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REBROADCAST: 399: Maximizing Your Mental Energy with Isaiah Hankel

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Isaiah Hankel highlights the importance of your mental energy, the best time to use it, and how to protect it from the people and things that drain it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The little ways we waste our limited mental energy
  2. How to tactfully deal with people who drain your mental energy
  3. How to gain more energy by closing mental loops

About Isaiah

Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology and is an expert on mental focus, behavioral psychology, and career development. His work has been featured in The Guardian, Fast Company,and Entrepreneur Magazine. Isaiah’s previous book, Black Hole Focus, was published by Wiley & Sons and was selected as Business Book of the Month in the UK and became a business bestseller internationally. Isaiah has delivered corporate presentations to over 20,000 people, including over 300 workshops and keynotes worldwide in the past 5 years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Isaiah Hankel Interview Transcript

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

Isaiah Hankel
Great to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the goods, but first can you tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up on a sheep farm?

Isaiah Hankel
It was rewarding. Some days it didn’t seem like it, but the one day that always stands out in my memory when I’m asked that question is a day that came every year as a sheep farmer, which is when you would shear the sheep.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought you were going to say that. What made that day special?

Isaiah Hankel
It was just a good insight into sheep behavior and as I learned later, human behavior, because sheep were very responsive to two things, carrots and sticks. It’s one of the many places where we get that phrase, having people respond to carrots and sticks, because humans respond to those two things too.

Pete Mockaitis
You mean literally feeding them a carrot and using a stick?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, yeah, it’s literally with the sheep and usually not literally with the humans.

But with the sheep to shear them, it’s a painless process, but you have to get a large herd of sheep, in this case it was usually 80 to 100 head of sheep, into a funnel essentially with a very narrow opening where only one sheep could fit at a time.

You would think this would be very hard to do, but sheep operated through a herd mentality. What that means is that you could walk behind them with a couple of sticks, bang those sticks together, they’re also scared of everything, and they would go running in the opposite direction. If you just bang the sticks behind them and if ahead of them was the funnel with the large gate that they would be funneled into, they would run right into it for you.

Then just to get them to go that last few yards, to get them to go one-by-one through that gate, you would just tease them with carrots held out in front of them, they’d walk right into the sheep shearers arms. You’d have to wrestle some of the larger ones sometimes, but in most cases carrots and sheep, carrots and sticks would do the trick.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, generally speaking, when sheep are sheared or shorn—

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, shorn.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it enjoyable, like, “Oh man, that was really a weight off,” versus like, “No, this is my precious fur?”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, in the reverse order though. They’re at first scared of the buzzing sound and they’re scared of everything, but then it doesn’t hurt, they’re relieved, it happens in the middle of the summer. They’re very happy afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I imagine that right after the shearing, the times are good on the sheep farm. You’ve got a bundle of cash coming in.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, times were good. As a farmhand you don’t get paid too much, but you did get paid quite a bit more on that particular day. It was always a sense of reward after working hard with your hands. Looking back, it’s some of the most enjoyable work that I’ve done, somewhat ironically.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re not going hold that against you to any of your colleagues or collaborators, like, “I’d rather be with sheep than you guys.”

Isaiah Hankel
It just made you very present. I think in today’s world behind screens, it’s hard to get present like that in the same way. I think you have to do it much more deliberately now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, you talk a little bit about some of this in your book called The Science of Intelligent Achievement. What’s sort of the main thesis behind this one?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, this book is about how to protect your mental energy and then what to do with your energy after you have protected it, after you stop doing the things that are depleting you on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, that sounds important. Can you sort of lay out that importance, like why do we need to protect our mental energy? Isn’t it going to be fine? Or what’s the attacker that we are defending against?

Isaiah Hankel
It’s usually people, but it’s a lot of things. I think the best way to frame it, and it’s kind of how the book starts out, is mental energy is your most valuable asset.

We usually hear that time or money is your most valuable asset, but we can quickly disregard these as being your most valuable asset because most people, just as an example, certainly in the US, have both a phone and a watch or a Fitbit. These things can do the same thing in terms of telling time, but we buy extra things for little features that we don’t really need. If you’re not buying that argument, go see how many pairs of shoes you have.

When it comes to time, how much time have you spent watching or re-watching your favorite movie or your favorite TV show or watching a YouTube clip? It’s not so much time that’s valuable. Maybe you were exhausted at the end of the day. You just wanted a feeling of comfort. You watched your favorite movie over again. Again, these can be disregarded pretty quickly, especially when you start comparing them to mental energy.

The last one that’s very popular today because we hear quotes like, “Your network is your net worth,” and all these feel-good relationship quotes about your relationships. We think, “Okay, well, it’s just about how many people you know? How many people will give you value for the value that you give?”

What we do there is we eliminate yourself from the equation. We forget that “Oh, I have to have enough energy to stand on my own two feet and enough energy to produce and provide value or enough energy to be present and be the kind of person other people want to connect to.”

We’ve all bought things we didn’t need. We’ve all spent our time on things that were a waste of time. We’ve all wanted to add more to relationships, wanted to give more, but were spread too thin. The limiting factor is actually your mental energy. How much mental energy do you have? You can think about it a different way. How many attention units do you have?

I think a lot of people try to reduce it to something that’s physiological, “Did I get enough sleep? Did I eat?” That’s really what controls my attention. There’s a little bit more to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well so now I’d imagine that that might be sort of the starting point of the funnel, if you will, in terms of just how much mental energy you have to work with. But then it gets frittered away and unprotected. Could you lay out what are some of the biggest drains on our mental energy and how do we prevent those from being drains?

Isaiah Hankel
Great question. Let me tell you how much or how little you actually have to start every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh do, thank you.

Isaiah Hankel
If you get five or six rounds of rapid eye movement sleep, REM sleep, then your willpower levels, your attention units, whatever you want to call it, your mental energy is going to be restored if – of course a lot of people don’t sleep as much as they should today. But if you get that amount of REM sleep, you start out each day with about 90 to 120 minutes of peak mental energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, that’s it. That’s according to several studies. It’s been printed in the Harvard Business Review and of course a lot of primary peer-review publications. 90 to 120 minutes, so two hours tops and that usually strikes within an hour or three of waking up for most people, so right in the morning.

Then if you think of that as like your ten out of ten mental energy time. Then you have about an eight out of ten mental energy for maybe three to five hours during the day. Everything else is much lower. If you start thinking-

Pete Mockaitis
Like four?

Isaiah Hankel
Like four, exactly. Four or five.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Isaiah Hankel
If not lower. If you start thinking what you can actually get done in a month, gets reduced pretty quickly to okay, let’s say you’re just doing what you do during those two peak hours and you have okay, during a work week about ten hours. Think about it, most people that go to an office, what’s the first thing that you do during that time?

Pete Mockaitis
They’re going to get the coffee, check the email.

Isaiah Hankel
Exactly. Scan some email. Then you look at the news. Then by the time you’re done with the news and email and chatting with your colleagues, you are out of your peak mental energy state. It’s very easy when you’re feeling good, your mental energy is peaking, you have your first cup of coffee, you get kind of chatty, to just diffuse and spend all that mental energy.

Here’s the key. I didn’t even mention this yet, during that 90 to 120 minutes, you are four to five times as productive as you are out of that peak time.

Pete Mockaitis
Four to five times even as compared to the level eight energy time?

Isaiah Hankel
Four to five times overall compared to the rest of the time during that day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, wow.

Isaiah Hankel
So time is relative. You can produce four to five times as much work during those peak mental energy, but again, most people don’t protect it—or we didn’t mention meetings. You’re in some nonsensical meeting, listening, some meeting that can probably be done in seven minutes and you’re spending an hour there.

These are just some of the ways that people are diffusing their peak mental energy during the day and why it’s important to start scheduling your day around these peak hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m wondering, you mentioned it hits during the morning, is that pretty universal regardless if you are a night owl or an early bird?

Isaiah Hankel
Good question. The night owl is a bit of a myth. I think it’s around one or two percent of the population actually is biochemically a night owl, where this peak mental energy is at night. A lot of people just like to think they’re a night owl because it lets them procrastinate during the day. But there are outliers of course in all sets of data.

One very easy way, and this would kind of be considered a meta-analysis, not really a peer-reviewed study, but it’s of yourself and you’re an n of one or a sample size of one, is to just take your phone and jot down every hour of the day from the time you wake up to when you’re asleep, so six AM, seven AM, eight AM, and just type down on top of every hour, and you can set an alarm on your phone or your Fitbit or whatever, how you are feeling in terms of your mental energy on a scale of one to ten.

What you’ll find over the course of even four to five days is you’ll start to see a trend. You’ll start to see – you’ll probably start maybe at a six, maybe a person starts at a four. Then pretty quickly you’re going to climb up to a ten. Then your tens are going to be in a row. You’ll have one or two in a row. Then it will go to about an eight.

Then you’ll have lunch. Then there will be the afternoon dip, which is a real thing. You’ll kind of drop to maybe a five or a four. This is what I’ve seen very, very commonly. Then maybe you’ll peak for one or two hours at six or seven after that. Then you’re right down to a four for the rest of the day. Something like that. That’s a typical curve. A lot of it has to do with your cortisol cycle in your body too.

Once you do this for a few days though, you can see, “Oh wow, these are the two hours of the day where I am peaking. What am I doing during those hours?” You start to rearrange your day in pretty simple ways, so you’re using those hours for the things that are most important to you, your career, your personal goals strategically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that sounds wise. I am all about that. Then I’m curious, when it comes to those, if it’s two hours, do you recommend doing two hours straight through or like having sort of a power brief rejuvenation in the midst of it?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, exactly. One thing you can do is go for a walk. You can go to the gym in the middle of the day if you can get out, just some people walk around the office. But if you do get the blood flowing during that dip, then you can get your mental energies to start to climb again. That’s really the key here is you have control over this.

That question is exactly what you need to be asking yourself. Okay, I usually dip here. Maybe instead of going to the gym in the morning, I can try to go to the gym or get some activity or go for a short run or whatever might be possible in my work life to bypass that dip and at least maintain maybe a six or seven during that time.

The key is just kind of restructuring your day for your peak mental energy or to keep your mental energies peaking rather than just letting them fall wherever your activities in the day fall.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us some examples for you or those you work with in terms of what are some great things that you might really try to slide into the peak mental energy times?

Isaiah Hankel
It comes down to every person’s individual goals. One thing that I started doing once I realized that this – when I started seeing this data and I wanted to publish my first book, is that I started taking my lunch break very early.

I started peaking around ten AM. This was when I would get up around six or seven. I’d peak at ten AM. I would be on from about ten AM to about twelve noon. During that time I could write at least five times as much as I could during any other time of the day. What I did was I started taking my lunch from ten till eleven AM, some cases eleven to twelve, and I would go somewhere and I would write.

I got my second book done very, very quickly because of this. If I had not done that, it would have taken me at least four to five times longer. That’s one example.

A lot of people have a goal to start their own business, but they struggle to get a business proposal on paper. They struggle to take that first step. They struggle to do all kinds of strategic things for their life that if they were just using their peak mental energy like 15 minutes a day, they can make real progress on.

It doesn’t have to be right in your peak time. If that’s just an impossibility for you, can you get up 15 minutes before your kids get up? Can you get up an extra 15 minutes early even if that’s like your 7 time, when you’re at a 7 out of 10 and use that time to do something strategic for your life, where you’re really moving the needle on your long-term goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that idea in terms of those things that are important, but you’ve been having some trouble getting movement on. That seems like a perfect combo for, “Ah, a peak mental energy time is what needs to be allocated here.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, ideally I’m thinking of the four quadrants of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, not urgent but important. That would be the idea stuff that you’re using your peak mental energy time for. Every once in a while it might be important and urgent, but at least you’re always doing something that’s important during that time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. It’s key to do the scheduling and to be strategic about how we are deploying it. Then beyond that, what are some ways that our mental energy gets zapped over the course of the day?

Isaiah Hankel
Once you have your map there and you know when your mental energy is peaking, now start asking yourself what gets in the way of your mental energy or start tracking during the day. Maybe take a couple of notes underneath that list that you’re creating for four or five days and make a list of when you’re feeling the most drain. Who did you just interact with? What did you just do?

Everybody is different. One draining activity or one draining person for me might be different for you. What you’re going to find is that there are certain people that really drain your energy, certain interactions, certain types of interactions

Maybe sometimes with your boss it’s okay, but other times it’s not. If they had a conversation with you during this time right before lunch when they’re hungry, it’s not good, so you can start avoiding that.

Maybe every time you have a conversation with this person, they’re really dramatic and they suck you into their drama and you’re like, “Oh wow, this is usually happening during my peak mental energy, like I’m responding to some text. I’m going down this rabbit hole. If I just stop responding to this person, it goes away.”

Maybe it’s an activity that just completely drains you, you really dislike doing, not something that’s important, that’s hard to get started that you need to do, but something that’s lifeless and just pure busy work that’s not really moving you forward, something you can outsource to somebody else or delegate at work.

Start asking yourself, “What are the activities I can get rid of, the things that are really draining me?” What you’re going to find more often than not is it’s people and that you’ve done a really poor job of being selective and deliberate with the people that you’ve allowed in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, intriguing. So being mindful and aware of the different people and how that’s impacting us with the energy certainly. Then any pro tips for dealing with that, like, “Oh, it looks like these people are sucking the energy and I’d like to minimize my exposure?” How do you do that with tact or grace?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I call it going on a relationship fast. An important caveat here, just like with food fasting, we used to think, oh, if you fast for two weeks, this is somehow good for you. It can be very bad for your body. You don’t drink anything, don’t eat anything for weeks, very hard on your organs.

But we do know that certain types of fasting can be very, very good for your body, intermittent fasting, fasting certain types of food like not eating grains for a period of time or not eating dairy for a certain period of time or limiting foods one by one to see what you might have a food allergy for. All kinds of fasting that once you get more strategic with it, can lead to big insights and big benefits.

Same thing is true for relationship fasting. The problem is that we’re all so connected to our networks and we all have been bombarded with especially in today’s over connected world, that connections are important. You need to have as many Facebook friends as you can. Not just Facebook though, you also have all your other social media connections.

Not just online, because those aren’t your real relationships, you have to go to a bunch of conferences and you have to listen to every single podcast out there and you have to read everything possible. This stuff is good, but are you being deliberate? Are you choosing to read and to consume and to connect with people that are making you better or do you really have no filter? How deliberate are you being?

One good way to answer that question is to step away temporarily, not forever, but for a few days. Step away from your relationships. Of course you have your kids, your wife, etcetera. It’s going to be individualized for everybody.

But there’s probably a group of friends or at least one friend that’s coming to your mind right now as you listen to this that you’re asking yourself, “Does this person really make me a better person or a worse person? How do I usually feel when I interact with them? Is it just competitive? Are they a friend who’s really kind of an enemy?” There’s only one way to find out. You have to gain distance. Emotional distance will provide clarity.

By going on a temporary fast and doing it in a tactful way, you don’t just say, “Ah, I’m not talking to you anymore,” or “I’m in a relationship fast. Can’t talk.” You instead say, “I’m going to be taking some time to work on an important project. If you don’t hear from me for the next couple of days, I’ll get back to you on this date.”

You step away. You implement some of the things we’ve been talking about here, spend some more time on your personal goals, what you’re doing and all of that will become more and more clear as you kind of de-clog your life here with this temporary fast. You’ll gain some real insights by doing this.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. I also want to get into your take on being busy is a bad thing. What’s that about?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, busyness, and we hear this a lot. It’s almost overused. It’s a badge of honor and people think, “Oh I don’t want to be busy for busyness sake, but I still want to be busy. There’s so much to do today and things are so competitive in my career,” or if I’m an entrepreneur I’m trying to get ahead in whatever way. We can just start filling our calendars and what we’re doing with a lot of stuff without evaluating whether or not it’s impactful.

It’s actually very simple to figure out if something’s impactful, you just need to find a metric, some unit of measure where you can determine whether or not you’re moving closer to the overall goal, the reason that you’re doing that activity or further away.

Most people never do this because they never carve out time during their peak mental energy to have the mental energy to draw those conclusions. They’re so busy that they just keep going onto the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, hoping subconsciously that one of these things is somehow going to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Some day one of these things is going to fall into place. They’re going to arrive. Somebody is going to discover them. The boss is going to say, “I see all the work that you’ve done. This is the one thing I’ve been waiting for you to do. Now I’m going to make you a millionaire.” They all have this kind of like hazy, fuzzy, “this is why I’m working so hard” lie going through our head at all times.

If you get honest with yourself, you’ll realize like I stay so busy because a) I don’t want to confront whether or not what I’m doing actually matters because maybe it doesn’t matter and maybe that means that I don’t matter right now, which is not true. It just means what you’re doing doesn’t matter. And b) because I think if I let go of something, if I stop doing it, what if that’s the key to my success? What if that’s the one thing or the one connection that’s going to make me successful?

That’s just never true. There’s always other opportunities, but if you’re not measuring what you’re doing, you have no idea if you’re getting closer or further away or if it’s impactful. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how intelligent you are, you can’t hit a target you don’t set.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. All right. You set the target and you are I guess mindful of the metrics and how different activities are moving that. Could you recommend what are some key metrics that folks have found open up a world of clarity about whether things are really worth doing?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, sometimes it’s easier than others. If you’re starting to write your own book or start a business, whatever, you can literally just count the words that you’ve made progress on in your book or count the chapters or in the business proposal, count the section.

If it’s at work, there’s likely some KPIs that are being measured for you by your manager. Maybe ask. Maybe evaluate and make a list of all the activities you’re doing at work and look at them to see what you are doing them for, like, “Why am I doing this? What does my manager want to see from this? Is this activity helping me gain any revenue for the company? Is this activity visible?” Optics matter. “Is it visible for my manager? Are they actually even seeing the result of this? Is it producing anything?”

Use that data too to go to your manager or your boss and say, “Hey, I’m doing this, but we’re not measuring anything. There’s no KPI. There’s no metric. Can we either set up a metric or can we cut this because it doesn’t seem like it’s impactful?” Just asking yourself why am I doing this, what is the result that it’s bringing? Once you get to the result, and you have it backed up with a why, you can determine the metric.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. You’ve got so much good stuff. I’m a little bit jumpy.

Isaiah Hankel
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I can’t resist. I want to know it all. You’ve mentioned that other people’s opinions, you liken them to an infection. What’s the story here and how do we I guess inoculate ourselves?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I always think of the movie Inception, where once something is suggested to you, it’s very easy for it to get implanted in your mind and then to grow and then eventually you think it’s your own idea and you execute on it. Now you’re chasing a goal that was suggested to you by somebody else without even knowing it. In the book it’s called the power of suggestion. It’s a real psychological phenomenon.

For example, you come into work and somebody says to you, “Hey, how are you feeling? Are you okay?” Then a little bit later a second person comes to you, maybe it’s just you didn’t comb your hair that day or whatever it is, and they say, “Are you feeling all right? You look a little disheveled.” Now by noon you’re going to go home sick because you think you’re sick and you’re not even sick. Just a very simple example.

We’ve all had something like that happen to us where somebody says something and then now it’s in our mind usually in the form of a question. Maybe they didn’t realize to do it, but that’s how powerful the power of suggestion is.

There’s a lot of studies that have shown that opinions travel through social networks just like the flu virus. The same kind of epidemiological studies that are done for the flu virus, they’ve done for opinions and for moods, emotions and they travel through these networks so that one negative person can have a drastic effect on hundreds if not thousands of people. One person’s opinion can do the same thing through the power of suggestion, through a variety of other means.

You really have to be careful. Anytime somebody gives you an opinion, especially an unsolicited opinion, you have to save yourself. What I do is I say, “I reject that.” Even if you’re just saying it under your breath or in your mind, you reject it. That’s not true because of X, Y, Z. Otherwise you’ll notice that these opinions will start setting up a camp in your brain. They’ll start forming limiting beliefs, limiting stories because our brains are wired to do that.

We have a negativity bias. We hear an opinion, we look for the negative information in that opinion, we set up limitations, and we set up negative stories in our brain to protect us from negativity.

There’s a part of your brain called the amygdala where information flows through it at a rate 12 to 1 compared to positive information. It flows through it right to your long-term memory banks so that negative information is stored 12 times faster and more securely than positive information.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s striking. That’s quite a multiplier. When you say, “I reject that,” can you give me some examples of maybe things recently that you heard then you’ve decided to proactively state out loud or internally, “I reject that.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, it sounds a little bit silly, but it was as simple as the example that I gave you. Sometimes somebody said, “Do you feel okay?” or “You look a little tired,” “I reject that. I look wide awake.” Right? I will literally say that because otherwise it can start to stack on you. Or somebody says, “You don’t really seem like you’re making progress in this area.” “I reject that. I’m making progress here, here and here. Then here’s also where I’m going to work to make even more progress.”

It’s not about putting blinders on. It’s about framing things differently. I heard it said recently that no frame, no gain. You have to choose how you frame things in your own mind.

There’s something called defensive pessimism, which is really important. I’m not about, again, putting on rose-colored glasses, being overly optimistic. You have to look at the data and look at what’s going on. That’s what defensive pessimism is. You say, “What could go wrong here?” You figure it out and it actually makes you more successful. It’s not about that, but it’s about you choosing how to frame things that are best for you, not letting other people frame things for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Talking about I guess disproportionate mental weightings, how’s that for a segue?

Isaiah Hankel
….

Pete Mockaitis
You mention the Zeigarnik Effect. I may be butchering that pronunciation. But it’s pretty intriguing. Can you unpack that for us?

Isaiah Hankel
The Zeigarnik Effect is – now you have me saying it too. It’s an effect that-

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

Isaiah Hankel
Zeigarnik. I think I’ve had to look up pronunciation of that about 15 times. This is an effect that makes an open loop in your brain very hard to let go of. It’s why open loops, things that are kept in our working memory can have a drastic impact over our performance. The psychologist who came up with it was obviously called Zeigarnik. Now I can’t say it ….

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

Isaiah Hankel
Zeigarnik. Bluma, yeah. He was a psychologist who noticed that a waiter had better recollections of unpaid orders. I’ve been a waiter and I know this. When you have an open table, it’s very similar to having an open thought or an open loop or a cast that’s not done in your mind. That’s how this effect was discovered.

Imagine you’re a waiter or maybe you’ve been a waiter or a waitress before. I used to waiter at a restaurant called Dockside in …. Great job. We had about five to six tables in a section. If there was a certain number of tables full, let’s say all six tables are full. They’re all eating. All six tables are on my mind all the time. I want to keep them as happy as possible because I want a tip.

If I’m asked at that time anything about the people at those tables, I have an amazing memory of those people, what they ordered, what’s going on. However, as soon as a table gets their check, they pay, and they leave, as soon as that happens and I clear out the table on the computer, if I’m asked the same set of questions about that table, I can’t remember anything. Because now the table is closed, the loop is closed, the task is closed and my brain dumps it from my working memory.

That’s the effect. Most of us walk around with hundreds of open tables in our mind at all times. We wonder why our mental energy is so dissipated. One of the most important things you can do and this is from a book, a famous productivity book called Getting Things Done.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, David Allen episode 15. Woot, woot.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, there you go. Just make a list of all the open loops in your mind. Spend an entire day or spend – what I did is I spent three or four days during my peak mental energy times making a list of every open loop, everything from ‘I want to paint the garage one day’ to ‘I want to pay off my house’ to ‘I have this entire list that I need to get through that’s on my desk.’

We talked about collecting every inbox, which can be virtual and physical now into one place, putting it in a giant to-do list and getting all of those loops down on paper. That’s the first step to getting them out of your working memory.

Once you get them down, you’re going to have at least 100 if you do it correctly. I would say if you’re over the age of 25, you’re going to have at least 100.  Once you get them down, you’re going to be like, “I can’t believe I was holding on to all of this in my working memory this entire time.” You’re going to feel this huge sense of relief.

Then when you go through the list, if you can start crossing stuff off, if you can do it in two minutes – this is going back to the getting things done rule – just do it. Or there might be a lot of things where you’re like, “This is not happening. This is off the list completely.” Then you can file other ones into like a someday maybe file on your computer.

Then the rest of the things that you actually need to get done, you can probably get it down to in my experience a list of 100 to maybe 30 items. That’s it. Again, all of that’s relieved from your working memory. All those loops get closed. Your energy will go through the roof after this process. But again, most people never do it. Why? Because they’re too busy doing stuff that’s not important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, another fascinating implication of the Zeigarnik Effect in terms of our memory for these open loops is I think showing up in terms of storytelling. This is reminding me of another great author, Robert Cialdini.

In his later book Pre-suasion he figured out how he can really engage in his classroom if he posed a bit of a question or a mystery like, “How is it that this tiny organization was able to grow and overtake this huge organization in marketing or sales or whatever over four months. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t that.” Then they’re like, “Well, what was it?”

I think the same thing happens in a TV series or some of these true crime podcasts, where we’re doing an investigation over time. It’s like the brain wants that closure and you’re so intrigued and it’s so top of mind that sometimes you’re not even really enjoying watching the TV series or listening to the podcast, but you’ve just got to know what happens to these people.

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, you want to close that loop. Yeah, you’re right. Everything from marketers to entertainers have known this for a long time. I know one particular marketer that sends an email every day and at the end of it, it’s like, “And tomorrow I’m going to tell you about X, Y, Z.” Curiosity is a very powerful way to create an open loop and keep yourself or what you’re doing, or what you want to be on somebody’s minds on their mind.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, talking a little bit about these different factors in terms of protecting your energy and prioritizing and not being too busy and focusing on the right stuff and closing loops and getting it all out of there. I’d like to get your take on non-negotiables and how this can be a productive means of achieving some of these ends.

Isaiah Hankel
One of the best ways to not allow a loop – one of the best ways to close a loop is to not allow a loop to be opened in your brain. One of the best ways to do that is through non-negotiables.

People have a hard time saying no today. I struggle with this. I think a lot of us do, especially people who are – people that like to seize opportunities. You want to get stuff done. You’re a doer. You think the more yes’s I commit to, the more likely I’m going to be successful, the faster I’m going to be successful. But really it’s the opposite.

I read it in a book, I think it was by Tim Ferris that said you have to move from throwing spears to holding up a shield. This transition point comes at a various stages in your growth of your career, your personal growth, whatever it is.

But you have to be very cognizant that “Should I stop throwing spears at this time? Is it time to stop trying to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks? Has enough stuck that now I need to start holding up the shield and I’ve got to start saying no? I’ve got to say, ‘I just don’t do that.’ I’m not taking on any more projects until this date. I’m not staying online past eight PM anymore, non-negotiable. This is my morning routine that I’m going to execute every single day, non-negotiable.”

There’s real power in that. The power is that you don’t allow extra loops to get open. You don’t allow extra stuff to start stealing your attention and draining your mental energy. You’ve taken a stand to protect your mental energy in a formidable way.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. I’d love to hear what are some non-negotiables that have been really powerful for you and those you’ve chatted with about the concept?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, so a couple I just said have been really powerful. Bookending my day is really important. I have a non-negotiable that at this time I’m offline and I’m home with my family and I’m present with my kids. The end. No matter what I can get done at that time, that’s just the way that it is. It actually makes me work a lot faster and really makes me prioritize a lot more carefully.

Same thing in the morning. This is the morning routine that I’m doing every single day. I have one that’s like a ten-minute routine that can be done anywhere, if I’m traveling – no matter where I’m travelling, etcetera. That is what I do. Then I have certain key days too, like on this day, this is the day that I do calls on, client calls. Only on this day, non-negotiable, no other days. It’s got to be fitting on this day.

If you can set up a few of those – I call it bookending for a reason. But if you can add bookends and a couple of bookmarks to your days and weeks, it gives you a structure and it acts almost like a tripwire to make sure that you’re saving a certain amount of mental energy, otherwise things will just continue to swell and go towards disorder. It’s entropy. It’s just going to happen. This is again kind of a tripwire to prevent the entropy from getting out of control.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, I’ll ask it later, but instead I’ll ask it now. These ten minutes, what are you doing with your ten minutes there?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, good question. What I try to do and what I’ve noticed is if I can do something physical, if I can take in some information, then if I can put out some information, I feel really good. What I do kind of changes, but one thing I’ve been doing recently, I’d say for the past six months, is I would get up and I’ll do a little bit of core work, stretching, core, just get a little bit of I guess mobility work in, very little. I can do that in a couple of minutes.

I’ll meditate, again, for a few minutes. I will pray for a few minutes. I will read a couple of books that are usually set up into either like a devotional or a book that has really short chapters. Then I’ll do an entry in a gratitude journal. I’ll write a little bit.

This is all really kind of in ten minutes. It’s about a minute or two a piece. It’ll swell if I have more time. It can swell up to like 30 minutes, but at least I’m getting each of those in in a minute. Then finally I’ll do something, I usually will row or could be something with like a kettle bell, just to get the heart rate up a little bit before having lemon water with Himalayan pink salt.

Pete Mockaitis
Himalayan pink salt. I’ve heard of this. Tell me. It’s supposed to be special somehow.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I got hooked on it. I did a podcast with Onnit and I started watching a lot of their content before to prepare just like I do with your stuff. Yeah, it came up. It’s supposed to be really good for cleaning out your adrenals among other things.

Pete Mockaitis
More than any other salt?

Isaiah Hankel
Not just the salt, but the lemon water with the salt. Maybe put a little bit of apple cider vinegar in it. The Himalayan pink salt has a lot of – not chemicals, but like phosphorus, sulfurous, really good – I’m forgetting the name right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Minerals?

Isaiah Hankel
Minerals. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Feels like a word that might apply to salt. I’m just guessing.

Isaiah Hankel
That you can’t get from your normal table salt.

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

Isaiah Hankel
I would say really take seriously figuring out when you are peaking and be greedy for that time. That is your time. That is your essence. What you do during that time is who you are and who you’re going to become.

I think happiness, if that’s your pursuit that we’re all going towards, you have to realize that happiness is doing. Happiness is not just who you are. We all have a being and that’s important, but it’s also doing. We live today doing so much that we don’t think enough about what we’re doing, those activities. If you can own one or two hours during your peak time, you’re going to own yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, lovely. Thank you. Well now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, this is one I have on my desk. I think for me it’s always been kind of a good mantra that’s kept me focused. It says, “I do not fear failure. I only fear the slowing up of the engine inside of me that’s pounding saying, ‘keep going.’ Someone must be on top. Why not you?”

It might sound too intense for some people. That’s a quote from Patton, but basically it means fear is not the problem here. Failure is not the problem. Apathy is the problem, not caring, not trying to be the best that you can be. That’s what you should be afraid of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite study. Man, I had like three or four and I didn’t decide on one. One that I really like going back to what we talked about today is the study showing people’s performance during those peak mental hours. If you think about it, it’s really showing that time is relative.

How can a being or person during these set times get so much more done than outside of those times. It’s like you’re a different person and your brain is a different brain during those times. It’s something that I don’t think enough people have thought about it. We’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible when we start tapping into human performance through the protection of mental energy.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite book. Fiction or non-fiction?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll take them both.

Isaiah Hankel
Fiction, I really enjoyed Fountainhead. I read it when I was young. It’s one of the things that inspired me to start my own business to even write a book instead of just going and doing what I was told in academia.

Non-fiction, so many things. The one that I read recently that I think really spoke to me and I read like three times is Relentless by Tim Grover. What I like about it is there’s people who start their own businesses. They’re very driven. People always talk about the dark side of being driven and how it’s bad.

He kind of flipped it and said, “No, this is very good and some of the best things that have ever been created and the people’s top performance and just a variety of things are because of this.” I really enjoyed it.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Isaiah Hankel
Something that helps me be awesome, I really can’t get enough of these new Apple pods because I do so many calls and I dictate so much that it allows me – one of the things that I do when I have a little bit more time in the morning is I like to wear a 40 pound weight vest and just go for a walk and listen at like two times speed a podcast like yours or a book. Then I have a dictator that I’ll dictate into. The pods makes all that possible.

Pete Mockaitis
So it’s a separate device that you’re using for the dictation?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, exactly. Because that way I don’t have to stop listening to the book and I can just rant into this. A lot of is just pure nonsense. I’m like, “Oh that’s not really a good idea,” but sometimes there’s these gems that comes out of it. Once I started using two devices for that it was a lot different because otherwise I’d have to stop my phone, what I was listening to and dictate on my phone, etcetera.

Pete Mockaitis
What is the dictation device of choice that you’re using?

Isaiah Hankel
I can look it up real quick here. It is Sony ICD-PX370 mono-digital voice dictator.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the ICD-PX gem.

Isaiah Hankel
I was going to say, you might know that.

Pete Mockaitis
I actually don’t. Do you just keep it via audio or does some transcribing get into the picture?

Isaiah Hankel
No, I would love to know if there’s a better transcription device out there. Well, I use Rev.com. I’m guessing you know what that is. But no. The transcription devices that I’ve seen are highly complex, where you’ve got to have CDs and you have to – no, I wish it transcribed. I don’t think it does.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite habit?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite habit, getting up at five AM more than anything else. This is something that like a lot of habits, you have to gently move towards. I for the longest time, for years, I wanted to joining this quote/unquote five AM club back when I was waking up at like eight AM. I’d set my alarm for 5 AM. I’d do it for like a day, maybe two and then crash and burn and give it up for a week and then two weeks later try it again.

What I finally did was I just started like 10 – 15 minutes at a time over the course of a week. Every week I’d get up, I’m serious, like 15 minutes earlier and slowly over the course of that 18 months, I’ve been able to start getting up at 5 AM. It’s just a beautiful time because you can shift when your peak hours happen.

I get up now and then very early when nobody else is up and there’s no calls or meetings or anything, I have my strategic time where my mental energies are peaking. It’s empowering to feel like you’re ahead of other people, even though there’s all kinds of time zones and I’m on Pacific Time, so I’m actually behind. Yeah, that’s by far my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
But you’re also into sleeping a lot it sounds like.

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So when do you go to bed?

Isaiah Hankel
I track that and I go to bed at eight PM. I have to because I track it on a Fitbit, which I know is not the most accurate, but I do know – as long as you’re using the same scale, it’s apples to apples. I know what I trend at and how much sleep I need a week. I stick to that.

On a Fitbit, I have to get – I’m actually a pretty light sleeper, so I’ll be awake about an hour every night, at least according to my Fitbit. I know I need about 7 hours and 45 minutes almost on the nose in terms of averages for the week. I make sure that I get that. One of the ways that I have to do it is by going to bed at eight, so I get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So that’s 7 hours 45 minutes of actual sleep time, so the 9 hours of in the bedtime.

Isaiah Hankel
Exactly, so 7-45 plus the one hour, yeah, so it’s right around 8 to 5 yeah. ….

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I hear you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Isaiah Hankel
A particular nugget?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just an articulation of your wisdom that folks say, “Yes Isaiah, that was so moving and brilliant when I heard that from you.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I think it comes down to the relationship fast. Most people don’t give themselves permission to do this because they think they’re being a bad person or they’re going against – we hear words like anti-social. I know it’s probably easier for me because I’m an introvert, a non-shy introvert if you’ve ever read Susan Cain’s Quiet.

But you have to be okay with being alone. If you’re not, you’re never going to really know who you are and you’re never really going to know the power that you have in your own mind and what you can do with that power of being your mental energy and what you can produce with it that will make the world a better place. If you really care about other people, you’ll figure out who you are and you’ll spend some time on your own in a relationship fast, a temporary one doing that.

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

Isaiah Hankel
Go to IsaiahHankel.com. That’s probably the easiest. Or actually the easiest is probably HankelLeadership.com. They can read some extra articles there and get a couple free chapters of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or called to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, make your list of every hour that you’re awake for three days at least. Just record, scale it one to ten, what’s your mental energy. There’s going to be some great insights there. Then try to find one hour, one peak hour to protect. Do whatever it takes to protect that hour. It will change your life.

Pete Mockaitis
If I could just get a quick follow up there, when you say one to ten, could you orient us a little bit? How does a ten and a nine feel and how does a five feel and how does a one feel?

Isaiah Hankel
Great question. It’s going to be, of course, subjective, but the great news is it’s just you. You are the only subject, so it’s okay to be subjective in the sense – and you’re looking at a trend. If you do this in three days and your tens are all over the place, that’s a concern. You’re going to need to do it for a little bit longer.

But if you go for three – four days, like when I did it the first time in about, yeah, three – four days, I saw a very clear trend that a ten was at about the same time every day, right around that ten AM.

For you, you can always go back and say, “Oh, now that I’ve done this for a few days, this wasn’t really an eight. This was my ten.” You’ll gain clarity as you move forward. The key is just knowing, if you want to know in practice, what are those times when you seem really, really sharp, like people are asking you a question, you’re not really delaying in your responses, you’re flying through emails very, very fast. You feel like you’re in a flow state. If you haven’t read the book, it’s by Mihaly Csik-

Pete Mockaitis
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Isaiah Hankel
There you go. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I practiced that one.

Isaiah Hankel
A lot of word challenges today. Called Flow. Read that book. Anything that makes you present and sharp, that’s the feeling that you’re going for. When does that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Isaiah, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for taking the time and good luck with all you’re up to.

Isaiah Hankel
Thank you Pete. Great to meet you and great to be here.

757: How to Find the Career You Truly Love with Marcus Buckingham

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Marcus Buckingham reveals strategies for identifying the work that fills you up.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to finding your “love” at work
  2. How you can be “irreplicable” at work
  3. Why you should see your job as a scavenger hunt, instead of a ladder 

About Marcus

Marcus Buckingham is a global researcher and New York Times bestselling author focused on unlocking strengths, increasing performance, and pioneering the future of how people work. He is the author of two of the bestselling business books of all time, has two of Harvard Business Review’s most circulated, industry-changing cover articles, and his strengths assessments have been taken by over 10 million people worldwide. He currently runs all ADP Research Institute’s studies on People and Performance. 

Resources Mentioned

Marcus Buckingham Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marcus, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Marcus Buckingham
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom and talk about your book Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life. But, first, could we hear what do you love most at work?

Marcus Buckingham
Actually, it’s love and work. I just put a plus in there because I thought it looked cool but I like love and work, I like war and peace, so I like the juxtaposition of those kinds of things. Look, I’m a psychometrician by training, which means I love trying to figure out ways to measure things about humans that you can’t count but that they’re really important anyway.

So, things like talent, strengths, engagement, resilience, that’s what I love to do is get to the heart of some of these really important psychological constructs and figure out, in a world where there’s so much opinion and so many, I think that, can we find a way, nonetheless, to cut through that, and say, “What do we know for sure about people’s strengths, or about engagement, or resilience?” That’s kind of what…it sounds a bit geeky but that’s what I love.

Pete Mockaitis
No, no, it’s beautiful and I understand and it’s exciting. And I’d love to hear, is there a particularly exciting, fascinating discovery that you’ve made recently when doing some of the research and pulled things together for the book Love + Work?

Marcus Buckingham
Well, what’s always fascinated me, when you look at the world through the lens of people who love it, if you look at the world of work through the lens of people who love it, you discover there’s way more variation than you would ever think. So, you look at some jobs and you think to yourself, “Well, those jobs, no one must want those jobs.” We would be able to do them for a short period of time and we want to get out of them as quickly as we could.

Take a role like hotel housekeeping. We kind of think, “Well, that’s not a good job,” and we, therefore, have to put rules and regulations in place to get people to do the job properly, and then we wonder why people find no love in the job. But I had a chance to interview the eight best housekeepers at Walt Disney World, and they didn’t know each other, but they’re all amazing housekeepers.

And you look at their job through their eyes, and the sheer amounts of variety and creativity and innovation that goes into their job from their perspective. One of them lies on the bed and turns on the ceiling fan, that’s the last thing she does before she leaves the room because that’s the first thing a guest does after a long day out at the theme park, and she just loves seeing…She’ll sit in the tub and sit on the toilet because that’s the way the guest would see the room.

Another one loves the fact that she can make a show for the kids. And so, every time they come back in, she’ll have arranged the fluffy toys in a little scene and Minnie’s arm on a remote control, Mickey’s arm on an empty French-fries container, and the kids can sit all day long, Mickey and Minnie just hang out in bed snacking and watching TV. And you suddenly see this world open up because you’re looking at a particular job in this case through the lens of people who love it, and it’s like, “Oh.”

Now, yeah, there are rules and regulations that say, “Don’t touch any more of the guests’ possessions than you need to, to clean the room and don’t lie on the bed.” So, weirdly, we’ve created rules that almost make it harder for the people who love their job, to love their job. But that’s one of the biggest takeaways from all the research that went into Love + Work is you look at the world of work through those people who love what they do and the detail that you get isn’t anything like you would expect.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that’s really inspiring. And I remember when I was really loving work, and I was doing strategy consulting, and I was super excited, like that was sort of the dream I had from all through college, and I was, like, I got into Bain and I was so thrilled and pumped. And then somewhere, we were having a conversation with my fellow first years, and the conversation came up to whether or not we did good, like we contributed to good.

And so, for me, I thought that the answer was obvious, I was like, “But of course we do good otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And if you just think about it, we get an insane amount of responsibility for a 22-year-old, we’re working on projects that the clients pay half a million, a million dollars a month for a small team for. It’s expected that we’re going to generate a return on that that’s like 10X of what they invest in us. Their share prices are going to go up which will impact those who are saving for their college, for retirement, for nonprofits, for philanthropic grant-making foundations, that the wealth we’re creating is hugely leveraged at this point in time.”

And so, they were sort of like dumbfounded, like, “Huh? We just thought it’d be a good pathway to get to business school and you have cool careers.” But you’re right, people can have vastly different perspectives of their jobs, and that, in turn, fuels their emotions, engagement, motivation, and…well, I’m sure you know a whole lot more about what that fuels than I.

Marcus Buckingham
Yeah, sure. Biology loves variation and by the time we get to be 19 years old, we have a hundred trillion synaptic connections in our brain, and no one has the particular network or pattern that you do, or that I do, and the people that we grew up next to, our brother, our sister, people in the same house, same socio-economic upbringing, same race maybe, same gender maybe, we’re totally different from them in terms of what we love, and what we get a kick out of, and what we pay attention, and what we ignore, and what frustrates us.

We have more synaptic connections in our brain than there are stars in 5,000 Milky Ways. And from that uniqueness comes really differently specific things that we love and that we loathe, and that we lean into and that bore us. And, seemingly, nobody really…you get 10 years of geometry but you don’t get 10 years on trying to figure out how to demystify that beautifully unique massive filigreed network of loves and loathes in your brain. No one really helps us with that.

In fact, you could say school and work actually deliberately try to alienate you from yourself. You’re not really told how to figure out what that unique network is and turn it into work, and turn it into contribution, is how I define work. It’s not just your job; it’s any work where you add value to somebody else. But, yeah, you’ve got so much uniqueness, and your challenge in life, really, isn’t that you don’t have enough time. It’s that you don’t draw enough energy or nourishment from your life.

And so, part of the reason why I wrote the book is to go, “Wait a minute, the reason we’ve got so many kids on Adderall and so much Xanax prescribed to tone down the Adderall and so many frustrated and anxious and burnt-out workers is because we haven’t really understood, “How do you help people move through their life and draw nourishment and strength and love from what they’re doing?” We haven’t had anyone do that.

We’ve just created standardized tests at school, or list of competencies at work, and then 360 surveys to measure you on the competencies, and kind of successes based on how closely you match the model. It’s not related to how intelligently you’ve cultivated and expressed what you love. No one helps you with that. And so, really, the point of the book was to go, “Come on, we are all incredibly varied, and we need to own that variance, understand it, and then contribute it.”

Pete Mockaitis
What you said that really struck me is we draw nourishment. And what else? What else from work? That’s a heck of a sentence.

Marcus Buckingham
Well, we draw nourishment, we draw energy, we draw love, we draw joy from work. We can. The metaphor is you’re supposed to have work-life balance but then if you think about it, that’s a really bizarre aspiration to lay on anyone not just because if you ever managed to find that moment of balance for your life and your work and your family and your finances and your grandma and whatever we’re balanced. But if ever did manage to find that place, Pete, you’d want to say to everyone around you, “Don’t move. Nobody moves.”

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s perfect right now.”

Marcus Buckingham
“I’ve got it.” But you look out at nature, nothing healthy in nature is balanced. And let’s just say that really clearly – nothing healthy in nature is balanced. Everything healthy in nature is moving. And you have to move through the environment that you’re in and draw enough nourishment from it to keep moving. Well, that’s a good metaphor for our lives.

We are moving through our time and our jobs, our time and the other domains of our life, and our challenge, really, is “How do you move through your job, your family life, your community, maybe your political activism, your faith, whatever, your hobbies? How do you move through life and draw enough joy and nourishment and love from that movement in order to keep growing, keep contributing?”

That’s not easy. No one said that it was easy but no one tells us about any of that at all. And that’s a crying shame for many of us.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Marcus, lay it out for us, what are the key principles that we need to follow in order to be drawing nourishment, energy, joy, and love from our work and other things that we engage in?

Marcus Buckingham
Well, the first thing is to realize that you have a wyrd inside you. That’s the very first thing. Not that you are weird, but that you have a wyrd, which is a noun. W-Y-R-D. It’s actually a Norse idea that you’ve got inside you at birth, independent of what happened to you as you grow up, or independent of your parents, or whatever, you’ve got this unique diamond, this unique spirit, and for them it was they called it your wyrd, and you have to get in touch with your wyrd if you’re going to live a productive and happy life.

Today, we don’t need the spirituality necessarily, we just know from the clash of the chromosomes that you do have, from the get-go, an incredibly filigreed network of synaptic connections. We know that. So, the first thing for all of us to understand is the most important aspects of you, what you lean into, what repels you, what uplifts you, what drains you, and the specifics of that, the fact that you are drawn to, I don’t know, reading the back of a milk carton, or somebody else is drawn to make little dolls out of corn husks, and somebody else is drawn to make shapes under a kitchen table with tire. We’re all drawn to really different things.

Those things are really unique to you and super important to understand. So, first of all, everyone should know they’re not a blank slate, they weren’t created by how they grew up or by the traumas that they experienced. Those things might occlude you, occlude you from seeing you, but you have within you this biology, we can see it, an incredibly powerful combination of networks and synapses that lead you in certain directions and away from others. That’s the first thing.

The second thing, of course, is the world is telling you about it all the time. Rather than looking at the world as the enemies, something to withstand, if everybody could just wake up and look at the world as though it was trying to put on a show for you, as though every day it was trying to show you thousands of different situations and moments and contexts and people and activities, it’s trying to show you a lot of different things, and your response is to go, “Which of these are things that I love?” almost like your world is a fabric of many different threads.

Some lift you up a little, some down, they’re black, they’re white, they’re gray, they’re yellow, but some of them are red threads, and they’re threads that lift you up, that energize you, that you find love within. And the first way to spot these red threads, and we are all a genius when it comes to spotting our red threads, the first thing is “What do you find yourself, instinctively, paying attention to?” Your patterns of attention, what do you find that you instinctively are drawn to? You attend to what you value and we tend to think that everyone just pays attention to the same stuff that we do, but they don’t.

So, right from an early age, going back to thinking about “What did you find yourself paying attention to? Maybe, what did you find yourself paying attention to, that others missed and the detail of that?” Normally, as you know, Pete, when you think about patterns, we’re told the verb that goes with patterns is break. You’re supposed to break your patterns as though your patterns are pathological, they’re bad, they’re the source of your trauma or your pain.

Actually, your patterns of attention are the source of all contribution and meaning and joy for you. So, that’s the very…there are other signs which we can get into, if you want, but that’s the very first thing to start with. Your patterns of attention are utterly unique to you and they are totally worth paying attention to.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when we do that paying attention, I guess in some ways, I’d love it, Marcus, if we could get really practical, tactical here because I’m thinking I could sort of psychoanalyze for quite a while, like, “Why did I click this headline but none of the other headlines?” And so, I imagine there are some value into some self-reflection. But how do we do that prudently so that it’s not kind of just blindly unaware, just like sauntering through life and not cluing into the patterns, and not like sort of overkill navel-gazing?

Marcus Buckingham
So, it’s Love + Work. The point of love is, like any energy source, it’s got to flow. Love actually turns into a super caustic abrasive force that will destroy you if you don’t let it out. Love needs and demands expression. So, the reason we stop paying attention to what you’re paying attention to is because you need to express it and turn it into a contribution. That’s what work is in the Love + Work. It’s like an infinite loop where the detail of what you love leads to you making it something of value out of it.

That’s what contribution is, something of value to someone else. It could be learning, it could be a product that you make, it could be a poem that you write, but it’s something of value that you’re creating. So, your attention leads to love, and then it leads to work, and then the detail of what you made informs what you love, which then informs what you make, which then informs what you love. If you look at the most successful people, they’ve got this beautiful infinite loop where love is for work, and work is for love, and love is for work, and work is for love.

And so, if it’s just about navel-gazing, if it’s just about self-involvement or narcissism, then you stop the flow. The point of paying attention to what you pay attention to is so that you can then turn it into contribution. For me, very early on, I found myself paying attention to why. When we’re watching people do the high jump, when I was at school, I was nine or ten, you start watching people watch others do the high jump, and you find that the moment somebody tries to jump over the bar, everyone watching sticks their leg out, and then they deny that they’re doing it. They raise high on their tippy toes and they deny that they’re doing it.

And I was fascinated by the fact that all these people, because then you turn around, you’re, “Why did you do that when he jumped over the bar?” And the person goes, “I didn’t do that.” So, it’s like, instinctively but unknowingly, everyone is kind of weirdly willing the other person over the bar. And for me, I went around, no one else in my school seemed to pay attention to that, no one was even interested in that, and I didn’t know it would lead into a career as a researcher. I didn’t know that at nine, that’s for certain.

But I was so aware of being aware of something other people weren’t that I even remembered it 50 years on, you’re like, “Ooh.” And yet, 20 years later, some Italian scientist discovers the existence of mirror neurons, which is where we try to mimic the experiences and the emotions of others, which is why we do the leg kicking. I didn’t know any of that. But you’re starting off by going, “Is the stuff that you’re paying attention to useful in any way?”

And, for me, weirdly, it led me to learn differently. I didn’t like fiction. I liked nonfiction, particularly nonfiction about why the world works the way it does, why is white light made up of all the other colors, why can you sink a ship and when can you do that, why does every society ritualize death. Have you ever studied a ritual? Why? Like, I’m that guy.

And so, from a very early age, I was lucky enough that I paid attention to some stuff and then noticed that I was the only one paying attention to that stuff. And then it became a channel to which I could learn, and then through which I could contribute. All of us can do that. All of that that I just described for me could sound super boring to you but, for me, that’s a real experience.

So, for any one of us in our work right now, you start off by paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, and you know that no one else is, and that’s the place where you begin to start carving your job to fit yourself, which is what the most successful people do.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when we pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, are there any key practices, or questions, or reflections that help surface some of these patterns all the more clearly to us consciously?

Marcus Buckingham
Yeah, there are three clues you can watch out for. Actually, before that, just FYI. The most successful people don’t do what they love. I run a research institute. We have no data at all that the most successful people do what they love, that they do all that they love. In fact, the data show, instead, that the most successful people find love in what they do. And the threshold seems to be 20%. Like, 20% red threads.

The Mayo Clinic research on doctors and nurses who don’t struggle with burnout shows that they don’t do 60%, 70% red threads. You stay above 20% and 40 looks like 20, 60 looks like 20. Above 20% red threads is like that’s a really interesting psychological threshold. You go below that, 19, 18, 17, 16, and there’s almost a perfect linear one percentage point increase in burnout risk. It’s like below 20% and you start to get psychologically damaged.

So, what we’re all striving for is not a red quilt at work. We don’t need a red quilt. We need 20% red threads every day. Two most powerful questions to predict performance and engagement at work are, “Was I excited to work every day last week? Did I ever challenge my strengths every day in the work last week?” So, there’s something about the frequency of it, the everydayness of it that’s super important.

And the three best clues to spot these red threads would be, first, “What do you instinctively volunteer for? What do you instinctively find your psychological or physical hand going up for even when other people around you are like, ‘You suck at that.’?” If your hand just keeps going up, that’s nontrivial. That’s interesting. Positive anticipation.

Second is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychologist, called flow. So, when time seems to speed up when you’re doing something, when you vanish inside of it and you’re not doing the task but you are the task, the steps fall away and you just…almost you’re doing it unconsciously. So, that moment when you look up, you think it’s been five minutes, but you look up, it’s been an hour – that.

The third clue is when you’re doing something and when you’re done with it, you’re not drained. It’s like it conveys mastery, and that feeling of mastery when you’re done with it, you feel uplifted, you feel authentic, you feel as though something about the thing you just did was, not to be too spiritual, but of your essence, and you fill up. You don’t feel drained. You fill up. It’s not like, “Thank goodness that’s over,” which many of us feel about many things.

It’s more like, “What I was just doing was a manifestation of me.” So, there’s other clues, but three really obvious clues to what these red threads are for you. And, of course, within the book, we’ve got a whole red thread questionnaire which dives into the detail of that because God lies in the detail in terms of you. A red thread isn’t like, “I like helping people.” No, it’s, “Which people? What are you doing with the people? Why are you helping them? When are you helping them? How are you…?”

Let’s get to detail for you because love is super detailed. You start figuring out what those red threads are for you, it’s then the most beautiful raw material to start thinking about “How do you weave your job to fit your loves better?” And there’s all sorts of things you can start doing in order to make that happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s go there right next in terms of, okay, so we’ve identified some red threads. These are things that I love, that I naturally pay attention to, I’m uplifted by, I enter flow, I instinctively volunteer for it, and I think, “Okay, that’s cool. But, uh-oh, Marcus, I’m not getting 20% of that in my job. It’s more like 5%.” What do we do?

Marcus Buckingham
Yeah. Well, first of all, when you ask people that question, and you say, “Do you have the freedom to modify your job to fit yourself better?” Seventy-three percent of people in the US agree or strongly agree that they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Marcus Buckingham
That suggests that there’s 73% of us that aren’t utterly in the wrong neighborhood. Seventy-three percent of us at least think, anyway, that we’ve got room to maneuver. Now, that doesn’t mean that 27% of us are in the wrong spot, but 73% of us feel like we’ve got that room to maneuver.

So, the first thing is the data, we know that 73% of people agree or strongly agree that they have the freedom to modify their job to fit themselves better. So, that suggests there’s an awful lot of us have or think that we have that chance. Interestingly, only 18% of us say that we have a chance to play to our strengths every day, so there’s a big attitude behavior consistency problem, as we call it in social psychology, but there’s an awful lot of us have that freedom.

Twenty-seven percent of us are probably thinking, “I’m utterly in the wrong job,” but 73% think we have the chance to maneuver. So, the first thing that one should do is be intentional. When you wake up in the morning, what red threads are you going to weave today? Where will you find them? There are some clues to spot but where will you find them? Approach every day with intentionality about where you will find those red threads for you, first.

Second, Once you know what those red threads are, any way that you can cultivate those red threads with any particular competency or skill or expertise? You might have had a red thread around communicating with people, and then you had to figure out how to make a podcast, and then you had to figure out some technical expertise to turn this thing that probably began as a yearning or an appetite or something and actually turn it into performance, turn it into a contribution. So, is there any way that you can take that red thread and combine it with some sort of competency that enables you to turn it into contribution?

Third, is there any way, one day next week, all red threads, one day, just one day, where there’s a day that you pick where you’re like, “You know what, I’m going to load up on this day. Can I find a way to do that that ensures that there’s some particular day here where I’m just it is really a love-filled day for me?” Can you then figure out a way for your team to name it? Can you keep volunteering, whatever that is, so that your team starts going, “You know what, Pete is the guy who…” because these days, obviously, anyone’s headcount is replaceable. Anyone is replaceable. But, of course, you want to be…and no one is replicable.

You want to be, if there’s a word, irreplicable, where your love is so defined, what people turn to you for is so defined that they go, “I can’t really imagine this company without that person. I can’t imagine a world without that person. I can’t really imagine a team without that person.” So, can you name what it is you’re bringing to that team? If the team itself had a voice, what would it call you? If the team itself had a voice, how would it name what you do?

I, in the end, ask people to do two things. Just take a blank pad around with you, draw a line the middle of it, put “Loved it” at the top of one column, “Loathed it” at the top of the other. Take it around with you for a week, try to spot those three signs of love. Any time you find yourself doing any part of any those, scribble it down in the “Loved it” column. The inverse, you procrastinate, time slows down, blah, blah, blah, put it in the “Loathed it” column.

You’ll end that week with a really vivid sense from your own actual work of where the love comes from. So, start off with that if you can. And then for you, the challenge on the team will be to ensure that you can find the language to say to your team, “Turn to me for this. I love it when people rely on me for this. I love it when this…” not the braggadocio, “I’m the best at…” but, “I’m at my best when…”

This is, for me, one of those things I think, Pete, where we’re teaming, the verb teaming is one of those skills that we all have to cultivate in this new hybrid model of the way that we work. And part of teaming is being able to share, articulately, vividly, with detail what people can rely on you for, where you’re at your best, what you love the most because people can’t read your mind.

So, the more vivid you can be about that, the more likely it is that the team will start coalescing around the particular value that you bring. Until such point has happened with you, where somebody begins to define the entire role, maybe it’s not 100% red threads but those red threads become foundation for the very thing that people will want to pay you to do.

That whole journey I’ve just described, you don’t need anyone else for it. All you need to do is use the raw material of your regular week of your own life to be able to figure out how you scavenge your job into that which you love. And that’s eminently doable. For 73% of us, anyway, it’s eminently doable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Marcus, I’d love it if you could share with us a couple stories of folks who did just that. They were paying attention to what they’re paying attention to, they identified some red threads, combined it with the competence and contribution, communicated that with their teams, and said, “Hey, I’m at my best when I do this. I really love it when you ask me to do that,” so we could see how it all comes together for folks.

Marcus Buckingham
Well, here’s three, and they’re different roles. One person who comes to mind is a person who was in HR. Her first 10 years of career were in HR, and would go to conference with the company that she was with, and would see how the company’s branding was falling down, wasn’t clear enough, wasn’t coherent enough, and kept writing emails, not critical emails but emails that called attention to the branding of the company, and all these darn conferences simply wasn’t vivid enough, wasn’t clear enough.

Customers didn’t really know what that company stood for. Kept writing them. Kept drawing people’s attention to it to the point it was annoying. But that’s a red thread, she couldn’t stop paying attention to it. Couldn’t shut it off. And so, in the end, they had a marketing turn to this person, and said, “Well, what would you do with it if we ran with it? What would you do differently? Let’s turn that into a PowerPoint presentation and come present to me what you would do differently because I can’t shut you up.”

To cut a long story short, that presentation goes really well, that person turns 15-20% of HR into branding at conferences, learns all about how that actually gets executed and activated, signage, logos, colors, brand palettes, etc. So, now, as a head of marketing for a very large human capital management company, head of marketing. Didn’t start off that way. Started off in HR. But because of whatever reason, couldn’t shut off the brand cacophony at these conferences, turns into a very, very different job.

A totally different example, a different end of the spectrum, those housekeepers I was telling you about, well, one of them, her loves were busy, busy, busy check-in, check-out days when the cart has to be…this is more detailed that you might want, but the cart has to be perfect. Everything about the cart that moves up and down those different floors has to work absolutely perfectly because everybody is getting in and out of those rooms with such a volume of people checking in and volume of people checking out. Everything has got to work unbelievably perfectly.

And for whatever reason, her geekiness, what she geeked out on was the precision and the authenticity of the materials on the cart, making the whole darn thing work so perfectly, initially, just for her floor. And the manager sort of figured out that she was getting, particularly, on busy days, she was getting it done with super quality whereas everyone else was struggling. They were behind, they couldn’t find the stuff that they needed for the rooms.

Anyway, she just kept showing what that red thread was for her, and then volunteered to help others when she was finished, get their carts sorted. And in the end, the manager went, “You know what, we can have you clean a few rooms, but what we really need you to do is you’re the person that’s responsible for the accuracy and the efficiency and the smooth-running of everybody’s cart.” And that might not sound engaging for many people. For that particular person, it was like, “That’s exactly what I want to be paid to do.”

Again, she’s not doing 100% of red threads but just kept sort of unconsciously paying attention to some particular aspect of her job, kept volunteering it, not asking to be praised for it necessarily, just kept volunteering it. And, lo and behold, the job came to be morphed so that it actually was a manifestation of her loves. A million of other examples if you look around, but those are two that come to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I love it, and I do, I want to hear one more if I can from your millions.

Marcus Buckingham
Well, the other one that I was just talking about the other day, my publisher is HBR, Harvard Business Review, and we put together like a leader series with them where they said, “We want to have learning around the everything in the book because there’s really no curriculum around how do you find out what you love and figure out a way to turn it into a contribution. There’s no language, there’s no ritual, there’s no discipline around that, certainly in the world of work.” So, they put together a whole kind of ongoing learning series.

The person that’s leading it is a person who initially came up through publishing. She’s a book publisher, and yet couldn’t help herself. As the world of publishing changed, and bookstores vanished, and everything became “How do you nurture a community, and, author after author after author, struggled with creating a community?” and publishers struggled to build relationships with readers because the intermediaries used to be the bookstores but now the bookstores are gone. So, more and more publishers and authors kept turning to each other going, “How the heck do we build community?”

Well, this person just kept finding herself going, “I love doing web series. I will host any web series…” This is what she’s saying to the authors, “I’ll host any web series you want, any content you want. I’ll be the face of the publisher. I’ll keep doing that for you.” Now, it wasn’t in her job title, it wasn’t anything to do with her job description actually, but she kept doing it, authors loved it because she’s now building through the author and through the publisher a relationship with a growing cadre of readers so much so that every book that she did it for was massively more successful than the others that didn’t have it.

So, of course, the editor-in-chief turns to her more and more and goes, “Could you do this one? Could you do this one? Could you do this one? Could you do this one?” At some point, she goes, “I would love to but, unfortunately, I’ve still got these other responsibilities hanging up over here. If you can get someone to help me with these, then I can continue to do this stuff that elevates our authors and builds community.”

Well, now, lo and behold, that’s her entire job because that’s so valuable. It happens to fit perfectly with the whole dynamics of the publishing business right now. If it hadn’t been fit perfectly, would it have worked out exactly the same way? I don’t know. Bottom line is she found some red thread, pulled and sort of saw where it led, and turned it into an entirely different job than the one that she had even three years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Well, Marcus, let’s say that listeners are fired up, like, “Yes, I want to identify these red threads. I want to do more of these red threads. I want to communicate and find the contribution therein,” do you have any sort of top do’s and don’ts for folks who are embarking on this path?

Marcus Buckingham
Well, in terms of career, yeah, first of all, the best place to start is where you’re at right now. You didn’t start wrong. You didn’t start right. For you, Pete, like joining Bain, was that good or bad? Who knows? For me, I left university and went to Lincoln, Nebraska. Why? I don’t really know. There was a sign of a red thread there somewhere. I’d done an internship with Gallup and I kind of liked one bit of it, and I was like, “Why not?” Goodness knows why you did what you did.

But for anyone who’s listening, you’ve got so much ahead of you. Start by thinking of your career as a scavenger hunt for love. It’s not a ladder. It’s not a lattice. You’re not climbing anywhere. You’re just scavenging. You’re looking for red threads right now where you are. First of all, do that. Second, don’t put too much of your faith in the why or the who. Put most of your faith in the what.

Normally, we think of a career as like finding your calling, which really means finding your purpose. But the two least engaged, least resilient professions, of all that we studied, are healthcare providers, so doctors and nurses, and teachers, people who educate in schools, in case you didn’t know what a teacher was. But they couldn’t be two professions where the purpose of their work was more vivid and more honorable, helping the sick and helping the youth, and yet they’re the most disengaged.

What that tells us clearly is that although you may believe in lots of different whys and purposes in your career, in the end, what nourishes you, what doesn’t, doesn’t happen at the 30,000-foot level. It happens at the two-foot level, the three-foot level. What activities are you filling your week with? What activities are you doing today at 9:00 o’clock or at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon? What are you actually doing? Because in the end, that what you’re actually doing, the specifics of these red threads trump your purpose.

If you believe in your purpose, and for whatever reason, the day-to-day reality of what you’re doing is loveless, then you will be psychologically damaged as damaged as nurses and doctors are today independent of the pandemic. So, watch out that you don’t try to use the who to compensate for you being in the wrong job, or the why rather. If you believe in the why but you’re in the wrong role on the team, it doesn’t matter how much you believe in the why, or like the people you work with. In the end, it’s the activities themselves that will nourish you or not.

I guess I’ll just give one more. As I mentioned, the idea that what’s really valuable in work right now is specificity. So, one of the things to think about is think about your career as an hourglass where it’s wide at the bottom. You’re scavenging, you’re seeing what all of those different threads are out there and you’re pulling on these different threads and seeing where they lead, and you’re honoring where your loves are and you’re taking them seriously.

But the middle of the hourglass is, at some point, you need mastery. Today, we seem to value follower fame or dilettantism, anyone is an expert today. But, actually, deep down, we do know, as Hippocrates said, “Life is short. The art is long,” or the craft is long, so at some point, you’re going to want to take those red threads of yours and honor them with your undivided attention.

And as an Erikson professor, and as Erickson said ten years, Malcolm Gladwell popularized that as 10,000 hours, but the takeaway from that isn’t that you invest 10,000 hours, you can be great at anything. That was a misunderstanding of the research and the data. All the data really shows is if you’ve got a love, if you’ve got a couple of red threads, at some point in your career, you’re going to want to give at least 10,000 hours to the mastery of that.

And out of that, the top part of the hourglass is out of that comes leadership. We follow people who turn our anxiety into confidence. That’s the job of a leader. And the best way to turn anxiety into confidence is to have deep mastery in something that we can all see and is important to us. Get deep into something. It doesn’t become narrowing. You don’t get narrowed. Your depth becomes the integrating point for your learning but it also becomes your justification for being able to lead others.

They now know who you are. They know that you’ve asked 17 questions, opened 17 more doors, can see around the corner more vividly. Your depth, that middle of the hourglass where you get narrow and focused becomes the authority that you need to lead others. So, those would be some of my do’s and don’ts.

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

Marcus Buckingham
A favorite quote of mine or a favorite quote of somebody else’s?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was going to ask for a favorite quote that you’ve coined later, but I’ll take them both, right back-to-back if you’ve got them handy.

Marcus Buckingham
Mine that I hope people leave with is the power of human nature is that each human nature is unique. That’s its power. That’s not a bug to be fixed. That’s not a problem. Human uniqueness is the source of its power. Most forces of nature, their power comes from their uniformity – electricity, water, wind. The power of human nature is not that. The power of human nature is its uniqueness. And we need to build schools and teams and workplaces where we maximize that power. So, that’s a big one for me.

I think the quote that I always have in my head as I wander around, actually comes from Peter Drucker, and he was the eminent management theorist of the last century. But his quote was, “The best companies get their strengths together and make their weaknesses irrelevant.” A lot of my work has simply taken that on and applied it to the level of the individual. That’s what I learned from my mentor at Gallup, Don Clifton. But it began, really, with Peter Drucker going, “Everything is about differentiation – intelligent intentional differentiation.”

He looked at it at the level of the company, “Don’t try to be all things to all people no one believes in.” And, of course, what I’ve done is taken it through Don Clifton and all my strengths work there, and now here with what I’m doing at the ADP Research Institute, try to take it to the level of the individual and then back on up into the institutions, like school, college, work.

Pete Mockaitis
And this one will be hard for you, but could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Marcus Buckingham
Oh, gosh. Well, actually, it’s one that we’re just doing right now. My co-head at the research institute is an economist called Nela Richardson. She’s a black woman of a certain age, and she came to me the other day, and said, “Are we doing any better at D, E & I?” diversity, equity, and inclusion, “Are we doing better?”

And I said to her, “Well, we can tell you about the D and the E. I can tell you about diversity. We could actually count that. We can just count representation. I can tell you about the E. I can count equitable pay or promotion.” But I said, “I actually can’t tell you about the I. From the 1960 forward, you can write, like today, I actually can’t tell you if more people feel more included.” This was about a year and a half ago.

And shame on me, shame on us, that we’ve got no thermometer for measuring, reliably measuring people’s feeling of inclusion. Nothing. And so, for the last year and a half, we’ve been in the field trying to build a reliable thermometer to measure inclusiveness. And we’ve just come out of the field, it’s about 27,000 people, a thousand people in each country, stratified random sample of the workers in each country, trying to get at what is the right way, the most reliable way to measure inclusiveness so that we can see whether or not anything that we’re doing – programs, training, education – is it actually making people’s lives any better, at least according to them.

So, I’m not going to bore you with diving into exactly what we’re finding and where we’re finding it, but that research right now feels to me incredibly necessary because, let’s face it, what gets measured gets managed. If you can’t measure the I, you might move the D and the E, but if people aren’t feeling better about it, what a miss that is.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite book?

Marcus Buckingham
I think my favorite book is The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin, which I got when I was 16. It’s about 700 pages long, and it’s just a book about men and women as discoverers, people who ask why, and why this and why that. And it confirmed for me, because I was reading Lord of the Rings, I was trying to read Lord of the Rings at the same time, and I was bored to tears, I was bored of the rings. But I couldn’t care about Gollum, I couldn’t care about Frodo, I just couldn’t get excited about it.

But why does Marie Curie ask the questions that she does in her laboratory? Why does Isaac Newton put a thin shard of glass in the window of his Cambridge students digs, and then see a rainbow of light on the wall? That’s what that book was all about. And I loved it, and I read it like it was like Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t Lord of the Rings, it was a book about people asking why.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marcus Buckingham
I love walking really fast. I live in a place with lots of hills, and I love that pounding-heart energy. I don’t really like working out inside. I’m lucky enough to live in the country so I’ve got hills all over the place and trees everywhere, and pounding up a hill and down a hill, and stepping over rocks. And I saw a bobcat the other day. Like a bobcat. I’m British. There are no bobcats in Britain, and I saw a bobcat. Sorry to be so excited about bobcats, but that was amazing. So, I love pounding up hills and down dales and doing that every day, getting my heart racing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Marcus, I was doing the math when you talked about nine years old and 50, I’m like you’re a very handsome youthful-looking man.

Marcus Buckingham
Well, I appreciate that.

Pete Mockaitis
What is the secret? Is it the exercise? Is there a moisturizer I need to start using? How do you do it?

Marcus Buckingham
Well, I’m 57, I’m not 59 but it’s genes, man. My dad’s dead but my mom is 83 and looks like she’s 70. I don’t know what it is. She’s got youthful genes, and somehow, she passed something onto me where I don’t really have a regimen, a health regimen other than walking a lot, which, as I said, I love. But other than that, I think I got it, like most things, you get it from your mom.

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

Marcus Buckingham
I think two places. One is on the social media front, Instagram is my favorite for whatever reason, so Instagram. And then, together with Harvard, we built this learning series. So, if you want to see the learning around the book, for anything we talked about today, is really something you want to dive deeper into, go to LoveAndWork.org and you’ll see there’s like six hours of content all around the ideas and the practices of some of which we touched on in the podcast and then a whole lot more.

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

Marcus Buckingham
Take your love seriously because if you don’t, no one else will, and that’s the place to begin. The more filigreed and detailed and vivid you can be and understanding that which you love, the more likely you are to respect and be curious about loves of others. If you don’t start with yourself and really dive deep into the detail of you love it, when, what. Write three love notes. That’s what I would do. Write three love notes, which is simply a sentence that begins, “I love it when…” and then finish the darn sentence.

And you’ve got to have a verb in it, not, “I love it when people praise me.” No, “I love it when I do…” what, when, how, to who. Love lives in detail and most of us have forgotten the detail of that which we love, which is why the most common answer to the question, “What are your strengths?” in a job interview is, “I love working with people.” And it’s like, “Come on. What are you doing with the people? Which people?”

So, that’s the challenge I would give everyone of us. Can you honor yourself by describing vividly just three red threads? Write three love notes. Because if you don’t take yourself seriously in that way, don’t expect anyone else to. They can’t read your mind and they certainly can’t read your heart.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marcus, this has been a treat. I wish you much love and great work in your years to come.

Marcus Buckingham
Thank you, sir. Appreciate you having me.

727: How to Start Something New and See it Through with Michael Bungay Stanier

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Michael Bungay Stanier shares his three-step process for starting and achieving your most ambitious goals.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to crafting more motivating goals 
  2. Why we often falter—and how to strengthen your resolve
  3. The four people you’ll want on your journey 

About Michael

Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of six books which between them have sold more than a million copies. He’s best known for The Coaching Habit, the best-selling coaching book of the century and already recognized as a classic. His new book, How to Begin, helps people be more ambitious for themselves and for the world. Michael was a Rhodes Scholar and plays the ukulele badly. He’s Australian, and lives in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at www.MBS.works. 

Resources Mentioned

 

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Michael Bungay Stanier Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome back to Home to be Awesome at Your Job.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m so happy to be back. Thanks, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your latest upcoming work How to Begin. Tell me, what’s something interesting you’ve began lately?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Oh, that’s aa very fine question. Well, I have begun, not exactly begun, but I’ve began to finally get better at ukulele. So, I have a ukulele and I have spent 10 years being absolutely and consistently mediocre at it. I pick it up every now and then and I play it, and I’m exactly the same as I always am. And then in the last three months or so, my wife got interested in ukulele, and I’ve actually been practicing sort of the next step up, and that’s hard because you suck more before you get better but I feel like I’ve come through the suck stage and I’m actually getting slightly better at ukulele. So, that’s what I’m celebrating now, anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, I wish you much luck and hope to hear some ditties.

Michael Bungay Stanier
No, you don’t want to go there.

Pete Mockaitis
In due time.

Michael Bungay Stanier
In due time, yeah. Call me in 20 years’ time when I’m back on the podcast then we can maybe have a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, looking forward to it. Well, let’s talk about your book here How to Begin. When I think of Michael Bungay Stanier, or MBS, or just simply Michael, I think, “Coaching, coaching, coaching. Like, don’t give advice. Where’s the coaching habit? Be a little bit more coach-like. Be curious a little longer.” And so, “How to Begin,” this feels like there’s an overlap there but it has a whole lot more, I don’t know, as I look through it, a little bit more like kind of juice in terms of inspiration, like a Don Quixote music is playing in my ear. What’s the story here?

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s cool. I like the Don Quixote shoutout. Look, one of the questions that’s at the heart of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, is, “So, what’s the real challenge here for you?” And it just has as an insight that often, if we don’t interrogate the problem, we end up trying to solve the wrong problem. And this book is similar but different because it’s fundamentally asking a question, “What’s the real goal here for you? What’s a worthy goal? What’s something that is worth doing, worth your time, worth your life, worth your focus, worth your resources, worth your energy? Where are you going to spend your time?”

So, 12 years ago or so, I wrote a book called Do More Great Work and it said, “Look, everything you do is forced into one of three different buckets – either bad work, or good work, or great work.” Bad work, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-crushing work. Most people have some idea of what I’m talking about. Good work is like your good job description. Even if you don’t have a job but it’s like being productive, efficient, what your boss wants, what your bosses wants. But great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning, so stuff that lights you up and it’s the stuff that makes the difference.

And this book How to Begin is kind of deeper dive into that idea, to say, look, most of what we hear about goal-setting, particularly in the work context, is actually a bit underwhelming. It’s like, “Okay, this is what’s cascaded down from the bosses. Here’s how you do a smart goal,” and I’m like, “I don’t want a smart goal. I want a worthy goal. I want something that’s thrilling and important and daunting that will grow me, that will make a difference, that will light me up.” And that’s what this book is getting into.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thrilling, important, daunting, we’re going to dig into these components. I’d, maybe, first, love to hear an inspiring story of how this approach really made an impact for somebody.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, there’s been a community of people working at MBS.works using this kind of process to make traction on work. And what’s been great about it is the diversity of the different worthy goals that people have taken on, everything from writing a book, launching a training program in their organization, but one of the ones that I think is most moving is Michelle, who I have known for a number of years.

She lost her son to homelessness and a drug overdose some 20 years ago, and it’s meant that every year, when the anniversary of his…well, twice, birth and his death, have rolled around, it’s been a hard time for her, and she sat with that and sat with just the weight of being a mother who’s had that happen to a child. And coming up with this idea of How to Begin and the worthy goal process, Michelle has actually started a nonprofit to raise money to begin to create a shelter for other people who are struggling with homelessness like her son, Michael, was.

And she wrote to me on the anniversary of his death this year, just going, “This is the first time, in 20 years, that I felt I can be celebratory about this moment rather than carry some sadness and maybe some shame with it.” So, that’s a pretty good story to hear for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That is, yes. That’s beautiful. Well, so tell us then, we’ve got a three-step process: setting a worthy goal, committing, and crossing the threshold. Can you give us just the quick overview of what do you mean by these things and what do we get wrong? You said smart goals are not as exciting.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, smart goals, when you think about it, it’s like it’s not actually about the goal itself. It’s about, “Have you got it right so we can measure it, we can crack it, you can do it?” And you’re like, “Well, what if it’s the wrong goal?” And I just think that we don’t spend enough time kind of testing and interrogating and really making sure, “Is this the thing you want to commit to?” Because no matter what your context is, you’re going to give sweat, blood, tears, money, time to this, make sure it’s a good goal.

So, the first section of the book is three steps to kind of figure out, “How do you draft and re-draft and re-draft a worthy goal so you get to a point where you can be pretty certain that this is worth it?” The second step is where you actually pause for a moment and you actually weigh up, “Look, you got a good goal, but are you really up to committing to this because there’s a price to be paid for commitment?” You’re going to say yes to something and it means you have to say no to some other things, and you’re not always clear what you’re actually committing to and what you’re actually walking away from.

So, this is for all of us who’ve had those moments where we’re like, “I started a goal. I thought it was pretty good but then it all got too complicated and for some reason I just ran out of gas.” This allows you to kind of examine that a little more closely to make sure that you’re really clear about the choice that you’re making.

And then if you’ve made that choice, and you’re like, “You know what, this feels right. I know the prizes and punishments of starting this worthy goal,” the third step is to get you going. And there’s no promise to get you to the end point because a worthy goal is tricky and there’s no guaranteed outcome. But how do you get across the threshold? How do you get moving? Because, certainly, I’ve had moments where I’ve set a worthy goal and then being paralyzed, unable to act around it, I’m like, “Okay.”

Years ago, I read a book by David Allen, who’s kind one of the original productivity guys. He wrote a book called Getting Things Done. And one of his insights that stuck with me still is that you can’t do a project, you can only do the next step. And too often we get paralyzed by the weight and the size of a project, and I’m kind of building on some of his works, to say, “How do you figure out what the small steps are? How do you figure out the support you need? Who do you travel with? How do you figure out how to make progress in a safe way so you don’t blow yourself up along the way?”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, I’m excited to dig into each of these bits. So, let’s talk about identifying if a goal is worthy. So, you say it’s thrilling, it’s important, it’s daunting. How do we arrive at such a thing? And I guess if a goal is not one of these three things, does that make it unworthy? I guess it’s sort of like, “Well, my boss asked me to do this.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, well, exactly. Well, we’ve got reality to contend with, so for all us within work, we’re working within the context of, look, some of our goals are going to come down and be handed to us. And I still want you to be an active participant in actually how you think about this goal. So, once you get that goal, once you have that starting point, the question is to say, “Can I make this thrilling and important and daunting? And how do I make it as thrilling and as important and as daunting as I can because I know if I can do thrilling…?” And thrilling is all about, “Does this light me up? Do I care about it? Do I get some internal motivation around this goal?”

Is it important? Meaning, “Does this actually contribute to the bigger game? Does it serve the bigger play? Does it give more to the world than it takes?” And then daunting is to go, “Well, where’s the learning edge around this? How will I grow? How will I expand as I do this?” And, look, it’s true that some of stuff that we do at work, for sure, isn’t going to tick those boxes, but I want you to see if you can find that goal that will give you the most of that as best you can.

So, once you get a goal, and this might be something that you come up with yourself, or that you’ve done it in collaboration with your boss, or maybe it’s just been handed to you by your boss, you then can go, “Well, how do I turn up the volume against thrilling and important and daunting?” And I think you can start by holding it up against three different tests.

So, test number one is the spouse-ish test. So, imagine this, Pete, you go back to your partner, your spouse, or a person who just knows you, who gets you. It doesn’t have to be your actual spouse because some of us don’t have spouses and some of us don’t want to think of our spouses—our key person. But think of a person who really knows you, who gets you, and you go, “This goal, what do you reckon?” You’re going to get a reaction from them because they know you.

They’re either going to go, “Look, Pete, awesome. Yes, that is perfect for you. That’s going to light you up. Amazing.” Or they’re going to say, “No, that’s a terrible decision. Don’t do that. That’s an awful goal for you. You definitely don’t want to do that.” Or maybe there’s a middleman, and they’ll go, “Look, Pete, you’ve been talking about this for months now, or years, quite frankly. Stop yapping about it and get on with it. Sure, it’s the right thing but I’m a bit tired of hearing it.”

But what you’re getting is some triangulation from somebody who knows you around, “Is this a goal that’s actually thrilling for you?” And the power of thrilling is it’s a counteract against obligation because you’re this on, and “Do I care about this? Does this light me up?”

Then the second test is to hold it up against the FOSO test. So, FOSO stands for “For the sake of,” and this is where you go, “How does this goal, this worthy goal, this project, how does this contribute to the bigger game? For the sake of what am I taking this on?” And this allows you to make a connection to the strategy, or the business outcome, or some other outcome that you care about.

And then the daunting one is, basically, you weighing up and going, “Look…” I call it the Goldilocks zone test. The Goldilocks zone is that place and space where a planet is in the right relationship to the sun so that water is liquid. It’s not too hot, it doesn’t burn off. It’s not too cold and the water freezes. So, now you’re asking, “Does this goal have the right half?” Not too big that it’s just impossible, it’s not too small that it’s just tactical, but it’s actually the right type of goal that we’ll actually go, “You know what, I know how to start this and I totally know how to finish this. This feels like it’s going to be an adventure.”

So, I think that’s one of the ways you can start interrogating your goal, to go, “Does it have these three attributes?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Now, I like what you had to say about turning up the volume. And, I guess, I’m thinking right now about…I’m thinking about how do I make something more thrilling because I’ve definitely encountered some things where it’s like, “Okay, yeah, that could impact a lot of people, make a lot of money, challenge me to learn and grow, but I don’t really care.” What do I do with that? Part of me is like, “Is there something wrong with me? Like, I like impact, I like income, I like learning, and yet I don’t really care. What’s going on?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, you got a couple of choices. One is to go, “Look, if it’s not thrilling, it’s hard to sustain this worthy goal,” as you get going on it because after a while, you’re like, “I’m just running out of puff here. I’m running of things that I’d rather do instead of this because it just doesn’t light me up.” But another way of putting it is to go, “Look, the fact that this worthy goal has impact, it makes money for me, it drives my business forward, it propels me in a way that I want, that’s interesting. The fact that it’s daunting, like, this will be hard, this will stretch me and grow me, well, that’s interesting.”

So, then the question I would ask is, “Well, what needs to be true for this to be thrilling or, at least, more thrilling for you?” And what that does is it takes you to a place where you’re like, “Okay, you mentioned that this would be thrilling, is there anything there? Can you get there?” And it might ask you to kind of rethink and re-draft what this worthy goal is so that you can actually go, “You know what, this would be interesting for me.”

A parallel, Pete, is like I was thinking around, “How do I start a new podcast?” because I’m like, “You know what, I can see how I can frame my podcast to be important, and I can also see how I can frame a podcast to be daunting. I want to set some goals for myself around a podcast that would really challenge me and push me,” because I’ve done podcasts before, so I need a challenge around that. Then there’s, “How do I make it thrilling?” because I’ve done five podcasts where I’ve done basically a straight interview process. And you know what? That is not thrilling for me anymore. Even if I get interesting people on, I’m like, I can feel myself going through the motions.

So, with the podcast that I have at the moment, 2 Pages with MBS, I’m like, “You know what, they’re going to read two pages of a book, and I don’t know what the two pages are, and it means that I’ll have to be really present to hear what they read, and then react in the moment to what’s being read.” And, suddenly, that makes a podcast thrilling for me, I’m like, “Oh, I have to be on my toes, I have to be smart, I have to bring forward what I know so I can be in a good conversation with this person.” And that twist on it was what upped the ante around the thrilling for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I guess what I’m thinking right now about some like procrastination-y things, in terms of, like, “Oh, I should probably call my accountant and get some things figured out associated with taxes.” And, in a way, it could result in a lot of tax savings, which is that’s cool, “Hey, money.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Important, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And I just feel kind of, as a husband, father, provider, that’s sort of like important and responsible thing, and this isn’t really my zone of strength in terms of compliance-y accounting stuff, so there’s some daunting-ness there. But, so, yeah, if I want to get some thrill but I’m having a hard time finding it, what do you recommend? Because just not doing it isn’t much an option here.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, I agree. And I’m not sure I would call that a worthy goal. I would call that a tactic that needs to be done as part of this.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s an obligation, sure.

Michael Bungay Stanier
It’s an obligation, yeah. So, I’d be going, I mean, you can play around with this. And I’m just making stuff up at this stage, Pete, but I’d be going, “All right.” So, part of what your worthy goal might be to go, “How do I build an extraordinary business that keeps me out of the minutiae that sucks my soul?” Because that’s how I feel about it with some of this kind of the operational side of running a business, I’m like, “I know I should send this thing through to my accountant,” but, honestly, I’ll find anything to avoid that for some reason or not. So, I totally empathize with what you’re saying.

Now, if you’re like, “How do I double the size of my business without being sucked into the minutiae?” I don’t know. There’s a possibility that I’ll start opening the door towards thrilling and important and daunting, and then you go, “Well, what needs to be true around that?” Well, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to build some systems or I got to find an online business manager, I’ve got to find a solution to say, ‘You’re now following up with the accountant around this sort of stuff. You’re now doing this work for me.’” I’m just making it up but that’s one thing that comes to mind for me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right, that does start to get more thrilling in terms of it’s like, “Okay, so this year, sure, we’re going to have to make it happen.” But if I approach it in a way in terms of, “What if I sort of like document and make this the prototype or template or pattern for this is the last time I ever have to do this again because it will be systematized and outsourced and automated so that I don’t even need to think about sending a check to the United States Treasury.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, or anybody.

Pete Mockaitis
It just happens.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You’re like, “You know what…” And I get you on this because next year, I’m thinking of trying to write not just one book but maybe two or even three books in a year, and that’s really hard for that thrilling and important and daunting for me. And I’m asking myself the question, “What needs to be true for me to be able to write three books in a year?” which feels impossible at the moment.

And one of them is like I spend zero time talking to an accountant and trying to write checks and trying to figure out chasing down invoices or whatever it might be. I’m like, “Okay. Well, if that’s what needs to be true, how do I solve for that?” and things start happening.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so there we go. So, we’re choosing a goal and it has those three components – it’s thrilling, it’s important, it’s daunting. It’s worthy, and there are some juice to it. Let’s talk about the committing stage.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Right. So, this is where we often get stuck, we’re like, “I don’t know why…” Somebody once gave me a metaphor, it’s like, for some reason, it feels like you’ve got your foot on the accelerator but at the same time, you’ve got your foot on the brake. And I’m like, “Why is it so hard for me to make progress on a goal that actually ticks the boxes for me?”

And here’s the kind of the deepest insight around this. You’re actually more committed to the status quo than you realize. Even though there’s a part of you that’s got a hunger for what’s there in the future, there’s a part of you that goes, “Look, however is the status quo is for me at the moment, I’m getting something from that, and there’s a part of me that is reluctant to leave it.” So, here, you’re doing one thing but you’re doing it twice. And the one thing is you’re weighing up the prizes and punishments of the choice. So, this is how I explain it in the book.

The first thing you want to do is, you’re like, hey, you’ve come up with a worthy goal. You’re super excited about it. You, then – thought experiment – you, then, go, “Imagine I didn’t take this on. I walk up to the edge and then I walk away from the worthy goal. What are the prizes and punishments? What are the pros and cons of that decision?”

Well, the prizes are often pretty obvious. It’s like you’re not putting anything at risk, you’re not trying out something new, you’re not moving into a danger zone, you’re not disrupting relationships, you’re not disrupting the status quo. There’s a way that the short-term prizes are often about the non-disruption and the comfort and the familiarity.

But then you go, “But the punishment of me not taking this on is I don’t get any of that thing that I’ve imagined as my worthy goal.” And then you try to weigh it up, and you go, “Well, what weighs more here? What’s got the greatest weight?” What you hope is punishments outweigh the prizes. The reward of…or rather the cost of you not taking this on is more significant than the prize of embracing the status quo.

Then you’ve got to do it again, this time imagining you are fully committed to the worthy goal, like you just go all in on it, and you’re like, “Okay, imagine I was really going for it.” Step number one, what are the prizes of that?” And here, you get to really kind of taste what are the outcomes you’d get from taking on this worthy goal.

Let’s imagine that you’re doing something, like, “I’m trying to double my business without being sucked into any of the minutiae.” You’re like, “I’m richer, I’m starting to dress better, I’m surrounded by beautiful women, my net worth is 3X or 5X or 10X. I’ve upgraded everything in my life. It’s fantastic.” Okay, so you’ve got all of that.

But then against that, you’ve also got to weigh the risks of taking on a worthy goal. What’s the punishment?

Pete Mockaitis
Paparazzi always dogging me.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Paparazzi, exactly. The divorce, that’s ugly. But, also, it’s the disruption that you cause because you’ve got to say yes to some people and no to some people. You’ve got to change things. People are expecting you to do something and you’re not doing that anymore, so stuff happens. But, again, you’ve got to weigh this up, and go, “Well, are the prizes outweighing the punishments?” And too often, we just don’t really look at, “What would it mean for me to really commit to this? And is the benefit I get from doing this worth the disruption that this will cause?” because stuff is going to change. You can’t add a worthy goal without stuff around you changing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, what’s interesting, and sometimes one of the bits in there that we don’t really surface and acknowledge, as I’m thinking about some bits of my resistance, is just sort of like almost embarrassment, in terms of maybe one of the reasons I don’t call the accountant is because he’s going to ask me some questions, like, “Oh, did you do this?” It’s like, “I don’t remember. I don’t know.” “Yes, what do you think this number is going to look like this year?” It’s like, “I don’t know. I haven’t been tracking.” So, it’s like there’s a lot of embarrassment or humility.

Or talking to a financial planner is like, “So, what are your goals?” It’s like, “I don’t know.” It’s just like, “What’s your deal? Are you a grownup? What’s wrong with you? Give some thought to this. This is irresponsible.” So, now, of course, professionals probably won’t speak to you that way, but sometimes that is what’s in the mix but it’s not surfaced. It’s like this emotional stuff.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I agree. No, I think it’s a really great insight. If we’re playing with this idea, there’s the perhaps embarrassment of the conversation with the accountant but it’s also like, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to describe my process for talking to my accountant. I don’t have a process. I have a sham-bolic, rambling around, collecting random bits of paper off the floor that I then give to the accountant, and go, “Maybe some of the receipts are in here.”

So, it’s like, “Oh, this is embarrassing to explain to the accountant. It’s also embarrassing to explain to my online business manager. You know what, it’s better if I just keep it under the rug and I just kind of manage this in my own barely adequate way rather than hand it over and have that moment of, ‘I’m not very good at this.’”
So, so often, we don’t take on the worthy goal because we want to protect our ego and our status and that kind of façade that we’re putting up, that, and I’ll just speak for myself, the façade that I’ve actually got it together and I know what I’m doing. Whereas, I know with some of this stuff, if I’m trying to delegate it, what it reveals is that I just wasn’t very good at it in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. This is powerful stuff. You know, it’s funny, when it comes to the commit stage, I think most of us underthink about this and either jump in…what comes to mind is I remember I was dating this girl, and someone suggested, it’s like, “Hey, do you want to do this half marathon?” And I was like, “Oh, wow, interesting. That sounds fun.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“How far?”

Pete Mockaitis
“It sounds fun. It might be a good challenge. I like you. It’d be fun to run with you. It’d be a cool victory. And I have gained some pounds. This might be a nice structured goal challenge.” So, I’m really kind of like weighing it, and so I asked my girlfriend at the time, it’s like, “Yeah, so Dave suggested maybe do a half marathon. He’s asking folks to join in. So, what do you think? Would you want to do that?” She’s like, “Sure.” It was so funny, I was appalled. “Sure? Sure? Just like that. Sure? Are you serious? Like, do you know what you’re talking about?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“It’s 13.1 miles.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You know what you’re talking about here? The training schedule, the sacrifice, and the things.” And it’s funny, she ended up dumping me, and we stayed in touch for a while, but it was kind of fun to say, “So, did you ever up doing that half marathon? Oh, no? Oh, yeah, well, we did. So, anyway, no big deal.” Whatever consolation prize you can get, I’ll take. So, yeah, it’s sort of like we can underthink the commit stage and either do it and then whoopsies, then we’re stuck in the middle, or we don’t do it, and it’s like, “Oh, we’re really missing out.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
As we’re kind of talking about this, it’s kind of moving into the New Year’s Resolution season, people are thinking about next year, they’re thinking about what they want to do differently next year, and from lots of people, it’s pretty similar to what they were going to try and do last year, they’re like, “You know what, this year, really, I’m going to run a half marathon and we’re going to get fit,” “I’m going to write a book,” “I’m going to be more present with my family,” “I’m going to watch less TV,” “I’m going to go for a promotion,” “I’m going to get better at whatever it might be.”

And there’s a frustration and a sadness, really, that comes on every year where you’re like, “Why didn’t I make progress on that because this wasn’t a trivial thing? This is actually something that matters to me and that I want to make some progress on. But, for some reason, I just don’t seem to be able to make traction with it, kind of make any kind of real gains on it.” And, often, what happens is we end up beating ourselves up, going, “What’s wrong with me? Am I weak-willed? Do I have no spine? What’s going on here?”

And my take on it is it’s really not that you’re weak-willed, it’s just that you haven’t got clear yet on what you need to say no to in the status quo so that you can say yes to in terms of this new goal. So, if you’re trying to go, “I’m training for a half marathon,” well, what you imagine, of course, is that moment when you cross the finish line, and you get the medal, and the crowd goes wild, and you break the tape, and you’re, like, just ran 20 kilometers, 13 miles. That’s amazing.

But it’s like, “What’s the punishment of taking this on?” Well, it means getting up regularly and getting out there, and running in the rain, and running in the snow, and this, and this, and this. And then you might go, “Well, what’s the prizes and punishments if I didn’t do this? I see this marathon, or half marathon, well, what are the prizes of not doing that?”

Well, prizes are obvious, “I get to eat whatever I want, drink whatever I want, sleep in, wear elasticated trousers, all of that stuff.” But what’s the punishment of not taking this on? “Putting on weight, getting a little soft, getting aerobically compromised, not having an adventure, being dumped by my girlfriend because I’m not training for the marathon like she is.” So, it’s exploring that level of commitment where you actually go, you can answer the question, “Am I really up for this or am I kidding myself?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then, I guess, how do we make that determination? So, you’re looking at the prizes and punishments in both scenarios? And then how do you render that verdict?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I think that’s it. You weigh up the prizes and punishments. You weigh up the prizes and punishments of “If I didn’t do it,” this is a bit of I’ve got a tricky mind thing, but you’re kind of like, you want the punishments of not doing it. It’s like a double negative, the punishments of not doing it to win out. And then you weigh up doing it and you want the prizes of doing it to win. And if the things balance like that, you’re like, “You know what, I think I’m up for this.” And then you can move into that next piece, which is around, “Okay, you’ve got the worthy goal, you’ve figured out that you’re willing to commit to it, how do you now cross the threshold? How do you get now get going on this?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us, how do we?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Crossing the threshold is language that comes from…and more people may have heard of the hero’s journey. And the hero’s journey is like you know the basic story. The hero hears the call, heads down, fights the monster, defeats the monster, takes the prize, and brings the prize back, and the hero is changed and the villain is changed. It’s the basis for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and all these classic fables.

But one of the steps of the hero’s journey that often gets overlooked is that the first time the hero hears the call, a call to adventure, he resists the call. He goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t think so. Yeah, maybe not. I’ll do something else instead.” And then the call persists and the hero crosses the threshold. So, I think, to cross the threshold, you need to think about how you’re going to make progress, because if you take on a worthy goal, something that’s thrilling and important and daunting, it’s not a straightforward journey. It’s not like you type in the address into Google Maps and it says like 60-minute journey, 17 minutes if you detour via the coffee shop.

It’s actually more like you’re standing on a hilltop, there’s a misty valley in front of you, there’s a mountaintop in the distance, which you think maybe the mountaintop that you’re heading for, but you don’t entirely know how you’re going to travel. So, I think you want to be thinking about three things. The first is you want to be traveling in small steps. So, it’s not striding confidently forward in this single direction, it’s feeling your way forward but taking small steps as you go.

So, what I recommend is one of the ways of doing that is you conduct experiments, which is like, “How do you do a little thing that doesn’t risk too much where you can figure it out?” So, if you’re running a half marathon, you’re like, “Rather than me commit to a half marathon, what if I spend, what if I commit to a week of seeing what it’s like going for a run for five minutes every day because that’s going to tell me a lot? It’s going to tell me, like, ‘This is ridiculous. There’s no way I can run a half marathon. I’d skip four of my five-minute runs.’” Or, you may go, “You know what, I did that and I feel okay, and I reckon I’m up for this adventure.” So, testing experiments is one part of crossing the threshold.

The second thing you want to be thinking about is, “Who do you travel with?” because I think if you’re doing a worthy goal, it’s tricky to do it by yourself. So, again, this half marathon is a great example because you’re like, you know what, you could try it by yourself, or you could say, “All right, who do I need by my side to help me run with this?” And in the book, I talk about four key archetypes that you can think about.

A warrior archetype. This is fierceness, willing to put your hand at your back and push you forward, create boundaries, kind of take on the enemy. So, sometimes it’s really helpful for that. You can imagine half marathon, you’re like, that person who’s like, “I’m showing up at your door every day at 5:30 a.m., Pete, and we’re going for a run. I’m that person.”

Then there’s the healer, or sometimes the lover, they’re called. This is like, “How do I get comfort? How do I get familiarity? How do I get a hug? How do I get softness? How do I get healing?” So, maybe there’s something there who’s like maybe this is your massage therapist, like, “I’m going to make you feel better after doing this.”

Then there’s the teacher or the magician. So, this is maybe going, “Okay, how do you actually run a half marathon? How do you train for a half marathon? I need to learn that.” So, you might go online or you might find a running coach to kind of go, “Okay, this is where I’m getting that information from.” And then the final archetypal role is that of the ruler or the visionary. This is where you are kind of like hold your ambition.

So, maybe this is someone who’s going, “Hold up, dude, we’re not just running a half marathon. This is the start of something. This is you getting into endurance racing. In two-years’ time, we’re going to do the hundred-mile Death Valley race together,” and maybe he’s holding that space for you. Now, I’m just making all this stuff up but the key takeaway is you want people around you because if you’re taking a worthy goal by yourself, sometimes it’s just hard. And if you’re all by yourself, it’s too easy to collude with yourself and opt out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. And I’m all about accountability and the power that wields it. And I dig it how, so you talked about the hero’s journey, I think it’s always like, “Oh, Yoda or Gandalf.” It’s like, “Well, there’s more than one shape of that just like the wise mentor.” So, I like those archetypes kind of different roles there.

Michael Bungay Stanier
The wise, the Gandalf, or the Yoda, they’re the teacher or the magician archetype, and they can play their role for sure, but that’s not the only person in the band. It’s like when Harry Potter was taking on Voldemort, he doesn’t just have Dumbledore. He has a band of people around him who helped conquer the baddie. I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler for anybody. Harry Potter kills Voldemort in the end. Spoiler alert.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, when people spoil things for me, I say, “Or was he just messing with me?”

Michael Bungay Stanier
“Oh, was he just messing?” There you go. Yeah, maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s a jokester, Michael.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m a trickster. Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, then let’s hear about let’s say we’re in the middle of things and, yeah, motivation just sort of dips along the journey, what do you do?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’m thinking there are three things that you might look to that could help because motivation will dip. It’s not if, it’s when. Motivation will dip. So, if you’re lucky, you’ve got people around where you can go, “Man, this sucks,” and they go, “It does suck. How do we help you get back on the path?” So, that’s part of why you want to have your people with you.

Secondly, you might be going, “You know what, this sucks. Motivation has dipped. But you know what, it was only an experiment. So, now, I’m like, how do I design the next thing that might be get my motivation up and get me running around that?” But the third thing you want to be thinking about is, “How do you get back to the best version of yourself?” And this is a powerful piece of kind of reorientation to the best version of who you are.

And in the book, I talk about this exercise called “This, not that.” And I love writing about this because I’ve frustrated about this 12 years ago in this book Do More Great Work, and I feel like I’m kind of doing a Disney thing. I’m taking it out of the vault and reintroducing this exercise because it’s a powerful one, and it says this. Look, imagine a time, or times, when you are at your best where you were really kind of rocking it, you felt on top of the world, you felt like, “This is one of the best versions of who I can be.” And you want to start thinking about words or phrases that are associated with that so you can remember what that looks like.

But against each one of those words or phrases, you want to have a corresponding word, a pairing word or phrase, that is you when you’re slightly off your game, when you’re 15% down, when you’re kind of lost some of the essential motivation. And this is the “This, not that” pairing. And what I found is that when you go do this work and you develop this tool for yourself, it’s your chance to get back to the very best version of who you are.

Here’s an example. One of my pairs is stepping forward, not stepping back. And what I noticed is that when I lose motivation, or I get a bit disheartened, or I get just battered around a little bit by the process of taking on a worthy goal, I start being on back and forth. I start being less courageous. I start stepping back. And I can notice that in me, I can then go, “Whoa, what’s it like when I’m at my best? Oh, when I’m in my best, I have a fearlessness where I step forward and I’m kind of undaunted by setbacks. How do I get back to that version of myself?”

And just remembering that I can be that person, that I’ve been that person in the past, and I can be that person again, is one of the ways to kind of regenerate motivation for the worthy goal that you’ve set yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I dig it. Well, Michael, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I think at the heart of this book is a couple of things. We talked a lot about the goal process and kind of how do you set it, but what I hope is a deeper resonance, which is I want people to be ambitious for themselves and for the world. And I think sometimes with the grind of the everyday work, we lose some of that sense of ambition.

And what I hope is this is not just about setting better goals but it’s about unlocking the greatness that you have by taking on hard things, and also making your world and all of our world a little bit better by doing a goal that is thrilling and important and daunting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, my favorite quote is one that resonates with me at the moment and it’s part of the driving of the book. It comes from a Rilke poem called “The Man Watching,” and it’s the last two lines of the poem, and it says…look, his goal is not to win. His goal is to be, and this is the quote, “Be defeated by ever greater things.”

And I love that because it says, “Look, stop trying to win because if you’re only playing games that you can win, that’s going to keep you playing small. Play games that give you a chance to be defeated by ever greater things because that’s when you unlock your greatness.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, one of the favorite studies that I’ve got is a way of reminding us how malleable we are. It’s a wine-tasting study, so that’s already a good start because it involves wine. And, basically, they had people tasting four glasses of wine, and music playing in the background as they’re tasting this wine, and they moved through these red wines, and asking them what they tasted.

And the first glass of wine, people were like, “Ah, it’s kind of light and playful and summery and joyful.” They moved through them, and then the final glass of wine, it’s like, “This is kind of dark and serious and tempestuous and solid.” And what they found in the study was that, actually, glass one and glass four were the same wine, but they were playing different music in the background. In the first glass of wine, they were playing Vivaldi’s Spring so it’s kind of light playful music. And by the final glass of wine, they were playing some Wagner, so kind of deep operatic serious music.

And why I love that study is it just reminds me that I’m constantly influenced by my context, by the environment around me. So, whilst we think of ourselves as kind of rational contained individual creatures, what I realize is, like, if I want myself to be at my best, and if I want people around me to be at my best, constantly thinking about the context and the setting and the environment can make all the difference.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And these were full-blown master sommeliers, right?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m not sure about that. I think it might’ve been just…my memory is they’re just kind of ordinary wine-tasters but the fact that the tasting was so radically different just because of the music being different behind them, that, to me, was magical.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m amazed at how…I’m thinking about audio files, looking at assessing different microphones, for example, because I’ve been through this podcast mic. And so, it’s like, hmm, so my moderately priced setup sounds just as good as your five times as expensive setup when it’s a blind test. But when it’s not, it’s like, “Oh, boy, you could really hear. This is so much richer, so much richer with that deep, deep preamp.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s right. Well, it comes into that kind of sunk costing which is like, “I need to believe this.” And in some ways, it all connects to this kind of the placebo effect, which is like if you believe it, it likely is. And then I love Seth Godin’s take on the placebo because part of it is like, “How do you get conned by the placebo?” He’s like, “No, no, the placebo is magic because if you can go, ‘Look, I’m going to believe this, even though I know I’m believing that this is a placebo, so even though you’re in on the trick, it can still have exactly the same impact on your body.’” And that, to me, is sheer magic because it just goes to show that there is this truth to it. Like, if you believe it, then you’ll see it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And how about a favorite book?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’ve just read a book, it’s called Virgil Wander. It’s a fiction book. It’s by an American author whose name is…Googling desperately. His name is Leif Enger. Now, I read a lot of nonfiction because I’m a nonfiction writer so I read a lot of business and science and psychology and all of that, but I have a master’s degree in literature, and my wife has a PhD in English studies as well, so we read a lot of fiction as well.

And she introduced me to this book, and it is the most beautifully written book that I have read in ages. He has such a turn of phrase. So, Virgil Wander is the lead character. He’s living in a mid-Western town, by a lake, and he has a car crash in the very first chapter, so there’s no spoiler alert. And it’s a story of him coming back to himself as he figures out who he is, and it’s just beautiful. It is written with such grace and with such style. That would be my recommendation of my favorite book I’ve read in the last month or two.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’m writer so often my favorite tools are around, “What do I write with?” And I’ve had phases in my life where I’ve had a thousand pens scattered across the universe.

So, I have two desks in my office, this one where I’m sitting at with you, and then a writing desk just over there. And on each of my desks, I have two pens from Baron Fig. So, Baron Fig create these beautiful ballpoint pens that just feel beautifully weighted and they sit in a beautiful little penholder. So, the one that I’m holding up to the screen showing you, Pete, is made out of copper. I’ve got another one that’s in pale blue over on my other desk.

And you know what? A beautiful pen brings me joy. And that is the tool I would nominate.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, my favorite habit, I’m not sure if it’s not a particularly good habit, or, maybe it is. But it’s like making an espresso for me and a latte for my wife in the morning. Because I grew up in Australia, and one of the things that’s magical about Australia is, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had a lot of Italian and Greek immigrants come to Australia.

And what that means is Australia is a coffee culture. It’s just built on a place where every coffee is espresso-based and delicious. So, when I moved to America, I’ve lived in America for a while, and I came across the light-brown bilge water that Americans drink as coffee, I was like, “What? This is a disgrace. What is this?”

So, we have a not a particularly fancy espresso machine, but we have an espresso machine, we have a place around the corner that roast coffee beans, and that moment of getting up in the morning and making your coffee and seeing crème on the top, and then making a coffee for my wife and bringing that to her in bed, that is a ritual, maybe more than a habit, that feels an important way to start the day for me.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah. In the pre-days when I used to run workshops and training and the like, I get people to practice, coaching skills, in particular, in pairs. At the end of every round of practice, I got people to look the other person in the eye, and say, “You’re awesome and you’re doing great.” And I do these four or five times in a session.

The first time that people did that, it’s really awkward, was embarrassed, and like, “Ah, I don’t know how to do it. But by the end of it, they were, like, there’s this kind of expression of appreciation within this pair of people that was pretty cool. And I added it as my standard signature on my emails. So, every email you get from me, it says, “You’re awesome and you’re doing great.”

And I would say, two or three times a week, I get somebody writing back to me, going, “Thank you for that. I really needed to hear that right now.” So, it’s a very simple phrase. My mom hates it because it’s not grammatically correct, and she’s like, “Michael, you’re a Rhode scholar. What are you doing? Why can’t you even say this properly?” I’m like, “Because it has a resonance with people.” So, I think the phrase “You’re awesome and you’re doing great” seems to have people feel like they are heard and seen.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
I would point them to the website MBS.works. And if you’re kind of particularly keen on learning more about the new book, HowtoBegin.com.

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

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, I would look at the work you’re doing right now and be going…well, the obvious one is to say, “How do I find a worthy goal?” but that feels too glib. So, I think what I’d really ask people to do is say, “What do you need to stop doing so that you might create some space for something like a worthy goal to appear?”

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and success in pursuing your worthy goals.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Thank you. Pete, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

662: How to Build Resilient Teams to Beat Burnout with Paula Davis

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Paula Davis says: "Stay in the now and stick to the facts."

Paula Davis discusses how teams can support each other to beat burnout and create a culture of resilience.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How an engaged workforce can still burnout 
  2. The tiny noticeable things (TnTs) that make us more resilient 
  3. How to keep your mind from catastrophizing 

About Paula

Paula Davis JD, MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm that helps organizations reduce burnout and build resilience at the team, leader, and organizational level. 

Paula left her law practice after seven years and earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Paula is also the author of Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience. 

Her expertise has been featured in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, and Psychology Today. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Read or listen to summarized wisdom from thousands of nonfiction books! Free trial available at blinkist.com/awesome

Paula Davis Interview Transcript

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

Paula Davis
Thank you, Pete. It’s so great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom, we’re talking burnout. And I understand you have a personal bit of experience with burnout. Could you share your story?

Paula Davis
Absolutely. I practiced law for seven years and burnout is really what cut my law practice short. I spent the last year of my law practice going through burnout. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just knew I was off in terms of how I was managing my stress, how I was feeling, how I was really processing the challenges associated with my work, and it took me quite a bit of time to really understand what that was, and I didn’t know there was a word burnout. I was thinking just purely in terms of stress.

And so, I didn’t start in kind of a severe place but I ended in a severe place. I was getting panic attacks quite regularly, almost daily. I was in the emergency room twice because I had really bad stomach aches from the stress. And so, it really prompted me to start to think about, “Do I want to stay in the profession? Should I go back to the firm that I was at? Should I do something completely different?” And, obviously, I decided the latter.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Wow, those are some strong signals there. So, we’re going to talk about that. I also want to hear you’ve got a great turn of a phrase acronym. You have a list of TNTs or tiny noticeable things. Can you share what are some of those? How do we think about them? And how do we manage them? Because panic attacks, I mean, wow, that’s powerful and thank you for sharing. And I think that, to the extent that there could be some early warnings that would be great, and it sounds like you’ve cataloged a few of those. What are they?

Paula Davis
So, I had three kind of early warnings that something was amiss, that was off, compared to how I had been processing and just dealing with stress being in a stressful profession for the years prior to this happening. So, I was, first and foremost, chronically, physically, and emotionally exhausted. So, sometimes people will ask me, “What do you mean by chronic?” and there is no hardcore definition. It’s not like three months, or two months, or four weeks, or eight months, or what have you. It’s just that for more often than not, over a period of time, feeling that nothing that I did really was able to replenish my energy.

So, on the weekends when I wasn’t working, typically I would play coed softball, or hang out with my friends, or just spend time doing activities that I enjoy, playing sports and things like that, and those were always very meaningful and connective and energy-giving pursuits for me, and they stopped being so after a point in time during this process. And it kind of boiled down to at some point I just wanted the couch and some bad reality television, and I wanted everybody to leave me alone. There was this sense of like, “Just get out of my space. I’m trying to rejuvenate. Leave me alone,” kind of a mentality, and that’s not my normal personality.

And so, that was something that was really eye-opening for me, and even more so was the second big warning sign that I missed is that I was chronically cynical. So, everyone just started to annoy me and bug me, and that was my friends, my family, my colleagues, my clients, which is horrible. Here I am, charged to help people, deal with their sophisticated legal challenges, and outwardly I was always very professional but inwardly I’m doing a lot of eye-rolling and thinking to myself, like, “Do we really have to have this conversation? Can you handle this on your own?” and, clearly, the answer was no.

And then that led to a sense of lost impact. It’s just, “Am I really doing what I want to do in my career? Like, why bother? Who cares?” was starting to come up in my phrasing a lot and in my thought process. And so, it’s really when we talk about burnout and use that word, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the combination and the constellation of those three things: chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and the sense of lost impact.

And so, that’s really where I think we need to sort of punctuate that, these days, I think we’re using the word burnout really loosely as a synonym for just feeling frustrated, or overwhelmed, or stressed out. That’s not necessarily a suitable synonym for those things. It’s really that constellation of three things is what we mean when we’re talking about burnout.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a helpful distinction. Thank you. I was going to ask that next. So, well maybe let’s zoom out a bit and share that’s one key discovery that may surprise people or they find counterintuitive. Any other big surprises or fascinating discoveries you’ve made along the way as you’ve researched and worked in this area?

Paula Davis
Yeah, there’s a couple. So, first and foremost, when I was sort of coming out of my burnout experience and recovering and going to get my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and kind of moving on with my career, so I started to think back about the experience that I had burning out. I really thought about it very much in terms of an individual-type thing, an experience, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss? What could I have done better?”

And I realized, as I continued to study, to research, as I continued to coach people and talk to people and interview people about their burnout experiences, that we were really missing a big piece of the puzzle in that we really have to start thinking about burnout less in terms of it being an individual issue or problem. We still have to have those conversations. But the bigger piece of the puzzle and the picture is really kind of drawing in the rest of the system.

So, burnout is very much a systemic issue that requires holistic strategy. So, we need to look at the leader level, we need to look at the team level, we need to look still at the individual contributor level, to examine how all of these pieces need to start to kind of fit together or the conversations that need to be had so that we can actually do something about burnout. So, that’s part of the big thesis of my book. So, that was a big moment.

The other aha that I had, and I knew this intuitively but I wasn’t finding anything empirically kind of talking about this, until I stumbled across a study from a couple of years ago actually showing that high levels of engagement can also travel with high levels of burnout. So, there’s a lot of burnout research positioning engagement as the opposite of burnout for a whole host of reasons. And it just didn’t make sense to me, and I knew a lot of people who felt the sense of burnout but were still really kind of wanting to do good work, and they weren’t unplugged like I was.

And so, the study really drove that home and found that, of the group of people that they were looking at, about 20% or so of people, met this highly engaged, highly-burned out classification where people still felt that they wanted to do good work, in some instances, would say they like their work, but they were in very high-demand jobs and not getting enough resources to really help them manage and deal with all of the stress they were experiencing from their demands. And, really importantly, they found that this group, this 20% group, actually experienced the highest turnover intentions, so even more so than the people like me who were flat out burned out saying, “I’m gone. I’m done.”

And so, that’s something that I really like to punctuate for leaders. Don’t assume that somebody classifies as engaged that they aren’t also or could potentially turn out to be burned out. And so, I see that now play out in a few ways with the work that I’ve done. So, a team that I worked with in a healthcare organization had about a 28% or so rate of burnout within their team, yet they were in the top tier for engagement scores within the organization. So, that was one instance.

I’ve had a couple of coaching clients who have identified exactly this way, who printed out some of my material and took it in to their boss, and said, “Look, I don’t have any of these resources that we know are important to preventing burnout. I need some help here because I still want to do good work but I’m like worn out because I’m not getting enough of this.” So, I’m seeing that theme come up more.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a powerful tip right there in terms of, “Hey, I’m not just a whiner. These are psychologically validated things that people need. Here’s a list from a third party with a reputable authoritative source and I need some of that.” And I think most leaders who give a hoot will say, “Hey, fair enough. You’re right. Let’s see what we can do here.”

And, also, that point about engagement, that really resonates because sometimes I think, you know, I don’t want to misuse the word burnout as we’ve precisely defined it, but when I felt some burnout-esque feelings, that’s part of it. It’s just like, “I care so much that it’s exhausting.” And sometimes I think, “Man, if I just didn’t care then this wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I wouldn’t feel so stressed or overwhelmed by this because I’d be like, ‘Well, hey, whether that outcome goes in direction A or B, whatever, right?’ But, no, I care very much. I want it to go absolutely in direction A and I don’t see it going that way, and that’s frustrating. Ahh!”

Paula Davis
Yes. And I think that Adam Grant has a phenomenal…he’s got a phenomenal lot of stuff, but he mentions this term in an article that I believe he co-wrote, I think, with a classmate of mine actually at UPenn, and they call it generosity burnout. So, this notion of caring so much that we prioritize everybody else’s needs above our own, and that causes us to wear out and burn out essentially.

So, he talks about how we have to figure out how we can still exercise our giver tendencies which are really important especially if you orient that way, but also taking into account, “What do you have to do to deal with and manage your stress in a way that kind of puts those boundaries in place so that you’re not just purely giving a 100% of your time?”

And I think he cites a study or talks about a study where they actually looked at a group of teachers, or teachers, and found that teaches, who were these pure givers, who you would think are constantly devoting their time to helping their students with any issue that came up, actually their students had lower test scores compared to teachers who were also givers but implementing more of a boundaried approach to how they gave to other people. So, I thought that that was fascinating. So, we have to figure out how to give with limits, care with limits.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. And you’ve got a nifty model when it comes to thinking about burnout and teams and being successful – the PRIMED model. Can you give us a bit of the overview there and some top tips that make a big impact?

Paula Davis
Yeah. So, when I was kind of taking a step back and thinking about how I wanted to position this topic and understanding that if framing burnout as purely an individual issue with individual strategies isn’t enough to really move the needle. And the research suggests, and a lot of my own interviews and things suggest, that there’s such a strong organizational culture element associated with burnout.

I also can’t go into organizations and be realistic and say, “Hey, let’s just change your culture and everything will be fine.” That’s not realistic for a whole host of reasons. And so, I was thinking to myself, “Where within the system is going to be the best entry point? Where can we really start to think about moving the needle in the right direction?”

And so, for me, that answer became teams, just simply because so many people, not all people, of course, but so many people work in teams. There’s a lot of research about what creates a resilient and high-performing and thriving teams, and so I started to dig into all of that and realized that there were similar themes that kept coming up in the research, and that became the model that I started to use and started to work by.

And so, very importantly, one of the pieces in the PRIMED model is psychological safety, so building trust within the team, and prioritizing relationships is the R, and talking about the impact and the meaning that teams have within their organization, and just having those conversations is important. Energy, mental strength, so a lot of times we don’t think about how our own thinking or the collective thinking of the team can really be exhausting if we’re thinking in a counterproductive way, and how it can undercut our efforts to create the cohesion and the trust and the high performance that we want within our teams.

And then design is the last piece. So, really, understanding and recognizing if we realize there are tweaks that we need to make. How do we go about doing that? How do we kind of design the environment that we want to be in for ourselves? So, that’s the model in a big overview.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure. So, we got the psychological safety and needs, the relationship, the impact, the mental strength, the mindset, the energy, and the design, forming the word PRIMED. And so, then in terms of quick wins, what are some of the top things that we can do to get a nice boost on some of these dimensions?

Paula Davis
Sure. So, I call them tiny noticeable things, as we talked about, so a little acronym, suggesting that it’s not necessarily these big shifts. Sometimes I think when we start to have this conversation, we think that we have to make these wild shifts in our behavior or we got to do these big things to kind of change what we’re doing. And, in essence, it’s really smaller things done more consistently over time that really matter.

And so, it’s simple things like attentiveness, like when someone joins a Zoom call, say, “Hey, Joe, it’s really nice to see you. How is it going?” It’s seeking out other people and making sure you’re hearing from opinions from everybody. It’s limiting side conversations, cliques and gossips, which is a huge aspect of psychological safety. It’s a leader saying, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen this before. What do you all think?” It’s sharing and capitalizing on good news and wins, really, really small ones especially, not just the big moments that we oftentimes think about.

And it could be as simple as being more transparent. So, as a leader, cluing people in more on what they need to know; asking them to participate in decisions that impact their work; being more clear, which could be adding a sentence or two in an email; giving more of a rationale or an explanation around a task instead of, having come from the legal profession, I heard this so many times, “Well, too bad, this is what I had to do on my way to partner, so you’re going to have to work on Thanksgiving as well. And who cares?”

But explaining why that’s important and framing it in a little bit of a different way leads to more of a perception of flexibility and autonomy. So, it’s these little kinds of tweaks and hacks that leaders and individual contributor in teams can start to prioritize essentially.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are some of those hacks when it comes to mental strength and mindset?

Paula Davis
So, one of my favorite skills is, and this is probably a little bit more in the what I would classify in the individual side of the house in terms of the skill, but it comes up all the time in my work across the board with professionals. So, it’s limiting catastrophizing or worst-case scenario thinking, so it’s our tendency when something stressful has happened and it can be a really small stressor.

It could be as simple as like getting an email from your boss that says, “Call me back,” or, “Come see me now,” and it doesn’t have any other details, and your brain is going to jump to some conclusion, and it’s never, “I did a great job.” It’s almost always, “I did something wrong and I’m going to get fired.” That’s where we go.

And so, it’s a process just to help you think through, gaining some perspective and clarity when you’re in those moments. And so, I call it your horror movie, Disney movie, documentary. So, horror movie is just getting out of your head all of those likely unrealistic thoughts and story that you’re telling yourself. The Disney movie is kind of creating the opposite version even if it’s unrealistic because you’re just looking for a smile or jolts of positive emotion.

And then the documentary is just being very factual, being very fact-based, “Okay, I’ve got a little bit more perspective. What am I really dealing with here? And what do I actually have to do about it? Do I have to email my boss back? Do I have to go look at the file? Like, what is it that I have to do so I’m not just sitting here not purposely acting in some way?” So, that’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. So, we got those three perspectives: the horror, the Disney, and the documentary. And I think that’s also a good team tip in terms of, “Hey, maybe don’t send emails like that to your teammates.”

Paula Davis
I tell leaders all the time, “Add one more sentence.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, that’s handy. Yeah, because one sentence will probably do it. And, occasionally, even if it is negative, like you do want to have a hard conversation where you deliver some difficult feedback, you could just even give a little bit more context is handy, it’s like, “Hey, I’d like to catch up on this piece of work,” or whatever. It’s like, “Okay, so that’s what we’re talking about,” it’s not, “I’m going to be fired because we’re going to talk about this piece of work. And maybe I’ve got a hunch that, oops, I think I wasn’t my best there, so there might be a couple things that are hard to hear,” but it’s less room to catastrophize when you’ve got that extra context.

Paula Davis
Yes. And we also have to realize, and I put in there, too, is being aware and mindful of our triggers. What in our environment triggers counterproductive thinking in the first place? So, for me, it’s vague and ambiguous information. I absolutely hate those emails and those types of situations where I don’t know all of the information or details because my brain is just, especially as a former lawyer, we’re trained to issue spot, we’re trained to analyze a situation from every single angle, and so it can be very a very easy thinking style to do.

And another trigger that can promote counterproductive thinking is anytime it’s the first time that we’re doing something. And so, thinking about a colleague who might be new to your team or new to the organization. Even if they’re a seasoned professional, they’re oftentimes kind of trying to orient, and most of the conversations they’re having with people are people who they don’t know and so it’s their first time leading a meeting, or turning in a project, or getting feedback or things like that.

And so, when we can kind of build collectively that awareness of what might be causing or what could cause counterproductive thinking in our team members, I think that can help us, again, leverage some of that clarity, just leverage some kindness and say, “Hey, let’s go have a chat. I remember when I started. Here are some perspectives from my end so we can, I think, just think about situations a little bit differently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you mentioned, hey, lawyer training, issue spotting, and it’s interesting, I was going through a process recently. So, we’re planning a move and that’s a whole lot. And so, I was thinking, I was like, “Okay, what are all the things that could go horribly wrong and how can I mitigate that?” And that was pretty productive in a sense of, “Okay. Well, I should get some help in these key areas,” and then like the probability of things going horribly wrong is way lower. So, that was productive but, at the same time, spending too much time in that thought zone was getting me a little freaked out.

So, do you have any pro tips on that that could be necessary to do the issue spotting, the anticipating? I don’t want to use the word worrying, but planning for the worst and prepping. So, if we’re in that zone, and maybe rightfully so, how do we return to a happy place?

Paula Davis
So, what you’re talking about, so that’s a really important distinction for us to make. And what you’re talking about a little bit there is contingency planning. So, contingency planning is good. It’s not a bad thing to think about worst-case scenarios. Oftentimes, it’s necessary. If I am in an airplane and it’s foggy outside, I want my pilot thinking about what could go wrong and, “Should we take off?” So, contingency planning is purposeful action. We’re purposely doing something to get closer to an outcome, a goal, a relationship, what have you.

Catastrophizing is a little bit different. It is really spinning our wheels. We stop taking purposeful action. It pulls us farther away from some of the goals and things that we want. And so, that’s why it’s more of a counterproductive piece. That’s how you can distinguish between whether you’re just contingency planning, which is purposeful and moving forward, “I’m not stuck. My wheels aren’t spinning,” versus the other side of the coin, which is the catastrophizing piece.

I remember, to give you an example, I catastrophize a bunch. And so, I can remember when I was a lawyer, I think I was a second-year associate, and I had just finished this huge project for a very important partner, and I hadn’t heard anything back from him in a couple of weeks. And he came down from the different floor he was on, and he walked right by my office with the file under his arm into the office next door to mine, which is my mentor’s who was a good friend of his, and shut the door.

So, right away, vague and ambiguous information, and, “Oh, no, there he goes. He didn’t even think to stop and talk to me. It’s that bad.” And so, when I say not taking purposeful action, I really kind of froze a little bit and I wasn’t thinking clearly about the actual document I was working on. I was now focused on trying to hear what was going on in the office next to mine. And another partner came into my office and gave me a new assignment that was actually fairly complex. And I realized that when he left my office, I had taken like a sentence of notes because my brain was so consumed with what was happening in the office next to mine, I wasn’t present in even a remote way.

And so, that’s what I mean when I say stops taking purposeful action. I really wasn’t present or thoughtful or thinking through any sort of issue or project that I should’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah. And that’s a great example which shows sort of the negative consequences and implications of going down that rabbit hole. And so, let’s sort of play it back in time. If you’ve got that other partner entering the office, and your brain is elsewhere, how do you quickly get your brain where you need it to be?

Paula Davis
Well, and that’s part of the reason why this thinking style is so powerful, and it’s powerfully counterproductive because it’s hard to do. And so, practicing those steps of horror movie, Disney movie, documentary become important because you want to be able to sort of recall those quickly so that, even if it’s just, tell the partner, “Give me a minute here,” and you can jot down some notes about what you’re thinking. It might give you a little bit more perspective or clarity in the moment but it can be really hard to do on the spot if you haven’t had some practice with how that thinking style goes.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes great sense. So, we go back to the movie approach, which is great. Any other techniques or tactics right in the heat of things?

Paula Davis
So, one of my colleagues, I love the little phrase or mantra that she came up with for this. She says, “Stay in the now and stick to the facts.” So, it can be a very centering thing to say to yourself because what we oftentimes do when we’re catastrophizing is we go to a future story. We’re generating a what-if scenario. We’re saying, “If this something happens down the road, here’s what’s going to be the result.” So, we’re in a future-oriented space, and we’re oftentimes there without a lot of evidence to support it.

So, I might’ve been thinking to myself, “He’s never going to give me any more work. No other partner is going to give any work. I’m not going to make my hours. I’m going to get fired. I’m going to have to move back in with my parents.” All that has happened is a person has entered the next room over. And if I’ve got myself, a joke, living in a van down by the river or having to move back home with my parents because of it, that’s highly unlikely and unrealistic to happen, and there’s not really much evidence or data I have to support thinking that way, though we convince ourselves that it’s very real and it feels very real because it’s a powerful thinking style.

And so, just kind of snapping yourself out of that by saying, “Stay in the now and stick to the facts” reminds you that if you don’t have any facts to support it, if you can dial it back or let it go a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And if we don’t have that positive team support, we mentioned one thing is just ask for it, “Hey, here are some things that people need, and I need some of those,” and we’ve got some of the mental strength and mindset pieces. Any other pro tips for if you find yourself in an unsupportive world? How do you stay strong?

Paula Davis
So, this tends to come up too. Sometimes I’ll get the question, “What if I don’t have a team?” So, you can look at it in a couple of ways, like, “I don’t have a supportive team,” or, “I don’t even have a team.” Like, maybe, “I own a business on my own,” or, “I’m a creative and I spend most of my days writing or painting, and I don’t have a team to kind of lean on or rely on.”

One equation that I give people, if you could think about a formula, or if you could think about what causes burnout is you have too many demands and too few resources. So, you have too many things that take consistent effort and energy about your work and too few things that are motivational and energy-giving about your work. Whether you’re in a midst of a big team or you’re on your own, the formula applies.

So, taking a step back and thinking to yourself really consciously, “What are the things that take consistent effort and energy about my work? Is there anything I can modify? Is there anything I can delegate? Or is there anything I can change or offload and start to examine some of those pieces?” Sometimes the answer is no but sometimes, especially in a coaching relationship, things maybe you hadn’t seen can be identified.

But, really, importantly is leveraging or identifying, “What are the resources? What are the motivational energy-giving aspects of my work? What am I not leaning on? Am I not bring my strengths to the table enough? Are there partnerships that I have formed that I’m not leveraging perhaps?” Things like that to help people start to recognize, “Gosh, maybe I really do need a better support system. What can I start to do to put that in place?” becomes really the right conversation for folks to start to have.

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

Paula Davis
One of the questions I’m most frequently asked and one of the things that I think is really important, and one of the things that I wished I would’ve done sooner, is that I think it’s important to start talking about stress, generally, within our teams, not shying away from the topic so it doesn’t feel like a weird thing for us to be talking about. But if you are feeling like more exhausted or frustrated or trending toward burnout or actually there, is to say something.

And whether that’s to a leader, whether that’s to a colleague who you trust, a friend that you have at work, a friend outside of work, really being specific about what you’re feeling and then what is it that you need going forward. Is it just a day off? Is it an extended period of time off? Do you need to switch teams for a period of time, if that’s even possible? Being intentional and thoughtful about what it is that you want and need from the situation is also important.

So, I would say that. Very consistently I hear from people who I’ve interviewed and talked to, either, “I’m so glad somebody said something to me,” or, “I wished somebody had said something to me. If I’m operating in a world of cynicism, I think I’m hiding it pretty well, but those eyerolls start to get noticed by other people. And if you’re noticing it, pull me aside and say something so that I can realize that the behavior is going in a not-so-great direction.”

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

Paula Davis
“Life hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming,” and it’s a quote by Marisha Pessl.

And I think you can sort of think about moments in your life, and it can be like downside moments, things you didn’t see coming, times you’ve fallen in love. So, translate that into a positive moment or a positive situation when you meet somebody whom you fall in love with, and you didn’t see it coming. I just thought it was really interesting and it made me think.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Paula Davis
Anything by Brene Brown.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Paula Davis
Anything having to do with cooking. I’m a huge baker and I love cooking, so any tools that help me do those things better in the kitchen.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular one that is just the coolest?

Paula Davis
A really good knife. I feel that there are so many gadgets on the market that really don’t do much that a really great knife can get you a long way when it comes to cooking.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Paula Davis
Exercising. I run almost every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really connects, resonates with folks; they quote it back to you a lot?

Paula Davis
I would say probably the small TNT-type strategies and that acronym. I tend to hear that a lot from folks.

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

Paula Davis
I would point them to BeatBurnoutNow.com, which will take you to my website where you can learn more about my book and everything that I’m doing in my institute.

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

Paula Davis
Do what you love. Even if you can’t know, manifest, or create the big job, dream job that you want, really pay attention to the small moments of meaning, and the small moments of things that you do during the day that you feel like you’re in the zone and really light you up. And start to just sprinkle those in a little bit more intentionally during your day and your week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Paula, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best.

Paula Davis
Thank you so much, Pete.

658: How to Fix Burnout and Beat Exhaustion, Stress, and Overwhelm with Dr. Jacinta Jimenez

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Dr. Jacinta Jimenez says: "When you stress, you must rest."

Dr. Jacinta Jimenez breaks down what causes burnout and what we can do to prevent and fix it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What most get wrong about burnout 
  2. How to recover using the PULSE framework
  3. The tiny recovery habits that build tremendous resilience 

About Jacinta

Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC (also known as “Dr. J”) is an award-winning Psychologist and Board-Certified Leadership Coach with a 15+ year career dedicated to the betterment of leaders. An in-demand speaker, consultant, and coach, she has worked with individuals in top organizations in Silicon Valley and throughout the world. A graduate of Stanford University and the PGSP-Stanford PsyD Consortium, Dr. J is a sought-after expert in  bridging the fields of psychology and leadership. She contributes to national news and TV outlets, including CNN/HLN, Business Insider, Forbes, and Fast Company. 

As the former Global Head of Coaching at BetterUp, she developed groundbreaking  science-backed coaching approaches for helping today’s top organizations foster resilience,  while also leading a global community of 1500+ international Leadership Coaches in over  58 countries. She holds a certificate in Diversity & Inclusion from Cornell University and  provides consultation on topics related to this important area as well. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

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Dr. Jacinta Jimenez Interview Transcript

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

Jacinta Jimenez
Hi, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I am, too. And the first question I had to ask, and apologies if you’re getting a lot of this, but have you met Prince Harry with your work?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, I just can’t get into too many details but I am on the executive team and we are delighted to have him. He has shown up to our all hands recently for the company meeting that we had when we announced it. So, that was a delight to see him virtually.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Lovely. Well, tell us, so we’re talking about burnout here today. What is the state of burnout these days amongst professionals? Like, do we know what proportion of us are feeling burnt out? Is it getting better or worse? What’s the scoop?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, it is. So, burnout prior, it was already a problem prior to COVID-19, it was already becoming an epidemic in itself so much so that, in 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon and conceptualized it as a syndrome that’s resulted from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.

And, again, these are stats prior to COVID but, in 2015, Stanford researchers estimated that job burnout, costs the US economy about $190 billion due to absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, medical, legal and insurance costs.

And then now, throw in COVID-19 in the mix, and we have changed our lives substantially, our psychological resources are being taxed over long periods of time, and that’s taking a very large toll on people’s mental wellbeing and also is setting up conditions right for burnout. So, I think folks are feeling it even more, and the stats are showing that burnout is on the rise.

So, it’s a growing phenomenon that, hopefully, folks are…I think the silver lining could be that folks are actually paying attention to it and wanting to address it and wanting to find solutions for it.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a sense for in the United States, what percentage of people, in general, or professionals in particular, have burnout? And is there a specific precise, like scientific definition of burnout we use when we make such claims?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yes. Yeah, thank you for asking the second part, but both parts of the question, but the second part especially. I feel like the word burnout has been thrown around so much lately, it’s been sensationalized, so I’d love to get into the specific definition, but, yeah, there’s a lot of good stats. So, Deloitte’s workplace survey has found that 77% of respondents have experienced burnout in their current job at one point or another, which is a pretty incredible number when you think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
And your current job is, statistically, likely less than five years old. It’s like how quickly we turn over, maybe two, three, four years. And maybe it happened the whole time or right now or maybe just half a year or a year ago. Okay, so that puts it into perspective. Thank you. And then how do we define burnout?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yes, thank you for asking that question. So, a lot of people think burnout is just a consequence of overwork, like, “I overworked myself to the point of exhaustion so I burned out.” And exhaustion and overwork are part of burnout but it’s not the whole picture. It’s a very complex issue so there’s actually three core components at research, especially research led by Christina Maslach, who is one of the pioneering researchers in this field, that make up burnout.

So, the first one is exhaustion. So, that’s the obvious one. That’s when you feel like you go on a vacation and you don’t feel replenished after the vacation. You take time off work; you don’t feel better. You’ll hear people say, like, “I feel used up by the end of the workday. I feel tired when I have to get up in the morning and face another day on the job. I feel emotionally drained by my work.” So, it’s that really deep, deep level of exhaustion.

But then the other components are cynicism and inefficacy. And so, cynicism is a really interesting one because a lot of times people who are most engaged in their work are the ones who are actually more prone to burnout because we’re passionate or care about it, want to give our all to it, and that can be kind of a slippery slope. And, ironically, a lot of times, these folks end up cynical even though they were the most engaged.

And so, cynicism shows up by becoming less interested in their work, wanting to be “Just leave me alone. Don’t bother me. I just want to get my work done. I’m not enthusiastic about my work.” So, it’s really questioning their company’s mission, the technical term can also be called de-personalization, where you just don’t feel connected to what you do anymore.

And then the final one is inefficacy. And this is another heartbreaking piece because these are people who are competent and able to do their job but they’ve gotten to this point with burnout where they don’t feel confident at getting things done, they don’t feel like they’re making an effective contribution, they feel like they’re kind of drowning or they can’t catch up, and they can’t effectively solve problems.

And so, when these three components come together, think of like a Venn diagram almost, where these pieces come together, that’s when burnout happens. But the interesting thing, is people have different burnout profiles. So, one person may be really feeling the inefficacy but not so much the exhaustion and maybe a moderate level of cynicism, or someone else could be heavy cynicism and not much exhaustion. So, it’s important to know if you’ve had burnout in the past, how it shows up for you so you can kind of monitor yourself on those three.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we don’t necessarily have to be experiencing all three of these to be classified as burnt out? Is that accurate?

Jacinta Jimenez
You need all three but they can be in different dosages.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I hear you. So, I got a whole lot of exhaustion, just a little bit of cynicism and inefficacy.

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m with you. I don’t know why I laugh. I think I’m laughing just in like smiling recognition, like, “Oh, yes, I had that before,” as opposed to, “That’s hilarious,” because it’s not hilarious. It’s very troubling.

Jacinta Jimenez
It’s very troubling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so widespread. Okay. So, there we have it. We framed it up. So, that’s the definition, that’s how widespread it is. Well, so you got a book here, The Burnout Fix. Do enlighten us, what is the burnout fix or maybe any surprising discoveries you’ve made about burnout?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, I think the interesting thing about burnout or a misnomer that kind of surprises people about people is that a lot of people think burnout is just an individual problem, like, “I’m not strong enough to deal with crazy life. And if I was just more gritty, I could’ve not burned out.” But burnout isn’t just an individual problem in any way. Individuals exist in systems and environments, so we cannot look at the individual’s burnout without looking up the environment that they exist in.

So, it’s co-created by our work, too, and there’s actually…it’s really interesting, there are six specific mismatches between the nature of a person and the nature of their work that leads to burnout. And if you can figure out which of those six mismatches align with kind of what’s going on for you, you’re going to be a lot better off addressing it. So, I think it’s really important for people to understand that it’s not just you, it’s not because you’re weak or poor coping strategies. A lot of it has to do with your job environment as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, lay it on us, so what are the six ways we can be mismatched?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah. So, the first one is fairness. So, if you have been working really hard at your job, and there’s not clear job promotion kind of processes outlined, and someone else gets a promotion, this is just one example, that could feel very unfair. That can take a toll.

Christina Maslach, again who I mentioned earlier, she describes burnout as an erosion of dignity, spirit, and will; an erosion of the human soul, which is so heavy. But if you’ve ever experienced burnout, I have, it’s a really good description of it. It takes away the pieces that made you feel meaning and purpose at work. And so, when you have a lack of fairness, that’s going to erode on the human soul.

A second one is workload. So, if you have a huge workload and you don’t have the resources, time resources, executive sponsor resources, or just general resources to do it, that’s going to erode on your soul as well. The third one is communities. So, we are human beings, first and foremost, we are wired to connect. That’s how we’ve survived for centuries is existing in tribes. We could not have survived without one another. And when we feel a breakdown in community at work, we feel lonely, we don’t feel like we belong, that can also erode on someone’s soul.

And then the other one is values. So, if your boss is telling you to do something that feels out of alignment with what you stand for, or you joined the company’s mission because it aligns with your values but the company is doing something that does not feel legitimate or good to you, that’s going to take a toll.

And then reward. We like reward, we want progress. I always say, those shiny stars we got as kids, they just feel good when we did something well, that doesn’t go away. We want to feel rewarded for our efforts. And so, if we’re not being rewarded fairly or being acknowledged, and this can be intrinsic, social, economic reward. It’s not just economic, that can take a toll.

And then the sixth one is control. So, if we don’t have control over our environment, it’s a recipe for learned helplessness where you’re just like, “Why even try if I have no way to influence my environment? I’m just going to give up.” And that can lead to inefficacy. So, it’s not just from overworking. It’s more due to this mismatch between just our capacities as humans and the nature of our work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it sounds like the second one, resources, it may be is the only one that really seems to check that box specifically associated with overwork, it’s like, “I got more tasks that are being demanded of me than I have hours to do and also sleep,” for example.

Jacinta Jimenez
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that makes sense in terms of checking yourself. And I find that really, really handy in terms of it is bigger than overwork, and that distinction can be transformational in and of itself just having that awareness because I guess I’m thinking that I have felt some burnout in times, and I’ve been sort of scratching my head, like, “Well, I mean, I’m not working that many hours. I’ve worked longer hours before.”

And then the conclusions you can leap to from there, it’s like, “Why? Am I getting weak? Am I out of shape? Am I sick? Am I old already?” Like, what’s real here, “I’m not as vital despite having fewer hours of work.” And it’s like, oh, well, we can zero in on one of these other five dimensions and see, “Well, aha. Well, here’s the thing. I don’t actually care at all about this thing that we’re doing. It’s like I wouldn’t call it evil per se but I don’t think it really matters and the world wouldn’t really be changed significantly whether we did this or did not do this, so I don’t really care.”

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah. Whereas, maybe we’re working longer hours but we have so much meaning and values and reward and community that it doesn’t take a toll. So, it’s really powerful to know. I think it’s very empowering for folks to know, “Oh, I can look at this in a much more granular and nuanced way, and then figure out what I want to do about it based on that, versus just going I overwork to the point of exhaustion. Now I have to work less.” But sometimes work less and it doesn’t solve it if it’s a values mismatch or something else.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then, can you tell me, so we’ve got a PULSE framework that we can check through as well.

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, the PULSE framework really is kind of my hope to help build out resilience so that they don’t have to get to the point where they’re looking at these six mismatches, where they can boost their resilience as much as possible. Yeah, so, on a side note, I like to think of resilience as kind of like a seesaw. So, on one side of the seesaw is adversity or tough things that happen to us, and on the other side is protective factors.

And that fulcrum, that thing in the middle where it rests on, that’s our genetic setpoint because, let’s face it, genetics does play a role but, good news, it doesn’t play like a massive role. We have a lot of influence, so that’s the good news. But we have to be very proactive in putting more and more proactive resilience tools and mindsets and strategies on that other side of the seesaw so that when adversity hits, the seesaw doesn’t flip us out of equilibrium.

So, the more and more we can build out our resilience, which is my PULSE framework for building out resilience, the more we can be protected in our ever-changing world of work where things are just going at such fast, rapid pace, that there’s going to be constant changes and new adversity, and it will allow us to navigate it more easily and successfully. So, that’s my hope in writing this, Pete, writing out the book and the PULSE framework.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, then how do we make that happen?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah. So, the acronym is PULSE because if you think back to Christina Maslach’s erosion of the human soul, just like we have to take care of our heart and physical pulse, we also have a personal pulse. That’s our spirit, it’s our vitality, it’s our overall wellbeing. And so, it’s an integrated framework because you can’t just address burnout by doing one thing, as we talked about. You need an integrated approach.

So, it looks at your behavior, how you think, how you relate to others, how you take care of yourself, and how you manage your emotions, and so it’s a very holistic framework. So, the P is called pace for performance, and that’s about how to boost your personal and professional growth in a way that doesn’t drain you.

So, how do you actually stay in your stretch somewhere, you’re actually optimizing for productivity without going over the edge into the stress zone? So, knowing where is that really great point where you’re doing your best work but you’re not going over and stretching yourself so far that, over time, it’s going to take a toll.

The U is cognitive, it’s undo untidy thinking. It’s really about how to train your mind to be very aware of your thoughts to stave off unhelpful thinking patterns. And, again, this is all evidenced. I’m a science geek so this is all evidence-based about how to do it most efficiently. The L is really cool, I think. It’s about the not-so obvious ways we can replenish ourselves physically. So, it’s stands for leveraged leisure.

Leisure has changed alongside the nature of work. Leisure used to be long meals, like old-world culture, the Sabbath, people would take off. I mean, people do still practice it but there were lots of different cultures that used to really integrate leisure into practices. But, as we’ve evolved, leisure has become kind of like compensatory leisure where you go drink or you drive fast cars, you go clubbing to blow off steam, or spill over leisure where you go lay on the couch after work and you scroll through your Instagram feed or your social media feeds and just kind of zone out. That’s not true leisure and replenishment. So, the leveraged leisure is about really, “How do you optimize for actual replenishment?”

The S is social, so how to secure support, how to have a really robust community that allows for you to have cognitive flexibility, but also adaptability while also protecting yourself, so how to set boundaries., and those important things that actually are very good for building more relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
And what is cognitive flexibility?

Jacinta Jimenez
So, cognitive flexibility is kind of the art and science of being able to look at two seemingly disparate things and hold them in your mind at the same time. So, instead of thinking of things as black or white, sitting with the shades of grey, being able to flex your mind to look at things from different perspectives, which is a huge benefit in our new world of work as well to be able to flex our thinking as much as possible versus getting really rigid. It helps with creativity and innovation, empathy, connection with others.

And then the final one is the E, and that’s evaluate efforts. So, that’s about how to regain control of your time and priorities by really tuning into what aligns with your enduring principles, and what are your emotions telling you as data points, and really making sure you’re putting your effort into the right things so that you’re aligned with your values, so you don’t have that values mismatch. So, altogether, it makes PULSE.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, great.
So, the PULSE framework gives us a set of five categories of actions to take that can make a world of impact. And so, I’d love to hear perhaps your favorite tactical to-do inside each of them. So, in terms of pacing for performance, we want to get a sense for what’s too much, what’s too little. And how do you recommend we excellently arrive at that understanding?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, this is where I really tried to make this framework very practical and realistic and feasible.

So, let’s say I am feeling a breakdown in community, let’s go back to the six mismatches. I probably would go to secure support and pick belonging, and figure out, “Oh, read about the science of belonging,” and then I have steps on how to create more feelings of belonging in yourself and with others to build deeper connections.

If I was feeling overwhelmed by my tech use, I may go to leveraged leisure, and I have one on silence and the power of silence, and the power of solitude as well. There’s a really interesting study that I mentioned in the book where you ask people to sit alone with their thoughts or to shock themselves. A significant amount of individuals will choose to shock themselves over sitting alone with their thoughts.

And one outlier in the study actually shocked themselves 190 times, which is incredible but it speaks to how, in our fast-pace constantly hustling society, slowing down to stop and to still has become an afterthought or seen as lazy or non-adaptive. But the more we have space, and this doesn’t have to be massive amounts of alone time but to sit in really, you know, have more introspection, have more self-awareness, we can then ensure that we’re picking things in our life and channeling our energy and emotions and time, these really finite resources, especially our time, the ultimate finite resource, towards things that matter.

But if we’re not sitting down and reflecting on, “Hey, how do I build in a solitude practice once a week, small, micro moments of just solitude events to reflect on this? How do I know I’m even going in the right direction?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the action step there is to, in fact, have silence built-in. And so, you said a short silence is still great, like a minute, and just put it in the calendar or lock it in after a particular activity in a day. Or how do you think about that?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, exactly. So, a big thing when you’re building new habits is it’s always important to start really small. These don’t have to be big overhauls in behavior. That’s why, with behavior change, if we think about New Year, most New Year’s resolutions do not work out because they’re just too big. It’s too big of an ask. So, I’m a believer in doing these little micro moments throughout the day on a more consistent basis, and pairing them, we call it piggybacking for habit formation. You pair with a habit that you’ve already established.

So, let’s say I want to start one of introspection or just silence just for a moment, every time you can come home and put your keys in the entry way table, you could just pause for a second, maybe it’s for two minutes and just breathe or just think about your thoughts for the day. You can also tie it to brushing your teeth at night. So, tie it to something that’s already existing in your habit, in your routines, can go such a long way.

And then you can think of all of these things but, especially like leisure, dosing it so you can have little micro doses where you have, “Okay, I know my 30-second to one-minute doses,” and then you can do moderate doses, and then you can do even mega doses where you’re like, “Every three weekends, I go away on a vacation into nature because nature can relax me.”

So, it really can be you can get pretty strategic about it to integrate it into your lifestyle because that’s what matters. It’s the little tiny…I liken it to like a piggybank. You got to put little tiny deposits into your resilience piggybank so when adversity happens, you take it out and you don’t break the bank. And it’s just little things down on a consistent and persistent basis over time that are going to make the most impact. It does not have to be huge massive changes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then, tell us, what a micro dose of leisure might look, sound, feel like in practice in terms of like what’s a one-minute thing that really helps?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah. So, I have one scheduled in after you and I talk. So, I know from, and this is mentioned in my book, our nervous system gets activated whether we are excited or angry or scared. It doesn’t matter. It just knows your heightened levels. So, I’m excited to be here. This isn’t a negative moment for me, but my nervous system is still getting activated. And that’s okay to have a nervous system activation or stress. Stress is not bad. The problem is stress without recovery. So, chronic stress without recovery.

So, whenever I have something that is going to get me excited, like I love this stuff, I love to geek out on it, so talking to you is exciting for me, but I know I’m activating my nervous system, I will set aside, so I have five minutes, just five minutes, to go outside. Like, I live here in San Francisco where it’s sunny out, and go outside right by the bay and watch some seagulls fly around, breathe, get my nervous system back calm, and then continue in on my day.

So, it’s not a massive thing but it’s allowing, it’s hacking my nervous system just enough so that I’m not in a chronic stress state. Chronic stress without recovery is where it can lead to really, really unhealthy ailments mentally and physically.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And when it comes to the securing of support, you say there’s particular things that really bring on the belonging feelings. What are those things?

Jacinta Jimenez
A big one is compassion. So, people, I think, we hear a lot about empathy, and empathy is important but compassion is different from empathy because compassion is empathy but in action. So, it’s, “I feel for you, but also I want to do something for you.” And so, again, this doesn’t have to be a massive thing where you’re like driving across town to help a friend or something. It can be something as small as just acknowledging someone, or saying thank you to someone, or just checking in with someone. But those moments where you’re engaging in compassionate action creates this, what researchers call, positivity resonance. And it can give us a helper’s high actually, which is very, very good for us and for our relationships.

And so, when we help others, we actually feel more belonging in us so we’re setting up conditions where other people will want to help us. So, it’s this kind of self-reinforcing process but it’s about actively looking. It’s not random acts of kindness. It’s actively looking for maybe three compassionate actions you can take each week to help someone else, to be there for someone else. There’s also a really cool meditation, a loving kindness meditation, where they’ve done a lot of brain MRIs to look at feelings of loneliness before and after this meditation. And just practicing it up to, in total, one hour a week can have significant impacts on how we feel whether we feel connected, and, basically, gets us out of our self-focus so we start.

What it’s doing is you sit and think about people that you care about or in your life, and you say, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease,” and just focusing on other people, getting out of our self-focus can drive a deeper sense of belonging because we just go, “Oh, I’m not alone. We all have a shared common humanity here.” And that’s really powerful because the self-focus with our social media and the pull to just think about ourselves and curate our lives and how we present is a pretty strong pull and it’s not necessarily good for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And when it comes to undoing untidy thinking, what is some of the most frequent and problematic thinking that pops up for professionals, and how do we go about undoing that untidiness?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yes, our mind can get quite untidy. I liken it to Marie Kondo for the mind. Got to know what’s in there and straighten it out. Well, I think a big one is with COVID has created tremendous amounts of uncertainty, and our minds are absolutely programmed to hate uncertainty because it is not evolutionarily viable for us to live in uncertain conditions. Like, we’re on the prairie as hunter and gatherers, and we’re like, “We don’t know what the weather patterns are or if something is going to eat us.” That’s going to set us up to be highly anxious, nervous system activation, lots of stress.

This is something, another study is that they’ve done with people is ask them, “Do you want to shock now or you may not get a shock but you may get a shock later today? Which one would you pick?” And people always pick, not always, I should say, but often, more than not, option one. They’d rather just get it over with. And so, that creates this kind of negativity bias in us where we’re looking, trying to make things certain and so our minds will paint stories for us to try to make things feel certain even though we don’t know the real story.

So, let’s say you’re in a hallway and you usually say hi to your manager, and then your manager weirdly walks past you, kind of with a not-so nice face, and you’re like, “Oh, no, I sent my manager that email yesterday. I shouldn’t have sent it to her.” We make this whole story to make sure we feel we know what’s going on. In reality, the manager could’ve just had to go to the bathroom before a meeting.

And so, we paint these pictures, these stories to create a false sense of certainty, and our mind doesn’t always get it wrong, but oftentimes we can do what we call thinking traps, where we mind-read it like, “Oh, I know what person is thinking.” Or we personalize everything, “Oh, they’re looking at me weird. I know it’s something about me,” and it may not be about you at all. Or mental filtering, like, you do a talk and you get great reviews, and then that one person didn’t give you a great review, like, “Is it awful talk?” you don’t even see the good stuff.

So, being able to be aware of how our brains are serving us sometimes, and also not serving us, can keep us from feeling a lot of stress. It’s pretty powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. So, we get some awareness. And how do we get it and what do we do with it?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yes, so you get the awareness by asking yourself, I say, pick curiosity over concern. So, curiosity over concern is the mantra for undo untidy thinking. So, the more curious you can get, like, “Is that true? Do I have evidence for this thought? What’s another way I could be thinking about this?” can go such a long way at just checking out your thoughts versus just automatically going down the rabbit hole with your mind and going on a whole tangent, making up stories or explanations. And that can help so much to have some space between your thought and what you do.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It goes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies your freedom.” And I’m like, “That’s it. You have the space to go, ‘Oh, wait, let me check it out.’” And it’s not that hard. It just takes a little bit of a pause, this space.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you share any other key things professionals should know to reduce or address burnout?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, I think the biggest thing is that hard work and leisure and rest and recovery and vitality are not at odds with one another. If anything, the two go hand in hand. I think there’s a lot of misnomers about, “Oh, I need to keep working harder. If I don’t work harder, I’m not worthy or valuable,” or, “More work actually equals more output,” which isn’t true. Or, success, “Part of being successful is you just have to be chronically stressed.” And I’m like, “No,” the research shows us, beyond a certain threshold, our efforts to work harder actually don’t serve us. We are less productive, we are less creative, we make more mistakes, we are less empathic.

And so, the more we can actually prioritize this and think of these things as part of work, leaning into these resilience capabilities, the more we show up. We do better work. We show up to our communities, our families, our customers, our teammates, more productive, vital, present, and innovative and empathic.

So, yeah, I love to communicate to folks that this isn’t something, like I don’t see it anymore for a new world of work as a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity. It’s really a necessity for doing great work and making an impact in whatever way you want.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, you shared a favorite quote, could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, I think one of my favorite pieces of research in writing this book is just the power of nature. I think we all kind of know nature is pretty special. But just to think about, like from a time-spent perspective, like human evolution, like we’ve spent 99.9% of our time as a species in nature so we’ve evolved to find restoration in nature.

So, this is part of my leveraged leisure section is nature and finding sanctuary in nature. And just even 20 minutes in nature, or listening to nature sounds even, or looking at nature scenes can reduce our cortisol levels, which is our stress hormones, substantially, and it’s powerful. It’s almost…it is like a form of medicine physiologically for us and then mentally as well. So, nature is a powerful, powerful thing to think about when thinking about how to buffer against chronic workplace stress.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jacinta Jimenez
I think a favorite book is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and just the power of meaning, and how important it is for us as humans, that we can’t be happy all the time. Emotions are inherently impermanent but we can always have meaning. And meaning can help us persevere and be more resilient in the face of adversity.

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

Jacinta Jimenez
I think it’s support. I am a biggest believer in being a good people picker is what I call it. So, aligning yourself with people that you care about, that also up-level you, that challenge you, that support you. So, I have this support group of professionals that I go to. We’re very close, six of us, and we counsel each other on matters tied to work or career moves or new things that we’re thinking about tied to our work. And it’s just allowed me to, again, have that cognitive flexibility to look at things from all sides of the spectrum. It is a super power to have. Multiple perspectives help you out along your journey. But it’s the right people.

In the past, you can pick not-so great people, and it does take a toll, those are energy vampires. Whether they mean to or not, they can just take a lot of energy from us and leave us less vital, and we want people to fill us not drain us.

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

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah. The main one, this is kind of my mantra to hide to, that stress isn’t bad, and I say, “When you stress, you must rest.” So, if you have a stressful thing in your schedule, just counterbalance it with a rest, and so you can have what peak performance researchers call oscillations. So, stress and rest. It’s okay to have stress, we’re going to have it, but just make sure to rest. Micro rests. It does not have to be a big one.

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

Jacinta Jimenez
TheBurnoutFix.com.

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

Jacinta Jimenez
Yeah, I would challenge folks to really consider how building out your resilience and your wellbeing is kind of the fundamental piece, a baseline I would say, for doing being awesome at your job. I adamantly believe a new world of work necessitates new ways to approach work. So, the more you can lean into these things that allow you to feel more vibrant, and full, and have a full soul, the better you’re going to be at all the other efforts of working hard and all these productivity hats and working smart. So, I would say this is a non-negotiable and I challenge you to really consider it a core component to how you approach work and life.

Pete Mockaitis
Jacinta, thanks so much for sharing the goods and I wish you all the best and many burnout-free workdays.

Jacinta Jimenez
Thank you so much for having me and letting me geek out on this stuff with you.