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655: Building Better Habits via Better Systems with Most Days’ Brent Franson

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Brent Franson shares tactics and tools for building powerful habits based on his experiences of being surrounded by addiction.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How Brent leveraged technology to break his bad habits
  2. The keystone habit of behavioral change
  3. How to stay motivated even when you fail

 

About Brent

Brent Franson is the Founder and CEO of Most Days, an app backed by science, built to help you understand what you need to do to improve your life and achieve change.

Previously, he was on the founding team of Reputation.com, the worldwide leader in online reputation management. Reputation.com was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.

Brent was also the CEO of Euclid Analytics, a leader in retail data and analytics. Under his leadership, Euclid was acquired by WeWork in 2019.

Brent has been named a LinkedIn Top Voice, and has regularly contributed to Forbes, LinkedIn, Inc, Entrepreneur, and other publications. Brent is a father, and an athlete who enjoys his routine, reading, running, skiing, skydiving, and anything that involves pushing his own boundaries.

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

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Brent Franson Interview Transcript

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

Brent Franson
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am eager to dig into your wisdom. And you have an interesting backstory that kind of informs, inspires, motivates the work you’re currently doing with your app Most Days. Can you share it with us?

Brent Franson
Yeah, certainly. So, I’m from Boulder, Colorado. I’m the oldest of four, we’re all within five years. And Boulder was this very fertile ground for me when I was young. I was most likely to succeed in eighth grade and I was the Winter Ball King, it’s kind of lame suburban accolades. And then my sophomore year in high school, my parents got divorced, and they were both very distracted with that.

And so, they’re going to be multiple versions of a story like this but, basically, what happened was I started rebelling and a lot of the parental supervision just changed pretty dramatically. And what happened was all of the kids in our friend group and in the neighborhood, who had similar issues, had things going on at home, had parents who weren’t around as much, they ended up spending a lot of time in the home. Some of them actually moved into the home full time.

And so, it turned into a little bit a Lord of the Flies situation where everybody was fending for themselves. And I wish I could say it turned out well; it didn’t. It, ultimately, has a good story but I rebelled in a very, very aggressive way. I ended up being kicked out of the public high school that I was going to in Boulder. I was sent on court mandate, basically, to a boarding school in New Hampshire. My parents had said, “Hey, if he gets sent away somewhere where he can kind of get better in dealing with the things, dealing with the acting up.”

So, I went to this tiny boarding school in central New Hampshire. I was kicked out of that boarding school during my, what was effectively my second senior year, so I was forced to repeat it. And in that group and in my family and kind of as for many of us, what happened around us was there was a lot of coping with the situation and coping with the changing environment.

And so, I’ve seen a lot of addiction, an addiction of all kinds. I’ve dealt with, I don’t identify as an addict, but I’ve dealt with a lot of kind of unhealthy habits that have hurt my life at various points. And then, also, in being surrounded in a bunch of different ways by addiction, I’ve seen the flip side of it. I have a lot of people around me who have many years or a decade or more of sobriety.

And what this whole story, and what this whole set of experiences has really taught me was the power of behavior change. I really became familiar with the behavior change, frameworks and addiction. Addiction is really interesting because the negative consequences of addiction are caused by repeating an unhealthy behavior over and over again. And then the cure, and cure is the wrong word, but the way out of addiction is to change that behavior. So, there are some pills but it’s largely not…you don’t take a prescription for it. It’s not a surgery. You’ve got to change the way that you’re living your life. You got to change the way that you’re coping. You’ve got stop repeating that behavior over and over again.

And so, this set of experiences has led me to the business that I’m running today. But, more importantly, I think, being really focused on understanding how can behavior, or how can the things that we do most days, there are a lot of things that it’s hard to do every day, how are the things that we’re doing most days, how can those improve the quality of our lives, the length of our lives. And then coming off of the background experience in which you see how much it can, you know, doing the wrong things every day can really hurt your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s an interesting sort of backdrop starting point. And I want to zoom in a bit on, so, in between then and now, you’ve had some pretty stellar successes in terms of software business leadership and exits and all that sort of thing. You’re really making it happen in the business world in terms of you were most likely to succeed. The prophecy proved true in terms of you’ve had a great deal of success.

So, can you share where and when and how did you get yourself into a behavioral groove that was really supporting you in such that you were starting to see some really great results in terms of your behaviors and the results that flowed from them?

Brent Franson
I think it took me a long time. Really, the reality of what happened was I was a very heavy pot smoker in high school and early in my 20s. I’m 38 now. And in 2004, I went to rehab. I spent 30 days in a rehab for just trying to stop smoking marijuana.

And the 30 days in rehab was really good for me because I just struggled to stop on my own, and I completely stopped, I learned a bunch of skills at this rehab in Arizona, and then I completely changed my scenery. So, I had actually started a company when I was in high school and it’s still operating today, but I was back in Colorado after I’d dropped out of college and I was running this business and my environment really wasn’t working for me.

And so, I moved to Palo Alto in 2004-2005, which was a very good time to move. At that time, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, really, was Palo Alto, and so things really turned me for me then. This habit that was really plaguing me, I shed that. I still dealt with some substance dependencies after that so that wasn’t completely the end of it.

And then I just pulled myself out of an environment that wasn’t working for me and I plugged myself right into the middle of, basically, the best place you could be as a young aspiring entrepreneur in technology, which was Palo Alto in 2005. So, that was the turning point for my dark period for maybe 15 to 23. It’s been quite a different story since I made that move.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, tell us about the Google Sheets and the behaviors and the habits that you were cultivating. And how did that take root?

Brent Franson
Yeah, so what ended up happening was I picked up a bunch of habits for coping with things, for figuring out how to sleep, for just dealing, generally, with emotions during this tough period of my adolescence. And it became very clear to me that if I did a certain set of things, most days that I was in a good place, I was in a good headspace. When I didn’t do those things, I wasn’t.

And the tipping point for me and really building a system around this was I was the CEO of this venture-backed company I didn’t found called Euclid, and it was a stressful role and I was having trouble sleeping. And so, I started taking Klonopin which is for anxiety. It’s a benzo, it’s very addictive, but I was taking it just for a short period of time. It’s often prescribed similar to Xanax for short periods of time for anxiety.

And I realized it was hard for me to get off of it. It became very difficult to sleep without taking this Klonopin. And so, I went cold turkey. And it was very difficult to do. I lost a bunch of weight. I was really anxious, I couldn’t sleep, and my doctor didn’t really have any good advice for me.

And so, I spent a lot of time researching and figuring it out. Hey, I’ve seen this in my family. I dealt with it early in my 20s, I thought, “Hey, I don’t want to be dependent on a benzo like Klonopin.” And so, I found this thing called the Ashton Manual which is Dr. Heather Ashton is a pharmacologist in the UK who ran these benzo withdrawal clinics in the mid ‘90s. And to get off of benzos, what you need to do is you taper off as you do many of these. So, you reduce the amount that you’re taking very slowly.

But this one, particularly in the Ashton Manual says, “Okay, now, start. As you dial down on the Klonopin, increase something called Valium,” and then you’ll be off the Klonopin but you’re on a higher dose of Valium, and then you come off of the Valium and then you drop off of Valium and you’re off of both of them. And that is the smoothest way, basically, to get off of something that is hard to quit.

And that required this very strict daily regiment of, “Okay, here’s the amount I’m taking of the Klonopin and then the Valium,” and it’s all over a six-week period so I built this spreadsheet and started tracking what I was doing there. And, in addition to that, I started tracking meditating, working out, sleeping, and eventually the system got really crazy. I mean, today I track 45 different things that I do each day and have been for six years now.

Pete Mockaitis
Forty-five, that’s wild. And so then, can you share what are maybe just a few of the behaviors that make a world of difference and that are extra leverage?

Brent Franson
Well, I think getting the basics right. So, basically, the primary categories are going to be, well, we all know these categories: sleep, diet, exercise, community, and mindfulness. I think one thing that’s been key for me, and I don’t know how true this is in other circles, in the technology community for a long time, like bragging about how little you sleep was some rite of passage.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, man. Hustle.

Brent Franson
It’s like, “Yeah, I sleep five hours.” “Oh, I only sleep four hours.” And Bezos is very famous where he credits, hey, he sleeps eight hours every night, and that’s a big part of his ability to be productive. And so, I think over time you realize, “Okay, there are these five categories of things that I need to be focusing on and investing my time in,” and you realize which ones are more foundational.

If I sleep well, basically, I have more willpower. I’m more likely to exercise, I’m more likely to meditate, I’m more likely to engage in productive relationships with my family. I’m less likely to create friction in my relationships, which eats up time and creates frustration. If I have even a small amount of alcohol, it’s likely to impact my sleep which impacts the willpower, and the cycle continues.

And so, I think there’s all of the basics in terms of those five categories. And then there are some things I think that are less obvious. Every day, I have a voice memo that I’ve record, so I record a new one every four to six weeks or something, and it’s four or five affirmations that I say to myself. So, things that I’m trying to work on, things that are getting at me. So, I tend to be somebody who wants to please people, and so one of the affirmations is, “You don’t need to rescue people. You don’t always need to say yes.”

And so, I record myself saying these things, and then there’s a pause in between each statement that allows me to say the statement out loud after I hear it, and I do that four times in a row, and that’s remarkably effective at stomping out those patterns. I end up refreshing those voice memos every four to six weeks because you’re realizing, “Oh, I’m not engaging in the rescuing thing that I didn’t need to be doing or whatever it might be.” So, a lot of them are really standard and there are some random ones like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful in terms of like sometimes that’s how progress feels in terms of it’s not like, “Sweet victory,” but it’s like, “Oh, I guess this isn’t really necessary anymore. Cool.” And it’s just sort of like a quiet victory that happens just like that but something worthy of celebration nonetheless.

Brent Franson
Yeah, I think, generally, for me, one of the key insights, and this is something they talk a lot about in addiction, in addiction they say, “Progress not perfection, one day at a time.” And so, if you’re trying to change something about your life, if you’re trying to adapt a new behavior, you’re trying to lose weight, you’re trying to drink less, whatever it might be, trying to get up early and work out, self-compassion is really important. And the real change comes just a little bit at a time, and that compounds day over day.

And so, one of the things that was helpful for me, in the pot habit or I was a cigarette smoker in my early 20s, is this notion of, “Don’t quit quitting.” And so, you’re going to fail. If you’re trying to get up early and work out, and you’re not normally somebody who works out early, or you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes or whatever it is, you’re not going to succeed right away. And, often, we fail at the thing, we don’t get up in the morning, we’d beat ourselves up, there’s a bad feeling associated with that, and then we dismiss it and we don’t continue.

And I think actually the skill you want to cultivate is this, “Hey, it’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day. I didn’t get up early this morning.” That’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up for it and see if you get there tomorrow. And if you go from not doing it at all to doing it once a week and then you’re doing it twice a week, and if in a year or two years, you’re now workout in the morning four days a week, who cares that the ramp was slow.

And so, I think don’t quit quitting, and so it’s more about getting back on the horse than it is how many times you fall off. Get good at just getting back on and not beating yourself up. And then the second, which I think is related, is focus on consistency over intensity. So, if you are somebody who doesn’t run and you want to start running, if you walk out the door with your running shoes on, count it. If you go around the block, count it.

And what’s going to happen is if you’re able to go around the block and you weren’t doing this at all before and, now, you’re doing it two times a week, three time a week, you’re going to start going two blocks, you’re going to start going three blocks. The length is going to come over time. The consistency is the hardest piece. And this is what we know about habits.

Really, a habit is kind of defined as something that you do subconsciously, that’s just automatic and you’re not thinking about it when you do it. So, when we try to adapt new habits, they’re hard because you’re going to proactively think about them. And so, if you build it in and you’re doing it consistently, even at a low intensity, the intensity will grow over time, they’ll become more and more automatic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And we talked about the self-compassion, I think that’s one thing. As soon as I saw your email, and your app is called Most Days, I was like, “That’s the perfect name.” So, what is the big idea behind Most Days?

Brent Franson
We’re building a platform where we’re trying to take everything that we know about behavior change and put it into one place. And so, there’s two primary pieces. So, no matter what you’re struggling with, and something like 97% of people have at least one health ailment. We all kind of have something.

And so, no matter what it is, there’s a set of things that you can be doing most days to improve the quality or length of your life.

And so, in Most Days, you can either create a routine or you can subscribe to an existing routine. So, we have routines for anxiety, depression, OCD, relationship, loneliness, stress and a whole bunch of different categories that are written by psychologists and neuroscientists primarily from schools here in California, from Berkeley and UCLA and Stanford. So, it’s a set of things you can do most days that are rooted in science to improve the quality of your life.

Or, you can just create your own. Like, my routine is I’ve got four or five routines on Most Days. I’m a father, I’ve got a parenting routine. I’ve just created them from scratch. I’ve been hacking on myself, trying to improve myself for the last 20 years. That’s then nested within a social network. And so, each day you mark “Yes” or “Not today.” We got feedback from our members that they didn’t feel good about saying “No,” and so we say “Not today,” which I think is great.

And then your yes responses are posted to a feed of people who follow you so you can be in single-player mode, you can follow other members of our community, you can invite a sibling or whatever, but it’s creating this peer-to-peer accountability, and we’re trying to drive the shame out of the product. So, celebrate the wins, let’s not shame anybody for the things that they’re not doing, and then tomorrow is a new day. And if you have a down day, you can improve the next day.

And then the final piece of the platform is just analytics to understand progress over time. So, one of the things we ask you each day is kind of “One to 10, how are you feeling?” And so, that gives us the ability to understand “What are the habits? What are the inputs? What are the things where you are investing in your own happiness and quality of life?” And then the output is like, “Oh, is it working?”

And so, the analytics allow you, “Okay, how are you doing on your habits? What percentage of time are you completing these?” And then we can start to connect the dots and show you, “Okay, here are the habits that are most tightly correlated with high quality of life, etc.” so you can start to get an understanding from the data of how those things are working.

And this is all modeled, I mean, loosely, off of what we see in addiction. And so, if you walk into an AA meeting, there’s going to be a plan, so there’s 12 steps in AA, you’re going to have a sponsor who’s telling you to do a certain set of things. That’s then nested within an environment that creates, that’s safe, and where you’ve got a lot of people who are on the same journey, who can share their experiences on the same journey, who can hold one another accountable, and that would be the meetings.

And then you’ve got an understanding of progress over time. Ask anybody who is kind of really active in their sobriety, and they’ll tell you down to the day how many days they’ve been sober. Even if they’ve been sober for 10 years, they’ll often be able to tell you down the day. And then they get little chips after 24 hours or 30 days or 30 years.

And so, we’re really trying to take everything that we know about behavior change and put it into one place. We’re early in our journey but that’s the basic thought behind what we’re trying to build.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And it’s cool. I use it, I dig it, and so, it’s a beautiful thing so thank you for putting that into the world. Well, so then let’s zoom in then in terms of when it comes to behavior change, we have a couple principles in terms of self-compassion and having some support and accountability, having a clear plan and tracking it. Can you maybe bring this to life with perhaps a couple case studies, stories, examples in terms of, “All right, hey, someone is looking to do something, and here’s what they did and how it worked”?

Brent Franson
One of the common things that we talk about and we’re hearing, if we’re talking about New Year’s Resolution. New Year’s Resolutions are interesting because they’re an interesting example of this because we’re starting with a goal and we’re not thinking about the system. So, I think the first key to think about in behavior change is, like, “What’s the system? How are you going to change the system of your life, the system of your behavior to support whatever the change is?”

And so, I’ll give you some simple examples. Like, for me, I had always heard this stat that you’re supposed to brush your teeth two minutes twice day, you’re supposed to be brushing your teeth for two minutes straight. And with a traditional toothbrush, for me, personally, that was hard. I just get bored. I have a short attention span and I just get bored after 30 or 40 seconds, if that.

And so, for me, and I’ve been doing this for a decade now, go buy a toothbrush with a timer and just walk around the house until the thing turns off. And so, I’ve got a Sonic here, the thing, it just buzzes for two minutes and then it turns off. And you almost immediately go, if you’re tracking the data of this brushing your teeth for 30 seconds to brushing your teeth for two minutes consistently.

Another example of this is addiction to the phone. One of the things that I spend as much time as I can is thinking about, “How am I a present partner? How am I a present father? How am I a present sibling?” etc. And the phones are just so crazy addictive, and so there’s a product called the kSafe which you can put your phone in a little like Tupperware container that has a lock with a timer that you can’t disable.

And so, for me, really the hardcore family time is 5:30 to 7:30. My daughter is four and a half, she kind of starts going to bed around 7:30. I put the phone in the safe, I can’t access the phone, so I’m not sitting around drawing on willpower at the end of the day to not grab the thing. I can’t unconsciously just pick it up and start looking at it. The thing is locked away. And I’m telling you, there’s something. As soon as it goes into that safe, that desire to look at it or the phantom buzzing that you can hear, all of that goes away because there’s just not a choice. The phone is locked away.

And so, I think another one that people talk about is if you want to get up and workout in the morning, put all of the clothes out and put your shoes right outside of the bed. Like, lower all of the friction to walking out of the door. And this is going to be different for everybody. There’s no one-size-fits-all. But I think it’s about thinking, “Okay, what system can I put in place that’s going to either make it easier for me not to do whatever behavior I’m trying to stop or it’s just going to make it easier for me to do the things I’m trying to do more of or to start doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot in terms of having a resolution alone isn’t very actionable, like, “I’m going to run a marathon this year.” Oh, that’s great, but you’ve got to break that down into the particular behaviors of running, and then think about your particular resistance or friction that’s making it tough, and do what you can to eliminate it. And so, it’s really fun when there’s a technology like a phone safe or like an automated toothbrush.

And so, what are some additional ways we can make it easier beyond buying things? And, hey, buying things is fun, so we can talk about buying things too. But I’d love to hear a few more in terms of like, “Well, there’s, indeed, there’s not a technology that will just zap me with motivation juice.” So, what are some other ways to make things easier?

Brent Franson
So, I’ll give you a couple examples. So, if you read any book on behavior change or how-to tracking, you’ll see common techniques like habit stacking. And so, okay, what is something that you know you’re automatically going to be doing? And then attach something that you don’t automatically do to that.

So, there’s a great book on this by a professor at Stanford named Dr. BJ Fogg who, the example he cites for him personally is he does a couple of pushups after he goes to the bathroom. So, he knows he’s going to go to the bathroom regularly, that’s not going to stop. He’s trying to adapt the habit of strengthening his upper body, and so he stacks those habits together.

And I’ll give you, from my own personal life, is, like, if I really go through the core parts of my routine, primarily my mindfulness and journaling routine, so that routine includes, most days, I’m trying to meditate, I listen to the voice memos, I try to spend 10 minutes learning something new. I journal. As part of the journal, I do a little gratitude practice. I read a little nonfiction. I try to read nonfiction and fiction each day, and that’s it.

So, if I just sat down and do all of those things, it’s 30 or 40 minutes. And the key for me that’s related to habit stacking is if I just get started, so sometimes I drag my feet and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do it.” I pick up the phone and I’m looking at Reddit or something or whatever we do when we distract ourselves and we procrastinate. But if I just get into that meditation, everything else is actually pretty automatic. It’s very easy for me to roll out of the meditation into the next activity. It’s rare that I would start that set of things and not finish it. The hardest part is getting myself started.

And so, I think either stacking a habit on top of something you automatically know you’re going to do, or finding a little bit of time and stacking those habits together. And then on the days when I just do the meditation, I just do one or two of the pieces, fine. That’s okay. I don’t beat myself up. I’ve got the next day. So, that’s number two, kind of grouping the habits together.

The third thing I’d say is physically a mental framework. So, I think often we perceive something being harder or worse than it actually is, and I think exercising is a very good example of this. The person you are, for me it’s I’m running in the pandemic because there’s nothing else to do, is the person I am when I walk out of the house is very different than the person I am a mile into a run, for me about a mile up – running stops just being just torture and just terrible – and it’s very different from the person that comes back. When I come back from a run, I am on top of the world. I’m not really fast on a run, crazy distances.

And so, I get into a mental state of really trying to focus on how I’m going to feel after I do something as opposed to before you do it, because there’s so much dread sometimes getting into something like a workout and you kind of play it back and forth in your head. You never regret it. You never come back and say, “Why did I do that?”

And so, I think reminding yourself of where you’re going to be, and one of the tricks I use for myself is, “I’m just going to run a mile. Like, from here I can run to Stanyan Street and it’s not that far. It’s mostly flat and I’ll turn around when I get there.” I never turn around. I’m just a different person. I’m in the zone. There’s a little bit of that runner’s high. And so, focusing on kind of how you’re going to feel afterwards as opposed to before can be helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, let’s think about a professional who has some challenges associated with entertaining distractions on the computer, be it Twitter, be it Reddit, the news, shopping, checking emails more than is optimal, that’s come up a few times. What will be some of your top tips for someone looking to make that kind of a behavioral shift?

Brent Franson
It’s similar to what I would say with the kSafe, with the putting the phone away. So, I use something on my computer called BlockSite and it blocks the websites. So, I block Twitter and Reddit and Instagram, I block all of those. So, if I go to them, there’s an additional step I can say, “Hey, unblock,” and you can block them. Put your phone in a different room while you’re working. Close the tabs that are not relevant to the work that you’re doing.

And so, a lot of this, at least for me personally, it comes down to, like, “Hey, I’m my own worst enemy. And so, how do I build little fences around myself to keep me focused?” Right now, we’re recording this, we’re having this conversation, and I took a moment before this call to just close out everything, or else I’ll look at my Slack, I’ll be looking at an email that pops up. And the neuroscience behind that is very straightforward. There’s a powerful little dopamine hit.

And so, I think as soon as you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to have the willpower. I’m just going to be really focused because it’s a really important thing,” I think a lot of that is fantasy. You’re going to fall back into the same habits, and so you’ve got put some guardrails. So, if the phone is distracting you, put the phone out of arm’s reach. Use something like BlockSite. Block out the time on the calendar for the head’s down work.

So, I think one of the things that we do, that a lot of people, and I’ve done a lot of this, fail to do from a time management perspective is you’re only scheduling… there’s only the things on your calendar that involve, “Okay, I’m talking to Pete at 3:00 o’clock, and then I’ve got a Zoom with my boss or with an investor,” whoever it might be. Block out the time you need to catch up on email first thing in the morning and block it out again later in the afternoon, and then focus during the day. You’re not going to be more than a few hours behind.

Close Slack, spend some time getting some work done. Open Slack back up. So, being very intentional in the work that we do. If you’re somebody who’s got a hundred different tabs open and you’ve got every app open all day long, of course, those things are going to distract you.

Pete Mockaitis
And to the point about self-compassion, can we like zoom way into, “All right, these are not helpful things to say to yourself after you’ve not performed what you wanted to perform, and this is what a more compassionate response is”? I think some folks might think, “Well, if I’m too easy on myself, I’m just not going to go through it. Like, if ‘It’s fine’ is my response to a failure, well, then, will I ever kick it into high gear?” So, can I hear some internal dialogue samples of helpful, self-compassion responses to failure, and not so helpful responses to failure?

Brent Franson
Yeah, I think there’s a difference between beating yourself up and being honest with yourself. And so, one of the tips that I heard that’s been helpful for me that I think is interesting is when you’re going through your email, start at the bottom of your email. Start at the email that it’s been the longest time since you’ve responded to. I’m not a total email-to-zero person but, okay, start on the most important thing. That email has been sitting there the longest, if it’s something you need to respond to, it’s probably more important than the one that just came in, even if the content of the one that just came in is more important. You have more time on that.

And I think the same thing is true for important projects. Like, work on the project that’s the hardest if you have a little time that you’re putting off the most first. And so, if there’s a really important project that you’re procrastinating, you got to be honest with yourself about the fact that, “Hey, I have to get that done. And if I don’t get it done, there’s going to be some consequence.”

But I think the, “I’m always this. I’m never that. I should be doing this. Somebody who’s good at their job wouldn’t procrastinate this in the way that I do,” so and so, you’re actually manifesting a particular person. Those kind of feedback loops are going to be actively negative. For me, personally, I got to a place of, like, “Screw it, I’m going to give up. If I can’t win the game, I’m not going to play at all.”

So, honest dialogue about yourself, with like, “Okay, if I keep procrastinating with this, here are the consequences of that. Like, the world is not going to end, but there will be consequences and I’d rather not have to deal with those consequences.” But I think the “shoulds,” and the “comparing,” and the “always” and “nevers,” I think that’s when you know you’re getting to a place where you’re probably not making progress. An honest and empathetic dialogue with yourself and really looking like, “Okay, why am I procrastinating this? What is it about it?” that’s actually going to increase the odds that you complete it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then if you aspire to, yeah, the New Year’s Resolution, run a marathon, and you didn’t get up for the run, “It’s not like I always do this. I’m never going to be a runner. I should really be better about getting up early. Brent runs amazingly well with consistency. Why can’t I be a winner like him?” So, that’s in your not-so-great column.

But then your honest conversation about consequences might sound like, “You know, well, Pete, this marathon is something that you’ve been looking forward to. You’ve got some buddies who are signed up and jazzed for it and it’s going to be a really cool experience. If this keeps happening, you’re just not going to be ready for it and you won’t be able to do it and it’d be pretty disappointing to have to cancel it.” Okay, so what next? That’s like the honest consequence conversation.

Brent Franson
Yeah. Well, then what next is have an honest conversation with yourself about what to do, “So, okay, I didn’t run today. When is the next running group? If I make that, if I make it to that running group, am I on track? Am I falling too far behind? Do I need to be in a different running group? Am I trying to run early in the morning and I’ve never been a morning person and I should actually be doing these runs in the afternoon or the evening or whatever it is?”

So, I think there’s an honest assessment of, “Okay, I might not be in shape to run this marathon if I keep missing these. Is there a way that I can make this easier for myself? Hey, I want Pete to give me a call in the morning,” or whatever it might be. So, I think it’s the honest assessment of consequences. The beating yourself up is not going to help.

And then the second piece is how do you change the system? What about the system needs to change? You need to go to bed earlier. Do you need somebody to give you a ring? Do you need to run at a different time of day, whatever it might be?

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

Brent Franson
No, no. As somebody who has a lot of personal experience with this, I think there’s a lot of people who will say, “Behavior change is hard. You can’t change. You’re not going to change.” And I would just say that’s just not true. You can. It is hard but it is possible. And so, whatever those things are you want to change about your life, as hard as that can seem to see in the moment, it is possible. It takes time and you got to focus on it but it’s very possible. I actually defy people the opposite. I defy you not to change. It’s just a question of how you’re going to change.
Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well, now can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brent Franson
Oh, I like “The Man in the Arena” quote, so I think that’s the Teddy Roosevelt quote and it’s too long of a quote for me to remember off the top of my head. But it’s basically the substance of the quote is I’d rather be among the cold, tired, and bloody among us who are in the arena and who are trying and who are striving for something, and maybe I’m defeated, than among the cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. So, I think putting yourself out there and kind of striving for whatever you want, that’s where the glory and the greatness is, and victory or defeat is secondary.

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

Brent Franson
The things that are top of mind for me right now, it’s just been so shocking to me as I dig in. I’ve seen this in my own life and then looking at attribution, basically, of behavior change and health outcomes.

And so, like 15% or 20% of health outcomes can be attributed to medical care and it’s 50% plus to behavior, and that’s been so striking to me because I think, in a perfect world in the future, you get a prescription for a drug that’s going to help you, and then next to that you’re getting a prescription for things you need to change that you can change in your behavior, that can help you improve. And so, a lot of the stats and kind of the impact of behavior change has just been, they’re top of mind for me right now, obviously, as I’m spending so much time thinking about this.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Brent Franson
This changes for me a lot. My favorite book are adventure books. And so, The Spirit of St. Louis is a book about Lindbergh and his flight across the Atlantic. It’s just really well-written.

But if you like the adventure stories, there’s a story of called Endurance which is about Shackleton and this crazy survival story down in Antarctica. And so, I love those adventure survival stories.

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

Brent Franson
Currently, my favorite tool is I have two phones and I have one phone that’s just totally dialed down and doesn’t have any apps on it and I’ve grey-scaled the background. And the more I’m carrying that, because you can just swap the SIMs. I have on my keychain, basically, a little kind of needle, it’s a SIM swapper, it’ll pull your SIM out. And that’s been remarkably helpful for me having a phone that’s just very basic. I’m a dad so I’ve got to be reachable but it just doesn’t really have much. It allows me to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit, you’ve got so many?

Brent Franson
Heat therapy. It’s sitting in a sauna, it’s sweating. And so, that, in my own personal dataset has the highest correlation with me feeling good. And so, there’s a whole bunch of interesting science around the health benefits of sitting in a sauna, in a hot dry room basically, and sweating, and so I think that’s my favorite. I also think just top of mind for me now because I haven’t been able to do it, I don’t have a sauna in my home.

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

Brent Franson
I think one of the things I spend a lot of time talking about is that there aren’t that many real rules in life. And so, I think there are a set of ethics that we all want to live by. I want to be honest. I want to be ethical. But a lot of the rules, “You got to take XYZ path if you want to do this or you want to do that.”

Like, there are a bunch of different ways to skin a cat, and so I think a lot of the “rules” are self-imposed. And so, I think thinking creatively about multiple paths to the same place has been really helpful for me, and I encourage others to do the same. I haven’t had the most amazing career, I haven’t had the worst career ever, but I took a different path. I can’t tell you whether or not I graduated from high school, and here I am in Silicon Valley running technology companies. And so, don’t impose unnecessary rules on yourself.

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

Brent Franson
Oh, look, you can email me on brent@mostdays, you can come join us in the Most Days community if you’re trying to change your behavior. We’ve got a supportive community of people who are trying to do this. But, yeah, reach out.

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

Brent Franson
Yeah, the challenge I would give anybody is change something about the structure of the way that you work, change something about the structure of the way that you live your life, and see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brent, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you and great luck with Most Days and your adventures.

Brent Franson
Yeah. Thanks, Pete.

591: How to Prevent Work and Stress From Taking Over Your Life with Bryan Robinson

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Bryan Robinsons says: "When you have compassion and creativity, that's a whole different ball game for how you're showing up at work."

Bryan Robinson shares the small, but impactful practices that help us strike a healthier work-life balance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key difference between loving work and workaholism 
  2. How to keep your survive brain from overwhelming you 
  3. Four micro chillers that offset stress and boost your mood 

About Bryan

Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages.  He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, NBC Universal, the CBS Early Show, and The Marketplace on PBS. He hosted the PBS documentary “Overdoing It: How to Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself.” His book, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, is now in its third edition (New York University Press, 1998; 2007; 2014). He developed the Work Addiction Risk Test (WART), an instrument used worldwide to measure work addiction. He lives in Asheville with his spouse, one Yorkie, three Golden doodles, and Krishna, an adopted cat, who wandered into their lives, along with occasional bears at night. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

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Bryan Robinson Interview Transcript

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

Bryan Robinson
It’s great to be here, Pete. Thanks for asking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I need to understand, you own four dogs, a cat, and some birds, but you have too many bears at night. What exactly does that mean?

Bryan Robinson
Well, I live in Asheville, North Carolina on the side of a mountain, and actually we have a bear alert. We have so many bears coming into the city because there are not as many people out. So, every night, and just about every afternoon, my dogs go crazy. I have three Golden doodles in the backyard, and I have a York inside, and so it’s a little disruptive but my philosophy is I live in their territory, they don’t live in mine. And so, we love the bears, we love nature, and so we’re adjusting just like they’ve had to adjust to us human beings.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so I like that’s a good frame a little bit in terms of it sounds sort of chill.

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Or relaxed, and that’s what we’re talking about. You wrote the book on workaholism and three editions of it. So, maybe you can start us there. It’s like, how do we know if we are workaholics or if there is an imbalance in the first place? Maybe we have it going on and we don’t even know yet.

Bryan Robinson
Well, a lot of times we do have it going on. I had it going on and didn’t realize it because if you’re a true workaholic, you have as much denial as an alcoholic has denial. We’ve heard that old saying, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” And most addictions do have a denial component. So, I’m a psychotherapist and I see a lot of people, actually, from all over the world, and all over the United States, who come to me, either virtually now or face to face, and usually it’s the spouse dragging the workaholic in to fix him or her.

But, often, what has to happen, unfortunately, like any other addiction, someone who is really out of control with work often hits a bottom, and that could be I’ve had patients who’d been fired because they called their employees in on the weekend to work, which was unreasonable. I’ve had a lot of folks who become physically ill with gastrointestinal problems, heart disease, because what we know, think about a car. If you just have gas and you don’t have brakes, well, I don’t even have to tell you folks who are listening what happens. You’re going to go off the cliff, you’re going to burn out your engine, and that’s what happens with workaholics. They actually burn out.

And burnout is not the same as stress. It’s not easy to get over. It’s not something you can just take a vacation from. It takes quite a bit of time because it becomes physical at that point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, that sounds pretty serious. So, maybe can you share with us what are maybe the top indicators there? So, it can surprise us, it can sneak up on us, we can be in denial, and then, I mean, in some of those instances, there are some pretty clear indicators. You got fired because you were asking too much from people who you just expect to work the way you were working.

Bryan Robinson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or you have a health issue showing up at the hospital. What are maybe some of the earlier indicators?

Bryan Robinson
Well, your spouse says, “Hasta Luego. I’m out of here,” after begging and pleading, which I went through early on. It’s one of the things that got me into what we call recovery. You know, there is a Workaholics Anonymous, there’s a 12-step program for workaholics. We’re talking about people who not only can’t stop working, even if they’re with their kids playing catch or by the ocean with their main squeeze, they’re thinking about work because they can’t turn it off. So, they’re not always in the office or in front of their computer. They can be anywhere and still working.

Also, there’s something called work infidelity. It’s my term that I use in the book #Chill. And that’s when you sneak your work. I had a woman tell me once that her husband complained because she stayed at the office till 7:00 or 8:00 every night, and he never saw her. And it got to be real serious, and she said, “I tell you what, I’m going to take an aerobics class.” The workout closed and, at work, what she would do is change into the workout clothes, dashed bottled water on her to make it look like sweat, and she actually worked till 8:00 o’clock but he thought that she’d been going to a class.

You know, I did something very similar, and I know it sounds even crazy when I say it, and I’m a therapist. I used to, when we’d go to the beach, everybody would walk on the beach and I’d pretend I was tired. I’d yawn and they thought that was cool, I’m actually going to rest. And as soon as I saw them out of sight, I would pull out my project from the university, I was a professor at the time, and work feverishly just like an alcoholic sneaking a drink. And then when I saw them coming back up, I’d pretend I’d been sleeping. And that’s work infidelity, which buys into that old notion of wedded to work.

Now, everybody is not that severe if they’re workaholics. The book #Chill is for anybody who lacks balance. And the kind of workaholic I’m talking about is really an extreme. There’s actually a test that you can take on my website, which you’ll probably mention, that tells you whether you’re that severe, which what I had just described as pretty serious, or mild, or medium. So, there are degrees of it, but a lot of people think they’re workaholics when they’re really not. They’d work in tax season, for example, day and night. That’s not a workaholic. That’s just the demands of the job that’s temporary. But we’re talking about people who are on the ski slopes, dreaming about being back in the office, versus someone who’s in the office, dreaming about being on the ski slopes. So, it’s a mental thing. It’s an inside job, as we say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so much of that is, I guess, sort of looking in the mirror. I mean…

Bryan Robinson
Is it mind-blowing?

Pete Mockaitis
I go both ways here with regard to, it’s like, “Hey, I’m working less than I was when I was a strategy consultant, so then that’s pretty good, right?”

But I also had moments where I’m playing with my son outside, and I’m thinking about a cool project that’s coming up from an audio app that wants me to do a show. More about that later. So, yeah, I guess it’s not all about me, it’s about the listener and your expertise. But it’s sort of, I think, I don’t know, maybe I’m on the mild side of things. Like, it shows up here and there but I’m not sneaking work or spending 60 plus hours a week.

Bryan Robinson
Yeah. And the other thing I wanted to mention, this applies to volunteering, retirement. What I’m seeing with people who are retiring today, they may not be working at least, obviously, in an office, but they, if you’re a true workaholic, you continue to do that, to do volunteer work or keep busy all the time. And it can be a student who is a perfectionist, and who is a control freak. We often refer to workaholics as controlling because they use their work to assuage some kind of internal stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, Bryan, and then on the flipside, I think sometimes just like work happens to be really fun and interesting.

Bryan Robinson
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then you choose what seems to be freely to do plenty of it.

Bryan Robinson
Well, let me tell you the difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, please do.

Bryan Robinson
That’s a good point. I still work. I write for Forbes. I write for Psychology Today. I have a private practice. I have a new book coming out. I have a marriage, so I have a lot going on. But, you know, the difference is being drawn instead of driven. So, when you’re driven, and this is the way I used to be, I was a madman. I was a chain-smoking, I never stopped, I worked holidays, weekends, days, nights. It was just really crazy. And it was because I had to. We call it musturbation. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that term. Musturbation. I must. I have to. I should. The should-y thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard you can should all over yourself.

Bryan Robinson
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
But musturbation is a new one.

Bryan Robinson
Musturbation, yeah, I ought to, I have to. And what it is, it’s a form of shaming, and we don’t even know we’re doing it, but we are requiring. It’s an oppressive way of requiring ourselves to stay focused and to stay busy. Now, that’s driven. To be drawn is, “I want to…” “I plan to…” “I will…” “I have passion about this.” You know, Michelangelo, so the story goes, worked day and night on the Sistine Chapel. That didn’t mean he was a workaholic just because he was working day and night. When you have compassion and creativity, that’s a whole different ballgame for how you’re showing up at work.

So, I don’t feel the same when I’m working. I feel calmer. I call this the C-spot, and I talk about this in the book. The C-spot is when you have about seven or eight C words that you’re aware of. You’re calm. You’re clearheaded. You’re compassionate with yourself and other people. You’re creative. You’re confident. You’re courageous. And you’re curious. And that’s a whole different way of being in your body.

Now, that’s what I call the thrive brain. I was chatting with you earlier, and I mentioned we have two brains, and a lot of people don’t realize they have two brains. One is the survive brain, one is the thrive brain. The survive brain is hardwired in us so that we will survive. So, if your house is on fire, or if your kid is in jeopardy, you’re not going to think, you’re going to react. So, we need our survive brain to keep us safe. The problem is, and you can see this today, you can see it in the workplace, you can see it on the news every night, the survive brain has become rampant in our society with how people are interacting with each other.

The thrive brain is reflective. It’s basically the prefrontal cortex’s executive functioning. It’s the thinking brain versus the animal or lizard brain, I sometimes call it, and that’s the brakes. The brakes is the thrive brain, the gas is the survive brain. And the key to balance is not just getting a hobby or going on a vacation, it’s making sure that you are acting instead of reacting.

I’ll give you an example. I was coming off of the freeway here in Asheville one day, it was a beautiful fall afternoon. I’ll never forget this. And I casually looked over, and a woman in a red car who had been in front of me, gave me the snarl and the finger.

Pete Mockaitis
What did you do, Bryan?

Bryan Robinson
Well, my first thought, I could see my anger, he’s a part of me, and it’s like he was coming toward me. And he said, “Tell the…” I don’t know if I can say these words. I don’t want to offend anybody. But, “Tell the blankity-blank to go to hell.” And I said, “Stop.” This was my thrive brain in practice. My survive brain wanted me to roll the window down and give her the same gesture. What I did, I was able to stop the anger and talked to him. Now, it used to be if we talk to ourselves, people say we’re crazy. Now it’s one of the best untapped mental health tools we have. And the research was showing this. I can talk about the research. It’s fascinating. But when I talked to him, he calms down. See, that puts me in my C-spot. The C-word.

Also, I had the clarity of what was going on inside of me. I didn’t get hijacked. So, I stayed in the moment, I stopped the anger, and I talked to him, and I said, “I know you’re pissed off, and I know you want to do that, but that’s not who I want to be in the world.” And I tattled down the road, and I had one of the most beautiful days I can ever remember because I felt like I just made a homerun, because I stayed in my C-spot, in my thrive brain.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And so then, you mentioned we got some research and there’s two sorts of brains. Can you lay it on us there with regard to what’s going on, either in terms of brain parts or biochemistry, neurotransmitter things? How is it working for us inside?

Bryan Robinson
Well, here’s what we know, and I actually teach this to my clients, and they just are amazed in how it’s changed their lives. I have my clients when they talk to me, and they’re not allowed to say, “I’m an angry person. I’m a control freak,” even though I did use that term a while ago, or, “I’m a worry-wart.” Because when you say that, you’ll start to identify yourself as that, and there’s no space for you to figure out who you really are.

So, the way they refer is what we call the second person, “He.” “I have this part of me, and he or she is anger.” And when they’re talking to themselves on the inside, and this is what the research is showing, if you use second person, you, or use your name, or like if you were to say, “Pete, you made a mistake. But you know what? That’s not the worst thing you’ve ever done, and you don’t have to worry about this.” As opposed to, “I made a mistake. What am I going to do about it?” It’s when you use the our, we call that blending, and you feel bad about yourself, and you don’t really find solutions. That’s the survive brain. When you talk to yourself in the second person, or by name, and this is what the research shows, you are happier, and it actually gives you a wide-angle lens. It’s almost like somebody else is talking to you because you’re more objective in what just happened.

So, instead of condemning yourself and vilifying yourself, you’re more likely to let yourself off the hook, and get a what I call a wide-angled lens view of what just happened, which is really the thrive brain that brings up self-compassion. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I love it. I love it when there’s these little distinctions that maybe we’ve never thought of that can make a world of difference.

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
I mean, I just geek out over that. And this reminds of the conversation we had with Tara Mohr, one of our most popular episodes, about she referred to it as your inner mentor. Like, you can imagine talking to your older, wise version of yourself in a beautiful setting. And so, that has a similar sort of outside yourself vibe to it. But what you’re describing sounds even faster and easier in terms of having to sort of enter into a place. Not that it takes that long.

Bryan Robinson
Well, I’ve developed a little, what I call, triple A. I think most people may be working remotely right now. But let’s imagine you’re in your office and your boss walks by, and she’s got this frown on her face, and she looks straight at you and doesn’t speak, and on the inside, you shrink, and you say, “Holy shit. I’m in hot water. I don’t know what I’ve done. And I’ve got an evaluation tomorrow. And, oh, my God,” and all night you worry and you obsess and you ruminate about the meeting with your boss the next day. You walk in, she smiles, you sit down, and she gives you a glowing evaluation and talks about what a great team member you are, and about a potential promotion.

So, what just happened? Your survive brain is always looking out to protect you. It’s its only goal. It doesn’t care whether you’re happy. It only wants to make sure you survive. That’s not just a physical survival. It’s also a psychological safety. And when your job is threatened, that’s one of the biggest threats you can have. And scientists, the neuroscientists, call this the negativity bias. What that means is our brain, and the survive brain, will automatically go to the negative scenario and will make up stories in our head that are almost never true. And this is an example, and I bet most people listening have had this experience, I know I have, and you probably have too, Pete, where not only does it not turn out the way you thought it would, it turns out the very opposite. And scientists say 90% of the time that’s true.

So, what does that mean? We’re living our lives from the survive brain 90% of the time and we’re miserable. So, when we can realize what we’re doing and shift into the thrive brain, we’re going to be happier, we’re going to be more productive, that’s a fact, and we’re going to live a fuller life.

Now, so here’s the little mnemonic device that I’ve developed. So, I’m angry, I’m on the freeway, and the woman gives me the finger, and I see my anger. So, the first A is aware. I’m aware I’m angry. The second A is I acknowledge it, like I just did, “Oh, I see you’re here.” And what most people try to do is get rid of it, or they think anger is bad, or they steamroll over it, or they try to debate with it. That’s the worst thing you can do. But when you just let it be there, you acknowledge it, “I know you’re pissed off, and I see you’re here,” you will start to feel a calm and a separation from that part.

The third A is allow, and that’s where you just allow it to be there. Just let it be there. Now, I’m doing some hand motions here that, Pete, you can probably see, but what I’m doing is holding my hand out when I say, “Allow.” You let it be there but it can’t be where you are. It’s got to be separate from you. And when you start practicing that, it widens what we call the resilience zone. This is one of the things I talk about in terms of micro chillers. These are little 5-minute exercises, or less, that really boost our confidence, and boost our mood, and keep us stress-free throughout the day. But the triple A is something I use all the time. I’ve used it twice this week already.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, there’s a lot of great stuff here. So, let’s talk about these solutions with regard to, okay, if you find yourself feeling threatened, and survival mode is going full force, or you find yourself in the throes of workaholism, we’ve got the three As. What are some of your other favorite tools for getting back on track?

Bryan Robinson
One is halt, H-A-L-T, hungry, angry, lonely, tired. And that’s a little mnemonic device that we can just carry around. And if we catch ourselves, you have to learn to be aware, or being mindful. I’d like to talk a little bit about mindfulness. And once you are, then you realize, “Hey, I’m hungry. And I wasn’t even conscious of it. So, I’m going to go have a snack.” Or, “I’m angry. And how can I deal with that anger?” Or, “I’m lonely. I can call a friend.” Or, “I’m tired. I’ll take a nap.” So, they’re these kinds of things.

Another one is, and here’s where the balance comes in, if I were to ask you, Pete, if you’re like most people, to list all your shortcomings, that would probably be an easy task. Then if I say, “Well, now, on the other side, list all your tall-comings,” it might take you a little bit longer, the research shows that. Why? Because of the negativity bias that I mentioned earlier. So, balance is making sure your list of tall-comings is at least close to in balance with your shortcomings. That creates the balance from inside in terms of you’re confident, how you carry yourself, how you feel about yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you just literally mean have that written down somewhere side-by-side.

Bryan Robinson
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And say, “All right. This is what I got going for me.”

Bryan Robinson
Yeah. Also, have a to-be list. We all talk about to-do lists. The to-do list is the survive brain. Now, it’s okay to have a to-do list, but how often do we have a to-be list? That’s the brakes. We need the brakes to complement the gas. So, the to-be list, for me, is, because of where I live, I’m so fortunate I have a beautiful view of the western mountains and the sunset, it’s something I do every afternoon, is sit and watch the sunset when the sun is setting, when you can see it. And I’m not doing anything but just I’m enjoying the mountains. I’m in the mountains and the mountains are in me. That’s the thrive brain.

And the research shows, there’s a groundbreaking study that just came out this year, 90 minutes in nature, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you can be sitting, you can be walking, you can be sailing, playing tennis, is a gamechanger. It elevates your mood. It makes you more productive and more creative, just being in nature, in a park, wherever you are. And that’s being, it’s so complementary to the doing. And a lot of people don’t want to take, especially if you’re a workaholic, you don’t want to take the time to do that because it feels like a waste of time. But the neuroscience is showing not only is not a waste of time, it really makes you more productive, and more successful, and more satisfied with what you’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s a great bit there, the 90 minutes in nature. Are there any other sort of high-impact self-care practices that maybe most people don’t know about or most people don’t know just how much bang for the buck they deliver?

Bryan Robinson
Well, maybe we can talk about uncertainty because I’m kind of fascinated by this topic, especially with COVID. Uncertainty, the lizard brain or the survive brain despises uncertainty. And you can see why, because if your survive brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it freaks, and it also tells you the worst-case scenario is going to happen, which is not true, but we believe it because we think it and we tend to become anxious and worry because of it.

So, the key is to be able to understand that uncertainty is uncertain. Period. It doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. But we tend to think of uncertainty as something catastrophic. British researchers did an incredible study, and I won’t go into all the details but I’ll give you the CliffNotes. They divided these folks into two groups. In one group, they said, “You are going to get an electric shock in just a few minutes.” The other group, they said, “There’s a 50% chance that you might get an electric shock.” Well, guess who had the highest anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
The ones who might get a shock.

Bryan Robinson
Exactly. When you know something for a fact, there’s something about that that relaxes the survive brain because it knows what’s going to happen. So, that’s how vital certainty is. The problem is there’s no way we’re ever going to have certainty. There’s no way life is going to tell us what’s around the corner. Life is not designed to do that for us, and that’s why we’ve got to figure out a way, individually in our lives, whether we’re at work or in our marriages or in our parenting, to figure out how we’re going to deal with uncertainty and not look at it as a negative.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, in a way, while I want to hear your particular strategies there, it’s like you’re almost better off if you just sort of acknowledge, accept, like, “You are going to suffer this year.” It’s like, “You will experience disappointments and unpleasant things that you would have preferred not happen. That’s going to happen.” And just sort of you’re healthier if you can step into that versus say, “Oh, something bad might happen. We don’t know but I hope not.”

Bryan Robinson
That’s right. You just described the thrive brain. If you can step into the truth, there are things that are going to happen to you and to me this week, probably, that we hadn’t planned that would happen. That’s the nature of life. And when you can say that, and then put yourself into it, the magic that happens is you feel you have serenity, and that’s the thrive mind. And, this is paradoxical, you’re willing to stick your neck out more. And when I stay stick your neck out, I don’t mean dangerous things. I’m talking about at work, you go out on a limb maybe with some creative ideas. So, we’re talking about psychologically sticking your neck. We call that a growth mindset. That’s the thrive mind. That’s how we thrive. That’s how people get successful. That’s how Meryl Streep got all her Oscars, and Michael, the swimmer, got all his gold medals.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s the growth mindset.

Bryan Robinson
The growth mindset. They stuck their neck out. This is one of the qualities of highly-successful people who are not willing to take no for an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, what’s coming to mind is a bit of scripture in terms of the uncertainty. It said, depending on the translation, something like, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world,” is that this is sort of like head on, “Yeah, it’s coming, so just go ahead and embrace it now.”

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And so then, any other top tips in the world of self-care?

Bryan Robinson
Well, especially now is know what you can control and what you can’t. That kind of relates to what we’re talking about, right? So, I can’t control, obviously, a pandemic. I can sit and shudder and worry. That’s not going to prepare me for anything, it’s not going to help. That’s my survive brain. Or I can say, “Okay, Bryan, we’re going to eat well, we’re going to exercise, we’re going to follow the safety recommendations from the CDC, keep ourselves healthy as we can. Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart. Blah, blah, blah.” And that makes me feel in charge.

Most of all I can control is my thoughts, feelings, and actions. And when I stop and think about that, and what are those things, and then I do them, it brings me peace. And that’s thrive mind again. But when you get into this victim mode of, “Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do? What’s going to happen tomorrow?” it paralyzes you even though the survive brain, and this is the paradox too, the reason Mother Nature hardwired us was so we perpetuate the species, we will survive, but it scares us. Fear is a healthy thing but your survive mind is fearful. Your thrive mind is compassionate. And we need both.

I don’t want people to get me wrong. I mean, gosh, if there was a fire right now, you and I, we wouldn’t stop to think. We would just react. We’d get out of there. But if someone is angry with me, or if my spouse is hurt by something I said or did, instead of yelling and screaming, that’s when we want to start using our thrive mind. And when you see what’s going on in the world today with not only COVID, but the racialized society we live in, it’s how we are treating other people. That comes from our thrive mind, from compassion.

I sometimes think about when somebody pulls out in front of me in traffic, or somebody unwittingly steps in line in front of me, what do I do with that? How many times have I stepped in front of someone in line? And I know I have, I did it at the Post Office last week. I didn’t realize I was doing it. How many times have I talked over somebody? We’re all human and we’re all in the same boat in lots of ways. If we can just forgive ourselves, first of all, for mistakes we make and are going to make, and are a little lenient or kinder to other people, the thrive mind can really offset the survive mind and make, not only individually in our everyday lives but on a global basis. I know that’s pretty grandiose.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, that’s inspiring and rings true. I want to follow up on one thing you said. You said you can control your thoughts, feelings, and actions. And I think some might say, “Well, I don’t know if I can control my feelings.” And you’ve given us a couple tools for tackling that. But let’s just say, we’ll zoom right in in terms of I’m thinking, “Okay, I take a look at my day, a couple, and things are already not going to plan.” Let’s say I feel like, “Uh-oh, I got more that I need to get done today than I think I can get done. A couple people that are upset by something, apparently, I screwed up, and they’re irritated and I got to fix that. And I’m irritated that they were unclear about what they were asking of me. So, I got his morass of feeling angry, stressed, too busy. And what I would like to feel is calm and compassionate and courageous and curious.” How can I, in fact, control my feelings to get there?

Bryan Robinson
Okay. So, let’s take physics. What do you do in a riptide? I don’t know if you’ve ever been in one, but I have, and it’s terrifying because your survive brain says, “Swim like hell,” and that will kill you. Your thrive mind, which is reflective, says, the latest phrase I think is “Float, don’t fight,” and you float parallel to the shore and it brings you in. That’s counterintuitive. It’s paradoxical.

Think about women who, during childbirth, they’re screaming and yelling, and they’re all tensed up. Well, childbirth classes are all about relaxing into the labor pains. Well, that doesn’t make any sense to the survive brain. How can you relax when you’re having pain? But what we know is that it reduces the pain and reduces obstetrical problems.

If I’m on a motorcycle, which I have been, and you go around the curve, you lean into the curve, which is really scary, and it’s hard to do if it’s your first time, but your survive brain will say, “Lean out so you don’t flip over,” but that will flip you over. So, having said that, here’s how you deal with that. So, I am going to be Pete, and I’m going to talk to those feelings, and I’m going to do just like I did a while ago with the anger.

“So, Pete, yeah, you didn’t get done what you wanted to do. That really sucks. And you have every right in the world to be frustrated right now.” So, all I’m doing is allowing. I’m aware, I’m acknowledging, and I’m allowing that part to be there. And here’s the paradox. If we don’t fight these thoughts and feelings, if we allow them to be there, they recede, they calm down. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I heard that before, and I buy it. Like, that which you resist, persists.

Bryan Robinson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard it as a phrase.

Bryan Robinson
Yes, absolutely. And that is resistance. And I’ve heard a mental health expert say this, and it just is like fingernails on the chalkboard, “Fight your inner demons.” Some people call it your obnoxious roommate or that inner bully. I don’t like these terms because that’s really not what it is. This is your survive brain trying to protect in its way even though it doesn’t seem like it.

So, we don’t fight or battle those thoughts. We acknowledge them and allow them to be there, and that goes with that whole counterintuitive thing of they will relax, and then you will have the clarity, and then you will have the compassion instead of the judgment. So, that’s how you control your feelings by not controlling them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m allowing it and I’m not taking a Tony Robbins-esque approach of beating my chest and saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” and pretending to feel the way I want to feel.

Bryan Robinson
Just the opposite.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got it.

Bryan Robinson
It’s the opposite, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, tell me, Bryan, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Bryan Robinson
Well, let’s talk about mindfulness for a minute. There’s a lot of research. We have such a body of research now from Harvard that shows the changes in the brain, from the survive brain to the thrive mind, that changes people’s lives. And meditation is one of the best tools for stress and anxiety on the planet.

Now, I’m talking about five minutes. I’m not talking about 20, 30 minutes, that’s ridiculous, unless you’re really an expert at meditation. Once you understand how to meditate, that’s great. I would encourage everybody listening right now, we can’t do it now because we don’t want to take the time during the show, but if you just take one minute after this broadcast, and sit somewhere, and listen to as many sounds as you can for one minute, don’t try to memorize them, just notice, just be mindful. Like, right now, I can hear shuffling a little bit of paper, and I can hear air-conditioning in the background, and I hear my gurgling stomach.

And as you do that, just for one minute, after you’re through, notice what’s going on in your body. And you will notice your heart has slowed down, your breathing is a little slower, your muscles loosen, you’ll feel calmer. It moves you into your C-spot automatically, and that’s one minute. If you do that for five minutes a day, it’s going to change your outlook. It’s going to change how you feel inside your skin but, also, it’s going to elevate your mood automatically. The reason is because it takes you out of your head, your worry, and your anxiety, and your thoughts, and it brings you into the present moment. We call that open-awareness meditation. That’s just one type of meditation.

There’s one more thing I wanted to mention. And, again, this is one of the best micro chillers there is from my perspective. Okay, so think of a camera. Your survive brain is wired to zoom in. If you’re threatened, imagine you’re in a dark parking garage at night, there’s nobody around, and if it were me, my survive brain would be helping me look around to make sure I’m safe, right? What it does is it zooms in, and it focuses like a telescope or like tunnel vision. In doing that, your eyes dilate, your body constricts, your whole physicality is focused on the potential threat, and you need to do that.

However, what it does is it clouds out the big picture. So, when we’re upset with our spouse, or a colleague, or a boss, or a child, we don’t even realize that we go into the zoom lens. And one of the quick and dirty tools that we can all use is, first, if you’re aware that your survive mind just went into the zoom, you can widen that. You can take that and put it, I call this the wide-angle lens, put it in the big picture and look at what’s going on here.

For example, let’s say I didn’t get that promotion, and my mind goes right in and I’m thinking, “Gosh, I’m never going to get where I wanted to go. I thought I was going to be able to get this promotion and then get this job, and then move onto such and such.” So, it kind of gets stuck there. And if you broaden that, we call this broaden and build, that’s the scientists call it, and this takes a few seconds, put that in perspective, and say, “my career is not over. My goodness, look, I can do this, and I can do that.” Basically, what the wide-angle lens does, it widens, it helps you see possibilities. It helps you see the opportunity in the difficulty. And that’s your thrive mind.

The thrive mind is the wide-angle lens. The survive mind is the zoom lens. And we need both, but a lot of people get stuck in the zoom lens, in the survive mind, and they don’t even know it. And so, anytime you’re looking at, remember there’s a negativity bias, and it’s for our survival, when you get stuck there, you can unstick yourself simply by putting on the wide-angle lens and do what I call a gratitude exercise. Think of all the things you’re grateful for: your health, your relationship, your kids, your animals, whatever, whatever it is. And it moves you into your C-spot. You start to feel calmer. You feel more clarity. Your thinking is not as distorted.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s excellent. Thank you, Bryan. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Bryan Robinson
One is Viktor Frankl, who was a psychologist, and he was in the Holocaust. He was in Auschwitz, in Dachau. And the way he survived was he said, “The Nazis can take everything,” and they did, they took his food, they took his clothes, people were dropping dead around him like flies, but he said, “…they will never take my will.” And holding onto that, he wrote a great book and talked about how that helped him get through. So, one of his quotes is, “Between the stimulus and the response, there’s a space. And in that space, I have a choice of how I want to respond. And when I make that choice, that’s where my freedom comes from.”

And we can all apply that. We’re not in concentration camps, thank God, but some people are quarantined still and under lockdown, and some people are just imprisoned within their psychology, the way they think about their life. So, you always have a choice. Always. And we don’t always know that we have a choice, but we do, in how we want to look at things. And that’s one of the most powerful quotes.

And the second one is Rumi, the poet, who said, I’m not saying this exact, but basically, “One of the marvels of life is a soul sitting in a prison with a key in his hand.” That’s pretty cool, ain’t it? I really like that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Bryan Robinson
Well, again, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s book. On the novel side, one of my favorite books is Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. It’s a murder mystery but it’s written, it’s a coming of age. It’s just a fabulous book and it won all kinds of awards. So, that’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

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

Bryan Robinson
This is something I said once, I didn’t even know I said this, and one of my fans sent it to me. And I’ll just read it, “Instead of asking why life is treating me this way, because life isn’t personal, I can ask, ‘How am I treating life?’ If I say this is happening for me, instead of to me, I’m left with what I can do with it. That’s self-compassion in action, and it’s empowering.”

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

Bryan Robinson
www.BryanRobinsonBooks.com. And Bryan is B-R-Y-A-N, R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N.

Pete Mockaitis
And that has that test you mentioned associated with the workaholic?

Bryan Robinson
Yeah. Well, there’s a test on the website called “How Chill Are You?” and it’s all electronically-scored in just a few seconds. And there are blogs that I’ve written, some self-help information for folks on how to deal with stress and anxiety and some of the things we’ve been talking about today.

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

Bryan Robinson
Yeah. In the next week, see how many times you can act instead of react. And what I mean by that, we’re so quick to react when someone pulls in front of us, or steps in line in front of us, or cuts us off in a meeting, or things don’t go the way we want. And become more aware and use that triple A, and acknowledge the part, work on your self-regulation on the inside, and then you’re going to feel so much better, and you’re going to be more accomplished to more productive.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Bryan, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you many chills days ahead.

Bryan Robinson
Thank you. You, too, Pete. Thank you.

572: How Morning Practices Like Savoring and Investing in Calm Boost Productivity with Chris Bailey

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Productivity THOUGHT LEADER(!) Chris Bailey shares how investing in your calm can boost your productivity and how savoring the little things every day can help you start your day right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How calm provides the greatest return on productivity
  2. Why you shouldn’t feel guilty over being less productive now
  3. How and why to savor

About Chris

Chris Bailey is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of Hyperfocus and The Productivity Project—which have been published in seventeen languages. Chris writes about productivity at Alifeofproductivity.com, and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive, without hating the process. To date, he has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity, and has garnered coverage in media as diverse as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, The Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, GQ, TED, Fortune, Fast Company, and Lifehacker. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Chris Bailey Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Chris Bailey
You have me back.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. It’s number three. That’s pretty rare. Far too rare.

Chris Bailey
Wow, really?

Pete Mockaitis
Did you forget one already?

Chris Bailey
Huh, I think I was asleep through one of them and intoxicated. No, I’m kidding. It’s good to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s good to have you back. And, boy, in the meantime, from my stalking of you because I wasn’t invited, you know, not a problem, I see you got married. Hey, congratulations.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, you can see the ring in the video.

Pete Mockaitis
That too.

Chris Bailey
Thank you for the congrats. It’s fun. It’s been fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I just imagined that your wedding was a star-studded event full of productivity giants which is why it was odd that my invitation didn’t come through the mail.

Chris Bailey
You know, my wife and I, we’re pretty cheap. Frugal. Cheap has negative connotations. We’re frugal so we just had like a dinner party.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no kidding.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, because we thought, “Man, we should put this money towards a house or something rather than a wedding.” And so that’s what we did. It’s hard to keep wedding costs down because you order the same service. The first time you tell them you’re having a wedding. The second time, you don’t. The wedding quote is twice as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I noticed that. I was tempted to see, “How can I not lie?” It’s like, “We’re having a family gathering. Families are gathering.”

Chris Bailey
Two families, specifically, gathering and combining. We’ll pay a third of the price for that photographer and that photo booth, it turns out.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, that’s wild because they know they can get you. And so, well, you’re married and I want to get your quick take. So, you’re a productivity thought leader.

Chris Bailey
Oh, no, please don’t say that.

Pete Mockaitis
You lead thoughts. What has been like sort of the marital adjustment in terms of how does it feel different?

Chris Bailey
Well, you know, Pete, life as a thought leader is challenging during the best of times, let alone when you’re trying to introduce thought leadership into a new…oh, man, I feel like such a douche right now. But I don’t know, it’s fun. In a way, nothing has changed but, I guess, legally, pretty much everything has changed. We’re both pretty productive. I think the biggest thing that’s changed lately is how our routines are integrated into one another.

I think pretty much everybody on the planet has the same situation that they’re facing where maybe they work with their loved ones, maybe they’re not newly-weds and so their work situation is becoming more challenging perhaps. And we’re all trying to find a new normal right now amidst the virus shakeup, the great shutdown, the hibernation, whatever you want to call it. We’re all trying to find new routines.

So, we settled into a nice routine of working from home around one another. I have my office which makes things a bit easier for me, but she has her own system of doing focused work in her desk area. So, I don’t know, we’re having fun, we’re dealing with the challenges, and we’re just having a good time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Well, so I caught your name in the Washington Post, nice job, thought leader. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, let’s get Chris again,” because, yeah, we’re in a new world for awhile here. And we’ve had a couple people with sort of episodes kind of really particular COVID-focused and then just a smattering of COVID tidbits and some others. But I want to get your take on, alright, so we’re in this environment where there’s a virus raging, there’s some restrictions and limitations. Some folks are really gung-ho, like, “This is going to be my moment to do this stuff,” and other people are saying, “No way. There’s such a mental load. I’m going to do almost nothing.” How do you think about this?

Chris Bailey
I think everybody is different, and that’s a terrible answer that nobody wants to hear, but the fact of the matter is everybody’s situation is different during a time like this. And productivity is so often a process of understanding the constraints inside of which we live and work. And in a situation like this, everybody’s constraints are changing overnight, and we all had different ones to begin with. So, what we’re seeing right now, it’s a word that isn’t mentioned enough, but privilege. Those of us who have cushier jobs where we’re able to work from home, we’re not experiencing the economic brunt of the crisis that’s going on.

Something else is kids. Our lives are structured, we don’t have kids at the time, but our lives are structured around families and daycares and schools, and those kids existing in a system that isn’t our home during the day when we’re trying to work from home. And so, I think a question like this, you know, there are a lot of posts flying around right now, “Oh, make the best of your quarantine time. Don’t gain the quarantine 15. Lose the quarantine…How to stay productive, how to write the great American novel whilst in quarantine.”

These things totally miss the mark. They don’t get the fact that, “Okay, maybe my situation is different from yours, which is different from the situation of a single working mother with three kids, which is different from the situation of a retiree, somebody who lives in an old-age home, whatever.” Everybody’s situation is different.

And so, I think we have to, A, realize that we’re all operating under different constraints, and, B, not feel guilty about how we’re spending our time right now, because the simple truth and the fact of the matter is some of us are struggling, and that’s okay. It’s okay if you find it hard to be productive right now. It’s okay if you find it hard to focus. It’s okay if caffeine is no longer working for you for some reason. It’s okay if you feel a bit anxious. These feelings are universal and we do need coping strategies for these, but we do need to take care of ourselves at the same time.

People talk of the importance of self-care in the normal-est of times because it’s just a topic that we need to hear and practice, but it’s so much more important right now. And so, in a way, I think I’m a bit fed up with people giving too much productivity advice right now, saying that we should make the best of this time while they don’t recognize the fact that everybody is going through something different right now, and maybe that works for them but maybe not for everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup.

Chris Bailey
Sorry, rant over.

Pete Mockaitis
No, that resonates. It’s absolutely true. We’ve all got a different situation and sometimes it’s a more dramatic change for some than others. I’m still working from home in my home office, which is what I was doing before the pandemic, although there’s different things going on in the family and kid situation. And so, I think that’s a great word right there in terms of it’s okay and it’s normal to be experiencing those sorts of things. So, I’d like to know, that’s one mistake is beating yourself up. Another mistake is providing one-size-fits-all prescriptive advice. What are some of the other don’ts or mistakes you recommend we avoid as we’re trying to stay productive during this time?

Chris Bailey
I think trying to push yourself too hard. It’s something that I’m quickly realizing during a time like this because I’m feeling anxious just like most other people. I have parents who are getting a bit older. I’m connected. My wife has asthma so she’s definitely one of the more vulnerable people in a situation like this.

I think something we need to realize right now is that the path to greater productivity during a time like this is through calm, right? By investing in our calm, we’re able to invest in our sense of productivity at the same time. And the reason for this is our minds are so anxious, they’re so revved up, mine is anxious just like everybody else is. In a time like this, when there’s so much chaos flying around us in our mental and our physical environments, it’s often a settled mind that we need more than almost anything else.

So, the path of productivity is through the lens of calm. And so, if there’s another mistake that we’re making, A, we’re not being kind enough to ourselves, B, we’re trying too hard to be productive, but, C, we’re not investing enough in calm, and there are multiple ways of doing this. One of my favorites that I’ve started to do each and every morning is investing in the analog world. When we’re spending our days inside, we tend to gravitate towards screens. We tend to gravitate to what’s latest and loudest at the expense of slowing down a little bit, and maybe disconnecting a little bit, and being kind to ourselves, and being patient with ourselves, and doing something slow with our time.

So, that’s something that I think is worth getting across. In addition to self-kindness, in addition to taking it easy with your productivity a little bit, invest in calm more than you think you ought to because that’s often…that’s one of the greatest returns on our productivity. And here’s the ruler stick against which we should be measuring our productivity advice today, is, “For every minute we spend on a piece of productivity advice, how much time does that allow us to make back?”

And so, some things, watching Netflix, for every minute you spend watching Netflix, you probably lose about a minute of productivity because that’s the opportunity cost of watching that. Maybe you’re a bit less motivated after the fact and so, you actually lose more time than you spend. But other strategies like planning out our day is a really good example of this. For every minute you spend planning out your day, you make back 5-10 minutes of productivity because of how much more focused you’re able to work.

In an environment as chaotic as the one in which we’re finding ourselves today, calm actually produces a remarkably high return on our time because trying to work with an anxious mind, it’s a struggle to focus, it’s a struggle to pay attention, it’s a struggle to think deeply, and do deep work, and hyper-focus on what’s important each and every day. But it’s calm that provides us with the greatest return. So, maybe that trifecta of ideas might help people out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, when it comes to investing in calm, I’d love to hear, I guess there’s many ways you can do that. Let’s rattle them off. So, you’re doing some analog stuff, you’re doing some non-screen stuff, what are these things?

Chris Bailey
I think the analog world is key to spend more time in. And here’s the thing, a lot of people think calm is a passive thing, like, “Oh, I have a few minutes to spare. Let me go on Twitter. Let me check the New York Times. Let me hop on the Washington Post and see what thought leaders are saying about this current pandemic crisis.” But this is our impulse because we gravitate again to what’s latest and loudest, but it’s not necessarily right. And, by the way, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over that. It’s our natural impulse to gravitate to what’s latest and loudest. But maybe a good way of phrasing this is that we deserve better than we’re giving ourselves.

We deserve like genuine, true relaxation. We don’t deserve Twitter. We deserve more than Twitter. We deserve more than the news. We deserve more than Facebook right now. And so, a good place to start is realizing that calm, acquiring calm, is often an active process. It doesn’t just waff over us. We have to go and seek it out and invest a little bit in it.

And so, I’m kind of an antisocial person. In the best of times, I’m always trying to find excuses not to hang out with people, “Oh, I’d love to grab a drink tonight, Pete, but I have to go to bed early and wake up early the first thing in the morning.” But the truth is, after I spend time with people, I realize, “Oh, there was nothing to be anxious about. And, oh, it took a little bit of energy to get started with a tactic like that, but I was all the more calm for it.” And I think this is something we need to keep in mind right now, is it’s often through actively investing in relaxation strategies that we get the most calm.

And so, anything that allows us to reconnect with the fact that we’re human is a wonderful wellspring of calm. So, meditation, just focusing on our breath, it’s a simple reminder that we’re human, but it’s a beautiful one. Exercise, something we’re probably not getting enough of if we’re in a situation where we can step back a little bit from the current situation and invest in that. Eating good food, proper food that our bodies evolved to thrive in, not processed stuff, that actually elevates our cortisol levels, which is the hormone that our body produces in response to stressful situations. So, simple things like that. Finding something to savor each and every day.

So, I’m drinking a protein shake right now, as you can see, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re savoring it.

Chris Bailey
Savoring the hell out of this thing because it’s this delicious concoction – Vega Protein Shake. Not only are they vegan, if you’re into that, but they also have only one gram of sugar yet they’re chocolate-flavored. They contain a lot of cocoa so I like to savor that. But find one thing to savor each and every day. It’s an active process, and you think, “Man, why don’t I just savor stuff? Why do I have to make a task, a job out of it?” But the truth is you’ll get so much more out of what you’re savoring when you make a deliberate effort to do so.

No cheeseburger will be as delicious as the one you focus on with 100% of your attention because you’re trying to savor the heck out of it. No protein shake will be as delicious and energizing. No conversation will be as engrossing as the one you’re in completely. And so, this is something that we need to find. Engagement is a salve for anxiety, and so when we find things to be engaged with, not only do we become more productive, we also find calm, we also are able to settle down a little bit, become a bit happier, and enjoy the process of doing things.

One other thing that I’ll mention, at the risk of going too long on this answer but I think it’ll be helpful for people, is we walk around so often with a productivity mindset. And so, what I mean by this is we’re always looking to tick boxes, we’re always looking to get things done, and we never really let up with this mindset. So, when we find ourselves with a bit of time during which we can relax, instead of doing something that is genuinely relaxing, we realize, “Oh, we have just a few minutes of time. Let’s vege out.” When, really, intentional relaxation is what we need during which we set aside this productivity mindset when we’re trying to accomplish things.

And when we deliberately set aside this mindset, it abolishes the guilt that we would normally feel that comes along with active relaxation. So, we have this guilt of relaxation that often arises when we do something that allows us to invest in our calm, which is kind of ironic because when calm allows us to become more productive, we shouldn’t feel guilty about how we’re spending our time, and yet we do. And so, do minus productivity mindset. And the savor list, and the things that I was just mentioning, they do help combat this certain mindset because instead of trying to tick a box, we try to enjoy and experience a moment that we’re having.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, there’s a lot of good stuff there. You’re a real thought leader.

Chris Bailey
Sorry, that’s like a loaded suitcase that you now have to unpack.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I dig it. Well, so then let’s talk about, alright, the process of savoring. So, you could savor a conversation, you could savor a glass of wine or a chocolate protein shake, a song, music, a sensation, a massage.

Chris Bailey
What song are you savoring right now?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a fine question. You know, I’ve actually been saving just some select nostalgic silly songs that remind me of happy times and laughter and friendship. So, it might be like Death Cab For Cutie “The Sound of Settling” for example.

Chris Bailey
Oh, that’s a classic tune.

Pete Mockaitis
It brings me back to college and my roommate and just like being silly, and it’s like, “Oh, those are fun times.”

Chris Bailey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how does one savor?

Chris Bailey
Well, what’s something in your life that you enjoy?

Pete Mockaitis
I enjoy hanging out with my kids.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. So, how do you savor something like that? You bring your full attention to it. That’s it. We savor things automatically when we bring our full attention to them. And, also, when we notice what’s good about the things that we’re paying attention to. And so, this might sound like the corniest thing in the world, but it actually does work. Savoring things in gratitude trains our mind into looking for more opportunities that surround us.

So, I like savoring my morning cup of tea. I have a whole tea process. I’m a fan of Oolong tea and so I have a fancy kettle where I can make the perfect temperature for Oolong. It’s kind of like a green tea. By the way, the reason people don’t like green tea is not that green tea tastes bad. Everybody is like, “Oh, green tea tastes so bitter.” The reason green tea tastes bitter is you’re burning it. Green tea is meant to be steeped at around, I think it’s 80 degrees Celsius boiling water, around 100.

So, that’s step zero, get the tea at the right temperature. But in the morning, I just sit. I have a hanging chair in my living room that I got from Wayfair, and it kind of swings back and forth. And I’ve usually just woken up, so I wake up, I walk over to the kettle, I steep myself a nice cup of tea, and then I bring it over to the hanging chair, and I just simply try to enjoy the taste of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t spill on yourself in the hanging chair.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, try not to sway too much or bump into something in my tired stupor. But a bit of sway never hurt anybody, as the old saying goes, and so I just kind of sway a little bit and enjoy that cup of tea, noticing the flavor. I think another key to savoring is to notice as much as you can, because when something is a desirable experience, the more you notice, the more you’re able to savor. So, notice as much as you can, bring your full attention to something, look for the things that are worth savoring embedded within an experience.

I don’t think there is anything in the world that cannot be savored. And that might sound like an odd statement because there’s a lot of negative things in the world, but savoring is all about a mindset. By God, Pete, there are these twisted people that derive pleasure from pain. If we can derive pleasure from pain, we can learn to savor pretty much anything. That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine challenges. That’s not to say that we should be placing rose-colored glasses over our entire life, neglecting reality, but this is to say that no matter the time, no matter the circumstance, we can always find something to enjoy deeply even.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I buy it. I was just thinking earlier about finding joy, and that I’m going to be proactively seeking it out, and noting it, and celebrating it, and express some gratitude for it, so that aligns much of what I’m thinking.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. And something that people can do right away. Make a list of everything you savor. And you don’t need to think into the future. Look into your past. What experiences have you had that have enveloped you completely that you found just really enjoyable? Was it a conversation with a certain friend that always seems to draw you in? Was it a cup of tea? Was it a favorite sushi meal from a place that you frequent?

Make a list of everything that you savor. Every day pick one. Treat yourself. And by savoring things deliberately, it’s a nice way of finding calm. You don’t even need to do anything hard with this strategy. You don’t need to focus on your breath for half an hour on a meditation cushion, for God’s sake. You just have to do something you enjoy and bring your full attention to it completely. Do it a bit slower so it goes on for longer. It’s nice. It’s just a nice thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so think that’s a great practice to do daily and always. I’d love to hear, if you were to zoom in to the moment in which, all right, some stuff needs to get done pretty soon, and we’re not feeling it. We are not in that groove but we kind of got to get into that groove kind of fast, savoring is a good kind of long-term strategy. What do you recommend for, in the here and now, we got to shake off the funk, how do you do it?

Chris Bailey
Patience is how you do it. We can become engaged with pretty much anything. That’s kind of the point of meditation. You learn to be able to focus on your breath because the idea is the breath is so boring. It’s more boring than watching paint dry, and our mind actively wanders away from it. And so, if we can focus on our breath and become engaged with our breath, we can become engaged with pretty much anything. But we do need to be patient with ourselves as we settle into certain tasks.

So, if you’re working up to something, a big task, say, you’re writing a report that your mind is finding really aversive, warm up to it. Maybe set a timer for 10 minutes and give yourself the choice, either work on that thing or do nothing. Your mind will settle down naturally and you will be able to warm up to something. So, start with that ugly task if you want, but you can also start with smaller tasks ahead of doing that so you don’t need to do that report right away. But maybe just answer a few emails first, maybe start with something that doesn’t require your full attention, and warm up to doing that thing.

Also, pay attention because anxiety, these days, is not consistent. Usually, it ebbs and flows over the course of the day, and there will be times of your day, for me it’s the morning, although I’ve gotten better, kind of managing things as the pandemic has worn on. For me, it’s the morning though, or at least it was at the beginning, where that was my calmest time of the day, and the anxiety would come later on in the day when I would tune in to the press conferences du jour here in Canada.

And so, I would take advantage of that morning calm by doing the focus work, the hyperfocus work, the deep work, that there was a struggle much of the rest of the time. And so, align the difficulty and complexity of the work you’re doing on top of how you’re feeling throughout the day, and that’s one of the biggest piece of advice that I can give, not only it lets become kinder to yourself, but it lets you warm up to more productive tasks, and also it lets you get more productive tasks done as you become more patient with yourself. You’ll probably need a bit of time for certain tasks but do take it.

Also, know how you start the morning. It matters more than almost anything else. So, distraction begets distraction, stimulation begets stimulation, so the more stimulated and distracted we become, the more we want to continue with that level of stimulation. So, what this means though is if you start the morning on a slow note, if you do something that calms you, if you find something to savor, hey, call back to the previous tactic. Find something to savor first thing in the morning. Play with your kids for half an hour, set a timer, whatever you need to do.

If you find something to savor first thing instead of just checking the news, you’ll find that you’ll become calmer automatically, and that it’ll be easier to focus when you delay the time of first check, because once you get caught into the rabbit hole, you want to just keep going. But if you start the day on a calm note, your mind won’t want to escalate how you’re feeling and it’ll be easier to find calm in a situation like that.

So, when you start calm, you stay calm, but do give yourself a bit of time to warm up to certain tasks, overlay the complexity of work to how you’re feeling if you find that how you’re feeling fluctuates quite a bit still.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Chris, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Chris Bailey
You deserve better than to distract yourself right now. And this is a lesson that it’s easy advice to give but it’s something that I’m continually re-learning. We need to reflect on how our behaviors these days, more than almost any other day, what emotions they lead us to feel. So, we tend to gravitate to apps like Instagram and other distractions when we’re resisting how we’re feeling in the present moment, almost like an escape hatch in a way.

Mind the escape hatches of your day and pay attention especially to how you feel after you indulge in them because it’s sometimes with a bit of extra work that we find tasks that are slightly more challenging. For me, practicing the piano is more challenging than going on Instagram, but the feeling that I have after a session of playing the piano, after a session of knitting, after taking a bath, the feeling after these strategies, when I compare them to Instagram, or Twitter, or email, or YouTube even, they’re not even close. They produce more calm. They produce more relaxation. They produce less anxiety. They produce more happiness.

Pay attention to how you feel after indulging in the activities that are habits, have always been habits, to these days more than any. And, now, these days, habits aren’t the same as they were before. If you check up on the news first thing in the morning, usually you weren’t depressed the rest of the day, but if you find that you stumble upon a couple of, frankly, depressing stories each morning, it might be a bad way to start the day.

There was one study that was connected, I believe, by Shawn Achor, he’s an author and a happiness researcher, where he exposed participants to just, I think, three or four minutes of negative news the very thing in the morning after people woke up. And when he measured participants’ levels of happiness six to eight hours later, he found that the group that experienced that negative news was 27% less likely to rate themselves as being happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris Bailey
Wow, what a reminder that the information we consume matters, and that we need to mind the quality of it these days more than almost any other.

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

Chris Bailey
Well, I don’t know where this quote came from. I don’t think I stumbled upon it myself, just something, a thought of mine, but my favorite quote that I think about a lot is “Why do anything if you’re not going to do it right?” I love that, and it speaks to pride of what we do, of our actions, of our work, of what we say, of how we act towards others, and make others feel throughout the day too.

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

Chris Bailey
Oh, I’d find it funny if I did this. This is the third interview and I’ve mentioned three different favorite books.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we want that. Well, actually, keep it coming.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, let’s do “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger. I probably haven’t mentioned this before but it’s one that I’m re-reading. It’s one that I think is worth re-reading every few years. And it’s about the foods that we need to eat in order to live the longest, that are all validated by science. And here’s, again, the golden measurement for any productivity tactic, how much time do you get back. By God, this book might save you 10 or 20 years of your life by extending it by that much, so I can’t think of a better productivity book than that.

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

Chris Bailey
Well, we just bought a drill…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, good choice.

Chris Bailey
…for home reno projects. But this clicky keyboard, this mechanical keyboard I would recommend…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’ve seen those.

Chris Bailey
…to almost anyone. This is the… I don’t remember the exact model. Oh, it’s on the bottom here. The Keychron K2 Wireless Mechanical Keyboard. And it’s these beautiful cherry brown switches that are like chocolate to write on, and it’s beautiful. It’s rich. It’s just a wonderful writing experience. I would equate, if you do a lot of writing throughout the day. Have you ever played a piano, Pete, in your life?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. You know, those like really crappy keyboard pianos where you press down and there’s no weight, and you think, “Oh, I’m just flipping a digital switch somewhere in the system, and it’s playing a sound through the speakers.” That’s what a regular keyboard feels like to me after enjoying the experience of a mechanical keyboard. It’s like upgrading from one of those crappy keyboards with no weight behind it to a grand piano. It’s all about the feeling. What you write matters more when you write it on a mechanical keyboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. And how about a favorite nugget?

Chris Bailey
Oh, man, probably productivity is the product of our time, attention, and energy. That’s one of them. And, also, the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. Those are probably the top two. There’s probably others. I have to look that up. I’m curious.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, right on.

Chris Bailey
Hey.

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

Chris Bailey
Well, there are a few places. My books are called “Hyperfocus” and “The Productivity Project.” I have a podcast now that I do with my wife called Becoming Better which we have a blast doing. And my website is called A Life of Productivity. There’s no ads, no sponsorships, just hopefully helpful productivity advice and one annoying newsletter popup.

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

Chris Bailey
Notice how different apps make you feel, the ones that you spend time on throughout the day. So, sometimes we’re on Instagram or Snapchat and we kind of scroll over to the wrong side of the app, and we see the selfie camera fire up, we usually don’t have like a huge gleeful expression on our face, like, “Oh, I’m on Instagram. What a wonderful time in my day and in my life.” We usually have kind of a dull stimulated look on our face because we’re not tuned in to how we feel when we’re using technology and when we’re engaged in certain activities.

I would say mind how you feel when you engage in your digital world this week, today even, to start after listening to this podcast. How do you feel after checking Twitter? How do you feel after checking the New York Times or the Washington Post? Mind that and change your behavior based on that. It’s one of the biggest and best weeks that we can do.

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best in your life of productivity.

Chris Bailey
Thank you. You, too.

569: Thriving in the Stress and Uncertainty of a Crisis with Dr. Joshua Klapow

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Dr. Joshua Klapow discusses how to keep your health and wellbeing strong during times of crisis.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you shouldn’t feel guilty about being upset 
  2. How to quickly reboot your fatigued brain
  3. The four pillars of excellent physical and mental health 

About Joshua

Joshua C. Klapow is a licensed clinical psychologist and a performance coach. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Public Health at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of Living SMART: Lifestyle Change Made Simple. Dr. Klapow works extensively with individuals and organizations in the area of performance optimization. His work focuses on leveraging behavioral science strategies to help both individuals and organizations achieve strategic goals. From athletes to executives, from start-ups to multinational companies, Dr. Klapow works with clients nationwide to help bring the power of behavioral science to human performance. Dr. Klapow was named by Yahoo Finance as a Top 20 Entrepreneur to Watch in 2020 and featured in Thrive Global for his approach to performance coaching. He is married with two children in college. He resides in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Joshua Klapow Interview Transcript

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

Joshua Klapow
It’s my pleasure, Pete. Good to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I understand that you are a doctor and you have the nickname Dr. Disaster. How did this name come about? And can you tell us a story about when you got to make a cool impact in the midst of a difficult time for people?

Joshua Klapow
Okay, yes. First of all, it’s not a marketing ploy or I’ve had…

Pete Mockaitis
Your PR people said, “It’s going to be hot.”

Joshua Klapow
Yeah, that’s right. No, no, no. So, I got this name back during Hurricane Katrina actually. So, I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and one of my areas of interests is disaster mental health, but I’ve also worked most of my academic career in a school of public health, and so a lot of what I was doing there was crisis communication, how to help people, groups of people, during times of disaster or times of crisis, let’s say that.

Well, as we started getting Hurricane Katrina come through, there was interest from the local media and then from the broader national media because I’m down here in the southeast on how do people cope, how do people deal with terrible things that happen. And so, I did a lot of stuff locally and nationally in the media on Hurricane Katrina and coping with death, and rebuilding, etc. Well, as you might imagine, we had more hurricanes. There was Gustav and then there were tornadoes, and pretty much every time, and my kids were young at the time, anytime something bad happened, you’d see me on local TV, or hear me on the local radio.

And one of the media folks at the university where I work with, he just, one day, he said this, he’s like, “Damn! You’re like Dr. Disaster. Everytime something bad happens, there you are.” And, yeah, I said, “God, that’s depressing. That’s terrible. I don’t want to be known as…” He said, “No, no, no. I like it.” And then my kids were very young at the time, “Dad is Dr. Disaster.”

And ever since then, you know, the line is, people say, “We see you on TV sometimes.” I say, “Yeah, pretty much if something bad happens, there’s a decent shot that you’ll see me or hear me somewhere because that is one of the things that I do is help people through crises.” So, yes, I am Dr. Disaster. I wear it as a badge of honor in that I help people. I don’t like the connotation of what it means because it’s almost like, ‘Oh, God, here comes Josh. Something bad is going to happen.’” And I have to remind them, “No, something bad has happened. Here comes Josh to help.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then can you tell us, you’ve seen and helped a lot of people in a lot of disasters. How does this current COVID pandemic crisis situation, how is it similar to other disasters? And how is it unique?

Joshua Klapow
It’s unique in many ways. So, let’s talk about how it’s similar. I use the phrase, “Crisis is in the eye of the beholder.” And what I mean by that is we talk about disasters and crises, and we talk about them almost as if there is a formal definition. And if you think about it, a disaster or a crisis could be a global pandemic. It could be also the breakup of a marriage, or the loss of a job, or your dog dies. Crisis is all relative.

And so, one of the things that is very similar is that we are in a state of crisis from the sense of there’s lots of change, there’s lots of uncertainty, and there are lots of unpleasant things either that have happened, or happening, or likely to happen. And if you think about that, that holds everything from a tornado that’s come through, to a sick pet, to a relationship on the rocks, to a global pandemic. And the reason that that holds true is what remains constant is we’re humans. And the human factor remains constant, how we react to threat, uncertainty, discomfort, discomfort globally, everything from emotional discomfort to physical discomfort. All of those are sort of stress responses that happen to us no matter how big, or how many different people are affected, or if it’s just happening to us.

I think what is so different about this one is, if I really can think about it, it’s two things. One, the global nature of it. What I mean by that is so many people are affected unlike a tornado, or a hurricane, or an earthquake, where even if it’s huge, we can say, “It happened in this city, this town, this country.” That’s number one. So, so many people are in the same situation.

The second thing is while for some people there’s very acute levels of crisis, “My loved one is sick. My loved one…” God forbid it, “…is dying.” For many people, the crisis is both a restriction and a freedom, the unknown, “Will I get sick?” and then underlying that, there are sort of two more pieces of the crisis which is, one, financial for many people, and then, two, a complete change, prolonged change, of how we’re living our lives. This is not the storm that blew through and we’ll rebuild. This, even, and I dare say this, this is a little provocative, even after 9/11. The event happened. It was horrible. There were longer-term effects but it didn’t come on as slowly, rise as slowly, peak and stay for as many people. And that is something, frankly, all of us alive right now, with the exception of a few people who lived through the 1917 Flu Pandemic, none of us have experienced ever.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sets some context. Thank you. So, you say that this anxiety, this experience, it really does impact just kind of the way we think and operate and feel each day. Like, what are some of the telltale signs, like, “Oh, this is actually normal that I’m thinking, feeling, experiencing this, given that we’re in the midst of a crisis situation”?

Joshua Klapow
A lot of people can recognize when they’re under profound stress. They’ll say, “I feel stressed. I feel nervous. I feel anxious. I have a headache. I have a backache. My stomach aches. My stomach hurts. My temper is short,” those kinds of things. But the term that I like to use, Pete, that I think many people feel but they don’t equate it with stress or levels of stress, because for a lot of people it’s not super high levels of stress. It’s just kind of, what I call, it’s not low. It’s moderate. It’s there but we’re able to sort of function. The tornado hasn’t just come right through, it’s, “I still get up every day and I’m doing things.” But people feel discombobulated. That’s my favorite word to use.

Pete Mockaitis
Moderate stress. Discombobulation.

Joshua Klapow
Discombobulation. We like to use down in the South, we like to call it feeling out of sorts. We’re out of sorts. It’s not quite right, “I feel slightly agitated, slightly irritable, out of sync. I may not be sleeping as well but I am sleeping. I feel tired. I feel out of rhythm.” Sometimes a feeling, almost a little bit of jetlag, not a ton of jetlag. I see a lot of people feel like, and I think we’ve all heard this, “What day is it again? Where am I?” It’s that.

And that’s where the discombobulation comes because while there’s peaks and valleys, you know, if you lose a job, then that’s high stress that you can say, “Oh, my God, I know exactly what’s going on.” But let’s say you’ve already lost the job, and maybe you’re managing your books and you’re managing your finances, and it’s kind of okay. It’s not good but it’s okay. Or, let’s say you have a job. What people are feeling is, “I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know how to manage this.” And, particularly in those areas where we’re much more restricted in our movement, this feeling, for a lot of people for the first time in their lives, “I can’t do what I want to do,” which is very…it’s unique for Americans, right? It’s very unique.

And this came out in the early stages. You’ve heard of the whole hoarding of the toilet paper, right? Why are people hoarding toilet paper? “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go to the grocery store.” There was no place in this country, in the U.S. anyway, that shut down all grocery stores. They limited it. They limited how much you could buy. They limited, in some cases, how many people could go in. But that’s a stressor for our culture. Not being able to go where we want to go whenever we want to go and get whatever we want to get, and it creates this sense of…it’s a very primitive sense of survival. It puts us kind of into that fight or flight, and we’re not even highly quarantined, right?

For a lot us, it’s just, “Stay at home.” It’s not, “You will be arrested if you go out.” And that is very unique to what we’re experiencing right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to, because I think you’re really speaking to something here, and I keep going back and forth on this in terms of there are times in which I’d like, “Hey, well, this isn’t really so bad. I mean, this is the home I like. This is the family I like, my wife and kids. These are people I like, so it ain’t so bad. So, why are you worked up?” And then I think back, “Hey, what about in, I don’t know, war times? Like, the soldiers or those under strict rationing?” I was like, “Have I become soft? Have we all become soft?” Then, I don’t know, it’s sort of like I’m upset with myself for being peeved. It’s like meta upset, and I don’t know, like, “Are we weak? And is that bad?” What do you feel about this, Josh?

Joshua Klapow
I get blasted on this, although with my clients, I think it’s an important one. When I’m talking with my clients, a lot of times this is what comes up. It’s feeling guilty because we feel like we’re under siege. Now, I will say this, if you’ve lost your job and you have no income, and that’s happening at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum, if you lost your job, “What do I do?” Then you may have a reason to be quite upset, right?

But see, this is the thing. If you’re upset because you can’t go to the grocery store, or you can’t leave, or you have to spend time at home, then you have the right to be upset. Being upset is emotion. It’s an emotion. We have the right to feel what we want to feel. It is what we do with it that has the impact. It has the impact on ourselves and it has the impact on the people around us.

So, for example, if you’re feeling, “God, this really sucks. I’m here at home, I can’t go socialize the way I want to, I can’t go to the restaurants I want. And, yes, I know I shouldn’t feel bad but I do feel bad,” and you kind of get yourself a little bit irritable. And then, as a result, you take that out on your wife and your kids, and you’re mean, and you’re cranky, or maybe you’re in a leadership position, and you’re irritable because of this, and you’re yelling on the conference calls for everybody to work harder. Now, your justified emotion is having a very unjustified impact on everybody else.

This is where managing what you’re feeling is far more critical than whether you’re feeling it or not. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. It’s a great clear distinction, you know, bright red line there. So, then, yeah, how do we do this? How do we manage how we’re feeling? How do we cultivate this mental health amidst the stuff that’s going on up in here?

Joshua Klapow
It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. And I think one thing, people have to carefully open their eyes to where the sources of stress may be coming from. We can all talk about the restriction part, “I’m restricted in money. I’m fearful potentially for my health. Am I going to get sick? Is a loved one going to get sick?” There are sort of the obvious ones. But I’ll tell you, Pete, those are big sources of stress. But where these things start getting exponential is the inner section of work, life, family life relationships.

So, as you said, there are a lot of us now who are either home with family in a way that none of us have ever been home that way before. Or the opposite, we’re isolated. Maybe we’re not with family and we can’t be. We’re by ourselves. Those pieces, particularly the family dynamics, where I’ve seen more relationship issues, and you’ve seen the statistics, high rates of people, particularly in China, but in other areas, filing for divorce or etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have not yet seen those. So, I thank Josh, bringing fresh info, tell us about that.

Joshua Klapow
Let me tell you, it makes sense. When you’re stuck at home with your partner, whether or not you have kids, and you have to be with them every day, the floodlight is on your relationship. And every crack in that relationship, normal healthy cracks, are going to show. And if you don’t deal with them, and I’m not talking about necessarily going to therapy, but if you don’t deal with the pet peeves and the things that normally you’d be able to skirt by because you’re not spending as much time, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Throw in there, for some parents, homeschooling. Throw in there for someone like me, two college kids who are now back at home, who are not happy about it, they love their mom and dad, but they want to be at school, and you get family stress that absolutely rolls on top of all of the other stressors. And what happens? People get tired, stress starts wearing them down, it starts bleeding over into conference calls that they may be taking for work. The work stress starts bleeding over to family, and we got a big stress ball that nobody can point to one thing. And that’s what catches people off guard.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. All right. So, I think you’ve very nicely articulated what’s going on here, what we’re dealing with. So, what do we do about it?

Joshua Klapow
Yeah. If you’ve ever been a parent, and you remember when you had a young child, and I’m talking the infant child, the child who was screaming and you’re feeding them every three hours, or even a toddler, one of the things I distinctly remember from not being a parent to being a parent, I used to judge the quality of my time in weeks or months, “This was a great week. It’s a great week. This was a great month.” And I quickly remember, as a parent, that didn’t work, particularly with a young child. It’s like, “Oh, my God, this day sucked. Like, this day was really bad.”

And what I started to realize was I need to think about the quality of my time in smaller increments, “This was a really good hour. This was a good minute. This was a good 10 minutes.” Now, I’m not advocating that, because of COVID-19, we only live and savor the quality of every minute. But what I do mean is you may have a really bad day because of work, because of finances, because of family, but then you may have an awesome day, because, you know what, you got to be on three conference calls and spend some time with your spouse in a way that you never got to. Or maybe you got to do a video conference, and we’re seeing this, reuniting with college friends.

My point is we have got to shift. What we have to do is we have to stop trying to live our life right now as if tomorrow it’s going to go back to the way that it was. That’s what we typically do in crises. What we typically do is we go, “Okay, if I can just ride this sucker out, if I can just ride this out, it’ll be a few days, a few weeks, I’m going to be okay. It’s all going to get back to normal.” I’m not a doomsdayer here. I don’t know how long this is going to be, but I can guarantee you that by next week, even with everything open, or next month, everything is going to be back to normal. And even if it is, that’s probably not the most healthy way to think about it.

What we have to do is look at what’s given to us right here, right now, “What do I have? What do I not have? What am I certain about? What am I not certain about? And how do I maximize that? How do I maximize the fact…? I’m just using things that everybody is doing…  that I can wear shorts all day long now.” And that’s not saying, Pete, to just look on the rosy side of things. What it’s saying is in order to get a grip, you must find the nuggets of goodness in your life because there is a lot of uncertainty and chaos going on.

And if you can cling to those nuggets, what that allows you to do is it allows you to move forward. It allows you to be less stressed, less distressed, sleep better, eat better, etc. And it allows each day to have a little bit of goodness in it, which, frankly, to be honest with you, as humans, that’s about all we need besides food, water, and shelter, in order to make it to the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we’re noticing these things, and we’re embracing them, and looking at sort of smaller, shorter time increments. Do you have any other pro tips on how we can go about sort of noticing and appreciating and, I suppose, letting these things pass us right by?

Joshua Klapow
You must recognize that, and I know this is a little broad-brushing because everybody’s situation is slightly different. Your brain is going to go offline frequently during this kind of situation. And let me explain what I mean by that. When you’re home and you’re trying to work in particular, but let’s say you’re home and you didn’t work. You took care of the kids, or even if you have always worked from home, you got all kinds of different things going on right now. There may be people that were at home that weren’t at home before.

You may have never participated on so many video conference calls. You may not have had the dog interrupting you every five seconds. Your brain is going to be distracted in a way that it never has before. One more piece to put in, all the newsfeeds, right? I mean, in my lifetime, I never remember a daily briefing where updates were actually new information. I mean, if you think about it.

Okay, so what that does is our brain can’t attend to the task at hand, and you’re going to feel tired, you’re going to feel inefficient. And so, what I’m encouraging all of my clients to do, and the people that I interact with, about every 45 minutes or so, you may notice yourself feeling fatigue. It’s time to take a break. Not an hour break but what I call the bathroom break. If you’re hydrating properly, you go into the bathroom, you should be going to the bathroom about every hour or up to 90 minutes. And, literally, sometimes I have to remind my clients to put in their schedule to drink water so that they hydrate during the day, because I got people that I work with that will go nine hours on conference calls and never stop.

You have to pace yourself. That means taking a minute to, literally, remind yourself, “Where am I? What am I doing? What is the task at hand?” to take your eyes off the screen and look outside, and it’s not an hour of meditation. It’s a minute to get your brain back, focused to the task at hand. Most of us don’t have to do that that frequently throughout our day. Now, I don’t know that everyone has to. I can tell you it doesn’t hurt. And what I can also tell you is you feel so much more focused because your brain comes back online. It’s a critical stress management tool that most people don’t use and they have to right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that’s dead-on because I’ve just been and many, many times I am, I don’t know, on news, or social media, or something, it’s just like, “What is even happening right now?”

Joshua Klapow
Yes. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s like I have to regroup. And part of it, I think, is so helpful is, like, when I have days in which I actually write down the key things of the day, then that’s really helpful to remember, “Oh, yes, this is what I meant to do today, and I’ve kind of forgotten about that and got suck into news or whatever.”

Joshua Klapow
And that’s a great example of you might say to yourself, “God, normally I never forget these things. I don’t have to write them down.” Right now, your brain is more likely to go offline. And I’ll tell you where it has a larger impact. It’s not just for you, it’s for the people that you interact with. So, if you think about it, and this is what I was saying, it can cause relationship problems. It’s like, “Hey, I just told you to make a grocery list.”

Joshua Klapow
Can you imagine how it impacts your home life, your relationship life? And, particularly for work, if you’re working from home, how you interact with colleagues, how you interact with your boss. We have to be much more mindful of what our emotions are doing right now. And I love what you said, although it’s not pleasant. You have to sit back and go, “What? What is going on?” That’s a very normal response. The difference is you have to do that while you’re working, while you’re parenting, while you’re being a husband or a wife or a spouse or a partner. That is going to make you tired at the end of the day.

And that understanding, that and then taking action on that, making sure you’re hydrated, making sure you’re well-nourished, making sure you’re writing yourself reminders, making sure that you call a timeout, and say, “You know what, I don’t have the bandwidth, guys. I don’t have the bandwidth to do all these today.” That kind of communication is critical.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I love these particular bits of sort of in the moment recognizing and good communication with folks. What are some of the habits or recurring practices you recommend that make a world of difference in kind of boosting our overall mental health and resilience, and then, specifically, just providing a large boost of rejuvenation? Like, I guess, where do I get the most bang for my buck when it comes to self-care, Josh? That’s what I want to know.

Joshua Klapow
So, there’s a couple of things and they are things that we all know but that most of us, even those of us who may have done this before, and this is also unique to this particular situation.

So, the number one thing you’ll hear is make sure you’re getting exercise. And everybody is, “Aah, I know the exercise. I know about the exercise.” Let me tell you why exercise is super important. Number one, for a lot of people who’ve exercised regularly in the past, their gyms are closed, right? And so, you’ve got a lot of people who are used to having that metabolic boost in the morning or in the afternoon who aren’t exercising. That throws off your entire metabolic system if you’re an exerciser.

If you’re not an exerciser, the mental fatigue wears on your body. Being strong physically, and I’m not saying start a crazy exercise program, but just getting the blood flowing actually is super important for your immune system, it’s super important to regulate your sleep system. So, that exercise, everybody knows about, even if it’s just for a walk, Pete, is probably one of the best things that you can do. I wish I had another way to say it. You got to get out there and exercise. And if you tell me, “I can’t,” I can show you five gazillion YouTube videos on different ways to exercise. People are finding the most creative ways to exercise that fit their physical needs, their mental health. So, that’s number one. You’ve got to move the body, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to moving the body, I’d love to get your sense. It sounds like you’re emphasizing more so cardiovascular as opposed to strength-resistance training, or anything. Yeah, lay it on us.

Joshua Klapow
Not necessarily. A lot of this depends, A, on your health status, B, on your previous exercise history. So, do not go start running marathons if you never have before. What you’re looking for is physical activity. You want your body moving, you want your muscles stretching, you want your heart rate elevated. Does it have to be an all-out run or trying to do a thousand pushups? No. If you did that before, more power to you, and keep doing it.

I’ll tell you, myself personally, and this has been a big change for me, I was very much into the weightlifting. I went to the gym. I never did anything from home. My gym closed. I went immediately online to go buy weights. You can’t buy weights online. Or if you can buy them, they’re like a thousand dollars now. And so, I was like, “I’m not going to do that.”

I’ve been dabbling in yoga, just dabbling. I’m now doing yoga six days a week. I would’ve never done that before. I’m experimenting. So, one of the things I would also encourage your listeners is if there’s a kind of exercise that you’ve always wondered about, now is your excuse to try something different. So, I think that’s absolutely important. It’s not a particular kind but I don’t want you sitting in a chair for seven hours a day. It’s bad for you. Bad for you.

The other thing that is really important, if at all possible, and I’ll get to the nutrition part in a second, I’ll do that quickly, is get your Vitamin D. Get some daylight. If you’re inside and the weather provides and allows, step outside. The norms have changed, Pete. The norms have changed. It’s okay to hear birds in most companies now in the background chirping while you’re on a conference call. It’s very important that we don’t sit in one room for eight to ten hours a day.

Get outside, get the fresh air even if that’s every hour taking a two-minute break. You need that natural sunlight both for your metabolic purposes, also to regulate your sleep. And if you don’t believe me, try and experiment. Stay in your room, wherever room you’re in, this is assuming you’re not quarantined in a room. Stay in your room for six hours versus get outside every hour for two to three minutes, you’ll feel much better.

The other piece that people neglect is proper hydration and nutrition while they’re at home. We need to drink water. We need to eat good food. If we don’t drink and we don’t pee, and we eat crappy food, we’re going to feel bad. I’m not telling you that you have to become a vegan. I’m not telling you that you have to get completely clean on your health or on your food. But the better you can do, the better you’re going to feel. I can’t tell you how many people right now are saying, “God, I’m snacking. I’m snacking.” Why are you snacking? Because you’re sitting there and you can see the snack cabinet in your own house.

So, these are the kinds of changes. A lot of my clients will say, “I already know that stuff. I already know that.” And my number one comeback is this, “Great. Are you doing it?” “No.” “How do you feel right now?” “Like crap.” “Tell you what, eat a little bit better, make sure you drink a lot of water throughout the day, get your behind outside. Move. And then maybe the last one, too, is…” and this is one that is new, something that I haven’t seen as much. A lot of dysregulated sleep cycles. People are kind of going to bed at strange times because they don’t have as much of a routine. And when your sleep cycle gets off, it messes everything else up. Try to remain as regimented as you can on a sleep cycle. I don’t care if you don’t have to get up the next day till 9:00. Don’t stay up till 2:00 o’clock in the morning just because. The more consistent your sleep, the better you’re going to feel.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s a really nice lineup. Now, when it comes to hydration, how much is enough?

Joshua Klapow
Yeah. So, again, I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a psychologist. But this is the classic, and I have one client who…I was surprised to hear this. This was somebody, she’s an executive, mostly working from home who, literally, would prevent herself from drinking because she was on back-to-back conference calls, and she didn’t want to be late to the conference call. I’m not kidding.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve been there before. I’ve had those days, yeah.

Joshua Klapow
Well, but that was every day. And it doesn’t take a medical doctor for me to say, “What are you doing? Like, that’s terrible. Don’t do that. You should be going to the bathroom…” again, we all have different health states, etc. Two to three to four times a day to pee and it should be clear relatively, right? And I tell you what, you asked for bang for the buck? Here’s the other reason why I want you to drink water or non-alcoholic beverages. If you’re peeing every 90 minutes to two hours, guess what you can do when you go into the bathroom? You can take that 90-minute to two-hour break to also reset your brain, to take the deep breaths, to come back to a good place. I call it the recalibration bio-break.

And that’s what I said. I said, “Look, if you want to multitask, multitask. Go do your business in the bathroom, and then take one extra minute in that bathroom to reset, to remind yourself, “What day is it? Where am I? What am I going to do?” It’s these little tweaks like this that allow you to carry on, allow you to power forward. What most of us try to do that is wrong is we try to have the good work ethic, “I’m just going to take one more call. I’m just going to do one more recording. I’ll skip this lunch. I’ll skip this water. I’ll power through, and if I do that, then I’ll get to the other side.” Psychologically, physiologically, and behaviorally, that could not be farther from the truth in non-global pandemic times. It is twice as bad in global pandemic times.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. Well, so, not to get too personal with you, Josh, but I’d love to zoom in to that one minute in the bathroom. So, you’ve just urinated, wow, it’s the first time I’ve said this on the show. All right.

Joshua Klapow
I’m a psychologist. You can say anything you want here.

Pete Mockaitis
You just urinated. What happens in the following minute that can be a great reset in the bathroom?

Joshua Klapow
So, as I’d like to say, you take care of your business. And in this day and age, and you can do this on either side. Either before you wash your hands or after you wash your hands, either way is okay because this is going to involve your brain, and you don’t have to touch your face to do this. What I really encourage people to do is close their eyes or not, but to take some deep diaphragmatic breaths. And we all know this, and I’ll show you the example I give you. But this is essentially the (inhales then exhales). Do that three to four times.

Now, I get a lot of grief as a psychologist because, particularly when I do this in any media, they go, “Oh, my God, this is the psychologist and now he’s telling me to deep breathe.” The reason I’m telling you that is, as your stress levels rise, your breath shortens. And one of the ways that we know that you cannot only relax your physiology, your muscles, relax your muscles, heart rate, blood pressure, but if you relax is to slow your breathing down.

And the classic example I give people is when you see a little child, or even an adult who’s kind of panicky, right, you see a little kid, “Huh, huh, huh.” What do we tell people to do besides calm down, which you should never tell people to do? “Take a breath.” We always tell people, “It’s okay. just take a breath. Take a few deep breaths.”

So, if we tell people to do that when they’re panicking, why wouldn’t we do that after we go to the bathroom and we’re a little offline? So, take three deep breaths, have a nice happy thought, and then. Wash your hands and get back out in the warzone. And it’s critical. I have physicians do this before they ever get back in, whether it’s the E.R. or an O.R., I have them do it all the time. I have athletes do it at every timeout.

It’s critical, Pete, that we do it right now because distractions alone will take us offline and we need to be online.

The other reason that it’s important, if you’re not going to do it for you, it changes the way you interact with your spouse or your significant other. It changes the way you interact with your kids, who, many a kids are very discombobulated right now. It also changes the way that you’re going to interact on conference calls, with your coworkers, your boss, and your direct reports. If you’re in a bad place, it’s going to show even if you’re not “freaking out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really resonating. All right. So, that’s it then. There’s the washing of hands, there’s the deep diaphragmatic breaths, there’s the happy thought, then that’s your minute, hey?

Joshua Klapow
It is, yes. Now, here’s what I don’t want you to expect, “One minute is going to last me nine hours.” So, here’s the good and the bad of it. The bad is It’s not going to last all day long one set of diaphragmatic breathing and your happy thought. But here’s a nice thing. It takes a minute to reset.

Again, I’ll share another thing that I do. Before I ever go on air, before I ever take a client call, before I ever switch from one conference call to the next, I make sure I got at least a minute. I’m a high-energy guy. I get going a lot. I reset. And most of us, Pete, don’t do that because we think that that couldn’t have an impact. It’s not a magic pill but it’s what our bodies and our minds need to stay on track in addition to all the other things that we talked about.

And I mentioned it in passing but it is equally important. Own up to your limits right now. Stop. Do not wear yourself out as a badge of honor because it does nobody any good. Work hard but if you’re driving yourself into the ground because you think that’s great, what I’m going to tell you is that by the time you’ve driven yourself just short of being into the ground, you’re no good for anybody. You didn’t do good work at the end. I always talk about, “Come to your limit, don’t go past your limit.” Come to your limit and then back off. You have to right now.

There is this expectation, “I must be a super parent, super spouse. I got to show my boss that I’m doing everything, and I got to be great and have fun and exercise and all that kind of stuff.” I wish I had a better word. It’s crap. We’re human. We’re not machines. And, particularly right now, nobody is firing on all cylinders. Anybody who tells you they’re totally dialed in, totally focused, not worried about anything, is either not human, or they’re lying, or in denial, or in a lot of denial.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thanks for laying it out there. Now, can you share some of your favorite things. Let’s start with a favorite quote.

Joshua Klapow
It’s from Pema Chodron, who’s a very famous author, Buddhist monk, New Yorker, an ex-nurse actually before she became a monk. And the quote is, “Feel the feelings and drop the story.” I love this because it’s kind of what I was saying as we first started talking.

You’re going to feel in your day all kinds of things. What makes them have an impact is the label, the interpretation, or the story that we associate with those emotions.

Right now, we have to feel the feelings and not have so much interpretation of them tied to them because there’s going to be so many feelings coming and going.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Joshua Klapow
So, I like that one. It’s a good one to live. It’s a good one to live by right now.

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

Joshua Klapow
Okay, this is going to go very opposite what I just said. It doesn’t contradict it. What made me become a psychologist was the work of B.F. Skinner.

The reason that I loved this was that it shows me, not just that we work only for reward, but that our behavior is predictable, is lawful, is on average. There is rhyme and reason to why we do what we do.

And what that tells me is that if something is not going right, or if something is going right, we can figure it out. We can figure out how to make you feel better, how to make you do something different.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Joshua Klapow
I’ve got two quickly. I’m a sports fanatic. And a wonderful book by one of the most coveted international women’s soccer players, Abby Wambach, Wolfpack. It’s a short read.

Related to that book, not from the writing, is Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. She’s written so many great books. Daring Greatly is one that most people know. Rising Strong, for me, resonated because it was, look, if you’re going to live in this life, you’re going to get your butt kicked. You’re going to get your butt kicked if you’re going to live, and you’re going to fall down.

And you’ve got to figure out, not just how to be tough, because being tough is not about it. It’s about, you use the word self-care, how to get yourself back up on your feet physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually so that you can be strong in the world, which is different than just being tough and guarded and defensive. And Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong really teaches readers how to do that. So, between the two, between having your pack and learning how to rise strong, and then with that quote from Pema Chodron, it’s a good way to live.

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

Joshua Klapow
I’m a less-is-more guy. My family is they’re Slack and Asana and they got this organizer and that organizer. And my tool is my calendar. It’s an electronic calendar.
The reason that I use just my calendar is if you look at my calendar, you will see my appointments, you will see my professional things on there, you will also see things, my kids love to kid me about this, you will see, “Work out at 5:00 a.m.” I know that I work out at 5:00. I don’t need a reminder to work out. It’s on there every day. My lunch is blocked out from 11:45 to 1:00. Now, do I eat lunch all the time there at that time? No. But it’s on there. My rest breaks are broken out and they’re stated on there. My winddown period, it says, “Wind down for bed with good intentions.” My bedtime is on there.

Now, your listeners may go, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong with this guy?” This is my way of removing excess from my brain. It is structure in my day that I can disregard. I have the freedom to disregard anything there.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, yeah, and I think it’s also reassuring in which you can say, “Oh, this is the time of the day in which I’m going to check those things. I need not check them now. There is a designated time in which that’s going to occur,” so you feel all the more free and resilient to just put those aside for the moment.

Joshua Klapow
Yes, I love the way you described that.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Okay. And how about a favorite habit?

Joshua Klapow
Yeah. If it’s just one it is to exercise. The biggest bang for the buck mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually is moving your body because it has all the physical health benefits that we don’t need to go into, that everybody knows about.

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

Joshua Klapow
You’ve heard the term “don’t work harder, work smarter” and that’s the one that work all the time.

The idea that, “I must work more in order to be successful” versus “As I get better at what I do, whether it’s work, parenting, relationship, it actually gets easier, and I may not have to work as hard.” And that is a beautiful, wonderful, acceptable thing that you get to have by being good at something.

So, my point is it doesn’t have to get harder, whatever it is. It can get easier. You could work less and get the same thing done. The one related to that, and it’s just aside, is this idea of “I have to.”

What I tell people this. You don’t have to. There are only a couple things in this world that you have to do. You have to eat. You have to breathe. You have to drink water. Anything else you don’t have to.

If you make it a choice, then what it allows you to do is bring the power of you to that choice. And that is really important because there are so many things that we do, most of them are our choice even if we tell ourselves that we have to.

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

Joshua Klapow
Social media, Twitter and Instagram. You can follow me at @drjoshk. If you’d like to see my webpage, it’s JoshKlapow.com. And my email, my very public email is askdrjoshk@gmail.com.

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

Joshua Klapow
We’re told all the time to think outside the box if you want to be great at what you do. If you want to be great at what you do before you ever think outside the box, take inventory of what you have inside the box. What do you already know how to do? What are you good at? What are you passionate about? And I’m talking about reading, writing, gardening, art.

Don’t spend all of your time trying to be awesome at your job by thinking so far out of who you are that you forget the gifts that you bring to the table automatically. It’s okay to think broadly but don’t lose the gifts or the skills that you have nurtured and matured when you’re trying to be awesome because those are your foundation that will allow you to be awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Josh, thanks so much for sharing these good words. It’s been a treat. I wish you all the best for yourself and your clients, and the disasters are manageable and workable in your lives.
Joshua Klapow
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate the opportunity to share this with you and with your listeners. And to everybody, exercise every day and please wash your hands.

554: How Doing Less Results in Achieving More with Celeste Headlee

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Award-winning journalist and speaker Celeste Headlee shares how doing nothing can help you accomplish everything.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why idleness isn’t laziness
  2. What’s causing you burnout
  3. The productivity benefits of shorter work hours

About Celeste:

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker and author of Heard Mentality and We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter. In her 20-year career in public radio, she has been the Executive Producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as co-host of the national morning news show, The Takeaway, from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Celeste’s TEDx Talk 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 19 million total views to date.

Items Mentioned in the Show

Thank you, sponsors!

Celeste Headlee Interview Transcript

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

Celeste Headlee
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat again. And, first, I was very curious, as you filled out the form, you mentioned that your dog has a best friend whom your dog texts. Please explain.

Celeste Headlee
Well, I mean, obviously, I text on behalf of my dog.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Celeste Headlee
But they have a very close relationship, and my dog has a very expressive face, so I read the facial expressions and then I text it. My neighbor across the street has a dog named Choco, a lab mix, and they took her away for three months. They went on a road trip, and so Sam has missed Choco horribly, so the dogs would text back and forth to each other for the three months while Choco was away. Their reunion was lovely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is lovely. Well, that explains a lot. I mean, I was very intrigued, like, “How is this working in terms of texting? And is the best friend another dog or is it a…?” Now, that’s all good and clear. I’m curious how they got to be so tight to begin with. What forges a bond between the dogs?

Celeste Headlee
I really don’t know. My dog is pretty particular about which dogs she likes and which she just tolerates. The vast majority of canine kind belongs in the second category, she’s fine with them but she just tolerates them. But something about Choco, the very first day they met, she just fell in love. That was her puppy, and they have been bonded. They’ve been a bonded pair ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so talking about pair bonding, the last time we discussed, we had a great conversation and listening and such, and that was a fun one. So, listeners, that is over at Episode 221 if you’d like to resurface that one. But now you’re onto some new territory, or maybe, I imagine, there’s some interrelationships there. You’re talking about doing nothing, well, your book title I love, “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.” Captivating and I think resonant for many. So, boy, there’s lots to say here, but maybe I’ll just put you on the spot. What’s maybe the most fascinating and surprising thing you discovered when you were researching and putting this book together?

Celeste Headlee
I think that number one is how long this has been going on, right? Because this sort of modern hustle culture that is making so many of us unhappy, I think we tend to associate it with technology and social media and some very recent developments. But when I started researching it, it dates back to 19th century Scotland.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s where hustling began?

Celeste Headlee
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
The Scottish hustlers.

Celeste Headlee
The Scottish engineer. Funnily enough, one of the things I talk about is how we’re always trying to have the best, the ultimate, which is, in moderation, that’s a wonderful impulse, but that Scottish engineer, he wasn’t inventing the steam engine, he had a steam engine, he thought it was terrible so he was just trying to improve it. And that’s how the Industrial Revolution began. So, that was the biggest surprise for me that this has been going on for well over 250 years.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re saying that the start of hustle culture coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution in that I guess there’s an optimizing mindset. Or are you also saying that individual workers are like, “Oh, wow, okay. I do more, I get more”?

Celeste Headlee
Okay. So, human beings did things and lived a certain way for most of our 300,000 years on the planet. I’m talking about homo sapiens. And when the Industrial Revolution came along, it literally changed everything, and that’s another surprising thing for me, because when you’re in history class, AP US History or whatever, and you’re learning about the Industrial Revolution, I don’t think you really understand how much changed, and how not only our work changed but like almost every aspect of our lives and our personal relationships. But the biggest thing is that time became money.

Time did not equal money before the Industrial Revolution. In other words, your task, that what you made was what was worth something. It didn’t matter how long it took you.
another thing that shifted during the Industrial Revolution is, before that time, first of all, we didn’t work very much. Medieval serfs worked less than half a year. And it was because of this idea that, number one, most people were at some level entrepreneurs. Even serfs had a certain amount of land that they farm for themselves. They got done putting their two hours in for their lord, or whatever, and then they went home, and they took care of their stuff. You had all these women who had knitting businesses and quilting businesses, and they made textiles and all these other things. The Industrial Revolution just decimated the female business owner population.

[06:38]

But, also, it sort of disempowered a lot of workers. So, whereas, you would’ve had all these different workers with their own set of tools, when they moved into a factory, they no longer owned the tools, they no longer owned the product left. It became this very centralized industrial culture, and people, for the first time in like the early 20th century, more people lived in cities than they did in rural areas. Just like literally everything changed. And it happened so rapidly that people weren’t quite ready for how dramatic that change was.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s kind of where it began. So, it wasn’t the internet, it wasn’t the iPhone, it wasn’t Instagram. It was the Industrial Revolution. So, that’s handy to orient kind of what’s going on there. And so then, if your advice is…the title is “Do Nothing.” Is that what you suggest is the answer to our overwork, overdoing, underliving world? What do you mean by that and how is that an optimal answer kind of relative to our alternatives?

Celeste Headlee
Well, the point being that idleness is not laziness. In other words, a fisherman is busy while he’s idle. Same with most security guards, right? They’re working while they’re idle. Whereas, if you’re bike-riding, you’re actually quite active when you’re at leisure. Our ideas of these concepts of leisure, laziness, and idleness are really kind of screwed up, and partly because we have this sort of work addiction so we don’t really understand that idleness is required by the human body and the human mind.

The human mind just doesn’t persist. That’s not how it works. It pulses. It needs regular breaks, it needs rests, and in order to do its absolute best work, it needs short bursts of focused attention. And at this point, very few workers really get focused time when there’s no distractions. You walk through an office and you’ll see everybody with like 50 tabs open on their browser, and their email open, and their smartphone there, and their Fitbit, and their Slack going.

People don’t work without distraction, and yet that is the most fertile ground for the brain in terms of creative problem-solving and productivity. So, number one, we’re not as productive as we think we are. That’s a delusion. And, number two, you need downtime. That’s how you keep your brain working at its best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I think I buy that in terms of that’s what would make for some great outcomes during the course of doing your work. And so then, when we talk about doing nothing, what does that look, sound, feel like in practice?

Celeste Headlee
First of all, I’d say try out boredom. Try to feel bored again. And in order to do that, you need to put away your smartphone. I am not the person that’s going to tell you to get rid of your technology. I think technology is fine. But I do think you have to put limits on how much you use it. So, every once in a while, put your smartphone away, go take a walk without your phone. Sit down on the couch and just sit there for a little while and see what comes to mind.

Every once in a while, I say, “Oh, my God, I have a porch,” or I remember my porch. Maybe I’ll go sit on it for a little while, and I just force myself to sit. And if you do that, frankly, you can’t do it for a really long period of time. Your brain just doesn’t like to be bored, and so things will come to you. You’ll start thinking about stuff. You’ll maybe remember that kit you bought to make your own, I don’t know, apple hard cider or whatever, “Oh, yeah, maybe I want to do that. Maybe I want to do work on playing the guitar,” or whatever it may be. But things will come to you, and you’ll remember things, and there’ll be new thoughts.

All the time that you’re idle or bored, your brain is still working. It’s working almost exactly as hard as it does when you’re trying to make it do productive work, right? So, when it’s idle though and not focused and directed, what it’s doing is like sifting through memory, sifting through information that you’ve taken in, thinking of things that you haven’t thought in quite some time, and it’s making new connections. It’s making surprising connections.

And so, you’re going to have, perhaps, thoughts you’ve never had before. That won’t happen if you’re always directing your mind to do something and produce something. You need to let it sort of sit back and kind of browse through the shelves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. So, you’re saying it’s key that we have some time for this idle stuff as opposed to being go, go, go, go, go sort of constantly, and that’s counterproductive to our ends. Could you share some of the most striking, I guess, studies or data points or numbers that reinforce this for the workaholics who need a little bit more encouragement?

Celeste Headlee
Well, we have a lot of different case studies that prove this point, and one of the ones that I revisit a couple times in the book is Sahlgrenska Hospital. And one of the reasons I think it’s so striking is because we think of the medical profession as just requiring punishing hours. They have cots in their break rooms for a reason. And so, Sahlgrenska Hospital was having a huge productivity problem. Their staff was working incredibly hard, and yet the wait to get a surgery done was months long, and they were just completely overwhelmed, and they decided to experiment with cutting hours.

So, in this one orthopedic unit, they cut everybody’s hours down so they never worked longer than six hours at a time. Six hours at a time. I mean, think about that in a hospital. And they had all these funds set aside prepared to hire on a bunch more people to cover the gaps. But what they found was they didn’t have to hire anybody. In fact, productivity went up, the wait for surgery went down to just a few weeks. You could get in within two or three weeks. And they actually found they were not only getting more done in less time but the morale went straight through the roof. Why? Because they were actually getting rest.

Surprisingly enough, when the brain is rested and the body is rested, you make way fewer errors. And errors is wasted time, right?

Pete Mockaitis
I see, yeah.

Celeste Headlee
You’ve done work that has to be corrected.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess that’s kind of a spooky thing if all the surgeons were making errors previously.

Celeste Headlee
I’m not trying to give you nightmares.

Pete Mockaitis
The United States error situation. Well, I buy that in terms of you make the errors which require fixing. Or even if it’s not an explicit, “Ooh, you did A when you should’ve done B,” I think about it sometimes like you just didn’t have the idea that would’ve been five times as fast as what you did instead. It’s like, “Oh, I could’ve done that.”

Celeste Headlee
Think about it this way, the way that we’re working right now where we’re either in burnout or on the edge of burnout. What’s happening neurologically is that you’re so stressed and overwhelmed that you’re in fight or flight. That means the part of your brain that is ruling your brain in making decisions is your amygdala. Now, your amygdala is the oldest evolutionary part of your brain. It is your monkey brain. And that is the one that you want if you’re being chased by a tiger. You want absolute pure instinct to take over. Like, you need that one to take the wheel when you’re in crisis, and then hand the wheel back because that is the toddler in the room.

Then you want the rest of your brain, especially your prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead, that’s what you want generally making your decisions. That’s the part that thinks twice. That’s the part that considers. It’s mature. It’s your executive thinking capacity. But when you’re in burnout, it’s your amygdala all the time. You’re in fight or flight all the time, which, number one, means you’re stressed. Your cortisol levels are quite high. Your heart rate is usually elevated. And, again, you are making decisions based on fear. You’re not making decisions that are carefully considered. You’re making decisions instinctually, gut instinct, which means you’re making bad decisions.

You’re not just making bad decisions about what to do at any moment at a time, you’re making bad decisions about your priorities, you’re making bad decisions about what to eat, how much sleep you need. All the things that you need to do, you’re making bad decisions. And so, of course, it’s wasting your time, of course it’s not leading you to the kind of creativity and innovation most of us want. If we could just relax a little bit and create an environment in which your body and brain can do their best work, you will not lose productivity. In fact, you might find, just like the hospital did, your productivity will go up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, recently, we had Michael Hyatt on the show who told a similar story about free to focus and his executives, and they grew revenue, and they worked less, like 11 hours a week less. So, I mean, that’s a message that I love hearing because I would like to work less and achieve more, so it sounds very appealing. Do you have a sense for what is the sweet spot either on a weekly work-hour basis or a daily kind of on/off rest cycle basis? Like, what’s your hunch for productivity maximization? What’s the ballpark range of how much is too much versus not enough versus just about right?

Celeste Headlee
So, we do have a lot of these records. Some of the most productive people in history worked maybe four or five hours a day. They ran a study at the University of Illinois in which they followed…

Pete Mockaitis
I.L.L. That’s right.

Celeste Headlee
That’s right. Is it your alma mater?

Pete Mockaitis
It sure is.

Celeste Headlee
They followed, and this is a while ago, I want to say it was the 1970s. It could’ve been the ‘50s. In any case, they followed a whole bunch of scientists around for quite a length of time, and they found the least productive among them were the ones who worked more than 50 hours a week. The most productive were those who worked between 12 and 20 hours a week. Charles Darwin worked four hours a day. Charles Dickens worked four hours a day. Prionka Ray worked four hours a day. We happen to know, just based on anecdotal evidence, that the average person has maybe four hours of focused work in them on any given day.

Now, that said, obviously that’s an average. I had to figure it out for myself. And, anybody, I explain how to do that in the book, but you’re going to have to find out for yourself what is the amount of time that you can work before it starts becoming counterproductive. But if you think that it’s eight hours or, God forbid, 10 or 12, that’s wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s intriguing. I guess with the examples that you gave us, I think that makes a ton of sense in terms of like scientists. Like, those who need a breakthrough, or a great idea, or an innovation, then that totally adds up, “Hey, you need more idle time so your brain can do all those things you were describing that can lead you there.” And then, as opposed to when you’re in an Industrial Revolution type mode, it’s sort of like you don’t need to get a great idea, but you do need to, I don’t know, tighten a bolt or kind of whatever, stick this thing in that thing. Although, those jobs are fewer and fewer, and not ones that mostly is less some tasks.

Celeste Headlee
Fewer and fewer but also, remember this, Henry Ford didn’t shorten his work hours for his workers to eight hours because he wanted to be generous. He shortened those work hours because he found that if they started working more than that, they started making errors and screwing things up to the point where productivity went down. We have known, even going back to the 19th century, we have records of businesses that when they shortened work hours, actually saw productivity go up, and that’s partly because of accuracy, it’s partly because the brain and body just worked better and they’re more fluid, and they’re just better fit to get things done when they’re well-rested and they’ve had breaks. So, it’s not just the knowledge worker. It’s pretty much any worker, you need rest.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And so, with those four hours, are there some themes or patterns in that they are more so in the morning, recently after sleep, or are they kind of like all over the place based on people’s unique cycles and ways of working?

Celeste Headlee
Interesting enough, again, we’re talking about averages here. So, the average person is actually better first thing in the morning if it requires any kind of real thought, and that’s especially true of people who are not morning people. So, the more tired and groggy you are, actually the more innovative you are first thing in the morning, oddly enough. Again, these are averages. You have to figure this stuff out for yourself, which means you can’t read some article on the web that says, “Oh, successful people wake up at 4:30 a.m. and immediately do hot yoga,” or whatever it may be. You need to figure out for yourself what works best for you. On average, mornings are good.

But there’s wide variance in the end. Maybe you have the kind of home situation where your mornings are noisy and chaotic. That used to be my life, in which case mornings were very difficult for me, and I would do some of my best work in the afternoon. That’s not true anymore, and now I’m back to doing my best work in the mornings.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, when you mentioned chaotic mornings, I don’t know if you can hear the toddlers screaming.

Celeste Headlee
I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, ahh, that’s good feedback about the microphone selection.

Celeste Headlee
I remember.

Pete Mockaitis
The door blocks a lot but not everything. Anyway, okay, so that’s handy there. And so then, I want to get your take, when it comes to sort of the rest, the rejuvenation, you mentioned, hey, just being bored and trying that on for size is good and cool and helpful. What are some of the other perspectives or best practices in terms of really making the most of your rest time?

Celeste Headlee
So, I think the first thing is that you need to stop multitasking because the human brain can’t multitask. You need to stop trying to multitask. You need to start learning, and it is a learning process, learning to do one thing at a time. That is the way the brain works best. And when I say one thing at a time, let me be totally clear. That having your email inbox open all the time is distracting to your brain. Your brain sees that as you try to multitask, because even if you’re not actively looking at the email inbox, your brain is preparing for a notification to come in, it is devoting energy to that.

The same is true as if your smartphone is visible. Your brain is then trying to multitask, preparing for an alert to come in. It does not make a distinction between a notification coming on your phone and somebody knocking at the door. Same thing for your brain, so you have to put it out of sight. And if you really want to make the best use of what you have, your big, meaty, homo sapiens brain, give it its best environment, meaning that let it do one thing at a time. You will be shocked when you do that, how much you can get done. Close out your extra tabs and focus. Say, “Right now, this is what I’m working on,” and work on that.

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

Celeste Headlee
The last thing I would mention is that you may not actually have a great handle on how you’re spending your time. Time perception is generally low. Time perception is the accuracy with which you know how your time is spent and it’s, in general, fairly low. So, the first thing I had to do was track my time. I had to like spend a couple weeks, every couple of hours I would go back and say, “Okay, here’s what I did for a couple hours.” And I realized I was spending time on stuff that I really didn’t want to spend that much time on it. So, when you feel overwhelmed and overworked, it may just be that you’re not fully aware of where your time is going.

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

Celeste Headlee
I think it really relates in terms of becoming very focused on any one thing, and it’s a quote from Nietzsche, which says, I want to make sure I get this correct, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So, I like that because sometimes we become so obsessed and focused on something, we sort of think the ends justify the means, and you can become a monster.

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

Celeste Headlee
So, I’ll tell you about one of my favorites which is this one in which they were testing stress responses. And they got this group of young girls together and they’d made them do a very stressful thing. They made them solve math problems in front of an audience. And, not surprisingly, the cortisol levels of all these girls went through the roof. They were very stressed out. Cortisol is your stress hormone. And they divided them into four groups.

One of the groups had no contact from their mother after this was over. One of the groups, their mother was waiting for them backstage. Another of the groups got a phone call from their mother, and the last group got a text from their mom, right? So, not surprisingly, the group that had no contact whatsoever, their cortisol level stayed completely elevated, there was almost no change. They were very stressed out. The girls whose moms were waiting backstage, they saw massive drop in their stress, they started to relax. Both of those were unsurprising, right?

But here’s the thing. The girls who got a phone call from their moms, saw their cortisol levels, their stress dropped at almost the same amount as those who had their mother waiting backstage. The girls who got a text, no change. That text did nothing to their stress levels. So, when we’re saving time and we think that we’re checking off the box by sending the text to someone, as far as your brain and your emotions are concerned, it doesn’t do it. We don’t recognize that as authentic social contact.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s so…man, this is really hitting home because, just yesterday, it was my buddy Brent’s birthday, he listens to the show. Hey, Brent.

Celeste Headlee
Happy Birthday, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
And I thought, “Oh, I should give him a call. But I’m hearing a thing, hearing a thing, hearing a thing, I don’t know.” And so, I texted him and didn’t call him, and I’m like, “I really should’ve called him.”

Celeste Headlee
Yeah, you should’ve called him. Sorry, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Brent, know I was thinking about you, but it did nothing for your biochemistry when I sent you that text message, okay.

Celeste Headlee
Exactly. Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.

Celeste Headlee
Fascinating, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Humbled and corrected and learning. All right. How about a favorite book?

Celeste Headlee
A book I just finished reading not too long ago is called “The Paris Library,” and it’s a novel but it’s based on the true story of these librarians at the American library in Paris during the German occupation who hid away a lot of the books and made sure they were sending out books to all the soldiers. It’s just kind of like, I think the tagline is something like “Sometimes heroism comes from the quietest of places.” And it’s a war book in which there’s no violence, but there’s no lack of heroism because of that. I just really loved it.

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

Celeste Headlee
My favorite tool is my little GPS collar for my dog because when we’re walking in the woods and she’s not coming when I call her, I know exactly where she is, and I don’t have to worry.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it is handy. Thank you.

Celeste Headlee
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit, something that helps you stay awesome at your job?

Celeste Headlee
I make sure that I meditate every day. And I know it’s kind of like the gym, if you don’t go to the gym, you kind of feel icky. It’s the same thing for me for meditation, is that if I don’t do it, I can tell the difference, so I make sure that I do it usually in the morning.

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

Celeste Headlee
So, one of the things I’m always talking about is how human beings are a hive mind, and I write about this in this new book, that we do our best work in groups, not alone. And there’s tons of evidence that even the uneducated or ill-prepared group will outperform the most educated and experienced expert. So, one of the ways I explain this is I say, “There’s only two species that can take down a bison.” Have you ever seen a bison actually in person?

Pete Mockaitis
I think from a distance, like I’m in a train, so not up close.

Celeste Headlee
Yeah. So, a bison is a freaking impressive animal, right? These are like 2200 pounds of solid muscle. They can run more than 40 miles an hour. With their horns, they can pick up a truck. Like, this is an amazing beast, and not stupid. There’s only two species that can really take them down. They are, of course, wolves and humans. And what do wolves and humans have in common? They’re pack animals.

And this is just sort of a way of explaining how human beings have been so successful. It’s because we have to take down this incredible beast so we sit there and we have these communication skills that allow us to find out who’s the best on horseback, who has the best aim with a spear, who thinks geometrically and can peel one of them off of the herd, who’s the best at butchering an animal, who’s the strongest and is going to be able to get this thing onto the sled to get it back to the village. That’s what we’re able to accomplish with our advanced communication skills. And no expert is going to help you with some of these tasks that have helped us survived.

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

Celeste Headlee
Go to CelesteHeadlee.com, it’s where I gather all the info in one convenient place.

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

Celeste Headlee
Yes. Find at least 20 minutes a day when you don’t have your smartphone with you. Twenty minutes. You can do it. You can survive. As of 2007, before 2007, there was no iPhone. Like, it’s been very recent that we were able to survive without them. So, find 15 or 20 minutes, and you walk away and leave your smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Celeste, thanks for this, and good luck in all your adventures.

Celeste Headlee
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.