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974: The Eight Inner Skills to Career Happiness with Stella Grizont

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Stella Grizont shares the simple things everyone can do to feel happier and more fulfilled every day.

You’ll Learn

  1. The master key for overcoming toxic situations
  2. The key response that builds quality relationships
  3. How to set healthy boundaries without feeling guilty 

About Stella

Time Magazine named Stella a leading happiness expert. As a speaker and executive coach, Stella works with leaders who are seeking deeper career fulfillment and with organizations that are dedicated to elevating the well-being and engagement of their employees. Her debut book based on her signature coaching program, The Work Happiness Method: Master the 8 Skills to Career Fulfillment, was an instant USA Today Bestseller.

In the last 17 years, Stella has coached over 1,800 individuals in over 30 countries. Stella was one of the first 150 people in the world to earn a master’s in Applied Positive Psychology (aka the science of happiness) from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, daughter, and son, who continue to teach her what life is all about.

Resources Mentioned

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Stella Grizont Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Stella, welcome.

Stella Grizont
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom associated with work happiness. Could you tell us any particularly extra surprising or fascinating discoveries you’ve made about work happiness with all of your coaching and putting together your book here?

Stella Grizont
Well, in the book, I did a lot of research, and one of the things that’s really just stuck with me was around how much social support matters. And when we’re in a state of fight or flight, and we’re feeling stressed, just having a friend or someone we know who cares about us by our side can literally change our perception of reality. It can change how we feel about the challenge ahead. It transforms how we estimate how hard something is.

There was a study done where researchers took two groups of participants at the base of a hill, and one group got to stand with a friend by their side and another group was standing on their own. And they were asked, “How steep is this hill? How steep is the slant of this hill?” And those with a friend by their side estimated the steepness to be less.

So, when you’re asking about how we perceive the challenge ahead, or what do we think about a really difficult situation, the presence of a friend can actually change how we perceive what’s up ahead. And so, that’s just really oriented me to, especially as an introvert, to make sure that I’m supplementing. We supplement with vitamins but we have to make sure we’re really supplementing with people that we care about and feel connected to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really intriguing, the notion of how difficult we estimate a thing to be is variable. And I’ve seen that in my own world in terms of if I’m feeling kind of stressed about a thing, it’s like, “Oh, this is probably going to take two hours.” It’s like, “Okay, no, it took half an hour, but I was just freaking out.”

Stella Grizont
Our emotions really determine the reality that we experience. They can influence the reality that we experience. They’re both like information about what’s happening, but then they also influence how we perceive what’s happening, so it’s a two-way street. And if we know that, we can actually, and one of the skills I teach in my book, is, “How do you manage your mind and mood so that you can see more, so that you can be more, so that you can be more in control?”

And if we know this about ourselves, we can make more conscious choices about what moods we’re cultivating and how we respond to our own emotions so that we can set ourselves up to flourish and have more ease and think more clearly.

Pete Mockaitis
I definitely want to talk about managing moods. And maybe, first of all, if there’s anyone who’s perhaps skeptical about that that’s even possible, like, “Moods just kind of fall upon us. Can one even manage them?” could you maybe give us an inspiring story of someone who managed their mood and used some of these other skills to really see a cool transformation?

Stella Grizont
Whenever I give a talk we go through some evidence-based techniques, and within 30 seconds, participants are like, “Oh, my shoulders are relaxing,” or “I feel lighter,” or “I feel more relaxed,” and it doesn’t take much for us to change our minds and moods. Our emotions are in motion, and that’s a good thing, that they’re never constant, because they’re datapoints about our surroundings. And sometimes we can’t control our initial response, even though we’d really love to, but we can control our response to our response once we notice that emotion.

So, I had a client who was dealing with a manager who was a bully. I mean, he would yell inappropriately, use inappropriate language. It was very inappropriate, and she found herself crying all the time, and she had never been in that position before. She was a people manager, very successful, but this guy was not only inappropriate, but really getting to her, and she felt like she couldn’t hold it together in his presence.

And so, we practiced, she went through “The Work Happiness Method,” which is now a book, but it’s also a coaching program, and we really worked on some techniques to help her attune to who she wanted to show up as, and just simple techniques, practicing breath work, getting clear on her vision of who she wanted to be, remembering her sense of control, preparing for that difficult conversation. So, there are so many things that we can do that are simple and instant. I mean, if you want, we can get through some, we can do some right now for folks.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess what I’m curious to hear is, so she did those things and then what happened on the other side?

Stella Grizont
So, we prepared for a difficult conversation, and the most difficult part of a difficult conversation is your preparation beforehand. That’s what I call your approach, that’s another skill that we cover in the book, because your energy is everything in a difficult conversation. Our moods are contagious. Our emotions are contagious for a number of reasons. We have mirror neurons, so when a baby’s smiling, we can’t help but smile. But when someone’s also really angry and frustrated, we find ourselves clenching up and feeling like something’s off.

And so, we’re just able to catch each other’s moods. So, if you’re going to go into a difficult conversation, the number one thing you can control is your energy beforehand. And so, we made sure that she was in a good place, that she felt confident going in, that she felt neutral, that she even had empathy for this really horrible leader, and she was able to actually express that she would no longer be able to work in these conditions.

If they were going to be able to work together and have a positive working relationship, they needed to re-examine how they communicated. And she ended up staying at that organization and actually getting a lot of the things that she needed, including additional support and headcount, including more travel that she wanted. So, it really was transformational for her.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really beautiful. I think a lot of times, if we are encountering someone who’s toxic and very problematic, we can conclude, “Well, that person is just a jerk and this is a hopeless situation. There’s nothing I can do. I just got to look for the exit.” And yet, here you are when you share, in some cases, very clearly, “These conditions are not working for me and they’ll need to change or I’ll need to exit,” then good things can happen. Folks can have a transformation.

I’m curious, on the receiving end there, how was the manager responding to that information? Like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. I had no idea,” or was it like, “Yeah, I have some problems, I’ve been working on them. Thank you for being clear with me. This is a wake-up call.” How does one receive that without just flipping out and making it worse?

Stella Grizont
I don’t think there was an apology, but there was, the things that she had requested, he responded to. So, she had asked for, if he was feeling frustrated, for him to talk about it sooner rather than later, for him to be able to write things out, for him to give her additional support, for them to do more planning together so he wasn’t so surprised. So, he actually changed his behavior.

But in this case, what was more important for her was actually her demonstrating to herself that she could have this conversation. That was the growth for her. And so, there’s always growth opportunities in really challenging moments. And for her, it was witnessing herself be powerful in a very, very challenging moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Stella, this is inspiring stuff. So, we are not victims to our moods. We are not even victims to terrible bosses or toxic environments. There’s a lot of power that we could summon and make happen. So, I want to dig into some of these particular tools in a moment. But first could you give us, from all your research, what’s kind of the state of work happiness these days? 

Stella Grizont
So, generally, we know that about three-quarters of employees are not engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah, the Gallup stuff.

Stella Grizont
The Gallup stuff, right. So, we all know that we’re very disengaged, but just as a background, the U.S. has dropped in terms of happiness levels. According to the 2024 World Happiness Report, the U.S. fell eight places from 15th place to 23rd place.

Pete Mockaitis
In one year?

Stella Grizont
In one year.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, bummer.

Stella Grizont
But you know what? To be honest, 15th isn’t that great either for being one of the most wealthy nations, a democracy. And it’s been pretty flat. And I think the reason why the U.S. has not been in a great place, and it’s gotten even worse, is because we’re lonely and we’re isolated. Not just because, you know, we started off our conversation about how much social support matters. Well, relationships are the number one predictor of our happiness, the number one predictor of our happiness, above and beyond how healthy we are, how much money we earn, how successful we are, how confident we are.

And so, in the United States, we tend to prioritize our work over our connections. We move cross-country for our jobs and so we end up dislodging our social connections, our familial connections, and then we’re also working from home now, and we’re not getting just interaction. And what researchers have found is that, just like we need a diverse diet of, like, veggies and proteins and grains, we also need a diverse social diet.

So, it’s not just about staying connected to people who we have strong social ties with, we also need a lot of weak social ties, like saying hello to the postal worker, saying hello to the security guard, having a nice chit-chat with the person who’s making you coffee, or the Uber driver. We need interactions because they signal to our nervous system that we’re safe.

And, again, that’s what also signals what we’re up against, and that can create a veil over how we perceive anything, whether it’s if someone says, “Hey, can we talk about X, Y, and Z?” and you perceive that as a threat, or as, “Oh, let’s just explore.” So, our nervous system is constantly on patrol for threat, and if we feel lonely, then our body is in a stressed-out state and we’re more likely to perceive everything as a threat and feel quite unhappy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so social stuff is big. That’s come up a couple times already. Within your work, The Work Happiness Method, any pro tips on dealing with that in the context of work careers?

Stella Grizont
Well, one, this actually wasn’t in the book, but this is one of my favorite tools to share, just a very practical tool. When someone comes to you with good news, it’s so important for us to respond with celebration. So, this is the easiest hack for building quality relationships. So, researchers found that there’s four main ways that we respond to good news. One response is active-destructive.

So, let’s say my husband tells me he got a promotion, I could say, “Oh, you got a promotion. This means you’re going to be working late. You’re never going to be home. I’m going to have to do more bedtime with the kids.” So, I’m actively destroying his high. That’s the worst way we can respond is when we just like pummel the goodness.

Then a little bit better but still horrible is passive-destructive, and that’s where someone says, my husband says he had a raise or a promotion, and I would say, “What do you want for dinner?” So, I just ignore his good news and I jump into something else. Slightly better is passive-constructive, and that’s where he says, “Oh, my God, I got a promotion, I got a raise,” and then I would say, “That’s nice. So, what should we eat?” So, I acknowledged it but not really.

And the most optimal way we want to respond to someone else’s good news is with our presence, our attention, our curiosity. We want to actively build up and savor the good news. And so, that would sound like, “Oh, my God, tell me all about it. That’s so exciting. I know you worked so hard. How are you feeling about it? Tell me all the details.” So, we’re having them reconstruct the event, re-savor the event. We’re adding to it.

And so, the reason why we want to do this is because it signals to the other person that we are a safe person for them to go to when they are ready to celebrate. We all have had good news in our life and have all made conscious decisions about, “Ooh, I don’t want to tell this person because they’re just going to make me feel like crap afterwards. They’re not a safe person for me to go to.”

And so, what researchers have found is that the relationships we go to when we have good news actually matter more than when we have bad news. So how we respond to people in good times actually matters more than how we respond in bad times when it comes to cultivating a strong relationship. So, just celebrate. Be a better celebrator.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I love it. And I’m reminded we had a conversation with B.J. Fogg, and we were talking more about habits. But he said that celebration is absolutely such a top important thing associated with creation of habits, and now also for relationships. So, good stuff. And I think, is this the Gottman Research, these four response approaches? It sounds a little familiar.

Stella Grizont
This is actually from Shelly Gable, and she discovered these four responses to good news.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now I’m wondering, I don’t know if it was Shelly Gable or John Gottman or whom, but I think that the data was pretty striking that having a minimal acknowledgement was like almost as bad as being actively destructive, like it was pretty shocking how, “Hey, great job,” and a quick move on is nearly as devastating as just being totally mean.

Stella Grizont
Yeah, I mean, if you think about it, as humans, we crave a sense of meaning and purpose. And we don’t have to climb a mountaintop to feel on purpose. We don’t have to do grand gestures to be on purpose. We want to contribute to something bigger. And why do we want to contribute to something bigger? Because we want to matter somehow, and mattering can be experienced by just feeling someone else’s presence and care, and giving that presence and care.

And so, we’re just beautifully interlocked to matter to each other. It’s the bedrock of our wellbeing and of our success. So, if we just help someone else matter, and also feel that we matter to someone else, it can catapult our success. It can catapult our wellbeing and our happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Stella, we’ve got some good stuff on relationships. You have, in fact, eight essential skills in your Work Happiness Method. Could you give us maybe the quick four-minute bird’s-eye overview of what are these eight essential skills?

Stella Grizont
Sure. So, the first one is resilience, and that’s how to manage your mind and mood because we have to start there. The second is having a clear vision of what success means to you, so it’s clarity, and knowing who you want to be, who are you when you are most alive. Most of us define success backwards. We, first, pick really sexy goals, and we think of all the things we want to achieve.

The problem with that is that, and I’m sure many of your listeners have experienced this, you can achieve all the things and still be left feeling empty, burnt out, lonely, or completely confused about who you are. And so, what we want to do is reverse engineer and first identify, “How do I want to feel and be at work?” and then choose goals that support that. And so, the second chapter and the second skill is all about figuring out who you want to be.

After we figure that out and we develop your vision, then we build the skill around purpose, and that’s about making decisions that support your being, the person you defined in your vision. It’s about knowing how to make decisions with confidence so that you can feel on purpose every day. Now, once we know how to manage your mind and mood, we have your vision, we have your values, now it’s time for you to set your boundaries, and that’s what the next chapter is about, and that’s the next important inner skill.

And boundaries are less about saying no, but they’re actually more about saying yes to what matters, yes to your vision, yes to your values. So, I walk people through, very practically, “Where do you set boundaries? How do you set them? And also, how do you have compassion for yourself if it’s really freaking hard for you to do it?” Because I am a recovering people-pleaser, and I think folks who are people-pleasers are the ones who really have a hard time with boundaries.

And it’s important to understand that people, we talk about people-pleasing so casually, but actually for many folks, it’s actually a trauma response. And so, it’s very important to understand the psychology behind why we struggle with boundaries because it will help set you free. So, once we know what our boundaries are, and we create greater ease for us to be who we want to be, then we talk about, “Well, how do you be who you want to be in times of uncertainty?” And that’s through the inner skill of play.

Playfulness is an inherent capability that we have as humans, and it helps us navigate uncertainty and flourish through it so we don’t stay stuck. And then once we learn how to be more playful, especially in hard and uncertain times, the next inner skill is about discovery, and that’s about exploring. Now that we can have a play mindset in the face of uncertainty, how do we figure out what’s next?

So, whether you’re just, you know, doing okay and you just don’t know what’s next, whether or not there’s lots of uncertainty and change in your organization, maybe there’s some kind of health scare or change within your family, like, “How do you explore what’s next in a way that will set you up to flourish?”

And then it’s inevitable that we have to talk to people when it comes to just navigating the world, and so I have a chapter on approach, which is about, “How do you have those difficult conversations? And how do you set yourself up for transformation instead of confrontation?” And then the final inner skill that I cover is called refocus, and that’s about, “How do you return to yourself when things get off track? When things don’t go your way, how do you settle with the universe? And how do you make sense out of hard times?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. So, we’ve had some good chats about relationship bits. When it comes to managing mood, are there any top tactics that are really just transformational here?

Stella Grizont
One of my favorite tools to give my clients is called the complaint vacation. So, we often find ourselves complaining aloud or even in our heads, and complaining is not just noticing what’s wrong, it’s the additional suffering about what’s wrong. So, it’s not just saying, “It’s really hot outside today.” It’s, “Oh, it’s so hot. Oh, my God, I’m so tired of this weather.” So, it’s the grievance, it’s the suffering. That’s a choice.

And so, if there’s something that you find yourself complaining about pretty regularly, just give yourself permission for the next week to take a vacation from that because I think we all are tired of our own complaining. I like to couple a complaint vacation with gratitude. So, it’s not just noticing what’s wrong but it’s paying extra special attention to what is right. And it’s not just listing off what’s right, but it’s what’s uniquely right today.

So, it’s not just that I’m grateful for my family, but I’m so grateful for the snuggles I had with my three-year-old before he went to daycare. So it’s getting really, really specific. And then, finally, you know, I think one of the things when it comes to managing our mind and mood is people think that being happy is just about like noticing what’s good, but actually I think one of the keys and skills to being happy is knowing how to be unhappy, and how to actually be with your negative emotions.

And so, one of the simplest things you can do when you notice you’re feeling off and you’re not in the mood that you’d like to be is just to be curious about that mood, and first just label that emotion. Like, if you’re feeling off, take a moment and be like, “Okay, what’s this about?” Get curious, “What is this? Is this frustration? Is this disappointment? Is this anger? Is this loneliness?” Give it a name.

Because when we give it a name, we’re actually shifting the brain activity from our amygdala, the fight-or-flight center, to our prefrontal cortex, which is the big-picture thinking, that’s the planning, that’s the executive function, and so we’re able to actually help ourselves. Because once we label, then we’re like, “Oh, I’m just feeling really frustrated that that report didn’t go out on time. Maybe I should talk about processes with my team so that we can prevent that moving forward.”

So, we start to help ourselves. Metabolize the emotion faster. So just by labeling the emotion and being with it and being curious about it, not trying to push it away, you can actually help yourself be happier in the long run.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. I like that notion of what’s uniquely good about this today in terms of getting that brain kind of tuned into that stuff and noticing what’s really special about that. That’s really cool. When one does a complaint vacation, I can see how we can catch ourselves in not verbalizing complaints, yet still, quite possibly internally in our own mind’s ear, rattle off plenty of complaints. How do you think about approaching that?

Stella Grizont
Yeah, I love that question. And this is the thing with when we complain, this is just something I’ve noticed, is that we’ve usually skipped over the step of acknowledging our emotion. We’ve actually bypassed our own emotion, and now we’re in an instant place of suffering. So, there’s probably a space before that, before we get really like annoyed or flustered, or we’re suffering or we’re complaining, that we skipped over.

And so, just acknowledging your emotions can actually help you be with the event without having extra layers of suffering about it.

So, if you find yourself in a complaining loop, you want to pause and, again, be curious, and be like, “What’s really going on for me here?” Because it’s probably not the thing. There’s some emotion that wants attention. And if we just get quiet enough to notice it, that’s actually the first step of having some self-compassion, and then we might say to ourselves, “Wow, of course I’m feeling really upset. It’s hot and it’s uncomfortable and I can’t do my work. And that makes it really hard.”

And then the next step of self-compassion is just being gentle with yourself like you would a friend. Like, “Yeah, of course, Stella.” Like validating your emotions. And then you want to remind yourself that you’re human, just like everyone else, and, yeah, being really sweaty is going to make anyone grumpy, and just be kind and compassionate. And that can actually transform the complaining, and that can really slow down the volume of that complaining and then to notice what’s good if you can. And that’s what I hope for everyone who reads the book or whoever I work with, is to realize their power over their experience. And the power is first realizing, “I am complaining,” or, “I’m noticing myself complaining,” and then to notice that you have choices. That’s the power. So, if you are noticing you’re complaining, you’re already in a good place. You’re already winning because you’re at least observing it.

Pete Mockaitis
To note, the particular emotion, and not jump through it. I’m reminded of Dr. Trevor Kashey. We’ve got to get him on the show. He has a framework that is STFU, which is sort of a joke in and of itself, which is like stimulus, thought, feeling, urge. And these are four separate things. Like, what you want to run and go do, the urge is different than the thought that you’re having, or the feeling you’re having, or the thing itself that’s present.

And I find that’s kind of helpful to you stop and march through that, and say, “Oh, okay,” we’re going to have a moment where we could just go ahead and feel that thing and let that flow through for a moment, and that’s all right, and maybe even helpful in just letting it pass instead of just telling a big old story and perpetuating it.

Stella Grizont
Yes. If we could slow down just a little bit, like in general as humans, and touch base with ourselves, we realize our power, we metabolize our emotions better, and we make better choices. So, I think a lot, we could all benefit with slowing down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m curious now with regard to the boundaries. Any favorite words, phrases, scripts you might suggest, because we could feel maybe uncomfortable in establishing a boundary? It’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to upset them,” or “I make them think I’m unmotivated or lazy or not a team player,” etc. Any magical turns of phrase you might suggest for folks?

Stella Grizont
Absolutely. So, as I shared before, I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and this is a lifelong practice. All of these tools, they’re all part of building a skillset, and you have to keep at it, or we just get stronger and better. And so, if you’re an auto-yes kind of person and someone’s like, “Hey, can you join this committee?” or “Hey, can you do this by 5:00?” or “Hey, we’d love your help,” if you find yourself automatically saying yes right away, one thing you can do is just delay.

So, you would say, “Hey, thanks so much for considering me for this. Can I get back to you in an hour, in a day, next week? Can I get back to you? Thanks so much. Can I get back to you?” This will buy you time to make a more conscious decision and decide, “Is this a yes for me? Is this a no?” Or, “Do I have questions? What’s driving the timing? Why me? Why are we doing this?”

So, oftentimes, again, it’s about slowing things down so that you can make more conscious decisions. So, I would just ask for some time, “Let me look at my schedule. I want to give you my best. I haven’t had a chance to assess what I have going on this week.” And people are happy to give you time.

When it comes to boundaries, it’s really about microdosing. I call it microdosing. So baby, baby, baby, baby steps. Because what you’re doing is you’re retraining your nervous system to feel safe even when maybe people aren’t totally pleased. So, we need to train ourselves to feel safe. And so, one microdose, one little baby step you can take is just to say, “Let me get back to you.”

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

Stella Grizont
Writing this book took me over nine years, and it was something I really wrestled with. And there were many times where it felt like I was pushing and I wasn’t going anywhere. And I talk about this inner skill of refocusing, which sometimes requires us to stay down when we’re down. It sometimes requires us to listen and learn from when things don’t go our way.

And I just want to offer some words of encouragement for folks who feel like they’re hitting a wall. And in the book, I talk about, well, maybe it’s not so much of a setback, but a setup for something better, and to really question, “How is this serving me? What growth is this setting me up for? What is this signaling?”

Really asking some bigger questions so that you can get to transform through that really hard time. Because I truly believe it’s all of service, just like that client who was dealing with the bully, like she got to step up and really regain her power, and that was a gift that her boss gave her even though he was an a-hole.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Yeah, well it’s done, a setup, instead of a setback. Cool. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Stella Grizont
So the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, I hope I’m saying that right, he said, “It’s not that I don’t get off-center, it’s that I return to center so quickly no one ever notices.” And so that’s the thing with all these inner skills, we’re going to mess up. The work is not to be perfect. The work is in returning to ourselves a little faster, a little bit more gracefully each time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And favorite study or piece of research?

Stella Grizont
So, in 2006, there was this eye-tracking study done by Wadlinger and Isaacowitz, where they took two groups of participants, and they induced one group of participants into a positive mood by just showing them pictures, puppies, babies. And then another, they took another group and induced them into a negative mood, and then they put eye-tracking goggles on them, and they asked them to look at an image on a screen.

And the people who were in a negative mood, their eyes tended to stay on one particular area of the screen and just hover there, focus. And then those who were in a positive mood, their eyes tended to go around the periphery of the screen and then scatter within. So, they literally took in the big picture. They saw more. The people who are in a negative mood kind of had tunnel vision. So, again, it just shows the impact of our emotions on how we see the world, and how important it is for us to manage our minds and moods so that we can see more.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Stella Grizont
This is a book by Mark Nepo, and it’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred.

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

Stella Grizont
At the end of the day, and this is a tool I share in my book, I ask myself what I call accountability questions, which are questions to reflect on three values I’m looking to amplify in my life. So, they’re open-ended and they’re “How did I support my well-being today, because my vitality is important?” “How did I express love to the people I care about?” And the third one I move around a lot, but it’s actually now it’s going to be about play, but it’s, “How did I have fun today?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that particularly seems to resonate and connect with folks; they quote back to you often?

Stella Grizont
Well, people really love this exercise that I have that’s called the Vision Generator, and that’s what you do in Chapter 2. People can, if they don’t want to buy the book, which I’d love them to, or do the course, you can get it for free at VisionGenerator.com. And what people often love is the ease and the hand-holding to really go deep and reflect on what one really, really, really wants, and so they really love that exercise because that really sets them free. And to realize that there’s infinite ways to feel more satisfied at work and in your life, even if the circumstances are what they are and they’re not perfect.

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

Stella Grizont
They can go to my website, StellaGrizont.com. And I’m also on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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

Stella Grizont
I would start with the Vision Generator. So, if you want to be awesome at your job, you have to know what’s important, how you want to show up, and knowing your vision is so critical because it organizes your values, the steps that you take, and the behaviors you engage in. And so, that’s vision generator, and they can get that at VisionGenerator.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Stella, this has been a treat. I wish you much work happiness.

Stella Grizont
Thank you so much, Pete. Thank you for having me.

896: Finding More Success and Joy in Everything You Do with Suneel Gupta

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Suneel Gupta shows how to find more joy and success every day by drawing from the wisdom of ancient Indian traditions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The eight essential practices for daily success
  2. How to reset your energy in just five minutes
  3. Why you achieve more with only 85% of the effort

About Suneel

Suneel Gupta lost his Dharma and then found it again. He is the founding CEO of RISE and co-founder of the Gross National Happiness Center in the United States. As an author, a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School, and host of a hit documentary series, Suneel studies the most extraordinary people on the planet to discover and share simple, actionable habits to lift our performance and deepen our daily sense of purpose. His work has been featured by major outlets including CNBC, TED, and the New York Times.

Resources Mentioned

Suneel Gupta Interview Transcript

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

Suneel Gupta
Hey, Pete, it’s nice to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into the wisdom of your book, Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do. But first, I love, in your bio, it says, “Suneel Gupta lost his dharma and then found it again.” Tell us this tale, and those who aren’t familiar, what does the word dharma mean?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. So, you may have heard dharma used in different contexts. Usually, when I talk to people, they’ve kind of heard the word before, but not exactly sure, or they’ve heard different definitions of it. Sometimes people refer to dharma as a purpose, sometimes they refer to it as a calling. If you go back to one of the original definitions of dharma, that takes you to the Bhavad Gita.

And the Bhagavad Gita is the ancient storied scripture from India which defines dharma as your sacred duty. And then the question really becomes, like, “Duty to what? Duty to whom?” And the answer really is duty to yourself. It’s duty to that fire that is burning inside of you, that some people call that your gift, some people call that your calling.

My grandfather, who first introduced me to the word dharma on his porch in New Delhi when I was seven years old, referred to dharma as your essence. It’s the expression of this thing inside of you. And the equation that I’ve come back to in the year since when I’ve lost my dharma and went looking for it again, is that dharma equals essence plus expression. Essence is who you are, and expression is how you show up in the world. And when you can combine the two, you’re in your dharma.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, you lost yours and you found it. What’s the story here?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I think, probably like you, Pete, I went through a lot of years in my life where I was chasing something, and I didn’t realize it but what I really sort of felt at that time was that I was going to reach this level of success and wealth and status. And after I got to a certain threshold, I was going to feel all kinds of good things inside. I was going to feel meaning. I was going to feel joy. And all that stuff was going to last, and pretty soon I found myself on sort of the treadmill that, I think, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University sometimes calls the arrival fallacy.

And the arrival fallacy is if we just get that next job, if we get that next thing, if we get that next deal, well, then we’re finally going to be happy. And, at some point in time, I think we realize that the formula is not really working that way. And I think some of us realize that later on in life, some of us realize it earlier. Personally, I think that we’re actually starting to see that people are recognizing this earlier and earlier in their lives. I think it’s why we have so many people in college or people entering the workforce now, Gen Zers that are asking some, I think, very important questions, the deeper questions.

But, for me, I started to ask that question really after I had gone through three startup experiences, two of them had failed, one of them succeeded. And the one that succeeded exited and I finally had money in the bank, and finally had the image that I had been trying to create for myself as this successful entrepreneur. I realized that that stuff, that the feeling that was associated that lasted for, like, a few weeks, and then I was kind of back to, “What’s next?”

And it was, like, for me, kind of a scary feeling because I had been chasing this thing all along, and when I finally got it, I realized that wasn’t it. And now you’re like, “What now?” And to be honest with you, I really felt like I was alone, like I was being selfish, I was feeling something that most people don’t feel. Like, most people can get to a level of success and just be happy with that. But I felt like, “Look, I’m still ambitious, I still want to do things,” and as a result of that, I still had this inner void.

And so, I wanted to figure out what I was doing that was not making me happy. What was I doing that wasn’t allowing me to feel this sense of inner gratitude and inner peace? And I started to look beyond what was in front of me here in the Western culture, the books that I was reading, the podcasts I was listening to, and I went back to this principle, this body of wisdom that I had learned as a child, and I said, “What does this ageless wisdom that has been practiced and passed down generation after generation, that has found its way from East to West, what can it offer me today?”

Pete Mockaitis
And what can it offer for you today?

Suneel Gupta
Well, that’s really the book. I started to take lessons of dharma and I started to kind of just say, like, “All right. Well, how does it fit in a culture of hustle? How does it fit in a culture of grind?” And I think that the biggest thing for me is that I really saw success as an accumulation of status and wealth and all the things that come with that but I hadn’t really considered the idea of what I now call inner success. Outer success and inner success.

Inner success is really meaning, and it’s status, and it’s joy. And I think the mistake that I made is believing that outer success was somehow going to lead to inner success. It was going to fill up that void that I was feeling. What I learned throughout the course of the book and writing this book, and coming back to this wisdom, was that not that outer success is bad, that ambition is bad because sometimes we can read philosophy or read wisdom, and sort of feel almost shameful for having the ambition that we have.

I don’t think that that’s true in the case of dharma. You can have outer ambitions, you can want outer success, you can want things in your life, but the wisdom of dharma is really about reversing the flow. Instead of starting with outer success, you begin with inner success, you begin with what really, really matters to you. And by focusing on what really matters to you, and tapping into that essence, you are able to express that in a much more vibrant way to the world. You become much more creative. You become much more imaginative.

And as I go out and I study leaders, and this is what I do for a living now is study some of the most extraordinary people, I think, on the planet, what I realize is that all of them, at some point in time, or I should say the vast majority of them, at some point in time, learned how to reverse this flow. Instead of saying, “I want to become a unicorn founder,” or, “I want to become the CEO of a company,” they started with, “I really love to tell stories,” or, “I really love to lead people who develop people in a really profound way.” And when you start with that, when you start with that essence and you begin to express that to the world, you really come into your dharma.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing your story. Do you have another story of someone who managed to find their dharma and then see some cool things? And what changes did they make to have that unfold?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, chapter one of the book, I think, really is all about, “How do we now start to kind of come back to our dharma?” And the essence of that learning is what my ancestors called sukha, which is your true self, your authentic self. And the idea behind elfles is that when you go and search for your dharma, you don’t have to search for it on the outside. Because sometimes when we hear words like dharma, or even purpose or meaning, very existential sort of words, and you almost sort of feels like you have to leave everything, go to the Himalayas, meditate, and figure this out.

And the reality is that your dharma has always been with you. Like, there are certain qualities and certain things about you that have always been true. And one of the most important things you can do, when it comes to finding your dharma again, reconnecting with that place, is actually really talking to people who knew you when you were a kid. And sometimes hearing the stories about what you were like and what you loved to do can be really important indicators towards what you genuinely love, towards this essence that we’re really looking to dig up in chapter one.

It happened for this person, Mila, in the book, who I talk about, who’s a project manager. She was a working mom, and she didn’t like her job. And the thing about Mila, as she was working as a project manager inside a big tech company, and the thing for her is that she really wanted to become a teacher. Like, she knew that in her core she was a teacher. The problem was that she didn’t have the capacity in her life to quit her job, go back and get a teaching certificate, she had a family that relied on her, for her compensation, for the salary she was making, for her health benefits, and it was just really hard for her to do that.

So, she had kind of accepted this fate of, like, “I am not going to become a teacher, and I might as well just suck it up and do my job.” And, as a result, she was showing up day in, day out, but she was doing it for a paycheck not because it was a passion. But what happened for Mila was as she started to dig beneath what I call the occupation mindset. The occupation mindset where it’s like, “We are our job. We are a doctor. We are a lawyer. We are teachers.” And she started to go beneath that to her essence, “What is it about teaching that she really loves? What is it about teaching that makes her come alive?”

And, ultimately, what it came down to is she loves to grow people, she loves to teach, she likes to see people grow and help in that development. And what was interesting is that when she shared that insight, when she finally got to that place and shared that with her family, her family was like, “Yeah, no kidding. Like, you’ve always been that way. You’re the little girl who was helping other kids in the neighborhood learn how to ride bikes. You were the one who’s teaching her baby cousin how to crawl. Like, developing people and investing in people is something that was at your core. It always has been.”

And so, now that she had arrived at this essence, beneath the occupation and into the essence, she could start to think of, like, “What are the other ways that I can express that essence to the world?” Teaching, obviously, was one of those, but teaching was very hard so what were some others? And what she started to realize is, like, “Wow, there are actually some opportunities inside my very company that I could actually pursue that would allow me to express this essence of growing and developing other people. I could really kind of make a push for being part of leadership, which would allow me to lead a team. I could make a lateral shift to HR.”

What ended up happening is, after she realized her essence, she started to have coffees with people, she started to say, “Hey, look, I know at my core I like to develop people. What are some options out there for me?” And they started to bring some back to her. Eventually, she was asked to lead a program that was recruiting graduates, like graduates who had top potential, into a program that was all about developing their leadership capabilities, and they asked her to run the program.

But she was only able to get to that place because she was digging beneath the occupation, “I want to be a teacher,” and able to go into, “What was it about being a teacher that made her come alive?” Then, from that place, figuring out what are the other options that allow her to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, I was just about to ask you about your three-step process. It sounds like we’ve got a demonstration. Could you recap what step one, step two, step three for living out the dharma?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. So, I think step one is let’s go beneath the occupation. Let’s put aside occupation for a second and come back to your essence, this thing that you love to do. And one of the questions that I think you can ask yourself during that time is, “What is it that I would do for free? What are some of the things out there that I actually would do with no compensation?”

I find that to be a really important question, not because I think that we need to go and work for free, but because I think when we actually have a sense of, “What is it that we would actually do without compensation, without reward?” we start to get a much clearer sense of our essence. That’s step one.

But then, from that place, step two is to say, “All right, what are the possibilities? What are the other possibilities out there?” And it’s very interesting because sometimes when you get to this essence, you’ll start to see possibilities that you hadn’t considered otherwise. You can start going to have coffees with people, and asking people, and you can say, “Hey, I love storytelling at my core. I’m a project manager right now, or here’s my job but I like storytelling at my core. What are some ways to express that to the world?” and you’re going to start to collect these ideas. So, you’re in sort of the possibility phase in step two.

And then step three is when you actually start to whittle it down. You start to take these possibilities, and you start to say, “All right. Well, I can do anything but I can’t do everything, like not all at once, at least. So, let me start to really hone in on one.” And for that, for step three, I really like to use a tool I call the dharma deck. And what that basically means is that every time a possibility comes up, every time I come across a new way to express my essence that I really love, that means something to me, I’ll write it down in an index card. And I’ll continue to do that as these possibilities arrive.

So, over time, what I’m developing is a small deck of index cards. I call it my dharma deck. And every couple of weeks or so, when I’m in this exploration stage, I’ll sort of take some reflective time, I’ll usually leave my phone behind and go into nature, and I’ll take this little deck with me of index cards, and I’ll just sort them from top to bottom. At the top of the deck are the ideas that are really kind of pulling at my heart the most, all the way to the bottom.

And what I notice is that, over time, one or two of those cards, usually tend to retain their placement at the top of the pack. And those are the ideas that I feel are not just pulling at my head but they’re pulling at my heart. These are the things that I really think tap into my essence and allow me to express it to the outside world.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us some examples of things that might be written on the cards in the dharma deck?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, absolutely. So, for me, I’ll bring it back to me for a second. Like, I was working as an IT consultant when I started trying to figure out my dharma. But I knew at my core, at my essence, that I love to tell stories. Now, storytelling and IT consulting are not symbiotic. Where I was, was not a place that necessarily valued storytelling. Storytelling wasn’t in my description, but I started to really think about, like, “What are the different ways and possibilities to be a storyteller, to express myself as a storyteller?”

So, in my deck, on these index cards were writing, writing blog posts, writing books was another one, doing a podcast, like you, Pete, was another one, being on stage, doing standup comedy even at night was another one. I had this full deck of possibilities, ways that I could express myself as a storyteller, some of which were asking me to sort of shift my job but others were, like, “Hey, you can do this right now and still be a consultant. Like, you could be doing this in your own time as well.” And those were the cards that initially sort of formed my deck.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so let’s hear about the subtitle here, “8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do.” What are these eight essential practices?

Suneel Gupta
So, chapter one is sukha, we talked about sukha, and that is really about your authentic state. And then chapter two is really called bhakti. And the idea behind bhakti is full-hearted devotion. Full-hearted devotion is really about this sense that, oftentimes, when we think about our dharma, we often tend to think of, “How do we sort of become fully scheduled with something and not fully hearted with something?”

Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that if we love something that we have to spend every minute of every day with it, but we don’t necessarily. Like, we can provide full-hearted devotion for partial moments of the day. I bring up the example of my wife and I. We have two kids. We’re scrambling now with our duties and our jobs and raising kids. But we make sure that we have 15 minutes every morning of just like really connected time with each other, or sitting there, we’re having coffee before the kids wake up, and that’s our act of love, that’s our act of devotion to one another.

And, again, we’re not spending every minute of every day just as monks who are dedicated and devoted to meditation don’t meditate every minute of every day. But the act of bhakti, the act of having devotion to your dharma means that you’re having touchstones with it all the time every day. You’re, in some small way, doing what you love. You’re, in some small way, touching this thing that you really appreciate at your heart. So, if you love to draw, you’re spending just a little time, even if it’s a few minutes and drawing. If you love to lead other people, you’re spending a few minutes checking in with somebody else. It’s something that’s important to you.

Chapter three is prana, and that’s really about energy, it’s about, “How do we start to now bring real energy into our practice of dharma?” because sometimes we tend to confuse time with energy, meaning that we optimize our schedules, we think about the number of hours that we bring to a task instead of the quality of the energy that we want to bring to each hour. So, how do we start to manage our energy now in a way that actually brings full heartedness to our dharma?

Chapter four is called upekkha, and upekkha is comfort in the discomfort. How do we actually find some space between the things that really irritate us in life? Because it’s those things that irritate us in life that actually take us out of our dharma. And so, knowing how to be in the fire, knowing how to be in the discomfort but also able to find comfort in that discomfort is a practice. It is something that we all need to learn how to do. And I’ve had to learn how to do, especially when it came to fulfilling my dharma because, oftentimes, the anger and it’s the irritation that pulls me out of it.

Chapter five is called lila, and lila is high play. And, basically, what that means is, “How do we start to blur the lines between work and play?” Phil Jackson, who I start the chapter with, has this amazing quote. He says that, “My goal is to make work my play, and play my work.” That’s the mantra that he took into being a player in the NBA, but then eventually coaching people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and leading teams to many national championships. That was his mantra, “Blurring the lines between work and play.”

And there are some really important types of things, sort of ways that we can do that. It’s one of my favorite chapters, actuall, is lila. Seva is the next one, which is all about service. It’s what my ancestors called selfless service, seva, which is all about forgetting yourself in order to find yourself. And that was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which he said the best way to find yourself in life is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Chapter seven is tula, which is all about, “How do we let go but also take charge?” And those are two sometimes competing philosophies. If we let go, well, then are we really taking charge? Are we just kind of being loosey-goosey and letting sort of life take us where it wants to take us? Not necessarily. We can actually let go, we can loosen our grip, and, at the same time, be intentional about what we want to do and where we want to be, and that’s what tula is all about.

And then, finally, chapter eight is all about action. Like, how do we now put all this into practice and take action? Because none of these matters unless we’re actually taking action. And yet, sometimes, the way we operate is through what I call the game of someday, which is that we wait for courage in order to take action. And what I’ve learned in doing my career is take action first, and let courage catch up along the way.

And one of the techniques and practices I offer in that chapter is what I call sort of the two-way doors. And this came from a mantra from Jeff Bezos, who said that, “Hey, life is basically a set of one-way doors or two-way doors.” And there are certain decisions where, if you walk through a door, a one-way door, you’re not going to be able to come back. But the vast majority of decisions and choices in our lives are actually two-way doors. If you walk through it, it doesn’t work, you can always come back.

But the problem is we sometimes mistake two-way doors for one-way doors, and so we hesitate and we really try to collect as much data as we possibly can. We procrastinate on making the decision. But the reality is that the courage that we’re looking for isn’t all that necessary. You don’t actually have to build all that much courage in order to make a choice when that choice is reversible. And so, a lot of this chapter is about recognizing that we can lead our lives through these two-way doors, knowing that if it doesn’t work out, look, it’s still growth, you’ve still learned something from the other side.

So, Pete, I’ve never been asked to summarize every chapter in the book before, but there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, that’s just how I roll. I love that. So, with this overview, I now want to dig deeper into the energy and the comfort and discomfort points. Tell us, do you have any best and worst practices when it comes to bringing great energy to things?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, so let’s talk about comfort in the discomfort because I think it’s really, I mean, for me, I think, personally, the hardest thing. Viktor Frankl, who had this just amazing sort of way of looking at life, and Frankl was a holocaust survivor. He was a neurologist. He wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. And he had this quote in the book that always just knocks me back, which is that, “In between impulse and response, there is a space. And inside that space lies our freedom.”

So, impulse being all the little triggers in life, like screaming kids, annoying colleague, angry emails, all these irritations, people who cut you off on the road. What he’s saying is that in between that and the way that we respond to that thing, there is a space. And if you can increase that space, even just by a millimeter, like, at a time, you will find yourself with just much more vast levels of freedom, like internal freedom in life.

That’s been hard for me. And the reason I think it’s been hard for me, and the reason I think it’s hard for others that I coach and I work with is because we’ve been sort of, I think, like conditioned to act very quickly. Like, look at how fast things are moving today, and especially like in an age of generative AI where we’re sort of spitting things out very quickly, and asked to respond to things at lightning speed at work. Like, it’s tough. It’s tough to build that space in.

And yet, even just having a couple of seconds sometimes can be the difference between making a good decision and a bad one, or saying something you might regret, or saying something that you’ll be proud of. It’s just that little space in between. So, the question becomes, “How do we harness that? Like, what do we do about that?”

One of the characters that I loved writing about in this chapter was Hank Aaron. And Hank Aaron was a player who was absolutely ridiculed by players in the stand. He had a very, very difficult time. He had death threats. And yet he was still able to come back to this space inside of him each time it happened, and walk up to the plate confidently, and he was the one, as you might know, who broke Babe Ruth’s record because he was able to find his place of composure, this comfort in the discomfort.

And one of the ways that I think that he was able to do that is by finding a homebase inside of him. So, every time something was triggering him, rather than just quickly responding to it, he would actually go inside first. And there are ways that we can actually start to channel that for ourselves. For me, I know that just closing my eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths is magic. It’s an absolutely magical thing to do.

If I’m finding myself tense and reactive, literally, just taking a couple of breaths is sometimes the most important thing I can do. It sounds simple but it’s profound. And yet sometimes I find myself in meetings where that’s not possible, like you can’t necessarily close your eyes in the middle of a meeting and take a few breaths. People might wonder what’s going on with you.

So, another thing that I like to do is, literally, just like put my hand over my heart. I will, literally, just take my hand and I give my heart just a little bit of almost like a love tap, like with the palm of my hand, and I just kind of give it a little massage. And it takes maybe two or three seconds to do but it’s my way, it’s almost my little sort of reset button to remind myself, to go internal for a moment, take a breath, take a moment, before I respond to this thing.

Now, Pete, there are certain things that you want to respond quickly to. Like, if my kid is running towards traffic, like, I’ve got to respond quickly. There’s no hand over heart thing. But the vast majority of things, we don’t need to be that lightning fast. We’ve just been conditioned to believe we need to be that lightning fast, and I think it’s time for us now to kind of reprogram ourselves back to this place of peace because, when we do, that’s when we find that sense of freedom.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say increase the space by a millimeter, I’m thinking about, literally, units and measures, so space, yes, we would increase that by a measure of length or width or height, a millimeter. Also, I guess time would be a measure, if we think about the space in terms of rather than instantaneously milliseconds or after a stimulus, just sort of firing out the response, just sort of taking some more time with the breath or the hand over the heart.

And in so doing, describe the increased freedom feeling or experience. What does that look, sound, feel like in practice when you have increased the space, and you have increased freedom? What does that really mean for you?

Suneel Gupta
I think it means that I’m more myself. I think that when we are reactive, it’s very easy to become something that you’re truly not. That’s the kind of premise of regret and doing things that you regret is that you’re in a condition, sometimes under extreme pressure, you responded to it, and you did things that didn’t feel like yourself. And you look back on it and wish you would’ve done things differently.

And sometimes we can’t avoid that. Sometimes it’s very difficult to avoid that. But I think the premise of what Frankl was arguing, and I think my ancestors were really talking about when they talked about upekkha, was oftentimes we can, and we can through these little moments, like just these very tiny little moments where we can choose, “I need to respond quickly or can I actually take a moment here?”

And even just like asking yourself that question can be enough. Like, as you get irritated, and you are about to respond to something, you can even just ask yourself, “Is this something that commands my immediate response? Or, do I have a little space here?” What I’ve found is that there have been a lot of situations where I kind of mistakenly thought I needed to respond quickly, but I didn’t. And I could actually take a moment.

I’m in a text thread with somebody, and it’s getting a little bit edgy. Do I need to respond quickly to what the person says next or can I actually take a moment? Can I take a breath? And, usually, the answer is, “Yeah, you’ve got plenty of time,” but we don’t always take that time. And, Pete, to your question, like, when you get to take that time, what it allows you to do is really what my grandfather called coming back to the center. And when you can come back to the center, come back to who you are, well, then you’re acting from that place.

That doesn’t always mean you’re not going to act angry. Maybe you want to be angry in that moment but, at least, it was intentional. You were able to come back, you were able to take a moment, and decide what you wanted to do rather than let the moment decide for you.

Pete Mockaitis
“After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the best course of action is to scream at your head off.”

Suneel Gupta
And it might be, honestly.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, in those particular circumstances, uh-huh.

Suneel Gupta
The point of all this is not to suppress any emotion. That is not what we’re doing here, because it’s all human. It’s all part of who we are. The point is more, rather than letting emotions control you, you control the emotions. You can actually start to examine these things, and you can decide which one really feels right to follow. Because, in that case, frustration and anger might be the right thing but, again, you were in the driver’s seat when that decision was made, not the emotion itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, now let’s talk about energy.

Suneel Gupta
One of the things that I learned from my research from my last book, and even from this book going out and really spending time with leaders is, like, if you compare people who have gained momentum in their lives and their careers versus those who, I think, tend to fizzle out, tend to sort of lose momentum in their lives and their careers, the people who lose momentum very rarely do they run out of time, very rarely do they run out of talent.

What they almost always run out of is energy. They just get too exhausted. There’s not enough gas in the tank to go do what they want to go do. And if there’s not enough gas in the tank, if you’re exhausted, then you can have the best idea, you can literally have a brilliant vision for what you want, and yet you’re not going to reach that potential.

And the reason all that matters, the reason I say all this, Pete, is because I think we’ve been conditioned to really optimize for time but we haven’t really sort of been taught how to optimize for energy, meaning, like if we’re taking on an important project, what we tend to think about is, like, “What are the number of hours, the number of days, the number of years, that’s going to take to get this thing done?” But what we rarely think about is, “What is the quality? What is the quality of energy that I want to bring to each one of those units of time? What is the quality of energy that I want to bring to each one of those hours?”

And so, for me, one of the most important rituals in the book really comes in this chapter, which is what I call rhythmic renewal, which basically says that instead of waiting for vacations, or waiting for long breaks, what high performers tend to do is they tend to take breaks, mini-focused breaks every single day. In fact, the average high performer that we studied takes somewhere around eight breaks every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s what I love to hear, Suneel.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, it sounds extraordinary, right? I bet there are at least some people listening to this right now, being like, “That’s crazy because look at how crammed our schedules have gotten, and now you’re telling me to cram it even further with these little breaks?” But the thing that I want to offer you is a very tactical practice, it’s what I call the 55-5 model, which is that whenever possible, for every 55 minutes of work, you’re taking five minutes of focused deliberate rest.

And that five minutes can be anything. When I asked people, like, “What do you do during five minutes to take a break?” I get the best answers, like, “I take a dance break,” “I do some pushups,” “I take a walk in nature,” “I just drink a cup of coffee.” You can do anything you want during those five minutes. The key is that you’re just not multitasking it with work. You don’t have your phone in your hand, getting things done while you’re taking a break. You’re just purely focused on that break.

And the reason that this is so magical is because while it may seem like you’re actually cutting your time down, what that five-minute break is doing is it’s making the other 55 minutes so much more effective, so much more imaginative, so much more collaborative and creative. And the reality is that whatever you do in 60 minutes, you could probably do in 55.

And so, if we save these little five-minute breaks in between, we start to boost the energy that we bring to all the other sort of meetings, all the other work sessions that we have in the day. And when I talked to people who put 55-5 into practice, one of the most common things that I hear is that, “For the first time in my career, I am actually experiencing as much energy at the end of the day as I did at the beginning of the day just by taking these breaks in between.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, I love that, and I want to hear some more examples of these crazy breaks. It’s so funny, as I’m in my office, I’m looking at, I’ve got yoga blocks. I like to do pushups on yoga blocks because I can go deeper and have more of a stretch, it feels good, as well as a little tub of cold water I dunk my face into.

Suneel Gupta
Yes, that’s very common. I hear that more and more.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it really? I thought I was a freak.

Suneel Gupta
No, I hear that more and more. So, obviously, cold plunges are all the rage. Like, I’ve had people tell me, like people who work from home or in a hybrid schedule, “I’ll just go take a cold shower just for three minutes.” Somebody, the other day, told me, “I take a cold shower, turn off the lights inside, put on music, do a little dance party inside the shower,” and, literally, it’s five minutes, very, very quick. Come out and it resets their state. But definitely the face in the cold bowl of water is another one.

The other day, somebody told me that they, literally, were, like they talk to themselves is what they said, “I like to talk to myself,” is what this executive told me. And I said, “Well, what do you mean? Do you work from home?” And he’s like, “No, no, we’re back to work now.” And I said, “Well, do you go in your office and close the doors?” He said, “No, no, what I do is I put my AirPods in, and I walk around, and people think that I’m on a call with somebody else but I’m actually just talking to myself. And I find that to be very therapeutic.”

So, if you ask people, like, “What’s an out-of-the-box thing that you do to reset yourself?” you’ll get the best answers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, I’m glad I asked. I do love these answers. And if you could give us a couple more, I’ll take them?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, okay. So, I think, for me, breathing is great, and I know that sounds obvious because meditation has been talked about so much, but you don’t have to be a meditator. And one of the things that I love doing is what I call the alternate nostril breathing technique. If we’re on video, this would be a little more visual, but I’ll describe it to you.

What you’re basically doing is you’re inhaling through your left nostril and exhaling through your right nostril. The way you do that is by using your thumb and one of your other fingers to basically, like, gently block one of the nostrils. So, as you’re inhaling through your left nostril, you’re blocking your right nostril. And then you’re exhaling through your right by blocking your left nostril, and then you reverse it. Inhale through the right, exhale through the left. Inhale through the left, exhale through the right.

This is a millennia-old technique. It’s thousands of years old. And the reason that it works, and it’s rooted in science, you’ll hear even behavioral scientists talk about this alternate nostril breathing is because what it really does is it resets your nervous system. But what it also does, we’ve heard of the left brain and right brain before, and oftentimes, especially those of us who are in analytical positions and we’re using our minds a lot at our work, we start to drift away from our heart. We go all head, no heart.

What this tends to do is it tends to equalize both sides of the brain. The left side in charge of analytics, the right side more is, you are heart-centered, focused more on creativity, and it starts to bring these two into alignment. So, this alternate nostril breathing is, I think, just a great one.

The other thing, you mentioned pushups. I like planks. And the reason I like planks is because, for me, pushups are fantastic but they’re repetitions, right? And every time you do a repetition, you’re kind of escaping the moment. So, I find it easier to do pushups than to hold planks because it’s repetitive and it’s giving me something to do.

Planks are really interesting because they don’t allow any type of escape. You’re just kind of holding a plank just for a period of time. And when you hold the plank for a period of time, what that challenges your mind to do is basically come to the moment, come to the present, because you have nowhere else to go. And so, I find that if I want to reset myself with an exercise, like something physical, and I’ve got less than five minutes to do it, I’ll hold the plank.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now I got to hear, what’s the 85% rule?

Suneel Gupta
So, yeah, the 85% rule is it comes from the running world, actually. And Carl Lewis was the person who kind of really, I think, brought this to the forefront. Carl Lewis was an Olympic racer, Olympic sprinter, I mean, just amazing. He won all sorts of medals and is considered one of the more prolific racers of his generation.

One of the things that they found about Carl Lewis though that was unusual is that he would always start in the back of the pack. And kind of the conventional rule for racing was that you had to blast out front right away in order to win a sprint because a sprint isn’t very long. But in Carl Lewis’ case, he would almost always start in the back of the pack and then work his way up.

And a sprint coach started to study kind of what was going on here. And what he found was that Carl Lewis was never really deviating in the way that he ran. He was starting at 85% and he was running at 85% speed pretty much the entire race. So, while other sprinters were kind of coming out of the gate at a hundred and then, almost inevitably, kind of losing a little bit of gas over time, he was at 85% steady throughout the whole thing.

And the 85% rule was talked about in running but it found its way to other worlds. Like, I heard Hugh Jackman, the actor, talking about the 85% rule the other day. And it’s coming to the world of music and acting and business as a way of approaching things because, oftentimes, we think that we have to go at 100% in order to get things done, but the problem is that if you’re at 100%, if you’re all on all the time, you’re going to burn out.

So, the alternative is to actually dial it down to 85%, to a very sort of comfortable measurable way of relaxed but intentional leadership for yourself and for the people around you, where it’s not like you’re giving up by any means, 85% is still strong, but what you’re optimizing for is the longer term. Because, look, if you want to get something done in a week, grit it out, hustle hard, and you’ll get it done.

But I think most of us are not looking to get something done in a week. We’re looking to build something over time, whether that be a product, or whether that be a business, or whether that be our own career. We’re optimizing for the long term. And if we’re optimizing for the long term, then we don’t want a model that’s actually built around the short term, which is getting things done in a short term, burning out, and then not having the fuel, or exhaustion to keep going, or coming back but not quite being the same as you were before.

And so, 85% is an alternative way of thinking about really kind of loosening your grip. And the metaphor that I love, a Buddhist monk actually introduced me to this metaphor, is racecar driving. When racecar drivers first learn how to really get competitive, oftentimes, the premise they come in with is that you have to grip the steering wheel very tight, especially during those tight moments. Like, if you’re taking a tight turn, you sort of squeeze the wheel tighter.

But one of the most important things that you have to learn as a racecar driver is that you have to actually loosen your grip in those moments. During the tighter turns, you’re actually going looser and not tighter so that you can stay more emotionally in control between the car and the relationship to the road. Then, I think, the way that we operate our odds is very much the same. Our tendency is to try to squeeze when we’re in these tense moments. But what Carl Lewis and the 85% rule shows us is that if you can learn to loosen in those moments, you can go faster and even further.

Pete Mockaitis
So as I visualize sprinting, it’s a very clear measure in terms of what’s 100%, what’s 85% in terms of the numerator and denominator, and, okay, we got the speed straight up, like miles per hour running, if you will, as a measure of speed. What does an 85% effort look like, say, if I am in a meeting, or processing emails, in contrast to a 100% effort?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I think what it means is that during these tense moments, you’re able to sort of lighten your sort of grip on what’s happening. And so, for me, the way that that shows up is I find myself sitting at my desk and I’ll actually forget to breathe, like, all of a sudden, I find myself sort of gasping for breath. I was so interested in this the other day because I was like, “Is this just me? Does this only happen to me?”

I’m right now in faculty at Harvard Medical School so I pinged a couple of my colleagues, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” They’re like, “No, no, no, that’s totally natural.” Most people when they’re in front of their phones or they’re checking email, you actually hold your breath. Like, we tend to hold our breath and we, all of a sudden, find ourselves sort of gasping for air. But, also, if you pay attention to it, you’ll sometimes find that you’re starting to feel stressed out, and there’s not really a total reason for that. There’s nothing in particular that’s triggered you into this moment of stress.

What we find is that we’ve actually been holding our breath, and that’s the reason that we actually feel stressed in that moment. And that kind of follows the pattern of breathing. When you’re stressed out, you tend to take shallow breaths or you stop breathing. When you’re not stressed out, when you’re more in a calm position, you’re taking smoother, calmer sort of breaths. You’re just kind of in this more state of flow during that time.

But the reverse is true, too. If we start to kind of hold our breath, we can actually almost fake our minds into thinking that something is wrong, that we’re actually stressed out. So, going back to your question, Pete, with the 85% rule, it’s just smoother energy. It’s a smoother energy. There’s less grasping, there’s less table-pounding, there’s less grit and hustle. And the thing that I would say is if you’re listening to this, and you sort of feel, “Well, that just sounds like a recipe for non-ambition. Or that sounds like a recipe for letting people walk over you.”

I encourage you to try it. I encourage you to try it for a week where you’re walking into meetings, and you’re loosening the grip just a little bit. And, again, we’re not saying giving up here, I’m not saying throwing your hands up. Loosening your grip to what you consider to be an 85% level, and just seeing how that plays out. Because, for me, what it creates is a smoother, more relaxed energy. I start to feel more free. I start to feel more creative. My mind is thinking a little bit more clearly. I’m also more collaborative.

Because, look, when somebody is really intense, and they’re gritting their teeth, and they’re 100%, like, that’s not always a lot of fun to be around. But if you can relax a little bit, and you can sort of be, again, creative and engaged and intentional, but not like that gritty-hustle personality that can sometimes tend to burn not only themselves out and everybody else around them, pay attention to what the effect is. Did you really lose productivity, or did you gain presence?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And as I’m thinking about it, it’s true. There are times when I’ve approached, let’s just call it processing emails, almost like a pumped-up, cranked, eye-of-the-tiger, jump up and down, “Let’s do this thing,” partially just because I’ve procrastinated for a while, and I think that’s the answer is to just overcome my resistance by being super fired up about it. But other times, you can do the same task with an energy that I think of more like a Bob Ross energy, like painting happy little trees, doing happy little emails. And the output is comparable.

Suneel Gupta
And I think it’s such a good point because, also for me, I find that the reason that I’m resistant to sometimes like going, like blasting through emails, is because I know that I’m going to be putting myself in this hustle-and-grind mindset. And if you know you’re going to put yourself in a hustle-and-grind mindset, that’s not always fun, and, oftentimes, the resistance comes from, “I don’t want to go there.” But what if you didn’t have to be that way?

And what if you could actually, like gently, get through your email, and you’re reminding yourself to be sort of gentle with yourself throughout that? What would that look like for you? And did you lose anything? Because, sometimes, the belief that we have, and I think this is a very sort of like conditioned way of thinking, I know I’ve been conditioned to believe it, is the less grit we put into something, the less ambitious or intentional we’re being about it.

But is that true? Like, is that real? Or do you find that when you actually loosen up a little bit about things, you can be fully equally intentional and, in fact, more creative, more imaginative. You can actually bring a higher level of energy to that task and you’re more fun to be around.

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

Suneel Gupta
I think maybe some of my favorite things and some of the stuff from the book will come up anyway, so let’s go there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite quote?

Suneel Gupta
My favorite quote was from my grandfather, my bauji. And what bauji told me is that, we, as humanity, is like a sitar or a guitar with billions of strings. You are a string. I’m a string. Each of us is a string. And every time we learn how to play our own string, every time we tune into who we are, and we express that to the outside world, every time we come into our dharma, not only does that have an effect for our life, but it has an effect for everybody else’s lives as well. Every time we play our string, we bring the rest of the world a note, just a little bit more of harmony.

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

Suneel Gupta
I’m still a fan of the scar experiment, which you may have heard of. It came out of Dartmouth University in the 1990s. And with the scar experiment, what they did was they basically had these people in a room, and they painted on an artificial scar on their face, this hideous-looking blemish on their face. And then they were to go into the next room, one by one, and interact with strangers just to see how strangers would react to their scar.

But right before they went into the room, the makeup artist went to them, and said, “Hey, can I touch up your scar, just touch up a little bit of the makeup?” And they said, “Sure.” And, without them knowing, they actually wiped the scar off entirely. So, now if you’re part of the experiment, you walk into the room believing that you had this scar on your face, and you don’t. And then they ask the subject afterwards, like, “How did people react?” And nearly everybody said, “Oh, my God, they couldn’t take their eyes off the scar. Like, they stared at it, they were disgusted by it, they were like…”

And it just sort of goes to show that sometimes we tend to see ourselves through other people’s eyes. We tend to sort of like look to people for the feedback on who we are. And I love that experiment because it just brings it to life in such a visceral way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Suneel Gupta
That’s a hard one, and I really think that Be Here Now by Ram Dass has to be the one, I think, because it’s just had the biggest impact on my life. I return to it probably more than any other book.

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

Suneel Gupta
I think my favorite tool is the act of putting my phone down. And I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out because my instinct, when you first asked me the question, was to think of a technology, was to think of what’s something that’s helping me be more productive. And there are plenty of tools that I use, from OmniFocus to all these other sorts of things I use to organize my world. I use ChatGPT every once in a while. Like, honestly, man, my favorite tool is, literally, just the practice and the act of putting my phone down, and having some present time with a blank sheet of paper.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Suneel Gupta
My favorite habit is the 55-5 rule. For every 55 minutes of work, take five minutes of focused deliberate rest.

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

Suneel Gupta
Well, I think that the idea of being able to let go but also take charge is something that often people talk to me about. And, for me, it’s really kind of like two very different philosophies coming together. It’s really kind of the Eastern side of me and the Western side of me. The Eastern side of me, I would go to temple, and it was all about letting go. I would read the Bhagavad Gita, and it was all about letting go. Whereas, the Western world was all about sort of taking charge and gritting it out.

And so, for me, as an Indian kid growing up in the United States, I was always sort of oscillating back and forth between these two worlds. I’d have my Eastern identify and my Western identity. And I never really thought that those two things could come together but I really do believe that they can. And that’s really kind of where I think Phil Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with flow, and there’s a lot of practices in the book on how to actually be able to let go to a certain extent, but also be very intentional about it.

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

Suneel Gupta
Just come to my website. Come to SuneelGupta.com. I spell my name S-U-N-E-E-L G-U-P-T-A.com. And there’s a bunch of tools out there for you, and I’d love to connect with you.

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

Suneel Gupta
I think being awesome at your job is one and the same as being awesome with who you are. And sometimes we forget that character is how you behave when nobody is watching. It’s the things that you do for yourself internally in order to succeed externally. And sometimes we get pulled into a world where it seems like external success is the only sort of way to achieve the things that you want to achieve.

But I think if you can sort of start to come back to, like, what really matters to you, like what is that essence, and, “How do I express that essence to the world?” not only is that sort of a way of making yourself come alive, but I really believe that it’s a way of doing your best work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Suneel, this has been such a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and adventure with your dharma.

Suneel Gupta
Thank you so much, Pete. I wish you luck with yours, and I appreciate you having me back on the show.

839: The 12 Stages of Burnout: How to Identify and Recover from Yours with Hamza Khan

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Hamza Khan says: "Burn bright, not out."

Hamza Khan provides an in-depth look into how professionals burnout—and offers powerful advice for recovery and prevention.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 12 phases of burnout.
  2. The D.R.A.G.O.N. framework for beating burnout.
  3. How to set boundaries without ruining relationships.

About Hamza

Hamza Khan is the Co-Founder of SkillsCamp, a leading soft skills training company, a top-ranked university educator, and respected thought leader. He is a TEDx speaker whose talk, “Stop Managing, Start Leading” has been viewed nearly two million times. His insights have been featured in notable media outlets such as VICE, Business Insider, and The Globe and Mail. Hamza is trusted by the world’s preeminent organizations to enhance human potential and optimize performance. His clients include the likes of Microsoft, PepsiCo, LinkedIn, Deloitte, Salesforce, TikTok, and over 100 colleges and universities.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

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Hamza Khan Interview Transcript

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

Hamza Khan
Pete, thank you for having me. Truly honored.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about some of your insights on burnout and more, but, first, you have many cool work accomplishments in your career. And one that stuck out for me is the time you did a movie marathon at your desk at work. Can you tell us the tale here?

Hamza Khan
Oh, man, I was quiet quitting before it became a thing, apparently. Wow, where do we begin? First of all, I’m just a little bit starstruck because you interviewed very recently on this podcast one of my heroes, Dr. Christina Maslach.

Pete Mockaitis
I was going to say she’s on my mind when we talk about burnout.

Hamza Khan
I listened to that episode three times.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Cool.

Hamza Khan
And the first time, I was like, “I cannot believe I’m listening to Dr. Christina Maslach. She’s going off right now on the upstream factors, which influence burnout. But, oh, my goodness, I’m going to be on this very podcast very soon.” And then I went back to it for a third time to just take notes and transcribe it, but thank you for providing the transcription, and you just saved me a lot of time. So, that was fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool, yeah. Thank you.

Hamza Khan
Okay, so the quiet quitting. Really interesting. If you listened to that episode, I think, at the time of this release, it might be maybe ten episodes out. I think it’s number 823, if I’m not mistaken, Pete, which, by the way, congratulations on nearly a thousand episodes of this podcast. That is remarkable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Hamza Khan
I was very disengaged at this workplace, quite frankly. I was working at an organization that I just accepted a job with soon after graduation, or, actually, just before. I was petrified that I wasn’t going to find a job, graduating in 2008, into the middle of a recession, so I said yes. First job that was offered to me, I’m like, “I’m taking this. Let’s do it.”

And I joined this company, and I realized it was very imbalanced in the sense that there was a lot of people that were benefitting from the labor of a very small group of people, of which I was a member of. It was a very heavy marketing organization. Even though it was a tech company with two developers, it was very marketing heavy.

And I realized about a year into it that this company was shady, to say the least. They had some Ponzi scheme-like elements to it. And this was an organization in which the optics were rewarded, so you were rewarded for appearing to be productive, showing up early, speaking up in meetings even if you had nothing valuable to say, if you seemed busy, and if you were staying late. And I just increasingly became disengaged, disillusioned by the organization.

And all of the things that Dr. Christina Maslach talked about in her episode, Pete, were present in my working experience there. There was a lack of fairness, there was inconsistent or missing values, there was a lack of control, an unsustainable workload, insufficient reward, to say the least, and a lack of…or poor/toxic community. So, all of those things gradually wore me down and, by the end, I was like, “Hey, what would happen if I just played the game, if I just pretended to be productive over here, if I just leaned into the optics, could this happen?”

And I talked about this in my first TEDx Talk, Stop Managing, Start Leading. For, I think, two weeks, I would show up on time, I would say hello to my boss, wish me good morning, and I’d sit there for eight hours a day, and just marathon movies. And I did them all. I did “Rush Hour,” “The Lord of the Rings.” I did Harry Potters at the time, Godfathers, extended editions of course, and I would leave shortly after 5:30, and my boss would be like, “Hey, good job, buddy. You did an amazing job today.” I’m like, “Oh, all right, man. If you say so, sir, no problem.” And I quit at the end of that marathon. I was like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I had several follow-ups when I watched your TEDx Talk, and that was one of them. I was like, “Just how long did this marathon persist?” And so, two weeks, like ten business days, 80-ish hours, so, yeah, extended editions would probably be a good 25 plus films here.

Hamza Khan
Yeah, man, I also had to pop into Reddit and just had to leave my thoughts as well. Make sure they understood.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. The world needs to hear what Hamza thought about these movies on Reddit.

Hamza Khan
One thing I will say, the only sort of – what’s the word I’m looking for over here – movies that are part of, like, franchises or trilogies that actually improved over time, “The Lord of the Rings” I would say, and, surprisingly, “The Planet of the Apes,” which wasn’t out at that time, but those were the only movies that actually get better and don’t actually experience any quality loss, in my personal opinion.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so I was also going to ask, so you mentioned Ponzi scheme vibes, and maybe I already know the answer to this question. To what extent did you feel guilty, like you were stealing from the company? And it sounds like you thought they were shady and you’re on your way out, so, yeah.

Hamza Khan
Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t have engaged in that behavior were the circumstances of…I don’t know how much I can say over here because I did sign an NDA but, to be fair, I think people can look this up. You can go on my LinkedIn and put the timelines together and figure out what organization I was with, and you could Google them and find out which one is no longer in existence. And I think there’s one that’s going to stand out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hamza Khan
So, this organization, once I clued into the fact that they were engaging in fraudulent behavior, that’s when I was like, “Oh, wow, you guys are unethical, and I would contend, engaging in some criminal behavior,” so I didn’t feel bad about it at that point. That’s when I realized that, “Hey, we’re being abused.” When I say we, me and my coworkers were being abused in this workplace. That was very much using the Theory X style of management, assuming the worst in employees, and treating us in this pretty antisocial way, behaving in some very antisocial ways, relying on some very dominant behaviors.

And so, once I clued into that, I was like, “Ah, yeah.” I knew I was going to leave but just for my own edification, I wanted to see what would’ve happened if I played the game. And, of course, it worked out in those two weeks, and I was like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is kind of fun, that experiment. And I have sort of daydreamed about, I don’t know, interviewing for jobs and being just flagrantly honest and see how that goes, or, if it’s like a lucid dream or fantasy or experiment, to see what happens. And so there, you saw it happened, they said, “Great job,” and that persisted. Who knows how long it could go on had you not exited?

So, that is an amusing opening picture of what can happen when you’re in burnout. And so, Dr. Christina Maslach did share a lot of excellent insights in terms of the fundamental guiding principle causes of burnout. So, please, yes, if folks have not heard that, and you’re interested in the topic, she is maybe the luminary on the topic at Episode 832.

But, Hamza, you’ve got some good stuff here which is fresh and interesting. In particular, you walked through a very resonant 12 stages of burnout, and then a six-step DRAGON method, which I think is supremely practical and very worthwhile. So, I’d love it if we could dig into these particulars and if you could maybe, first, start us off by sharing something you found kind of surprising or novel as you did your own burnout research.

Hamza Khan
Wow, I just want to clarify for the listeners, I sound like an awful employee.

Pete Mockaitis
The worst two weeks of your career, I mean, you had some experiment.

Hamza Khan
The worst two weeks of my career. I did not repeat that experiment ever again. You can ask my bosses. Even during that time, I was a delight to work with. I hope that that is something that all of my employers would say and have said in most cases. And you can go on my LinkedIn, you can see my accomplishments. I’m not a slacker, I promise. I work very hard. I apply myself.

Pete Mockaitis
Message received.

Hamza Khan
Because I would be listening to this, and being like, “Holy, this guy is terrible.” Okay, but I did burn out. And so, this happened when I was highly engaged. Fast-forward to a couple of years later, I’m in an environment in which all of those upstream factors that Dr. Christina Maslach described are working in my favor. My workload is manageable, things are fair, the values are clear, there is a healthy community, so on and so forth, and yet I burned out.

And I burned out in a scenario where, in hindsight, on paper, I shouldn’t have burned out because this was a place where I was very well compensated and we had the best of benefits possible. I mean, if you wanted to, you could get a massage every single day there if you wanted. So, in terms of the things that should’ve prevented burnout and promoted optimal mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, those were at play, and yet I still experienced burnout.

And I realized so much of the reason why that happened is because I had internalized some greater fears. I think any given day, people don’t feel like they’re perfect enough, efficient enough, progressive enough, satisfied enough, innovative enough, whatever the case may be, and they engage in patterns of overwork that, inevitably, extinguish the fires of productivity, and that’s what happened for me.

I subjected myself to persistent chronic stress that left me feeling depleted. I was ineffective, I was negative, I was cynical, and there was a distance between me and the work that I was doing. And so, when this happened, I was very perplexed. Well, first of all, it was very isolating. I felt like I was alone in this. I really needed to understand what had happened to me.

And, at that time, I was using the term burnout quite casually, even flippantly, I was like, “Oh, I’m burning out. I’m burning the candle on both ends.” I didn’t really understand what it was. At the time, I even remember that my understanding of burnout was related to an XBOX game that was popular at the time, “Burnout Paradise” or something.

And then when I delved deeper into this, I realized, “Wow, I was quite lucky to have experienced this and emerged on the other side of it with my health intact,” because that is not the case for so many people. For instance, burnout, ooh, I get chills when I think about this, people are dying every single day because of this.

Just today alone in China, approximately 3,000 people will die from working too hard. And this is not just people working in difficult labor-intensive jobs, blue-collar work. This is knowledge workers just like us dying every single day around the world, not just in China, dying every single day around the world from overwork. So, I felt very lucky in this sort of me-search that gradually became research, and then we-search.

I discovered the 12 stages of burnout, a model proposed by some of Dr. Christina Maslach’s contemporaries, some of the pioneering researchers, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger and Dr. Gail North, respectively. They demonstrated a linear progression of burnout. It starts with the compulsion to prove one’s self, which I imagine a lot of people feel in the work that they do. They feel like they need to prove themselves, which then naturally leads to working harder, stage two.

And then stage three is neglecting needs. And then stage four is displacement of conflicts, and that’s when it becomes tricky for me. That’s usually my tell that I’m burning out. Whenever I become short with clients, whenever I become short with my family, with my friends, that’s when I clue into the realization that I might be on this path to full-blown physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. And that’s the last stage of burnout, stage 12 is there’s nothing there. You’re a husk, essentially.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, when it comes to the working harder and neglecting needs, let’s zero in on what are some particular sorts of needs that are easy to kind of push to the wayside when you’re working harder that can start to sneak up and spiral?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, this is a good one, right? Let’s go into some specific examples. You should try, to the best of your ability, to eat three meals if possible, and eat them around the same time. It’s optimal for metabolism, for energy maintenance and sleep, a whole host of other benefits, but it starts with you just saying, one day, “Oh, you know what, I can’t do breakfast today,” or breakfast starts to happen at lunch, or you just breeze through lunch, or you’re working while eating and you’re not chewing your food in the same way, so just disrupting your eating habits. That’s one thing that you can neglect.

Another thing that you can neglect is fitness, skipping going to the gym, or whatever other recreational or fitness activity that you engage in, pushing that to the side. Not sleeping consistently, not waking up at the same time every single day. So, eating, sleeping, family, friends, whatever you need to refill your energy buckets, you start neglecting those, I would say that’s what happens around stage two, stage three, sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup, got you. Okay. The friends, the exercise, the eating, the sleeping, yeah, okay. And so then, the displacement of conflicts, you say you’re being short with people, so you’re displacing that you’re feeling conflicted about what’s up at work on over to other people around you.

Hamza Khan
It’s just avoidance behavior. You just sweep that conversation underneath the rug, below the rug, or you need to have a difficult conversation with your boss, and you think, “Maybe I’ll have it tomorrow. Maybe next week,” and then next week becomes next month, and next month becomes never.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that makes sense because if you don’t feel like you’ve got much in the tank, it’s like, “Oh, that’s too hard. That’s just beyond me.” And I guess I find in my own self that it’s not only sort of difficult emotional conflict conversations, but it’s all kinds of hard projects or things, like taking a hard look at the subscriptions that you’ve signed up for over the last two years and see which ones really needed to go a while ago, and feeling the, I don’t know, maybe guilt, shame, regret, silliness of not having cleaned up some of these messes where they’re hiding in your life earlier, whether they’re difficult conversations or difficult, let’s say, looking at the mirror, peering into the messes that you’ve made sorts of things.

Hamza Khan
That’s a very, very relevant example that you gave over there. So, last year, I was flirting with burnout, 2022, I think on record was one of the most difficult years of my life just in terms of the sheer frequency of stressors and the intensity of stressors. And I remember when I de-loaded my priorities, and we’ll go into the DRAGON method in a bit maybe and talk about ways that we can recover and beat burnout, recover from or beat burnout.

I remember thinking to myself, at the start of the year, like, “Hey, I need to cancel this NBA League Pass subscription that I have.” And an entire year went past, 2022, where I just had this subscription running in the background, and in December I’m like…

Pete Mockaitis
“Well, I might use this soon someday-ish perhaps, maybe.”

Hamza Khan
I was like, “Hey, Adam Silver, you’re welcome, man. I just made a 12-month donation to you and your organization. I didn’t use it at all.” So, yeah, this happens, right? You just avoid, you push away, because you don’t want to deal with it, it’s difficult, and there’s one more stressor that’s going to maybe push you over the edge that you parry.

But I think it was JRR Tolkien who said something to the effect of, “Shortcuts now result in roadblocks later.” And I think about that a lot with stage four. Avoidance of these difficult conversations will ultimately resurface at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’ve covered the first third of this dozen. Now, let’s hit it with number five, revision of values.

Hamza Khan
Revision of values. So, this is rewriting your own code, the things that are important to you, your sense of purpose, and the things you reward, tolerate, and punish, enter into a state of flux. Work at this point becomes really your only focus. Then, I think, next, we go into stage six, denial of emerging problems. People are starting to notice things are off about you but you dismiss them, you say, “It’s not a me problem; it’s a you problem.”

Stage seven is withdrawal. All of the stress and, especially, all of the social pressure that you’re now feeling, it just becomes overwhelming, it becomes a topic of conversation whenever you meet your friends, whenever you sit down with your family or your spouse. They’re pointing out that something is off, and you say, “It’s easy for me to just not deal with this,” so you retreat. You become isolated, you become even antisocial.

And then eight, we have odd behavioral changes. You undergo obvious behavioral changes that are now significantly concerning friends and family. Stage nine is depersonalization. You fail to see yourself as valuable. You start to antagonize other people. You start to blame people for things that are going wrong in your life.

Stage 10 is inner emptiness. This is loneliness. It’s an extreme sign of burnout. And then stage 11 is depression. It’s like a forced introversion. And then stage 12, full-blown burnout syndrome. This is when you experience physical, mental, and emotional collapse at this stage. And, frankly, I think some stage six onwards, it’s imperative that you seek out professional help.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, this collapse, can you paint a picture for what that might look, sound, feel like?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, I talked about this, I did another TED Talk in 2015, I believe, titled “The Burnout Gamble,” and I went into some detail about it. If I do that topic again, I would definitely just be more present with what was happening. So, I experienced this in 2014, the December of 2014. I had worked that year from January all the way until beginning of December.

I was putting in the nine-nine-six, and nine-nine-seven work weeks. I was just working 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. six days a week, and some weeks 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week, a style of working that was very popular in the tech sector and was popularized in, I think, it was Alibaba. Jack Ma of Alibaba really just talked about this and extolled its virtues.

Anyway, didn’t take a break, didn’t really have weekends, no vacations, and it was working in the beginning for me. I was being rewarded, I was being promoted, given more responsibilities, and – what’s that saying – the hardest worker gets the bigger shovel. And so, I was just grinding myself down, wearing myself out.

And then in December of 2014, I’m ready to take this epic trip around the world. I’d booked my flights, I’d reserved hotels, Airbnbs, intracity travel. And the day I was supposed to leave on that trip, that grand adventure around the world where I was going to flame out like a phoenix and recover from the ashes of all of this overwork, I got cold feet. And it happened minutes before I was supposed to call the Uber to go to the airport.

My knees buckled, my chest clamped, my breathing became shallower, my temperature skyrocketed, I panicked, and I blacked out. I think my body just said, “Enough is enough. Hamza, you’ve subjected us to too much over here. We’re shutting you down.” And it was just such a surreal feeling because I was, when I awoke, there’s barely minutes left until the flight was supposed to take off.

And in my delirium, I thought that I could still book it into the airport, rush the tarmac, state my case, and hop on the flight, and everything would be okay. But I was paralyzed. I just couldn’t stand up. And the flight left without me. And what happened, instead, is I became sicker than I had ever been in my life, and this is coming from somebody that caught COVID, and this is the OG strand of COVID, too, pre-vaccine.

I threw up, I became nauseous, and, essentially, for the next month, I was alone at home, bedridden, completely bewildered. My mental health was a wreck. I could barely get up out of bed, one of the lowest points in my life. There was just nothing there. I just became a complete shell. And when I talked to doctors about what had happened, they all said that I had burned out, but I had, based on what I told them had happened on the eve of that trip, they said I experienced the symptoms of very traditional panic attack, complete system failure which led me to fall as deathly ill as I had become at that point.

That’s what it looked like for me, and I imagine all the people have gone through similar…who’ve gone through the full 12 stages of burnout, who’ve made it all the way to burnout syndrome, they’ve experienced something similar to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s heavy, and thank you for sharing that experience. I’m thinking that’s certainly dramatic and memorable. I’m thinking back to a conversation I had with another guest, Carey Nieuwhof, and he says, “I don’t have a diagnosis on this but from chatting with people, I think many people suffer from a low-grade burnout.” And he would define it as you’re still able to show up and do the things as opposed to being bedridden, but there’s not much feeling or joy or emotion or life inside you.

And I thought that that was powerful because it rings true to me, is that I’ve seen burnout take kind of these two routes. One is like, “That’s enough. Done. Out.” And then, I’m just sort of like, I was like in a quiet desperation going through the motions. What’s your take on that?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, geez. I never want to go back to that level of burnout that I experienced, full-blown burnout. And the two routes that you mentioned are really interesting. I don’t think I’ve publicly spoken about this but last year, 2022, I definitely was on the burnout cycle. I was in a cycle of burnout but I didn’t make it all the way to stage 12.

And so, there’s a part of me, like an inner defense mechanism that made me maybe reluctant to share my burnout story in the first place, that’s like, “Don’t admit that you experienced burnout because that will undermine your message. It’s like how can you be an expert on burnout? How did you write this book? Are you speaking on burnout but you’re going through it as well?”

But the truth is even if you’re on stage one of the burnout cycle, you’re still technically experiencing burnout. It’s just to a lesser degree than somebody might be experiencing if they’re at stage 12. And the fact remains that you’re still going through the motions, you’re still experiencing, on this continuum of burnout, effects, the thing that the World Health Organization ascribe three dimensions to: feelings of exhaustion and energy depletion, increased distance from your jobs, and negativism and cynicism about your work.

And that can happen at stage one, it can happen at stage 12. It certainly happens at stage 12. So, even if you’re experiencing chronic stress that has not been successfully managed but you’re still effective, you’re still productive, you’re still getting things done, you might be tempted to think and say that you’re not going through burnout, but the truth is you are. And acknowledging that you are is the first step, in my opinion, towards recovering from burnout, to dealing with it constructively.

Pete Mockaitis
And as we look at the 12 stages overall, one that’s striking a chord with me right now, and I don’t think I noticed it at the time, is I was working a lot and I wasn’t really pleased with it, but I thought, “Well, hey, man, that’s the nature of the game. Some projects are tougher than others and some seasons are trickier.”

And then I found myself frequently checking my bank account balances and stock holdings, which was weird because I didn’t do that before. And it was like, “Ah, man, I’m working a lot and now I’m tired.” I was like, “But, you know what, I’m making a lot of money.” It’s like, “Look at that. That’s pretty impressive. Look at that. Did you imagine a couple of years ago that…?” And then I remember even reflecting on myself in that moment, thinking, “Yeah, but when did you care about that?”

Hamza Khan
Yeah, yeah, I’m right there with you. That’s busy work, right? Like, you’re just doing things to give you the illusion that work is being done, that progress is being made. I’m right there with you. And I would actually start to obsess about whenever money was leaving my accounts because that was a stressor for me too.

So, Stevan E. Hobfoll, a researcher, has proposed this theory, the conservation of resources theory, which states that people experience psychological stress, which is a big contributor to burnout, psychological stress in three scenarios: when there’s a net loss of resources, when there’s the threat of a loss of resources, or when there’s insufficient reward following an investment of resources.

So, when I was going through burnout, just like you, Pete, I would obsess, I would check my bank account every single day, and I was like, “Ah, in case of movement, things are okay.” And I’m like, “What am I doing? This is not moving the needle on anything. I’m just trying to fill my time over here.” I’m just trying to give myself some optical illusion that progress is being made, or at least I’m not regressing, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think I also remember thinking about how, like, we’re working a lot and that, somehow, meant that we were really tough and hardcore and awesome like Navy Seals or something, and a 9-to-5 worker was weak or lazy or something. And so, that’s kind of gross too in terms of stoking…

Hamza Khan
A toxic hustle culture.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s stoking a toxic…and it’s inside my own mind too. A toxic, I don’t know what the word is, othering or being contemptuous of like normal.

Hamza Khan
A disassociation almost.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, it’s like it is weird in terms of the revision of values. It’s like, “Who I am is different, and that’s not pretty.” So, that resonates as a real step that pops up there, I didn’t care about being a super hardcore dude capable of working a lot or having a fat bank balance. But in a world in which I was working too much, that was the consolation I had available to me, and that’s what I clung to.

Hamza Khan
I can relate so much to that. So much of our identity, it sounds like, and just hearing that, was tied up in being productive. It’s how we made meaning in the world. It’s something that we did to inflate our egos and to feel valuable, to feel wanted in the world. And when that wasn’t true for me in 2014, when I burned out, it was an ego death.

It was like a, “Holy smokes, what’s going on? Who am I?” moment. “If I can’t be effective in the workplace, if I’ve now signaled to all of my colleagues and to my partners and to my leaders that I can’t manage myself well enough to be effective in the workplace, then maybe I’m not who I think I am.” So, there was a significant period of depression that followed that burnout, and it’s taken me years to recover from that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s talk recovery. There’s a six-step DRAGON method you mentioned, D-R-A-G-O-N. Yup, that’s six letters, or six steps. It’s an acronym. Lay it on us, Hamza.

Hamza Khan
Look, I got to be honest with you. It was not dragon when I put it together. It was like D-R-A-G-X or G-L-M, and I was like, “Ah, I got to find a synonym for this X and L word, and let’s just make it dragon,” so it worked out. But I think the idea is still salient because the way I was behaving in 2014, and prior to, was very much like a phoenix. I had this false belief that I could just continue to burn bright and burn out, and then recover from the ashes every single time.

And I think a fantastical mythical creature that has better relationship with fire, that isn’t beholden to fire, is the dragon, very much in control of it. It’s calm, it’s powerful, and it’s resilient, so I’ve leaned into that metaphor.

Pete Mockaitis
Look at you, smart work with that dragon, fire breathing, controlling it.

Hamza Khan
Thank you, sir. There we go. There we go. So, better to behave like a dragon than a phoenix. Now, I was very inspired by Dr. Christina Maslach’s work so I want to preface by saying this. What I’m sharing, this DRAGON method, it assumes that there is a good fit with you and the organization, and it assumes that the upstream factors are non-existent. Because if the upstream factors are in play, then this DRAGON method, it’s going to be very difficult for you to implement.

And I’ll take it a step further. I’ve heard this verbatim from some clients throughout the years, like you can’t yoga your way, you can’t journal your way out of burnout, if you’re dealing with a toxic leader, or you’re grossly underpaid at your workplace, or if there’s no mission, vision, values, principles, purpose. So, these are very much designed with the individual in mind, and it’s what I used to emerge from burnout and to keep burnout at bay.

So, the first step is to de-load priorities. Identify the sources of stress in your life, and diminish them, and reduce them down to something that’s manageable, to create the time and space, essentially, to recover. That’s step number one. The second step is to reconfigure focus because it’s one of the things that we lose sight of when we’re going through burnout. We lose our north star. We lose our sense of purpose. To reconnect with why you’re doing what you’re doing, the transcendent reason for your being in the world of work.

Then stage three is to assemble boundaries against the very things that caused you to experience undue stress and burnout in the first place, to get better at saying no, essentially. Then we go, once we’re past the recovery stage, D-R-A, then we go into the inoculation stage. This is how to prevent yourself from burning out.

So, the first part of that is G, gain mastery of stress, separate good stress from bad stress, and understand that it’s better to then go into the next stage, O, be a high-performer and not an overachiever. So, overcome overachievement. And then the final stage, perhaps the most important stage in terms of inoculating yourself against burnout, is to nurture resilience. And a big part of that is about developing better self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. De-load priorities, reconfigure focus, assemble boundaries, gain mastery of stress, overcome overachievement, and nurture resilience.

Hamza Khan
Bingo.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you share a couple of your favorite tactics or huge bang-for-the-buck types of initiatives or interventions that fall within each of these six that are some of your faves?

Hamza Khan
Okay. Wow. I’m going to give you a couple ones that I have been relying on extensively over the last year and a half. So, the one that I’ve gone pro at is assembling boundaries, and a big part of this is learning how to say no, and doling out respectful no’s. You could do it like Oprah, that’s one way to do it. You could just make your default response, to everything that takes you out of balance, no. Like, no to birthdays, no to Zoom meetings, no to coffee dates, all of that.

But I think you’ll quickly learn that you’re going to lose friends and exhaust a lot of social capital. But one way that you can dole out no’s is respectful. You can acknowledge their request. You can say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this opportunity.” Then you can clearly state why you can’t do it. So, it’s like, “Hey, Pete, thank you so much for thinking of me to be on the podcast. Unfortunately, I can’t do it because for the next three months, I’m busy with…” whatever. Clearly state why I can’t do it.

Then I can offer an alternative, and that’s the master stroke. Instead of leaving you hanging, I should say, “Hey, what if we circle back in about six months? Or, instead of me, I think somebody else would be a better fit for this podcast on this topic.” In this way, you don’t feel like I’ve left you high and dry. It actually builds social capital between us because I’m looking out for you. I’m looking to solve your problem, looking to help you out in that situation. So, that’s one way to do it. Doling out respectful no’s, that has been very helpful to me.

Another strategy, ooh, I love this one a lot, it’s the five D method. This is especially important whenever you’re dealing with triaging any of your inboxes. I use this with my inbox every single day. Before I decide to do something, I run it through another set of D options. The first one is defer. If I can do this at a later date, great, push it aside. Diminish, reduce the scope of it. Delegate, if you have the ability to give it somebody else, and if it’s unnecessary, if it’s not relevant, just delete it.

And then whatever is left over, then do that. And I promise you, if you run your inbox through that filter of defer, diminish, delegate, delete, and then do, you will overcome that hesitation to start something. I mean, what’s that saying? There’s only way to eat an elephant; one bite at a time, which is a ridiculous adage when you think about it because you shouldn’t eat elephants, unless you’re a dragon, of course. That’s a different story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Yes.

Hamza Khan
But the point remains that our reluctance to start something is proportional to the size of it. And so, when we’re staring down an inbox of 200, 300 emails, the five D method comes in handy. And the last one I want to give you over here, I could give you so much, but one that I’m using quite regularly is the dash method.

Decide, essentially, how work is going to end before you start work, in this way you activate what’s known as Parkinson’s Law, this productivity principle which states that work expands so as to fill the time allocated for its completion. Well, if you don’t have these constraints in place, if you’re not simulating these constraints, you’re probably like, if you’re like me, like a procrastinator, you’re going to wait until the very last minute to start it, and it’s probably not going to get…or at the very least, it won’t be very good.

And there’s a couple of dashes that you can use; there’s time-based dashes. So, let’s look at it in the context of this podcast. We have an hour allocated for the recording of this, so we’re either going to reach the full 60 minutes or we’re going to end before then. So, that’s a time-based dash. You and I both know how this recording is going to end.

There’s also an energy-based dash, whenever either of us loses energy in the tank to continue, that’s another way we can end this. There’s a unit-based dash, we can go through all of the questions that, Pete, you’ve designed, so that’s one way to end this podcast. There’s time, energy, unit. There’s feeling-based as well. So, Pete, whenever you feel like we’ve got a good episode in the can, we can wrap this up.

And there’s also results-based. We’d be trying to hit a certain metric for the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, and then you might feel confident that we’ve reached that metric. And so, what you can do is you can establish one of these dashes as a way to end work before it begins, or you can combine some of these dashes and decide to end work when one of these dashes has been reached. So, that’s another strategy that I would recommend that falls within the DRAGON method.

Pete Mockaitis
And within the gain mastery of stress step, any favorite tools there?

Hamza Khan
Okay, so when it comes to gaining mastery of stress, this is one that was challenging for me last year, when I was flirting with burnout, and it was taking regular breaks. And I know this seems really pedestrian. There are probably some listeners who are just rolling their eyes, being like, “Seriously? Just taking breaks? How important is that?”

It is essential. It should be non-negotiable. It’s not a nice to have in a very busy work day. It’s actually essential to you doing your best work. And so, put them in your calendar, hardcode them. I now have breaks built into my calendar. For example, I’ve really slow mornings, and I color-code them as well to be green. And green signals to me that this is going to be something that’s going to be replenishing.

Lunch, non-negotiables, in there at the same time every single day. Weekends blocked off. Some evenings, date nights with my partner, all blocked off. So, scheduling these breaks and structuring them is essential. And if you have the ability to take regular vacations if you can, and when you are taking these vacations, I think, plan them in such a way where you can actually go dark and disconnect completely from the very things that might be causing regular stress.

So, within overcome overachievement, or, sorry, gain mastery of stress, I would say, in that step, take breaks, and, if not, be warned that you could break in the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Take several breaks. Got it. Well, Hamza, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Hamza Khan
Wow, no, you’ve really asked some questions here that have given me reason to step back and just appreciate all of the wisdom that has been accumulated through mentors, through different researchers, and Dr. Christina Maslach being one of them, that helped me get through the stress of last year. I think had this conversation happened in 2014, you’d be speaking to a very different Hamza that would be on the brink of full-blown burnout.

So, I’m just very grateful that I have the ability now to pay it forward to people who might be experiencing any stage on that 12 stage of burnout model, and, hopefully, it’ll compel you to separate run-of-the-mill everyday stress from what might be something that will lead to debilitating consequences for you. And, hopefully, you can say that.

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

Hamza Khan
It’s by Martha Graham, considered to be one of the pioneers of ballet in the United States.

She wrote, “There is a vitality, a lifeforce, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there’s only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly to keep the channel open.”

And, Pete, I sometimes find myself just staring at this quote, and really meditating on it because, as somebody that’s very critical of their work, as somebody who easily becomes disheartened with the results or lack thereof, I tend to fall into the trap of just comparing myself and competing unnecessarily. And so, when I read this, whenever I feel down about my work and my output, I’m like, “Hey, there’s a thing that’s working over here. Just keep the channel open. It’s okay.”

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

Hamza Khan
I’ve got a lot but the one that has my attention these days is The Dark Triad of Personality Traits, specifically within leadership. Very interesting research. And as a nice companion to that, you can look at the D Factor of Personality. Fascinating, especially if you’re studying destructive leadership and how that might be impacting such things as employee engagement, burnout, turnover, and the works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s tempting for me to jump all over that. So, what are the three things, just the minimum?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, okay. So, The Dark Triad of Personality Traits: subclinical levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. And they fall within the other model, which is the D Factor Personality, the inverse of the OCEAN Big Five Traits. This is essentially, and I hope I can get this right, it is the relentless pursuit of maximizing one’s individual utility while provoking, neglecting, or accepting the disutility of others. In other words, selfish behavior. And that is what is at the root of destructive leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it seems to check out, having done none of that research, that sounds about accurate. And how about a favorite book?

Hamza Khan
One that I’m reading right now. Man, I cannot say enough good things about it, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. My goodness, it’s about something that happened in 1886 but it’s reading to me as though it was written for this moment in time, 2023, and all of the tension and the levels of disengagement and burnout that are happening in the workplace.

Clearly, to me and many others, there’s something fundamentally wrong about the world of work today, and I think this book offers a very timely warning for if we don’t correct the things that are going wrong in the modern workplace, then we face some kind of upheaval that is going to be uncomfortable for everyone.

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

Hamza Khan
If I had to pick of the current suite of tools that I’m using at the moment, Asana, the task management system.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Hamza Khan
A favorite habit is waking up at the same time every single day, even on weekends.

Pete Mockaitis
And what time is that?

Hamza Khan
It ranges between 5:00 and 5:30.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Hamza Khan
Never the same time on the dot. I’m always surprised whenever it spills over beyond 5:30.

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

Hamza Khan
Two in particular. One is “Stop Managing, Start Leading,” and the other one is “Burn bright, not out.”

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

Hamza Khan
HamzaK.com. You can find all of my links, my social links, links to my podcast, newsletter, all of that at HamzaK.com.

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

Hamza Khan
Don’t resist change. Don’t resist chaos and the uncertainty of the future of work. Embrace it. Understand that change is the ability to triumph through adversity. To overcome adversity is something that makes us uniquely human. It’s the closest thing that we have to a superpower. So, always be changing, and, at the very least, change before change is required, especially before it’s too late.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Hamza, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and little burnout.

Hamza Khan
Thank you, sir. Thank you. And likewise.

797: How to Find and Do Your Great Work with Amanda Crowell

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Amanda Crowell shares practical wisdom on how to make time and space for the work that matters most to you.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get clarity on the work that fulfills you most 
  2. How to say no to the commitments eating up your time
  3. How to stop procrastination from sabotaging your goals

About Amanda

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist, speaker, author, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda’s TEDx talk: Three Reasons You Aren’t Doing What You Say You Will Do has received 1.5 million views and has been featured on TED’s Ideas blog and TED Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPRAl JazeeraThe Wall Street JournalQuartz, and Thrive Global. 

Amanda lives in New Jersey with her husband, two adorable kids, and a remarkable Newfiepoo named Ruthie. 

Resources Mentioned

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Amanda Crowell Interview Transcript

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

Amanda Crowell
Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited as well. I really want to dig into your book Great Work, but, first, I need to hear about clown school in Spain. What’s the story here?

Amanda Crowell
That’s funny. Well, I had finished my master’s degree, this was in between my master’s and my Ph.D., and I had had kind of a rough couple years, which I think probably everyone listening can relate to, and I felt like I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn’t talk to anyone and no one could really talk to me. So, I went to Spain, I went to an island off the coast of Spain. Tenerife, it’s actually off the coast of Africa but it’s a Spanish island, and I did language school for about, I don’t know, maybe it was three weeks of language school.

And then I planted myself in Santiago de Compostela, which is just a little part of Spain above Portugal, and was looking for things to do. So, I saw that one of the local theater companies was offering a clown school, and I thought that would be fun, not really realizing that my maybe minimal understanding of Spanish would sort of get in the way.

And I found that it both did and also didn’t because clowning is very…it can be very physical but there was one experience where I didn’t realize it but we were playing a game where the person who’s the focus of the game stands in front of the room, and everybody else in the class stands on the other side, and as long as you’re funny, they will stand still, but if you stop being funny, they will move forward, like rush you, like an army.

Like, somehow, my mind knew this because I started telling the story of Finding Nemo the movie, which had come out that summer. And they had this very perplexed look on their face the whole time, and then finally they got it together and started rushing me. And later, they told me in our conversational Spanish-English thing that we would do that I was repeating the same thing that the person who came before me had done but I had no idea he also told the Nemo story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what are the odds?

Amanda Crowell
Well, apparently my brain totally heard it, I was like, “Oh, we’re talking about Nemo, so I’ll just tell that story too,” which they did find funny for at least a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, did you have any clown performances afterwards?

Amanda Crowell
We had a clown performance at the end of the two weeks of clown school, and then the person who was running it invited a friend of mine, and I had to go to a clowning performance, like on the coast, which is like 45 minutes, I guess, west of Santiago de Compostela so we got on a car and went there. and I didn’t perform but I was part of the troupe that was like sort of hanging around backstage and stuff, so that was fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you put your clown skills to work in future times?

Amanda Crowell
Well, as a mother, my clown skills are required every day, and as a professor, I think my students do find me to be engaging and funny, and I’m quick on my feet. And the main rule of clowning, much like improv, is that you have to just do what you are invited to do. If you’ve been invited to walk around on your hands then, to the best of your ability, you have to. In improv, they call that “Yes, and.” It’s basically the same in clowning. It just tends to be a little bit more physical. And being forced to do something just because you’ve been asked to do it, because that’s the rule, is very freeing. It creates a different kind of habit of participation that I found very useful in all of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Never would’ve guessed. Okay, clown takeaways. Powerful. All right.

Amanda Crowell
Powerful clown takeaways, yes. I guess we’re done here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m curious to hear some powerful takeaways from your book Great Work: Do What Matters Most Without Sacrificing Everything Else. Can you start us off with any particularly surprising or fascinating or counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made along the way as you put this together?

Amanda Crowell
Well, I think that the cornerstone, like the piece of insight or the foundation of the book as a whole is a little bit in reaction to what I would call sort of high-performance productivity hacks, which I, like everyone sort of, love. Like, tell me exactly how Steve Jobs was able to do that. Tell me what Tim Ferriss does in his 4-Hour Workweek.

But there’s a way that that kind of high-performance productivity stuff keeps you always racing against the clock. You could be more productive, more productive, more productive. And that’s how I lived my life and had a couple of sort of full-body rebellions and sort of mental health concerns, feeling anxious. I wasn’t feeling satisfied.

And it wasn’t really until I realized that there’s another way to be powerfully productive that I took on. And then what surprised me, this is the big surprise, is that doing it that other way, that not high-powered doing more like really striving to be busy, striving for more accomplishments, that when you let that go and you do it this other way, then you actually gain access to what you want the most, which is your great work, which is the work you’re being called to do, the work that requires your full capacity in order to break through the human condition and put that work out there – the art, the scientific discoveries, the businesses you want to build. There’s a way to do those things much more quickly, much more powerfully, much more successfully for most people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, what is that way?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, that way is what’s outlined in the book. So, it’s got the different pieces of it. On the one hand, it’s about doing much, much less. The sort of high-performance productivity idea is you can do so much more and you won’t be super-stressed, sort of like the promise of it. And, actually, the number one step of this other way is to do tons less, to back out, say no, protect your time so that you are creating space for resilience, because you have to protect your resilience, which is your number one resource, and create a vacuum of space into which your great work can build, and bloom, and like take up space in your life.

People, I find, try to squeeze their great work into the margins of their life, but it’s their most important work. It’s the work that they want to be known for, it’s the work they want to create their legacy, and yet they’re like, “Well, I’m trying to do it on Saturday mornings, and if I had an hour after work, I’d try to do a little of it then,” and that’s very backwards. That’s prioritizing the expectations of others and not being strategic about your time so that you create actual time and actual resilience in yourself to do that work.

And then there’s just figuring out where your great work is, which is a certain amount of visioning, and believing what you hear, and trying to understand the voices in your head and differentiating them from each other. And, honestly, I already said it but I’m going to say it again, like really believing what you hear.

I find that a lot of very creative, innovative people will tell you that the thing they want the most is just not possible for them, “I’ve already got a family so I really can’t be an entrepreneur,” or, “I’m a lawyer, I can’t be an artist, I can’t write a book,” or whatever. And really learning to believe the voice that’s calling you from the inside is a big part of figuring out where your great work is. Often, people know what it is. They just refuse to believe it. They refuse to give it any credence.

Once you know where your great work is, then it’s the steps to turning it into reality. And that piece of it is about understanding the relationship of the ideas, like you feel like, “I want to change the face of medicine,” and you have an hour. How do you change the face of medicine in an hour? And so, there’s filling the space between those two so that you understand what a vision is, and then there’s other levels. Accessible aspiration that you can do in a year, what you can do in 90 days, what you can do this week, and what you can do today.

And then you know that your efforts are accumulating towards your great work, so there’s that practical kind of time management piece of it. And then the last piece is really developing self-expertise, which is also about allowing the productivity advice that you hear to be relevant or not, and putting together your own elixir of what really works for you. And that’s where a lot of the mindset stuff comes in as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, starting with zeroing in on what is the great work and the calling and the vision and stuff, how do we arrive at that and get real clarity on, “This is the thing, and this is not the thing”?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah. And there will be multiple things. So, sometimes it’s like, “Well, I love all of these things,” and it’s not a matter of denying parts of yourself. It’s a matter of prioritizing and choosing, and giving one of those things enough time to actually grow into something. So, I think I mentioned, like, sometimes people don’t know what their great work is, and they are really uncertain that they have great work inside of them, “Some people have great work but I’m just not one of them. I’m all over the place, and I’m kind of lazy, this isn’t resonating with me.”

But I have found that in every conversation, truly with people who want to talk it through and figure it out, that great work is in all of us. So, sometimes it’s a matter of doing some sort of searching. So, you can do sort of auditing of your prior experiences, “What’s always true?” One really key indicator that something is part of your great work is when other people do it, you feel really jealous.

So, I remember there is this story of, this is really resonating with the whole clown thing, one of my bosses in the past was Little Mikey on Sesame Street. So, you know how they have kids on Sesame Street who talk to Kermit the Frog. So, my boss was Little Mikey talking about what is love with Kermit the Frog in the ‘70s, which means that the puppeteer doing Kermit the Frog was Jim Henson himself. And I literally could not handle that that had happened to him.

And that feeling of just waves of whatever you want to call it, envy or jealousy or just, “Why didn’t it happen to me?” or like yearning is a real indication that there’s something in that that you really want for yourself. So, looking at the things that you’ve been envious about over time, childhood dreams, like re-invigorating, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” or, “I’ve always wanted to be a musician,” or, “I’ve always wanted to cure cancer,” or, “I’ve just always wanted to be a businessman,” like the Warren Buffett of the future.

Those give you the clues. And sometimes you can’t nail it down before you get into action. It’s often the case that taking steps in the direction of what you think you might want quickly clarifies, “I do not want this,” or, “Wow, this is amazing. I light right up. I start to feel satisfied again. I feel excited. I want to find the time to do it. I’m not watching as much Netflix or playing as many video games because I’m called, I’m drawn to do this other thing.”

Once you know what it is, then you have to protect that time, and that’s where saying no and doing less starts to become the game because if you’re good at what you do, people want you to do it for them, and you should. There are lots of opportunities. If it’s a great opportunity that takes you in the direction that you want to go in, I’m all for it, but there’s lots of sort of random one-offs.

In the book, we talk about how to evaluate whether an idea is a good one, whether it moves you towards your great work. And it really just comes down to, like, “Can you see the connection between what you’re doing and your great work, like as you’ve defined it?” And the example we use is, like, building a pergola in your backyard, because this actually happened to us.

We just decided we wanted a pergola in our backyard, which is actually something you can buy off the internet and they send you all the wood, and they say, “Oh, you can do it in a weekend,” but, of course, that’s not true. It’s going to be many weekends of trying to put up this wooden grape arbor thing in your backyard.

And it’s like, whether or not building a pergola in your backyard is your great work depends on how it fits into this larger system of the things you spend your time doing. So, if you’re in the middle of flipping your house and you want to get big return on investment, you feel like you’re going to get more money for your house, then building a pergola is a great use of your time because you can see the connection.

But if it just feels interesting but, really, you don’t spend that much time in the backyard and you only thought it was cool once, then no matter how compelling it is in that moment, you can step in and say, “I need to protect my time so that I have the time to do what I’m really here to do.” It’s a skill. It’s a skill that’s developed over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share an example of a client or someone who found themselves overwhelmed with all the stuff and then trimmed it down and pursued great work to cool results?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah, so many. And I’d say that that’s one of the strengths of the book is that it’s just filled with case studies. So, people find themselves in all kinds of situations. Like, we come to our great work when, like today, it’s always just today, and every day is filled with things. So, sometimes people find themselves really stretched very thin around expectations that people have, like they’ve got children. I’m not saying expectations as though those things don’t matter, because they do. You do have to take care of your children.

If you’re in the sandwich generation, where you have both children and parents who need care, that’s a real thing. It takes a lot of time to do that. If you also have a business, and your husband has a business and he wants your help with it, so that’s the example that’s in the introduction of the book, actually. It’s a woman who was in that exact situation. She had heard me speak, and she stayed on the Zoom length until people had left, and then was just like, “I’m hearing everything you’re saying, and you’re absolutely right, but I can’t.”

I think she wanted me to convince her that she could but she was maxed out. She was taking care of her mom. She was helping her husband because he wasn’t very good with the books of his business. She had a coaching business of her own, and that’s what she wasn’t getting to. She wasn’t writing the books she wanted to write and she wasn’t creating the program that she wanted to create, which is like, “I just can’t get to it.” And I’m like, “Of course, you can’t get to it because you’re doing all of these things.”

So, she is an example of somebody who knew what they wanted but couldn’t get to it. That’s very common. And so, that, over the course of a couple of years, talking to her and encouraging her to piecemeal, bit by bit, release herself from all this overcommitment, so, like, she found someone at her church to take her mother a couple of days a week and that released her from it.

And then there was a really big conversation with her husband where she said, “You have to find someone else to do your books because I can’t get to what I need to get to,” and he was very disappointed and felt kind of betrayed, but that was her reality, that she was never going to get to what mattered to her until she was able to put some of his own burden back on him because she had accepted it all, and now she needed to give some of it back. And so, in bits and pieces like that.

A lot of what I do is very, like, as long as you’re doing something today that aligns to what you wanted to do this week, which aligns to what you wanted to do in 90 days, you’re doing it. Because the other thing that I think, for her in particular was really powerful, was knowing she was done because she never ever felt done, just this endless to-do list. And it was the feeling of, like just, “What am I striving for? Like, I’m exhausted. I never exercise. I don’t eat well.”

And so, once you’ve done the things aligned to your great work, and you’ve met the expectations that you’ve drastically pared back, your life changes even before you’re doing the great work. You feel so much better. And I talked a little bit about resilience being your number one resource, this is where that kicks in.

When you start feeling better, the things that are hard – innovation and creativity, problem-solving, collaboration – all the things that are the skills of the 21st century economy, you’re better able to do them when you’re not exhausted, hungry, in pain, and just maxed out and brain dead. So, for her, doing all of those things made it possible to start actually making progress, and she has gotten very far, I would say, in the time since we worked together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have any pro tips on how one goes about exiting burdens, and reducing the load, and saying no and these sorts of things?

Amanda Crowell
I do, yes. Some of it is making a list of the things you’ve agreed to do, the projects, is what David Allen would call them in Getting Things Done, like anything that requires more than one step is a project. So, what projects do you have ongoing? And if you’re, walking your sister’s dog, and you’re planning the school party for your kids, and you’re the person who does birthdays at work, and you sing in the choir, those are all commitments.

And then looking at that list of commitments, some of them will be the obvious elephants in the room, like, “I don’t want to do it. It doesn’t make me happy to do it. I’m just doing it out of obligation. And the person that I’m feeling obligated to is not that really important, it’s not my mother. It’s the woman at church who handed it off to me and refuses to take it back every time I try to give it to her.” Those are the sort of topline things that can create instant relief and make you feel tons better right away.

So, in that case, it’s about having the difficult conversations. And sometimes if you have a coach, going through that, and a roleplaying thing can be really helpful, but, really, it’s about the rubber hits the road. You open your mouth, and say, “I’m really sorry. I know I said I would do it but I can’t.” And what’s interesting about those kinds of conversations is that they cause a lot of edge ahead of time. But the minute they’re done, the relief and the joy and the happiness that you don’t have to do it anymore is so awesome, it sort of drives you forward into the other things. So, that’s one. That’s like literally saying no to things that you’ve committed to, backing out of them.

That’s the hardest and so that’s where we always start. But there are other things that don’t require so much overt acknowledging of what you’re doing. I like to call it doing B-minus work, which is where…like, I was in consulting for a number of years before I started back as a professor at a university, which is what I do now in addition to the coaching and consulting and speaking stuff that I do. But when I was in consulting, which is a very billable hours kind of environment, it was very overwhelming the number of tasks that you had to do, and you felt you had to do all of them really well.

And I noticed that there were a lot of those tasks that, if you look at them in smaller pieces, there were parts of them that you could do just good enough. Now, those particulars are very particular for the job. Every job has them. This is what I’ve learned in coaching all these people over all these years, is, for example, hospice nurses.

They travel around, they get out of their car, they go into the house, they meet with their client, they come back out, they have to write up notes in between…they’re supposed to do it in between the clients but they all do it at night at home because they need to get off to the next client. They’re probably driving their car.

So, the typical advice given to them is to, “Do your notes before you leave the house,” but if you go into that and think, “Which exact pieces of the notes do I need to do, because when I try to think of it later, I’d forgotten a lot of it?” you can figure out that, “There’s just three fields that I should fill in. And then when I come back to do it at night, it’s much faster.”

So, things like that, where you don’t have to do it in this full-trotted, full-throated way, “I’m going to do all my notes as fast as I can, and somehow be this superhuman.” “I’m just going to do just these three because those strategically are the ones that matter.” Every job has little pockets where these things matter and these things matter less.

In consulting, one of the things I noticed was these emails that we would send, we would have these big group meetings, and we would send agendas ahead of time, and we would send notes afterwards. The agendas mattered a lot. People came, we had better meetings when the agendas were good and they got them on time.

Nobody, not a single person, ever opened the notes documents that came afterwards. And so, I started writing those as B-minus work, where it was a description of who was there, because you need that for contract work, and how long it was, the location, and then three bullet points of the topics that were covered, and not a single person noticed it didn’t impact the workflow, “My boss didn’t care.”

And so, instead of 30 minutes, it was 5 minutes, and 25 minutes of my time is back. So, there’s bits and pieces of your workflow, when you look at it in smaller pieces, that can release you from this overwhelming feeling without actually changing anything, or nobody even notices that you’re doing something differently but you experience it really differently, and it can be very helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. All right. Well, you have a fun turn of a phrase, you mentioned three horsemen of the goalpocalypse. What’s the story here?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah. So, I think at one point in this interview, I said something about overcoming the human condition to do your great work. That’s really what I was talking about. We have these things that, when we get tired, we get exhausted, when we get nervous or fearful, they kick in and they’re protective. So, procrastination is one of those horsemen, like, “I want to do it but I don’t want to do it,” “I want to do it, I totally forgot I wanted to do it.”

Perfectionism is one of those, “I’m going to do it perfectly and I’m going to take forever, and I’m never really going to get it out the door because it’s never good enough.” And then overworking is one of those. So, overworking, procrastination, and perfectionism, so like, “I’m going to work myself until I’m a little nub of a person, a little pile of ashes,” and that keeps you from doing your great work, too, because, “I’m so busy. Now is not the time. I have to wait until all these things line up.” These are like sort of things we do to self-sabotage our goals. That’s why they’re the three horsemen of the goalpocalypse.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, is the thought then if we have trimmed out the other stuff and we have a good vacuum to work with, those just disappear? Or, are there particular prescriptions for them?

Amanda Crowell
A lot of it is mindset work, like reframing your thoughts about things. The ability to do that mindset work is much more possible when you’re not maxed out and totally out of resilience, and burned out, or overworking, that kind. So, for example, procrastination, I have this TED Talk, you can put a link to it in your show notes or whatever, and it’s very popular. It has like, I don’t know, maybe close to 2 million views now.

And I think the reason that it’s so powerful, it’s about procrastination, really, and it talks about what the source of procrastination is, which is this thing called defensive failure. And defensive failure is the idea of how, as humans, we defend ourselves against real failure by failing ahead of time, by procrastinating. So, like, why do we procrastinate? Is it just a strategy? It’s a defense mechanism, but what’s underneath it?

And that’s what the TED Talk is about, and it’s the three mindsets that stop you from doing what you say you will do. So, one is, “I don’t believe I can. Like, other people are athletic but I’m not, so no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to be a runner,” for example. And so, you set these exercise goals, you don’t do anything about them because in your own heart and mind, you think you cannot, that there was something granted at birth, you didn’t get it, and all you’re ever going to do is fail at this, and you’re just not up for that. So, that’s one, “I can’t. I cannot. Like, I literally cannot.”

Then there’s, “People like me don’t do things like this,” which is the belonging one, which is like, “If I do this thing, what does it mean about me? And if it’s in conflict with my identity in some way…” My favorite example of this one was when I was learning how to sell my coaching, I was like, “I’m a heart-centered helper type. I’m never going to be pushy.”

So, the thing I wanted to do and how I saw myself clashed. And when that happens, it triggers defensive failure because we never want to be in conflict with ourselves. Our brain really does not allow for it, so you need to resolve that, you need to say, “Oh, there’s room in my identity to be a heart-centered salesperson,” for example.

The solution for the first reason we procrastinate, “I think I can’t,” is to learn all about the brain and understand that everything through effort, over time, with help, anything is possible. Immediately people are like, “You can’t be Einstein.” Fine. Anything normal is possible with effort, over time, with help. Those are the three things. If you’re willing to do those three things, you’re good. So, that’s the resolution to the first.

And then the second is, like, make room in your identity, like resolve it, go meet people, talk to people, read the magazines. Like, learn more about the thing that feels so counter to who you are and find a place for yourself in it, and then procrastination, it does give way. And the final one is, “I don’t want to do it. I just think I should want to do it.”

And this is where everyone tells you, “Oh, you should just…” The world tells you, “You should want to lose weight,” but, actually, you’re like fine with how you look, so you make these goals, “I’m going to go keto,” but you don’t actually care about it. You don’t really want to do it. It just feels like you have to say it because the world says you have to. That’s never going to work because actual real change is very difficult, and if you really don’t want to do it, you’re not going to do it.

So, a lot of that is letting go, like, if you’re happy with how you look, like, let it go. Until the doctor tells you that you are not going to live if you don’t change your behavior, it’s like, follow your own body, whatever. But if you do want to do it but you don’t want to do it, but you do want to do it, like, if you’re stuck in that whole thing, then it’s about building intrinsic interest for it. Find something that interests you. Connect it to your long-term hopes and dreams. Find a way to have actual interests, curiosity, connection, build it up intentionally. Like, go do that work, and that will help the procrastination to go away.

So, those three things are why we procrastinate, so that’s like the resolution, depending on which one it is, for that horseman of the goalpocalypse. And there are similar thoughts and stuff all outlined in the book for the others as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, how does one intentionally build interest and curiosity? I think some folks think, “Hey, you got it or you don’t. Either this thing is interesting to you or it’s not.” If you want more interest and curiosity, how do you build that up?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah. Well, I think, as humans, we can kind of be interested in anything. Think about this. When was the last time you watched a movie that was totally outside of your interest but the story was so good and the characters were so real? And I’m experiencing that right now with the book Ready Player One which is about virtual reality video games, and I’m the last person to play a virtual reality video game. But the story is so compelling that I’m like, “Okay, teach me about this so that I can follow this story.”

When you find an angle on something, you can get excited about it. So, the TED Talk is all built around the fact that I was never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to exercise, and then I had these two kids and my body was all messed up, and so I decided I better put all my money where my mouth is and figure out how to exercise. And then I did, and I did triathlon and half marathon. That’s like the structure of the TED Talk.

And I remember having the exact same question that you just posed, which is like, “If I don’t like exercise, I just don’t like it.” But I found that thinking about exercise through a scientific lens was an angle in on it for me. And I found out by reading Runners Magazine, and seeing what kinds of interesting things do these people talk about, and I was like, “Oh, well, that’s interesting.”

I learned all kinds of things about the blood vessels in your fingers, like way out in your extremities, the only way to get them to grow is to do intense cardiovascular fitness stuff, and my fingers were always cold, so I was like, “Well, okay, let’s do a six-mile run. Because if that actually grows blood vessels out into the tips of my fingers, like, okay, I’m interested. Tell me more.”

So, it doesn’t always have to be the big doorway people walk through to be interested in something. I don’t have to watch sports, thank God, because I don’t like them. I didn’t have to watch sports, I didn’t have to be competitive, which I’m not, but, like, all the main things that sort of describe athletic people didn’t work for me. But the science of fitness, the physiology of it, the communities that build up around the little group of people I rode my bike with and the little group of people I learned swimming from, like those things, the sort of tangential parts really worked for me, and I developed quite a lot of interest in exercise.

And the same thing happened with nutrition. When I had an autoimmune flareup thing and I needed to discover how to manage my inflammation naturally, and I suddenly had tons of interests and curiosity and talking to people. So, I think believing that you can find something interesting is sort of step one, and then go talk to the people, read the magazines, see what they’re talking about. Something will catch your eye. If it doesn’t, you always have in your back pocket the connection to your long-term hopes and dreams.

So, my favorite example of this is taxes. There are very few people who are going to be super interested in the tax code, and all of them have already become CPAs. The rest of us are not going to be, like, “Ooh, tell me about this particular deduction and the changes between 2020 and 2021.” None of us feel that way. But we can draw a really clear kind of bright line, “Like, a bright line between doing my taxes and keeping my expenses updated and whatever to my long-term hopes and dreams.”

And really building that out can be enough to help with interest and curiosity, like, “I want to have a stable-enough financial system in place for my business, that if I grow quickly, it won’t overwhelm me, or I won’t find myself in a pickle, or I won’t get audited and freak out. Like, those kinds of bright lines, “Now, I’m going to sit down and do this even without the usual interest and curiosity,” because you can’t build it intrinsically.

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

Amanda Crowell
Only that there’s a journal, the Great Work Journals, there’s three of them. One is like The Great Work Journal, and sort of life-based, and then there’s one for entrepreneurs, and there’s one for students. And it can be a really good way to kind of coach yourself through the process of getting started, staying at it, not procrastinating, helps you build a good gratitude practice.

And those are really, I think, great ways to start once you’ve read the book, and you’re like, “How do I do this?” Get the journal and try to follow it because the people who love it, report that it can be very transformational. So, I just want to make sure I mention that.

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

Amanda Crowell
I like the quote, and I’m not entirely sure who said it, maybe Albert Einstein, that’s like in my brain somewhere, but it’s “Ninety percent of success is showing up.”

It’s like do find that if you just show up and then show up again, you don’t get nowhere. You get somewhere. And then that somewhere can hit the hockey puck or the hockey stick, I guess they call, the exponential curve, and there is no way to hit that if you’re not showing up. And I think it takes the drama out of like, “I need to show up and do big things.” No. Just show up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amanda Crowell
Yeah. So, the one I talk about the most that I think had the biggest impact on me, and my clients and the schools that I worked with when I was a consultant, is the notion of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. It’s so fundamental and it gets oversimplified, I think, in the media, into this like, “If you think you can, you can.” And it’s really not about that.

It’s really much more the opposite of that, is much truer, which is if you think you can’t, you won’t. Like, your literal brain will shut you down. If you’re like, “I’m never going to get this math homework done,” your brain is going to reduce all the activation. All the problem-solving centers are going to shut down, like, like you’re not going to do it.

But if you believe that you can, then you get into all the stuff we know about cognitive neuroscience. Like, what does it actually take to learn? What are the skills and strategies? And if you are willing to put in effort, over time, and get help, new strategies, new ideas, new ways, different ways to engage with it, you can learn almost anything.

And it’s incredibly freeing. It takes us all out of this prison of our own making, of like, “I need to do what I’m already good at,” and instead places us in a place of possibility that feels uniquely human, and I think helps us heed the call of our great work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Amanda Crowell
Well, this has nothing to do with cognitive neuroscience, my favorite book is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

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

Amanda Crowell
Yeah, what I really like is the DONE app.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that’s a good one.

Amanda Crowell
It is a good one. I like it and it’s pretty and I feel like looking at it, and I’m so happy to see streaks. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Amanda Crowell
I like time blocking but not in a super intense way, just like blocking the mornings for creative work, and then blocking time around meetings to return to the ideas. Like, that’s very helpful for me. I use my calendar, like I’m dogmatic about it. I can’t imagine not having a very seriously organized calendar for time blocking.

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

Amanda Crowell
Well, I think that the idea that there is another way. Like, you don’t have to hustle and grind to do great work. That’s what people seem to come back and say, “Okay, I need to know how to do that. I’ve tried the other way. It didn’t work for me.”

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

Amanda Crowell
I would point them to AmandaCrowell.com. I have a podcast called Unleashing Your Great Work, and you can find a link to that on the website, and also all the buy links to the book. I really think the book is probably the best place to start to really get a sense of who I am, and then listen to the podcast to hear other people talking about their great work so that you can build the courage to actually pursue your own, which is really what it’s all about.

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

Amanda Crowell
I would say it’s, believe what you’re hearing on the inside. If there’s a piece of your job that you’re sort of want to do more of, listen to that and ask for the opportunity to do more of it. if there’s a part of your job that is not really hitting on all cylinders for you, begin the conversation about offboarding that part of it or replacing it with something that’s more your jam, because the more closely aligned you are with your jam, or your great work, the better the work you’ll do and the more valuable you’ll be to the company as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amanda, thank you. I’ve enjoyed this chat and wish you much luck with all your great work.

Amanda Crowell
Thank you so much.

787: How to Consistently Perform at Your Peak with Dr. Haley Perlus

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

Dr. Haley Perlus shares everyday tactics to help you achieve consistent peak performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How just three words can transform your day
  2. How to increase your attention span
  3. The simple secret to feeling more energized

About Haley

Dr. Haley Perlus knows what it takes to overcome barriers and achieve peak performance. As an elite alpine ski racer, she competed and trained with the best in the world, pushing herself to the limits time and time again. Now, with a PhD in sport psychology, Haley continues to push boundaries and drive peak performance, helping athletes and Fortune 100 executives reach their goals.

Dr. Perlus is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, professor, author and consultant to Division I athletes. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado lecturing on applied sport and exercise psychology at the graduate level. She has authored several books including The Ultimate Achievement Journal and The Inside Drive and her articles have been featured in publications such as Thrive Magazine, Fitness Magazine, IDEA Fitness Journal, EpicTimes, Telluride Inside, MyVega and BeachBody®.

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Haley Perlus Interview Transcript

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

Haley Perlus
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’m intrigued, you’ve got a number of impressive credentials: Ph.D. in Sports Psychology, Elite Alpine Ski racer, and also licensed bartender. What is the story? Do these all three fit together some way? Or, where does the bartending fit in?

Haley Perlus
Well, if the first two don’t succeed, then certainly it’s a shot, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Good mental health advice right off the bat.

Haley Perlus
If we’re doomed, there’s always tequila then we’ll get back at it tomorrow. I’m just joking. I’m just joking. But people find that interesting because it’s one thing that people don’t know about me. However, my mother, my proud mother, has my bartending certificate framed above the bar in her house. It’s an interesting conversation piece.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is sweet. Well, I’m curious, do you have any quick mixological tips for non-licensed bartenders? If we would just like our cocktails to be a little bit more impressive, what should we do?

Haley Perlus
The funny thing is I don’t even really drink, so I let everybody else go ahead and loosen up and I just observe. Clean. Everything can be clean. Remove all the sugar and just go for the good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. We’ve got it. All right. Well, now let’s talk about peak performance stuff. Maybe, to kick it off, you could orient us. How do you think about peak performance, particularly in a professional context? Like, what does this phrase mean to you? Or, do you have like have a framework that you use to understand this stuff?

Haley Perlus
I do. And peak performance, sometimes, I think, actually veers us off track because when we’re looking for peak performance or peak experiences, we want to do it often. We don’t want to just peak and then come go back down. So, I really think about it as consistent, “How can I get the most consistent high performance?” which then is a peak performer. Often, we’re searching for that peak, our best performance but I want us to have our best performance as often as we possibly can, not just one time, consistent. Consistently being our best.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear because peak sort of implies it goes up and then it goes down, and then I have a little point at the top. It’s the peak. And so, consistent, I guess this chart might look like we have ever-rising peaks, if you will, and we’re getting better and better.

Haley Perlus
I love that. Let’s go with that, yes. We can’t always be perfect.  There will be ups and downs but we’re searching for more consistency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so tell us, you’ve been studying this stuff for a long time, any particularly surprising or fascinating insights that you’ve discovered along the way?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that’s interesting, Pete, when you did talk about to my bartending, when you asked me for one recipe, and I just said keep it clean, eliminate the sugar and just go for the good stuff. That’s really what I try to do in my practice. Remove all the fluff, all the extra thinking. We want to think less but more strategically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I like that.

Haley Perlus
We want to really go for the meat. When we have direction, when we have focus, we are more inclined to take action and follow through.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And so then, let’s talk about getting that focus, that clarity, that strategy going. Do you have any key questions or prompts you use to really zero in on that good stuff?

Haley Perlus
I do. And just this morning, I was training about five people, all managers and leaders in their various professions, and we started with narrowing it down to three words that would best describe them as their best self, so when they’re the most energized, most focused, feeling all the good things, they know who and what matters most to them. What three words would they use to best describe them because that then becomes their daily purpose, or at least a daily representation of their purpose, but three gives them direction, gives them focus, and then they’re more inclined to take action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it’s three and not thirty, that’s certainly focusing. Well, can you give us some examples of three words, best self.

Haley Perlus
So, for me, I’ll tell you and then I can share with you why it’s the number three, and it’s not mine. It’s actually in The Psychology of Persuasion, where I learned it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Cialdini?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, absolutely. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had him as a guest. He’s awesome. He’s awesome.

Haley Perlus
And I love how he shares the number three. More is confusing, except with the tasting of gelato because then you want to have more experiences, the more flavors the better, and the color of our tennis shoes. But then he says everything else, we really want to narrow it down to three so that we can focus and have direction. Anything else, we get overwhelmed and confused.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got it.

Haley Perlus
But my three, for myself, I use the word bright, like I have this big sunshine of my mind, body, and spirit. What the sun gives the earth is what my brightness gives me. I’m curious as opposed to judgmental. So, I’m curious, I want to learn, I want to understand, I ask questions even though I may not like the answers, and I actively listen to you and to also what my body and my mind are telling me.

And so, each and every day that is my purpose, that’s my goal, that’s my intention. I also want to be kind. I also want to be generous. I also want to be empathetic. But if I try to be everything, I’ll be nothing. So, if I focus on those three, that will allow me to take action and I also will be so much more than just those three, but those three gives me purpose, gives me focus.

Pete Mockaitis
And is the idea that these three are pretty persistent as opposed to a shifting daily intention, like, “This is the best self and it’s what I’m going for day after day”?

Haley Perlus
I believe so. I’ve been playing around with it for myself for years, and it is rather consistent for me. For people who are just starting to figure out their best three words, sometimes you can play around, trial and error, you let it marinate for a little bit before you find it. But I do believe that when we do enough trial and error and self-awareness, we do land on three.

And then there’s a cool factor in this. It’s not just having your direction every day you wake up and you want to be these three things so that you can be your best self, it’s also catching yourself when you start to lose one of those words. So, when I’m not energized, when I’m not resilient to the first stressor of my day, for example, I immediately lose my curiosity. Hands down, it is the first word that goes.

So, as soon as I can catch myself no longer being curious, which usually means I’m judging someone or something, I can stop and reset instead of letting my entire best self get lost or sinking further and further into what I call my own quicksand of misery. I can stop and do something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a turn of a phrase. Quicksand of misery. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying in terms of like that spiral or that inertia. I guess folks might say, colloquially, “Whoa, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” or, “I just noticed something that maybe I’m being judgmental. I see something that’s not right as it should be,” and then my brain starts thinking, “What’s wrong with people? Why are we doing it this way? Like, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s so inconsiderate.”

And so then, it’s like I’m primed to notice other stuff that’s jacked up and messed up, and rail about that inside my head, so that’s no fun. So, when you do catch yourself, you notice, “Oh, I’m doing that thing,” but then what? What do you do about it?

Haley Perlus
There’s a couple of things but this is where we’re really talking now about a lot of recovery pauses. So, in life right now, and I say we, as in people in my field, we’re really trying to enforce the story of life is a sprint, no longer a marathon. What does that mean? Instead of just going, going, going, and if you start to not feel great, or start to be judgmental, “I don’t have time to reset. I just got to keep going.” No, it’s now a sprint. You stress and then you recover.

So, when I find myself losing my best self, I stop and I take a recovery pause. That might be one minute, it might be five minutes, ten minutes. And what do I do there? I reset, usually, my emotions because we are creatures of emotion. We’re emotional creatures. So, what does that mean? Maybe I listen to music, maybe I stick my head outside and get some fresh air, maybe I do some quick deep breathing, maybe I move my body, connect with a loved one, do gratitude. Anything that allows me just to reset my emotions, which then allows to come more into more of a neutral mindset, and then I can refocus and get back my curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that lineup there. And so, we’ve got a variety of options on the menu to choose from, and they’re on the quick side – one, five, ten minutes. It’s funny, I’ve been finding cold water effective for resetting emotions because it’s hard to think about much else when your head is in a bucket of ice water or a cold shower.

Haley Perlus
I was just about to say, “What does that mean?” Are you literally pouring a bucket of cold water over your head?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I literally have a lovely piece of, I guess it’s Tupperware that I have in my office refrigerator that I will pull out and put my head into at times. So, that’s weird but I find it effective because it’s like, “Ooh.” If you’re in a funky mood, it’s hard to fixate on that, and it really does feel like a reset, it’s like, “Okay. Well, now we’re back to a neutral, chilly, energized place. Let’s reset.” I guess I got on a Wim Hof kick, which is how this all started.

Haley Perlus
Oh, there you go. Yeah, so you can do Wim Hof breathing if you don’t want to pour cold water over your head, you can follow it. But, funny enough, that’s actually…I was a ski racer and a ski coach, and even obviously sports psychologist for winter sport athletes, just one of the many sports. But we put ice cubes down our backs, our necks, and, again, just a wakeup call, just to get refreshed and renew some energy which it will allow us to then stop for a moment, rethink, reset to be our best self.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. And I want to go into some depth on some of these options. So, gratitude has come up a few times on the show. There’s a variety of ways to do it. How do you find is an effective means of gratitude that provides a reset?

Haley Perlus
Well, in moments where we need reset, in moments where we’ve lost our best self, usually we’re overwhelmed or frustrated, we’re feeling anxiety, and we don’t think we’re doing a good-enough job, or at least somebody else isn’t but we can only control ourselves. So, I like these two questions, “What have I already achieved today?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like it.

Haley Perlus
And, “What do I get to do next?” So, for example, “What have I already achieved today?” is very different than what I haven’t yet achieved, which is where I think most of us go, “I still have to do this. I haven’t done this. I wasn’t good enough at this. I didn’t have enough time for this.” But when you think about what you have achieved, it automatically puts you more in a pleasant emotional space, and patting yourself on your back increases some concentration, some focus and motivation.

“What do I get to do next?” is very different than the normal “What do I have to do next?” We’re always thinking about, “What email I have to respond to” “What call I have to get on” “What do I have to do?” “Who do I have to answer to?” That creates maybe some negativity, “Who do I get to support? How do I get to be challenged? What do I get to learn? What email do I get to be included on even though there’s 500 today?” Just the word “get,” a simple word choice changes our emotional experience, allows us to be a little bit more engaged in that next activity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that so much and I’m reminded of I was listening to Bryan Cranston’s autobiography, and he said something really stuck with him. He’s on a set of a TV show and people are kind of grumbling about the early days, early mornings, late hours. And this guy on the set, who was like a much bigger star than him at the time, said simply, “Well, beats digging ditches,” in terms of like, “Yeah, this is a job and it’s hard sometimes but, relative to the alternatives, that’s something we get to do, which is pretty cool.”

Haley Perlus
Always could be worse. I guess you could go there, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a really great question that focuses your brain into a positive direction. And I’m thinking something I’ve been wrestling with here with regard to, “Oh, emotions provide information and they’re useful, and we should, ideally,” so I’m told and I think I’ve reaped some value here, “be curious and explore them and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’” And, yet, at the same time, I find that when I do that, like if I’m in a funk, like, “Oh, what’s going on?” it’s like I’m very adept at coming up with a long list of things that are busted and I could be cranky about, and then I kind of feel worse.

And then one approach I’ve tried with some good results is I say, I ask myself, “Why might I feel amazing in five minutes?” because it’s not like I’m lying to myself, it’s like, “Why am I going to feel amazing in five minutes? You’re not. You’re still going to be tired and grumpy.” But it’s like, “Why might I?” Like, “Well, it’s quite possible that I could achieve this little thing and feel great that that’s no longer hanging over my head. It’s quite possible that, boy, I just needed a glass of water. It’s been a few hours. And that would hit the spot.”

So, I find that handy. Do you have any pro tips on engaging our emotions and/or positive refocusing questions that are super handy?

Haley Perlus
I do. I do agree that all emotions are okay. They all serve us. Being angry could drive us initially. Being angry or frustrated or fearful or worried or anxious or sad or depressed, all those unpleasant emotions, they do provide some self-awareness, they do provide polarity. I’m not a big believer in staying with them too long. I do like the non judgment. I do like the, “Hmm, okay, I’m angry.” But then I do need to get myself over to the pleasant side in order for me to do anything effectively with that anger.

If I need to communicate something to someone because that person created anger, I’m not going to be able to do that successfully staying angry, so I need to bring myself back over to one of more challenged, or something more positive, which will then allow me to be right, curious and listen. And then I can more effectively communicate why I was angry or the lesson learned. I feel like the lesson learned comes from the pleasant side.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that distinction in terms of the unpleasant emotion can highlight something that needs attention, and yet the attending to that something is often done more effectively in a more pleasant state of mind. That’s cool.

Haley Perlus
I agree. Yeah, that’s what I think. Now, when I think about, “Is okay that I bring back some sports?” I think people get really motivated by that anxiety. Sometimes, one popular athlete, that I’m sure we’ve all heard of, that used anger in the sense of rivalry even if there wasn’t a rival, he created one, was Michael Jordan.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Haley Perlus
However, when he stepped onto that court, it was strategy, it was tactics, it was the challenge of it. The anger definitely motivated him and got those chemicals and neurotransmitters and hormones running, and his enthusiasm. I don’t know personally but I’ve done enough research and I would like to say, and I hope he would agree with me, that when he got on the court, that anger turned much more into a challenge. And that is a pleasant emotion that allows us to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, any other favorite refocusing questions that you pose to yourself?

Haley Perlus
Like, I said, I do like to think less but more strategically. But I actually find myself, when I’m trying to reset my emotions, is not necessarily always use my mind but to use tactics that immediately change my emotion, like music.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Haley Perlus
I have a theme song. It’s a cheesy one. I don’t care, I use it. But, for example, my favorite movie of all time as a kid and as an adult is Flashdance,” and there is a song in Flashdance called “What A Feeling.” I’m sure many of your listeners have heard of it or know it and they’re smiling right now or making fun, but that’s okay. But I will tell you that if I’m finding myself anxious or overwhelmed or exhausted or sad, if I turn “What A Feeling” on, if I need a little bit of an emotional reset to peace, I just remind myself of dancing around my parents’ house as innocent and free as I possibly can.

If I’m about to go climb a mountain, metaphorically, but I also do climb mountains, but whatever that mountain might be, the lyrics are, “Take your passion, make it happen, dance through life,” so my resetting is not necessarily asking myself a question. It’s directing myself to the words of another song, of a song, that allows me to direct my mind elsewhere.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And so, you’ve got your theme song. Do you have sort of a playlist or a lineup of different songs for different purposes or is it always this go-to?

Haley Perlus
This is usually my go-to, the theme song, but I do have a playlist, a Perlus playlist, and it’s quite long because in that moment, sometimes I want the genre, sometimes I want the harmony, sometimes I want the lyrics, the tempo, so it’s rather long but, yes, I do have a Perlus playlist that in that playlist, there’s always going to be some song that I can press play to navigate me to an emotion that I want to experience. It is my reset.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, this is bringing me back to a teenage Pete Mockaitis enchanted by Tony Robbins, sharing how to shift your emotional state immediately, talking about shifting physiology and imagery, what’s you’re imagining, and dialogue, what you’re saying to yourself. And then I guess the imagery or the music would fall into that. Do you dig that framework or do you have another way you think about it in terms of levers to pull for an emotional reset?

Haley Perlus
Do you mean the imagery piece? I love the imagery piece.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Or like holding your body in a certain way, or breathing, or your power moves or whatever.

Haley Perlus
Oh, absolutely. It’s so funny, I started teaching this and my brothers, I have two brothers and they make fun of me all the time because I always tell people to take their shoulders up, back and down, and smile. So, if you take your shoulders up, back and down, you’re opening up your chest, you’re letting room for air to come through, not just stop at your chest but go through your diaphragm, smiling even through all that anger and disappointment, releases certain chemicals, gets your body language set up.

In person, when I get people to stand up and take their shoulders up, back, down and smile, then they give me a standing ovation, so it’s always nice to set the room up. So, I do believe in definitely body to mind techniques, and that would be an example of one. Setting up your body to create a mental space, to create mental fitness, to create positive or pleasant emotions.

Movement, forget about standing still, moving your body is scientifically the best way to change your emotional state from an unpleasant to a pleasant, whether it’s small movements, like rolling your shoulders; whether it’s stretching, opening your front body after we’re all typing and hunched over at our computers all day; going for a walk, large movements, getting fresh air if you can, even adding to it. Blood circulates through your body, blood carries oxygen, glucose, energy. It energizes us and it makes us go from an unpleasant to pleasant.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. I dig it. And I’m also thinking about Dr. Andrew Huberman of the Huberman Lab’s podcast, which is fantastic, mentioned…and this is crazy. There’s good science to suggest, simply looking up can rally attention in terms of like what our eyeballs are doing and the signals that’s sending inside our brains. It is fascinating what is going on with the human body.

Haley Perlus
Straight up or to the right or to the left? Because I know we can read people depending on where they’re looking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as my understanding, and I might be mistaken, is you’re even tilting upward your chin and head, so it’s up. Like, you’re looking at a tall tree or a bird in the sky, and that can spark some attentiveness. And I think it’s true in my own experience. He’s got the scientific studies and papers and such underlying it. But I’ve even elevated my desk a bit more so that I’m not hunched over downward looking all day but rather there’s a little bit of a tilt up, and I think it’s made a difference, so at the very least, it’s given me a placebo benefit, which I appreciate.

Haley Perlus
Which we’ll take, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ll take that.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that hunched over, orthopedic surgeons are now talking about the pandemic posture.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Yeah.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that hunched over. So, yes, so stand up tall, get your chest lifted, smile, raise that emotional space. But you just reminded me of one more tip, if I can share, about resetting.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Haley Perlus
Getting outside, especially now as we’re recording this, it’s summer. Getting outside and earthing. What does that mean? It means barefoot in the grass, hug a tree, lie down. And also, if you don’t want to hug a tree, although I do, while you’re just outside, just focus for a minute only on what you see. Then focus for a minute, or maybe 30 seconds, only on what you hear, then only on what you can smell, then only on what you feel underneath you.

And if you do feel something else in your hands or in your ears, the wind passing by, just focus on one sense at a time. And that allows you to also tune out your own stressors and tune in to the energy of the world. Nature.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so nice rundown there in terms of breaks. I wanted to also get your take on our attention spans, how do we improve them and beat distraction? I guess one thing is just, hey, make sure you’re taking good breaks, and so we’ve checked that box. What else do you recommend here?

Haley Perlus
Well, I know that it’s a hard one but I am with everyone else who believes that multitasking is one of the biggest energy drainers. So, though I live in this world too, so it’s not about I believe eliminating multitasking completely, but I do think that we can probably reduce multitasking in our lives to further increase our engagement and our attention span.

So, we need to ask ourselves and really be truthful, where can we reduce multitasking to increase our ability to focus on one thing at a time. And often, people will say, “Well, wait a second. I’ve got to do this email and that message and this call.” Well, then I propose us working on being a better juggler as opposed to a multitasker.

So, what does that mean? I don’t juggle balls physically but professional jugglers, no matter how many balls they have that they’re juggling with, there’s only one ball in their hand at one time. As soon as they have more than two balls, they make mistakes and they drop all of them. So, we need to just go back and forth, from one to the next, one to the next, one to the next. That allows us to maintain sharp attention span.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s just sort of a mindset shift there in terms of, ideally, maybe we just to do one thing for a while, and then do the next thing for a while, but if not, juggling works but with the goal of, “I’m focused on you and I’m now focused on this thing. And now, I’m focused on you,” as opposed to, “I’m focused on you and this thing at the same time.”

Haley Perlus
Yeah. And one of those things, I know we brought it up before, but just to enforce it. One of those things is recovery, “I’m focused for these five minutes on recovery, and then I come back to this email, or this phone call, or this task.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to exercising our brains so that we are effectively able to engage and recover, and to engage and recover, and to keep on getting better and better?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, use it but be deliberate. So, right now, crossword puzzles or Wordle or Sudoku, those games, even video games, with my athletes, my sport athletes in my consulting practice, we actually train our brains using video games and games on the computer. In fact, some of us are so good that we tune out the rest of the world and we can go for hours. We don’t necessarily want that though. We need to have discipline and we don’t want to have the addiction but we need to use our brain and deliberately focus in, in order to increase our attention span.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then an exercise might mean like, “This is what I’m focused on for the next hour. Period.” Like, that kind of a thing, like, “This is what we’re doing here.”

Haley Perlus
Yeah, there’s something that you can just search it on the internet but I do it in my presentations. It’s called the concentration grid. And all it is, is 99 numbers scrambled up in a grid, it starts 00 and they’re all scrambled up to 99. And then you time yourself, not even an hour, I do a minute. And in a minute, you see, you start at 00, then 01, then 02, and you have to go and find these numbers in order as fast as you can and see how high you can get.

So, I’ll do this with the people that I’m consulting with, and then I will try to distract them. So, I will go and distract them with noise and with words, I tell them 30 seconds left, I tell them, and they have to literally focus on tuning me out. It’s the only time they can deem me irrelevant but if they hear me, I’m supposed to come into their presence and then leave, and they have to stay focused on their number.

So, that’s just an example of an exercise in concentration grit. You purposely engage in, again, Sudoku or Wordle or a crossword puzzle, or even a video game, or an app game, momentarily you tune in with the intention of deeming everything else irrelevant, and that’s going to increase your attention span. We just don’t want to become addicted because then we lose focus on everything else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when one is doing these exercises, you want to have some sort of distractor in the mix to practice the ignoring?

Haley Perlus
You can play around with it but I think that’s real life. Even though I’m trying to focus on this, on speaking with you, I have intentionally turned off everything so I will not get pinged, I will not get dinged. But in the real world, if we’re sending an email, we might get a text, we might get a message, someone might come into the room, so we have to practice real life. It’s simulation for real life, being able to focus in on this one exercise, knowing that you’re going to be distracted, but letting those distractions come and let them go. They’re irrelevant. What’s relevant is the exercise you’re focusing on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you’ve got some perspective on the connection between hydration and performance. Let’s hear it.

Haley Perlus
I sure do. Well, we are two-thirds…our brains are two-thirds water, so we need water to, yeah, there you go, have a sip, and I have my water here too. But water is so many things. But when I think about attention span and our brain, I look at water as a cleansing tool. It flushes out all the toxins, flushes out all the negative stuff, flushes out all the things that we no longer need. It’s a cleansing tool. It also is an energizing tool. It lubricates, it hydrates, it gives us energy.

So, as we’re consistently drinking water throughout the day, we’re actually giving our brains energy as well as cleansing. Plus, when we’re dehydrated, that in and of itself is a distraction. Our bodies react to that. Our brains react to that. We become exhausted. So, that’s an unnecessary distraction. We can fix that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I guess how much is enough? I mean, I think some people will say, “You know, I drink water when I’m thirsty, and that’s fine, right?” What do you think?

Haley Perlus
Well, often the nutritionists and the experts will say if you’re thirsty, you’ve waited too long. And then, yes, the question is, “How much?” So, we’ve all heard eight glasses a day, or half your body weight in ounces. Just drink more. I don’t often come across anyone who is overhydrated. Most of us are dehydrated, so just drink more.

And here’s a thing. Get into the ritual of drinking first thing in the morning. There’s something that I used to do for myself before I became a regular water drinker. Every night before I go to bed, I pour myself a glass of water and lemon. To me, it was easier to drink water with lemon. And lemon is also very alkalizing so it does to provide energy. But I pour myself a glass of water and lemon, and I put it on my night table before I go to bed.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do before anything, especially before I brush my teeth, is drink that water and lemon. And it started off as just two ounces, then four ounces. And now I drink 32 ounces of water in the morning. Sometimes I have coffee, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I have green juice, like celery juice, but I’m always getting my water, and it’s now a habit because I’ve gotten used to that morning ritual.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious about bathroom trips. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to drink more water just because I don’t want to be hassled with more trips to the bathroom. How do you think about this?

Haley Perlus
Well, remember, I said pour the water and lemon the night before but don’t drink it.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the night before but the morning of.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, you drink it the morning of.

Pete Mockaitis
I mean, daytime trips to the bathroom.

Haley Perlus
Yeah. Well, I would rather have that problem than the problems that will come if I’m dehydrated.

Pete Mockaitis
So, are we talking like ten plus visits a day then?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that’d be a lot. I’m not going to lie. I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s the quote of the show. We’ll put that on the graphic. That’s good. Thank you.

Haley Perlus
You’re welcome. I feel like you needed to get that out of me.

Pete Mockaitis
But it’s true, like there’s a genuine tradeoff. And it’s so funny, I think the same lazy brain, for me at least, that’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to get up and pour a glass of water,” is the same lazy brain who can rationalize or justify, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve already been to the bathroom like five times. I don’t want to go again.” And so, you’re going on record as saying that, yes, there is more time spent visiting the bathroom but you’re more than making up for that time with the improved benefits of hydration. Is that fair to say?

Haley Perlus
I believe that I am more efficient, I believe that I’m more focused, I believe that I’m a peak performer because I’m a peak peer. And I will tell you though, it also forces you to get up and move. It forces you to get out of your seat so there’s other benefits that come with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Haley, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?

Haley Perlus
I think with this life, this Groundhog Day, the wash, rinse, repeat, the wash, rinse, repeat, it’s not necessarily that we need to increase our attention span. Many of us actually have good focusing skills, but because we’re stagnant all day and we’re inactive all day and we’re just doing the same thing over and over again, the boredom kicks in, the complacency kicks in. So, I think it’s important that we look for variety wherever we can. If you’ve been staring at this wall for half a day, maybe turn around and stare at a different wall. Add variety to your life wherever you can because that variety will also create energy which will allow us to focus and be able to be more engaged.

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

Haley Perlus
I don’t know that it’s a favorite quote but I will tell you what I use for myself when I get distracted or overwhelmed, and it’s more of a mantra, “Right, left, right, left, right left,” and also something that my significant other is now forcing upon me because I’m learning something new, and I get a little bit fearful, “Get your eyes wide open.”

When we are consumed with all of our fears, when we’re consumed with all of our anxieties, or our shyness, or our overwhelm, or our confusion, or anything that’s creating that negative energy, open your eyes, look around you, take something in. So, I really like to put myself…make myself small, if I will, and really look at the bigger picture, eyes wide open.

And then the “Right, left, right left,” is something that I do for myself as well, because when it looks impossible, when a mountain looks impossible to climb, whatever that mountain is for you, I know that I can get my right foot forward, and then I know that I can get my left foot, so really break it down. So, I don’t know if it’s a quote but it certainly words that I live by to allow me to refocus or stay focused and just plan and determined and have my most consistent performances.

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

Haley Perlus
Well, interestingly enough, I was just sharing this with my 13-year-old nephew a couple week ago who had to do a simulated TED Talk for his school, and he wanted to do it on sports psychology. And so, I shared with him the first study, the first documented study, for sure, in sports psychology which was by Norman Triplett. And he researched cyclists and he wanted to compare cyclists’ performance alone compared to where cyclists are in the presence of other athletes.

And when you’re in the presence of other people, at least in this study, you perform better. And it’s an interesting topic of discussion right now because of the hybrid environments and working from home versus in an office environment and the social facilitation. And so, this is a study that I’m really highlighting back and bringing back to my world and others because I do believe that we perform better when we are amongst others, not necessarily competition. I do believe that competition allows for that, too, but I do believe in being connected and being in the presence of others to help us perform better and be happier.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And a favorite book?

Haley Perlus
Well, yes, Robert Cialdini, that’s actually, to this day, my favorite book. I think it’s great The Psychology of Persuasion, but specifically, yes, and really looking to see how we can persuade ourselves to take action, what messages we need to tell ourselves to take action. So, it’s an oldie but, still, it’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And a favorite habit?

Haley Perlus
I’ll be honest, I’m really proud of myself for sticking with this water thing. It was not easy for me because I didn’t like the taste of water, and I just wasn’t a good water drinker, and, really, every morning I wake up, I drink water and lemon. I often now drink some green juice, and that starts my day. In addition, I make my bed every single morning, and I believe that that is super important to start my day off organized and structured, even though I’m pretty flexible and I wouldn’t consider myself a structured human being. But making my bed in the morning allows me to feel fresh and clean when I do start the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really connects and resonates with audiences; they quote it back to you often?

Haley Perlus
People say it’s hard, people say change is hard. When we talk about changing these, replacing negative habits with good ritual, people say it’s hard. And I say, “I know. So what?” And I think that just kind of puts…and I do to it myself as well. I think that kind stops us in our tracks, and we’re like, “Okay. So what? That’s going to be hard.” And I say it with all the love in my heart, “So what?”

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

Haley Perlus
My website is the best place to find me. You can opt in for communications. You can actually connect with me directly through there. So, it’s DrHaleyPerlus.com.

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

Haley Perlus
Well, I don’t know what time everyone is listening to this, so depending on the time, the very next morning you have, what do you get to do? You get to drink water first thing in the morning and hydrate your brain, focus in.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Haley, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and peak performance.

Haley Perlus
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.