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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Dr. Jud

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Jud Brewer Interview Transcript

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

Judson Brewer
Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, do tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judson Brewer
Right.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judson Brewer
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
This must be the thing that happens now.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, open. Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

Judson Brewer
Awareness. Does that count as a tool?

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

Judson Brewer
Being curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judson Brewer
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

588: How to Calm Anxiety and Achieve Peak Performance with Dr. Luana Marques

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Luana Marques says: "Once we get stuck on patterns of thinking, we forget that those are habits."

Dr. Luana Marques discusses how to face anxieties and fears head-on using proven strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stop avoiding and start taming your fears
  2. Why anxiety isn’t always bad
  3. The TEB cycle for calming your anxious mind

 

About Luana

Dr. Marques is a licensed clinical psychologist in the states of Massachusetts and New York and an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

She received her B.S. in Psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) in 2001, as well as her Masters and Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo in Clinical Psychology in 2005 and 2007, respectively. She completed an internship and postdoctoral fellowship in the CBT track at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and was subsequently hired as a post-doctoral fellow in the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic & Research Unit at MGH. Currently, Dr. Marques is the senior clinical psychologist at the MGH Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders program, as well as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Luana Marques Interview Transcript

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

Luana Marques
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to…is excited the word? I’m highly interested in digging into your expertise when it comes to anxiety, and fear, and coping, and resilience, all that good stuff. But I want to understand, first, I understand that you had a fear of heights at one point. Past tense, I’m using. What’s the story and how did you overcome this?

Luana Marques
You’re absolutely right. I learned it the hard way. I was actually hiking Yosemite National Park, and when I got to the end of Half Dome, I realized that there are cables there and I had the fear that I was going to fall down. My heart was pounding, a classic fight or flight response. I was already in graduate school thankfully and so I took matters in my own hands to make sure I’d overcome that fear, so it is past tense. I go skydiving as often as I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s exciting. I’ve been skydiving once, twice. At least once. And it is a thrill. Well, how did you do it? What were the key steps for you personally?

Luana Marques
So, the key step of anything when it comes to a fight or flight response is, really, approach and not avoid. But it’s not just to approach completely, it’s what I call comfortably uncomfortable. So, the idea is to create your hierarchy, your approach ladder, and to start small. What you’re trying to do is to teach your limbic system, the emotional part of your brain, how to cool off a little bit. And the limbic system is wired really for fight or flight, and so what you want to do here is approach, stay with the fear situation again and again until the anxiety comes down. And so, I started with ladders, then I went up on stairs and roofs, and then I went to Disney, I did 16 rollercoasters in one day. I don’t recommend it. Skydiving is a lot more fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is so good. Well, now I’m thinking, I’ve just been playing with my Oculus Quest headset a little bit when I can’t get out in the real world, and they have a plank experience which is just freaky in which it’s like you’re top of a skyscraper walking out on a plank, and it’s not real but it sure makes you feel crazy, like, up there. So, I don’t know where that falls in the ladder, but I guess that’s sort of one other way that you could initiate a type of exercise, experience, encounter, a something, that is not the whole thing but it’s somewhere on the rung there.

Luana Marques
Absolutely. So, the virtual reality world has taken over and, really, today, there’s virtual reality treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. So, whatever you can do to play with the brain a little bit, and really what we’re trying to teach is it’s a false alarm. And this example of the plank is great because you’re still in your house but I bet you get your heart pounding a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Really, you know, the first time I did it, I was actually…my brother came into town and we went. This was maybe a year or two ago, we went to his VR lounge place, and I sort of embarrassed all of us because I was, “Oh,” made quite the scene, and people looking at a dude with a headset on, like, “What’s his problem?”

Luana Marques
Now it makes sense. And I really like that you’re sharing that, Pete, because often we can’t understand when somebody is anxious, what the experience is like, and at the core of it is this fight or flight response.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, I guess we kind of jumped right into it a little bit of the how and some steps. So, maybe let’s back it up a little bit. When we talk about anxiety, could you give us a definition? It doesn’t have to be supremely, precisely, academically perfect, but just so we’re on the same page for what we’re talking about here.

Luana Marques
Absolutely. So, when we’re talking about anxiety, often we’re talking about a couple things. First is the physiology that comes with this fight or flight response. And so, for a mild sort of just heart pounding a little bit to a full-on sweaty palms, tension, feeling ready to run from threat. So, one component of anxiety is really the physical component of anxiety. The other component of anxiety is where it falls more in sort of the anxious thoughts, it becomes worry, “What if this happened? What if that happened?”

And so, I tend to think about anxiety through the Yerkes-Dodson Law, really thinking about how low levels of anxiety results to low levels of performance. At moderate arousal, we have this peak performance. At mid arousal, peak performance. And then when we get to too much arousal, too much anxiety, then our brain shuts down a little bit and becomes really hard to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
I totally buy that in my own experience in terms of…and I’m thinking about…What was the model you mentioned? What was the name?

Luana Marques
So, it’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Pete Mockaitis
Yerkes-Dodson Law. I guess I’m thinking about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow with regard to if it’s too little, it’s we’re bored; too much, we’re freaked out, overwhelmed; and moderate, it’s like, “Ooh, an interesting challenge,” and we’re in the groove and flow. And I experience that as well in terms of just thinking about career moments, like, “Ooh, this is a big opportunity.” I’m a little nervous and excited about it, and then I’m stretched, as opposed to, “This is wildly overwhelming, and I’m freaked out or I’m really bored by what’s going on here.”
So then I would like to hear, in terms of the research and discoveries, what for you has been the most fascinating, surprising, enlightening discovery you’ve made about anxiety and how us humans work during your long career of psychologist and researcher and real-time adventurist?

Luana Marques
So, early on in my career, a lot of the studies I worked on were questions like not, “Does therapy work?” but “Does it work better with medication?” In therapy, the ones I’ve studied really fall on the cognitive behavioral therapy, so what you’re saying to yourself, what’s that making you feel, your emotions, and what is your behavior, the actions you’re taking. And early on, what we knew is that CBT is not only effective but it can help you rewire your brain. Pre-imposed studies, so 12 weeks of therapy. Pre-imposed function MRI, you see a change in the brain domain that you’d want to see, decrease limbic response, increase frontal cortex of thinking brain.

So, early, what was exciting, is to know that, before we even talk about neuroplasticity, that we could actually change our brain with therapy, is really cool to me. And then, now that we know it works, what gets me the most excited these days is, “How do we get out of the ivory tower and into the streets? How do we actually think about this as brain health and so that you need to exercise your brain with those skills? And how can we get it to everyone?” And that’s really what our research lab focuses on mostly these days.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let us know, what are some best practices if more people want to taste some of those benefits without, to the extent possible, doing a full-blown 12 weeks of therapy? What can we do?

Luana Marques
So, there are a couple of ways you do it. One, on July 12, we’re going to release a course called Mental Health for All, and it is a very simple dosage of the skills I’m talking about. There are four modules, and it’s going to be available for free for anybody in the world. So, if you think about building resilience, you’re going to be able to learn how to slow down your brain, separating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You’re going to be able to learn how to charge up. So, the role of eating, sleeping, and exercise for your physical and mental health. We’ll teach people how to approach their fears and to also change some of their thinking.

And you can find more about the course on my website DrLuana.com. You can also practice the skills like mindfulness and meditation. Those are definitely some things that are out there, easily accessible, and shown to rewire your brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, boy, I’d love to talk about all those things, I’ll just have to take the course. Let’s talk about changing thinking, shall we? We talked a little bit about the going up the steps, and we’ve talked with a few guests about charging up and self-care and energy stuff. So, how do you recommend we go about changing our thinking?

Luana Marques
The first step with changing our thinking is to remind ourselves that thoughts are not facts, and that’s really important. Once we get stuck on patterns of thinking, we forget that those are habits. So, you show up at work and somebody gives you a look, and you might say to yourself, “That person is mad at me.” You jump to a conclusion. And that thought immediately probably makes you a little anxious and you might avoid that person.

So, the first thing is just sort of like listen, “What am I saying to myself? What is exactly that thought?” And then a very simplistic way to change your thought is to say, “Okay, what’s the evidence that I have to support that thought? And what is the evidence I have against that thought?” So, in the example here, you may say, “Okay, maybe that person is mad at me, but I don’t have evidence. Maybe they are preoccupied, maybe they’re tried, maybe they were thinking about something else.” And so, you really want to put the evidence for and against in a balance, like in a scale, and be able to say, “Okay, based on this evidence, do I actually have data that can prove that thought right?”

And if you can’t, then we need to really arrive at a more balanced thought. And the trick here, Pete, is really balanced. Often, when we talk about exploring thoughts, people are like, “Well, is it a happy thought? Is it a sad thought? Is it a good thought?” It really is not. It’s balanced. Sometimes there are thoughts that are realistic. I can’t say to a patient who had an experience of racism that that wasn’t real, right? But if you focus only on that experience, then you’re going to continue to feel upset.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with some fair synonyms for balanced in this context be sort of like accurate, truthful? I get the sense that when you say balanced, you mean that it is reflective of full reality more or less. Is that what you mean by balanced?

Luana Marques
Exactly, Pete. That’s what I mean by balanced. By really looking at the whole picture and understanding sort of all of the facts in front of you, and almost summarizing them in such a way that you can say, “Huh, I’m saying this to myself for a long time. I have a habit of saying this. This may not be an actual fact. It could not be held in a court of law as a fact.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. I’d love if you can maybe give an example here, and let’s talk a little bit, shall we, about coronavirus, shall we, a source of much anxiety these days? Let’s say someone has some thought patterns like, “I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I must do this. I must do that. I’m freaked out that I could catch it and have a horrible time, lose my sense of smell or taste forever,” and they’re just all kinds of anxious and freaked out. How would we go about moving to balance?

Luana Marques
So, the first thing I would do is slow down. So, let’s imagine that was you for a second, that you’re the person saying those things to yourself. So, the first thing I’d want to know is, “What is the situation that triggered those thoughts? Where were you? I’d like to see exactly what you’re doing when those thoughts came up.”

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say, so I’m the person who’s highly anxious. Let’s say my wife suggested she wanted to go get an oil change, and I thought, “Uh-oh, we can’t have that. There’s all sorts of person interaction there.”

Luana Marques
So, your wife suggests, I can see great situation. So, the first step is to actually anchor in the situation, because if we don’t anchor in the situation, we can’t isolate a specific thought that may get you anxious. Now, in that situation, there were a bunch of thoughts that you had, right? So, let’s walk through the thoughts again. What are the first two thoughts that may have jumped in your head?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, now that we’re anchored in the situation, I’d say, “Uh-oh, she might get it from a mechanic, and then she could be hospitalized, and we’ll be in a world of trouble with taking care of the kids and work and everything.”

Luana Marques
So, I’m going to stay with the person, “She may get it from a mechanic.” Okay. When you say that to yourself, how did you feel? What’s your emotions like?

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I could use the word, I want to say anxious but it almost feel like cheating in this conversation, so we’ll say afraid, concerned, worried.

Luana Marques
So, afraid and concerned, which makes you get worried, right? And what do you want to do? What’s the behavior?

Pete Mockaitis
I’d say, “No, don’t go. Let’s not do that.”

Luana Marques
“Let’s not do that,” right? And your wife then says, “No, I really, really want it.” What does that do to that fear that you’re feeling?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess it makes it more, it’s like I wanted to exert some control over in this hypothetical situation, and now I apparently am failing.

Luana Marques
And so, the first thing I’m illustrating for us, before we even get to this balanced thought, is that before we get there, we need to understand what we call our TEB cycle, T for thoughts, E for emotions, B for behaviors. TEB cycle. That’s really separating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors anchoring in a situation. Once you do that, then you look at that thought, “My wife might get it from a mechanic” Now, let’s ask questions out of that thought. What is the evidence – and evidence, I mean, something that could be held in a court of law, that a judge says true – that your wife might get it?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know if it was Dr. Anthony Fauci, or one of these health people, said, like, “Oh, the best course of action is just to assume that everybody has it.”

Luana Marques
So, I agree, that may be the best course of action, but how does that help us prove that your wife will get it?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, I guess one authority figure said, “Assume everyone has it so you might…” I guess I don’t have the best stats here. I think some health experts estimated perhaps 10% of people in the US have it right now.

Luana Marques
Okay. So, your brain is saying your wife will get it, and the stats are saying 10% of the people are getting it. So, perhaps the probability may be slightly lower than she’ll get it. Is that fair?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure, yeah. It would be 10% or less.

Luana Marques
Or less. What would be the evidence against it, that she might not get it?

Pete Mockaitis
That she might not get it. Well, I guess then the 90% don’t actually get it.

Luana Marques
I know. You see the brain tricks us. The minute you say to yourself, “She’ll get it,” then you’re locked into this worst-case scenario, right? Getting to a balanced thought is really looking at, “Okay, there’s 10% chance, there’s perhaps 90% chance that she won’t, and I bet we could work together through the steps of making her stay so that she could still engage with it in a safe way.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Luana Marques
Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
I agree.

Luana Marques
So, a balanced thought may look like something like this, “My wife is taking a chance but we really need that oil change to be able to keep doing the things we need to do, so we’ll make sure she’s wearing a mask, that she’s distanced, that we’re going to disinfect the car after, and that would decrease the likelihood that she’ll get it.” That’s more of a balanced thought versus, “She’ll get it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. And so then, a balanced thought…well, let’s say it’s as balanced as you can get. Why don’t we say based upon deep research and many epidemiological bottles, we can infer that there’s approximately a 0.34% chance, give or take, that she will contract the coronavirus from an interaction with a mechanic. So, that’s very small. Now, that may be balanced, but it might still have all sorts of anxiety emotion wrapped up in it, like, “Oh, that’s a lot more than zero, and it could be real bad if she gets it.” So, where does that leave us?

Luana Marques
Well, it leaves us to face reality a little bit, and I think this is where it’s hard to fully balance our thoughts when we’re talking about more realistic thoughts. A thought of somebody is mad at me, for example, it’s very distorted and black and white. When we’re talking about a pandemic, there is the reality that some bad things are really happening. And so, there’s this piece of having to tolerate being comfortably uncomfortable, and then I think really trying to right-size your willingness to take some chances, right?

The best chance is to do nothing, to not get the oil change, I agree. But it’s sort of hard to live that way. And so, I think it’s a sense of like, “Can I tolerate some uncertainty?” And if you really can’t, then, in a pandemic, I’d say, “Don’t do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And then I guess it’s balanced in that we can then really compare, it’s like, “Okay. Well, that is the risk that we would take.” And on the flipside, “What is the consequence of not getting the oil changed? I guess there’s a risk that the car will break if you don’t intend to basic maintenance. You okay with that?”

Luana Marques
Yeah. And it is tough. It is a hypothetical scenario and we’re joking around, but it is a tough time. And the idea of exploring thoughts in a pandemic is to be able to at least making sure that you’re not adding to your anxiety. Anxiety is biologically adaptive up to a point. Up to a point, you get to that zone. What we don’t want to do is be tipping over that zone to a really negative area by having thoughts that distort it. So, that’s really where I think the juice is in exploring thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, let’s talk about that notion of not adding to it. I imagine there’s all sorts of implied do’s and don’ts for us right now or any sort of stressful time of change and difficulty, whether it’s economic or social or health, and we got all three at this moment in the US. So, yeah, I imagine, for example, reading news could make you feel more anxious.

Luana Marques
Definitely do’s and don’ts. So, what we don’t want to do is anything that adds to this fight or flight response. So, anything that activates your emotional brain, we don’t need more of that. We have plenty of it. We have a real threat, coronavirus. On top of it, we have an economic crisis and lots of other difficulties, so we don’t want to do anything that turns it on. So, what do we want to do? The opposite. You want to cool off your brain. How do we do that? By turning on your thinking brain, your prefrontal cortex.

So, the five skills that we often talk about, so the first one is anchor and unplug, and you handed it to me beautifully, which is we know, for example, research shows us that during the marathon bombings here in Boston, that individuals that watched six plus hours of the news related to the bombing at home had a heightened stress response than those that were actually there.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow!

Luana Marques
So, the news can actually induce stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Actually there. Okay.

Luana Marques
Right? And so, think about what that says, that just watching, you’re activating your thinking brain. So, we really need to unplug as much as we can from the news, perhaps watch it twice a day. And then you need to anchor your brain on something that’s good: mindfulness, meditation, talking to your family, doing things to slow down the brain. That’s one of the skills that I often recommend based on science.

Pete Mockaitis
Something good. Well, I think about John Krasinski with his “Some Good News.”

Luana Marques
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, nice work there, John. I’ve never met him but we’re on first-name basis. So, give us some more examples of maybe even, hey, research-based, sort of a big bang for the buck in terms of good stuff that do good things to us biochemically.

Luana Marques
Well, in many ways, we get actually sort of a second set of skills which you’ve mentioned you’ve talked with several of your guests before, but it’s the idea of charging up. Eating, sleeping, and exercise, our bodies are like the batteries of our heart. We actually have to spend energy to get energy. And the problem is, when we’re feeling really anxious, people get stuck, right? They don’t feel like doing something, so they don’t exercise. They forget to eat or overeat. And we know that those three things not only help your physical body, it actually decreases depression, decrease anxiety, and increase wellbeing. So, charging up is extremely important, and I think not optional during pandemics. It’s one of the few things we actually have some control, for the lucky ones, to be able to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s go there for a bit. So, charging up, exercise, good nutrition. Are there any particular high-leverage areas here? Well, there’s sleep. I mean, can you tell us something that we might not know in terms of…?

Luana Marques
About sleep?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, in some ways, that’s the hard thing with great common-sense wisdom, you know, it’s sort of like, “Oh, yeah, I should eat healthy and I should sleep and I should exercise.” So, I‘d love it if you could put a little oomph to it in terms of, “Ooh, this particular nutrient makes a world of a difference,” or, “Hey, this study showed that, boy, a little bit of sleep deprivation is actually devastatingly harmful.”

Luana Marques
Yeah. Well, sleep deprivation not only decreases your immune system but also create memory deficits, so that, for sure, we know it’s a problem. But when it comes to sleep hygiene, broadly speaking, one of the things that most people completely violate in the sleep hygiene is that their bed should be used for sleep and sex. That’s it. You should never watch TV in your bed. You should really make sure that when you transition to bed, you’re really actually trying to slow down your brain, and that’s what most people don’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, tell us, anything else that you recommend we do or not do before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Luana Marques
I guess I recommend that we really hyper focus on the value of social support, of staying connected. It’s the only buffer that we really know against mental illness. And so, no matter what it is, even having this conversation, right, staying connected one way or another can really help us decrease the chances of developing emotional difficulties as a consequence of this pandemic.

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

Luana Marques
So, my favorite would be “Whenever you really want something, the whole universe conspires for you to have it,” by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

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

Luana Marques
I go back to neuroplasticity. The fact that you can rewire your brain, pre-impose cognitive behavior therapy. It’s incredible.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Luana Marques
I go for The Alchemist. Searching your personal legend, I know it’s a fiction book but it really helped me in my journey here to this country.

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

Luana Marques
Approach, not avoid. So, the most important thing is to be comfortably uncomfortable all the time. I define myself as an over-approach-er, so always ahead of it.

Pete Mockaitis
An over-approach-er. I want to dig into that. So, you’re saying you would approach perhaps even more than…what are we over-approaching?

Luana Marques
So, the thing is anxiety is biologically adaptive up to a point, right? And then when it becomes too much, our brain starts to really stop working, as we talked about. I don’t like the experience of anxiety, like nobody really does. And so, whenever I wake up, if there’s something I really don’t want to do, it’s the first thing I do. I over-approach and I try to get ahead so that I stay as close to the zone as possible. That’s what I mean by over-approaching.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And, well, it seems related, but how about a favorite habit?

Luana Marques
That’s pretty much it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay.

Luana Marques
Approach. Approach. Approach. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Comfortably uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for and people quote back to you frequently?

Luana Marques
Recently it’s really been this idea that it’s okay not to be okay, that we all experience strong emotions in the pandemic but that we can also be able to change what we experience by using science-driven skills like we talked today.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn or get in touch or take that course, where do you point them?

Luana Marques
To my website, DrLuana.com. You can sign up for the newsletter there. And we’ll be releasing the course in mid-July.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that’s D-R-L-U-A-N-A.com?

Luana Marques
Yes, you got it.

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

Luana Marques
Yeah, I would encourage you to really work on approaching areas of discomfort, really this idea of being comfortably uncomfortable, and share with us. I’d love to hear more.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Luana, it’s been a treat. I wish you all the best in your approaches.

Luana Marques
Thank you. It’s been delightful to be here, Pete. Thank you for having me.

576: How to Defeat Distraction and Build Greater Mental Resilience through Mindfulness with Rasmus Hougaard

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Rasmus Hougaard says: "We need to learn to manage our mind."

Rasmus Hougaard discusses how to manage your attention by practicing mindfulness.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we get distracted by the news—and how to curb that impulse
  2. The quantifiable benefits of mindfulness
  3. The small habits that build great resilience

 

About Rasmus

Rasmus Hougaard is the Founder and CEO of Potential Project – the global leader in building mindful leaders and organizations by enhancing performance, innovation and resilience through mindfulness. He is the author of One Second Ahead as well as The Mind of the Leader, a bestseller published by Harvard Business Review. In addition, he writes for Harvard Business Review and Forbes and lectures at the world’s leading business and executive education schools.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Rasmus Hougaard Interview Transcript

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

Rasmus Hougaard
Pete, thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. So, right in your bio, you live in both Copenhagen and New York. Can you tell me how do these nations contrast, well, these two cities? The cities and the nations, the cultures contrast.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes. Well, I have very fast rowing boat so I’m just going across the Atlantic every Wednesday. No, that’s not true, of course. And just a disclaimer, this was before the whole COVID because like the last – what is it now – two and a half months or so, I’ve been based in Copenhagen. But, yes, I have a house in New York and a house in Copenhagen. But I’m, honest, spending most of my time everywhere else so I travel a lot of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in the US versus Denmark, what would you say are some of the key cultural differences?

Rasmus Hougaard
Anywhere you go in the US, people are smiling and being really happy and like kind, open. Denmark, and with all respect for my own nation, people look at their feet when you meet them for the first time. It’ll take like two years before they say hi to you, so probably that’s one of the bigger differences.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, it’s a good thing that you’re an expert on mindfulness and resilience so that doesn’t get you down and, I guess, you’re just accustomed to it. So, I was reading your recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, and there’s so much good stuff in there, I want to dig into some more details. So, can you tell us the science behind how constant bad news puts our mind in a natural place where we get distracted? Like, what’s that mechanism or link?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, that’s a great question and something that probably most people experience right now. So, when we come under stress, when we basically become anxious, because of like a crisis that we’re experiencing now with both our health and our financial situation under risk or under attack, the fight-flight part of the brain, which is a very old part of the brain, kicks in, and we basically start to look for all the threats, we start to look for all the changes in the environment, and that in itself makes us incredibly distracted. So, that’s why we check the news more often, that’s why we’re bingeing on social media. Yeah, that’s how the brain works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I love that’s pretty simple and succinct there in terms of, I guess, I before got how, yeah, okay, fight or flight, you get kind of nervous, and there’s cortisol, and you see a threat and you’re amped up. But then, naturally, to scan for threats in modern times means we check the news, check the social media, check the texts, like, “What’s the new thing that’s going to…I have to be aware about and defend myself from?” So, that’s very clear. Thank you.

So, then, your study, you said that recently you saw that 58% of employees reported an inability to regulate their attention at work. Tell us, how did you conduct this research and when did it happen and what’s the story?

Rasmus Hougaard
So, we have around 600 global companies we work with and we do a lot of research on their employees and their leaders. This specific study, we were out and using technology through the phone to basically measure where is their mind at random points during the day. And what people then have to say is, “Oh, I was on task,” “I was off task,” and what we see is just that most of the time, we’re just not on task. As you said, it’s more than half of our time we’re really not paying attention to what we’re doing whether we’re in a meeting, or reading a report, or trying to do an email. We’re not there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, so not to like dig super deep into your details but I’m going to a little bit. So, we say on task, I think sometimes the task at hand is resting, like, “I am deliberately daydreaming, taking a walk around the block, getting a cup of coffee.” How do we account for that?

Rasmus Hougaard
Right. That’s a good question. If, as you said, you’re deliberate about letting your mind wander, then you’re on task.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

Rasmus Hougaard
If you’re going for a walk and you are actually present with going for a walk, you’re on task. If you’re going for a walk, wanting to go for a walk, and just rest, and you just can’t help ruminating over the latest, let’s say, plummeting stock market news, then you are off task.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Rasmus Hougaard
Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Very clear. Well, so then that 58%, so the majority of us are off task the majority of the time? Is that fair to say?

Rasmus Hougaard
Unfortunately, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And this has been the case prior to the coronavirus and it’s gotten worser, or do we have a comparative situation?

Rasmus Hougaard
This was prior to the coronavirus and it has certainly gotten worse since then. We don’t have the data yet. We will be getting that in a few weeks but the preliminary studies that we’ve done is staggering, first of all, that people and, specifically, leaders just have such a hard time being focused. And the second thing is that distractions that they have are 89% of them are negative. So, just imagine you’re distracted most of the time, and 89% of your distractions are bringing you to a negative emotional state.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s awful.

Rasmus Hougaard
I mean, we are moving directly to a major, major mental health crisis right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then I’m not going to pin you down on a precise figure, but with these preliminary studies, like kind of ballpark, how much worse are we talking about?

Rasmus Hougaard
I think it’s probably from the 58 that you talked about and probably around 65 to 75.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s percent of people or percent of the time?

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s percent of time for people in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Wow! All right. Well, so there we go, we’ve framed up the situation. Thank you. Very starkly.

Rasmus Hougaard
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, what do we do about it? What do you recommend? Here we are, what should we do?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I think there are few things that we need to do. First of all, we need to learn to manage our mind. If we can’t manage our mind, we really can’t manage where it’s spending time. We can’t take a walk when we’re taking a walk, and we can’t be focused in a meeting when we need to be focused in a meeting. So, that’s the first thing. And that is obviously done by mindfulness training because that’s the training of basically rewiring our brain to be present with what we do. So, that is the first and most fundamental step, in general, and especially in a crisis.

Secondly, we need to look, like carefully look at how we’re living our lives. Like, do we need to check the phone when we get up in the morning? Do we need to bring our technology into meeting rooms? Do we need to have all of our notifications turned on at our phone and our computers? So, do everything we can to be able to be more present with what we’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, the second piece here, some basic kind of practices, habits, environmental situations, like, “Hey, maybe I’m just going to put the phone elsewhere.” So, then the first part, learning about how to manage the mind via mindfulness practices. I tell you what, Rasmus, I have been up and down in my mindfulness practices. I find it really is genuinely beneficial and I see good things on the day of and the weeks that follow when I’m consistent with it. And it is just amazing how much I don’t want to do it. It is just striking.

Just yesterday I was trying to talk myself into it again, it’s like, “You know, Pete, in a way, that’s one of the benefits, is to get good at doing things you don’t want to do, or starting them is massively valuable.” And this is me trying to talk myself into it. It’s, like, it’s probably one of the safest, lowest energy-demanding ways that you can train at. I don’t need to get tasered repeatedly, “I don’t want to do that,” and I don’t need to do a ton of taxes at work, which I don’t want to do, which drains me.

And so, here I am trying to talk myself into it. So, I’m going to let you do it for me. Can you lay it on us, some of the most just hard-hitting, quantifiable, mind-blowing benefits that professionals who want to be awesome at their job should know about to help them get through their resistance to doing mindfulness practice?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I think the first one, as you also alluded to, like, knowing what are we getting out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rasmus Hougaard
Because having that carrot is helpful. And the quantifiable benefits, I mean, they’re way too many for me to mention them all now, but I’ll just rift off a few. You will have better sleep quality. You will have more happiness. You’ll have better work-life balance. You’ll be more focused. You’ll be more effective. You’ll be more prioritized. And then there’s all kinds of physiological things, like your heart rate will be more healthy. Your skin will be more healthy. Your eyesight will be better. And I could just keep on going. I’m not going to go further down that thing.

The most striking and fascinating thing, I think, is that, what researchers have found, that if we’re doing mindfulness practice 10 minutes a day for eight weeks in a row, they can actually measure that a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your forehead, is actually growing thicker, so it is exactly the same as going to the gym and training your muscles. That’s what’s happening in mindfulness training.

And then you might wonder, “Well, what’s the benefit of having a little bit thicker behind your forehead brain?” The big benefit is that that part of the brain is what is controlling or what is managing what we call executive function, meaning our ability to moment-to-moment monitor, “What am I thinking right now? What am I saying and what am I doing?” So, it basically puts us back into control of our life. And that, I think, is the most important benefit coming from the practice. So, that was the first answer, is know the benefits because that motivates a lot of people.

But then there are a few tips on like how to institute the practice because sometimes just knowing the benefits is not going to be enough. So, we can talk a little bit about that if you want to.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, please. Well, yeah, I want to hit the tips and if we could just get a little bit. All right. So, can you give me some particulars about better sleep and more effectiveness? Because what I find compelling about those, I’m just such a numbers dork, it’s just like, “All right, Pete, this is like ROI stuff. It’s like if I gained more minutes, then I invest, then I am just a fool for not putting on those minutes because it’s like getting free resources, like someone dumping a bag of money into my lap.” So, can I hear about the sleep and the effectiveness?

Rasmus Hougaard
Absolutely. So, I can give you a few different numbers here. First of all, I’ll talk about the work that we do ourselves just because that’s what I’m most familiar with and where we do a pretty thorough research. On average, there are people that we work with, and we’ve worked with around 300,000 people so far from different companies. On average, they get a sleep quality that is in their own experience 36% better. That means they fall faster asleep, they wake up fewer times, and they get into deeper sleep. So, that’s pretty significant.

In terms of effectiveness, depending on how you define effectiveness, there are a few factors of that that is the ability to stay focused on task, their ability of prioritizing the right thing, and then there’s the ability of having the awareness of re-prioritizing when you need to. And out of those factors, again, our clients have an average increase of 40% so it’s pretty significant. Then you may think, “Oh, Rasmus is just touting his own horn and all that,” but other studies done by Harvard and Stanford are coming to more or less the same numbers, so this is quite impressive.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, now you’re getting me there. So, when it comes to prioritizing, a 40% increase in your ability to prioritize. Well, I’m a huge believer in the 80/20 Rule and how, indeed, certain things are 16 times as important as others. So, if that can be doing those things 40% more often, well, then that’s just massive. So, okay, thank you. I will be returning to your words frequently when I am resisting. So, yeah, now let’s get into the how-to. If we want to start training the mind, how do we get that going?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, very good. So, a few things that you can do if you want to actually adopt the practice is, first of all, like the hygiene stuff. Make sure you have a place that you do it, make sure you decide for yourself what time of day, and make sure you decide how long time you want to do it. And a few tips that works best for most people is 10 minutes a day in the morning. And the place, whatever place in your house that is most conducive, so most quiet, and there are no perfect places. That’s like the hygiene factors. When you have that, you create a habit of coming back to the same place, and it gets a little bit easier.

Then the second thing is to just puncture the biggest illusion that people have around mindfulness practice, which is the illusion that, “I’m going to practice mindfulness so that my mind will be calm and serene and beautiful, and I will never, ever be distracted or unhappy again.” That is more or less the unconscious idea that many of us have around this practice, and that is such a mistake because the human brain is wired for distraction. It is basically, through evolution, made to look out for movements and changes in environment to save us from that saber-tooth tiger that’s about to attack us. So, that means we are distracted all the time.

If we see that as a failure, because we believe that we should be serene and clear and calm, we’re going to feel so discouraged because we’re going to feel like we’re failures. So, first of all, just letting go of that illusion. It is called mindfulness practice, not mindfulness perfect, because a practice is something we do again and again and again, and then we become a little bit better but we never get the serene mind.

Bring some joy and pleasure into the practice. Many people find it, or think that, “Now, I’m sitting and I have to focus,” and like their eyebrows go together, and their face is frowning a little bit because, “It’s serious business now, I have to focus.” Let go of all of that. I mean, seriously, the rest of the day, people are busy and running around and attention all over, these are the 10 minutes you give yourself every day, so give yourself a break and just enjoy it. Just enjoy sitting with that breathing, how wonderful it is to sit and breathe. So, invite a sense of joy into the practice.

And the last one, really short, it is not a failure to drop off one day. It is only a failure if you don’t do it the second day. So, it’s okay not to do it every day, but if you decide you want to do it like 14 days in a row, if you drop off one day, no problem. Don’t judge yourself. Just remember the next day, get back on the horse again.

Pete Mockaitis
So, after two days we should judge ourselves?

Rasmus Hougaard
Maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m curious, is that the underlying thought for that recommendation about sort of the research on habit acquisition and maintenance or kind of what’s behind the one-day versus two-day guideline?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, that is a whole research called Atomic Habits that is behind that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. All right. Well, so then…and we’ve hit this from a few different angles from a few different people in terms of what are we actually doing there. So, you take 10 minutes in the quiet place in the morning, and you’re acknowledging that your mind is not going to be calm, serene, and beautiful, and you’re focusing on the breath. Like, what are you doing? You’re sitting there thinking about the breath. Kind of what…lay it out for us.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes. It’s actually quite simple. Having said that, it never feels so simple when we get started on the practice. But, first of all, it’s important to relax. So, relax your body and allow your mind to calm down a little bit, because when we relax the body and we relax the mind a little bit, it’s much easier to stay focused. When we’re tense, which all of us are, then it’s harder. So, spend a few minutes, the first two minutes, just relaxing, especially as you breathe out, just releasing and letting go.

Then start to bring your attention to the breath and let the breath become the anchor or the weight that you’re lifting in this practice. Just like you go in a gym, you take a weight and you lift it up, and you let go, and you lift it up, and you let it go, that’s what you do with the breath. You’re basically holding your attention on the breath as you are breathing in and breathing out, and breathing in and breathing out, and just keep doing that. And then, at some point, you’ll realize, “Hey, now I’m thinking about what to cook for supper tonight.” And that is a success.

I mean, that’s the moment where people feel they failed because, “Oh, no, I got distracted again.” But that moment is actually not where people got distracted because the distraction has been going on for a while. When they become aware, that is the moment that they’re actually mindful again, “Hey, I’m distracted.” So, that’s a moment of celebration. We should be grateful to distractions because they’re basically telling us, “Hey, pal, you are off track. Get back to the breath again.”

So, we’re sitting, focusing on the breath, then we realize we’re distracted, then we’ll just gently guide our attention back to the breath again. That is, in essence, what we’re doing in mindfulness practice. And then you may wonder, “Why should I do this? Yeah, I get it, I get a little bit better sleep and all that stuff.” But the key here is the rest of the day in our lives, our attention is our most scarce resource, so many things are calling for our attention. And by training our focus, we are more able to pay attention to what we need to. And then when in daily life, we’re sitting in a meeting, or doing an email, and we’re getting distracted by notifications, or people talking, or just our own ruminating mind, we have the awareness that we also train in mindfulness that helps us to come back again.

So, this skill of training focus and awareness helps us basically to be more effective at work, to be higher-performing, to spend less time on doing more work. That’s, in essence, what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so well-said. Thank you. I’m digging it. So, then we’ve talked about the mindfulness practice and then the benefits and how that is quite worthwhile, and then what you actually do. I’m curious, are there additional practices, when it comes to building resilience and our ability to cope with these difficult times, beyond sitting and breathing that you’d recommend?

Rasmus Hougaard
There are definitely a few things that are helpful, and some of them are obvious. Just to cover out the basics, sleep is, by far, the most important for our wellbeing, so make sure you get enough sleep, but that’s just…we all know that. Getting a little bit of movement is helpful, and get good food is helpful, but we all know that. One thing that not everybody knows is if we want to have a little happier mind, feel a little bit more present, feel a little bit more balanced, multitasking is the enemy of all of that. So, stopping to multitask, and that’s a whole chapter in itself that we can talk about. But multitasking is the mother to all evil when it comes to performance, wellbeing, connections with others, and you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
Mother of all evil.

Rasmus Hougaard
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That might be all your quote, Rasmus. That might be. Well, so sleep, movement, food. I often hear hydration mentioned in that same sort of a sentence. Do you have any thoughts on water consumption?

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s very important. Of course, that’s very important, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s a short answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess some people say, “You know, I want to drink water when I’m thirsty, and that’s all. Do I have to think about this any more than that?” And some people say, “Absolutely, you do. If you’re thirsty it’s too late.” So, yeah, where do you come out on hydration?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely true. When you’re thirsty then it’s a little bit too late. Most people are probably better at drinking enough than they are at eating the right stuff, especially those of us that are working in offices and working long days have the tendency of, like, after lunch and we have a dip in energy to stuff up with sugar, which brings us to the blood sugar rollercoaster which is very unhelpful for our brain’s ability to function very well. So, at least with the thousands of clients we work with, what we eat is more important than what we drink, unless if people are bingeing on energy drink, which is also not a good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And then I’d also love to get your view, if we go right into the heat of battle in terms of, “All right. So, here I am, I’m trying to get some work done, and I think, ‘Huh, I haven’t checked the news yet. I wonder what’s on there.’ I’m prepping for my Rasmus interview. It’s like, ‘Oh, man, this guy is very impressive. Very accomplished. Oh, wait, what’s in the Wall Street Journal? I don’t know yet.” So, there I am, I’m there, I’m tempted, what do I do?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, what do you do? I think, in that moment, it might actually be too late. We need to train ourselves a little bit before we get into battle. That’s how all warriors or experts become good at what they do. It’s not happening overnight. So, again, it comes back to training the executive function in our brain so that we are more in control of what do when we are in the heat of the moment. So, my first answer would be practice mindfulness because that’s going to help.

Then, now comes your situation. You are in that moment and you are tempted to go and check the news. Adopting a mantra of trying to have more space than more clutter is a really helpful one because we all tend to fill clutter into our mind. And then you may ask, “Why is it that we want to clutter our mind?” And let me tell you a story about one of the most fascinating research projects that I have ever come across, and I’m a researcher myself so I know a lot of research.

Pete Mockaitis
You have my attention.

Rasmus Hougaard
So, imagine this, you have a room, in that room there’s a chair, there’s a table, there’s a little machine with a button on it, and then there’s a wire from that button that goes to a wristband that is put around your wrist. Then, researchers put people into that room one by one. They put this wristband around their wrists, and they say, “Now, try to press the button.” And then they basically get an electric shock on their wrists, and they are asked, “Is this painful?” And people are like shouting and screaming, and saying, “Yes, it is very painful.” And they’re asked, “So, how much would you pay to not have that pain again?” And the people that have been through this research, and that’s many hundreds, are saying that, on average, they would give $47 to not have that electric shock again.

Researchers say, “Fine. That’s good. We understand. Now, what we’ll do is we’ll leave you in this room just with yourself. Between 14 and 7 minutes, you’ll be sitting in here. Are you okay with that?” People say, “Yes, I’m okay with that. Sure, why not?” And so, people are sitting in a room where there’s no TV, there’s no phone, there’s nothing they can do, nothing to look at. There are no windows, just left to their own devices, and a button whereby they can give themselves an electric shock that they would pay $47 not to have. What do you think they do? No, what do we think we’d do, because this is us?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ve heard references to this, but the $47 is new to me. I think a, surprisingly, large proportion of us, just to escape boredom or whatever, choose to self-inflict, right? Now, what’s the figure?

Rasmus Hougaard
Yeah, so the figure for women is 46%, so that’s a lot, like almost half of women. For men, it’s 76. And even one of the guys in the experiment, he did it 117 times. So, basically, the pain of being left to our own mind can be so horrible and scary for most of us that we would rather bring electric shock to ourselves than just be in our own mind.

And so, coming back to your example of you’re going to do an interview and then, “Oh, should I just check the news?” Our mind wants to check the news because our mind does not want space, our mind wants clutter, because when we have clutter, we don’t need to think about the bigger existential questions like, “Who am I? And why does life sometimes is so painful?” No, we’d rather drink a beer, or we’d rather have a piece of chocolate, or what’s the news, or do anything that avoids us thinking. So, that’s the answer.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s powerful stuff. Thank you. Rasmus, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Rasmus Hougaard
I would say in the crisis that we’re in right now, and this is just a heartfelt recommendation to people, is to really give themselves time and space, and avoid just cluttering the mind, because we need it more than anything else. We really need space to recalibrate to the new reality and not to get so anxious as most of us are. So, give yourself space and a mindfulness practice is really going to help. So, that would be it.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
A favorite quote would be Mark Twain saying, “I have experienced many terrible things in my life. A few of them actually came true.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Rasmus Hougaard
And the point of it is, obviously, that our mind is creating our reality, and we are creating so many catastrophic scenarios in our head that never happen, but we experience them. And, especially in a crisis like now, the crisis is not half as bad as our minds are making it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Rasmus Hougaard
William James wrote a book that is the big quote in there is “What you attempt in this moment becomes your reality.” So, this idea that our mind is like a torchlight. What we point our attention to is what becomes our reality, and we don’t see everything else. And if that’s really true, which I think it is, that means if we point our attention to the right things, we can actually create our reality by pointing our attention to the right things. We can create a really beautiful world and a really great life if we can manage our attention.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
I think OneNote. OneNote really helps me to structure everything so I don’t need to have it in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, people quote it back to you often?

Rasmus Hougaard
I am known for, I guess, a few things. All of my colleagues have a favorite joke about me. When I started the company about 14 years ago, bringing mindfulness to corporations back then was just so far out. Like, nobody was interested in that. That’s very different nowadays. Back then, so few people actually wanted it that I had to go dumpster diving with my kids to actually have food on the table at home.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Rasmus Hougaard
That’s something my colleagues like to talk about.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Oh, that is commitment.

Rasmus Hougaard
Those were great times.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I had moments of being broke as an entrepreneur in my early days, but that is significantly more dramatic. Wow! Well, I’m glad you stuck with it. Thank you.

Rasmus Hougaard
I think my learning from that was, which I would share with anybody, like, being at the very low point, I mean, in terms of finances, teaches you that you can live on nothing. And when my wife and I and our kids would look back at that time, we were incredibly happy. Life was so simple and it was so beautiful. And while, now, life is very different, we have everything we need and much more than that. I don’t have the same contentment and ease as back then so I wouldn’t be sad to go back to that. I probably wouldn’t want to dumpster dive but just having a little bit more food back then. So, I wouldn’t worry about it.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
Go to our website. I think PotentialProject.com is probably the best place.

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

Rasmus Hougaard
I mean, given the topic of what we discussed, it should be to take up the challenge of doing two weeks of mindfulness practice. we have developed a free app that people can use. And if you go to PotentialProject.app you can download the app for free. And there, you’ll be basically launched into a full program. Try it for two weeks. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re losing 140 minutes of your life, but, best case, and that’s going to happen for the majority, and we have worked with hundreds of thousands of people so I know. Best case is you will feel more balanced, you’ll feel more joy, you’ll sleep better. There’s so much to gain, so little to lose. So, adopt a daily mindfulness practice.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rasmus, this has been very eye-opening and enjoyable. I wish you all the best in unlocking additional potential for you and your clients and all you encounter.

Rasmus Hougaard
Thank you so much, Pete. And the same to you and to everybody out there.

523: How to Create Lasting Behavioral Change with Dr. Kyra Bobinet

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Dr. Kyra Bobinet says: "Mindlessness is the new mindfulness."

Dr. Kyra Bobinet explains how to close the gap between intention and behavior to form better, lasting habits.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Powerful behaviors that build life-changing habits
  2. Just how long it takes to form a habit
  3. Quick ways to ease stress and anxiety at work

About Kyra:

When it comes to health engagement, Dr. Bobinet has 5 words of advice: be caring, authentic, and useful. As the CEO-founder of engagedIN, Kyra devotes her life to helping people crack the code of how, what, and especially, WHY we engage.

Kyra has founded several healthcare start-ups, spanning behavior health, population health, and mobile health. She has designed behavior change programs, big data algorithms, billion dollar products, mobile health apps, and evidence-based studies in mind-body and metabolic medicine. All of her designs, whether for at-risk teens or seniors, are rooted in the belief that true caring is our greatest value.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, Sponsor!

Dr. Kyra Bobinet Interview Transcript

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

Kyra Bobinet
Absolutely. So much fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom because you’ve spent a lot of time studying something that I’ve wondered a lot for quite a while, and, apparently, it’s called the brain behavior gap. Can you first tell us what is that?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes, sir. So, everybody will recognize it as, “I know what I should do but I don’t always do it.” And that’s the difference between what you know what you should do, your brain, and what you actually do, which is your behavior. And it’s kind of this fun, humorous aspect of being a human that we all face this issue in trying to get ourselves to do things that we don’t end up doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I have wrestled with this question ever since I remember in high school marching band, and toward the end of the summer, we had what we called band camp, which the movie American Pie has ruined the idea of band camp for people. But, anyway, we’d spend just about eight plus hours a day, Monday through Friday, for a couple of weeks just working on the marching and the playing, and I thought, “Man, we made a huge amount of progress in terms of putting that show together,” and I think, “Boy, what can I accomplish if I could just hunker down and work that much solo on something?” And I still don’t I’ve cracked the code on how to actually do that.

Kyra Bobinet
Oh, dear, yeah. It’s such an interesting thing to listen to people’s stories of trying to sequester themselves there. It’s almost like a runaway dog running away, your puppy, it’s like, “Come back, come back,” so it’s really crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so tell us, what makes it difficult and what should be done?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, the reason why this happens is we have, basically, two gears you can think of it in our brain. One is our fast brain I like to call it. It equates to Daniel Kahneman’s work on System 1 thinking. All the autopilot, all of the mindlessness, all of the stuff that happens by habit and without thought, that’s kind of fast brain. Think of tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, yadda, yadda. And then there’s this slow brain which is the sort of ideals, the problem-solving, the hard kind of mechanics, and decision-making, and willpower, and all that juicy stuff, but that’s in short supply. So, if you were to take a ratio, the fast brain is like 95% of what we do, and the slow brain is about 5% of what we do.

And so, oftentimes, the slow brain gets its ass kicked by the fast brain, and we’re just doing the normal distraction things or the things that feel good right now, the immediate gratification, and the slow brain just doesn’t have a chance. So, everything that we deal with as behavior designers, and that I’ve learned to do with behavior change, is to work with those two gears and get them to align.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, I guess I’d love to hear maybe a story associated with someone who had something they knew they should do but weren’t doing it, and then they enacted some approaches to see some cool results there.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. The general principle that people can take away is make the good stuff faster and make the bad stuff slower. So, one of the amazing stories came out of Google where they had an M&M problem, and they offer a lot of free food, and there’s even jokes here in Silicon Valley about the Facebook 15, or the Google 15, almost like in college when you gain 15 pounds because you have so much free food and just endless trough of food.

So, they were having this problem with M&Ms, and they decided that they had to create some barriers, some friction, if you will. And so, they took them from eye-level bowls that were open with a big scooper, and they put them in jars, closed them up, and put them down by your knee caps. You had to kind of squat down, which a lot of people weren’t willing to do, and then monkey open the jar, and get in there, and then they had like a little tiny scooper.

And so, that’s one example of kind of putting friction in between you and the autopilot that will probably not serve you. So, whether that is the snooze alarm, some people have a real problem with hitting snooze. And so, how do you create that friction for yourself to not hit snooze? Do you move the phone away, your alarm with your phone on it, away from you further? Those kinds of things. And people, once they understand how this works, they get really creative. It’s just amazing to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love that on so many levels. When you said M&M problem, I was thinking of the rapper, I thought, “Are they playing Eminem too loudly? Oh, no, no, the chocolatey treats that are high-calorie. I can see it.”

Kyra Bobinet
He’s brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I think that’s quite brilliant in terms of making them hard to access. And I’ve done that before in terms of if I’ve got a six pack of delicious beer and I want to drink it more slowly, I just try to really put it deep in the back of the fridge so I have to be pretty motivated and committed to kneel down and reach through and make it happen. And, sure enough, it makes the six pack last more days.

Kyra Bobinet
Exactly. Out of sight, out of mind.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s great and very well-articulated to make the good stuff faster and the bad stuff slower. So, that’s reshaping the environment. And I’d love it if you could give us a few more examples of some smart moves that have helped people out.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. There’s this concept called The Ulysses Contract, and this is from a colleague of mine, David Eagleman, who’s a neuroscientist at Stanford. And he actually talks about this with respect to getting yourself to do the thing. The Ulysses story is very famous in The Odyssey, where he, basically, is on a ship and he really wants to hear the siren sound so he has his sailors lash him to the mast of the ship so that he doesn’t jump overboard which is what the sirens make you do, and then he stuffs all of the men, the sailors, with wax in their ears, or cotton, I can’t remember, and so they can’t hear the siren sounds. They’re navigating the ship and he’s able to enjoy the music without that.

So, what Dr. Eagleman talks about is, “How can you put yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to do the thing?” So, oftentimes, when people purchase something, a cruise or a trip maybe that makes them take vacation because they’re really bad at taking vacations or taking time off. Daddy-daughter dates, even date nights with your spouse, those kinds of things are kind of these Ulysses contracts. They’re things that, once you commit to them, you put so much into it that you have a disincentive to bail out, in that way you kind of prevent your future self from making the wrong choice.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m thinking if we zoom into workplaces and professionals, how have you seen some additional approaches play out in that particular context? So, we’re at work, we want to do more of the good stuff, less the bad stuff. What have you seen work out well for folks?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, absolutely. So, all of us have had this what we’ll call phantom invites that we put on our calendar, right? I call that behavior fantasy, where you have a standing promise to yourself in the future and you just shoot right through it. It’s just so many times you break up with that promise with yourself so that it doesn’t actually even get your attention anymore. All of us have that, whether we put workouts there, or go to sleep early, or only work on the report until here, or even start, like procrastinators like myself, starting something is the hardest thing to get yourself to do.

So, you’re kind of wrangling yourself into that. There’s a number of different strategies, so you can actually create social accountability, which is kind of a consequence. If I tell somebody to hold me accountable, I set a deadline for that person then there’s a social element, and our brains are extremely social so we will, most times than not, get that done or get close to that deadline that we set for another person because we’re obligating ourselves, again, in the future in that kind of Ulysses contract way.

Another thing that people do is create a reward system for themselves. So, that could be an emotional reward, that could be giving themselves a treat of some kind. Hopefully, it’s not going to work against your health in any way. But if there’s something you’ve been really wanting to do, a freedom, a delight, just a little celebration that you want to send that signal of dopamine and even oxytocin, which is another reward chemical, to your brain by really making it a point to celebrate and create a reward system at the end, much like you would train an animal.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, please, share some examples of great rewards and celebrations. And we had BJ Fogg on the show earlier who had some great perspectives on this, and I think it warrants some elaboration. So, we want to be careful that it doesn’t sort of work against other goals, like, “Oh, it’s going to be a delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup,” or something, I don’t know, with high calories. But what are some great rewards and celebrations you’ve seen really work for some folks?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, the best ones are in context, meaning that they’re related to the actual effort itself. So, if you are trying to get something out on a deadline, then to basically build in a lazy day for yourself the next day. And in most cases, and in most workspaces, you can kind of take it back a notch for a little while and go for a long walk, or take a little extra time, or even do something different on your break if you have a really rigid break system timing-wise.

So, those kinds of things where you feel like you’re free, and you’re in control, and you’re the boss of yourself, and you’re not really tying yourself to the dutifulness which so much of us do at work, as being dutiful to others or to your team, and, really, just doing something nice for yourself. And I think it’s the hardest thing in the world for people to do to really have a moment of selfishness that really helps to signal to themselves, “Hey, I’m here for you and I’m taking care of you.”

And that, really, I find in all the people that I interview in research, they really stop rebelling against themselves when they have those little treats that they give themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, so we talked a bit about behavior change and shaping the environment. Let’s talk about, specifically, habit formation. You talked a bit about the celebration-rewards piece. Could you maybe orient us to the overall science behind habit formation?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, this is super fascinating. I started out in workplace stress reduction in one of the programs that I created. I created a mindfulness program that was kind of the first in class when I was at Aetna and has since kind of been taken up by Headspace and Calm and some of these apps. So, those are all really great and I’m still a proponent of mindfulness. But I find that unless I can make something as mindless as tying your shoe, it’s not going to survive your modern life.

So, we have a new model we need to really follow of behavior change, which is habit formation, vis-à-vis unstoppability, being unstoppable, being the ability to just keep going and going and going. And one of the things I found in my research on habit science is that there’s a new area of our brain that’s been characterized called the habenula, and that’s a mouthful. But it’s, basically, in charge of two things. One, it is a detector of you thinking you failed. So, if you think you failed, I could throw you in an FMRI machine and this part of your brain will light up, right?

So, the second thing that it does, if it lights up, if it gets turned on like that, is it kills your motivation to try again. And this, to me, was shocking and kind of the reason why you see people do really, really well in terms of changing their behaviors, they set goals, they track them, they do all these things, and then, one day, including this happened to myself, including one day you just stop doing it. And I had patients like this, and I would say, “So, what happened?” And they would literally blink and look at me blankly and say, “I have no idea.” They don’t know how they go there because it happened subconsciously so the person doesn’t even consciously know that they lost their motivation. They just don’t do it.

And so, one of the things with habit formation is that if you practice, and if you practice and practice, you’ll find something that you can get to go. You can close that brain behavior gap, get yourself to practice, and practice, and practice. And as the brain responds to that repetition, what it does is it creates almost like a highway. It lays down the asphalt so that you can drive even faster. So, that behavior goes faster and faster and faster, and it becomes part of your fast brain, that autopilot mindlessness area that we talked about at the beginning. So, that, to me, was just amazing and shocking, and so it completely changed the paradigm of how to change a behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I think there are all sorts of implications there, the habenula, you’re thinking you failed so it kills your motivation to try again. I guess I’m imagining then, one implication may be that you want to maybe reduce the size of the thing you’re trying to habituate so that you don’t fail, you keep on winning again and again and again, and building that highway. Is that accurate?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, that’s the safest thing, and I know BJ, who’s one of my mentors, is really into making it small. I do think that you can really get a higher percentage of shots on goal if you start with small. But I’ve seen people start out with something big if it works for them. To me, the thing I’m drawing from the science these days is what matters most is if you find the thing that turns you on, and that works for you, that fits into your life, no matter how big or small it is, usually it is small especially with somebody who’s a little shaky in their confidence in that particular area, which is what BJ is really good at. It’s just like getting that wheel to turn in people, and simplifying it, and making it tiny. He calls his program Tiny Habits even.

So, I do believe that that’s a really good kindergarten place for everybody to start safely, but I also noticed in my own research that the more important thing that we found is something called the iterative mindset, that we’re calling the iterative mindset, because we found people who changed their habits, big habits, big lifestyle habits against all odds, but they did it by finding their experiment, by looking at it as an experiment, and then iterating or tweaking and tinkering with it until it worked for them. So, maybe you can kind of see that as a small change too.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, and while we’re talking about laying the highway, I guess maybe I’ve seen all kinds of different ranges quoted in different places. But how long does it take to form a habit? Is it 28 days? Is it 66 days? Does it depend, and what does it depend on? Can you lay it down for us?

Kyra Bobinet
Well, Pete, I just so happen to be nerdy enough to know the answer to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Kyra Bobinet
Actually, you know, about four years ago, I asked myself that same question, and I had my neuroscience team really, really scrub the scientific literature and put together a model based on the evidence that was there. So, actually, it takes one full year to fully, what’s called myelinate, which is that pavement in the brain that makes it superfast, electrical signal can go way faster, for a new habit to form, and that’s with fairly, daily, if not multiple times a week, repetition of that habit.

And so, what happens when you have a highway after about a year is that you’ve got now two copies of the same behavior. You have the old copy of, in my case, I used to go through the drive-thru all the time as just an easy way to get a meal, and as I broke that habit, my competing habit, my adult one-year old habit, was to cook at home for my kids. And once you have that cook-at-home thing, you can still go through the drive-thru, you still have that old highway. And most people don’t understand it. It’s not that they’re not patient about building the new highway, it’s that they make the mistake thinking the old highway is in disrepair.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a full year. Interesting. And so then, I imagine that’s like a full-blown highway and myelination is there. Kind of intermediate step before that or how do you think about that?

Kyra Bobinet
Right, there’s hope. There’s hope, Pete. Yeah, so what we know from the science is that around eight to ten weeks there is this kind of automation that starts to kick in, so it starts to feel easier and easier, more automatic. And then over the time that you do it, you’re basically sending so many signals to your brain of, “Hey, this is my new normal,” that your brain makes it feel more comfortable.

So, over the course of that year, you’re going to get more and more comfortable, it’s going to become more and more you as opposed to not you, and it’s going to get more and more automated, you can  use less and less brain energy to make it happen. So, that’s where the mindlessness really kicks in. To me, we should all be looking at mindlessness as the goal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. It’s a fun when you think about that mindlessness, which almost sounds like a bad thing to be avoided. And, today, mindfulness is everything. Obviously, mindlessness is the thing to pursue but it makes sense in this context, and I appreciate that. So, very cool. Well, so then, I guess there’s many, many habits one might choose to build. I’ve heard some cool research or thoughts on keystone habits, you know, habits that can sort of unlock a whole lot of great results. Tell us, when it comes to a well-designed life, what are some of the habits that tend to really do have some powerful ripple effects?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, the more I do this, and we’ve been building a software around this, and what we’re finding is that it is literally a matchmaking exercise between that person at that time in their life based on everything they’ve tried before, or they’re burnt out on, and what they’re open to, and what can kind of reengage them, and then what excites them, what fits their life, what fits their schedule. It is almost like that old adage where you’ve got a floating circle in the ocean, and an ocean turtle, a sea turtle, just happens to pop up their head right in the middle of that circle. That’s kind of how bullseye it has to be.

And so, I think that right now what we’re facing is, “How do we sift through all of the millions of options in any particular topic area and really find the thing that works for us, that works for me right now that’s going to, again, turn me on, that it makes sense to me, and it really is interesting to me?” And just having that, I call it, seeking behavior is the most important thing it seems.

And there’s another neuroscientist that I really admire, he passed away a couple of years ago, named Jaak Panksepp, and his conclusion was that there were seven emotional channels in the mammalian brain, we’re mammals. And he noticed that the number one most dominant emotion was seeking, seeking behaviors. So, think Google, think online shopping, think looking for a mate, looking for a job. That power of that looking is itself very therapeutic and positive for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that feels like another hour of conversation right there. Wow!

Kyra Bobinet
We’ll get a part two.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the seeking is the strongest of the seven, and it just seems there’s a lot of implications to that. What do you think are amongst some of the biggest when it comes to folks who are trying to become awesome at their jobs? If the seeking behavior is among the strongest of those seven emotional channels, how do we make that work for us?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I mean, obviously, the tribe that follows you is of that ilk. They’ve already won that particular contest because they’re seeking, they’re taking in new information, they’re leaning into more and more answers for them, and they are perusing all the wisdom that you’re sharing on this show and the people that you bring on this show. So, basically, they’re locked in there. I think just hearing it might just be another validation of that. Keep doing that, you’re on the right track. That’s exactly what we all need to do.

And, in fact, it should be probably a red flag in that case for this audience that if you stop seeking, maybe look at that. If you get stuck in your career, or in your progress at work, then look at seeking first. Did you lose seeking? Did you lose curiosity? Did you lose spending time wondering about things and opening yourself up? Because that’s where that next round of growth would lead you to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you. Well, so I also love to get your take when it comes to automating, building good habits and breaking bad habits. Are there any particular behaviors? You mentioned there’s a matchmaking situation, but any sort of small behaviors you recommend we might start doing right away to make it easier to develop these highways?

Kyra Bobinet
You know, in the habit science, there’s two variables that stand out as the most important. Number one is time, the time of day or the time after or before. Your brain understands time as sequences, like, “I do this before I do that,” you know, “I shower before I get dressed.” And it also understands things in terms of time of, “I do this on Sundays,” time of week, time of day. And so, if you’re trying to do a habit and you haven’t anchored it in time or how your brain understands time, it’s likely going to get lost in the wash of your life and distractions. So, that’s one thing I would say.

The other thing that the science is saying is that location is huge. We also understand, “I do this in my car. I do this at my desk. I do this when I go to the cafeteria.” Those kinds of triggers, they’re called context cues, are the thing that really helps to anchor the habit in space, if you will. So, you’ve got time and space, and then there’s the social element, too, which is, “I do this with these people.”

So, one of the reasons why it’s so hard not to be good, some people call it, I don’t call it that, but at a birthday party to not eat cake when everybody else is eating cake is that your brain is saying, “Oh, I eat birthday cake with other people. I don’t just go to the grocery store and throw it in my grocery cart usually by myself. Happy birthday to me.” It’s very social.

So, those are some three ways that I think if somebody who’s thinking about a habit could strengthen it and could really help them to select the right one for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with all this talk about environment and habits, I’m curious in terms of what have you seen in workplaces are some of the, and I know it’s going to be a special fit in matchmaking, person to person, but what are some of the most prevalent bad things in habits and environments, and good things in habits and environments that you’re seeing in workplaces today?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I would say the most troublesome one is the stress habit that gets turned into gossip and toxicity. So, most cultures don’t have, I’ll call it, an anus for the stress that gets built up there. Pardon, I’m a doctor so that kind of word is available to me.

Pete Mockaitis
It might be the first time where the word anus has been uttered on this show. Thank you, Kyra.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, the listeners are like, “What did she say?” So, yeah, I said anus.

Pete Mockaitis
You mean, you’re screening it out I think is where you’re going with this, yeah.

Kyra Bobinet
I said anus, yeah, exactly. Let’s say it a couple of times. So, yeah, we need some outlet for all the stress and friction. And people are moving a million miles a minute, they’re going from meeting to meeting to meeting, or they’ve got production schedules, or they’re stocking shelves like crazy, whatever your job is, and you are going back to back to back to back. Most people can’t even find time to go to the restroom at their modern work, right?

So, all of that creates all this friction and all of this like angst and rumination that the brain is going through, and then there’s not a real good mechanism that needs to be designed for really, “Whew!” exhale, the anus, you know, pooping, getting it all out. And so, that then turns into backbiting, gossiping, cannibalizing each other, that sort of thing. And so, I would say that what works for everybody is to engineer some downtime in the middle of the day to find ways to give yourself a mental break. And this is where mindfulness comes in really good, and your three deep breaths, and you literally reset your brain. And you just have to remind yourself how to do that or get your attention to remember to do the good thing that you know to do.

So, those kinds of mechanisms, I think, are universal. And then there’s sort of little productivity things that people, I would say there’s different segments of productivity tricks and hacks that people have. There is the procrastinators, like myself, who need to have external deadlines to bump our noses up against. There’s people who are super diligent, who are maybe introverts who need that quiet time away. There’s people who are extroverts who need to go and pull together a bunch of people and talk everything out.

And so, those are some ways that I see are mushy but could be more clarified if somebody were to take the time and kind of almost journal or articulate for themselves, “What kind of person are you? What kind of worker are you? When do you see yourself really shine and really turn on?” And I think that’ll help people understand some of the habits that are maybe positive and maybe toxic for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you. And what are some of the most encouraging great stuff that you’re seeing there?

Kyra Bobinet
My heroes these days is a company called Workday, and they do HR technologies, kind of SaaS platforms. But the thing I like about it is that their people who are in charge of their employee wellbeing are focusing on rumination because one of the good things that’s come out of the mindfulness research of late in the neuroscience side is that we know now that if your brain is on loop in an area called, forgive me, dorsolateral PFC, which is prefrontal cortex. It’s basically kind of if you look at your forehead and you kind of go an inch to the right or left, there’s two little areas there that are basically causing you to focus on yourself.

And rumination is, “Oh, did I do that right? Oh, what does she think of me? Oh, am I going to get fired? Oh, when is my performance review? Am I ever going to get rise up in this company? Do I need to look for another job? Does so and so like me?” all that rumination. And what they know, what Workday is dealing with is training programs, and discussions, and wellbeing initiatives to help people deal with that rumination, because that has been tied to, again, going back to MRI studies, to feelings of depression, feelings of anxiety. We have an epidemic of anxiety these days because of the number of triggers our brain sustains that throws us into rumination on a daily basis.

So, I think the modern workplace is really how do we design for freeing ourselves from these brains kind of loop tendency to get into rumination sequences, you know?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Kyra, I’m fascinated by, boy, I’m counting some research associated with how our current levels of anxiety are just like wildly higher than they were a generation or two ago. And so, that’s whole another conversation.

Kyra Bobinet
Well, what are you seeing in that? Because you live this every single day. You live and breathe in this industry and in this area.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think I heard a talk in which someone said that, in particular, I think they were talking about teenagers had levels of anxiety just sort of like normally like in terms of their day-to-day experience that were comparable to, I think, sort of veterans suffering from PTSD. And I said, “What?” And so, that was eye-opening. So, I’ve got two precious kiddos under two right now, and I’m thinking about their future, I was like, “Whoa! What is going on there? That’s intriguing.” And I’ve yet to do my seeking of many answers there. But you brought up something intriguing there with regard to, hey, we have so many more triggers now for rumination that lead to anxiety. So, could you unpack what are some of those big triggers we’ve got now that we didn’t have before?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, we have so much exposure, right? So, let’s say, take a typical Western person in the U.S. for example, and even before they start their first meeting or activity at work, they have listened to or watched a million things that could’ve triggered an emotion in them. So, all that residue is kind of spinning around in their subconscious, and that’s going to lead to rumination if they do not do something consciously and mindfully about it. So, if they ground out and say, “I send compassion to that war-torn area I just heard about,” or, “I just heard about the fires in my area or a tornado that happened in the Midwest,” or any of those things. Like, it does land in the brain. And even if you think you’re tough and you move on, it mulls around inside.

And so, that’s the kind of fodder or tinder by which this rumination fire just starts to burn, it starts to go and go and go, and it’s subconscious. So, what happens is that you don’t even notice it until maybe, I’ve talked to executives who suddenly have panic attacks on a work trip, and they’re the most solid person in the world, and they’re super extroverted and things like that, but that’s how it’s affecting us. It’s just that constant touch on things you can do nothing about but you have an emotional response to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Part of the mystery is in place there and I appreciate that. Kyra, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Kyra Bobinet
Pete, what I stand for at this point is just making people unstoppable. For me, the most significant thing in my career so far has been really understanding how iteration and iterators never fail, and they’re in all kinds of industries. So, the one thing I really care about is just really helping people to wake up to that fact, the fact about your brain and how it works, and it helps you get around the habenula and all the little things that blow up in your face. And that, to me, is revolutionary in terms of people’s success at work and in life. And I’m just super stoked about that conversation and that concept and people making that their own as well.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. So, kind of along those lines. I had a mentor and he used to have this really interesting voicemail because I’ll call him sometimes for some moral support, or, “How do I do this?” And his voicemail said, “Hi, this is David. I didn’t catch you right now. I’ll catch you later.” And he said, “Don’t ever give up no matter what you do,” and then he hangs up. And that’s my favorite quote of all time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Kyra Bobinet
So, for me, it is the iterative mindset study that we did. Again, we’ve been building up this research for a couple of years now on the Walmart Project, and we found that this iterative mindset existed in people who succeeded but then we did, we took a huge chance in broad daylight, in front of our biggest customer, it’s the biggest professional risk I’ve ever taken, and we did this study to see if we could get people to adapt this mindset and if it would change their outcomes.

And we actually found that we could get them to lose weight at the regular one pound a week, a healthy pace, and that they have habit formation that was statistically significant, and they had mindset formation that was statistically significant. So, to me, that was just delightful and really following the science and reading all of the homework before that really helped us set this up for something that was going to work out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy, that’s powerful. And maybe if we could hear one sentence on how would you articulate, characterize the iterative mindset as oppose to its alternative?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. And the credit goes to the MacGyvers of the world. This is something that even though I’m putting language to it, this is found in nature. So, people are just so clever, and it’s so amazing. So, these are people that work for Walmart, lower socioeconomic status, they have every stressor every time and money constraints in the world, family not being supportive of them, and they changed their health, they changed their lifestyle to be healthy against all these odds.

And what they all had in common was this iterative mindset, which is two parts that we can tell. Number one is they see what they’re trying next as an experiment. It’s not like this do or die. It’s not a goal. It’s just, “Hmm, maybe I’ll play with this a little bit. Maybe I’ll practice this a little bit.” So, they see it as a practice, they see it as a non-consequential experiment, that’s part number one.

Part number two is when they need to change something, either because a life disruptor came in, they had to move away from their favorite gym, or their shift changed and they can no longer do what they were doing before, cooking for their kids, whatever, they would iterate. And much like tech here in Silicon Valley, that iteration, that relentless iteration of, “I’m just going to iterate and tweak and tinker until I find the next thing that works for me,” made them different from everybody else because everybody else goes, “Oh, I failed.” Boom! They hit their habenula. Boom! They stop trying without even knowing it. And, boom, they quit, they quit trying. And that is the biggest problem.

And every time I talk to clinicians or people who’ve changed their lives, they recognize this pattern, they’re like, “That’s how I do it.” So, I know that it’s real, I know that it’s natural, I know that it’s not like high academia, but it’s something that everybody can do to make their life better. And, in fact, I haven’t met a single person who has made their life better who didn’t do it in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite book?

Kyra Bobinet
Yes. So, my favorite book that I read every night with my husband, just one little passage because it’s teeny tiny, it’s called Tao Te Ching with Steven Mitchell as the interpreter. And I just love it because it kind of messes with my sense of reality. It says, “Do without doing.” And that’s just one of those come-ons, that’s like, “What? I don’t understand.” So, I like making myself feel like I’m confused and I don’t really understand this deep profound philosophy stuff, but I still like to take it in and try to chew on it a little bit.

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

Kyra Bobinet
So, for me, I use a couple of things. For my to-do list, I like the Clear app, and I only look at the top three things every day because your brain only understands, so that’s a three. I also have been using Otter lately to write my new book, and that just transcribes all my words because I’m better at talking than sitting down and making myself write, and that’s one of those Ulysses contract things.

And then I also, every year it’s coming up now, I’m going to do another vision board for 2020. So, I actually do a vision board. I do it with just a big Sharpie and a big nice piece of poster board, and I put it up for the year. And pretty much everything that happens in the year follows that vision board.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, I think that the one that’s been really resonating with people lately is mindlessness is the new mindfulness because we know we’re busy, we know we’re distracted, and we know we have to, if we’re going to change our lives and change our behavior, we have to get it to a mindless state.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah. Well, we have our company website EngagedIn.com. Our product website is FreshTri.com and then my namesake website, you can always say hi to me, DrKyraBobinet.com. I love to hear from people.

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

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, there’s no reason to stop trying, that’s my message is just be unstoppable and get around your habenula. And what I said about the iterative mindset works for you or you need to even tinker or tweak that to fit you or the way you think, do it, because there’s no reason to stop these days. And if you find yourself getting stuck, just shake it off and realize you can iterate your way out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kyra, this has been so much fun. Thank you and good luck in all of your adventures.

Kyra Bobinet
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

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

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Matt Tenney says: "The best leaders make love their top priority."

Matt Tenney discusses how mindfulness vastly improves the way we lead and relate with others.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How an emphasis on goals hurts your leadership
  2. A monastic practice that improves engagement
  3. Why mindfulness is the ultimate success habit

About Matt

Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a BoardroomHe is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies.  He works with companies, associations, universities, and non-profits to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them.  Matt envisions a world where the vast majority of people realize that effectively serving others is the key to true greatness.  When he’s not traveling for speaking engagements, he can often be found in Nashville, TN.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Matt Tenney Interview Transcript

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

Matt Tenney
My pleasure, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of your good stuff from servant leadership and mindfulness and more. And in the subtitle of your book Serve to Be Great, you mentioned there’s some leadership lessons from a prison and a monastery. So, I love a good story. So, what are the cool stories coming from the prison and the monastery?

Matt Tenney
Well, there’s a lot.The summary here is that I’m pretty hardwired, I would say I’m 100% hardwired to be just a Type A, goal-driven, pretty selfish person, and I think we all have certain ways that we’re wired, and that’s certainly me.

But this certainly reached its peak when I was, this is 2001, that was about 18 years or so ago. When I was 24, I tried to take a shortcut to success and attempted a fraud against the government and, as a result of being both dishonest and stupid, I ended up spending five and a half years confined to prison. And, at first, of course, this was just the worst thing that had ever happened in my life and I was suicidal for a while.

Then, as everybody does, I think when you’re in a really difficult situation, whether it’s one you put yourself in like I did, or one that just kind of happens to you, you gradually adjust. And about a year into it though, I started learning about the practice of mindfulness and this actually made that experience of being confined, it transformed it into the most meaningful experience of my life.

Because I’m Type A, when I started learning about it, I went at it 100%. And within about six months of starting the practice, I was making the effort to be mindful, just about every waking moment of the day, during all of my daily activities. And it was around that time when it just hit me one day that, “Holy cow, I’m actually happier here that I’d ever been in my life.” And I don’t know anything, and I’m not achieving anything, I’m just being, and there’s no fun per se.

So, that inspired me to go as deep as I could in the practice and I ended up essentially ordaining and training as almost identically to how monks train in monasteries for the last three and a half years.

I found the monastic ideal to be extremely noble because the core of it is you’re making love the top priority. Instead of making your own selfish ambition or your own goals the top priority, you’re making, contributing to the wellbeing of others your top priority.

And that turned my time of confinement into the most meaningful experience of my life, so much so that that experience inspired me so much so that, after leaving, I went to live “real” monastery and almost ordained to become a monk the rest of my life, but then realized for me that would be like trying to take another shortcut because it was really easy for me.

I’m an introvert, I like having lots of quiet time, so I realized if I really want to be able to serve on a large scale and be most helpful to people, I need to go out in the real world and do stuff, and earn a living, and probably have a family, which I do now with two small kids, so people can relate better to what we’re talking about.

I would imagine if a monk came into the average company and said, “Here’s the way to be more at peace and more successful,” everything that person said is going to be taken with a grain of salt because you’re thinking, “Dude, all you do is sit around and meditate and do the dishes. Like, what do you have to worry about?” So, that was why I ended up not ordaining. But I’ve tried to live as close to the monastic ideal as possible for the last 17-18 years on my journey from prisoner to monk to social entrepreneur.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating and there’s so much to dig into there. All right. So, let’s talk about some of the nitty-gritties of mindfulness and practice a little bit later.

Matt Tenney
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And, first, talk about sort of this mindset that when it comes to making love the ideal and serving others. So, you talk a lot about servant leadership. Can you share how exactly do you define that and how does that differ from the norm?

Matt Tenney
Well, the kind of the standard definition of servant leadership is if you imagine a pyramid and most organizations are structured with a C suite at the top of the pyramid and then below them are VPs, below them are directors, below them are mid-level managers, and then all of your frontline people fill out the base of the pyramid.

And the basic idea of servant leadership is that instead of viewing the hierarchy like that, where you’ve got these very senior people on the top and everyone in the organization is serving them and their agenda, it’s actually upside down. So, the senior people view their job as serving all the people that they lead.

And, counterintuitively, another way of putting this is the way that I like to put it is making love the top priority. In fact, I just did a TEDx Talk that that was the title, why the best leaders make love their top priority. And there’s an abundance of evidence demonstrating why this is so. But you can summarize it very, very simply. I mean, it’s kind of common sense.

The idea is if you make profit the top priority, you, as a leader, you’re either going to consciously or unconsciously neglect employees in a systematic way. And when employees are consistently neglected, they’re going to become increasingly disengaged over time and, as a result, customer service is going to decline, product quality is going to decline, and innovation is very unlikely to occur. In other words, the organization is eventually going to fail to serve the customer. In fact, they might be failing immediately.

Whereas, if you flip that, so to me a servant leader or someone who makes love the top priority, the filter that they use for every decision is, “How is this going to impact the long-term wellbeing of the people that I lead, that I take care of?” And if the answer is it’s going to have a negative impact, then it’s eliminated as an option.

And, counterintuitively, what happens when you do this is when people know that the leadership genuinely cares about them and is more concerned about their long-term wellbeing than they are on their next bonus, then what happens is people take very good care of their customers, right, through customer service, through better quality, through being more free to innovate because they’re not in a culture of fear. And, as a result, the customer is very well-served and, of course, the key to any organization, whether it’s for profit, non-profit, education, is having customers that are happy and loyal. And that’s the way that that’s achieved over the long term.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, that filter is particularly applied from the employee perspective, like how all these affect their long-term wellbeing of those I lead. And so, those you lead, you’re thinking about employees as opposed to customers.

Matt Tenney
Exactly, yeah. If you take very good of the employees, they take good care of the customers. And that’s actually something that a lot of organizations get wrong, in my opinion, is that you hear a lot of organizations say, “We have this intense customer focus.” And so the problem with that is, it’s not that it’s wrong, and I’m sure everyone listening and knows a story that they can relate to about this, but if you have a customer that’s a real pain in your side, they’re a pain for all of the employees that serve that customer.

And if they’re demanding too much and it’s unrealistic, to continue to enable them to do that, what you’re ultimately doing is you’re degrading the wellbeing of your employees and their ability to serve not only that customer but other customers. Morale goes down, and it’s actually a net loss. Whereas, if you were to say, “Okay. Well, this customer is a real pain. We need to ask them to change their behavior or fire them,” in the short term that sounds really scary, right? You say, “Wait a second, but that’s a big source of revenue.” Well, revenue is nice but not at the expense of the morale and the wellbeing of your team members, because if that degrades, not only is that customer going to end up being failed to be served but others will be as well.

And this is actually one of the counterintuitive applications, I’m sure many of you have heard of the Pareto Principle, the 80-20 Rule, that many of the most successful entrepreneurs I’m aware of apply, is they realize that 20% of their customers are delivering 80% of their results and, usually, those 20% are really easy to work with. Many of that 80% of your customers that are only delivering 20% of the results, and oftentimes they’re the ones that complain the most, they create the most stress for employees. So, a good practice is to, as many of those as you can afford to do it, to refer them out to your competition. Let your competition serve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. So then, I’m thinking about zooming in a little bit in terms of, okay, so we’re making love the top priority and you’re filtering out based on that guideline. What are some of the everyday practices, behaviors, activities that really make this come to life?

Matt Tenney
That’s the secret right there, Pete. So, in my experience, I wrote Serve to Be Great I think in 2012 or something so that book has been out for seven years and I’ve spoken extensively on this subject, interacted with many leaders, many employees and organizations, and, almost invariably, everyone wants to do this.

There are very few people that get up and say, “You know, my recipe for success is I’m going to go into work today and be a selfish jerk. That’s my plan.” I’ve never met anyone like that. I’m sure they’re out there but they certainly don’t come out and proclaim that to you. Everyone that I’ve met wants to do this. But I think if you were to ask most people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being you do this consistently 100% of the time, and 1 you never do it, most people aren’t anywhere near at 10. Most people would rate themselves at a 6 or 7, maybe an 8 at best.

So, the way I like to look at it is, well, let’s think about it as, “What’s stopping us from doing it?” because we all want to, right? What are the biggest blocks to doing this? And this kind of comes back to your original question about the subtitle of the book, “Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.” Interestingly, I think the three biggest blocks are resolved by living a little bit more like a monk.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Matt Tenney
By that, I don’t mean people need to go out and be monks. But I’ll give you the three big ideas and then you can dive in wherever you like and we can go as deep as you like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Good.

Matt Tenney
So, here’s the summary. So, the three big blocks, in my mind, are, one, is that because of our conditioning and the way society has programmed us, we don’t focus on making love the top priority. We focus on achieving goals. And not that there’s anything wrong with achieving goals. The problem is if we focus on achieving goals at the expense of our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us, that’s when that becomes problematic.

So, the first biggest block is that we just don’t focus enough on what we know in our heart of hearts is the most important thing not just in business but in life, which is to prioritize loving people over getting stuff or getting stuff done in a worldly sense. The second block is we’re busy. Have you noticed this, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Matt Tenney
People are busy. As I’m sure every listener listening to this knows that we’re all very busy. And there is science supporting, and we can talk about the study if you like. It’s actually both a hilarious and sad study at once demonstrating what, I think, we all know to be true, is that the busier you are, the less likely you are to serve the people around you, the more likely you are to be focused on your own self-interests and short-term gain.

And then the third one is we’re incredibly distracted, and not just distracted by things, but even by our own thinking, and this is where mindfulness training becomes absolutely key. So, that’s the summary, and then, yeah, wherever you’d like to dive in, I’d be happy to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I am intrigued by, I think, the study you have in mind, the one about the seminarians who read the good Samaritan story.

Matt Tenney
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s come up a couple of times, so I’ll let those who haven’t heard of it yet Google it and enjoy, but it’s a goody. It’s a goody.

Matt Tenney
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hear about we don’t focus on love, we focus on achieving goals. And you make a nice distinction between there’s being goals and there’s doing goals. And this has been kind of resonant for me lately because I’ve got a pretty crystal-clear picture on one page, like everything that I want to achieve in life, and I feel great. Like, that’s it. That’s everything, it’s on a page, we got clarity. Game on. But I don’t have as much crystal clarity on everything I want to be in life. And I’m working on that right now, I’m thinking about who I really admire, and what is it about them, but it’s a work in process for me at the moment, and so not yet at that level of clarity. So, lay it on us, how do we shift that focus?

Matt Tenney
Well, I think the first step that’s a very, very simple one, there are multiple steps of this, but the simple one that can be applied immediately and has immense benefit is to just simply shift our focus. Because if you think about what we’re focusing on, on a day-to-day basis, most of us reflect on that, there’s not a whole lot of time, especially if we’re in a really demanding work environment where we’re really focused on, “What am I doing to serve my teammates?” Or, if you’re in a leadership position, “What am I doing to serve my direct reports or my peers as leaders?” Where it’s just from one thing to the next, right? It’s like, “Well, I got this. I have got to take care of this. I have to take care…” and there’s pressure to achieve the goals, so we focus on that.

And where I think it can start most simply is just by simply changing your job description and using that as something that you review at least every day – to start, I would recommend multiple times a day – so that you start to refocus. In fact, at first, if you really feel like you’re just in a really demanding environment, you may want to read your job description once an hour, you know, take a five-minute break, go to the bathroom, come back and re-read this job description.

But what I suggest is if you simply change your primary job description and then place everything else as a secondary responsibility, because if you look at most job descriptions, they’re just terrible and they’re not inspiring. Your average leader job description is, “Oh, you’re in charge of the strategic planning and the direction of the organization and working with stakeholders, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s, for one, is not inspiring. Two, it doesn’t really give you an idea of what you really need to be focused on as your primary goal in making love and serving the people around you that primary goal.

So, what I suggest is you just simply reword it. I’m not saying go to HR and say, “Hey, can you rewrite my job description for me?” But this is what I’ve done with every job I had until I started working for myself, and when I worked for myself, it’s very easy because our mission is just obvious and the vision is obvious, so it’s not really written per se as a job description, but you could just change your first line of your job description as, “My job is to help the people around me to thrive.”

And if you want to be more elaborate, “To do whatever I can to do good by the people around me, to contribute to their wellbeing and their growth. And that’s my primary job. Everything else in my job description is a secondary duty.” And if you just remind yourself of that, it’s amazing what happens to brain.

This is actually one of the keys of the transformative process of the monastic training is that you recite vows every single day, reminding yourself multiple times. At first, it was probably 20 or 30 times a day reciting this vow that, essentially, my job is to help all people to be happy and to be free from suffering, which is obviously a bit grandiose but it’s inspiring. It’s like, “This is why I wake up in the morning. I work on myself to make myself better so that I can be a benefit to others and help them to be happy and to, thereby, make a better impact in the people around them.” That’s the core of monastic training.

So, to give little examples of how this works, we’ll start with maybe a case study, and you can cut me off, Pete, if this one has come up a lot as well. But, years ago, and I think this might be close to 15 years or so ago, Disney was having problems with their custodial staff. Do you remember hearing about this?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no. Keep going.

Matt Tenney
Okay. So, the problem was, as I’m sure almost everyone knows, Disney pride themselves on an amazing guest experience. That’s what they want to deliver. They want everyone who comes there to have a magical experience as a guest. And what was happening was the custodial staff was getting all of these complaints about how they were being rude and they weren’t being helpful, and it just kind of degraded from the experience at Disney which, of course, was a huge problem for them.

So, they put a lot of energy into trying to resolve this. And what it turned out, they figured out what the problem ultimately was, was the job description. The job description read, “Your job is to keep the park clean. You need to keep the bathrooms clean. You need to keep the trash looking neat. You need to keep all the walkways clean and tidy.”

So, think about this, if that’s your job description, and you see guests walking around throwing trash all over the place, you view the guests as your enemy essentially, right? “This person is making my job really hard.” And so, when someone, when a guest who just threw trash on the ground came up and ask the custodian, “Hey, where is the Dumbo ride?” the custodian would say, “I don’t know. I’m just a janitor,” and that was their response.

So, they decided, “Well, they do more than that. They’re part of our team. They’re part of delivering happiness to our guests. Why don’t we let them know that?” And they changed the job description, they said, “Your job is to create happy guests, to contribute to the happiness of our guests. How do you do that? Well, you provide them with directions when they need it, you give a kind smiling face when they ask you questions. And, as a collateral duty, you pick up the trash, and you clean the bathrooms, and blah, blah, blah, blah.”

And guess what happened? All the complaints went away, janitors were motivated and inspired to come to work because they had a noble cause for coming to work, which is to serve people and bring happiness to people, which is something we all want to do, and the guest satisfaction scores went up, and the job satisfaction for the janitors went up. Everybody wins.

So, I don’t know if there’s any neuroscientist that can explain this perfectly, but I think what’s happening is, from my limited understanding of the neuroscientist friends in my circles, is that we have a portion of the brain, and a lot of people attribute this to the particular activating system or the particular formation that its job is to filter out that which we don’t think is important.

And we’ve all had the experience of you buy a new car or you meet a new friend with a unique name and then, all of a sudden, you start seeing that car everywhere, or you hear that name everywhere.  And we know, intellectually, that car just didn’t magically multiply all over the place because we bought it, or that name just didn’t magically get slapped on everyone just because we heard it. What happened is our brain started telling us that it’s important so we start to see it everywhere this thing that we had never seen because our brain didn’t allow us to see it.

And my guess is this is what’s happening, is when you start to tell your brain, over and over and over again, “This is what’s really important to me,” you start to see opportunities to serve others and to love well. You start seeking out opportunities to improve in that area. You start to eliminate activities that degrade your ability to love well. Why? Because you’ve simply shifted your focus.

And, again, I think the easiest way to do that is to just change your job description and read it every day for a while until you really start feeling that, “Hey, I believe this. I believe that my core job description is to help the people around me to thrive.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so, then you naturally notice those opportunities because it’s built in there. And that’s a nice tip there is that it may take a couple dozen reps and the first days to get into that groove. Excellent. Thank you. So, a lot of stuff coming together here with regard to that creates satisfaction for your own self in terms of you’re enjoying the job more as well as for the folks that you’re leading, they think, “This person is great. I enjoy working with them.” So, a lot of good stuff happening here.

So, let’s talk then about mindfulness in particular. You’ve called it the ultimate success habit. First, why is that?

Matt Tenney
Well, I use that word very intentionally and very precisely because I think we kind of live in two worlds at once, right? So, we have this conventional world where stuff like getting a paycheck and being able to pay your bills really matters. And then there’s something more ultimate, which all of us have a sense of. I don’t think any of us really know intellectually, but we have this sense that there’s something much deeper about life. In the end, what really matters is, “Were we happy?” and, “Did we love well?” That’s what really ultimately things come down to.

So, the reason I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit is because it actually has benefit in both of those realms. So, the practice can be very instrumental in improving our effectiveness in the conventional realm where we’re more effective at our job, we’re more effective as leaders, we make better decisions, so on and so forth. But it was designed not for those purposes. It was actually designed for the ultimate, which is to be happy under any circumstance, so no matter what happens to you, you’re okay and you have peace.

And because of that, you have this tremendous capacity to love well and your ability to overcome our selfish conditioning that we’re all subject to, to some degree, we can gradually overcome that conditioning. That’s actually what the practice was designed to do and that’s why I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit because it contributes to success in the conventional realm as well as what really, really matters, ultimate success.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, yeah, I’ve been playing around, reading some assorted studies on mindfulness and its benefits. I’d love it if, perhaps, you could share your favorite in terms of this result emerged from mindfulness practice, whatever sort of study is your favorite that has a big number that you find exciting.

Matt Tenney
The one that I’m most excited about is not necessarily a single study in particular, but it’s actually the work of a neuroscientist who’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin, named Richie Davidson, and he’s been doing this work for a long, long time.

And, in the ultimate sense, so we’ll skip some of the conventional things, and there are many benefits in the conventional sense, especially around decision-making and emotional intelligence. Those two benefits are fairly well-established in the scientific literature. But the one I’m most excited about is there seems to be very sound and replicated evidence for the fact that we can actually change traits with mindfulness, specifically traits like kindness and compassion.

And this isn’t like a flashy number or something that sounds super sexy, but I’d like you to think about this for a second. There a lot of things you can do to change your state, right? If you’re about to go give a speech in front of a group, you can do 20 pushups and then stand up and raise your arms over your head, like Amy Cuddy teaches in her TEDx Talk, and you’re going to go out there and be way more confident than you would have had you not done that.

But there are not too many things that we know of that literally rewire your brain so that you develop a new trait that becomes your baseline way of being in the world. And there’s very compelling evidence that Richie Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin had been putting together. In fact, he and Daniel Goleman wrote a book on it called Altered Traits.

So, if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend that book. They go through all of the ups and downs and the shortcomings and the pluses of the research, and then kind of really focused in on this stuff that there’s consensus in the scientific community that this is actually fact and not just theory. And that’s where they seem to come to consensus, is that with prolonged training, although you can receive some benefit immediately, if you really make the effort to focus here on this type of training, you can change your traits so that you become the person that we all aspire to be, which is somebody who’s not just effective at their job, and earns a good living, and has friends, and so on and so forth, but we become a person who exemplifies kindness and compassion in all of our interactions.

And I know everyone listening, is somewhere inside that immediately resonates with them. Why? Because this is ultimately what we’re here for. We’re all in this together and we all know that being kind and compassionate and doing what we can to be of benefit to the people around us is what really makes life rich. And I’ve never met a person who there just isn’t some glimpse of aspiration to live that way. This is something that just, it seems to me like this is just why we’re here.

So, that’s why I’m most excited about that, is the idea that this doesn’t have to just be a high-minded ideal, “Yes, I’m inspired by someone like Martin Luther King, or Herb Kelleher at Southwest, or Gandhi, or someone like that,” and think, “I could never be like that.” Actually, that’s not true. We can be like that. We can rewire our brains in ways that allow us to embody the traits of the people we most admire in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, these traits are in the realm of service and generosity. But I imagine, it’s fair to say that, I guess, is it like any virtue that we can grab – courage, patience, fill in the blank – it’s within your reach via these approaches?

Matt Tenney
I think, immediately, people become skeptical, and think, “Oh, this can do everything?” Well, it’s not that it can do everything, but I think you’re right, Pete, it can help us to develop most of the qualities that we’re most interested in.

And just to give a brief explanation as to why, is that I think if we really look at what prevents us from having those qualities, it’s this tricky little thing that lives between our ears called the ego, right? It’s that little voice in our heads that’s always telling us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not beautiful enough, we don’t have enough stuff, we haven’t achieved enough goals, we need to be somebody, get something, do something. It’s just never satisfied.

And what mindfulness training, at its core, is all about is learning to recognize that that voice is just simply not who we are. It’s something that we can actually listen to, with third person objectivity, just as though we’re listening to a podcast. And that’s not a theory, that’s not something you have to believe, that’s something you can realize directly just by doing the practice, because that’s what the practice is.

The practice is to learn to wake up and, instead of being in your thoughts all the time as though you are your thoughts, to just wake up and realize, “Oh, I can observe these images going through my mind as though I’m watching a television screen. I can listen to this voice in my head just as though I was listening to a podcast. And when I do that, something really special happens. There’s a little bit of space between what I feel I truly am and that voice.” And the degree there was some space there is the degree to which we’re free from that voice.

And so, now that voice can say whatever it wants and it doesn’t affect what we actually do or how we actually behave in the world. It’s just something else. It’s like if you’re watching a television program, here’s a really interesting way of looking at this. So, let’s imagine that you’re watching a movie or a television program from start to finish, and you’re about halfway in, and there’s a really emotional scene, and it draws you in, and you can feel the emotion of the actors on the stage, and you’re just in it like it’s real, right? We can all relate to this.

Now, let’s imagine that you were in the kitchen getting a slice of pizza, and you came in, you haven’t watched any of this thing, and you just look at the TV screen. It’s just some actors doing stuff, right? You might laugh at somebody who’s at a funeral thinking, “Oh, that’s really bad acting.” Whereas the person on the couch is just in tears because the star just lost their beloved one and it’s really sad.

And so, this is what tends to happen. Everyone that I’ve ever worked with that practices mindfulness consistently, it’s more and more of this drama in our heads become something that’s like, “Oh, that’s just like programming. It’s just like a TV,” and it has less and less of effect on how we actually show up. So, if the thoughts are skillful, we engage them and we follow them. If they’re not, they can be allowed to just arise and pass away as though it was a television screen across the room while we’re eating a piece of pizza.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so then, when you are doing mindfulness or engaging in a mindfulness practice, what does that mean in terms of what’s happening? Like, I sit down, and then what?

Matt Tenney
Well, there’s a common misconception I’d like to clear up, Pete, I hope it’s okay with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Take it away.

Matt Tenney
It’s that I think that’s exactly what most people think of, is, “If I’m going to practice mindfulness, that means I need to go sit down and do nothing and engage in some type of special practice.” And there’s great benefit to sitting still and just being, and I highly recommend it. However, mindfulness can be practiced at any time in any situation. And so, how I recommend people start, especially if this is something that seems foreign or it’s just you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s one more thing I need to add to my schedule,” I recommend looking at this as like you don’t have to add anything to your schedule. What I recommend is just change the way that you do things that you’re going to do anyhow.

So, for the average person, if you were to make a list of all the things that you do in a day in relative solitude that you’re going to do anyhow, things like rolling out of bed, going to the toilet to go pee, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, commuting to work, sitting and waiting for a meeting to begin, standing in line waiting for something, if you were to add it all up, I think for the average person it’s probably right around two hours per day.

Make a list of all those things that you do every single day that you’re going to do anyhow, and for the first week just pick one of them. Let’s say it’s washing the hands, for instance, and unless you’re driving, listening to this podcast, you could actually play along with us while we do this.

So, if you think about what washing the hands is like most of the time, if we’re honest, we’re thinking about everything in the world other than washing the hands. Would you agree with me, Pete, that when you wash your hands?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Matt Tenney
So, we’re thinking about, “Hey, the dog just crapped on the floor. I’ve got a report due for my work tomorrow.” Whatever. We’re thinking about all types of stuff. We’re not really present with washing the hands.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re going to wash your hands again after cleaning up after the dog.

Matt Tenney
Yeah, yeah, you wash your hands then you go, “Oh, man, I forgot about the crap on the floor.” You go clean that up and come back and wash again, yeah. So, this is what’s happening when we live our lives this way, is that we’re reinforcing this identification with thinking and we’re constantly distracted by our thinking, and this is taking us in the opposite direction of being free from that voice in our heads and from our thoughts.

So, the idea is to make it a practice of being free. It’s not like you have to get somewhere or achieve something. Like, just be free right now. So, when you’re going to wash your hands, just take a half a second and just remind yourself, “I’m washing the hands now.” And then that little reminder is a wakeup call to just be really curious about the experience of washing the hands. And if thoughts arise, it’s perfectly fine, they probably will. But the idea is just you’re curious about the thoughts, “Oh, there’s a thought about this or that. Okay, what else is going on? Oh, yeah, there’s this wonderful sensation.”

So, why don’t you try this for a second, those of you who are not driving? Just pretend like you just started washing your hands, you’ve got soap and water on your hands, just rub them together. And what I’d like you to do is just be intensely curious like you’ve never washed your hands before. And just notice, “What is it actually like to wash my hands? What does the skin feel like as it’s being massaged by the other hand? What do the muscles feel like that are making the arms and the hands move? Are there any thoughts happening?” If not, it doesn’t matter. Either way it’s not important. Just be curious about what is it like.

Now, every time I’ve done this exercise with any group, 100% of the time, unless people just didn’t raise their hands, people say that washing their hands like that is diametrically opposite of how they normally wash their hands. So, this is a very different experience, right? And some people even get anxious because what we’re so used to doing is washing the hands as fast as we can so we can get onto what’s important, right?

What we’re doing now is realizing that, “Well, if I want to have clean hands, I need to wash them for 30 seconds anyhow, so why not be here for that experience?” And what happens is there’s this, as silly as this might sound just with these little activities, of just being aware of the body, aware of the mind, aware of what it’s actually like to wash the hands during that experience, what’s happening is we’re creating what I think may be the most interesting paradigm shift that we can consider. Because if we think back to how we normally do it, what we’re doing is we’re rushing through it to get it over with so we can get onto what’s next, oftentimes either it’s partially or completely distracted by our thinking, so as a result three negative things are happening.

One, we’re reinforcing this bad habit of being identified with our thoughts. Two, we are creating a little bit more anxiety because we’re not there, we’re rushing through it. That’s going to make us less effective at whatever we do next. And, third, and perhaps most important, is we’re not actually living that moment of our life. We’re rushing through it to get onto whatever is next. And, sadly, there may not be a next. The person that you’re with right now, and what you’re doing right now, is the most important. And we don’t know, tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

And when we start making, allowing mindfulness to permeate our daily activities, those three negatives are transformed into three amazing positives. So, first, you’re training yourself to be mindfully self-aware, and self-awareness is arguably the most important professional skill that we can develop. So, you’re creating a very positive habit of being mindfully self-aware.

Two, your anxiety, you’ll find, as I’m sure you noticed when you wash your hands like that, it’s pretty relaxing. Did you notice that, Pete? Did you actually wash your hands with me?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in my mind’s eye, yes. No faucets in the…

Matt Tenney
Okay. I’m sure you’ve got things you’re working on there with the podcast, yeah. When you actually do it, what you’ll notice is, “Oh, that’s actually relaxing to just be fully present with the sensations of washing the hands.” So, your anxiety goes down a little bit, making you more effective at whatever you’re going to do next.

And then, of course, most important, is you’re actually living that moment of your life and you’re developing this new habit of actually living the moments of your life so that when you come home from work, and you greet your child, you’re actually there for him or her. And you come home from work and greet your spouse, or your dog, or whoever, you’re actually there for them instead of reliving everything that happened at work in your head.

And, as grandiose as that might sound, it’s not going to happen overnight, but it does happen little by little if we just start integrating mindfulness into our daily life. So, coming back to the list, we start with just washing the hands for week one. Then, for week two, continue with washing the hands and add a second activity, brushing the teeth, let’s say. And you can see where this is going, right? Each week you just add another activity.

After 12 weeks, you’re going to have 12 anchors that, if nothing else, you know you’ve got 12 30-second to 60-second activities where you’re breaking the habit of constantly being identified with and distracted by thinking, and instead being free.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. And so then, in practice then, the difference is, one, you’re sort of noting what’s happening here, “I’m washing my hands now.” Two, you’re getting curious about each of these, I guess, the finer details of the experience, like, “Oh, that’s pretty warm. Oh, that’s pretty slippery. Okay, that’s pretty relaxing as they go together. I can hear the sound. I could maybe see some steam rising up a little bit. I could smell, perhaps, the soap.”

And so then, in so doing, you are there as opposed to elsewhere in terms of, “I better hurry up and reply to that email.” And so, there you have it. Okay. So, that’s really cool. All right. Well, thank you for that, Matt. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Matt Tenney
Nothing comes to mind immediately, Pete, other than just I have said it a couple of times, so I apologize if this is redundant, but I would just ask people to, as they’re finishing up listening to this podcast, to remember to just be kind.

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

Matt Tenney
A favorite quote. Yes. I apologize if this might be paraphrasing, but Martin Luther King said something that actually inspired the title of Serve to Be Great, which is, “You don’t need to have a Ph.D. to serve. Anyone can serve. And because anyone can serve, anyone can be great.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Matt Tenney
I think my all-time favorite book is actually a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Peace Is Every Step.

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

Matt Tenney
Well, I think Google Calendar is pretty magical believe it or not, so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. I can buy it. And how about a favorite habit?

Matt Tenney
Mindfulness, by far, is my favorite habit.

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

Matt Tenney
What I hear probably most often is just, “Yes, I want to be a leader who serves and loves well.”

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

Matt Tenney
Well, I guess you could go to MattTenney.com and that can direct you to anything else that you might be interested in.

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

Matt Tenney
Absolutely. I would, please, encourage anyone listening who stuck with us here to the end to please go ahead and create that list of all the things that you do every day anyhow, and see if you can incorporate those activities into your day in a more mindful way, just one activity at a time. And I think that simple exercise, you’ll find has some incredible benefit in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Matt, thank you. This has been a treat. And keep up the great work.

Matt Tenney
Thank you, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.