatant and redirect it.

And so, the service is a fantastic form of interpersonal emotional Aikido. And so when I say, “Tell me more about that,” to an angry manager, well, I might get an initial kind of fiery burst, but then it’s all spent, and even more likely, the fiery burst won’t even happen because the wind has just suddenly been removed from those sails, and now it appears as though we’re on the same side of the table, looking at the same jigsaw puzzle.

And because that really lowers defenses, and it diminishes offenses, we could both become a lot more objective about how these puzzle pieces fit together. You, as my manager, may discover something that you didn’t know, I, as the managed, may discover something that I didn’t know, and we both get to walk away with a lot fewer bruises and scrapes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really great stuff. So, then when you talk about service, I guess you’re thinking about service in the moment in terms of a conversation. But we could also pull back and think about service more broadly in terms of your overarching personal purpose or your purpose as an employee. How do you think about some of that introspection and clarity that can infuse the service into everything in good vibes?

Aaron Schmookler
Boy, what a question. Thank you for asking because you’ve got me thinking now and I’m looking at the ceiling. So, the first of our fundamentals of Adeptability, the whole umbrella, the whole purpose of the day, we call it trust as an action. And you get trust as an action through “I got your back” culture. And we talk about trust as a feeling.

Trust is, in fact, also an action and there’s often kind of the stalemate that happens in workplaces where, “Pete, I’m not going to give you any task, I’m also not going to be vulnerable with you until you prove to me that you are worthy of my trust.” Now, what do you have though to prove your worthiness of my trust? It’s kind of like the catch 22 where I won’t give you a job until you have experience, and you can’t get experience without getting the job.

And I will never feel trust for you, I will never trust in you until I invest my trust, until I give you my trust, until I take trust as an action, and then I will experience from you what you do with it. So, you can either earn more trust or you can spurn, you can burn that trust. Either way the trust I really have to have is trust in myself, or trust in the system, or trust in the rest of the team to be able to weather whatever you, Pete, do with the trust.

And so this is maybe a roundabout way of getting to my answer for you, which is that I, anyway, find a lot of meaning in figuring out how to have ever more trust in myself. And part of how I have ever more trust in myself is by serving others. I think you brought this up a little bit earlier on the self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is such an apt description of itself. That term is so apt, “I’m conscious of where I have anxiety. I am conscious of myself. I’m really paying attention to myself.”

When we stand up in front of a crowd and feel nervous, feel frightened of public speaking, it is because we are self-conscious. We are conscious of ourselves, “Will I do it right? Will they like me? Will I stumble over my words? Will I remember what I wanted to say?” There is all of this focus on the self. And what happens when somebody stands up in front of a crowd and instead thinks, “I’m here to serve you,” and they speak and they pay attention to the response that they get from the crowd, they pay attention to how attentive the crowd is, they pay attention to where the crowd may need them to pause, these things just flow and the anxiety melts away because we are other conscious.

So, what’s the cure for self-consciousness? The cure for self-consciousness is consciousness of the other. And service is the best portal for gaining that consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, when it comes to consciousness of the other, I think that the questions that you ask yourself are powerful in terms of focusing your energies and your attentions onto something. Like, the brain just naturally wants to seek answers to questions posed, or like you told a story earlier, the brain seeks completion to a story that we wade into the middle of. Are there some internal questions that you recommend folks take on that have a natural way of pointing our consciousness to others?

Aaron Schmookler
The “What do you need in this moment?” is a really good one, which is different from, “What do you want?” because people will tell us what they want all day. It may not be what they need. It may not be what would really affect them. You can think about negotiations in medical malpractice situations where they’re saying, “We need $5 million,” and the negotiation goes back and forth, “Two-hundred thousand,” “No, 5 million,” “Okay, 300,000,” “No, 5 million.” And sometimes when you get the patient, the wronged patient away from their attorney, all they really need is an apology.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
So, “What is it that you need?” is a great question. And if I may respond to your question in other ways, other than answering it, there are system of adeptablity, the “Got your back” culture that we’re talking about, we build on four principles. One, “Yay for failing,” that not, “Hey, isn’t it great that we failed.” In fact, we say failing rather than failure because failing is a fragile present progressive word. The only thing you need to do to break that verb is to pick yourself up and start working again. If you’re working then you’re not failing because you’re actually back in the trying stage.

So, it’s actually fantastic to have ambitions that you can’t easily accomplish, that’s how we grow. And also, being in an environment where “Yay for failing” is practiced. That’s a service in and of itself. To say “Yay for failing” to somebody else who’s maybe just fallen down is a service. To say, “Yay for failing” publicly is also a service because you create an environment where other people feel free to fail, and then get up.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that we should just wallow in it, but we should get up and keep working. So, we move from “Yay for failing” into “Be obvious,” which is about really being direct, really being clear, saying what has so far been unsaid, nothing goes without saying, and most importantly what’s obvious to you is not necessarily what’s obvious to me. There is no such thing as common sense.

And these are all questions also in a way, “What is the obvious thing to me? What may not be obvious to you? How do I create clarity? What are the things that have gone unsaid so far? What’s the elephant in the room?” And from there we say you really have to take in the information. This is what we were talking about earlier. You have to take in the information in order to have a relevant response.

Kodak refused to take in the information that digital was the way of photography’s future largely because they were attached to their film business. They made so much money on film and film processing that they couldn’t even imagine a reality in which film and film processing were going to be removed from the economy.

And then, lastly, “Yes and” which is something that you brought up, which is an incredibly advanced skill. And while it’s the most commonly known improv principle, it’s also the hardest because it’s hard to say yes to bad ideas, it’s hard to say yes to somebody who says on the phone, “You’re a bleepy bleep and your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep bleep. How dare you steal my money.” Saying, “Tell me more about that” is actually a “Yes and.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Without you having to explicitly say, “I agree, sir.”

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“We are fraudulent, aren’t we?”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Tell me more about that.” You’re saying, “I’m curious,” and we can build on that and without you feeling like you have betrayed something by giving something up.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s right. And, yes, also might take the form of, “I can understand how you would see it that way. And let me share how I see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, thank you. So, all right.

Aaron Schmookler
Sorry if that was too long a monologue. I noticed I was holding forth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’re covering a lot of really great stuff here. And so then, I’m intrigued, when it comes to, it sounds like with regard to burnout that when you practice these things, you’re just naturally less exhausted because you’re not forcing it, you’re not faking it, serving is energizing just because it feels good to help people and make them feel good. So, any other tips when it comes to keeping the energy flowing? You got an interesting turn of a phrase about treating the workday like a workout. What does that mean here?

Aaron Schmookler
A lot of people come into work, and I have been this guy, and they go through the motions. And there’s actually, I think, nothing more burnout-inducing than just going through the motions, phoning it in, following procedure and protocol on autopilot. That we are beings, we humans, who aspire to growth. We are fed by growth. We are fed by accomplishment. And there’s nothing fulfilling about going in and just going through the motions.

There may be a few people out there who would love to be paid, I hear about folks whose jobs essentially don’t really exist. They go in, they’re paid, and there’s nothing that they are required to accomplish. And most people in that circumstance feel like they’re withering on the vine. And one of the great ways, I think, to feel as though you are working, growing, contributing every day is to come in and serve.

You cannot serve while going through the motions. You cannot serve while on autopilot. If you really are trying to serve the people in front of you, we people are incredibly dynamic, incredibly changeable, changing things, and so by serving we create the constant change of what it is that we need to accomplish and the ways in which we may need to accomplish it.

And if you really are committed to serving, when I am really committed to serving, I also run up against my own bull, the places where my ego really gets in my own way, the places where I have blind spots. And in my most intimate relationships are the places where I am most tempted to serve myself, where I’m most tempted, for example, to have arguments where I can watch myself saying, “I never did that,” or, “That’s not where I’m coming from,” even though I know that the truth is exactly what my wife, for example, is telling me it is, and my ego won’t let me tell the truth.

And so, that’s a place where if I am able to turn myself instead to service, that I get to grow, I get to feel accomplished, and, therefore, I get to feel alive. And, really, what is burnout but not feeling alive?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Aaron, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, man, we’re just scratching the surface, and that’s worth mentioning all by itself. We’re just scratching the surface. And the other thing is that we will serve best when we are generous with ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we go out and be selfless. I’m suggesting that we go out and serve. And sometimes that means that we need to turn off our cellphone, and go to the spa, go get a massage, go on a fly-fishing trip, as somebody I was talking to this morning is about to do in Alaska, to recharge.

And that serving of the self is sometimes required, is regularly required, frankly, in order to be able to serve others. And when we find the places where our conditioning, where our ego, where our habits interfere with our ability to be decent, to serve, to even be proud of ourselves rather than ashamed, well, I suggest that we’d be kind to ourselves.

I remember telling my mentor just a couple of weeks ago about a place that I was just like, “Man, I just don’t know why I keep doing this.” And she said, “Why do you judge it?” And it was so freeing to have her say that to me. And that gift that she gave me also made me more capable of addressing this gap in my own habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Aaron Schmookler
John Kennedy is reputed to have been walking through NASA and saw a janitor carrying his broom, and said something to the effect of, “What is it that you do here?” And this janitor turned to him and said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Aaron Schmookler
Adam Grant in his one of his books cites some research about leaders, that leaders are more likely to receive input, receive ideas about how to solve a problem from their team if they have, first, tried to solve a problem themselves. And it doesn’t even have to be the same problem. But simply the fact of putting yourself into a problem-solving posture before hearing somebody else’s ideas makes us more receptive and less critical in that kind of nagging sense than we would be just hearing their suggestions cold.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And a favorite book?

Aaron Schmookler
I’m going to have to give you two, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. The subtitle of that is “How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” And I’ll put in another quick quote here from Liz Wiseman, “At the apex of the intelligence hierarchy is the genius-maker not the genius.” And also, I love the The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Aaron Schmookler
I have a headset made by Plantronics that allows me to hear and be heard on my phone better than anything while I am hands-free, even walking into a 10-mile per hour headwind. I love this thing. In fact, the couple of days when I could not find it, I went to Best Buy and bought another one just so I could use it that day, and then return it if and when I found the one that I had misplaced.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to hear the model number.

Aaron Schmookler
Let’s see. I think it’s 5200. It’s not there on the device but it’s got a little arm that comes out from your ear so that the microphone is near your mouth, and it’s wonderful. Nothing else that I’ve ever tried comes close.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Schmookler
“Tell me more about that,” hands down. We’ve already talked about it but saying that, particularly when I am inclined to dismiss the other person as irrelevant in some way, to say instead, “Tell me more about that,” hands down my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and is quoted back to you often?

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the second fundamentals course in our series of three, the “Umbrella for that day.” It’s never about the thing, it’s always about the relationship, and the implications of that being whether you like it or not, people will come away from this interaction affected by you, and your future relationship with them will be affected by it as well. And that is much more lasting than whatever the transaction might have been about.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn or get in touch, where would you point them?

Aaron Schmookler
I am the only Aaron Schmookler on LinkedIn so you can find me there. And you can also find me at TheYesWorks.com. And you can hear my voice more, along with my guest, on the podcast Mighty Good Work.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the next time you find yourself in that amygdala hijack where you feel the chemistry rising, where you are either getting fight-y or flighty, see if you can just remind yourself with one word “serve” and see what that does for you, and see if you can find a way to serve the other person even while your amygdala is tempting you to fight or to flee.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, this has been a treat. Thanks so much for sharing your time today and for listening for years. Keep up the great work.

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, Pete, I think you are a really excellent curator and contributor to this world of how to do work well, how to do great work, and how to be great doing it, so I’m glad you’re out there.

496: How to Break The Habit of Distraction with Maura Nevel Thomas

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Maura Nevel Thomas says: "Attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world."

Maura Nevel Thomas discusses how to take back control of your attention for more productive work days.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How we sabotage our performance every 3 minutes
  2. The simple trick to stopping most office distractions
  3. How to get more satisfaction out of wor

About Maura:

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. Maura is a contributing expert to major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and the Harvard Business Review.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Maura Nevel Thomas Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Maura Thomas
Pete, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, one of the first things I wanted to hear a little bit about was you do some martial arts stuff. Can you tell us about that and maybe any personal safety tips we should know from your learnings?

Maura Thomas
Sure. Yeah, I trained in martial arts and a variety of other self-defense courses for many years. And I think that the most useful tip that I can pass along is don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation. And what I think a lot of people don’t recognize is that if you are in a place that is perhaps not so safe, like out on the street at night by yourself in the dark, or like in a deserted stairwell, or just any place where your personal safety could potentially be at risk, being distracted in that moment is really dangerous, like being on your phone, having headphones in your ear, ear pods in your ear where you can’t hear anything. The smartest thing you can do when you are out and about, especially at night, when you’re alone, in secluded places is be present and aware.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, one time I was actually punched in the face right near a Chipotle and not a bad neighborhood, at around twilight. And you know what? I was looking at my phone and the guy just yelled at me, “Get the F out of the way!” and he might’ve had some mental illness or something going on because he just kept walking after that. In all fairness, I was in his way, and I was distracted, but he could’ve just said, “Excuse me,” and I would’ve gladly stepped to the side. So, I did not heed your wisdom.

Maura Thomas
Well, it’s easy to forget but I think it’s super important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lessons learned and I’m fine, if anyone was worried. And I learned a good lesson about compassion because a lot of people, it was spooky, it’s like they don’t want to look at the guy who just got punched.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, anyway, I didn’t think we were going to go there. But, now, we’re doing some disclosing and you’re talking about managing your attention, you’re a real pro at this, you’ve done a lot of research, and there’s a lesson right there. If you don’t manage your attention, there could be personal injury but more likely career and productivity injury. Tell us, what’s a fascinating discovery you’ve made about how we manage our attention and we can do it better?

Maura Thomas
I think the most interesting thing that I have learned is that distraction is a habit, and it is a habit that has been cultivated in us on purpose by our technology. But the idea is that the more distracted we are, the more distracted we will be. And there was a study by Gloria Mark out of the University of Irvine, and she discovered that we switch our attention on average about every three minutes. Three minutes and five seconds to be precise is what her study concluded.

And so, when you do something every three minutes all day long, it becomes a habit. And it is a habit that our technology only cultivates in us because our technology is designed to steal our attention basically, and to keep our attention. The job of the internet is to keep you on the internet. Not only are you distracted by your technology but you’re distracted by other people.

And every few minutes all day long you get a distraction, that becomes a habit that gets really reinforced which means it becomes a really strong habit, which means you can’t just leave it behind when you walk out the door of the office, and you can’t just decide, like, “I’m not going to have that habit right now because I’m on my personal time,” or “Because it’s the weekend,” or, “Because I’m on vacation.” That habit follows you and it sticks with you and it really undermines us.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much that you got me thinking about here. So, three minutes, five seconds, and so in a way I find that a little bit encouraging that if I’m focusing on something for longer than that then I’m kind of making progress.

Maura Thomas
You are making some progress, but think about this, we try to do important things, not only tasks at work that require our brain power, which we were, by the way, hired for, not only tasks, but also interactions, conversations, experiences. And we think that we can fully experience something, fully be present in something, fully apply ourselves in about as long as it takes to toast bread.

And you know what’s really sad about that is that because this habit of distraction has eroded our patience so much, I bet there are many people listening right now saying, “It takes kind of a long time to toast bread.”

Pete Mockaitis
I could check several emails in the time I’m spending toasting the bread.

Maura Thomas
Exactly. And it feels like a minute, two minutes, three minutes is like, “Oh, I got this.” But here’s the thing, your brain requires momentum. It takes you a few minutes, depending on the complexity of the task, or the complexity of whatever it is that is happening to you right at that moment, the experience you’re in. It takes you a minute, or two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes to get your head into something, right, to build up that brain power momentum so you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m in it. I’m totally with you. I hear what you’re saying. I know where we need to go with this project. I have this idea now and I’m going to expand on it,” right?

And when we do our most challenging things, or have our most richest experiences, or our most meaningful interactions, a couple of minutes isn’t enough. It takes more than that to build up that momentum to be there, to apply ourselves, and we almost never get that. And, yet, most of us probably, I’m imagining most of the people listening to this podcast are knowledge workers, which means our job outputs are intangible brain activities, right?

There are things like ideas and creativity, and relationships, and innovation, and analysis, and research, and those things that we use our brain for, and those things that require brain power momentum. That’s what we were hired for.
And so, then we hire those people because we think they have this brain power and these qualities that we want in an employee, and then we put them in a situation where they can’t express those qualities and that brain power in any meaningful way pretty much ever.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re talking about situations in terms of we have a context full of distractions. Or what do you mean by situations?

Maura Thomas
The work environment where they are distracted all day long, and they are distracted all day long as a result of the culture. So, for example, when I’m speaking to an audience, I ask people, “How many of you have two computer monitors?” And some people raise their hand, or I say two or more computer monitors, and pretty much everyone raises their hand, right?

And then I ask, “What is on those monitors?” And people essentially tell me, “Work is on one and email and other communication devices, instant message, whatever, is on the other.” And so how often, when you are at work, are you going to get an instant message or text message or an email? Pretty much all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
Right? And the company, like imagine you are going into a new job, and you’re walking around and you’re shaking everybody’s hands and you’re meeting people, and everyone has two monitors on their desk. And on each monitor, for everyone, they have some sort of spreadsheet or document or something open on one, and their email and other communication devices open on the other. So, aren’t you going to get the impressions like, “Okay, this is how we do things. Sign me up for my two monitors so that I can leave my email open all the time”? And the average person gets an email every two to four minutes.

And so, it’s sort of by design that these people that we bring in because of their brain power are unable to apply their brain power. And that’s just one of the many ways that the culture sabotages performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we also have sort of the open-office plans that are in vogue and then folks are sort of dropping by all the time and then plenty of other things, whether it’s if you have Slack, the instant messaging there. Okay. So, I’m with you there, there’s plenty of things that disrupt our attention and pull us all over the place. So, I want to dig into the how. But maybe, first, could you maybe inspire us with a case study or research or an example of what’s really possible in terms of the leap a professional can make with their attention management in the current state versus an ideal state?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I think the most recent example I have actually is in someone’s personal life. So, I was at a client this morning, in fact, and I was talking to one of the women, Kristine. And I had just finished the attention management portion of the training that I was delivering at this company and so Kristine and I were talking after that, and she’s like, “You know, this whole idea of distraction as a habit is so true.” She said, “I recently went out on maternity leave, and when my son was born, I would be holding him, and the urge to hold my phone in the other hand was overwhelming.”

She was like, “Here I have this perfect life, and my baby is only going to be this age once, and I’m looking into his beautiful face, and there was still part of my brain going, ‘You know, just pick up your phone. Maybe you have some messages.’” And she said, “I was so dismayed by that that it was so hard for me to be present in these first moments of my son’s life because I was so distracted by my phone, which wasn’t even around, I was just thinking about it and feeling like I should have it, feeling like I was missing, not even missing out, but missing something. Like there’s something missing. Like, ‘Oh, my phone is not in my hand. That’s the problem.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
And she told me that it took her a few weeks on maternity leave and she had to work really hard to overcome that urge to not multitask while she was interacting with her baby, right? And she was upset by it. She was like, “I cannot believe that my newborn infant didn’t seem like enough for me in that moment.” But she was out on maternity leave for a couple of months, and she really kicked that habit of distraction, and she found that time with her child so much more rewarding.

And there are new studies out. I just saw sort of the headline of one that talked about the impact that when parents have the TV on, their interactions with their children go down. When they have some sort of technology distraction around them, the number and quality of interactions with their children go down.

So, she was able to kick the habit and she had a much better time with her child while she was out for those two months, because most people don’t get that opportunity to spend all of this precious time with their newborn. You get maybe a week, six weeks, or eight weeks or something, and then you’re not with them. If you have to go back to work, whether it’s a mother or a father, right, or whatever parent, you are not with them after that because you have to go back to work for most of the day.

If Kristine hadn’t been aware and had just sort of felt like her phone is fine in her hand, how much of those first, that early life of her child would she have missed because she was distracted?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful, and I’m glad to hear there’s a happy ending there. And this reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which just sort of made me chuckle, and it went like this, I think you’ll get the joke. I don’t think the tweeter was trying to make a joke, but the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Maura Thomas
Uh-huh. Me thinks you are not as present as you think you are, right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. So, it’s a habit, it can creep into all aspects of our life even during very privilege times. So, what do you recommend is the means of building a new habit that will serve us better?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, the first thing is that we need to become aware of how often we are distracted because I think a lot of people think that this isn’t a challenge for them. Kristine herself said, “I didn’t notice until I was home with my child on maternity leave.” Apple came out with a study, I think it was in 2015, so I’m sure the number has changed quite a lot now, but even in 2015 it showed that we unlock our phones 80 somewhat times a day. Eighty times a day, 80+ times a day that we unlock our phones.

And so, what else is going on in that moment that you are unlocking your phone and doing something on it? Are you driving? Probably often. Is there somebody else in your presence? Often probably. Are you having an experience? Capturing an experience so that we can have the memory is really important. So, taking pictures, for example, on vacation is really important. But posting those pictures on Facebook and Instagram, probably not that important in that moment, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, becoming aware of how distracted we are, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t know you have, right? Wayne Dyer said, “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” And so, that’s really important, is becoming aware. And becoming aware of how technology lures us into that habit, right? I mean, you know all of the persuasive technology and all of the ways that technology developers are studying neuroscience and cognitive psychology and behavioral science to figure out what are our human tendencies and how can they exploit those to keep us using our technology longer.

So, one simple example is that human beings look for natural stopping points when we’re doing something, right? Like, if you’re reading a book, you might be like, “Well, when I finish this chapter then I’ll stop.” And have you noticed? So, that’s a thing that we do. Human beings, we look for natural stopping points, and so technology developers have recognized this, and so they have taken away the stopping points. I mean, have you noticed that on Facebook or on LinkedIn or on YouTube, when you are scrolling, there’s no bottom of the page? It just keeps reloading.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it just keeps loading more.

Maura Thomas
More and more and more. So, they said, “Well, they’ll stop if there’s a stopping point so we need to make sure that there are no stopping points, right?” It’s the same reason why casinos don’t have windows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, hey, it’s nighttime, I need to go home.“

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly. There’s no clocks and there’s no windows in casinos because those are sort of stopping points that we would say, “Oh, maybe I should leave now.” “So, let’s take those away.” So, recognizing how we are being manipulated, and I don’t say this to make technology companies be the bad guy. I love it by any stretch of the imagination. I love my technology as much as anybody else. On the other hand, we need to control our technology, and that’s another step.

Our technology will control us if we allow it to. And so, one of the ways to overcome this habit of distraction is to exert some control over our technology, whether it’s off or silent, not vibrate, or airplane mode, or “Do Not Disturb,” or shutting off the notifications, shutting off all those little red numbers that those notifications in the little red circle that just calling your attention.

All of those things, if we don’t exert any control over our technology, our technology controls us, and then that habit just becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, and chips away at our attention span, and chips away at our patience, and chips away at our ability to apply ourselves in any meaningful way, not just our wisdom and our knowledge and our experience, but also our empathy and our compassion and our humor and our kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, I completely agree. I don’t know if it’s angry but I react strongly when an app requests, it’s like, “Such and such would like to send you notifications.” It’s like, “Well, you are denied. You may not send me a notification.”

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m okay with that I hope my friends and family are too that I’m not made aware of their text message until maybe hours later because I don’t allow the badge or the buzz to let me know if there’s a new text message for me because I think that drives me insane in terms of, “I’m trying to have a great conversation with Maura right now, so those text messages will have to wait for a moment.” And I think I’m better for it, and I hope that everyone else is okay waiting a little while.

And, very rarely, have I been prompted in terms of, “Hey, what’s going on? You’re rude.” So, I think whatever fears that folks have are, some maybe real in terms of particular stakeholders, you know, you can have some conversations, but I think for the most part I think people are kind of chill, and they say, “You know what, I wish I could do that too. That’s great.”

Maura Thomas
Well, you know, let’s face it, it’s not like you’re going off the grid for days at a time. It’s like an hour here and there, 30 minutes, right? We’re not going to forget to check in with our messages. You know, what I say to my clients is, “Check your messages, check your phone as often as you feel like you need to, but just do it in between other things, not during other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked about, all right, becoming aware, we’re controlling our technology. What else should we do?

Maura Thomas
So, the next thing is that we need to control our environment because we have, even in an open office, we have more control over our environment than we exert. So, for example, people think, “Well, the office is loud, and it’s busy, and there are people walking by me, and interrupting me, and distracting me all the time, and that’s just the way it is, and I have to just adapt.”

But the truth is if you gave your colleagues some signal, a sign, right, maybe with some people it would need to be a more overt signal than with other people. But if you had a sign on the back of your chair that said, “Deep work in progress,” or something, “Important work in progress,” “Working on my flow. Please do not disturb,” whatever it says, let your personality shine through, but whatever it says, if your coworker saw that, they would be less likely to interrupt you anyway. Unless if you can’t make a sign and put it up and just leave it there all the time because now a sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. “Then you’re not flowing 100% of the time, nobody is, we don’t buy it.”

Maura Thomas
That’s right. So, you have to be judicious about it and say, “No, really, when I’m going to do important work, and I need to build up that brain power momentum, that’s when the sign goes up. And when I’m done with that, that’s when the sign comes down.” And if you do that, and so I tell my clients, “I don’t know if it should be 20 minutes every hour, or an hour a few times a day, or the frequency and the duration is completely up to you, and it also depends on the nature of your job.”

Some people’s jobs are more collaborative than other people’s jobs. If you are the office manager, you probably have more interactive work than if you are a programmer, and you probably need more focused time. So, it’s up to you to say, but if you have anything that requires any amount of your brain power in any meaningful way, then there has to be sometimes when you can be undistracted.

And so, whether that means a sign, or headphones, or if you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door and you’d close it, or you’re going into a conference room that nobody is using, or whatever it is, but you have to exert some control, and then you have to honor. You have to create those boundaries and then you have to honor those boundaries, right?

So, if you have your sign up, and somebody interrupts you anyway, then you have to say to them, “Did you see the sign? I’m sorry. Unless this is an emergency,” then your sign should say something about emergencies, “But unless this is a true emergency, please don’t interrupt me.” And then if they do anyway, you have to say, “Could you come back when the sign comes down because I can’t help you right now?” In whatever language, whatever way you feel is appropriate to do that, but you have to because if you put the sign up and people interrupt you anyway, and then you say, “Okay, what do you need?” Well, you’ve just taught them that the sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. So, we become aware, we control our technology, we control our environment, and what else?

Maura Thomas
I like to think of controlling your attention as a practice. It’s a little bit like healthy living, right? There are so many things that can fall under the heading of healthy living, and when you do some of them, then you start to do other ones of them. And then you discover things that maybe you didn’t even know about before.

So, I think sort of getting on the path to attention management by when you start to control your technology, and you start to control your environment, those two things then allow you to start recognizing your habits and to start resetting your habits and changing, interrupting those distraction habits and substituting instead. Instead of chipping away your attention span, you start to build it back up. Instead of chipping away at your patience, you start to build it back up.

And so, I think beginning there is sort of the first step. And then there’s, you know, you can experiment with mindfulness or meditation. There are some kind of advanced strategies, thinking about flow and how best to engage your flow. But I feel like that’s sort of Attention Management 201, and if people just got started with Attention Management 101, those are some sort of baby steps.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to hear some of the specific practices that you think make a huge impact in terms of, “Okay, these are some of your first baby steps, they’re going to do a whole lot for you.” What would you put in those categories?

Maura Thomas
Well, certainly the technology and environment control steps. So, figuring out what is your signaling going to be? Because if we talk about building up your brain power momentum, it doesn’t matter how much momentum you have. Once somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, Pete, you got a minute?” Poof! Poof! It doesn’t matter how much momentum you had, it’s all gone now.

So, you need to prevent the tap on the shoulder, that, “Do you got a minute?” so that you can maintain that focus. So, one simple thing you can do is figure out what is your “Controlling my environment signal going to be.” And then you need to, depending on how subtle it is, right, if you decide it’s going to be headphones, then you might need to inform your coworkers, at least the people in your immediate vicinity, like, “Look, if the headphones are on means ‘Could you not interrupt me?’”

If you use a sign that says “Do not disturb,” I think it’s going to be pretty clear. Somebody approaches you and your sign is up, it’s like, “Oh, I guess she’s busy. I’ll come back.” So, one easy step that you can do right now is to decide what is your “Do not disturb. Flow in progress sign” going to be, and then start using it right now.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so another thing is to shut off all of your notifications on all of your devices. Start using silent, not vibrate, more often. Like you said, right, so just you get your messages when you decide it’s time to get your messages instead of when the entire world decides that they want to send you a message, right? I think that we have forgotten that our technology exists for our convenience.

You didn’t go to the store, to the electronic store, and buy your smartphone so that everyone in the world could interrupt you all the time, right? That was not your intention, and yet that’s how most of us behave, “I have this device that anyone in the world can reach me on probably 17 different ways at once, and I let those things all just wash over me constantly.”

So, shutting off all of those notifications and all of those things that tempt you, all of those types of persuasive technology, like the little red circle, the number, that tells you you’ve got notifications because we have this compulsion, like, “I got to clear all the notifications, right? You’ve got to clear them all.” You see what they all are so they can all be cleared. And then just as soon as you cleared all the little circles off your Facebook app and your LinkedIn app, and your Twitter app, and your email app, and your text app, and your phone app, now you got to start all over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, just get rid of all the little circles and shut off all the notifications and start remembering that you have your smartphone for your convenience not for the convenience of the rest of the world. Because, again, you’re not going to forget. You’ll still probably going to check it multiple times in an hour. It’ll be okay. But in the meantime, you will get lots of stuff done and you will be more present.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And so, when you talk about getting more stuff done, I want to hear your view on having a proactive workday. How do we achieve that, and what’s the alternative, and sort of can you paint a picture there?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. I talk to so many people who say to me, “I know I was busy all day and I’m exhausted, but I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” And it’s because they spend their days doing whatever happens to them, right? You go into work and people probably approach you as soon as you walk through the door, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. And do you have a minute to talk about this thing?” and your work then gets set.

And even if that doesn’t happen, you probably sit down at your desk, and the first thing you do is check your email, check your messages, check what came in overnight. And all of those things just set the tone for a day of reaction, which means a day of doing everybody else’s stuff and none of yours. And the problem with that, even if you are the person whose job it is to help everyone in the office, or to help all the customers, if you also have anything else to do at all, then you need some time when you are away from the intaking, away from the reacting so that you can be proactive, right?

I tell the leaders that I work with, “If you have a customer service team, even if it’s just two people, and their job is to answer the phone and take in the emails from the customers, if it’s also their job to solve the problems that the customers bring to them, then they need some time away from the intaking to do the solving in a useful way.

We have become a society where I think we believe that faster, like fast customer service equals good customer service. The faster it is the better we are. The better our service is the faster we are. And I think that that is the new race to the bottom. I think price used to be the race to the bottom, and now fast is the race to the bottom because no one can respond immediately. So, employees take away this idea that if faster is better then immediate must be best.

And so, if I have to respond immediately to everything then I always have to have my communication tools open, and if my communication tools are always open, then I’m guaranteed to be distracted every couple of minutes. And if I’m distracted every couple of minutes then I can’t apply the brain power that you hired me for.

And so, again, the practice of attention management allows you to have some time where you are proactive in the day. And when you have spent part of your day being proactive then you leave feeling more satisfied. You leave feeling like you accomplished something. There is a book called The Progress Principle and it’s based on the idea that, of all the things that can boost emotions, motivations, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

And so, we talk a lot about engagement and work satisfaction, and one of the biggest things that is taking away from that engagement and that satisfaction is the feeling of actually accomplishing things during our day. And we feel like we’re not accomplishing anything during our day because we spend all of our day being reactive. But we only feel accomplishment when we can be proactive, and you can’t be both simultaneously proactive and reactive at the same time.

You can only be productive, productive which I define as achieving your significant results. Well, that’s what the dictionary says — achieving or producing a significant amount or results, that’s the definition of productive. And so, if we look at the personal productivity side of that, achieving a significant result. You can only be productive, achieve your significant results when you can be proactive. And you can only be proactive when you’re not being reactive.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, yeah, this all adds up for me certainly. I guess I’m curious to think about, so how might you measure progress on this so you can feel more satisfaction in a day, you might see sort of what the screen time stats tell you on your phone? Are there any other kind of measures? If we talk about progress being satisfying, if we want to make progress on our attention management and sort of measure and behold and appreciate that progress, what might you point us to?

Maura Thomas
Yes, for knowledge workers, because knowledge work is hard to quantify, when your work output are things like ideas and relationships and analysis, it’s hard to quantify that, “Was I more productive today than I was yesterday?” Attention management is a piece of what I call workflow management, what it’s commonly called in the productivity industry – workflow management. For me, the workflow management system that I teach, in other words, “How do I get stuff done? How do I organize and manage and track and move forward on all the things that I have to do in all parts of my life?”

Well, my answer is you use a workflow management system for that. So, you systematize the way that you operate so that you can get stuff done. And, for me, the foundational component of workflow management is attention management. And so, when you are using a workflow management system, you have all of your work sort of in front of you. And so, a workflow management system not only helps you identify and track and organize and not forget the things that you haven’t done yet. But then a byproduct of that is that you are tracking also the things that you have done.

And so, it’s easy to tell if you are making more progress in a day when you are marking things, not just things off your to-do list but important things, right? Making progress in meaningful work. It feels much better to write an article for most people than it does to answer 10 emails because you have accomplished something, you have something to show for your brain power at the end. But it’s hard to write an article when you are interrupted every two minutes or three minutes.

And so, most of the stuff that we do in a day it never makes it onto our to-do list. It’s that stuff that happens to us. And so, that’s why most people leave work feeling like, “My list got longer, not shorter. I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” But when you can control your attention, when you can be more productive, you are making progress not just on stuff but on the stuff that’s on your list, the stuff that you determined was important to your job, the stuff that means something to you if it gets done, and to your sort of performance, and the ultimate goal that you are hired for.

And so, that’s one way, is that when you are achieving more of the stuff that you put on your list, that you decided you needed to get done, then you’re going to feel more satisfied at the end of the day. Then your job is going to feel more rewarding.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, Maura, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I’ve been talking about this idea of brain power momentum, and the shorthand phrase that I use for this idea is that I call it unleashing your genius. When you are distracted every few minutes, you are sabotaging your ability to build up that brain power momentum, and not only brain power but it’s difficult to bring your humor in two-minute increments, and your empathy in two-minute increments, and your compassion and your kindness and your thoughtfulness, and all of the things that make you uniquely you. It’s hard to apply those things in the time that it takes to toast bread.

And so, when you can control your attention, attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world, to bring the full range of yourself, your wisdom, and your knowledge, your experience, but all of your unique gifts that are uniquely you, that are packaged in the way that is uniquely you. You can only do that when you can be present, when you can stay focused from more than a few minutes at a time, when you are not constantly distracted in trying to do multiple things at once.

So, unleashing your genius is really the most powerful, I think, and the most satisfying outcome of attention management.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, tell us, then, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maura Thomas
Yes, I have been looking. I think I’m going to have to call a librarian because I’ve been researching to find out who said this first, and I have not had any luck. The quote goes, “It’s not the moments in your life that matter, it’s the life in your moments that matter.” Right? And the life in your moment is the experience you are having in a moment. Are you present? Are you engaged? Are you participating fully in that moment? That is the life in your moments. And I think it’s really true and it’s really powerful. If we live a long life, it doesn’t mean much. I’m not sure it would be as valuable as a shorter life that was full and rich and loving and compassionate and joyful and present.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Maura Thomas
This study recently came out of the University of Texas at Austin, and it found that when we have our phone in our presence, even if it’s off, it absorbs some of our cognitive capacity, which essentially means it makes us dumber in that moment.

And so the study had three groups of people, one group had their phone off but visible, one group had it off but out of sight but still in the room, and the other  people had it completely in another place, and the people whose phone was completely in another room far outperformed the people whose phone was anywhere in their presence. And the people who had it even out of their sight, only slightly overperformed the people who had it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And how about a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
I am a big fan of Cal Newport. So, Deep Work and his latest Digital Minimalism, so thought-provoking and so important and I’m loving Cal’s work right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and people quote it back to you, like you’re known for?

Maura Thomas
A lot of people remind me that they heard that idea of moments in your life not mattering as much as life in your moments matter. You know they tell me stories about like Kristine’s story with her son and how they change up experiences. I guess the idea of attention management is what people tell me they remember most from when they see me speak or when they interact with me.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Maura Thomas
I would say the challenge that I would pose… the question would be, “How much richer is your life without distraction?” I think the only way you can know is when you can find a way to live without distraction. So that’s the challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com has all the information. My latest book is called Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day, and being aligned with the title, it is from a line called The Impact Reads, which means it is designed to spark the impact in just one hour.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
I’m sorry, it’s Ignite Reads.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Well, Maura thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck in having many rich moments in your life and full attention.

Maura Thomas
Thanks so much for having me on, Pete. I really enjoyed the conversation.

495: How to Network When You Hate Networking with Devora Zack

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Devora Zack says: "Remember to value connecting over collecting."

Devora Zack explains why you don’t need to work the room to build great connections.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to smoothly start, sustain, and end conversations
  2. How to ease your pre-networking anxiety
  3. Best practices for writing amazing follow-ups

About Devora:

Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, a Washington Post bestselling author and global speaker with books in 45 language translations. Her clients include Deloitte, Smithsonian, Delta Airlines, the FDA, Johns Hopkins, and the National Institutes of Health. She has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, US News & World Report, Forbes, Cosmo, Self, Redbook, Fast Company, and many others. She is the author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, Managing for People Who Hate Managing and Singletasking.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Devora Zack Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Devora, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Devora Zack
My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, Devora, I understand that you identify as a strong introvert and, yet, you are now doing all sorts of speeches and writing about networking. What is the story here?

Devora Zack
Networking is not exclusively for extroverts, I’ve discovered. So, it started off when I was teaching a lot of seminars, and building connections, and creating new relationships, and sustaining businesses. And I suddenly realized that all those so-called excellent networking advice didn’t work for me, and I started doing the opposite. And who would’ve ever guessed, it’s a whole new method of networking that works for many people. As a matter of fact, the majority of people, traditional networking advice does not resonate with them, and they do far better, myself included, by honoring who they are and accepting their natural temperament.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then that’s intriguing. And so, what would be an example of honoring your natural temperament versus violating it?

Devora Zack
So, traditional advice says get out there as much as possible, constant contact, never eat a meal alone, and that kind of advice makes most of us want to run and hide, crash and burn, and proclaim ourselves to hate networking and be terrible at it. So, instead, if you work with understand who you are and then create a system that honors how you get energy, for example, introverts get energy alone whereas extroverts get energy with others.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so then could we hear some cool cases stories associated with folks who tackled some of those approaches and saw fantastic results?

Devora Zack
Sure. I’ll give one about myself when I wanted to get my first book published for the first time. So, I was at a conference and there were about 40 different publishers there, and so traditional wisdom would say meet all of them because that’ll maximize the possibility that you’ll hit it off with one of them. But I knew as an introvert that that would drain me and that it would also feel really inauthentic so I wouldn’t be bringing my best foot forward.

So, instead, I did research in advanced, which I always recommend people do, found and identified one publisher that I thought would be a really perfect fit, had one meeting at the conference, and I was the only person they signed out of 16,000 people, and we’re working together 12 years later. So, it really shows, it’s one little example that instead of saying, “I should do something,” like, “I should go out there and meet with everyone, I should try and spend as much time with as many different publishers as possible,” instead to say, “I’m going to follow what feels authentic and seek out where I think there’s a real connection.”
Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting, this notion. Let’s unpack that a bit when it comes to the “should.” Under what circumstances do you think we should violate our “shoulds” or ignore or overrule the should voice versus kind of run with them?

Devora Zack
Right. In my book I say, “You should never say should.” So, it’s hard to kind of get around that sometimes. So, there’s really three differences between introverts and extroverts, and my system of networking is really focused on this dimension.

So, introverts think to talk and extroverts talk to think. Introverts energize alone and extroverts energize with others. And introverts go deep, like deeper into fewer relationships, fewer interests, less activity around them. That does not mean less active. It just means less competing action for the brain. And extroverts are the opposite. They talk to think, they energize with others, and they go wide. They like a lot of people, a lot of action, a lot going on.

So, if I know that I think to talk, what I have to do is to prepare in advance some good questions, to practice what I’m going to say, to get familiar with typical topics people might raise at this event, and be prepared with answers.

Also, introverts tend to be more private and they don’t want to talk about themselves as much, they can spend more time thinking of great questions to ask other people. And, by the way, if you don’t like talking about how wonderful you are, you can show people instead by demonstrating an authentic interest in other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And when it comes to some of these great questions, have you found some go-to winners that you love and are great again and again?

Devora Zack
Yeah. One is that you want to make them interesting, the questions that people want to answer, and that you’re actually interested in hearing their response to. So, avoid the kind of old questions, they’re a little dull, like, “What do you do?” Like, that’s really basic. So, with a slight twist you can say, “What’s your favorite part of your work?” And suddenly the person comes alive, they’re talking about something that they’re passionate about, it’s more interesting to listen to, so that’s an example of a good, well-formed question.

You want to be cautious with your questions, also, about making them initially not too personal because introverts, especially if they have a strong, what’s called, strength of preference, a strong identification with introversion, they tend to find more things private. So, something an extrovert might ask would seem perfectly an innocent question, and an introvert might feel on the spot. So, start with the general questions, and then let the other person, who you’re talking to, decide how specific to get, and they might get more specific and more comfortable, both of you are, in the conversation.

A corollary to that is people often ask me, when we’re in the context of conversations and questions, “How do you end a conversation? So, I maybe find a way to be really engaging, some people want to talk to me, but what if it’s time for me to move on in the event, or in the evening, or the daytime?”

So, it’s really quite simple to end a conversation in a networking event because there is an expectation that people are there to meet people. So, non-verbal certainly makes a big difference, tone, pleasant facial expressions, smile, say, “Well, it’s been really interesting talking to you. I promise myself I’d circulate.” Or, almost the reverse of that, “Well, I’m sure you want to meet other people. Here’s my card.”

So, it’s really very simple to end a conversation, but the key is when you’re in the conversation, to be entirely focused on that other person. A lot of times people are looking for the “right person” to communicate with and they’re not making good eye contact and they’re distracted. Instead, I encourage people to decide that whenever they’re in a conversation with someone, that’s the right person for that period of time, and your job is to find out why. Why is this person in front of you out of everyone at the event, or, indeed, everyone in the world?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve made that point there before with regard to not trying to work the room and talk to absolutely everybody but instead make some of those deeper, more authentic relationships. And you’ve made reference, I understand, in your book to a couple of other old rules of networking advice. What are some of those and what makes things different now?

Devora Zack
Did you have any in particular that you wanted me to pound to pieces or…?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I would love for you to pound to pieces the one that is the most prevalent and the most wrong?

Devora Zack
There’s so many. I’ll start with one, it’s a popular saying which is to never eat a meal alone, that every meal is a networking opportunity. And, again, it’s about how you’re…

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re saying, “Keith Ferrazzi, you’re dead wrong.”

Devora Zack
That’s right. That’s right. I really do disagree with that. Well, I should say that works for about 15% of the general population. That’s good advice for really strong extroverts, people that identify strong with extroversion. It doesn’t work for the rest of us and it allows us to not have time to reenergize. So, what I recommend is that if you need time alone to prepare for a program, before a presentation, when you’re on a business trip, to allow yourself to have a meal alone if that energizes you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m also curious to hear your take on the “Networking Survival Kit.” It seems like we’ve got some things in terms of advance preparation internally with thought. Are there some physical items here too?

Devora Zack
Yes, as a matter of fact. So, the networking events, I believe you’re referring in particular to, there’s a chapter in the book called that, and I have a three-piece strategy that helps us network more effectively. One is to prepare, the next is to percolate, that means to engage, and then to pace yourself. However, you asked an interesting question, “Are there any physical pieces in the survival kit?” And I would say yes.

And that is the first thing that’s important to have in your survival kit is a small mirror. When you get to networking events, take a moment and check yourself out. Make sure that you’re not disheveled, that you’re cleaned up. A lot of times we’re like rushing from one place to another and we’re like in a hurry and we might be a little bit late, so we just jump on in. It’s always worth the time to take a moment to focus yourself internally and externally.

So, it might mean that there’s a powder room or a bathroom nearby to get centered in or if you just have a slide, again, a small mirror with you. Take a moment, make sure you’re put together. Also, physically put together. So, take a couple of breaths and get centered. I also recommend, for your survival kit, an energy bar or a snack, something to have before the event so you don’t arrive starving. A lot of networking events involve food, often open buffet or pass-around food.

And so, one of two situations, it’s usually the case, it’s either you bought a ticket and you’re like, “I’m going to eat my money’s worth,” or someone else is covering it, and then you’re like, “Hey, it’s a free meal.” And I encourage you to not think of it as either one. Don’t arrive starting. It’s okay to eat a little bit, but there’s been many, many networking mishaps that I’ve been privy to, not necessarily always involved in, but sometimes involved in, that include food and being too eager to start eating.

Pete Mockaitis
Please, please regale us with a tale or two of some eager eating mishaps.

Devora Zack
You know, my memory feels faulty today. But, for example, having a mouthful of food when you’re introduced to somebody that you’ve been wanting to meet, spilling on yourself. Also, big types of food that you eat at networking matters too. If you love those everything bagels, that’s for Sunday mornings with your family but, otherwise, eat plain items such as crackers or bread without a lot of nuts and seeds that can get stuck in your teeth.

When I’m helping organize a networking event, I always forbid spinach dips even though it tastes good because that causes a lot of trouble as well. I do have a little saying, which nobody likes including myself, but it is a good rule of thumb for the most part, and it is, “Eat before, drink after.” That means eat something before the event, and then maybe a couple of simple things at the event, like carrots or things that are less likely to cause a mess. And then drink after the event in terms of alcohol. If you’re in an event and you like to drink alcohol, maybe one or two drinks is okay, but to put a lid on it at that. I hear a lot of people telling me, “But, Devora, I’m a better networker when I’ve had some drinks.” And to this I reply, “Says who? Should we poll the room?” Because we often think we’re better at networking after a few drinks.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you might feel you’re a better networker because you’re having more fun but you might…

Devora Zack
Exactly. All of a sudden, I’m brilliant and hilarious and a real genius. So, you just want to be aware of that when you’re at an event, that it might feel like a party but it’s still a business experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when we talk about physical items in the survival kit, I’m thinking a little bit about I really dig those little, I guess, they’re Listerine, it’s one of the brands, of pocket packs in terms of…

Devora Zack
Oh, great one. I love turning this around physical, like a real bag. I think we should definitely throw that in there. That’s a great one. And also, comfortable shoes if the bag is big enough. I really think, in any networking situation, comfort over flash. So, if you’re comfortable in walking shoes, pick that over your really fashionable but uncomfortable shoes. That’s my opinion.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, then I want to get your take, if you’re in the midst of things and you’re feeling anxious right then and there in the moment, how do you recommend overcoming that?

Devora Zack
So, it’d be okay with giving yourself a little time to yourself. Also, reframe your mind. Everyone is not focused on you. Like, we sometimes have delusions of grandeur that when I’m standing there, I’m not talking with anyone, the entire room is focused on me standing there not talking to anyone. Also, make yourself available to others.

So, for example, if I’ve got myself a very modest plate of some plain carrots and red peppers or something, again, that’s not going to make a disaster like handheld tacos or that kind of thing. Then if you have these little cocktail high-top tables to kind of just make yourself comfortable standing at one of them and have a friendly expression to allow other people who are wandering out to maybe come over and talk to you, that’s one thing you can do.

Also, to be looking around with a pleasant expression on your face, and you’ll have those questions prepared, and to keep an eye on people’s nametags. Often nametags have interesting information, you know, what someone does or where they’re from. If you’re there, I always recommend that if you’re uncomfortable at networking events to do something counterintuitive, and that is to get to the event early instead of late because early on, it’s fewer crowds, less noisy, easier to get into conversation, and it’s a little calmer.

So, if you get there on the earlier side, you have another benefit of looking at usually there’s a nametag table setup somewhere, to see who’s coming. If there’s someone you want to meet or someone you haven’t seen in a while that you didn’t know was coming, that’s something to get you centered and occupy yourself for the first few minutes when you arrive.

I also recommend, before the event, if you have the opportunity to see if you could be helpful in some way, either volunteer formally or informally. That not only positions you as a helpful person, but it also gives you something to do and something to talk about at the event as a volunteer.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what would be some examples of informal volunteer roles that are handy?

Devora Zack
So, I arrive, and I’m a regular participant, and I might know the person who’s organizing the event, and maybe she’s running around like crazy, or he’s running, so I can over and say, “Hey, what can I do to help? I’d love to be of assistance. Do you need these flyers put on all the tables?” Like, make some suggestions. And then also remember to thank them for all their hard work and you’ll be surprised at how often people will give you something to do. It’s helping you as much as it’s helping them because suddenly you have a purpose.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. That’s true. It makes sense that you’re naturally shifting your attention away from yourself and that subconsciousness and onto completing something, and so then you’re more in the groove right there and it just feels a little bit like the expression, “Act like you own the place.” In a way, you kind of do. You own that piece of the experience in that moment, and there’s just sort of a power that comes with that.

Devora Zack
Yeah.

And, also, something to be cautious about is when someone who’s more introverted meet someone that they feel a connection to, a potential hazard is that then they’ll want to stick with that person the rest of the program because it feels such a relief, like, “Oh, my gosh, here’s someone I can connect to because I’m going to connect to so many people,” then it’s like, “Oh, well, Pete, let’s walk around the rest of the evening at the program.” And so, I have a special advice for those introverts, and it’s if you love someone, set them free. Even though it’s been lovely, end the conversation before everyone has gotten run out of topics, or has gotten weary of each other.

A little side advice for extroverts when you’re in conversation, and actually I got this advice from a client who’s an extrovert so it comes a real-live extrovert. He said something he thinks in his brain when he’s concerned, maybe there’s an imbalance of conversation when he’s meeting people, is he says to himself, “Wait. W-A-I-T.” And it stands for, “Why am I talking?” So, he asks himself that to make sure. to serve as a reality check like, “Maybe it’s time for me to stop talking.” So, different advice for different folks.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yes. Well, let’s talk a bit more about when you’re in the thick of it, that conversation. So, we’ve had some openers, and we’re sort of in the mix, and you’re watching out for dominating, if you’re preferring extroversion and have a lot of fun. And what are some other pro tips with regard to keeping the conversation going in some cool and interesting ways?

Devora Zack
So, I would always favor asking questions and, given the opportunity, open-ended question as oppose to close-ended questions. Also, to make sure that what you’re saying is in the positive. It’s really astonishing how often people attempt to bond over what’s wrong, like it’s incredibly prevalent. So, just take note of it the next time you’re out and about. And, unfortunately, I think you’ll probably find that to be the case, “Oh, my gosh, the weather is terrible. The parking was bad. There’s so much traffic. They downscaled this year. It looks like the cheese has been sitting out too long. I think they skimped. Some people didn’t show up that were supposed to show up.” I can go on and on and on because there’s so many examples.

So, it’s really trying to take a moment before you speak and think, “Is this positive?” Like, not to be fake, but, “What’s something positive I can say? How can I be positive and helpful and be someone that people want to be around as oppose to someone who’s looking at what’s wrong all the time?” so, be careful about that in conversation.

And, also, when you are meeting with people, it might be easy at the end of the conversation to just delve into another conversation. If you just spoke to someone you really do want to keep in touch with, then get their card if they have one, and take a moment to just jot down a couple of notes to yourself on the front of the card about where you met them, what you talked about, what you might be able to follow up on. It’s a great gift to give yourself because we forget about half of what we hear within two days.

So, I may think, “Oh, Pete was so great. It was wonderful talking with him. I’m definitely going to follow up and see if he wants to get a copy.” And like a few days later, I have a bunch of cards and I don’t know which one was that person that I intended to follow up with. So, give yourself a little time out to focus your brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear some of the other perspectives on the follow-up. So, one is making sure that it doesn’t go too long because it can be forgotten. And what are some of the other, I’d say, common mistakes and best practices there?

Devora Zack
So, be specific and remember to value connecting over collecting. So, it’s not about how many cards you collect, it’s about who you connect with and how deep these connections are. To that end, I think that people will sometimes, at the end of a conference, send out a like a Blind CC or a group list to everyone saying, “Hey, it was great meeting you at that industry conference. Let’s stay in touch.” And that reads as phony, it’s not specific, it’s going to get deleted.

So, instead of reaching out to everyone who you touched base with in the conference, pick a couple of people, authentic individuals, specific follow-up, and in the follow-up, make it short. I think email is a good way to follow up also with different personality styles. And to see right away what you can do to offer the other person, maybe an article you think they’d be interested in based on the conversation, maybe a connection you can make for them in their work, as opposed to right away thinking, “What can they do for me? What am I asking for?” Try and offer something in your follow-up.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to get your take there. What are some of the great ways that are broadly applicable that we can be generous and proactive givers there?

Devora Zack
Make sure it really is something that the other person might want. So, again, it all goes back to what happens at the event. Listen closely to what they’re saying, pick up on what they’re interested in. Because you’ve asked questions and because afterwards you’ve jotted something down on their card before you left, you’ll have specific offers to make. It doesn’t have to be something professional. It could be, “Oh, you said you were coaching your son’s soccer team. I read this hilarious article that I think you’ll find funny about parents coaching their kids or whatever.” Maybe it’s offering them a laugh.

But one thing to be careful about is to not think you’re offering someone something when it’s, really, you’re asking for something. Like, some of these people will say to me after meeting me, it’s superficially, “Hey, I’d love to treat you to lunch and pick your brain.” Like, that, all of a sudden, it sounds like I’m getting something but it’s really that you want to pick their brain. So, you want to make sure that it’s really focused on what the other person is interested in.

Also, to that end, you say, if you want to follow up with someone and maybe have more time with them, make it easy for the person to say yes. So, if someone says to me or I assume maybe to you, “We’ll have lunch,” that’s a hard thing to say yes to because we’re super busy professionals and have a lot of demands. However, if someone wants some advice and it’s really concrete, and they say, “I’d love 10 minutes of your time to ask you some questions. I could come to your office or we could do it by video conferencing. Would that be possible?” Then that’s pretty easy for me to say yes to. So, make it easy for people to, when it does come time to ask something, to say yes to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Devora, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Devora Zack
Well, there’s a couple new sections in the second edition of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, one we’ve been talking about a little bit, which is follow up a new chapter in that because so many people are interested in that. There’s also a new section on interviewing skills. But the one I want to mention in particular is cultivating connections in non-professional environments.

So, I think it’s important for us, in our lives, many of us are a little bit isolated in between our work and our home life, to find what I call, and other people call as well, the third space, like a community outside of work. So, I have a lot of tips which you can read about but also, just in general, to be on the lookout for, ways to connect with people in a socializing way to enrich your life beyond work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Any of those leaping to mind with regard to those other social-connecting ways?

Devora Zack
Well, it’s to find hobbies or interests that are already inherently interesting to you. So, pursue maybe there’s something when you were in college or in your younger years when you had more time that you did. Look at those old interests you had and see if you can find ways to revive them as you get older and busier. So, to reawaken things that you enjoy doing. So, it’s not just about, “I’m going to meet people,” which is lovely, but it’s also about cultivating an interest that you authentically have and would like to learn more about or become more proficient in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Devora Zack
Really, my favorite quote is by a philosopher named Philo of Alexandria, and it is, “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” And I love it because we might see someone who seems like they have it all going on but we can’t really know. And to assume everyone is fighting their own battles, we’ll be extra kind to each other.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Devora Zack
So, actually, I think my favorite quote of a scientist, a neuroscientist who did research, is actually from a different one of my books, Singletasking, about how to be more focused in your interactions. And there’s a neuroscientist named Douglas Merrill, and he says, “Everyone knows kids are better at multitasking. The problem – everyone is wrong.” And he did studies to show that no matter what age you are, you’re always more effective and efficient and productive by focusing on one thing at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Devora Zack
My favorite book of all is The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a children’s book but it’s really for all ages.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember that one, yes. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Devora Zack
A really nice pen. As a writer, I write every day for hours a day and I also do speaking, of course, but in between I’m writing, and I love a great pen so I have a little collection.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are you loving these days in the pens?

Devora Zack
A variety. Just some are fountain pens, some are ballpoints, some are different sizes, different styles. I guess it’s like if a musician has as favorite instrument, I go through different phases with different pens. And it’s nothing like handwriting. I do a lot of writing on computer too but I still handwrite as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you share with us a couple favorite ballpoint brands and models?

Devora Zack
Let’s see. What am I using right now? It’s Visconti, it’s an Italian pen. They have a lot of beautiful versions. I don’t want to favor one over the other because I’ll change my mind next week and then feel guilty that I said a different brand on your show.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Devora Zack
Getting up really early. This is going to make everybody hate me but it’s true. Getting up really early in the morning to exercise. I’m a morning person and I love to wake up and move around. So, that’s my favorite habit, exercising early in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Devora Zack
My website MyOnlyConnect.com. My company is called Only Connect Consulting, so MyOnlyConnect.com. You can find all, also, any of my three books Networking for People Who Hate Networking, Managing for People Who Hate Managing, and Singletasking through the website or through bookstores

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Devora Zack
Well, my final call to action in this context of networking is this, is to absolutely, everything else gets pushed aside, you must follow up. You can be a brilliant networker, you can talk to anyone about anything, if you’re not following up, you’re not networking. It doesn’t matter if you’re great at speaking off the cuff. What matters is what happens the next day. Are you in touch afterwards? Did you build a meaningful relationship with that person? Is it mutually beneficial? So, nothing can happen if you’re just having a good time at the event or maybe dreading the event, and then it just vanishes into a black hole. So, it’s the key. There’s a lot of other tips but the key to anything happening is follow up.

And one other thing, being gracious. Also being gracious to people. So, I’ll demonstrate. Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been such a treat talking with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thanks, Devora. It’s been fun.

494: How to Train Your Brain for Maximum Growth with Dr. Tara Swart

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Dr. Tara Swart says: "Visualization...primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by."

Dr. Tara Swart explains the science behind neuroplasticity and how to train your brain to brave any challenge.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to use neuroscience to break out of your comfort zone
  2. The six approaches to problem solving
  3. Simple tricks to turn around terrible work days

About Tara:

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and award-winning and bestselling author. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. She is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management where she runs the Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience programs, and is an executive advisor to some of the world’s most respected leaders in media and business.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Tara Swart Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Tara Swart
Pete, thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited about this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too because neuroscience stuff is always super fascinating and you are at the forefront of some cool research and teaching at MIT and elsewhere. So, why don’t we kick it off, if you could share with us maybe one of the most fascinating or recent discoveries that’s come out of neuroscience?

Tara Swart
Sure. Well, the one that I focus most of my research on, because I think it’s the most fascinating, is about neuroplasticity. So, we used to think that by the age of 18, our brain had grown and changed and that our personality was pretty much set by that age. We know now that there’s massive growth from zero to two, that there’s a lot of pruning of neural connections in the teenage years, but that the brain actively molds and shapes itself to everything that we experience, every smell, every person that we meet, every emotion that we experience until we’re about 25.

And that from 25 to 65, we have to actively do things, learn new things, expose ourselves to different experiences to keep the brain as flexible, or what we call plastic, as possible. And if you start making some changes in your late 30s to early 40s, you can even contribute towards reducing the decline in some cognitive functions that starts to happen around the age of 70. So, when I first started understanding this really well, it just opened up a whole new world of what you’re capable of doing, and it turns around that whole idea of self-limiting beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, so if you’re over 65, what happens then?

Tara Swart
Well, I think that a lot of people worry about their memory changing and they think it’s like the first signs of dementia or something, and people get very stressed about that. And they focus on it. What actually happens from 65 onwards is that, sure, some of the pathways that relate to, for example, sequential memory, so the order of the things happening, they do change. But, actually, we have a more super sophisticated pathway to our wisdom and intuition. And my view is that we focus on our changing strengths and we access that wisdom and we outsource our sequential memory to our devices.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I already do that.

Tara Swart
Yeah, me, too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, neuroplasticity, I’ve heard the term before and people are really excited about it. And so, practically speaking, what does that mean for us? So, our brains are continuing to change shape and we can have some impact in how they’re changed. But so, practically, in terms of, I don’t know, skill-acquisition, or learning capabilities, what does that mean for us?

Tara Swart
There’s two main things, and I want to focus on the skill acquisition, actually. But I do want to say before that, that if we don’t think about neuroplasticity then our brain is being changed by things that we’re not conscious of and, personally, that’s not something that I would really like to happen. So, I’m very conscious of what I watch on the TV, what I read in the news, who I hang around with because I’m just so aware that all of those things will be having an effect on my brain.

That aside, in terms of proactively bringing change and flexibility into your brain, it’s really about continually learning, well, learning and/or exposing yourself to new things. And the reason for that is that change will happen around us, and some people can find that really stressful, and some people seem to ride that change more easily. The more that we’ve done to introduce change and, therefore, inoculate ourselves against the stress of change, the more easily we’ll be able to deal with those things that can come from left field both at work and in life.

Equally, things like learning a new skill, and my favorite analogy for this is learning a new language. It’s a physiological process in the brain like building a road from a dirt road into a highway, a tarmac highway that you can speed down. That’s basically starting to learn a language where you have a few words when you go on vacation, all the way up to becoming fluent in Spanish, if that’s the language that you choose.

And what I really love about it is that the language thing is easy to understand. Yes, if I use an app or I get lessons, I can learn a language. It applies to things like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, things that seem much more intangible but when neuroscience tells us it’s exactly the same process in the brain, it feels much more doable for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to hear some more about what you said, you said if we are introducing changes, then we become more resilient to unexpected stressors and things that happen to us. What’s the story here?

Tara Swart
Basically, anything new or anything different is seen as a threat by the brain, so the more that we are proactively introducing our brain to new and different things, the less stressful it will be when something happens at work or in life that comes from left field that we didn’t expect. So, we’re essentially increasing our comfort zone with new and different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great and handy. Now, I’m wondering, can we overdo it in terms of we become sort of like addicted to the novelty and, “I need to be entertained and have new inputs all the time or I’m sort of like unsettled and anxious”?

Tara Swart
That’s a really good point, and I think sometimes what is an issue here is a set of words that we use in neuroscience and how they translate to real words. So, for example, when I say, “You want to make your brain more plastic,” people can take offence at that because we don’t want plastic in the ocean, do we? We definitely don’t want it in our brains. That just means flexible in neuroscience.

And similarly, novelty is not that unhealthy novelty that you’re talking about that we can get addicted to just constant stimulation. It’s just about the way the brain views something new or different. So, we prefer to be in our comfort zone, we prefer to default to our strengths, and it’s really about just pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and increasing the toolkit that we have in our brain for different ways of thinking and different things that we’re able to do. So, that’s what I mean by novelty in this sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, are there some cool studies that suggest just what is the impact of habitually doing that versus not? Sort of what’s at stake or the consequences here?

Tara Swart
I think what’s at stake is really just staying the same, and then something happening that you didn’t expect, and us finding that really, really difficult to cope with, and us having to draw up deep on resources that we didn’t know we had. What we’re doing if we take on new learning throughout our lives, like a language or a musical instrument, or just listening in a different way to how we’ve been listening before, is that the brain is more like moldable material so that when something suddenly changes around us that we didn’t expect, we actually know what that feels like and we’re able to go with that more easily.

And, actually, it starts from birth. If you’ve got young kids, bringing them up bilingual or multilingual is one of the best things that you can do for what we call their executive functions later in life. So, executive functions are things like being able to regulate your emotions especially in stressful situations, being able to think flexibly or creatively, and being able to solve complex problems.

There are studies that show that children who are brought up bilingual are better at that later in life. So, we’re not going to get the same benefits as starting bilingual from birth if we haven’t got that already, but we’re trying to emulate that in our adult brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, some things are connecting here. We talk about executive functioning and our ability to have a plastic or flexible brain for stuff that shows up. We had a chat previously with the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison, who talked about how learning agility was like the top thing in terms of a competency that predicts executive success, and there’s a few ways you could find learning agility. But it sounds like it’s very much in this ballpark of, “How do you figure out what to do when you have no idea what to do?” It’s sort of like there’s no script or playbook, you’re in a new situation and you just kind of got to figure it out.

And so, if you have, in a way, gotten some comfort with being uncomfortable and not having a clue, but having kind of gotten it figured out time and time again, you’re better equipped to handle it again when the next thing happens.

Tara Swart
What I love about your podcast series is listening to these perspectives from people from all different industries and backgrounds. So, if you’d asked me the same question, I would’ve said the ability to adapt, to be adaptable, and have mental resilience, which is either to cope with change or bounce back from adversity. And, to be honest, I think he’s just using a different word for exactly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so that’s exciting and I know I’ve had that experience. I’m thinking about sort of my early consulting career, like I had no idea, “Hey, Pete, figure this out.” Like, I don’t know. I just don’t even know where to start, and then I’d say, “Well, I guess it might make sense if we check out this and this and this.” And before I knew it, I had a decent plan. And then you do that dozens of times and it’s okay. It’s like, “Yeah, I have no idea what we’re going to do next, but history and my experience has taught me that that’s fine. That, through time, we will get to the bottom of things and all is well.”

Tara Swart
Pete, that already tells me a lot about your brain because if you think about somebody who relies solely or strongly on logical thinking, they could really struggle in that scenario. Ask somebody who relies solely or strongly on creative thinking or motivational thinking, what you’ve done is actually it comes back to the learning agility piece, which I call brain agility, is you have probably seamlessly worked through several different ways of thinking because you know that one of them will give you a solution even to something that you don’t know.

So, logic relies on things that we know and that we’ve learnt formally. Intuition relies on wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life. But there’s also empathy, there’s the brain-body connection, there’s staying resilient and motivated, and there’s creative thinking. So, if you’re able to work through those, at least, six different ways of solving a problem, you’re so much more likely to come up with a solution than if you’re just relying on one or two main ways of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like how you’ve laid out a bit of a framework there. Can you give us those quick six bullet points there in terms of we might approach a problem six different ways? Can we hear them again?

Tara Swart
Yeah. And I actually like to put them in a certain order because I believe that logical-technical thinking is so overrated in modern societies. So, obviously it’s there and it’s important, but I like to start at the top, mastering our emotions because, to be honest, if you get too emotional or you don’t understand the impact of emotion in a crisis situation, that can really unravel you.

So, I would say that the six are mastering your emotions, trusting your gut or your intuition, listening to your body, making good decisions which is the logic, staying motivated and resilient to reach your goals, and using your creativity to design the real-world outcomes that you wish to have.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when it comes to tackling or solving a problem, it might fall into any of these or all of these is kind of sounds what you’re suggesting, is that some are more… line up readily with one of them, and others you really want to take maybe a multifaceted approach to get to the bottom of them. Can you tell us a bit about the distinction between trusting your gut and intuition versus listening to your body?

Tara Swart
Yeah, sure. So, listening to your body is actually a sense that we have that not many people have heard of which is called interoception. So, just like the five senses that we all know about, and even that sixth sense, intuition, which we’ll come to, interoception is the acknowledgement of the physiological state of the inside of your body.

It’s how, for example, our kids learn to tell us when they’re hungry or when they need to go to the bathroom. So, you recognize a feeling that you need to go to the bathroom. This is about recognizing slightly more intangible feelings like butterflies in your stomach, or the little hairs on your arms standing on end, or nervous laughter, or blushing, or sweating. So, it’s just being much more aware of our bodies than we can be when we’re super busy and focused on an important deadline.

Intuition, separately, is accessing wisdom and life lessons that we’ve picked up. So, more of a combination of physical and emotional feeling, what we know about how we lay down information in the brain and the nervous system is that we keep at the top of our mind or in the article or text the things that we need to do to live our life and do our job every day. And that’s commonly known as the working memory. Deeper down in the more limbic part of the brain, which is the emotional and intuitive system, are our longer-held habits and behavior patterns.

Deeper still, we believe, in the brain stem, the spinal cord, and in the gut neurons, we hold the wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life, because we can’t remember every single thing that we’ve experienced in life, but obviously we learn from these experiences. And that’s how we see patterns where, perhaps when we were younger and less experienced, we wouldn’t have noticed them before. So, it’s more about recalling patterns from the past that you’ve built up through life experience. Whereas the listening to your body is very visceral.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, with what we’re picking up from our bodies, what are some, I guess, if this then that, like almost recipes with regard to, “If you’re noticing that something is twitching or your hairs are standing up, you might intuit or take from that sort of this signal”?

Tara Swart
There are some really specific ones and I think there are some that are very much down to the individual. But one that I actually talk about a lot with my coaching clients is about how to recognize magnesium deficiency in the body. So, statistics show that 75% of people in the modern world are depleted in magnesium supplies in their body.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Tara Swart
No.

Pete Mockaitis
And that is harming our sleep, I’ve learned elsewhere.

Tara Swart
It’s harming our immune system and it’s increasing our stress levels. It has wide-ranging effects. When we’re stressed, we leach magnesium from our system. So, a little bit like if you’re training for a marathon, you would eat more protein. When we’re stressed, we need to supplement our magnesium levels.

Now, how do you know if you’ve got high levels of this stress hormone or low levels of magnesium, they tend to go together? A really, really obvious way of knowing is if you ever get that little twitchy eyelid or tiny little, yeah. Whenever I say that, everyone says, “Yes, I know what that feels like, and I get it sometimes.”

Sometimes it can be cramping in your feet or just twitches in your fingers or toes but that’s quite a solid sign of magnesium deficiency, and many people wouldn’t know that. But if you do know, you can go and take your magnesium supplement and, hopefully, reduce your stress levels and stop the negative consequences of that on your immune system and your resilience.

An extreme one, to be honest, Pete, is that I’ve done a lot of coaching in financial services since 2007, and I’ve worked with way too many people that said, “Yes, I was getting chest pains for months but I never thought I would have a heart attack.” And I’ve worked with men and women in their 40s to 60s that have had mild heart attacks or tragically people who’ve seen their colleagues drop dead on trading floors.

So, that’s the extreme version of not listening to your body, but there are so many smaller things that we can listen to, whether it’s that we’re not sleeping right, or we’ve got these twitching muscles, all the way down to just, “Do you feel drained when you spend time with a certain person? Do you feel energized when you work on a certain project?” and really using that to choose what you do and who you do it with.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. And so then, I want to get your take then. So, this sounds great with regard to we’ve got a number of approaches we can take to solve a problem, our brains have neuroplasticity, that capability. So, if we want to do some smart rewiring of our brain and thinking, how should we go about doing it? We talked about like a language, or a musical instrument, or some other novelty that we can pursue. But I’m wondering, what are some of the obstacles or things, best and worst practices, I guess, when it comes to making sure we’re molding this plastic brain?

Tara Swart
So, I think it’s really important to say that something like learning a language or a musical instrument is very attention-intense. So, it’s inevitably going to distract resources from the day job or your work-life balance. So, I only really recommend something that major when you absolutely have the time and space to bring those things into your life. There are lots of small things we can do even when we’re stressed or busy that really help towards cultivating this more flexible brain and mindset.

So, for example, journaling is a very simple practice, something that hopefully most people could fit in a few minutes most days of the week. And what that does is really raise from non-conscious to conscious any behavior patterns that might be barriers to your success. I have to say that when I’ve done a regular journaling practice, which I have spent six months or a year at different times doing it religiously, I don’t necessarily always do that now, and I’ve read back over three to six months-worth of what I’ve written, it’s quite shocking to see your own handwriting and your own thought processes repeating over and over again where you totally expect a different outcome from doing the same thing.

And we’ve all heard about this, but when you actually see it in your own handwriting, you are compelled to try to do something different in the future. And, therefore, it’s actually a really good way of accessing your intuition and seeing where it works when you go with your gut and maybe where that was not the right thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us some examples of, in your own journals or those of others you’re aware of, how they said, “Holy smokes, this is there and I didn’t even notice it before. I’m going to do something different now”?

Tara Swart
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a small example of my own from something we’ve already talked about which was that twice a year I go to MIT Sloan to teach and I often take my journal with me because I have more time there, I’m not with the family and everything. And I was journaling, and then I thought, “Oh, I wonder what I wrote when I was here six months ago?”

So, I looked back specifically to the time that I was in Boston, and I had recorded that I was having that twitching eyelid, and I was actually having it again at the time. And so, I worked out that travel, jetlag, just being in the plane, just being in a different environment, was causing me some stress. And so, I just became much better at making sure I took all my supplements before I traveled, carrying my supplements with me, and just increasing the dosage of magnesium whenever I was traveling. That’s a tiny thing.

I would say at the other end of the spectrum, the biggest thing I’ve heard clients and friends talk about is when you’ve been in a bad relationship for so long that you still don’t leave. And when you just think about it in your mind, it’s easy to disregard that you have the same nagging doubt over and over again. If you actually recorded in writing, it becomes just so much clear. It’s really raised in your consciousness. And I know that it’s helped so many people to not make that same mistake over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think the same thing can go when I need to fire somebody, which fortunately is rare. But it’s sort of like all those little things, like, “Huh, this is weird.” It’s like, well, you know, you can sort of make a quick excuse or rationalization or justification in the moment for a one little thing, and you sort of forget that you did that before, and then before that, and then before that. Whereas if you had a log, it’s like, “Wow, we have 50 incidents of this and many of them following the same patterns and many of them we’ve discussed numerous times. I guess this isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Tara Swart
Absolutely. When I talk about a bad relationship, I mean, either personally or at work, also bad relationships with yourself, so, for example, alcohol is an obvious one. But if you want to get more psychological, then the inability to say no is one that hugely gets clarified by journaling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say journaling in your own hand, this has come up a couple of times, are you a big advocate for using handwriting as oppose to digital means? And why?

Tara Swart
I am and I’m not. I mean, I would rather that people were journaling digitally than not journaling at all, if you see what I mean. I think I’m probably just of the age group where there’s something to the handwritten or we might talk later about vision boards where I say it’s a collage made by hand, but obviously you can now do it digitally. So, again, it’s better to do it than not do it.

I’m a huge fan of technology but I do think, for example, that if you create a vision board and you keep it on your device, you would just less likely to look at it than if you actually have a physical vision board in your bedroom or in your office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk a little bit about visualization in particular. So, I want to get your take on what’s that doing to our brain and the effects we might be able to harness from it.

Tara Swart
So, you know how we talked about anything new being sort of threating to the brain. What visualization does is it makes you go through a scenario or imagine a certain event or an outcome, and because when you visualize it, when something similar happens in real life it’s not as threatening because you’ve already seen it in your brain.

Now, there’s various bits of research on visualization in the brain, there’s so many that I’m actually just wondering I’d love to get through them all. But, for example, if somebody is in a coma and you ask them to imagine playing tennis, it actually activates the parts of the brain which are active when somebody is physically playing tennis. So, the whole movement parts, the hand-eye coordination, the social elements, it actually activates, just visualizing it, even if you’re in a coma, activates similar parts of the brain.

We also know that just the act of knowing that something is possible, which is half won by visualizing it in your brain, makes it more likely that you can physically achieve it. So, visualization really comes originally from sports science. And the classic example there is of a human running the sub four-minute mile. So, at one point we did not believe that that was not physically possible. When Roger Bannister first ran a mile in less than four minutes, within two months, seven other athletes ran a mile in less than four minutes. So, that’s not quite visualization for yourself, but it’s knowing that something is possible. makes you able to achieve it. And that’s kind of what visualization relies on.

My favorite story about visualization is a study that was done on people in their 80s. So, three groups of octogenarians, one group was just asked to carry on living like normal for a week, they were the control group, one group were asked to reminisce about what it was like to be in your 60s, and one group were actually moved to homes that resembled their home 20 years ago. They had photos in the home of themselves 20 years ago, and they had their visual aids and walking aids removed if they weren’t something that they used 20 years ago.

Both the reminiscing group and the active group showed improvements in their visual acuity and muscular-skeletal coordination after one week. And the reminiscing group results weren’t as dramatic as the people that actually lived it, but they were quite significant in themselves. So, there’s just so many examples of what people don’t traditionally think of as visualization.

But just tying it back to where we started, I actually call a vision board an action board because it’s not that you can make imagery of what you want in life and just wait for it to come true, you have to actively do things to make that more likely. But one of those things is to look at this board and visualize it actually becoming true.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are going to do some visualizations for a goal, let’s just say someone wants to be promoted to a leadership position in their company. So, if that’s the goal and we want to do some visualization, how might we go about doing that optimally?

Tara Swart
So, there are actually some exercises in the book that focus on becoming our best selves as it were. If you specifically wanted to focus on getting a promotion, then, although I call it visualization, I would say that bringing in all the other senses is important. So, it’s literally like doing meditation. You would spend a certain number of minutes as frequently as you can during the week, you could even start with one minute and build it up to five or 10, or 15 minutes, and you would imagine yourself in that corner office, wearing that suit or whatever represents you reaching that leadership position, and you would visualize who’s around you, what does it look like to be in that position, what does it feel like in your body and in your mind, what does it smell like, even what does it taste like, like the taste of success.

And you would basically envision it until you can almost feel it through your five senses and in your body, and you would build up that practice, as I’ve said, to longer and longer periods of time so that, for example, when you go for a job interview, it doesn’t feel so alien. One of the things that I encourage, from neuroscience research, is apply for jobs that you don’t even think that you could get, even if you get a bit more interview experience so you get more advice on your resume. It’s all building up to it becoming more likely in the future. Essentially, what visualization does is it primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nicely said. And when you say longer and longer periods of time, how long are we talking?

Tara Swart
Actually, the latest research on meditation shows that transcendental meditation for 20 minutes twice a day is really ideal. So, that’s not actually that long. I mean, I’m still building up to that myself. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am meditating for 20 minutes twice a day because I’m not. Although I would say more and more of my clients are actually doing that now.

So, I think if you start with 10 minutes, you try to do it most days of the week, you get yourself to daily, you either do 10 minutes twice a day or you increase it to 20 minutes once a day, it’s literally building that pathway in your brain from the dirt road to the highway. It’s just smoothing the path, deliberately practice something, repeating it until it becomes more natural in your brain.

And then, with both meditation and visualization, you can just switch it on when you need it. That’s the lovely thing about things like journaling and visualization, that if you get the foundations right, it actually becomes like a superpower that you can use when you need it.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say transcendental meditation, is that something other than what I’m thinking of when I think of meditation, focusing on breath and such?

Tara Swart
Transcendental meditation specifically means use of a mantra. It’s a religious practice that you can be ordained into, but in terms of remaining secular and focusing on leadership and business, I ask people to think about a recurring insecurity or anxiety that they have, like, “I’ll never get that promotion,” and to create their own positive affirmation that overturns that insecurity. And then you can use that in your meditation.

So, even if you just use it when you have that negative thought in your head or you sit down and repeat it for 10 to 20 minutes, either way it works. I think creating that personal mantra, you can go and receive a mantra from somebody else but I think a really good way for leaders to use is think, “Okay, what’s the insecurity that holds me back?” And then to create a mantra that helps to reframe that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the mantra could be, “I am fully capable of doing that job.”

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, is it just that simple, something like that?

Tara Swart
Just literally that simple. Whatever works for you in your words. So, just what you’ve said, every one of your listeners could go and just tweak that for their own wording and what really means something to them and use that to set a mantra, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to also get your take on… so you’ve got some pro tips, I understand, for if you’re having a bad day, you’re not feeling it, you’re tired, you’re grouchy, you’re irritable, you’d rather just be in bed. What can we do to turn things around in a hurry?

Tara Swart
Okay. Well, ideally, you would make sure that you’re well-rested and well-fed and hydrated, and that you have a regular meditation practice. But on a day that maybe you haven’t been doing all of those things, I tend to run through a list of things that usually kind of time-sensitive, and think, “Okay, I’m feeling tired and grouchy, and this day is not going how I want it to. Do I have time to drink a glass of water?” Usually, that’s a yes. “Do I have time to do 10 minutes of meditation?” That might be a yes, it might not. So, if you don’t, maybe you could just do a quick positive affirmation.

If you have more time, “Do I have time to go outside for a walk or a run?” Oxygen is one of the major resources for our brain and our thinking. If we have more time, “Do I have time for a nap?” That’s usually a no. But let’s say you have a really important interview coming up and you did actually have the afternoon at home to prepare for it, if you’re super tired, if you actually haven’t slept, and that might be a really good thing to do. Again, this is very individualized.

Do you just use caffeine? I don’t recommend drinking too much caffeine or having any caffeine later in the day, but if you’ve got an important meeting or interview, you might want to have a shot of caffeine just for that temporary boost. If you’re looking longer term than that, then things like eating blueberries, having a spoonful of MCT oil or coconut oil are short-term things that we can do to boost our brain. Ideally, we’d be doing those things longer term, keeping our brain in ideal physical condition to really draw on our mental resources.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that idea of how much time do you have and just sort of having the lineup of these things. And it seems like there probably, again, some universals for all people that are good to do. And then I imagine some particulars with regard to, “Oh, boy, if I listen to whatever music, then I am raring to go.” So, I’d imagine there are some real benefit into taking some time to write up your own, “What’s my one-minute, five-minute, 10-minute sort of hitlists?”

Tara Swart
Music is a really good one so I’m pleased that you mentioned that because I forgot to, and I also agree with writing up the list. So, for some things, I’ve been writing a list for so long that I don’t need the list anymore. But, at first, I had a list of positive statements when I needed that boost. I had a list of accomplishments for when I needed a slightly longer term, “Yes, I can go for that promotion,” kind of self-project that you might work on.

Doing a gratitude list or something that can really like reframe you into more positive thinking. So, keeping these lists so that if your energy is really low, you can just go to the list. You don’t actually have to think it all up yourself is a really good idea. And whether it’s eat a square of dark chocolate, speak to a friend, listen to some music, you’re absolutely right, all of those things can work for different people, and you need to know what the right things are for you and the right timescales.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sometimes what I like to do is, usually Twitter is no good, but there’s this account You Had One Job which just is ridiculously hilarious, I think, in terms of like people doing road signs just wildly incorrectly, or mislabeling things. It just pushes all my right buttons and so fast, it’s sort of like, “Oh, there’s a joke. Ha-ha. Oh, there’s another one. Ha-ha. There’s another one.” And then it’s like, “Okay, well, that was good for three minutes,” and I’m back to something. And I’m now had a lot of laughing going on.

Tara Swart
I love the way that you keep intuitively hitting on these things that are backed up by neuroscience because humor actually has a massive effect on the brain. So, even if just using this by yourself, looking at Twitter and laughing to yourself has a good effect on the brain, but actually laughing with somebody else.

So, imagine you’re in just one of those tricky tense situations at work, shared humor has a really positive impact on the brain in terms of bonding, lowering our guard, making us more likely to collaborate. So, each of the things that we’ve talked about apply not just to ourselves, also in terms of how do you positively impact someone else’s brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Tara, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tara Swart
I would say, we talked a little bit about what if you’re tired and grumpy, which, of course, we all have those days. I think that another really important area of research from neuroscience is around sleep. And. as a neuroscientist, I do find it quite disheartening that there are still high-profile leaders that will say, “I only sleep four or five hours a night,” just because of the impact that has on so many other people that feel that maybe they should do the same.

There’s a Nobel Prize-winning research now that shows that there’s a specific cleansing system in the brain called the glymphatic system that needs seven to eight hours to work. It needs seven to eight hours uninterrupted overnight. And that goes together with the stats that 98% to 99% of humans need to sleep for seven to nine hours per night. I think we’ve always wondered, “Why do spend so long sleeping?” And neuroscience really is giving some answers to that.

Obviously, I’d been a junior doctor, I travel a lot so I’m often jetlagged, and I don’t want people to suddenly think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to get dementia,” because that’s what the research shows if we disrupt that cleansing process regularly over our lives that it’s causally related to the onset of dementia later in life.

I just try to get eight hours of good-quality sleep as often as I can. If my sleep is disturbed, or jetlagged, or other reasons, I take the opportunity to turn myself onto my left or right side because that’s the most efficient sleeping position for that cleansing process to work. So, to me, sleep has loomed larger in important space on the research that we’re seeing coming out.

Pete Mockaitis
Wait. So, this is interesting. You’re saying that if we’re sleeping or just lying down on the side as oppose to on our back or on our belly, we’re getting more brain cleansing?

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh! Oh, I never knew that. Thank you. And I am into sleep, so that is cool.

Tara Swart
It was my challenge to come up with something that you haven’t heard about, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Tara Swart
The one that I find myself using the most is an Alvin Toffler quote, which is, “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, it will be those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn.” And, of course, this connects back very strongly to what we were talking about that logical-technical skills alone are not enough, that we need that brain agility and we need that neuroplasticity. So, it’s such an old quote that just applies so beautifully to the cutting-edge neuroscience.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research that you haven’t already mentioned here?

Tara Swart
Well, I think my favorite research is that research on the people in their 80s, but my second favorite piece of research is actually done on rats. It shows three groups of rats. One group that were kept in a confined space, which equates to having a sedentary job, one group that were forced to run on a treadmill for certain number of minutes or hours a day, which is the sedentary job person that drags himself to the gym at the end of the day, and one group were allowed to roam around freely during the day and do various types of exercise whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. And that equates to the person who is mobile during the day and then, at some times, does exercise that they’ve chosen that they enjoy.

And we do see a differential effect in the brain when you do exercise that you enjoy. So, there’s two lessons here really. One is to not be sedentary. And if you don’t do any formal exercise, then just being mobile as much as possible is really important. Those two groups of rats, the two that exercised, they both got the benefits of oxygenation in the brain, but the voluntary exercise group released more of a growth factor in the brain called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. And that factor leads to not only connection of existing neurons in the brain but actually growth of new neurons in the brain. So, that’s a very exciting latest part to the neuroplasticity research.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tara Swart
Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I return to that book every time I have a big dilemma or unanswered question in my life because it uses metaphor. It always just seems to apply to everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tara Swart
Definitely mindfulness meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect or resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Tara Swart
I would say that psychology having informed business and leadership for so long left some things like emotional intelligence as very intangible. The analogy that I use from neuroscience of learning a language, or building a pathway in your brain for any scale, like even intangible scales like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, that is a thing that people have come back to me and said, “Once you put it to me like it was building a pathway in my brain, and you gave me the steps that I had to do to build that pathway, I felt like I could do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Tara Swart
Well, I’m very active on social media, so on Twitter @TaraSwart, and on Instagram @drtaraswart with D-R as the doctor. Yeah, I try to put lots of neuroscience-based facts and images out on those channels. And my book is available on Amazon and at all major retailers so, hopefully, you’ve enjoyed it and, as you know, there are many exercises in the book. I really do think that we need to take the time to step back and do those sort of self-development exercises.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Tara Swart
Yeah, I would say try to change 10 things by 1% rather than trying to change one big thing. So, go to bed half an hour earlier, walk around a bit more during the day, make whatever tweaks to your diet you know that you need to make, read a new book. Just pick 10 quick things, write them down, and just work through them over time. You’ll find much more cumulative effects and being awesome at your job than if you try to take on one big challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck in all the cool ways you’re molding your brain.

Tara Swart
Thank you so much. I hope you mold your brain too.