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Mindfulness Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

627: Breaking Through Your Mental Limitations to Grow Faster with Matt Norman

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Matt Norman discusses how to break the mental patterns that hinder our growth—and encourage healthier patterns.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The thinking pattern that saps our energy 
  2. Two questions to keep your thoughts from overwhelming you 
  3. How to keep criticism from fazing you 

 

About Matt

Matt Norman is President & CEO of Norman & Associates, which offers Dale Carnegie programs in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Through Norman & Associates, he helps people think and work together more effectively. Matt’s mentorship has helped Fortune 100 corporations, non-profits, and entrepreneurs change the way they engage with their employees and clients. 

Matt has been named to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal 40 Under Forty list and the Minnesota Business (Real) Power 50. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Matt Norman Interview Transcript

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

Matt Norman
Thanks, Pete. Really excited to be here with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And, first, I want to hear about your fondness for Latin dancing. Now, people who can’t see you, you don’t look Latin to my eye, but you never know actually. What’s the backstory here?

Matt Norman
Thanks for asking me, Pete. When I was in college, I spent a year in Ecuador and I had to choose from elective courses, including Latin American dance, and at the time I had no dancing background. Being of Nordic Minnesotan background, I thought that that might be a helpful cultural experience, so I ended up taking the class and loving it, and actually spent a lot of my time down there doing as much dancing as I could. And few people know that one of my email addresses is Bailando Norman which is Dancing Norman. I’m not that great at it but I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, is that for the VIPs who know that one and others don’t? Or how does that work?

Matt Norman
It’s actually for the spam emails.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’ve got that too. Mine is PeteMJunk@gmail.com. Now everybody knows but I probably won’t see the message if you email it. But then when I give it to people, I don’t want them to know I’m giving them a junk email address so I try to space it out like, “Oh, yeah, it’s P-E-T-E-M-J-U-N-K@gmail.com.”

Matt Norman
That’s right. Yeah, talking about having those long ones you have to spell out. I know, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. Well, so that sounds like a healthy habit right there, is keeping your inbox clean. But you’ve got some broader speaking patterns you’ve identified of healthy people, four in particular, in your book the Four Patterns of Healthy People: How to Grow Past Your Rooted Behaviors, Discover a Deeper Connection with Others, and Reach Your Full Potential in Life and Business. We like all of those things. So, lay it on us, what do you mean by healthy person and how did we determine that there are four patterns of them?

Matt Norman
Yeah, thanks, Pete. By the way, when you say that “We love those things,” I can say, as a frequent listener of your podcast, I really appreciate the ways in which you and your guests helped me and others develop healthier patterns. And when we say healthier patterns, we mean not just physically healthier but mentally and emotionally healthier.

And through my coaching and life experiences, I’ve realized that at some point in life we develop ways of thinking and behaving, usually as an adaption to our circumstances and it typically works well for a while, therefore we repeat those ways of thinking and behaving. And at some point, many of us realize that those ways of thinking and behaving don’t work anymore because of a relationship that we’re in, a job that we’re in, or realize that we’re overusing some of those ways of thinking and behaving, and so we get stuck.

And so, because of that, we have a choice. We can either remain stuck and surround ourselves with people that don’t challenge us and don’t cause us to self-confront and grow, or we can grow. And because of that, I wrote the books to help individuals and organizations go to live with more joy and impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, all that sounds swell – joy, impact. So, let’s talk about these ways of thinking and being just to make that really clear. Can you give us an example of a very common pattern that, let’s say, wait, let’s do a contrast…So, let’s hear a common pattern of thinking and operating that is found in healthy people but not so often in…well, I don’t know what we want to call it. Do we call them unhealthy people or pre-healthy people? What’s the term we’re using?

Matt Norman
Less functional, less optimal. Yeah, absolutely. And so, before I give that example, I can just put into context of there are four pattern areas, as you alluded to, how we think, how we relate to others, how we view ourselves, and how we operate, or make choices of our lives. And so, to use a common example, in terms of how we think, many of us ruminate on things that drain us of energy rather than releasing things that drain us of energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Matt Norman
And in the book, that’s one example where we talk about the value of metacognition or thinking about our thinking so that we realize that when there are thoughts, in the book we use the metaphor of leaves falling in a river, and to think of our thoughts as a stream or river of everything that’s going through our mind. And the green leaves that are falling in the river are thoughts that energize us and red leaves are thoughts that drain us, and many of us will fixate on red leaves because they worry us, we think that by fixating on them we’re going to change them, we’re going to improve the situation.

But we find is that the healthiest people, top performers, will allows those red leaves, they won’t ignore them, they’ll acknowledge the red leaf is there, but then they’ll let it float down the river, and they’ll choose to fixate on the green leaves, those leaves that are energizing us. And so, it’s a very common pattern to ruminate rather than release.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s huge right there in terms of, boy, just the energy that can liberate in terms of you think about being awesome at your job, that could very well make the difference between, “Do you have two good energized hours to do great work or do you have six in the course of a day based upon just how much of this you’re doing?” And I’ve lived both of those. So, yeah, let’s go right there right now.

So, the best approach if there’s an energy-draining situation, and maybe let’s make this all the more real in terms of maybe someone said something you found offensive at work, like you felt unappreciated by what they said, like, “Hey, Matt, how about we just do one more pass at this and I think we’ll be ready to go,” and you’re like, “Excuse me? We’ve already done six passes, that’s just pretty darn good and I’m tired of this, and I thought it was excellent and your critiques aren’t very useful and they’re frankly annoying.”

I’m not talking about anyone in particular. If you’re listening to this and I’m collaborating with you on something, this is purely fiction, for the record, but these things do come up. And so, let’s just say that’s the situation. You’re ruminating on it, and so you say the healthy approach is to not push it away or ignore it or run from it but rather to allow it to pass through. What are we doing in practice when that happens?

Matt Norman
That’s right, yeah. So, we’re acknowledging that it’s there, we may interrogate that thought briefly, not ruminate, but we may interrogate and be curious about that thought rather than defensive. We’re starting to get into the relationship pattern in the book which has to do with how we respond to criticism and also how much we internalize what people think of us or whether people approve of us. And so, there may be a moment where we want to be curious and interrogate, “Well, why did that bother me so much?” or, “What truth is there that’s there?”

But then we would let it go. We would let it pass. And metacognition and neuroscience would suggest that sometimes it’s actually valuable to physically release it, you know, write it down in a journal or a piece of paper and crumple it up and throw it in the trash. Or sometimes, literally, what I’ll do is kind of toss my hands up in the air, it’s like I’m releasing them or like I’m dropping the mic, you know, to physically send a message to my mind that, “I’m now releasing you.” And sometimes it may just be as simple as just saying, “I choose in my mind, I choose to release that thought,” and then perhaps focus on thoughts that are also true and perhaps more fulfilling than that draining thought.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I like that. So, I guess the answer is probably it varies, but lay it on us. I mean, just how much time do we care to be curious, to interrogate, to investigate versus…? Because at some point I guess we might fall into the ruminating zone there. So, how do you think about that in terms of how much time is not enough time and how much time is too much time?

Matt Norman
Yeah. I think two litmus tests, one would be, “Am I repeating the same thing over and over again?” “Am I sawing sawdust?” As Dale Carnegie says in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, I don’t saw sawdust. And the other thought is, “Is this bringing me consolation or desolation?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so Ignatian of you, Matt.

Matt Norman
Yes, exactly. Good pickup. I was just going to make that reference, yeah. So, this idea that, as Ignatius of Loyola says, many of the thoughts that we may have, or experiences, bring a sense of…it consoles our spirit even though it may be hard or difficult or problematic, there’s still the sense that it’s constructive, it’s connecting to where I should be at this moment. Whereas, there are desolate feelings, that’s where we literally feel empty, we feel we’re losing our self, or that we’re losing our spirit or our energy around this particular topic. It sounds like you have experienced or thought about that reference also.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have a book about the discernment of spirits that’s taking me a long time to finish because it’s dense. I gnaw upon it and think about it. So, that is some handy litmus test distinctions there. So, then in this example we’ve used, it might sound like…well, you tell me, I’m going to take a crack at the acknowledging and interrogating and being curious and letting it pass.

I might say, “Boy, I feel frustrated that we’ve already been through many revisions on this document and yet this guy wants to do even more. I kind of feel like I am stupid or a loser or inadequate, at least in his eyes, and relative to what I’m producing here. And that feels disappointing to me because I thought I had created something awesome that I had spent a lot of time and effort already in doing. And the subsequent set of recommendations, I think, frankly, could make it worse, and I don’t feel like doing that.”

Okay, so that’s me acknowledging. That’s exactly how I feel about the situation. So, then interrogating and being curious might sound like, “Why do you suppose he feels he needs to go through so many revisions?” or, “Why would I feel like a loser based upon the input of one person who’s not that important to me?” And then maybe follow those threads, like, “Oh, maybe he’s new and he’s raw. He’s worried about making a good impression with his boss. Maybe it’s because I really like things to be optimal, at their peak-performing levels, and it just sort of demotivates me when I think we’re moving away from that, and that’s kind of what’s up.”

So, well, you tell me. I’ve tried to acknowledge and to interrogate and be curious. Would you recommend I do that any differently or in more depth, less depth?

Matt Norman
Pete, that was really powerful. I thought that you did two things there that were really strong, and then one thing that you didn’t do. So, I think one thing that you did that was really strong was that you weren’t blaming in that thought pattern.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, like, “That jerk face. Where does he get off doing…?” Okay.

Matt Norman
Yeah, exactly. “I get so much disrespect in this culture. I’d say he’s always after me. Why does he have to make me…?” All of that is pointing at the other person as opposed to looking at your own thoughts, which is the second thing I think that you did really well there is that you were processing your authentic feelings. You were saying, “I feel disappointed. I feel…” and even thinking about some of the identity translations of those feelings, like, “I feel stupid. I feel like I’m missing the mark on this.” And so, that seems really authentic to be saying those things, so processing those ideas.

So, not blaming and then having authentic expression of your emotion is really powerful. And then the thing that you didn’t on that was you weren’t repeating yourself. Once you process the thought, you move to a level of deeper interrogation, or you moved onto a subsequent thought, but you weren’t circling back to say, “Yeah, you know, I am stupid. I must be…Who else thinks…? What other evidences there that I’m doing stupid things around here? Why would he say that? Why would he say that?”

And so, those are kind of the repetitive thoughts that we’ll often have that are less helpful. So, the fact that you were making forward progress and that you were not blaming, that you’re authentically expressing your emotions, I think, was all the way powerful there.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, thank you. Well, hey, it doesn’t always work out that healthily in my brain. And so, let’s go there next. So, let’s say you do find yourself circling, you do find yourself blaming, you did the acknowledging, the interrogating, the being curious, and then it’s looping on back, what do we do?

Matt Norman
So, one consideration is, “What might I be attached to from an identity standpoint?” And this gets into some of the psychology around the false self versus the true self. Typically, we have this false self that psychologists will say is the self, the image that we want projected to the world, the image of what we want other people to see us, “I want people to see me as highly competent here. I want people to see me as not making mistakes, etc.” And we say it’s false because no one’s perfect.

And so, to cast this kind of image of perfection out to the world or that we think the world expects of us has a degree of falseness to it versus authenticity. And so, for us to think about, “What are the parts of my false self that I’m holding onto too tightly? What are the parts of my identity? In other words, do I think that I need to be accepted in order to be okay? Do I think that I need to be viewed as competent in order to be okay? Do I think that I need the approval of this particular group? Or do I think do I need there to be harmony in the environment for me to be okay?”

So, there’s a number of questions as we interrogate that we can start to realize about how we’ve maybe overidentified with this particular situation. Therefore, we may need to consider if we’re holding onto too tightly to parts of my false self that I’m trying so hard to project to the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s a lot of good stuff there. So, the pattern, I heard you say, is, “Do I need blank to be okay?” associated with what you’re attached to and your identity. And so, I guess, ideally, I would like for there to be nothing in that zone, like, “I don’t need anything to be okay. I’m okay just by being alive.” And you can draw – we’re getting deep here – you can draw, like your fundamental worth or value whether it’s the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights or like a faith or wisdom tradition, like, “I’m made in the image and likeness of God,” or something, like you believe, “I have intrinsic value, worth, dignity just because I am or I am a human.” That seems like the ideal place to be but often we’re not there. And there are some other things attached to it such as, “I do need to be perceived as,” whatever, or, “I need to look like a winner or make $125,000 annually,” or fill the blank.

So, if we’ve identified some of those attachments, what do we do with that?

Matt Norman
Yeah. Well, it may be a process of revisiting where our true value comes from. To your point, revisiting what tradition or source we look to for our true value. The Harvard School of Negotiation says that, often, when we’re really thrown off balance, they call it an identity quake.

Pete Mockaitis
Quick?

Matt Norman
A quake.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, like an earthquake. Okay.

Matt Norman
Like, the ground under us is shaking. Often, we can feel this most when we just are really upset about something, or maybe we are triggered in a way that other people might not be triggered by. We just get more upset or more reactive than someone else might get. It may be a sign that we have to look at, “What is it about this that may be questioning something that I think is central to my identity? And does it really need to be central to my identity?”

So, I had this earlier in my career, I was in an operational role where I was responsible for getting deliverables out on certain timelines, and because of a number of factors, we were behind schedule, and we had customers calling and complaining. And I remember that our head of sales came to me, and not just me, to our executive team, and said that our team was not performing and, frankly, the message was that I had to be fired.

Pete Mockaitis
Right there in front of everyone. Okay.

Matt Norman
Yeah. Basically, he was going through channels of communication that came around back to me or I knew that this was the message that he was communicating. And at that time, I remember being so upset at him and at the situation, far more upset than I think many people might be when they were missing deadlines. I was so upset. And the reason is because I’ve developed a strong desire throughout my life for approval from other people, particularly people that I viewed as key stakeholders for my work. And I viewed this vice president of sales as a key stakeholder of mine.

And so, it literally was an identity quake for me, for me to get this feedback that I ought to be fired, that our group ought to be reorganized because of our inability to make these deliverables. And so, as opposed to having a productive reaction at that time in my career, I remember sitting in meetings and just constantly wondering whether I was saying the right thing, whether I was doing the right thing. And as a result, in one meeting in particular, I had a panic attack where I couldn’t continue speaking and I had to leave the meeting because I became so physically taken down by this identity quake that I’d turned into a series of unhealthy rumination.

So, all that goes back to, again, not just the realization of those red leaves or those draining leaves that are falling in the river but the source of those leaves often has to do with the way I view          relationships and the need for me to project this idealized image onto those relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that’s a huge insight in terms of understanding that. And I suppose, can we dig into some detail in terms of, “How does one divest one’s self of these attachments and return to the source and…?” Because it’s tricky, like, I think once we can get to a place where it’s sort of like, “Okay, I know I feel the need to…” fill in the blank, you know, “…look productive, be competent, be rich…”

Matt Norman
Get a promotion, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“And I don’t like that. It’s true but it is.” What’s my step-by-step to freedom there?

Matt Norman
Yeah. So, the book really goes through a number of exercises that we can do to make progress in that area. And, again, one of them would be this thought process of realizing that, “Okay, when I have identity quakes on that, or when that need triggers me, rather than ruminating I can release those thoughts,” that’s number one. And then number two is, “I can decide in this relationship that I’m going to differentiate myself.” In other words, this is another, your concept in psychology that, “Rather than absorbing the anxiety around me, that I would separate my emotions from how other people may be feeling, I would decide that I’m going to own my emotions and not let other people control my emotions.”

And so, we may need to, in our relationships, decide that, “I’m going to create some emotional separation here with my boss, or with this VP of sales who’s really anxious and really challenging me. I may need to decide, just take a deep breath and decide, say to myself I’m not going to let him control my emotions. I’m not going to let him control how I feel about myself. And then, finally, start to reestablish where my value comes from and operate in patterns that will affirm my worth or affirm my source of value.”

And we can get into a little bit more of what those operating patterns might be, but I think there are exercises that we can do. We’ve probably experienced it. Spending time with people that reaffirm that, that whisper verdicts in our ear about who we really are and why we really matter, or doing, reading certain types of books, or whatever we do that these practices around us can really affirm for us where our value comes from and who we really are.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, let’s talk about some of those patterns here. I’d also love to zero in on, say, “Hey, I’m not going to let him control or dictate my emotions.” So, I think that’s a good bit of awareness and conviction to hold. Nonetheless, I think it’s quite possible that, sure enough, that VP of sales comes a-huffing and puffing again. You may feel some stuff again. So, what do you do kind of in the heat of battle?

Matt Norman
Yeah. Well, so it may require a few things. One is naming what we’re feeling. I thought, Pete, you did a great job earlier in the conversation of naming, “Okay, I’m feeling this way right now. Because of this conversation, I’m feeling disappointed which is causing me to feel stupid. Are those true thoughts?” So, part of it is that naming of the emotion, of the thoughts that we’re experiencing, I’d say point number one.

Then, point number two, we may need to create some space, just separate from the situation somehow and breathe through that situation, and just, frankly, calm our amygdala, you know, that part of our brain that’s often wanting to hijack our thought process. And once we can sort of move to a more prefrontal cortex kind of thoughtful intentional thought process away from that, kind of emotional reactive state, we can start to think more clearly about, “What else is true here? What is true about my identity? What are other verdicts I’m getting? What are other data points?”

You see, we have these cognitive biases, economists tell us that we have heuristics, these mental shortcuts that cause us to draw conclusions about things that may or may not be true about our environment. And I’m sure many of your podcast guests have, in various ways, talked about many of those cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that we have, and we need to challenge those and say, “What are other data points that we have, that I have, that I can look at? Who else is appreciative of the work that I’m doing? What is good about the work that I’m doing? Is the only datapoint this VP of sales?”

So, there’s a number of steps that we can do from, as I said, naming the thought of the emotion, to separating and breathing through to try to move from the amygdala to a more thoughtful response, and then challenging those cognitive biases to try to look at, “What else is true? What else can I pay attention to here?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great phrase, “What else is true?” My realtor used to use that a lot in conversation. I wonder where he got that. I thought, “That’s an interesting turn of a phrase you keep using.” But it is handy in that it really…I think often our brains are kind of like question-answering machines at times, and so that’s a powerful question when you’re in it, and that could seem to be all there is to really point your brain elsewhere in a really helpful correct way.

And then when you talk about the releasing and the shifting away from the amygdala, we had another guest talk about like writing something down on paper and lighting on fire or throwing in the trash. And I think, for me, it’s I guess I often think about releasing something as in, “That thing is going to stay in one geography and I’m moving to another.” So, it’s sort of like, “I’m going to go into the bathroom, I‘m going to deal with that thing, and then I’m going to leave that thing in the bathroom.” Or, “I want to go for a run and I’m going to leave it on the treadmill or on the trail.” Or, “In the shower, I’m going to have a deep refreshing shower, and then it’s like I’m a new man from pre-shower to post-shower.”

And so, that’s kind of how I think about releasing and shifting, and it’s quite handy. Any other pro tips on the releasing? You said you just sort of mic drop or throw it in the air?

Matt Norman
Well, I love the ideas that you just gave. And the other piece that I think is important to bring into the conversation is community, healthy community that surrounds us, where we’re with other people we can release. And I think there’s something very powerful about meeting with a therapist, a counselor, or a dear friend, who’s willing to let us share authentically and share perhaps a deeper level of the emotions that we’re experiencing and even some of these more challenging thoughts around how that confronts our identity attachments.

And as we share those things, for someone else to say, “I hear you,” and not try to fix us, not try to rescue us, not try to minimize the situation, but someone who’s willing to just say, “I hear you. That’s really hard.” Somehow, I think there’s this therapeutic process that occurs where we’re able to more easily release those thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you for talking about the community and the people side of things. You’ve also got some perspective on managing our own schedules and energy patterns. How do we do that?

Matt Norman
Well, I think this is the foundational pattern for all the other ones because when we’re drained or tired, it’s much harder for us to think productively. It’s more tempting to ruminate, it’s more tempting to, as you said earlier, make our identity about, “Not just about my intrinsic value but my intrinsic value plus whether I get approved from my boss,” or whatever else it might be.

So, we find it’s particularly important through the coaching that I’m doing and the research, that we manage, first of all, our sleep and our nutrition, and there’s been a lot of research on this. Recently, and I’m sure a lot of listeners have read or listened to some of this research from, for example, the Stanford School of Sleep where they talk about the fact that 99% of human beings need between seven and nine hours of quality sleep. And quality, suggesting that we need to manage screen time, chemicals, you know, caffeine, alcohol, and find ways to put ourselves in a position to optimize our sleep. As we’re going to bed to make things like routine, like stretching and things like that.

So, starting with just the consideration of, “How much quality sleep am I getting? And then how am I managing my energy throughout the day?” Realizing, Daniel Pink, in his book When talks about the science of perfect timing, that there are certain times of the day, too, when we need to do things, where we’re more vigilant. And, actually, while we’re mentioning books, I would also suggest to listeners that, if they’re interesting in this, I think David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work is perhaps my favorite book when it comes to these topics because David Rock talks about what’s going on in our brain when our energy is down and how much less vigilant we’re able to be about managing our thoughts, managing our responses and relationships, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m a big believer in this energy stuff, and I remember the first couple of years of the podcast, my two longest interviews were both with sleep doctors, so it’s like, “Oh, I guess that tells you something.” I was like, “I’ve got one more question, and one more question, and one more question.”

Matt Norman
I think I listened to one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sleep is huge and I’m a big believer. Any other particular best practices in bringing more good energy to work and life?

Matt Norman
Well, we talked earlier about reinforcing and reminding the true verdicts about your worth and, frankly, what’s true about the data that’s coming at us. In other words, we get all this data and we’re getting feedback from our boss, and we’re getting feedback from our coworkers, and from our partner, and all these different people are giving us feedback in various ways in which they’re responding to us. And, as we mentioned earlier, we can have all these cognitive biases about what’s true, and, “Do I ruminate or focus on some of those, some of that feedback?”

And so, to reinforce through a podcast we’re listening to, what we’re reading, the journaling that we’re doing. And part of that, as a best practice, I think, is blocking time to make that happen. I think right now, in particular, it can be challenging in the environment in which we’re operating where a lot of us are working from home and everything sort of blending in. All the parts of our lives sometimes feel like they’re blending into one another. But to be able to compartmentalize the parts of our lives to say, “Now, I need to go into 30 minutes of reading,” or, “I need to go into 30 minutes of listening to this podcast that’s going to reinforce what’s true. It’s going to cause me to be more curious in a helpful way. It’s also going to reinforce who I am and why I matter.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, I like that a lot and I think I’ve gotten better with that lately in terms of just like in the middle of a workday I’m just going to do some not-work, and my work is actually better for it in terms of quality and quantity. It took me a while, I think, to break through the barrier of, “No, I need to be a good productive worker and not sleeping on the job, like napping or whatever.”

And so, now I say this a little bit tongue in cheek but it really is true. I call goofing around, whether it’s playing a game or whatever, while at work, “Part of my creative process.” And I try to say it in an artistic way like I’m wearing a beret. And that helps me sort of push through past my resistance of, “No, I need to be a diligent worker now. It’s work time, therefore, it is time for work.”

So, lay it on us, if folks feel either, “I got too much to do, Matt. That’s crazy. I couldn’t possibly do not-work during work hours,” or they say, “No, no, I just need to be a productive high-output person,” how do you help push past those bits of resistance?

Matt Norman
Yeah. You know, I came home recently and my wife said, “How was your day?” and I said, “Oh, it’s a great day.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I got a ton done.” And she said, “Is that how you measure your day?” It just stopped me in my tracks, I felt, “Oh, my gosh.” You know, I think part of it is that, going back to what we value when we get into the whirlwind of our work as we think that checking boxes or like the game of Whack-A-Mole, where it’s like knocking the moles down, or responding to emails, we think that that’s what’s most important. And several great thinkers have illuminated, like Clay Christensen in his book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m listening to that right now, How Will You Measure Your Life?

Matt Norman
Are you? How Will You Measure Your Life? Yeah. It’s just this realization that perhaps I need to distinguish between what I want now and what I want most. And the realization that sometimes what I want now is the immediate gratification of responding to an email, or the gratification of shipping something, or finishing a project.

Now that may require a discussion with our leader, it may require a discussion with other stakeholders in our lives to say, “You know, what I often want now is the immediate gratification of responding to an email or whatever the case may be. But what I want most is to create this value for the organization, and what I want most is for this to happen in our relationship, or what I want most is for me to become this in my career. Can we, together, agree that that’s not just what I want most but that you’re willing to endorse that or come alongside me in that? So, at times, I may need to appropriately say no. I may need to turn off email. I may need to…”

In fact, a couple of years ago, I took email off my phone because I realized that often what I wanted now is to respond to that email, whereas what I wanted most was to spend time with people that were most important to me or have quality time for myself. So, I think it’s the question of, “What do I want now, which is often that immediate gratification, versus what do I really want the most and getting other people around me to support me in that?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a great distinction. Thank you. Ooh, boy, there’s lot to chew on here. But, Matt, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Matt Norman
Well, I think the only thing I’ll add is that all of this requires a growth mindset. And I know, Pete, that you’re all about growth mindset. And when we talk about growth mindset, we’re thinking of Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford published in the book Mindset, where she talks about the continuum from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. And it really, for us to change the way that we’re thinking and behaving, unless there’s a complete crisis and we absolutely cannot move forward, it usually requires some level of self-confrontation.

And that’s incredibly difficult because we’re all wired to self-protect, we’re all wired to survive. And in many cases, these patterns are so ingrained in us. So, I think we have to each ask ourselves the question, “How willing am I to self-confront and grow? And what’s a vision I might have of myself if I were willing and able to self-confront and grow?” And that’s the starting point.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, excellent. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Matt Norman
Well, this concept of growth is, really, resonates with me, and so, yeah, a quote that I’ve often repeated around this book is that, “Patterns are inevitable. Growth is optional.”

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

Matt Norman
Certainly, the research around growth mindset, I think, is probably have been my favorite study over the last several years. As with you, Pete, I also am really into studies and research around the brain, in particular, how the brain operates under pressure and fatigue. And in David Rock’s book, Your Brain At Work, I really appreciate that the study really talked about the ability to say no or inhibit our response. It’s sort of like the ability to say, “No, I’m not going to check email,” or, “No, I’m not going to eat that cookie.” And they talk about the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex which sits right above our temple or our ear and it’s responsible for breaking, you know, like the breaks on a car.

And the study suggested that the more we use the break, the more it reduces its effectiveness. And so, that’s why kids will often realize with adults that if they ask five or six times for something, by the five or sixth time, the adult will relent and say, “Okay, fine.” Or if we keep asking ourselves, “Should I eat that cookie? Should I eat that cookie? Oh, it looks really good. Should I eat it?” by the fifth or sixth time, we’ll relent. And what the study showed was that we really have to veto quickly and immediately when we’re trying to be vigilant about something, like not checking email or saying no to a request that someone has, because the more we ruminate on it and question it, the more we’re going to tire that ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the harder it’s going to be to say no.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, thank you. That’s big. So, I’m just imagining if it’s like, “Oh, maybe I should check Facebook or the news.” It sounds like the right answer there is to say, “No!”

Matt Norman
“Darn it. Stop.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Just cut off. The boat is burnt.” Okay.

Matt Norman
I’m taking out my phone.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

Matt Norman
You know, I really like this tool blocking time, like we talked about earlier. Now that’s not an actual tangible tool. The other tool, Pete, that I really appreciate is I just really appreciate the Notes apps on my phone. David Allen, in the art of Getting Things Done talks about having your mind like water, and just whenever we have a thought, getting the thought out of our brain so that we’re not thinking of it. And that goes back to what we talked about in today’s podcast.

So, a tool that I love to use is a simple tool that pretty much all of us have handy, and that’s the Notes app on our phone. And that’s every time we have a thought, “Well, I wonder if I should do this?” that we would just put it in a category of notes, or Evernote or whatever note tool someone might use, and just get it out of our head, get it onto a note so that our mind can remain like water.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, thank you. And a favorite habit?

Matt Norman
Getting up early. Now I know this differs based on physiology, and Daniel Pink talks about this in his book When, and not everyone is an early riser. But, increasingly, throughout my life and when I analyze the most successful people who have the most successful habits, I find that they get up early, and as a leading indicator of that, they manage their bedtime. And they manage their bedtime well, a we talked about earlier so that they’re managing screens and alcohol or caffeine or whatever else is going on in their mind so that they can go to bed on time, get enough sleep to wake up early because for most people, the earlier parts of the day is when we’re most vigilant and most productive.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, well, lay it on us, what is your bedtime, your wakeup time, and your bedtime process?

Matt Norman
Yeah. So, I wake up at 4:40 a.m. every morning, and to back that up, I just have to get seven hours of sleep, on an average. So, I really work hard on going to bed between 9:30 and 10:00, typically the 9:40 is the seven-hour mark so I’m really fixated on that 9:40. So, that means backing up further. I take about 20 minutes to stretch and read something that’s calming before bed. So, I’ll sit on the floor next to me, and I’ll stretch for 10 minutes. I have a phone ruler that I’ll use and I also make sure that I’m reading something that’s going to be productive but calming.

And then I’ll also make sure that there’s no screens within 30 minutes of going to bed, that I’m avoiding it at all costs, basically these screens, except the alarm on my phone. And then I try to stop eating by 8:00 p.m. and try to do as much digestion as possible earlier in the evening. And then I’m an intermittent fasting person so then I’ll continue to fast until noon which is kind of a whole another topic, but I just like to not put anything in my body in the morning so that I can be totally vigilant and focused when I wake up.

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

Matt Norman
This idea around growth and being willing and able to self-confront, I think, is the most common idea in conversations around. And then, second to that is having authentic conversations, as we talked about earlier. It’s the ability to really share honestly about how we’re feeling. So, to grow, confront, and share honestly about how we’re feeling.

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

Matt Norman
MattNorman.com is a great place to go or you can learn more about the book at FourPatterns.com, that’s the word four, FourPatterns.com. And people can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

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

Matt Norman
My challenge for all of us is that we would self-reflect on a regular basis, really look at our patterns, the ways in which we’re thinking, relating to others, viewing ourselves, and operating our lives, and not just resign ourselves to a fixed mindset to say, “Well, this is just the way I am. Well, Matt, you don’t know my job, or you don’t know my family, or you don’t know my personality,” but rather to really continue to challenge ourselves to say, “Yeah, I do have some patterns that are pretty ingrained in me but maybe I could change.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Matt, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and health with your people and your patterns.

Matt Norman
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s an absolute honor to be with you.

622: Taking Control of Stress Before It Takes Control of You with Kirsty Bortoft

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Kirsty Bortoft shares easy ways to keep stress and negativity at bay.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to un-hijack your brain in 12 seconds 
  2. How to effectively deal with stress in five steps 
  3. The number one reason why most people struggle with stress 

 

About Kirsty

Kirsty Bortoft is an award-winning mindset coach to entrepreneurs and professionals. She helps them to dissolve stress and anxiety without having to resort to medication and traditional therapy. Kirsty developed the unique ‘Freedom Alignment Method’, a three-stage process that crushes the obstacles so many high achievers frequently face during their lifetime. Obstacles that inevitably leave them feeling trapped by their current circumstance and pulled from the inner peace and happiness they deserve, despite working so very hard for it.

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

Kirsty Bortoft Interview Transcript

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

Kirsty Bortoft
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to learn your wisdom and it sounds like you’ve got a lot of it. And I understand you’re a monk. What’s the story here?

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, I know, it always makes people laugh when I say this. I am what’s called an Ishaya Monk of The Bright Path. So, yeah, it was a journey that started 2005 when I started getting really into kind of self-development and wanted to know more about, I guess, how to live my best version of my life, and I went on a bit of a soul-searching journey.

And in 2010, I bumped into a friend, and they’d been on this meditation retreat, and I was like, “You know what, I think I need a bit of Zen in my life.” So, he says, “Well, here’s the link, go and have a look.” So, I did. But, to be honest, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had an image of meditation being pretty boring because I can’t sit around with my eyes shut, and I’m the kind of person that’s got quite a lot of energy, I like doing things, so I thought, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s going to be for me.”

But, anyway, I went to this weekend and I had this lightbulb moment, and the only way I can describe it is, imagine a jigsaw, and there’s one piece it just can’t find its way home. And on this Saturday morning, the lady shared something and it kind of went ca-chunk, and I just saw this vision of realizing that I’d been spending my whole entire life trying to fix myself on the outside. And I realized at that moment that no wonder I find life stressful and really difficult because there was always another problem.

And so, what they taught me was to shift my attention from the outside and go inside. So, I thought, “Oh, I think I need a bit of this.” So, after doing that weekend cause, I bundled my children into a car, we drove to Spain, and we lived on top of a Spanish mountain, and I studied with some Ishaya monks on the workings of the mind and how the mind-body connection works, and how to go inwards. And after about six years I graduated as a monk myself.

Pete Mockaitis
Six years? No kidding.

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, that was quite a journey.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you moved to another country and hung out for six years.

Kirsty Bortoft
No, I came back and forth but, yeah, yeah, yeah. Came back and forth but, yeah, on and off for six years. And then in 2015, I graduated as an Ishaya monk, which is hilarious because you can see me, I don’t really look like a monk coming out of that stereotypical…

Pete Mockaitis
You’re wearing an XBOX headset on your collar at the moment which you see on brands for monks.

Kirsty Bortoft
My son’s. Very trendy. Yeah, so it’s cool. So, yeah, one of the things I do now is I teach The Bright Path meditation ascension, which means to rise above the mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about the mind. So, I want to dig into stress and mindset and just learn all of your good stuff. So, let’s think about, in your experience working with professionals, what do you see over and over again are kind of the biggest sources of stress?

Kirsty Bortoft
So, stress, really, is triggered by four different areas and you’ll relate to all of this when I tell you. You’ve got chemical stress, so you get stressed out because you’ve got a hangover.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that will do it.

Kirsty Bortoft
They’ll say that you would relate to that but that’ll do it. And a virus, which is obviously a big topic right now, bacteria, medications, for example, so that’s chemical stress. Everyday source of stress. But you’ve also got emotional stress and everyone knows when we’ve had that stressful day at work with perhaps a colleague, or maybe you’re just not going on quite well with your partner, or there’s been a fallout with a neighbor, so that kind of emotional stress. And then you’ve got that good old physical stress, so that’s when you’re injured or maybe you’ve just had a really long week at work and you haven’t stopped, and physically you’re exhausted.

But then there’s a fourth one, and I think this is the most important path that when I learned this it completely changed my relationships the way I saw stress. And that’s this, that we are the only organism, which I think there’s about something like 8.7 million other organisms on this planet, but we’re the only one that can trigger the stress hormone, which is cortisol, with thought alone.

So, what I mean by that is you could be sat on your sofa at home potentially thinking about, I don’t know, a business meeting, or perhaps you’ve had an argument with somebody yesterday, or maybe you’ve got to go and have a difficult conversation at work tomorrow, and your mind thinks that’s actually happening now. So, your subconscious mind has no ability to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. So, it just thinks, “Oh, my goodness, little Johnny is having some sort of stress. We need to protect him.” So, it does its job and it triggers off the stress hormone.

Meanwhile, you’re actually sat on your sofa watching an episode of Game of Thrones, something like that, but your mind does not know that it’s not happening now. And I think it’s such an important fact for people to know that actually their thoughts have a lot to do with the mental, emotional, physical state in which we get into.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that resonates and I think, for me, it’s so funny how I can just kind of imagine that, let’s say, I’m going to submit some work to a client somewhere, and then I think that they might critique something. And then I would start thinking about, it’s like, “Well, they do that.” And I want to be like, “Well, look, you can’t change the deadline on me.” It’s like I’m already having a fight that’s not a real fight but with that imaginary person about something, which they probably won’t even bring up. And then I’m worked up truly as though they are ripping into me right now. And so, that happens all the time.

Kirsty Bortoft
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s good to know that, one, the body will just naturally react to that and produce those kinds of things as though I’m really there. I guess, two, immediate thoughts there are, one, if I don’t care to go there and have those thoughts and the emotions that come from those thoughts, how do I develop a sense of mastery of my thoughts so that I can just choose, “Hmm, yeah, I’m not going to think about that right now, and that’s okay”?

Kirsty Bortoft
Well, without having a lobotomy, the best way is… It is mastery. You are right in the terminology that you used there because one of the things I say in my signature program The Freedom Alignment Method is that, number one, awareness precedes all change. So, the first thing that we have to do is we have to become aware that we are actually going off into this addictive thinking actually because even if it is us having like an imaginary argument with our work colleague who’s really annoyed us because he never made us a cup of tea and made everyone else one, even if that’s what we’re doing in our mind, that is still, as I said before, triggering the stress hormone.

And so, the first part of it actually is becoming aware that you’ve gone off into that thinking pattern because, quite often, we go into imaginary states in the future or in the past and it takes us a while to even realize that we’re doing that. But, meanwhile, what happens is your mind and body are completely connected. So, you know this is true because if you’ve ever been really hungry and you’ve like walked into someone’s home who’s baking some fresh bread or you’ve walked into a restaurant and you can smell some beautiful food and you’re starving hungry, you see the food, it’s nowhere near your mouth but your mouth starts to salivate, and that’s purely because your mind and body are connected.

So, in the same sense, what happens is you attach yourself to a thought but then you go off into thinking. So, you start thinking about this work colleague or this deadline that you said, and then what happens is the thoughts are the language of the mind, but the body then kicks in with emotions, and all emotions and all thoughts are in the same vibrational level.

So, I, for example, have never had a client who is utterly peaced out, who is having an anxiety attack. The same way around, I’ve never met anybody who’s thinking really negative thoughts, who feels like they’ve got loads of energy. The mind and body are completely the same at all times. So, if you are feeling stressed, the stress hormone, some of the effects are it makes your heart go faster, it makes you feel quite clammy and sweaty, and it also makes you feel quite exhausted.

And, in the same breath, when you’re feeling elated and you’re feeling excited about life, you feel like you’re energized. Suddenly, you’ve got this like energy from nowhere and anything is possible. And so, that’s purely because your mind and body are completely connected, so one triggers the other. They always are the same.

So, how do you stop that? As soon as you become aware that you are actually starting to downward spiral, so you’ve gone off into that addictive thought, you simply go, “Stop, Kirsty. Stop right now.” Now, depending on where you are, I don’t suggest you say it out loud because people might think you’re going a bit bananas. But wherever you are, in your car driving to work, whether you’re working on your laptop or you’re with people, you can, literally in your head, just tell yourself to stop. And in that moment, you then take your attention and you put it on something different.

So, the chemical reaction of an emotion is 12 seconds. That’s it. So, if you take your attention and put it onto something different, very quickly you start to change the chemical reactions within your body, which then starts to change your thought patterns and vice versa. So, the big part of this is really going, “You know what, I actually have control over where I put my attention but the first part is I need to become aware, and become aware of where I am and put my attention.”

And, recently, because there is so much stress going on in our planet with the virus and then we’ve also got what’s going on in America right now, it’s very easy to get sucked into the TV and all the negativity, and it’s very easy to be caught up in conversations about that, and sometimes you have to ask yourself, “You know, how much of this do I need to put myself in front?” Like, “Okay, I need to know what’s going on in the world. But do I need to be like putting myself around that negativity 24/7 when it’s actually making me feel horrendous?” And the answer to that is no.

No, you have a choice. You have total choice. And I would say to people, you know, that we’ve got no control over what happens in our planet. So, it could start snowing, for example, and we’ve got no control over that. It’s fact. But we have total control over the meaning we give something. So, it might be that you have got a really sort of big event at work you’re about to embark on it, it may be pushing you out of your comfort zone, it may be quite challenging. But instead of getting caught up in the what-ifs and, “This could go wrong, and that could go wrong, and people might judge me. And, oh, my goodness, my career could be over,” instead of doing that, you can just stop and say, “You know, it hasn’t happened yet, and right now I have the ability to give it a different meaning. And the meaning I’m going to give it is, ‘God, this is so exciting, it’s new. Who cares if it doesn’t go 100% right? I’ll learn from it and I’ll still be living at the end of it, hopefully.’”

It’s all about you giving your power back to yourself and saying what meaning you might give in this stuff, and is it actually real. And by choosing the right meaning will change your state and change the way you feel about something.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a lot of great stuff there. Well, 12 seconds is, I think, that’s huge right there and I think that’s about true in terms of I think of talking about you’re taking three deep breaths, for example, it might be 12-ish or a little bit more seconds, and then that is sufficient to move from one place to another. And then choosing the meaning that you’re giving there, that’s cool. Well, thank you.

So, then let’s talk about choosing meanings in a big way when it comes to mindsets kind of across a whole lot of stuff as opposed to one given moment or experience. So, you are an award-winning mindset coach in your bio.

Kirsty Bortoft
I am.

Pete Mockaitis
Which I find exciting because I’ve been listening recently to Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress, and I hope to have her on the show soon.

Kirsty Bortoft
Oh, exciting.

Pete Mockaitis
And I was so intrigued how there were a number of mindset interventions which don’t take a whole lot of effort but really do kind of yield to, or yield great results whether whatever you’re measuring in terms of like it’s not dropping out of college or whatever years later, and so I thought that was awesome, whenever there’s just a little bit of effort produces a lot of bit of results. Very cool. So, can you lay it on us now, what’s a mindset? And what are some of the most high-leverage things we can do to adjust our mindsets to make good things happen for us?

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, that’s a brilliant question. So, I think I want to start off first of all to say that our brains, for the last 50,000 years, have not changed very much at all, and our minds, which I think the brain is the house in which the mind works from. The mind has many different functions but one of the functions that it has is the stress response system, which has not evolved at all since the cavemen times.

So, we may have something going wrong with a colleague at work and we may feel stressed about it, but we can’t go into the office and start fighting for our lives when we get annoyed by somebody, or just run. Our fight or flight system, however, still kicks in, and it’s literally kicking in like a false alarm almost. And so, what happens is every time this happens, it releases a stress hormone into the body, into the system.

Now, any organism can deal with short terms of stress. We’ve been made to deal with it. It’s fine. The problem comes when it’s on repeat and it’s happening day in, day out. Now, unfortunately, most people, every single day of their lives, whether they’re aware of it or not, are triggering their stress hormone maybe not just once, twice, three times. And so, this is what happens when the stress hormone gets turned on.

You have two paths of your body that are happening all the time. So, you’ve got your immune system which is fantastic. It’s protecting you from viruses, it’s protecting you from bacteria, it’s doing a great job. And you’ve also got maintenance because your body is continually rejuvenating. I mean, in the last five days, you’ve had brand new taste buds on your tongue, which is phenomenal. So, you’ve got these two aspects at work.

But as soon as you start getting stressed, and you start having acute stress, the first thing that happens is your immune system gets switched off. Now, again, if it was just switched off for a short time, not a problem. But you can see where the problem kind of kicks in when it gets switched off for long term.

So, how do we deal with this? How do we ensure that our immune system, especially now, is firing on all cylinders? So, The Freedom Alignment Method is my signature program that I’ve created over the last 10-15 years and it addresses this exact problem. So, you might want to grab a paper and pen because I am going to literally give you the five most simplest steps that if you implement these, it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say it works, let’s get really clear. Now, what is the goal, result, the outcome that we achieve by doing this?

Kirsty Bortoft
So I always imagine cortisol being like little taps in your brain that releases into the body. So, if you imagine what it does, it allows the little taps to be switched back off so that your stress hormones stop releasing into the body and you start to return back into homeostasis.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we stop stress just like that. Okay, intriguing. Let’s proceed.

Kirsty Bortoft
So, the first step is, you probably know this first step because it’s quite commonly known that when we get stressed, we don’t breathe very well. We really go shallow in our breathing so it cuts off oxygen to the brain which makes us feel weird. So, the first most simplest step is let’s get some oxygen into your brain and take three really big breaths. And that is so simple, I know, but, honestly, I can’t tell you that our first little step, how it sets you up for the rest of this process. So, once you’ve done the first part and you’ve got some oxygen in the brain, you start to feel less weird.

Now, step two, I mentioned earlier, awareness precedes all change. So, you, first of all, ask yourself, “What have I been putting my attention on?” So, it might be in your mind or it might be actually something in front of you, okay? So, it could be actually happening or it might be just that you’re thinking about it. So, what have you been putting your attention on?

Once you’ve established what you put your attention on, the next thing is you need to start taking personal responsibility for the next step. Now, what does that mean? You’re probably going, “Well, I do.” Well, it means is that, probably, what you’ve been doing over and over again hasn’t been working so we need to do something different.

Now, I just love what Einstein said, which is like, “The definition of insanity repeating the same behavior and expecting something different.” Oh, my goodness, how many times have we all done that and then got really crossed because we haven’t either felt better or things haven’t turned out right for us, and we do this all the time. And so, this part of the process is going, “I’m prepared to do something completely different and trust that, by doing something different, I will get a different result.” So, this is where the paper and pen comes in.

So, this process is called the feel, deal, and dump process which is what I named it, and it’s for our fundamental part which underpins The Freedom Alignment Method, and it’s the most simplest thing, so listen because you might miss it.

The first part of this is you need to ask yourself what was that thing that I asked you to do in step two, which was, “What are you putting your attention on?” So, I’ll give an example. Let’s say you’re at work and you’ve been putting your attention on a deadline and actually you’re winding yourself up, getting worried, thinking you won’t get it done, then this is going to be the title that you put on your paper. So, you put that at the top of your paper, “Stress or worried about a deadline.” Now, this is the part that is fundamental to this process.

Now, before I share this part, I always say this process is really not difficult, and it isn’t, but it is different. And because it is different, the mind will try and jump in and say, “This is too simple. It’s not going to work.” I’m going to invite you now to ignore that running commentary and just do something different anyway and just see the result.

So, you’ve written down at the top of the paper, you’ve written down that, “I’m worried about a deadline.” Now, this is what you need to do next. You take your paper to pen, pen to paper even, and without thinking, which is quite difficult, which is why I get you to write because when you’re writing, it takes your mind off actually trying to think about something. I want you to just directly go to that title and ask yourself, “How does this, honestly, make me feel?” And I just then want you to start writing and allow your pen to flow like a stream of consciousness.

Now, what might happen is your mind might try and kick it. If it does, just take off your pen off your paper, take a deep breath, go back to it and just keep on writing. This exercise can sometimes take a minute, or 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. It really doesn’t matter but you’ll know when your brain dumped enough because there’ll be nothing left to write.

And what you’re actually doing at this point is you’re actually going straight into your subconscious and you’re releasing any suppressed emotions directly onto the paper, so you’re letting things go and you’re doing something different. So, you keep writing. Sometimes when I do this exercise, I can’t even read my writing. It’s like a mess. It doesn’t matter. The intention is how this process works. So, you keep writing until there’s nothing left to write. And as soon as you have finished, you ask yourself a simple question, “Have I written about my feelings or have I written about what went on?”

Now, if you’ve written about what went on, I want you to stop and go back because it’s really important that you write about the emotion and not the act, the actual thing that’s going on. Once you finish this, you take your piece of paper, you just crumple it up, and you go outside and set it on fire, and give it back to the universe. And what we’re doing there is we’re just doing a cycle, so we’ve taken the emotion out of the body, onto the paper, and then given it back to the universe.

It is so simple that people sometimes get it wrong. And I know that’s ridiculous because I’m saying it like this right now but it’s because the mind, the egoic mind is a control freak, and it likes to keep you in your comfort zone. So, when you do something different, it will have a running commentary, and its commentary is always pessimistic because its job is to look for problems. It’s not the enemy actually. It’s doing its job but your job in this moment is to override that and not listen, and just go back to the emotion.

Now, once you set it on fire, you’ve given it back to the universe, you then need to take your attention, so this is step five, and put it onto something upward spiraling. And to be honest, the best upward spiraling thing that you can ever put your attention on is simply gratitude because gratitude naturally expands your experience upwards. So, just by one thing, it doesn’t matter what it is, and just write down why you are grateful for that thing or you can even say it loud, it’s fine.

But what you’re doing then is you’re now choosing to put your attention on something that’s expansive rather than downward spiraling. And when you do that, it allows you to be more grounded and centered in the present moment and stops you from going back off into that kind of mindless chitter-chatter that’s going to cause the stress and trigger the hormone again. There you go in a nutshell.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we start with the three breaths, we say what’s our attention on, “I’m worried because of a meeting,” or whatever, and then we journal on, “How does that honestly make me feel?” just sort of the emotions, not the thoughts, not the thing, just the feelings. Then you set the page on fire, and then you put your attention on something like gratitude, and that’s your five steps.

Well, let me talk about the fire just for a second. Like, if some people are in office buildings…

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, you can’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you rip it up or is that okay?

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, that’s okay. Yeah, please don’t be like, “Our fires have gone up.” Yeah, absolutely. If you’re inside, don’t obviously do that or maybe save it to later. Yeah, don’t do it and set the fire alarm off.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s intriguing here is, I think, in step three, that distinction in terms of the feelings. Like, can you give us some examples, like, “How does this make me feel?” Because I think that you can just say, “Sad,” “Angry.” Well, yeah, but I have a feeling there’s going to be a little bit more to it than that.

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, so let us just take the title that we’re stressed because we’ve got a deadline. So, it might be, this is hypothetical, “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m feeling scared. I’m feeling like judged, feeling not good enough. I’m feeling hopeless.” I’m just making that up. It’s that simple and it’s literally whatever is there in the moment for the person, they write down. And the power of this exercise is the energetics, really, of what you’re doing, because the person is doing something completely different to what they’ve been doing.

So, mostly, what happens when we experience something that’s uncomfortable is our kneejerk reaction is to push that thing away whatever it might be, even if it’s not actually happening in real life; it’s happening within our mind. Our kneejerk reaction is to push it away. And the reason for that is because we’ve been programmed to move from pain to pleasure at all costs, which is why when we decide to go on a diet and lose weight, unless we have actually dealt with the unconscious programming in our minds, what will happen is we will sabotage ourselves every single time because the desire to move from pain to pleasure will be so great that we’ll then go back in the fridge, eating that piece of chocolate cake, saying, “I’ll start one day.”

Before, when we felt stressed, we’ve suppressed the emotion back down into our subconscious usually by distraction techniques like drinking, maybe spending money we haven’t got on our credit cards potentially, staying up too late, playing video games, all these types of things, our distractions are really from the real feelings that are actually going on in that experience.

And so, what this process does is it takes us from what I call resisting the experience into feeling. And when we do that, we go into a state of allowing. When we go into a state of allowing, that is the only place where healing and letting go can happen. So, when we’re in resistance, it’s not possible because we are literally pushing something and resisting something, and we haven’t got the space for something to move. But when we shift that into a state of allowing, it allows it to go, it allows it go move on and be set free.

And so, this simple, simple exercise, the power in it is because the person, for the first time, is taking out resistance into a state of allowing. And when they do that, they’re allowed to freely let go of the suppressed emotion, the anger, the guilt, the fear, whatever it may be. They’re allowed to honor it, feel it, and let it go.

We’ve been taught, most of us, from childhood that negative emotions are not good. I was told when I was younger, you know, “Come on, Kirsty, please stop. You’ll be fine,” if I was upset about something. And it wasn’t that my parents were being awful. It was that they thought they were doing the right thing, but the truth was that I immediately learned from a very young child that it wasn’t good to show being upset because I felt like I hadn’t done something right or it wasn’t good to feel angry.

And so, what I learned was to push these emotions down. And we’ve all done it. And the reason for that is because the way that the brain has been designed is that between about the age of two and the age of seven is our brainwaves are in this like Theta state, which is the imaginary state.

It’s also the time called the hypnotic stage as well. And the hypnotic stage of the brain is when we download programs. So, we download how to survive, we download how to be in the world, we download how to interact with each other, we download our parents’ belief systems, we download at school what’s right and what’s wrong. And the majority of it is really good stuff, and it teaches us how to be adults. The problem is that there are certain things that are slightly dodgy and don’t serve us.

So, for example, well, the one that money doesn’t grow on trees. And so, what happens, we download these pros and cons, and suddenly, at the age of seven, our brainwaves change, and we go into Beta state which is what you and I are in now. The fundamental shift with that is that now we only can learn through repetition, right? So, what happens is when we have a stressful experience, the brain, being designed to keep you alive, so what it does is it takes that experience, and if it could speak, it would say something like, “Can little Johnny, right now, deal with this stress? No, he can’t,” so it takes that emotion and it would push it into your subconscious mind.

And I always described it a little bit like before like we’ve all got this rucksack on our back, which is invisible, but we carry in our life, and every time we go through something really stressful, we chuck a bit of it into this bag. Now, as I said too early, your mind and body are completely connected, and so this bag is large but it’s not infinite. And so, at some point, it gets so full it starts to overflow. And when it starts to overflow, it offloads from the mind into the body and starts manifesting as stress and anxiety and depression and migraines. And so, all we’re doing when we’re doing this exercise is we’re not just dealing with the actual stress at the moment. We’re actually starting to release some of that out of our bag.

So, when we start feel, deal, and dumping, we’re letting go of some of this unnecessary stuff that we have just dragged through our whole entire life. And so, what I love about this technique, the feel, deal, and the dump, is that it is so simple, and it’s probably likely you’re going to have to do it more than once because you’ve got a lifetime of stuff, but that’s okay. And what I suggest to people is if you are feeling really stressed, you are feeling really anxious, then just keep doing this exercise over and over again, and you will get some relief, I promise you. And if you’re struggling, then reach out. Reach out and have a chat because I’d love to help you.

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

Kirsty Bortoft
Shall I tell you about my book that’s coming out in two weeks?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing.

Kirsty Bortoft
So, Break Free from Pain, it’s my first book, so I’m really excited. It’s more like a guide to help people with physical, emotional, and mental pain. And it’s a step-by-step handhold process to be able to really support you and ensuring that you can live an empowered life rather than a stressful life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now can you share with us a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kirsty Bortoft
I’m a massive, massive fan of a number of different scientists but especially newer scientists. My favorites are Joe Dispenza, I love him, he’s amazing and his publications on the mind. And, also, I just love Biology of Beliefs, which is another book. I also love David Hawkins, and his work is incredible. And, unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago, but his work, he’s got a fantastic book called Letting Go which I would say is my go-to book. And he’s also done lots and lots of studies on consciousness and the mind, and I just think he’s phenomenal. So, his work and publications, I would recommend over and over again.

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

Kirsty Bortoft
Meditation, I guess, is the first thing that came into my head. But I would also say that it’s not just meditation. I’m a massive fan of daily rituals. So, every morning, I feel like the first hour or two has got to be about inputting back into the soul. So, for me, I get up and I do meditate, but I also move my body a little bit. I also ensure that I have some good nutrition. And I also make sure that I set a really positive intention for not just the day but just for my life. And I think that that makes a massive impact on how I feel for the rest of the day.

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

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah. All my clients know what I’m like. And one of the things I would say is I just think that the first couple of hours of your day really set up the rest of your day. So, if you get up and you are consciously inputting positive expansive things into your experience, what happens is I feel like I go out into the day and so, obviously, real life still happens, but I feel like I can deal with it. It doesn’t get to me. It’s, again, about making a conscious decision about the meaning I’m giving things. And how I do that is by these daily rituals. And I guess another thing I throw in there is back to the old gratitude as well because it’s such a superpower, and I think so underused.

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

Kirsty Bortoft
So, come and get in touch definitely at www.Kirsty-Bortoft.com and you can email me at hello@kirsty-bortoft.com. I’m on YouTube which is the Mindset Coach at Kirsty Bortoft, or you can find under the same name on Facebook or Twitter, Kirsty Bortoft. And if you want the spelling of that, I don’t know whether I need to spell that really slowly, or whether it will be somewhere on here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, it will be on the show notes but B-O-R-T-O-F-T, and Kirsty not Kristy for the…with a K. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Kirsty Bortoft
Yeah, I just think that it’s got to come back to that we, as human beings, are so powerful and we give away our powers way too easily, and I think that the action here is tomorrow when you wake up, is just remind yourself that you have the choice of where you put your attention firstly and the meaning you give things. So, don’t give that power away because anything is possible. And, honestly, you sincerely are in control of your destiny when you do that. So, just make sure that you live your best version by putting that first.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kirsty, it’s been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all your adventures.

Kirsty Bortoft
Thank you so much.

615: How to Build Laser Focus in an Age of Endless Distractions with Curt Steinhorst

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Curt Steinhorst says: "Distraction at its core is confusion about what matters."

Curt Steinhorst reveals why we often struggle to take control of our attention—and what we can do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Surprising statistics that illustrate our level of distraction 
  2. The essential keys to accessing flow state
  3. How to improve your focus in three steps 

About Curt

Curt Steinhorst is the author of the bestselling book Can I Have Your Attention?, an expert on focus and distraction, and a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. 

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges in keeping the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. Through Focuswise, the company Curt founded to help teams solve the problem of chronic distraction, Curt and his team apply the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s world. 

He coaches founders and CEOs of multi-billion-dollar brands on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers. His worldwide speeches and training have helped thousands gain the wisdom and practical habits to better manage their focus and put it on the things that really matter in life and work. Clients include Southwest Airlines, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, NIKE, and SAP, just to name a few. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Hydrant. Hydrate all the more effectively, efficiently, and deliciously! Listeners save 25% at drinkhydrant.com/awesome. 

     

Curt Steinhorst Interview Transcript

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’m excited to be here, Pete. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and much of it is captured in your book Can I Have Your Attention? But, I understand, when it comes to you reading books, you love fantasy novels. What’s the story here?

Curt Steinhorst
I’m a nerd, really. No. So, I have always enjoyed this weird genre that is fantasy novels, and then Game of Thrones came out and revealed to the rest of the world that it’s not all Bilbo Baggins. Honestly, I have this part of my world where I work really hard, and then focus on the research, and what’s happening in trends in the markets, and workplace trends. And then I have this other side where I want to turn off my brain, and I want to just think about a world that’s not here. And so, fantasy novels are really awesome for that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then, tell me, what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel per se? And what do you think is, like, the core stuff of it that makes it so engaging for folks, such that some of them are like 12-plus books deep in a series, and folks read them all cover to cover, front to getting to the end? What is it that glues people like yourself?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think it’s the same thing, I think, that makes anyone love any great story. And, officially, fantasy novels take place more in the medieval times where there’s swords and then there’s some form of magic, which sounds super nerdy. My wife thinks that I’m crazy to love it. But what makes them powerful is really great characters that have complex challenges.

And it turns out, when you release some of the great creatives in the world to not have to be constrained by the same parameters that are our world is constrained by, what you find is that people are really, really great at imagining things that are fascinating, and interesting, and make you think you enjoy the story just like you would any great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is cool. And I think that I am thinking about sort of the hero’s journey stuff, it really seems like that is just…like, fantasy just plays into that dead-on it seems, but from my limited experience.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s funny. If you’re looking for something that’s fun and that is a healthy escape, they’re really just incredible stories. So, I didn’t know I was going to promote fantasy novels, but there are some great ones out there. The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, these are just some of the best novels out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a few people know that the very first guest on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, Mawi Asgedom, he’s famous for a lot of sort of social and emotional skills development and communication things, but he also wrote a fantasy novel for The Fifth Harmony, The Third Harmony? oh, don’t tell him.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m going to have to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, anyway, we’re talking about how fantasy novels have done an amazing job of capturing people’s attention for long stretches, but I understand that the world of focus and attention, here and now, Curt, isn’t so rosy. We are besieged by distraction. Can you paint a picture for just how bad it is right now?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, there’s two levels of bad news on this front. And one is what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade, which is this assault on our attention in, literally, endless ways. So, on average, you have 4,000 to 7,000 advertisements put in front of your face every single day, and $375 billion will be spent to get your attention. And, of course, there’s no safe place because the technology, it allows us to go anywhere and be reached.

And so, we get a lot of stuff for free, which is exciting, at Facebook and Yelp! and Google. And then we fail to realize that they’re actually charging us, and they’re charging us and our attention. And so, the challenge is that it doesn’t stay with us just when we’re at home or at any place. It really comes into work, and we end up in a situation where the volume of messages coming at us, the number of meetings that we’re expected to attend, the people outside of work who can reach us, put us in a place where we’re going back and checking our phones 150 times a day.

We, on average, stay on the same screen for 40 seconds at a time when at work. And if you have Slack or you have Microsoft Teams on a second screen, that number goes down to 35 seconds. So, needless to say, we’re really, really good at flipping based on all that’s coming at us. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that will keep us from being able to do what we need to do to be able to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, I love you dropped those numbers. It shows you’re a man who’s done your research, and that’s why we hunted you down. So, I’m excited to dig into all the more goodness here. So, that’s striking, 4,000 to 7,000 advertising messages every day, 150 times a day phone picks up, and 40 seconds average time. Yeah, that paints a picture in terms of attention and focus being scattered all over the place. And it’s tough.

I remember, so right now, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is pretty hot, and I enjoyed it. I think there are some good truths to be gleaned from it. So, the term that really struck me is that we refer to our phone as a digital pacifier that we pick up whenever we’re the slightest bit uncomfortable, like, “I’m a little bored.” And that kind of spooked me a bit, like, “Ugh, I guess I kind of do do that. And I’d like to…” Do-do, pacifiers. I’ve got toddlers.

So, what’s the consequence of this? It’s a lot. A lot of phone pickups, a lot of advertising messages, a very short window in which we’re kind of looking at our screen, but is that fine, Curt? Is that, “Hey, man, life in 2020”?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And The Social Dilemma did do a really great job of exposing some of the challenges, specifically, the adversarial technology, meaning technology that has different interests than we have, can have on us individually, and even deeper on society. I think the core challenge that we face, and there’s all sorts of quantifiable ways at work that we can show, the financial implications, the engagement implications, the tendency that people have to do less work and feel more overwhelmed.

But I think the core challenge, and what I really appreciated about The Social Dilemma is it spotlighted that we are losing control of what actually shapes and defines every single thing about our future, which is what gets our attention, what keeps our attention, how do we take control of our attention. And so, I think that’s the core consequence because you lose control of your own attention, and you lose control of everything.

Pete Mockaitis
You lose control of your attention; you lose control of everything. Yeah, I buy that, because instead of getting the results and outcomes that you really want and care about are important too, which would come from dedicated devotion of your attention to those pursuits, you sort of get whatever the algorithms have determined you should care about, and you get hooked into.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. The analogy that I would use is that we are in an ocean which has become a perfect storm. The pandemic, of course, just added an entirely new dimension, and we’re not going to be able to get out of that. And I think, so often, what we see when people immediately hear, “Oh, you think about focus and attention and distraction. Oh, I feel bad. I’m on my device when I shouldn’t be.” And it’s like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology, being distracted isn’t being on your phone.

In fact, I was walking through an airport, and someone had heard me speak, and they walked up. I was texting my wife while walking to the gate, and they said, “Hey, aren’t you the distraction expert? Caught you. You’re distracted.” I was like, “You nailed it. I am distracted by you. You are distracting me.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, I was crafting a beautiful note to my bride.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, exactly. So, distraction at its core is confusion about what matters. And we’re living in a world where we’re increasingly confused because there are so many things screaming “This matters.” And so, we end up like a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean with no control rather than having the toolset to navigate within the world we live in to still assert control and, therefore, have the ability to get to a particular place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us, how do we pull that off? You zero in on four key elements that affect focus. Is that where we should start? Or how do you want to tee us up?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think the number one place to start is just by actually realizing that time is not your most valuable resource. Your most valuable resource is your attention. And so, I know that seems like, “Okay, we’ve already talked about that.” But how often do people really think about, “What’s getting our attention?” Like, when you woke up this morning, not, “What did you do?” Maybe you went on a jog. But it’s, “What did you think about?” Or maybe I’m optimistic, maybe you thought about your attention was, “I need to do a job,” but you didn’t do it.

So, it’s the thing that fascinates me at its core is like, “How do those decisions get made?” because I think where most people naturally go when they hear, “I’m distracted,” or they feel like they’re inefficient, they need to be more productive, which are downstream effects of being able to manage our own attention, being able to focus, is they go towards things, lifehacking tricks, that, for me at least, when I started this journey into the research over a decade ago, they worked great for me tomorrow but, at the time, they didn’t work at all. And it’s like, I just kept having perfect advice that I couldn’t execute on.

And so, the reasoning for that is because we actually don’t understand what human attention is for, and what we’re able to do and not do. And so, I would start by saying, like, “I’m going to value my attention and know that everything comes from that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, okay, so that point about those hacks, they work great for you tomorrow, by that do you mean you don’t yet have the fundamental core in place such that those can amplify your effectiveness, and it’s sort of like the cart-before-the-horse type situation?

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. We will seek quick tips which, by the way, are super helpful. They’re really important. I’m going to give several that I think are important. But we do it without really understanding, like, “What is it that’s driving underneath this? What is it that keeps me from actually doing those things?” So, there’s no strings, there’s no endless amounts of things that we can do. Bundle your email. Don’t check your email all the time. But people still do it. And I think the thing that I would say is, “Okay, so let’s change the equation to really understand, like, how I make decisions about my attention.”

And so, a couple huge mistakes. Number one, people don’t understand that their attention is always going to be driven by social influence, meaning other people, what they pay attention to. Like, I could be perfectly focused but if the person sitting next to me has different ambitions then I’m never going to get my work done. So, like, we have to say, “Okay, how do I change the equation in such that it doesn’t cost me more attention than I have when I’m trying to find ways to create more space so I can focus on what matters?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge. And, like, you really have to be in a pretty hardcore sense of isolation for those effects to not matter much. I think I’m just lying to myself, when it’s like, “No, no, no, this is my objective, and I’ve determined it, and this is the schedule. And, thus, this is what shall be.” But, in practice, no, my dear wife or advertiser or somebody needs something now, and here we are.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And maybe if I were to say it’s really simply, often the great suggestions and strategies that we try to incorporate, they cost us the very thing we have the least of. So, like, “I’m going to implement a new project management system. I’m going to change the way I do my morning every morning. I’m going to do a gratitude journal. I’m going to do all of these things.” But the reason that we can’t is because we’re tired, and it’s because we have a lot on our plates, and it’s because that takes work. So, it’s like, maybe let’s think about how we do this in a way that we can actually get it done with our attention in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s get right into the core then, and it might take a while but I think it’s well worth it. So, you’re pointing to something bigger than the tips, and the tricks, and the hacks, and the strategies, and the tactics, to kind of fundamentally how do we go about determining what gets our attention? And I guess, for many of us, the answer is probably like, “I don’t know/It’s not that clearly defined.” So, lay it on us, like, how do we do that? Like, what are the main maybe archetypes, or modes, or flavors by which this happens?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And this is where it gets really fun, and there’s a lot of different frameworks that we can use but I’ll use a really simple one. You have two systems of attention in your brain, and one system of attention is more based out of your right hemisphere, and we would call it bottom-up, or right hemisphere attention. It’s complex. This isn’t the same as right brain, left brain pseudo-science. Then there’s another system of attention that is more top-down is what it’s called, and it’s more based in the left hemisphere.

And so, the right hemisphere is the baseline system of attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Right now, there’s literally endless things that are screaming for your attention. Like, you could be paying attention to this podcast, you could be paying attention to the football game that’s on, whatever, you have endless options.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hot in here.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s hot. Exactly. And we flip. We’re constantly flipping. But most of it, it hits the right hemisphere first, and what you’re looking for is two things, “Is that thing going to kill me?” So, I am, primarily, like anytime, something is perceived as acutely threatening. Meaning, “Whatever that is could hurt me, I will focus on it,” and that’s when it flips into the other hemisphere, and we give nothing else our attention. Everything else disappears.

And so, the first thing is pain, fear, anxiety. Now, why it’s really important to realize this, is because this is exactly what makes technology so complicated because technology brings things that are far away and makes it feel right here. And so, all of a sudden, we can spend our whole day saying we want to get more work done, we want to get focused. Well, what inputs are coming your way that make everything feel extremely threatening?

There was a fascinating research that was done after the Boston Marathon bombing, and they looked at the stress and trauma levels of people that were at the scene of the crime, of this tragedy. Then they compared it to people who consumed media about it. And the acute stress levels were higher in those that were watching it than those that were there.

And so, that tells us, like when technology brings something to us, we perceive it wrongly, so our attention is always going to go towards stress. And the other thing, and I’ll pause after this one when it comes to our right hemisphere, is then we’re also wired to seek out new fun things, things that our past have said, “That is interesting. Every time I go there, it feels good,” or, “I have no idea what that is.” It’s new, it’s interesting, that’s why I’m always like, “What else could be on Twitter? What else could be here?” because you’re wired to explore. Your brain is made to go in search of things that are interesting.

So, that’s the foundation for what drives our attention, “Is it interesting? Is it threatening?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Interesting. Threatening. Nice summary. So, when you say bottom-up, you mean in terms of just like there’s a stimulus, and, “Brrp,” as opposed to, “Here’s my masterplan, and I am enacting it.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. Yeah, it starts in the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, that’s handy there in terms of threats, pain, fear, anxiety, and the novelty. And, well, I guess that’s why the news can really suck you in because it’s always new. By the definition, it’s the news. This is something that has happened recently that you probably are not aware of because it’s all across the world. And, by the way, it could be threatening you in terms of if the election outcome you find to be threatening, one way or the other, or COVID, or any number of natural disasters, or economic crisis. Yeah, that’s a real potent double whammy there. The news hits you both.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And we’re seeing like a 79% increase in the amount of time people are spending checking news through digital channels. And so, like, why is this so important? Because we pay attention to what matters the most at any moment, and we say, “How do I get more work done? How I get more focused?” Maybe not a lifehack, it’s more of saying, “Okay. Well, you’re not going to focus on something that has to do with work if you don’t know that it matters a ton, and you don’t block out, you don’t spend less time on the threats that are far away that can be perceived really closely.” So, that’s kind of a step one, easy way to think about practical implications of attention science.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, that makes sense in terms of fundamentally, principally, that’s what’s up in terms of, like, biochemistry, evolution, the human condition, yeah, here we are, we’ve got some predispositions to go that way.

Curt Steinhorst
I can give you a few more layers because, clearly, we’re not monkeys, we’re not cows. I mean, cows, they eat the grass because it tastes good, they have an associated reward, and they run away from wolves. Like, that’s what they do. We’re not just that. So, that’s where the other system comes in. The other system of attention, it allows us to say, “I’m going to ignore that, that interesting thing, right now that doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on something unilaterally.” This is the type of work people really want when they say, “I want to get focused.”

And some would say the ultimate state of that type of focus is what’s called flow. Now, what happens there is that when we have our attention prioritized by the left hemisphere, the things that are unfamiliar, literally, you don’t see it anymore, you don’t hear it anymore. It all disappears. Like, you can zoom in for periods of time, and it can be extended.

And there’s ways we can increase and decrease our capacity but, ultimately, we do those things when it’s challenging, it demands something from us, when the barriers to other fun things that give us a reward are not available, meaning, “I need to work on a research project for a bank that I’m working with right now, but I also would love to see what my Fantasy Football team is doing. Like, I’ll do the easier thing,” and when we see that we can make real progress towards it. Like, I feel some level of mastery.

If it’s just a list of tasks, then it’s not satiating. Like, we can’t make our attention go to things that are boring and uninteresting. They have to be challenging and interesting, new and interesting, threatening and interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, run that by us again. So, we got the mastery, we’ve got barriers to easier fun things. And what else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so it has to be challenging, meaning it has to demand enough of our brain that we won’t drift off. Like, boredom is the number one reason people leave jobs, like it doesn’t take enough, “Any machine can do this.” So, challenging, “This is hard.” It has to involve something that we see ourselves becoming an expert. Mastery, like, “By working on how to ride a bike, I’m going to be, like I can do that.” “By becoming a financial advisor by learning the markets, I’m going to be the expert in the markets.” Whatever it is. We have to see that connection. And then we have to have things that are fun, not available to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is. All right. So, given that, let’s say we want to, at the very core, primal, fundamental level, focus in on something. What should we do?

Curt Steinhorst
So, start with space, decide where you’re going to do it, that’s really important. The largest neural connection between short-term and long-term memory is space, meaning, I walk into a place, and it says, my brain is cued to say, “This is what I’m supposed to do here.” So, we want to let our space work for us. Like, if I asked everyone, “Where were you when you heard about what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?” Everyone remembers where they were.

And so, I would say if I want to zero in on something, I got to pick a place that the noise isn’t too loud. It doesn’t mean…coffee shops can be really great for this, by the way, for a different reason, but, “I’m going to pick this place as where I’m going to work and the other stuff isn’t available.” Like, we call it going into a vault, “That I’m going to…my phone isn’t going to be as available, my people are going to know I’m not available, this is where I do that.” So, space is the first thing I would always tackle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, I like that metaphor going into a vault, which really…I’m thinking about Fortnite’s The Vault. It’s a huge iron enclosure with a big old dial, like, “Boom! We’re going in there,” and it’s secure, like you can put lots of gold bars in this vault.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good and clear in terms of others know, like, “Hey, I’m not to be disturbed right now.” Ideally, your phone is off or distant, you’re left in another location, and there could be any number of distractions not available to you. Like, the fridge is not there. Well, lay it on us, like what are best practices for vaulting?

Curt Steinhorst
And it depends on the type of work truly. Like, number one practice is clear barriers to entry in and out. Like, that’s the simple way to think of it. I use noise-cancelling headphones because it’s the random unexpected that you’re like, “Oh, that would be interesting.” Your line of sight is the next thing I would do. Turn off the background noise or put on classical music, and then make sure that what I see in front of me isn’t stuff that would make me want to do it instead.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a PlayStation.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, like a PlayStation.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t have that thing.

Curt Steinhorst
Like, a TV. That’s right. Or, you’re in an open office, we’ll come back there eventually, and you work in the same space with someone you know. Like, we’re social, like, “I’d rather talk to them than do this.” So, we just remove, change our line of sight. Those are kind of the big areas that I would be thinking about. And then, from there, I think it really comes down to if you’re wanting to do more creative work than having the ability to see outside is really valuable. Like, the more distant the horizon is, it actually shows that it allows you to think more creatively. If you’re wanting to knock out an Excel spreadsheet, then it’s actually tighter rooms where the blinders are on are more helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ve got HGTV scenes running through my head right now in terms of they’re just running spaces for purposes, and it’s not just really stuff for designers to charge more. It has a huge impact in how well you’re able to accomplish whatever you care to accomplish in that space, whether that’s make food, or sleep, or crank out work.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And I would say, okay, if you’re having to work from home, we need to move…once we hit a certain threshold, we get bored, we have to go somewhere else. So, it’s like just match the space to the task. If it’s cranking out a bunch of emails, or responding to quick messages, or just whatever work you’re doing that’s quick and easy, that you can bundle together, that doesn’t require tons of focus, do it wherever. But that work, that by being interrupted, you lose significantly in time and quality, and you know what that is that demands your full attention, just pick a place where that’s all you do. Like, that is the place where the hard work gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot. Okay. So, we talked about a vault. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so space first. And then the next piece I would say is like creating the clarity and removing the stuff that clutters your mind that you also feel like you have to get done. So, for instance, the number one predictor of how often you self-interrupt is how many people interrupted you the previous hour. Think of how often you’re interrupted because anytime you’re interrupted, someone is saying, “You should be paying attention to something else. There’s something else that you’re missing.”

And so, it’s really hard to say, “I’m going to focus on this,“ when your list of things that are on your mind that you know you have to get to is really long. And so, we start a couple really, really easy ways to solve this and make it easier on your brain is, number one, starting with, this is in every meeting, is, “What’s competing for your attention?” I’ll start by just doing a dump, a brain dump, anything that’s like, “Oh, I get to this. Oh, I got to do this. I got to do this.” And that’s why it’s really good at the beginning of the day kind of plan out your day by saying, “These are the things I have to get done. These are the things I could get done.” So, I start just by offloading everything.

And then the next really important piece, if you want to do focused work that’s in the vault, is you have to match the time to the task. So, you matched the space to the task, now you match the time. You schedule out, you say, “This is going to take me 45 minutes, and all the stuff that I have to do that I know is important, I’ve scheduled it. Like, I’ve given the time that is necessary for it so then I’m not burdened by, ‘What else I haven’t gotten to?’ I’m aware that there’s time allotted for it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge in terms of you can just rest easy knowing that that has a place and it’s going to get handled, as opposed to, “Might this not get done and calamity ensue? I hope not.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And the other problem is I’ve had this, clearly, a client will say, “Well, if I look at my calendar, like there’s still all this stuff I can’t get done so I end up putting 15-minute increments for things to even out.” Okay, great. Well, then you know on the frontend, and you got to either dump it or delegate it. You got to trash it so that, at least at the end of the day, you have permission to be successful.

If your day is scheduled at such a level that it’s going to come apart at the seams at some point, that’s the fastest route to get to less of it. Like, when you’re overwhelmed, what do we do? Like, what do you when you’re already feeling guilty, and like, “Aargh, this is the worst”? We watch funny cat videos, like that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s weird, huh?

Curt Steinhorst
We escape it completely because we want to alleviate that feeling of disappointment, shame, regret.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Curt Steinhorst
So, when it comes to changing that equation, you move from just a to-do list to a prioritized to-do list, and you then move from a prioritized to-do list to a calendared-timestamped approach. Let your calendar be your home screen, and let that guide what you work on, and that changes. I would say, most people have not implemented that. In my work, and if you just did that, you get probably 80% improvement, like you get a long way.

Now, there’s one problem that I have to mention on this, and it’s one of the reasons that people often struggle with this, is that it turns out people are really unreliable when it’s not what they want to do. And so, it’s like, okay, let’s put some breathers in here, and say, “I’m not a robot. At 4:00 p.m., if I put that huge project that I’ve been delaying, odds are I’m probably not going to want to do it right then.”

And so, I would just say, make sure you put the stuff that you hate the most at the times when you’re most mentally strong, which usually is more in the morning for most people. And, secondly, if you’re someone who really struggles with this, just put some gaps where you have like three different things, and let yourself choose which one you want to work on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good because I think that some resistance to this idea is like, “Oh, but then I feel boxed in.” Well, it’s sort of like, “Well, in some ways that’s sort of the point. You need a box in order to accomplish the thing that really matters that isn’t getting accomplished.” But, in other ways, hey, if it is flexible, like one task is not truly way more important than another, then, okay, game on. We can have some flexibility there.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, you’re wired to explore. You’re creative. You do the unexpected. This is what makes us actually better than machines. Machines are always going to be more efficient than us. So, I just think rather than really being frustrated with yourself, you just say, “How do we put that natural curiosity, and interest in the unexpected, how do we put it to good use rather make it end up being debilitating so that we end up nowhere?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is beautiful. So, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the time. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Then we got the people. Yeah, the people. In the work I do, this is perhaps the most underutilized piece of the equation, that when we look at it, organizations, if you work in a company, they want you to be productive. But then we put in systems, and we create culture, and we have teams that all but ensure it will never happen. And so, it’s like there’s 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week right now from before when COVID started.

Pete Mockaitis
Before COVID, okay.

Curt Steinhorst
From March until now, we’re seeing a 55% increase. I created this really fun program with Nike called The Focus Fit Challenge. It a four-week thinking of focus as a skill to develop. And we were looking at this team, and it turns out like seven hours of meetings makes it really unlikely that you’re going to be able to do anything else really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Curt Steinhorst
And so, yeah, I would say the next thing is to say, “Who steals my attention? Or, who needs my attention? And how do I have a conversation that says…?” because no one benefits from your partial attention. But the reason we all want each other’s attention is because attention is given to what matters, it says we matter. And it also helps other people help us know what matters.

And so, I would just say look at the people who are most likely to want to interrupt you, to want to take it from you, to deserve your attention, and set up some ground rules that says, “During this time, I’m not going to be available at all. During this time, I’m going to be only available to you, and let’s figure out what that needs to look like,” so that now you have advocates for people that previously would’ve been frustrated because it was only going to take a second. It’s like, sure, if we warp the space-time continuum, it’ll only take a second, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s great. And then that can feel really good. And I guess that sort of gets to all of this, is that it’s kind about getting really real early instead of late in terms of like you’re not overscheduling, then the day comes apart at the seams, we feel like a loser, failure, because you ruined it. And not with people telling them, “You get this much time, or you don’t get this much time,” and then either disappointing them or you not following through. It’s like you’re making the calls in advance in terms of, “This is going to happen, this is what’s not going to happen, and I am comfortable and responsible with regard to the consequences of it,” as opposed to, “Well, I hope I can make maybe get lucky and get it all done. Let’s see what happens.”

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, that’s right. When we look and we see how people are feeling about work, there’s been an over 31% increase in burnout during this period, even though at the beginning we’ve got a lot of things cleared from our plates. There’s been this 48% increase in team chats, and it makes sense. It really does. Like, “If we can’t see you, then we want to hear from you more often.” But what’s happening is we’re creating a culture where responsiveness is everyone’s highest responsibility, and then we see and we wonder why this engagement occurs, frustration occurs, people feel like there’s less work-life balance, they can’t unplug. Home relationships suffer. At work, relationships are not being built because we’re dislocated.

And so, all I would just say is it’s about being proactive in this but it’s about really giving yourself permission to succeed. Like, this is the challenges when we react and don’t set clear agreed-upon expectations. What we end up doing is we allow the unspoken expectations of others to drive us, and then we actually teach them what they should expect. And so now, we’re emailing immediately back, and now they’re frustrated if we don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Curt Steinhorst
So, if you reliably don’t respond to emails for a day, like the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, then guess what? No one expects it. Now, I understand some are like, “Tell my boss this.” Right. Let’s start with all the other relationships you have a little more power over, setting some healthier boundaries, and then we can have a conversation with your boss about saying, “I want to do this really well. Can we set some rules around how I know when I’m allowed to do the uninterrupted work?” You know what I mean? So, let’s start with the people that we care about, and just say, “Let’s figure this out together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Or, even just yourself in terms of, ‘No, 7:15 to 7:45, I’m not looking at any devices. I’m taking a shower, I’m journaling, whatever.” And then, yeah, start not at the hardest possible boundary to enforce but the easiest.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons we’re like, “I’m not going to do it from 7:15 to 7:45.” Look, if the alternative, if you’re going to stop looking at your phone while you sit on the couch and watch TV, or the rule becomes about constraint, rather than saying, like, “What’s this replacing?” So, make sure that if you’re going to set ground rules, make it because there’s something better. You know what I mean?

It’s like, “From 7:15 to 7:45, we’re going to have a fun high-low day to talk about that,” or, “I’m going to take my kids on a wagon ride.” Like, have something proactive, and then before you get into it, mind a gap. Like, give yourself a gap that says, “I’ve just looked at everything in the world, nothing needs my attention now. And now I’m going to actually give myself permission to just be here.” It’s like close up before so you know nothing matters, and then do something fun, do something that does matter with that time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect. Well, Curt, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of diagnosing what’s going on here and why we find ourselves in this spot, and what are some things we can do. Lay it on us, you’ve shared this wisdom with many people. I’m sure some have adopted it to tremendous effect, and many others have done nothing. Why? What’s sort of like the holdup, the roadblock, the mistake, the thing that you could help us overpower so that we’re in the group that transforms?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that would drive our inability to see real progress here. One is that we actually don’t know why we’re doing it. And the point of efficiency and boundaries around these things always has to be founded in something worth focusing on. And so, people aren’t going to just be more efficient and productive if the end is just more efficiency and productivity, and climbing a ladder without a picture of where they’re headed. And so, I would say the biggest thing is like know what you’re devoting this extra uninterrupted energy to, and know that it’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Curt, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, I would just say focus is possible but make the goal not to be an efficient machine. Make the goal instead to eliminate all the stuff that waste your time, distracts you, so that you can actually have a chance to really thrive in this moment. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and so I’m all too familiar with distraction. And what doesn’t help us is an unrealistic expectation towards efficiency without a realization that we’re all capable of focus when we know what matters.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, my favorite quote is “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are,” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Well, I already mentioned the Boston Marathon research. I‘ve been using that. I think that’s really, really interesting and fascinating. The interesting study out of Michigan State talks about how walking through nature actually restores your attention. It’s called Attention Restoration Theory. And I’m really fascinated by how subtle amounts of background noise actually increase our ability to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I can’t let that go. If I wanted to get me some of that, what do you recommend I do for my subtle amounts of background noise?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, the coffee shop, subtle background noise there. I would say the key is if you can get outdoors and into actual nature, that’s the number one thing you want to do. If you can’t, having the feeling of movement is good. You just don’t want it to be people that you know. So, you want to go places where the noise has a small amount of noise. It creates what’s called the inhibitory spillover. It forces the system in your brain to inhibit, block out everything, so you just kind of want a dull lull in a subtle stimulation through movement that’s in the background. So, coffee shops are actually probably the perfect place to be able to get that.

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

Curt Steinhorst
There’s a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks, that I think is the most entertaining and beautiful narrative on the fullness of human sociology and psychology right now. So, if you want to understand like all that’s out there in a really fun way, that’s the book I’d recommend.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’ve gotten really where I love the tool Notion. And the reason I love Notion is it’s a system that you can build on but it allows for me to have full visibility on all the tasks I need to do, but even deeper. It allows me to have content that gets linked and referenced across so it’s not me having 12 versions of Google Docs. I use databases and things like that to be able to consolidate research and consulting work and strategies into a single place.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Curt Steinhorst
I have a monthly note that is my idea, interesting ideas and thoughts. And so, I actually used to use Evernote, now I switched to Notion. And anything I’m thinking about, like, “Oh, gosh, that podcast. I really want to watch that podcast, or someone recommended an article, or a quote I came across, or I should use one kind of sunscreen versus another,” like anything. Rather than trying to file it, I throw it all in a single note, and then once a month I do a full review. Even when I read articles, I’ll keep the whole article if it’s for my space but if it’s not, I’ll just pull out the quotes and link it so that, at the very least, if it’s something I found interesting, I will review it twice. And then I’ll file it wherever it belongs later, but I feel no pressure. I just dump it in a single spot.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I think, I guess, the thing I see on Twitter more than anything is the very basic, that your attention is the most limited, valuable, precious, and misunderstood resource. And there’s no greater gift that you can give to someone than your undivided attention.

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

Curt Steinhorst
The website is probably the first place, FocusWise.com. And then, if they want to add an email, my email is CS@FocusWise.com. And then social platforms are complicated but if that’s your cup of tea, LinkedIn is definitely the place that I’m most engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And any final challenges or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Curt Steinhorst
You make some simple changes. Don’t do it by putting more work on your plate. Do it by making your space help you out. And do it by just looking at your time, and saying, “I’m going to divide my time. I’m not going to divide my attention.”

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all the things you’re attending to.

Curt Steinhorst
Hey, this has been my joy. I’m really grateful for the time.

599: How to Break the Habit of Anxiety Using Curiosity with Dr. Jud Brewer

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Dr. Jud Brewer says: "Fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety."

Dr. Jud Brewer discusses how anxiety leads us to form bad habits—and what we can do to make a change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How anxiety takes over—and what we can do about it
  2. Three steps to go from anxious to curious
  3. How to put an end to bad habit loops for good

About Dr. Jud

Jud Brewer, MD PhD is a thought leader in the field of habit change and the science of self-mastery. He is the “executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare,”, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, and an associate professor at Brown’s Schools of Public Health and Medicine. He is the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love, Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Jud Brewer Interview Transcript

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

Judson Brewer
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. One of my favorite pieces I read in your bio is that you’re a thought leader in the science of self-mastery, and I love self-mastery. So, could you kick us off in maybe sharing a surprising or counterintuitive insight when it comes to human beings and achieving self-mastery?

Judson Brewer
Well, just one of the many is that it’s actually less work than we tend to think it is. And, in fact, the more we push often, the more the world pushes back. So, this idea of what we resist, persists. And that also applies to trying to master ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. Thank you. Much to chew on already. Well, specifically, I want to zoom into mastering ourselves in the realm of anxiety. Ooh, there’s a lot of that going around these days. I guess it’s been on the upward trajectory for years, and then worldwide pandemic and lockdowns certainly kicks it up a notch. So, maybe to get on the same page, do you have a working definition of anxiety that we can kind of tether us and anchor us in this discussion?

Judson Brewer
Yeah, I think I have a very simple one. It’s kind of fear of the future basically or relating to worry. And there’s an official definition but I’m terrible at remembering things. But, basically, it’s like worrying about something with an uncertain outcome or something in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then it sounds like we all do some of that and, to some extent, maybe we need to do some of that, and feel free to correct me if I’m off base here. So, I think most of us would like to have less anxiety. But can you maybe share an inspirational story or case study or something? Like, what’s really possible and realistic in terms of the human condition and our relationship to anxiety? And what would be…what’s optimal really look like? And can we get there?

Judson Brewer
I think we can, and my lab has been studying this for a long time, and we actually have some data to back that up. I’ll give you an example from a patient that I’ve been seeing in my clinic. He was referred to me for anxiety and, in fact, when he walked in the door, I didn’t even need to have him utter a word. He looked pretty anxious.

And when I took his history, he reported that he had actually stopped driving on the highway because he had gotten so freaked out just with having thoughts of getting in a car accident when he was on the highway. So, basically, he had full-blown panic disorder, and it went something like this. He would be on the highway, and he would have this thought that would come into his mind that would say, “Oh, you’re in a speeding bullet,” is the way that he put it. And that thought would lead him to get freaked out and anxious, and then his behavior was that he’d basically stopped driving on the highway, and barely even drove on residential streets.

And the result of that was that he would avoid those situations that led to these anxiety-provoking or these panic-provoking moments. Now, not only did he have panic disorder, but he also had what’s described as generalized anxiety disorder where he was basically anxious all the time. It didn’t have to be just when he was on the highway. So, it’s both panic and generalized anxiety disorder.

So, the idea is, and we can walk through how this works, but just to give you this nugget of this case study, we started having him map out how his mind had learned to become anxious. And over time, he got much better. And I can give you a little bit of a cliffhanger there so we’ll talk about how he did as we walk through this.

But one way to think about this, and how I worked with this patient, was to really understand how our minds work. If we don’t know how our minds work, how can we possibly work with them? And, in fact, we have these very basic learning mechanisms, these survival mechanisms. For example, fear is a really helpful mechanism for our survival. If you step out into the street, and you almost get hit by a car, step back onto the sidewalk, you learn, “Oh, look both ways before crossing the street.” So, that’s really helpful.

And there are actually only three elements that are needed to learn something like this. It’s called reward-based learning. You need a trigger, a behavior, and a result. So, the example with this patient, the trigger was he’d have these thoughts, the behavior was that he would avoid driving on the highway, and the result was that he avoided those panic attacks and those panicky feelings. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so, in so doing, you kind of learn, “Okay, that’s the way to go is don’t get on the highway.”

Judson Brewer
Exactly. Exactly. The problem is driving tends to be helpful, especially for folks that don’t have good public transportation systems and whatnot, and these things, these learned anxiety behaviors and worry and things like that, can pigeonhole us into not even leaving our house and being very limited in many ways, let alone feeling anxious throughout the day, which isn’t very good.

So, the way to parse this, and the way that I worked with this patient was to help him see the difference between fear-based learning, like this negative reinforcement, which is reward-based learning, is the difference between that and how that can lead to anxiety. And the difference is that fear is a helpful survival mechanism but it can lead to anxiety when we have the absence of information.

So, think of our old brain, the survival brain, as helping us remember stuff, right? It helps us remember where our food is. It helps us remember where danger is so we can avoid it. Now, on top of this old brain, we’ve layered on this new part of the brain literally the neocortex. And the neocortex helps us think and plan for the future but it needs information in order to do that. It takes past instances and scenarios, it takes current information, and it kind of extrapolates into the future.

But if we don’t have that information, it just starts spinning out in these worry thoughts, like, “Oh, this could happen. Oh, no. Or this could happen, this could happen, this could happen,” because that uncertainty, there are a bunch of different scenarios that pop out. And what that leads to is anxiety. So, fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety. Fear by itself isn’t a problem. Uncertainty by itself isn’t a problem. But when you mix those two together, you get anxiety soup.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so now we zoom into the pandemic right here and now. I’m curious, are we doing some fear-based learning on some particular things? You’re also an expert on habits. Are there maybe some bad habits that we might be fear-based learning and reinforcing right now? What are they?

Judson Brewer
Yes. So, we’re certainly seeing this most prominently, I would say, and I pay attention to addictions and things like that because I’m an addiction psychiatrist. Drinking, for example, in society has gone up a lot. People are stress-eating more, they’re anxiety-eating more. Social media use, especially, people getting glued to their newsfeeds has gone up.

And so, here, with all this uncertainty, there’s more anxiety, and with that anxiety as a trigger, people are going to these things like drinking alcohol to make them feel better, or going to their newsfeeds to try to get information because information itself is kind of food for our brain. It helps us plan for the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, well, yeah, I could see that could be problematic in terms of if you’re eating more than you need to, then you’ll have the risk of becoming more overweight or obese. If you’re drinking more, there are natural consequences. And then the newsfeed, in terms of like addiction to distraction. Yeah, bad news. So, what should we do?

Judson Brewer
Well, the newsfeed, in particular, is kind of like a casino. So, if you think of reward-based learning, and the most potent form of reward-based learning is called intermittent reinforcement. So, think of a casino, and the casinos have dialed in those formula for their slot machines so that the slot machines only pay out at a certain schedule. And that schedule, you don’t know when it’s going to happen, otherwise we’d all win and the casinos wouldn’t make money.

So, they dial it in so that you don’t know when you’re going to win but you win basically randomly. Well, the same is true when people go on the news right now. They check their newsfeed, nothing new, nothing new, nothing new. And then, suddenly, bam, big news article hits. Dopamine spurts in their brain, and they say, “Oh, wow, I should check the news more often.” So, the news right now is just like a slot machine. I just want to highlight that.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny. I’ve been thinking more and more that I should check the news less often because I guess I’m…call it self-awareness or a good week vacation in the nature, but it’s like it so rarely pays off. I guess what I’m looking for is I’d like some hope, “Hey, we got a treatment. We got a vaccine.” I’d like something rich and interesting to tickle my brain, like, “Hmm, I’ve never thought about that situation or that reality for people. And how about that, I’m quite intrigued and fascinated to dig in and learn more.” And I’m satisfied in the sense that I’ve had a pleasant learning. I very rarely get any of that. When I go to the news it’s sort of like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, COVID is still happening, and, yeah, politics are still happening. Okay, I guess I’m all caught up now.”

Judson Brewer
Yes. Well, you’re actually hinting at what we can do about this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, do tell.

Judson Brewer
Yeah, I think of this as a three-step process. The first is understanding how our minds work, right? As I mentioned earlier, if we don’t know how our minds work, we can’t possibly work with them. So, just like my patient, well, I’ll give you an example. So, the patient that I described earlier, the instruction I sent to him home with was to simply map out habit loops around anxiety. Just start there. What are the triggers? What are the behaviors? And what are the results? And once he could start to map these out, then he could start to work with them.

So, for example, he came back, I think it was two weeks later, and he actually looked much happier than when he first came to see me, and he couldn’t wait to tell me something when he sat down in the chair. And I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Oh, I lost 14 pounds.” So, this guy was very, very overweight. And I looked at him kind of puzzled because I was thinking we’re going to talk about anxiety, and he said, “Well, I mapped out these habit loops and I realized anxiety was triggering me to eat, to stress-eat, and that was actually not making me feel any better so I stopped doing it.”

And granted, losing 14 pounds in two weeks is pretty fast, but let’s just say, he had a long way to go, he had a lot of weight to lose. And so, in that case, when he just stopped overeating, he was naturally shedding weight because he was not taking in as many calories as he was burning. Long story short, with his weight, so he was overweight, he was hypertensive because of his obesity, and he also had a fatty liver, and he also had sleep apnea. Within six months, he had lost 100 pounds, and all of those had results. He had normal blood pressure, his liver was back to normal, he didn’t have obstructive sleep apnea anymore.

So, that was the first step, was helping him see what he was doing, what these habits loops were around anxiety. So, that’s first step, map out these habit loops, what’s the trigger was, what’s the behavior was, what’s the results. The second step is to see very, very clearly how rewarding or unrewarding this behavior is. There’s a lot of science, this goes back to the ‘70s, there are these two researchers called Rescorla and Wagner who had this reward value curve where basically what they determined was based on previous rewards, how rewarding a behavior was in the past, you’re more likely to repeat it in the future. If it’s rewarding, you’re going to do it again.

The problem is that we tend to lay down behaviors as habits and we don’t pay attention to the reward value. For example, I work with a lot of people who want to quit smoking. And on average, they start smoking at the age of 13. And, actually, I had a patient who had come to me after 40 years of smoking, so he’d reinforced that habit loop about 300,000 times, and it was just habit for him. So, I told him to start paying attention as he was smoking, to really just notice what it’s like to smoke. And he realizes, smoking actually doesn’t taste very good.

And so, here, it helped him see what the current reward value was for this behavior, not when he was 13 when he was smoking to be cool or rebel or whatever, but right now. And so, that reward value naturally drops. And we’ve actually done studies both with overeating and with smoking, and it takes us few as 10 to 15 times of people actually paying attention when they do these behaviors for that reward value to drop.

Now, that opens the door for what I call the BBO, the bigger, better offer. Our brains are going to look, and say, “Okay, smoking isn’t that great. Overeating isn’t that great. Give me something better.” So, what we have people do is just notice what it’s like to just eat a normal amount of food, or eat healthy food instead of junk food, or not smoke a cigarette, for example. And within these 10 to 15 times, they actually flipped their behavior from overeating to stopping overeating, basically eating a normal amount of food or not eating the junk food because it actually feels better.

And we can even teach them simple things like getting curious about what those sensations in their body feel like that urge them to eat. And that curiosity itself is a more rewarding “behavior,” it’s an internal behavior, than getting caught up in a craving or getting caught up in worry.

I remember working with a patient, we have this app-based mindfulness training for anxiety, actually we did a couple studies where we got close to 60% reduction in these generalized anxiety disorder scales. She talked about when she started to get anxious, just getting curious about that anxiety itself, and that it flipped into, “Oh, curiosity feels better than feeling anxious.” And then it became habitual for her that whenever she notices anxiety starting to come up that she would get curious about it instead, and then the anxiety would go away.

So, that’s really the step two and three once we’ve mapped out these habit loops. Step two is really noticing how unrewarding the old behavior is, which then opens up that gap to find that bigger, better offer. And a bigger, better offer can be awareness itself, curiosity, “Oh, what it’s like when I have an urge to eat? Can I get curious about that? Oh, that curiosity itself feels pretty good.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love it if we could maybe apply that to some bad habits perhaps that professionals have, maybe they’ve picked it up in the midst of the pandemic, or maybe it’s always been there. So, it sounds like I was starting to do some of that with regard to my news habit, like, “Hmm, it seems like the current reward that it’s offering isn’t that great.”

Judson Brewer
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess we’d do the same if you’re checking emails compulsively like 30 times a day, or if you’re in the social media newsfeed. So, can you sort of walk through that process in those contexts? So, you get curious, you sort of notice what it’s doing for you and what it’s not doing for you. And then how might that play out?

Judson Brewer
Yeah. So, how about this? I’ve been seeing a lot of people comment on how they are really struggling with procrastination right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Judson Brewer
So, I’m guessing this can apply to a lot of folks at their jobs, a lot of professionals. So, whether it’s stress or anxiety as that trigger, or even just seeing or thinking about a project that they need to complete, or even looking at their inbox where they see a bunch of emails from their boss that they haven’t responded to yet, right? So, there’s the trigger. It doesn’t feel good so the behavior is to procrastinate. Maybe they go on social media, maybe they do something else, maybe they go for a snack as a way to avoid that unpleasant feeling of actually doing the work. And then the result is they get a brief relief because they’re not thinking about what they should be doing. So, there’s a habit loop around procrastination.

What we can do is help people map out that habit loop and just kind of articulate what’s happening, see what they actually get from it, “So, how does it feel to procrastinate?” Well, in the moment, it might feel a little bit better but, ultimately, they’re further behind on the project. They might feel guilty for going and eating food when they weren’t hungry, or checking out their social media feed, or looking at cute pictures of puppies on Instagram, or whatever it is. And then they realize, “Oh, this isn’t actually that great.”

And then I have them compare what that procrastination habit feels like to actually turning off their email alerts and their phone, and just taking an hour and just doing a deep dive into work. Nobody has ever said to me, “You know, it feels terrible to be focused, it feels terrible to get work done.” It actually feels very good. So, here, just being able to compare what procrastination feels like compared to being focused, helps people shift from that procrastination habit into getting work done.

Now, notice how this didn’t take any willpower. It really just takes the power of observation, awareness, “Oh, what’s this feel like compared to, you know, what is A feel like compared to B?” And if they can see the results of each of those very clearly, their brain does the work for them through this reward valuation system.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Sounds easy. I’m guessing it’s not in practice. Quite so easy of an experience because, at least a few times, you’re still going to feel the urge whether it’s smoking, eating, email checking, even after you’ve sort of observed, and say, “Hmm, you know what, this doesn’t pay off so well. The alternative is better,” you’re still feeling the urge. What do you recommend?

Judson Brewer
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. So, this isn’t to say that this is a magic pill or a perfect fix, especially when those urges feel very uncomfortable. Our natural inclination is to do whatever we can that can make that urge go away the fastest. If it’s an urge to smoke a cigarette, we quickly go out for a smoke break. If it’s an urge to check our social media feeds, social media is set up to decrease the barriers to entry so that we will quickly hop on social media. So, that’s really important to understand is that they’ve basically greased the skids to make it very easy for us to perpetuate these old habits.

Now, so you asked, “So, what can we do?” The key is, even afterwards, after we’ve done something, we can still learn from it. I think of this as these retrospective moments where you can still learn from a behavior if the juice is still there, if you can remember what it felt like to do it. So, let’s say that, we can use procrastination, we can use eating, we can use any of these examples, after we’ve procrastinated, as long as we can link up the behavior and the result of the behavior, and we can feel into what that feels like or what it feels like to even recall what it felt like previously, we can still learn from it.

I think it’s important to highlight that reward-based learning isn’t based on the behavior itself. It’s actually based on the result of the behavior. That’s what drives future behavior. So, the trigger isn’t that important, the behavior itself isn’t as important as how rewarding the behavior is. So, if we can link up that behavior result or that cause and effect relationship, and if we can even do that retrospectively, and we can see, “Oh, when I’d procrastinated, it didn’t actually feel that good,” that can help us learn for the future so that the next time we have an urge to procrastinate, we can just start to bring to mind, “Oh, what was it like last time I did this?” It takes a moment of awareness, a moment of reflection. And the more we can do that, the more that opens that gap between habitual reaction and kind of an aware response. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so then, I guess if we’re trying to establish good habits, it seems like much of that would apply, it’s just that the feeling is a happy positive one. Is there any different suggestion that you’d put forward when it comes to if we’re trying to build up a good habit?

Judson Brewer
The same process applies just as you surmised. One thing I would say is that it’s really important to notice all the nuanced qualities of these good habits. So, for example, I think there’s a societal habit now of divisiveness, of this tribal psychology where it’s so easy to categorize somebody, or get them to categorize themselves as an us-them thing, everything from politicizing, wearing masks, to this and that.

So, we can notice, “What is it like when I feel othered, when somebody says, ‘Oh, you’re wrong, I’m right’?” or when we’re trying to defend a position, for example, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” What does that even feel like as compared to when we’re all working together for a common cause? For example, eradicating a viral infection, just hypothetically speaking. So, here, for these good habits, I think it’s really important to pay attention to what that quality feels like, and my lab is actually studying this right now. We can look at it in simple terms, like, “Does something feel more contracted or closed down versus opened up or expanded?”

So, as a pop quiz, hotshot, let me ask you. What’s it feel like when you are afraid or when you’re anxious? Does it feel more closed down or does it feel more opened up?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s very closed down and it seems like there’s almost only one option.

Judson Brewer
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
This must be the thing that happens now.

Judson Brewer
Yeah, absolutely. And so, it knows us, it focuses us, that’s the survival thing, right? If you’re being chased, your job is to quickly run away as compared to sit back and think about, “What should I do?” So, now compare that to joy. Does joy feel closed down or does it feel opened up?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it feels opened up in the sense that, you know, if I’m really joyful, it’s like, “Oh, I might want to dance or sing or jump on trampoline or give thanks.” There’s many options that feel great.

Judson Brewer
Right. So, there, we can now look at…and my lab has actually done this. If you look at these different categories, so if you look at fear, you look at anger, people tend to categorize these as more closed feelings. If you look at joy, but also look at things like curiosity or connectedness, people report that these feel much more open than these others. Now, if you had to pick, would you rather have something that feels more closed or would you rather have something that feels more open?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, open. Sure.

Judson Brewer
Yeah. So, our brain actually has these already lined up in its natural reward hierarchy. We’d rather do things that feel more open than closed. Now the reason that I bring all this forward is that we can start paying attention to things like, “Well, what’s it like when I’m fighting with somebody on the internet or with a family member? What does that feel like compared to when I’m really listening, like deeply listening, wanting to understand their perspective?” Which ones feel closed? Which ones feels open? And which of those categories actually feels better?

If we simply pay attention to those things, we’ll naturally move toward these “good habits.” I think of connectedness, working together as a good habit. It’s probably the way that we will survive as a species as compared to divisiveness. So, if we look at those and we just pay attention to how does something feel. Does it feel closed versus open? That can actually help lead us in the direction of these good habits simply through paying attention to the results of those behaviors.

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

Judson Brewer
No, I just want to highlight I think of curiosity as a superpower. And I’ll mention this and just kind of bring the circle to a close around the patient that I mentioned at the beginning. So, I talked about how we taught him to pay attention to understand how his mind worked, to notice how unrewarding, for example, stress-eating was, and then what the results of these behaviors were versus different behaviors. He lost 100 pounds.

But, ultimately, over the course of about six months, and I kid you not. I remember walking out of…I was teaching a class at our school of public health at Brown University, which is on South Main Street, and this guy pulls up to the curve in his car and rolls down the window, it’s my patient, and I looked at him kind of confused because this is the guy that was struggling driving anywhere. And he says, “Oh, yeah, I’m an Uber driver now.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Judson Brewer
So, here’s an example when somebody really learns how their mind works, they can really learn to master it and move from overeating to losing a bunch of weight, and move from full-on panic to sort of where they can’t drive to literally becoming an Uber driver.

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

Judson Brewer
One immediately that comes to mind is Dorothy Parker, where she says, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

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

Judson Brewer
I’ll give you one favorite study recently, where there was a group at UCLA where they were studying adolescents who were shown their own Instagram feeds since they were measuring their brain activity as they were viewing their own Instagram feeds. And the only manipulation they made in the study was how many likes each picture got, and so they can look at the difference in brain activity between a bunch of likes and a few likes.

Long story short, they found that when adolescents got a bunch of likes to their Instagram pictures that their reward centers in their brain lit up the nucleus accumbens, which is the same network of brain regions that gets activated with every known drug of abuse, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, tobacco, all these. So, Instagram seems to activate these reward centers and, at the same time, they were activating these self-referential networks, this default network, in particular the posterior cingulate cortex.

And so, the study was one of the first that I know of that actually linked reward and basically thinking about ourselves or something to do with ourselves. And so, I thought that was absolutely fascinating. I wrote about it in my book The Craving Mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I don’t want to say anything negative about “influencers” but sometimes I just get a little bit of that impression that you’re really into yourself, and it’s not so appealing. Now, I understand in some ways it’s a business model, and they’ve got sponsors or whatever, and it’s the game and the business they’re in. But sometimes that just seems to kind of come across, and it sounds like there may be some scientific evidence that it could be a real thing.

Judson Brewer
Yes. And I think people can get lost in it just like any addiction basically. Somebody is so lost in their own persona or whatever, especially if they’re receiving a bunch of rewards, monetary or whatever, that it’s hard to step back and get a greater perspective. I would think of YouTube really should be named MeTube because that’s what it’s all about is getting that one video to go viral.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Judson Brewer
In terms of novels, I think my favorite one is The Art of Racing in the Rain.

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

Judson Brewer
Awareness. Does that count as a tool?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Yeah. And a favorite habit?

Judson Brewer
Being curious.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, when it comes to the habit of being curious, are there particular go-to questions you ask yourself that spark that up and get it going?

Judson Brewer
There’s a particular mantra I use but don’t ask me how to spell it, which is basically “Hmm…” And I like that because it drops me into my direct experience rather than getting lost in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what’s so funny is that it’s like mantra I think is the word for it because almost just like if you sing something or you do a little dance, it’s hard to feel all that bad. Like, the action itself produces an emotional response. And I think “Hmm…” falls right in that same category, so thank you for that.

And how about is there a particular nugget you share that you’re really known for, people quote it back to you frequently?

Judson Brewer
The linking this habit loop to reward-based learning is something that people bring back to me pretty frequently. And the emphasis on curiosity as a superpower is something that I hear reverberating a lot in my teachings.

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

Judson Brewer
I have a website, DrJud.com, and also a YouTube channel, same name DrJud.

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

Judson Brewer
I would say challenge yourselves to step out of your comfort zones and really embrace uncertainty so that we can move into growth zones rather than panic zones.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jud, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best.

Judson Brewer
Thank you. Thanks for having me.