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817: How to Navigate Complexity and Win with Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Jennifer Garvey Berger shares how we can all tap into our natural capabilities to overcome the challenges of complexity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How uncertainty affects your nervous system
  2. The secret to boosting your nervous system
  3. How laughter helps you be more awesome 

About Jennifer

Jennifer Garvey Berger is Chief Cultivating Officer and Founder of Cultivating Leadership, a consultancy that serves executives and executive teams in the private, non-profit, and government sectors. Her clients include Google, Microsoft, Novartis, Wikipedia, and Oxfam International. She is the author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World. 

Resources Mentioned

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Jennifer Garvey Berger Interview Transcript

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s great to have you and I appreciate you being up and with us in France. It’s a bit of a different time zone situation. And I understand you’ve lived in New Zealand, England, and France. I’m curious if you’ve picked up any wisdom having lived in different places around the world that us, Yankees, who have not lived outside the US might appreciate.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
You know, we moved to New Zealand in 2006, and one of the first things I noticed is that when you move from a country like the US, where I was born and grew up, to a tiny country in the corner of the world, if you can imagine a world having a corner, New Zealand would be in it, it was just amazing how much New Zealanders were engaged with the whole world because New Zealand itself was a little bit too small to be just engaged with New Zealand. And I found that curiosity about the whole world is very interesting in such a small country so far from everybody else. It taught me to be a little bit more curious, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I’ve been surprised at how, when I talk to people from other countries, they have a knowledge and interest in some of the happenings in sort of in the United States politics, it’s like, “Boy, I don’t think I can name your president or king or prime minister. I don’t think I even know,” shamefully, “what head of state title that you use over there. Excuse me.” And so, yeah, I do feel a little bit sheepish or embarrassed at how there does seem to be an awareness and engagement in a broader circle than just a narrow view of that country itself.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It was amazing. I used to get into taxicabs and say where I wanted to go, and they would pick my accent, and then they would start asking me detailed questions about American politics. And I’d be like, “Wow, I don’t know the answer to that question. I haven’t even had that question myself. That’s amazing.” That’s amazing. So, yes, the kind of open curiosity about how the rest of the world works is, I think, it’s easier to attain when you’re not the big guy.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. Well, let’s talk about attaining some complexity genius-ness. Your book is called Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. That sounds like a handy thing to have. But before we get into the depths, could you first share, precisely what do you mean by complexity?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, so complexity is, for many of us, it’s what makes our lives so tiring right now. Complexity is that which has so many intersecting parts, so many interactions from so many places that you can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, no one person can control anything, and the outcomes that come out of it are, they call them, emergent. They can’t be predicted and they are a feature of all of those intersecting lines and relationships and conversations, and all those sorts of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, I think a lot of larger organizations seem to have that going for them, or against them, as the case may be in terms of intersecting departments, and responsibilities, and stakeholders, and decision matrices, or processes, and things to be followed. It certainly can be overwhelming, so becoming a genius in this domain sounds very handy.

Could you kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising, or counterintuitive, or extra fascinating discovery you’ve made about this stuff while researching the topic and working with folks in this zone?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The first idea that I found amazing was that we do have the genius for it. The book I wrote before this one is called Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, and that book, I researched all the ways we stink at complexity, to be honest, the way our bodies and our brains work against our ability to handle complexity well.

And you talk about the complexity of an office. There’s also the complexity of COVID, there’s the complexity of relationships, there’s the complexity of living in a city right now. Life is really uncertain, unpredictable, and it has lots of these intersecting pieces. And my last book was to try and figure out how are we not good at that. Like, what are the patterns of our not-goodness?

And so, the first question I took on when we were researching this book is “Are there ways we’re really good at this? Are there ways we actually do have a genius for it?” So, the first aha I had was, “Wow, we have so much in us that’s great at handling complexity.” We have so many natural human attributes that when we rely on them, when we lean into them, we can handle complexity with grace and style and creativity and awesomeness.

And the kicker is, it turns out, when we are in a complex situation, our body understands that as a threat and all the awesomeness goes away. So, we’re great at handling complexity until it gets complex, and then we’re not good at it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the body, is that sort of like a stress response-type situation going on there, cortisol, etc.?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The classic stress response.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And just to triple check that we’re on the same page, we and us in this context just means humanity, human beings?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s what I mean.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
All of us. As far as we can tell from the research, this is like a natural thing. My guess is it’s different across populations, but in the research that I came to, uncertainty is actually metabolized by the body as threat. And your body doesn’t know whether you’re feeling uncertain about what the stock market is going to do, or whether you feel uncertain about whether something is going to jump out and eat you. And so, what your body does is it prepares you to be narrowed, to be self-protective, and to run like crazy. None of these things are that useful in complexity.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so could you give us an example of how, there’s some complexity that shows up, and then we have a stress response that is suboptimal that professionals could relate to?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think we kind of know this when we walk into a meeting and we think we know exactly what the agenda is and what our role is in it, and, suddenly, there are different people in the room or on the teams or Zoom, or whatever, than we expected, and it looks like our job is going to be different than we thought it was going to be in that meeting, and we don’t know what it is.

I’m guessing everybody has some experience of sweaty palms, and shallow breath, and wide eyes trying to figure out, “What am I supposed to do here? How am I supposed to show up here?” And that kind of narrow-minded focus that might actually take us out of the meeting, it might be like people are talking and we hear, “Waah, waah, waah” in the background. We don’t even know what’s going on particularly because we are so…what our body is saying is run. That’s our body’s main message.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Well, Jennifer, I’m encouraged by what you say there with regard to the stress response is natural for all of us when there’s a switcheroo going on, because I’m thinking about the CliftonStrengths assessment, puts adaptability for me, personally, as one of my very bottommost strengths. They don’t use the word weaknesses but I know, like bottommost strengths is adaptability.

And so, when I encounter a switcheroo, I do feel something like, “Huh? What? What’s going on? I thought we were doing this. Well, this is the time that we establish for that, but, apparently, we’re not doing that.” And so, I can get there, I can calm down. I just merely need a moment to process, reassess, like, “Okay, before we were going to do this. However, the contexts have shifted in this way, and now we’re doing that. Okay, kind reorienting, reprogramming, repositioning. All right. So, now, let’s talk about this new thing.”

And sometimes it feels like other people are just like rolling with it, and I’m a little late to the party. But it sounds reassuring that everybody has some kind of a feeling of this when there’s a shift-up going on.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Oh, I think so. I think so. And whatever the size shift is that changes our reactions, there’s research that shows that people are generally more satisfied with their life conditions if they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness than if they’re diagnosed with something that may or may not be terminal. This is like mindblowing for me.

So, that if you know that your illness is terminal, it calms you down, “I know what’s going to happen next. I can predict this thing. I know where we’re going.” But if you don’t know, your nervous system is activated, “I don’t know where this is going. Is it going to be diagnosed as terminal? What’s going to happen to me?” Living in that uncertainty is harder than even living in the ultimate certainty of your own demise.

For me, this is like an example of the ways uncertainty is really not that friendly to our bodies. We just do not like this thing unless we go to a movie, in which case, then we like it. We like it in the movies. We don’t like it in our real lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s just really striking and I’m chewing on that right now. And I guess I’m thinking, if that’s true, then it seems the natural implication to me is maybe our best strategy is to assume that it is a terminal illness, and then you have that certainty for now, and then maybe you’ll, I don’t know, have a second…well, sometimes, when people discover this tragic news, they really do live life to the full, sometimes, and that could be inspiring.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s absolutely true.

Pete Mockaitis
And then you may have a pleasant surprise, “Actually, you’re going to live longer.” It’s like, “Oh, cool.” So, anyway, I might be way oversimplifying things here, Jennifer, but that’s what sort of what I’m thinking. It’s like, if that’s how we work, maybe we’re better off just assuming the worst and being delightfully surprised if our assumptions are incorrect. Is that one useful strategy?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I’m guessing, in some situations that is a useful strategy, but we’ve all been thrown by COVID, and we all know that our travel plans for a business trip or a holiday might be upended at the last minute. We can’t plan for the worst all the time, and not make plans or else we wouldn’t go anywhere. And so, we do sometimes have to throw ourselves into the game, and, in the game, we know that there are things we’re going to be able to predict, and then there’s just a ton we’re not going to be able to predict.

And getting our bodies able to handle that and you did it just a minute ago when you were talking about the great switch-up, and you became frazzled for a moment, and then you realized, I mean, you were fake-frazzled, but you realized you were fake-frazzled, and you breathed and you noticed and you calmed yourself down.

And this is the first thing for us to do is to notice, “Oh, I feel frazzled now. How do I return to my body? How do I return to my breath?” because it turns out, we can, in fact, switch on the part of the nervous system that is helpful for us in complexity and that it brings online all the things we want. We can actually switch it on on purpose.

It switches off when we face into complexity, but there are all these moves we can make, short-term and longer-term moves that mean we get to be the boss of our nervous system, to a certain extent. And that is amazing. To be able to hack into this thing that humans have just been able to just run in the background, now we need to hack into it, and there are ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing, and I’m just imagining the nervous system saying, “You’re not the boss of me.” You’re saying, “Yes, I am.” So, lay it on us, how do we become the boss of our nervous system?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, the first thing is we need to notice it. I think everything starts with noticing, which is why having this conversation is great because before I did the research for this book, I’m not sure how much I noticed my nervous system, to be honest. I think it just ran, right? And, now, after having done the research that we did and really thinking about it, there are all kinds of ways we can notice.

We can notice our breathing, we can notice our heart rate, we can notice the way we’re sitting or standing or moving, how fast we’re talking. We can notice all these things, and you’ll have some constellation of things that can alert you all. My sympathetic nervous system, my stress bone, my fight or flight often people call it, nervous system is running the show right now. It’s not a help in this situation. I don’t need to fight or flee from anybody right now. It’s a meeting. I need to be here.

And once we notice that we’re in this place, the next thing we can do is change our breathing, just as you did in your example. Just like your mama told you, to take three deep breaths before going any further. Actually, your mama was right, because deep breaths that push out the diaphragm, and that have a slower exhale, those actually activate this complexity-friendly nervous system. They switch our nervous systems. We have the switch at hand all the time.

And I think we could use that switch all the time. We could use it 80 times a day. And most of the folks I work with need to be reminded that they have this thing right with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to deep breathing, any pro tips, do’s or don’ts to make that work for you? This has come up before, but I’ve got the Breathwork app in my phone. I think it’s fun and there are so many varieties in terms of, “And for these many times, for that, through the nose, through the mouth, through alternating nostrils.” Like, “Oh, okay, that’s fancy.” So, any pro tips on is there a deep-breathing approach that maximally helps us here?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
As far as I can tell, the deep breathing approach that helps you the most is the one you can learn to use in your meeting, where alternating nostril breathing is harder when the accounting team is looking at you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the people is like, “What are you doing over there?”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, something that you can remember. I’ve talked to many people about this. Sometimes people find that counting your breath is super helpful, and other people find, “When I count my breath, it makes me stress out.” You do you and figure out what’s the good thing. The thing that we know helps the nervous system.

Slower exhales than inhales and your diaphragm moving. Both of those things are important. If you can tick those two boxes, all the others, yes, they’re incredibly varied states that you can get into with your breath. I’m just trying to get us prepared to handle complexity, and those two boxes will do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, slower exhales than inhales means it might be like inhaling for a count of four-ish, and exhaling for a count of eight-ish, for example.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Exactly. That’s exactly right. It turns out that when you inhale, an inhale activates your fight or flight nervous system, and an exhale activates your complexity-friendly nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. And so, if you can activate one more than the other, that’s a win.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then how much how long would we need to do this breathing? Can I see results in 10 seconds? Or, is three minutes a super sweet spot? Or, what do you recommend?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think you can start to see results in three breaths.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s best.

Pete Mockaitis
So, three breaths will do something. And would 30 breaths do more?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Again, if you have time and space to drop into some meditative state, maybe. The thing I like about breath work is it’s so fast. And so, dropping into a meditative state is always good. If you can do it, that’s excellent. Again, hard to do in a meeting without people thinking you’re odd or not present or whatever. Unless you all do it together, then that’s fun. But if you’re just trying to manage your own nervous system, watching your breath is helpful.

By the way, if you have a team of people and everybody in the meeting is agitated, having your breath be a little bit audible, slowing down your breath, and having it be audible just for one or two breaths will actually make others in the meeting also slow their breathing, and you’ll hear other people also kind of sigh. And then you are not just deactivating your stress response. You’re beginning to deactivate the stress responses of the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m curious if you have any nifty research or numbers which suggests, “Hey, this is just how much smarter you’re going to be simply by taking three-ish breaths.”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I don’t have any research about breath. There’s really good research about sleep, which is another genius that’s really good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about sleep.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Let’s talk about sleep. I happen to know you recently had a bay.

Pete Mockaitis
I sure did.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And so, my guess is you know a lot more about sleep deprivation than most humans right now from the experiment you’re running in your own life. But sleep is I always have to figure out how to phrase this because it’s the least helpful thing in the world for people who aren’t getting enough sleep to find out how stress-inducing it is for them to need to get more sleep.

So, I want to say we could all do just a little bit better. By and large, the modern life we live interrupts our sleep in a way that’s not very helpful. And if we begin to work on it a little bit more and a little bit more, then we can actually take sleep as a piece of our job. How to be awesome at your job? You prioritize sleep. It turns out that the sleep you get early in the night helps you code the things that you did yesterday into your long-term memory and transfers them to long-term memory. That’s helpful.

The sleep you get later in the night, like the early morning sleep, that helps you code people’s faces as less threatening. So, if you cut off the sleep in the early part of the night and the early part of the morning, you go to bed late and you wake up early, then you’re going to go to bed not remembering quite what happened yesterday, and also thinking everybody’s out to get you, which these are not helpful. These are not helpful ways of connecting with your world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, sleep, one key thing is to just get in bed, turn off the lights, at a reasonable hour. Do the math associated with when you got to wake up and then when you got to go to bed. Any other pro tips on sleeping that is novel for folks?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think, for me, the most novel thing is, and it sounds boring, I know it sounds boring, is that we have to think about our sleep during the day. We have to actually plan our night sleep the way we would plan our workout, or our dinner, or whatever else we do that’s good for us. And I believe that sleep is a part of our job.

And I used to treat it as like sleep was the inconvenient thing that happened when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. And I did it until I could stand to wake up. Like, this was how I treated sleep. And now I understand that treating sleep that way, as if it’s kind of an annoyance, really reduced my commitment to creating the conditions in my life to get good sleep.

And now, I prioritize, I really prioritize, “What does it mean for what hours I’ll take phone calls? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have caffeine? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have alcohol?” I really prioritize sleep because I understand that it creates the conditions for my nervous system to be smooth and happy, as well as there’s awful lot of other stuff it does, but that’s what I lean into.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you said you have some hot numbers associated with just how much dumber sleep deprivation is making us.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Numbers are not exactly my thing. I can point you in the direction of numbers. I’m good with metaphors. If you’re looking at my StrengthsFinder, you would find me with in the strengths in the metaphors, and the numbers would be my lower strengths, or weaknesses we might even say.

The thing that they attached it to that really makes sense to me is alcohol. Every hour you don’t sleep is the equivalent of a drink or two, depending on your stature, a drink or two, and that means that if you lose three hours of sleep at a night, you’re walking around drunk, basically. You have as much of a chance as getting into a car accident as somebody who’s been drinking. You have as much of a chance as doing or saying something you’ll regret later as somebody who’s been drinking. That’s the cognitive equivalent of alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there’s…

Jennifer Garvey Berger
But less fun.

Pete Mockaitis
But less fun. Okay. And then how about the moving?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The moving really matters. We know that our bodies were meant to move, and we spend most of our time moving our mouths and maybe our fingers on the keyboard. But actually, when we get this burst of stress hormones in our bodies, really helps to move them off. They exist in order to be run off. And unless we do something, we don’t have to work out 30 minutes a day to get our nervous system in line.

There are these ideas about, like, micro bursts of, literally, ten seconds of exercise. They’re studying amounts of exercise as small as ten seconds, and getting breathless for ten seconds running up the stairs instead of walking up the stairs, for example, changes your nervous system.

Pete Mockaitis
In a good way.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
In a great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m thinking, if I’m doing a sprint, if we’re talking about stress, that seems like that would make my body stress systems more stressed, like, “Whoa, this is intense,” but that’s a positive?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It turns out you’re exactly right. During the sprint, your body experiences stress. After the sprint, your body experiences release from stress. So, if you’re having a heavy day, it’s a bad meeting, and then you have to get to the next bad meeting, and you can run up your stairs in between them, yeah, you’ll be stressed for those ten seconds that you’re running up the stairs. But, actually, the rebound, they call it the parasympathetic rebound, the rebound after that is super beneficial and it lasts a while.

So, this is another thing to do even if you’re just clicking at home from one Zoom line into a team’s meeting, if you run down the stairs and get yourself a cup of tea, and run back to your office, you’ll be in better shape for your next meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Hopefully, if the tea is hot, you have a lid for your mug or beverage holster of choice.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Good plan. Maybe just run in one direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Just really visualizing that scene.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
This is probably a good idea. Yeah, that’s a pro tip.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when do I get that rebound? Is it immediately or as soon as I catch my breath again? Like, when can I start reaping what I have sown?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s right away, yeah. As soon as you start to breathe normally, your body is like, “Oh, I feel refreshed. I feel clean.” And sometimes, I just have people stand up at their desk and kind of move their bodies. There’s some research that moving your hand across the midline of your body changes your brain functioning. So, if you can kind of stand up and swing your arms around, it actually…this possibility exists that makes your brain more flexible. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems like this is something a clown does in performing for children.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And just imagine how stressful that job is.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the takeaway, Jennifer. How clowns get through their workday, you’ll learn that at Awesome at Your Job. Okay. Well, we’re doing some laughing, that’s also in your list. Tell us about that.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Laughing is great for our bodies, and it’s also great for our communities. The thing that surprised me in my research about laughing, I thought, maybe you think, we laugh at something that’s funny. We think that it’s the funny thing out there that causes laughter in here. But actually, it turns out that laughter isn’t that much about what’s funny out there. Laughter is a social cuing more than it is about our response to laughter.

We all actually know this because we’ve all watched something that we thought was hilarious, and then we showed that hilarious thing to somebody who’s like, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever see in our lives.” And when we showed it to them, it wasn’t funny anymore, you’re like, “Oh, this is embarrassing that I’m showing you this right now.”

So, everybody who’s had that experience understands that laughter is more about the relationships than it is about the actual funny thing. And so, it turns out that our willingness to laugh together, it’s really important to things like team cohesion, the ability of teams to be creative together, the ability of people to feel psychologically safe together. All these things that we want, laughter opens up a door to that.

And as I read across the research, the kind of pro tip here is not that you have to be funnier, but it’s that you have to just be more frequent a laugher, more gracious with your giving of laughter. And if you think of your laughter as a gift that makes social situations easier, suddenly, it becomes easier to laugh. People laugh more around you. They feel more comfortable around you.

My co-author, Carolyn Coughlin, who’s my friend and colleague, as well as the co-author of this book, she laughs so easily, more easily than just about anybody I’ve ever known. And when people describe her, they say, “Carolyn is hilarious.” I’ve been friend with Carolyn for 20 years, she’s not hilarious.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, on the record, disagree.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
She just laughs a lot. On the record. She doesn’t very often say things that are funny, but she participates in laughing so much that everybody gets funnier when Carolyn is around. She makes you feel funnier, and she makes you feel connected to her. It’s not being funny; it’s being generous with your laughter.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, and it’s true. When I’m saying things that are even mildly amusing, and the person I’m talking to is laughing, I feel good, I like them more.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s it. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
And all sorts of good things are flowing there. So, I’ve actually tried to get myself to laugh on command, and pulled up some random YouTube videos to help facilitate that. I didn’t have the best of luck pulling that off, Jennifer. So, how can I just get better at laughing if I’m not just getting exposed to more hilarious stimuli?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, laughing, because it’s a social phenomenon, there is this whole thing, which I’ve not found research on but I’m curious about, like, the things we only laugh at when we’re alone, like, whatever stupid cat videos, or whatever it might be. But, by and large, laughter is much easier to find in social situations, which is why early sitcoms have laugh tracks because they cue us, “Oh, it’s time for me to laugh now. That must be funny.”

And it’s actually, like many complex phenomena, it’s actually hearing other people laugh that signals to you that you find it funny, which is why we have so much more laughter in groups than we do by ourselves, and it’s why, in our hybrid world when we’re alone in a room and on mute and everybody else is on mute, we just laugh a whole lot less because we hear other people’s laughter less.

So, the thing that shaped it, for me, is to be able to notice myself, again, it starts with noticing, to be able to notice myself and to begin to turn, like the idea, I think sometimes I would have had kind of like the Mona Lisa smile, like, “Oh, you said something amusing,” I will kind of smile in your direction. And now that I understand what laughter actually is for my nervous system, for your nervous system, and for our relationship, now that I know, it’s like, “Oh, I can actually laugh.”

I think there’s a way I was actually holding myself back from laughing. And the thing I’m doing now is doing that less. And by doing that less, I laugh more. And when I laugh more, the other person laughs more, and it becomes just hilarious. It becomes much, much funnier a world. And we need that. Our nervous systems need that, our relationships need that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And you’ve got also the recommendation that we should do some more wondering.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, I love the word wonder because it let me get two geniuses in one, because wonder has both the idea of like awe. And there’s a lot of research on awe, on the sense of majesty, the sense of being connected to and part of something so much bigger than us. And we tend to find this sense of awe at the Grand Canyon, or when a choir is singing very beautifully at church, or wherever that might be for you.

And it turns out that we can go looking for that. I’ve sent hundreds of leaders out into their neighborhoods, their city neighborhoods, and said, “Go find something that fills you with awe,” and they’re like, “I’m not going to find something that fills me with awe.” And they come back, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, there’s so much there that fills me with awe.”

The intention of finding awe actually activates our capacity to find it. So, another thing you can do on your lunchbreak, if you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, you can wander around and see whether you can find something that strikes you as awesome. Grass is awesome. Trees are unbelievably awesome. The way that we’ve been able to build buildings, make neighborhoods, there’s a lot in the world that is filled with wonder.

And then the second thing wonder leads us to is curiosity. When we are wondering, then this question about, “How can we be curious about things?” Certainty is unhelpful in complexity because it’s a narrowing emotion. What we want is curiosity. And so, again, the question is, “How do we inject more curiosity into our lives? How do we shift some of the certainty, which just arises for all kinds of reasons? How do we shift that into some kind of wondering, some kind of musing, some kind of ‘I wonder if I could connect to some new idea, new possibility’?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, now, tell us, Jennifer, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The last thing I’ll say is the thing this book has convinced me is that we can create the conditions in our lives for complexity to be more manageable, more fun, and for us to stay connected to ourselves and to other people as we face into it. And I’ve found that knowing that I can create the conditions in my life for that has made every day better.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, I’m hoping that your listeners get to connect to that idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now can you tell us about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the quote that has moved me the most is attributed to a whole bunch of different people, but I tend to attribute it to the Talbot, and it says, “We do not see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” And I find that idea magical.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite research is research on willpower and how we use willpower. And they took, scientists, diabolical scientists, gave people a really difficult task and then they had them walk down a hall to another room and past somebody who had a plate of hot chocolate chip cookies. And people were offered the hot chocolate chip cookies.

And those people who declined the chocolate chip cookies did less well on the cognitive test after declining the chocolate chip cookies. It turns out that the act of willpower actually uses up some of our cognitive possibility, and it’s depleting. And so, if you’re relying on willpower to make a change, it actually makes you stupider.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay, good to know. And a favorite book?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite book in this field is called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. I think it is laugh-out-loud funny. You’ll learn everything, everything about stress and the body, and have fun doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
What helps me be awesome at my job. I am very grateful for the microphone you sent me because that shows that you are awesome at your job, and you are going to help me be more awesome at my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And a favorite habit?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have all these sleep habits that are super important to me right now. Really, this idea of “Can I plan my day so that I can get more sleep? And can I shift to…?” So, here’s what I do. I shift to my favorite herbal tea at noon, so I shift away from coffee and, too, with caffeine. And I love this habit. It’s delicious.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Asking the question, “How can I be wrong?” People love this question. When you are feeling certain about something, and you are feeling closed, and you are just trying to hammer your way through, asking the question of yourself, “How can I be wrong here?” actually opens you up to new possibilities.

And even though this is the simplest question in the world, I swear, and I obviously didn’t come up with it, like I didn’t make it up, if you look me up, you’ll find this quote. People quote me about this all the time, “How can I be wrong about this?” When you’re feeling too certain and dug in, it’s like punching a skylight and letting new possibilities stream through the roof.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have a great website CultivatingLeadership.com. And there’s just a ton of we believe in sharing everything we know with anybody who cares, so papers, articles, videos, podcasts like this one. My colleagues and I are constantly trying to figure out how to make the world better, and how to help us all be awesome at our jobs and at our lives. And you’ll see lots of good stuff there.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the question is, “Can you bring the fullness of you to work? Can you find a way to cultivate the you that you feel the most proud of?” We are often at work trying to be the thing that we think other people want us to be. And the work I do is to help people find what’s the greatness that’s theirs, and then how do they create the conditions, like unleashing their complexity genius and other things that help them bring that greatness to the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jennifer, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in the midst of complexity.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you so much. That’ll be great. I hope the complexity of you and your new growing family, I hope you get some sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

783: How to Restore Energy and Clarity by Tuning in to Silence with Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn

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Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn share compelling research on the surprising benefits of silence—and how to find it amidst the noise and busyness of today’s world.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The small but powerful ways we can get more rest every day 
  2. How taking a hike can shorten your to-do list 
  3. How to resist the pull of your smartphone

About Leigh & Justin

Justin Talbot Zorn is an author and policymaker, who has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the US Congress. A Harvard-and-Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of human thriving, Justin’s writing on mindfulness and politics has been published in 12 languages and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, and other publications.  

Leigh Marz is a leadership coach and collaboration consultant specializing in work with scientists, engineers, and creatives. She spent years working with the climate team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and over a decade facilitating and advising a cross-sector team of chemists, advocates, government regulators, manufacturers, and retailers aiming to reduce toxic chemicals in our homes and environment. 

Resources Mentioned

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Leigh Marz & Justin Zorn Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Leigh and Justin, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Leigh Marz
Hey, thanks, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thanks for having us, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in. And, first, I’d love to hear, as you were putting together Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, were there any particularly surprising and fascinating discoveries that grabbed you?

Leigh Marz
Well, I guess what we found is that when we started unpacking silence, that there was really a lot to it, much further than auditory decibel-level silence, that when we’re looking at silence today, we’re looking at freedom from distraction from our screens, or on the mass proliferation of information available, and also, we’re looking at silence internally in our minds. Just what does it mean to be quiet inside? So, for us, the exploration of silence became much bigger than just that auditory starting point. And that’s where things got rich.

Justin Zorn
We really did start thinking about the importance of auditory silence in the literal sense. We wrote this article for Harvard Business Review on this topic, and it resonated with people. So, we went out and started just following the cookie crumbs and interviewing people, neuroscientists, poets, activists, politicians, businesspeople, we ran the gamut.

And as we asked people this question, “What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known?” as a starting point, they gave us answers that often weren’t auditorily quiet. So, we started exploring this silence in the informational sense and even in the internal sense, like Leigh mentioned.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so funny because the first thing I thought of is, “Oh, I stepped inside of an anechoic chamber,” which they say can drive you insane, which I find intriguing. I plan to visit one in the future. But that’s intriguing, people’s most silent moment didn’t have much to do with the decibel levels, eh, at times?

Leigh Marz
That was the big surprise. Yeah, that was the big surprise.

Justin Zorn
And the funny thing is, even an anechoic chamber isn’t really totally silent. We write in the book about a 20th century famous modernist composer named John Cage, who had a real love affair with silence. He wrote a piece of music that was famously just four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

And John Cage, actually, went into an anechoic chamber on the Harvard campus through World War II, and when he got there, he noticed there were two sounds, and he told the engineer running the anechoic chamber, this supposedly soundless booth, “Hey, this thing isn’t silent as it’s advertised.” He said, “I hear two sounds. One high pitch, and one low pitch.” And the engineer said, “Oh, no, it’s working.” He said, “The high-pitch sound is your nervous system in operation, and the low-pitch sound is your blood in circulation.”

So, for us, we’re actually through this, like, “Hey, maybe there isn’t such a thing as total perfect silence in the universe.” But then, as we explore the meaning of silence with all these diverse kinds of people, outstanding professionals in various fields, as well as the scientists, we find that silence does exist. It’s just that it’s a subjective experience in human consciousness. It’s what we think of as the space where no one is making claims on your attention. It’s pristine attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just as you describe that, it feels so refreshing.

Leigh Marz
Oh, good.

Pete Mockaitis
Wouldn’t that be nice?

Leigh Marz
Wouldn’t it though?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s very interesting in terms of, “Hmm,” as an exploration of a concept and how it affects humans. Can you speak to the benefits of silence, like some of the science behind it and, particularly, as applicable to folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Leigh Marz
Well, first, we need to maybe take you to a tour through the damage of noise a little bit, maybe some definitions because that toll of noise is real and true, so first, it’s about, of course, mitigating noise. So, we looked at the auditory effects on our bodies, on our ears, of course there’s hearing loss, but there’s far more than that. Hearing loss being a serious issue, leading to some isolation and all kinds of problems, doing all kinds of jobs, of course.

But, also, we looked at the impact, the toll on our ability to focus, how it impacts our nervous system, even how it’s connected to all kinds of diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, how it impacts our lack sleep, our ability to sleep. And that lack of sleep, as you know, has a lot of downstream consequences to it.

So, there are vast physical psychological mood and impacts to all this noise. And then we turned to silence and we looked at, actually, this fascinating study out of Duke University that puts little mice in that anechoic chamber that we were just talking about, and pipes in pop sounds of little mice, Mozart Sonata in D, I believe it is, ambient noises and silence.

And what they found was that silence had an incredibly beneficial impact on the mice. It led to growth in their neurons in their brain that were sustained growth, they didn’t die off. Those neurons didn’t die off right away. So, the hypothesis was that this was a positive type of stress called eustress that the mice were under, something unusual that led them to grow into the direction of that silence, to listen into the silence and actually build some capacity in their brain that they didn’t have before.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, yeah. Those areas of the brain are also associated with…in the hippocampus are also associated with memory and things like that. So, we became very interested in those effects.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, if we don’t have access to an anechoic chamber handy, how do you recommend we go about pursuing and acquiring some of the silence?

Justin Zorn
You know, for us, we didn’t want to write about the kind of silence that’s all about running away to an anechoic chamber or a sensory deprivation chamber or a monastery, for that matter. We’re interested in the kinds of silence, Pete, that we could find in this noisy, buzzing, singing, dancing world, and we think it’s a good thing to be immersed in the noise of the modern world.

And so, we explore in this book how silence is always available. It’s in the breath, it’s in the moments in between words and conversations with friends, and it’s in that three minutes of stepping outside of the cubicle and feeling the rays of the sun.

And we can even tune into silence just internally even when the noise of our lives seems out of control. So, this is a book abut how we tune into silence in our own ways. Some really simple ways to do that are, for example, to just step outside and just listen to nothing in particular. Leigh mentioned this Duke University Medical School study about how the act of trying to hear in silence is actually physically edifying to the brain. It grows new neurons.

So, if we could take a moment, even in a busy day, you don’t need to have a meditation practice or some kind of fancy knowledge of some kind of contemplative work, to just step outside and just listen to the breeze, just listen to the branches, listen to the rain, even just listening to the birds. It doesn’t need to be necessarily literal audio, auditory silence. This act of simply tuning into our hearing is healing and it’s edifying and it’s clarifying.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say listen to the silence, now I guess I’m thinking about the noise. I do hear some birds. I’m hearing some air-conditioning and that’s not nature. Is that still beneficial?

Justin Zorn
The way we think of it is as long as it’s not making claims on your attention. We’re living in a world where we’re constantly needing to have these mental reflexes go when we’re protecting our reputation or promoting a point of view. And in this book, we talk about taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

So, these kinds of listening, it’s better, of course, to listen to nature, we found through the science research, and we can get into that more. But this act of listening in a way that isn’t thinking of what to say, isn’t thinking about, “How do I compute this information?” giving your mind a break to simply rest in the silence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when it comes to these breaks, is there a dosage that is optimal? Is it more is better? Or, is there like, “Ooh, three minutes every 60 minutes,” that you can prescribe to be excellent?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, that’s a great question and you did ask, “Is it beneficial?” So, I think what we’re doing is really pointing the reader back towards their experience because silence and noise, both are subjective actually. Those are subjective experiences. It was within the interview, an interview with biobehavioral professor, biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State, Joshua Smyth. And were haranguing him for a good definition for internal silence. When, in absolute exasperation, he said to us, “Quiet is what people think quiet is.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, and we would add quiet is what people feel and experience quiet to be. It could be quite surprising. So, listening into the air-conditioning, like you were saying, or listening to sounds of nature, simply turning away from your screen for a little bit, or stepping outside in the rays of the sun, the trick here is, as each of us, to tune in to what is actually bringing us a sense of quiet, a sense of clarity, a sense of relaxation perhaps in the nervous system.

Whatever those signals are that we are relaxing, as well as really learning about the signals that we are agitated, we have had too much noise, we are saturated, we’re unable to focus, to get clear on what those signals are in each of us. So, there is no great perfect prescription for all people. There’s no one size fits all here, which is one of the reasons why we think of this as a non-meditator’s guide to getting beyond the noise because meditation often is proposed to something that will work for all.

But as many of your listeners have probably experienced, even if we’ve had a short stint of being great with meditation, and Justin and I have had some good stints with meditation, even teaching it in the US Congress, in Justin’s case, but that’s not always the best way to quiet. So, the real key here is what is your way to quiet? And what is the type of noise that’s polluting your soundscape? What is the quiet that gets you out of that, and really getting tuned into that?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in the book, you outlined 33 different ways to find silence. You shared a few. Can you share a couple more that really seem to be powerful for folks?

Justin Zorn
Sure. And one way we describe the beginning of these 33 ways to silence, which span individual practices as well as families, workplaces, communities, and broader society, one way we start to frame them, which will be, I think, particularly relevant to listeners thinking about how to be awesome at your job, is as the healthy successor to the smoke break. Leigh makes a confession that she used to smoke in the book.

And the confession isn’t so much that she used to smoke, it’s that she loved it. She loved the experience of having nothing to do for this period of time in a day. she would step outside of the office, particularly when she was doing really difficult work, crisis work around domestic violence and other difficult issues. She would step outside and have this time of total respite when she didn’t have to think of anything, didn’t have to do anything.

And, of course, it’s a wonderful thing that she quit and wasn’t going to have it any other way. It’s a wonderful thing that anyone quits smoking tobacco. But the question is, “What’s going to replace those little pockets of silence in our days?” So, we examined that question because there’s some researchers in Scotland found that often workers, particularly in high-stress industries, often have to at least pretend they smoke because that’s the only way they could get a break.

So, how can we shift our cultural norms in workplaces so that it’s possible to take these breaks in silence that we’re describing? So, some of the ways we describe this is, as I mentioned, this practice of simply stopping and listening, which is an ancient practice from India called nada yoga, the yoga of sound. And as we mentioned, there’s this research that indicates it’s edifying for the brain.

But one way to do this is to simply listen to the ringing in your own ears. We’ve interviewed folks in the book who talk about the science of how this works. Simply tuning in and listening can actually diminish that ringing in your ears, if you’re actually paying attention to it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever…

Pete Mockaitis
It’s quite rare that I’ve ever noticed the ringing in my own ears. I don’t know what that says about me.

Leigh Marz
Maybe you don’t have any.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess there’s a follow up. It’s like do we all have that and how much?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, it’s pretty common, especially in that total silence or that near total silence. As we said, there may not be such a thing as total silence, which is why some people don’t find auditory quiet that relaxing if they’re not able to…or if that’s too aggravating. So, again, we’re finding what brings us quiet. For example, finding quiet might be I’ve been strapped to my desk for several hours on Zoom meetings and whatever.

I’m going to put on a song and I’m going to dance like a mad woman for three minutes, which is not quiet but will empty my brain of all those unhelpful thoughts, all the chatter, all the worry, just the lack of focus that I’m about to get into, if I haven’t already gotten into that, because we know about attention. We don’t have unlimited attention, rather. We can’t go on and drive and work and work without some cost to the quality of our attention.

Justin Zorn
So, one big idea is really how we find beyond just these little successors, healthy successors to the smoke breaks, which we’ll get into some more of those, but one big idea is how we come into moments of truly pristine attention, what we call these moments of rapturous silence, where the kind of silence that can actually change the way we perceive the world.

So, we looked for an example in the book and a practice called take your to-do list for a hike, which was inspired by a legendary acoustic ecologist named Gordon Hempton, who, every once in a while, will take a look at his to-do list and, say, when it gets too long, he’ll drive out somewhere remote off into the rainforest, the whole rainforest in Olympic National Park near Seattle, and he’ll hike for a day once he gets there.

And once he finds that he’s really tuned into the silence of nature, he’s gotten beyond all that noise and distraction that’s present for him at his desk, he takes his to-do list, which he’s printed out, out of his pocket, and he crosses out everything that’s not really necessary. And once he gets to that vantage point, that’s a day’s travel away from the hustle and bustle, he notices how the things that he thought were important, weren’t really so important. And he says the answers are in the silence.

Leigh Marz
He adds that when he does do something like that, take a day or half a day off of work to take his to-do list for a hike, that he often comes back to his office again with about five months less work on his plate because there’s a whole lot that feels important when he’s sitting there strapped to the desk. But out in nature with more expansive views and more expansive mind, he has a different perspective on that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m thinking about the healthy successor to the smoke break and how many of us, when we have such an opportunity in which there’s nothing external claiming our attention, we just short-circuit it in terms of like the phone can be the ubiquitous device. I’ve heard it called a digital pacifier in terms of, “I’m a little bit bored or uncomfortable,” and it’s almost like reflex or so habituated. It’s just out it goes and there I am on social media or news or whatever.

And it could even feel, for some, uncomfortable that it’s like, “Aargh, I need to do something, and here it is, and this will be entertaining or, in some way, pacifying.” So, how do we deal with our own selves in the midst of this?

Leigh Marz
Yeah. We spend a lot of time looking at what is within our sphere of control, and that’s one that we argue is within our sphere of control. We can certainly get into feedback loops where it feels like maybe we’re hustling and bustling, we’re mistaking busyness for productivity, we’re mistaking stress for aliveness. We can kind of get into these feedback loops of activity. But if we can actually take those moments as little gifts of silence.

So, let’s just say you’re stuck in traffic or you’re stuck in a long line, and rather than grab for your phone immediately to feel any of those things, a podcast, or checking the news, checking on your email, etc., that you actually take that, even if it was unplanned, or especially if it was unplanned, as a moment to tune in to silence.

Justin Zorn
We talked with a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, who’s been a pioneer in the use of fMRI studies of meditators and studying the brains of meditators. And he looks at how people’s experience of noise in the consciousness often corresponds to a feeling of contractedness: contractedness in the body, contractedness in the mind. It’s a subjective state. It’s a feeling. But it often corresponds to a kind of feeling of being hunched over your phone, reading the news, feeling the stress of that.

And Dr. Brewer tells us that there’s an experience in the consciousness people described that corresponds to what he calls silence in the mind, this internal experience of silence in his studies with fMRIs and other imaging machinery. And he tells us that that experience of silence corresponds to the state that he calls expansion. That’s the kind of common denominator to what people are feeling.

And this is often also the kind of common denominator to where good creative ideas emerge. When we’re out of that state of contractedness, that hunched over the phone, doom-scrolling, or whatever you might be doing, versus being outside, being receptive, kind of like how many of the good ideas we often have happen in the shower, again when there’s nothing making claims on our consciousness, nothing making claims on our attention.

So, Leigh mentioned this challenge that in our society these days, we often mistake stress for aliveness. In our workplaces, we often mistake this feeling of constant doing, constant exertion for the feeling of being productive and effective, but it’s often not in those spaces of contraction but in these spaces of expansion where the best ideas, the profoundly generative ideas emerge.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool and that totally resonates. And that I hear that Aaron Sorkin put a shower in his office in order to take more showers and have more good ideas, which is funny. And I guess that’s one approach in terms of forcing it, like, “Oh, can’t do much else. You’re naked with water on you.”

Leigh Marz
Yup, that’s a healthy successor to a smoke break if there ever was one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Certainly. So, let’s just zoom right in. Okay, I like what you’re saying, Leigh and Justin. That’s really cool. And so, I go ahead and I retreat, whatever that means, you take a step outside or whatever, and then I feel the urge, the tug to pull out the phone. What is the optimal, if we’re seeking silence, response to ourselves? Because I imagine you could give in, you could harshly say, “No!” How do you think about those moments and sort of re-asserting what you’re going for?

Because in some ways, expansiveness, like as I think about that sensation, that vibe, is kind of like the opposite of constricted-ness. And in some ways, it feels constricting to engage in self-denial, like, “I want to do this.” “No!” And then, in so doing, there’s a bit of a constricting feeling. So, I’m all tied up in knots here. What do we do?

Justin Zorn
That’s a really good question. We have a chapter in the book called “Why Silence is Scary,” and at one level, we’re looking in the big picture what it’s like for people to go on extremely long silent retreats or someone to go on just away from the civilization for a while. And what that brings up in the consciousness, because that’s extremely scary, it’s almost like taking it to its…the farthest extent of that persistent nag of picking up the phone that you’re talking about, so we explore that dynamic.

But we found a study from the University of Virginia from 2014, where a social psychologist left mostly undergraduate students in a sparse room with no cellphones or no entertainment for 15 minutes, and Wilson is this professor, gave the participants a choice. They could either sit in silence without their phones alone or they could push a button that would administer a painful electric shock. And, initially, the participants had all said that they would pay money to avoid this painful electric shock. But in the end, 67% of the men and 25% of the women actually chose to shock themselves rather than sit alone without their phones in silence. And that was 15 minutes.

So, to answer your question about what do we actually do when confronting this, one big theme we explore in the book is the perennial wisdom of know thyself. Understand that we, in this day and age, are hardwired to seek stimulation, to seek sound and stimulus, and it is a skill to cultivate to get comfortable with silence.

Leigh Marz
We also talk about a convenience addiction that we have. And Cal Newport brings this to our attention in some of his work Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, where we tend to think about the gains of whatever it is, let’s say, a group email where infinite numbers of people are listed and included but we don’t think of the cost, so we’re consistently minimizing the cost of this constant grabbing for more input, more attention, more outreach, constant connectivity without looking at those costs there to our work, to the quality of our work, to the quality of our consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then one is there’s a little bit of just sort of patience and gentleness with yourself, like, “Yup, this is normal. You’re not messed up. This is a natural response to those who are not yet practiced and skilled with doing this.” And so, if the thought emerges, “I want to see what’s on Instagram right now,” how do you recommend responding to that thought?

Leigh Marz
Even just to pause a beat before jumping right in and to do a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis. in that moment, a little bit of an assessment in terms of where that’s coming from. If it’s coming from that grabby, needy, constricted place, or if it’s because you really want to check in with your network, there can be…we allot ourselves that time all the time to really figure out, “Where is it coming from? Where is that urge coming from?”

And then we can do that as teams as partners, as work partners, like Justin and I do all the time as well, too, to really just look at, “What’s our default here?” to examine the default that’s happening on our teams and in our organizations. Should we always be meeting? Should we meet back-to-back all the time? Should we assume constant connectivity? Those kinds of things. Like, what are the costs of that? And how can we support each other to create a culture that honors silence?

Justin Zorn
One thing that comes up for me with that question, too, Pete, and what Leigh is saying about questioning our defaults and building these cultures, this is where appreciation, through the stories in this book, we explore why silence is something worth valuing in a world of constant sound and stimulation and entertainment.

And if we can appreciate this basis of silence in our lives, we start to not just question our defaults, and say, “Well, I need to put my phone away more and I need to just deal with that kind of impulse.” It’s something more than that. It’s flipping the script so we’re able to see opportunities for rest and healing and renewal within the silence, which is what the science shows and what we also explore in the book through stories.

One big theme in the book that we explore is a traditional Japanese aesthetic concept, an idea called Ma. And the idea of Ma, this word Ma means the space in between. Some people call it the open space, the negative space but we think of Ma as pure potentiality. So, Ma is the space in between the words we’re saying to each other right now. It’s the space between notes in music. It’s the space, the empty space in artwork or, in Japanese traditional, ikebana, flower arranging. This word Ma actually means sunlight pouring forth through the gate of a temple.

So, it’s this pure potentiality that exist in the in-between spaces, in what’s not spoken. So, we look in the book, “What would it mean to appreciate Ma in our lives?” We have a section of one chapter called “Ma On the Job,” which is we explore how we could bring more silence, for example, into organizational brainstorming, or how we can bring more Ma into our workday, for example, in between meetings, or in between any kind of task or activity. Stopping and taking some breaths. Stopping to savor a glass of water. Or, within a group, having some moment of quiet time to integrate what it is that you’ve been talking about.

At the end of the book, we even explore Ma goes to Washington, what it would look like to bring all these reverence for the open space, to society as a whole, but the basic idea is something that we can bring into our work lives to find more rest and renewal and more inspiration in the moment-to-moment conduct.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what’s fascinating, Justin, is just as you’re speaking, you’re talking about Ma and I was pointing my attention toward the gaps or pauses between your words and sentences, and just in doing so, my brain felt less fatigued, and yet, I still heard and understood and internalized what you said. What’s that about?

Leigh Marz
That’s a great question. I think when we’re not sitting with…it’s about better listening. For starters, I think it’s just a better quality of listening instead of being poised perhaps with the internal on-the-ready of how we’re going to respond, and then, therefore, not really listening. So, I feel like the quality you’re talking about in part, the quality of listening as well as just your attention relaxing. I think that’s about just finding that silence and what it does to your consciousness. In that case, it’s a thing that supported you and relaxing, which is what it’s all about.

It’s about experimenting. This whole book is about experimenting and finding our way to quiet. So, I don’t know the exact answer why you, Pete, doing that practice, what was happening in your brain. We could put you up to all kinds of circuitry, but what matters is that it did, and what matters is that you might be onto a new way to listening that brings you some quiet. And that’s what this book is all about.

Justin Zorn
Florence Nightingale, about 150 years ago, intuited that noise in the consciousness, too much sound and stimulus, just at the auditory level drives the fight-or-flight response. It is a driver of stress. And this is why she said that unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that could be inflicted on a person sick or well.

And a lot of the recent research in neuroscience and various different disciplines of physical sciences of physiology are discovering that Florence Nightingale was right about this that she perceived 150 years ago or so. So, even if the auditory decibels are the same level, there’s something to be said of where we put our attention. If we can put our attention on the empty spaces, as you’re talking about, Pete, and we’re tuning into the silence, then there’s this opportunity we find, through our interviews with people in this book, to help reset the nervous system, to get beyond that fight or flight.

And one thing we explore in the book is it’s not just about the auditory decibels or it’s not even just about the amount of information and sound and stimulus you have in your life. It’s about how deeply you can go into the silence, when it appears, even if it’s just for two seconds, even if it’s for less than a second, like those moments of silence between words. How deeply can you go into the silence in this noisy world?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Well, Leigh, you mentioned hooking me up to circuitry, which I’m game for if anyone happens to have the equipment.

Leigh Marz
That’s fascinating, yeah, to do that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking over at my Muse brain-sensing headband in the corner there, and I’m curious, are there any particular tools or things that can be handy here? We’ve talked about it’s not just about the decibel levels, so earplugs and noise-canceling headphones have something to offer but it’s certainly not the whole story that we’re unpacking here. Anything else that is useful for folks to pick up as we’re pursuing this journey?

Leigh Marz
Well, actually, I’ll say this, there’s actually another aspect of surprise, perhaps, is we expected to reach out to neuroscientists and for them to have all sorts of concrete, like, “Here’s what’s happening in the brain. And we know this, and we’ll see this.” But, actually, neuroscientists, like Adam Gazzaley at the University of San Francisco, where, really, every neuroscientist we spoke with were very humble about what they were able to claim, that they were actually…they said, “We use all this equipment, fMRIs, just an example of one, but there are times when someone’s sitting there and they’ll say, ‘Well, what just happened? Did something major register on the machinery?’”

And they’ll say, “Well, nothing. Nothing happened at all.” Or, the participant will have some great brilliant insight and it won’t register on the machinery. So, there’s still a lot we don’t know but there’s a lot we’re learning about some commonalities between mental states. And we haven’t mentioned things like states of flow, which can, of course, happen when we’re really getting involved and enjoying work states, maybe we’re really getting into a project.

So, really observing your own way with what is bringing you into that place of focus, where you’re challenged at an appropriate point but not so much that it’s stressful, and it’s also challenging enough that you’re not bored, so that sweet spot where you lose a sense of reflective self-consciousness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it. So, there’s something in there about really getting attuned to when are you losing that sense of self, of not so helpful part, a sense of self, where you’re talking to yourself about yourself, whether you’re feeling distracted or there’s a lot of unhelpful chatter, notice you had anything crossed on before.

He has a great work, great research on those unhelpful and truths of thought and ruminating. So, part of what we’re looking at is really it’s kind of back to us. We wanted to avoid pointing towards gadgetry and pointing towards apps and things, but those can be helpful. Again, it’s up to us to really find out what is really working, what’s helping us find our flow, keep our focus, or clear the slate, or invite in novel thinking and creative thinking, versus what is just cluttering our brains.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Justin Zorn
You mentioned gadgetry, like noise-canceling headphones, Pete, and we have explored that a little bit. But one thing that’s come up for us in this book is that we’ve avoided wanting to add more technology, more complicated kinds of solutions, especially expensive kinds of solutions. We want to make this as accessible as possible, as simple as possible.

So, we look at the simplicity of these practices that we’ve talked about, that healthy successor to the smoke break, accepting these little gifts of silence when they arise in our lives. Maybe, if it’s possible, taking a little bit of time not talking. Gandhi, every week, spent his Monday not speaking. He would sometimes attend meetings, he would sometimes see visitors, but he wouldn’t speak a word. And it was about resting his mental reflex of constantly needing to think of what to say, constantly needing to add to the conversation. And he found that this was an important way to discern the truth.

So, these ways to finding silence are often, even in this world of so much noise, they’re really simple. Oftentimes, we find they’re about simple conversations with other people. We wrote, recently, a new piece for Harvard Business Review on this, and we talk about how, during the drafting of the US Constitution, the delegates there in Philadelphia had a giant mound of dirt erected outside Constitution Hall, and that was because they wanted to have pristine silent attention to be able to do their work, even if they were debating and even yelling at each other sometimes. They wanted a container where there wasn’t outside noise and distraction coming in.

So, we explore how that was the result of, obviously, not a fancy technology, but just a simple conversation that could lead to a shared norm around the value of quiet attention. And this book is really about “How do we make these shifts in our own lives, like Gandhi, or as a group in a workplace, like those delegates writing the US Constitution all those years ago?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can we hear some favorite quotes?

Leigh Marz
Well, we turn to Viktor Frankl. He has, at least, this is a quote often attributed to him, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Justin Zorn
And for us, this quote really gets to the essence of what we mean by silence, not just the auditory silence; the informational and the internal. When we find this space that Frankl is talking about, this is the deep pristine attention that we’re talking about. It’s this golden silence. And there’s choice here. It’s where we find our agency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Leigh Marz
So many but just maybe in relation to this conversation, Chatter: The Voices in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross because that really put…what happened actually, that book came out while we were working on this, and he really took the conversation of that internal soundscape to a new level into the mainstream, and we’re so appreciative of that, and that one little piece that he pulled out with the fact that we have 320-some state of union addresses going through our minds every day, that’s compressed speech, really, really helped us with understanding how this internal chatter is noise in many cases.

Justin Zorn
Relevant to this conversation, one book that was coming up for us that we didn’t mention in our book but mentioned in a recent article, is a work of Hal Gregersen, a long-time MIT scholar. His book Questions Are the Answer is really about the notion that in group decision-making, the answers come through cultivating open space, not by trying to perform or not always by even presenting the best data but by cultivating the space where we could be together in a question, contemplating inside the inquiry. And this book is very much about how we curate and cultivate these kinds of spaces.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leigh Marz
Well, we’ll highlight the take your to-do list for a hike. I also like to take clients on the early side of brainstorming for a hike so that that’s the space that we’re thinking about this project from, not strapped to a desk.

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

Justin Zorn
I would say this that I mentioned earlier about an invitation to take a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

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

Leigh Marz
So, as you might imagine, we’re not really big on social media with a platform like silence being our thing. But you can find us at our website AstreaStrategies.com, and that’s A-S-T-E-Astrategies.com. You can contact us through the website.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Leigh, when you said that, that reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which is, I read it and it just tickled me so much, it said, the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Leigh Marz
That is the best. We’ll put that as our new favorite quote.

Justin Zorn
That is a really high-level way of throwing some shade on Twitter.

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

Leigh Marz
Yeah. I would say…well, I’ll say the first half is really to notice noise. Notice the auditory informational and internal noise that is getting in the way of you being awesome at your job, to really take note of it, and notice how to mitigate those things. And the second part, I’ll let Justin take on.

Justin Zorn
The second part, the flipside of that is tuning into silence. As we mentioned, noticing even these small pockets of silence exist in our life. Maybe it’s like we talked about in between the words, maybe it’s just taking that moment to step outside of the office and connect to the silence that surround us, and to feel the abundance that’s available in the silence, to feel the abundance of calm and peace that we could tune into, even when the world seems crazy, even when our lives seem crazy. Tuning into the silence, finding more energy, clarity, and focus within it.

Leigh Marz
Especially when we go off as teams to retreat, to refuel, or to generate some ideas and strategies in the future, to just try not to stuff all that time with content or data or activities, to really build in some silence and some quiet to enjoy together, as well as some recreation and fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leigh, Justin, this has been a treat. I wish you much great silence.

Leigh Marz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thank you, Pete.

REBROADCAST: 399: Maximizing Your Mental Energy with Isaiah Hankel

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Isaiah

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Isaiah Hankel Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, shorn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh do, thank you.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Like four?

Isaiah Hankel
Like four, exactly. Four or five.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
….

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
More than any other salt?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Minerals?

Isaiah Hankel
Minerals. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study?

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite book. Fiction or non-fiction?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll take them both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the ICD-PX gem.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So when do you go to bed?

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Hankel
A particular nugget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Isaiah Hankel
There you go. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I practiced that one.

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

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

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

734: How to Train Your Mind to Focus and Handle Distractions Better with Dr. Amishi Jha

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Dr. Amishi Jha shares the results of her research to provide a simple solution to improve your focus.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest myth about our attention spans 
  2. The four reasons your attention is getting hijacked
  3. The three systems of attention—and how to train them 

About Amishi

Dr. Amishi Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis and postdoctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, and The Pentagon. She has received coverage in The New York Times, NPR, TIME, Forbes and more. You can find Dr. Jha at http://amishi.com/lab. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Amishi Jha Interview Transcript

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

Amishi Jha
It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat with you about focus and attention. That comes up a lot from listeners. And at first, I was hoping you could settle this for me once and for all. Goldfish attention spans, human attention spans, shrinking, being worse than that of a goldfish? Is this a myth? How is this measured? How do we even know if the status of the American attention spans this day and age?

Amishi Jha
Great question. And the answer is, no, we do not have the attention span of a goldfish. We are stable in our attention. It has not shrunk.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Amishi Jha
In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with our attention, and that’s the sort of paradox at this moment, is that, oftentimes, we feel like our attention is in crisis, but, frankly, our attention systems are working perfectly. And to answer your question about how we know, it’s because we, as cognitive neuroscientists who study attention, have been using the same type of basic attention tasks for decades, about four or five decades now, and we haven’t seen a blip or a change since the advent of the internet and the advent of smartphones and their prevalence. Nothing has really changed. We’re still pretty much the same brain we’ve been for quite some time.

Pete Mockaitis
And what is the attention task that you use?

Amishi Jha
There’s a whole bunch of them but one example would be where we, for example, would have people come into the lab, and their task is to sit in front of a computer screen, and they see a series of digits on the screen, kind of appearing one, let’s say one every second or so, and press a button every time you see a digit, except if that digit is three. And when you see a three, withhold their response. But the threes only appear about 5% of the time. So, that’s one example.

And what happens is people are terrible at this task, and they’ve always been terrible at this task, because it seems pretty simple to just look at a digit on the screen and press a button. But we are very much prone to what’s called mind wandering or internal distract-ability. And that rate of internal distract-ability is pretty stable. It’s a high number. About 50% of our waking moments, we can get hijacked away from the task at hand. But that number has not gone up since, like I said, cellphones, internet, etc.

And then there’s other ways we can do it, too, looking at things called working memory, where we’re just looking at sort of the cache or RAM, if you will, of your mind, your internal capacity to have a scratch space. That also has not changed over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m just a nudge enough of a dork, so if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to know all of these because I went down this rabbit hole of research associated with the Stroop word color test, and even found a game on the iPhone called Stroop, which lets you put red, green, red, because – for listeners not in the know, it might show the word red written in a green font, color, and you have to select the font, color from options which may also be mixed. So, it’s tricky for your brain to attend to the thing and subdue or ignore the other thing you might naturally do. And so, that’s just kind of fun.

I don’t know if I’m actually doing something good for my brain by playing this repeatedly and trying to beat my score. Well, you tell me, is that a helpful activity?

Amishi Jha
I love that you’re interested in the Stroop test, and, yes, just to like refresh people in terms of what this task is because it’s a classic task of attention. And what we’re doing is unnaturally making your brain go to war with itself. So, the task itself is, yes, you’ll see a series of words on a screen, and your job is to press a button indicating the color of the font and do that as fast as possible.

Most of the time, when the font color is presented and it’s some all X’s or all O’s, we have no problem with this. We just press the button to indicate the color. But when we make it go to war with itself, we’re actually causing your brain to have to inhibit a very, very natural and automatic process, which is reading.

So, now we’re going to present those words, like you said, in the letters of a color word, so the word yellow would be in orange font, or something like that, so there’s a conflict there. Your job is to detect the font color, but the word yellow is so prominent that you want to say yellow in that and you’d be wrong. So, it absolutely is engaging, a very specific kind of attention process, executive control, but if you keep doing it over and over again, probably you’ll get better at the task and not much else. Not much else.

Pete Mockaitis
I was hoping to correlate to something.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, that’s the thing about the brain. It’s a smart organ and it will get very specific in its ability to maximize learning, but it’s also very context-specific. So, now if I give you some other tasks where I put your brain at war with itself, you may not benefit because you’re well-practiced at color word inhibition but you may not be very practiced at some other form of inhibition.

And, actually, it’s so funny that you mentioned that because it’s much related to the kind of things that we were doing in my lab. Brain-training games are so prominent and they’re available all over. Like you said, you downloaded an app to do this, but it ends up that there’s not a lot of generalizability. There’s not a lot of evidence that, after doing this game a hundred times, or let’s even say every day of the course of a year, you might see that your score on the game is getting better and better and better, but now if I transferred to some other tasks, it’s going to be back to where it was as if you’d never seen this kind of task before.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, for the research dorks, we got the Stroop word color is one thing, and you described the digit. What’s the name of that test?

Amishi Jha
That’s called the Sustained Attention Response Test, SART, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Sustained Attention Response Test. And there was a third one?

Amishi Jha
Oh, there’s many, many. We could spend our whole time just talking about tasks, but I’ll just give you another one that’s pretty straightforward. And that is something called the operations span task, and this is a classic way that we index what’s called working memory, this ability to maintain and manipulate information over very short intervals. Like I said, the cache or RAM, if you think of a computer analogy for the brain.

So, we don’t need to remember this information forever. We just need to remember it long enough for us to be able to use it. So, in the operations span task, what happens is we present a series of letters that you see, and your job is to remember those letters, but intervening between the presentation of the letters will be a simple math problem. So, it would be like ADZ, and then you’d have to do simple math, and some other set of letters, then simple math again. And at some point, you’ll see a bigger screen that has a whole bunch of letters on it, and you have to click all the ones that were part of those that you were asked to remember.

And people can do this reasonably well but it gives us a very solid notion of what the capacity of working memory is, which is, essentially, the ability to maintain, like I said, the information with this interfering stuff, the simple math, which is requiring work of your brain and potentially causing problems with you being able to remember it so you got to work a little extra hard to remember the information. And on those working memory tasks, like this O-span task, like I said, 50 years, not really any change in terms of how people perform on it. So, we’re not really shrinking in our capacity to pay attention and remember information in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is so fun to hear, well, one, I guess, it gives you more hope for our species and our future. And, two, it’s almost a trope nowadays, like, “Oh, with digital distractions, our minds are being hijacked and so…” You’re saying, “Well, no, according to the measures we’ve had for decades, it looks like our attention spans are actually doing okay.” Is something different? Has something changed? It feels like it has in our experience.

Amishi Jha
Well, both of the things that you said are true. Our attention is more prone to being hijacked and our attention spans are unchanged. So, why is our attention more prone to being hijacked? Because the opportunities for distraction are greater in our day-to-day lives. And the way in which we are prone to distraction is because social media companies, technology developers, are gaming the way the brain is organized.

There’s a reason why when you go on a particular website, let’s say a social media website, your name is prominent, the content is pretty much tied to what is of interest to you, it’s catered to you. There’s also a reason why things that are fear-inducing, threatening, novel, interesting, grab your attention. In fact, your attention is the commodity, is the product that the social media company is selling to make money for its own company.

So, yes, it absolutely is the case that you are going to be sucked in because not of your own failings, but because a team of engineers, not just an engineer or two, but like literally hundreds of people have built very sophisticated algorithms that not only know how your attention work but know precisely how to tune the enticements to your attention so that you will spend as much time as possible on the app.

And so, if you notice the qualities of that information – self-related, threatening, fear-inducing, novel – this is what the brain is tuned for through our evolutionary programming, through our evolutionary development. Of course, it’s the case that you’ll drop everything and pay attention to something novel, interesting, or threatening, or related to you, because that advantaged your survival over the millennia that humans have existed.

So, that’s what’s being sort of gamed and capitalized upon. And that’s why the way we’re going to have to battle the hijacking of our attention is going to require something different. We can’t simply just break up with our phones. We’re going to have to do something in a different manner to be able to manage the kind of pull we’re going to get on our attention. Very different from saying that there’s something wrong with our attention. There’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. So, in a lab-controlled setting, where the smartphone is away is like, “Hey, our mental capabilities are pretty similar to how they’ve been but in the real life, we’ve got distraction machines surrounding us like never before.” Is that kind of how we got both things true at the same time?

Amishi Jha
Yes, both things are true at the same time, but I do think it’s a point of empowering ourselves to know there’s nothing fundamentally broken here.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, amen.

Amishi Jha
In fact, it’s the fact that it’s so healthy and so predictable that allows these algorithms to be built around maximizing that. And so, part of that responsibility, I, frankly, think is on a lot of app developers and social media companies and technology companies to be aware of the costs on that and to build in features that might help us monitor better our own engagement with the technology. It doesn’t advantage their bottom line but advantages our ability to function healthfully. So, that’s one answer.

I think the other part of the answer is really what I wanted to share in my book, which is that we can train our own mind, not through brain-training games, but through other methodologies that might help us advantage ourselves better because we are training ourselves to be more aware moment by moment of where our attention is, to make better choices that favor what we want to accomplish and what we want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask that next. So, this next book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, tells us, what’s the big idea here and what’s the magic of 12 minutes?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, the big idea is, essentially, what we started talking about, that we live in a world now where it feels like a crisis of attention, even if the objective data tells us our brains are actually fine and healthy. And that crisis of attention feeling, by the way, if we locked ourselves in a room, had no technology, and we’re really intending to focus, we would discover that our attention is not going to be unwavering. And it’s not a modern feature.

If we look back hundreds of years to medieval monks, they actually did that. They became monastics, they isolated themselves from their families, and then they complained that while they were supposed to be praying, they were worried about lunch or a conversation they had. So, this is also something really to appreciate about the nature of the mind. It is built for distract-ability so even though our capacity for attention has not changed, we are distractable. It’s just the way it is. And there’s, again, an evolutionary reason for that.

But it ends up that under certain circumstances, very high-stress, high-demand circumstances, unlike the kinds of the professional lives of a lot of the people that we study in my laboratory, that number, that percentage of time that we’re intrinsically distractable goes up, and then we can really suffer a lot of problems, so that our attention is not in the task at hand, we lapse, we make errors, and those can be consequential, life or death in the case of service members or emergency service professionals, medical professionals, surgeons, for example, or even judges and lawyers. If you miss information, it has consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with regard to the training, well, okay, yes, stress. So, with the stress perspective, I guess I was thinking in some ways stress can really galvanize your attention, like, “Okay, it’s do or die. This is the moment. Got to get her done. The clock is ticking.”

And so, in some ways, I thought that would make us less distractable. You say it can make us more distractable? Can you elaborate?

Amishi Jha
Both again are true. I’m not going to say, “You are completely correct, Pete.” And what I said is also correct. So, it ends up stress is a variable that can range from actually being very helpful to harmful. And we can even think of it as having a shape. So, if you think of it, imagine in your mind, a graph, and I’m drawing on the graph, the X and the Y axes, and then the shape of the graph itself as an inverted U.

So, on the X-axis, we have stress. Low stress, low performance. So, the Y-axis is performance, the X-axis is stress. Low stress, low performance. As the stress goes up, you start climbing up the U, kind of like the top of a mountain, and your performance will reach a sweet spot so that the right amount of stress is going to optimize your performance.

But, now, if you push past that sweet spot and stress keeps going up, you’re on the downward slope where you’re actually going to start degrading and depleting your performance relative to having less stress available to you. So, we can parse the way we think about stress as eustress, meaning the letters E and U, meaning beneficial stress, or distress.

And what ends up happening with a lot of the groups that we work with, like I said – service members, first responders, even students for that matter – what might be the optimal amount of stress, that eustress peak point, if you maintain that level of demand over a long period of time, you will start slipping into distress, and most of us will not be aware that that is happening.

So, it’s like, if you think about a student, “Oh, I’m really good if I have to cram for a final three nights before I have to take the final.” Now, if you’ve got seven finals, I guarantee you that cramming approach night after night after night is not going to lead to beneficial results. So, it’s just important to know that the features of stress that I’m talking about that are problematic are really dipping into distress. There’s not a match between what you feel like you can accomplish well and your capacity to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, really? So, we don’t even know.

Amishi Jha
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if we don’t know, how can we know? I mean, is there an alternative gauge by which we have a sense?

Amishi Jha
Well, we do know. It may not be a performance that we necessarily are…we’re not aware going into it, like, “Oh, this, my performance is going to suffer here.” We don’t have that view typically but we know what it feels like to be distressed. We know it feels too much.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like after the fact, we know.

Amishi Jha
No, even as you’re in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
Even as you’re in it, you’re feeling, “Oh, my gosh, this is too much.” And so, what we can know from our objective data, if you take people over a protracted period of high demand – the academic semester, for an athlete, it could be competition season, or even pre-season training; for a service member, it could be pre-deployment training, or deployment itself. These are periods of time where you know it’s going to be demanding, and the demands are not going to let up for some multiple weeks.

If we test people’s attention with the same kind of tasks we were talking about earlier, O-span and SART and Stroop, and then we come back four to six to eight weeks later and then give them the same battery of tasks, if that period intervening between those two time points was very demanding, we will see a significant decline in performance. And, usually, we see people reporting that their mood is worse and their self-reported distress is greater.

So, that’s something to keep in mind. It’s that it’s not just that you feel icky and maybe burnt out from the psychological standpoint, but your actual effectiveness is going to be impacted. And what I was interested in doing, again, from this attention research point of view, is, look, there are populations, professions, for whom they will always have to operate their best when circumstances are likely to drive down attentional functioning. And we know what the features are of circumstances that are likely to drive own attentional functioning. Threatening circumstances, stressful, like we talked about; stress perceived stress that we experience and negative circumstances.

So, if you think about going into a warzone or going into a fire, if it was a firefighter, or having to deal with critical-care situations as a nurse or a physician, those are characterizing contexts where attention is going to be compromised. But we want these people to perform at their best because things could be a lot worse if they don’t. So, I wanted to figure out a way to train people so that they could be almost mentally armored against stress, and that proved to be a really tricky thing to track down mainly because of what you were saying earlier. There are so many solutions offered right now, like play brain-training games, or use this device to zap your brain with a small amount of electrical current.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a Muse EEG in my hands.”

Amishi Jha
Exactly. And I’m not going to say anything about Muse in particular, or any particular technology, but I’ll tell you, that in our hands, in my laboratory, when people were experiencing high-demand circumstances, not a lot was helpful to protecting attention from declining.

Pete Mockaitis
Not a lot. Okay.

Amishi Jha
Not a lot. In fact, I would say probably nothing, it reliably showed, protective effects except for one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you got my attention. What is it? What do we do?

Amishi Jha
It was a little bit of a surprise to me because I would say I was very skeptical of this solution just for a variety of reasons which we can talk about. But the one thing that tended to reliably, and now after about 15 years of research in my own lab and many other labs has been shown over and over again, was mindfulness meditation training.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Amishi Jha
So, when people engage in mindfulness meditation training, for as little as 12 to 15 minutes a day, during these high-stress intervals, we see that those tasks don’t decline, people don’t decline their performance on those tasks. They actually stay stable over time. And sometimes, if they do enough practice, even if the circumstances are likely to deplete the average person, they can actually improve. So, not only stabilize but potentially optimize attention when everything about the circumstances suggest they would be compromised to attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, so many follow-ups here. Okay, so 12 to…you say as little as 12 to 15 minutes. I’m curious, in some ways, I hear that’s sort of like the minimum effective dose. Is there like a noticeable point of diminishing returns? Like, if 12 to 15 minutes is good, is 120 to 150 minutes ten times as good? Or, how does it break down?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I think that this is where we’re just at the beginning of the science. And my interest in the research program that I’m engaged in was really to ask that first-level question. These are time-pressured people, we’re trying to get them in the busiest most stressful periods of their lives, what do they absolutely need to try to do to benefit themselves? And it’s not one-shot 12 minutes or 15 minutes. It’s over the course of multiple weeks daily.

So, it’s like from the physical training point of view, would walking around the block in a leisurely pace be enough to actually improve my cardiovascular health? Or, do I need to run or jog or walk briskly at some level for a certain amount of time? And the answer tends to be around maybe 20 to 30 minutes a day of brisk walking or jogging can be more beneficial than a leisurely walk.

So, I want to know that. I want to know what the kind of minimum dose was. And the way we were able to find this out was not by prescribing people various amounts of training to do and then seeing kind of like maybe a pharmacologic study where you give people different-sized pills, and say, “Okay, this pill is the one that works.”

Humans, especially complex human behavior, does work that way. So, what we ended up doing is we went to the literature, and said, “Okay, what is typically done?” Because mindfulness training, even though I was one of the first labs to bring it into context like the military, or at least sports, mindfulness training had been around not only for millennia from the wisdom traditions, but even for several decades prior to our work beginning in the military, in the medical setting.

And it was through a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, which is developed by a wonderful colleague of mine, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offered in medical clinics over 750 or more now around the world, usually offered for people that are suffering from intractable physical conditions that nobody else can help them. So, chronic pain, for example. People come into the clinic, they take a course for about eight weeks, they practice 45 minutes a day, and there are benefits. There are benefits to their body, to their mind, to their relationships, and now even brain imaging studies suggest that those are benefits.

But for the kind of groups that I was working with, 45 minutes a day was a nonstarter. Nobody was going to do that. So, in our initial studies, when, for example, working with pre-deployment Marines, we asked them to do 30 minutes a day, during pre-deployment, like I said. Nobody did 30 minutes a day. I mean, maybe, on occasion, one or two people did it but, on average, people were doing…well, actually, before I even talk about on average, there was just a huge range. Some people did what we said, very rarely but they did it. Other people did zero. And then we had all the combinations in between.

So, we decided to take a data-emergent approach, because just telling them what to do didn’t mean that they would do it. And, instead, we said, “Okay, what is the amount of time that the people that tend to benefit, what is the amount of time that they’re doing?” And it ended up that it was about 12 minutes or more that they were doing. And those that did less than 12 minutes really weren’t benefitting. In fact, they looked no different than the people that didn’t get the training at all.

So, then in the subsequent studies, we said, “Okay, if 12 minutes is some kind of sweet spot, let’s only tell them to do it for 12 minutes. Let’s prescribe them, let’s record guided practices that are 12 minutes long, and, first of all, let’s see if they do it more often.” And they did. “And now let’s see what the benefits are.” And what we found was that it was not just doing the 12-minute practices, which I like said, people were much more willing to do than 30-minute practices, but was doing them about five days a week where we started seeing benefits.

So, this is how study after study where we’re just trying to triangulate around the formula for a minimum effective dose. Now, you’re asking the great question, which is, “What about the other end? I want to optimize. I want to be superhuman. I want to be Olympian-level attention. What do I do then?” Well, you got three years to go on a mindfulness retreat and practice mindfulness practices 12 to 14 hours a day. You could do that.

So, there are people that are in that range. There are people, for example, monastics who devote their lives to intensive retreat practices, and those are very compelling types of data, and that’s a whole field of research. Unfortunately, because the nature of the groups that I work with, they don’t have the option of doing that, and it’s, frankly, just not my interest to look at that. But there is a world of beyond the minimum effective dose where we’re learning, just as you would expect, like an Olympic-level athlete is going to be much more capable than somebody who just starts a couch to 5K. Same thing is true for mindfulness training and the kind of brain changes you see.

In terms of specifically quantifying it, we’re not quite there yet but I think this gives you a sense that there is a minimum effective dose, but the more you do, the more you benefit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. And so, we’ll get into some of the particulars of mindfulness meditation training in terms of how that’s done. I guess I’d love to hear, when you talk about the benefits, like what does that mean in terms of quantitative-ness? So, we talked about attention decrements, it’s like it’s worse. Attention can be worse when you don’t do it. Could you maybe just contextualize or share some numbers? It’s like am I going to be able to focus like a smidgen better, like 3% better if I do my 12 to 15 minutes a day, five days a week? Or, kind of what’s the, roughly speaking, size of the price for the average professional?

Amishi Jha
Yeah, and we’re talking between something like that, between 5 and 10% better.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s the numerator/denominator we’re measuring with better?

Amishi Jha
Well, let’s just take one very specific task, the sustained attention response test. Like I said, you’re going to press a button every time you see a digit. When you see a three, you withhold. People typically press to the three 50% of the time even though they’re not supposed to, and this is usually because they are mentally time-traveling away. They’re hijacked away. They kind of go on autopilot and they just press, press, press. The three appears, they press, and then they might have a, “Oh, shoot,” they realized they’ve made a mistake. Too late, you already pressed. So, that is the baseline.

Under high stress, that number goes up. People press to the three even more often. And with mindfulness training, we see that they can benefit with about 10% improvement from their baseline. And so, what does that mean? You might say, “Well, that’s, okay, great. So, I don’t press the three, why do I care? Like, why does that matter?” Well, what we think it represents is really this ability to be more present-centered because you’re noting what’s happening moment by moment, you’re not defaulting to autopilot.

It also translates into really a correspondence with actual activities. So, for example, in the context of soldiers, if you’re doing a shoot no-shoot drill so that you know that you are to shoot to the bad guys and withhold from the innocent civilians. And if you’re making that level of mistakes, a 10% improvement is giant. That actually means life or death benefits for people. And those are the numbers that really matter and are actionable for people to not make grave errors that could cause them for their entire lives. So, I’ll just tell you that we’re just at the beginning of now trying to translate laboratory-based metrics into what we call operationally relevant metrics. How does it translate into real life?

But we’re starting to be able to ask those questions to see in the kinds of tasks that people do. So, for example, medical errors. What is the actionable benefit from mindfulness training on the rate of medical errors? And, again, this is now data that’s just starting to be gathered so I can’t give you precise numbers. We’re really on the edge of this knowledge right now but we’re asking the right questions to say, “Okay, attention may be protected and benefitted. How does it matter? And how does it show up in people’s lives?”

But even before we go to the objective, what we noticed people saying is that they’re more there, they’re not wandering away. The quality of their own relationships is improved, their leadership capacity is improved, their ability to do their jobs and feel engaged in their jobs is improved. So, that’s just painting the picture of where we are at the science in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interesting. I can’t help but run some numbers in terms of an eight-hour workday, 5% to 10% more attentive minutes. That’s very rough and crude but I mean that is significant to the tune of 24 to 48 extra minutes, which is a lot more than 12 to 15 in terms of a profitable endeavor for us.

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And those are just estimates right now. I think that is probably a lot even more than that if you think about the nature of what kinds of processes improve. So, it’s not just being able to pay attention, which is just so important, but mood improves, work enjoyment and engagement improve, presenteeism is going down. There’s a whole literature on mindfulness in the workplace that is now revealing the benefits for organizations to offer this in the workplace context.

And not just as sort of a salve for like, “Oh, you feel burnt out. Here, just go take some mindfulness,” which is sort of the backlash against offering it. But people going to it on their own, and now finding that just like having a gym in your office building can help you, having courses available through their workplace may motivate them to actually be more likely to give it a try. There’s an ease about being able to incorporate it.

And then, of course, moving forward, it may actually impact work culture so that it’s very normal to begin a meeting with, as my colleagues at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute say, “A moment to arrive.” It’s like every meeting, people are probably wandering away more than 50% of their time. But what if we make it part of the culture that we’re actually here? What if we can cut meeting time down because you don’t have to repeat yourselves, or there’s not conflicting and ambiguous information being thrown around because more people are really there? They’re not on their phone and they’re not off in their own mental time travel.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And they’re not saying semi-relevant things. They’re saying fully relevant things, which kind of prevents all of the side tangents that never needed to occur because that’s not quite relevant to what we’re trying to achieve in this meeting.

Amishi Jha
Yeah, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s part of most workplaces to take the attentional state of every member of the team seriously and to make it an explicit priority for everybody to show up. But if that could happen, and there are ways to train everybody’s minds to do that for themselves, and then do it collectively, that could be really, really powerful.

So, actually, some of the work we’re doing right now with the military, the kind of edge of our work in active projects is looking at team-based mindfulness. What happens when an entire squad that works together? And this is by the way known in the context of medical teams. When there’s mindfulness practice by the individuals, and even a nod toward what we might call collective mindfulness, team cohesion can improve, the sense of belonging can improve, conflict between team members can go down. And this can all relate to their productivity as well as their fulfillment in the work that they do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. So, mindfulness meditation training, that’s come up a few times on the show. What does that really mean we’re doing in practice?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is one of those interesting things about a term like mindfulness being so common these days. Like, people have heard it probably at some point, and, like you said, you’ve even had it come up on your show. So, let me just take you through why it ended up, I think, being such a powerful solution for our work that was really focused on attention. And if you don’t mind, I’d love to say a little bit about what attention is because we’ve also kind of been using that word in a blanket way.

And I like to break it down as sort of this giant concept of attention, which is really, broadly speaking, the ability to prioritize some information over other information. And we evolved this ability to solve a big problem that the brain had, which is that there’s just way more out there in the world, and even generated within our mind, than we can fully process at any moment.

So, this notion and process of prioritization allows us to have more fine tuned and granular information accessible to us while everything else sort of fades into the background. So, something is prominent and other things are not. And when we think about the topic of attention, the way it’s been studied, we’re learning that there’s probably three main ways that we pay attention. In fact, three main brain systems that support these different ways of paying attention.

So, the first way is really just probably the way we’ve been using it kind of without even talking about it explicitly – focus, the notion that there’s content. And just like right now, I’m looking at your face, I’m not looking at the curtains behind you or whatever, the door behind you, whatever I see, I’m able to focus in on the granular detail, seeing the expression on your face, etc. Everything else kind of fades into the background.

So, the metaphor for this that I like to use is like a flashlight. If I were in a darkened room, wherever I direct that flashlight, I’m going to get crisp clear privileged information relative to everything that’s darkened around it. Attention really does the same thing, in this kind of flashlight metaphor, something called the orienting system of attention.

And, by the way, this is that same system that we talked about that ends up being a problem with social media and the pull on our attention, because, just like a flashlight, we can direct orienting willfully, we can decide where we want to point our attention. We can move it around. We can direct it toward the external environment or the internal environment. Like if I said, “Pete, what is the sensation right now of the bottom to your feet?” Probably before I said that, you had no idea, you weren’t thinking about it, but now you can check in and give me an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m on a standing mat. It’s got a cushiony vibe to it.

Amishi Jha
There you go, see. Squishy and pleasant probably. But that same flashlight can get yanked. And the kinds of things that yank have those features of salience, self-related, threatening, novel, like all these kinds of things that are programmed into us. But that’s still just one system of attention, this kind of flashlight or orienting system.

Another way we can pay attention is not privileging content, but privileging time. So, what’s happening right now? That’s something that we call the alerting system. And if you want to think about when we use this, it’s like driving down the road or walking down the road, you see a flashing yellow traffic light or something near a construction sign, something that’s blinking and alarming.

You’re at the ready. You’re broad, receptive, alert, but you don’t want to be focused in on anything because you have no idea what could be coming. It could be weird equipment joining into the road, or children, or traffic patterns are weird. Something is odd and pay attention to what’s happening right now.

So, we can privilege content, like with the flashlight, or privilege time with the alerting system. And then the third way in which we can privilege information with attention is something called executive control, which we’ve definitely already talked about as it relates to sort of working memory. We’re privileging information processing based on our goals.

So, what is my goal right now? And is my action and what I’m paying attention to and doing, meaning the way I’m directing the other two systems, is it aligned to ensure that the actions and the goals are going to be aligned the whole way? Or, am I off-goal, or am I not even sure what the goal is? Like, these are ways in which we pay attention that can be so powerful but quite different.

Going back to your question regarding mindfulness, one of the reasons I think it ended up being super useful is that mindfulness training, which is essentially, I would describe as paying attention to our present moment experience without elaboration or reactivity, without having a story about it. Attention is central to mindfulness. And when you think about mindfulness practices, they actually engage and exercise all three of these systems of attention over and over again in a generalizable manner.

So, just to give you quickly, like one practice might be mindfulness of paying attention to breath-related sensations. If we talk through that, you’d see every one of these systems is actually engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, that’s an overview of the three things that we’re talking about here. And so, when we do a mindfulness meditation training, you mentioned paying attention to the present what’s up right now, presently without sort of elaborating or creating stories. So, that’s kind of… could incorporate a whole bundle of different activities. So, what are some of your faves?

Amishi Jha
Yeah. And this is where, again, we borrow from the existing literature. We didn’t invent all these things, and the existing traditions, frankly. But one very, very common one is mindfulness of the breath where the intention, and I actually don’t call it mindfulness of breath in the way that I teach it because I know the vulnerabilities when we say that. I call it the find your flashlight practice.

And, really, it’s because that flashlight is such a handy way to think about how we can willfully direct our attention, but what we have to get insight into is oftentimes we don’t know where our attention is because we have no clue. So, I’m just going to give you a very kind of quick view of this. So, it is essentially the same thing as other people might describe as mindfulness of the breath or focused attention. There are so many different terms for it.

But essentially, what you do is sit in a comfortable quiet spot, dedicate a period of time where you’re going to do this practice, and the first step is, essentially, to notice that you’re breathing. And, obviously, we’ve been breathing this entire time but we haven’t probably been paying attention to our breath, but we’re checking in to the fact that we’re breathing, and then we’re going to notice what is most vivid in the breath-scape of our present moment experience.

And that’s actually why, I think, the breath is so handy. You can’t save up your breath. I guess you could hold your breath but you can’t really save it up. It’s happening. It’s transpiring in the moment. And, literally, it is about a respiratory rhythm. So, we notice what is most vivid tied to the breath, and that’s where we devote, we say, “For this period of time, my task, my goal, executive control says my goal is pay attention to breath-related sensation. Take that flashlight, point it toward the prominent breath-related sensation, and hold it there.” That’s the agenda for this. Let’s say you start out by doing just one minute of this practice.

Then the second part of the instruction, the first part is just focus. Focus on breath-related sensation, engage that flashlight. The second part of the instruction is notice if your mind wanders away. So, it’s like you’re checking in and monitoring, “Where is this flashlight? Is it at the breath-related sensation?” All of a sudden, you’re like thinking of the next vacation you’re going to take, or some worry you had, or a troubling conversation, or maybe there’s an itch on your face, or whatever it is, “Ah, look at that. Flashlight is not at the breath-related sensation.”

In that moment, the third part of the instruction, redirect attention back to breath-related sensations. So, it’s literally like my military colleagues, I love the way they put it, “It’s like you’re giving me a mental pushup.” Focus. Notice. Redirect. Or, in other words, engage the flashlight, engage alerting and monitoring, and then executive control, to know what the goal is and make sure I’m getting back on track.

So, that’s why I think that it can be so handy to understand how attention works because then we understand why we’re doing it. It’s not sort of some nebulous concept. It’s actually a workout for our mind in this particular way.

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

Amishi Jha
I think the main thing is just I love the topics that you cover on your pod, and I love how like actionable you want to make it for people. So, one of the things I would just encourage people to kind of be left with is this notion to really pay attention to their attention, and to realize that the mind, just like the body, needs some kind of daily exercise to keep it psychologically fit and performing well.

And what we’ve happened upon my own research is learning that this very simple practice, not always easy, but simple practice done for not that long every day, about 12 minutes a day, can actually powerfully benefit the way that we operate and the way that we feel. So, give it a try.

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

Amishi Jha
Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh, then I’m going to be probably picking one of my own because we’ve done so many really cool ones. Favorite study recently is one where we were able to benefit the attention and mood of military spouses by training other military spouses to offer mindfulness training to their peers. So, that was really exciting because now it shows us a path forward to have this all proliferate.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amishi Jha
I would say I’m going to pick something completely uncharacteristic. It’s a book of poems by Rumi.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. What’s it called?

Amishi Jha
Oh, gosh. The Essential Rumi. I think it’s called The Essential Rumi. Yeah.

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

Amishi Jha
It’s a double-edged sword but I’d say actually my phone to use my timer to practice every day.

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

Amishi Jha
Yes, and maybe that would go to a quote, but it’s not. It’s really kind of more of a concept, “Thoughts are not facts.”

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

Amishi Jha
If they remember my name, they can find me Amishi.com.

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

Amishi Jha
Yeah, I would say invest in yourself and invest in your attention, and do that by starting slow and starting small, and really practice paying attention in this way using the tools of mindfulness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amishi, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in your peak mind activities.

Amishi Jha
Thank you so much.

712: How to Turn Pressure into Power with Dane Jensen

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Dane Jensen says: "Pressure is energy. It actually can help."

Dane Jensen shares powerful tactics for staying calm and confident in the face of pressure.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The equation that explains why we feel pressure 
  2. Why time management won’t solve your workload problems
  3. The questions that make us “good at pressure” 

 

About Dane

Dane Jensen is the CEO of Third Factor, an acclaimed speaker, an instructor at Queen’s University and the University of North Carolina, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and the author of The Power of Pressure. 

Dane oversees Third Factor’s delivery of leadership development programs to leading firms across North America including SAP, RBC, Uber, Twitter, the USGA, and others. He teaches in the Full-Time and Executive MBAs at Queen’s Smith School of Business in Canada and is Affiliate Faculty with UNC Executive Development at the Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill. 

In addition to his corporate work, Dane works extensively with athletes, coaches, leaders and Boards across Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic sport system to enhance National competitiveness. He has worked as an advisor to Senior Executives in 23 countries on 5 continents. 

Resources Mentioned

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Dane Jensen Interview Transcript

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

Dane Jensen
Hey, thanks so much, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, we’re talking about pressure, so I’m going to put some pressure on you right from the get-go, if I may, and say, Dane, I’d love for you to kick us off with a riveting and instructional story that tees up some of the concepts of your book The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution.

Dane Jensen
Yeah, I think one of the beautiful things about how I wrote this book is it was all story-driven. I asked as many interesting people as I could find one question, which is, “What’s the most pressure you’ve ever been under?” And I found out that this question is kind of like a magic portal. Like, on the other side of this question, no matter who you asked this question of, there is a really, really interesting story.

And so, I’ll tell you a story about a woman named Jen, who is a manager at a government agency. And when I asked her about the most pressure she’d ever been under, she flashed back to this period of her career, where she was responsible for planning the communication of an organizational restructuring. And so, two agencies had been merged, everybody kind of knew they were going to be layoffs, there was going to be a restructuring, it had been a couple of months at this time, so nervous anticipation was building. And then, finally, the day arrived, this incredibly well-orchestrated day that Jen and her team had been working on for a couple of months.

And so, Jen’s morning was spent having four one-on-one conversations with people who are being let go, so a pretty tough morning. And then she raced across town to the conference center where they were about to kick off six simultaneous regional meetings where they were going to announce the strategy and the restructuring that was happening.

And so, she parks herself in the biggest region. About half the people are there in person, half of them are joining remotely through Zoom or by phone, and it is one minute to 1:00 p.m. when the meeting is going to kick off, and the AV fails completely. Nobody can dial in, nobody can hear, nobody can see. The regional president looks at Jen, because she’s the person who planned this. She looks around for an AV team, there was no AV team in the room.

She tears out of the room, down the hallway, and she decides to take a shortcut through a stairwell. She gets into the stairwell, the door closes behind her, and she hears a click. She runs over to the door, grabs it, locked. Looks down on her phone, she has no cell service because of the concrete walls. She is locked inside of a fire escape with no cell service and 600 people on the other side who were wondering if they still have jobs.

And I use this as a microcosm of when you ask people what’s the most pressure they’ve ever been under, you get an unbelievable range of life experiences. And so, the first insight for me from this is when you talk to Jen about what the moment was like of peak pressure, when she realized that the meeting was falling apart and she tore out of the room and was running towards the stairwell, she talks about how, and these are her words, “My focus narrowed to the point where I could not see what to do next. It was like my mind was racing but it wasn’t computing anything.”

And I think this, to me, is a wonderful kind of tee up for the problems of pressure. We’re going to talk about why pressure can be the solution but the real problem of pressure is when it gets incredibly intense, it actually shrinks our world dramatically. Our attention starts to tunnel. We can access less of our expertise. We can take in less information from the external environment. And so, this example, for me, really tees up what are we trying to solve for when it comes to pressure.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful. And so, let’s talk about that problem and what it does to us. And you’ve got an interesting equation in terms of importance, uncertainty, and volume are components. How does this work in terms of…? Because I was thinking about your equation as you told that story, it’s like, “Okay, we got some importance. Okay, we got some uncertainty. Okay, we got a lot.” So, what is sort of that perfect storm, it’s like, “Yup, this is what pressure feels like and where it comes from”?

Dane Jensen
And this was the first mission in writing the book, was as I asked more and more people this question, I got totality of life itself back. We had lots of people talking about kind of, I guess, standard pressure moments – so, big presentations, a critical sales meeting, an entrance exam, a job interview – so that kind of stuff definitely came up.

But then we also had stories of people, a guy who went for a swim and, all of a sudden, realized he was too far from shore and the tide was going out, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back, people who were carrying demanding jobs while dealing with dying parents. So, one of my first tasks was to kind of look at this incredible range of human experience, and start to go, “Okay, what is similar across these very different experiences?” And I think that’s where the equation came from. It’s to say, “Okay, as different as these things are, when we talk about pressure, all high-pressure situations are characterized by some combination of three things.”

So, the first thing that has to be there for us to feel pressure, as humans, is importance. If what I’m doing doesn’t matter to me, if it’s not important, if the outcome doesn’t matter to me in some way, I’m not going to feel pressure. But importance alone doesn’t create pressure. We also need uncertainty because no matter how much something matters to me, if it’s certain, if the outcome is clear, it’s not really going to create that much pressure.

And so, we really, as human beings, where we start to feel the experience of pressure, which is really an internal experience, it’s a response to an external circumstance, we feel it at that intersection of, “Hey, this really matters to me, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” And then volume really is the multiplier. So, it’s like, as human beings, yeah, we’ve had to exist in important and uncertain situations since the dawn of time. In the modern world, I think what creates the grind of pressure is just the sheer volume of tasks and decisions and distractions that kind of surround our important uncertain moments.

And so, these three things can combine in very different ways, Pete. So, Jen’s situation, for me, is a perfect example of what we talked about as peak pressure moments, which are like violent collisions of importance and uncertainty. Like, acutely important, “I’ve been working on this for months, the regional president is looking right at me, this is falling apart,” and tons of uncertainty.

There are other situations, when we talk about the long haul of pressure, or the grind, those tend to be less about like hugely important, highly uncertain, and more just about grinding volume, “I’m just carrying a ton of uncertainty through a long period of time, and it gets really heavy.” And a lot of the stories and experiences I heard from COVID, they tend to fall a little bit more onto that pattern of just constant uncertainty and just grinding volume. But those three things are what kind of combine to create pressure for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good to know right there. When I think about importance for a while, there are sometimes I feel pressure and it’s because of something is really important to me, and I realize there are many other people for whom this would not be a big deal and would not be important to them but it’s important to me. And it’s almost like I wish I cared less so there’d be less importance and I’d feel less pressure.

And so, Dane, I don’t know, I have a feeling it’s not the solutions you’re going to be putting forward. But I’ve been there, it’s like, “Ah, could I care about this a little bit less so I could feel less pressure?”

Dane Jensen
Yeah. Well, listen, man, I think you’re onto something there. Like, I think what I learned is that everyone of these parts of the equation – importance, uncertainty, and volume – they are all kind of double agents. Pressure itself is kind of a double agent, right? Where do more world records get set than anywhere else in sports? The Olympics, right, because there’s pressure. Pressure is energy. It actually can help and we know that pressure can also be dangerous if it’s left unchecked. It can lead to burnout and stress and all that stuff that we see in the growing conversation of workplace mental health.

So, I think all of these things, what’s interesting about them is it’s a little bit of a matter of dosage. So, importance, just to build off of what you’re talking about, we’ve heard for years, you got to start with why. You got to get really clear on why something matters to you, the purpose behind what you’re doing. And, actually, that is a really important part of the long haul of pressure. If I’m going through the grind of 12 really tough months, or raising a child, like I got to really have a line of sight to, “Why does this matter to me? How is this helping me grow? How is what I’m doing contributing? How is this bringing me closer to people that I care about?” the big stuff.

And, to your point, when we kind of cross from the long haul of pressure into these acute peak pressure moments, actually the issue typically isn’t that, “I don’t have a line of sight to my why. It’s like the why is crushing me. Like, I am just overwhelmed by how important this present…” So, one of the tools that I introduce in the book is this ability to kind of pivot a little bit.

So, if you take a very simple example that, hopefully, some of your listeners can relate to, if I’m prepping for a big presentation, let’s say it’s a sales presentation that I’ve got to give, I actually want to, during the preparation phase, consciously focus on importance. The fact that there’s a commission cheque at stake here, that this could be an input to an early promotion, that this is a good test of my abilities, that I can contribute revenue to the bonus, whatever it is that makes this matter to me.

When I’m about to step into the room and actually deliver that presentation, I have to consciously switch my attentional focus using one question, which is, “What is not at stake for me here? What are the important things in my life that will not change regardless of the outcome of this presentation? I want to focus on the fact that I’m still going to have a job, I’m still going to have the love of my friends and family, my colleagues will still respect me.”

Because those are the things, those unchanging things, that’s what frees me up to perform. If I carry the commission cheque and the early promotion, if I carry all that into the presentation, it’s going to be a disaster. So, you’re absolutely right, there are situations where the real question I want to be focused on is, “What makes this a little less important?” because often we get fixated and we expand the stakes mentally as we’re heading into those moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s beautiful so much there in terms of the distinction between preparation and performance, like play the game a little bit differently. And then we have the choice to dial it up or down in terms of onboard and I don’t feel like preparing well. This commission cheque is at stake. We increase the importance and the pressure, versus, “I’m freaking out a little bit. It’s the big moment.” It’s like we can decrease the importance and pressure, like, “Hey, you know what, my wife and kids aren’t going to leave me. They’ll still be here even if I just scream obscenities at everybody in the room and botch it as badly as one could possibly botch it. My wife and kids will still be there as well my friends.” And so, that is good.

Dane Jensen
And even simple anchors, Pete. I have a vivid memory of a day that I spent in my consulting career, and this is going to sound like a very first-world problem. I was consulting to a company in northern Italy, and I had parked my car outside of the hotel the morning before I had to go give a critical presentation to the senior leadership at this organization. And I woke up the next morning and the entire square outside of my hotel had been converted to a farmer’s market, and every car that had been in the square that night before had been towed.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through the wonderful experience of trying to navigate the Italian auto impound system as somebody who doesn’t speak Italian, but this was not the way I wanted to start my day before a critical presentation to a big client. And the thing that really got me through it was in that moment going, “You know what, one way or another, at 6:00 o’clock tonight, I’m going to be sitting down, eating dinner, and having a cold beer. And nothing that happens in the next three hours is going to change that. It’s going to be 6:00 o’clock, we’re going to eat our meal, we’re going to have a drink, and we’re going to go on with the day.”

And so, I do think, because our attention can run away from us and get so…it’s like a spotlight. What we focus our attention on, it comes right into the foreground and everything else recedes into the background. A lot of this is about consciously directing that spotlight to, “Okay, what are the things that I need to focus on right now that maybe are getting lost in the glare of where my attention is kind of gravitationally getting pulled?”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, Dane, so much excellence here in terms of what’s not stake in consulting. And that brings me back to some stories where I was new in consulting and making some errors, which was embarrassing for me and the team. And I had an awesome manager who was sharing some perspectives in terms of like, “Hey, well, it’s just work and nobody’s dying. But, yeah, you’ve made some mistakes that kind of hurt our credibility there and so we got to get a plan.”

And so, I appreciated that perspective, like that’s what happened. I was new, I made some mistakes, but no one was dead, which is not true of some professions. You make mistakes, people may die. But I make mistakes in my spreadsheet and it’s just a little annoying and embarrassing.

Dane Jensen
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, we talked about when you feel the pressure, your mind can run away from you, you can narrow your focus. And some tools there, we talked about dialing up or down the importance via thinking about what’s at stake, what’s not at stake. Any tips on how we move the levers of uncertainty and volume?

Dane Jensen
Yeah. And I think your tee up here, which is, “Hey, it’s just PowerPoint. There are some situations where the stakes are life and death.” And that’s often a question that I get when I talk about importance kind of as a standalone topic, it’s like, “Well, what if it really is a life-and-death situation? Is it really going to work to think about what’s not at stake here?” And the answer is, “Not really.”

I think of the equation kind of like a bag of golf clubs or a set of chef’s knives. If you are truly in a high-pressure situation where lives are at stake, you’re probably going to want to focus less on importance and more on uncertainty. Because uncertainty, as human beings, we experience uncertainty in a very similar fashion to physical pain. And Olivia Fox Cabane wrote about this in her great book, The Charisma Myth, that the brain, actually, similar parts of the brain light up under uncertainty as they do under physical pain.

And so, if you look at kind of the evolutionary biology of all of this, the human beings who craved uncertainty, who heard the kind of rustle in the bushes, and were like, “Huh, wonder what that is?” And, yeah, they didn’t tend to do too well. So, most of us are not particularly comfortable with uncertainty. And so, when we are in these peak pressure moments, similar to importance, in peak pressure, the goal with uncertainty is quite straightforward. It’s we want to redirect our attention from what we can’t control to what we can control, and begin to act as soon as humanly possible. Because the second we start to act on uncertainty, the second we start to make progress, that’s when the pressure from uncertainty begins to abate.

And this really got landed for me. I heard a wonderful metaphor from a guy named Martin Reader, who’s an Olympic beach volleyball player. He represented Canada in the 2016 Rio Games. And he talked about how when you’re playing beach volleyball, there is so much that is out of your control. The opponents are out of your control, the officials are out of your control, the crowd is out of your control, the weather is out of your control. You’re literally standing on shifting sands, which is kind of a metaphor for uncertainty, but also a literal thing.

And he said, “The one thing that you can control in volleyball is the serve. When you are standing behind the service line and you have the ball, that’s the one time that you’re in control.” And so, he tells a story about when they had to qualify for the 2016 games, they knew they were going to have to go into Mexico and beat the Mexican team in order to qualify.

And he said, “We knew this was going to be really tough because the Mexican team was a good team. It was going to be a really hostile crowd, which sometimes influences the officiating.” And so, he said, “For six months, my partner and I, we practiced this very non-traditional serve.” And he said, “At a critical moment in the third game, I moved to this complete other spot on the service line, and I served the ball they had no idea was coming for an ace, and that really punched our ticket to Rio, to the Olympics.”

And so, he said, “Since that moment, whenever I find myself in a situation where things are really out of my control, I ask myself, ‘What’s your serve? What is your serve in this situation?’” And, again, I talked about the spotlight and redirecting attention, this, to me, is another one of those great attentional anchors, to go, “Hey, with everything else that’s out of my control, what is my serve in this situation?” And I think one of the things we want to recognize is no matter what the situation is, you might ask yourself that question, go, “I got no serve. This whole thing is out of my control.” There are a couple of things that we always have control over, that are permanent serves for us as human beings.

So, one of them is breathing. No matter what situation you’re in, breathing is a serve. When I start to get my physiology under control, when I move my breathing down into my diaphragm, when I slow it down to five to six breaths a minute, that’s a way that I can start to access certainty and control. You can’t have a racing mind with a calm body. If you can get your body under control, it’s very hard to have a racing mind.

The second thing that we always have control over, that can always be a serve, is perspective. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, he talked about having, through his time in the Nazi concentration camps, the Nazis could take pretty much everything. They could take food. They could take clothing. They could take shelter. He said, “The one thing they couldn’t take was my ability to choose to see what I was going through as a meaningful experience.” And he talked about that as the last human freedom. That ability to choose how we are going to look at what we’re going through, that’s another serve that we always have. That’s always within our control. That’s always something that we can act on.

And so, routine is another one. You look at people in sports, before a tennis player serves the ball, what do they do? They have a constant routine that allows them to exert control. So, I do think, when it comes to uncertainty, A, the question, “What’s my serve?” but then, B, having a couple of kind of go-to serves, so to speak, where you go, “These are the things that I’m going to do that are going to serve as beachheads of control under peak pressure,” that can really pay dividends when you’re walking into high-stake situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Dane, that is powerful stuff in terms of, that question, “What is my serve?” I think when you really visualize that in terms of, “Literally, what is the equivalent of a ball in my hand that I have the choice of what to do with right now?” that’s huge. And so, your choices in terms of how you interpret and view things, how you breathe, that’s excellent. So, let’s hear about volume then.

Dane Jensen
Yeah. So, volume is an interesting one because it’s easy to react in a way that seems like it’s going to help that actually ends up hurting – and that’s time management. I think when volume is the dominant thing creating pressure, and I think, frankly, for many of us, volume is the dominant thing creating pressure. When I talk to people in organizations, I do a lot of workshops on this stuff, and one of the questions we’ll ask is, “Okay, what are the things right now that are taking away the fun, keeping you rushing, causing you anxiety?” And, inevitably, the answer is some version of “Not enough time,” or, “Too many priorities,” which are kind of just flipsides of the same thing.

And so, I think when volume is creating pressure, it kind of makes intuitive sense to turn to time management, it’s like, “Okay, the issue is I’ve got too much stuff to do. The solution is I need to become more efficient and get it done. That’s how I’m going to make progress. That’s how I’m going to start to exert control and tamp down uncertainty.” The challenge with time management is that time management is a trap. If you think about people who get really good at time management, what do they get? Do get more volume or less volume? They get more volume.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, because they’re entrusted with, “Hey, great job, Dane. You really crushed that. Here are some more stuff for you.”

Dane Jensen
Most of us are working in organizations where if you do a really good job, it’s like, “You know what, we’re going to be so efficient that we can shrink our meetings from an hour and a half to an hour. That’s going to open up 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on my calendar.” The second 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. opens up on your calendar, what happens? Someone is like, boom, calendar invite, like, “I noticed you have a free hour from 1:00 to 2:00. It’d be great if you could join this project kickoff.” It’s like putting up a signal flare that’s like, “Hey, I have some free time.”

And so, the example I always use is there’s this wonderful Dilbert cartoon where Catbert, the consultant, is talking to the manager, the boss, and he says, “Hey, how do you guys reward your high-performers around here?” And the boss says, “Oh, we load them up with work until they become average performers.” And, to me, that’s time management. It’s like digging a hole in the beach. The bigger the hole you dig, the more water is going to rush in there to fill it.

And this is not to crap on time management. Time management is a really important productivity tool but it’s not a solution to pressure, and those are two different things. Time management absolutely helps with productivity, but it doesn’t alleviate pressure because it just allows you to get more done. It actually allows you to increase the volume that you’re kind of faced with.

And so, when we talk about volume, there’s really two imperatives that I kind of start to dig into. The first is, listen, if we are going to choose a high-pressure life, which I suspect most people listening, if you’ve taken the time to opt into a podcast like this one, you are choosing a high-performing life, and that’s going to be accompanied by volume. And so, we have to take care of the physical platform that allows us to handle a high-volume life: that’s sleep, that’s nutrition, that’s movement. So, that stuff has to be there so that we’re not just exhausted all the time.

But the flipside to that is, instead of just managing our time to try to accommodate everything, we have to get ruthless at how we are using that capacity. And that means really hitting the root causes of volume, which are, “What are the tasks that we permit? What are the decisions that we are making on a routine or regular basis? And what are the distractions that are taking us away from the volume that we really should be focused on?”

And so, when I think about productive strategies that actually get at the root causes of volume, they are strategies to hold the line on tasks, “What am I saying yes and no to?”; there are strategies that eliminate decisions, “How do I create rules, principles, that eliminate the number of decisions, or minimize the number of decisions that I have to make on a daily basis?”; and, “How do I put structure in place that is going to allow me to avoid distractions?”

So, those are kind of the core three, and we can dig into any one of those three that you want, but those, to me, are kind of the root of, “How do we actually manage volume as opposed to just accommodate it?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I like that that is a nice set of tools that seem to sort of cover the gamut pretty nicely. Boy, we could have a whole episode on them. But maybe give me your favorite tactic amongst those three, like, “This is game-changing and pretty easy for people.”

Dane Jensen
let’s talk about tasks. And, listen, there’s two reasons that we overwhelm ourselves with tasks, and it really kind of depends on your span of control in the organization. We can overwhelm ourselves with tasks because of tasks we take on ourselves. So, we’re just over-optimistic about what we can accomplish, and so we kind of opt in or we kind of seek out more than we can handle, and that starts to create pressure. We can also accumulate too many tasks because they’re imposed upon us, we get assigned them by our managers or our bosses.

And so, for each of those two streams, and it’s not a binary thing. Usually, it’s some combination of those two. There’s a tactic that I think is worth exploring and trying. So, the first is if you are the kind of person that is just over-optimistic and opts into too many things, I am a huge believer in calendar blocking. And I just think, the fact that we have, all of us, simultaneously a calendar and a to-do list, creates a lot of the challenges that get people to take on too much. Because we look at our calendars, and we go, “Oh, yeah, I have space from 1:00 to 2:00 tomorrow.” But the issue is that our calendars really only show the commitments that we’ve made that involve other people.

The to-do list is basically a parallel calendar, it is a parallel set of commitments to our time, they just happen to not involve other people. It’s work that we need to process independently. And so, I think if you fall into that camp of constantly opting into stuff, and then going, “Oh, crap. Like, I got to get this done on a weekend,” you want to merge your calendar and your to-do list. Like, find time on your calendar for every item on your to-do list, and actually block it so that you have a real representation of all of the things that have a claim on your time before you start making decisions around what else you can take on because, otherwise, you’re just deluding yourselves. And I think that’s where the kind of over-optimism comes from.

So, that, to me, is one very practical way to start to get a more real view of, “What are the tasks that I actually have room to accommodate?” If the tasks are being imposed on you, if it’s more a case of just somebody else, like, “I need this. And I need it by Monday,” I think it’s really uncomfortable for most people, in particular, folks that are a little more junior in organizations, to just say, “Listen, I can’t do that. Like, I don’t have enough time to do that.” That’s often something seen as career-limiting. It’s a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation.

And so, my recommendation on that one is take that out of the binary world of like, “I can do this,” or, “I can’t do it,” and start to use those as jumping off points to have prioritization conversations, “Okay, so you need me to pull this deck together for Monday. All right. Here are the other two things that are on my plate for Monday. Where do you want me to rank this one? Is this the most important of those three? Is this in the middle?”

And we’re not having a kind of like “Me versus you” conversation, where like, “You’re asking me to do something and I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t do it.’” Now, we’re having a conversation together around, “What’s the order that I should be thinking about these things in? What are the ones that are more important or less important?” So, those are kind of two separate roads, I guess, of kind of the same outcome but a little bit different context.

Pete Mockaitis
And I don’t want to roleplay this for too long, Dane, but if you’ll indulge me just a smidge. So, if you have that conversation with a manager, director, VP, whomever, someone more senior, and they give you an unsatisfying response of, “Well, hey, they’re all important. They all need to get done,” what do you do then?

Dane Jensen
And I think this is where we want to be polite, be persistent, it’s like, “Totally agree. Okay, so which one should I do first?” or, “Where do you want me to start?” And I think the ability to continue to have the discussion, “Listen, I have to pick one to do first, and I have to pick one to do last,” that’s where we want to keep driving the nail in.

And, actually, this has come up a few times where people are like, “Well, my manager just won’t have those conversations.” Like, I keep getting responses, like, “Everything is important.” And this is where I think a big part of managing pressure is my ability to come face to face with my own personal power, my ability to connect with self-efficacy, that I have the ability to choose what I am going to tolerate, what I am not going to tolerate.

I think if you have a manager who repeatedly, over time, just says, “Everything is important, and you need to get it all done,” that, to me, is a signal that if you have a good relationship with that person, now is the time for some upward feedback, which is, “Let’s have a conversation around what I really need from you as a manager in order to perform at a high level.” And if that continues, like, to me, who on earth wants to work for someone who refuses to have a productive conversation with them about what’s most important around here?

So, I really do think that the end of that conversation, for me, is like, over time, I have a boss who refuses to help me prioritize my work, get out of dodge. Like, find a better place to work. Find a better manager. That sounds flippant, but I genuinely think that that should be a very basic expectation of a leader, that they can do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And you’re right, and I think like there may be rare moments where it’s true, everything is important and everything is urgent at the same time. And I think a great manager would be like, “Dane, I’m sorry. This is a terrible week and, unfortunately, it seems like what’s going to be necessary is that you work until midnight several days in a row. It’s unfortunate that we’re here now but we are, and I’d like to figure out how to get you some time off in the next week to make up for it. But, darn it, this is what the reality is on this particular week.” I think that both things can be true, that everything must be done, and your manager could be cool and humane about the implications of that.

Dane Jensen
Listen, I think that’s a great point, Pete. There are busy periods in every job. If it’s tax season, and you’re an accountant, like, legally, everything has to get done by a certain date. It’s not like there’s a lot of wiggle room there. We got to do everybody’s taxes by the time they need to file them. So, I totally agree with you, and I think the main thing for me is it becomes a conversation.

So, what I liked about you just laid out there is, “I’m having a discussion as a manager to paint a really clear picture here of this is a period in time in which we’re going to be asking a lot of you. Here are the commitments that I’m making around that, that this is going to be time-bound, that I’m going to work with you productively to find some time to recover, and that I see and appreciate the extra effort that you’re putting in here. It actually matters.”

That, to me, is very different than a leader who simply says, like, “Everything is important. Get it all done on Monday and have it on my desk.” So, I totally agree that those things can co-exist, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so while we’re talking still on the managing pressure, if it’s, I guess, maybe the problem side of things, if you will. You have a very compelling teaser bullet for your book, “We can reduce tension, sleep better, and have more energy so that you can meet challenges head-on.” It sounds like we’ve figured out a few levers for some of that. But, tell me, any other pro tips on the sleeping better and enhancing energy side of things?

Dane Jensen
Yeah, I think the…and this comes from the subtitle of the book, which is, “Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution.” I think the thing that we want to recognize about pressure is that, really, pressure is just a word that we use to label a ball of energy. Pressure is energy. When you look at, physiologically, what happens to our body under pressure – it’s adrenaline, it’s cortisol, it’s muscle tension, it’s faster blood flow, more oxygen. Like, it’s just energy.

And I think that energy can be productive if it’s channeled appropriately. Certainly, many of us who have had kids, what is it that allows you to be an empathetic and patient human being on no sleep when you feel like you’re screwing everything up? It’s the energy that accompanies the pressure that you feel. And so, I think pressure can be a source of energy if it is channeled appropriately.

And so, if we look at a lot of the tactics that we’ve been talking about, it’s like, “Okay, how do I take this kind of raw seething energy and actually use it in a direction that is a little bit more productive?” And I’ll tell you, when it comes to the sleep part, so sleep better, I do think because pressure is energy, if we are carrying a ton of that around, it does make the sleep thing a little bit more difficult. And so, our ability to pulse to kind of channel and allow the energy from pressure to help us perform, but then to be able to get into a state where the energy dissipates, I think that’s really important.

And this, to me, goes to the flipside of what we were talking about with uncertainty. So, we talked a lot in uncertainty around, “How do I take direct action to eliminate uncertainty?” That’s the whole notion of finding your serve. I actually think one of the failure modes that high-performers get into is because direct action can be so effective in peak pressure moments, it becomes the default mode of action. We try to just take action on everything. And one of the certainties of life is that we cannot eliminate all uncertainty. We are all on our way to both triumphs and tragedies and everything in between that we cannot foresee, we cannot predict, we cannot prevent.

And so, a big part of the sleep better at night for me is we got to recognize, when it comes to uncertainty, that, yes, we need to act to tame uncertainty where we can, we also have to be able to get to a place where we can embrace the uncertainty that we can’t tame. And for that, that’s really a bit of a mindset thing. And it’s a mindset, as I talk to people that are really good at this, who just seem to be able to come to peace with the fact that there is uncertainty, it’s really about cultivating two things.

The first is, “I have to get to a place where I accept that the future is both unknown and unknowable. I have to get to a place where I can accept that I cannot control the future no matter how hard I try.” And, actually, a lot of the stories that I heard from high-performers were like about bitter battles that eventually reconcile with them, realize that they couldn’t control everything.

But paired with that belief is it almost feels like a bit of a paradox but we have to pair that belief that the future is uncertain and unknowable with the belief that everything will work out as it should in the end. And that belief is really about having a patient faith in the future. And I think it’s that one in particular that, A, is harder to get to in a period like COVID, and, B, is the one that actually allows you, if you go right back to the question, that’s what allows me to get to sleep at night, is I can get genuinely to a place where I go, “At the end of the day, things will work out.”

And I think that the critical distinction here, for me, on this one, and I get pushed a lot on this one, both by people who read early drafts of the book and people whose opinion I really trust, who said, “Listen, things don’t always work out.” And that’s true. There are lots of situations where we don’t get the Hollywood redemptive ending, we don’t get the outcome that we wanted, and, yet, I talked to hundreds of people about the most pressure they’ve ever been under, and without fail, they talk about how the situations worked out.

They talked about the fact that they learned something about themselves that was really useful later on. They built confidence that they never had before. It forced them to make a tough decision that they’ve been delaying. It brought them closer to other people. It uncovered an inner strength that they weren’t aware of. Like, they inevitably talk about how, even if it didn’t go the way they expected, it worked out.

And so, I think the really important part for me here is we have to get to a place where we don’t lose faith that things will work out in the end, while being open to being surprised by how they work out. Like, opening ourselves up to the fact that they might work out a little bit differently. And so, I think that that’s what makes uncertainty so challenging, Pete, is it’s this double-edged sword of, “I got to find my serve and act aggressively where I can to limit uncertainty, and I’ve got to get to this place where I go, ‘I can’t control everything and that’s okay because it’s going to work out the way it should in the end.’” That’s where the ability to kind of sleep a little better at night comes from.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, thank you. That’s powerful stuff. And, now, I would like to hear, when it comes to pressure being the solution, you mentioned more records are broken at the Olympics than anywhere else and you said it’s because of the pressure. You actually worked with Olympians so you would know. I guess, my first thought was, “Was it because of the pressure or was it because they’ve precisely timed their training to peak at this moment when the gold is on the line?” And so, I guess there’s probably both are drivers. But, tell us, how can we, in a pressure-filled moment, do extraordinary exceptional things above and beyond what we’re capable of during normal circumstances?

Dane Jensen
Yeah, I think you kind of got there. It is a bit of an and. I think when you’re trying to be the absolute best in history at something, it has to be a combination of both, “I have trained in a way that I am going to be at my peak when it matters most, and I have to be able to take advantage of the energy that is going to accompany performing on the Olympic stage. It is just a different thing than other stages. There is a different level of scrutiny. There’s a different level of importance. There is a different level of volume.”

So, when you talk to elite athletes, they will talk about the pressure that accompanies an Olympic performance. And I think this is one of the misconceptions that some people have about pressure, which is that getting “good at pressure” is about eliminating that feeling of profound discomfort that accompanies pressure. That’s not the case. You talk to anybody, I don’t care who they are, they will tell you that this stuff is unbelievably uncomfortable.

Wayne Halliwell, who’s a great sport psych up in Canada here, he talks about this notion that it’s not about getting rid of the butterflies. It’s about getting them to fly in formation. Pressure is uncomfortable. When we are in peak pressure moments, it is not a place that is particularly enjoyable. So many Olympians I talked to will talk about the 10 minutes, the 30 minutes before they’re going, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this?” Like, they’re fantasizing about just escaping from the pool.

It’s an uncomfortable experience and the energy that makes it so uncomfortable, “If I can get control over how am I framing this from an important perspective? Am I able to both see that this matters to me and recognize that this isn’t a referendum on my life? Like, this doesn’t determine whether I’m a failure as a person or not. Can I take direct action? Do I feel like I’ve done everything I can to control what I can control? And have I got myself to a place where I can accept that there is uncertainty that I can’t tame, that I might fall, that a competitor might just happen to peak that day?”

“And if I ruthlessly control the volume that could distract me from my performance, have I cleared out all the distractions that could take me away from…? When I’ve done those three things, that’s what gets me in a position where the butterflies can fly in formation. I still feel that way but I go in with confidence as opposed to overwhelm,” and that’s when things kind of click when we listen to people describe those experiences.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And so then, if we’re not getting on an Olympic stage, but we’re feeling the pressure, are there any particular actions or practices or reframes that are super effective in terms of accessing the superpowers?

Dane Jensen
So, I said a little earlier, the attention is like a spotlight. I think the best way to think about getting good at pressure is to think about attentional control, which is, at the end of the day, my ability to direct that spotlight, to not have the spotlight just direct me, like I’m just kind of beholden to whatever kind of catches my attention, and I can’t act on it, when we train that ability to direct the spotlight of our attention, that’s when we start getting good at pressure.

And, as we discussed, sometimes that is about I got to put the spotlight on, “Why does this really matter to me?” Other times I got to direct the spotlight to, “What’s actually not important about this to me?” Sometimes I got to direct the spotlight to, “What can I control? What’s my serve?” Other times, I got to direct the spotlight to, “What is the uncertainty that I can’t tame, and the fact that, at the end of the day, this is going to work out?”

So, that attentional control is really at the heart of this for me. And the best way to redirect the spotlight is questions. Questions are attentional anchors. So, peppered throughout the book are just, “What are the questions that I’ve heard from people that really work for me but also work for others?” So, those are questions like, “What’s not at stake? What’s my serve in this situation? What’s my average? What can I count on here?”

We want to have our own bank of, “What are the little attentional cues that work for me personally to direct that spotlight in a way that’s productive, to get me anchored on something that’s going to actually help under pressure, as oppose to lead me down the garden path?” And so, my most kind of practical advice for listeners is to start to know, use the ones that I’ve kind of just said as a starter list, but gather the questions as you go that help you when you’re moving into your peak pressure moments, because those questions are like little nuggets of gold. The little attentional anchors that put you at your best, those are the things that you want to carry and start to embed in your routines as you’re heading into high-pressure situations.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. I love those questions and the notion of training the ability to direct the spotlight of your attention, and questions are huge for that. Some of my other favorites are, “What’s great about this? And what’s one thing I can do to make this better?” We had Dr. Ellen Reed talk about relentless solution focus with that kind of question, and it’s beautiful.
And, also, the phrase training the ability to direct the spotlight of your attention. That sounds like what mindfulness meditation practices do. Any thoughts on those?

Dane Jensen
Yeah, 100%. I think mindfulness meditation is like going to the gym. Every time your attention wanders and you bring it back to center, you’re practicing attentional control. So yeah, absolutely. That is a very related practice and it’s one that can 100% enhance your ability to do this under pressure.

Pete Mockaitis
So much good stuff. Thank you Dane.