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Mindfulness

389: Recharging Your Career with Beth Benatti Kennedy

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Coach Beth Benatti Kennedy shares actionable ways to recharge your career and beat burnout.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five focus areas for recharging your career
  2. How to use a Purpose Mind Map
  3. A more exciting way to introduce yourself

About Beth

Beth Benatti Kennedy, MS LMFT brings more than twenty years of experience to her role as a leadership and executive coach, resiliency-training expert, and speaker. With an extensive background in career development, she coaches high-potential individuals on how to use their influence strategically, collaborate effectively, and focus on innovation. Her clients include Gillette Company, Nike, Converse, and many others. Her new book, Career Recharge: Five Strategies to boost Resilience and Beat Burnout, was published in October.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Beth Benatti Kennedy Interview Transcript

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your story. I want to start when you were eight years old working at the family moving company. Were you hauling some furniture? What were you doing at eight years old there?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I was one of these kids growing up, my dad came from an entrepreneur family, Steinway Movers. As a little girl I would always – I was always very interested in like whenever the truck would come to our house and asking him a lot of questions and what are you doing Saturday morning because he was definitely a workaholic.

I used to get to on Saturdays go to some of his big jobs. He used to – it’s in New York, so he used to move really big companies. One of them is Pan American airlines when they used to be around, which was one of my favorites. I used to go with him.

He would always bring breakfast for all of the workers, so they would get these fresh New York rolls and soft butter. I would be in charge of making sure they were cut in half because he didn’t want the guys being messy when they’re touching the equipment etcetera, etcetera.

Pete Mockaitis

That is attention to detail.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
No crumbs on the client’s goods.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Exactly, exactly. His trucks were so clean; you could have a picnic on the floor. He is the word passion till – he’s passed away – but was the work passion 100% plus, plus, plus for his career. Anyway, I got to see – that was my job. I’d go around make sure everyone if they needed coffee, would have their coffee and get their rolls.

But I got to do a lot of observing and I got to see a big piece of my model – the Benatti Resiliency model – is connection. A lot of that came from him because he had this gift of connecting with everyone whether it was the gentleman driving the elevator or whether it was the person in the hallway cleaning the garbage. He connected with everyone. It didn’t matter what level you were. I think that was a big, huge part of the success of his business.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, just taking the time to provide the rolls and the coffee is pretty cool. At the times, we’ve had movers just two or three people showed up. It’s like, okay, I guess it’s on. Yeah, a little extra touch.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
These were like giant, giant moves, where they had just like five trucks and lots of men, lots of different directions, so it was super exciting for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so I want to hear a little bit about this model and your book, Career ReCharge. What’s sort of the main thesis here?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I’ve been a leadership coach for 20-something years. I started off as a career coach for the first 10 years. One of the things that I learned being – mostly doing corporate work was that people could – they so wanted to move on with their career or do something different, but what I found was many people were just completely exhausted or burnt out or bored. I had to recharge them so that they had the enthusiasm and the energy to really make that career change.

It’s a model that has developed over the years. That’s where the book came out was actually about four years ago I had a few clients that said you have to share this. I hesitated because it’s really hard being self-employed writing a book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I hesitated the first year and then the second year I really got involved in a very committed program. It was so exciting to share my clients’ stories who really were even fine with me using their name because they really wanted to share the success of the model.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Well, could you give us a success story right now?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Sure, sure. One of my favorites is a gentleman named Eliot, who was an engineer and I coached him many, many years ago. He was – actually designed razorblades. I was in this company in Boston coaching a lot of employees. Again, a lot of my internal coaching was just helping them be more successful in their job.

At the time he really liked what he was doing. It was exciting, cutting edge company. They get bought by another company. He gets moved to another department. At that point, I actually am not coaching him anymore. I get a call from him. He’s in this new position for about two years and just miserable, not using his strengths. He says to me, “I need to meet with you again. I need to start up coaching again.”

We start up coaching and I realize he is completely burnt out. It was amazing for me to see this gentleman who used to be so – like one of the top in the company as it’s called a modeling simulation engineer, so he could actually design the razorblades – seeing someone who used to be so phenomenal just completely affect flat and just exhausted. Basically he really wanted to start the whole process.

It begins by this five areas. The first one is I zero in on their wellbeing, taking a look at physically, emotionally what’s going on and then starting to offer some – having them actually figure out some good strategies that will work for them.

Then we go into self-awareness, which is really getting clear on what their purpose is, how is their mindset, because we all know if you have that awful mindset, it’s not going to really help you if you’re trying to do a career change. Then one of the my expertise is personality types, so really looking at how is your type showing up and do you need to do any tweaking. We started with those two areas.

One of the things we found when we did his purpose was he was really ready for a change, but it’s scary. He wasn’t even 50 and he’s like, “Am I crazy to leave the golden Hancocks?” With my support and with working through the rest of the model, getting – which the next piece is brand, so we figured out when he did my brand exercises that he could take this amazing skillset he has and market it as a consultant.

The exciting part of the story is he did leave this Fortune 100 Company and now has his own consulting business. He’s actually – one of the organizations that he consults for is the US Olympic Skating Committee. He used his-

Pete Mockaitis
How clever.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yeah, he used his passion of ice skating to now he was actually able to predict what pairs in the Olympics – what country was going to have a better chance of winning from analyzing their strokes on the ice.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
So once you know who has a better chance of winning, what do you do with that?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Basically what the US Olympic Skating Committee is doing with his kind of research is to be able to say, “Okay, let’s figure out who are the skaters we really want to work on for next year? What are the things – why is this particular country doing so well? Oh, we need to – the ice skaters need to work on this to really make it to that first or second or third place.”

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so fascinating, when you said ice skating, I was like, okay, I can see the carryover, like the blade going to the skates, but no, you went in a totally different direction.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
He went a totally – his doctorate degree was in this – now it’s a big thing, this modeling simulation, I guess like baseball players. He could actually if he wanted to work for like a professional football team or a professional baseball team, where they do this modeling simulation and they can predict “Okay, you’re holding a bat this way, this is what will happen.”

It was really exciting because till this – I still coach him and he weekly goes through the five areas. The two areas that I didn’t get to talk about – the fourth one is called connection. That’s why I have all my clients every week really take a look at are you proactively connecting with people that nourish you, excite you, enrich you.

This was a huge piece of him being able to make this transition to a whole new career field. He just surrounded himself – I call it ‘who’s in your boat’ – getting really great people to support you. One of them was back to working with a coach because sometimes you can’t do a huge – that is such a huge change he made, you just can’t do it by yourself, even with the most supportive partner.

Then the fifth one is innovation. That’s when you challenge yourself to kind of really just learn and do different things. This is – the innovation for him was he actually had to go back to Northeastern University and take some more courses on some of this technical modeling stuff, I couldn’t even explain to you because I don’t even understand it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. It’s called the Resiliency model, but it seems like it’s bigger than just being able to weather the difficulties that come your way.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yes, yeah, yeah. My definition of resiliency is a little bit different. I think a lot of people think of resiliency as just bouncing back, but my – I really see resiliency also as being proactive in your career because I think a big issue right now is people – we get kind of set in our ways and we forget that we can’t just start working on career development once we hate our job. We have to proactively be doing things for our career on a weekly basis, even little tiny things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear, what are some of those little tiny things that make a real big difference?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Basically what I’ve done in my book, I have these little boosters at the end of every chapter, so I’ll just share some of them from brand. Brand, when I think about brand, my definition of brand is what are your strengths, what are your attributes, what do you bring to that position or that company, what’s the impact you’re making and what’s your reputation.

A little tiny thing you could do once a week is spend five minutes on LinkedIn. Take a look at your profile. When’s the last time you updated your profile? What about connecting? Is there someone you just had a meeting with two days ago? Did you connect with them?

Because I think what happens, again, LinkedIn for many people they think that’s a job searching tool. It’s really a pro-active career development tool. It’s one of the – a great way to kind of stay up to date in your career. That’s a little example of a tip.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’d love to hear a few more of these.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Why don’t we start in the realm of wellbeing? What are some of the things that make a world of difference?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I’ll share a few for each booster. The first for wellbeing one of them is how important it is to make sure you’re not doing everything yourself, so having the gift of time. Another one is thinking about – with all the stress going on at work – what are the things you can control and what are the things you can’t control and making sure you’re focusing on things that you can control because it’s so easy to get stressed out  by everything.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to not doing everything yourself, what are some of the top things that people find that, “Hey, sure enough I can get some help with this,” or “I can outsource this,” or “automate this.”

Beth Benatti Kennedy
You’re going to crack up, but I would say probably once a month I will say to someone, “Have you ever considered getting your apartment or your house cleaned?” Now these are people with big jobs like this audience that’s listening and they’ll say, “No, I just can’t do it.” Then I’ll say, “Okay, just try it for three months.” They’ll say, “That was the best thing.”

Even if they have someone come every – like once every three weeks, they fit it into their budget, they’re like, “That is the best thing I’ve ever done,” because now they have more time and energy to do the things that they need to do for their wellbeing like get to the gym for 20 minutes or 30 minutes or go for a walk. That’s – believe it or not, that’s a big one that people really like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that a lot. What’s cool there is that doesn’t just mean that you’re cranking out another hour of work, but rather that is sort of precious home time – I guess the time you spend in cleaning is sort of a privileged category of time because you’re outside of work and you’re not doing sort of immediate family responsibilities because in a way, cleaning isn’t super urgent. We’ve got a little bit of leeway with it.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
When you get to it, it’s kind of coming at the expense of maybe any number of rejuvenating things from seeing a friend or going for a walk or exercise or massage or whatever that might be for a boost.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Right, exactly. Exactly. Then in the area of self-awareness, for self-awareness, kind of the vibe words I call them, are knowing your purpose, getting aware of your mindset, like I mentioned, your type.

Some of the boosters that I have for that is I have my clients really think about what are there values and are they living them personally and professionally. Sometimes individuals will say, “I cannot get my values in my job or my career. It’s just – this is – I went to school to become a lawyer and I’m in a really tough practice. I’m not living my values.”

Then I will say, “Okay, let’s figure out a way that you can get them personally. Maybe you want to get involved in a non-profit or maybe you want to get involved in another volunteer organization. It’s amazing how that’s instant recharge for your career when you can get your values at somewhere in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us examples of values that folks often come up with that really resonate and are meaningful to them and yet also are frequently not being met in the workplace?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Sure. It’s interesting because I just did this this morning with someone. Some of her values were family, friends, innovation, learning, making a difference. She had problem solving. She had career satisfaction. She had financial security. Those are values that are really, really important to her. She was presently working at a consulting – a really, really competitive consulting company. Through our work now she has decided that she’s actually going back to nursing school.

Part of the reason she’s making this change is to get more of these values in her career, but when she was working at the consulting firm, I was sharing with her, there’s ways – like the one making a difference, maybe it’s that one person, that junior person in your organization that you can mentor. That’s a great way to make a difference even if you’re in a competitive environment.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess when we talk about values there’s a number of ways we could define them. I’d love to get your sense for how do you know you’ve really hit upon one that’s like, yup, ding, ding, ding, that’s a big one. That is resonantly important. Because as you brainstormed or shared those lists there, I guess I might be able to generate dozens upon dozens of such things that would be meaningful. I guess it’s kind of tricky with regard to time, money, attention, energy prioritizing and zeroing in on the biggies.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yeah. That’s such a good question. I always – I actually when I teach I have a full day class, corporate class, that goes with the book. When I do the class I actually have cards, value cards. I let them select 8 cards. They often say, “Oh my gosh, I want to have like 20.”

What I say to them is what are – if you thought of your life like a compass and these cards were going to direct your life and your career in a certain way, which of the cards or which of the values are like your compass? How do you want them? That really helps people because you’re right, you could say, “Oh my gosh, all of these are important to me.” But if you only could have eight, which are the ones that are really calling to you.

This is something else that I also have to clarify is that sometimes people will say, “Is it work or is it life?” It’s an overlap. I think that any coach that says your values do not hit on both, it’s incorrect. You’re really – our values are shaping our entire life. We have to look at career slash life when we’re thinking about our values.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious. They chose eight. How big is the deck of cards they’re choosing out of?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Believe it or not, it’s so funny, I had to just order a ton more of them. There’s like 52 cards. … huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah, just like a deck of cards. You say you ordered them, is this from a product one can purchase or how do you get them?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yes, yes. I have – I’m just grabbing it because I have a few different – I’ve been reviewing a bunch of different vendors. Dick Knowdell is the vendor that makes these.
K-N-O-W-D-E-L-L.
They’re called the Knowdell Card Sort Career Values.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
They’re really designed for career coaches, but I find – people like them so much I often – I give them away at my classes because they’re like, “Oh, I want to do this when I get home with my partner.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is cool. I’m curious in terms of the hard thinking, in terms of which eight get selected – I’m sure you’ve seen this process many times, what are some of the thought processes like when they choose one over another? What sorts of things do you hear? It’s like, “Well, I’ve got,” we’ll just say, “adventure and I’ve got problem solving,” how do they get there?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
It’s funny too because people will often say to me, “Oh, I have to be practical.” I’m like, “No, this is your time. This class is called career recharge, so this is a time for you to recharge your life and your career. You don’t have to be practical. What are the eight cards that you – what are the eight values that you really want to have?” It’s really funny. It’s almost like people, especially in corporate America, really need permission to say, “Oh, so I can say-“

I was just trying to think of one – there’s one that often people say, “Oh, I can select this one?” It’s like, “Yeah, this is your life. That’s – it’s like I decided 27 years ago to be self-employed. That’s a strong value for me. What are the values that are calling to you?”

Sometimes – then this is an important piece of the exercise is then I have the individuals look at those eight cards and put a plus sign if they have it and put a negative sign if they don’t have it in their career or their life. Then if I have a class of say 30 people, I’ll say, “Okay, who has more than five negative signs?” Sometimes it’s one-third the class.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
How can we recharge? How can people really be engaged in their work and really do their best if all the – there’s lots of research that shows people that are following their purpose are happier and healthier and more engaged at work.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say purpose are those sort of – what’s the relationship between purpose and values here? Is the purpose consisting of values or are you thinking of these separately?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yeah. I’ve designed an exercise. I call it the Purpose Mind Map. This also helps people with their branding. What I have individuals do is the first step is figure out what your values are. Then when I think about purpose, what I want people to think about is what is the contribution you want to make in your career. What’s the difference you want to make in the world?

Sometimes it could be – let’s just say you’re an accountant that my purpose is I want to work at this top accounting firm in New York City and I want to be a partner in ten years. For that person, that’s their purpose. But for someone else it might be totally different.

It might be I want to make – I did a lot of consulting for Bright Horizons, which is a daycare company. For those individuals, a lot of times their purpose is I just want to – I want to have an organization that makes the best difference for children and for their providers. It’s so interesting when you think about purpose, it’s really – it goes back to, again, that legacy question. What’s the difference – when you retire someday, what’s that difference you want to make?
It’s a little bit messy because it’s not like a math equation where someone can have an easy answer. It’s something you really have to do all these little steps.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. I want to get your take on when someone says this is their purpose, I think about the accounting firm example, how do you know that it’s the real deal as opposed to, “No, no, no, no, think harder?”

Beth Benatti Kennedy
That is a – that’s a great question. One of the – that actually – something that I will ask that person is “What’s the impact you’re making?” or “What’s the impact you want to make?” and “What’s the reputation you want to have?”

One of the things that happened to me was my first career I was a school counselor in the Boston Public Schools. Our purposes change. At that point I was right out of graduate school and I wanted to just change the world. That was my purpose. I wanted to go in there and I wanted to get these kids going to college.

But after seven or eight years, it was like hitting my wall against a brick because I couldn’t get any impact. I was running programs for parents, no one was showing up. It led me to get burned out because I had this purpose, but I couldn’t make the impact.

Then I was really fortunate. I – by, again, my – I write about this in the book, the connection piece of my model. In graduate school I was sitting next to the training manager of the Gillette Company who gave me a little opportunity to do a little gig at the Gillette Company and do some career counseling.

All of the sudden the light bulb went off. I was like wow, I want to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s not working in the schools right now because this was 27 years ago. I could probably make it in organizations, helping people figure out – making them more satisfied in their careers.

I didn’t even know what outplacement was then, but I was lucky enough to find a graduate degree program in human resource counseling. That was where I got trained as a career counselor. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I want to be doing.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a really great distinction there because you’ve got the purpose and you’ve got the impact because some people might say, “Well, shucks, this is what I’ve always wanted to do and I’m doing it, so what’s the missing link?” It’s like, “Oh well, it’s not going anywhere.”

This kind of reminds me of Stephen Covey with begin with the end in mind and thinking about your funeral and what you’d like people to say about you and that kind of hits it there in terms of the contribution and the impact and what you’re about and what you’re like. That’s good stuff.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with – you probably are – Dan Buettner. He has this study; it’s called Blue Zones.

Pete Mockaitis
About the people who live longer.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yes, yes. His – that study is just fascinating because he – it consisted of 73,000 Japanese men and women. This was in 2009. What he found was the individuals that had a strong connection to purpose and I think the word is hysterical because I always have to catch myself if I’m saying it right, but it’s I-K-I-G-A-I, ikigai. What he found was those individuals with a sense of purpose, live longer. Then if you look at the other research that’s part of that, he also talks about how important connection is, being with a community.

For some people their purpose could be – it could be something like “I want to make the world the better place by introducing-“ like I work with a lot of doctors trying to cure cancer so that’s their big purpose. Even though 80% of cancer molecules don’t work; it’s still for them so exciting because they are every day trying to make an impact on their purpose, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hm. That’s good. I want to make sure we get to touch on the mindset a bit. What are the habits of thinking that are really helpful and not so helpful?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
For the boosters for mindset, one of the – what most people find most helpful is paying attention in the morning and giving themselves a daily intention. For example, it might be – like with this crazy – when things are crazy with the holidays or with it being a new year, it might be I’m going to start my morning off and stay relaxed and focused. They give themselves that morning intention. Some of my executives that get really anxious, they give themselves the intention in the morning of calm and confidence.

Mindset, that’s probably the number one booster is giving that morning intention. Then you can do it throughout the day.

The other booster that people find helpful is what I call the pause breath. Sometimes when you’re just having one of those days where it just feels like everything is going wrong, everything you touch, you just feel this – you can feel the stress through your body, I recommend just take two seconds, do a nice inhale, do a nice exhale. I call it the pause breath.

Do that even before you send a charged email because that’s the other thing that starts to happen with mindset is the negatives start outweighing the positives and all of the sudden we’re emailing someone and we’re saying, “Oh my gosh, what are we doing?”

Carol Dweck has out her book, Growth Mindset. She really talks about how important it is to really – in today’s day and age, we have to be so adaptable to change. What her research shows is the more we’re open to being adaptable, having what she calls this growth mindset, we have greater success at work, greater productivity, greater impact if we’re a manager.

I can notice – it’s interesting, when I interview a client before they start coaching with me, I can tell sometimes they’ve had so many negative things happen that they’re just like – they’re just done. Sometimes that can be the beginning of burnout, that mindset just gets really negative.

It’s not that we can’t have negative feelings, but it’s kind of that 80/20 rule. When 80% of your day is just awful, then you really have to worry about it. But you’re going to have – we all have a Monday or a day where it’s just a horrible meeting or a challenge.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Let me see. Did you want to hear the – I think the brand boosters. But just to emphasize another one that people like is that when you think about branding, like when you’re at a networking event and I know people don’t really like the word networking. I talk about that in my book to call it connection and think about building relationships.

When you meet someone instead of me just saying, “Oh, I’m Beth Kennedy. I’m a leadership coach.” Think about how can you tell a little bit of your story. I might say, “Hi, I’m Beth. I’m a coach, but I really focus on resiliency and preventing burnout in employees in organizations. That’s my passion. I also really encourage people to figure out what they can do so that they’re more motivated, excited and driven in their career.” Isn’t that a lot more excited than saying, “Hi, I’m Beth and I’m a leadership coach?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah and it sort of lets the conversation go into some interesting places, like, “Oh man, I remember when I was burnt out a few years ago I could have used you. I was-“ and then you go. You’re somewhere as opposed to, “Oh, you’re a leadership coach. Okay cool. Well, I am an accountant.”

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s sort of – it’s less of a connecting conversation.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I think for – sometimes attorneys will say to me or engineers will say, “Oh my God, what am I going to – there’s just no way to say that.” There’s always a little tiny story you can share even if you say something about your organization, so “I’m an engineer at this company. One of our specialties is this,” just to add a little bit to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think engineers often have some fascinating things to say. All sorts of engineers like, “Oh yeah, I work on manufacturing equipment for a Skittles plant.” Okay. I’m all ears. Let’s talk about Skittles.

Or even if it seems maybe less interesting like logistics, like moving stuff around, I can get fascinated by that. It’s like, “Man, that’s a lot of stuff you move around. How do you do that? I find it challenging just to answer all the questions FedEx has for me before I send out a package.”

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Right. Exactly. It’s so nice to hear you say that because I think most – I think the clients that have the most difficult time with that are scientists, engineers and attorneys because that’s what they say they are. It’s like just bring a little bit of that story into it.

Pete Mockaitis
Attorneys have such good stories. Someone is getting sued for something, whether it’s criminal or civil, I think it’s really juicy.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Yeah, even if you’re a corporate attorney, again, some people think, “Oh, that’s just so boring,” well, no it’s not. There’s something about that organization that will just make people learn a little bit more about you.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
So that’s just an example of another brand booster.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Sure. It’s so interesting because I love quotes, but I think one of my favorite one is by Thoreau and “It’s go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Pete Mockaitis
….

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I just think that gosh, with life being short that – I love that it ends with “live the life you’ve imagined” because whatever some of those dreams are, whether it’s career or travel or whatever it is to just keep plugging along. I feel like too that’s to me what resiliency is about is about moving forward even when you – for some-

I share in the book many years ago I applied for a doctorate psychology degree program and I didn’t get in. I thought my world was over. Then now I have this career that I couldn’t imagine doing anything better. I couldn’t imagine sitting in an office every day listening to people’s problems. I just think that we just want to – we have these little challenges come, but somewhere there’s a spark of wonderful thing that’s going to keep coming.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
It’s interesting because one of my favorite research studies is – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. His name is George Vaillant.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
What he shares – he was a Harvard psychiatrist. He did the Harvard Grant Study from 1972 to 2004. He found strong relationships to be the strongest predictor of life and career satisfaction. What was interesting is his research showed that feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success.

I have seen that a lot in doing 25 years of coaching is that when people feel really connected to their work, they are just – you can just see this level of energy and happiness.

Sometimes I’ll meet with people that are making incredible amounts of money and I’ll say to them “What is your career satisfaction out of a ten?” and they’ll say a two. I’ll say, “What is your life satisfaction out of a ten?” and they’ll say like a four.

The other thing that happens when – and there’s lots of research that’s been going on about this is as we connect with others we get the – they call them the feel-good chemicals. The dopamine and the oxytocin and that’s the other reason why connection is so important, cultivating relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hm. How about a favorite book?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I was so happy to hear your quote because my favorite book is 7 Habits of Being Highly Effective by Steven Covey. I have to say I quote him every time I train a class I’m always bringing something in from his class. It’s one of those oldies but goodies.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
It’s interesting. My favorite tool I would say is a meditation app, which is called Calm.com. As part of my career recharge class I piloted five different meditation apps myself. Then I had about 30 clients just try different ones. I learned with meditation apps, it’s so interesting. People – it depends on the person’s voice.

One of the things I love about Calm is it’s ten minutes long, which is perfect amount of time for me. Some of my other clients like Headspace. There’s so many out there right now. 10% Happier. But for me, that’s probably – that is something I use five or six days a week.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Beth Benatti Kennedy
My favorite habit is what’s part of actually my resiliency model. It’s called the Friday Five. In my phone every Friday I have a little thing that pops up and it says recharge. I spend five minutes to think about what I’m going to focus on for the next week.

What is that one thing I’m going to add, whether it’s I need to watch that podcast or whether it’s I need to call a good friend that I’ve been out of touch with, but – and I teach that to all my clients that if you can’t find five minutes to nourish your life, then we have to really start to worry. I call it my Friday Five process.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I think the nugget that people seem to really like is I have this little saying. I call it spark success. What I mean by that is to start really small to pick something you want to work on and drive it down to the smallest possible doable activity.

For example, a lot of my clients are trying to figure out before the new year begins, okay, how can I regularly exercise. I’ll say to them, “Okay, what’s the smallest thing that you can do?” Maybe it’s getting off the train and walking to work.

It’s really – they really like that idea of I’m about – we’re not looking for perfectionism. We’re just – what’s a small habit that you can start. Then all of the sudden you like it so much it turns into 15 minutes, 20 minutes, going to the gym, doing yoga classes, but starting really small.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I would point them to my website, which is BethKennedy.com. I’m also on Twitter, which is CoachBKennedy. If you’re on LinkedIn, again, you can see I’m a big LinkedIn person, connect with me on LinkedIn. I have a lot of great stuff going on. There’s been some really awesome posts about some of the exciting things that have been going on with the book.

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

Beth Benatti Kennedy
I would say the call to action is the importance of connection, so to really think about that who is that person, who is the friend or who is the colleague that really supports you and making sure you have time with them together on a regular basis because recharge, it can be so isolating in today’s – everyone’s working so hard and it’s so important to have people on your boat that nourish you and that aren’t toxic.

My call to action is today think of that person you’ve been out of touch with and give them a call or set up a time to meet them for a drink or lunch or dinner. It’s just amazing, it’s amazing what relationships can do for our career and for our productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Beth, thanks so much for sharing the good stuff. Good luck with the book and all your adventures.

Beth Benatti Kennedy
Thank you. Very nice to meet you.

355: Channeling Emotions Productively with Hitendra Wadhwa

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Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa defines inner mastery and shows how to achieve it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five pillars of inner mastery
  2. Key questions and framework for daily reflection
  3. Two strategies for redirecting your emotions positively

About Hitendra

Hitendra Wadhwa is Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership (IPL).  Hitendra graduated from the University of Delhi in mathematics and received his MBA and a PhD in Management from MIT.  He has received the 2015 Executive-MBA Commitment to Excellence Award, the 2012 Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and the 2008 Columbia Marketing Association Award for the Most Dynamic and Engaging Professor.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hitendra Wadhwa Interview Transcript

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

Hitendra Wadhwa
Thank you, Pete. It’s a pleasure to be with you and your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s your role at Columbia?

Hitendra Wadhwa
I have a responsibility as a professor of practice in the Business School to take our MBAs and executive audiences through journeys to prepare them for this world of dynamic change and uncertainty and fast pace that we live in today. I have created a class that I call Personal Leadership and Success. Over the last about 12 years that has been my research and my teaching.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then you’ve also founded the Institute for Personal Leadership. What is the kind of core work or ethos over there?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Gandhi, he once said, he said “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would be enough to solve most of the world’s problems.” My aspiration in building this class was to say hey, listen, we have these incredibly talented, very aspirational MBAs and the executives that come over to Columbia.

And in many ways they’re really aspirational and really talented about finding a way to master the universe, but what about finding a way to master your own self as a starting point …. There are theses in personal leadership both in my work at Columbia and then the Institute, is that there is so much more to our potential than we tap into on a normal day.

What if we were both able to for our own selves and for the individuals, and teams, and organizations, and community that we serve, if we were able to get all of us to our fullest potential, to be at our best in every moment, in every day, what kind of a team and organization and a product and impact, and life that you could build?

That’s really in a sense what we do at the Institute is take the research, take the teaching that I’ve been doing over the years at Columbia and put it out there for any individuals to be able to tap into through the content we created, through the digital learning journeys that we offer. Then also through organizations to help them support the individual, team, and organizational transformations that they might be engaged in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, really cool. Now you talk a lot about inner mastery resulting in, later on, outer impact. Can you orient us a little bit to this concept?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Sure, sure. Outer impact means any role of the kinds of aspirations and hungers that we have from the outside. We want people to like us, to support us, to be open to being followed by us, to be inspired by us, to change their behavior based on what we’re saying and doing. As a result of that, to be able to launch products and manage teams and deliver great outcomes to the world and bring about positive change.

All of that is the outer stuff in life and leadership. The mainstream, the conventional view of how to do that, is that we have to define certain qualities or attributes of what makes for a great leadership on the outside to have that kind of an impact.

It could be something today around you have to be very adaptive as a leader. Once we evolve … based on what changes you’re seeing around you. But on the other hand, you also have to have grit. You have to have tenacity.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, stick with it.

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah, to stick with it. Yeah, exactly. Then you have to be very extroverted because there’s a very gregarious outer energy that you need in order to … and flourish in the world of people. But on the other hand, there’s Susan Cain and she’s telling us to … quiet, that there’s a lot of power to introversion, to the quiet kind of character of a leader, who seeks to be the thoughtful, quiet, empathetic listener in the room. And everything in between.

You want to be connected today in the world of social media and never eat lunch alone, but build your network, but on the other hand you also have to be very disconnected because you want to practice mindfulness and meditation and peace and be the reflective leader, not the one that’s just constantly in the fray of life and all that.

If you take all of these qualities, the reasons … try to convince me that we have to face up to the truth. The truth is that we are being asked today to be everything and the complete opposite. This is no way there is a simple winning path, a human achievable path to getting there.

Unless you do something like Einstein once said. He said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” In this case, to me, this obsession with outer behavior and outer speech, what we are saying and what we are doing, as a way to which we have outer impact limits us from recognizing that the greatest lever that we have, the greatest power and possibility that we have is to in fact cultivate what I call your inner core.

Your inner core is this stable, pure, intentional, purpose driven, wise part of yourself, your best self. All of us have caught glimpses of, some of us have more systematically cultivated. When you operate from that inner core, we are just able to in the moment operate on the basis of intention, not just instinct.

To be able to bring all the appropriate facts to bear rather than have biases and distortions that blind us. Be able to make decisions with a certain amount of thoughtfulness and freedom, rather than attachment and insecurity.

The idea behind inner mastery is not as much to in a sense retrofit some wisdom from the outside or some new skill from the outside, as it is to invite people to reflect on and deepen their connection with their best selves.

To continue over the course of their life to not merely be committed and obsessed with the outer impact, but also with the deepening of the immersive living and leading inner core, knowing that when they’re doing that, they are going to be able to operate and bring the best energy, the best consciousness, the best thinking, the best judgment on the outside. So inner mastery leading to outer impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. Then it sounds like your advocating is not so much about internally trying to be more quiet or gregarious or changing your fundamental natural personality, so much as developing into your best self.

Hitendra Wadhwa
In fact, Pete, my hypothesis is that for many of us, there are more possibilities to our personality than what 20th century science has educated or confined us to. When you and I are talking about whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it is true that the Myers-Briggs suggest to us that you can either be one of the other. It’s very popular too and has been used in organizations.

But I can also tell you this, most of that has been upended by some of the latest science, which suggests that people have the capacity to also be if you might call it ambiverts, where Daniel Pink talks about it in his book To Sell is Human.

There is all this research that suggests that – I remember when I took the Myers-Briggs when I was in McKinsey, I found a couple of dimensions quite intuitive and insightful, but I really rebelled against a couple of them. Thinking versus feeling, well wait a second. Why can’t I be both a thinker and a feeler?

Introvert versus extrovert, why can’t I be both? I feel I draw energy as much from outside when I’m with an audience and I’m engaged with them. Right now I’m drawing energy from this conversation with you. At the same time, I have periods where I love to draw energy from within me. There is an intro and an extrovert within me.

To that end, – I’ll just give you a great example of history. You take Abraham Lincoln. There’s a historian, he in his study of Lincoln, he said – he was a contemporary. He said “I went and spoke with a number of his colleagues and his friends.” He said, “I found that there were not two of them who spoke about Lincoln in the same way. It’s as though he revealed himself to different people in different ways.”

He said “Some said he was a very ambitious man and some said he had not an iota of ambition. Some said he was very cool and impassive and some said he was susceptible to the most intense of tempers.”

There is research, by the way, to show that when we are deeply infused with our purpose, with something we really care for, then when we have to act out a behavior in the service of that purpose, which is contrarian to our – if you want to call it our personality – we actually feel more authentic acting contrarian to our personality because we are acting in concert with our values in that moment, with our principles at that moment.

As a simple example. Let’s say if you really care about supporting your team after they’ve done six months of intensive product development work and launched this incredible product in your market. You might be an introvert, but in that moment, you are actually going to prepare and plan that celebration party for the launch of the product.

When you’re in there, you’re going to go and act out completely opposite your personality, very engaged, very connected, very joyous, very outwardly focused even though it’s against your personality. Not to say you want to do that, but here’s what the research says, you will feel more authentic doing that because you so deeply care about the aspiration of being there to celebrate that beautiful moment with your team.

Anyway, I just want to offer that up to you because the thesis I sort of want to propose to you and to your audience is that 20th century science, which is still what a lot of us operate with regard to the education system that we go through and what organizations also sometimes inform and guide us with their cultures – 20th century science was a lot about who we are. Today’s science, the 21st century science that is very vibrant and continuing to evolve, is actually telling us who we can be.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay, cool. Well, I guess there’s a lot in there. I guess I’d like to get your take when it comes to this inner mastery stuff. What are some of the key I guess sort of roadblocks or things that prevent us from achieving inner mastery and what are some of your top suggestions in terms of actions and disciplines and practices for getting there?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah, that’s a great question. It is a journey. It’s not just a one-time sort of choice we make and then we’re just instantly and magically there. It’s a journey I’ve seen all great leaders in history kind of evolve and grow themselves along. It’s a journey that is a lifetime commitment. There’s no one point where I would offer it becomes perfect and complete.

We like to think in my work of inner mastery along five pillars. There’s purpose, which is about a lot of direction, alignment for your life as to where you’re headed. Stephen Covey used to call it “start with the end in mind.” What is that end that you have in mind feel like?

Then there’s wisdom, which is about emotional intelligence and your thinking, and your mindset and making sure these inner forces are very much harmonized in line with your purpose.

Then there’s love, which is about expanding the heart to seek to take joy in other people’s joy.

Then there is self-realization, which is to start seeing yourself more – not only through your words and actions or your feelings or your thoughts, but also from the spirit that you embody from within, the space of pure consciousness, tranquility, pure joy that great journeyers on this passage and path of life have been able to cultivate, so self-realization.

The last one is growth, which is around this continuous commitment to growth now.

In terms of what gets people derailed from inner mastery, one of the key problems is that we get so invested in our duties, in our responsibilities, in our well-intentioned desire to be of service to our friends, to our family, to our colleagues at work, to our organizations imperatives, to our communities that in that process we get, if you want to call it, spread thin, we get burnt out, we get stressed, we get to digress, digress from that part of us, which is really at the core.

One practice that I highly recommend as a way to stay more true to yourself, to your pursuit of your own … is daily introspection. Take 15 minutes of time every day and structure and organize an activity that takes you into a very soul-searching, quiet, honest, mirror that you can put on yourself.

It could be a form of thought providing. It could be a scoreboard that you create for yourself, where you’re checking in on yourself on a certain set of values of character traits or what have you. It could be just a single question that you ask yourself.

Winston Churchill, for example, he used to ask himself, he said, “I don’t go to sleep at night without challenging myself with the following question, which is ‘did I do something highly worthy today?’” I don’t mean just kind of puttering around and doing things. Did I do something highly worthy today?

Here’s a man who had incredible highs, being at the pinnacle of power, 10 Downing Street and Prime Minister of England at a very critical hour. But he also fell from grace from time to time. At those times when he was away from the madding crowds and thrown out of power, how did he act, what choices did he make, what behavior did he engage in?

This question about did I do something really worthy today – there is a story where his son once was on a train with him when he had been deposed from the Prime Minister’s office. He was out of power. His son asked him, he said, “Father, we’re on this train. We’re in California. We’re on vacation. Why are you going in a small cabin and sweating it out on this hot day and doing work right now?”

After a few hours Winston Churchill came out. He said, “Son, I can’t help it. I must do something truly worthy every day. What I’ve done right now is write a dispatch for this newspaper in England and I’m going to send it.”

Now this man when he was out of power, being defeated in the Prime Minister’s – the political election in 1950 when he was out—1945, sorry—when he was out of power. He ends up doing so much prolific writing over those next five years, that he ends up winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Think about that pursuit of mastery when the chips are down.

So a daily introspection, a daily question that you ask yourself would be one strong suggestion. Then I do want to sort of just encourage that. Listen, we all fall from grace. We all can’t live up to our highest ideals and standards every day. But that should not discourage us.

Nelson Mandela was once asked by Opera Winfrey, she said, “Mr. Mandela, you’re so incredible. People have such admiration and awe of you. You are a living saint. How do you feel being like a saint?” He said, “I am not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who never gives up.” I think that’s a great working definition for all of us to have.

There’s an article he wrote in his life and his leadership and his struggles and the mistakes he made and the growth he had to go through, and main lessons I reached from it was a great – great people take on great causes. In taking on great causes, they make great mistakes. Through those mistakes, they generate a lot of learning for themselves. They acknowledge their mistakes and they grow from it. That’s the growth that I think all of us can aspire to, not necessarily perfection overnight.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have any suggestions for other powerful questions that could be candidates for a daily reflection?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Well, if you and your audience are open to it I can share my own personal favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Hitendra Wadhwa
I think one of the greatest missed opportunities in life is to befriend death. We tend to operate in a world where we almost want to make death invisible.

I smile sometimes when I’m walking here in my neighborhood in the Upper West Side. There is a funeral home here. It is so discreetly architected from the outside in terms of its façade as to be completely nondescript. Yet, sometimes the garage door is open and I glance inside, I see a hearse that carries people over when they’ve passed over.

I feel a great sense of gratitude when I see that because it’s a reminder to me about the gift of every moment of life and the fact that I cannot take it for granted for myself or for others around me and that it can end at any time. My favorite question is to ask myself that if this is the way I keep living my life as I’m living it right now, then at the moment that I’ll be dying, as I look back at my life at that moment, will I be grateful and happy or will I have some sincere regrets?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, thank you. Okay. Any other questions that pack a punch?

Hitendra Wadhwa
You’re definitely making me walk into my sort of magic box and take out whatever tools I can, which is great. I appreciate your service to your audience.

Well, Steve Jobs had a similar question. His question was that if today—and it’s a little bit more provocative—if today was my last day on earth and I kept doing the things I had been doing, would I be happy? He said “If many days pass by where the answer is no, no I wouldn’t be doing this if this was my last day on earth, then,” he says, “then something is wrong in my career and the life.” That was his question.

The last one I want to offer you is not a simple question, but it’s more just a framework. That framework is both Nelson Mandela used it and Benjamin Franklin, which is that they created a scorecard for themselves, a simple one sheet paper with a few qualities in it that they were seeking to really work on. Then they would ask themselves, did I live up to that standard, did I live up to that quality today.

In the case of Ben Franklin, he would give himself a black dot if he saw that he hadn’t lived up to that quality on a given day. He did that for each of his 13 virtues as he called them that he had for each day of the week.

In his autobiography that he wrote later on in his life he reflects – he says … – he says “I never really reached a point where I was able to clean up my act so well that I didn’t have a single black dot on those weekly grade sheets. But I do to my satisfaction note that over the course of many years that I tracked myself this way, the number of black dots had decreased.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. I admire – it takes a level of honesty and humility in the first place to acknowledge that it was a black dot day as opposed to squinting and justifying and rationalizing, “Well, I mean the circumstances were such that I had to engage in gluttony or else it would have been rude,” for example. I think that was one of his 13. I think it’s gluttony and sloth and chastity and assorted virtues there.

I think that would be the hard part for me is in terms of like, finding a way to convince myself that I did not deserve a black dot for my behavior after all during the course of this day because there was some extenuating reason.

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah, no, I’m with you. That’s very humble of you to operate that way. I’m sure you have a rich, reflective life, Pete, otherwise you wouldn’t even be doing this show.

Since you’re mentioning some of his virtues, perhaps you might even remember humility, one he added later upon some criticism that he received from a friend of his, who talked about how “You’re very respective, Benjamin, but you’re not very light.” To your point about some of the pitfalls, the other pitfall here is to make sure it’s the right scorecard.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, what I also get into some of your perspective when it comes to – when negative emotions pop up, you’ve got some thoughts with regard to how we can channel those into effective directions. How do we do that in those moments where you’re ticked off, you’re frustrated and annoyed, enraged, fill in the blank in terms of emotion you’d rather not experience. How do you channel those into better places?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah, yeah. Let me share a story about Abraham Lincoln. He used to open – had moments like that where he was very triggered by things that were happening in the field at the time of the Civil War, very stressful time you can imagine for a leader like him. He wasn’t really in complete agreement or alignment with this general doing this thing here and this battle or that general doing that thing there.

He would write these letters to these generals, where we was extremely vociferous in his criticism to them. Some of these letters have been received by the generals and it’s in history as to what they were told and scolded by Lincoln for.

Then there are a lot of these letters that historians found after Lincoln’s passing in the Presidential desk in the White House, unsigned and unsent. They’re called Lincoln’s hot letters. You might be aware of them.

That’s one technique right there for us, which is to engage in this Lincolnesque kind of grace, which is to say, “You know what? I am angry right now. These are the thoughts that I am feeling right now and I am not going to act upon them because I don’t really trust myself right now in terms of my judgment. I’m not seeing things in the fullest and most nuanced of light as I should.”

Maybe in this case what might have happened is that at the time he wrote these letters – he wrote them, but he went to get his sleep, to cool down, hit the pause button, as I call it, and when he was cooler and calmer, he made a call. If he felt at that point that it would be constructive for him to express that criticism in just those words, he might have sent the letter off.

When he felt like, “You know, in the larger scheme of things, I want to keep this general motivated. I think there’s a different, better way to motivate them. I kind of want to let them know this but in a way that will still make them feel empowered and inspired and motivated to do the right things, so net-net I shouldn’t send this letter out in those cases ….”

A simple path for us is just to keep check on what is happening within us. Not just to focus on the conversation, not just to focus on the body language, but to focus on the inner storms that might be brewing.

If we feel that they’re beyond a certain level that we can trust our environment, to recognize that our first responsibility is not to act on the insight, but to in a sense, act on the inside, to calm some of these inner storms and to create a little bit of distance.

Whether it’s just asking for a bathroom break, whether it is just doing a little bit of deep breathing, whether it is stepping away and listening to soothing music, going talking to somebody that can distract you and put you in a happy place because that’s the kind of person they are, going for a brisk walk, sleeping over it. Any and all of these are mechanisms to which we allow in a sense our best self to be emerged rather than get consumed and act upon our inner demons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so just taking a pause right there. There is one strategy. Any other approaches?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Well, I would offer another one which steps the game higher. This one would require some level of basic mastery that then allows us to play this more advanced game. Hit the pause button, couple other things we can do to just get to feel a sense of ownership over our state of inner awareness and mastery is a starting point.

But then what you can do is really lean into that emotion rather than seek to distance yourself from it or to express it in some sort of non-constructive way, to lean into and ask yourself “Yes, I’m anxious right now. Yes, I’m hurt right now. Yes, I’m angry right now. Now what am I going to do about it?” to in a sense, recapture agency over the situation, over the problem. Say, “I’m going to do something about it.”

I’ll give you an example. Have you heard of Buck, B-U-C-K?”

He is a cowboy. He’s a rancher out here in the US. He was the inspiration behind the book The Horse Whisperer and ultimately the movie that Robert Redford made called Horse Whisperer on which he was an advisor.

Actually, you and your audience might enjoy having him on the show. He’s a remarkable human being. There’s a movie, a documentary on him called Buck. I think you and your audience will both enjoy the documentary as well. Incredibly inspiring.

He when he was growing up – it’s all in the movie – so this is not information he hasn’t shared in public. But when he was growing up he had an alcoholic father. If I recall I think his mother was not there. I think she may have passed away early. He was, among other things, he was beaten up.

He was very good at the rodeo, so he was doing lassoing and things like that. His father would encourage him and his brother to go and do that, but then constantly berate them, beat them up, alcoholic, right? When he was in his teens he had to in a moment of desperation, escape from his home under all the duress and stress. He was raised in foster care.

Fast forward now to the time he’s an adult. He now says that “The pain that I went through at that time and when I reconnect with that pain, it motivates me to want to make sure that people around me and that I can serve do not feel ever that kind of pain, not just people, but even horses.”

There is perhaps traditionally, as I best understand, the way the ranching culture is working here in the US, horses have been trained under the assumption that the way they will obey is by punishing them if they don’t obey during the early formative training years. You inflict some kind of pain on them, driving something sharp into their body or etcetera, as a way to make them realize the value of obedience or the risk of disobedience and so they start obeying you.

His approach is one that is based on love. His approach is one that is based on creating a trusted bond between the master and the horse. He goes around the country, training ranches on how to take their horses, some of whom have been very disobedient, and make them very tame, make them start to really align and harmonize their actions and behavior with their ranchers.

Here he is, he is a horse whisperer. He gets these horses to do things that others have not been able to ever get done before. It’s all coming from this pain that he has experienced at some point in his life. Because he took agency over that pain and said, “I’m not going to ignore it. I’m not going to channel it in something futile and ineffective. I’m going to channel it into something heroic and beautiful.”

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, so that became a powerful motivation there in terms of this his sort of standard that – of how things ought to be and therefore he’s going to do all the efforts necessary associated with making that come to be. That’s cool.

I wonder then when it comes to anger, if you’re thinking about using that to channel into positive stuff. I guess in some ways it’s possible to be angry and then just do a lot of things because you’re angry. It’s like, “This cannot stand. I am taking action. I am going after this injustice.”

I wonder though how sustainable that is because, at least for me, that’s kind of exhausting as a fuel source, that sort of anger. From a hurt, I can see that being a little bit different in the sense of that is something that I know and I just I will not allow others to experience, whereas anger it’s sort of like – it can come up every time you think about the thing that should not be. Is there any sort of nuance in how you go about channeling anger?

Hitendra Wadhwa
That’s a great point. It’s funny because when I started studying some of these great leaders from history, which is one path through which I have sort of built up this whole teaching and work and growth and leadership, I’d assumed that these were incredibly peaceful collective tranquil people.

Yet, when you study their lives, I saw how for several of them, not necessarily all, but several of them a key source of energy for them was their – in a sense, their righteous anger against something that was deeply troubling about the social order of their day.

Whether it was Gandhi with his views on the huge loss that India was facing with British rule and the subjugation and the atrocities being committed against their less advantaged communities in society, Martin Luther King, of course, and civil liberties, Nelson Mandela, of course, with what he was doing, Mother Theresa and her work with the poor, etcetera.

Many of these people were deeply, deeply, deeply—if you want to call it—angry, but they had come to a place where they could lean into that anger and channel it.

The important thing I would offer you is that you cannot have the tail wag the dog. The tail is your emotion. The dog is the purpose or journey that you’re seeking to make in life and leadership.

For those of us who have not yet perhaps gained a certain level of mastery – let’s say mastery could be quantified from level 0 to level 100. If we are at step 34 and Gandhi is at a step 67, we shouldn’t seek to jump from 34 to 67. That would just not make sense.

In our case, if to your point, we have a certain experience that we want or a certain issue that we’re concerned with, were we to get as angry as he was getting, we might get burned by it to your point. We might get consumed by it.

In our case at step 34, it might make more sense to use some of the other tools of emotional mastery to create a little bit of distance and buffering from that emotional state because we can’t handle it. We don’t have the voltage in our light bulb to be able to handle that kind of power yet.

It might make more sense to stay within more confined bounds and to use more confined smaller sparks of anger to kind of get to a good place if that is a path we want to choose.

But as we grow in our capacities, we may be in a position to take on even more heroic causes and to take on even more purposeful, energized, disciplined journeys because we just built that machinery within us, both in our brain in terms of finding and fighting patterns of neurons and just physically and spiritually overall. Until then, to your point, we may want to just stay in more bounded space.

When we do have those intense bursts of any such emotional state, maybe our best mechanism there at step 34, which could be different from … step 67, our best mechanisms there, might be to do some deep breathing, might be to hit the pause button, might be to do some mindfulness, some meditation practice or something like that, just get ourselves into a safe place, into a place where the best in us can operate so that the tail, again, is not wagging the dog. But if the dog is strong enough, they can have a strong tail and still allow the dog to control the tail.

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

Hitendra Wadhwa
Mother Theresa, she once said, she said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.”

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

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah. This is not as much conventional kind of study as you’d expect, but one that I have huge regard and affection for anyway and I think would be of value to your audience.

Bonnie Ware is a palliative care nurse in Australia. She used to essentially look after people who were in the last several weeks and months of their life. They have this terminal illness in most cases and therefore were starting to plan their exit.

She would ask them this question, “What is your biggest regret in life?” The most common answer to that question is the finding from this research that I want to offer to you and to all of us. What do you think your audience might think is the most common regret of the dying?

Pete Mockaitis
They didn’t spend enough time with their family and friends.

Hitendra Wadhwa
Yeah. That’s very similar to what I hear from my students at Columbia as well. That certainly one of the regrets that she heard from time to time. The most common regret was that I … you get that I was not living a life true to myself. I was living it based on other people’s expectations.

I want to just encourage reflection on that by anyone who is listening here today because notice that that pitfall can arise as much in a personal life as a professional life. That pitfall is not about I should have been hanging out more with my family than my work.

What he’s actually saying is whether it is family or whether it is work, there is a risk that in our desire to conform, to love and be loved, to relate, to be recognized and rewarded, is it a risk that we might be letting the clock of time run out before we have truly lived—truly, truly lived.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Hitendra Wadhwa
If you’re open to it, I’d recommend two. For those who are drawn to really deeper kind of quests about the meaning of life, my favorite book is the same as the one and only book that Steve Jobs had on his iBooks which is Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. For those who are interested a more sort of focused commentary on life and leadership today, my favorite book is Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Hitendra Wadhwa
Meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted or attributed to you frequently?

Hitendra Wadhwa
The idea that all of us have within us a space of purity, purity of intent, purity of purpose, very wise and joyful and calm and balanced and secure space within us. I call that your inner core.

There is research today to show that if you go beyond the mountains and plains and rivers into the structure of the earth, you have the hot, molten lava, but beyond the hot molten lava you have a solid sphere of pure metal. We call that the earth’s inner core.

Metaphorically picking from that, beyond our outer senses, beyond the hot molten lava of our thoughts and emotions that might volcanically erupt from time to time, beyond all of that there is this space of pure consciousness within each of us. That’s your inner core and that’s the space through which when you get deeply anchored, you’re able to bring out and project and manifest your best.

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

Hitendra Wadhwa
Our website is simply PersonalLeadership.com. There are resources there in terms of articles I’ve written, videos that you can watch and executive programs online that you can take. I’m working on a book that I expect to get published next year. I certainly would be delighted and honored to have you look out for that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Hitendra Wadhwa
One technique that I learned from a colleague, Adam Byrant. I say colleague because he and I often have been teaching together. Adam was a columnist at the New York Times, where he wrote this column for many years called the Corner Office, in which he used to interview CEOs about their leadership journeys. He shared this anecdote from one of his – or there’s two from one of his interviews.

The CEO talks about how she said “I like to practice the MRI rule.” That’s what I want to offer to your audience as one thing to do at work or one challenge to take on at work.

The MRI rule is any time that you are disappointed, hurt, angry, reactive, impatient, about anything that somebody has done, the MRI rule tells you to apply to it the most respectful interpretation, which means before you start including the character or start assuming that the intentions are really poor or bad or etcetera, try to ask yourself are there any other ways to interpret what happened here.

What could be going on in their health? Could they be having a relationship challenge at home? Could they be having a really stressful day with regard to their boss or some other things that are happening? Could some budget have suddenly been cut off from them? Etcetera.

Since you don’t know everything, are there things that you don’t know that could be happening, that may allow for a deeper understanding of what they have just done or responded to. I found that sometimes it’s not even what is happening to them in the present, but what experiences they have gathered over the course of their life that you don’t know about.

When something is triggered from them in a certain way, rather than quickly judge them for it, seek to understand, seek to make the space to recognize that in the rich fabric of their lives, both past and present, there is a lot more that if you knew perhaps, you would get much more sympathetic and connected with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Hitendra, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the goods. I wish you tons of luck with Personal Leadership and all you’re up to.

Hitendra Wadhwa
Well, I want to congratulate you for the excellent work that you’re doing. I’ve been deeply both inspired and impressed with the path you’re on. This is the modern, new sort of path you’re communicating, connecting and serving audiences like yours. Congratulations to you on that.

All the best to you and certainly to your audience as well. I’m grateful for this opportunity. Thank you and wish the best of success in life and leadership by operating from your inner core.

339: Achieving Hyperfocus with Chris Bailey

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Chris Bailey looks into how distraction affects productivity and the many ways you can prevent yourself from getting distracted ahead of time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ways to hack your procrastination triggers
  2. How much time we waste on checking emails
  3. The 20-second rule and three ways to apply it to your  distractions

About Chris

Chris Bailey is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of The Productivity Project, which has been published in eleven languages. His next book, Hyperfocus, came out yesterday. Chris writes about productivity at Alifeofproductivity.com, and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive, without hating the process.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Chris Bailey Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, welcome back to the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Chris Bailey
It’s been a while. It’s been like 250 episodes or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s nuts, yes. I was just thinking about it like your episode before number 32 is like under a tenth of the current episode number. So how about that?

Chris Bailey
Yeah. Do you ever go back and listen to the first few shows and how – do you think you’ve improved a lot since then or do you even want to listen to yourself back then?

Pete Mockaitis
I have listened a little bit, but not a ton. I’ve definitely noticed the difference. I’ve had a couple of guests who’ve been on multiple times and they have said similarly, “You’re better at this now,” which is good. That’s what you’re hoping for.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. I don’t remember you being bad at it But it’s good.

I’ve always liked looking back on my previous work and hating it because if you can find things to dislike in the way that you worked before, I think you’re on a positive trajectory. It’s when you look at your previous work and you think, “Man, where did I go wrong? Where did I lose my mojo? What’s different now in my work?” I think that’s when you run into problems. May you always look back at work and thinks it’s crap.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s like an Irish blessing. Well, thank you, lad.

Chris Bailey
Yes, you’re welcome, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I understand you recently got into knitting. What is the story here?

Chris Bailey
Who told you this?

Pete Mockaitis
I think you disclosed it on a form that I ask you to fill out, while scheduling this.

Chris Bailey
I didn’t know this would be made public, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe it was one of your people. You’ve got people now. You’ve grown a lot too.

Chris Bailey
Oh man, yeah. Since episode 30, man, I’m a changed man. No, I’m the same weird person. Knitting is this weird hobby that I think more people would enjoy doing if only they got in the door and tried it out a little bit.

A while back on a total whim, I signed up for a local course here in the small town Canada city that I live in. I this expect it to stick. There’s a piano – I’m looking at it on my left here. It has a bit of dust on it that’s accumulated in my office. I have a lot of things I guess that are kind of fleeting, that evaporate as quickly as they came, but knitting very much is one of my new favorite hobbies.

The benefits of this have been well documented. For example, it distracts you from pain. It leads you to remember more. It even combats things like depression. It lowers your resting heart rate. I’ve been looking at a lot of knitting studies lately in case you can’t hear that.

But those are benefits, but I actually knit to become more productive because it lets me just kind of rest my attention a bit. We can get to this a bit later, talk about this in the book, but it’s when we rest our attention that we become the most creative.

It’s when we focus on something with intensity that we become productive, but it’s in that resting state, especially when we get into that deliberately, that we are able to connect ideas together and plan and rest and recharge.

It’s great as a work break. I knit on planes. I knit on the couch while I’m working. I’m not knitting right now because I don’t have enough attention to spare, but yeah, I was knitting at the coffee shop this morning, drinking my morning tea and ignoring the way people were looking at what I was doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s so funny you say coffee shop because I remember one time I was on a date, this was some years ago, when I was single.

Chris Bailey
You know a date is going bad when they break out the knitting needles and start knitting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, she wasn’t knitting, but there was a dude like very close to us knitting and it was funny because he was maybe only four feet away or less. He just, he had his headphones on. He was sipping the coffee and he was knitting. He was like into it. It was clear that he was jamming, he was knitting, and this was the place that he was going to be doing it.

It was kind of funny because in a way I was like, “How odd,” but in other ways that’s pretty cool that you have so much confidence and self-assurance that you can peacefully knit in a public place and be cool with yourself.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, yeah. It takes another level of either confidence or not really caring. One of the two or maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny, I just recently learned about knitting in terms of the research behind it from a recent guest, Dr. Srini Pillay. He mentioned that’s one of the top things you can do to enter a place of letting your attention rest and yet be somewhat engaged, like right up there with tending to a plant is knitting. Now I know.

That is what I thought like, Chris Bailey, Mr. Productivity experimenter, knitting is probably down with the research and sure enough you are.

Chris Bailey
Oh yeah. It’s in doing something that’s a habit too. This is one of the fun parts about writing a book about attention is when we do something simple that’s habitual, like when we take a shower, when we swim laps, when we just have our morning coffee, with just having the coffee and not listening to something or doing something else, this is when we’ve been shown to have the most – the greatest number of creative insights.

Because we have something habitual that anchors our attention to what we’re doing, that kind of guides us along – knit, pearl, knit, pearl, pearl stitch, knit stich, but – and it’s fun, so it anchors our attention, but it doesn’t consume our full attention at the same time, so we’re able to let our mind wander around to things like ideas and plans for the future.

Our mind has been shown to wander. It has this perspective bias that’s built into it, where when we just let our mind be – if you let your mind be in the shower tomorrow morning or maybe you’re listening to this in the shower in which case, hello – if you just let it be, you wander to think about the future 48% of the time, so about half of the time you’re thinking about the future when you’re letting your mind rest.

People think, “Man, I’m not focusing on anything. I’m so unproductive right now.” But you are productive because you can choose what you do after you let your mind wander. You can set intentions. This lets you shut off autopilot mode to work more deliberately and actually consider your goals before you act instead of just acting on this autopilot mode.

It’s one of those counterintuitive insights where sometimes the best thing we can do to manage our attention is just to not focus on anything at all and let our attention be.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. I dig it. Thank you.

Chris Bailey
Can you dig it?

Pete Mockaitis
I am. I am in fact digging it.

Chris Bailey
You’re digging it. Okay, that’s good to hear that you’re digging it.

Pete Mockaitis
That stat there – 42% or 48%?

Chris Bailey
48%. Our mind wanders to the – I’m going to try and get these numbers right. I might be off by 2%, might be transposing the numbers in my mind, but the future is 48%, it’s half. We also wander to consider the circumstances of the present 28% of the time. The past, only 12% of the time.

We think we only reminisce on the negative, and that’s true, when we go through a personal challenge, that number rises above 12%. But on average we think about the past 12% of the time.

This is why we come up with so many beautiful light bulb eureka insights in this mode when we let our attention scatter. Those numbers don’t add up to 100% and there’s – but the rest is when we’re thinking of ideas that we’ve collected. That’s when we connect all three to come up with beautiful creative insights that make us more productive overall because it lets us work in a more strategic direction.

There’s these kind of these two modes that we have over the course of the day. There’s the focused mode, but there’s the unfocused mode. The two modes are even anti-correlated with one another in our mind. They really complement one another in these ways, where when we’re focusing, we’re doing something productive, but when we’re letting our attention rest, we can choose what to focus on in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool.

Chris Bailey
It’s fascinating, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then you mentioned your book a couple times, Hyperfocus, sort of what’s the main-

Chris Bailey
Low-key plug.

Pete Mockaitis
-message of Hyperfocus all about?

Chris Bailey
Yeah, I like the realm of productivity, but not productivity in a cold corporate sense, but productivity in a sense of just accomplishing more of what’s meaningful and what’s important every day.

There’s a lot of books on time management out. I think there’s more than enough. That market has been long saturated. But I don’t think there are enough books about attention management. Maybe more specifically, the science behind how we should manage our attention.

I noticed this in myself after I wrote the last book that we were chatting about way back when on episode 30-something, The Productivity Project. I noticed that once I had finished that book, I had fewer deadlines in my work right after shipping that project. I was waiting for feedback and I stayed busy, but my work kind of expanded to fit how much time I had available for it. It was kind of Parkinson’s Law in action.

I realized I was tending to a lot of distractions, even though I was giving a lot of people advice that they should tame the distractions in their work. I noticed I was tending to social media more often. I noticed that I couldn’t focus as well as I could have before that book.

I thought if I have this problem as somebody who calls themselves a quote/unquote productivity expert, that’s kind of – it’s a tangent, but I don’t really think anyone’s an expert. I think we just – we’re constantly discovering more questions about things. But if I have this problem, then maybe other people do to.

Maybe the advice that’s out there that we should just tame distractions and become less busy and more focused, maybe that sounds good on the surface, but it doesn’t actually work in practice. That’s really what kicked off this project.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then when it comes to what does work in practice, I guess there’s so many different ways we can slice and dice and present it, but let’s hear it. What are some of your top practices?

Chris Bailey
Oh man, there are so many of them. But I think where’s it’s maybe a good place to start is in how we focus to begin with because our focus has natural rhythms to it the research shows. It’s actually quite simple on the surface. I’ll say the rhythm and you’ll think, “Yeah, that’s obvious.”

But how we focus is we focus on something, our attention gets distracted, either by something external to us or something internal to us. We find ourselves in a daydream that’s unintended and not one we purposefully enter into when we’re knitting or taking a shower. Then once our attention gets distracted, something internal or external comes along, we bring it back.

I think it’s possible to map on top of this natural structure a way by which we can focus better. I think there are four steps that one should follow in order to focus deeper.

First we should choose what to focus on. This is something we don’t do often enough is set intentions for what we want to accomplish. I think there are moments of the day when we have a deliberate focus, when we choose something to focus on, then we focus on that thing.

Then there are the moments when we’re on autopilot mode so there’s no intention behind our actions, where our email inbox becomes our to-do list. We use our phone bouncing around between the same five or six different apps for a few minutes before getting out of bed. There are no gaps in our calendar. Notifications run our life. We kind of go through the motions of the day.

I think our productivity and the quality of our attention is partly proportional to what percent of the day we act with intentionality behind what we’re doing. I think this is an essential first step of focus is in any moment, we’re either focusing on something with deliberate focus, deliberate intention or we’re just on autopilot mode.

Because there are an infinite number of things that we can focus on at any given moment that makes doing this more essential than it ever has been because we have things that vie for your attention.

One thing that is missed in a lot of research on attention and the advice a lot of people give is that it’s not our fault that we can’t focus on what’s important. It’s just the way that our mind is wired. Our attention is fascinating in this regard.

We’re wired to pay attention to anything that has one of three characteristics. We’re wired to pay attention to anything that is pleasurable, anything that is threatening, and anything we find novel. There’s even a novelty bias that is embedded within the prefrontal cortex in our brain, the logical part off our brain, where we release dopamine for every new novel thing we focus on.

This is why it’s so easy to lay down in bed for half an hour bouncing around between the same loop of apps because nothing in our life is more pleasurable or threatening or novel than our phone, so we pay attention to that instead of the day, instead of things that are more meaningful and productive.

I think the first step, choose what we focus, tame distractions after that, focus on that thing, and then bring our attention back to that thing, but, yeah, I don’t want to go on for too long about these four things because then it turns into a monologue and not a podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. That’s really intriguing.

Chris Bailey
I’m fired up. I got to check myself every once in a while.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious when it comes to things which are pleasurable, threatening, and novel, it seems like there could be some nifty approaches that might enable you to trick yourself into finding the task that you quote should be doing in the moment to be one that is more pleasurable, threatening, and novel. Do you have any tips on that?

Chris Bailey
Oh yeah, we can reward ourselves for focusing on certain things. This is I think why taming distractions, why we need to get so ahead of that impulse because in the moment – what we see as a distraction is just an object of attention that is sexier than what we truly want to be doing.

If you’re listening to this podcast, for example, and you have your phone with you and you saw that somebody tagged you in a picture on Facebook, you might pause the podcast and maybe check out the picture and the comments that people left about you or focus on that instead of the podcast. The podcast might present you with more meaning potentially, maybe more productivity later on, but it’s not the most pleasurable thing or novel thing.

I think that’s where to start with this stuff is to eliminate anything that could be more pleasurable, threatening or novel than what we truly want to be doing. This is the key because our attention will always gravitate to something that has any one of these three characteristics.

We look for threats in our environment. In reality, there are no saber tooth tigers encroaching on us building a fire, but the closest threats are maybe we’re with our significant other and we’re having  a nice meal, but CNN happens to be playing in the background, so our attention gravitates toward the red, threatening letters on the screen, the reason the CNN logo is red.

We have to eliminate these things ahead of time. But like you said, it’s possible to kind of trick ourselves into not putting off the things that are important as well.

A little side note on that. My mind is sometimes full of – my mind is like a Medeley database. It’s just full of a lot of studies that I can type a little search query into. One of those studies was conducted by … from Carlton University in Ottawa. Good Canadian, like-

Pete Mockaitis
Eh?

Chris Bailey
-yours truly. Eh, bud. He’s a really good Canadian chap and He found that there are certain attributes that a task or project can have that make us more likely to procrastinate on it. Those are whether something is boring, whether it’s frustrating, whether it’s difficult, whether it’s ambiguous, whether it’s unstructured, whether it’s lacking in personal meaning, or whether it’s lacking in intrinsic reward.
Our most important work usually has several of these and that’s why we hopefully get paid more than minimum wage to do it. The most productive things on your list, the most consequential things, they’re probably not pleasurable or threatening or novel, or as pleasurable or threatening or novel as Facebook or email notification.

We can kind of hack those procrastination triggers to make things more threatening. We can make them more threatening by working with somebody to set a deadline, maybe our boss. We can make it more pleasurable by rewarding ourselves for following through on something. We can make it more novel by maybe setting an artificial deadline.

Instead of saying, “I’m going to work on this report for the rest of the afternoon,” we can say, “I’m going to set a timer for 35 minutes because that’s how long I think I can focus on this thing for and I’m not going to allow myself to work on it past that point.” You work on it for 35 minutes. You get hyper-focused on that task and it’s kind of a shortcut to make it more threatening and novel and pleasurable at the same time.

Yeah, I love that line of thinking that there are things we can do in order to tame these things ahead of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I’m thinking about the novel perspective in terms of you could do it in a different location. It’s like a Dr. Seuss book. It’s like you could do it with a mouse. You could do it in a house.
Okay, cool. That’s handy there. I want to talk a little bit about the natural rhythm in terms of you’ll focus and then you’ll stop focusing. You’ve actually spelled out some timeframes, amounts of time associated with focus and then breaking. How do those times line up?

Chris Bailey
Well, the rhythm that we work in today is very choppy. It’s very chopped up. One of the most alarming statistics – I don’t really find statistics that powerful because you need to map several of them together to really create a picture of how we work because you can never really rely too much on one study, so you have to kind of take them as a painting as a whole and each one of them is a bit of a brush stroke that creates that final vision of the way things are.

The one stat I think that shines brighter above all the others is one that looked at how long we focus on just one thing for in our work before we switch to doing something else. The thing I love about this line of research – this was an institute study. They didn’t bring a mouse into a lab and find that the mouse could only focus on drinking water for five seconds.

They looked at people in an actual workplace and they had logs on their computers. They set up cameras to look at how people focused throughout the day. They did well at first, but then they kind of settled into their natural rhythms.

What the researchers found, what Gloria Mark and I think Mary Czerwinski found, was that on average when we have – when we’re doing work in front of a computer, we only focus on one thing for 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else. This kind of shocked me in a way that I find difficult to explain because once you observe this pattern in the way that you work, it’s difficult to go back to working the same way again.

You look at the cost of constantly switching. There’s a difference between multitasking and rapid task switching I found in looking at the research. Multitasking is doing a few things concurrently, which we can do with habits and things like that.

But when we switch rapidly between things, when we go from checking email to working on a report to looking at Instagram to Facebook to a conversation, our tasks have been shown to take about 50% longer compared to when we do one thing from start through completion.

The reason for this is there is a certain attentional residue that remains in our mind that are fragments from the previous task that we were just focusing on. It’s impossible to go from, for example, having this conversation to checking your email, for an example, because there are certain fragments of this conversation that remain as an aftertaste in your mind.

Because of this, the longer we work on one thing for, the more productive we become because we don’t have that residue that we’re trying to clear as we switch to something else. Because of this, we feel like we’re multitasking, but really we’re just remembering a little bit of the previous tasks that we were doing as we try to focus on a new one.

This is the rhythm by which we operate for so much of the day. We feel busy – I found this in myself. If I sound like I’m kind of chastising people for working this way, I found this in myself, which was the sad part to admit, especially as somebody who considers himself or is often called the productivity expert.

But I notice this in myself that I felt busy, but that I wasn’t accomplishing as much as when I just focused on something for an extended period of time and tamed distractions before getting into that.

When we get off track completely, this is when our productivity really falters. When we get distracted or interrupted completely, whether this is an external distraction or an internal distraction, it takes about 25 minutes to get back on track and resume working on the original task. And we work on 2.5 other tasks on average before we resume that first task.

We fare a bit better when we’re interrupted externally versus internally like our mind wanders or we seek something that’s pleasurable or novel. But this is the rhythm by which we work when we don’t manage our attention deliberately. We’re productive enough to keep up with our deadlines, but we don’t work up to our potential and we don’t feel as rested as we could if we deliberately scattered our attention to.

Pete Mockaitis
A couple things. That 40 seconds, it’s almost hard for me to believe that is true. Could you maybe paint a picture of what that looks like there?

Chris Bailey
Yeah, it’s actually 35 seconds in a lot of cases when we have IM conversations open. When we have apps like – 40 seconds is kind of a nicer finding from the study. I actually found it hard to believe. This study was done by a team of researchers at Microsoft of all places. It was done by Gloria Mark, Mary Czerwinski. I didn’t really believe this myself, so I flew out to Microsoft to ask them about it.

Microsoft, it turns out, has thousands of people who conduct research for research’s sake because I guess Bill Gates believed in doing that I guess, which is nice. It gives us nice insights like this, but this was the rhythm that people worked in when they were doing work on a computer.

It measured kind of the context switching. We switch between windows on our computer a lot, but we switch between different projects more often. This was the switching between projects in that digital context mainly. But yeah, we fare even worse when we have things like IM open in the background. It’s a fascinating rhythm and it’s something that’s worth observing in yourself.

We fare a bit better when we’re in certain tasks above others. For example, having a conversation with somebody, in that context, keep in mind this is a mainly digital context, so if we’re having a conversation with somebody, for example, Pete, you and I were grabbing a coffee. I didn’t bring my knitting needles because the conversation is pretty good, but maybe I’ll keep them in my bag in case there’s kind of a lull and we can’t find things to talk about.

But let’s say one of us leaves our phone on the table. We flip it down so as to be respectful to the other person. Another one of my favorite studies that I encountered in writing Hyperfocus was it looked at coffee shop patrons who brought their phone with them to the coffee shop and flipped it face down on the table.

What they found was that on average, these people checked that phone every three to five minutes. People thought they were investing in the relationship, but still there was that constant switching and that attentional residue from that digital world that prevents us from becoming close with the person ….

They found that the phone on the table interfered with their closeness, connection, even relationship quality. Fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
In short the 40 second thing, you’ve seen it within yourself. You saw it at Microsoft and you absolutely buy that it’s for real.

Chris Bailey
I do in a digital context with that caveat. When we’re having a conversation, it would fare a bit better, but when we’re working in front of a computer, especially when our phone is nearby and especially when we have IM windows open and things like that, we switch contexts more often than we think we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s wild. Okay, so that’s kind of the pace there. What would be an optimal pace? If that’s sort of the standard of what is occurring, what would be ideal?

Chris Bailey
Yeah. It’s a fair question, but the answer is it depends on the type of work that we do. This was something that – I went into writing this book thinking, “Okay, everybody should just focus all day. We should – the longer we can focus for on one sitting, the deeper we’re able to work, the more productive we become and the more we end up accomplishing.”

But there are two types of work that we do over the course of the day. There’s the focus work that we do. For example, a novelist would spend most of their day hunkering down, writing a book. Maybe if they could tame all distractions, leave their phone in another room, have no internet, write it on the typewriter, they could be optimally productive when they cut off the outside world.

On the other side of that focus spectrum, there’s the collaborative and in some cases the hyper-collaborative work that we do. An example of something hyper-collaborative, we’ve all seen the picture of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of Defense, and all those people during the Osama Bin Laden raid.

If everybody in that picture had noise-cancelling headphones on and they were hyper-focusing on that thing and not talking to anybody and … off from external distractions, things may not have gone as well as they did after that picture was taken.

We need to think with the … that are on our plate, where we are on that spectrum. Because if we’re doing something that’s collaborative or even hyper-collaborative, we sometimes need distractions. Often distractions and interruptions are relevant … that we’re currently working on.

But on average we have about 9 to 11 projects that we have on the go at any one time, so the odds that an interruption or a distraction like an email notification relate to what we’re currently doing are in fact pretty low. I think that’s where we have to start with, where we have to think, “Okay, what’s the focus work that I have to do today?” I love playing blocks of time on my calendar where I hyper-focus on these tasks where I’m not available.

But then you have the collaborative things where sometimes it’s good to be interrupted because that’s – collaboration is a process of continuous interruption. We need information from other people. They need information from us, so by interrupting, we can get that information.

It’s fragmented by default in a good way because even though we might not become more productive individually, we become more productive as a system, as a collective group with our team or with whomever we’re working on a project with. I think that’s … start.

Depending on the breakdown of the work we do, we can go from that point to work backward to how much time we should be focusing, hyper-focusing and not.

Pete Mockaitis
It kind of reminds me of the makers versus managers in some of the lean startup-y stuff suggesting that makers, the people who created stuff and produced bodies of work with their intellect, whether they’re coding or designing or writing or editing a podcast or something, need more uninterrupted spaces versus the managers need less of that because they’re more about just kind of look quickly, giving and receiving information that people need to have so that everyone’s coordinated and doing the right stuff.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, yeah. Totally, yeah. One meeting in the schedule of a maker – if somebody’s a coder and somebody schedules a meeting with her like three in the afternoon, that’s going to disrupt that coder’s entire afternoon and maybe even their entire day because that’s kind of a bit of tension in the back of their mind that they have to dedicate toward that one thing.

I think that was one thing that surprised me. I think this speaks to the benefit of experimenting with the research because a lot of the things that sound good on the surface like, “Oh, we should tame every single distraction we face in our work,” don’t really prove to be true when you actually try them on for size.

It speaks to the value of road testing these ideas, but it also speaks to the value of adapting what works for us and leaving the rest because it’s personal … because of that, the advice is personal. We should take what works for us I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. One thing I wanted to dig into in terms of speaking about what works for us is you have a suggestion that we should take a break before we need it, before you’re feeling exhausted, fatigued, bogged down. I’m curious to hear if you have any sort of guidelines in terms of minutes of focus that that is in terms of a range.

For me, what I find, this is been a pattern in the mornings I’ve noticed. It’s like, “Okay, I’m cruising, I’m enjoying it, it’s fun, I’m getting ideas, I’m making connections, I’m flowing and rocking and rolling.” I just sort of go, go, go. Afterwards I go, “Oh man.” It’s sort of like I don’t know when should I say, “I know you’re having fun and enjoying this and being productive, but nonetheless, it would be optimal to stop right now.”

Chris Bailey
Yeah, stop right now, thank you very much. Yeah, when you’re in the zone – here’s the interesting thing about breaks is the more often we have to regulate our behavior, the greater number of breaks we’ll need.

Sometimes people turn to productivity advice for the wrong reason. They hate their job for example, and … find the motivation to do it, so they think, “Okay, maybe … will help.”

If you have to regulate your behavior – and we all have to stuff we don’t want to do, but if your whole day is stuff you don’t want to do, then you’re going to … breaks, because you have to regulate your behavior and more specifically your attention to focus on stuff, pay attention to stuff, to pay attention to conversations, to get stuff done because it isn’t pleasurable or novel enough.

I would start by that point – at that point. The more you need to regulate your behavior, the greater number of breaks that you’ll need.

I would kind of develop a mindfulness, not on a specific number per se. I was looking for the optimal number and there’s been some interesting studies on breaks. I think one study looked at the optimal number of breaks that we need to take to be optimally productive over the course of the day.

I think they found something like for every 57 minutes we work, we need to take a 13 or a 20 minute break or something along those lines. A number that essentially equals out to one and a half hour break for eight hours of work over the course of the day.

But it really depends and this is the tough part about giving advice. I think a reason why this is – what I learned in the process of writing this book – a reason why we should blanket – we should question all the blanket productivity advice that people give. Question the advice that I’m giving. Question the advice that all of the experts on this show are giving.

Question the advice that especially when it’s blanket productivity advice that everybody should do things a certain way because if you love your work more, you’re going to need fewer breaks. If you … your job and you have to – or you hate a – let’s make things a bit less dark.

Maybe you hate a project that you’re in the middle of and you’re slogging through it and you find you definitely need to tame distractions to eliminate anything that’s potentially more attractive at the moment than what you really want to be doing, then you’re going to need more breaks and you should reward yourself because you’re going to need to recharge your attention more often.

But I think as a general rule we need a one hour break in the middle of the day to divide things up and as well as a couple 15 minute breaks here and there, where we don’t focus on social media, but we give our brain an actual rest.

This is … people make when they take a break is when we take a break we need to rest our attention. We need to let our mind wander because that’s how it recharges because by doing so we don’t need to regulate our focus.

When we just switch to tending to our smartphone instead of leaving that behind and going for a quick walk through nature to the coffee shop, it’s just focusing on something else and then moving our mind to focus on something else, and then moving our mind to focus on something else back to work and we feel like, “Uh, okay, I can’t really take this on. I’m just going to look at email for a bit.” And … do.

Find something that’s …, that doesn’t consume your full attention so you get the benefits of doing something habitual that let’s your mind wander and lets you ideate and plan for the future but still rest up a little bit too.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it, thank you. I also liked the study you referenced that revealed that email can consume much more of our attention than it does actual hard minutes of time. Unpack this one for us.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, like meetings are kind of the opposite of this idea, eh? A meeting might take up an hour of – I just dropped an eh, inadvertently Canadian. That would be – if I were to publish a memoir, Inadvertently Canadian would be the title I think.

The research on meetings, we don’t bring a lot of attention to them, but they soak up an incredible amount of time, but email is kind of the opposite. On average, I have the stats in front of me. This isn’t in my mind, so I have to tell you that I’m cheating.

On average we spend about 35 minutes on email each day, but on average we also check it 11 times every single hour, which adds up to 88 times over the course of the day.

This speaks to that 40-second study, email being just one of the things that we switch away from our work to, where we focus on something and the way we work from afar looks kind of odd. If an alien were to come down and look at you working or even just a researcher from Microsoft sets up a camera in your office and in a non-creepy way hopefully. Hopefully they tell you.

But they would find that you go from doing something totally productive, you’re in an Excel sheet, you’re typing up your team’s budget to checking your email another time. Or you’re listening at a conference call and you’re contributing, but then there’s a little lull in it where you don’t need to and so you pick up your phone and stop focusing on that and check your email on your phone. It kind of speaks to that idea.

Email is one of those things that we need to tame ahead of time. One study that is fascinating I think and speaks to this, the fragmented attention that we have, is 70% of emails are opened within the first six seconds that they’re received.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh my gosh, really?

Chris Bailey
I notice this in my newsletter stats. I send out a newsletter whenever I publish something. You can see how quickly people open it. It really is opened pretty quickly.

But we can get ahead of this a little bit by hyper-focusing on email, not keeping it open all the time, but maybe setting – say you deal with an incredible volume of email, perhaps setting a 20 minute timer at the start of each hour and during that time you blow through as many emails as you possibly can and then focus on something for the other 40 minutes that isn’t as time sensitive, so you can get out of that reactive mode.

At most, if an email is urgent, somebody has to wait 40 minutes for a response, which they have to do when you’re in a meeting anyway.

Limiting points of contact is another strategy that I think really helps us become a better custodian of our attention where we don’t need all our devices to light up when we receive an email from Amazon telling us that our order is shipping.

I realized this when I was beginning to write the book and pouring over this research, focusing on it, up until the point I had around 25,000 words of research notes. I was pouring through those. I realized an email, my office would be as bright as a Wal-Mart because my watch would light up, my iPad would light up, … would light up, all because I got a single email.

Deleting the email app off of your phone is one of those powerful things that you can do because it just frees up so much attention for focusing on better things.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes, I am pretty hard core about limiting notifications.

Chris Bailey
Oh good.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you there. Now since you’ve been doing all the research, I love that I can just throw it out to you-

Chris Bailey
Most of the research. There’s probably a few things that are still-

Pete Mockaitis
Every bit of research under the sun, you’ve looked at, which we appreciate your efforts on our behalf.

Chris Bailey
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I was looking at a – from a SaneBox blog. I use SaneBox and I love them for the record. The McKenzie Global Institute found the average employee spends about 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to emails. That’s way more than 35 minutes.

Are you – do we know what the mismatch is there? Is it due to much of the time is just looking at it, like, “Oh hey, there it is,” as opposed to “Huh, I will thoughtfully reply to this now?”

Chris Bailey
Yeah, there would be different methodologies to studying this. Of course different samples. But the ones that I looked at looked at not time logs, but actual logs of, which said that this person was in Outlook for … seconds and then they switched to Excel for 5 minutes 3 seconds. It’s kind of pretty granular the studies that I looked at.

But I would trust the McKenzie name. They definitely have that name. Sometimes a lot of these studies look at time logs that people create for themselves.

Do you know the sample? Maybe they were executives that had those more collaborative type roles, where managers do spend more time in meetings and emails because they play more of that traffic cop role.

It’s back to the maker and the manager idea where managers, another distraction – their day is a bit more distracted and they don’t benefit from these long extended periods of deep focus because they just don’t get them that often.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Chris Bailey
I don’t know if that helps, but-

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it and I think I buy it in terms of if I just look at my actual sent messages on a given day, it’s like okay, well maybe I sent 20 messages and each of them are maybe 1 to 6 sentences on average. It’s like – well, I guess I didn’t have to think super hard to craft each of those. It may very well be perhaps 35 minutes, and yet, it can pop up – I try to minimize it because I know it has that novelty. It’s like, “Oh, what’s that? Let’s take a look.”

Chris Bailey
“Yeah, what’s that in the corner of the screen? Chris Bailey emailed me. That’s a new dish cloth he made.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s very pleasurable.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And sometimes threatening frankly.

Chris Bailey
Well dish cloths can be very – this – yeah, man I have more dish cloths than I know what to do with right now. One of things I’m thinking of doing, just as kind of a side note, is I do a lot of corporate talks and I’m thinking of this would be a cool thing to work into the talk. Talk about knitting and give out a dish cloth that I made for – maybe I’m speaking to McKenzie or something, give out a dish cloth that I made to someone in the audience. It could be fun.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice. Yeah. And they’ll clamor for it. “Who wants a dish cloth?” “Ahh!”

Chris Bailey
“I want a dish cloth. Oh my God.”

Pete Mockaitis
They’ll just go nuts.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, like a rock star. This is how I imagine it in my mind at least.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to hear you have a 20-second rule, which I love, because I love the David Allen 2-minute rule. You’ve got a 20-second rule. What’s the rule here?

Chris Bailey
Yeah, so 20 seconds is a weird number in this way. The research shows that it’s about enough of a temporal distance that something ceases to become distracting or we can use it to bring positive distractions toward us.

I look around my office right now. My meditation cushion is to the right. There’s some nice plants around. There’s a piano to my left, which honestly I haven’t played in a while, so maybe it doesn’t work, but I found it works for other things.

But the idea is if … 20 seconds away, we’re a lot less likely to … into it. If we have a bag of chips that we keep in the basement in the corner in an area that we never go to, that’s a lot less appealing to us than if we keep it in the cupboard in the kitchen and it takes 20 seconds to go down there and fetch them. This is about enough of a temporal distance as something ceases to become a distraction.

We can keep positive distractions around us. I like to keep a lot of books – I have many books around my desk here because they’re a positive distraction. They’re not email. They’re not my phone. My phone is in another room right now. I just looked around to check to make sure I wasn’t lying. My phone’s in another room right now, so I need to leave my office and go to another room in the house. I’m working from home today – in order to fetch it. We can keep distractions that far away.

Another one of my favorite ways of doing this is I’ve relegated/delegated, whatever the hell the word is, I’ve made one device my distractions device. I’ve done this with my iPad. My iPad’s sole purpose is my distractions machine. I check my email, where I don’t have it on my phone and it’s very difficult for me to get to on the computer because my password’s so long.

That’s another use of the 20-second rule, where you keep your password so complicated and long that it takes you 20 seconds to remember and type them in or find them in a certain place. I do that. I use that as a distractions machine and I keep it in another room in the house. It’s … a costly investment. I think our attention is so valuable and that we easily earn that time back in how much more focused we are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. You could even just put your email program, if you have Outlook or Apple Mail underneath or within a folder or two and so it’s like, “Hey, that’s not just one click. You’re going to have to double click something and to double click something else and then open that thing up.” You may take more than 20 seconds to actually pull that off.

Chris Bailey
Or delete email. Or one of my favorite things to do because I get tempted by this even after looking at all of the other research, I get tempted by things like Twitter throughout the day when I’m not – when I don’t have a distractions blocker like Freedom or Cold Turkey or SelfControl enabled.

What I do is I purposefully make – I go to the site and I say change my password, and then I literally – I enter it, open a text document and bang on my keyboard until I have a series of letters and numbers. I paste that into each of the fields. I log out.

Then I need to go through the whole process to reset my password and do the double set verification. Did you make – are you the one who did this. Open up your email. Here’s the reset link. Verify that it’s you. That takes more than 20 seconds, a minute or two. But if I really need to get into Twitter, I’ll get into Twitter, but there will be a cost to doing so that’s at least 20 seconds long.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, Chris, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Chris Bailey
I want to give people something practical. I think we covered most of the stuff.

Honestly, I mentioned distraction blockers for a little bit. I always like giving people some tactical things to walk away with. I think download a distractions blocker while you’re in this mindset of taming distractions because this feeling will be fleeting. It’s easy to go back into working the same way that you did before.

If you’re on the go, open up your calendar app and schedule a little 15 minute block of time, download an app. Freedom is a great example of one. Cold Turkey is a great example of one. SelfControl is a great example of one. RescueTime is a great example of one. Some of these work across devices. Freedom being one of them. Download it and schedule a few blocks of time in your calendar that nobody will book you in that you can use to focus on just one thing at a time.

Tame distractions, enter into this mode, and have some fun with it. Whenever I enter into a distractions-free mode, I like to make a cup of coffee or go to a café if I’m – or maybe I’m on an airplane and I order something off the little menu. Have some fun. Have a coffee. Maybe listen to some music that you like that you find conducive to focus. Focus on what’s important.

You might feel some … at the start. If you do, ask yourself “Could I focus for an hour?” Maybe you say no. “Okay, well 45 minutes?” “Uh.” “30?” “Uh.” “25?” “Yeah, I could focus for 25 minutes,” and you focus for 25 minutes and you take a break and you go from there.

Be kind to yourself because, especially at first – I remember when I was first starting with these ideas in Hyperfocus, I couldn’t focus for a few minutes, but it’s a muscle that you build over time and now I can do it for a few hours just by using these ideas.

Maybe a couple tactical things to end with. Download a distractions blocker, schedule blocks of time in which you can focus and defend the time religiously because your attention is worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote?

Chris Bailey
I love – have you had Seth Godin on the show?

Pete Mockaitis
Not yet.

Chris Bailey
You should. My favorite quote is from him. He said “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” …

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Thank you.

Chris Bailey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Chris Bailey
Book? Probably – it’s a bit hippy bippy. If you get the book, keep that in mind. Again, question everything. But Mindfulness in Plain English. I forget the monk who wrote it, but it’s essentially a book on how to practice mindfulness and meditation. I found it to be so accessible and this is what got me into meditation and mindfulness in the first place. Maybe it will for you too.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Chris Bailey
Habit? I think the distractions-free mode is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Meditation is one of my favorites. Ordering copious amounts of pizza and drinking wine and watching Netflix is also – it’s not a habit, but it’s a nice ritual that kind of – it’s nice.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to do that immediately.

Chris Bailey
Yes. Yeah, if you’re listening to this-

Pete Mockaitis
You’re painting a picture for the end of the workday.

Chris Bailey
If you’re listening to this, forget about the podcast, forget about what we’re talking about, schedule a block of time in your calendar tonight in which you can binge watch Netflix and wine and Indian food or pizza, whatever your style is.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Do you have a final additional call to action for folks?

Chris Bailey
That’s my call to action. Honestly, your attention – the one thing that I learned from looking at hundreds – some people say they looked at hundreds of studies, I read like hundreds of studies front to back and I’m very convinced after doing so that people who say they’ve looked at all the research, haven’t because it’s difficult to read a study from front to back.

The final challenge I will give to you is to use this research to your advantage because if there’s one thing that I uncovered looking at it all it’s that the state of our attention determines the state of our life.

If our attention is overwhelmed in the moment, we’re going to be overwhelmed. If our attention is pulled in a thousand directions in the moment and we’re putting it in a thousand different places in the moment, we’re going to feel pulled in a thousand different directions and we’re going to feel overwhelmed in return.

But on the flip side, if you deliberately manage this ingredient that you have that makes you more creative, it makes you more productive, and you can bring more meaningful things to your attention to actually focus on them and savor them and appreciate them. I think these moment-to-moment things and experiences and events are what accumulate to, at the end of the day, create a life.

The more productive and meaningful and creative things that we focus on, the more productive and creative and meaningful our life becomes. Use this to your advantage. Pay attention to the research, but maybe more important than that, pay attention to what you have to do on a daily basis in order to make your life better because of it. Because it’s worth doing I found. That’s one thing I’d like to impart on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. Well, Chris, this has been a pleasure yet again. Please keep up the great work and congrats on all you’ve done with the book, Hyperfocus, and everything else.

Chris Bailey
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

334: How to Stop Freaking Out and Keep Moving Forward with Maxie McCoy

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Maxie McCoy advises dropping the grand plan of your life in favor of simpler questions to move you forward.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two exercises for discerning your direction
  2. Why you should keep a gratitude journal
  3. Five wise questions to ask your support network

About Maxie

Maxie McCoy is a writer and speaker obsessed with giving women the tools they need to believe in themselves. She writes weekly inspiration on maxiemccoy.com, and is the host and executive producer of the live-audience show Let Her Speak. She specializes in creating meaningful offline experiences for top brands and conferences. Her work has been featured on Good Morning America, Bustle, Fortune, TheSkimm, INC, Business Insider, Yahoo, Marie Claire, GlassDoor, The Huffington Post, Women’s Health and many others.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Maxie McCoy Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maxie, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Maxie McCoy
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’ll get into a lot of really good stuff, and perhaps the best place to start is with your flower obsession. What’s the story here?

Maxie McCoy
You know, where all great podcasts start. So my flower obsession – I really just have this dream of myself in the future where I’m going to own a flower shop at the age of 80. But really where that came from is, I have a ritual every Saturday morning – I go to the farmers market here in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. We’ll get into rituals later, because it’s such a key piece of figuring out where we’re going. And I basically only allow myself a certain amount of cash and I spend it all on flowers. And then I come back and I fancy myself a flower designer and cover my one-bedroom apartment full of flowers. So it’s just flowers galore in here. I can’t really explain it, other than it’s a really fab ritual.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really fab, if I may. I don’t have much in the way of flowers; most days are flowerless in our home.

Maxie McCoy
Oh, no. We need to change that. It’ll bring your home alive.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, one thing I’ve noticed is that every time I pass eucalyptus branches, I go, “Ooh, I really like that!” And so, that seems like a nice little gateway drug, if you will, into bringing them into my home. But someone freaked me out, like, “You want to watch out for mold and for bugs.” It was like, “Uh-oh.” What should I do if I want to get eucalyptus into my life, in the home? Are there any safety tips I need to follow, or what’s the story?

Maxie McCoy
I really think that that’s amazing. First of all, I’m the girl that could kill a cactus. So if I can do it, I feel like you can do it and not have to worry about bugs. But isn’t eucalyptus the one that dries and then stays in a vase for a really long time?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s what I thought.

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, you picked a really good one. And also, eucalyptus makes the air smell amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes! It’s so fresh and alive. It’s like, I’m a little bit more energized, and I love being more energized.

Maxie McCoy
See, and we’re going to talk about that too. So I think that you just need to follow the energy, Pete, and get yourself some eucalyptus.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, already unlocking transformation.

Maxie McCoy
Right here on the flower anecdote.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so with inspirations – you’ve got a lot of them written up at your website MaxieMcCoy.com. And I was sort of cruising through them and enjoying them. What would you say are some of the biggest recurring themes that show up again and again as you’re doing your writing?

Maxie McCoy
There’s a few of them, and I think in order to understand where they come from, it’s important to understand why I started writing to begin with. I actually was spending about 90% of my time on the road, talking to women, building out offline networking communities. So I was building out curriculum and facilitating workshops, and really just focused on having these conversations with young professional women. And there were just so many universal themes that kept coming up.

I was a writer first and writing has always been my first love. I was like, “I have to capture this somewhere”, because these conversations that we’re having in anywhere from groups of 10 to groups of 300 could be brought together for other people to glean from. And what really came out of that, and it’s what you see as you’re cruising around on my site, is this incessant doubt around our future. There are just a lot of these themes of, “Am I doing the right things? Is what I’m feeling normal? How do I handle this doubt? Where the heck am I going with my life?” And really the writings there are one giant love letter to women that they’re not alone, that we’re actually all feeling these things and asking these things, and most of it comes into career as a cornerstone in our life in my writings. So those are some of the big ones.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And so, our audience is mostly women, but not all. I’d say gentlemen too experience some of these questions – the “Where am I going with my life?” obsession, you call it. And so, your book, You’re Not Lost tackles this. And how would you phrase the main idea behind You’re Not Lost?

Maxie McCoy
You’re Not Lost came because in all those conversations I was referencing, it was the one thing – and I’m sure you have this with our podcast also – it’s the one thing that I just kept hearing over and over and over again. And it brought me to the main thesis and the solution that I was trying to create from having heard this so much. It’s just simply that you don’t have to know where you’re going in order to begin; that we can find our way when we tap into a really deep sense of self-belief in order to take small step after small step after small step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I dig this. And I see that you on your site have a reference to Tara Mohr, and we’ve had her on the show, and she’s awesome. That’s one of the top, top downloaded episodes – fun fact – the Tara Mohr episode.

Maxie McCoy
It doesn’t surprise me. Just this morning actually I was sharing on Instagram about this visualization of  my future self, which I actually found from Tara. The amount of comments already this morning on that are just… She resonates so widely with me, with my audience also, and just that concept of some of what we want to figure out in our life, we can do by going forward first.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And so, for the listener, that was the “inner mentor” exercise, where you imagine an older, wiser version of yourself in a pleasant setting, and just see what does your older, wiser self tell you. And it’s almost freaky. I was like, “Wow, that was really wise and helpful.”

Maxie McCoy
So, did you do it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I just made that up. It’s like, “That’s all from me! Whoa!”

Maxie McCoy
“It all came from me.” Wait, I have to know – what was your inner mentor’s name? Because in the visualization exercise, for everybody listening, you have to name your future self. Do you remember what your name was?

Pete Mockaitis
We did it such a rapid pace; it was sort of real time on the show. And so I more just had a visual picture, as opposed to a name. I just thought of him as Peter.

Maxie McCoy
Yes. Kind of like Maxine.

Pete Mockaitis
And I more so resonated with his gray hairs and wrinkles, and yet sort of smiley, joyous demeanor. I was like, “Okay, what does this guy have to tell me?” [laugh]

Maxie McCoy
“Let’s talk about this guy.” Same. I had a very similar experience. It was cool, because kind of what you just said –  we have all of our answers. And a lot of the messaging that I work around is really to help people get to peeling back that onion and just figuring out our own answers. And this is one amazing exercise to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So we got the, “I’m lost. What am I doing? Where am I going with my life?” – that obsession. You say one of the very first steps is to just accept it’s okay to start before you have the whole masterplan step by step laid out. So, what are some of the other first steps that folks should take when they’re wrestling with this one?

Maxie McCoy
I think when you are just kind of obsessed with that question, there’s a lot of people out there that are going to tell you to find your passion or figure out your purpose, which honestly – and I don’t want to offend anyone – I kind of think it’s B.S., because we’re all really smart people; if we knew the answer to that, we’d be doing it already. And so, it really is more of getting us into action, to a place that we’re going to be able to really level up the answer to some of those really big questions. And at a macro view kind of figuring out, “Where is my life going?” really is about dropping the obsession with the big picture and stepping into the unknown.

I am a reformed goal junkie and then some. I used to live my life by a masterplan, but there’s a number of things that happen when you do that. We’ve all been there, where we’ve achieved the goal, then feel completely empty about it, whether we’ve done that at work or whether we’ve done that in our own lives. We’ve set this bar for ourselves and we get there and it’s like, “Well, this doesn’t really feel like anything.”

Or we don’t have the ability to even conceptualize the masterplan. The feeling of loss comes from both of those, and just at a macro view, when we can tap into our own power and be willing to step into the unknown, we’re going to create the path as we go. That is what starts to open up the, “Oh, I actually do know where this is going.” But you’re not going to think your way to that answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that, I dig that. And I think sometimes people will identify a passion, like, “I love the violin! Oh, but that’s really not practical. You can’t make a career on the violin. Only a dozen people per town.” Whatever, it can go to a symphony. So, I’m intrigued by that. You say if you knew it, then you’d be set.

Maxie McCoy
You’d already be doing it, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking, sometimes you have some inklings, but it feels sort of impractical or not possible. So, what do you do with that one?

Maxie McCoy
You’re totally right, that there are some of these that can feel impossible. However, if something is moving you forward, actually so much possibility is there. I’d even say in my own life working in women’s leadership and talking to women for a living really… My background was sports broadcasting even though this was always my passion – really did always feel outlandish until some of the small decisions and choices that I made led me here.

And I think instrumentally these high-level, like being a pro athlete or a concert pianist – those things could absolutely be hard to achieve, and to make a life and to grow, but in the context of our own jobs, when we’re able to tap into that inkling and know it may not be about the fact that you love playing the violin and that’s where you want to make your living; it may just be that you want to be a bit more creative. You might be in a data job, but the violin is really speaking to you, and then really understanding why is that, what are the qualities about this that are pushing me forward? And I think when you start to tap into that energy and ask yourself, “Why?”… We’ve heard the exercise – I’m sure all of us – you ask yourself “Why” three times and it can really get at what that inkling might be able to tell you, even if it feels really not remotely possible. There’s some kind of nugget there.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. So with the violin piece – when you go into some “Why’s”, let’s just see how this might work. You might be, “I love the idea of being able to be immersed in something for hours at a time without interruption, and feeling like I’m being pulled in 10 different directions from all these different stakeholders who want a piece of me.”

Maxie McCoy
And I ask you, “Okay, Pete. But why?”

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. I don’t actually play the violin, so I’m trying to imagine a violin player.

Maxie McCoy
You want to know what’s funny? I do play the violin.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding! Maybe my subconscious picked that up as I was reading about you.

Maxie McCoy
It’s kind of incredible. It’s by my feet, which is amazing. That’s so good.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you tell me. So maybe the “Why” associated with that – I’m just going to guess – and then you give me another example. So, with the violin, “I like the sense of going deeply immersed into something and not be pulled in many directions, because I feel like I am getting a sense of learning and growth and mastery from getting to spend that extensive focus time.” And if I go “Why” again, it can be like… Or in some ways I almost feel like …, “Because that sensation is awesome, and I’d love it.”

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, and you’re feeling very alive or very energized. And it does come back to that sensation. I think what builds into so much of the joy that we have in our careers is like, “Where are we spending our time and the feelings that we’re getting out of that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. So, give us maybe another “three why” example that you’ve seen with some folks you’ve worked with.

Maxie McCoy
So I think that when you’re breaking down, whether it’s energy or expression, really figuring out who we are, is a really amazing first step in progressing this question along. I am always asking myself and others, “How can you be the highest possible expression of yourself? What does that actually look like?” And then when you are able to distill down what the expression of you looks like and ask yourself, “Why that matters, why that matters, why that matters”, you can really get at all of the molds and the limits that were keeping you from being that person.

And the reason I think that this is really important in the grand scheme of figuring your path out is, there’s so much telling us to be different and there’s so much telling us that we need to change before we begin, but actually we just need to take all of the things that people have told us to do differently and to be differently, flip it on its head, and you actually have an inverse formula, specifically for being the highest possible expression of who you are, which is going to directly correlate to the things that energize you. And I think when you can ask yourself “Why” three times, and doing this often, it really gets down into, “Why does it matter that I am the most me, and who does she or he actually look like in that?”

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say “inverse formula”, can you talk a little bit more about that? What are we doing?

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, so we’re basically converting all of the things people have told us to change and flipping it on its head. So if I’ve been told that I talk a lot, or that I’m loud, or that I’m taking up too much space – it’s really just flipping it and doing all of those things, and doing more of those things, of the things that come so innate into who we are, they make up who we are. And those become what an expression of us looks like, and not changing them, and not trying to fit into other people’s molds, because molds are just limits. They pull down on who we are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. And I think in some ways, you want to exercise a bit of prudence there, because on the one hand if someone says, “Pete, you’ve always got your head in the clouds. You’ve got to be more practical” – I can imagine inverting that like, “Coming up with new ideas and innovation is a real strength of mine. And so, I’m going to run with that and make it happen.” Versus if it was like, “Pete, you drink so much, you embarrass yourself and everybody else around you” – I’d rather not flip that, like, “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

Maxie McCoy
No, I think an asterisk is really important. You give a perfect example of where those things can really matter and where they cannot really be relevant to as much of a career conversation. But yeah, you’re totally spot-on. I think it’s more values and characteristics-driven as we’re trying to apply our talent into whatever it is that we’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Alright, so those are some great steps to get the wheels turning in some really positive directions. I’m wondering, once you’ve begun, what do you do next?

Maxie McCoy
What do you do next? I’m really glad that you asked that. I think once the wheels are turning, there’s a couple of things and exercises that are just really powerful to get you to continue moving. We talked a little bit about going forward and talking to that future self, per Tara. But I think coming back to this “What energizes me” conversation, because that’s going to point you like a compass where it is that you should be stepping.

Reflecting here is really, really powerful. I think looking back at your work – if you’re in a place where you feel stuck or your feel a little bit unhappy or you’re feeling like you have no idea where you’re going – going backwards and asking yourself, “Where are all of the places that I’ve felt the most energized?” Energized can be a little amorphous, so I think breaking that down even further and asking yourself, “Where have I felt proud? Where have I done things where I’ve completely lost track of time?” We hear that one a lot. Where have you really felt deeply connected to your power? And just listing out whatever comes up, you’ll start to see that there are probably a lot of similarities in some of the types of work that you’re doing.

And then to put action around those, because that’s what actually matters. Just what you were saying, getting that wheel turning is not so much about creating the grand plan, but just asking yourself the simple question of, “What is the absolute smallest thing I can do right now to put any of that energy into motion?”

In my own life, one of the biggest life-changing things that’s ever happened to me came from a tiny, tiny decision. And a lot of what happens in our life isn’t because we took this giant big leap; it’s because we made one really small decision that ended up setting us off on a very exciting and different course, and we kept taking those steps and we kept taking those steps, but it started somewhere. For me that was about six and a half years ago. I’d been in sports broadcasting, I wasn’t yet in women’s leadership. I was feeling more lost than I had ever felt, and I was like, “Shoot. I have got to go back to the things that make me me, the things that I really care about.”

And I took myself actually through some of this, “Where have I felt the most proud and energized in my life?”, and it all came down to writing and women’s stories. So, I decided to sign up for a writing class. And it was a tiny decision at the time. It was just a difference of like, “Can I afford this 7-week class or not?” And I was like, “I’m just going to do it, because I need to be exercising this energy that makes me feel alive.”

And that ended up leading me directly to the startup that put me into women’s leadership, why I started being on the map, traveling and talking to women – because a woman in that writing class handed me the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle business section and was like, “Hey, there are these women who are building a company based on all the things that you care about.” And I think that’s what we underestimate, is we have no idea how it’s all going to play out. Life is so not linear, there’s just no way to tell these things. But if we can get into a place where we’re really willing to do that absolute smallest thing to follow the energy, it could truly lead us anywhere, and that’s where the path starts to open up.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I’d also like to get your take when it comes to the instincts and what they’re serving up. How do you think about doing the trusting of instincts, versus the digging deeper and exploring and evaluating what the instincts are pointing you to?

Maxie McCoy
I think it’s a fine balance of knowing, “Do I trust this? Is this just anxiety and fear coming up? Or do I need to go a little further, do I need to ask some people?” I think we can actually answer that ourselves when we come back to us. One of the things that I think we lose track of is how much time we’re spending in other people’s lives, which makes it really hard to evaluate any of those instincts, because we’re so not tapped into our own power.

These stats get referenced all the time, but the fact that a third of us feel unhappy and envious following our most recent social exchange – that just tells us that there is a direct correlation to how we’re feeling and how outside of ourselves we’re getting to even know what our instincts are saying, much less trusting them enough to do anything about it.

But I think with instincts specifically, this one’s a little off the map, but I love it so much and I’m on a crusade to bring back superstitions and lucky charms. Hold with me – it’s not as crazy as it sounds. When you are starting to get onto this path and you’re taking action and the fear shows up, and the gut instincts are showing up and you don’t know if this is right or if you should even follow it – there’s a lot that we can do to ritualize our highest potential.

So, doesn’t matter what this is. I can tell you what mine are, but there’s a reason that top athletes and people are using the sign of the cross a million times, or have their lucky underpants. There are so many examples of people doing this. And there was actually a study that found – they did this specifically with golfers – that when you hear, “I’ll cross my fingers for you”, or you’re given a lucky ball, they do better. They do better than those who didn’t hear those things or weren’t given a golf ball.

And so, we all have the power to kind of ritualize that experience. For me I have an Oprah candle that I light for myself before really big days. I also light it for other people. It’s this long candle that has Oprah’s face on it, because I’m obsessed with her.

Pete Mockaitis
Oprah gave you this candle? What is an Oprah candle?

Maxie McCoy
Oprah did not give me the candle. It just is an old devotional candle that has Oprah’s face on it. She’s my religious experience, but that’s beside the point. So, it’s become a joke now amongst me and all of my friends, like, “I’ll light the lucky Oprah candle for you.” And I light it for myself, and it’s not just superstition and lucky charms; it’s really proven to help our performance.

And so I think when you’re talking about, “I’m feeling this, I’m not trusting it” or, “I don’t trust myself”, there are some very real things we can do, like coming back to ourselves by getting out of the world of everyone else. And then, how can I use a lucky charm or a superstition to improve my performance? Which is going to feed back, loop cycle back to you feeling more confident and doing even more.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s really cool about the lucky charm or superstition or ritual piece is that whenever I go deep into scientific journal article reading, which is surprisingly often; I’m not a scientist.

Maxie McCoy
I’m not that surprised by that, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just curious and I want to know the truth. So I’ll get after it. One thing that really strikes me is how the placebo is really pretty good. It’s like when we compare something against the placebo, and they’re like, “Oh, it didn’t do any better than the placebo.” It’s like, “Yeah, but the placebo did pretty good on its own.”

Maxie McCoy
The placebo is pretty powerful, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe I should just sell placebos and look at all the results that get claimed. I don’t know, maybe FTC or somebody has cracked out on that. But I guess the placebo effect doesn’t really work unless you believe that there’s something that’s at work.

Maxie McCoy
Is being done, yeah. Do you have a lucky charm yourself?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know about…

Maxie McCoy
No Oprah candles over there?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know if I’d call it a “lucky charm”, but I had a rosary that turned gold when I was in a pilgrimage location.

Maxie McCoy
No way!

Pete Mockaitis
Way, yeah. And actually it’s funny because a lot of people say this happens. So I was checking it every few hours when I was there. It’s in a tiny village in Bosnia. So that’s pretty cool, because it’s like something miraculous and supernatural happened here. And so, if there’s something really big happening, I do want that by me, because it’s like, “This got a heavenly touch and I’d like that to be near me in this moment.”

Maxie McCoy
It’s powerful. And I think knowing what those things are for you… I am so blown away by that story; that’s incredible. Yeah, I would keep it by you and in your pocket at all times.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s fallen apart a few times. I’ve had to try to repair it, because it’s been around.

Maxie McCoy
Can I borrow it?

Pete Mockaitis
If you are next to me. While we’re in the same room you can have it in your pocket. So, whether it’s a lucky charm or an item from heaven, or a placebo – there’s something to that. I also want to get your take… On your website you have one of the most interesting hashtags that I’ve ever seen, and it’s #batshitgrateful. [laugh] I was like, “Boy, there’s a combination of words, and I think I love it.” So could you unpack a little bit of that? What does that mean?

Maxie McCoy
I absolutely can. I’m trying to remember the genesis of this particular hashtag, but I really think it just came from a place of being so grateful, #grateful was not enough for me. And people say “batshit crazy” often. I was like, “No, I’m not crazy. I’m grateful.” And then “batshit grateful” was born. And for me, kind of going back to that ritual conversation and the power of gratitude – I ended up ritualizing in my own life because things were just getting crazy and I was trying to find a way to ground back into myself so I could listen to take these little steps that were opening up on my own path.

People talk about gratitude journals all the time, and every year I felt like I was writing New Year’s resolutions, “This is the year that I’m starting the gratitude journal.” But it actually wasn’t until I read Oprah’s What I Know For Sure, which is one of my favorite books. And she talks about in her career, and at the height of her career, she was feeling a lot of unfulfillment in her own work. And when she looked at the reason for that, she brought it all down to the fact that she had stopped a gratitude journal that she had done for decades, because things were at the height, it was getting crazy. She had more than she’d ever had, and yet it wasn’t feeling like enough.

And I just had this light bulb moment of, “Okay, if Oprah felt like that then, then I sure as heck have to get my head wrapped around feeling grateful for what’s going on in my life right now.” And there is so much to back this up. One of the things that has always stuck with me about gratitude journaling is that if you do that for five minutes, it increases your long-term well-being by more than 10%. And 10% is the same impact as doubling your income. So you can feel the effects of doubling your income just by gratitude journaling for five minutes a day. And that really sums up the practice of being “batshit grateful”, but the hashtag as it is is just a way for me to just put out in the world that I am so grateful for where I’m at, even though I have a million places that I want to go.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s cool about even just the concept of being “batshit grateful” is like being crazy – it’s sort of over the top. It may make people go, “Whoa”. Nonetheless, it really is wonderous that, whatever – you have delicious food available to eat, or that you can summon a Lyft or an Uber, they just snap up, from your phone you can contact anybody in the world and be in touch with them.

Maxie McCoy
You can have Pete’s voice on your phone any morning you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, so much to be grateful for.

Maxie McCoy
It really is so much.

Pete Mockaitis
My voice. And so, with the gratitude journal, could you unpack a little bit what happens in these five minutes? So you’re feeling grateful, you’ve got a pen and paper, and what are you doing?

Maxie McCoy
I think that you are just reflecting on your day. And when I say “I think”, I mean you’re reflecting on your day. You’re coming up with, no matter how bad your day was, no matter how good your day was, what are a few things? I always encourage to do three; two of those being, what are the things that you’re grateful for outside of yourself? So, what you just said – “I had a really amazing meal”, “I got to FaceTime with my best friend, who lives in another country.”

And then really taking that third, that last piece of the stuff that you’re jotting down and asking, “What am I grateful for myself for?” So whether that is, “I had a lot of motivation today and really got a lot done” or, “I feel like I handled that conversation really well” or, “I was really honest.” Just being able to be grateful to yourself, not just to the things happening to you. I do three. I jot down three and give a lot of detail. You could do five, if you wanted to do that every day. And it really is piecing out what are the things, no matter how simple, that you are feeling particularly grateful for that day.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice piece there. So when I’m doing gratitude stuff, it’s usually in prayer. I think of three to five-ish things that happened the last 24 hours. And I took that form Shawn Achor and his Happiness Advantage work – an amazing book.

Maxie McCoy
Amazing book.

Pete Mockaitis
And then I think of three to five things that I’m grateful for, just in general, that are generally great, like it’s pretty cool that I have a baby. But then you’re adding a whole another dimension there, in terms of grateful about yourself, because I think it’s quite easy to criticize. I see my shortcomings all the time.

Maxie McCoy
All the time. Our brain is wired for that. We’re kind of wired for criticism.

Pete Mockaitis
And so it could be, “I’m grateful that yesterday I was able to do four podcast interviews, even though I was feeling really hot and tired. And they were great.” So, that’s something to feel good about, in terms of what I could do there.

Maxie McCoy
Exactly. That’s exactly it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Maxie, tell me – anything else you want to cover before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, I think that we’ve talked a lot about this internal journey that we can have in order to kind of figure out where your life is going. But I think one of the things that we don’t talk about enough is how in certain situations, external validation from the people that we love the most and who are some of our biggest cheerleaders can really have an impact on us believing in ourselves enough to take these actions.

And so, the last thing that I would say, just in terms of what can make a really big impact in figuring out where it is you want to go – and this was one of the more transformational exercises I’ve ever done in my life – is really surveying. And we hear this a lot, about getting 360 degree feedback, doing peer reviews. There’s so much here on why this works, when it comes to our own self growth. But really figuring out where people see you and where they see your potential and your value, can eventually help you get there. You eventually will start to believe in yourself and the way that they see you and that they believe in you.

For me what I had done was, I had a friend who put together five questions. She sent them out in a typeform to around 15 to 20 of my closest, I call them “cheerleaders” – people who are your biggest fans and believe in you and have your best interests at heart. And we asked them what makes me irreplaceable, what is my superpower, what’s holding me back, where they thought I would be five years from now, and then anything else they wanted to say about my potential or my value or my talents.

And then that friend actually synthesized all the information to me and delivered it to me in person, and then gave me all the raw data. And I am telling you, Pete, my life – this was years ago – I am literally living the life that is in that spreadsheet of answers right now, because they saw it. I just was too scared to do anything about it, but knowing that these people believed in me and what they saw started to open up me being able to see what that North Star might be, and how to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool, that is bold. Can you lay it out – what are a few of those questions that got in there?

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, the five are: What makes you irreplaceable? What’s your superpower? What’s holding you back? What are you up to five years from now? And then any additional notes on talents, potential, or unique value.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And what I like is that it’s a positive. We had a guest talking about self-awareness – it was Tasha Eurich. Self-awareness and talking about doing dinner of truth. And that’s really cool.

Maxie McCoy
Super cool, but I don’t want to be there.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds pretty spooky, whereas those questions do have some constructive stuff – “What’s holding you back?”, to deal with. But most of it is going to make you feel awesome.

Maxie McCoy
And sometimes you need that. We’re hard enough on ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s cool. Well, thank you for that.

Maxie McCoy
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me now – how about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maxie McCoy
I find this incredibly inspiring. You can tell me how you feel about this, but it’s from an artist named Ashley Longshore. She’s incredible, one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram. But she says, “Instant gratification will get you stone drunk or pregnant. Everything else is going to take some time.” I think it’s just a really funny way, and I say it to myself often to just have some patience with any of the things – with ourselves, with trying to figure all of this out. We’ve just got to stick at it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Maxie McCoy
The McKinsey study – I think this was late 2015 – specifically around advancing women’s equality, which is the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025. And for me that’s just a reminder of why this work matters.

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

Maxie McCoy
Lilac Girls. So this one is Martha Hall Kelly. I read it, I’m obsessed with it. In all of this self-help work that we’re all always doing, I have transitioned my mind at night to being obsessed with fiction, and this is just one of my favorites. It’s got some complex female characters that I dig.

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

Maxie McCoy
So, I use and love – and this goes back to the gratitude journaling – an app called Reflectly. It’s a daily gratitude journal where you rate your day, and then you can see over the course of time what your metrics are, like how happy you’ve been over the course of a week, through the course of a month.

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

Maxie McCoy
Am I allowed to talk about the Oprah candle again? Because that’s just hands down my favorite habit. I light her every day. And by the way, I buy her in bulk.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect or resonate with your people, and you hear it quoted back to you frequently?

Maxie McCoy
Yeah, this quote around, “You never know who you’re inspiring” gets retweeted all the time from me, because I think it’s just a reminder to all of us that our actions, even if they feel small and insignificant – our actions, our stories, our voice – it all really matters so much. You have no idea the impact you’re having on other people.

Pete Mockaitis
And Maxie, if folks want to get in touch or talk to you, where should they go?

Maxie McCoy
Please, I love talking to people. It’s MaxieMcCoy.com. You can email me directly at an inbox I do check, at hello@maxiemccoy.com. Or quickly, I’m always fast on social. It’s @maxiemccoy, Instagram and Twitter.

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

Maxie McCoy
I really think that everyone should do this survey about their humans, and just get that feedback and believe them. I also put the survey in my book, which is You’re Not Lost. It’s on any of the major retailers. You can find out a little bit more about the story and how to do that there.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Maxie, this has been a ton of fun.

Maxie McCoy
So fun!

Pete Mockaitis
Thanks so much for sharing your take, and good luck with the book You’re Not Lost, and all you’re doing!

Maxie McCoy
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so batshit grateful to be here.

327: Unclog Your Brain through Unfocusing with Dr. Srini Pillay

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Dr. Srini Pillay shares why focus is over-rated and how unfocusing yields boosts to creativity and more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five disadvantages of focus
  2. How hobbies and whole days off re-energize your brain
  3. The types of thinking that activate your creative brain

About Srini

Dr. Srini Pillay is a globally recognized, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. As CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, he works with non-profits and Fortune 500 companies globally to help people understand how to manage risk, uncertainty, and volatility, and to harness creativity. He is an in-demand keynote speaker and has been featured on CNN, Oprah Radio, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes, and Fortune.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Srini Pillay Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Srini, thanks so much for joining us here on How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Srini Pillay

Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, you wear a lot of hats, and one of them that’s pretty interesting right now is you’re writing a musical. What is the story behind how you started with this and what’s it about?

Srini Pillay

The musical’s actually a love project of mine that I’m pretty serious about. My vision is to have it be on Broadway. I’m a trained musician, so I do have a background in music. And I had been studying jazz piano when all of a sudden I had the literal thought of wanting to find my voice. And I decided I wanted to exchange seats with my piano teacher and start singing improvisationally. And so I did. And one thing led to another, and all of a sudden I realized that there were all these things in my head that wanted to come out, that I was only churning out through planned processes.
And so I decided to just let a bunch of songs happen, and so composed the words and music to them. Last year I composed about 40 songs, and this year I’m going back into them, reworking them, and have fashioned what came out into a story that I think wanted to be told. And the title of the musical is Dance of the Psyche, and it’s about a young man’s existential plight and evolution through his adolescence and into his adulthood, recognizing that parsing everything into black and white is not always life’s best answer, that sometimes the gray is.
And there’s a definitive narrative that I don’t necessarily want to spoil, through which the music takes us. So, for me it was a love project as it incorporated not just my background in music, but because probably close to 50% of the musical is actually psychological construct singing, it gave me a lot of creative energy to think about human psychology and then to imagine what characters like Paradox or Anxiety might like to sing. So that’s the story behind it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh boy. Well, I think you have a hit on your hands. And if I could be so bold as to ask you to get a comp ticket before they cost $300, because I really want to see it. And what I’m thinking of right now is the movie Inside Out, which was a hit, and really was quite fascinating how they gave character and life to these emotions. Have you seen it? Did you enjoy Inside Out?

Srini Pillay

I didn’t see it. Everybody talked about it.

Pete Mockaitis

You’re going to love it.

Srini Pillay

Yeah. No, I’m excited and you’ve got that ticket.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. I’m just getting a little bit more bold. While you’re on the spot, I’m just going to demand things from you. [laugh] If I could keep you on the spot for a bit, would it be too much to ask if you could sing one line for us, just to wet the appetite?

Srini Pillay

There are so many lines to think about. When Paradox introduces himself, he says, [singing] I am Paradox / the torture of contradiction. And this here is Clarity / my enemy.

Pete Mockaitis

“My enemy”. So there’s already a conflict, some tension to be worked through there. Well, thank you. Thanks for playing along.

Srini Pillay

Sure.

Pete Mockaitis

So now, tell us a little bit – your company is The NeuroBusiness Group. What do you do?

Srini Pillay

So NeuroBusiness Group essentially helps leaders improve both the quality of their lives and their productivity. And by “quality of life”, what I’m referring to is learning how to manage anxiety, how to manage uncertainty, how to make it through change processes and enhance creativity, while simultaneously always keeping an eye on productivity, to be able to reach their goals. So, what I do is, my background is in psychiatry and in brain science and executive coaching. So I combine my knowledge as a psychiatrist to understand human psychology, with executive coaching where I understand leadership development, together with brain research where I use brain-based paradigms to help people develop frameworks to create the behavior change that they want.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love it. So you’ve already laid out a lot of relevant things that we love to know about here, as well as have some real research-based background and good stuff to add credibility to it. I’m so excited to dig into it. And so, you share a good bit of that wisdom in your book Tinker Dabble Doodle Try. And I have to ask, if the movie / book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was an inspiration for the title at all, because it really rolls off the tongue well? There’s something appealing about the way those words go together; I don’t know what we call that.

Srini Pillay

Yes, absolutely. It was definitely a riff on that title, and I think it just captured so much of what I wanted to say about how I think I have seen leaders and people really at all levels of the workforce live their lives more effectively. And that was a big inspiration for writing the book as well.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, is there sort of a central thesis or a main idea that you unpack, or is it more of an amalgamation of many tidbits?

Srini Pillay

I think it’s both. I think the central thesis in the book –  because the subtitle is Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind – I think a lot of people believe that in order to be effective at work, you just need to focus throughout the day. So their general days are focus, focus, focus, fatigue, and that’s the end of the day. And what this book describes is how building in periods of unfocus into your day strategically can actually help your brain out, and contrary to what people think, continuous focus can actually be a problem. So, in the book what I outline is, when focus is a problem, and then how unfocus can solve those problems and specifically what people can do in those 15-minute periods to maximize their productivity.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, intriguing. And so, could you unpack a little bit of that? So, when does focus become a problem, and what’s the benefit of deliberately putting that unfocused time in there?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. There are a couple of disadvantages of focus. The first is that focus depletes the brain of energy. And studies have actually shown that if you take two groups of people and you ask one group to really focus on a video, and the other group to watch the video as usual, what you actually find is that after that if you ask them to solve a moral dilemma, the group that hyper-focused doesn’t care less, whereas the group that watched it as usual actually starts to care. And when you feed the group that hyper-focused glucose, they start to care again – indicating that focus can cause brain fatigue and compassion fatigue.
So if you’re someone who’s at work thinking, “God, I couldn’t care less about what these other people are doing”, or if you are a leading a team and you want to understand why it is that people are not pulling their weight in the team or they don’t seem to be helping one another – fatigue can deplete the brain of energy. So that’s the first disadvantage of focus.
The second is that focus actually is great if you’re just on task, but it also creates blinker vision, and as a result you can’t see what’s happening in the world. So for example, An Wang was somebody who discovered the word processor. And while he was busy making the second version, the PC was launched, but because he wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around him, he missed that and actually became bankrupt. So, you want to not be paying attention to what’s in front of you; you want to be paying attention to what’s in the wings as well.
The third thing is that focus makes you work with your nose to the grindstone, so effectively you’re just looking at what’s right in front of you, and as a result you miss upcoming trends. So you’re not seeing that robots may take over your job, you’re not seeing that when there’s a merger of your company with another company, it could impact your position, and as a result you don’t really anticipate the future. So focus prevents you from anticipating the future.
The fourth thing is that focus also prevents you from being creative. So, a lot of people, when they’re focused, work in silos. A classic example is Gillette, that had a toothbrush division and a battery division, and they were late to market as a battery-powered toothbrush. That’s because each division was so focused on itself, they were not able to actually make connections across divisions.
And the last thing is that focus itself is really useful for identity, if you want to describe yourself like your LinkedIn profile. It’s like the opposite of what you do. You knew that this was about a work-related thing, but you ask me about things outside of that. And part of that is that it gets me engaged in the essence of who I am. And focus is like a fork – it picks up all the concrete parts of your identity, whereas unfocus is like a spoon that picks up the delicious mélange of flavors of your personality. It’s like chopsticks that makes connections across different parts of the brain, or like a toothpick where it goes digging into nooks and crannies in your brain.
So, those five reasons – the fact that focus can deplete your brain of energy, number one; number two, focus can give you blinker vision; three, focus prevents you from seeing the future; four, focus prevents you from being creative; and five, focus prevents you from being yourself – are the reasons that I believe that it’s important to have focus. Of course, I’m a fan of focus, but also, to build unfocus into your day, because it’s unfocus that will give you energy, allow you to see within the periphery, it will allow you to see what’s lying ahead, it will make you more creative and more self-connected too.
And that’s the reason I wrote the book, because I wanted people to understand how they could become more unfocused, and strategically. Because there are definitely ways of being unfocused that do not work, like just being distracted is not helpful. But the brain actually has an unfocus circuit, which we call the “default mode network” that you can activate in very specific ways.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s powerful and well-stated, in terms of five key things we can get our arms around, as well as rich metaphors. And “delicious mélange” is a phrase, the first time it’s been uttered on the show, and it needs to be said more. So, I like that. I need some more delicious mélanges literally and metaphorically, I think, in my world.
Well, the one that really hit me hardest, I think, on a personal level is when you talk about depleting compassion. And I think about how in my work day, I do a lot of focusing, being self-employed. Many people’s work days have, say, meetings that they don’t really need to be paying much attention to, for a good portion of them. I have none of that in my work day. It’s like every bit is scheduled and planned and requires focus.
And sure enough, I am pretty tuckered at the end of the day, and at times when my wife has requests or needs or thoughts, I think my compassion is much less accessible or ready to go than it is in the beginning of the day when she makes those same kinds of requests. And so, that’s a pretty powerful implication, just for the human condition and us being the people that we want to be.

Srini Pillay

It really is. And I think a lot of people are very hard-working, so they don’t even realize that they’re depleting their brain of this energy by just focusing. And they don’t even realize that the absolute truth is that every one of us daydreams for 46.9% of the day. So, what that means is that when we are focusing we’re depleting our brains. When we’re daydreaming, we’re trying to replenish our brains but we’re not doing it in the right way. There are ways that you can daydream that are really good for your brain, and there are ways that are not good.
And if you look at the workforce today and you look at Gallup statistics over the last few years, the engagement worldwide of workers is 13%, which means 87% of people worldwide are not engaged in their jobs. Now, it’s different in North America – it’s a little higher. It’s 30% are engaged in their jobs, but that still means that 7 out of 10 people are not really engaged. So, we’ve got to ask ourselves what are we doing, showing up to work the way we do? And are we just going to be going through the world with essentially half a tank of gas every day, deplete ourselves, and then do it all over again every day? At which point are we going to say, “You know what? I want my brain to be operating at its optimal, and I want my brain to be working in a way that it can work”? And I think we actually do ourselves a disservice when we deplete our brains of energy with focus.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I’d like to get into some of the particulars of the dosage and frequency and application of unfocus time. You mentioned 15 minutes. How should we think about, first of all, the scheduling of focus versus unfocus? Is there a sweet spot in terms of interval or ratio, or how do you think about that?

Srini Pillay

I think it’s different for different people, but there are some general frameworks. I’ll just say off the bat, one of the things that I like to say is that even though I’m going to be speaking in pretty pithy ways and doing a lot of “1, 2, 3” types of things, I don’t believe that everything works for everyone, and I think that everything that I’m presenting is a framework, even when there is a lot of research behind it. I still think that when people walk into my office, every person is different.
Having said that, when I say this to people, they say, “Oh, I’ve got no time to unfocus.” And what I say is, “Actually, you spend 46.9% of your day unfocusing. Why not learn to unfocus in a more productive way?” The second thing is, think of when your brain is in a natural slump anyway – either directly after lunch, middle of the afternoon, or the end of the day – start slowly by building in one or two 15-minute periods into your day, and do this every day. If you want to change that up because you want your unfocus periods to be at different times, then change that up. And if you say to yourself, “I can’t unfocus. Other people will be looking at me at work” – we’ll go through some of the techniques and you’ll see that there are things that you can do, even practically during your work day, that would really help you.
So, there are a few techniques which maybe I’ll mention off the bat. So if you’re at work and you’re thinking, “Okay, I heard this guy talk to me about why unfocus is important, and I buy it. I probably get a lot of my best ideas when I’m in the shower, I probably get my best ideas when I least expect them. Why don’t I just learn to unfocus? Well, how do I do that?” Here are a few techniques. The first is called “positive constructive daydreaming”. And at first that may just sound a little absurd, like how can daydreaming be positive and constructive?
Well, it’s been studied since the 1950s. Jerome Singer was one of the people who studied this phenomenon, and he found that slipping into a daydream is not helpful, and ruminating over the prior night’s indiscretions – maybe you had too much to drink and you said stuff you shouldn’t have said at a party – that kind of rumination is not helpful the next day either. However, what is helpful is positive constructive daydreaming. And I would ask people to just take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the three steps so that you can practice it. The first is, find a 15-minute period, either during your lunch break, directly after lunch, in the middle of the afternoon, or at the end of the day.
Step number two – remember that the best way to do this is by doing something low-key. Sitting at your desk and letting your mind float off is not the best way to do positive constructive daydreaming. Rather, you should be knitting, gardening, or going for a walk. Now when I say that, a lot of people are like, “Oh, come on. I can’t just suddenly pull out the knitting needles at work and start knitting.” Well, you can, if you build that into the culture of your environment. But if you feel like that’s still a few steps away and you can’t get there, I think walking is the least offensive of all of them and you can do this in 15 minutes at the end of your lunch break. Now remember, there are different ways to walk, to change your brain as well. If you walk around the block in a rectangle, it actually is not as effective for creativity than if you walk in a zigzag or on a curvy path. So, when you’re walking, remember to do that. So, the second step is basically determining a time where you can actually do one of these activities.
The third step is once you are walking, or knitting, or maybe you have a potted   in the office that you’re tending to – so you don’t have to have a full garden at work – but once you’re doing one of those things, you then start imagining something positive or wishful. Maybe it’s lying on a beach, or possibly running through the woods with your dog – whatever for you feels positive or wishful. And these three steps can start you off on a 15-minute period of mind-wandering, which when done in this way, when you schedule it, when you allow your mind to go into this positive vision while you are doing something low-key – can actually replenish your brain, enhance your creativity, and refresh your brain and make you more productive too. So that’s technique number one, which you can build into any of those 15-minute segments.
Technique number two – I also get a response to this at some companies, when I say napping is important. Because 5 to 15 minutes of a nap can give you one to three hours of clarity. Now, if you ask yourself, “How can I nap, and why should I nap?” Well, we all know what it’s like to drown ourselves after lunch. Sometimes you have a heavy lunch and you feel like, “God, I just can’t stay awake.” Or it’s the middle of the afternoon and you feel like you’ve got to get a project done, but what you do is, you do it without all your horsepower, rather than replenishing your brain and giving yourself the power that you need.
Now, if you find that it’s impossible to put your head on your desk because people will be looking at you, have a team meeting and talk about this research, and then talk about the fact that companies like Google, like Zappos actually have napping pods at their businesses because they realize how important it is to nap. And I can tell you there are a number of other companies right now that are realizing that building napping into a work day is essential. If you want to be creative, 90 minutes of napping is better than just 5 to 15 minutes, but that’s a little unrealistic for during the week. It’s something you can do maybe on the weekend, if you have a creative project, or maybe at the end of your day, when you feel like you need to spend a little extra time at work.
The third thing is doodling. You were talking about being in a meeting and you don’t always need to attend the meeting – well, it turns out Jackie Andrade and her colleagues found that doodling improves memory by 29%. So just scribbling on a piece of paper while you’re on a conference call, or even while we’re on a call like this, can actually improve your memory by 29%.
And then the fourth technique that I’ll mention – and the book is really filled with a bunch of techniques – but one of my favorites is a term that I coined called “psychological Halloweenism”. And psychological Halloweenism is based on a study that showed that if you take two groups of people and you give them a creative problem, and one group behaves like an eccentric poet, while the other group behaves like a rigid librarian – the group that takes on the identity of an eccentric poet is statistically significantly more creative than the group that takes on the identity of the librarian. And that’s because when you’re embodying that identity, you are thinking outside of your usual thought patterns and you’re thinking like someone that you’re not.
So, this is something I would recommend doing at dinner with your family, on a date – maybe not the first date, but after that, and also with a creative team at work, or your friends. Just say, “Today why don’t I just behave like someone I truly like, and think like that person? What would this person do on this particular day?” So these kinds of exercises are exercises that we can all build into our days to activate the default mode network or the unfocus circuit, to be able to increase our creativity and increase our productivity and energy as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I like that a lot. And the phrase “psychological Halloweenism” is really a fun one, because it really gets you thinking, in terms of, on Halloween you put on a costume and you become another character, whether it’s Darth Vader or Spider-Man or whatever that might be. And I find that helpful. I remember one time, I was maybe 12 years old and I was playing basketball. I’m not that good at basketball, but I just decided that my name was Freight Train and that I was really aggressive and tough. [laugh] As kids do. And then I stopped, and my buddy said, “When you were Freight Train, you were actually playing a lot better basketball.”

Srini Pillay

Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis

And similarly if I’m trying to write something and maybe I’m trying to write something persuasive, it’s like, “What would Bob Cialdini do right now? He’d probably…” And then what do you know – I’ve written something that I think is pretty good, in terms of meeting those goals. So, it’s wild how just consciously choosing that can make a world of difference.

Srini Pillay

Absolutely. And if you’re unconvinced of that, try that when you’re working out. So, when you’re working out, lift weights as you usually do, and then say to yourself, “What if I was…”, and think of any person you embody and any person that you would like to be, or any person whose determination you actually enjoy. And I remember doing this once during a workout, which amused my trainer. He looks at me and he was like, “Wow, you already did those chest presses as if they were nothing.” And I said, “It’s kind of weird, because one of the people whose determination I really admire is Serena Williams, the tennis player. And I just decided to embody Serena in that one minute.” He was like, “There are so many other people you could choose. How did you choose her?” I was like, “I don’t know. I just decided to do that.”
And in that moment, I had a different mentality, and I think part of it was not just… Obviously there are many people who have physical strength that’s probably greater than hers, but she has a sense of determination that I felt like I really wanted to embody. I wanted to be like, “Whatever this limit is, I can go beyond it.” So try it out while you’re working out, and you’ll see that it makes a big difference, even in how you lift weights.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool, that’s cool. So, can you talk a little bit about… It’s interesting because psychological Halloweenism in a way is still a form of focusing. It’s like, “I’m doing this as…”, and that kind of takes some mental energy. But yet, it is rejuvenating to the brain.

Srini Pillay

Yeah, it really is. We’re stuck in my own heads the whole day. Sometimes I bore myself; I’m like “Oh my God, here I go again. Same problem, another day. I do the same nonsense over and over again.” So, when you’re feeling like that, just say, “Why don’t I just think like somebody else?” Even people you don’t like, but people who are successful, you might be able to embody. And if you embody them, it might give you a completely different idea.
I’ve done this at corporate workshops, and people will go into this state, and first they go into it hesitantly, because they’re like, “Oh my God, this is like an acting class.” But then they realize that what they’re actually doing is challenging themselves to think outside of their habit circuits. Their habits circuits in the brain have them trapped and they have their minds going in a loop. And if they can think outside of habit circuits, then they can actually think in novel ways and increase their creativity.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s excellent, thank you. Well, there are a few other tidbits in your book I want to touch upon as well. You mention a concept called the “beat of our brain”. What’s that about?

Srini Pillay

Yeah, so the beat of the brain was really the introduction to the book, where I wanted to say that nobody can listen to a song that is on high the whole time, unless you’re in a moment of metal glory. But even then you want it to build up to a place and have a crescendo. A brain is very similar. A brain has “on” and “off” components. There are times when there’s an “on”, and there’s a time when there’s an “off”.
And the beat of the brain was basically saying that our brains need periods of focus and unfocus, and in order to engage the beat in the brain you really need to focus, but then build these unfocused periods into your day so as to access your brain’s deepest qualities.
Remember, the unfocused brain is very much tapping into the unconscious, and I think most people would agree that the majority of brain processes are likely outside of conscious awareness. You’re not aware of what’s making your heart beat, you’re not aware of what’s making you breathe, you’re not even aware of what’s going on in your Freudian unconscious, or in implicit processing. There are a lot of different things that are completely outside of awareness. So, if we can tap into that…
What I say to people is that focus is the time when you pick up the puzzle pieces; unfocus is giving your brain time to put those pieces together. And if you look at a lot of important people – people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – they all build unfocus times, especially if they’re in a time of crisis. Mark Zuckerberg – when he was having problems at Facebook, approached Steve Jobs and said, “What should I do?” And basically Steve Jobs said, “Build a long period of unfocus, go somewhere else, and just see what happens.” So, it may sound like it’s just taking you away from your work, and in a sense it is, but it’s only taking you away from your work so that you can return to that work refreshed. And the beat of the brain is essentially having a regular beat of focus and unfocus during your day.

Pete Mockaitis

That comparison to music – that’s where I find some, I guess, speakers are so much easier to listen to in terms of, there’s some vocal variety there. And we had a guest – Rodger Love, a voice coach, speak about that, and how that makes a world of difference, in terms of being engaging and feeling something. And there are some TV shows where maybe every sentence feels like it’s intense and in capital letters and bold font, and I just can’t endure it for very long. There has to be some lulls in there for the music and the adoption of engagement for me. So, I’m also intrigued to hear, when you talk about these 15-minutes zones – are there likewise benefits to having full days of unfocused time, or how does that play into things?

Srini Pillay

Yes, absolutely. I think for a lot of people… And it really depends a little bit on your career, but I think what a full day of unfocused time does is, it gives you time away from something that you’ve been hard at work at for a long time. So, I’ve worked with companies where they will say one day a month is your day to… Sometimes some of them just say, “It’s your day to take off”, and some of them say, “It’s your day to go to the local museum and find a piece of art that you like, take a photograph of it while you’re there and share it with us.” And then at the next meeting, we’ll start off by just talking about people’s responses to the art. And what it does is it allows you to connect in completely different ways when you do that kind of thing.
Also, hobbies can actually be very protective to the brain. And studies have basically shown that for example if you look at the success of scientists – scientists who have the greatest citations also have the greatest number of hobbies or things that they’re doing. With one caveat – that the hobby needs to have some connection to the primary work as well.
So, I play tennis for example. I’m also not great at it, but I love it, I’m completely obsessed with it. And whenever I can get a chance to play tennis, I do. But when I’m playing tennis I’m thinking about when to be offensive, when to be defensive, when to relax into the point. And all of this really gives me a lot of food for thought in my other work, in my day-to-day work, when I’m thinking about running… I have three tech companies that I’ve co-founded and I’m thinking about when to be aggressive, when to be defensive, when I’m trying to execute a strategy and I’m trying too hard and I realize actually I should relax away from that.
I think taking a day off just helps your entire brain to reset. So, I do think entire days off can be very replenishing to your brain, and I really think people need to recognize we don’t say… Sometimes it can be a drag to do certain things like your morning ablutions, or if you’re filling your gas tank. But these are all things that you need to do to energize. When you’re taking a shower, you feel good. I think especially as you grow older, you realize that you’ve got to re-conceptualize your life, because your body doesn’t work the way that it used to work. And even when you’re at work, I would strongly recommend, if it’s possible, finding if there’s a way for you to stretch or roll, or building that into your day so that you can actually recognize that you need to re-conceptualize your life.
The reason I went off on that tangent relative to building it into your whole day, is that I think when we take days off, days off of physical activity can also be really replenishing. It takes you away from this constant mental struggle, it engages your body, and your body itself carries a lot of intelligence in it. So, long story short – yes, a day off can help. During that day, consider physical activities and hobbies, because they’ll both strengthen your brain.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, excellent. Thank you. And how do you recommend we conjure creativity? Are there any tips above and beyond these breaks?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. I think creativity is a remarkable thing, because it involves multiple parts of the brain. So when I work with companies or I work with people, I’m usually thinking things like, “How can I help this person become more innovative?” The first thing, as I said – any of those unfocus techniques would improve your creativity, so that’s number one. Number two – I would suggest that before you even start on any creative exercise, engage in possibility thinking. Now when I say this, people sometimes roll their eyes and they’re like, “Oh my God, I hope he’s not going to go off on some tangent about why anything’s possible.”
And I’m not. What I’m going to say is that we often justify our lives based on reality, but nothing exceptional was ever made from the substrate of a current reality without invoking something that doesn’t exist. And so, the airplane, the Internet, the telephone – everything that you can think of that affords us some kind of convenience, was created from a space of possibility.
And that’s because when you operate from a space of possibility, you actually are allowing your brain to increase its dopamine, so it feels more rewarded, and it also increases its opioids and as a result it feels less stressed. And without the stress and with this reward, your brain leans into the creative experience much more than if it were just generally plotting along, saying, “Let me see what’s possible.”
Let’s say you have a 9 to 5 job and your job is to punch in figures into an Excel spreadsheet. Yesterday I was sort of dreading this. I used to do this a long time ago, but I don’t do this often. If you actually just take a step aside and say… I would do this, and I was like, “I can’t re-enter all these figures in manually. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a formula?”
I tried out a couple of different formulae, they didn’t work. And I thought, “I have a friend, I’ll give him a call and see if he knows how to implement this formula.” And so, if I had not had the thought that it might be possible to automate the data, I wouldn’t even have called anyone. So, I think that possibility thinking is a very powerful way of jumpstarting creativity, because it puts you into a frame of mind where whatever you are envisioning becomes your goal, and then you work toward it, even if you don’t know how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. And so then, to trigger that, it’s just about asking the bigger question, or how do you recommend getting there?

Srini Pillay

So, the first thing is to say, “What do I want, no matter how wild it is?” So let’s say you want to be able to work the same job, but have fewer hours, and you really can’t imagine how. Start with that hypothesis. All good science starts with a hypothesis. So start with a hypothesis, write it down, and say, “Even though I don’t know how to get there, I’m going to figure this out.” And remember, figuring it out is not like, “Now let me sit down and figure out a strategy.” It’s a combination of focus and unfocus, because unfocus will put those puzzle pieces together for you.
So the initiating factor there is to simply articulate whatever your audacious goal is, no matter how audacious it is, and then reverse-engineer what that is. I think Steve Jobs was who said, “You can’t join the dots in life moving forward, but you can join them backwards.” So, when you’re moving forward, what Steve Jobs said was that you have to believe in something – and he called it gut, karma, life, destiny, whatever. Really what he was saying was, generate a hypothesis, no matter what it is, and then test it. So I think generating the hypothesis is the way to begin.
Then in terms of other ways to engineer creativity, there are a lot of other ways besides the unfocus techniques. One of them involves the frontal polar cortex of the brain, which is basically, if you put your hand on your forehead, just behind your forehead is where this part of the brain is. And this part of the brain is involved in making connections, and it makes connections across a certain distance. So, when you’re wanting to be creative, you can take the problem you have at hand and you try to say, “How can I liken this to something else?”
Now, I’ll give you a real life example. I worked with a company that was thinking about how to develop a concept of a trusted advisor. So, a lot of times people will get into the room and brainstorm a bunch of ideas, but what we did was, we used this particular kind of thinking, which is called “analogical thinking”, which basically means you come up with analogies so that the frontal polar cortex – the very front of your brain – can map what you want onto different examples. I got the group together and I said, “When you think of … some qualities?”, and people said a mother, a dog, a reliable car.
So we are developing what a trusted advisor is in the company. What properties does a mother have? A mother is nurturing, is unconditional, is advising. Okay, that’s great. We’ve got those properties. What properties does a dog have? A dog is always by your side. What properties does a reliable car have? It will take you from place A to place B. Okay, so let’s create a trusted advisor who’s nurturing, always by your side, and will take you from where you are to where you want to go, and let’s to build the processes to develop that.
So here you see that by using analogical thinking, you can connect what you want to an analogy, and the frontal polar cortex of your brain actually begins to enhance that creativity. Now, there’s a distance in meaning between what you want, like the trusted advisor, and the example you’re using. And that distance is called “semantic distance”. Studies show that middle semantic distance is fine.
So, if I say, “What’s the difference between a trusted advisor and a dog, or a mother, or a reliable car?” – that’s middle semantic distance. They’re a little way out, but they make sense. However, if I said, “What about a spaceship, or what about a hydrogen atom?” These things are a little bit more obscure, and although you may be able to figure out what that is, it may be so discouraging that it’s best not to start with that.
So, aside from those unfocus technique, I would recommend possibility thinking and analogical thinking by essentially developing this analogy to activate the creative part of the brain that’s right behind your forehead.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright, thank you. Well, Srini, tell me – anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Srini Pillay

There’s a lot to say. What I want to say is, most importantly, that eventually no matter what frameworks you hear, no matter what techniques I’m prescribing, your ingenuity really lies within you. And in my coaching practice I have seen that it’s not people who follow the frameworks, but people who invite more of themselves to the table to engage those frameworks who are the most successful. And I don’t just mean this in a kind of soft way.
There’s a project called the One Laptop Per Child project, where they dropped computer tablets in rural Ethiopia where kids had never seen technology before. And they literally were wondering, “What would they do with it? Would they sit on it? Would they try to eat it? What would they try to do?” What they found was that within a couple of hours they found the “on / off” switch. Within a couple of days they were singing “ABC” songs, and within a couple of weeks to a month, they had actually hacked Android.
And what this says is that you don’t need an education in something to activate your ingenuity. I think that education to a large extent prevents us from seeing our greatest capabilities. And it doesn’t matter what your level of education is. Remember, your greatest friend is your own ingenuity, and these frameworks are just accompaniments on your journey to greater productivity and creativity.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Good deal, thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Srini Pillay

There are so many quotes. I think from a work position, one of my favorite quotes is a quote by Warren Bennis, who I think is the father of all leadership studies, who after all his many years of studying leaders came to one conclusion about what a leader is. And Warren Bennis said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that easy, and also that difficult.” And I think that’s what’s so impressive about the leaders that we see that we truly admire. They have become themselves, and that’s the reason that I particularly like that quote.
I also like a lot of quotes by Oscar Wilde, who often will emphasize the importance of youth slipping away and the importance of time passing. And while I don’t intend to take a negative view on that, I have a very simple philosophy on life, which is that you live, you die, you do something in between. It’s important to make the best of every minute. And when you find your mind is in a negative spiral, remind yourself of that.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Srini Pillay

There are lots of studies that I think I particularly love. That energy study I particularly like because I think we’re living in a time of disengagement, and the fact that feeding people glucose and re-energizing their brains is helpful. I think it’s relevant today because burnout is so high, engagement is so low, that if we can learn to build unfocused times into our day and feed ourselves with time and space and food, I think that that’s particularly exciting.
Another group of studies that I’m inspired by is a group of studies that looked at what connects stress with the body. And what these studies found was that the mitochondria – the cell’s energy factory – is the place where stress exerts its impact on your body. And because it changes how energy is metabolized, it can be connected to heart disease, to stroke, it can be connected to cancer. So, if you’re feeling stress and you’re like, “That’s fine” – it’s not just a psychological condition. The fact that we now know that stress impacts the energy within your cells indicates that it can influence different organ systems in your body as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Srini Pillay

I think my favorite book is Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, and also Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. They are old books, but I particularly love them because within the fiction is contained a host of non-fiction about human sensitivity. And I think humans are first and foremost extremely sensitive, and coming to this world with a set of very powerful intentions that get dwindled down as they begin to face challenges like anxiety and uncertainty. And I think, paradoxically, it is in these books that we see these human challenges come to life.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite tool?

Srini Pillay

A favorite tool… I’m not very handy. This is a bit of a nerdy response, but what I just did last night, where I literally got up and had some kind of peak life experience. I would say it’s statistics. I think online computing tools for statistics are my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. Is there a particular one?

Srini Pillay

Yesterday what I did was, I had a bunch of correlation coefficients I had to run. So I just used Excel, I ran a Pearson correlation, then changed that to finding R², and ran an R² formula. And then I used an online tool that could give me a P-value for the R-value. I just Googled “P-value for R-values for correlations”, and used that tool that was online.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite habit?

Srini Pillay

I’m not a huge fan of habits in general. One of my philosophies in life, which I think is on my Twitter profile is, when I describe myself I say, “Somewhere between martinis and meditation.” And I think my favorite habit is to switch between those two modes, because I feel like one gives me access to the spiritual world, and the other to a more carnal world. And I think that that combination really helps to enhance my sensitivity in a way that helps me in my day-to-day life.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get retweeted and repeated back to you frequently?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. When people ask me how do I manage my anxiety, one of the things I do is I tell them I have a mnemonic called CIRCA, which essentially is, I would ask you to take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down “C” is for “chunky”, which is whenever a problem confronts you, you break it down. “I” is for ignore mental chatter”, which is when you have a problem and you start being self-critical, ignore your mental chatter. And rather than paying attention to your mental chatter, focus on your breath – it’s a form of mindfulness. The “R” is “reality check”, and reality check is essentially, “This too shall pass.” So use self-talk just to remind yourself that this too shall pass. The “C” is “control check”. Let go of stuff you can’t control; there’s nothing you can do about it. And “A” is “attention shift”, which is whenever you’re faced with a problem, place your attention on the solution rather than the problem. And the mnemonic is CIRCA.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Srini Pillay

I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter. My website is DrSriniPillay.com. I’m also at NeuroBusinessGroup.com, or NBGCorporate.com. And if you’d like to join our mailing list, do so as well. I love interacting with people and sharing the information, because I learn that as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Srini Pillay

Yeah. I think tomorrow what I’d like you to do is find one 15-minute period, decide on one of the unfocus activities that we talked about, and implement it.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect. Well, Srini, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom, and good luck in all you’re doing with NeuroBusiness Group and the book and more!

Srini Pillay

Thank you so much, Pete.