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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Amishi

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

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Amishi Jha Interview Transcript

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

Amishi Jha
It’s great to be here.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
I was hoping to correlate to something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amishi Jha
Yeah.

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

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

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

Amishi Jha
No, even as you’re in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Not a lot. Okay.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study?

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. What’s it called?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amishi Jha
Thank you so much.

712: How to Turn Pressure into Power with Dane Jensen

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Dane

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

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

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

Resources Mentioned

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Dane Jensen Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dane Jensen
Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
So much good stuff. Thank you Dane.

700: How to Make Your Anxiety Work For You with Wendy Suzuki

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Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki talks about how you can leverage your anxiety to solve problems and boost your well-being.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The six superpowers of anxiety 
  2. How to trick your brain into relaxing
  3. How a 30-second meditation can make all the difference 

 

About Wendy

Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University and a celebrated international authority on neuroplasticity. She was recently named one of the ten women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Shape, and Health. 

Her TED talk has received more than 31 million views on Facebook and was the 2nd most viewed TED talk of 2018. 

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Wendy Suzuki Interview Transcript

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

Wendy Suzuki
So happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. Now, you are a professor of neuroscience, but you also spent some time observing baboons in Botswana.

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us the story here. How did that come to be? And any insights or hilarity from that experience?

Wendy Suzuki
Well, it was just awe from that experience. Well, I call it my Jane Goodall experience. It was my very first sabbatical of studying behavior, and decided to apply it to baboon behavior, and got associated with an amazing lab out of University of Pennsylvania, Cheney and Seyfarth, who had a baboon cognition research station in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.

And so, I went there for about two or three weeks. I worked with their postdocs and I was the most highly educated research assistant ever. My job was to collect poop, so I was a baboon poop collector. And I proudly did my job and it’s actually much more difficult than you might imagine because you have to be able to tell the difference between the different baboons so that you collect the correct poop, and that was challenging.

Did you know that baboons in the wild are identified by their ear markings. Their ears get beat up in fights and things, and so what you get is not like a little picture of the face of every baboon with their name, “Here’s Elvis, here’s Loki,” but you get the name Elvis and you get a little drawing of his right and left ear.

So, you are walking around kind of trying to look at the ears of all of these baboons, which that was actually really funny to watch me do, but it was so fascinating. It was like a little soap opera out there. You would not believe the intrigue and the sex and the dastardly deeds that get done in these baboon colonies.

Pete Mockaitis
Intrigue and sex and dastardly deeds. We’re off to a great start, Wendy.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s baboons. We’ve got dastardly deeds. Let’s hear a little bit about anxiety. That can cause us to do some dastardly things or feel not so great. You have come to some insights associated with anxiety. Can you share what’s one of your most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made along these lines?

Wendy Suzuki
So, the whole book Good Anxiety is really about how if you are able to embrace all aspects of your anxiety, both those negative, uncomfortable feelings, but also all the information your particular form of anxiety teaches you about yourself, then your anxiety transforms into something that could bring you to a more fulfilling life, a more creative life, and, ultimately, a less stressful life. So, that is the take-home message of Good Anxiety that is the culmination of all the research and the science and just the observations that I’ve done around the area of anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re saying the benefit of anxiety is the teaching that it gives us primarily. Is that right or are there more things there too?

Wendy Suzuki
There’s lots of things. So, one of the superpowers that one gets with anxiety, in fact, we talked about six different superpowers that come from good anxiety, they include resilience, compassion, flow, mindset, focus, and creativity. Now, I’m not saying that somebody that’s in the throes of what I call bad anxiety, when anxiety starts to block you, and you can’t go out and you can’t speak fluidly because you have lots of anxiety. That is not when you start to get these superpowers.

What the book takes you through is, first, exercises and activities to help you flip that bad anxiety into good manageable anxiety. And it’s when anxiety is in this manageable state is when you can take advantage of all of these positive aspects of anxiety, including all those superpowers that I talked about. And that is what the book describes, how these powers of resilience come from the fact that if you are experiencing lots of little bouts of anxiety, every single little bout is contributing to your little piggybank of resilience.

Now, if these bouts are very debilitating, that’s hard to appreciate. But, in fact, scientific experiments have shown that if people go through large numbers of more controllable bouts of stress or anxiety, they develop what’s called stress resilience. They are more resilient than other controls that get either uncontrollable stress or no experience of stress, either controlled or uncontrolled. So, there are definitely positive aspects that come to it. You have to know how to leverage all of the information and superpowers that do come with anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to have those superpowers, so can you walk us through an example here? So, you’re feeling anxious about something, and then what do you do to make it work for you?

Wendy Suzuki
So, most people, the most common question that I get is, “I get bouts of anxiety. I don’t know how to make it go away, make it feel better.” And so, I always start with the two most direct ways that you can counteract anxiety. You don’t need to practice, you don’t need to do anything, and here they are.

First one is deep breathing. So, you don’t practice it, just deep breathing. Because what you’re doing with deep breathing is you’re activating one of our amazing nervous systems that we all have in our body called the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s also called the rest and digest nervous system. This is a nervous system that kicks in when you have a little more time on the weekends. You can digest. You’re not doing ten things that your boss just asked you to do. And that causes a whole bunch of physiological responses – slowing of the heart rate; deeper, fuller breathing; blood flow into your digestive system and away from your muscles.

Whereas, the stress system, or parasympathetic nervous system, the stress nervous system, does the opposite. I live in New York so taxi cabs come too close to you, clips you, almost clips you on the street, and you jump back. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to analyze it. Your stress system and danger-alerting system has you jump back. Your heart rate goes up, your blood flow is going to your muscles because you have to get away from the danger.

And so, I want less of that stress activation systems in my normal life, and I want more of that rest and digest system. So, it’s hard for me to slow my heart rate consciously, but the best way into that system is deep breathing. By deep breathing, you start to activate other elements of that rest and digest relaxation system. So, that’s a wonderful way to do it. Again, you want to catch it before it gets into really deep anxiety. So, as you start to feel anxiety coming on, get those deep breaths going. That’s number one.

Number two is another very effective way to quell bad anxiety is simply moving your body. Go for a walk outside, do some jumping jacks, whatever is most natural for you to do. Why? Because even moving your body a little bit can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline. I like to say that every time you move your body, you give your brain a bubble bath of positive neurochemicals, including dopamine and serotonin that are going to activate your feelings of reward and happiness.

So, those are two immediate things that you can do because, as I said, you can’t get to the superpowers when you’re in a state of bad anxiety. So, you’ve quelled your anxiety. You haven’t gotten rid of it. You have lots of things. We all have our own personal anxiety stories. And so, now, you’ve quelled your bad anxiety and it’s a little bit more manageable. It still comes with those negative feelings, but it’s not as debilitating as it was before.

Now, you’re able to start to tap into some of those superpowers. And one of the superpowers that I love to talk about is the superpower of compassion, that is I think it’s very easy to understand. So, let me give an example from my own life. When I was in middle school, high school, I was a very, very shy young person, scared to talk, scared to raise my hand in class. I knew the answers but too scared to actually interact and say the answers out loud. And that caused a lot of my early anxiety in my life.

So, I’ve developed ways not to be shy in that way. But what I realized is that deep understanding of that feeling of fear has given me the superpower of compassion. And I’m able to use that particular superpower in my own teaching because I happen to become a teacher. And so, I use it altruistically by making sure that all the students in my class have many different ways to talk to me, interact with me, tell me what they know, because that is very satisfying to a student. I know from my own student days.

But I’m very, very aware of all those students out there. They know the answer but they have an anxiety of speaking out in class. And I do this also not just in the student kind of classroom situation but in a meeting situation. Sometimes there are people that easily speak out and others have a harder time. So, if I’m directing the meeting, I always make sure that everybody gets a say. And if somebody hasn’t said anything, I made sure, without putting them on the spot, that they had their say taken.

And that level of compassion comes from my particular anxiety story. And you can kind of apply compassion from your own deep understanding of whatever anxiety you have. Money anxiety, aging anxiety, grade anxiety. What can you do to kind of help others because you understand so deeply what that anxiety is?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s lovely. So, when it comes to the deep breathing and the moving your body in order to get you to a more useful place, I’m curious, is there…do you suggest a particular amount of breaths, or a pace, or a cadence, or an amount of exercise? Is there a sweet spot where you start to get diminishing returns?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I like to start off with just the quick and dirty activity. Just breathe more deeply. Know that is helpful. Walk outside is the easiest thing to do. However, if you have time and you want to kind of really dig deeper here and find your own sweet spot, here is what I recommend. There are literally thousands of kinds of breath meditation, and you can learn about them simply by using YouTube, and going to three breath meditation. Find one that you like. There are so many. You can judge them by how many views, how many millions of views that they have, and practice that in a non-anxiety provoking situation just to find out which kind that you like.

There’s a kind that you do in yoga class that you might be familiar with. Alternate nostril breathing, there’s counting breathing where you count four breaths, four counts in, hold if for four counts, and then slowly breathe out for four counts. That’s another very common easy one. But some might be more relaxing or less relaxing to you. So, that is the easiest kind of free way to do that.

Similarly, for exercise, we know from experimental studies, and one of my expertise is the effects of physical activity on the brain. We know that walking alone can decrease anxiety levels, decrease depression levels, and improve positive affect, simply walking outside for a minimum of 10 minutes. So, do that.

Some people might like doing something like the 7-Minute Workout from the New York Times. That’s another good way. Again, you can explore, see what you like to do, see what’s more natural. Some people might want to stay indoors to do their physical activity. The other one that I like to recommend is dance. Dancing is a wonderful form of physical activity. Turn your favorite toe-tapping music on from whatever period, and just dance for the three minutes of the song. That is guaranteed to improve your mood as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. Thank you. That’s a nice lineup and quick and fun, and makes an impact. So, you mentioned a number of superpowers. I’m most intrigued by flow. How can I use anxiety to get more flow?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, that’s a great one. So, flow, as it was originally defined, is kind of depressingly unattainable. You have to have 10,000 hours of practice. You have to be so high-level performance. I think of Yo-Yo Ma because I love the cello. And so, Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites can achieve flow, but I will never be able to do flow because I can’t do anything that beautiful with my hands. So, it’s depressing and also anxiety is a really big flow supper. So, not only is it really hard to get flow but anxiety kind of digs a hole deeper that makes it harder to get.

And so, I’ve come up with something that I use all the time, which is the concept of microflow. So, microflow is not dependent on how many hours you practice or how high a level. Microflow is dependent on how much you enjoy the process. So, for example, I experience microflow after every yoga class in Shavasana because I’m really good at laying still on my back. And I categorize that as a moment of microflow, and it’s really important. This superpower is one that’s both a tool to help people out of bad anxiety, but it becomes a superpower as you practice it more and more. And it’s really a practice and a strategy of noticing all the things that you do enjoy in a given day no matter how fleeting they are.

So, Shavasana always seems so short, but I categorize that as a moment of microflow. My green smoothie that I make in the morning that took me months to finalize the recipe that I love. That is a daily moment of microflow for me. Of course, everybody can cultivate this. But people with anxiety, it’s even more important that they do this so that they can feel this flow and really appreciate the positive lovely moments in their life, and put that in the piggy bank.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s about the savoring, the appreciating, the pausing. So, I guess I’m wondering, in terms of like the recipe there, I guess first you noticed, “Hey, I like this,” and then I guess it’s not just sort of multitasking in your brain and rushing and trying to get it done and go to the next thing. Any other particular mental practices that you’re doing there in order to arrive in that place?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, it’s really, I think, it’s an art of savoring good moments in your life because, I can tell you, from my own personal experience, when I was experiencing much higher levels of anxiety, that we all do at certain points in our lives. Any good moment like that, my first thought would be, “It’s going to be over. It’s soon going to be over and I’m going to go back into anxiety.” And so, I was anti-savoring the moment.

And the thing that really, really helped me was a practice that will be very familiar to many people and it’s in the focus superpower, which is the practice of meditation. So, the practice of meditation is really an exercise for your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex is what is giving you that unending what-if list, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” For me, that always happens right before I’m trying to fall asleep. How do I quell that? Well, you practice, you get yourself in a quiet state, and, very important, you start very, very short, with a very short meditation, 30 seconds.

Have you ever done a 30-second meditation? That could be just a breath meditation, going back to our how you quiet a bad anxiety in the first place. But I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to meditate for too long, and thinking that they have to have all thoughts go out of their mind, that their mind has to be a blank slate. That never happens. You can quiet your mind. You can focus. That’s why focusing on the breath, on loving kindness and compassion meditation focusing on that feeling of loving kindness and compassion, which one can’t get. The trick of the trade that I learned from some expert meditators is think about puppies and babies, things that make you go, “Aww,” will make you want to have immediate love for them.

And it’s a lovely meditation to do. It focuses your attention, it focuses your emotional state on cuteness and love and protection of this lovely creature, but it also trains your prefrontal cortex to go in this calm state. And that is very, very powerful for building focus, which often flies out the window with anxiety. And so, by practicing that, that is one of the ways that you can create a superpower of focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Any other pro tips on the focus?

Wendy Suzuki
So, throughout the book I interview a number of people, just real people, different ages, different backgrounds, to tell their story, their anxiety story, and how these approaches helped them. This person actually gave us a wonderful kind of tool for the focus superpower. And that is an immediate turning your what-if list, that often kind of derails your focus, into a to-do list. So, this happened to be an entrepreneur that had terrible anxiety about raising money and couldn’t kind of get over a no answer and second-guess himself for all the things that he could’ve done differently to get that money back or get that investment.

And the tip that he got from a colleague of his, that he shared with us, is that all of those second-guessing that you do, all that creates your what-if list, you turn that into an action list. So, use that as, “This is great. That what-if, that’s going on the list. I’m going to change that. I’m going to do it differently for next time.” So, you turn it into an action item. And it’s kind of turning the negative activation of anxiety that creates this what-if list that puts you into deeper anxiety, and turns it into an immediate action list.

And he was able to implement this and kind of changed his view on his anxiety kind of in one conversation. And he was a very driven person but it is powerful to think, “What if I just turned all those what-ifs into my exploration list?” And that is part of the superpower of these things that come up in anxiety, these thoughts that come up in anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, Wendy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention?

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, one of my favorite superpowers, I think we’ve covered most all of them, is a superpower that comes from good anxiety is creativity. So, creativity is a natural byproduct of anxiety because anxiety often pushes us to find workarounds, “I can’t do that. I can’t go in that direction because that’s difficult but I’m going to do it a different way.”

And, also, the difficulties that come with anxiety, anxiety caused by difficult family members, very difficult upbringings, we know from history, often lead to some of the most creative kind of outlets for that – writing, song. You don’t have to be a number one on the hits list but they are inspiration for lots of creative outlets.

And so, instead of, again, just focusing on the negative feelings, can you get inspiration from all of these people that have used their negative anxiety-ridden experiences to create something beautiful and new? And, in fact, many of them say that their creativity came from their pain and their anxiety, so it’s inspiring to think about anxiety that way, that your anxiety story can become a creativity story.

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

Wendy Suzuki
The first quote that comes to mind that always inspires me is from Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see.” And that is an underlined quote that I used to write this book. I don’t just write about good anxiety and the superpowers. I lived all these superpowers, I use them in my life, and they change my life in profound ways, which is part of the story of Good Anxiety.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yeah, so my favorite bit of research was a preliminary study that I did in a classroom at NYU in August of 2020. It was the first semester where everybody was going to be remote, and I was invited to speak to a freshmen cohort. I was going to share my research on the effects of exercise on the brain, and I had 30 minutes.

And I decided to truncate the lecture so it was only going to be 10 minutes long, and I decided to do an experiment on them. So, I sent them all off to do, a clinical anxiety survey, this was after I told them about the positive effects of exercise, including that wonderful neurochemical bubble bath that happens when you move your body.

So, after they did the anxiety survey, we all came back, this was all on Zoom, and I happen to be a certified exercise instructor. So, we all did 10 minutes of a workout that I teach called intenSati that pairs physical movements from kickbox and dance and martial arts and yoga with positive spoken affirmation. So, as you punch, front punches, you say things like, “I am strong now.” And every move has different affirmations.

And so, there was 10 minutes of it. It was surprising. They did not know they were going to do this. And then, at the end of that, I had them all go back and retake that anxiety survey. And the next day, I sent everybody that was in that, there were 30 freshmen in that session, I sent them the results.

What I found was before the exercise, those 30 students, on average, were just shy of clinically anxious, very high levels of anxiety. Again, this was right before their first remote session of their freshmen year at NYU, so not so surprising there was high levels of anxiety. But my favorite part is that just 10 minutes of working out over Zoom with me decreased their anxiety scores by 15 points on average, which brought them all to the normal anxiety levels.

So, that is just a quick experiment on the power of moving your body on affecting anxiety.

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

Wendy Suzuki
I’ve been obsessed with memoirs, and I’ve been reading memoirs of comedians because I admired their writing and I’ve always wanted to be a funny person so I’m curious about how comedians tell their life story. So, one of my favorite books that I’ve read recently is called A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost from Saturday Night Live.

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

Wendy Suzuki
I feel like my superpower tool of being awesome at my job is staying connected with a whole bunch of creative friends who are really, really inspiring in lots of different ways. So, I find myself time and time again inspired, thinking about how to bring elements of performance, or, I don’t know, musical theater into my teaching and into my talk world. So, my superpower is my creative cohort of friends.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Wendy Suzuki
My morning tea meditation. So, every morning, I wake up and I do about 45 minutes of meditation over the brewing and drinking of tea. It’s a particular form of meditation that I learned from a monk, a tea monk, and I set up my day beautifully with that tool.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, the quote that I get most often is, “I love your image of a bubble bath for the brain every time you move your body.” It’s an image that’s novel and it sticks with people, and that’s the one that gets quoted back to me the most often.

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

Wendy Suzuki
Yes, best way to learn more about me and get in touch is my website www.WendySuzuki.com. Everything is there from classes, to books, to lectures, to TED Talks. So, you’ll find everything there.

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

Wendy Suzuki
My call to action is to and I’ve done this myself, great to focus on your major strengths. But what if you could use your anxiety to be even better at your job? It’s hard to think about that. It’s a Jiu Jitsu move that I try to show everybody how to do, but that is my best tip for a new way to improve yourself using your own anxiety story.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Wendy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and good anxiety in the days to come.

Wendy Suzuki
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

687: How to Combat Stress and Prioritize Your Wellbeing with Naz Beheshti

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Executive wellness coach Naz Beheshti offers her top tips on how to take your well-being into your own hands.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to nourish your inner coach while silencing your inner critic 
  2. The ACE method to combat stress
  3. An easy trick to boost your energy 

 

About Naz

Naz Beheshti is the author of Pause. Breathe.Choose.: Become the CEO of Your Well-Being. She is an executive wellness coach, speaker, Forbes contributor, CEO, and founder of Prananaz, a corporate wellness company improving leadership effectiveness, employee well-being and engagement, and company culture. Clients include Nike, JPMorgan Chase, First Republic Bank, Skadden, UCSC, and Columbia University.  

Her work has been widely featured in the media, including CNBC, Forbes, BBC, Yahoo, Entrepreneur, Inc., Fast Company, and many more. Naz also cofounded Rise2Shine, a nonprofit helping to alleviate the suffering of young children in Haiti. Visit her online at http://www.NazBeheshti.com. 

Resources Mentioned

Naz Beheshti Interview Transcript

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

Naz Beheshti
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear what you have to say. And I’d love to start by talking about Steve Jobs, your first boss and mentor. Can you tell us a bit about how he’s shaped your views on work and life?

Naz Beheshti
Steve was my first boss and mentor so he had a highly influential role in my life. I mean, right out of college at the young age of 21, he influenced the most profound lesson that I had learned, and it was through him, which is “Wellbeing drives success.” And at that age and at that time, that wasn’t at the forefront by any means, but through example, he really led a holistic approach to wellbeing, and that wellbeing is what drove his success. So, I really learned the most profound lesson from him, so it was really influential and impactful for me to have crossed paths with Steve.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And while we’re reminiscing a bit, any particular memories, anecdotes, things that were strikingly pleasant, or unpleasant yet helpful, as you think about your time with Steve?

Naz Beheshti
Well, I remember the time when I was working for him, and I discovered that my version of healthy was Steve’s version of garbage, quite literally, and I shared this in my book. One day, I thought I would surprise him with an oatmeal-raisin cookie as a healthy option for dessert, and later that day, I noticed the entire cookie, not a bite taken out, but the entire cookie in his trash can. So, that was a first red flag that I actually wasn’t as healthy as I thought, and that my version of healthy was, quite literally, Steve’s version of garbage.

Pete Mockaitis
Did you discuss it at all?

Naz Beheshti
No, I was quite embarrassed actually, and I just made a mental note never to give him an oatmeal-raisin cookie ever again. He was extremely health-conscious and that healthy version of that cookie was just like, I guess, too much sugar and not-so healthy for him.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what it also makes me think about is just how decisive that is in terms of, like, “This cookie going directly to the garbage.”

Naz Beheshti
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“No need to think about it. No need to take a bite out of it.” Sometimes I feel that way about, like I get gifts that I don’t want, so apologies to family and friends who are listening to this, and so it’s like I almost feel sort of like obligated to not get rid of it immediately, it’s like, “Well, you know, it was nice of them to think about it.” But there are times, I know that this has no place in my life or my home. The proper decision would be to remove it immediately via donation or whatever.

Naz Beheshti
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And he did it.

Naz Beheshti
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, let’s talk about your book Pause. Breathe. Choose. This is a great message. I’m intrigued. And so, what is the core idea or thesis here within “Pause. Breathe. Choose.”?

Naz Beheshti
Well, the key to thriving in today’s high-pressure culture is to cultivate deep self-awareness and strong emotional intelligence, which really facilitates making mindful choices that transform your life. So, one conscious choice begets another. So, Pause. Breathe. Choose. is a roadmap for authentic self-discovery, better choices, and purposeful growth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so tell us, how do we go about doing some of that good stuff?

Naz Beheshti
It’s a holistic approach to wellbeing. And the MAP method is really a holistic approach to living your best life. So, I’ll start with the MAP being an acronym. For M, M is for master mindfulness, and really, mastering mindfulness is fundamental to the method because when you’re more mindful, you’re able to make better choices. That leads you to the A, which is applying better choices to manage stress and build resilience and the seven As. And then the P is for promoting yourself to the CEO of your wellbeing, and the three Ps. So, when you combine those three parts of the MAP method and implement them, you’re really going to be thriving in all aspects of your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s talk about mastering mindfulness. I guess maybe, first, can you define mindfulness? How do you know if you got it, if you don’t, and how to get more of it?

Naz Beheshti
Yeah. So, mindfulness really, in a nutshell, is presence of heart. It’s really about awakening your mind and your heart from autopilot, and that enables you to experience life unfolding in the present moment. So, the mindfulness unlocks your ability to tap into your intuition and creativity so that you can receive new information and develop new perspectives with a beginner’s mind. And that’s really what mindfulness is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that sounds great. If I want to do that, where should I start?

Naz Beheshti
I always say to start small, so start with two minutes of a seated meditation which there are so many different types of meditations out there, and I would say experiment with the different types. Maybe start with an app like Calm or Headspace. But, also, if you don’t want to do that, an alternative would be to just sit quietly and focus on your breath, and just allow whatever thoughts that come and go to just do that exactly – come and go. Just acknowledge them and, without any judgment, without labeling them, without any continued thought about it, just acknowledging that thought and then releasing it and then coming back to your breath.

So, in my sessions with my clients, we always start with a two-minute guided meditation, and I guide them through this process. And one of the visualizations I use that’s really helpful for my clients is that we get in a comfortable seated position, and then I ask them to take a few deep breaths, inhale, exhale, and then imagine a balloon in the sky, putting any of those thoughts or any sounds that may disrupt the pattern of the breath into the balloon, and then just allowing it to float away. So, the point is to acknowledge your thoughts and then put them into that balloon, and let them go, and then return back to your breath.

So, acknowledge, let go, return, and the focus will be on your breath. So, even that tiny visualization of the balloon could help because so many people think, “Oh, I can’t meditate. I think too much. I can’t sit still for that long.” So, starting small and having a visualization of that balloon, or whatever it is that works for you, to actually contain those thoughts and allow them to let them go, and just float away and come back to your breath.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now, when one does this with regularity, what is the difference it makes, I guess, in terms of mental ability, capacity? If you think about it as an exercise, like if I’m strengthening biceps with a bicep curl, if I’m strengthening my mind by using this sort of approach, what does that mean for me, practically speaking?

Naz Beheshti
Well, mindfulness can literally reshape and rewire the brain through neuroplasticity in which new habits reorganize or rewire neural connections. So, a consistent meditation practice pretty much gives us the opportunity to be proactive in changing our brain and increasing our wellbeing and quality of life, and there’s research that supports that as well.

And in terms of your health, your creativity, decision-making, being less risk-reactive, these are all many ways that mindfulness can help. Consistent practice in mindfulness is key, not just practicing once a week or twice a week, but daily or at least six days a week is key.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us some examples in terms of perhaps it’s the decision-making and the reactivity? Like, what would life and your brain look and feel and sound like pre-meditation practice versus post-meditation practice if it’s doing its job? Like, how do we know it’s working?

Naz Beheshti
Well, I can give you the example of myself which was more reactive back years ago. I started meditation back in 2010, and prior to that, I was doing a bunch of yoga, daily yoga, so that really helped. But, before that, I tended to be…I’m very type A, and on the go, and perfectionist, and very fast-paced life, and I was very reactive when I was younger. And so, when someone would…I had very little patience.

So, if someone wasn’t doing their job or doing what they said they were going to do, I would be more irritable and reactive, and kind of tell them what I thought rather than taking a breath, and just pausing, and responding in a more compassionate way rather than reacting with a negative tone or with negative words, and not understanding and having compassion for that person. I’m much more, or less reactive, and more compassionate since then.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, reactive might sound like, “Hey, you idiot, why did you screw that up again?” And then the post-meditative response can be like, “Hey, I noticed this. What’s going on?”

Naz Beheshti
Yes. Yes. Or, “I’m just curious how this outcome turned out this way,” “I’m curious,” or, “Yes, could you please explain?” rather than, “I can’t believe you did this,” or, “That’s shocking,” or something like that, yes. So, it’s definitely a help in that respect. As far as decision-making, meditation brings extreme clarity. So, when you are able to quiet the chatter of the mind and kind of, like I was saying earlier, my definition of mindfulness is aligning your mind with your heart.

So, a lot of us work, operate, and speak, and think only from the mind without that connection to the heart. So, we are able to quiet our mind and go deeper into our authentic selves. So, the reason mastering mindfulness really is about discovering your authentic self, because you’re quieting all the chatter of the mind and the external stuff that’s just really loud and keeps echoing in your mind, it’s not necessarily your true essence, your true self because it’s too loud to get deeper to who you truly are. But mindfulness and meditation quiets that and then allows you to tap into your truest desire, your authentic self.

And so then, that also brings a lot of clarity, and then you’re able to make decisions with confidence, and you’re very tapped into your gut, your intuition, whatever you want to call it, and so decision-making becomes stronger and just faster and better and with more confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then you talked about your true self and essence and such, and you’ve got some terms – the inner coach and the inner critic. Can you expand upon these, and tell us to have some more good inner coach conversations and fewer not-so-great inner critic conversations?

Naz Beheshti
Right. So, like two dogs inside you competing for attention, you have an inner coach, the good dog, and an inner critic, the bad dog. The inner coach represents positivity and eustress, the good stress, and the growth mindset, while the inner critic represents negativity, distress and limiting beliefs. And what’s crucial is, it’s crucial to remember that the dog you feed determines the kind of life you lead.

When we choose to feed the good dog and view the world through the eyes of the inner coach, we feel more in control of our life, and we tend to view challenges as opportunities, not threats. So, we essentially harness the positive energy of acute stress and eustress, and can avoid chronic stress, and then we eventually see ourselves as continually evolving and focused on improving ourselves when we are in tuned with that inner coach more. And it all stems from mindfulness.

So, if we’re not mindful, the inner critic, the bad dog, might be barking and telling us, “You suck. You did that wrong. You’re going to blow this,” and that’s the default voice that we hear in our head if we’re not mindful to catch that, and be like, “Oh, that’s the bad dog. That’s the inner critic. I’m going to stop feeding that dog and awaken the inner coach, and start listening to the inner coach,” which is coaching you through it and saying not focusing on the bad, but saying, “You’ll learn from whatever you did last time and not do it again next time. You’ve got this. You’re awesome. What lesson could you learn from this, from many negative experiences that happened?” And it’s really talking to you with a growth mindset rather than through limiting beliefs which is the inner critic.

Pete Mockaitis
So, mindfulness enables you to sort of see it and catch it in the moment and make a shift. And any other pro tips for identifying and catching yourself as it happens? Or, any sort of telltale signs, like, “Oh, wait a second, I’m doing that thing again. I’m going to choose to not do that”?

Naz Beheshti
Well, so when you find yourself kind of spiraling or ruminating, and you’re just kind of stuck with the same kind of negative thought pattern, and you just keep replaying something that happened at work or a conversation you had that wasn’t very positive, or maybe you had like a great meeting, and then one negative thing happened, maybe you said something wrong, like you identified something that wasn’t accurate, or like you’re giving a presentation and you said the wrong numbers by mistake, but everything else went really well, but then your inner critic is going to only focused on that one part that was like five seconds versus the rest of the hour that went really well, and you’re going to just continue to ruminate over that, so then you start realizing, you start feeling bad.

And so, just checking in with how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. So, I have these…one of the things I do throughout the day is I do mindful self-check ins, what I call mindful self-check in, which really is just asking myself rapid-fire questions throughout the day. And this could help catch you when you’re ruminating or stressed or spending too much time in one area. And you just ask yourself, “How am I feeling? What am I thinking? Am I breathing? Am I thirsty?” and just check in with yourself, and just rapid-fire questions and address however you’re feeling in that time, and that will give you an opportunity to shift and shift out of that negative state.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Thank you. And you’ve got an approach to reframe stress. How do we make stress our friend?

Naz Beheshti
Yes, that’s the ACE method. It’s the new way of reframing stress which is very effective to upgrade both your mindset and your behavior. So, the ability to distinguish between different kinds of stress – being acute, chronic, and eustress, also stands for ACE – allows you to perceive stress as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

So, once you understand the type of stress you’re facing, then you can identify the actual stressors and their source and take empowered actions. So, it’s a three-step process. You can ace stress using the three-step ACE method through awareness, change, and empowerment. So, one is be aware of the signs and the symptoms, so the stressor, and identify the type, as I mentioned, and the source of stress.

Step two would be to change your mindset. Choose to reframe the stress using an upgraded mindset so that you can identify your options or opportunities both in mindset and behavior. And then, lastly, step three is to take empowered and effective action. And sometimes that’s just about shifting your mindset. It’s about choosing to shift your mindset if you can’t actually change a situation or the circumstance. There are just some things that are out of our control that we cannot change but we can always change our mindset around it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you walk us through an example of it’s a stressor and then the shift in mindset and the impact that makes?

Naz Beheshti
Right. So, I share a story in the book about how I was on my way to one of my clients to teach a stress management workshop, and I was so stressed, I found myself so stressed on my way to teach a stress management workshop, but I applied my own methods en route to this workshop that I was doing. What happened was that the subway system, I was in New York City and the subways were really delayed, and then they skipped a stop that I was supposed to get off of, and it wasn’t an express train so I didn’t understand. It was very surprising and it wasn’t accounted for in the time that I needed to get there so I found myself very late, and I was really stressing out.

And while I was stressing out in the subway as it flew by my stop, I decided that there was nothing I could do. I was literally stuck in the subway. I couldn’t jump out. I couldn’t change the time and go back in time, and I just accepted that I was going to be late to my workshop that I was teaching. So, what I did was I shifted my mindset by actually sitting quietly. I closed my eyes and I used the pause-breathe-choose method. And I literally took a pause, closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and just continued breathing. And I did a little mini-meditation in the subway until the next stop and that really calmed me down. And I was able to shift that stressor to really understand that, again, there are some things out of my control.

It was in my control earlier. I can’t go back. I can’t redo that. So, I can only show up as my best self, so I was preparing myself to show up grounded, calm, not frazzled. And so, I just applied pause-breathe-choose, and I did that in the subway, and I actually showed up after some time and I made a joke out of it, like, “I found myself really stressed out. Here, I am, teaching stress management, but the pause-choose-breathe method did work, and it can work for anyone at any time, and it’s there with you.”

You always have your breath. It’s there. It’s just about being conscious about it and choosing to be mindful to know, “I’m going to take a pause right now and I’m going to breathe consciously, and then I’m going to choose how I want to move forward.” And I chose to move forward with acceptance of the situation, I chose to move forward with peace, and just to make the best of the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
And in terms of sort of the effective choice behavior piece of things, with the ACE, I imagine within that realm there’s like, “Hey, no, I’m going to be late,” and so they’ve got their heads up.” I found my own experience of being late, like that makes all the difference. It’s just like I keep stewing up, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to be late.” They’ll be like, “What’s up with this guy? He’s so unprofessional.” And then I just sort of change the expectation, like, “Hey, guys, unfortunately this is what’s up. I got caught in a bunch of snow, whatever.”

And then they’re like, “Okay.” And now they know and I’m not worried about how I’m about to…it’s like, “I’m going to disappoint them, I’m going to disappoint them, I’m in the process of disappointing them. They’re going to be furtherly disappointed that I thought they were going to be one minute ago based on this delay,” versus, “Oh, well, now there’s a new expectation set, so we’re all good.”

Naz Beheshti
Right. And I, of course, immediately, when I had reception, texted them and let them know that I’m running late. But, yeah, that inner critic could be like, “Gosh, you’re so unprofessional. You’re late. You’re going to be stressed at your own stress management workshop. You should’ve left earlier. This is your fault.” And then it started pouring rain out of nowhere, and I didn’t have an umbrella. So, not only was I late, I was drenched when I showed up, so I had to regroup in the elevator, I just had a couple floors to regroup and I did. I made it work and I always remember that.

And now I try not to be late, but it’s not even about that. It’s about when you do find yourself in that situation, because no one’s perfect, and it may not be about being late, it might be something else, you have the tools. When you have the tools and you’re mindful to use those tools, then you could show up as your best self, not frazzled or upset.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m also curious to get your take about some energy management. What are your top tips for experiencing a boatload of energy?

Naz Beheshti
Okay. So, I would say that, first of all, getting seven to nine hours of sleep, average of eight hours of sleep a night does wonders. Sleep is the way to reboot your mind, body, and creativity, so sleep is essential. But, also, finding your energy sweet spot. So, everyone has their own energy sweet spot, and that is when you feel most energized. Some people feel most energized in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evening. So, learning, “I already know when that is.” If not, just kind of take note throughout the day when you feel most energized. Sometimes there’s peaks and valleys of your energy.

But when you are most energized, that’s when I always encourage listeners, people, my clients, to do their tasks that are least desirable for them. Or the things that they procrastinate the most, do it when they’re most energized because, then, procrastination is limited. Because when you’re not energized and you still have a bunch of things to do, especially if there are things you don’t want to do, you’re going to push them out and have more reason to procrastinate because you’re just tired. So, finding your energy sweet spot and doing those things during that time is really beneficial to being productive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Naz Beheshti
Well, I would say that my book offers over 80 proven tools and strategies to improve yourself and your workplace to achieve a sustainable success, so I highly encourage listeners to check it out so that you can become the CEO of your wellbeing and be awesome at your job.

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

Naz Beheshti
My favorite quote is, “Live well. Laugh often. Love much.”

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

Naz Beheshti
My favorite study is a study that shows how critical connection to others are, our relationships, how critical it is to our health. So, the world’s longest longitudinal study on happiness began in 1938 and it’s still running strong, which I find fascinating. It’s done by Robert J. Waldinger, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor. And he sums up the biggest lessons in his popular TED Talk by saying, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. And loneliness is toxic.” And I just find that really so true.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Naz Beheshti
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which was also published by New World Library.

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

Naz Beheshti
I would have to say my PBC method, my pause-breathe-choose. It’s a powerful method for translating mindfulness into action, and really taking ownership of your wellbeing so that you could be present and make better choices.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect with your audience; they retweet it; they quote it back to you frequently?

Naz Beheshti
Yeah, so since my book has come out, I get a lot of retweets for “We prioritize doing well over being well, but the truth is we can have both, success and wellbeing.”

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

Naz Beheshti
My website, my corporate website for my corporate wellness company, Prananaz.com, or you can learn more about me and my book at NazBeheshti.com. I’m also on all social media as NazBeheshti, or I think Facebook it’s NazBeheshtiSpeaker, but everywhere else it’s NazBeheshti.

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

Naz Beheshti
I would say tell the listeners commit to your self-care and wellbeing as a non-negotiable. So, you have the power and the choice to be the CEO of your wellbeing and take charge of all areas of your life so that you can truly live your best life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Naz, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your pausing, breathing, and choosing.

Naz Beheshti
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

668: Making Work More Meaningful and Fulfilling through Mindfulness and Compassion with Scott Shute

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LinkedIn’s Head of Mindfulness and Compassion Scott Shute discusses how to improve yourself and your work by practicing more mindfulness and compassion.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why mindfulness matters at work 
  2. How to keep your inner critic from hijacking your day 
  3. The four steps to cultivating compassion 

About Scott

Scott was previously the Vice President of LinkedIn’s Customer Operations organization. In his current role as Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, Scott blends his lifelong practice and passion with his practical leadership and operations experience.  His mission is to change work from the inside out by “mainstreaming mindfulness” and “operationalizing compassion.” He is the author of the book The Full Body Yes, available in May 2021. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Scott Shute Interview Transcript

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

Scott Shute
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom here but, first, I want to hear about your love of motorcycles.

Scott Shute
Well, I grew up on a farm in Kansas and just in the wide-open spaces, so I grew up riding dirt bikes since I was six. And one of my big adventures was a couple of buddies and I, when we graduated from college, we rode from Kansas to the East Coast and up into Canada and back over 5,000 miles in like three weeks camping. And then we didn’t talk to each other for a very long time after that.

Pete Mockaitis
But, eventually, you returned to conversation.

Scott Shute
For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Well, let’s hear about your latest book here, The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out. Tell us what’s the most maybe surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made along the way as you’ve put this together.

Scott Shute
Wow, interesting. So, these are a lot of stories from my own life but I think they’re the stories about each one of us, and I think it’d be relevant for everybody. And it’s really about, it kind of follows this Rumi quote, I love to quote Rumi, he’s a 13th century master and poet. He says, “Yesterday, I was clever and I tried to change the world, but today I’m wise, and I’m working on changing myself.”

And, for me, that’s kind of what this is. You can open any newspaper, any news app, and think, “Oh, my God, what a mess that we live in.” But, ultimately, for me, it’s about the work that I can change on myself that allows me to then be strong with whatever life brings me and change the world and work as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so then that sounds wise and sensible. And is that kind of the core thesis or big idea of the book here?

Scott Shute
Yeah. Look, I wanted to write a book about compassion. In my day job, and now we can get into it, but I’m the head of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn, and so I wanted to write a book about compassion, and I realized that 99% about being compassionate, or learning how to be compassionate to other people, is getting out of our own way, it’s dealing with our own mess, it’s our own development. And so, I kind of go through this arch in my life of how I’ve learned, how I’ve messed it up, and also how I’ve learned, and how I’ve sometimes gotten it right.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s so much I want to dig into. So, as the head of mindfulness and compassion, do you feel a lot of pressure to be super mindful and compassionate every day?

Scott Shute
Well, what I could tell you is sometimes, sometimes, my wife and I are arguing, and probably usually she’s right, but she’ll throw around, “Hey, aren’t you the head of mindfulness?” Like, that doesn’t sound very ”Aargh!” Look, I never pretend to be perfect. That’s just my title.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, okay, so that’s a really cool title at a world-leading organization. And so, I think some people might say, “Mindfulness, compassion, are those even things that are really important to be at work? It’s called work for a reason, and that’s your job?” What’s the business case associated with these things?

Scott Shute
Sure. Well, I always start with the question, if I’m talking to leaders, like, “Do you care about your employees or not?” Because, let’s face it, work has changed over the years. If we go way back, like think about building the pyramids, we had kings and slaves, and then that evolved into indentured servants, or land owners and not land owners. In the industrial revolution, you had people in factories, and probably, largely, workers were viewed as interchangeable or replaceable.

But, now, in the information age, a company like LinkedIn and many others, we don’t have hard assets. All we have is our people. And so, our number one asset should also be our number one investment. If our people are operating at their best, if they’re happy, if they’re mentally well, they’re going to produce great results.

Now, what we know about mindfulness and practices like that, you can think of it like mental exercise, like physical exercise. So, we know that, look, there are 6,000 peer-reviewed papers that show that mindfulness reduces stress, reduces anxiety, increases creativity, and increases the quality of leadership and connection. Now, what leader doesn’t want that in their organization? So, that’s what we’re up to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Super. Well, then, in practice, how do you go about integrating mainstream mindfulness, operationalizing compassion? These are some terms that come up here. How do you do that?

Scott Shute
Yeah, let’s talk about it in two ways. Let’s talk about mindfulness first. And so, we’re turning it to mainstream, meaning make it just as normal as physical exercise. So, if somebody asked you, “Hey, what are you going to do after work?” “Oh, I’m going to go to the TRX class and then go for a run.” Everybody thinks, “Oh, yeah, cool. That’s totally normal.” But if we said, “Oh, I’m going to go check out the latest meditation class at 4:30 or 5:00,” like, “Ahh, okay.”

And so, here’s how we’re mainstreaming it. We’re trying to make it just as normal as physical exercise. So, every place, we have a gym. LinkedIn is a company that has 15,000 or 16,000 people, so we have offices all over the world. Where we have gyms and where we have classes like yoga or TRX, we also have classes on meditation where people like me are leading them on a regular basis. So, 30, 40, 50 meditation sessions per week.

We give everybody an app. They have access to the Wise@Work app, which is a really cool meditation app, which is designed for people who are working. And then once a year, we do a 30-day challenge where we encourage people, “Hey, if you use the app 20 times within the 30 days, we’ll give you a free T-shirt.” Or, this year, we did a free hoodie. And, look, never underestimate the power of a free hoodie on people’s behavior. And what we find is that, over time, each year that we do this, people are doing it and they’re adopting it and they’re developing a practice, and we’re just making it more and more and more commonplace.

On the compassion side, so I think mindfulness is great. This is how we develop ourselves. But the real juice is in compassion because we don’t work, or live, in isolation. So, compassion is, you know, I have a definition for it but it’s essentially when we’re moving from just thinking about me to thinking about the we. And this shows up in our values, and it can be really simple.

So, as an example, our head of sales will stand on stage in front of 5,000 people at sales kickoff, and say, “Look, don’t just sell something at the end of our quarter that our customers don’t need just so you can hit quota. Like, we are in this for a long-term value.” Now, at the root of that, that is compassion because we move from just selfish needs to the needs of the whole.

Or, product review. A product manager will come to the product execs, pitching their new innovations, and the meeting might start by saying, “Oh, hey, in this latest rev of our product, we’re going to get 12% more clicks by doing, X, Y, and Z.” And the first question, if they don’t answer it themselves, is always, “Yeah, but what about the member experience?” And if they answer, “Well, hey, look, did I mention it was 12% more clicks?” like the meeting just stops and then it becomes an abject lesson on our number one value, which is members first. So, those are some of the ways that we’re trying to integrate it into what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s hit mindfulness a little bit in detail. There’s a lot of ways one can go about being mindful. So, when you are working it and working out the brain, like we work out the body, what are some of the top recommended practices or pro tips to do that well?

Scott Shute
Sure. Well, what we’re looking for is to reduce kind of our fight or flight system in our brain, and a lot of people experience this naturally when they go for a walk out at nature, when they spend time with loved ones, or listen to music, talk with a friend, all those things can be helpful. But some of those are not available to us in the workplace or on demand.

And so, mindfulness or breathing or meditating is another way to do that that’s free and always portable. And so, as an example, if I’m headed into a stressful meeting, I have a big presentation or whatever it’s going to be, I can just spend 90 seconds. I can take some deep breaths, activate the rest and digest part of my nervous system, and just kind of let both my mind and my body settle. That’s kind of a micro practice.

I mean, people, of course, go on to have 10-minute, 15-minute, 20-minute a day or even more practices but they can be done in little micro doses. It just starts with awareness of when I’m kind of getting a little “Zzzzsst” in my head and need to calm things down a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. And so, then I’ve done some stuff in the mindfullness world.

Scott Shute
You’ve done some stuff?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve done things, Scott, in the mindfulness world in terms of like apps and returning to my breath and such. And what’s interesting is, I guess maybe I didn’t have a free hoodie to motivate me, is that I find that I get in the groove and I fall out of the groove, and then I get back in the groove, and I fall out of the groove. What have you discovered are some of the best practices to help people do that with some consistency to really enjoy the benefits that these 6,000 papers are pointing to?

Scott Shute
Sure. I really love the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and there’s so much goodness in there. One of my favorite quotes from him is, “Our lives do not rise to the level of our intentions. They fall to the level of our systems.” So, in other words, we have these big goals we want to practice but we just fall back into our habits.

And so, thinking about an atomic habit, you start with the smallest thing that I can commit to. So, maybe it’s I set an alarm every day. For some time, that works for me, and when that alarm goes, I’m just going to do a little bit, the least I can commit to. Maybe it’s one breath, maybe it’s three breaths, maybe over time it turns into five minutes or 10 minutes or 20 minutes. That’s one thing is just regularity.

Another one is having an accountability buddy. So, if we were to start a practice, maybe every day we’re going to text each other, “Hey, did you do your minutes today? Did you do your practice?” There’s something really powerful about having an accountability buddy and knowing that there’s someone there on the other end.

Other people use, I like a tick-list. So, I have a little piece of paper that has, right now, I’m trying to learn how to do pushups, three days a week. And so, I have a little Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have five boxes on a piece of paper, and I know that every week I need to check off those five boxes three times a week.

And so, use a system that fits your life, that fits stuff you already do for work in ways you’ve already built habits doing other things, and use it for mindfulness. That’s one. And then, two, is have a clear goal of why. If we’re going to the gym and we’re going to do pushups or workout or do whatever, if you don’t know why you’re there, it’s really hard to get motivated to go the next time.

So, the same thing with mindfulness, if you have a clear goal, like, “Wow, I know,” like me, personally, I know that when I don’t do it, I can start to get grumpy, or I can start to get a little short, or I can start to get a little irritated. And when I do do it, all those things are much better. And so, I have a clear picture. So, each of us needs a clear intention to go along with our system.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s so dead-on, and we’re talking about the why. I just recently finished listening to Chris Bailey’s How to Train Your Mind which is excellent, by the way. And he shared a case that revealed that for a knowledge worker, you can expect to earn back about nine minutes of good productive time for each one minute you spend in meditation.

And I found that so compelling in terms of like, “Oh, I’m too busy. I don’t feel like it.” It’s like, “Well, no, known fact, you are losing time by not doing this.” And so, that was a powerful why for me. And you’ve observed in your own life some benefits for who you want to be, so that’s huge. Any other huge whys pop up for people as they engage in these practices that really connects?

Scott Shute
The rest of us need you to do it. I get anecdotal emails from people in our program all the time. One young woman during COVID times sent an email, she’s like, “Thank you so much for offering what you offer.” She’s like, “Look, I’m a mom, I have two kids under four. And what I can tell you is I’m screaming at them a lot less.” And that wasn’t it, she went on to say how she was able to be present for them, how she was able to be calm. Look, when we take care of ourselves, we’re better for everybody else around us, including our coworkers and our customers, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then let’s talk a little bit more about the compassion side of things and being for others. When it comes to mindfulness, there’s some particular practices that we’ve heard before, like, “Oh, sit still, focus on your breath, return your thought to your breath when it wanders.” How does one get more compassionate?

Scott Shute
Great question. So, let’s start with self-compassion because a lot of people really struggle with this one. But a good self-compassion exercise, and this goes almost to black belt level so we’ll go there. You and your listeners are ready, right? So, essentially, when you’re getting ready in the morning, when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving or doing makeup, you put your hand on your heart, you look at yourself in the mirror, and you say your name followed by, “I love you.” That’s hard in the beginning because we have all these judgments, we have all these stories.

Like, Arianna Huffington calls it the obnoxious roommate, the inner critic that tells us all the bad things we have wrong. And it’s a lot to get over that. And so, just this constant practice of recognizing that our brains tend towards the negative. This is how we evolved, this is how we stayed alive, but our brains are keeping us alive, not happy. And so, for happiness or contentment or compassion, we actually have to do a little extra work.

So, that hand on your heart “I love you” is one. Another one for self-compassion is to ask myself, “What else is true?” If that obnoxious roommate, that inner critic is really going crazy, it’s like, “Okay, stop. What else is true?” meaning that there’s a lot of good things in my life as well in addition to the things my inner critic is complaining about. And if I list those things off, then I can see things in a balanced way and it makes me more stable. So, that’s for self.

Now, if I want to have compassion for others, it’s first recognizing what’s going on. What’s going on just like we evolved to have a negativity bias in our bodies, we evolve to feel compassion for those who are like us. Now, like us meaning the way we think, the people we identify with. And so, when we see someone as different, we then can only focus on those differences. And it’s kind of fascinating because humans are about 98% the same. But if you look at the news, the polarity we have going, we only see the 2% of the differences between us.

So, the antidote to that is to look someone else and realize, “Look, this person just wants to be happy. They just want to be healthy. They just want to have their plans work out. They’re just trying to get by. They experience pain and joy just like I do. In so many ways, this person is just like me.” There’s a quote that gets attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who was in the middle of polarity during the Civil War, and so all of this kind of same stuff that’s happening. He says, I’ll paraphrase a little bit, he says, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Scott Shute
That’s where it starts.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That is good. Boy, the hand on the heart, looking in the mirror, “I love you,” I think I’ve done that just a couple times ever. And it is, in the first couple times, I guess I’ve done it a couple of times, it’s kind of weird feeling and, yet, it’s good. And I checked this from the book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, it’s about apologies, and they also recommended doing a similar exercise to say, “I forgive you,” to your own self, and that’s powerful as well. So, any pro tips for those who are like, “Yeah, I don’t know about that, Scott. Not my style”?

Scott Shute
You just got to try it. Get over yourself. So, if you can’t say, “I love you” to yourself, then you probably can’t say, “I love you” to anybody else, and that’s a shame. That’s a shame. So, this is something that the rest of us need from you. This is part of the community that we live in. We need you to be at your best, or moving away from kind of those bad days that we all have, towards some of the good days that we all have, so try it for the rest of us. You’ll be a better person.

Pete Mockaitis
And for those who, this is a little deeper here, intrinsically feel, at times or maybe most of the time, unworthy of love, or unlovable, how do we do there?

Scott Shute
It’s the same technique. It’s just harder. This technique, it works on a number of levels, because here’s what going on. When we put our hand on our heart, it has a similar effect as when we give someone a hug. When we give someone a hug, our bodies release oxytocin and we feel soothing, like literally, in our nervous system. We feel a soothing and a calming down.

So, you might imagine a time when you were a child and you were being soothed by your grandmother or mother or aunty or whoever was soothing for you, and go to that place even just with your hand on your heart. And then when you say, when you can look in yourself in the eyes, and say, “I love you,” what you’re doing is you’re letting go of all the stuff. Of course, we have all failed. We all have things that we have judgments about. But at the root of it, we are all are lovable. There’s that part of us which is deeper beyond the body, beyond the mind and emotions, and look at it from that part, that part where we are all equal. That part is, for sure, lovable, and that’s where love comes from.

So, it’s making that connection from that pure part of yourself to yourself and to others in their pure part of themselves. And, look, this is what we’re all looking for. I think that one of the most deeply held needs that each of us has is the need to be seen and heard and acknowledged and gotten, which is really saying loved. And so, it starts with ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. This is powerful stuff. I understand you also have a four-step action plan. What is this fourth?

Scott Shute
Well, this is in the book. So, my COVID project was to write a book, it’s called The Full Body Yes and I kind of go through these four steps. And this was, again, trying to get at the “What’s the recipe to be compassionate?”

So, it starts with knowing ourselves. Each one of us has a story that only we can tell, and every one of us has pain and joy and whatever, but each one of us have a unique story. So, it’s first understanding that story, understanding why we do the things we do, understanding the systems, the internal systems that control our bodies and our minds, but also the external systems, like, “Who are we making these decisions for? What is it, family? Is it society? Is it our friends?” And once we have a clear understanding of that, then we have choices. So, that’s the first step is, knowing ourselves.

The second step is to love ourselves. Now, this is literally to love ourselves, like this thing we were just talking about with our hand on our heart, seeing the goodness in ourselves, but it’s also recognizing that we’re more than just our mind and our body and our emotions, and seeing ourselves at our highest, so love ourselves. Oh, also, in the love of ourselves, is learning to listen to that deeper voice within us. The voice that really just knows, and that’s where The Full Body Yes comes from.

And then the third part, this is the hard part, this is the mastery of ourselves, the mastery of me. When we realize that we are in charge, that life is not happening to us but maybe happening for us, then it’s all on us, then we have to make those choices, we have to do the hard work of whatever it is, the daily practice, or making the right choices with our sleep or our bodies or the way we conduct ourselves in life, and those things are hard.

And when we can do those three things, then we have a better idea then of the fourth thing, which is doing the same three things for another person, having awareness of the other person, loving the other person, and then the courage to take action on their behalf. And that’s how I define compassion – awareness of others, the capacity to have the mindset of wishing the best for them, and then the courage to take action. So, those are the four steps.

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

Scott Shute
Well, I think that we’re at place where every company, every organization can benefit from these. And it’s kind of on an evolution just like physical exercise has been on evolution. What I didn’t know before kind of this role is that 50 years ago, nobody exercised. Like, our grandparents, our great grandparents, they didn’t exercise; they worked hard. But, over that time, we all learned the benefits of physical exercise. It doesn’t mean we all do it but more people are aware of it, and more people are taking it up, and more companies are offering programs around physical exercise.

In the same way, we already know the science is great for mental exercise, like meditation, and we’re on the same journey. And maybe it won’t take 50 years this time until we mainstreamed mindfulness but I think we’re a lot closer. And so, there are some playbooks that I have. You can always reach out to me if you want a playbook on how to bring mindfulness to your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so we’ve got the book itself The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out. What are some of the key components of the playbook?

Scott Shute
Ahh, so for the playbook, I’d say if you are a leader, these things don’t have to be expensive. It’s, find your volunteers. So, I volunteered before this became my full-time gig. There are lots of people already in your organization, I’m sure, that are excited about this stuff in a broad category. Find out who they are. They would love to volunteer 5%, or 10%, or 20% of their time to help get a program off the ground. So, find your volunteers.

Perhaps, find a partner. Again, this stuff doesn’t have to be expensive. We like the partner WisdmLabs. They have some great stuff that we use. And then find a champion, whoever highest up in the organization that can talk about it, and create an umbrella of safety for everyone else. In our case, I “came out” because our CEO was talking about his own practice at company all-hands, and then I was a VP at the company so, for me, I was the champion, and so it made it a lot easier at LinkedIn. Those are three steps.

If you are an individual and you’re thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not in charge of HR, I’m not in charge of big budget, but I’m excited about meditation,” just start. I started by leading one meditation six years ago. And that first time, there was one person there and the program grew from there. So, just start and your friends will follow you, other people who are interested will come.

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

Scott Shute
Well, I shared my Rumi quote already. I’ll share one from my dad so then we’ll have the clouds and the practicality. One of my dad’s favorite things, and I was so annoyed to hear this when I was 15, but he would say, “Basically, all of your problems can be solved if you have a good attitude,” which is mostly true.

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

Scott Shute
Oh, when I was a kid, I used to light all kinds of things on fire to see what would happen but that’s probably not so productive these days. I love the research that Richard Davidson and team are doing at the University of Wisconsin on meditation. They’ve basically taken the world’s “professional-level meditators,” like these monks from Tibet and other places who have meditated 30,000-40,000 hours to see how it changes their brains, to see if there’s anything that we can learn, for the rest of us who are not going to do all of that. And I think that’s pretty fascinating. There’s lots to learn there. And there’s a book that followed, called Altered Traits by Richard Davidson and Dan Goleman which is really good.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Scott Shute
I mentioned James Clear’s Atomic Habits, so beyond that I’m going to go with the other end of the spectrum which is Hafiz, so Hafiz’ The Gift. Hafiz is another one of those masters from the, I don’t know, 600 or 800 years ago, and he’s a Persian poet. Like Rumi, he finds a way to bring the sublime into this world in a way that is still relevant 700 years later.

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

Scott Shute
I love my phone. I’m trying not to be addicted to my phone but, oh, my goodness, those things are so powerful. My kids are a little older, but every time we have the conversation about what life was like as I grew up in the ‘80s, they cannot believe that I did not have a cellphone, and so it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without my smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular app that really does it for you?

Scott Shute
I’m probably addicted to email but that’s not that much fun. Bleacher Report, I keep track of the San Francisco Giants and my Kansas state football and basketball teams.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Scott Shute
I got to go with meditation. This whole COVID quarantine thing has actually been really good for my practice because what has happened is I’ve traded commuting time in the morning for meditating time, so it’s the most regular, the most solid my practice has ever been.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so since we’re talking meditation and mindfulness, and that’s your favorite habit, if I can zoom into your practice, how exactly does it go down for Scott?

Scott Shute
Ah, so that’s a great question. Thank you for asking. I usually do a little bit of settling and a little breathing, but I actually…my primary practice is I use a mantra in my own practice. It’s not something I usually do at work but in my own practice at home, I sing the word Hu, H-U, long and drawn out. And, for me, it acts like a tuning fork to that deepest part of me. I love it. It’s cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tuning fork, is there a particular pitch that you’re going for? Or how is it…?

Scott Shute
No, not necessarily a pitch. It’s just like…I mean, this sounds a little weird but it’s like vibration. So, there’s something about the resonance which acts like a tuning fork to soul, to that deepest part of me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re trying to zoom in on when you’re vibrating.

Scott Shute
I’m trying to get in touch with that deepest part of me. I would call it soul, and letting go of the mind, letting go of emotions, but not letting go of the mind all the way. Like, my goal is not to have no thoughts. My goal is to, I guess, raise myself in consciousness so that the thoughts that I do have are coming from a place that is a little bit deeper and truer.

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

Scott Shute
Yeah, I think I spent 25 years as an operations guy, and so I’m trying to connect these wisdom traditions and really practical, like, how to live. And so, when I connect using this James Clear quote of “Our lives do not rise to the level of our goals. They fall to the level of our systems,” and then give them some really specific things, that seems to resonate with people. Yeah, and also asking the question, “What else is true?” because we tend to be so negative. So, just stopping when you’re feeling in downward spiral. Ask yourself, “What else is true?” In other words, what else is good? Those are some really simple ways to kind of move from where we have been to where we’d like to go.

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

Scott Shute
Yeah, you can go to ScottShute.com or TheFullBodyYes.com, they go to the same place, or follow me on LinkedIn. That’s where all my kind of daily updates are happening.

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

Scott Shute
Oh, to be awesome at your job, first be awesome at your life. And to be awesome at your life, start by loving yourself and the ones around you. So, hand on heart, eyes on yourself in the mirror, and say, “I love you.” And then go do that for someone else that you love as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a treat. I wish you much love and mindfulness and compassion in your days to come.

Scott Shute
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.