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KF #38. Optimizes Work Processes Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

REBROADCAST: 357: The Six Morning Habits of High Performers with Hal Elrod

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Hal Elrod says: "Be at peace with where you are and take steps every day to get where you want to go."

Miracle Morning author Hal Elrod condensed the six habits of the most successful people in history into the SAVERS acronym and describes how they changed his life—and how they can change yours, too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Approaches for silence that generate new ideas
  2. How NOT to do affirmations
  3. The impact of tiny amounts of exercise

About Hal

He is one of the highest rated keynote speakers in America, creator of one of the fastest growing and most engaged online communities in existence and author of one of the highest rated, best-selling books in the world, The Miracle Morning—which has been translated into 27 languages, has over 2,000 five-star Amazon reviews and is practiced daily by over 500,000 people in 70+ countries.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

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Hal Elrod Interview Transcript

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

Hal Elrod
Pete, I’m feeling awesome at my job of being a podcast guest right now, so ….

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, well you’re off to a great start with the enthusiasm.

Hal Elrod
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
I also hear that you’re enthusiastic about UFC. What’s the story here?

Hal Elrod
Yeah, it’s kind of funny because I’m the most non-violent UFC fan I think that there is. For those that don’t know, UFC is Ultimate Fighting Championship. If I would have ever turned on the TV and saw two guys fighting, I don’t think I ever would have gotten pulled in.

In 2004 I think it was, I just turned on the TV on Spike TV and the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, which for those of you who don’t know, this is actually how the UFC turned – they were a failing company and they turned themselves around by putting fighters in a reality show.

It was like the Real World meets UFC fighting, where fighters lived in a house together for six weeks and they competed in a tournament, where they’re fighting each other and they’re sharing rooms with each other. I got really connected to the storyline of the fighters. Then I actually cared about what they were going to do. Then fast forward, I’ve been a fan now for gosh, 13 years or so.

Now it’s just two people that are – the people that compete in the UFC, they have to master seven or eight different fighting disciplines. There’s no other sport – in basketball, you just master basketball. In UFC, it’s you’ve got to be proficient, not proficient, you’ve got to be excellent in wrestling, and excellent in jiu-jitsu, and excellent at karate, and excellent at boxing, and excellent at all these different styles.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a full hour of UFC programming before. I’m impressed by what these athletes do. They are fit – in great shape. I just hurt watching it, so I think I turn away. It’s like, “Ow,” then I find something else.

These athletes – you literally at the top level, in the UFC essentially, you’ve got to be as good as Michael Jordan at basketball and while you’re as good as Jordan at basketball, you have to as good as Tiger Woods at golf and – these guys train, they’ll train – they’re basically train 12 hours a day, 6 to 12 hours a day. They’re training – Monday they do wrestling for 3 hours, then they do boxing for 3 hours. Then Tuesday – it’s just crazy to have to train not just one sport, but 7 or 8.

Pete Mockaitis
That is why their physiques are striking. It’s like that person is among the fittest that I’ve beheld.

Hal Elrod
And their cardio, to compete at that level and do that.

Yeah, the funny part is I’m non-violent. A lot of times in a match it will get too violent for me. I love the sport. I love the storyline. I appreciate the athletes, but yeah, when it gets bloody and stuff, which it does sometimes, I’m like, “Ah, ….” It’s funny, I’m a huge fan, but I don’t like when they hurt each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. It’s funny, that’s sort of like – that’s kind of one of your things is you are such a positive guy and talking about sort of potential and possibility and how to unlock that largely in terms of getting the momentum going through morning routines. I’d love it if you could give us maybe the short version of your incredible story about how you got into morning routines to become such a believer. What happened in your life that sparked this?

Hal Elrod
Yeah, I usually frame the story by saying I’ve had a few rock bottoms in my life. Those kind of, each one was the catalyst for a different component of my life’s work today.

Let me start by just saying to define a rock bottom, it’s something that we’ve all had. In fact many of them will have more of them. I define a rock bottom as simply a moment in time, moment in your life, a moment in adversity that is beyond what you’ve experienced before.

I don’t compare one person’s rock bottom to another and say, “Well, mine’s worse than yours or yours is worse than hers.” It’s relative to who you are at any given moment in time.

When I was in elementary school and my girlfriend broke up with me, we had been going out for two weeks that was a rock bottom for me. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t imagine going to school any more, like life was over relative to who I was at the time.

The major rock bottoms I had when I was 19 years old I was one of the top sales reps for Cutco Cutlery. I never considered myself a salesperson but a buddy got me into – “Give this a chance.” I’m like, “Eh, I’ll try it just to get you off my back.” Ten days into the career I broke the company record. That sent me on a path of oh, maybe I’m not this mediocre person I’ve been my whole life. Maybe I can do something extraordinary. I went on to break all these records.

A year and a half into the company that I was working with then, I was giving a speech at one of their events. After my speech driving home in a brand new Ford Mustang – I had bought my first new car a few weeks prior – I was hit head-on by a drunk driver at 70 to 80 miles per hour. Then my car spun off the drunk driver, another car hit me from the side, directly in my door at 70 miles an hour and instantaneously broke 11 of my bones.

My femur broke in half. My pelvis broke three separate times. My humerus bone behind my bicep broke in half. My elbow was shattered. My eye socket was shattered. Ruptured lung, punctured lung, ruptured spleen, so on and so forth. I actually, clinically, I was dead. I clinically was found dead at the scene. I died for six minutes, was in a coma for six days and was told my doctors that I would never walk again.

Came out of the coma and three weeks later took my first step and went on to fully recover and walk again. That was really – the turning point for me there was – or I decided maybe I’m meant to do more than just stay in sales because I was going to stay with the company forever. I loved the company. I decided I had to do more.

I had always wanted to be a professional keynote speaker, Pete, because I had been speaking at all these conferences for my company. I thought man, I would love to do this for a living. There are these people like Tony Robbins and you see all these – this is what they do. I would love that. It would be like a dream come true.

I had this kind of – I don’t know if you’d call it an epiphany or just a realization – I thought maybe that’s why I’m going through this experience. They say everything happens for a reason, but I’m a firm believer that it’s our responsibility to choose the reasons. It’s not predetermined. It’s not fate. It’s not out of our control.

Something bad could happen, you can say “This happened because life’s unfair and there is no God.” You can find all sorts of reasons why everything happens or you can say what I did, I went, “Maybe I’m supposed to learn from this and grow from this and take this head on so that I can learn how to teach other people to take their adversity head on.” That’s what I did and I launched that into a speaking career.

Then fast forward and kind of bringing it to what led into more morning rituals, in 2008 when the US economy crashed, I crashed with it. I lost over half my coaching clients, I was a coach at the time, half my income in 2008, couldn’t pay my mortgage, I lost my house, I cancelled my gym membership, my body fat percentage tripled in six months. It was just this real six month downward spiral.

A sequence of events led me to go on a run and listen to an audio from Jim Rohn.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Jim Rohn. The musical—

Hal Elrod
The great Jim Rohn.

Pete Mockaitis
I love the music in his voice.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, absolutely. Jim Rohn, this is the quote that he said on that run. This quote came to my life faster than I ever thought possible and it really is the catalyst for the Miracle Morning. He said “Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development because success is something you attract by the person you become.”

In that moment I went, I’m not dedicating time every day to my personal development, therefore, I’m not becoming the person that I need to be to create the success that I want in my life. I had this epiphany that I’ve got to go figure out what the world – I’m going to run home and figure out what the world’s most successful people do for their personal development.

I’m going to find the best personal development practice in history of humanity or best known to man and I’m going to do that. And I didn’t know what it was going to be. I ran home and I Googled best personal development practices of millionaires, billionaires, CEOs, Olympians, you name it.

And I had a list of six different practices. They were all timeless. They had all been practiced for centuries. I almost went well, none of these are new. I think we’re really conditioned in our society to look for the new, the new app, the new movie, the new season on Netflix. We want new, new, new. We’re all new.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got to update the app like every month.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, exactly. I almost dismissed these. I was like, ah, these are timeless. It’s almost really silly. When you really translate it you can say these are the practices that the world’s most successful people have been doing for centuries. I want something new. It makes no sense.

The epiphany I finally went, wait a minute. This is what successful people do. I don’t do these. Then the real epiphany was which one of these am I going to do and then I went wait, what if I did all of these.

What if I woke up tomorrow morning an hour earlier, because that was the only time I could figure out in the schedule to add an hour. I was working all day trying to not lose my house, which didn’t work. I lost my house. But I was just trying to stay alive, stay afloat. I didn’t feel like I had any extra time.

Even though I wasn’t a morning person I thought if I want my life to improve, I’ve got to improve. I’ve got to wake up an hour earlier and I’ve got to do one of these six practices. The epiphany was what if I did all of them, what if I woke up tomorrow morning an hour earlier and I did the six most timeless, proven, personal development practices in the history of humanity.

I woke up the next day, I did them. I sucked at all of them. We can talk about what the practices are, but I didn’t know how to do – one is meditation. I didn’t know how to meditate. I didn’t know how to do any of these things really well. I was really terrible at all of them.

But one hour into it my very first day, my very first hour of what is now called the Miracle morning, it didn’t have a name back then, I felt incredible. I felt confident for the first time in six months. I felt energized. I felt motivated. I felt like I had clarity.

The realization is if I start every day like this, where I become a better version of the person I was that went to bed the night before, and I do this consistently day after day after day after day, it is only a matter of time before I become the person that I need to be that can create the success that I want, any level that I want in any and every area of my life.

I thought it would 6 to 12 months; it was less than 2 months that I more than doubled my income. I went from being in the worst shape of my life physically to committing to running a 52-mile ultra-marathon. I had never run more than a mile before. My depression went away within a couple of days. Because my life changed so dramatically and so quickly, I started calling it my Miracle Morning. The rest is history.

Years later I wrote the book and now it’s this worldwide movement with about a half million people from what we can track every day do their miracle morning and the results are really amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an awesome story. It makes sense in terms of having engaged some of these practices. I love the gumption, okay, I’m going to do all of them. You put this together into a snazzy acronym, SAVERS, standing for these six steps of silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading and scribing, which means writing. I understand you’ve got to make the acronym work, no shame there.

Hal Elrod
It was my wife’s idea for an acronym. I was writing the book one day and I was frustrated. I go “Sweetie, Stephen Covey’s got the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Robert Kiyosaki’s got the Cashflow Quadrant. These gurus always create this memorable system.” I said, “I’ve got these six hodgepodge practices and I didn’t invent any of them.”

She goes, “Sweetheart, why don’t you get a – calm down first of all,” because I was all stressed, she goes, “Why don’t you get a thesaurus and see if you can find other words with the same meaning and make an acronym?” The acronym is a huge part of it. She gets all the credit for that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I guess along with that then, I’d love to dig into each of these practices and just hear a little bit in terms of what it means then the best practice or a pitfall associated with doing it or an optimal dosage or amount of time to do each of these.

I imagine in many ways the answer is it doesn’t really matter, just do something like that and you’re all good. But if there’s some finer points to maximizing, well, hey, you’re the expert. I want to hear them. Let’s dig into silence and then the rest.

Hal Elrod
Here’s what I’ll preface all of this with. I am a very results-oriented person. A lot of these six practices are taught in a way that’s kind of woo-woo, that makes somebody feel good while they do it, but they don’t necessarily see measurable improvements in their life.

And for me that was unacceptable. It was unacceptable in my own practice, but then especially when I wrote the book I thought, I need to make these really practical and actionable and not just fluffy and airy-fairy and woo-woo. I’ll give a tip on each of these in terms of how do you make it kind of practical and results oriented.

The first S in SAVERS stands for silence. I’m actually really – it was originally meditation. I’m really glad that it became silence because some people, their silence is prayer. They might not want to meditate. Or for me it’s actually a combination of both. But meditation is really the crux. It’s the majority of my time in silence.

If you think about it, most of us, we don’t have a lot of time in silence. It’s usually we’re – it’s kind of chaos from the time we get up, then we’re in the car listening to podcasts or the radio, music, something like that. Then we’re at work with people and on phone calls. There’s usually not a lot of time for kind of peaceful, purposeful silence.

Yet that’s when – when we quiet our mind, that’s when our best ideas come. We tap into our inner wisdom. We tap into the wisdom of – if you want to get woo-woo for a second – the universe or higher intelligence, whatever you want to call it, God.

But meditation, the way it’s been taught, people often – they’re taught to clear your mind. Most people, they can’t do that or it’s very challenging and it takes somebody years to get where they can actually do that. Well, for me, I want results. I will use my meditation as a way to set the mindset for the day.

I’ll look at my schedule and I’ll go “Okay, what do I need to accomplish today?” It depends on what’s on the agenda. I just finished writing a new book. When I was working on that book, every day, every morning, I’d meditate before I’d write and I would go, “Man, I need ideas.” I need some content for today. I would set my intention for the meditation.

My intention would often be “Okay, what am I working on? What chapter am I working on today? I need ideas for this chapter.” I would just set that as an intention. Then I would meditate. I would always have my notes app on my phone in front of me with my timer going for ten minutes usually is what I meditate for.

I don’t think there was a single day where I wasn’t flooded six ideas, where I would pause the meditation timer, I’d open up the note tab and I would write an idea. Then I would go back to mediate and then I would just sit there.

Here’s the difference, I wasn’t trying to think. When you force thought, you don’t usually get your best thought. It’s in those moments – that’s why when we’re in the shower, not even thinking about something, we have our best ideas. When we’re falling asleep, not even thinking about something, we have our best ideas.

This is a way to engineer that space for you’re tapping into your genius every single morning so that you bring those ideas and that clarity into your day. That’s one way to meditate.

Another way to do it is sometimes I might have a speech for that day and I go “I need to feel confident. I’m speaking.” I will literally just affirm things while I’m in my meditation. I’ll just affirm things like what did I do today – I chose three statements.

I’ve been having some cognitive challenges because I just went through – I just finished cancer. I beat cancer, but I still have chemotherapy ongoing for maintenance and it really – the effects to your cognitive ability are really damaging. They call it chemo brain. They kind of laugh it off, but it really – it’s a very real thing what it does to your brain. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my memory and this and that.

This morning I just meditated on saying “I am brilliant. My brain is brilliant. My memory is excellent.” I forgot what the third one was. Anyway, the point is use meditation not to remove thought. You can. Sometimes I’ll meditate in that way where I just try to get a state of being really loving and peaceful.

But ultimately I typically will have a specific result that I want to generate internally, either mentally or emotionally, and I will set that intention going into the meditation. I will use the meditation actively to do that. I will think something over and over and over while I deeply feel it in a way that will serve me for the rest of the day. Any questions? Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Can you give us a sample of your internal dialogue of going over and over and over again?

Hal Elrod
Yeah, that was the one today. Here, I’ll bring it up real quick.

This morning I went “My brain is brilliant. My memory is excellent. My heart is pure.” I just affirmed that. What’s interesting is we’re about to get into the A of SAVERS, which is affirmations. But I often will combine the SAVERS.

For example, when I get to the E in SAVERS is exercise, while I’m exercising, I’ll often do the V, which is visualization. I’m then making that mind-body connection and leveraging the power of both simultaneously. I’m also being efficient with time.

“My brain is brilliant. My memory is excellent. My heart is pure.” That is an affirmation, but I will meditate on that affirmation and then kind of get the benefits of both.

Sometimes I will – I have pictures – I’m in the room where I do my Miracle Morning right now. I have pictures of my children, my family, my wife up along the wall. Sometimes I will just look at those pictures and just maybe look at one. I’ll look at my picture of my daughter like I am right now and I’ll just internalize the gratitude and the love that I feel for her. Then I’ll close my eyes and I’ll just meditate on that for a minute or two. Then I’ll go to my son.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say meditate on that, you’re just sort of experiencing that.

Hal Elrod
I’m just feeling it.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to letting your mind chatter in any direction.

Hal Elrod
I’m just deeply feeling it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, I’m just deeply felling that emotion. Yeah, that experience.

I’ll use meditation a lot. I’m big on gratitude. I’ll often use meditation – I’ll simply take the emotion of gratitude or the experience of gratitude, most people when they experience gratitude, it’s usually at the intellectual level. If you say “What are you grateful for?” they can list things off. They feel it in their head, but there’s a big difference between intellectual gratitude and deep, heart-felt soulful gratitude at the level where it puts you in tears.

I’ll use meditation to try to get there, to try to get to feel that much of an emotion that serves me. Again, the emotion – gratitude is one, it could be confidence, it could be love, it could be whatever.

I do pray. I’m a big believer in the power of prayer. That’s a whole other conversation, but prayer on even the scientific level as well as the spiritual level. A lot of times I’ll use my silence as prayer and I’ll just – for me, it’s very fluid. There is no right or wrong and that’s probably the biggest – here’s the biggest key.

Let me, whether we close with this for this portion, but when it comes to silence, if you’re at all overwhelmed by meditation or anything like that, set a timer on your phone for ten minutes and be in silence for ten minutes, that’s it.

The only way you can fail is if you judge yourself for any part of your experience. If you go, “Oh, I shouldn’t be having these thoughts. Oh, I shouldn’t be thinking. Oh, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. Oh, I shouldn’t have thought of that.” That’s the only way you can fail at silence is to judge your experience. If you just sit there in silence, you cannot help but get value.

Number one, it lowers your cortisol levels. Cortisol is the fear and the stress chemical in your body, the hormone that causes fear, that causes stress. When you sit in silence, it’s scientifically proven – there are over 1,400 scientific studies that prove the benefits of meditation. It’s scientifically proven that when you sit in silence, it lowers your cortisol.

Now, granted, if you are intentionally thinking stressful thoughts, I don’t know that that would achieve that objective. That’s where judging yourself is a stressful thought. But yeah, if you sit in silence, you will lower your stress, you will gain clarity, new insights will come into your mind and you’ll get better with practice.

Your first day in silence is your worst day in silence. Every day that you do it, you’ll stumble upon new levels of consciousness, new ways of feeling, thinking, being that once you grab them, you can then get there quicker, easier, stay there longer. The benefits of spending time in silence will simply be amplified and deepened over time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Then with silence, what makes it silence is just that you’re not actively reading something, listening to something, tapping away on your phone, you are – or in motion, so you are seated and you may have your eyes closed and you’re just sort of letting your own internal self be the focus.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, exactly. I like to sit up straight. I bought a meditation pillow on Amazon a few months back. That’s been big. There’s something about just having a – it was like 29.99 or something – having a spot that I specifically go to meditate. Because before I got lazy in my meditation where I was doing it on the couch kind of slouched over.

If there’s any wrong way to meditate, really the big one is judging yourself for the experience, thinking that you’re doing it wrong. You’re not. As long as you’re in silence, you’re not doing it wrong. If you have a negative thought, just let it pass and focus on something positive.

But if there’s a wrong way to mediate beyond judging yourself, it is your posture. When you sit slouched over, laying down, your breath slows, you’re not – you want to find the balance between relaxation and alertness, attentiveness. Sitting up straight, sitting tall, breathing deeply, being really alert and aware, but very calm and relaxed, that’s the ideal state for that silence.

Like you said, it just means that there’s no stimuli. There’s no stimuli, where you’re not focused on something. That’s why closing your eyes is good. Now there are ways of meditating where you can have your eyes open. Sometimes I will open my eyes and so I’ll look at the pictures of my family or I’ll look at a beautiful picture of a sunset/sunrise that puts me in a really nice state.

But yeah, everything that you said is correct, just doing – by the way, setting a timer is the other piece I was going to mention. You don’t have to think “How long am I doing it? Am I doing it long enough? Should I do it longer?” Don’t be checking the clock, just have your timer set.

That way you know, “I’m free for ten minutes to not think about anything,” or think about, whatever, “I’m free for ten minutes just to sit here in silence. I’m not going to lose track of time because that timer is going to go off when it’s time for me to get up and do my affirmations or whatever’s next in your Miracle Morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Cool. Yeah, let’s talk about the affirmations next in the Miracle Morning. What do you mean by that and what do you not mean by that?

Hal Elrod
I’m biased in that I’m often asked do you have a favorite of the SAVERS and the politically correct answer would be no, they’re all equally important. But the answer is affirmations are my favorite by far.

Affirmations are – first let me just say, I believe they’ve been taught incorrectly or ineffectively I should say by self-help gurus, if you will, for, I don’t know, decades. I don’t know how long. But let me define what an affirmation is then I’ll talk about why they’ve been taught wrong and what I find is the most effective way to do them.

An affirmation is simply a written statement that directs your focus towards something of value. Now, you could write affirmations that were negative, that were not of value. Obviously that’s not an objective of yours. We have written statements that directly focus towards something of value.

The way affirmations have been taught, there are two problems with the way they’ve been taught for decades, I don’t know, centuries, I don’t know how long.

Number one is a form of affirmation that’s essentially lying to yourself, trying to trick yourself into believing something that is not true or is not yet true. For example, let’s say you want to be a millionaire, well, a lot of self-help pioneers have taught, just put the words “I am” in front of whatever you want to be and say that to yourself until you believe it.

You say, “I am a millionaire. I am a millionaire. I am a millionaire.” But we all know the truth. We know our truth. We’re not a millionaire. We want to be millionaire. We say, “I’m a millionaire,” our subconscious or even our conscious mind is going to go “No, you’re not. You’re lying.” Then you’re fighting with reality, which is never ideal. The truth will always prevail.

You go “I am a millionaire,” and your brain goes, “No you’re not. You’re not even close.” You’re like, “Shut up. I’m doing my affirmations.” Number one problem with affirmations the way they’ve been taught is lying to yourself is not optimal.

The second problem with affirmations the way they’ve been taught is that self-help pioneers have taught you to use flowery passive language. We’ll still on the topic of finances. You may have heard this affirmation; it’s very popular, or some variation of this. “I am a money magnet. Money flows to me effortlessly and in abundance.”

A lot of people say that affirmation and they really like it. I believe they like it because it makes them feel good in the moment. They go, “Man, I checked my bank balance this morning and it was negative, so I need some affirmations to make me feel better. I’m a money magnet. Oh, that feels good. Money is flowing to me effortlessly. All of my financial problems will be taken care of by the universe,” or whatever.

It’s like no, that’s not how money works. It’s not effortless. That’s very rare. Go buy a lotto ticket, hope. That’s not going to happen most likely. The way that money is created is by you adding value to the world or to the marketplace and then you’re compensated for that value.

I’ll give you an example of how to use affirmations in a way that is not based in lying to yourself or in this passive language that makes you feel good at the moment, but takes your responsibility away from creating the results that you want. There’s four steps to create affirmations that produce results.

Number one is, affirm what you’re committed to. Don’t say, “I’m a millionaire,” or not even “I want to be a millionaire,” say “I’m committed to becoming a millionaire,” maybe even add a when, “By the time I’m 40 or 50,” or whatever or in the next 12 months or 24 months, or whatever.

Start with number one what am I committed to. It’s a very different when you affirm something you’re committed to versus something that you think you are or want to be that you know you’re not.

The second thing is why is that deeply meaningful. After you affirm what you’re committed to, reinforce, remind yourself, why is that deeply meaningful to you. If you want to become a millionaire, why? Is it because you want to … financial freedom for your family, because you want to buy fancy cars.

Depending on how meaningful it really is, that’s going to determine how much leverage you have over yourself to actually do the things necessary to get you there. That’s number three is affirm what specifically you’re committed to doing that will ensure your success. What are the activities you’re committed to that will ensure your success?

I’m committed to increasing my income to $100,000 a year and saving 50% or whatever. Get very specific on the activities that you’re going to do. When I was in sales I would affirm how many phone calls I was going to be making every day because I knew if I made that number of phone calls, my success was inevitable. I couldn’t fail. The average … would work themselves out if I made my phone calls every day.

Then the fourth part of the affirmation formula is when specifically are you committed to implementing those activities. When are you going to make your phone calls? When are you going to run every day to lose that weight? When are you going to take your significant other out on a date or tell them you love them or write? What and when are you going to – what are the activities and when are you going to do them?

Those four steps: what are you committed to, why is it deeply meaningful to you, what activities are you committed to doing that will ensure your success, then when, specifically, are you committed to doing those activities. Those are the four steps create what I call Miracle Morning affirmations.

Miracle Morning affirmations are practical and they’re result-oriented and they reinforce the commitments that you need to stick to ensure that you achieve the results that you want to achieve in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig. It. Well, we’re having fun here, but I could get perhaps the one-minute version of the visualization, the exercise, the reading and the scribing?

Hal Elrod
Yeah, I’m long-winded, so thank you for setting me up. I appreciate that.

Visualization, here’s what I’ll say two things on it. Number one is the world’s best athletes, almost all of them use visualization including UFC fighters. There’s a reason for that. It’s they visualize themselves performing optimally and achieving their goals so that they go there mentally and emotionally before they ever step on the court or before they ever open the book or before they ever write.

They’ve already gone there in their mind, so when it’s real time, when it’s game time, when it’s practice time, it’s that much easier to go there.

The other thing I’ll say on visualization is don’t just visualize the end result, visualize – in fact, more important, visualize the activity. See yourself getting on the phone to make those calls. See yourself opening your computer to write those words that’s going to make that into a book. See yourself going to the gym or lacing up your running shoes and heading out your front door, especially if you don’t feel like it or you don’t like doing those things.

See yourself doing it with a smile on your face in a way that’s appealing. When I was training for my ultra-marathon, I hated running. Every morning I visualized myself enjoying running. Because I did it in the morning in my living room, when it was time to run, I actually had already created this anticipation that I would want to do it. Then I actually felt that when it was time to go for a run. That’s the power in visualization.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Now when you say visualize yourself, I’m thinking almost like dreams. Sometimes they’re first person, sometimes they’re third person. Do you visualize, like you’re seeing yourself from a third-person vantage point putting on the shoes?

Hal Elrod
You can do both, but I usually do yeah, first person and then – or no, third person, where I see myself from the outside. I see myself like I’m watching a movie of myself. Part of that movie will involve me looking in the mirror usually. That’s part of it almost always.

Pete Mockaitis
The dramatic montage music.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Yeah, feel free to play the music. Literally play that music on your phone while you’re doing the visualization. A lot of people do that.

The E is for exercise. Here’s what I’ll say is that if you like to – if you don’t exercise at all, this applies to you. If you exercise – if you already go, “Dude, I go to the gym after work or on my lunch break or I like to run in the evenings. It’s my-“ this still applies to you and here’s why.

I’m not telling you that you need to switch your gym time to the morning, what I’m telling you is that the benefits of exercising in the morning even for 60 seconds, if you’re sitting on the couch going, “I know I should – I don’t have any energy. I’m so tired,” stand up and do 60 seconds of jumping jacks.

I promise you at the end of the 60 seconds, you’ll be breathing hard. Your blood will be flowing throughout your lymph system. Your brain – the oxygen, your cells will be oxygenated. You’ll feel ten times more awake than you did before you did those 60 seconds of jumping jacks.

I in the morning usually do stretching followed by a seven minute workout. That’s an app on the phone. It’s also on YouTube. It’s totally free. I highly recommend it. It’s a full body workout in seven minutes. It’s fast-paced, so you get cardio as well as strength training, as well as stretching and flexibility. That’s what I recommend in the morning, just a little bit of exercise and –

Pete Mockaitis
What’s the video or app called? The seven-minute thing?

Hal Elrod
7 Minute Workout, number 7 Minute Workout.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s just called 7 Minute Workout. Okay, that’s easy.

Hal Elrod
Yeah, it’s phenomenal. There’s a few different apps. I use the free version. Then the – actually although I subscribe to the monthly version to open up all the different exercises and different workouts and this and that.

But the R is for reading. I don’t need to say much on this is that we’re all, every single one of us is one book away, whatever topic we want to improve in our life, we’re one book away from learning everything that we need to learn to improve that area of our life.

You want to be happy? There’s a book on that. In fact, there’s hundreds. What to have an amazing marriage? There’s a book on that. In fact, there’s hundreds. Do you want to be a millionaire or be wealthy and financially free? There’s hundreds of books on that.

In fact, so I just made a documentary called The Miracle Morning. It reveals the morning rituals of some of the world’s most successful people. In that is world-class entrepreneur Joe Polish.

He said that, he goes, “When I meet someone and I say ‘What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?’ and they go, ‘Well, I don’t read. I haven’t read a book.’” He said, “It blows my mind that in places where people have access to books and they know how to read and therefore they have access to everything they need to know to transform anything in their life to be at the most extraordinary level they could be,” he says, “It blows my mind that people aren’t reading every single day.”

Why aren’t you reading every day? It could be five or ten minutes a day. It doesn’t have to be a long time. Think about it, if you read 10 pages a day, that’s 300 pages a month. No, no, let’s say 5 pages a day, that’s 150 pages a month. That’s one self-help book a month, 12 a year. You’re a different person.

You’re separating yourself from 95% of our society and you’re joining the top 5% that reads those books because you’re learning everything you need to transform any area of your life. Any questions on reading and then we can dive into the last one?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. No.

Hal Elrod
Okay. The final S is the word scribing. That’s a pretentious word for writing, but I needed an S for the final part of the SAVERS to round out the acronym.

For me, journaling is – this is where goal setting is involved in scribing. That’s under that umbrella. Journaling is what I would – that would be my scribing. I use an app called Five Minute Journal. They also make a hardcover version if you prefer to write by hand. You can also just write freehand on a piece of paper.

The Five Minute Journal, I like it because it’s scientifically researched and it’s very simple and takes five minutes. It’s simply pre-prompted statements or questions. There’s just a few.

In the morning it’s three things I’m grateful for and the three most important things that I need to do today to make today a great day. I don’t know if it’s worded that exact words, but that’s paraphrasing. Of all things on my to-do list, what are the three that will make the biggest difference in my life, my business, etcetera.

Every morning I start by focusing on three things I’m grateful for, which remind me that my life is already amazing. It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside of me if I focus on internally what I have to be grateful for, everything is – there’s always things to feel amazing about. There’s always things to complain about. What we focus on becomes our reality.

I start with gratitude, then I look at my to-do list, I look at my goals, like okay, of the infinite things I could work on today and out of the 20 things that are on my goal and to-do list, what are the three that will make the biggest impact for me right now and move me forward toward my most important goals?

If you think about it, most people we don’t take the time to just get that level of clarity. It only takes a couple of minutes, but it’s a game changer.

Because here’s the problem, most of us are busy. Every day we’re busy. Being busy tricks our brain into thinking we’re being productive. But productive isn’t busy. Productive is busy doing the things that move us toward our biggest goals, our greatest dreams, the life that we truly want to live and the impact we truly want to make.

That simple act of scribing every morning, forcing your brain to clarify it in writing, what are those top three priorities, that is – for me, that’s been a game changer. It’s allowed me to make massive progress on these goals that once were just fantasies that I never even thought – really believed I could accomplish.

Like making a documentary, that was a fantasy. I didn’t know how to do that. Now we just debuted at a film festival. That will come out probably later this year.

A lot of that is because of – it’s all because of the SAVERS. It’s all because of this process reinforcing the beliefs through meditation, through silence, and affirmations, and visualization, and all of these practices all combine to really create optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual kind of capacity every day that will allow you to become the level ten person that you need to be, if you will, on a scale of one to ten, to create the level ten life that you want, that I believe that all of us really deserve.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful. Thank you. Well, Hal, tell me, anything else you want to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Hal Elrod
The point is that the SAVERS, any one of them will change your life, but if you implement – try them all for a month. I would say do the 30-day challenge, the Miracle Morning 30-day challenge, do them all for a month, either 5 minutes each for a half an hour total routine or 10 minutes each for an hour routine.

Then you’ll have real experience to go, “Okay, do I want to keep doing all 6 of these?” Maybe only 4 of them really resonated with you. You only want to do 4. Maybe 4. It could be 5. I don’t know. But try them all and see what happens. It’s pretty life changing.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Now could you share with us a favorite book?

Hal Elrod
Favorite book is – well, it’s this book – one of my favorite books is called Vision to Reality. In fact, let me give you two. They’re by the same author. I just got her new book. Vision to Reality is her first – I think it was her first book. Oh no, it’s her second book by Honoree Corder.

Her new book is called Stop Trying so F*cking Hard Live Authentically, Design a Life you Love, and Be Happy. It’s in my hand right now. I’m reading. I’m about halfway through. I am loving this book. She’s a great author. She’s written like 25 books. Her original Vision to Reality has been my favorite for a long time, but I think the new one might surpass that. It’s called Stop Trying so F*cking Hard.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool?

Hal Elrod
Favorite tool would be that app I mentioned earlier, the Five Minute Journal app. That’s one of my favorite. I put one picture every day and it allows me to capture my life every day for the past few years that I’ve used it. Reflecting on that is really meaningful.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Hal Elrod
The biggest thing is we all usually have this monkey on our back of urgency, like, “Man, I want to be where that guy is or where she is.” “Man, I have all these goals and dreams; I want to be there now.” It creates this feeling of scarcity, where we’re not where we want to be.

What I found, not only in my own life, but studying other people is that any time you find yourself wishing or wanting that you were further along than you are, just realize that when you finally get to the point that you’ve been working so hard for so long, you almost never wish it would have happened any sooner.

Instead, you look back and you see the timing and the journey were perfect. All of the adversity, all of the challenges, it all played a part in you becoming the person that you needed to be to get where you want to go. If you can take that hindsight and bring it into your life now, use that to be at peace.

No matter where you are right now, no matter what’s going on, no matter difficult or whatever is going on, be at peace with where you are, every day, along that journey while you simultaneously maintain a healthy sense of urgency to take action every day to get where you want to go. But don’t get there out of a feeling of stress, and anxiety, and I’m not where I want to be, just embrace where you are.

If you’re alive, you’re perfect. No matter what’s going on around you, all that matters is what’s going on inside you. Be at peace with where you are and take steps every day to get where you want to go.

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

Hal Elrod
Go to MiracleMorning.com. That’s probably the best place. There’s a bunch of resources there. You can put in your name and email and get the first few chapters of the book for free. You can get – it comes also with an audio training for free on the Miracle Morning, a video training for free. Of course, the book on Amazon you can get the audio book, the paperback, the Kindle. That’s probably the best place to buy it.

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

Hal Elrod
Yeah, here’s the thing, to be awesome at your job, I think to be awesome at anything, it’s really about who you are as a person. There’s so many components to that. There’s your knowledge, your emotional intelligence, your physical energy, the enthusiasm that you bring. There’s many components to who you are.

To me that’s what the Miracle Morning is. It’s dedicating time every day to become better. Not that there’s anything wrong with you, but we all have unlimited potential as a human being, if you want to get better at your job, become a better version of you, dedicate time to your personal development.

Here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be in the morning. You can do a miracle evening if you wanted. Just dedicate that time so that every day you become better than you were the day before. You become more knowledgeable, you lower your stress, you increase your belief in yourself, your confidence. All of the things the Miracle Morning does for you, you do that every day and you can’t help but bring a better version of you to work every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Hal, this has been a real treat. Thanks for unpacking this and giving some finer distinctions. I wish you and the Miracle Morning and documentary and all your up to tons of luck.

Hal Elrod
Pete, man, I appreciate you. Thank you so much for having me on. For those of you listening, I love you. I appreciate you. Thank you for tuning in and please leave a review for Pete on iTunes.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

906: How to Optimize Your Workspace for Your Wellbeing with Dr. Esther Sternberg

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Dr. Esther Sternberg reveals how to enhance your office environment to improve your health and boost performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How
 your workspace affects your wellbeing
  2. How your surroundings impact your sleep
  3. Tiny changes in lighting and sound that immediately improve your environment

About Esther

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D. is a Professor of Medicine, Psychology, and Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning at the University of Arizona and has been internationally recognized for her pioneering discoveries on the mind-body-stress interaction in healing and the impact of built environments on integrative health and wellness. She’s advised the World Health Organization, the US Institute of Medicine, the Vatican, and more, and has been featured on national stages, including CBS’ 60 Minutes, SXSW, NPR, ABC News, and more.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Esther Sternberg Interview Transcript

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to hear about the wisdom you have stored up in your book Well at Work: Creating Wellbeing in any Workspace. And you’ve worked with some very impressive clients, and I am so curious about your work advising the Vatican because, historically, the Catholic church makes a big deal out of getting high-quality spaces, churches, art. And I’m thinking about Bishop Robert Barron recently, I heard him say, “I take beauty very seriously.” I was like, “Ooh, that’s a fun turn of a phrase.” Tell me, was that intimidating and what went down there?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
No. What went down? Well, I had been, in my previous book, in Healing Spaces, I had written about Lourdes, the pilgrimage site in the south of France. And when I spoke at Lourdes, I was not aware that Pope Benedict’s Minister of Health was in the audience. And at the end of the talk, Monsignor Zimowski asked me would I sign a copy of the book for the Pope, and would I speak at the Vatican. So, that’s a pretty impressive signing.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the Pope got a book, and then you got to meet him.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Yes, that was Pope Benedict. So, when I spoke at the Vatican, Monsignor Zimowski, who was Pope Benedict’s Minister of Health, came up to me at the end of the coffee break, and he said, “Stick with me after the mass.” And I said, “Okay.” I followed him after mass.

But when I went to the convening, I was ushered into a separate area, and there were about ten of us. When the Pope arrived on stage, we were each individually invited up, and I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to shake his hand.

So, I put my hand out, and he took it and held my hands in his hands as if they were baby birds, and he looked directly into my eyes as if he were really looking into my soul. And all I can say is it was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. And I could understand what Monsignor Zimowski was saying to him, he was telling him about my book, my previous book, Healing Spaces because I could understand French, and he was speaking Italian, and I could understand what he was saying.

And I was trying to figure out what do you say to the Pope. I thought, “Should I say something about my book?” And then I heard Monsignor Zimowski say, “And she is of Hebrew origin.” And at that point, I just could not think of anything to say, so I just said, “Shalom.” And we had a moment of connection over that that felt really moving, especially with Pope Benedict’s history during World War II, and it felt like…it just was very deeply moving. And that was my experience with the Pope.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
My pleasure.

So, I spoke at the Vatican. It was a conference that they hold yearly for the 120,000 Catholic orders that run hospitals. And I spoke about Healing Spaces, and about Lourdes, and how do you bring that kind of spirituality and wellbeing into hospital spaces. And that was the previous book.

This book, Well at Work: Creating Wellbeing in any Workspace asks the question, “How do you do that in any workspace? How do you bring wellbeing beyond health, beyond getting rid of toxins and germs and allergens? How do you bring wellbeing into any workspace?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a juicy question, and one well worth digging into, and something we haven’t done much of before out of 900-ish interviews, so I’m excited to dig in. Can you tell us then, just how much of a difference does it make to have a workspace that is, I want to say, optimal in terms of wellbeing perspectives versus, “Fine. Like, you know, it’s fine. Yeah, I guess I got a comfy plate to sit. Yeah, I guess it works”?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
It makes a huge difference. And I have to say when I started studying this, I was surprised at the difference that it makes. I don’t know why I was surprised, well, I think I know, because we take for granted our spaces where we live and work and play and learn. And we don’t pay attention to how much they affect us even subconsciously.

So, 23 years ago, I started working with the then research director of the General Services Administration, that’s the agency of the federal government that builds and operates all non-military federal buildings in the United States and around the world, all your libraries, your courthouses, your embassies, and so on – Kevin Kampschroer.

Because the question that Kevin asked me, when we first met, I was at the National Institutes of Health, he was at the General Services Administration, and he asked me as a member of a sister agency, could I help him to measure the impact of the built office environment for the over a million office workers in the federal government over 374 million square feet of office space.

And could I determine whether those spaces stress people, whether they felt relaxed, and how could he design spaces to optimize wellbeing? And so, we began. Before the interview, you asked me about this ring that I’m wearing, this health-tracking ring. We began back in the early 2000s using clunky dinosaur health trackers which were about the size of a landline phone attached to your chest with wires and glue and whatnot.

And we moved on subsequently to use state-of-the-art wearable devices to measure the impacts of up to 11 different environmental attributes: sound, light, temperature, humidity, layout of the office space, and so on, on various aspects of health and wellbeing, both stress and relaxation response, mood, physical activities, sleep quality.

And what is really striking is that the spaces where you spend over 90% of your waking hours, that’s indoors, and much of that is in workspaces, they have a tremendous impact on your stress response, your sleep quality, your movement, and they can be designed thoughtfully to optimize all those aspects of health, or they can be designed without thought to actually end up stressing you, and impairing your sleep, and in making you sedentary and so on.

So, really, that’s what the book is about. The book is, really, about three things. It’s the journey that we, the researchers, had together as we elucidated these connections. It’s about how to embed all seven domains of integrated health into the built environment wherever you work.

But in order to enhance your resilience, you need to engage in all seven domains of integrated health. So, those are sleep; resilience, which is your stress and relaxation response; environment, which includes not only the air you breathe and the light you see but also the green environment, nature; movement; relationships; spirituality; and nutrition.

And the built environment can enhance every single one of those seven domains, and that’s really what the book talks about. It can help individuals wherever they work at home, in an office space, to embed those seven domains of integrated health into their work environments.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Thank you. And so, I’m curious, with some of these metrics associated with sleep or stress, is the difference…? I’m the kind of dork who will read the full text of some scientific journal articles, and say, “Okay, it was statistically significant but is that just because you had low variance and a large sample size? Or is it just like, ‘Whoa, it is night and day. Folks aren’t like 2% less stressed in a great space. They were like half as stressed in a great space’?”

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, no, it’s, “Whoa!” So, the very first study that we did was in a building in Denver that was being retrofitted, and we studied about 70 people, which is not a huge number but it’s big enough, especially since we were using two different measures of the stress response. We were measuring heartrate variability, which is what most of these trackers, health trackers, based their stress response levels on. And we also were collecting salivary cortisol, that’s the stress hormones cortisol in the saliva.

And we also asked the people how they felt in different spaces, and we compared the people when they were in the high wall, six-foot high wall cubicle space that was dark, musty, poor airflow, high mechanical noise, no circadian light, no sunlight, no views, and we compared them to the people in the spaces that were retrofitted with lots of great airflow, low mechanical noise, open-office design, no high cubicles, beautiful views to the outside, and lots of morning sunlight.

And what I was really shocked at is that, as we published that paper in 2010, is that the people in the old space were significantly more stressed than the people in the new space, and their stress response was significantly higher even when they went home at night and while they slept, but they were not consciously aware of the difference when we asked them if they were stressed or not.

So, your body recognizes the stress, your physiological stress response is higher, and you really do take your office space home with you at night. So, that was in 2010. And then in 2013, after I left the National Institutes of Health and moved to the University of Arizona to be research director at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, we continued with state-of-the-art study looking at about 270 office workers and four federal buildings in different parts of the country, and we, again, found the same thing.

So, to speak to your nerdy question, it can be statistically significant but is it biologically relevant? Yes, it is, especially if you’re finding the same thing using two completely different ways of studying of measurement, and in two completely separate studies.

We found in the people in the open-office design, which is really a misnomer. It’s really active-office design, a mid-century architect Probst defined it as active-office design. And, unfortunately, that became the dreaded cubicles when companies tried to squeeze as many people into a single space as possible. But, really, open-office design where there are lots of choices for people to go to, depending upon the kind of work they’re doing, what they’re doing, where they need to go, whether they need to gather, and so on.

So, the people in the open-office design were 32% more active during the day than people in private offices, and 20% more active than people in cubicles. The people who were more active during the day had substantially better sleep quality at night, were less fatigued the following day, were significantly less stressed when they went home at night, 14% less stressed every single night, accumulates to a medically relevant reduction in stress load, or if you’re more stressed, that’s a medically relevant increase in stress load, if you’re in the old kind of spaces.

And, again, people were not really consciously aware of the difference. So, it really does make a huge difference to design the spaces where you spend most of your time to minimize your stress response and optimize your resilience.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. So, let’s zoom into the world of a typical professional in which they may not have broad sweeping authority to adjust their space a ton in terms of, like, “Hey, call up the architect and the contractor. We’re making some moves.” Now, of course, we do have more control in our own homes, whether you own or rent. But I’d love to hear what are the sorts of interventions that are within all of our power that give us just a huge bang for the buck, like, “Boy, if you just tidy this up, you’re going to see a world of difference”?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, so one of the reasons that Kevin Kampschroer, he’s now Director of High Performance Federal Green Buildings for the GSA, and Chief White House Sustainability Officer for the GSA, so he has the power to implement these things across the federal government. But one of the reasons that he needed the data is to make a strong argument to the people that need to spend the money that this is important, that keeping your workforce healthy and happy is really important, and it’s important enough to spend the money on.

Now, if you’re in an organization where they’re not aware of the impact on health and wellbeing of office spaces, you can certainly advocate for it. You can advocate for it by bringing in the data. And there’s now tremendous amount of data, not just our data, but other collaborators working in the field. And I would say that pre-COVID, it was an uphill battle.

And what happened is that people who got used to working at home don’t want to go back to work in an unpleasant workspace. You go back to work in a cubicle farm, even if the ventilation is absolutely wonderful, nobody’s going to want to work there. So, there is a big problem now of organizations trying to get people to come back to work in the workspace, in the office.

And one of the points that I make in the book is that we have a lot to learn from the entertainment industry, from the hospitality industry. When Disney imagineers created the Disney theme parks, they didn’t force people to go to the theme parks. They figured out a way to attract people to go to the theme parks. Same thing with your spas. I live here in Tucson about ten minutes from about five global major spas, and you walk into any of those places, and right away, you feel wonderful and you feel relaxed.

Well, why can’t you do that in a workplace? It’s not rocket science. And it’s become actually really imperative and urgent that office owners, developers, organizations recognize that if they want their workers there, their workforce to come back to work, they need to create spaces that are attractive, and that actually are wellbeing workspaces, not just healthy workspaces. And you do that by embedding each of the seven domains of integrated health into your workspace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s assume folks have gone ahead and they’ve assembled some data, they’ve made the pitch, they’ve got a favorable reception, and that’s cool. But, still, it’s going to take a while for them to get their act together to do the renovations. What are some things you recommend that we can start with right away?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, you don’t have to renovate necessarily. So, one of the big points that we discovered, and it was pretty obvious, but we really have proof of it, is one size doesn’t fit all. So, if you think about the high-rise office towers in the mid-century and up until 2000 and beyond, they tried to be one size fits all and one size fits none, basically.

There’s temperature, people are comfortable at different temperatures, different humidities, and one thing that you can certainly do is use local devices to optimize your own personal workspace. And one of the things we found is humidity really makes a difference. We published a paper, “Dry is not good, and wet is not good. It’s not the temperature, it’s the humidity that counts.”

And we found that when the humidity is less than 30% relative humidity or greater than 60% relative humidity, the stress response is significantly higher, again, 25% higher if it’s less than 30% relative humidity. Well, you can put a humidifier on your desk, improve the humidity there. If you’re in a wet climate, you can put a dehumidifier there.

It costs a lot of money for an entire building to humidify and dehumidify, a lot of energy. So, local solutions are really the way to go. Temperature comfort. There are now heated chairs that you can have an office chair that has heating in the seat if you’re too cold. Of course, your grandmother could say, “Put a sweater on.” There’s lighting. If you don’t have the luxury to be next to a window and have early morning bright sunlight, what we call circadian light from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon is very important for healthy sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy, I’ve got Andrew Huberman playing in my head now. He is a staunch advocate for this and I’m a huge fan, so continue.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
So, early morning sunlight from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon is essential for healthy sleep. It’s a little counterintuitive, what you do in the morning, what you do during the day, affects your sleep. But what we found and other collaborators, Marianna Figueiro, whose work with the GSA in parallel with us, has done a lot of studies on light and sleep and sleep quality.

If you have that early morning sunlight, you fall asleep faster, you have a better quality of sleep, and you have better moods the next morning. But other things affect sleep during the day. Movement, if you’re moving more, you have better sleep during the night. If you’re less stressed, well, that’s pretty obvious, you have better sleep at night. But it’s not only whether you’re stressed because you’re unhappy with your job, or you’re under pressure, or whatever, you can’t control a lot of those things but you can control the elements of the environment that can help reduce your stress.

So, what if you don’t have access to a beautiful view or nature? Nature is also really important in reducing stress. You can take a walk outside. You can look at pictures of nature. Take, what I call, mini meditation breaks, like micro meditation breaks. And it’s not that you’re daydreaming, it’s that you’re giving your brain a chance to go offline from all the emails that are whizzing by and so on.

So, there are a lot of things that you can do. Also, what you eat. We talked about nutrition as one of the seven domains of integrated health. What you eat or what you don’t eat can make a difference. So, a healthy Mediterranean diet is not only good for your health, in general, but also keeps you alert during the day. If you eat a lot of fatty sugary foods at lunch, you’re going to be drowsy in the afternoon. I talk in the book about stimulants like tea, coffee, chocolate, all of that is great but there are individual variations and responses to those things, too, and you have to be aware of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s a lot of good stuff. Tell me, with the early morning sunlight, you said 8:00 a.m. to noon is the window. So, like if you happen to wake up earlier, we don’t want to…

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Oh, no, you can wake up earlier. If you want to wake up earlier, you can wake up earlier.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. But in that zone, it’ll be helpful versus if it’s in sort of midday, it doesn’t have much of a circadian impact.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Actually, it’s really important to not get too stimulated later in the day. So, blue light, which is full spectrum sunlight can be as alerting as a cup of coffee so you don’t want to have a lot of blue light in the evening when you’re supposed to be going to sleep, and you want to have more redder light. So, one of the ways that you can deal with that is…well, there’s a couple of things.

If you don’t have access to full spectrum sunlight in the morning, you can look at lightboxes, full spectrum lightboxes, and these have been used for depression for decades. You don’t want to use those in the evening because that’ll wake you up and disrupt your sleep. So, you want to have more of a redder light. You want your computer, or whatever screen you’re looking at, to be able to have that circadian light going from bluer to redder as the day progresses.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, in terms of general lighting inside a room, are we better off with the full spectrum stuff except for the evening as opposed to like a fluorescent or unnatural type situation?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Oh, absolutely. You really don’t want a fluorescent light. Fluorescent lights also have this sound that I remember when I was studying rats at the National Institutes of Health.

Pete Mockaitis
Hmmm.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Yeah, thank you. We were studying rat behavior and we couldn’t figure out why these rats were looking so stressed, and then we realized the fluorescent lights were on. And they were very sensitive to the sound and the light, but people are, too, and they’re not even aware of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, what I love about this, and I’ve had some conversations with my wife even when it comes to home shopping sorts of things. It’s tricky because I just know in certain spaces, I feel amazing, and I dig it. And other spaces I feel kind of gross and I don’t. But I could not very well articulate for you, Esther, “Ah, yes, it’s because of the sound emanating from those fluorescent lights, and it’s like my lighting profile is not mirroring the sun effectively.” And I think that really matches up with what you see in your research. It’s like, “They don’t know they’re stressed but they are.”

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
And unless you’re an architect, and even if you’re an architect, you don’t necessarily know what each of these different elements, how they affect your physical health and emotional wellbeing and physiological health. I wanted to tell a bit of a story about the circadian light. So, in the book, I tell the story of there was an engineer. He was actually playing with photography. His name was Ott, and this was mid-century, and he was trying to do timelapse photography with plants, and trying to get the plants to grow.

And he was an early experimenter with LED lighting, and he found that the seeds didn’t grow unless they were exposed to the equivalent of full spectrum sunlight at the right time of day. And he did these timelapse photography, and Walt Disney became aware of him, and asked him to grow a pumpkin from a seed, and he did that. And the Disney imagineers used that to do the animation for Cinderella’s pumpkin coach.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. And all made possible with full spectrum lighting.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Right. Well, full spectrum lighting that changed as the sun does. That’s the critical thing, to mimic the sun. Marianna Figueiro, who, again, as I said, was another collaborator with the GSA, worked with submariners. You know, submariners are in submarines for months at a time, and so they used the appropriate lightboxes, blue in the morning, red at night, to mimic the circadian light of the sun to help them sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
And can I purchase lightbulbs that will do that for me with all the smarts?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Yes. Absolutely, you can. You absolutely can. Go online, there’s plenty of the smart lightbulbs that will do all of that. And we can do it now because of LED lighting.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a magical keyword or phrase? Because, my gosh, there are so many lightbulbs at Home Depot and they’re smart for different reasons because they talk to my phone and Alexa. But what are the magic words I’m looking for, for circadian alignment?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Look for circadian light.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the word, right? Okay. That’s cool. Well, we mentioned fluorescent light sound. What else should we know about sound?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Ah, we just published a paper, actually, mining the data from these many studies that we’ve done, Karthik Srinivasan is the first author, and we found really interestingly that there is what we call an upside-down U-shaped curve, sort of think of a rainbow, where we all know that sound that’s too loud is not only stressful but also harmful to your ears.

But it turns out that there is this optimal at about 40 decibels, which is interestingly the level of bird song, but lower than 40 decibels, you actually are more stressed. And we’re not sure why this is, but as the sound gets higher, starting at about less than 30 decibels, and then peaks at around 40, your physiological wellbeing improves.

And then as it gets louder and louder, your stress increases. So, there is that optimal. And we think the reason might be because the brain is a difference detector. When it’s really, really quiet, you can hear a pin drop, and that will disturb your focus as much as if you’re in a loud space, say, a coffee shop and somebody drops a dish and it breaks on the floor.

So, sound is really important, and noise is actually the single biggest complaint that people have in open-office design. But, again, it’s not rocket science to design a space to mitigate and minimize noise. You’re sitting in a recording studio. Recording studios know exactly how to minimize noise and direct sound. That’s really important.

What disturbs people is not so much noise, in general, because white noise masks disturbing noises. If you’re in a space and you can distinguish the words of somebody else speaking, that is what disturbs people. So, there are many ways, to rubber flooring, carpets, sound-absorbing tiles. There are many ways to mitigate noise.

And architects will know that every material that you use in interior design has a noise absorption or noise reflection level. And you can intentionally make a space louder or make a space quieter. Concert venues are designed to optimize sound.

Restaurants will often want to sound louder to make them seem more lively. Libraries want to be quieter. So, you can certainly design an office space to minimize noise and maximize comfort. I actually visited, and I described this in the book, Green Mountain Power in Colchester, Vermont, which supplies the power to the entire state of Vermont, and they have a call center which, you can imagine during a snowstorm, when the power is out, there’s a lot of people calling into the call center.

Well, I stood in this call center, which was open-office design, and it was quiet even though the agents were taking calls because they had rubber flooring, they had baffles on the ceiling that directed sound, they had cubbies that, on purpose, absorb sound, and there were a lot of features that kept this space quiet. So, it’s entirely possible to design a space to minimize sound, and have the advantages of an open-office setting with lots of airflow and light and views to the outside.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And I’m curious, when thinking about our own personal soundscapes, or music, or white noise, brown noise, pink noise, anything that we know there associated with focus or creativity, etc.?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Absolutely. So, noise, background noise, can either mask distracting sounds, so that’s what white noise does. I have an air purifier, or air conditioners do this, too, and that gives you white noise. Nature sounds are sort of pink noise, brown noise, and they not only can mask distracting sounds but they’re actually calming.

Like I said, bird song is at about 40 decibels, and we associate nature sounds with calming. So, last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, there was a thunderstorm, and in Tucson we don’t get very much rain so it’s really very calming to hear rain on the roof, and it just sent me right back to sleep, hearing that nature sound. Well, if you don’t happen to be able to call up a thunderstorm in your area, you can go online and download any of these nature sounds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can you also speak a bit about nutrition? What are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to eating for cognitive performance?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Yeah, that was one of the hardest chapters to write, I have to say. I started off with stimulants, with coffee, tea, and chocolate, all of which are great stimulants to keep you alert because of the caffeine. Theanine is also in tea, especially green tea and matcha tea, and that has both a stimulant and a calming effect. So, if you notice when you take your first, well, I’ve noticed this when I take my first sips of green tea in the morning, everything comes more into focus. It’s as if you’re suddenly more aware and alert.
And tea has more theanine than coffee, so it has more of that calming effect at the same time as the alerting effect. You never say, “I’m going to have a calming cup of coffee,” right? You say, “I’m going to have an alerting cup of coffee.” But one of the things to remember with any of those stimulants is there’s a lot of different individual variability, and some people are much more sensitive than others to caffeine or chocolate coffee, so you need to be aware that too much is not good also because it can give you the jitters, you can start shaking, you can be anxious. It can certainly keep you up at night.

So, then when you think about, “What about nutrition?” again, if you have a heavy fatty sugary lunch, you’re going to be less alert, your cognitive performance is going to be poor, you’re going to feel more fatigued, you’re going to want to sleep in the afternoon, than if you have a lighter lunch, what we call a Mediterranean diet, high in vegetables, protein like a little bit of fish or a little bit of meat, or if you’re a vegetarian, beans or whatever protein can be added to the vegetables will keep you more alert in the afternoon.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
We haven’t really talked about spirituality, and that was another chapter that was a bit hard to figure out. How do you bring spirituality into the workplace? And I don’t mean let’s all do a prayer circle. That’s not spirituality. Spirituality has many elements to it, and one of them is flow. It’s moments of meditation, so being able to go offline for even a few seconds, sort of micro moments of meditation.

There’s also, in spirituality, a sense of purpose, being part of the greater good. There’s a sense of respect for everyone around you. And the flow piece is very important for work. How do you get into that space of being in the zone, of being in flow? And all of these things, moments of meditation, being able to get up and walk around a little bit if you feel logy. If you feel anxious, do something that’s calming. All of those things can help you get into that state of flow, which is really a sense of effortless enjoyment.

If you feel effortless but, in fact, when brain studies have shown that the stress response is actually turned on when you’re in a state of flow, but your awareness of your bodily functions is turned down so it feels effortless. So, how do we bring that into a workspace? Well, if you don’t have a place to go to where you can go offline, where you can take little meditation breaks, where you can be in nature, or see a view of nature, if there’s no place to gather with colleagues so you can feel a sense of community, you don’t have that, and these spaces can be designed to allow you to enter that kind of zone.

I described how, at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, they’re designing a walkway from the parking lot to the hospital because during COVID, the healthcare workers were devastated, they were burnt out. Dr Brian Chong, who’s leading this redesign, told me that he would see the healthcare workers sitting on the curve, in the parking lot, crying. They were just devastated. And they asked for a way to enter the workspace in a state of grace, so transition zones from your daily life, or from your workspace, to your daily life can be really important to help center you and bring that sense of calm as you move from one space to another.

I describe the Japanese tea ceremony, and the tea rooms that were designed in the 1500s, 1400s, that, on purpose, had this element of being able to move from one space to another slowly so that you could leave your cares behind and come into a quiet space where you could focus. And those kinds of elements can be brought into a workspace, or even into your home space.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And, especially, I’m thinking about working from home environments in which you go instantly, like seconds between, “I’m working, working, working, and family. Here we are.” It’s zero transition can certainly be jarring.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Right. Right.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, the 23rd Psalm, I think, embodies all of these elements of the healing aspects of place.
So, I would say the 23rd Psalm is really my inspiration, and it comes to me because it was my father’s favorite psalm, and he would read this often at the end of dinner or lunch. And we discovered after my father died that he had been in a concentration camp in Russia during the war, and we had no idea. We didn’t know what he’d gone through.

But I suspect that this psalm sustained him when he could not be in nature, or go out into nature, or have nature views, and yet he could do that in his mind. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” And I think those elements immediately take you to a place of nature, of calm, and it can sustain even in the valley of the shadow of death.

And I think that that is an important element of how a place, whether it’s in your memory or in your mind, can impact your whole wellbeing.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful. And you know what’s funny, I recently saw, and we can link this in the show notes, “The Basque Sheepherder and the Shepherd Psalm.” This was a popular reprint in Reader’s Digest that an actual shepherd is like, “Well, yeah, this is just kind of how we kind of operate. Like, every shepherd knows that sheep don’t like to drink gurgling water so they got to go to the still waters.” So, it’s like very literally, like, “Yeah, this is how you do shepherding right, btw,” which I thought was eye-opening.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Oh, that’s interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
I’m right now into Wodehouse who wrote humor in the mid-century and early actually 20th century just because it’s lighthearted and his use of the English language is really, really remarkable.

I love Jane Austen. I love Pride and Prejudice. I think that the structure of these novels, of her novels, really broke ground for how a novel should be written.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, I have my desk. My desk faces a window, and I make sure that I have a view out to nature. I do like to sit outside and work when it’s not 110 degrees outside in Tucson. I like to take a break in the middle of the day to either swim or walk. So, it’s not necessarily a tool. It’s what I do in the space and how I orient the space.

I am very careful to not have too much exposure in the evening to blue light, and I actually have a pair of glasses that block blue light.

So, I think I do a combination of all of these things: access to the outdoors, access to nature, beautiful views. To me, that’s very important.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
By engaging in those seven domains of integrative health, and by designing the spaces where you live and work and play and learn to incorporate everything that can enhance those seven domains of integrative health, you can help improve your resilience.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Well, they can go to my website, www.EstherSternberg.com. There’s a lot of information on there and, of course, they can buy my book, Well at Work: Creating Wellbeing in any Workspace.

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

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
I think the challenge is if you find yourself in a workspace that is not a wellbeing workspace, you can certainly advocate for it. And, especially now, the C-suites, the developers, the owners, are listening because they are very concerned. Building occupancy is still only 20-30% in the high-rise office buildings. There’s a prediction of a downtown apocalypse when leases are up, and footprints shrink, they’re going to be fewer downtown.

And the owners, developers, and C-suite are desperate to find ways to get people to come back, and this is a way to get people to come back: create wellbeing workspaces that attract people to want to go there, to be with their colleagues, and to work together.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Esther, thank you for this. I wish you much wellbeing in all your workspaces.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure talking to you.

893: How to Help Your Team Beat Distraction and Unleash Their Productivity with Maura Thomas

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Maura Thomas shows you how to create a distraction-free work environment to make time for the tasks that matter most.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The underlying cause of derailed productivity
  2. How multitasking hurts your productivity and attention
  3. The two questions that will help you eliminate distractions

About Maura

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System has been embraced by the likes of NASA, Dyson, and Google. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of six bestselling books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. 

Maura is frequently featured in major business outlets including Business Insider, Fast Company, and Washington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to both Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Maura Thomas Interview Transcript

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into the wisdom of your latest book, Everyone Wants to Work Here: Attract the Best Talent, Energize Your Team, and Be the Leader in Your Market.That sounds like cool stuff, we all want that. But first, I need to understand, between the last time we spoke and now, you’ve adopted a pickleball habit. Is this accurate?

Maura Thomas
It is accurate. I’m so addicted. I play every chance I get. It’s so fun and I’m getting to the point where I’m just north of horrible, so it’s a little more fun. It’s not embarrassing anymore. It’s only slightly uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. One of the very first speakers I remember was named Fran Kick. Shoutout to Fran Kick. We’ll link to him. I think he’s still kickin’. He made a lot of kick jokes, and he talked about this concept of when you get good at something, it becomes more fun, and then you want to work at it some more. And then you become better at that thing, and so it’s a nice little virtuous cycle between work, fun, good. And I was like, “Fran, this makes a whole lot of sense.” I remembered it from high school. So, a powerful message.

Maura Thomas
It is. And one of the most important things I learned, I trained in martial arts years ago, and I keep finding this theme happening in my life. My sensei told me that once you hit black belt level, that’s when your training begins. And what I’m learning about, any time I try to tackle something new, it’s like once you have…like you can’t be a good writer until you know the alphabet.

And you think that knowing the alphabet is your goal but that’s not your goal. The goal is really to write and to write well. But you can’t write well until you know the alphabet. It’s like you can’t do a thing until you are at least competent at the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that could be really a period of entry. I’ve never really gotten into golf because I had so many painful embarrassing moments when starting. Maybe in the future I’ll go to it. But pickleball, it’s trendy right now, right? Like, I remember playing pickleball in high school PE class over the summer, and I never heard of it before then, and very rarely after it. But then the last couple of years, I guess there’s pickleball courts sprouting up everywhere.

Maura Thomas
They are sprouting up everywhere. They are, because I think it’s more accessible. It’s a little less impact than tennis. It’s a little easier. Yeah, it’s very accessible. You see people, I mean, today, I was in a game with, like, a 12-year-old and a guy. It was easier, easily early ‘70s. And we all had a game and it was great. It was super fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, now let’s hear a little about some other team insights from your book Everyone Wants to Work Here. Any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries when putting together this work here?

Maura Thomas
A lot. A lot. So, in the book, I talk a lot about unconscious calculations. And I call unconscious calculations things that we behave in a way that suggests that we believe a thing but we’ve never actually examined that thing to know if that’s really true or if we even really believe that that is true. So, one of those unconscious calculations is that, “I am not being good at my job,” or, “I’m not providing good service to my customers,” or, “I’m not being a good team player unless I’m responding to all communication immediately.”

And people behave as if that is true but I think we all kind of know that isn’t really true. You can service your clients really, really well even if you don’t respond to them every minute. And you can help your team members even if you take time for yourself. We put this weight on, “Being available to other people is part of my job, so I have to do that.”

But what we forget is that your colleagues depend on you to get all the millions of things that are on your to-do list done, and you can’t do both. You can’t be constantly responding to incoming communication and also be making progress on your to-do list at the same time. We try but that’s not super effective. So, one of many, many sort of counterintuitive things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Maura, this is, I think, we can talk for hours about this alone. Unconscious calculations. I love the way you’ve articulated that, and this reminds me of some other concepts. We’ve heard maybe Ramit Sethi talk about invisible scripts a lot or Vishen Lakhiani talks about “brules,” which stands for bull crap rules.

Maura Thomas
Ooh, I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
We keep a clean rating here. But, yes, this unconscious calculation, I like the vibe because it does connotate analytical numerical judgment evaluation side of the brain, which I think is a very real nuanced part of that. I know I’ve experienced it, and it can be sometimes damaging to mental health, like, “I’m not a good parent unless I…” A, B, C, D, E, F, G. And those things, they are unconscious, and until you bring those to the surface, which practices like self-reflection, and therapy, etc., can help do, it can really drain folks’ energy and capabilities.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, it really can. As those other people have articulated as well, we really need to look at what we believe. And a lot of times, I see my job as just shining a light on how people are operating so that they can just ask. Sometimes somebody says something to you, and you’re like, “Ahh.” They say, “Why are you doing that?” and you’re like, “You’re right. That’s totally stupid. What? What was I thinking?”

The story that comes to mind, for me, is when I redid my kitchen, and my aunt came over, and she’s in the new kitchen, she’s standing at the stove, and she opens the drawer beside the stove. And in the drawer beside the stove, there’s silverware. And she looks at me, and she said, “Where are your potholders?”

And I point across the kitchen, and I’m like, “My potholders are over there.” And she looked at me, waiting for me to catch up, like, “Potholders should be beside the stove, right?” I was like, “Oh, you’re totally right. You’re totally right. I never thought about that before.” “Move the potholders so that they are near the stove.”

But once she said that to me, I was like, “Oh, and the spices should be near the olive oil. And, oh, the spatula should be near the frying pans.” And I had a whole new outlook on everything as soon as she just sort of shone that light on, “Does this make sense the way you’re doing this?” But I never even thought of it until she said that.

And I think a lot of the things that I sort of do with my clients is really just shining a light, “Does this make sense the way you’re doing this? And wouldn’t you like to do it a little easier?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s already a fantastic tidbit. Can we maybe zoom out a little bit and hear what’s sort of the big idea or main theme of the book here?

Maura Thomas
I outline a lot of problems that are happening inside companies that are making people go home at the end of the day, and say, “Oh, my gosh, I was busy all day, and somehow I got nothing done.” Instead of going home at the end of the day, and saying, “Oh, my gosh, that was such a good day. I got so much done.”

There are many, many sorts of culture, corporate culture, and leadership behavior problems that are contributing to this, but underlying all of them is distraction. Distraction is what prevents us from going home at the end of the day, and saying, “Oh, my gosh, that was such a good day. I got so much done.” Distraction in the way that we communicate, distraction in all of those unconscious calculations.

Another unconscious calculation that people make is, “Well, people are interrupting me all day but I have to do that. I have to deal with that. That’s part of my job. So, the only way I can get stuff done is when people aren’t bothering me.” Well, the only time people aren’t bothering you is when you’re not supposed to be working – nights, weekends, early mornings.

So, we behave as if we have just accepted that we will work all day at work, and then we will go home and do our most important work, “I’ll just deal with everybody bothering me all day long, but then I’ll do the really important stuff tonight, or Saturday, or Christmas eve, or whenever people aren’t bothering me.” And that’s just, I don’t think anybody wakes up on Monday mornings, and says, “Ooh, I can’t wait to work 60 hours this week.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. And then I heard recently, it said almost universally CEOs and executives do work before they get to work just almost out of necessity, it’s like, “I’m going to do half an hour, or one hour, or two hours of super important stuff early in the morning before I am even on the premises and can be accessed.”

Maura Thomas
“Yeah, because that’s the only way that I can get it done.” And I believe that leaders and people, anybody, whether you’re a leader or an individual contributor, you need to own the fact that you need to get your important work done at work, and you do need to be available to other people but you can’t do that to the exclusion of getting the important work done. So, you have to carve out the opportunity in your work day to both be available to people but also be unavailable so that you can get important work done.

And I talk a lot about that in Attention Management, which is the book that I was on with you before about, and in Everyone Wants to Work Here, I talk about how leaders can really make it easier for the team to do that because people think that they can’t do that because their boss is going to get mad at them if they do.

And another unconscious calculation, usually, because usually it’s not true, I can’t imagine a rational boss saying to someone, “No you can’t have any time while you’re undistracted. I need you to be distracted all day.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I have led workshops where lightbulb moments go on, and this is a wildly held unconscious calculation that they need to respond right away, and it is wild. I might have a team of a dozen folks, and we discuss some norms associated with email response times, and maybe half of them are like, “Oh, wow, really? It’d be okay if I didn’t reply for 24 hours, and if you needed it faster, you’d drop by or call me or text me or something? Oh, wow.” And so, it’s just beautiful. I feel like, “Oh, my work here is done. That’s all we had to do was have this one conversation and we got a great ROI on this training here.”

Maura Thomas
Well, yeah, and it does start people thinking but then when I talk about, and I’m sure you do as well, you need a bat signal. Like, “I have a million things to tell you all day, and I’m going to shoot you some emails, but if I really need something,” bat signal. What’s your bat signal at your company? Because if every email might be an emergency, then you have to treat every email as if it is an emergency until you know that it isn’t. So, you can’t use the same communication device for emergencies that you use also for non-emergencies, so there needs to be a bat signal.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, I’m enjoying we’re already getting on some of the tactical goodness, which I love. But first, I want to maybe address what’s the prevalence of this distraction? Or, do you have some stats on the widespread-ness, the cost in terms of dollars or hours per week? Like, I have a sense it’s a big one, a big problem. Can you make it a little bit more precise just how big we’re talking here?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, there’s a ton of research. So, Gloria Mark at UC Irvine, I read a lot about her research. And her research, her older research said that we switch what we’re doing at work, on average, about every three minutes. And her latest research shows that that three minutes have gone down to about 47 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
I think a lot of the people listening here are people who use a computer to do their work, primarily folks who need to solve problems, and communicate, and generate ideas, and write things. Some people call them knowledge workers. If you work primarily at computer for your job, then, really, your job is to think, and you can’t think clearly, you can’t make any good decisions, you can’t have your best ideas in 47-second increments. And yet that’s pretty much all we give ourselves throughout the day.

And so, how are we supposed to be good at our jobs? Because if you’ve ever been in a meeting, and at the end of the meeting, you’re like, “Hmm, I shouldn’t have said that,” or if you’ve ever said, “Oh, my gosh, I should’ve said that,” after you’ve had a chance to think about it, you have a much better answer than you did that you just blurted out when somebody asked you a question.

And so, we’re not our best selves in these tiny little increments. I talk about brain power momentum. We need time to really muster the full range of not only our talents, and our wisdom, and our skills, and our abilities, but also our diplomacy, and our tact, and our kindness, and our humor, and our empathy so that we can be the best version of ourselves, and we’re not the best version of ourselves in 47-second increments.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that absolutely rings true. And so, is it your sense that the majority of knowledge workers have the majority of their work day gobbled up by distractable environment time? Or, just how big are we talking here?

Maura Thomas
I do think that. There is some research, it really depends on what’s the average salary and how many people are in the organization.But for an organization that has about 50 employees, making about $50 an hour on average, the average distraction, and this is with the old research, that the distraction is costing somewhere around $1.2 million a year for that organization. So, again, the numbers depend on a whole bunch of different things, but it’s a lot. We all know it’s a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, understood. That is a meaningful fraction of everybody’s week. So, then tell us, what are the primary culprits of this distraction environment?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so part of the problem is that we are habituated to distraction. Most people who use technology today have a habit of distraction, and that is on purpose. Our technology has created in us a habit of distraction. So, we’ve gotten to the point where, most people are at the point where doing only one thing at time is really hard and really boring.

And I even find it in myself when I’m watching a TV show or something, or when I’m cooking dinner. Watching TV, I have the itch to scroll my phone, and when I’m cooking dinner, I have an itch to listen to a podcast, or put a book on. I try, and my husband and I have come to this place where we have a commitment we fail a lot, but we have a commitment to being a single-tasking household because the more distracted you are, the more distracted you will be, the more you do multiple things at a time, the harder it will be for you to do only one thing at a time.

But the reverse is also true. So, the more you practice doing one thing at a time, the better you get at doing one thing at a time, and the less itchy you feel about, “Oh, I need to do something else.” And when we’re doing one thing at a time, that’s when we can put our best out into the world.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, this makes me think of analogs of any sorts of training. Like, you do a thing, you get better at a thing, the muscle gets stronger, the legs get faster, the heart and lungs are able to process more oxygen, and endure longer. It’s sort of like a training effect or adaptation is unfolding. So, I’m curious, do you have a suggested protocol or routine or workout that we might engage in, in order to strengthen that capability of doing one thing at a time and being less itchy?

Maura Thomas
Well, because for most of us it’s a habit, we have a habit of distraction, and so the first step in changing any habit is really the awareness. So, recognizing when you get that itch to do something else, then sort of making the conscious calculation. Probably doing both isn’t a good thing, “So, do I want to just do this thing? Or, do I want to just do that thing?”

And bringing more awareness of when we have the urge to be distracted is the first step in changing any habits. But I would say the practice is start out doing only one thing. If you’re going to watch TV, put your phone in a different room. Try to make it easy for yourself to do only one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And then, likewise, I’m thinking I guess there’s all sorts of layers or levels or variations of this. Like, with your eating, don’t be eating and watching TV or listening to a podcast.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, there are different ways to multitask, and some are better than others. So, one physical thing and one cognitive thing is better than two cognitive things. So, scrolling your phone while watching TV is probably worse for your multitasking than heating up something in the microwave while you listen to a podcast, because one physical thing and one cognitive thing.

Now, if you are a chef, then you might not want to listen to a podcast while you are creating your meal because that is kind of an artform to you. But if you are not a chef, like me, and you’re just making something that doesn’t require a lot of thought, practicing single-tasking is good but there are also some kinds of multitasking that are worse than other kinds of multitasking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good for our download numbers. Thank you, Maura. Understood, there is a distinction there. Okay. So, that’s first, like within us, individually, that’s something we can all do, and that really does sound swell in terms of the impact that can make and the muscle you build.

One of my favorites, I actually have a sheet right here, one my favorite approaches is I make a list of what I did do and what I wanted to do during a phase of work, because I’ll have all these ideas, like, “I want to check the news. I want to check social media. I’m curious about this thing, hmm. I wonder if you can buy a thing that does that. Let’s put it on Amazon.”

And so, all these things pop up, and so I just write them down. And it feels fun because then, after the work session, I get to behold it, and say, “Ooh, look at all these victories I racked up. Each of these was a distraction I did not engage in,” and so I feel a sense of accomplishment there. And when it’s time to indulge these distractions, “Ooh, I’ve got a bunch of things I was curious about and want to play with already cued up for me to go binge and tour.”

Maura Thomas
I love that idea. I love that. I think that’s a great idea. The thing that I try to keep in mind, so there’s a quote I’m told. I went looking for it and I couldn’t find it. Somebody, one of my keynotes told me that it comes from the movie “Hitch.” But the line is “It’s not the moments in your life that matter. It’s the life in your moments that matter.”

And my belief about that is that if you are not present when you’re doing a thing, then you miss both the moments in your life and the life in your moments. And we only get a finite number of moments in our life, and I really would like to be present for every single one of them, cognitively present, not just physical present.

And so, to me, we all need to find the motivation that works because somebody tells you something is good for you, that might not be sufficient motivation, “Yeah, a lot of things are good for me that I don’t do.” But I think each individual has to find the thing that is this the sufficient motivation for them. So, you like your victories, and I like thinking about…I like yours though, I might try that too. But I like thinking about, “How many moments today was I really present for? How much of my life was I just not cognitively there for?” And when the answer is too many, it makes my heart hurt, so.

Pete Mockaitis
No, that’s powerful. And I love the way you’ve described that in terms of these are different flavors of motivation or why that resonate differently. And a heart hurting versus a victory has very different vibes to them, and there could very well be many others that are custom and unique, and for each individual that are really powerfully resonant.

Maura Thomas
And a different day could mean a different thing. On one day, looking at your list might feel amazing, and another day it might be more about the moments. It really depends on the day, too, right? So, we can employ all of them. All of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Okay. Well, so we talked about some approaches that the individual can use. Tell us, if we are in a position of management or leadership and have some influence with the team and the culture, what are some best and worst practices that we should be considering?

Maura Thomas
Yes. There’s a whole chapter in the book about how much leaders underestimate the influence they have. So, I think it’s really important if you do have people who are on your team for whom you are the leader, at least at work, or really anywhere else, if you are the leader, then you need to realize that you have a lot of influence.

I think that it’s clear that a leader has influence during the work day on somebody who works for them. But I think what they forget, for example, is that how that person feels about their work day, they’re going to carry that home with them and interact with their family in a way that reflects how they felt about their work day.

So, if they had a work day where they said, “Oh, my gosh, that was a great day. I got so much done,” they’re going to go home and be with their family, and they’re going to show up very differently than if they go home, and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, another day where I’m exhausted, I was busy all day, and still I got nothing done,” they’re going to interact with their family in a very different way.

Also, if you are, for example, sending emails to your team after hours, that’s going to impact the family because I think we’ve all been in a situation, either as the grownup in this situation, or maybe as the child in this situation, where it was like, “Yeah, we’re all going to sit down to dinner, oh, but mom just got the phone call or the email from work, and now mom says, ‘Start dinner without me. I’ll catch up as soon as I can,’” or, “Go to the park. I’ll be there later. Go ahead, do that without me,” or they show up, they’re at the park but they’re really just sitting on the bench on the phone, and not really present in the park.

So, leaders just underestimate so much how much influence they have not only on their team members but on their families. And if you influence families, then you influence communities. And if you influence communities, you influence the whole world. And so, modeling behaviors is really, really important in thinking about people as whole people who have lives outside of work. And when you send that email at night, it doesn’t matter if you say, “Oh, this isn’t important. Don’t worry about it,” your team is going to check it. They’re going to check it, and there’s all kinds of research about that, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Super. So, yeah, just wait, put in drafts, we can schedule it, software will do that for you. Certainly, you’re setting the model.

Maura Thomas
All of that, yes, but also act in a way that is good for your team. Downtime is as important for leaders as it is for everybody who works on their team. And I know a lot of leaders who think it’s such a good example by being the first one in, the last one to leave. I think that’s such a horrible example. It just makes your team want to work more and more and more and more and more.

So, take time off, don’t check in, be away, go on vacation and be on vacation. There are so many different ways that you can model healthy ways to engage at work. And when people, leaders and individual contributors, when people take better care of themselves and they disconnect from work, then they’re actually better at work the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Can you share with us some other behaviors you recommend modeling and some new thinking? I really love your example there associated with, “Oh, I got to set an example by being there early and staying late.” And I guess, maybe, if your problem is you have a bunch of loafers who are slacking, that might be the example that you need to set for them.

But it seems like, often, these days, we have the opposite problem in terms of working nonstop and being distracted and not getting awesome things accomplished with the time that we do spend. So, having some more leisure does the trick, so model that instead. Any other reframes or paradigm shifts you want to put forward here?

Maura Thomas
Yes. What you just said reminded me, having a team of loafers, I’m sure that there are lazy people but I work with thousands of people in a year, not tens of thousands, not to mention everybody I know and people in my professional network at, I don’t really know a lot of slackers. So, I just want to put out there this idea that, I really want to put this idea of quiet quitting to bed. It was never a thing. It was never a thing.

Some guy on TikTok thought he would get some attention by saying, “I’m going to do the bare minimum at work and see what I can get away with,” and then that turned into this business propaganda that would have leaders, trying to scare leaders into thinking that they have a team full of lazy people, and they need to be careful about their employees are slacking off all the time, and that’s why hybrid and remote work doesn’t work because if you can’t see them, they won’t be working. It’s not a thing.

Everybody wants to show up at work and do the best job that they can. Everybody wants to feel productive and satisfied and accomplished at the end of the day. It’s not a thing. I wrote an article for Forbes called “Why you should want your employees to quiet-quit?” I covered it in the book as well. quiet quitting is just about, “There’s more to life than work.” Maybe.

And maybe I’ll have some better boundaries now than I did before. And maybe I won’t always be checking my email on the weekends. And maybe when I go away on vacation, I’ll actually be on vacation and be present with my family so that I can show up better at the end of my vacation. That’s all that is, it’s boundaries. It’s not lazy people trying to get away with stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well said.

Maura Thomas
Sorry, I feel a little passionate about that.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I think it’s good. And in my experience about the folks I know, when they engage in something that resembles quiet quitting, it’s usually because they keep asking for good meaningful work to be done, and they keep not getting it, and they’re like, “All right, fine. If I’m just going to get minimum amount of stuff that doesn’t actually matter, then I’m going to enjoy myself.” And so, it’s not a matter of, like, “I’m sticking it to you. I’m going lazy mode,” but rather it’s like, “I guess it’s sort of like a consolation price. If I can’t do meaningful work, I guess I’ll just chill a little bit.”

Maura Thomas
Yeah. Well, then address the culture. Address the culture and help people do the meaningful work so that they can enjoy those days. Here’s another sort of contrarian thing or another unconscious calculation. People talk a lot about open-door policy, “We have an open-door policy here.” Well, that word maybe doesn’t mean what you think it means. What do you mean when you say open-door policy?

What I think most people think when they hear open-door policy, they think anyone can drop in on anyone else for any reason at any time. And I don’t think that’s really what we ever intended open-door policy to mean. And some people even think it means, “We are not allowed to close doors here.” And if you’re going to use the phrase open-door policy, you really need to explicitly define it for your team. Otherwise, you’re setting up the company to have a culture of distraction where everybody does drop in on everyone at any moment at any time for any reason, and that’s not a place that is conducive to high-quality knowledge work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well said. I always thought, because I do, I love my quiet time, and to be able to just go deep work, focus mode, and make things happen. And so, I always thought that that was an odd phrasing, “My door is always open,” and I thought, “Always? Really?” “My door is always open between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. and when you schedule an appointment,” is sort of like how I think that sentence ought to be finished because that’s sort of silly.

Maura Thomas
My metaphorical door, meaning, “I will be here to help you if you need some help,” but open-door policy is not a good way to say that. “My door is always open” is not a good way to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, this is fun, Maura. How about you just keep giving us hot takes? What else do you got for us?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I think, again, it comes back to distraction is the problem. And if you start looking for distraction in the way that you operate, and in the way that your company operates, all of these, it’s the shining light, and you just start to see, “Oh, my gosh, if I just…that is so distracting. And the way we do this is so distracting, and it’s taking away from our ability to really do meaningful work.”

Now, not to say that collaboration isn’t important. It absolutely is but it needs to be intentional, and it needs to have a purpose, not just, “Hey, I just thought of a random thing, so I’m going to drop this half-formed thought on your lap just because it just popped into my head.” That’s not the best way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’d love it if you could maybe wrap us up by sharing a cool story of an organization, a team, an environment, a culture, where distraction was just causing all sorts of consternation, and then a couple key things folks did, some changes made, and the nifty results that came out on the other side?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. So, what my clients tell me a lot is that they get the unconscious calculations really were interfering so much more than they thought. They really thought that their required 60 hours. And when they managed their distractions, and when they had a conversation with their boss about, “I’m going to be offline occasionally not for hours at a time, but maybe 60 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe even just 20 minutes throughout the day,” it turns out I can get a lot more done in less time, and the quality of my work is higher.

And so, I could name client names, but that’s like the common refrain that I hear. Unconscious calculation, job requires 60 hours. When you really shine a light, when you realize all of the areas of distraction, when you really look at how your work is getting done during the day, you realize you could do so much more.

And if you can get your work done in fewer hours, then how much room does that open up for you to do other things, to learn about other things, to think about other parts of your life, to take up a new hobby, to spend more time with the people that you care about? It just opens the door because people feel like they have space, and they have breathing room, and they can think about other things. And it’s game-changing.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful. And so, the action step there, it sounds like the big one is simply to have that conversation. And maybe it sounds something, like, “Hey, boss,” “Hey, colleague,” “Hey, teammates, I’ve noticed that my whole day is inundated with distraction, and I think I could do much better work more effectively and efficiently if I want to give you a heads up that there’ll be zones of the day, maybe 20 minutes, maybe 90 minutes at a time, in which I am entering a tunnel of focus, deep work mode, whatever you want to call it, and you won’t be hearing from me because I’m doing important stuff, but I’ll reach back out to you soon.”

I’m trying to use my best words. Do you have any suggested verbiage?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. So, here are two specific examples that the words come out of, “In order for this to work, we need to look at two important things. One, how does work flow through our department and get done.” Most people, I find, show up at work and do whatever happens to them. There are just communication coming in, it could be from colleagues, it could be from vendors, it could be from customers, and I’m just dealing with all of that.

And so, work isn’t flowing through me, through the department, through the company, in a systematic logical way. This happens first, and then this happens, and then we do this, and then we do this. And in between that, yeah, we communicate with each other. But you focus on the way the work moves through the organization. That’s the first thing.

Shining a light on that, if you’re not a leader, then just look at the way work comes to you, and look at the things that you are truly getting evaluated on, and really what’s in your…ultimately, in your job description, the thing that you are hired for, and how much of your day do you actually get to spend doing that. So, that piece is the really important thing.

And the second thing to think about is, “How do we communicate as a team?” We have lots of ways to communicate, and, usually, as a team, we don’t create any guidelines. I have a whole chapter in the book about communication guidelines. So, we have 17 different ways to communicate but we use this one in this situation, in general. There are exceptions, right? But this one in this situation, and this one in this situation, and this one in this situation.

Because without that, it really just defaults to personal preference, “Well, you seem to like chat, and Joe seems to like email, and Lisa likes to have meetings, and Marty always likes to call me. And I don’t know, I can’t remember how you all like to do this. So, I’m just going to send everything I need to send in all the ways. I’m going to leave you a voicemail, I’m going to put it on the chat, I’m going to send you an email, and we’ll talk about it in the meeting just for good measure.”

And so, the volume of communication in organizations is way too high, and the efficiency of communication is way too low.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes, just the last thought I will leave you with is I teach people two primary things. Number one, how to manage their attention, and, number two, how to manage their work, bigger picture. Nobody can do that except you. Nobody can manage your attention except you. No one can manage how your work gets done except you. You get to decide, so it is entirely up to you.

Now, if you’re a leader, yes, you have to help. But bottom line is no one is going to do this for you. If you would like to have days that feel more accomplished, more productive, more satisfying, if you would like to feel less frazzled and flustered, if you would like to have more space in your life to do other things, that is 100% up to you. And I know that many people feel like it isn’t but I’m here to tell you, it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. I guess even in, like, the worst-case scenario, it’s like, ain’t nobody in your whole organization budging whatsoever when you raise these things to them. You still have the agency and the ability to make a change, like, “Hey, this is not the organization for me at this time of my life. All right.”

Maura Thomas
Either that or maybe it’s just like, “You know what, I’m going to work differently, and I’m going to see how everybody else around me reacts to that.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Maura Thomas
“But I’m going to work in the way that makes the biggest difference for me, that helps me get the most done, that I can put the best of myself out into the organization and into the world, and let’s just see what happens with that because, I bet, the results are going to be better than you think.”

Pete Mockaitis
That really does ring true. I remember I was at a wedding, and I was chatting with a friend, Kelsey, catching up, and she was working in a consulting firm, which could be notorious in terms of demanding clients, and managers and partners, and all that stuff. And I said, “Oh, man, so you just must be working really…” and she said, “Oh, it’s not too bad.”

And it blew my mind. She basically just established boundaries for herself, and I was like almost…my mouth was agape, I was like, “I don’t think I even knew you could do that in that environment.” She said, “Well, I just told them that, ‘Hey, it’s really important to me that I train for this Ironman, I’m bonding with my brother doing that thing, and so I’m probably not going to be working during these times but I’ll give you my best focus and attention during these times, and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.’”

And I said, “And they went for that?” And she’s like, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and I got promoted.” It is what you say is true. It may feel impossible or scary, and yet if you give it a shot, it just might work out way better than you think.

Maura Thomas
Yes. Yes. And I’m a control freak so that means a lot to me.

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

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so a couple. One I already gave you, “It’s not the moments in your life that matter. It’s the life in your moments.” Another one that has always kind of resonated with me is kind of two ways to say the same thing, I guess, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Swim out to it.” Another way to say that, I have it hanging on my…a little quote I cut it out of a magazine. It’s hanging right on my desk, it says, “Ask for what you want 100% of the time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Maura Thomas
It can’t hurt to ask. You might not get what you want but it can’t hurt to ask. It never hurts to ask.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Maura Thomas
Yes, I think that I’m really fascinated by Gloria Mark’s research, and how technology is affecting us, and how much it’s costing us not just financially but in all parts of our life because, I think, again, when we’re not present in our moments, then we rob some of the richness from our lives. And when I read Dr. Mark’s research, it just feels…I don’t know why, I should call her Dr. Mark, but I feel like I know her because I am so steeped in her work. But it just smacks me in the face, and just it’s such a good reminder for me about what it’s costing us.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
I have two. One, I think, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich because that’s where I learned the idea of mastermind groups, and mastermind groups have changed my life. And then, personally, it’s by Gavin de Becker, it’s called The Gift of Fear. And it’s about listening to that. It’s about really how to keep yourself safe. But the reason that the book is so great is because it reads like a thriller, it reads like a mystery thriller, but it’s really about practical life advice. And I’ve given it as a gift to a million people.

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

Maura Thomas
I don’t know how I would get my life done without Todoist, task manager. I’m a big fan of the folks over at Todoist. We also use their other tool called Twist, which is an alternative to chat tools, it’s a different kind of chat tool, but it is based on asynchronous communication, and I’m a big fan of the folks over at Doist.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Maura Thomas
So, we talked earlier about finding that motivation, and I guess this goes along with the book idea. But I read a book that I guess has been out for a long time, but I just stumbled upon it, and it’s called Younger Next Year. And that book really gave me…everybody knows you’re supposed to exercise and how to take care of yourself, and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to exercise. I know.” It wasn’t enough to get me to exercise. The information in this book made me go, “Oh, oh, oh, now I get it. Now, I understand why I really…why it matters every single day,” and it really has had an impact. So, favorite habit is exercise.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes. The thing I hear that resonates most is the way that I reframe. I don’t think I said it specifically this way today but how you manage your time really doesn’t matter unless you also manage your attention. So, what matters more than time management is attention management.

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

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com is the best place to learn all the things.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes, try to be more present more often. Manage your attention and make the most of your moments.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maura, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and well-managed attention.

Maura Thomas
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.

854: Mastering Your Surprise Career Super Power: Notetaking with Anh Dao Pham

By | Podcasts | 3 Comments

 

Anh Dao Pham shares pro tips on developing the most underrated skill that makes a world of difference: note-taking.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why note-taking is a powerful differentiator
  2. The four-hour investment that ends up saving hundreds of hours
  3. How to synthesize your notes for maximum impact

About Anh

Anh Dao Pham, VP of Product & Program Management at Edmunds.com, has successfully led technical projects for two decades at start-ups and major corporations. In her book Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams, Anh vividly brings compassionate, positive, nimble leadership to life, demonstrating with actionable guidance, the power of caring and connection to inspire outstanding results.

Anh lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles, California.

Resources Mentioned

Anh Dao Pham Interview Transcript

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

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you so much for having me back, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat, and I think this may be the shortest follow-up interview we’ve ever had with a guest because you teased note-taking. I asked, listeners said, “Yes, yes, yes” numerous times, so we’re back, we’re talking note-taking, and I’m excited.

Anh Dao Pham
I’m excited, too. I’m always thrilled when people tell me they’re excited about note-taking because I always feel like I’m such a geek when I talk about it, but it is such an important skill so I’m so delighted that some of your listeners were interested in this topic, and I’m hoping that we give them what they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. And I thought we might start with, I know you use jingles to celebrate and commemorate things, any recent jingles that have tickled you and/or your teammates?

Anh Dao Pham
I haven’t written a jingle recently but I did write a very short “Roses are red, violets are blue” for you here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Anh Dao Pham
Just two, just so that…a couple here. First,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
Hello there, Pete,
I’m happy to see you.”

I thought it was nice for us to be together again, so thank you for that. And then the second for your note-taking crew,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
note-taking is awesome
And so are you.”

So, hopefully, everybody gets excited at this point about note-taking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And heartwarming. All right. Okay, Anh, you mentioned in the last conversation that note-taking is your superpower. Can you tell us what’s super about it and why should professionals spend time working on this skill?

Anh Dao Pham
Well, note-taking has a ton of advantages. I feel like it’s one of the most underrated skills that we just don’t ever think about investing in. And, for me, it’s been so important to my career that I’d call it the cornerstone of my career. It’s like that one skill that, whenever I talk to people, I say, “You really have to think about note-taking,” and they’re always like, “Yeah, yeah, Anh, that sounds great but I may be not that interested.” But, to me, there’s really a few different benefits.

The first is people’s perception of you, and this is something that I don’t think people think about, but if you’ve, in particular, been in any sort of leadership position where you’re facilitating a meeting or having a discussion with people, and they see you taking notes and you’re typing, and you type slowly, their perception of you is not that you’re necessarily the smartest person.

And this is something that I feel like goes unspoken, but if you watch somebody typing, and they’re like pecking at the keyboard, you might perceive that they’re not as intelligent as they actually are. And that’s, I don’t think, an accurate representation in any way but it does affect people’s perception, in particular, if you’re facilitating a meeting and you’re taking notes slowly, and you’re slowing down the entire meeting.

Their perception of you is not that great. And so, I think mastering good note-taking is important just to make sure that people have a certain amount of respect for you when you’re doing your job if you’re taking notes.

The second is, at least for me, note-taking has been something that’s really made my learning process efficient. So, one of the things that I do, I do religiously in all of my meetings, is take notes. Whether or not I’m going to publish them or not, I take notes. And, for me, it just crystallizes my learning on things so it’s a part of my learning process.

And I started taking notes when I was in college. I was a math major and I was pretty lazy in summary cards. You don’t think of mathematicians as lazy but we kind of are. We’re looking for the most efficient way to do things, or maybe we’re advocates of efficiency is a better way to put it. But I was also a very slow reader. I just couldn’t go through textbooks. And anytime I was studying for a course and you had to read multiple chapters in the textbook, I just couldn’t get through that material.

And I had stumbled upon an article about note-taking, and they said, basically, if you take notes in some sort of structured format, then it improves your recall ability dramatically. And so, what I did was I just started taking notes in outline format, which is like a really traditional way to do it, in all of my lectures, and it was so effective when I was in college that I actually stopped buying the textbooks, like I didn’t read them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I went to lectures, I took good notes, and then I reviewed the notes, and most of the time, the professors would cover the material that was needed from the textbook in their lectures. And so, if I took good notes, I didn’t actually need to purchase the textbook anymore. So, after a couple of quarters, I just stopped altogether, so it saved me a ton of money, and I did well in those courses. I did pretty well.

I was at UCLA, and I got a pretty decent GPA coming out of college. So, it was really, really effective for me and has, to this day, been one of the reasons why people often compliment me on my memory. They’re always like, “You have such a great memory.” It’s like, “No, actually, I just spend a lot of time processing the information through note-taking, and that crystallizes my learning in a way that I feel like other people who were not participating as much, will have that as an advantage.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And in your book Glue, on the chapter about note-taking, you mentioned that when you are consistently taking notes and sending them out, you’re really effectively cementing the impression of being a subject matter expert to those that you’re sending the notes to. Can you tell us about that?

Anh Dao Pham
That’s right. Absolutely. I see note-taking as a way to actually get informal power, and so I tell people that information is power. And when you capture information and you send it out and distribute it, you start to become seen as a subject matter expert on the information that you’re putting out there. There’s a misconception that you capture information and some people will capture information and hoard it as a source of power, but to me it’s actually the opposite.

If you think about, let’s say, reputable newspapers or content sites, the reason that people see them as an expert is because they put their content out there. And then when people think of a topic or a question, they know where to go for that information, and note-taking happens in the same way. So, if you’re the person who consistently is taking notes and then sending them out, and they’re good notes, then the people will start to see you as that person who knew this information, publishes information, and a place that they can go to get the information.

And that shifts the dynamic from somebody who’s just sort of a bystander in a meeting to somebody who actually holds information and is somebody who has a certain amount of power and influence in the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now my brain is going to Bob Cialdini who endorsed your book. Kudos.

Anh Dao Pham
He’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s one of my favorites. We were delighted to have him on the show when we finally got him. So, anyways, I’m thinking about the tools or principles of influence – reciprocity. I’m just thinking about how many times folks have been able to miss meetings either because they just want to save some time, or they really had some other obligations going on, and they were able to look to your notes to really save the day.

And so, I’m thinking, over your career, you’ve done that for many people many times, and I would hope that that gives you a little bit of sway when it’s time for you to ask for some help or some favors or some assistance.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I would agree with that a hundred percent. The principle of reciprocity, I cannot even say that word, reciprocity is another thing that I talk about in the book, and also think a lot about in my career. And the interesting thing about that principle is that it’s not about giving something to get in that specific moment. It’s about establishing a pattern of giving and giving that benefit to other people so that at the time that you go to them at a later date, they actually are able to reciprocate and to provide something back to you because they’ve had that good feeling from you if you’re giving them something.

And I get this all the time, “Oh, I miss the meeting. Thank you so much for the recap. I was able to catch up.” In fact, oftentimes, the notes are way more efficient than being in the meeting. In particular, if you don’t need to be an active participant in the meeting to have the discussion but you need to understand what the outcome is, the notes are tremendously helpful.

I’ve had times before where, as an example most recently, one of our legal team members was asked a question, and he was searching through all of his documentation for anything about a particular discussion, and he said, “The most helpful information I found was actually from this recap that Anh took.” And I went back and looked at the notes, I was like, “I don’t remember this discussion at all. I’m so glad that we wrote it all down.”

And office settings often, in particular when you’re moving very fast, there isn’t a lot of things, there aren’t a lot of people who actually document things. And so, when you start doing that, it becomes often the system of record for whatever the discussion was that happened, and it helps all the people thereafter, either in the moment because they missed it, in some sort of a reminder capacity, like, “I can’t remember exactly what we talked about. I remember we covered this at some point.” Or, even very much later, like through this legal inquiry, some indicator of what was actually discussed and why we did it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, shifting gears now into the how, you mentioned that in some ways, just your sheer typing speed is foundational. Can you speak to that?

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, typing speed is extremely important. Actually, out there, there are studies that talk about note-taking and how taking notes with a pen and pencil is actually more effective in terms of your ability to remember things. I actually believe that that’s kind of bunk but there are studies about that. I think the active, actually, taking information and then participating in it, that actually crystallizes things.

If you’re in an office setting, I would argue that typing is the equivalent of doing that pen and paper activity as long as you’re actually participating. But in order to be able to participate, you can’t be slowed down by your own skill to capture the information, so typing speed is extremely important. And I always tell people, if I notice them not typing as fast as I think that they can, to spend some time investing in themselves in that typing speed.

We always have people complain about how they don’t have enough time in their day, and if you spend a lot of time actually responding to emails or reading things or writing memos, this is a place where you can actually improve your efficiency significantly, and it doesn’t actually take that much investment. When I actually started typing, I was in high school, actually my transition from high school to college, and I attempted to go and get a job at a temp agency.

And at the time, I think I was around 18 or so. I got tested for my typing speed, and I came in at something like 40 words per minute. I’d never actually put in a concerted effort to improve my typing speed. And the people who were helping with the hiring said frankly to me, “Hey, this is just not going to cut it. Nobody is going to hire you for a temp position if you don’t get this typing speed up.”

And at the time I went home, and I happen to find a really old spiral-bound typing speed book that my mom had used when she was younger. And I picked it up, and I did a handful of drills, and I think I spent maybe three or four hours or so just doing a handful of drills. And then a couple days later, I went back and took the test again, and my typing speed was up to 60 words per minute.

So, it wasn’t actually that big of an investment. And if you think, if you currently type 45 words per minute and you can increase your typing speed to 60 words per minute, that’s like a pretty significant improvement in your efficiency, and it doesn’t take that much to invest in yourself to get that typing speed up. So, I feel like everybody should take a moment to do that if they haven’t already.

It’s funny, because when I say this or when people read the book, they’re like, “I went and tested myself, like right after I read that chapter.” And they’re always reporting their typing speed to me, I was like, “Great. Great. Do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Thank you.” You’ve seen a lot of these unsolicited reports. Well, you’re bringing some fond memories back. I remember I found a transcriptionist and he was so gung-ho. I think it was in one of those contractor platforms, like Fiverr or Upwork or something, and he said, “I’ve already started on it, and you can see.” And then he showed the Google Document which he was transcribing quickly, I was like, “Okay, there you go. That’s impressive.”

As well as he had a video in his portfolio, he was like, “Look at me on TypeRacer.com,” which is a website I’ve been to, to see, “Sure enough, you can type very fast.” And that’s impressive, and not just when you’re hiring a transcriptionist but for any number of roles. And I think there was an episode of “The Apprentice” back in the day.

I think maybe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, why I remember this, maybe because it left an impression. He was typing so slowly, I was shocked.

Anh Dao Pham
And didn’t it affect your perception of him?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did, and I already knew, like he’s a fraudster criminal, and it made it worse, and he can’t type fast. So, it makes an impression. I just want to mention, so right now, AI is so hot right now, and the ability for automated transcription to occur. What are your thoughts on that? Does that make it less important to be able to type quickly?

Anh Dao Pham
No, I think that, at the end of the day, typing is a way of processing information, so it depends on what you’re trying to use it for. Like, as an example, if you’re going to transcribe a podcast and you’re putting it out there because you want the content out there, then I think there’s absolutely no harm in doing some sort of automated transcription. You’re not actually trying to learn the material or do something with it. You’re just trying to make it available.

But, for me, the main reason I like to do note-taking or that I practice it religiously is because it does help me learn. And so, if you’re taking advantage of a tool to do that work for you, you actually lose out on the benefit of processing the information. When I think about typing and taking notes, the reason that it helps improve your memory is that you’re processing information multiple ways.

So, let’s say you’re in a meeting and you’re taking good notes, you’re listening to the information that’s coming in, and then you’re participating in the meeting, so, obviously, you’re likely there because you have some role to play. So, you’re participating in having some discussion, that’s like two ways, “I’m listening. I’m talking.” That’s another way to process the information.

And then if I actually write it down, I’m processing it a third way. So, all in the span of a one-hour meeting, I’ve now triple-processed the information. And it’s not just about writing the information down, but if you actually take the time to reorganize the information or write it in your own words, then you’re processing it another time. So, you’re like taking in the information and then outputting it in a way that is in your own words so that you can confirm that understanding.

So, all in that span of time, if you’re using your fast note-taking abilities and processing all this information, that information is going to get crystallized in your brain in a way that other people who are just listening or just speaking and not taking in all those different activities at the same time are not going to have to their advantage. So, that’s why you’ll come out of the meeting and learn this information so much more quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we have invested just a few hours in our typing speed, and it’s gone way up. Cool. Tremendous return on investment there. So, then let’s zoom in. We’re in an actual meeting, we’ve got our laptop, and our fast typing skills. I’m wondering if folks, right from the get-go, are thinking, “Is this even appropriate for me to whip out the laptop and be clanking away? Is this something that’s going to be distracting, annoying? Is this just more for junior people?” Can you talk to us about any resistance folks might have in the moment?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s really funny because I used to work in a startup called Opower, and at the time, I was the first person there who was a program manager. I was director of program management, and I was in charge of hiring other people for my team. And when I put out the job description, we put out an exercise. And in the exercise, it was just a handful of questions that the job applicants had to answer in advance. And one of the questions I’d put on there was, “How fast do you type?”

And the funniest thing about that question was it was the most controversial and telling question on the pre-application. Some people would write back, and the answers were so funny.

Pete Mockaitis
“It shouldn’t matter how fast I type.”

Anh Dao Pham
Exactly. Like, we did. We actually got responses like that, like, “This is not an admin job” was one of the responses, or, “I’m a hunt and pecker,” which was so funny to respond that way, but people were actually offended about this question, that they felt like it was beneath them. And, to me, that’s really telling when it’s like you should have the humility to do this work if it needs to be done on your project. So, if you’re thinking you’re above that, in any job, in anything that makes you better at your job, you should be willing and want to do.

And so, I feel like if there’s an ego there about it, you’re just shooting yourself on the foot by not taking advantage of this particular skill or this opportunity to do that. But I do see resistance because there is a certain amount of ego with it. Now, I would say, though, that most of the time the ego is coupled with a lack of skill. So, it’s like, “Why would you push back on it if you could do it?” It just seems like an odd combination. So, we do see some of that resistance.

Now, in the scope of actual meetings, and I come from a project management background but now I also do product management work, and I’m on the executive team, and I still go into meetings and take notes. And you would think, like, “Hey, as Anh moves up in her career, she’s going to do this less.” It’s like, no, actually, I’m not because, again, I think it becomes a very valuable resource, it’s important for my learning process, and people really appreciate it. So, why wouldn’t I continue to do that?

And people have come to know that I do this. They will rely on this skill, sometimes maybe too much, but they’ll rely on this skill, and this is something they can count on with me if they’re not able to attend a meeting, it’s like, “Hey, are you attending? Could you share your notes with me?” That’s like a huge benefit for them and it’s something that I think I’m always going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. And no one has ever said, “Hey, cut it out,” or looked annoyed, like, “Ugh, your keyboard noise is such a distraction and annoying us, Anh.”

Anh Dao Pham
No, actually. And I do have long nails so I do clank a little bit on the keyboard. Now, if I’m in a meeting or on a Zoom or something, and you can hear the clanking, then I’ll mute myself so that it doesn’t happen. The only thing I would say is if you’re maybe on a one-on-one situation, and you’re sitting there, staring at your computer while you’re taking notes, or you’re concentrating so much on that, that’s not a great situation.

Some of those smaller form meetings, you might want to pay more attention to the conversation, or you might at least give a prerequisite or preamble before you actually start taking notes, like, “Hey, I’m going to be taking notes, but the reason I’m taking notes is because I’m listening to you so intently, and I want to make sure that I’m capturing this information.”

So, you can give that up front so that people know that that’s important to you for the purposes of this meeting. I’ve actually participated in interviews with companies before where the interviewer, it was just me and him, and he said, “Hey, this is a part of my process, so just know when I’m staring intently into the camera, I’m taking notes and it’s not you. It’s because I’m really trying to listen and make sure that I captured everything.”

So, I think you can phrase it in such a way, with whoever you’re meeting with, to let them know that this is an important part of the process, and that’s why you’re doing it, and that should cut out any hesitation for you taking on that task.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the typing speed up, hesitations are behind us, we’re in the moment, what do we actually do?

Anh Dao Pham
So, there’s a couple phases in the book I break this down on note-taking. In the very beginning of a project, oftentimes, you’ll start a project and not actually know what’s going on. And so, if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to facilitate and you’re trying to take notes, sometimes that’s very difficult. And so, I call this phase the fake-it-till-you-make-it phase.

And the idea here is you’re listening intently, you’re asking questions when you don’t understand things, but you’re trying not to slow down the discussion or the meeting. And so, one thing you can do is if there are things that you really need clarification on, you can sort of jot them down. Sometimes I’ll create my own private note section, like, “Note to myself: Ask about this later because I don’t want to slow this down.”

But in the span of the meeting, what you want to do is try to capture the most salient points, the most important things, and there’s really only a couple of categories. One is, “What are the key decisions that are being made?” And then, two is, “Are there any sort of follow-up items or action items? And who’s going to be responsible for those?”

And in a meeting where you don’t exactly know what’s going on, and sometimes maybe they’re even using jargon that you don’t fully understand, the most important thing is to write down accurately what is being stated. And if you’re unsure, you can always prompt somebody, like, “Hey, I heard this word. It sounds like a decision was made. Is that true? If so, can somebody just restate the decision for clarity?”

And when you do that, it actually helps the meeting because, oftentimes, people will say, “Okay, great.” They’ll have a discussion and they’ll seem to have come to some sort of consensus, and then they’ll move on, but nobody actually stated the decision at the very end. And sometimes when you do that, and prompt, like, “Hey, I heard a decision or I think we made a decision. Can somebody state that?” It will actually clarify that maybe something was missed or maybe somebody had a slightly different understanding of the decision, so you’re actually helping the process by asking that question.

And then once it gets stated in a clear enough way, you can say, “Okay, so I heard this is the decision,” state the decision, and then write it down. So, you’re sort of capturing the most important things. And that, to me, is sort of the fake-it-till-you-make-it stage. And if there is jargon that is being used in that state where you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, you just make sure to repeat back, “This is what I heard you say. Is that right?” And then write that down in the way that they said it.

It’s not as important in this phase that you understand the notes as it is that the people who are in the meeting understand the notes and what’s next. And so, there you just want to capture exactly what they said, and a note to yourself to learn and understand it later. And then you can follow up with the person, ask those questions to make sure that you fully understand what you’re sending out. Don’t send out things that you don’t understand. Capture them and then make sure you understand them before you send it out because that’s how you’re going to get the benefit, ultimately.

So, that, to me, is like really the first phase. And then, over time, what you want to do is sort of graduate to a more, I’d say, mature note-taking phase where you’re then sort of going through the process, participating in the meeting, and then taking notes but organizing the information as you’re going along. And when we talk about note-taking, people ask me all the time, like, “Well, what’s the secret?” I was like, “Well, I don’t just take notes. I’m actually participating and then I’m summarizing the information in my own words.” And there’s a lot of benefits to that.

The first is really that when people speak, it doesn’t always make for good notes. If you capture everything verbatim, there’s uhms and ahhs, there’s pauses, there’s twists and turns, they might repeat themselves five times. It doesn’t make sense for you to write everything that everybody is saying. What you want to do is capture what the point of that discussion was. So, take a moment to sort of rephrase it for yourself in the most concise way, and then type that down.

And then, as you’re going through the meeting, you’re participating. And if you have read my book Glue, there’s actually two chapters next to each other. It’s the note-taking chapter, and then the next chapter is about synthesis. And I think, when you’re doing really successful note-taking or good note-taking, you’re actually practicing both skills at the same time. And so, note-taking is sort of the act of writing down the information and organizing it, but how do you actually organize the information? And there’s a few different ways to do it, through different techniques of synthesis.

And the simplest way of synthesis is to actually just try to sequence things. So, if somebody’s describing a process or a plan to do something, you’re kind of like sitting there and trying to write these things down in order. So, as people are talking through it, it’s like, “Okay, we needed to do step one.” “Okay, great. I captured that.” Then, suddenly, they’re talking about step two, and then it’s like, “Oh, well, actually, there’s something that needs to happen before that.” So, then you sort of reorganize that information and sequence it in a way.

Think of it as like I talk to my mom about recipes that she cooks for Vietnamese food, and sometimes she gives those steps in all different orders. Like, she doesn’t have anything written down because a lot of Asian cooks don’t. They don’t have recipes. They just kind of feel their way through. And when she conveys the information to me for how to cook something, I step back and go, “Okay, I heard you said this, this, and this,” and I’m like writing those down as if they were instructions that I could follow later. And that is a way to sort of synthesize the information.

So, when you’re taking good notes, you’re doing that. You’re not sort of just capturing anything as it comes along because then your steps may not be all out of order. You’re actually synthesizing them into something that’s useful and structured. And that, to me, is sometimes hard to do, but if you practice it over time, you get really good at it.

And when you’re doing it as well, it also helps you identify if there are gaps. So, in the book, I give an example about cooking chicken pho. It’s a recipe, and my mom’s giving me these instructions, and she says, like, “Hey, you’ve got these vegetables, you need to chop them up. And then you need to do X, Y, and Z.” And at the end, after I write it all down, I realize, “I didn’t do anything with these vegetables that I chopped up. What do I do with them?”

But if I didn’t sequence the information out, I wouldn’t necessarily realize that the vegetables didn’t go anywhere. And so then, it’s like, “Hey, mom, I missed the vegetables. Where do they go?” It’s like, “Okay, well, you add them at this point in time.” It’s like, “Okay, let me slot that in where it needs to happen.” And so, that active synthesis really helps you make sure that you fully understand the information.

So, when you’re capturing the information and then, ultimately, sending out, that it’s like 100% accurate, and you’ve helped identify potentially gaps in the information that you’ve plugged in as a part of that discussion.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sequence is fantastic in terms of, “How do I do this thing?” and in the course of a meeting, we say, “Oh, we should do this.” “Oh, but first I guess we got to do that.” “Oh, but that’s really going be contingent on this.” And so then, that really is super value added in terms of we had a jumble of discussion, and then what’s coming out the other side is, “Oh, here are the six steps. One, two, three, four, five, six. You made it look easy, Anh. Cool.”

So, that’s one style or approach of synthesis is sequence, chronology. Are there any other key frameworks or schemas that are handy when it comes to synthesizing?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, another active synthesis that I describe in the book is I call it inference. And so, this is like a really simple technique where you try to collect multiple pieces of information, and then you try to extrapolate another piece of information out of that. So, one of the mistakes that you’ll make maybe early on when you’re even participating in meetings, regardless of whether or not you’re taking notes, is you just take statements at face value.

So, it’s like, “Anh’s going to go on vacation this week. Pete has Anh scheduled for a podcast this week.” Those are two pieces of information. Now, if you’re not thinking about them, you just write those two pieces of information down, but if you’re thinking about them, you realize, “Anh’s on vacation this week, and Pete’s got a podcast. Well, Anh’s not going to make that podcast and we need to reschedule it.” There’s an extrapolation that happens.

And sometime those seems super obvious but, when you’re in a meeting, and when you’re in a lot of meetings throughout the day, oftentimes people are only participating and thinking about their one piece of it. So, I might only think about my thing, you might only think about your thing, and nobody’s connecting the two dots together.

And so, the act of inferences take those pieces of information, and then if you dare extrapolate and make another statement, a conclusion based off of that, just to make sure that you understand what the result is. So, maybe in this specific example, we say, “Oh, Anh is not going to be there for the podcast so we’ve got to reschedule it.” And I might say, “Oh, no, no, no, Pete is so special that I’m going to come out of my vacation and I’m going to take this call with him so that I can be on this podcast.” And you’re like, “Okay,” and all worked out.

So, the extrapolation was incorrect in that statement, but we clarified something that was really important that everybody missed and nobody said it out loud.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun.

Anh Dao Pham
And so, to me, that’s a great skill and it’s really simple. The one thing on that skill that you have to be okay with is getting things wrong. And I think in note-taking, in general, or any sort of synthesis, you have to be okay with getting things wrong and having people correct you, and it’s not until people have corrected you enough and you got it right in the way that you’ve written it down, that you know that you understand the material, so you have to get pass that, but I think the benefits are huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I think that can, over time, expose some themes and patterns in terms of, “Oh, okay, this person will make vacation exceptions for super important things,” or, “Does not ever want to be interrupted on their vacation.” And so, that’s a very narrow extrapolation or theme or pattern recognition.

And then, in a way, it’s even helpful for the individuals in terms of, “Oh, here’s how I’m communicating, and here’s what’s often missed. Okay.” And you mentioned that when you are taking your notes, what you want to record, the most critical things such as the decisions made and the action items, who will do what by when. To what extent do we want to share the key considerations of those decisions?

Because sometimes those conversations are quite meandering, and then they landed on a decision. And sometimes they’re quite clear, “Oh, this critically hinges upon four key inputs.” So, how do you think about note-taking in these environments?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I’d say it’s kind of an elevation of note-taking. So, if you’re in the beginning, and you’re still just trying to keep up with the Joneses in your note-taking, then it’s fine to capture just the most salient points, meaning the key decisions and the action items. I think that’s like the minimum that you really want to capture in order for your notes to be useful to others.

But once you progress to being able to extrapolate and organize information in your note-taking, and, ideally, doing that in real time because you’re participating, then you do want to be capturing the why. And I think that is one of the biggest things that helps you actually remember the material, is understanding the why.

It’s very difficult to just understand or remember words verbatim unless they’re maybe in a song, or the alphabet, or you have some sort of moniker for them. But when you actually understand the underlying reason, you don’t actually have to necessarily understand or remember the outcome. You can kind of reason your way there, if that makes sense.

A similar example from memory was when I was in high school, I took the Calc BC test to see if I could get credit for my Calculus course. And our teacher had covered this concept called the trapezoid rule, which is a way to calculate the area of a particular shape through an integration, or through an integral, and he explained how it was actually put together.

So, when you actually do the trapezoid rule, basically what you do is you take a line of the curve, and then you split it into trapezoids, and then you add all the trapezoids together, and that’s how you actually come up with the total are below the curve. This is like me super geeking out on the math side of things. But when I got to the AP test for this calculus exam, the first thing on the test was this trapezoid rule, and I remembered coming out of it, and everybody was, like, “Oh, my gosh, does anybody here remember the trapezoid rule? Like, how could you possibly remember that?”

And it’s like, “Well, I remembered how he explained it to me. I remember that you had to actually create trapezoids, and I know how to calculate the area of a trapezoid so I just kind of was able to derive the formula as I was going through.” And I know that was such a geek example but it stuck with me so much because I remember, like, “Well, because he explained the why, and I understood how it worked, I didn’t actually have to remember the formula at the very end.”

And so, to your point, if you’re going through and you’re having these conversations, if you can capture the why, participate in the why, then you may not even need to remember the outcome because if somebody is asking, you can say, “Oh, well, I remember we talked about this and that, and this was good. And so, the conclusion must’ve been this.” And I think that that’s very powerful as well to have that information so that you can reason through those things.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really good. And I find that when I don’t have an understanding of a why, or the why is just nonsense to me, I have a hard time remembering anything associated with the conversation or anything there. So, that’s really insightful.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s like your brain almost discards the information. It’s like a superfluous piece of information, you’re like, “That didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit into the puzzle pieces of my brain, so I’m just going to kind toss it out.” And then once you truly understand that, whether or not you agree with it is a different question, but if you at least understand the reason that got you there, then, typically, you’re going to remember the answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to shorthand, organization, or sending them out, or platforms?

Anh Dao Pham
I mostly advise people to use the tools that are most easy for them to use. You want to use what’s most comfortable for you. So, this is like a really simple example but at my office, we used to have computers in the room, in the conference rooms, for our meetings, and then you could also bring your laptop and plug it in.

And one of the things that I would do pretty regularly is I would bring up the conference room with a computer, and then put my notes documents up on the screen so that people could see it, but then I would actually take notes from my laptop. So, it was just projecting the information through one mechanism and taking notes from my laptop.

One time a person asked me, “Why do you do that?” I was like, “Well, I type much faster on my laptop because the keyboard is the keyboard that I practice on. The keys are a certain height. I’m just more comfortable there.” And it’s such a small tip but if you are much faster on your laptop, then go ahead and use that as advice.

And, similarly, if you’re very familiar with a particular word processing program, if you much prefer Word or Google Docs or something like that, use the mechanism that you think is going to be the fastest and easiest for you to use. Then if you send them out, you might want to translate them or post them somewhere in a shared document, depending on what your company uses, but I’d say when you’re at least capturing the information, use the device and tools that are most comfortable for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when you mentioned your book, when you send them out, you want to do so as promptly as possible.

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, you do because, honestly, things move so fast that the information may be invalid or have changed over time. So, if I sit too long sometimes on a recap, sometimes people have completed the action items and they’ve already come to slightly different conclusions. So, you want the information to go out as timely as possible, and you want it to be timely and accurate and concise if possible, and to get them to the broadest population that you can that’s relevant to them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Anh, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about more of your favorite things?

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say the only thing that I wanted to reiterate is I think that, again, note-taking is a very learnable skill, and it’s one of the things that people don’t pay attention to, they don’t think about investing in, and I think that there are so many different benefits if you just invest a little bit more in yourself, that you’ll have. This is in your arsenal for the rest of your career, and reap those benefits.

And I feel like the only thing you need to get over is, if you don’t type very fast, and don’t practice this skill often, just to let your ego get out of the way, and spend a little bit of time, and know that it’s going to benefit you over the course of your career.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Anh, we spoke pretty recently but you mentioned that you did prepare some additional favorite things. So, lay it on us, how about another favorite quote?

Anh Dao Pham
So, recently, I was reading a book called Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee. It’s a book about the philosophies of Bruce Lee. And my favorite quote from the book is “The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.” And maybe this goes along with that sort of theme of getting out of your own way. One of the things that they talk about in the book is there’s a proverb about a person who is meeting a Zen master, and he’s talking about something, and his Zen master is trying to give him feedback but he’s not listening to anything.

And so, the Zen master takes tea and starts pouring it into a cup, and then the cup starts overflowing, and the person says, “The cup is overflowing. It can’t hold any more tea.” He’s like, “Well, how can you learn anything if your mind is already full.” And I love that quote because it reminds me, if I’m sort of struggling with something, maybe it’s because I have a preconceived notion or something, my mind is too full that it can’t receive the information to understand the truth.

And I feel like when I get stuck, I’ll often think about that, like, “Is there a way that I, again, could be looking at this differently or sort of letting go of some particular assumption or reservation that I have in order to get out of my own way?”

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

Anh Dao Pham
Have you seen the TED Talk by Derek Sivers: How to start a movement?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think I have long ago.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s a two-minute TED Talk, really, really short. And what I love about it is it’s entertaining as well as it packs a punch of a message. And, basically, he shows a video of a person who’s sort of like dancing like a crazy person on a hill. It’s a hill with a bunch of people who were sort of sitting, maybe it’s like a picnic or a show or something.

And there’s one person who gets up, and he starts dancing. And then after he’s dancing for a period of time, then one second person gets up and starts dancing. And then just a few minutes later, all of a sudden, people swarm together and start dancing together. And he says, “Hey, we’ve started a movement.”

And the interesting thing about this is he says people think about leadership as the first person who actually started the movement, but, actually, it was the first follower who was the most impactful because the first follower joins that leader, and the quote is, “Without the first follower, the leader is just a lone nut.”

And I love that because it stresses the importance of being not necessarily the person who’s typically designated as leader, but a leader in a different capacity. And, in a way, I think note-taking is kind of similar to that. Sometimes you’re offering support in your role, and when you offer support, it offers a different kind of leadership. And the first follower is actually the person who helps create the movement. Without the second person, there never would’ve been a swarm of other people.

So, if you haven’t seen the TED Talk, I highly recommend it. It’s not exactly a study but the message packs a powerful punch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Anh Dao Pham
I was thinking about different books. I read books in all different genres. And kind of in the note-taking theme, I actually have two favorite books on the topics of writing, and these were books that I read when I was writing Glue. The first is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and it’s a book about writing nonfiction. He actually talks, too, about if you’re writing in business but you’re not a person who’s aspiring to be an author, how important it is to be able to express your words concisely. And I found that it was just such an impactful book, not long at all, but just packed a great message.

The second book on writing is Stephen King, an author that I’m sure everybody is familiar with, called On Writing. It’s more about writing fiction, but I think both of them just teach you that there are so much more to learn in the craft of writing. And while note-taking isn’t the same as writing a book, I think it just reminds you that there are ways that you can always improve on what you’re doing, and something that you’re doing every day on a daily basis in your jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s funny because I’ve been saying, “I really like typing so I like to do everything electronically,” but my favorite tool is actually Post-Its, Post-it notes. I love Post-it notes. When I have lots of tasks that I needed to do, I’ve got lots of Post-it notes all over my desk. In fact, you can see when I’m really busy because I’ll  have lots of Post-it notes everywhere.

But I use them for facilitating meetings. If you’re doing sort of any in-person discussion, or any sort of brainstorming, or clustering exercises. I love all of that. If you’re doing timelines, it’s easy to plot things out in a timeline. Or, in a case where you maybe don’t want to take notes or you have the luxury of having people in person, and you want to sequence information. This is great. You can write a Post-it, you can move them around. It’s wonderful. I love them so much that people will joke sometimes that I must’ve invested in 3M.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Anh Dao Pham
I read a lot. And I feel like people forget that they can read to get information. Probably not your listeners. I think maybe they do like to read, and you have a lot of guests who are authors, but one of the things I find so beautiful about today is that you can learn about almost anything you want to learn about because there are so many resources out there through videos, through blogs, etc. But I love reading books. I feel people gravitate now to online content for a lot of things, or short-term content, but I feel there’s nothing better than a really well-put together book.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you’re known for?

Anh Dao Pham
Outside of being a lover of note-taking and a lover of Post-its, in the book and the other things that we had talked about in the last podcast I did, people do talk to me a lot about this idea of not having to have a project plan when you’re a project manager. The other thing that I often get asked about is this methodology I introduced in the book about project management called CALM. And it means closely aligned, loosely managed.

And it’s a way of managing projects without managing them as hands-on, as typical project managers might. Through alignment and setting clear goals, and then giving people ownership over their respective tasks rather than trying to dictate and control everything. So, I get asked about that a lot.

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

Anh Dao Pham
I’d love it if folks could contact me through my website. It’s www.GlueLeaders.com. In there, you can find, again, all the links to any information about my book, this podcast when it’s available, as well as the last podcast that you had me on, Pete. So, thank you so much for the opportunity. And, yeah, if you’d like to reach out or have any other questions about note-taking or anything else in the book, I’d love to hear from you.

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

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say, at least with respect to note-taking, just try it. Just try it and, again, practice. It takes a lot of practice, and practice doesn’t actually make perfect. I feel like, as a person in my career, I’m almost looking for a way to progress, and I never have finished progressing. And so, I’d say practice and continue to strive to make yourself better because I think everybody has the capacity to do more and better as long as they put their minds to it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anh, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many good notes.

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you. I hope your listeners really enjoy this note-taking, and I’d love to hear from them. Thank you again for the opportunity, Pete.

831: How to Manage Multiple Projects without the Overwhelm with Elizabeth Harrin

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Elizabeth Harrin lays out the five critical steps to making the management of multiple projects more manageable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The easiest way to make managing multiple projects manageable
  2. How to ensure follow through when you’re not the manager
  3. How to strike the right balance between time, cost, and quality

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Harrin teaches people how to juggle multiple projects so they can meet stakeholders’ expectations without working extra hours. She is a project management practitioner, trainer, mentor and founder of RebelsGuideToPM.com. 

An author of seven project management books, Elizabeth prides herself on her straight-talking, real-world advice for project managers. She uses her twenty years’ experience doing the job to help people deliver better quality results whilst ditching the burnout through her community membership programme, Project Management Rebels.

Resources Mentioned

Elizabeth Harrin Interview Transcript

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

Elizabeth Harrin
Hello. Thank you for having me on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your ritual involving the song “Firework.” What’s the story here? 

Elizabeth Harrin
Well, when I go live on a video or something like that, I feel like I need to get into the zone. And having that break between just doing my emails or whatever I was doing before, and focusing on showing up and being present in the moment, I do that with music. So, I play a song and I just got stuck on Katy Perry’s, so I play that to get into the right frame of mind before going live and talking to people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, “Firework” is actually a really fun tune, and I love the metaphor at the beginning, like, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”

Elizabeth Harrin
Absolutely. Drifting around, isn’t that what every project manager feels like at the beginning of a new piece of work, and you have got no idea what you’re supposed to be doing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Elizabeth, you’re a master of the segue and tying it together. All right. Well, I want to hear a little bit about Managing Multiple Projects. You’ve written the book on it. Could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or extra-fascinating discovery you’ve made when it comes to managing multiple projects?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think one of the things that surprised me was I did a survey to get some numbers, a bit of research for the book, and most people are managing between two and five projects, and that doesn’t sound like very many, but having to constantly switch between work does create that overhead, and workload is the biggest cause of burnout. So, if you can’t manage that workload effectively and switch between all things you’re juggling, it can be really quite difficult.

And the most surprising thing for me about that survey, and the results I got back when I was interviewing people for the book, was how sad it is that people are feeling so unhappy about the work that they do. And the verbatim comments were, just shocked me that people show up to work, they want to do the best that they can, and they’re not in environments where they can do that.

And I felt that that was something that we need to change in the world because we all need to be happy at work. We spend so much time there, it’s not worth doing things that we don’t enjoy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Elizabeth, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that. That really does connect emotionally in terms of overwhelm, burnout, sadness. When you say verbatim comments, are there a couple that have lodged into your brain and haunt you, that you could share to tee up just what we might be able to escape here?

Elizabeth Harrin
There was a comment from a woman called Kimberly, and she wrote, “I work in a fast-food project management environment that expects a sit-down service.” And I thought, “Don’t we all?” So many people must feel that they’re in environments where you want to do the best quality work you can, and actually it’s got to be a quick turnaround. There has to be speed and shortcuts, and we have to apply all these hacks just to get through the day because we don’t have the time to focus on the people that matter and the work that matters.

And so, that analogy about feeling like you’re in a fast-food environment but all your customers and the work that you want to be able to deliver, you won’t be able to provide this five-star dining service. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s really funny, and I have felt both of those work desires. Sometimes it is a blast to just shred through a lot of stuff at medium quality and high speed, and just enjoy the thrill ride, like, “Woohoo! Look at all these things checked off and out the door. That’s really cool.” And other times, you really do want to be, I don’t know, sort of like an artisanal, craftsmanship, bespoke, excellence, maximum beauty, maximum quality, and what’s challenging is often you don’t get to choose.

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“That might be your mood but what’s required is this.” And if they require both speed and excellence at the same time, yeah, that’s a tricky one.

Elizabeth Harrin
It’s a tricky one, and people end up working longer hours. That was certainly my experience when I went back to work after maternity leave and was in this situation where I was managing multiple projects myself. My choices were do things less good, to a less quality standard, or work longer hours. And neither of them really appealed to me in terms of wanting to be the best professional that I could be and do good things in my career. So, I had to start rethinking what work meant and how I could work more productively because the tools I had only gave me those two choices, and that wasn’t good enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful and it sounds like some of your thoughts made it into your book, Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity. If you could give us the key thesis or big idea behind the book, what is it?

Elizabeth Harrin
I’ve put together a five-part model that helps people break down their work, structure it differently, and then keep all their balls in the air. Although, the thing I would say is that no book will ever tell you there’s a one-size solution that will fit every need, so it’s written very much from a perspective of, “Here’s a ton of different tools and techniques that you could try. Test them out in your work environment. Find what fits your working style,” because everyone is different, aren’t they? And everyone’s work environment is different. But, broadly, with a few tweaks, hopefully, you can make the work a little bit more manageable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds exciting. Could you share with us a case study or a particularly inspiring story example of someone who was able to upgrade their managing multiple projects game to see great results?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, I can. I do a lot of mentoring as well, so a lot of the people I talk to will pick and choose a couple of different things to apply. I can give you my own example and then I can share some examples from other people. The thing that made the biggest difference for me is the first of those five steps, which is working out what’s in your personal portfolio. So, what was the totality of my workload? Because I had three or four projects that I was managing, but also, I was mentoring my colleagues, I was organizing events at work, I was having to turn up and deputize for my manager at different meetings.

And all the other things, they never really make it into your mental to-do list because they’re the stuff you jot down on a Post It note and you never find the time, really, to put those on a project schedule or anything. They’re just expectations. So, when I had a complete picture of all the things I was responsible for, I then got a big shock about how many hours that actually equated to within a week, and being able to then have an intelligent conversation with my manager, and also to plan my own time, it became a lot easier because I had full visibility.

And I think that’s something that I know from teaching about managing multiple projects, that other people have take away as well, just that realization of all the extra things that we’re expected to do, whether it’s time sheets, or finance reporting, or organizing a party for the end of the year celebrations, whatever it is, all of those things take time away from us being able to deliver the main part of our job, the projects that we’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I’m thinking about mandatory trainings, I’m thinking about the sort of meetings, I’m thinking about email. Email is tricky because, on the one hand, are these emails about your projects. Well, then I guess, in a way, that time might get counted. Or, are the emails about everything else from the CFO and the CEO and this and that cross-functional group here and there.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, team meetings, briefing your colleagues, all that kind of stuff. So, that personal portfolio step was really helpful for me. And one of the other things that I talk about in the book is dependency management. So, how do you work out how your work interacts with other people’s work, and how each of your projects interact with each other?

And I can tell you about Robert, who told me that once he’d planned out those different dependencies between his workload, he felt that he already knew that in his head. But having plotted it out and writing it down in a matrix, he could then use that as a communication tool to help other people in the department understand how their work impacted other people.

And that was valuable then because he could use that to help people talk about, “When does their work need to be done? What’s going to happen if it’s late? This is the implications for these people or this team or that project.” And they could talk about how they could help each other, make sure all of those expectations were met.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. That is handy. And so, just like a snazzy chart graph, flowchart, bit of graphical loveliness?

Elizabeth Harrin
You could do it that way. I just wrote it in a spreadsheet. I’m very good at simple things. So, the spreadsheet is a list of all my projects, a list of all my other responsibilities, a list of the way that my work interacts with other people’s work. The way that we did the dependency matrix was we had a list of projects down the side, and then a list of the same projects across the top.

And where they met, we could say, “Well, does this project have anything to do with that? Does this piece of work have anything to do with that team?” And you could sort of write in the box, “Yes, we need to be aware of this,” or, “Yes, we have to do that before this one.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, those are handy right off the bat. And could you share, when it comes to managing multiple projects, there are many books and works and tools and trainings on project management, and your corner of the project management universe, managing multiple projects, is distinctive. Can you share with us, what are some of the key differences, distinctions about the game when you’re managing multiple projects versus one super project?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think the biggest challenge for me is having different stakeholders, more stakeholders. If you’re managing a big gigantic project and it’s taking up all of your workload, then you’ve probably got quite good relationships with the people that you work with because you’re with them every day, working with them every day. The team might be large, and I’m not saying there’s not a lot of people and relationships to manage, but there’s one common goal that you’re all working towards, which is delivering the project, and you’ve probably got experience of working with them on a regular basis.

Now, let’s say you’re managing four projects. That’s four potentially quite separate, different teams, each of who want a piece of you at some point in the week, and you’ve got to switch between managing their expectations about how important their work is because not all projects are the same level of importance. Someone has to work on the stuff that’s low importance. And it might be that someone wants more of your time than you can actually give because you’ve got other things to do in your week as well.

So, I think those relationships are probably the hardest thing and the most different thing about managing multiple strands of work rather than just managing one. And that could be managing four different clients. If you’re in a client-facing role, maybe you’ve got four different clients, maybe you’ve got four different internal projects but, ultimately, the more people you have to work with, the harder, I think, the job becomes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, now could you share with us, you mentioned at the very beginning that burnout, sadness, overwhelm stuff, do you have any strategies, specifically, that are targeted toward the internal game, our emotional landscape?

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say having boundaries is probably the most important thing because often, when people give us work to do, there is the expectation that we have the time to do it. And because we are good employees, and we don’t want to rock the boat, we say, “Yes, of course, I can take on that extra piece of work. When would you like it done by?”

And I think having mental boundaries around, “How do you accept new pieces of work when it’s within your gift to be able to do that?” Are you going to make the point about saying, “Well, I can do this but it will mean I’ll have to stop doing something else. I can do this but not by tomorrow because I’m working on something else. I can get it to you by Friday. Is that okay?”

And having that kind of sense of protecting your own time and your own mental health so that you’re not saying, “Yes, I can do everything, of course. Just lay it on me, and I’m just going to stay up till midnight and be at my keyboard all night.” By being aware of what your own limitations are and how many hours you’ve got available, what else you’ve got going on, planning out the next couple of weeks, you can start to think about, “If I say yes to this, and I have to because my boss is asking,” let’s be honest, you haven’t really got a lot of choice, “How can I make this fit? Whatever help do I need? How can I have that conversation?” And I tend to default to the, “I can do this, and this is when I can get it to you.”

There’s another tool that I can share, if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please do.

Elizabeth Harrin
One of the things that has helped me has been the two-week look ahead. So, I will take a point in the week where I’ll look at what’s coming up in the next fortnight with the team, to say, “Okay, what do we know about the next two weeks? Who’s got holiday? When have we got big meetings that we need to prepare for? What deadlines do we have?” and then nothing really surprises you, or you’ve built in a little bit of time to be aware of the things that are coming up, so if you do get a surprise, it doesn’t throw your whole schedule off because you’ve already built in some resilience for what you know is coming up.

That’s been really helpful for me because it also means that I can look ahead in terms of just how busy I’m going to be. So, you talked about protecting yourself and being mentally ready to be busy and juggle all these things. If I know I’ve got another week coming up in the future and it’s very busy, lots of big meetings, high stress, I can prepare for that because I can make sure that I’ve got things for the children’s lunchboxes in the freezer, I can make sure I’ve got childcare organized, I can make sure I’m not booking any late-night social events for me that week.

Or, if I am, I’m planning the next morning so that that’s easy. And so, I’m trying to holistically look at work is coming up and what that affects me, how that affects me personally so that I can be more prepared to show up ready to work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Okay. Well, let’s dig into your five key concepts. They each start with P, which is handy to remember: portfolio, plan, people, productivity, positioning. We’ve already gotten a couple tidbits for each. Could you perhaps give us a quick definition or articulation of the concepts, and then perhaps a top do and don’t within each of the five?

Elizabeth Harrin
Okay. With portfolio, I talk about having full visibility of the work that you’ve got on the go at the moment and the things that you’re responsible for. So, my top tip for that is just to take an hour, perhaps even less, and just look through whatever notetaking tool you use or your notebook or the notes you’ve got on your phone, and try and write down everything that you are currently working on, looking at how much time does that need to take per week.

And I know working out hours is very difficult, so what you might want to do is just think, “It’s a big thing, a medium thing, a small thing. That’s good enough for this exercise.” And then that’s the portfolio piece done. It gives you a good sense of what’s going on. The thing not to do is to keep that information to yourself. Use that as a talking point tool with your manager and with your team to say, “Look at all these things I’ve got on the go. Can you help me prioritize so that I’m focusing more of my time on the things that really matter to the organization?”

The plan step is about scheduling, working out when you’re available to do things, and the tip I have for that is to look at all the different projects you’re working on, and then look at where they’ve got their big milestones, when are they going live, or when do you have a big meeting about them, and then plot those on – again, I did it on a spreadsheet – because then you can start to see, “Oh, project number one and project number four have very similar schedules.”

“Maybe we could work on them together and maybe there are some benefits in looking at how we can streamline and combine the work, if it makes sense to do so, so that we’re not doing everything twice.” With that you’re going to need help from other people. So, again, the tip not to do is to try and do that alone. Other people will have a different insight about what’s important and what’s coming up on a project schedule, so it’s worth involving the rest of the team in your planning.

The people element of the model is all around working with others, as you guess from the name, and that is to do with thinking through how you use other people’s time. So, my suggestion there, if I have to give you one thing, would be to look at where you can combine meetings. And I can tell you about a time I did not do this.

I went along to a meeting with my project sponsor, my main manager I was working with on that piece of work, and I was all ready to talk about one project, but he was also involved in another project, and he asked me questions about that one and I wasn’t ready to talk about that, I didn’t have any of my notes, so I baffled, made episode, went along, and got through it. But it made me think, actually, other people are working on multiple things, too.

And to them, they might have multiple things they want to ask you about, so let’s try and combine the communication so that we’re only contacting people once rather than contacting them multiple time about each different thing that you’re involved with because you then help them manage their time as well.

With productivity, which is the fourth P, it’s really around managing your own time, thinking through what works for you, what productivity tools and techniques you want to use, and how you can help other people in your team be productive as well. The thing not to do with that is to get sucked into the latest shiny tool or what’s working for your colleagues because, in my experience, everybody has quite different ways of working to the best of their ability.

For me, I’m very much a pen-and-paper person. I do use electronic tools for project scheduling and task management and all that, but I always have pen and paper as well. Whereas, I know people who would never write anything down. So, you need to find out what works best for you and then use that in the way that you work.

Positioning is the last P. It’s also the one that’s the most convoluted because I kind of have to find the P that fit it, but it’s more around, “How do you set yourself up for success? So, what does the environment look like?” So, this is all around checklists and templates and processes, and what can you change in your environment to make life easier for future you.

So, one very simple thing to do would be to think through, “What do I do on a regular basis? How much time do I spend thinking about that? Would it be easier if I just had a checklist or a work construction or something like that? Then, if I’m not here, someone else can do it, but, equally, when I need to do it, I can make sure I just wheeze through it. I don’t have to worry about any of those steps.”

And I wonder if this is part of me getting older, but I used to be able to hold a list of things in my head. Now, I struggle more to think about the different steps involved in every process and making sure that nothing gets forgotten. So, anything that can be written down and templated just saves you time in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to the holding in the head, I’ve really noticed that. It’s a little bit of a stressor in terms of, I guess, maybe the psychologists would call it our working memory capacity. That might not be right construct but something like that in terms of there are so many things we can put there, and then when we try to push it for more, I actually feel sort of stress signals popping up.

And so, what I find interesting is if there is a task that is already somewhat stressful, or I’d be prone to procrastinate on because I’m worried I might screw something up or overlook something, make a mistake, or it’s just unpleasant for any number of reasons, having that checklist in place is very satisfying because it’s like I can free up all the potential stress associated with thinking and remembering the steps because they’re just there, and I can feel a little bit of fun momentum associated with, “Okay, I checked this piece of a checklist. It only took 30 seconds but I did it, and it’s checked. And now momentum is there visibly on the page before my eyes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly. Who doesn’t love ticking a box on a spreadsheet, right, to say it’s done, cross off that task on your to-do list? Project managers love that kind of stuff. And it’s exactly true, and it gives you a better-quality result because you’re not going to forget things. You’re going to go through a set of steps. And, honestly, the first time I did it, my checklist was a bit rubbish, and as I went through the actual task, I went, “All right, I have to do that as well. Oh, I’ve forgotten to involve that person.” So, you just add it on and it becomes checklist version 2.0, and you keep improving and iterating as you go. But the next time you have to do that, you don’t have to think so hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, now just a couple follow-up questions across some of these five Ps. I’ve had the experience, and apparently there are some psychological truths or principles that suggest that we humans have a real hard time, in fact, estimating how long something is going to take. Is that your experience? And what can be done about this challenge?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, that’s very much my experience. It’s really hard to estimate. And a lot of what we do is knowledge work where we’re thinking of things or changing something, and we probably haven’t done that before, so you don’t even have past projects where you can go back and say, “When we did it the last time, it took us this long, so, therefore, we can just use those estimates.”

Sometimes that’s because organizations don’t really capture the data in a format we can go back and use again but, also, it’s because people suffer from optimism bias. And when we think, “Oh, yeah, we can do that in four hours,” meanwhile forgetting about the fact that we all need toilet breaks in the day, and to take calls, and to check our emails, and to turn up and do other things.

So, my suggestion for people who are struggling with estimating is to think about how many hours you’ve got in the day, and then to schedule yourself and other people in your team, or have conversations with other people about what’s realistic for them to do, but only think of yourself as available 80% of your time because that then gives you time for those team meetings, the mandatory training we talked about earlier, and taking phone calls on things that are completely unrelated but still relevant to your job, and then you’ve got a bit of a buffer in your day.

The other big challenge with estimating is that people often approach estimating, thinking that they’re only doing this one thing, whereas, in real life, we’re probably juggling multiple different strands of activity or many projects, and switching between projects also cause us some time. So, time blocking has helped me.

Blocking out some time, a few hours to work on a particular thing, or an afternoon to do a particular type of task, and talking to our colleagues about best ways to get things done, what productivity techniques work for them, how do they organize their time, when have they got holidays coming up that they might need to do more things beforehand to hand over, and that might make them less available for your project because they’re supporting something else is just a lot about talking.

And I think contingency as well. Do you think that would be useful?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yeah, contingency is a buffer time. People often ask me, “But how much contingency should I add to this estimate?” or, “I think this task is going to take five days, but what’s reasonable contingency?” And I tend to, “Contingency should be something that’s based on uncertainty.” So, if you’re not really sure and you’re just guessing, you want to slack on a bit of extra time. Quite a lot probably if you just don’t have the information to make an accurate guess at the moment. But if you’ve done the work before, or you’re quite confident in how long things are going to take, you could probably get away without adding a lot less extra time.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. That makes sense in terms of the variable driving whether you want to add more or less contingency is uncertainty because we just don’t know, so let’s play it safe by having some more in a high-uncertainty zone. So, let’s say that the uncertainty is small, you’ve done it before, but it’s a little different. Do you have a go-to percentage that you utilize?

Elizabeth Harrin
I like 10%, I would add 10% extra on. There are lots of estimating models, so if your organization is quite mature in the way that they approach time tracking and estimating, then there’s a lot better ways to do it than just to add on 10%. But if you are just working on something yourself without an awful lot of other guidance from a project management office or anything like that, then give yourself a bit of a buffer, and 10% seems to cover most scenarios.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to the people side of things, when you’re in the tricky position of having to lead without the authority, like you own the project but you don’t own the employees, you have to do the stuff to make that proceed, it could be a tricky spot to be in. Do you have any top tips beyond being considerate in leveraging their time, of being extra influential, persuasive, to have people to say yes, and, in fact, follow through with their stuff?

Elizabeth Harrin
In my experience, I think it helps to tell people…well, to not tell people, to invite people to participate and explain the reasons behind why their participation is valuable. People like to do things because there’s a reason behind, not just because they’d been asked. So, the great thing about projects is that often there’s a change or a benefit that’s coming at the end of the work. Projects sometimes have bad outcomes, like, “We’re closing down an office, so we’re making your department redundant,” or something like that.

But, often, we’re trying to do something that will be beneficial for the organization and bring about something that’s good. So, if you can tie their contribution into the vision, or the bigger picture of why we’re doing the work in the first place, they can draw those lines and make the connection between how their contribution matters. That can be quite a powerful way of helping people to feel motivated about doing the work in the first place.

The other thing that works is allowing them to set their own deadlines. So, if you go to somebody, and say, “I need this by Tuesday,” their instant reaction might be, “Oh, I can’t do that. You can’t tell me what to do.” Whereas, if you can say, “We need this piece of work done, and your boss has suggested that you’re the right person to do it. How do you think…how much time do you think this might take?”

Obviously, this is not a conversation you’d have in three sentences, but you’d sit with them and explain what the requirements are and help them see the bigger picture of the project as well. And people can then say, “Well, if I need to involve this person and do this and work with that, then I think I could probably get that done by a week on Tuesday.” And that’s the date that goes in your project plan.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they’re trying to do projects is they make up all the deadlines themselves. In fact, I’ve sat in a room with senior managers, and they’ve drawn out a project plan on a whiteboard, and said, “Right, that’s what we’re going to do.” And I thought, “But none of the people who are actually doing the thing are in the room.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “You don’t know what it takes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
“You just don’t know. Why are you making this stuff up?” And then, of course, you just caused delays later because you’ve set expectations that are unmanageable. So, using other people’s expertise, and tapping into what they know, and trusting them to suggest the right timeframes can help. And I feel I’ve gone off the question now. Did I answer the question?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, it’s all juicy stuff in terms of you cast the vision for, “Okay, this is how things can be better when the project is done and how you’re contributing to that.” But the deadline-setting stuff, I think, is handy in terms of thinking like there might be a date by which it’s extra valuable to have this done, like, before the tradeshow, or the big meeting, or the big conference. So, that’s, I guess, would be nice to have it done, and executives can determine that.

However, I’m thinking about this is maybe the first project management lesson I learned I thought that was really useful – was it the triangle? You can probably describe it better, Elizabeth, than I can. What’s the time management or the project management triangle?

Elizabeth Harrin
We talk about the iron triangle, the triangle of constraints, of balancing time, cost, and quality. Although, the thought process behind that has moved on a bit now, and we don’t just use time, cost, and quality as a measure of success. But in terms of talking to your stakeholders, your colleagues, and your project sponsor, and your boss, it is really helpful because you can say, “Well, I can deliver to this level of quality, and it will cost this much and take this long.”

And then they could say, “But I want it faster. I can’t spend that much money. I want it cheaper.” And then you can adjust the corners of the triangle, and say, “Well, if we want it cheaper, it will have to be less quality, or maybe it will take longer because we’ll use cheaper resources to do it. Or, if you want it to take less time, it’ll probably cost more because we’ll throw more resources at it. We might be able to maintain quality but we might have to take a few things out of the project scope and maybe add those in as a phase two later, but then we’ll hit the deadline.”

So, it’s about balancing all these different success criteria. And that’s a really helpful point that you’ve put out there because you need to know what people feel is important, and maybe it’s the deadline, maybe it’s, “Do what you need to do but get it done by the tradeshow.” I worked in healthcare, and I was on a project once, and people didn’t really care about when it got done. Well, that’s not true. They did care when it got done, but what was most important was that when it was delivered, it was good quality.

Elizabeth Harrin
And if that took a couple of extra weeks, then a couple of extra weeks didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. They just needed it to be good. So, some people will say the date is important. Some people will say, “You’ve got a ceiling on this much money that you can spend,” or, “This quality criteria has to be met,” or it might be something like sustainability, customer satisfaction, or some other kind of measure that they think is important. And if you know that, then you can make all of your decisions based around, “How do we get to that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful to see what is the priority there. And when you say quality, I think my own synonym for quality is how much good stuff, in terms of we can have more…it’s almost two dimensions, like a scope thing in terms of how excellent is the thing and how many of the things are there. Like, if we’re doing a bunch of home renovations, it’s like, “Okay, you want 30 updates across the kitchen and the bathrooms and whatever. And so, we can sort of do fewer of those updates, or those updates could be chintzier, or we’re going to have to have more people working on it, contractors, etc. which will come with the paying for it, or we just take more time to do it.”

So, I think that has been handy for me as I think through stuff, and I get stressed out, like, “Uh-oh, how on earth….?” This feels bad to say but I guess it’s real and something has to give somewhere or else we will be those sad, burnt out, overwhelmed people, is that usually what I sacrifice is quality. It’s like, “All right, well, it’s going to be worse.” But because my quality expectations are usually so insane, we sent you a microphone, so I’m told that no one else does that, and I thought, “Oh, really? They probably should,” but whatever.

So, I’m able to back it up, it’s like, “Okay. Well, we’re just going to allow that, and it’s good enough for 98% of the people who are encountering this thing that I’m making, and I’m just going to have to take a breath and live with it, and that’s fine.”

Elizabeth Harrin
And that’s very much the case at work, isn’t it? There are some things that you absolutely have to get perfect. And if you’re a lawyer writing a contract, you can’t just go, “Oh, well, it’s 80% good enough.” Your client is not going to live with that. But if you’re drafting an internal document just for review to brief your colleagues on something, you know, I prefer not to send out things with typos, but if something did slip through, no one is going to die. It will be fine.

And if it means that you get it out the door at 5:00 o’clock, and you go home on time, and you have a life instead of sitting there stressing about every full stop, and staying at your keyboard till 7:00, because I guarantee that half the people who read that document won’t even notice whether a full stop is there or not. 

Pete Mockaitis
I really like what you said there about no one is going to die, and that is a perspective I’ve come to again and again, because it’s true. There are some things in healthcare, in transportation, in military, police, and other fields where it truly is life and death. The quality of your work will make that impact. And many other times in the land of spreadsheets and memos, it’s usually not.

And so, I find that quite comforting if I’m getting a little bit too worked up about something, is to recall that no one will die no matter how horrible an episode we produce, Elizabeth, although you’re doing great. So, that’s cool. Well, now tell me, Elizabeth, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Elizabeth Harrin
Something that you can do to start managing your multiple projects more effectively is to think about how you can group them into different buckets. So, if you do a couple of things for one client, or you’re leading on a couple of initiatives for one particular department, how can you bring those things together to streamline the communication, try and have meetings where you cover multiple things in one go instead of scheduling lots of meetings about the same thing?

So, looking for connections between the work you do can make it feel a lot less overwhelming. If you’ve got 15 things on the go, for example, that’s 15 things you have to think about. But if you can put them into buckets, and you’ve got five things in each bucket, then you’ve only got three things to think about, and it could be around the solution that you’re building, the person you’re doing it for, the type of technology that’s in use, the date it’s got to be finished by. It could be anything. But if you can group the work, I found in people I worked with have found that it relieves some of the overload because it gives you a way to think about things at the next level up.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
The quote that I have on my wall is from Francine Jay, and it says, “My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do.”

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I like the copy machine study by Ellen Langer, which is about providing a reason for why we want people to take action. When people know there’s a reason, they’re more likely to do the action that we want. 

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Elizabeth Harrin
If I was on an island, I’d be taking Les Miserables. I really love that book by Victor Hugo. If I was choosing a business book, I’d choose Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers by Anthony Mersino, which really changed the way that I look at our profession.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I use a tool called Infinity for task management, and a Maltron keyboard to help me type more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. That’s cool. And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Elizabeth Harrin
I do Pilates once a week. I think I need to have that time just to be focused on me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners, and they say, “Yes, Elizabeth, you’re so right when you said this”?

Elizabeth Harrin
Maybe communicate more than you think you have to.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
You can find me on LinkedIn and on all the normal social media channels. And you can find out more about project management at my blog, RebelsGuidetoPM.com.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say to remember that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. So, if you want to just organize your work in a different way, just do it. Most managers want action and results, and they don’t really mind how you get there, as long as you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Elizabeth, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with all your projects.

Elizabeth Harrin
Thank you for having me on the show.