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576: How to Defeat Distraction and Build Greater Mental Resilience through Mindfulness with Rasmus Hougaard

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Rasmus Hougaard says: "We need to learn to manage our mind."

Rasmus Hougaard discusses how to manage your attention by practicing mindfulness.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we get distracted by the news—and how to curb that impulse
  2. The quantifiable benefits of mindfulness
  3. The small habits that build great resilience

 

About Rasmus

Rasmus Hougaard is the Founder and CEO of Potential Project – the global leader in building mindful leaders and organizations by enhancing performance, innovation and resilience through mindfulness. He is the author of One Second Ahead as well as The Mind of the Leader, a bestseller published by Harvard Business Review. In addition, he writes for Harvard Business Review and Forbes and lectures at the world’s leading business and executive education schools.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Rasmus Hougaard Interview Transcript

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

Rasmus Hougaard
Pete, thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. So, right in your bio, you live in both Copenhagen and New York. Can you tell me how do these nations contrast, well, these two cities? The cities and the nations, the cultures contrast.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes. Well, I have very fast rowing boat so I’m just going across the Atlantic every Wednesday. No, that’s not true, of course. And just a disclaimer, this was before the whole COVID because like the last – what is it now – two and a half months or so, I’ve been based in Copenhagen. But, yes, I have a house in New York and a house in Copenhagen. But I’m, honest, spending most of my time everywhere else so I travel a lot of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in the US versus Denmark, what would you say are some of the key cultural differences?

Rasmus Hougaard
Anywhere you go in the US, people are smiling and being really happy and like kind, open. Denmark, and with all respect for my own nation, people look at their feet when you meet them for the first time. It’ll take like two years before they say hi to you, so probably that’s one of the bigger differences.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, it’s a good thing that you’re an expert on mindfulness and resilience so that doesn’t get you down and, I guess, you’re just accustomed to it. So, I was reading your recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, and there’s so much good stuff in there, I want to dig into some more details. So, can you tell us the science behind how constant bad news puts our mind in a natural place where we get distracted? Like, what’s that mechanism or link?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, that’s a great question and something that probably most people experience right now. So, when we come under stress, when we basically become anxious, because of like a crisis that we’re experiencing now with both our health and our financial situation under risk or under attack, the fight-flight part of the brain, which is a very old part of the brain, kicks in, and we basically start to look for all the threats, we start to look for all the changes in the environment, and that in itself makes us incredibly distracted. So, that’s why we check the news more often, that’s why we’re bingeing on social media. Yeah, that’s how the brain works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I love that’s pretty simple and succinct there in terms of, I guess, I before got how, yeah, okay, fight or flight, you get kind of nervous, and there’s cortisol, and you see a threat and you’re amped up. But then, naturally, to scan for threats in modern times means we check the news, check the social media, check the texts, like, “What’s the new thing that’s going to…I have to be aware about and defend myself from?” So, that’s very clear. Thank you.

So, then, your study, you said that recently you saw that 58% of employees reported an inability to regulate their attention at work. Tell us, how did you conduct this research and when did it happen and what’s the story?

Rasmus Hougaard
So, we have around 600 global companies we work with and we do a lot of research on their employees and their leaders. This specific study, we were out and using technology through the phone to basically measure where is their mind at random points during the day. And what people then have to say is, “Oh, I was on task,” “I was off task,” and what we see is just that most of the time, we’re just not on task. As you said, it’s more than half of our time we’re really not paying attention to what we’re doing whether we’re in a meeting, or reading a report, or trying to do an email. We’re not there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, so not to like dig super deep into your details but I’m going to a little bit. So, we say on task, I think sometimes the task at hand is resting, like, “I am deliberately daydreaming, taking a walk around the block, getting a cup of coffee.” How do we account for that?

Rasmus Hougaard
Right. That’s a good question. If, as you said, you’re deliberate about letting your mind wander, then you’re on task.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

Rasmus Hougaard
If you’re going for a walk and you are actually present with going for a walk, you’re on task. If you’re going for a walk, wanting to go for a walk, and just rest, and you just can’t help ruminating over the latest, let’s say, plummeting stock market news, then you are off task.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Rasmus Hougaard
Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Very clear. Well, so then that 58%, so the majority of us are off task the majority of the time? Is that fair to say?

Rasmus Hougaard
Unfortunately, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And this has been the case prior to the coronavirus and it’s gotten worser, or do we have a comparative situation?

Rasmus Hougaard
This was prior to the coronavirus and it has certainly gotten worse since then. We don’t have the data yet. We will be getting that in a few weeks but the preliminary studies that we’ve done is staggering, first of all, that people and, specifically, leaders just have such a hard time being focused. And the second thing is that distractions that they have are 89% of them are negative. So, just imagine you’re distracted most of the time, and 89% of your distractions are bringing you to a negative emotional state.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s awful.

Rasmus Hougaard
I mean, we are moving directly to a major, major mental health crisis right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then I’m not going to pin you down on a precise figure, but with these preliminary studies, like kind of ballpark, how much worse are we talking about?

Rasmus Hougaard
I think it’s probably from the 58 that you talked about and probably around 65 to 75.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s percent of people or percent of the time?

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s percent of time for people in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Wow! All right. Well, so there we go, we’ve framed up the situation. Thank you. Very starkly.

Rasmus Hougaard
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, what do we do about it? What do you recommend? Here we are, what should we do?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I think there are few things that we need to do. First of all, we need to learn to manage our mind. If we can’t manage our mind, we really can’t manage where it’s spending time. We can’t take a walk when we’re taking a walk, and we can’t be focused in a meeting when we need to be focused in a meeting. So, that’s the first thing. And that is obviously done by mindfulness training because that’s the training of basically rewiring our brain to be present with what we do. So, that is the first and most fundamental step, in general, and especially in a crisis.

Secondly, we need to look, like carefully look at how we’re living our lives. Like, do we need to check the phone when we get up in the morning? Do we need to bring our technology into meeting rooms? Do we need to have all of our notifications turned on at our phone and our computers? So, do everything we can to be able to be more present with what we’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, the second piece here, some basic kind of practices, habits, environmental situations, like, “Hey, maybe I’m just going to put the phone elsewhere.” So, then the first part, learning about how to manage the mind via mindfulness practices. I tell you what, Rasmus, I have been up and down in my mindfulness practices. I find it really is genuinely beneficial and I see good things on the day of and the weeks that follow when I’m consistent with it. And it is just amazing how much I don’t want to do it. It is just striking.

Just yesterday I was trying to talk myself into it again, it’s like, “You know, Pete, in a way, that’s one of the benefits, is to get good at doing things you don’t want to do, or starting them is massively valuable.” And this is me trying to talk myself into it. It’s, like, it’s probably one of the safest, lowest energy-demanding ways that you can train at. I don’t need to get tasered repeatedly, “I don’t want to do that,” and I don’t need to do a ton of taxes at work, which I don’t want to do, which drains me.

And so, here I am trying to talk myself into it. So, I’m going to let you do it for me. Can you lay it on us, some of the most just hard-hitting, quantifiable, mind-blowing benefits that professionals who want to be awesome at their job should know about to help them get through their resistance to doing mindfulness practice?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I think the first one, as you also alluded to, like, knowing what are we getting out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rasmus Hougaard
Because having that carrot is helpful. And the quantifiable benefits, I mean, they’re way too many for me to mention them all now, but I’ll just rift off a few. You will have better sleep quality. You will have more happiness. You’ll have better work-life balance. You’ll be more focused. You’ll be more effective. You’ll be more prioritized. And then there’s all kinds of physiological things, like your heart rate will be more healthy. Your skin will be more healthy. Your eyesight will be better. And I could just keep on going. I’m not going to go further down that thing.

The most striking and fascinating thing, I think, is that, what researchers have found, that if we’re doing mindfulness practice 10 minutes a day for eight weeks in a row, they can actually measure that a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your forehead, is actually growing thicker, so it is exactly the same as going to the gym and training your muscles. That’s what’s happening in mindfulness training.

And then you might wonder, “Well, what’s the benefit of having a little bit thicker behind your forehead brain?” The big benefit is that that part of the brain is what is controlling or what is managing what we call executive function, meaning our ability to moment-to-moment monitor, “What am I thinking right now? What am I saying and what am I doing?” So, it basically puts us back into control of our life. And that, I think, is the most important benefit coming from the practice. So, that was the first answer, is know the benefits because that motivates a lot of people.

But then there are a few tips on like how to institute the practice because sometimes just knowing the benefits is not going to be enough. So, we can talk a little bit about that if you want to.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, please. Well, yeah, I want to hit the tips and if we could just get a little bit. All right. So, can you give me some particulars about better sleep and more effectiveness? Because what I find compelling about those, I’m just such a numbers dork, it’s just like, “All right, Pete, this is like ROI stuff. It’s like if I gained more minutes, then I invest, then I am just a fool for not putting on those minutes because it’s like getting free resources, like someone dumping a bag of money into my lap.” So, can I hear about the sleep and the effectiveness?

Rasmus Hougaard
Absolutely. So, I can give you a few different numbers here. First of all, I’ll talk about the work that we do ourselves just because that’s what I’m most familiar with and where we do a pretty thorough research. On average, there are people that we work with, and we’ve worked with around 300,000 people so far from different companies. On average, they get a sleep quality that is in their own experience 36% better. That means they fall faster asleep, they wake up fewer times, and they get into deeper sleep. So, that’s pretty significant.

In terms of effectiveness, depending on how you define effectiveness, there are a few factors of that that is the ability to stay focused on task, their ability of prioritizing the right thing, and then there’s the ability of having the awareness of re-prioritizing when you need to. And out of those factors, again, our clients have an average increase of 40% so it’s pretty significant. Then you may think, “Oh, Rasmus is just touting his own horn and all that,” but other studies done by Harvard and Stanford are coming to more or less the same numbers, so this is quite impressive.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, now you’re getting me there. So, when it comes to prioritizing, a 40% increase in your ability to prioritize. Well, I’m a huge believer in the 80/20 Rule and how, indeed, certain things are 16 times as important as others. So, if that can be doing those things 40% more often, well, then that’s just massive. So, okay, thank you. I will be returning to your words frequently when I am resisting. So, yeah, now let’s get into the how-to. If we want to start training the mind, how do we get that going?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, very good. So, a few things that you can do if you want to actually adopt the practice is, first of all, like the hygiene stuff. Make sure you have a place that you do it, make sure you decide for yourself what time of day, and make sure you decide how long time you want to do it. And a few tips that works best for most people is 10 minutes a day in the morning. And the place, whatever place in your house that is most conducive, so most quiet, and there are no perfect places. That’s like the hygiene factors. When you have that, you create a habit of coming back to the same place, and it gets a little bit easier.

Then the second thing is to just puncture the biggest illusion that people have around mindfulness practice, which is the illusion that, “I’m going to practice mindfulness so that my mind will be calm and serene and beautiful, and I will never, ever be distracted or unhappy again.” That is more or less the unconscious idea that many of us have around this practice, and that is such a mistake because the human brain is wired for distraction. It is basically, through evolution, made to look out for movements and changes in environment to save us from that saber-tooth tiger that’s about to attack us. So, that means we are distracted all the time.

If we see that as a failure, because we believe that we should be serene and clear and calm, we’re going to feel so discouraged because we’re going to feel like we’re failures. So, first of all, just letting go of that illusion. It is called mindfulness practice, not mindfulness perfect, because a practice is something we do again and again and again, and then we become a little bit better but we never get the serene mind.

Bring some joy and pleasure into the practice. Many people find it, or think that, “Now, I’m sitting and I have to focus,” and like their eyebrows go together, and their face is frowning a little bit because, “It’s serious business now, I have to focus.” Let go of all of that. I mean, seriously, the rest of the day, people are busy and running around and attention all over, these are the 10 minutes you give yourself every day, so give yourself a break and just enjoy it. Just enjoy sitting with that breathing, how wonderful it is to sit and breathe. So, invite a sense of joy into the practice.

And the last one, really short, it is not a failure to drop off one day. It is only a failure if you don’t do it the second day. So, it’s okay not to do it every day, but if you decide you want to do it like 14 days in a row, if you drop off one day, no problem. Don’t judge yourself. Just remember the next day, get back on the horse again.

Pete Mockaitis
So, after two days we should judge ourselves?

Rasmus Hougaard
Maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m curious, is that the underlying thought for that recommendation about sort of the research on habit acquisition and maintenance or kind of what’s behind the one-day versus two-day guideline?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, that is a whole research called Atomic Habits that is behind that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. All right. Well, so then…and we’ve hit this from a few different angles from a few different people in terms of what are we actually doing there. So, you take 10 minutes in the quiet place in the morning, and you’re acknowledging that your mind is not going to be calm, serene, and beautiful, and you’re focusing on the breath. Like, what are you doing? You’re sitting there thinking about the breath. Kind of what…lay it out for us.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes. It’s actually quite simple. Having said that, it never feels so simple when we get started on the practice. But, first of all, it’s important to relax. So, relax your body and allow your mind to calm down a little bit, because when we relax the body and we relax the mind a little bit, it’s much easier to stay focused. When we’re tense, which all of us are, then it’s harder. So, spend a few minutes, the first two minutes, just relaxing, especially as you breathe out, just releasing and letting go.

Then start to bring your attention to the breath and let the breath become the anchor or the weight that you’re lifting in this practice. Just like you go in a gym, you take a weight and you lift it up, and you let go, and you lift it up, and you let it go, that’s what you do with the breath. You’re basically holding your attention on the breath as you are breathing in and breathing out, and breathing in and breathing out, and just keep doing that. And then, at some point, you’ll realize, “Hey, now I’m thinking about what to cook for supper tonight.” And that is a success.

I mean, that’s the moment where people feel they failed because, “Oh, no, I got distracted again.” But that moment is actually not where people got distracted because the distraction has been going on for a while. When they become aware, that is the moment that they’re actually mindful again, “Hey, I’m distracted.” So, that’s a moment of celebration. We should be grateful to distractions because they’re basically telling us, “Hey, pal, you are off track. Get back to the breath again.”

So, we’re sitting, focusing on the breath, then we realize we’re distracted, then we’ll just gently guide our attention back to the breath again. That is, in essence, what we’re doing in mindfulness practice. And then you may wonder, “Why should I do this? Yeah, I get it, I get a little bit better sleep and all that stuff.” But the key here is the rest of the day in our lives, our attention is our most scarce resource, so many things are calling for our attention. And by training our focus, we are more able to pay attention to what we need to. And then when in daily life, we’re sitting in a meeting, or doing an email, and we’re getting distracted by notifications, or people talking, or just our own ruminating mind, we have the awareness that we also train in mindfulness that helps us to come back again.

So, this skill of training focus and awareness helps us basically to be more effective at work, to be higher-performing, to spend less time on doing more work. That’s, in essence, what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so well-said. Thank you. I’m digging it. So, then we’ve talked about the mindfulness practice and then the benefits and how that is quite worthwhile, and then what you actually do. I’m curious, are there additional practices, when it comes to building resilience and our ability to cope with these difficult times, beyond sitting and breathing that you’d recommend?

Rasmus Hougaard
There are definitely a few things that are helpful, and some of them are obvious. Just to cover out the basics, sleep is, by far, the most important for our wellbeing, so make sure you get enough sleep, but that’s just…we all know that. Getting a little bit of movement is helpful, and get good food is helpful, but we all know that. One thing that not everybody knows is if we want to have a little happier mind, feel a little bit more present, feel a little bit more balanced, multitasking is the enemy of all of that. So, stopping to multitask, and that’s a whole chapter in itself that we can talk about. But multitasking is the mother to all evil when it comes to performance, wellbeing, connections with others, and you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
Mother of all evil.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That might be all your quote, Rasmus. That might be. Well, so sleep, movement, food. I often hear hydration mentioned in that same sort of a sentence. Do you have any thoughts on water consumption?

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s very important. Of course, that’s very important, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s a short answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess some people say, “You know, I want to drink water when I’m thirsty, and that’s all. Do I have to think about this any more than that?” And some people say, “Absolutely, you do. If you’re thirsty it’s too late.” So, yeah, where do you come out on hydration?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely true. When you’re thirsty then it’s a little bit too late. Most people are probably better at drinking enough than they are at eating the right stuff, especially those of us that are working in offices and working long days have the tendency of, like, after lunch and we have a dip in energy to stuff up with sugar, which brings us to the blood sugar rollercoaster which is very unhelpful for our brain’s ability to function very well. So, at least with the thousands of clients we work with, what we eat is more important than what we drink, unless if people are bingeing on energy drink, which is also not a good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And then I’d also love to get your view, if we go right into the heat of battle in terms of, “All right. So, here I am, I’m trying to get some work done, and I think, ‘Huh, I haven’t checked the news yet. I wonder what’s on there.’ I’m prepping for my Rasmus interview. It’s like, ‘Oh, man, this guy is very impressive. Very accomplished. Oh, wait, what’s in the Wall Street Journal? I don’t know yet.” So, there I am, I’m there, I’m tempted, what do I do?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, what do you do? I think, in that moment, it might actually be too late. We need to train ourselves a little bit before we get into battle. That’s how all warriors or experts become good at what they do. It’s not happening overnight. So, again, it comes back to training the executive function in our brain so that we are more in control of what do when we are in the heat of the moment. So, my first answer would be practice mindfulness because that’s going to help.

Then, now comes your situation. You are in that moment and you are tempted to go and check the news. Adopting a mantra of trying to have more space than more clutter is a really helpful one because we all tend to fill clutter into our mind. And then you may ask, “Why is it that we want to clutter our mind?” And let me tell you a story about one of the most fascinating research projects that I have ever come across, and I’m a researcher myself so I know a lot of research.

Pete Mockaitis
You have my attention.

Rasmus Hougaard
So, imagine this, you have a room, in that room there’s a chair, there’s a table, there’s a little machine with a button on it, and then there’s a wire from that button that goes to a wristband that is put around your wrist. Then, researchers put people into that room one by one. They put this wristband around their wrists, and they say, “Now, try to press the button.” And then they basically get an electric shock on their wrists, and they are asked, “Is this painful?” And people are like shouting and screaming, and saying, “Yes, it is very painful.” And they’re asked, “So, how much would you pay to not have that pain again?” And the people that have been through this research, and that’s many hundreds, are saying that, on average, they would give $47 to not have that electric shock again.

Researchers say, “Fine. That’s good. We understand. Now, what we’ll do is we’ll leave you in this room just with yourself. Between 14 and 7 minutes, you’ll be sitting in here. Are you okay with that?” People say, “Yes, I’m okay with that. Sure, why not?” And so, people are sitting in a room where there’s no TV, there’s no phone, there’s nothing they can do, nothing to look at. There are no windows, just left to their own devices, and a button whereby they can give themselves an electric shock that they would pay $47 not to have. What do you think they do? No, what do we think we’d do, because this is us?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ve heard references to this, but the $47 is new to me. I think a, surprisingly, large proportion of us, just to escape boredom or whatever, choose to self-inflict, right? Now, what’s the figure?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, so the figure for women is 46%, so that’s a lot, like almost half of women. For men, it’s 76. And even one of the guys in the experiment, he did it 117 times. So, basically, the pain of being left to our own mind can be so horrible and scary for most of us that we would rather bring electric shock to ourselves than just be in our own mind.

And so, coming back to your example of you’re going to do an interview and then, “Oh, should I just check the news?” Our mind wants to check the news because our mind does not want space, our mind wants clutter, because when we have clutter, we don’t need to think about the bigger existential questions like, “Who am I? And why does life sometimes is so painful?” No, we’d rather drink a beer, or we’d rather have a piece of chocolate, or what’s the news, or do anything that avoids us thinking. So, that’s the answer.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s powerful stuff. Thank you. Rasmus, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Rasmus Hougaard
I would say in the crisis that we’re in right now, and this is just a heartfelt recommendation to people, is to really give themselves time and space, and avoid just cluttering the mind, because we need it more than anything else. We really need space to recalibrate to the new reality and not to get so anxious as most of us are. So, give yourself space and a mindfulness practice is really going to help. So, that would be it.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
A favorite quote would be Mark Twain saying, “I have experienced many terrible things in my life. A few of them actually came true.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Rasmus Hougaard
And the point of it is, obviously, that our mind is creating our reality, and we are creating so many catastrophic scenarios in our head that never happen, but we experience them. And, especially in a crisis like now, the crisis is not half as bad as our minds are making it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Rasmus Hougaard
William James wrote a book that is the big quote in there is “What you attempt in this moment becomes your reality.” So, this idea that our mind is like a torchlight. What we point our attention to is what becomes our reality, and we don’t see everything else. And if that’s really true, which I think it is, that means if we point our attention to the right things, we can actually create our reality by pointing our attention to the right things. We can create a really beautiful world and a really great life if we can manage our attention.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
I think OneNote. OneNote really helps me to structure everything so I don’t need to have it in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, people quote it back to you often?

Rasmus Hougaard
I am known for, I guess, a few things. All of my colleagues have a favorite joke about me. When I started the company about 14 years ago, bringing mindfulness to corporations back then was just so far out. Like, nobody was interested in that. That’s very different nowadays. Back then, so few people actually wanted it that I had to go dumpster diving with my kids to actually have food on the table at home.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s something my colleagues like to talk about.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Oh, that is commitment.

Rasmus Hougaard
Those were great times.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I had moments of being broke as an entrepreneur in my early days, but that is significantly more dramatic. Wow! Well, I’m glad you stuck with it. Thank you.

Rasmus Hougaard
I think my learning from that was, which I would share with anybody, like, being at the very low point, I mean, in terms of finances, teaches you that you can live on nothing. And when my wife and I and our kids would look back at that time, we were incredibly happy. Life was so simple and it was so beautiful. And while, now, life is very different, we have everything we need and much more than that. I don’t have the same contentment and ease as back then so I wouldn’t be sad to go back to that. I probably wouldn’t want to dumpster dive but just having a little bit more food back then. So, I wouldn’t worry about it.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
Go to our website. I think PotentialProject.com is probably the best place.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
I mean, given the topic of what we discussed, it should be to take up the challenge of doing two weeks of mindfulness practice. we have developed a free app that people can use. And if you go to PotentialProject.app you can download the app for free. And there, you’ll be basically launched into a full program. Try it for two weeks. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re losing 140 minutes of your life, but, best case, and that’s going to happen for the majority, and we have worked with hundreds of thousands of people so I know. Best case is you will feel more balanced, you’ll feel more joy, you’ll sleep better. There’s so much to gain, so little to lose. So, adopt a daily mindfulness practice.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rasmus, this has been very eye-opening and enjoyable. I wish you all the best in unlocking additional potential for you and your clients and all you encounter.

Rasmus Hougaard
Thank you so much, Pete. And the same to you and to everybody out there.

523: How to Create Lasting Behavioral Change with Dr. Kyra Bobinet

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Dr. Kyra Bobinet says: "Mindlessness is the new mindfulness."

Dr. Kyra Bobinet explains how to close the gap between intention and behavior to form better, lasting habits.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Powerful behaviors that build life-changing habits
  2. Just how long it takes to form a habit
  3. Quick ways to ease stress and anxiety at work

About Kyra:

When it comes to health engagement, Dr. Bobinet has 5 words of advice: be caring, authentic, and useful. As the CEO-founder of engagedIN, Kyra devotes her life to helping people crack the code of how, what, and especially, WHY we engage.

Kyra has founded several healthcare start-ups, spanning behavior health, population health, and mobile health. She has designed behavior change programs, big data algorithms, billion dollar products, mobile health apps, and evidence-based studies in mind-body and metabolic medicine. All of her designs, whether for at-risk teens or seniors, are rooted in the belief that true caring is our greatest value.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Kyra Bobinet Interview Transcript

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

Kyra Bobinet
Absolutely. So much fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom because you’ve spent a lot of time studying something that I’ve wondered a lot for quite a while, and, apparently, it’s called the brain behavior gap. Can you first tell us what is that?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes, sir. So, everybody will recognize it as, “I know what I should do but I don’t always do it.” And that’s the difference between what you know what you should do, your brain, and what you actually do, which is your behavior. And it’s kind of this fun, humorous aspect of being a human that we all face this issue in trying to get ourselves to do things that we don’t end up doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I have wrestled with this question ever since I remember in high school marching band, and toward the end of the summer, we had what we called band camp, which the movie American Pie has ruined the idea of band camp for people. But, anyway, we’d spend just about eight plus hours a day, Monday through Friday, for a couple of weeks just working on the marching and the playing, and I thought, “Man, we made a huge amount of progress in terms of putting that show together,” and I think, “Boy, what can I accomplish if I could just hunker down and work that much solo on something?” And I still don’t I’ve cracked the code on how to actually do that.

Kyra Bobinet
Oh, dear, yeah. It’s such an interesting thing to listen to people’s stories of trying to sequester themselves there. It’s almost like a runaway dog running away, your puppy, it’s like, “Come back, come back,” so it’s really crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so tell us, what makes it difficult and what should be done?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, the reason why this happens is we have, basically, two gears you can think of it in our brain. One is our fast brain I like to call it. It equates to Daniel Kahneman’s work on System 1 thinking. All the autopilot, all of the mindlessness, all of the stuff that happens by habit and without thought, that’s kind of fast brain. Think of tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, yadda, yadda. And then there’s this slow brain which is the sort of ideals, the problem-solving, the hard kind of mechanics, and decision-making, and willpower, and all that juicy stuff, but that’s in short supply. So, if you were to take a ratio, the fast brain is like 95% of what we do, and the slow brain is about 5% of what we do.

And so, oftentimes, the slow brain gets its ass kicked by the fast brain, and we’re just doing the normal distraction things or the things that feel good right now, the immediate gratification, and the slow brain just doesn’t have a chance. So, everything that we deal with as behavior designers, and that I’ve learned to do with behavior change, is to work with those two gears and get them to align.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, I guess I’d love to hear maybe a story associated with someone who had something they knew they should do but weren’t doing it, and then they enacted some approaches to see some cool results there.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. The general principle that people can take away is make the good stuff faster and make the bad stuff slower. So, one of the amazing stories came out of Google where they had an M&M problem, and they offer a lot of free food, and there’s even jokes here in Silicon Valley about the Facebook 15, or the Google 15, almost like in college when you gain 15 pounds because you have so much free food and just endless trough of food.

So, they were having this problem with M&Ms, and they decided that they had to create some barriers, some friction, if you will. And so, they took them from eye-level bowls that were open with a big scooper, and they put them in jars, closed them up, and put them down by your knee caps. You had to kind of squat down, which a lot of people weren’t willing to do, and then monkey open the jar, and get in there, and then they had like a little tiny scooper.

And so, that’s one example of kind of putting friction in between you and the autopilot that will probably not serve you. So, whether that is the snooze alarm, some people have a real problem with hitting snooze. And so, how do you create that friction for yourself to not hit snooze? Do you move the phone away, your alarm with your phone on it, away from you further? Those kinds of things. And people, once they understand how this works, they get really creative. It’s just amazing to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love that on so many levels. When you said M&M problem, I was thinking of the rapper, I thought, “Are they playing Eminem too loudly? Oh, no, no, the chocolatey treats that are high-calorie. I can see it.”

Kyra Bobinet
He’s brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I think that’s quite brilliant in terms of making them hard to access. And I’ve done that before in terms of if I’ve got a six pack of delicious beer and I want to drink it more slowly, I just try to really put it deep in the back of the fridge so I have to be pretty motivated and committed to kneel down and reach through and make it happen. And, sure enough, it makes the six pack last more days.

Kyra Bobinet
Exactly. Out of sight, out of mind.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s great and very well-articulated to make the good stuff faster and the bad stuff slower. So, that’s reshaping the environment. And I’d love it if you could give us a few more examples of some smart moves that have helped people out.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. There’s this concept called The Ulysses Contract, and this is from a colleague of mine, David Eagleman, who’s a neuroscientist at Stanford. And he actually talks about this with respect to getting yourself to do the thing. The Ulysses story is very famous in The Odyssey, where he, basically, is on a ship and he really wants to hear the siren sound so he has his sailors lash him to the mast of the ship so that he doesn’t jump overboard which is what the sirens make you do, and then he stuffs all of the men, the sailors, with wax in their ears, or cotton, I can’t remember, and so they can’t hear the siren sounds. They’re navigating the ship and he’s able to enjoy the music without that.

So, what Dr. Eagleman talks about is, “How can you put yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to do the thing?” So, oftentimes, when people purchase something, a cruise or a trip maybe that makes them take vacation because they’re really bad at taking vacations or taking time off. Daddy-daughter dates, even date nights with your spouse, those kinds of things are kind of these Ulysses contracts. They’re things that, once you commit to them, you put so much into it that you have a disincentive to bail out, in that way you kind of prevent your future self from making the wrong choice.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m thinking if we zoom into workplaces and professionals, how have you seen some additional approaches play out in that particular context? So, we’re at work, we want to do more of the good stuff, less the bad stuff. What have you seen work out well for folks?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. So, all of us have had this what we’ll call phantom invites that we put on our calendar, right? I call that behavior fantasy, where you have a standing promise to yourself in the future and you just shoot right through it. It’s just so many times you break up with that promise with yourself so that it doesn’t actually even get your attention anymore. All of us have that, whether we put workouts there, or go to sleep early, or only work on the report until here, or even start, like procrastinators like myself, starting something is the hardest thing to get yourself to do.

So, you’re kind of wrangling yourself into that. There’s a number of different strategies, so you can actually create social accountability, which is kind of a consequence. If I tell somebody to hold me accountable, I set a deadline for that person then there’s a social element, and our brains are extremely social so we will, most times than not, get that done or get close to that deadline that we set for another person because we’re obligating ourselves, again, in the future in that kind of Ulysses contract way.

Another thing that people do is create a reward system for themselves. So, that could be an emotional reward, that could be giving themselves a treat of some kind. Hopefully, it’s not going to work against your health in any way. But if there’s something you’ve been really wanting to do, a freedom, a delight, just a little celebration that you want to send that signal of dopamine and even oxytocin, which is another reward chemical, to your brain by really making it a point to celebrate and create a reward system at the end, much like you would train an animal.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, please, share some examples of great rewards and celebrations. And we had BJ Fogg on the show earlier who had some great perspectives on this, and I think it warrants some elaboration. So, we want to be careful that it doesn’t sort of work against other goals, like, “Oh, it’s going to be a delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup,” or something, I don’t know, with high calories. But what are some great rewards and celebrations you’ve seen really work for some folks?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, the best ones are in context, meaning that they’re related to the actual effort itself. So, if you are trying to get something out on a deadline, then to basically build in a lazy day for yourself the next day. And in most cases, and in most workspaces, you can kind of take it back a notch for a little while and go for a long walk, or take a little extra time, or even do something different on your break if you have a really rigid break system timing-wise.

So, those kinds of things where you feel like you’re free, and you’re in control, and you’re the boss of yourself, and you’re not really tying yourself to the dutifulness which so much of us do at work, as being dutiful to others or to your team, and, really, just doing something nice for yourself. And I think it’s the hardest thing in the world for people to do to really have a moment of selfishness that really helps to signal to themselves, “Hey, I’m here for you and I’m taking care of you.”

And that, really, I find in all the people that I interview in research, they really stop rebelling against themselves when they have those little treats that they give themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, so we talked a bit about behavior change and shaping the environment. Let’s talk about, specifically, habit formation. You talked a bit about the celebration-rewards piece. Could you maybe orient us to the overall science behind habit formation?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, this is super fascinating. I started out in workplace stress reduction in one of the programs that I created. I created a mindfulness program that was kind of the first in class when I was at Aetna and has since kind of been taken up by Headspace and Calm and some of these apps. So, those are all really great and I’m still a proponent of mindfulness. But I find that unless I can make something as mindless as tying your shoe, it’s not going to survive your modern life.

So, we have a new model we need to really follow of behavior change, which is habit formation, vis-à-vis unstoppability, being unstoppable, being the ability to just keep going and going and going. And one of the things I found in my research on habit science is that there’s a new area of our brain that’s been characterized called the habenula, and that’s a mouthful. But it’s, basically, in charge of two things. One, it is a detector of you thinking you failed. So, if you think you failed, I could throw you in an FMRI machine and this part of your brain will light up, right?

So, the second thing that it does, if it lights up, if it gets turned on like that, is it kills your motivation to try again. And this, to me, was shocking and kind of the reason why you see people do really, really well in terms of changing their behaviors, they set goals, they track them, they do all these things, and then, one day, including this happened to myself, including one day you just stop doing it. And I had patients like this, and I would say, “So, what happened?” And they would literally blink and look at me blankly and say, “I have no idea.” They don’t know how they go there because it happened subconsciously so the person doesn’t even consciously know that they lost their motivation. They just don’t do it.

And so, one of the things with habit formation is that if you practice, and if you practice and practice, you’ll find something that you can get to go. You can close that brain behavior gap, get yourself to practice, and practice, and practice. And as the brain responds to that repetition, what it does is it creates almost like a highway. It lays down the asphalt so that you can drive even faster. So, that behavior goes faster and faster and faster, and it becomes part of your fast brain, that autopilot mindlessness area that we talked about at the beginning. So, that, to me, was just amazing and shocking, and so it completely changed the paradigm of how to change a behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I think there are all sorts of implications there, the habenula, you’re thinking you failed so it kills your motivation to try again. I guess I’m imagining then, one implication may be that you want to maybe reduce the size of the thing you’re trying to habituate so that you don’t fail, you keep on winning again and again and again, and building that highway. Is that accurate?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, that’s the safest thing, and I know BJ, who’s one of my mentors, is really into making it small. I do think that you can really get a higher percentage of shots on goal if you start with small. But I’ve seen people start out with something big if it works for them. To me, the thing I’m drawing from the science these days is what matters most is if you find the thing that turns you on, and that works for you, that fits into your life, no matter how big or small it is, usually it is small especially with somebody who’s a little shaky in their confidence in that particular area, which is what BJ is really good at. It’s just like getting that wheel to turn in people, and simplifying it, and making it tiny. He calls his program Tiny Habits even.

So, I do believe that that’s a really good kindergarten place for everybody to start safely, but I also noticed in my own research that the more important thing that we found is something called the iterative mindset, that we’re calling the iterative mindset, because we found people who changed their habits, big habits, big lifestyle habits against all odds, but they did it by finding their experiment, by looking at it as an experiment, and then iterating or tweaking and tinkering with it until it worked for them. So, maybe you can kind of see that as a small change too.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, and while we’re talking about laying the highway, I guess maybe I’ve seen all kinds of different ranges quoted in different places. But how long does it take to form a habit? Is it 28 days? Is it 66 days? Does it depend, and what does it depend on? Can you lay it down for us?

Kyra Bobinet
Well, Pete, I just so happen to be nerdy enough to know the answer to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Kyra Bobinet
Actually, you know, about four years ago, I asked myself that same question, and I had my neuroscience team really, really scrub the scientific literature and put together a model based on the evidence that was there. So, actually, it takes one full year to fully, what’s called myelinate, which is that pavement in the brain that makes it superfast, electrical signal can go way faster, for a new habit to form, and that’s with fairly, daily, if not multiple times a week, repetition of that habit.

And so, what happens when you have a highway after about a year is that you’ve got now two copies of the same behavior. You have the old copy of, in my case, I used to go through the drive-thru all the time as just an easy way to get a meal, and as I broke that habit, my competing habit, my adult one-year old habit, was to cook at home for my kids. And once you have that cook-at-home thing, you can still go through the drive-thru, you still have that old highway. And most people don’t understand it. It’s not that they’re not patient about building the new highway, it’s that they make the mistake thinking the old highway is in disrepair.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a full year. Interesting. And so then, I imagine that’s like a full-blown highway and myelination is there. Kind of intermediate step before that or how do you think about that?

Kyra Bobinet
Right, there’s hope. There’s hope, Pete. Yeah, so what we know from the science is that around eight to ten weeks there is this kind of automation that starts to kick in, so it starts to feel easier and easier, more automatic. And then over the time that you do it, you’re basically sending so many signals to your brain of, “Hey, this is my new normal,” that your brain makes it feel more comfortable.

So, over the course of that year, you’re going to get more and more comfortable, it’s going to become more and more you as opposed to not you, and it’s going to get more and more automated, you can  use less and less brain energy to make it happen. So, that’s where the mindlessness really kicks in. To me, we should all be looking at mindlessness as the goal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. It’s a fun when you think about that mindlessness, which almost sounds like a bad thing to be avoided. And, today, mindfulness is everything. Obviously, mindlessness is the thing to pursue but it makes sense in this context, and I appreciate that. So, very cool. Well, so then, I guess there’s many, many habits one might choose to build. I’ve heard some cool research or thoughts on keystone habits, you know, habits that can sort of unlock a whole lot of great results. Tell us, when it comes to a well-designed life, what are some of the habits that tend to really do have some powerful ripple effects?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, the more I do this, and we’ve been building a software around this, and what we’re finding is that it is literally a matchmaking exercise between that person at that time in their life based on everything they’ve tried before, or they’re burnt out on, and what they’re open to, and what can kind of reengage them, and then what excites them, what fits their life, what fits their schedule. It is almost like that old adage where you’ve got a floating circle in the ocean, and an ocean turtle, a sea turtle, just happens to pop up their head right in the middle of that circle. That’s kind of how bullseye it has to be.

And so, I think that right now what we’re facing is, “How do we sift through all of the millions of options in any particular topic area and really find the thing that works for us, that works for me right now that’s going to, again, turn me on, that it makes sense to me, and it really is interesting to me?” And just having that, I call it, seeking behavior is the most important thing it seems.

And there’s another neuroscientist that I really admire, he passed away a couple of years ago, named Jaak Panksepp, and his conclusion was that there were seven emotional channels in the mammalian brain, we’re mammals. And he noticed that the number one most dominant emotion was seeking, seeking behaviors. So, think Google, think online shopping, think looking for a mate, looking for a job. That power of that looking is itself very therapeutic and positive for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that feels like another hour of conversation right there. Wow!

Kyra Bobinet
We’ll get a part two.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the seeking is the strongest of the seven, and it just seems there’s a lot of implications to that. What do you think are amongst some of the biggest when it comes to folks who are trying to become awesome at their jobs? If the seeking behavior is among the strongest of those seven emotional channels, how do we make that work for us?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I mean, obviously, the tribe that follows you is of that ilk. They’ve already won that particular contest because they’re seeking, they’re taking in new information, they’re leaning into more and more answers for them, and they are perusing all the wisdom that you’re sharing on this show and the people that you bring on this show. So, basically, they’re locked in there. I think just hearing it might just be another validation of that. Keep doing that, you’re on the right track. That’s exactly what we all need to do.

And, in fact, it should be probably a red flag in that case for this audience that if you stop seeking, maybe look at that. If you get stuck in your career, or in your progress at work, then look at seeking first. Did you lose seeking? Did you lose curiosity? Did you lose spending time wondering about things and opening yourself up? Because that’s where that next round of growth would lead you to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you. Well, so I also love to get your take when it comes to automating, building good habits and breaking bad habits. Are there any particular behaviors? You mentioned there’s a matchmaking situation, but any sort of small behaviors you recommend we might start doing right away to make it easier to develop these highways?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, in the habit science, there’s two variables that stand out as the most important. Number one is time, the time of day or the time after or before. Your brain understands time as sequences, like, “I do this before I do that,” you know, “I shower before I get dressed.” And it also understands things in terms of time of, “I do this on Sundays,” time of week, time of day. And so, if you’re trying to do a habit and you haven’t anchored it in time or how your brain understands time, it’s likely going to get lost in the wash of your life and distractions. So, that’s one thing I would say.

The other thing that the science is saying is that location is huge. We also understand, “I do this in my car. I do this at my desk. I do this when I go to the cafeteria.” Those kinds of triggers, they’re called context cues, are the thing that really helps to anchor the habit in space, if you will. So, you’ve got time and space, and then there’s the social element, too, which is, “I do this with these people.”

So, one of the reasons why it’s so hard not to be good, some people call it, I don’t call it that, but at a birthday party to not eat cake when everybody else is eating cake is that your brain is saying, “Oh, I eat birthday cake with other people. I don’t just go to the grocery store and throw it in my grocery cart usually by myself. Happy birthday to me.” It’s very social.

So, those are some three ways that I think if somebody who’s thinking about a habit could strengthen it and could really help them to select the right one for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with all this talk about environment and habits, I’m curious in terms of what have you seen in workplaces are some of the, and I know it’s going to be a special fit in matchmaking, person to person, but what are some of the most prevalent bad things in habits and environments, and good things in habits and environments that you’re seeing in workplaces today?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I would say the most troublesome one is the stress habit that gets turned into gossip and toxicity. So, most cultures don’t have, I’ll call it, an anus for the stress that gets built up there. Pardon, I’m a doctor so that kind of word is available to me.

Pete Mockaitis
It might be the first time where the word anus has been uttered on this show. Thank you, Kyra.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, the listeners are like, “What did she say?” So, yeah, I said anus.

Pete Mockaitis
You mean, you’re screening it out I think is where you’re going with this, yeah.

Kyra Bobinet
I said anus, yeah, exactly. Let’s say it a couple of times. So, yeah, we need some outlet for all the stress and friction. And people are moving a million miles a minute, they’re going from meeting to meeting to meeting, or they’ve got production schedules, or they’re stocking shelves like crazy, whatever your job is, and you are going back to back to back to back. Most people can’t even find time to go to the restroom at their modern work, right?

So, all of that creates all this friction and all of this like angst and rumination that the brain is going through, and then there’s not a real good mechanism that needs to be designed for really, “Whew!” exhale, the anus, you know, pooping, getting it all out. And so, that then turns into backbiting, gossiping, cannibalizing each other, that sort of thing. And so, I would say that what works for everybody is to engineer some downtime in the middle of the day to find ways to give yourself a mental break. And this is where mindfulness comes in really good, and your three deep breaths, and you literally reset your brain. And you just have to remind yourself how to do that or get your attention to remember to do the good thing that you know to do.

So, those kinds of mechanisms, I think, are universal. And then there’s sort of little productivity things that people, I would say there’s different segments of productivity tricks and hacks that people have. There is the procrastinators, like myself, who need to have external deadlines to bump our noses up against. There’s people who are super diligent, who are maybe introverts who need that quiet time away. There’s people who are extroverts who need to go and pull together a bunch of people and talk everything out.

And so, those are some ways that I see are mushy but could be more clarified if somebody were to take the time and kind of almost journal or articulate for themselves, “What kind of person are you? What kind of worker are you? When do you see yourself really shine and really turn on?” And I think that’ll help people understand some of the habits that are maybe positive and maybe toxic for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you. And what are some of the most encouraging great stuff that you’re seeing there?

Kyra Bobinet
My heroes these days is a company called Workday, and they do HR technologies, kind of SaaS platforms. But the thing I like about it is that their people who are in charge of their employee wellbeing are focusing on rumination because one of the good things that’s come out of the mindfulness research of late in the neuroscience side is that we know now that if your brain is on loop in an area called, forgive me, dorsolateral PFC, which is prefrontal cortex. It’s basically kind of if you look at your forehead and you kind of go an inch to the right or left, there’s two little areas there that are basically causing you to focus on yourself.

And rumination is, “Oh, did I do that right? Oh, what does she think of me? Oh, am I going to get fired? Oh, when is my performance review? Am I ever going to get rise up in this company? Do I need to look for another job? Does so and so like me?” all that rumination. And what they know, what Workday is dealing with is training programs, and discussions, and wellbeing initiatives to help people deal with that rumination, because that has been tied to, again, going back to MRI studies, to feelings of depression, feelings of anxiety. We have an epidemic of anxiety these days because of the number of triggers our brain sustains that throws us into rumination on a daily basis.

So, I think the modern workplace is really how do we design for freeing ourselves from these brains kind of loop tendency to get into rumination sequences, you know?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Kyra, I’m fascinated by, boy, I’m counting some research associated with how our current levels of anxiety are just like wildly higher than they were a generation or two ago. And so, that’s whole another conversation.

Kyra Bobinet
Well, what are you seeing in that? Because you live this every single day. You live and breathe in this industry and in this area.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think I heard a talk in which someone said that, in particular, I think they were talking about teenagers had levels of anxiety just sort of like normally like in terms of their day-to-day experience that were comparable to, I think, sort of veterans suffering from PTSD. And I said, “What?” And so, that was eye-opening. So, I’ve got two precious kiddos under two right now, and I’m thinking about their future, I was like, “Whoa! What is going on there? That’s intriguing.” And I’ve yet to do my seeking of many answers there. But you brought up something intriguing there with regard to, hey, we have so many more triggers now for rumination that lead to anxiety. So, could you unpack what are some of those big triggers we’ve got now that we didn’t have before?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, we have so much exposure, right? So, let’s say, take a typical Western person in the U.S. for example, and even before they start their first meeting or activity at work, they have listened to or watched a million things that could’ve triggered an emotion in them. So, all that residue is kind of spinning around in their subconscious, and that’s going to lead to rumination if they do not do something consciously and mindfully about it. So, if they ground out and say, “I send compassion to that war-torn area I just heard about,” or, “I just heard about the fires in my area or a tornado that happened in the Midwest,” or any of those things. Like, it does land in the brain. And even if you think you’re tough and you move on, it mulls around inside.

And so, that’s the kind of fodder or tinder by which this rumination fire just starts to burn, it starts to go and go and go, and it’s subconscious. So, what happens is that you don’t even notice it until maybe, I’ve talked to executives who suddenly have panic attacks on a work trip, and they’re the most solid person in the world, and they’re super extroverted and things like that, but that’s how it’s affecting us. It’s just that constant touch on things you can do nothing about but you have an emotional response to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Part of the mystery is in place there and I appreciate that. Kyra, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Kyra Bobinet
Pete, what I stand for at this point is just making people unstoppable. For me, the most significant thing in my career so far has been really understanding how iteration and iterators never fail, and they’re in all kinds of industries. So, the one thing I really care about is just really helping people to wake up to that fact, the fact about your brain and how it works, and it helps you get around the habenula and all the little things that blow up in your face. And that, to me, is revolutionary in terms of people’s success at work and in life. And I’m just super stoked about that conversation and that concept and people making that their own as well.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, kind of along those lines. I had a mentor and he used to have this really interesting voicemail because I’ll call him sometimes for some moral support, or, “How do I do this?” And his voicemail said, “Hi, this is David. I didn’t catch you right now. I’ll catch you later.” And he said, “Don’t ever give up no matter what you do,” and then he hangs up. And that’s my favorite quote of all time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Kyra Bobinet
So, for me, it is the iterative mindset study that we did. Again, we’ve been building up this research for a couple of years now on the Walmart Project, and we found that this iterative mindset existed in people who succeeded but then we did, we took a huge chance in broad daylight, in front of our biggest customer, it’s the biggest professional risk I’ve ever taken, and we did this study to see if we could get people to adapt this mindset and if it would change their outcomes.

And we actually found that we could get them to lose weight at the regular one pound a week, a healthy pace, and that they have habit formation that was statistically significant, and they had mindset formation that was statistically significant. So, to me, that was just delightful and really following the science and reading all of the homework before that really helped us set this up for something that was going to work out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy, that’s powerful. And maybe if we could hear one sentence on how would you articulate, characterize the iterative mindset as oppose to its alternative?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. And the credit goes to the MacGyvers of the world. This is something that even though I’m putting language to it, this is found in nature. So, people are just so clever, and it’s so amazing. So, these are people that work for Walmart, lower socioeconomic status, they have every stressor every time and money constraints in the world, family not being supportive of them, and they changed their health, they changed their lifestyle to be healthy against all these odds.

And what they all had in common was this iterative mindset, which is two parts that we can tell. Number one is they see what they’re trying next as an experiment. It’s not like this do or die. It’s not a goal. It’s just, “Hmm, maybe I’ll play with this a little bit. Maybe I’ll practice this a little bit.” So, they see it as a practice, they see it as a non-consequential experiment, that’s part number one.

Part number two is when they need to change something, either because a life disruptor came in, they had to move away from their favorite gym, or their shift changed and they can no longer do what they were doing before, cooking for their kids, whatever, they would iterate. And much like tech here in Silicon Valley, that iteration, that relentless iteration of, “I’m just going to iterate and tweak and tinker until I find the next thing that works for me,” made them different from everybody else because everybody else goes, “Oh, I failed.” Boom! They hit their habenula. Boom! They stop trying without even knowing it. And, boom, they quit, they quit trying. And that is the biggest problem.

And every time I talk to clinicians or people who’ve changed their lives, they recognize this pattern, they’re like, “That’s how I do it.” So, I know that it’s real, I know that it’s natural, I know that it’s not like high academia, but it’s something that everybody can do to make their life better. And, in fact, I haven’t met a single person who has made their life better who didn’t do it in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite book?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, my favorite book that I read every night with my husband, just one little passage because it’s teeny tiny, it’s called Tao Te Ching with Steven Mitchell as the interpreter. And I just love it because it kind of messes with my sense of reality. It says, “Do without doing.” And that’s just one of those come-ons, that’s like, “What? I don’t understand.” So, I like making myself feel like I’m confused and I don’t really understand this deep profound philosophy stuff, but I still like to take it in and try to chew on it a little bit.

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

Kyra Bobinet
So, for me, I use a couple of things. For my to-do list, I like the Clear app, and I only look at the top three things every day because your brain only understands, so that’s a three. I also have been using Otter lately to write my new book, and that just transcribes all my words because I’m better at talking than sitting down and making myself write, and that’s one of those Ulysses contract things.

And then I also, every year it’s coming up now, I’m going to do another vision board for 2020. So, I actually do a vision board. I do it with just a big Sharpie and a big nice piece of poster board, and I put it up for the year. And pretty much everything that happens in the year follows that vision board.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I think that the one that’s been really resonating with people lately is mindlessness is the new mindfulness because we know we’re busy, we know we’re distracted, and we know we have to, if we’re going to change our lives and change our behavior, we have to get it to a mindless state.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. Well, we have our company website EngagedIn.com. Our product website is FreshTri.com and then my namesake website, you can always say hi to me, DrKyraBobinet.com. I love to hear from people.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, there’s no reason to stop trying, that’s my message is just be unstoppable and get around your habenula. And what I said about the iterative mindset works for you or you need to even tinker or tweak that to fit you or the way you think, do it, because there’s no reason to stop these days. And if you find yourself getting stuck, just shake it off and realize you can iterate your way out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kyra, this has been so much fun. Thank you and good luck in all of your adventures.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

512: Retraining Your Brain for More Effective Leadership with Matt Tenney

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Matt Tenney says: "The best leaders make love their top priority."

Matt Tenney discusses how mindfulness vastly improves the way we lead and relate with others.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How an emphasis on goals hurts your leadership
  2. A monastic practice that improves engagement
  3. Why mindfulness is the ultimate success habit

About Matt

Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a BoardroomHe is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies.  He works with companies, associations, universities, and non-profits to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them.  Matt envisions a world where the vast majority of people realize that effectively serving others is the key to true greatness.  When he’s not traveling for speaking engagements, he can often be found in Nashville, TN.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Matt Tenney Interview Transcript

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

Matt Tenney
My pleasure, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of your good stuff from servant leadership and mindfulness and more. And in the subtitle of your book Serve to Be Great, you mentioned there’s some leadership lessons from a prison and a monastery. So, I love a good story. So, what are the cool stories coming from the prison and the monastery?

Matt Tenney
Well, there’s a lot.The summary here is that I’m pretty hardwired, I would say I’m 100% hardwired to be just a Type A, goal-driven, pretty selfish person, and I think we all have certain ways that we’re wired, and that’s certainly me.

But this certainly reached its peak when I was, this is 2001, that was about 18 years or so ago. When I was 24, I tried to take a shortcut to success and attempted a fraud against the government and, as a result of being both dishonest and stupid, I ended up spending five and a half years confined to prison. And, at first, of course, this was just the worst thing that had ever happened in my life and I was suicidal for a while.

Then, as everybody does, I think when you’re in a really difficult situation, whether it’s one you put yourself in like I did, or one that just kind of happens to you, you gradually adjust. And about a year into it though, I started learning about the practice of mindfulness and this actually made that experience of being confined, it transformed it into the most meaningful experience of my life.

Because I’m Type A, when I started learning about it, I went at it 100%. And within about six months of starting the practice, I was making the effort to be mindful, just about every waking moment of the day, during all of my daily activities. And it was around that time when it just hit me one day that, “Holy cow, I’m actually happier here that I’d ever been in my life.” And I don’t know anything, and I’m not achieving anything, I’m just being, and there’s no fun per se.

So, that inspired me to go as deep as I could in the practice and I ended up essentially ordaining and training as almost identically to how monks train in monasteries for the last three and a half years.

I found the monastic ideal to be extremely noble because the core of it is you’re making love the top priority. Instead of making your own selfish ambition or your own goals the top priority, you’re making, contributing to the wellbeing of others your top priority.

And that turned my time of confinement into the most meaningful experience of my life, so much so that that experience inspired me so much so that, after leaving, I went to live “real” monastery and almost ordained to become a monk the rest of my life, but then realized for me that would be like trying to take another shortcut because it was really easy for me.

I’m an introvert, I like having lots of quiet time, so I realized if I really want to be able to serve on a large scale and be most helpful to people, I need to go out in the real world and do stuff, and earn a living, and probably have a family, which I do now with two small kids, so people can relate better to what we’re talking about.

I would imagine if a monk came into the average company and said, “Here’s the way to be more at peace and more successful,” everything that person said is going to be taken with a grain of salt because you’re thinking, “Dude, all you do is sit around and meditate and do the dishes. Like, what do you have to worry about?” So, that was why I ended up not ordaining. But I’ve tried to live as close to the monastic ideal as possible for the last 17-18 years on my journey from prisoner to monk to social entrepreneur.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating and there’s so much to dig into there. All right. So, let’s talk about some of the nitty-gritties of mindfulness and practice a little bit later.

Matt Tenney
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And, first, talk about sort of this mindset that when it comes to making love the ideal and serving others. So, you talk a lot about servant leadership. Can you share how exactly do you define that and how does that differ from the norm?

Matt Tenney
Well, the kind of the standard definition of servant leadership is if you imagine a pyramid and most organizations are structured with a C suite at the top of the pyramid and then below them are VPs, below them are directors, below them are mid-level managers, and then all of your frontline people fill out the base of the pyramid.

And the basic idea of servant leadership is that instead of viewing the hierarchy like that, where you’ve got these very senior people on the top and everyone in the organization is serving them and their agenda, it’s actually upside down. So, the senior people view their job as serving all the people that they lead.

And, counterintuitively, another way of putting this is the way that I like to put it is making love the top priority. In fact, I just did a TEDx Talk that that was the title, why the best leaders make love their top priority. And there’s an abundance of evidence demonstrating why this is so. But you can summarize it very, very simply. I mean, it’s kind of common sense.

The idea is if you make profit the top priority, you, as a leader, you’re either going to consciously or unconsciously neglect employees in a systematic way. And when employees are consistently neglected, they’re going to become increasingly disengaged over time and, as a result, customer service is going to decline, product quality is going to decline, and innovation is very unlikely to occur. In other words, the organization is eventually going to fail to serve the customer. In fact, they might be failing immediately.

Whereas, if you flip that, so to me a servant leader or someone who makes love the top priority, the filter that they use for every decision is, “How is this going to impact the long-term wellbeing of the people that I lead, that I take care of?” And if the answer is it’s going to have a negative impact, then it’s eliminated as an option.

And, counterintuitively, what happens when you do this is when people know that the leadership genuinely cares about them and is more concerned about their long-term wellbeing than they are on their next bonus, then what happens is people take very good care of their customers, right, through customer service, through better quality, through being more free to innovate because they’re not in a culture of fear. And, as a result, the customer is very well-served and, of course, the key to any organization, whether it’s for profit, non-profit, education, is having customers that are happy and loyal. And that’s the way that that’s achieved over the long term.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, that filter is particularly applied from the employee perspective, like how all these affect their long-term wellbeing of those I lead. And so, those you lead, you’re thinking about employees as opposed to customers.

Matt Tenney
Exactly, yeah. If you take very good of the employees, they take good care of the customers. And that’s actually something that a lot of organizations get wrong, in my opinion, is that you hear a lot of organizations say, “We have this intense customer focus.” And so the problem with that is, it’s not that it’s wrong, and I’m sure everyone listening and knows a story that they can relate to about this, but if you have a customer that’s a real pain in your side, they’re a pain for all of the employees that serve that customer.

And if they’re demanding too much and it’s unrealistic, to continue to enable them to do that, what you’re ultimately doing is you’re degrading the wellbeing of your employees and their ability to serve not only that customer but other customers. Morale goes down, and it’s actually a net loss. Whereas, if you were to say, “Okay. Well, this customer is a real pain. We need to ask them to change their behavior or fire them,” in the short term that sounds really scary, right? You say, “Wait a second, but that’s a big source of revenue.” Well, revenue is nice but not at the expense of the morale and the wellbeing of your team members, because if that degrades, not only is that customer going to end up being failed to be served but others will be as well.

And this is actually one of the counterintuitive applications, I’m sure many of you have heard of the Pareto Principle, the 80-20 Rule, that many of the most successful entrepreneurs I’m aware of apply, is they realize that 20% of their customers are delivering 80% of their results and, usually, those 20% are really easy to work with. Many of that 80% of your customers that are only delivering 20% of the results, and oftentimes they’re the ones that complain the most, they create the most stress for employees. So, a good practice is to, as many of those as you can afford to do it, to refer them out to your competition. Let your competition serve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. So then, I’m thinking about zooming in a little bit in terms of, okay, so we’re making love the top priority and you’re filtering out based on that guideline. What are some of the everyday practices, behaviors, activities that really make this come to life?

Matt Tenney
That’s the secret right there, Pete. So, in my experience, I wrote Serve to Be Great I think in 2012 or something so that book has been out for seven years and I’ve spoken extensively on this subject, interacted with many leaders, many employees and organizations, and, almost invariably, everyone wants to do this.

There are very few people that get up and say, “You know, my recipe for success is I’m going to go into work today and be a selfish jerk. That’s my plan.” I’ve never met anyone like that. I’m sure they’re out there but they certainly don’t come out and proclaim that to you. Everyone that I’ve met wants to do this. But I think if you were to ask most people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being you do this consistently 100% of the time, and 1 you never do it, most people aren’t anywhere near at 10. Most people would rate themselves at a 6 or 7, maybe an 8 at best.

So, the way I like to look at it is, well, let’s think about it as, “What’s stopping us from doing it?” because we all want to, right? What are the biggest blocks to doing this? And this kind of comes back to your original question about the subtitle of the book, “Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.” Interestingly, I think the three biggest blocks are resolved by living a little bit more like a monk.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Matt Tenney
By that, I don’t mean people need to go out and be monks. But I’ll give you the three big ideas and then you can dive in wherever you like and we can go as deep as you like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Good.

Matt Tenney
So, here’s the summary. So, the three big blocks, in my mind, are, one, is that because of our conditioning and the way society has programmed us, we don’t focus on making love the top priority. We focus on achieving goals. And not that there’s anything wrong with achieving goals. The problem is if we focus on achieving goals at the expense of our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us, that’s when that becomes problematic.

So, the first biggest block is that we just don’t focus enough on what we know in our heart of hearts is the most important thing not just in business but in life, which is to prioritize loving people over getting stuff or getting stuff done in a worldly sense. The second block is we’re busy. Have you noticed this, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Matt Tenney
People are busy. As I’m sure every listener listening to this knows that we’re all very busy. And there is science supporting, and we can talk about the study if you like. It’s actually both a hilarious and sad study at once demonstrating what, I think, we all know to be true, is that the busier you are, the less likely you are to serve the people around you, the more likely you are to be focused on your own self-interests and short-term gain.

And then the third one is we’re incredibly distracted, and not just distracted by things, but even by our own thinking, and this is where mindfulness training becomes absolutely key. So, that’s the summary, and then, yeah, wherever you’d like to dive in, I’d be happy to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I am intrigued by, I think, the study you have in mind, the one about the seminarians who read the good Samaritan story.

Matt Tenney
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s come up a couple of times, so I’ll let those who haven’t heard of it yet Google it and enjoy, but it’s a goody. It’s a goody.

Matt Tenney
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hear about we don’t focus on love, we focus on achieving goals. And you make a nice distinction between there’s being goals and there’s doing goals. And this has been kind of resonant for me lately because I’ve got a pretty crystal-clear picture on one page, like everything that I want to achieve in life, and I feel great. Like, that’s it. That’s everything, it’s on a page, we got clarity. Game on. But I don’t have as much crystal clarity on everything I want to be in life. And I’m working on that right now, I’m thinking about who I really admire, and what is it about them, but it’s a work in process for me at the moment, and so not yet at that level of clarity. So, lay it on us, how do we shift that focus?

Matt Tenney
Well, I think the first step that’s a very, very simple one, there are multiple steps of this, but the simple one that can be applied immediately and has immense benefit is to just simply shift our focus. Because if you think about what we’re focusing on, on a day-to-day basis, most of us reflect on that, there’s not a whole lot of time, especially if we’re in a really demanding work environment where we’re really focused on, “What am I doing to serve my teammates?” Or, if you’re in a leadership position, “What am I doing to serve my direct reports or my peers as leaders?” Where it’s just from one thing to the next, right? It’s like, “Well, I got this. I have got to take care of this. I have to take care…” and there’s pressure to achieve the goals, so we focus on that.

And where I think it can start most simply is just by simply changing your job description and using that as something that you review at least every day – to start, I would recommend multiple times a day – so that you start to refocus. In fact, at first, if you really feel like you’re just in a really demanding environment, you may want to read your job description once an hour, you know, take a five-minute break, go to the bathroom, come back and re-read this job description.

But what I suggest is if you simply change your primary job description and then place everything else as a secondary responsibility, because if you look at most job descriptions, they’re just terrible and they’re not inspiring. Your average leader job description is, “Oh, you’re in charge of the strategic planning and the direction of the organization and working with stakeholders, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s, for one, is not inspiring. Two, it doesn’t really give you an idea of what you really need to be focused on as your primary goal in making love and serving the people around you that primary goal.

So, what I suggest is you just simply reword it. I’m not saying go to HR and say, “Hey, can you rewrite my job description for me?” But this is what I’ve done with every job I had until I started working for myself, and when I worked for myself, it’s very easy because our mission is just obvious and the vision is obvious, so it’s not really written per se as a job description, but you could just change your first line of your job description as, “My job is to help the people around me to thrive.”

And if you want to be more elaborate, “To do whatever I can to do good by the people around me, to contribute to their wellbeing and their growth. And that’s my primary job. Everything else in my job description is a secondary duty.” And if you just remind yourself of that, it’s amazing what happens to brain.

This is actually one of the keys of the transformative process of the monastic training is that you recite vows every single day, reminding yourself multiple times. At first, it was probably 20 or 30 times a day reciting this vow that, essentially, my job is to help all people to be happy and to be free from suffering, which is obviously a bit grandiose but it’s inspiring. It’s like, “This is why I wake up in the morning. I work on myself to make myself better so that I can be a benefit to others and help them to be happy and to, thereby, make a better impact in the people around them.” That’s the core of monastic training.

So, to give little examples of how this works, we’ll start with maybe a case study, and you can cut me off, Pete, if this one has come up a lot as well. But, years ago, and I think this might be close to 15 years or so ago, Disney was having problems with their custodial staff. Do you remember hearing about this?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no. Keep going.

Matt Tenney
Okay. So, the problem was, as I’m sure almost everyone knows, Disney pride themselves on an amazing guest experience. That’s what they want to deliver. They want everyone who comes there to have a magical experience as a guest. And what was happening was the custodial staff was getting all of these complaints about how they were being rude and they weren’t being helpful, and it just kind of degraded from the experience at Disney which, of course, was a huge problem for them.

So, they put a lot of energy into trying to resolve this. And what it turned out, they figured out what the problem ultimately was, was the job description. The job description read, “Your job is to keep the park clean. You need to keep the bathrooms clean. You need to keep the trash looking neat. You need to keep all the walkways clean and tidy.”

So, think about this, if that’s your job description, and you see guests walking around throwing trash all over the place, you view the guests as your enemy essentially, right? “This person is making my job really hard.” And so, when someone, when a guest who just threw trash on the ground came up and ask the custodian, “Hey, where is the Dumbo ride?” the custodian would say, “I don’t know. I’m just a janitor,” and that was their response.

So, they decided, “Well, they do more than that. They’re part of our team. They’re part of delivering happiness to our guests. Why don’t we let them know that?” And they changed the job description, they said, “Your job is to create happy guests, to contribute to the happiness of our guests. How do you do that? Well, you provide them with directions when they need it, you give a kind smiling face when they ask you questions. And, as a collateral duty, you pick up the trash, and you clean the bathrooms, and blah, blah, blah, blah.”

And guess what happened? All the complaints went away, janitors were motivated and inspired to come to work because they had a noble cause for coming to work, which is to serve people and bring happiness to people, which is something we all want to do, and the guest satisfaction scores went up, and the job satisfaction for the janitors went up. Everybody wins.

So, I don’t know if there’s any neuroscientist that can explain this perfectly, but I think what’s happening is, from my limited understanding of the neuroscientist friends in my circles, is that we have a portion of the brain, and a lot of people attribute this to the particular activating system or the particular formation that its job is to filter out that which we don’t think is important.

And we’ve all had the experience of you buy a new car or you meet a new friend with a unique name and then, all of a sudden, you start seeing that car everywhere, or you hear that name everywhere.  And we know, intellectually, that car just didn’t magically multiply all over the place because we bought it, or that name just didn’t magically get slapped on everyone just because we heard it. What happened is our brain started telling us that it’s important so we start to see it everywhere this thing that we had never seen because our brain didn’t allow us to see it.

And my guess is this is what’s happening, is when you start to tell your brain, over and over and over again, “This is what’s really important to me,” you start to see opportunities to serve others and to love well. You start seeking out opportunities to improve in that area. You start to eliminate activities that degrade your ability to love well. Why? Because you’ve simply shifted your focus.

And, again, I think the easiest way to do that is to just change your job description and read it every day for a while until you really start feeling that, “Hey, I believe this. I believe that my core job description is to help the people around me to thrive.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so, then you naturally notice those opportunities because it’s built in there. And that’s a nice tip there is that it may take a couple dozen reps and the first days to get into that groove. Excellent. Thank you. So, a lot of stuff coming together here with regard to that creates satisfaction for your own self in terms of you’re enjoying the job more as well as for the folks that you’re leading, they think, “This person is great. I enjoy working with them.” So, a lot of good stuff happening here.

So, let’s talk then about mindfulness in particular. You’ve called it the ultimate success habit. First, why is that?

Matt Tenney
Well, I use that word very intentionally and very precisely because I think we kind of live in two worlds at once, right? So, we have this conventional world where stuff like getting a paycheck and being able to pay your bills really matters. And then there’s something more ultimate, which all of us have a sense of. I don’t think any of us really know intellectually, but we have this sense that there’s something much deeper about life. In the end, what really matters is, “Were we happy?” and, “Did we love well?” That’s what really ultimately things come down to.

So, the reason I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit is because it actually has benefit in both of those realms. So, the practice can be very instrumental in improving our effectiveness in the conventional realm where we’re more effective at our job, we’re more effective as leaders, we make better decisions, so on and so forth. But it was designed not for those purposes. It was actually designed for the ultimate, which is to be happy under any circumstance, so no matter what happens to you, you’re okay and you have peace.

And because of that, you have this tremendous capacity to love well and your ability to overcome our selfish conditioning that we’re all subject to, to some degree, we can gradually overcome that conditioning. That’s actually what the practice was designed to do and that’s why I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit because it contributes to success in the conventional realm as well as what really, really matters, ultimate success.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, yeah, I’ve been playing around, reading some assorted studies on mindfulness and its benefits. I’d love it if, perhaps, you could share your favorite in terms of this result emerged from mindfulness practice, whatever sort of study is your favorite that has a big number that you find exciting.

Matt Tenney
The one that I’m most excited about is not necessarily a single study in particular, but it’s actually the work of a neuroscientist who’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin, named Richie Davidson, and he’s been doing this work for a long, long time.

And, in the ultimate sense, so we’ll skip some of the conventional things, and there are many benefits in the conventional sense, especially around decision-making and emotional intelligence. Those two benefits are fairly well-established in the scientific literature. But the one I’m most excited about is there seems to be very sound and replicated evidence for the fact that we can actually change traits with mindfulness, specifically traits like kindness and compassion.

And this isn’t like a flashy number or something that sounds super sexy, but I’d like you to think about this for a second. There a lot of things you can do to change your state, right? If you’re about to go give a speech in front of a group, you can do 20 pushups and then stand up and raise your arms over your head, like Amy Cuddy teaches in her TEDx Talk, and you’re going to go out there and be way more confident than you would have had you not done that.

But there are not too many things that we know of that literally rewire your brain so that you develop a new trait that becomes your baseline way of being in the world. And there’s very compelling evidence that Richie Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin had been putting together. In fact, he and Daniel Goleman wrote a book on it called Altered Traits.

So, if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend that book. They go through all of the ups and downs and the shortcomings and the pluses of the research, and then kind of really focused in on this stuff that there’s consensus in the scientific community that this is actually fact and not just theory. And that’s where they seem to come to consensus, is that with prolonged training, although you can receive some benefit immediately, if you really make the effort to focus here on this type of training, you can change your traits so that you become the person that we all aspire to be, which is somebody who’s not just effective at their job, and earns a good living, and has friends, and so on and so forth, but we become a person who exemplifies kindness and compassion in all of our interactions.

And I know everyone listening, is somewhere inside that immediately resonates with them. Why? Because this is ultimately what we’re here for. We’re all in this together and we all know that being kind and compassionate and doing what we can to be of benefit to the people around us is what really makes life rich. And I’ve never met a person who there just isn’t some glimpse of aspiration to live that way. This is something that just, it seems to me like this is just why we’re here.

So, that’s why I’m most excited about that, is the idea that this doesn’t have to just be a high-minded ideal, “Yes, I’m inspired by someone like Martin Luther King, or Herb Kelleher at Southwest, or Gandhi, or someone like that,” and think, “I could never be like that.” Actually, that’s not true. We can be like that. We can rewire our brains in ways that allow us to embody the traits of the people we most admire in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, these traits are in the realm of service and generosity. But I imagine, it’s fair to say that, I guess, is it like any virtue that we can grab – courage, patience, fill in the blank – it’s within your reach via these approaches?

Matt Tenney
I think, immediately, people become skeptical, and think, “Oh, this can do everything?” Well, it’s not that it can do everything, but I think you’re right, Pete, it can help us to develop most of the qualities that we’re most interested in.

And just to give a brief explanation as to why, is that I think if we really look at what prevents us from having those qualities, it’s this tricky little thing that lives between our ears called the ego, right? It’s that little voice in our heads that’s always telling us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not beautiful enough, we don’t have enough stuff, we haven’t achieved enough goals, we need to be somebody, get something, do something. It’s just never satisfied.

And what mindfulness training, at its core, is all about is learning to recognize that that voice is just simply not who we are. It’s something that we can actually listen to, with third person objectivity, just as though we’re listening to a podcast. And that’s not a theory, that’s not something you have to believe, that’s something you can realize directly just by doing the practice, because that’s what the practice is.

The practice is to learn to wake up and, instead of being in your thoughts all the time as though you are your thoughts, to just wake up and realize, “Oh, I can observe these images going through my mind as though I’m watching a television screen. I can listen to this voice in my head just as though I was listening to a podcast. And when I do that, something really special happens. There’s a little bit of space between what I feel I truly am and that voice.” And the degree there was some space there is the degree to which we’re free from that voice.

And so, now that voice can say whatever it wants and it doesn’t affect what we actually do or how we actually behave in the world. It’s just something else. It’s like if you’re watching a television program, here’s a really interesting way of looking at this. So, let’s imagine that you’re watching a movie or a television program from start to finish, and you’re about halfway in, and there’s a really emotional scene, and it draws you in, and you can feel the emotion of the actors on the stage, and you’re just in it like it’s real, right? We can all relate to this.

Now, let’s imagine that you were in the kitchen getting a slice of pizza, and you came in, you haven’t watched any of this thing, and you just look at the TV screen. It’s just some actors doing stuff, right? You might laugh at somebody who’s at a funeral thinking, “Oh, that’s really bad acting.” Whereas the person on the couch is just in tears because the star just lost their beloved one and it’s really sad.

And so, this is what tends to happen. Everyone that I’ve ever worked with that practices mindfulness consistently, it’s more and more of this drama in our heads become something that’s like, “Oh, that’s just like programming. It’s just like a TV,” and it has less and less of effect on how we actually show up. So, if the thoughts are skillful, we engage them and we follow them. If they’re not, they can be allowed to just arise and pass away as though it was a television screen across the room while we’re eating a piece of pizza.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so then, when you are doing mindfulness or engaging in a mindfulness practice, what does that mean in terms of what’s happening? Like, I sit down, and then what?

Matt Tenney
Well, there’s a common misconception I’d like to clear up, Pete, I hope it’s okay with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Take it away.

Matt Tenney
It’s that I think that’s exactly what most people think of, is, “If I’m going to practice mindfulness, that means I need to go sit down and do nothing and engage in some type of special practice.” And there’s great benefit to sitting still and just being, and I highly recommend it. However, mindfulness can be practiced at any time in any situation. And so, how I recommend people start, especially if this is something that seems foreign or it’s just you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s one more thing I need to add to my schedule,” I recommend looking at this as like you don’t have to add anything to your schedule. What I recommend is just change the way that you do things that you’re going to do anyhow.

So, for the average person, if you were to make a list of all the things that you do in a day in relative solitude that you’re going to do anyhow, things like rolling out of bed, going to the toilet to go pee, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, commuting to work, sitting and waiting for a meeting to begin, standing in line waiting for something, if you were to add it all up, I think for the average person it’s probably right around two hours per day.

Make a list of all those things that you do every single day that you’re going to do anyhow, and for the first week just pick one of them. Let’s say it’s washing the hands, for instance, and unless you’re driving, listening to this podcast, you could actually play along with us while we do this.

So, if you think about what washing the hands is like most of the time, if we’re honest, we’re thinking about everything in the world other than washing the hands. Would you agree with me, Pete, that when you wash your hands?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Matt Tenney
So, we’re thinking about, “Hey, the dog just crapped on the floor. I’ve got a report due for my work tomorrow.” Whatever. We’re thinking about all types of stuff. We’re not really present with washing the hands.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re going to wash your hands again after cleaning up after the dog.

Matt Tenney
Yeah, yeah, you wash your hands then you go, “Oh, man, I forgot about the crap on the floor.” You go clean that up and come back and wash again, yeah. So, this is what’s happening when we live our lives this way, is that we’re reinforcing this identification with thinking and we’re constantly distracted by our thinking, and this is taking us in the opposite direction of being free from that voice in our heads and from our thoughts.

So, the idea is to make it a practice of being free. It’s not like you have to get somewhere or achieve something. Like, just be free right now. So, when you’re going to wash your hands, just take a half a second and just remind yourself, “I’m washing the hands now.” And then that little reminder is a wakeup call to just be really curious about the experience of washing the hands. And if thoughts arise, it’s perfectly fine, they probably will. But the idea is just you’re curious about the thoughts, “Oh, there’s a thought about this or that. Okay, what else is going on? Oh, yeah, there’s this wonderful sensation.”

So, why don’t you try this for a second, those of you who are not driving? Just pretend like you just started washing your hands, you’ve got soap and water on your hands, just rub them together. And what I’d like you to do is just be intensely curious like you’ve never washed your hands before. And just notice, “What is it actually like to wash my hands? What does the skin feel like as it’s being massaged by the other hand? What do the muscles feel like that are making the arms and the hands move? Are there any thoughts happening?” If not, it doesn’t matter. Either way it’s not important. Just be curious about what is it like.

Now, every time I’ve done this exercise with any group, 100% of the time, unless people just didn’t raise their hands, people say that washing their hands like that is diametrically opposite of how they normally wash their hands. So, this is a very different experience, right? And some people even get anxious because what we’re so used to doing is washing the hands as fast as we can so we can get onto what’s important, right?

What we’re doing now is realizing that, “Well, if I want to have clean hands, I need to wash them for 30 seconds anyhow, so why not be here for that experience?” And what happens is there’s this, as silly as this might sound just with these little activities, of just being aware of the body, aware of the mind, aware of what it’s actually like to wash the hands during that experience, what’s happening is we’re creating what I think may be the most interesting paradigm shift that we can consider. Because if we think back to how we normally do it, what we’re doing is we’re rushing through it to get it over with so we can get onto what’s next, oftentimes either it’s partially or completely distracted by our thinking, so as a result three negative things are happening.

One, we’re reinforcing this bad habit of being identified with our thoughts. Two, we are creating a little bit more anxiety because we’re not there, we’re rushing through it. That’s going to make us less effective at whatever we do next. And, third, and perhaps most important, is we’re not actually living that moment of our life. We’re rushing through it to get onto whatever is next. And, sadly, there may not be a next. The person that you’re with right now, and what you’re doing right now, is the most important. And we don’t know, tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

And when we start making, allowing mindfulness to permeate our daily activities, those three negatives are transformed into three amazing positives. So, first, you’re training yourself to be mindfully self-aware, and self-awareness is arguably the most important professional skill that we can develop. So, you’re creating a very positive habit of being mindfully self-aware.

Two, your anxiety, you’ll find, as I’m sure you noticed when you wash your hands like that, it’s pretty relaxing. Did you notice that, Pete? Did you actually wash your hands with me?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in my mind’s eye, yes. No faucets in the…

Matt Tenney
Okay. I’m sure you’ve got things you’re working on there with the podcast, yeah. When you actually do it, what you’ll notice is, “Oh, that’s actually relaxing to just be fully present with the sensations of washing the hands.” So, your anxiety goes down a little bit, making you more effective at whatever you’re going to do next.

And then, of course, most important, is you’re actually living that moment of your life and you’re developing this new habit of actually living the moments of your life so that when you come home from work, and you greet your child, you’re actually there for him or her. And you come home from work and greet your spouse, or your dog, or whoever, you’re actually there for them instead of reliving everything that happened at work in your head.

And, as grandiose as that might sound, it’s not going to happen overnight, but it does happen little by little if we just start integrating mindfulness into our daily life. So, coming back to the list, we start with just washing the hands for week one. Then, for week two, continue with washing the hands and add a second activity, brushing the teeth, let’s say. And you can see where this is going, right? Each week you just add another activity.

After 12 weeks, you’re going to have 12 anchors that, if nothing else, you know you’ve got 12 30-second to 60-second activities where you’re breaking the habit of constantly being identified with and distracted by thinking, and instead being free.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. And so then, in practice then, the difference is, one, you’re sort of noting what’s happening here, “I’m washing my hands now.” Two, you’re getting curious about each of these, I guess, the finer details of the experience, like, “Oh, that’s pretty warm. Oh, that’s pretty slippery. Okay, that’s pretty relaxing as they go together. I can hear the sound. I could maybe see some steam rising up a little bit. I could smell, perhaps, the soap.”

And so then, in so doing, you are there as opposed to elsewhere in terms of, “I better hurry up and reply to that email.” And so, there you have it. Okay. So, that’s really cool. All right. Well, thank you for that, Matt. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Matt Tenney
Nothing comes to mind immediately, Pete, other than just I have said it a couple of times, so I apologize if this is redundant, but I would just ask people to, as they’re finishing up listening to this podcast, to remember to just be kind.

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

Matt Tenney
A favorite quote. Yes. I apologize if this might be paraphrasing, but Martin Luther King said something that actually inspired the title of Serve to Be Great, which is, “You don’t need to have a Ph.D. to serve. Anyone can serve. And because anyone can serve, anyone can be great.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Matt Tenney
I think my all-time favorite book is actually a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Peace Is Every Step.

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

Matt Tenney
Well, I think Google Calendar is pretty magical believe it or not, so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. I can buy it. And how about a favorite habit?

Matt Tenney
Mindfulness, by far, is my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they repeat it back to you?

Matt Tenney
What I hear probably most often is just, “Yes, I want to be a leader who serves and loves well.”

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

Matt Tenney
Well, I guess you could go to MattTenney.com and that can direct you to anything else that you might be interested in.

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

Matt Tenney
Absolutely. I would, please, encourage anyone listening who stuck with us here to the end to please go ahead and create that list of all the things that you do every day anyhow, and see if you can incorporate those activities into your day in a more mindful way, just one activity at a time. And I think that simple exercise, you’ll find has some incredible benefit in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Matt, thank you. This has been a treat. And keep up the great work.

Matt Tenney
Thank you, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Tara:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Dr. Tara Swart Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I already do that.

Tara Swart
Yeah, me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Tara Swart
No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Swart
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Swart
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Swart
Definitely mindfulness meditation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

443: Beating Procrastination with Petr Ludwig

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Petr Ludwig says: "It's much more important to find the right motivation than to boost willpower."

Petr Ludwig shares his research-based strategies and tactics for overcoming procrastination.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Petr’s recipe for finding willpower in the moment
  2. How to find your ongoing motivation
  3. Why you should rest before you get tired

About Petr

Petr Ludwig is a science popularizer, entrepreneur, and consultant for Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of the bestselling book The End of Procrastination, a book dedicated to overcoming the habit of putting off tasks and responsibilities. His book has been translated into more than 10 languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies globally.

Petr is the founder and CEO of the company Procrastination.com, which applies the latest scientific findings in neuroscience and behavioral economics to help individuals and companies in their sustainable growth. His core fields of interests are a purpose at work, value-based leadership, and critical thinking.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Petr Ludwig Interview Transcript

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

Petr Ludwig
Hi, Pete. Happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m happy to chat with you, and I’m so fascinated by your story. You have studied a whole host of scientific social psychological things, and you decided to pour a lot of your energies into the study of procrastination. Why this topic and is it coming from experience here?

Petr Ludwig
Yeah. For me, to think of procrastination is one of the most important these days because we live in a world full of distractions, social media, and it’s quite challenging to find a way how to stay focused on what is important. So, for me, to pick procrastination is getting more and more important these days. And there’s a lot of good data and a lot of scientific studies about how to really decrease our procrastination. So, my life mission is to just transform what science knows into what people do in their normal lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s an awesome mission and so helpful because there’s so much great knowledge out there and it’s great to make sure that folks actually see it instead of the researcher and the researcher’s mom in the academic journey.

Petr Ludwig
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to know, Petr, what are some things that you procrastinate on?

Petr Ludwig
Oh, I still have some things that I procrastinate. For example, if I have to sign an important contract, for example, I have a lot of contracts for translations of my books, so I have to sign them. I have a good lawyer but, still, I want to read them before. So, those are things I procrastinate, things that are important but quite challenging and difficult to me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, tell me, as you’ve done your research associated with procrastination and your book in particular, The End of Procrastination, which is now available in English. Thank you, translators and lawyer and contract all coming together. What’s maybe the most surprising or fascinating thing that you discovered in digging into some of the research and studies behind this?

Petr Ludwig
Right. There’s a huge meta-analysis about all the research on procrastination, and the outcome is…

Yeah, that’s a good beginning where to start when you do any kind of research to read meta-analysis because someone did a good job before. So, for example, if you want to know some research about longevity, you can use Google Scholar and just try to find longevity and meta-analysis and you will find very good sources. So, that’s my hack, to start to read a meta-analysis.

And the biggest meta-analysis about procrastination shows us that the main cause of procrastination is a lack of self-regulation. Self-regulation means that you have your emotional part and then you have your rational part. And if you are unable to resist temptation, your emotional part is going to win. And it means that you go to check your Facebook. You want to, I don’t know, overeat. You want to watch Netflix and so on.

But if you have good willpower and your rational brain is stronger, your willpower is stronger, then you can self-regulate, even if you have a temptation to do something, you are able to resist. So, that’s the core of procrastination, to really train your willpower part of the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that sounds sensible. How do we go about doing that?

Petr Ludwig
Well, there are a lot of techniques for that. My favorite one is when you do a daily habit. For example, if you do 20 pushups daily, not even your muscles grow, but even your part of the brain that is called prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is for willpower, it grows too. So, that’s very good news that procrastination is not something that is inborn but you can really train your willpower as a muscle. So, by doing 20 pushups daily, you really can train your willpower.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really cool. And so, then I’m curious, is it pushups, is it sort of strict training in particular that boost the willpower, or we can maybe do the same thing?

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, all exercises do the same, but what is important is to do something daily. You can have your favorite, like five-minute routine of, I don’t know, that doesn’t need to be pushups. But five minutes daily can really boost your willpower. And we have one willpower for all domains, so you can train your willpower by exercise, and then you have stronger willpower even in your work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Great. So, exercise is the key way to increase your ability to have willpower. What are some of the other means of increasing it?

Petr Ludwig
Another one is mindfulness. Like, to do a simple 5- to 10-minute meditations. There’s a great app for that. You probably heard about Headspace or there’s another app that is called Simple Habit. Headspace is for 10 minutes. Simple Habit, they have five-minute meditations. And those 5 to 10 minutes of really focusing on doing nothing, that is mindfulness, focusing on your breath or counting something, that can really increase your willpower too.

So, my advice is to do, I don’t know, 5-minute exercise in the morning, and then to do mindfulness meditation in the afternoon, and all those exercises together, they took only a few minutes but can really improve your everyday willpower and productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m curious, since you’re a science popularizer and lover, I might be able to get into some of the depth with you because sometimes I’m fascinated too by research studies and I pull up academic journals. And sometimes the thing that gets me is, like, okay, you’ve shown us sure enough that there’s this statistically significant difference with intervention. So, nice job researchers. That’s something.

But I also want to know, how big is this difference? Like, am I going to be 1% better at willpower if I do my pushups and my mindfulness? Or is it like double, triple? Like, do you have a sense for how much quantitatively of an improvement we’d see with these interventions?

Petr Ludwig
Well, that’s the great question. My experience is that I have only some anecdotal evidences of my clients because it’s very difficult too if you read those meta-analyses to see how big was the difference at the end, so that’s a very good question. But with my clients, I can see the huge difference. Like, if they really started training their willpower, let’s say in three, four weeks, they are much, much better in their productivity. So, it’s quite difficult to measure it but if I ask them what is their improvement, they feel significant improvement. They are telling me that they can do like, I don’t know, two times more tasks daily, or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. Two times more tasks daily sounds enticing. All right. So, there’s a measure of doing some physical exercise as well as some mindfulness. So, any other key ways to go about building willpower?

Petr Ludwig
There is a beautiful study that our willpower is also dependent on simple sugars in our blood. So, eat fruits and vegetables daily can really boost your willpower too. So, to drink, for example, a glass of fresh juice, or to eat, I don’t know, two, three apples can really boost your willpower too. Another example is to go for a walk, because if you are sitting the whole day then your brain is stuck and you need to boost your cardiovascular system. So, five minutes or 10 minutes of walk can really improve the willpower too.

So, my advice is to do a simple short exercise in the morning, then to eat fruits and vegetables during the day, then to have walks. Regular work for two hours, then have a walk and then work another two hours and then have another walk. And then do simple meditation in the evening and you can really double your performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s really cool. So these are great things to do on an ongoing basis to keep your willpower strong and in great shape. What are some of your pro tips for when you’re in the heat of battle, if you will, and there’s this thing, you know you should do it but you sure don’t want to do it. You’re right there, right now. How do you find the power?

Petr Ludwig
Oh, right. For me, I go somewhere without internet connection. For example, I have my favorite tea room that I was writing my book, and they simply don’t have internet connection there so it helped me to really start something. And what is really good is to set a proper time for starting. For example, if you are postponing to send, I don’t know, an important email, you should set an appropriate time, like, “Okay, I will start at 8:00 a.m.” And you can use apps that can block your internet connection for Apple, the name is Freedom, so you can really block your internet connection. And for Windows, it is called Cold Turkey. And those apps can help you a lot if you block your internet connection.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s handy. So, you set a time, you block the internet connection. You’ve got a tool called the heroism tool in your book.

Petr Ludwig
Oh, right. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s this about?

Petr Ludwig
This tool is from Professor Philip Zimbardo, who’s famous about his Stanford Prison Experiment, still slightly a controversial one. And when I met Zimbardo for the first time, I asked him what is his personal tip for fighting procrastination. And he did something that was quite strange to me. He took my black marker and he put a big black dot on his forehead, and I was like, “What?” And Zimbardo told me that if you put a black big dot on your forehead and you go, for example, shopping, or you go by bus somewhere, you start to get used to strange feelings that you have that you are different. And you are then able to overcome your social comfort zone. And he really described to me that we have two kinds of comfort zones. First is physical one, it’s much more obvious. It’s, for example, the bath in the morning is a physical comfort zone. Or the situation when you are, for example, sitting in your car.

But then we have a social comfort zone, and that means that you are part of the crowd, you are in a herd. And to overcome that is very important even for fighting procrastination because often we are unable to act in the right moment. So, Zimbardo told me that if you do this, a little training with the black dot on your forehead, then you are capable of overcoming the comfort zone even in different scenarios. For example, if you go next to accident, you are then much more able to stop and help. Or you are able to say your opinion if someone else is quiet and so on.

Zimbardo calls this little heroism, those little heroic acts can really boost your ability to be the one who really do something when the situation is important. So, for me, this tool is one of the cores of my book. And Japanese samurais, they had a rule that if you are in a situation that you really need to act, you probably heard about that, it’s the rule of three heartbeats. You really have to act in three heartbeats, like, three, two, one, and then act.

Because, for example, if you are driving and you see an accident, you really have, in those three seconds, to stop and help there. If you don’t do that, you probably just go and it’s much easier to find excuses to not to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think I heard about this except it was on a reality TV show about pickup artists, the three-second rule in terms of, in this context, it was guys who are going to approach a lady and like, talking to them.

Petr Ludwig
Okay. I think this concept of stopping next to an accident is maybe a little bit more important.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely, yes. But it gets to the same notion that the hesitation, fear, sort of overthinking it.

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, overthinking is a real problem. Like, we have a data that the more you overthink the more you procrastinate. So, fighting overthinking, and we have a beautiful data that the more you are intelligent and the more you are creative, then you procrastinate even more.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s my problem, Petr.

Petr Ludwig
Because you are capable of coming up with very good excuses, and excuses in front of yourself, so you use your creativity and your intelligence against yourself. And that’s the problem, like, overthinking is very, very, like the usual problem of intelligent people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. So, I’m curious then, if we can talk about maybe some of the fear elements, and it’s sometimes like a very quick short time that you can respond to something, and other times, it’s maybe not so urgent, but you’re maybe… I think about salespeople right now, it’s like, “Oh, you know what, I’ve got make some calls but I’m resistant because I think they’re going to be angry at me and that’s not pleasant.” It’s not like you’re terrified of it, but it’s not fun and so there’s maybe some anxiety or fear or trepidation associated with it. So, I guess, not overthinking it and just jumping in is good strategy.

Petr Ludwig
I know.

Pete Mockaitis
Are there any other things you’d recommend in these contexts?

Petr Ludwig
I do trainings for salespeople, and what works very well for them are daily routines. Like, for example, if you have to do some cold calls, you should set a very low bar, for example, to do three calls but do them daily. And if you set up a routine and you do those three calls daily, then it’s much easier to do more. So, science calls this micro-habit. What is important is not the quantity but what is important is that you really stick to the habit daily. And if you do that and you repeat it like five to 10 times, then it’s much easier to start.

So, my advice to salespeople is to set a proper time, for example, as I said, like 8:00 a.m., “I will start calls. I do three calls.” And then what is very good, we have a tool that is called Habit List. You have a table and you fill them each day, the table, and you see that you really pass the goal. So, set the bar to the lowest and repeat it, and after you have that habit, you can increase the quantity. And at the end you can do, I don’t know, 15 calls daily.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, with this Habit List table, I guess the rows would be habits and then the columns would be sort of days.

Petr Ludwig
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And you want to fill it up kind of bit style, to say, “Hey, keep the chain going day after day after day.”

Petr Ludwig
Yup, this tool is one of my favorite ones. I use it every day. And, for example, I have a row that is called cold shower, another row is, I don’t know, to do those morning exercise, another row can be, I don’t know, read or write a few pages and so on. But the core of this tool is that if you visualize the outcomes, like you put a green dot if you passed it, and a red dot if you don’t, you see the visual thing about it.

So, you have a table, and at the end you see how good you are in those habits. And if you see that you are failing, you have many days red in a row, it means that your bar is too high, or you don’t have intrinsic motivation to do those things. So, those are only two situations, like you have lack of motivation, or the bar is too high. So, you can fix both. Like, you can ask why you want to do that habit, and you can increase your motivation, or you can decrease the bar. For example, if you are unable to write five pages daily as an author, then you should start with two paragraphs. There’s always a lower bar.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, it’s funny that app is kind of inspiring even though you’re talking about lowering the bar, there’s always a lower bar is kind of inspiring to me.

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, I did it. When I was writing the book The End of Procrastination it’s funny because I was procrastinating writing the book about procrastination. And the final solution was really to write two paragraphs daily. And everyone can write two paragraphs daily. And if you do that, then you are able to write even more paragraphs. And to really start with a lower bar is the key of fighting procrastination to me.

Pete Mockaitis
I really appreciated that perspective. And we had Dr. BJ Fogg on the show earlier talking about tiny habits and motivation and making it small is huge. Making it small is very helpful in terms of making that happen. So, let’s talk about the motivation piece for a moment. How do we get more of that?

Petr Ludwig
The first part of the book is about motivation because I think that if you have the right motivation then you don’t need willpower at all. So, it’s much more important to find the right motivation than to boost willpower.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, just right there.

Petr Ludwig
For example, yeah, I don’t need to push myself to do talks because I really love to do talks, so it’s much, much more important to me to do things that I don’t need to push myself to. And the core of motivation that I’m trying to cover in my book is that basically we have three kinds of motivation. The first one is extrinsic motivation. And there’s another huge meta-analysis about motivation. It seems that extrinsic motivation doesn’t work at all. It worked for manual activities but it doesn’t work for activities that you need your brain. So, it’s doesn’t work for creative and cognitive tasks.

Then we have intrinsic motivation. But I cover two kinds of intrinsic motivation. One is focusing on goals, like intrinsic motivation by goals. And that’s the thing that people are setting goals in their private life. And this can really backfire because I had a client, and he had that kind of goal board, and he had there his car he wants to buy, the ideal flat he wants to have. And he got depressed because he didn’t have any of that.

So, the problem with goals is that if you are focusing on something in the future, you are less happy in the present because you are still missing the goal. And the second backfire moment is if you reach the goal, the happiness is very short term. Psychology calls this hedonic adaptation. So, even if you reached the highest goal, like you win a Nobel Prize, or you win an Olympic Gold Medal, you are happy just a few days, maybe one week, not more. So, focusing on goals can make you addictive because we call those people goal junkies. Those are people that they are setting higher and higher goals, but they are not happy in the present moment. And if they reached the goal, they experience only short-term happiness, but then they need another goal.

It’s quite similar these days on social media. Like, for example, if you have 10,000 followers, you feel, “Okay, I need 100,000.” Then you have 100,000 followers, well, then you need one million followers and so on. So, the more you have, the more you want. And it leads not to happiness but to addiction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s a bummer. So, what’s the superior alternative?

Petr Ludwig
Okay. We call it journey-based intrinsic motivation, and it’s based on very old but very important saying that “the path is the destination.” So, what is much more important than to focus in on goals is to focus in on activities that are enjoyable for you and you see purpose of them. And how to find those activities, I have a simple tool for that, and it’s based on a Japanese concept of Ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese word from the island of Okinawa, it’s my favorite island. And Okinawa is famous for the fact that they have the longest lifespan around the globe. So, they really live to their hundred.

And they made a long-term study, what is the reason of longevity in Okinawa? And the outcome was really the concept of Ikigai. And it can be translated as “a strong sense of purpose.” And the Japanese, they describe Ikigai as a connection between four parts.

The first part is to do things that you are good at. So, strengths are very important. Second part of Ikigai is doing things that you really enjoy. So, positive emotions are very important. Psychology calls this state of flow. You do something, and time stops for you, and you are in the present moment. And the third part of Ikigai is the most important to me, and it’s doing something that is greater than you, doing something that helps the society, helps the others. So, selfless acts are important too, not to be just selfish. And the fourth part is to do things that you can get paid for. So, money is important but not that much. What is much more important is to use your strengths daily and to focus on meaning and purpose.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the premise was that they’re living so long because a large proportion of their activities check one or more of these four boxes?

Petr Ludwig
Right. And if you find something that is interconnected like, for example, for me, if I do a talk, it’s very important to me in terms of, it has purpose because it can help a lot of people, then I really enjoy doing that. I can improve it so I can improve my skills, so the better I am with my presentation skills, the happier I am with the process. And, of course, I can get paid for that.

So, if you find something that is interconnected, you have less stress hormone cortisol that is killing us slowly. So, that’s maybe one of the reasons why people, if they have more purpose, they live much longer. And the data shows us that people with more purpose, they have less risk of cardiovascular diseases, less risk of strokes, and so on. So, it can really prolong your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you.

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, very cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I want to make sure we also cover, when it comes to just sort of the organization of tasks and time in the day in, day out, I understand you’ve got some perspectives on how we can do that better so we can achieve more before we get tired.

Petr Ludwig
Right. The key for the activity is to have regular rests. So, for example, workaholics are procrastinators too but they are procrastinators of having a rest. So, it means that if you are working like 12 hours in a row without rest, the quality of your work is very low. But if you work one hour and then you have a rest, and then you work another hour, your productivity is much, much higher.

So, regular rest is important, and to have a rest even before you are tired is very important. Because if you are tired, you don’t have willpower to go for a walk. So, you should go for a walk before you are tired, and you should drink that fresh juice before you are exhausted and so on. So, it’s like a preventive matter to have a rest, preventive matter is important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s good thought. You rest before you’re tired so that you can rest more proactively or productively. And so, I guess it varies person by person, but you use the time roughly as an example of an hour and then a rest. Is that the right recipe?

Petr Ludwig
Well, it really depends on what you want. For me, one hour is just enough. It can be 45 minutes, it can be 30 minutes, it can be two hours. It really depends. So, for me, one hour is just enough to focus on something and then to have a rest.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to resting, you mentioned taking a walk or some of these other things. Are there any other key means of recuperating that are highly effective and efficient?

Petr Ludwig
I love those walks, yeah. Walks are very, very good because it really can boost your cardiovascular system. So, walks, then naps, of course. You can have like 15 to 20 naps. And naps are also very good in terms of productivity. It seems crazy that napping can boost your productivity, but it’s true. There’s a lot of scientific data about the fact that if you do one or two naps daily, your productivity is much higher than if you just do work for 12 hours in a row.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m a big believer in napping, Petr. The weirdo. When I worked in an office, I did, in fact, take naps and I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got scientific data on my side. This is enabling me to work better for you. You should be thanking me.” Cool. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Petr Ludwig
For me, the core was to really find purpose of what you do. I want to write another book about purpose at work because like 80% of my clients I do one-on-one consulting, and 80% of my clients, they have struggles of finding purpose of what they do. Sometimes I call this corporate depression because it’s a problem of people that are working in big corporations, but they don’t see purpose of what they do. So, find purpose at work. It’s very important, and it’s a very important part of leadership to help people in your team to see purpose of what do they do. So, purpose, to me, is the key topics. Find purpose for yourself and to ask yourself what is meaningful to you, how you can improve the world a bit, and so on. Those are key questions.

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

Petr Ludwig
Well, I really love the quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So, I love simplicity. I love minimalism. I loved it even before it was cool. And to really explain things simply, it’s my favorite, favorite thing because we live in a very chaotic and very complex world, and simplicity is very good for decreasing our stress and stress hormone cortisol too.

So, that’s why I love Japan. I go to Japan every year for one month. And, for me, when I’m sitting in temples in Kyoto that are very simple, it makes me much more relaxed and without stress. So, simplicity is very good, too, how to fight stress in this complex world.

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

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, it’s maybe the one about self-forgiveness. It’s quite a new study that it shows that if you can forgive yourself, then you procrastinate less. Because, people, if they can’t forgive themselves, they have more regrets, and they have much more negative feelings, and it can backfire again. So, self-forgiveness is very good. For example, if you fail at something, just forgive yourself and start again, and don’t blame yourself that much.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, I love the book from Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a great book, and it was a very good source even for my book. But the problem is that the book is very complex and sometimes difficult to read, but the quality of the book is amazing. I saw Daniel Kahneman, I don’t know, one month ago here in New York, and he’s an incredible person. He’s the founder of the modern decision-making science. So, I love his book.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Petr Ludwig
My favorite tool, it’s a great question too. I think that it’s the Habit List, the one that I covered in the discussion with you, because I use this tool for maybe, now, five, six years, and it really changed my life. It really changed my life because, now, I’m able to really change my habits, and I have a tool that I believe in, and it’s really worked for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I’m going to ask about a favorite habit, but maybe since you’ve got a whole list of habits, can you give us the rundown of what all is in your Habit List right now?

Petr Ludwig
I can open my Habit List and I can read it to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, you’ve got it digitally.

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, I have a digital one in my Excel table. And the first is cold shower, the second is exercise. Then I have one that is about overcoming my bad habit, and it’s drinking tea, because I don’t drink coffee, I only drink tea, so my limit is only one tea daily. And I used to drink like three, four teas, and there’s a lot of caffeine there. So, I want to get rid of this bad habit so my limit is one green tea daily. And then I have alcohol. My limit is less than a half liter of wine.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re from Czech Republic, right?

Petr Ludwig
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
We don’t have Praha Drinking Team, Petr. When I visited it, I saw tons of merch that said Praha Drinking Team. And I thought that was great.

Petr Ludwig
Yeah, in Prague, people usually drink a lot of beers. I like beer too but, for me, the wine is the issue. So, my limit is two glasses of wine daily. So, then I have gym. It’s a special column because the exercise column was the short morning exercise, and the gym is the longer one, one hour in the gym or to go running. And then I have a low carb diet, it means not to eat pizza. And the last column is to fill in my gratitude journal, to fill in three things that I’m grateful for daily. That’s also very cool habits to have.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, now, all of these are daily habits?

Petr Ludwig
Yup. Oh, no, no, no, the gym is not a daily habit. All my habits are daily habits except gym. I want to go gym three times weekly.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I was going to ask, does the game change at all when both in terms of the Habit List and how you’re tracking it, with the red or the green, and the contiguous walks, and in terms of behaviorally? Like, what do you do to install a habit that’s not every day?

Petr Ludwig
Well, then, you really can mark those days that you don’t have to do that, for example, with a blue dot. So, if you, I don’t know, want to do gym three times weekly, you put a green if you do that. If you don’t have to, you put a blue one. And if you don’t do it in a row for one week, then you put the red one.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Petr Ludwig
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you’re actually doing a habit that’s not every day, it seems like those can be harder to build and to take.

Petr Ludwig
Exactly. Exactly. That’s why I teach my clients to have daily habits. But sometimes, of course, you are unable to do it daily. For example, I play squash, and I have my friend that is playing the squash with me, and we do squash only once a week. So, with this habit it’s very good to find a partner. Like, it’s much easier to you to do that because you don’t want to cancel it in advance. So, if you have your buddy for sports, for exercise, it can really increase the chance that you really do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. I guess I’m just wondering, so if you know that you don’t intend to go to the gym every day, but you want to make sure that that is a habit, how do you behaviorally lock that in?

Petr Ludwig
Well, yeah, I love those apps that you really book the gym, and if you want to cancel that you pay some money for that, so it’s also good motivation. So, I use an app ClassPass, and if you don’t go for a class, I think you pay, I don’t know, 20 bucks or something. It means that it can really force you to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your readers and listeners?

Petr Ludwig
Okay. What I really like is those random small acts of kindness, and it really resonates with my clients. Because if you do one or two or three small random acts of kindness daily, it makes you much happier than if you buy a new iPhone or things like that. Because we have data that we have a specific part of the brain that is activated when you do something for the others. So, doing something selflessly, in terms of happiness, can be much long term than if you do something just selfish.

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

Petr Ludwig
Okay. Well, part of my book is about this, and another good book is a book from Adam Grant that is called Give and Take. It’s a great book even for leadership. And Adam made a lot of research on the fact that in these days, if you are not a taker but the giver, you can be much more successful.

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

Petr Ludwig
Okay. I think the final advice will be, again, about finding the purpose. Ask yourself what is important to you and how you can really help more your client, how you can really help more your colleagues, or what you can do to really be proud of yourself during the work day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Petr, this has been lots of fun. I wish you and the book The End of Procrastination tons of luck, and keep doing the good work.

Petr Ludwig
Thank you, Pete. It was a great discussion and you had great questions. Thank you very much.