Tag

Mindfulness Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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!

  • Four Sigmatic.  Give your brain a boost with superfood mushroom coffee with half the caffeine and double the mental clarity. Save 15% at foursigmatic.com/awesome.
  • Babbel. Learn a new language anywhere, anytime with babbel.com

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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.

399: Maximizing Your Mental Energy with Isaiah Hankel

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Isaiah Hankel says: "You can produce four to five times as much work during... peak mental energy."

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Isaiah

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Isaiah Hankel Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, shorn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh do, thank you.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Like four?

Isaiah Hankel
Like four, exactly. Four or five.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
….

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
More than any other salt?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Minerals?

Isaiah Hankel
Minerals. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study?

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite book. Fiction or non-fiction?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll take them both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the ICD-PX gem.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So when do you go to bed?

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
A particular nugget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Isaiah Hankel
There you go. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I practiced that one.

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

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

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

396: Insights into Embracing Emotions at Work with Liz Fosslien

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Liz Fosslien says: "You are going to have feelings. It's okay. It's not a weakness. It's not a flaw."

Writer and illustrator Liz Fosslien shares why we should listen to our emotions instead of suppressing them at work. She also reveals how to be considerate of others’ emotions while protecting our own.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we should inspect instead of suppress our emotions
  2. Two ways to protect yourself from emotional contagion
  3. How to decode the wisdom your emotions are pointing to

About Liz

Liz is an author and illustrator whose projects have been featured by NPR, Freakonomics, The Economist, and CNN Money. Liz spent the past three years designing and facilitating workshops that empowered executives at LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, BlackRock, and Nike to build cultures of belonging. Previously, she led product and community projects at Genius and ran statistical analyses at the aptly named Analysis Group.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Liz Fosslien Interview Transcript

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

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I’m really excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly. Well, I’m excited to dig into this. First I want to hear the backstory behind you have been eating the same breakfast every day for seven years. What’s the story here?

Liz Fosslien
I have. Yes. The breakfast is seven mini-scoops of non-fat plain Greek yogurts and then a granola bar that I crush into it.

It started as morning is my most productive time and so I just wanted to remove as much decision making from my morning routine. I just wanted to be able to know what I was going to do and then immediately sit down and kind of let all the ideas that had been going around in my brain out onto the computer page. But now it’s a really nice source of emotional support too when I’m travelling or just when life is getting really hectic; it’s just nice to always have the same breakfast.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s review. What’s the brand of Greek yogurt?

Liz Fosslien
Trader Joe’s. I’ve done-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes.

Liz Fosslien
I’ve done a blind taste test because people have questioned my loyalty and I get a perfect score every time, so it’s – I think it’s by far the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I agree that it is excellent and it’s a good price. Which amount of fat? Is it the zero and then there’s the two and then there’s the full.

Liz Fosslien
Yes, I do zero. I tried the two and the full, but I thought it just tasted so good that I ended up eating a lot for breakfast, so yeah, I go non-fat.

Pete Mockaitis
How about the granola bar?

Liz Fosslien
It’s LUNA Bar.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I love them.

Pete Mockaitis
I got into this weird debate with someone about whether LUNA bars were made for women.

Liz Fosslien
I think they are, but I don’t really know beyond that being somewhere on the labeling why they’re made for women.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, they’re delicious and I’m a man and so-

Liz Fosslien
They’re definitely delicious. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular LUNA Bar flavor that you’re working with?

Liz Fosslien
It was the Nuts over Chocolate and then Trader Joe’s discontinued stocking that flavor, so since then I’ve been doing the lemon.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve also learned that Trader Joe’s is your go-to shopping location or grocery spot.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, it’s there. It’s convenient. They have samples. I’m not being paid by Trader Joe’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I love Trader Joe’s and I just wish they could deliver to us because we get most of them delivered.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess we’re too far away from the nearest Trader Joe’s, but when we go we end up stocking up and it’s usually in the frozen section like their chicken tikka masala and their chana masala.

Liz Fosslien
Oh, so good. Yeah. Yeah. So easy.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, I ask the hard-hitting questions here on How to be Awesome at Your Job, so I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now tell us, you’ve got a book, No Hard Feelings, coming out. What’s the story here?

Liz Fosslien
The story is the book’s central idea is just that emotions are inevitable, so we should probably learn how to deal with them. It doesn’t sound that revolutionary on the surface, but I think there is a long-standing tradition in the workplace, this idea that you should check your feelings at the door. That is biologically impossible. We’re emotional creatures regardless of the circumstances.

By suppressing our emotions, we actually miss out on what could be really useful signals. The idea between No Hard Feelings is that you – take for example envy.

With envy, which is one of my favorite examples of something that might be thought of as a hard feeling, is actually really useful information that’s contained within that. I think there is some stigma around if you’re jealous of someone, people might worry that that turns into bitterness and it often does.

But if you just let yourself sit with that, you might realize that you’re envious of a certain person because they have something that you really desire. Then that can help you figure out how to channel your energy and where you might want to go with your career.

We talked to Gretchen Rubin, who’s lovely and she wrote The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. She said when she was a lawyer and kind of thinking about what she wanted her next career move to be, she was reading about alumni from her school.

When she read about someone who had an amazing law career, she found it interesting. But when she read about people who had amazing writing careers, she said became like sick with envy. That to her was this really clear signal that maybe she should try pursuing a career in writing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. It’s funny, when you say envy I think of it in like a sinful context, like, “They don’t deserve that. Why them?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I think a lot of emotions have this stigma around them. Again, I’m not endorsing that if you’re envious you should walk up to someone like, “I’m envious of you.” It’s more just if you hold these emotions that we think of as bad and that should be always thrown in the trash, if you instead hold them up to the light and inspect them, you might find something really useful in there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Then this notion that we’ve all got emotions and they can’t go away even if it’s quote/unquote unprofessional or whatnot.

Boy what do we do with that in a context or culture, environment where you’re sort of not supposed to express that you’re angry at your boss for doing something that inconvenienced you or made your life difficult or you are sad that this thing that you poured your heart and soul and so much time into is getting scrapped and going nowhere. What should we do?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I think something that might be a relief to people who are uncomfortable expressing emotions or in offices where maybe it isn’t as accepted to express emotions, is that there’s a lot you can do internally first. I think the very first thing when you’re experiencing a hard feeling is to try and understand the need driving that emotion.

Last year I was managing a design project and I found myself a few days ahead of the deadline just getting irritated with everyone I was working with. When I kind of went to my office and closed the door and sat by myself and thought about it, no one was doing anything that was super irritating. I really liked the people I was working with.

I realized that I was just irritable because I was extremely anxious about meeting that deadline. The need driving that anxiety was that I just wanted to make sure that we had the structures in place to meet the deadline.

We had a team meeting and kind of went over what the plan was over the next few days and ended up cutting a few things because we just wanted to make sure the core product was impeccable. I felt so much better and suddenly I wasn’t irritable anymore. I think a lot of the work is just what is the need driving this hard feeling.

Then I’ll say the second thing that’s really useful is in some cases to flag hard feelings in a way where you’re talking about your emotions without getting emotional about it. There are days when you’re going to have just a bad day and there maybe isn’t anything you can do about the need driving it. Maybe you’re just generally blue that day or it’s a personal issue that you can’t fix immediately.

In that case, people are going to pick up on the fact that you’re having a bad day, especially a leader, like your emotions have an outside impact on the people around you. If you don’t say anything, you’re just going to cause all this unnecessary anxiety.

Imagine we work together, I walk into an office. I just seem a little subdued. I’m not really responding that quickly or my responses are really short and curt. It’s super likely that you imagine that I’m upset with you or that you’ve done something bad or even worse case, you’re going to get fired. But if I instead say to you, “Hey, I’m having a bad day. It has nothing to do with you, but just want to let you know if I seem a little off, it’s fine. It’s just I have some stuff going on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Liz Fosslien
I’m not going into detail, but you now get it. I think it also gives you the opportunity to treat me with a little more empathy, so we’ve really done a lot for our relationship without me breaking down, saying that much, oversharing. It’s just that little flag that is so crucial.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so helpful. I remember once I was consulting and there was a partner. We were talking about I don’t even know what, but he said something about his anxiety and that he gets it from his mother. I thought, “Ahh.” I was just so relieved, just like, “Man, whenever I’m around you I just feel like we’re screwing something up.” It’s like, “No, you just tend to be anxious and that’s sort of been that way your whole life and I can chill out a little bit.” It was like, “Ahh, what a relief.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, it doesn’t require crazy teambuilding thing. It wasn’t like a retreat. It was just one comment.

I think putting structures into place when you’re working with people, where you maybe just go around at the beginning of a team project and everyone answers really quickly what are some things you should know about me, what are some things that have come up in the past that people felt when I was on a team with them, what do sometimes people misunderstand about me. Just quickly answering those and having everyone do it, maybe half an hour, can save so much grief and avoid so much strife.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to dig into what you said about the spreading of emotions. We had a previous guest, Michelle Gielan, and her book Broadcasting Happiness talked about it’s not so much the person who has the most intensely positive or most intensely negative emotion, so much as the one who is most expressive in terms of what’s showing up in that kind of spread.

How should we think about our spreading of emotions and maybe defending ourselves from the spread of something we’d rather not catch?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. The spreading of emotions psychologists call emotional contagion. It happens when we’re in person. I think like you said, this person you worked with was really anxious. I’m sure that you fed on that anxiety and found yourself often becoming anxious around that person. It also happens over text messages. If you’ve ever been in an argument with someone and they suddenly just start responding like, “Sure period,” “Kay, period,” you become stressed.

Humans we just pick up on these signals and start to mirror each other’s emotions. If someone is really stressed or anxious or even they are expressing that and they’re coming to you and they’re venting a lot, I think one of the easiest things to do if you can is just to keep physical distance.

MIT professor Thomas Alan found that people are four times more likely to communicate regularly with a coworker who sits 6 feet away as opposed to one who sits 60 feet away. If you’re in an open office space or if you have some flexibility to move around and someone just seems to be in a really difficult position, it’s okay to kind of separate yourself a little bit to preserve your emotional state.

Another tip that we give in the book that I really like is if someone’s consistently coming to you with the same problem, try and push them towards action. Something you can say is like, “Well, what could you have done differently?” or “What can we do to fix this situation?”

Just one question kind of forces them to – one it helps them because maybe they just have been so bogged in venting that they’re not thinking proactively anymore and two, it really does a nice job of gently shutting down the negativity. I think it’s really about putting a stop on the negativity and then also forming a little bubble in whatever way you can.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. I want to dig now a bit into you mentioned different emotions can be providing us with sort of signal information. I remember, boy, back in the day I read – it was a Tony Robbins book, Awaken the Giant Within. What a title. He even had a whole chapter where he was like this emotion can mean this, like guilt means you have violated one of your core values.

It’s like, in a way it seemed kind of elementary, but at the same time when you’re in the heat of your emotions, it can be nice to just make it real simple. Okay, what can be going on here? Can you give us a little bit of the ‘if this, then that’ recipe book in terms of how we might go about decoding the signal from different emotions?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, so two that I really like. One is if you think about – let’s say you’re making a decision and not doing or choosing one option over the other fills you with regret. I think this is also not groundbreaking. But you should maybe think about why you feel so much regret or why it hurts so much to give up one option.

I say this because I think when it comes to decision making, especially around work, there is again this idea of – I think people come down really strongly, either always listen to your gut or never listen to your gut. There’s some useful emotions and some emotions that aren’t useful, but regret is usually very useful. That’s an important one to listen to.

When I was thinking about taking a new job or staying at my existing job, when I thought about not taking the new job, I felt a lot of regret, so I realized that I was excited at the challenge and I didn’t want to give that up.

The other thing I felt was fear. I think fear can often be a really important signal around maybe you just really want this. I’m often the most fearful when I’m emailing someone that I admire. When we were writing the book, we interviewed a lot of people. I found that writing emails to people whose books I love, like I would put Gretchen Rubin in this camp or Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive and then just came out with the book When. It was – I was so afraid of emailing them.

I realized that I shouldn’t put off those emails because I was afraid. It was just I thought it would be so amazing if these people – if I could speak to them and learn more about them and kind of get to know them. The fear there was just a signal that this was really important to me. Instead of avoiding it, I should just put some more thought into how I went forward.

Pete Mockaitis
So both the fear and regret are pointing to what’s important to you. On the regret side, you’re sort of imagining a scenario in which you have chosen one thing or forsaken another and sort of observing the emotional response.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I think it can be incredibly illuminating into kind of how you’re feeling because your brain is doing all this calculation and then sometimes what it spits out is a feeling.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly. I think about that fear in terms of emailing folks who have a real impact perhaps on your fate and then there’s fear and then that fear sometimes knee-jerk reaction is just to oh, do something else instead of maybe asking a better question might be “What could I put in this email that would make it all the more compelling and engaging and answerable?” as opposed to “What else am I going to do?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I’ve actually started using fear as a way to prioritize my to-do list in the morning. When I think about – I have just a running list with everything I need to do. In the past I found that I kept falling into this trap of just going to the easiest stuff first. Sometimes that was organize my desk. Organizing your desk is important, but it’s not going to move your career forward in a meaningful way, unless you’re a very, very disorganized person.

What I would do is look at this list and then I would identify the three things that I was most afraid of doing or just had the most emotional resistance around. It usually meant it was because they were hard or they were important. Those are the things that I would do first if it did seem to bear out that these are really important things to me. Then I would leave kind of the little stuff for later in the day when research shows that our productivity starts to wane, we’re less able to focus.

Really, again, I think it’s just a great example of you’re afraid of sending that email, maybe that’s the thing you should spend your morning focusing on doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good. Since you have been there, done that many a time when it comes to “I’m afraid of this email. It’s high stakes. I want to send it out. I’ve got to make sure it’s right.” What have you found to be some of the best practices particularly in sending emails that you fear that get them responded to?

Liz Fosslien
I think one is just to write like a human being. I think that especially earlier in my career I definitely did this, put people off and get into business mode, which is like, “To whom it may concern, I am deeply passionate about,” whatever. That might be true, but just I think having some personality show through makes it – it reads more naturally. It doesn’t feel so much like a form letter, like someone is pitching you on something.

I’d say that’s one of the most important things, which also ties into a nice piece of advice that we have in the book, which is just always emotionally proofreading your emails, so trying to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

Something that I have done before with really important emails is I think so often when we find a typo or we find something we could have fixed immediately after we hit send. A way to avoid that is to write an email and then send it to yourself. That forces you to actually click on it and open it and read it.

I think that helps literally put yourself into the recipient’s shoes. Then it becomes clear as you do that, “Okay, what could be better? Where could I put in more specific example? What information is missing? How am I coming across?” I think really just having – putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes goes a long way.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s really cool. I’m sort of imagining myself doing that and trying to get some even extra distance, like I’ll take a little walk and then return to it. It’s like, “Oh, what do you know? I’ve got an email from Pete. Let me take a look. What do you know?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, yeah. I love that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I actually – this idea for sending it to myself came from – Mollie is my coauthor. We wrote the book together. There are eight chapters and we split them up into four chapters each and each did the initial draft and then we swapped the draft.

Mollie called me after a while and she told me that my emails were making her feel really bad. I was surprised because I thought that I had been responding in a really fast manner. I was giving her great tips on what we needed to change, what should be edited, what wasn’t working. But then she said, “Why don’t you just read one of the emails you’ve written to me from my perspective.”

I did that and basically what I was sending her were just long bullet point lists of all the things I thought needed to be better in the chapter. Nowhere in that email was like, “Thanks for taking a stab at this. Here’s what I really liked.” That emotional proofing, all of that was in my head, but I had never put it in the email. Mollie has no idea what’s in my head, so she was just getting these walls of critical feedback.

I think that really helped me understand, “Oh, I need to take some of the stuff that’s in my head and put it in the email because it is relevant, it is important and she’s not a mind reader. I can’t – I need to step away from only focusing on efficiency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s very well said. I think sometimes it’s impressive just how fast it came. That’s a quick thing you can say is like, “Wow, great job on a quick turnaround. You’re really cranking through some words this morning,” and then that makes me feel good, like, “Well, yes, thank you. I was cranking on some words this morning. I appreciate that.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about the feedback point there. Feedback is boy, emotionally rife or rich, shall we say, in terms of both on the giving side and the receiving side. If you talk to managers behind closed doors, they’ll admit they’re sometimes terrified to give feedback to their direct reports. Certainly on the receiving side, feedback can make you defensive or angry. How do you think about feedback and what are some of the best practices for giving and receiving it well?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, so I’ll start with giving feedback. I think really the way to come at it is to consider how do I give feedback that doesn’t pack a really painful punch. Great feedback allows the recipient to more quickly move past this inevitable defensive reaction and move on to determination and action. To that end we really encourage people to do three things.

The first is just focus on specific behavior. When we give vague feedback, it’s so easy for the recipient – first of all, they don’t know what to do with it. It’s much easier for them to ruminate on it and just think and think and then it becomes this big issue that more and more seems like an attack on their entire sense of self.

As an example, if I say to you, let’s say you send me an email and I give you feedback. The first is, “This email just could have been better. I think it missed the mark,” versus “The second sentence in your email was a little repetitive. I think it’s unnecessary and you should delete it to be a little more succinct.”

It’s so easy. You just delete the second sentence and go about your day. Whereas the first when I say, “It just missed the mark. It wasn’t good,” it’s much easier to go home and be like, “Oh my God, it wasn’t good. What do I do? I don’t know how to improve, so what else isn’t good.” Again, it’s about reducing unnecessary anxiety.

The second tip that I really love is present feedback in a way where it’s about building the person up. A great way to communicate that is just to start with saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations of you and I’m confident that you can reach them.” That immediately puts them on “I’m here to help. This is advice. I’m not here to tear you down. I’m not here to make you feel bad.”

Then the last thing is just really trying to understand. I think this goes back to the earlier point about taking the time to figure out how do people like to work with each other and how to they like to receive feedback. I love feedback. I love it in the moment. I just always want people to be telling me how I can improve.

Mollie, for example, that makes her really uncomfortable. She would always rather receive it over email and then have some time to think through it and also process her initial emotional reaction. If I’m just spitting feedback at her, I’m going to make her feel bad because I’m operating around how I want to be treated as opposed to how Mollie wants to be treated.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good. I like that actionable piece. I think about reviews in particular. How sometimes it’s just so vague, like, “Be more professional.” That’s one thing I loved about consulting at Bain was that the reviews, well, boy, they were extensive like five pages single spaced like every three to six months.

My ‘be more professional’ would be like, “Pete would sometimes use language such as ‘cool beans’ or ‘word’ in front of the clients and these word choices don’t convey as much of a professional demeanor.” It’s like, fair enough. I can see where you’re coming from there. That’s way more actionable, “Don’t say ‘word’ or ‘cool beans’ to a client until you’re really chummy,” than “Be more professional.” What does that even mean ‘be more professional?’

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, just thinking about what can you do to really help this person and ‘be more professional’ is just not that helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Then how about on the receiving side of things?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, we like to say that you need feedback to improve. If no one is ever criticizing you, if no one’s telling you what you’re doing wrong, you’re never really going to set yourself up for success because everyone has areas that they could be improving on. You want to make it awesome for people to come to you with hard feedback. I think the best way to do that is to be able to regulate your initial defensive reaction.

One thing is just keep reminding yourself that you need critical feedback to improve. Again, from the other side see it as this person trying to help you. A friend is going to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth. A non-friend is not going to tell you because it’s uncomfortable. It might hurt your feelings. There’s going to be this awkward moment. Really try and see it as this person is here to help me.

Another thing is to use the word ‘what’ instead of ‘any.’ People, I find, often say like, “Do you have any feedback for me? Is there anything I could be doing differently?” It’s really easy for people to respond to that with, “No, I thought it was good.” But if I instead say, “What are two things I could have done better?” it’s hard to say, “Ah, nothing.” People usually can come up with one or two things. Phrasing the question can invite feedback in a different way.

Then my final piece of advice I’ll give here that I really love is keeping, we call it a smile file, but it’s essentially a folder, that can be digital or physical, where you just keep – it can be a folder in your inbox, where when you get feedback or someone thanks you for doing something or says something really nice about you, you save all of that to a folder.

Then when you receive critical feedback, you can go back to that folder and remind yourself of all the things you do well. Then you’re better able to see the criticism as one data point in the entire picture of who you are. It’s like, “I need to work on this, but it’s not devastating because there’s all these other things that I am doing well.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. That reminds me of when I was in college and I was feeling a little shaken in my confidence because I think I was rejected from all these clubs I tried to get into as a freshman. It was like, “What the heck? I was Mr. High Achiever in high school. What’s the deal here?”

I made a little notebook in terms of all the things that I sort of achieved or sort of gotten great feedback on. Sure enough, you make a big list of 100 plus things, you’re like, “Well, damn. These are minor setbacks. I’m going to find my place real soon here. It’s all good.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I think it’s so nice to have that to go back to. Again, whatever works for you. I have a folder in my inbox, where I’ll just put a nice email in there. Then even when I’m not receiving critical feedback sometimes it’s still nice to just go back and be like, “Oh, I did some cool things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m going to put you on the spot Liz. Can you share a favorite bit of feedback or accomplishment that consistently brings a smile to your face and gets you in a good place?

Liz Fosslien
Yes. The book is also illustrated and I drew the illustrations, so they’re-

Pete Mockaitis
They’re really fun.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. Some of them kind of show the research or communicate an idea and then some are just meant to be light-hearted.

It’s not specific, but I think when people email me, I also have them on our website and then on Instagram. I’ll get comments from time to time especially around illustrations about anxiety and feeling stressed about work or feeling overwhelmed at times and normalizing that and saying everybody feels like this.

I’ve gotten comments from people saying, “I struggle with anxiety especially in the workplace and just knowing that you feel the same has made me feel so much better.” That is really meaningful to me I think connecting with people on that level and realizing that a little stick figure can have a profound impact on someone’s mood is incredibly motivating and lovely to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
That is very lovely. You’re bringing back memories for me. I think my favorite from a listener was “Every day an episode comes out, I make sure to wake up early so I can listen to it twice.”

Liz Fosslien
Oh, that’s so nice. I feel like I just got a warm glow from that ….

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you listener.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, that’s ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. Now we’re both smiling. That’s good. Well speaking of smileys and emojis, how’s that for a segue?

Liz Fosslien
Beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to communicating digitally, that’s tricky because you don’t have the facial expressions, the tone and all that. If we’re texting and emailing and Slacking – not skipping work, but using Slack as a communication channel – then how do we communicate in these digital ways with regard to this emotional piece of things?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. The first thing I would say is when you’re first getting to know someone, don’t just rely on digital communication. If I get a short email from my mom, whatever. We have a good relationship. We’ve know each other for 30 plus years. It’s fine. I’m not going to read into it.

If I’m working with someone new, that’s kind of all the information I’m going on, so I’m going to read a lot more into that email. That’s generally bad because digital communication is lacking in so many non-verbal cues that are really important in communicating actually your meaning and your feelings.

I would just always advise, start with video calls. Even just get on the phone if you can so you can hear tone of voice, cadence, how fast someone is speaking. These are all really important emotional signals.

Then the second is again, it just goes back to really trying to be as explicit as possible to avoid unnecessary anxiety. Let’s say that I’m a manager and I email one of my reports because I’m in a rush, I just say, “Hey, got your email. Let’s talk tomorrow.” That’s horrifying to receive as a report. If my manager sent me that, I’d be really anxious.

By I might have just meant, “Hey, I thought this was really good. There’s a few minor edits, but I can give them to you tomorrow,” but that does such a different thing for the recipient, so really being explicit.

Then the last thing I’ll say is that just typos communicate a lot of emotion. We liken them to just emotional amplifiers. Let’s say I send an email and I’m just slightly upset about something, but it’s filled with typos. Let’s say I send this to Mollie, my coauthor.

When she reads it, she’s going to see the typos and she’s going to imagine me banging away at my computer in a blind rage and not even caring about typos whatsoever. She’s going to perceive it as really angry when maybe I just meant it as “Hey, here’s this small thing that kind of upset me a little bit.” Just paying attention to these really small things that have big effects on how people perceive your email.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing when you call it an emotional amplifier. I guess can it work in a positive way if you think something is excellent and you’ve got some typos, like “Wow, he was so overwhelmed with joy and enthusiasm for my work product that he is blurting it out all over the keyboard.”

Liz Fosslien
Definitely. I think – immediately comes to mind is text messages when you share really exciting information. Then you get back like a ‘OMGQ exclamation point.’ The Q, it does convey you were just so excited to respond to me that you didn’t care about the typo.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, now I’m tempted to do it deliberately, but then I’m like oh, is that inauthentic? Is that deceitful?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, you have to use this information for good, not for evil.

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

Liz Fosslien
I would say one last thing is just I really am a fan of the concept of selective vulnerability. I think more and more people are asked to be authentic, to be vulnerable around each other and it can be confusing to understand what does that even mean. How vulnerable can I be? If I am going through something and I’m really stressed about it, how much of that should I share?

We encourage people share, again, talk about your emotions without getting emotional, but then in a work context, it’s still important, especially if you’re a leader, to follow that up by painting the most realistic but optimistic picture of something.

Again, let’s say that there’s a round of layoffs. If you as a leader don’t show any emotion, people are going to think you’re a robot. Obviously, this is affecting you in some way. But you also don’t want to be standing in front of your employees having a panic attack.

One thing you would do is “I know this is a stressful time. I am feeling it as well, but we are making changes on our end to make sure that we’re going to be in a good position and that we won’t go through this again. We’re also working with people who are laid off to do X, Y, Z.” Just sharing information that provides some hope for people, but also not making them feel alone in their emotional state.

Things are going to be hard at work. It’s normal to be affected by them. I think if we don’t acknowledge that, we risk – we’d lose trust. There’s no trust anymore.

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

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I really like it’s a small mindset shift, but it’s “Any time you find yourself saying ‘I have to do something,’ instead try saying, ‘I get to do something.’”

I am sometimes nervous about public speaking events or about just giving a presentation in front of people. I will often the night before find myself just thinking, “Why did I do this to myself? I’m so scared. I have to do this presentation tomorrow.”

And taking a movement and just saying, “I get to do this presentation. This is a cool opportunity for me. I get to share what I’ve been working on. Maybe someone will respond to it in a way that makes me feel good. Maybe someone will be so interested in it that we have fascinating conversation that deepens our bond also on a personal level.”

A lot of things that we’re afraid of, again, are opportunities. We fear them because there’s a big potential upside, so always reminding ourselves of that. I think that ‘I have to’ switching to ‘I get to’ is a really simple way of doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Liz Fosslien
Yes. My favorite study is out of Baylor University. They found that emotions can go viral. Earlier I mentioned that concept of emotional contagion, where we catch each other’s emotional emotions. They found that emotions can spread from one office to another. It works like this.

I come home from work and I’ve had a really bad day because I’ve just been sitting next to someone who is incredibly stressed and I have not successfully wrapped a little nice bubble around myself. I come home and I’m really grumpy towards my partner. We get in a fight and then we go to bed angry. He wakes up the next morning and he’s irritated. He goes into his office and now he spreads that among all his coworkers. This happens.

I think that’s just a fascinating look at how important it is to have some kind of emotional flak jacket and to learn the skills to protect yourself but also to create a great environment for the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Liz Fosslien
Oh, I’m going to go with Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, who led HR at Google for ten years. I think their people analytics department is fascinating. They do a really interesting and fun job of quantifying a lot of things around emotions, so what makes a manager good, what makes a good team good, and putting numbers and real experiments behind that I think.

It’s also useful for skeptics around emotions to say, no, here’s quantitative data showing why it is important to make people feel safe throwing out ideas or taking risks.

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

Liz Fosslien
Favorite tool. Is this an emotional tool or an app tool?

Pete Mockaitis
It could be either or both. I’m intrigued. I mean just something that you use regularly.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I would say just flagging how I’m feeling. I know I mentioned this before, but it’s just so useful. Also, I actually use this a lot in my personal life too. I think just any interpersonal thing, just flagging for someone, “I’m a little grumpy.” I done a lot like, “Hey, traffic was really bad today. I need half an hour to get over it,” or like, “I haven’t had coffee. I didn’t sleep well. Feeling a little grumpy right now. Maybe let’s talk in 20 minutes.” It’s just so, so useful, so I’m just going to bring it up twice in this interview.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Liz Fosslien
Besides breakfast, I think taking photographs of things. I do a lot of design work, so taking photographs of things I find inspiring.

I will broaden that to say if you just see someone setting an example or doing something really well and you want to emulate it, writing it down in some kind of file or a journal. I think you can screenshot. If someone writes an email that makes you feel really good or you think was really well done, screenshot it and save it somewhere. Just always being aware of the lessons that are out there and keeping them in a file so that you can refer back to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Liz Fosslien
Just that we all have feelings. I definitely experienced this. My parents are stoic, academic immigrants, so I grew up in a pretty emotionally unexpressive household, so just this concept around permission. You are going to have feelings. It’s okay. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a flaw. I think that – which maybe is a little sad – but I think it’s really useful to hear that. It can make people feel a lot less isolated wherever they are.

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

Liz Fosslien
I’m going to point them to our website, LizAndMollie.com. Mollie is spelled M-O-L-L-I-E not M-O-L-L-Y. They can preorder the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at your local independent book seller, wherever books are sold.

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

Liz Fosslien
Acknowledge your emotion. Next time you feel strongly, sit down, maybe journal about it, and really think about why you might be feeling that way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck with the book, No Hard Feelings, and all you’re up to.

Liz Fosslien
Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.