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437: Building the Resources for Resilience with Dr. Michael Ungar

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Dr. Michael Ungar says: "As we are better resourced, we actually become... more rugged as individuals as well."

Dr. Michael Ungar shares insights from his decades-long research into resilience to reveal that it’s not about your ruggedness, but rather your resources.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The true key to resilience
  2. A master checklist for upgrading your resilience
  3. How to change your mood by changing your environment

About Michael

Dr. Ungar is a Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he holds a national Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. Dr. Ungar has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the subject of resilience and is the author of 15 books for mental health professionals, researchers, employers and parents. These include Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, a book for adults experiencing stress at work and at home.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Michael Ungar Interview Transcript

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

Michael Ungar
My real pleasure, Pete. Nice to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I learned that you have built three houses and raised five children, but you said that building the houses was easier. Can you talk about that?

Michael Ungar
Yeah, for sure. Let’s just say that houses are kind of like children, they change your life, they improve the quality of your life, and your experience in the world, and they make you calmer, they make you happy, and all these kinds of other things. But they also stay put, right? They don’t sort of like change, or at least they’re not supposed to unless there’s a flood or something.

And kids are a little different. Having raised five, they don’t always sort of, for some reason, they aren’t always inspired by my advice. I can’t understand why that would be, but at least when you put a wall up and you actually hammer a nail in, or you get a stud wall up, it kind of stays there. And there is something pretty satisfying about building whatever, any kind of arts or craft or whatever.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, so when you built these three houses, that means like you did everything. That’s impressive because you’re also a mental health powerhouse, these are very different skills.

Michael Ungar
Yeah, the houses were different ones. Some of them were just like seriously 90% reno kind of things. One of them, literally, we chopped, we cut the wood down off of a wood lot that my father-in law had, and milled the wood, and literally skited it out of the forest, and built the house with it. And I had a master carpenter, I don’t have all the skills. But I hired a master carpenter, and was kind of funny. Some days I was his boss in terms of making decisions, and the next day I was just basically the laborer on the job site and he was literally telling me, “Nail that board, and lift that log, and do exactly as I tell you.” So, it was really fun. It’s great.

I always find, too, that the more I sort of vary my activities, even my writing, I write fiction, I’ve written a novel, I’ve written for different audiences, and I find it’s the variety that actually keeps me sort of shocks my mind, awake, if you will. There’s something really wonderful about these different experiences.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And it seems like much of the research about creativity is just that. You’ve got deep expertise in one thing but you dabble in many things, and suddenly associations and ideas pop up, like, “Oh, this is a lot like nailing a board together.”

Michael Ungar
You do see patterns actually, and that’s what the richer your environment around you, the more people you sort of surround, even if you’re not an extrovert, there’s lots of ways sort of bringing those experiences to you if you’re just sitting on a park bench.

I travel the globe, and one of the most wonderful things I get a chance to do is actually just to walk around cities. I do take in some of the cultural events and all that, but often it’s just that sense of watching how architecture goes together or how people pattern their lives that remind you that there are so many different ways that people find pathways to success or put their lives together in ways that actually make sense.

And you begin to, like, if you’re in Japan. I mean, Japan looks a lot like where I live in North America, but the assumptions underlying those things are just so, so different, where leaving a tip at a restaurant can be an insult. Or when you get on a subway, taking your backpack off and putting it up on the tray sort of above the seat without any fear of it being stolen, it kind of shocks you into new ways of thinking about the world and many of your own sort of, well, certainly for me, things that I would just take for granted.

And I do find that, ultimately, especially when I write books, I think of ideas like resilience. I’m always sort of trying to sort of get my head out of standard thinking, and really see what really is happening. And that’s maybe the scientist in me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Well, so, could you orient us to a particular area of your expertise, which is resilience?

Michael Ungar
Yeah. Well, it’s been something, a big part of my research and my clinical work for the last, I’d say, two decades. It kind of has become just kind of boiling down to this idea that in the field of resilience, if you say to the typical person, “What do you think is resilience?” They tend to offer you that kind of idea of bouncing back, the personal transformation, that personal grit.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel like Rocky.

Michael Ungar
Yeah, like Rocky, which I love the movie, but it’s actually not what the science is actually saying. And most of the scientists in the area, the real people really looking at this, are actually telling us now that it’s not just about being a rugged individual. It’s also about being a resource individual. And that, in fact, most of what changes us, most of what gets us through a crisis, is actually not inside of us at all. The missing piece here is that what mostly gets us through is the resources around us.

If you look at even like the great superstars. You look at like a Ronaldo, a soccer star, you look at whatever. If you can kind of get close to them, what you’ll often discover is less about just how they keep their mindset perfect. But there’s always those wonderful stories of people who believed in them. Like, I always say this, if I’m going to talk to someone like Ronaldo, I’m going to want to ask him who gave him his first soccer ball. Like, who saw in him the potential to keep growing? All these aspects of our lives, and yet somehow are this conversation we often have about resilience.

In a very strange way always puts it right back on our own shoulders, that somehow if we just think, you know, have the right thoughts, show enough grit, have the right mindset, that we will succeed. And I hate to burst the bubble, but actually, as I sort of talk about in this book Change Your World, I’m sorry, the evidence is against you on that one. That is actually not the whole story. And so, that’s kind of what I’ve been looking at, what resilience comes from and all the different places around the world, including in North America, but what are the factors that make us resilient on the job, in our family lives, etc. like that.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s intriguing as you’re talking about it. It’s less about sort of what’s inside your brain and more about your resources and your support group. I don’t know why, I’ve got this silliest line is coming to my head. It’s from an Andy Samberg movie, which is basically spoofing, I think, Justin Bieber’s life. And so, he’s a rock star, and he has all these people around him doing all these things. And he says, “It takes a village to make me look dope.” And it sounds like, in crass, silly terms, that’s kind of what you say.

Michael Ungar
But what’s even more fascinating is that it’s not just the relationships, which I think sometimes, again, people will, “Yeah, relationships matter a lot.” But it’s what the relationships, in a sense, bring us and all the other things. Well, people sometimes, I find sometimes when I’m working clinically that people are doing research in this area. People will come back to that, “It’s always got to be people,” and then if they don’t have people, if you’re kind of isolated, right, socially isolated, and you think, “I can’t be resilient.”

But, actually, I’ll give you an example. I was working clinically with a young woman who was a paralegal, came to my office on her lunch hour dressed to the nines, just completely put together. And by way of a social worker, a family therapist, I’m not sitting in the office with a suit and tie sort of thing. So, she always impressed me that way. But she was in an abusive, this really abusive relationship, and I could never quite reconcile, how this very put together confident young woman, who came into my office with that energy, could go home and just so let herself, in a sense, not let herself, but, I mean, be put in a very abusive situation.

And I know the psychology of this. I’m in the field. I’ve worked for many years. But what would change that? And we tried to get her to change her mindset, to change her thinking about her relationships, etc., but she’s still sort of had that sense that, “No, no, no, I’d be worse off with leaving the guy.” Anyways, very small, little change.

I, one day, asked her to go home, and, instead of changing her clothes as she came in the house, which is what she used to do, putting on the track pants and looking kind of just frumpy and normal and calmed or whatever, and then letting herself be abused by this guy verbally, she just didn’t change her clothes. She stayed in this office power suit, and it gave her that cue and, in a sense, it had enveloped her in an environment that cued her to say, “You are worth more than this guy.” And it dramatically changed the work that we did together.

That really started her on a path to changing really things that she got rid of the apartment, she left the guy in the apartment, he’s kind of moved in on her. She found the support from her friends to get her stuff out of the apartment. She talked to the police about how to do this safely, etc. And I was really impressed by what I’ve learned from her, which was that we can create around us these external cues that remind us how to be rugged. In a sense, the resources trigger the ruggedness.

And, in fact, this is what the science of resilience teaches us, that it’s the external world that literally changes how we think, how we attribute cause, what we believe we can do, and whether or not we’re actually going to realize our talents, whether or not it’s in the work world or in our family at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating and a really inspiring story, and fun in terms of the implications that that can have in any number of context and lives. And we had Todd Herman on the show earlier talk about enclothed cognition, and sort of how indeed what you wear send signals and changes sort of your emotional state, and your capacity to even be effective in different contexts. So, what I’m digging about that is it’s just so darn actionable in terms of the clothes you choose to put on is a part of your environment that’s literally right on you.

Michael Ungar
Oh, absolutely. I mean, if it’s okay I can even take it a little bit further because people think, “Okay, I’ve got the clothing down.” But, of course, we know that, I mean, if you really want to know how to make yourself resilient, you’re also going to have to think even further afield. Like, housing, right? People often say, “Oh, you know, you need relationships. I want to be loved. I want to be mattered.” All these kinds of things.

And I get that, but then they put themselves into, say, small mini mansions, like very large houses where they might have a couple of kids, but the house is so large they can’t even find the kids much less call them for dinner.

It’s kind of interesting that our houses can actually change our mood, whether or not there’s green, green spaces outside that home, whether or not we connect to our neighbors, the way we lay out our streets, whether or not we push that big garage to the front of the yard and hide the house sort of back on the yard.

All of these decisions that we make that in and of themselves seem rather, well, mild, accumulate to stress us or tear apart the very patterns of relationships, the impromptu context that we have with our neighbors, the sense of community—coming back to me with Justin Bieber and the village. But when people begin to think about a whole list of things, and I do talk about that list. It is that how we setup our houses, how we have relationships. Whether or not people around us give us a powerful identity, whether or not the relationships that we want, we’ve actually setup environments to give those to us.

I’ll give a small example. I don’t know if you have a morning routine for a cup of coffee or whatever it is that you drink in the morning. But a lot of people often say to people, “If you’re feeling disconnected and alone, go back to the same coffee shop for three weeks at the same time, and you’ll suddenly get known.” A little bit like the chairs idea, right? You’ll walk in and you’ll be the double soy latte extra hot with foam sort of thing.

And bit by bit you’ll become connected into a pattern, a community. And, again, we can either tell you to go on a yoga retreat and get your mind together, or pay a high-priced guru, or something like that, but, in a sense, that’s not going to create a sustainable change, not unless you already have all these other relationships in place. And if you do, then you’re good. If you’re not, then the individual flipping the switch in your head is not going to be a sustainable change.

And that’s not just an opinion. That’s, unfortunately, what the research actually shows in terms of all those wonderful practices, where all that sort of self-help movement stuff that were preaching at people, it ain’t working.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, I’d love to hear, could you point to one or two or three of the most striking smoking gun studies that really support this paradigm?

Michael Ungar
Well, sure. Even if you just want to stick with Center for Disease Control sort of statistics, if you prefer, we know that overweight and obesity rates are rising in North America, both countries, in Canada and the United States, Mexico, etc. That’s the truth and then we’re going to actually see a decrease in people’s longevity as a consequence of that.

And that’s, at the same time, that we have this massive diet industry, and everyone has access to the internet to get good advice, and there’s more advertising, and more self-help movements, and more opportunities to sort of reflect and fix yourself. What about if, I don’t know, we can take different maybe medications for depression?

Again, you’d think with all the self-help out there that, in fact, depression rates would be going down and that medication use would be going down. And, in fact, it’s going in the opposite direction entirely. The same with anxiety disorders and who’s appearing at our emergency rooms, especially amongst our children.

All these statistics are pointing to the fact that despite this mammoth cornucopia, this smorgasbord of available self-help stuff, the problem is we’re so focused on the rugged individual that we’ve missed that, in fact, without understanding that we also have to be resource individuals, we are not going to get better. We are actually, potentially, going to make the situation worse.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s tricky, certainly if you have ample information at our disposals, so to do some of that self-help stuff. And so, obesity, overweight is way up now as compared to before, and depression, anxiety also way up. So, I guess, then, that would follow that our environments have also become worse in terms of supporting a healthy weight, or a calm, tranquil, happy mental state. Could you sort of speak to some of those environmental factors at work there?

Michael Ungar
Well, some of the big ones that we know about are relationship breakdown. The irony, by the way, one good stat, if you’d like, divorce rates are going down, but that’s only because fewer and fewer people are actually marrying. That’s right. So, I hate to tell you this but it’s a good news/bad news story there.

So, if you think about those kinds of statistics, etc., you’re not necessarily seeing a great deal of change. Loneliness, for instance, would probably be the other big problem that we’re seeing. A huge number, something like one-quarter of US households have people living alone in them. And we’re not actually designed for that kind of lifestyle.

Now, the other side of that is that people, our kids are staying at home with us. And, culturally, there are some cultures that are probably, “That’s a good thing,” right? You don’t move out until you go and get married or something like that, and that’s just the family norm. Thankfully, for my own five children, that is not the family norm. They’re launching, so I can say that.

But you begin to look at loneliness, an inability to launch, in some cases, living in isolation. These are sort of structural things going on around us which are breaking down and, I think, not just I think, are actually showing up in our emergency rooms in our hospitals and, indeed, in our doctors’ offices where you’re seeing a spike in medications.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, loneliness in and of itself is an indicator of a depleted environment or less resource now as it used to be. And what are some other ways that our environments are more bad?

Michael Ungar
Toxic?

Pete Mockaitis
Our environments are worse or toxic. They’re depleted more so now than before in the realms of supporting a healthy way, to a healthy emotional state.

Michael Ungar
Well, the thing is, of course, the evidence is now mounting about cellphone use, screen times, and the social isolation, and accumulative stress that that causes in our lives when we’re online and how we relate to other people when we’re online. We’re not in those relationships really are satisfying to us. In and of itself, using your cellphone, being online a bit is not going to be the problem. Having a rich Facebook community that you’re swapping photos with your neighbors and friends and family. This is not the problem.

The problem becomes when it’s just your only outlet or you’re really caught up in that sort of neurological ping of having more and more likes or that sort of social desirability that you’re looking for. It drives me nuts when I see people taking those selfies. You know, they’re sitting there in the coffee shop and they’re just kind of having a ho-hum day and their facial expression is kind of neutral. And then, suddenly, they want to pop a selfie, and they do this really weird little smirk off to the side, like somehow that social presentation has to be, “I can’t just be normal. I have to be upbeat.”

And if you do it once, that’s not a problem. But if that’s your whole lifestyle, you are going to be more stressed. It’s also not necessarily building the real substance of what we need, which is genuine, well, not just genuine relationships, but a sense of your culture, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.

I think part of this that also worries me, because I study resilience so you’re looking for patterns, and this could be on the job site or elsewhere, but you want people to feel like they’re making a really genuine contribution, a real contribution to some product, or some end goal, or mission statement. We are driven by that, whether it’s in our families. And, certainly, when I’m working with people in business settings and stuff, and you often say, “Well, if you’re not getting that from your work world…” then often what you want to ask people, “…are you finding these connections, this sense of meaningful participation in your community outside of your work world?”

And, yes, an audience will raise their hands and I’m sure listeners, too. People would say, “Do you volunteer? Are you a member of a religious organization?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I do, yes.

Michael Ungar
But it’s not just the relationship that you’re going to enrich. You’re also going to get access to more advice, resources. I live in a part of the world, I’d like to joke, where I live, it’s a town of about 400,000 people and we’re casserole people, we’re Maritimers, we’re East Coasters. And if someone down the road breaks a hip, they get a casserole or two or three. And, obviously, if someone’s child is sick, they get a whole freezer-load of casseroles.

But that kind of stuff brings our communities together. And I’m going to argue that even if your job is not meaningful at work, if you’re coming home and cooking in casserole for the neighbor down the street, and your housing is setup, and you’ve been stable enough in your housing for long enough that you actually know that neighbor, then you’ve got a lot of advantages, a lot of environmental advantages that is actually going to carry you through.

Well, not only are you avoiding depression, which we know, but it’s also going to carry you through in terms of being safer, less opportunities to be exposed to violence, you might be even more active in a community like that. I even just saw, I recently read a study that said your mortgage rate might be lower as well because, of course, you’re swapping information with your neighbors, right? So, there’s massive financial, social, emotional advantages when we do things and feel connected to others. But also, in culturally meaningful ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I can tell you, having recently our family given birth to two kids, under two, we appreciate getting a casserole.

Michael Ungar
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s the equation of the household chaos, but much appreciated. So, that’s cool. Well, let’s really get into some of the actionable tidbits with regard to elements of your environment, and how to upgrade and build up those resources. We talked about clothing, we talked about housing, we talked about relationships. Could you maybe kind of lay out the kind of the master checklist and some of the best practices for upgrading those resources so we’ll upgrade our resilience?

Michael Ungar
Yeah, for sure. And I kind of list out 12 in Change Your World but I’m not going to go through all 12 because some of them are hitting here. But, essentially, obviously you need some structure, you want routine in your life, it carries you through periods of crisis. You want accountability. Put yourself in situations where people rely on you even if you’re just accountable to your dog to take them out for a walk. It’s that routine, it’s that sense of purpose in life that’s given to us by our environments.

You’re going to want, of course, relationships. But I always say, you don’t have to be loved, even though it sounds odd, but you do have to matter to somebody, and that’s often the tipping point that you see in studies of resilience. You have to have a powerful identity. There’s got to be something special about you. And, by the way, identity, let’s face it, it’s given to us, it’s not just homegrown in front of the mirror. It’s something that’s reinforced and given to us by others who say, “You are special at this.”

Power and control experiences. You really need that sense of efficacy, that sense that you can make a difference and make decisions that count in your life. What about fair treatment? It’s another that we often overlook. You know, if you’re not being treated fairly, if you hit the glass ceiling, or you’re feeling racially pushed aside, or your ethnicity is being disparaged, all these things accumulate in people’s lives and make it much more difficult to succeed especially when times get tough.

You need your basic needs met, all those kinds of things. You need a sense of your belonging somewhere in your community or your extended family. And, of course, you need things like, finally, yes, you need positive thinking. It does carry you through a tough period as well, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when you see all the other elements of that. And just basic financial. You need enough money and enough physical health to do the things that, frankly, matter to you.

But could I make that a little more concrete? That’s a heck of a list for people to digest, but let me give an example. I was doing some work with one of the worker’s compensation boards, and they were hearing a great story of a fellow who had injured himself on an oil rig. He was right down at the well head, doing really heavy hard labor, you know, paid well, very proud of that identity, a real rough and tumble sort of individual.

And he injured himself and he can never go back into that kind of heavy work. And too often, what we do with workers like that is we direct them into IT jobs, or some sort of a sales job, or something like that. But, very wisely, his case worker got him a job back in the oil patch, but not down in the heavy lifting area. Where he was, he was at the front gate, checking in and out the trucks as the supply trucks and as people came in and out of the yard.

Now, if you think about it, the fellow, he’s changed his identity from the sort of rough and tumble guy at the well head, but he’s still in the same industry. And what’s more is he’s still wearing a hard hat, he has a vest on with the flashy colors and everything else, he’s holding a checklist so he’s in control of things, he’s able to direct people. And when he goes to lunch, he’s still with the same people that he was hanging around with before. And when he’s at the bar, or wherever he goes on Saturday nights, and someone turns and says, “What do you do?” He says, “I’m in the oil industry. I’m in the oil and gas industry,” right?

Now, like, for me, that was an interesting lesson learned, that when you create continuity and you give someone back access to their, in a sense, almost their culture, a sense of purpose, you give them the same uniform, coming back to what we talked about in terms of dress codes and that type of thing, giving him decision-making power, there’s a real sense of power in his job as well, that’s a perfect transition for someone.

And you know what? They’re not going to leave that. They’re not going to experience that injury and then fall into depression and, God forbid, suicide or other kinds of things that sometimes follow when you see people who have gone through these really traumatic injuries on the job. So, when you begin to have this kind of it’s almost like a checklist or a code book, on how to make people more resilient, and as you go through it, we begin to see it. The more of those that you check, as I just did with the sort of the fellow in this hard hat, the more you check, the more likely you are to have success, especially when you hit a really difficult, almost like a time in your life you’re going to stumble.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes some really good sense there with regard to keeping a lot of those things right there, identity is still there, relationship still there, a sense of belonging still there, and the relationships, they’re mattering, so accountability into some of the same kinds of folks, so the same structure routine, that’s pretty cool.

So, then, I’d love to get your take then, because that is a good size list, what’s your impression then, maybe specifically the context of professionals who hit some hard times maybe just because, “Oh, dear, I have to work 12 to 15 hours a week, for a few weeks in a row.” That’s exhausting. Or, “Oh, dear, now I’ve got the demands of job plus a sick child,” or, plus a sick parent. So, there’s some sort of plenty of work responsibility and then, suddenly, a whole lot more land. What are some of your top pro tips to get a really good bang for your buck in upgrading a key resource?

Michael Ungar
Well, that’s a great question. Indeed, you do see that problem of the sandwich generation, that’s probably a great example of that. So, if I learned anything from like literally interviewing hundreds of people, all the complex studies that we carry on, on these topics, I keep seeing a pattern of, well, maybe four simple steps that people go through in trying to figure out how to cope with a tough situation.

And, by the way, to be fair, it’s going to change depending on your risk exposure. So, that is probably the one kernel that we often forget. So, if you’ve got all of those supports, all the education, job stability, and a Visa card that’s not maxed out or a credit card that’s not maxed out, right? If you’ve got all that in place, then you can probably get through that situation you just described, right, because you’re going to have the resources, you can hire a nurse for your mother who’s ill, you can get your kid extra tutoring, you can hire a nanny to look after the house when you’re gone.

Like, you’ve got the infrastructure. So, the only thing you have to do, the first thing, I always encourage people, look at your risk exposure. Before you run to the next motivational guru, just ask yourself first, “How many real risks, how many real dangers, how many real threats am I experiencing in my life?” And then don’t expect that things are going to change if you’re under a lot of external stressors.

So, if you’re not under a lot of external stressors, then, frankly, change your mind, change your mindset, encourage more grit. I just listened to Brene Brown talk on her sort of being daring and courageous and these kinds of things. These are all great advice for us—when we have stability in our lives and that we also have some of, basically, we have healthcare, we have resources that allow us to be daring and all those kinds of other stuff.

So, one, get your mindset on. Change your heads. Absolutely, that’s your first strategy. Second strategy is, heck, if that’s still not quite enough, re-exploit the heck out of all the resources around you, right? Ask for help from your spouse, if that person is willing to step up. Demand that they step up. Ask your kids for a little bit of support, right, getting out of the house, or whatever, or helping with granny if she’s ill. Look to the professionals that you can tap in your community. Maybe tap into your savings if you have some. Do whatever you’re going to need. If you need timeout, pay for a vacation at that time. Do whatever it is that’s going to carry you through. Exploit the heck out of all those resources.

But I often find that the people I’m working with often are more stressed than that, that’s why they’re seeing a therapist often, or whatever. So, the third phase is, of course, you’ve got to create new resources, and that gets a little bit more tough. That means you go to work and maybe your boss is a real, whatever words you want to complete that with, that sentence.

Pete Mockaitis
Jerk face.

Michael Ungar
Jerk face, there you go. And maybe you’re going to need new resources. If that’s not a place you can have it, true enough, I often see people, “You don’t have to quit your job,” which I hate. Well, I actually hate when I hear people tell people to quit their job and start over. I hate that advice because I live in an economy that were often quite depressed, and people don’t quit jobs. You’ve got a good job, and you’ve got your mortgage covered, you do not quit that job.

What you do is, if you’re really stressed by your boss in a really toxic emotional environment, you make a lateral move. You say to them, “Is there a special project that I can get reassigned to? Is there a change of hours or shifts that I can do?” to get on to a different shift or a different boss. “Can I do an extra workshop or something to train up on a separate skill? It won’t increase my pay but at least it gets me into a different part of the office building, or something like that.”

So, often it’s about changing the resources around us. People often say, “I don’t have time to exercise.” I say, “Well, actually, change your parking spot. Park farther from your office door, right? Decide where you’re going to park. Take a parking spot, if you’re going to have to pay for a spot, pay for one that’s three blocks away instead of one block away.” Remarkably small efforts like those can actually exploit the environment around you much better.

Find a friend, find a new person, find a new activity that you’re interested in and exploit that activity to network with a new group of people. Each of these, is basically saying, “I can expand my resources.” So, one, change your head, try to get your head on straight, exploit the resources around you. The second strategy, or the third strategy is build more resources if at all possible.

And, unfortunately, the fourth strategy I see with people, and this has to be said, you know, sometimes we’re in such tough situations that we cannot find more resources. In that case, the only thing we can do is change our expectations. And maybe we don’t need suc   h a big house. Maybe we don’t need the second car. Maybe we aren’t going to go in that vacation that we’ve always dreamed of this year. And maybe our child is, frankly, still going to be sick tomorrow, and it’s still going to be a really, really crappy, burdensome life that we’re going to be living for the next foreseeable future. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy with high expectations.

And, in a sense, that brings you back to maybe changing your mindset, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. What that often says is that time is often on our side, that new resources, just through the serendipity of life, just the randomness of where we are and where we could move to, and as our child develops, or our parent passes away, if that’s where you’re at in life, what I’ve seen people do is suddenly new doors open and there are, in a sense, new resources that they can, if they’re able to, to pull those resources to them. Because if you have those resources outside of you, Pete, they will change you. And as we are a better resourced, we actually become also, in a sense, more rugged as individuals as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, that’s so powerful to think through whatever your situation, and then to be able to go through each of those elements. And I’m thinking real-time about how even working with the challenge and have, you know, two kids that are two years old in the home all of a sudden, then we’re asking for some help for whether someone’s bringing in some food or grandparents are helping out, we’re spending some money, like someone is coming in from time to time to do a little bit of helping with the tidying and the food and the laundry, all the stuff, you know, the bottles upon bottles upon bottles.

And that really has made a cool difference, and then as well as changing the expectations. Like, “Hey, it’s not going to be tidy all the time. It’s a different game we’re in right now. And we’re okay with that.” So, but I’d love to hear, we’ve talked about changing your head. How in practice is that done?

Michael Ungar
Well, it’s often by putting ourselves in environments that compel the change. It’s funny, we often think right there it starts from inside, but actually it can actually start a lot from outside. I’ll give you a couple of funny little examples. A colleague of mine works on what’s called physical literacy, and he tries to get kids to move more, which is, “Oh, my gosh, we’re worried about that all the time as parents.” Two-year-olds move a lot. You’re not there yet, are you? But eventually they slow down, and then you want them to move more.

And this fellow, what he does is he went into an elementary school, and he put accelerometers on kids to see how much they’re moving and how fast they were moving. And then what he did was he went back on the weekend after he had his baseline measurements, and he painted hop scotches in the hallways of the elementary school.

Next week, he measured the kids again. Guess what? They were moving more and they were moving faster accumulatively. Now, it’s a silly little experiment perhaps, but if you see this as a pattern, we know that certain environments induce us or nudge us, if you like that word as well, towards different sets of behaviors to change. And they, in a sense, change our thinking about exercise, about movement. So, that’s why people get a dog. I mean, it’s a great external change. It not only makes us feel like we matter, it not only introduces structure and routine and accountability, it also involves us by compulsion. We must take the dog out for a walk. We’re literally outdoors more, hopefully, and in a sense moving.

So, these external elements can actually change our experience. And I have another sort of a funny example. Recently, we were in our neighborhood, we have a fairly good set of neighbors, but partly that’s because we’ve owned a house in the same space for a little while. And the other day, we were having a lot of family over for a turkey dinner, and the turkey didn’t de-thaw. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived this kind of weirdness, and it was just a too big a bird and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do in the fridge and it just wasn’t ready to be cooked when it was supposed to be ready to be cooked.

So, my partner goes scrambles all around the town and finds a couple of other turkeys that are fresh ones that we can cook up and feed everybody. But, meanwhile, we have this turkey that’s now half de-thawed that you can’t do anything with. So, what we do is we put our call out. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story of the stone soup. You know, the guy shows up in a city, town, and says, “I can make a soup from a stone.” He just gets every single person in the town to contribute one little ingredient to the pot of water and, suddenly, he has a beautiful soup.

So, we put out a call to our neighbors, we said, “You know, we have a turkey but we don’t have a turkey dinner. And we need potatoes, we need vegetables, we need stuffing, we need gravy, we need this and that.” And, suddenly, basically, two days later we held a massive party, impromptu, in our kitchen that brought in 30 people, well, 30 of our neighbors.

And the reason I’m sort of saying that is there’s a part of me floating above that whole experience going, “You know, if you want to talk about combatting loneliness, if you want to talk about feeling connected and knowing that you have people in your corner, it’s not always about deep heart-to-heart thoughts, or great emotional moments.” It’s sometimes about simply saying, “Join me in a turkey dinner because I have a big bird that I can’t eat and, frankly, I need a little bit of help doing something like this.”

So, I’m always kind of amazed that we can change our emotional moods, we can change our physical behaviors through external environments. And I think we do this in the workplace all the time as well, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever met somebody like this but one of the best examples that I’ve ever encountered, and it’s so mundane it’s silly, but I’ve met people who don’t necessarily find much meaning in their workplace, but they’re the birthday person on the job.

And I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked in a place where there’s the birthday person. You know, the person who remembers everyone else’s birthday to make sure that there’s a cake, cakes and the cards and stuff? And if you actually sort of look at what’s going on, they have found an identity, a role, a way of building community, a sense of purpose and place. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they’re processing claims for whatever, right? It’s a completely, in a sense, an action that reminds them, that changes their mood. It’s a small act that, evidently, they have to be motivated to do, but it kind of reflects back to them and changes who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. I really like the turkey story and it reminds me of a time when we had too much beer in the keg.

Michael Ungar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like 23 years old, and it’s like, “What are you going to do with all this extra beer?” So, we like made little flyers and slipped them under everyone’s door in the apartment building, and we did. We had a bundle of random folk from across the apartment building finishing up the keg. And it was fun, we got to know these neighbors, like folks we never met before, like, “Well, I’ll show up for some free beer. Sure.”

Michael Ungar
I love it. And, yeah, the difference between being maybe 23 and 43, or maybe not. Somehow, I tried to play that actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Right in the middle now it’s like, “What was going to be my thing? Is it a turkey? Is it a keg?” I’m sure we’ll figure it out, but this is good food for thought saying podcaster pun. Well, tell me, Michael, any final thoughts about boosting resilience before we shift gears to talk about some of your favorite things?

Michael Ungar
Well, probably the best part of this is really, if I could, just the research is really clear, right? It’s the external things that make us a mess, that causes the trauma. It would make sense that it’s also the external things that are going to heal us. I just don’t understand why when we talk about the external things, there’s these wonderful studies out of the US called the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies where they’ve identified 10 things that are really going to mess you up as an adult. If you have those things happen as a kid, like abuse, and a parent goes to jail, and a parent with a mental illness or an addiction, or even a divorce or separation of parents, all these things have long-term health implications for you when you’re an adult. And that’s what the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies show.

But they’re all preventable, right? These are all preventable things through good social policy, through good healthcare, good access to resources. We can prevent families and children from experiencing these awful things, which kind of, if you flip the coin here, it would make sense that if you also gave children, well, beneficial childhood experiences, you would also decrease heart disease and depression in adulthood. You decrease all the illnesses that are now associated with those negative things as kids.

So, for me, as much as I’m both a clinician and a scientist and a father and a neighbor, there’s such a robust evidence that says to me, “Be resourced, not just rugged, and you’ll stop blaming yourself for these problems.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now, Michael, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Ungar
Well, I would still say something along the lines of it’s easier to change the world around you than yourself. I mean, that’s sort of the mantra that I just keep going with over and over again. Or, maybe even better, Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” which is sort of a rift on the same idea, right? Once you have it, you don’t kind of acknowledge it, you don’t sort of see it, but, boy, once it’s gone, you know it.

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

Michael Ungar
Probably the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies which I just talked about, or there’s been some wonderful stuff, sort of the neighborhood studies out of Chicago that were done decades ago. Certainly, it showed up much the same, you know, people’s need for stable housing. Or, a recent study up in Alaska by Shauna BurnSilver. Her colleagues had showed, you know, people’s nutrition and health has very little to do with the food supply, and a whole lot to do with, say, she’s talking about like a hunting in a more sort of hunting societies.

A lot of it has to do with how bountiful the game is, and much more about how the communities share what they have, which kind of speaks again to we’re a lot stronger together and through cultural practices and how we see ourselves as contributing to the welfare of others.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Michael Ungar
That’s tough. I love fiction but I also like sort of the non-fiction realm. If readers haven’t come across Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth definitely a great read. He was the commander of the Space Station and the guy who did all the musical performances up there and some great photography as well. And he just kind of basically brings it home. He says there was a lot he learned as an astronaut, but there’s a lot of great lessons about how to cooperate in a team, and how to work together with others. And I think Chris definitely has a great perspective on life.

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

Michael Ungar
I’d have to say, I know it’s going to, maybe it’s funny, but actually the tool is part of my family. It’s actually what happens in the prep to get to the job. On the job site, it’s probably just finding a common mission. There’s something, a principle called collective impact. If people ever tripped to cross that idea of that you get people on the same agenda, you feel like you’re all collaborating.

I work a lot in international teams where we’re spending a lot of time communicating over the web. And I find that when you have a common mission statement, that’s really great, but it’s even better when your family is interested in what you’re doing, and it kind of reinforces it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Michael Ungar
Oh, definitely coffee shop hanging out watching people. Whenever I’m too burnt out or just tired and whatever, especially, I travel a great deal, I find it’s the coffee shop, it’s that hunt of a local, not a chain, but sort of a local kind of hip place to hang out and just watch people, and just that centering space of the routine, of doing the same thing, or having the same kind of drink anywhere in the world. It almost transports you home. It almost just reminds you sort of what life is about, I guess, for that particular moment.

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

Michael Ungar
Well, they can check out my website, it’s michaelungar.com. Of course, it has all the links, and the books, and stuff if you want to read a bit more. “Change Your World” is coming out. Hopefully, it’ll inspire some ideas as well. And if they’re really into more research side, the website is resilienceresearch.org and that’s our big research center that we run.

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

Michael Ungar
Oh, man. Just, yeah, focus a little bit less on blaming yourself and trying to be rugged, and just think about putting around yourself, enveloping yourself with the resources that are going to bring out your best. And just let it follow, just let your mindset be changed by the environment around you so that people will notice you. Situations will make you feel good about yourself. Your success will sort of elevate your identity and your sense of power and control. These things can all be done through the external cues to you as opposed to, you know, I know it’s so much work.

Frankly, it’s exhausting, exhausting to try and get the world, to try and just change ourselves and then go, day after day, back into a toxic environment. And I think that is such a formula for depression and other diseases or mental health problems, versus just shifting ourselves a little bit into environments that reward us. And, frankly, if work ain’t cutting it, then find that elsewhere. Volunteer. There’s a jazz festival that comes to where I live every summer. I see people volunteering at that. I also see people volunteering as coaches in the little league. You know, there’s endless opportunities to give back and feel like, frankly, you have meaning to others. And, frankly, that’s what resilience is all about. I see it over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michael, thanks for sharing the good word, and good luck with your book “Change Your World” and all your adventures.

Michael Ungar
Well, thanks. And all the best to you and your young family. What an adventure that is.

423: Becoming Free to Focus with Michael Hyatt

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Michael Hyatt says: "What I'm after is... the double win. I want to win at work, but I want to succeed at life. I'm not willing to compromise either."

Michael Hyatt offers useful concepts to upgrade your productivity and focus, including the  freedom compass, the zones of desire and drudgery, and more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to do more of what you want with the “yes, no, yes” formula
  2. Three beliefs that prevent you from delegating your tasks effectively
  3. How to feel like you’re winning each day with the daily big three

About Michael

Michael Hyatt is the founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company, a leadership coaching and development firm twice listed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing US companies. A longtime publishing executive, Michael is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, now part of HarperCollins. He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of several books, including Your Best Year Ever, Living Forward, and Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.
Michael is the creator of the Full Focus Planner, which combines quarterly goal-tracking and daily productivity in a proven system for personal and professional achievement. His blog and weekly podcast, Lead to Win, are go-to resources for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, executives, and aspiring leaders. He has been featured by Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Fast Companyand Wall Street Journal. Michael and his wife of 40 years, Gail, have five daughters, three sons-in-law, and eight grandchildren. They live just outside of Nashville, Tenn.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Hyatt Interview Transcript

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

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate being on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy. I think we’ll have a ton of fun. But first I want to hear about something fun in your life. You mention your dog, Winston, is exceptional in your About page and I want to know why.

Michael Hyatt
He’s the perfect dog. His temperament is fantastic. He’s just so easygoing. He always obeys. I don’t know. I feel like we won the lottery with him. He’s an amazing dog.

Pete Mockaitis
How did you get him?

Michael Hyatt
Well, we found out about a breeder in Indiana, who bred Australian Labradoodles. We got the dog from her. Then we sent him to a trainer in Indiana, a lady who actually is a Russian immigrant, who trains dogs for the federal government and for state agencies and therapy dogs and all that. She had him for about six weeks. I don’t know what she did, but some kind of Russian thing, but it’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh Michael, I just love that so much because it’s like you eat, sleep, breathe people, development, and now even dog development. We’re going to find the best trainer in the world. We’re going to spend some deep focus time immersed and come back a renewed dog.

Michael Hyatt
Dog hacks. What can I say?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fantastic. You’re unveiling some more wisdom in your latest book, Free to Focus. What’s the main idea or thesis behind this one?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the main thesis behind this is you can actually achieve more by doing less if you have the right productivity system. The problem with most productivity systems today is that they’re designed to make you more productive. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, what’s wrong with that?” Here’s the problem.

People start out working a 12-hour day, they get some productivity hacks, adopt a few apps, they reduce it to eight hours and then they fill it up with more work. They try to be productive so they can be more productive.

I say productivity is a means to an end. You’ve got to be very clear about what the end is otherwise you’re just going to fill your life with work, you’re going to be overwhelmed, you’re going to be burned out, and you’re not going to get the kind of work-life balance that makes life rich and meaningful.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talk about defining the end, can you give us a couple of examples of how that gets articulated?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, absolutely. In the first part of the book I talk about stopping and kind of taking stock. Get off that hamster wheel and ask, “Where’s this hamster wheel going? Why am I running this race? What’s it all about?” I say the end game needs to be about freedom. More productivity should lead to greater freedom and specifically freedom in four areas.

I talk about the freedom to focus. Focus is a super power today in our distraction economy. If you want to move the needle in your business and in your life, if you want your business to grow, if you want to get ahead in your career, you’ve got to be able to focus and do the deep work, the creative work that really creates the breakthroughs in your business and in your personal life. The freedom to focus.

You also need the freedom to be present so that when you’re at your son’s Little League game, you’re not on your phone thinking about work or you’re out for a day with your spouse or you’re significant other, you’re not thinking about work or when you’re at work, you’re not thinking about something that’s going off the rails at home. The freedom to be present.

Then third, the freedom to be spontaneous so that your life’s not so managed and not every last second is so planned that you just can’t stop and enjoy life, smell the roses so to speak.

Then finally, the freedom – and this is really underrated, but the freedom to do nothing at all. All the brain research says that we’re the most creative, we experience the biggest breakthroughs when our minds are the most relaxed. That means we’ve got to intentionally have that white space where we do nothing.

I learned this when I was in Italy a few years ago. They have a saying in fact. They talk about a dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. It’s true. You think about when you have the breakthrough ideas, the most creative ideas, often it’s in the shower or out for a walk or doing something that amounts to nothing. That’s what I’m after is freedom. I think productivity should lead to that.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a lovely turn of a phrase, the sweetness of doing nothing. I’m reminded maybe when you said Italy, it brings about images. I’m just thinking about just sort of strolling, just walking with a good friend, catching up and chatting. It’s like I enjoy doing nothing in those moments so much. It’s like I don’t even want to be burdened with having to think about where we’re going and where the restaurant is, just having faith that a good eatery will appear if that’s kind of what we’re up to. It’s much more fun.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, and I don’t think they have bad food in Italy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, in Italy you’re covered. Sure.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Everything I ate there was phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. That’s cool. That’s the process in terms of the steps as we’re stopping. We’re taking stock. We’re pointing to greater freedom and a few kind of particular forms of freedom. What comes next?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, in that same section, under Stop, talk about formulate, so formulate a clear vision for what your productivity, you want to accomplish with it. Then secondly, evaluate. This means taking stock of our workflow, our work style. I talk about a concept there called the freedom compass, which I think is really a big paradigm shift and a way to think about your work that makes it possible for you to focus on your highest and greatest work because not all work is created equal.

I talk about kind of a two-by-two matrix, where you have passion intersecting with proficiency. There’s some tasks – and imagine this rotated 45 degrees and you’ve got a compass, where true north is where your passion and your proficiency come together, the things you love, the things that you are deeply satisfying, that you enjoy, plus proficiency, the things that you’re good at.

Not just proficiency in your subjective opinion, but in an objective reality, where people are willing to pay you to do this. That I call the desire zone. That’s where you want to focus the bulk of your time and the bulk of your energy.

Directly south, directly below that is what I call the drudgery zone, things that you hate, you don’t have any passion around it and you’re not very good at. It’s going to be different for everybody, but for me it’s things that look like administrative kinds of activities, like managing my email inbox, managing my calendar, booking travel, even finding the FedEx box, just running errands. All that’s in my drudgery zone. It’s kind of a grind when I have to do that.

Then there’s also the disinterest zone, where you don’t have any passion, but you might be pretty good at it. A lot of people get trapped in this because maybe they were good at something, they lost the passion and they keep doing it because it keeps making them money, keeps bringing home the bacon.

For me, when I started out as an entrepreneur this was accounting. I did it because I didn’t want to pay somebody else to do it and I was really good at it, but I didn’t have any passion and that leads to boredom.

Then on the opposite side of the freedom compass from there, due west, would be what I call the distraction zone, where you like doing it, but you’re not very good at it and you end up escaping there and then it wasted a lot of time.

Again, the key, and it leads to the next part of the book, but the key is to eliminate everything that’s not in your desire zone, the things that you’re passionate about and proficient at, because that’s where you’re going to see the biggest growth, the biggest progress, the most results. That’s the chapter on evaluation.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice two-by-two matrix and a clever rotation that makes it a compass. When you talk about doing more of the good stuff and less of the drudgery, what are some of the best ways that we can accomplish that? You have some things about saying no and some things about outsourcing. How do we systematically get our proportions more and more in the desire space?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. One of the things is I think to set ourselves up for success. That’s actually that third chapter in that first section before we get to the Cut section, which is about rejuvenation. This is one of those things that’s easy to overlook because we live in the hustle economy. We’re encouraged to burn the candle at both ends, to work evenings and weekends. Elon Musk said unless you’re working 80 to 100 hours a week, you’re not going to make the progress you need to.

One of the most important things you can do is take care of yourself if you want to be more productive. Getting a good night’s sleep, something as simple as that, can make the difference between whether you’re focused or productive the next day. I talk about sleep, nutrition, exercise, relationships. Those have a lot to do with how productive we are. That’s all the rejuvenation chapter.

But then moving into that second section, the section called Cut. The first one’s Stop. The second part of the framework is Cut. How do we prune all that stuff that’s not in our desire zone? It really does start with elimination. We’ve got to eliminate the stuff that doesn’t need to be done and the best way to do that is to head it off at the beginning by getting better at saying no.

Warren Buffet once said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything,” but how do we do that without being a jerk? In the book, I talk about how to do that. I talk about how to give a graceful no. I talk about it using a formula called Yes No Yes. It’s the positive no that William Ury talks about in his book, The Power of a Positive No.

Let me illustrate. I spent most of my career in the book publishing industry. I still to this day get a lot of requests from aspiring authors, who would like me to review their book proposal before they send it to an agent or a publisher. Now, I don’t really have time to do that. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I don’t have time to do that. I have an email template that I use. I respond with that formula, yes, no, yes.

Here’s what it looks like. First of all, I start with an affirmation. I start off not resenting the fact that they asked me to review this proposal. But I’ll say something like, “Hey, congratulations. You’ve done what 97% of most aspiring authors will never do and that is create a written book proposal. That is a phenomenal first step. It’s a foundational step and an important one. Way to go.”

Then I move from the yes to the no. Here I want to give a very firm, unambiguous no, so there’s no misunderstanding. I’ll say something like this, “Unfortunately, in order to be faithful to my prior commitments, I have to say no.” I’ve made it very clear that I’m a person of integrity in terms of trying to be faithful to my other commitments, but I give them a firm no.

I don’t say, “Check back with me in a month. I’m a little busy right now,” because in a month it’s going to be the same story, so I might as well cut it off right now.

Then I end with a positive with a yes so that I leave a good taste in their mouth. I’ll say something like, “Best of luck with your publishing product. Let me know when it comes out. Can’t wait to pick up a copy. All the best. Thanks for honoring me with your request,” something like that.

I’ve never gotten a negative response when I follow up with an email like that. For the most part, people are just glad that they heard back from me because so often we send a request like that and we don’t hear because the person is procrastinating because they don’t know how to respond. They want to say no, but they don’t know how. I make it very clear.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I find that when you talk about we don’t know how to respond and we procrastinate, I find that I get a lot of requests, it’s sort of like someone’s presenting me with an opportunity, but I don’t think that they’ve given me nearly enough information to even evaluate if it’s worth talking for 15 minutes about the thing.

I’m trying to craft my TextExpander, generic response, which says, “I will need to know more before I can tell you whether or not I can talk to you about this,” which feels a little bit like, “Oh well, someone’s really busy,” but that’s really how I feel. It’s like “You know your product/service/offer better than I do. What you’re saying might be cool, but I really have no idea what this is supposed to be. Where’s the value here? Could you explain that so that I could tell you if we can find 15 minutes?”

Michael Hyatt
See, that’s a perfect example of what I talk about in the next chapter on automation, where you take something like TextExpander or you could use your email apps signature capability, but come up with a list of email templates so that you can respond to the most common kinds of requests so that you don’t have to create it from scratch every time.

I’ve tried to develop sort of this template mentality, where I ask myself if this task I’m about to do if I think I’m going to have to do it again in the future, why not take a few extra minutes now, do it right, save it as a template or a TextExpander snippet so that I can reuse it in the future and not have to reinvent the wheel every time.

For that example, a great way to deal with that using the Yes, No, Yes framework would be to say, “Hey, thanks for thinking of me for your podcast. I’m honored. I would be happy to consider it, but I need just a little bit more information.” Then you’d go through the information that you need and then let it go from there.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. That is a nice sentence. “I’d be happy to consider it. I need some more information.” Tell me, what are some other top templates you find yourself using again and again?

Michael Hyatt
Well, here’s what I did, how I started this. This is probably about 15 years ago. I noticed that there was sort of a limited range of requests that I was getting. I would get requests from people who wanted me to consider a speaking engagement or wanted me to consider serving on a non-profit board or make a charitable contribution or just have coffee with me so they could pick my brain. There were about 40 or 50 of these as I catalogued them.

Then what I tried to do – I didn’t sit down and write all these templates at once – instead what I began to do is incrementally populate a template database. At the time I was using email signatures to do this. Now TextExpander makes it even cooler. But to write these one at a time until I had a library of templates.

Every time one of those requests comes in now, I look for the template where I can respond, very rare that I don’t have a template. Instead of taking 10 or 20 minutes, now it just takes a few seconds.

But it’s not just email. For example, I use Apple Keynote for creating slide decks. If I public speech that I’m going to give or a webinar that I have to give, I always start with a template, like with a webinar. I’ve got seven main parts to all my webinars. They always start the same way. They’ve got the same transitions and the same pivots and the same ending and all that.

It’s kind of like paint by numbers, but again, I’m starting with sort of that template mentality of if I’m going to do this again, how can I do it right the first time so I can reuse it, polish it, improve it, and get better at this and take less time as I do it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much good stuff here. I want to dig in in all kinds of places, but it would be too scattered. First, let’s chat a little bit in the realm of going back to stopping for a moment. You mentioned rejuvenation. I think that we’ve heard from a few sleep doctors, a lot of good tips there and I’m a huge advocate for that. It’s so important.

But I want to get your take on when it comes to nutrition and exercise, boy, there’s a lot of advice out there. What have you found ultimately really yields good quality rejuvenation, energy, and freedoms?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, disclaimer, I’m not a physiologist or a doctor or a fitness trainer or any of that. What I do know is what works for me and I have studied a little bit.

But with regard to nutrition, I found that one of the best things to do is to really take it easy on the carbs. A high-carbohydrate diet creates a lot of problems in terms of focus and productivity. It’s why when we eat lot-quality carbs and we eat a lot of these kind of carbs like at lunch, like I’m talking about white bread, pizza, mashed potatoes, pasta, that’s why we kind of go into that funk in the afternoon and get sleepy because that turns to sugar very quickly. It burns up fast and it just doesn’t keep our blood sugar level at a level where we could be really productive.

One of the things I’ve done, and this is – I may lose some of your listeners here – but one of the things I’ve done for several months now is I’ve been on the keto diet. That’s a high fat moderate diet, a moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet. One of the things I had no idea about was how much brain fog I had until I started doing this diet.

It was actually developed back in the 1930s to help epileptic children deal with seizures. There’s a cognitive relationship between this diet, high fat, and your cognitive function. That’s been helpful to me.

I’m very careful about taking supplements, about checking my blood a couple times a week with my physical – or a couple times a week, a couple times a year with my physician, just making sure that my markers are right so that can serve as an early warning sign to head off problems before they happen.

Then I work out five to six days a week usually about an hour, three days of cardio, three days of strength training. All that just keeps my energy level up. It’s important to move in some way like that.

Pete Mockaitis
When you do the cardio or the strength training, what kind of intensity are you shooting for?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I would say moderate intensity. I’m kind of an achiever, so I’m always trying to beat my personal best. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life that I’ve ever been in. I do work with a trainer, who prescribes a program for me. We get together once a month and reevaluate the program and see where I want to go from there.

I was training for a half marathon this spring, but I injured my foot, so I’m going to back that off till this fall. But typically what I’ll do on the cardio before I had the injury is that I’ll run about 30 minutes of interval training twice a week and then I’ll do a long run and a progressively longer run on Saturdays. Yeah, it depends on what I’m training for.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Well, so now, talk about cutting again. You mentioned that there’s something that we should permanently remove from our to-do list, what is this?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, you should remove the drudgeries of stuff. That’s where you really start is with the drudgery zone activities. Those are not the best and highest use of you. They’re not going to create leverage in your business or your personal life. You’ve got to really focus on those desire zone activities.

Again, that begins with elimination and it goes to automation, and then that final chapter there is all about delegation, which one of the things I found with people that have businesses or leaders, until you can scale yourself, you can’t scale your business.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right, so when it comes to that delegation, any particular tips in terms of where to get started if you’re having trouble letting go of anything?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I think the first thing that we’ve got to do, Pete, is confront sort of the limiting beliefs or the way that we think about delegation. In my experience with coaching now hundreds and hundreds of entrepreneurs there’s usually three sentences that rattle around in their head. The first one is “If I want it done right, I have to do it,” what?

Pete Mockaitis
Myself.

Michael Hyatt
Right. Or here’s another sentence that they have. This would be a second sentence. “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself.” Or they say, “I can’t really afford additional help right now. I guess I’m going to have to do it myself.” As long as yourself is at the center of all this, you’re not going to be able to grow, you’re not going to develop additional capacity, you’re not going to be able to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

Let’s look at those one at a time. To the person who says “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself,” it’s true. It does take longer to explain it the first time, but once you explain it the first time and give people an opportunity to do it so that they can be trained, then you save yourself all the time because you never have to touch it again.

“In terms of if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” here’s the beauty of the freedom compass. What’s in your drudgery zone, might be in somebody else’s desire zone. If you hire right so that you have compatible people that offset what’s in your drudgery zone with what’s in their desire zone, then not only can they do it as well as you could do it, they can do it better than you could imagine doing it.

That’s basically how I’ve grown my entire business. I have 35 full-time people. Last year we grew 62%. I hire specifically for people that are doing their desire zone activities so that everybody’s functioning in their strengths and doing the things that they love and the things that they’re proficient at. That’s a real key.

Then the whole thing about affording, “I can’t afford somebody to do it,” you can take baby steps. I’m not advocating going out and hiring a big staff or even hiring somebody full time. You can start as a solopreneur or as a leader just with a part time virtual assistant. That’s how I started.

Back in 2011 when I left the big corporate world, where I was managing a large company where we were doing a quarter of a billion dollars a year and then I stepped into a solopreneur job, where I couldn’t even find a FedEx box. I had to start small. I hired a virtual executive assistant, who worked five hours a week. I did that for a couple of weeks. I saw the value of it. Then I upped their time to about 10 hours a week, then 15 hours, and 20 hours.

But here’s how the conversation often goes. I had a client by the name of Greg. Greg said, “Look, I’ve got a business where I have to have a web presence. I know just kind of enough about web design and web development to do it myself. It’s probably not the best use of my time, but I really don’t feel like I can afford somebody else to do it now.”

I said, “Well, let me ask you a question, Greg. How much do you bill for? What’s your hourly rate?” He said “150 dollars an hour.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “What would it cost you to get a WordPress developer, somebody that was really good that knew what they were doing? They could do a little bit of design work too.” He said, “Probably 50 dollars an hour.” I said, “Then why are you paying somebody 150 dollars an hour that you admit isn’t that good?”

The lights went on. He went, “Wow.” I said, “If you hired somebody at 50 dollars an hour, it would free you up to bill for that additional time and you’d come out ahead 100 dollars an hour.” That’s how we have to think about delegation. It requires an investment first, but boy, that’s when we begin to reap the rewards and that’s when we begin to clone ourselves in a sense because we’ve got other people that are helping us.

Pete Mockaitis
For folks who are professionals and not business owners, what are some key things you’d recommend they delegate?

Michael Hyatt
I think the same thing. Go back to the freedom compass. Start with the drudgery zone because your company is probably not paying you to do those things that you don’t love and those things that you’re not proficient at. If they are, you’re in the wrong job. Get rid of those things because it’s not the best and highest use of you.

Then go to the disinterest zone, then the distraction zone. Again, focus on those few things that really create the leverage, the things that your employer thinks the results you ought to be delivering. That’s where you’re going to see the advance in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. When it comes to cutting, how do you recommend we cut distractions?

Michael Hyatt
Well, you’ve got to have an offensive plan to begin with. I talk in the book about how to design your quarter, how to design your week and how to design your day. Once you have a good offensive plan, then you’ve got to come up with a defensive plan for the interruptions. I distinguish between interruptions and distractions, two different things.

Interruptions are the external things. It’s people dropping by to visit. It’s that text message you get. It’s people interrupting you. I often talk to leaders who say, “I can’t get my own work done because I’ve got so many people interrupting me to help them with their work.” I think one of the best strategies is to have an offense on those two.

First of all, schedule time to get your most important work done. Make it a commitment and put it on your calendar. What gets scheduled is what gets done.

Then, preempt those interruptions by going to the people who are most likely to interrupt you, and you know how they are, go to those people and say, “Hey, look, I’m about to do some really important, focused work. It’s important that I don’t get interrupted, but I want to be available to serve you, so are there any questions you have, anything I can help you with before I go into this session?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Hyatt
This is awesome because, now all of the sudden, you’ve put them on notice and you’ve also not been a jerk about it. You’ve communicated that you want to help them, but you kind of want to do it on your terms.

Then you’ve got distractions. Now distractions are all the stuff that look external, but are really a problem with ourselves with self-control. This could be jumping over to Facebook. The problem is we’ve got multi-billion dollar-social media companies, who are doing a tremendous amount of research and whose entire business model is built on high jacking our psychology and manipulating our dopamine.

They want us to spend as much time on those platforms as possible. Why? Because they’re repackaging our attention and they’re selling it to the highest bidder in the form of advertisers. We have to combat that. The best way to do it, I think, is to use technology to fight technology.

For example, my smartphone, it looks like a really cool device. It does a gazillion things. I’ve got an iPhone XS Max. It does a bazillion things, but it’s a very sophisticated distraction device if I’m not careful. On my phone, I’ve removed email. I’ve removed Slack, which is our internal communication program. And I’ve removed all social media with the exception of Instagram because I’m trying to build my Instagram following.

But even there I’ve used the technology to fight technology. I go into settings, screen time, and I limit my use of Instagram to 30 minutes a day. Even better, I gave my phone to my wife and I said “Set a passcode for that so that I can’t cheat and don’t tell me the passcode.” When my time is up on Instagram, my time is up.

There’s a great app for the desktop that works on Windows or Mac or any platform called Freedom. You can find it at Freedom.to. I don’t have any relationship with them except that I use this program and love it. But it allows you to selectively turn off apps and websites for a specific period of time, which allows you to stay focused when you do your most creative breakthrough kind of work.

The only way to defeat Freedom is to completely reboot your computer. That gives me just friction so that I can remember my intention that I’m trying to get focused work done. It enables me to avoid the distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. What do you think about mindfulness practice when it comes to building the capacity to resist distraction?

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s really important. I meditate every morning for 15 minutes. It just gives me the opportunity to collect my thoughts, to kind of get centered, to get focused, to get re-connected with my most important priorities. Again, it kind of goes back to the freedom that I talked about before, the freedom to do nothing. It’s often underrated.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’d love to dig in for a moment now. When you say meditation, are you referring to more of a mind training exercise or more of a prayer exercise?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I actually do both. I do pray. I also do just straight up meditation. I use an app called 1 Giant Mind. Are you familiar with that?

Pete Mockaitis
I know a couple. I don’t know that one.

Michael Hyatt
It’s awesome. If you’re familiar with Headspace-

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael Hyatt
It’s kind of similar to that, but I actually like it better and it’s free. But 1 Giant Mind. It has 12 initial lessons and then you can go into a 30-day challenge, but the instruction is fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh lovely. Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed a little bit of all of them in terms of Calm, Simple Habit, Headspace. They all give me a little bit of a different perspective. I go, oh yeah, that’s a really good one. Thank you. Much appreciated. We’ll check out another one. Cool.

Michael Hyatt
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so we talked about stopping. We talked about cutting. Now what?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, so now we get to that third section of the book, which is called Act. It’s a little bit counterintuitive because you’d think that Act ought to come first, but I find that you’ve got to stop, kind of reflect where you want to go, then you need to cut or prune because anything that’s healthy has to be pruned from time to time, but now it’s time to act.

Now, hopefully, you’ve gotten rid of all the stuff that’s in your drudgery zone, a lot of the stuff in your disinterest and distractions zones and now we’re going to focus on how to get more done in your desire zone, the things that you love and the things that you’re good at. That begins with a chapter called consolidate. This is all about designing your ideal week.

The idea is that you want to design a week as if you were in 100% control of your time and resources. What would that look like? If you really wanted to give it some intelligent design and not just be reactive to what came over the transom and schedule those things, but actually we’re very proactive about it.

Here’s how mine works for example. First of all, I’m going to start with on Mondays is when I have my internal team meetings. I batch all these together for one simple reason. It’s the concept of context switching.

In other words, anytime I switch a context, for example, I go from a meeting to I go to some time where I’m working on a project to maybe I’m going to record some video, anytime I go to a different context, there’s a certain amount of ramp up time, a certain amount of time to kind of get into the groove, find my equilibrium and get into flow. Well, the less you can do that, the more momentum you can build.

When I get into that space in my head of meetings and I’m in meeting mode, then I just batch them altogether. Internal meetings are all on Monday.

Tuesday, is all about what I call backstage time. This is my time for preparation on the front stage. Everybody’s front stage is going to look different, but the front stage is what your employer or your clients are paying you, that’s what you’re delivering, but there’s always some backstage work that has to be done in order to do that.

If you’re a lawyer, for example, your front stage might be arguing a case before a court or negotiating a contract on behalf of a client, but there’s a lot of research in the backstage that has to go into that preparation. For me, Tuesday is all about that preparation.

Wednesday and Thursday for me are front stage activities. For example, when I record my podcast, I do that in a day and a half once a quarter and I record 13 episodes in a row. It takes me a day and a half, but then I don’t think about it for another quarter. I get into that headspace and I stay focused and knock it out.

Then on Friday is when I try to consolidate my external meetings. If anybody wants to meet with me, they come in from out of town or a vendor or a client or whatever, I try to move those to Friday. Why? Because I don’t want those meetings interrupting my progress on my front stage days or my back stage days.

Then, of course, I have – and a lot of people don’t know about this – but there’s actually an offstage. All of life doesn’t have to be work. On the weekends, on Saturday and Sunday for me, I’m not thinking about work. I don’t talk about work. I don’t read about work. I don’t do work. Why? Because I want to get back in on Monday morning totally rejuvenated and ready to hit the ground running.

That for me is my ideal week. This could be a game changer for people to begin to get some sense of control back. I would say, Pete, probably in any given week, I’ll probably approximate that about 80%. Things are going to happen. I don’t try to be legalistic about it. But boy, going into the week with a plan is a whole lot better than just reacting to what comes over the transom. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. Yes. What do you think about in terms of total hours of work in a day and a week, energy levels and optimizing that?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I keep my work to 40 hours a week. I can tell you that the science and I quote it in the book, but once you get past about 55 hours a week, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time you work and the level of productivity you have. It actually goes backwards after you give 55 hours. There’s been a lot of study done on this.

But the average person is buying into what I call the hustle fallacy, where you’ve got to work 80 hours, you’ve got to work 100 hours. That’s a recipe for burnout. It’s also a recipe for screwing up your life, screwing up your health, screwing up your most important relationships.

What I’m after, personally, is what I call the double win. I want to win at work, but I want to succeed at life. I’m not willing to compromise either for the sake of the other one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to get your take, I don’t know if you would liken yourself to this, but I think of, hey, Michael Hyatt, Elon Musk, two titans, very different perspectives. I guess, when it comes to Elon Musk it’s like I cannot deny that is one successful dude, who has made a lot of things happen and he espouses very much the hustle mentality.

Michael Hyatt
He does.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we reconcile that?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think it depends on you define success. He’s blown through a couple marriages. He, by his own admission, doesn’t talk to his kids hardly. He’s sleeping at the factory so much so that his fans started a Kickstarter page to buy him a new couch, kind of as a joke, so he’d have something better to sleep on. He’s appeared in the media and said some crazy things, which have led even to fines from the SEC and other federal agencies.

I think it depends on how you define success. Look, I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue, but here’s the thing. Here’s what’s possible. Last year I took off 160 days, now that counts weekends, so 160 days including a one-month sabbatical, which I’ve done every year for the last eight years and my business grew 62%.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.

Michael Hyatt
I really think this idea of achieving more by doing less – the hustle fallacy, I want to keep my health. I’d like to live a long time. I’ve been married for 40 years, almost 41 years. I have 5 grown daughters, who I adore and who like me. This doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s not because I’m lucky, but I’ve tried to focus on those things.

Again, I’m not trying to hold myself up as the paragon of virtue, but I’m just saying that there’s a different model for success than the one that Elon Musk espouses. I’m not trying to judge him, but just look at the fruit, look at the results.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well done. Thank you. Well, tell me before we sort of shift gears and do your favorite things, any sort of key mistakes folks make when they’re trying to say, “Heck yes, I want to get free to focus and do these things.” What are some roadblocks or some fumbles folks make along the way as they’re trying to enact this stuff?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think the biggest tip I can give people is to get a plan for your day. This is where you’re going to get the biggest leap forward. I advocate something called the daily big three. Here’s how it goes for most people. They start the day – if they have a to-do list, and not everybody works with a to-do list, which is also a guarantee for being reactive, but let’s say you have a to-do list. The average person’s going to have somewhere between 20 and 25 items on that list.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Before they begin the day, they’re already feeling overwhelmed, like there’s no way that I can accomplish what’s on my list. They get to the end of the day and even if they’ve done half of it, where do they focus? On the half they didn’t get done. They go to bed defeated. This becomes a vicious cycle. It creates a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of frustration and ultimately leads to burnout.

But the problem is they’ve created a game, they’ve set themselves up to fail by creating a game that they can’t possibly win. What I suggest is instead of that, go ahead and identify the three highest leveraged tasks that you can do today. Not all tasks are created equal. We know from the Pareto principle that 20% of the effort drives 80% of the results.

Let’s just go ahead on the front end and say “What are the three most important things that I can do today?” Now all of the sudden that seems manageable. At the end of the day when I accomplish those three things, even if I didn’t do all the other trivial things, at least I got the most important things done.

You do three important tasks like that a day, you do it 250 days a year, which is the average number of workdays people have, that’s 750 important things per year. That, more than anything else, will give you a sense of control and give you a sense that you’re winning. When you feel like you’re winning, it builds your confidence and it builds your momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I like feeling like I’m winning. Well said.

Michael Hyatt
Me too. Me too.

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

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. I think one of my most favorite quotes is one by Warren Buffet. He said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

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

Michael Hyatt
I would say the research that I’ve done into sleep has been probably the most rewarding, especially into naps because I sort of knew intuitively that napping was a powerful way to rejuvenate and kind of reboot in the middle of the day. I’ve faithfully practiced it for about 30 years.

I took a nap today, so between interviews I laid down for 20 minutes, fell to sleep – I trained myself to fall to sleep quickly – I wake up and I’m a little bit groggy maybe for about ten minutes or so, drink a cup of coffee, and then it’s like I’m rebooted.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to know, how do you train yourself to fall asleep quickly?

Michael Hyatt
It’s not unlike training yourself to meditate. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to fall asleep. What I do is kind of try to focus on my breathing and focus on relaxing. If you do that and do it routinely, you’ll find yourself falling asleep. If you don’t fall asleep, it’s still rejuvenating, even if you do nothing but put your feet up and relax.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Michael Hyatt
I’m one of those guys, I read a ton. I tend to focus on the books that I’ve read most recently. The book that I love that I just finished here about two weeks ago was Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Have you read that?

Pete Mockaitis
I have perused it. Can you tell me maybe a takeaway that was particularly valuable for you?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the biggest one was on the value of high-quality leisure, so really being intentional about your leisure time and how it correlates to our work, it makes us more productive at work. But that was really challenging and really exciting to think about.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Michael Hyatt
Let me think here for a second. I would say the tool that I’m enjoying the most right now is a tool called Notion. Have you heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Michael Hyatt
Notion is kind of like a personal Wiki. It could be. A lot of people are using it as an Evernote replacement. I’m still using Evernote, but only as a digital junk drawer. Notion is where I put structured information, information I want to get back to. It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s an outstanding tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting, thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Michael Hyatt
A favorite habit without question is my morning routine, just going through my drill every morning, setting myself up for high performance. Again, I learned this from the world of athletics, where the world’s best athletes have a pre-game ritual. I think of my morning time as a pre-game ritual. That’s the time when I’m going to pray, the time I’m going to meditate, the time I’m going to exercise and get fueled for the day.

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

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s that one about winning at work and succeeding at life. I think that with my clients, that’s just captivated their imagination and gets them really excited because I think most people have kind of fallen into this idea that you’ve got to give up one or the other. You can’t have both. I think when people are given a model, and that’s what I try to do in the book, Free to Focus, for how that can be done, it resonates with people.

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

Michael Hyatt
Well, in terms of the book, I would go to FreeToFocusBook.com. It has links to all the places where you can buy the book, but more importantly, it also has 500 dollars’ worth of free bonus material related to the book that you can get just by turning in your receipt. That’s all you’ve got to do. Turn in your receipt, claim the free bonuses. It has some amazing stuff including the audio version of the book for free. Then for all things related to me, just MichaelHyatt – Hyatt with a Y, not an I – MichaelHyatt.com.

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

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I would say that in this kind of distraction economy where people are so sidetracked and there’s so much sideways energy and so much fake working going on, if you can learn to focus, that could become a super power.

I would just encourage people to differentiate themselves from their competitors and from their peers by being the person that really can deliver the highly creative, deeply important work that moves their business forward, that moves their personal work forward because so many people are sidetracked and distracted. You can differentiate yourself and make a real difference in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Michael, this has been a ton of fun. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it.

420: How to Break Free from Distracting Devices with Brian Solis

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Brian Solis says: "There has to be a much more mindful approach to how we use technology... in a sense, it's taking control of us and we have to take control of it."

Brian Solis interlinks procrastination, distraction, and device-related addiction to show how they rob us of productivity and happiness.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biochemical forces that rewire your brain when exposed to social media
  2. The key thing you must do  to reclaim your attention
  3. Why devices are often thieves of our own happines

About Brian

Brian Solis is Principal Analyst and futurist at Altimeter, a Prophet Company, a keynote speaker and best-selling author. Brian studies disruptive technology and its impact on business and society. In his reports, articles and books, he humanizes technology and its impact on business and society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. Brian’s research explores digital transformation, customer experience and culture 2.0 and “the future of” industries, trends and behavior.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brian Solis Interview Transcript

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

Brian Solis
Pete, it’s honestly my pleasure. I’m really looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes, well me too. I’m excited to dig into the wisdom of your book, Lifescale, but I understand that this is personal for you. Can you tell us the story of how distractions were impairing your life?

Brian Solis
Oh yeah. Well, it’s my favorite subject, kind of fall on the sword and be vulnerable to everybody, but in all seriousness, it was not the book that I set out to write. In fact, I was trying to write another book on innovation and just couldn’t really get past the proposal stage. For the first time in my life I was stuck and couldn’t figure out why and had wondered if this is what writer’s block had felt like or if I was just stretched too thin.

But long story short, after a whole bunch of research and time of reflection and introspection, I’d gotten down to the bottom of the fact that I wasn’t able to get into the flow like I used to because I completely changed my life. At that point, when I started writing the proposal, it had been two years since the previous book had published. Before that, each subsequent book had been a little harder and harder to write.

This time was the first time I couldn’t get past the proposal stage. I had just basically succumbed to all of the digital distractions that define my life. In the time that I had written the last book, I had grown exponentially on platforms. I was using my phone more and more and more and it had an incredible effect on depth and creativity and flow and productivity in ways that I just didn’t realize until I had to go back and dive deep or try to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting, so you’re kind of a victim of your own success. You had so many fans, followers, et cetera, that there’s just more to respond to and more potential for beeps and buzzes and claims of your attention.

Brian Solis
Yeah, absolutely. Not only that, but with that pressure of maintaining a presence and also trying to stay relevant and continue to build that audience because there’s always somebody or something new to follow or at least be entertained by.

The other side of it is the dark side of digital, which is what it does to your brains. It rewires it. It makes it operate it much faster. It makes it jump around from task to task to give you sort of the semblance of multitasking, but essentially all you’re really doing is task hopping. It sort of drives you to float at a much more superficial level rather than allowing you the freedom and space to dive deeper and be content there.

I could list out a million different things that it does to you, but it also affects you chemically.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned that it rewires your brain, these digital devices and these interactions. Can you share with me perhaps one of the most frightening bits of research or studies that points to this phenomenon?

Brian Solis
Oh my goodness, well, there’s so many. Just going outside of the brain rewiring thing. For example, if you use social media quite a bit, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, one of the things that tends to happen is that when you post something or based on the designs of those apps, they are designed to create micro doses of anxiety.

For example, if you open the app, there’s going to be a millisecond delay before you see how many new notifications you have. That’s meant to sort of create this sense of anticipation so that when you see that number, you feel like you’ve won. In that moment what it’s doing is unlocking a series of six different chemicals within your body.

Also the same types of chemicals swoosh about you when you do get a new like or when you do get a new follower or when people are connecting with you, so essentially getting these micro doses of the semblances of joy or happiness or validation or connection or desire. Your body learns to crave that, not unlike smoking or not unlike other types of drugs or alcohol that your body just starts to produce these chemicals in the absence of using those apps that sort of feed that addiction for you to come back.

That over time plays out in all kind of things. For example, I studied the effects of Instagram and Snapchat on a woman’s definition of beauty and also the effects on their self-esteem. I wish I could publish the results, but I will say this is that it’s not good. It leads to all kinds of things and not just loneliness, but depression.

Because if you think about it, there’s this sense of them trying to always keep up with what the internet’s standard of beauty is or whomever you follow and what that standard is. Even then it’s not necessarily always a real standard. They might be using FaceTune as a way of sort of making themselves slimmer or more attractive or younger.

This is also creating new types of plastic surgery products that are catering to what’s called dysmorphia or filter dysmorphia or in some cases, Snapchat dysmorphia because people want to look the way that they do in, let’s just say, their selfies self, their aspirational self.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s so fascinating. I guess I didn’t realize that the platforms deliberately put in a little bit of a gap before you saw the notifications. I just thought that that was dumb like, “Didn’t you know that’s what I wanted to see first? How come I have to wait for this?” It’s like, “No, it’s by design, Pete.” Now I know.

Brian Solis
Yeah, Pete, it’s by design. It’s even worse, it’s called persuasive design. It’s actually taught at Stanford University. It goes further than that. Some of the techniques that they use are also for example, called variable intermittent rewards, which are designed to emulate the types of things that go into, for example, digital slot machines or even analog slot machines. It’s really meant to kind of cater that every time you use it, you feel like you are you.

I’ve called this sort of resulting circumstance accidental narcissism because everything that you do in these platforms essentially tells you that you’re the most important person in the world. If you don’t like what you see online, so for example, if you post something that really mattered to you, but you didn’t get enough likes or reactions to it, chances are you’re probably going to delete it because that’s not your best foot forward, at least in the way that you think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there we go. There’s some formidable biochemical forces at work when it comes to these devices and social media accounts and generating some addictive stuff. Tell us, what have you found are the most powerful practices to get liberated from this and reclaim your power to focus?

Brian Solis
This is a challenge that I face with this book as well is how do you sell a book to people who don’t necessarily realize that they’re distracted or suffering from any of this. In total honesty, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know I had a problem until I failed in a pretty significant life milestone. I would hate for anybody else to kind of have to get to that point. I want everybody to optimistically or proactively come to this conclusion on their own.

I share this with you because, for example, Google and Apple are putting what they’re calling digital wellness tools inside of your smartphones that sort of document how much time you spend on your phone every day or your tablet, where you’re spending all of your time.

I’ve noticed in many cases in my – it’s called digital anthropology – in my work that people don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. They see it almost as a badge.

Somebody I talked to while I was at South by Southwest recently told me, “My gosh, these digital wellness tools are killing me. It told me yesterday that I spent over five hours, over five hours. Can you believe that?” And not once in the conversation did they say, “I need to change,” or that there’s a problem or-

Pete Mockaitis
Just like, “How about that?”

Brian Solis
Yeah, pretty much. To get to the answer of your question, there has to be a much more mindful approach to how we use technology. I’m not asking anybody to disregard it. I need it in my work and in my world. But we have to take a much more mindful approach to how we use it. In a sense, it’s taking control of us and we have to take control of it.

Even getting there, it’s even in the smallest of things. It’s starting to build the muscle memory and the expertise and the rigor to be able to just focus on one thing, whether it’s mono-tasking or whether it’s some type of exercise or whether you’re practicing meditation.

Whatever it is, just focus on one thing for at least – studies show at least 25 minutes to build that discipline so that you aren’t getting pulled in a million different directions because if you are getting pulled in a million different directions all the time, you’re never building the skillset necessary to be more creative.

Creativity is what the world needs now in a time where everybody’s using filters or augmented reality, where artificial intelligence and machine learning is starting to take and automate everybody’s jobs. This is the time for creativity because creativity is the source of innovation and that’s what we’re trying to get to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so you’re saying it’s just sort of like building a muscle. You’ve got to go ahead and challenge yourself to focus on one thing, be it mediation on a given task for at least 25 minutes in order to get some gains bro.

Brian Solis
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Then I’m also curious when it comes to taking breaks, like if you want to have more rejuvenation and restoration to have more creativity, I’m guessing you wouldn’t recommend, “Hey, check out what’s on Facebook,” as a refresher. What would you recommend instead?

Brian Solis
I’ll tell you this. One of the stats that blew me away was every time you reach for your phone – and look, the first couple of times I tried using what was called the Pomodoro Technique, which is a little tomato kitchen timer, a little analog thing, but they make digital versions. The first time I tried to focus for 25 minutes, I was reaching for my phone without a notification. That was the muscle memory I was working against.

Stats show that when you allow yourself to break free in a moment like that, it takes about 23 minutes or so to get back to work. Your body has to just sort of shift its gears because what’s happening is when you’re shifting tasks, you’re actually – there are nutrients in your brain that you’re using up and you’re having to sort of refocus it into a certain area where you were before and that takes time. That also depletes those nutrients over time. They say you’re freshest in the day.

But ultimately, one of the things that I learned here and I hope this answers your question, Pete, is you have to want to get your task done and not only get it done, but get it done in the uniqueness of you so that it stands out in a world where everybody is really starting to look the same. As amazing as everybody’s life looks online, it’s pretty much all the same.

You have to express yourself in the truest sense of you. You can’t do that if you don’t know who you are outside of what you’re trying to project and also if you don’t know what you’re capable of.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, Brian, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?

Brian Solis
Yeah. One of things that I found was that we tend to procrastinate more because it’s really so hard to shift and focus. It’s actually easier to give yourself to distractions and notifications and also because we’re chemically drawn to it. In a sense, we’re addicted without understanding that we’re addicted. We were sort of subjected to those designs that got us there. It wasn’t really our choice to get there.

But what happens over time is that procrastination becomes sort of this subconscious attempt to avoid those unpleasant emotions or those unfamiliar disciplines that we sort of lost or gave up in exchange for our devices.

There was this quote that I had stumbled on from Muhammad Ali that said he hated every minute of training, but he told himself not to quit. The suffering that he was going through now, he was going to be able to live the rest of his life as a champion. That got me to think about whether it’s my work or your work or whatever it is that we’re trying to do, individuality really is a competitive advantage.

Also, creativity is, honestly, a scientifically-proven key to happiness. If you can’t visualize what it is that you want to achieve and why, then you can’t appreciate it and you can’t learn and you can’t build upon it to celebrate it. Essentially, that means that the devices and our relationship to them become sort of thieves of our own happiness.

That’s what I want to leave everybody with is that really what we’re talking about is not just taking control of technology, but actually living a happier, more creative life that we get to say what we use technology for and how and why and what we get express that’s uniquely us and then and only then can we live our truly best life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brian Solis
I think it was that Muhammad Ali quote, but I think I have another one too. It was this quote from one of the designers, who shall be unnamed, who was basically whistleblowing on the whole industry about the techniques they use to define some of our favorite apps and it was that “We were given the power of the gods without their wisdom.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is nice. Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brian Solis
I started with this Pomodoro Technique to build that discipline down to 25 minutes, but I also found the equivalent in vinyl, listening to vinyl again. One side of a record is roughly about 25 minutes.

The process of focusing for 25 minutes is fantastic, but also the physical routines that you go through to pull that vinyl out of its sleeve and kind of enjoy the senses of the smell and the feel and putting that needle slowly down on the disk and hearing the crackling a bit. It’s also very cathartic and therapeutic. You build this muscle set, but you also calm your mind into this way of being able to jump into a much deeper way of work much faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I haven’t heard that as a tool before. Vinyl, awesome. How about a favorite habit?

Brian Solis
A new favorite habit that was an old favorite habit has been the arts. I grew up playing guitar and sort of shelved it in favor of chasing a paycheck. What I had slowly lost in my life was that sense of artistry that really unlocks parts of your brain that you can’t really get to without it.

I’ve started playing around with all kinds of different things like I’m not even an illustrator or an artist in any way shape or form, but I try to pretend like I am one. I’ll draw. Sometimes I’ll throw the pen in my left hand and try to write sentences and just kind of activate much more artistic behaviors to keep that brain firing in new and unique ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Brian, this has been such a treat. I wish you much luck with the book, and your speaking, and your work, and all the fun you’re up to.

Brian Solis
Well, Pete, I appreciate it. I’m on a mission. Like you said at the beginning, this is my eighth book, but my first personal book. I’m hoping to just bring anyone who is willing along on the journey with me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Thank you.

418: Separating Your Self-Worth from Your Productivity with Rahaf Harfoush

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Rahaf Harfoush says: "We have this constant narrative that if we're not always hustling... that we're shameful and that we don't deserve our own success."

Rahaf Harfoush masterfully unpacks history, psychology, philosophy, and more to discover how we got obsessed with hustling / productivity…and how that obsession often hurts our  creative output.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How productivity and creativity are incompatible
  2. The reverberating negative impact of the 2008 economic recession on how we work
  3. Best practices for optimizing your limited reserve of energy

About Rahaf

Rahaf is a Digital Anthropologist, Best-Selling Author, and Speaker researching the impacts of emerging technologies on our society. She focuses on understanding the deep (and often hidden) behavioral shifts that are taking place within organizations and individuals as global digital infrastructures enable the unprecedented exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. She teaches Innovation and Disruptive Business Models at SciencePo’s Masters of Finance and Economics Program in Paris.

She’s worked with organizations like Starwood Capital Group, Deutsche Bank, Estée Lauder, UNESCO, The OECD, A1, ING Direct, and  more.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Rahaf Harfoush Interview Transcript

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

Rahaf Harfoush
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your stuff, but first I want to hear about something you write that the world doesn’t see. You say that you write fiction secretly. What’s this about?

Rahaf Harfoush
I just love losing myself in a good fiction story, so I’ve just been toying around with thrillers and murder mysteries and just things that I write. Nobody has seen any of this yet, so maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to release that, but it’s a really nice outlet. It’s really complimentary to the nonfiction writing that I do for my regular job. It’s an interesting balance. It stretches my abilities in different ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so murder mystery, that’s intriguing. How do you come up with creative ways for people to die?

Rahaf Harfoush
Let’s just say if anything was ever to happen to my husband and they looked at my Google searches, I think I would be in trouble.

Pete Mockaitis
Although that’s the-

Rahaf Harfoush
I’m always Googling the most random things. It’s always like, “How long does it take for a body to do this?” “What happens if you do that?” My husband always laughs because he goes, “Honestly, you better hope nobody ever looks at your search history.” Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s actually perfect if you really were going to do some malfeasance, then having that as a cover would be great. “Well, I am an amateur novelist. This is all part of the research, detective. Look elsewhere.”

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, that could be the big plan.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, again, I really appreciate you’re up late in France, taking the time to chat. I’m excited to dig into it. One book you’ve got out, it’s no secret, Hustle and Float. There’s so much good stuff in it. Could you share, for starters, perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery that you came about when you were putting the book together?

Rahaf Harfoush
The most fascinating thing that I experienced when writing this book was how there was often a gap in my own behavior and my own knowledge. It was like really frustrating because or I would originally be researching stuff like burnout and the need to meditate and things like that. Then even though I was writing about them rationally, I would be doing behaviors that were the opposite. That was a thing.

The other thing was, this was a book that was written to try to understand why we often act against our own creative performance, against our own creative best interests. I guess what surprised me was that I was surprised by how much these forces were influencing my life and how much they were impacting the way I was approaching my job, my work, my performance, my productivity.

There were moments when I would finish researching something, identify how it was manifesting in my own life and just really be like “Wow, I cannot believe that this narrative that has developed over the last 50 years is the reason why I do X or the reason why I can’t do this, or that.”

That was really interesting. It was almost like peeling back the layers of an OS and kind of looking into the code and realizing there’s all sorts of stuff in there that are determining your decisions that you never knew.

Pete Mockaitis
That is very intriguing. When you talk about the phrase ‘acting against our own creative best interests,’ what exactly do you mean by that and can you give us a rich example?

Rahaf Harfoush
What I found out in my own experience and in talking to hundreds of professional creatives—so strategists, entrepreneurs, leaders, managers, writers, designers, lawyers, accountants—was that people who were high performers or people who identified as high performers had all experienced at least once in their career a time where they were burnt out, where they experienced physical or mental symptoms as a result of overwork.

The thing that really intrigued me about this research was I asked them, “Did you try frameworks? Did you have the knowledge to prevent this?” They all said yes. This was really interesting to me because that meant that the problem wasn’t a lack of knowhow.

It wasn’t like you were going to open the door and be like, “Hey guys, I want to introduce you to this thing called napping, and this thing called vacations. You should really try it one day.” It’s like we all knew what we should be doing and none of us were doing it.

When I started to look to understand why, I realized that our work culture has taken two really big important concepts—productivity and creativity—and we’ve shoved them together to create our modern work culture. The problem is is that these two things are not compatible and when we try to chase our obsession with being productive, we end up hurting our creative performance. We end up getting in our own way.

We end up getting in our own way even when we know better, even when we feel tired, even when we sense burnout coming on, we can’t seem to stop ourselves. This contradiction in behavior from smart, intelligent, ambitious people—I was like, I have to figure out what’s going on. That’s kind of what the general gist of the book is about.

An example would be that you’re working on a client project or you’re writing something or researching something and you keep pushing yourself. Even though you’re tired and even though you know that the best thing you could do for yourself would be to step away, you don’t. You pull an all-nighter. You don’t get sleep. You start skipping meals. Your health starts to suffer.

You do all of these things in pursuit of this productive goal, but in reality every step that you’re taking is actually making it more difficult for you to creatively perform. I’ve seen this across the board. I have seen lawyers, I have seen writers, I experienced this myself firsthand.

I had such a severe round of burnout that I was incapable of doing anything for my job for weeks. My hair fell out. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. It was actually, in all honesty, absolutely terrifying. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I never want to experience anything like that again.

The fact that it was totally preventable, was the most frustrating thing because even when I was at my worst, even when I was so sick, I was still kind of shaming myself about it. Why weren’t you strong enough? Why can’t you just push through? Why can’t you just hustle harder? Why can’t you just keep getting up in the morning? There was this like never-ending narrative of shame that was pushing me.

That’s when I was like, okay, I need to get to the bottom of this because this way of working is not sustainable and if I want to have a long and fruitful career, I have to find a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. What drama, losing hair, unable to work. Wow. That is primed nicely. Then tell us, when it comes to these narratives or wrong ideas or these behaviors, what’s kind of fundamentally going on inside our brains that causes us to do these things that are working against our own interest?

Rahaf Harfoush
What you realize is that you are this person and you think you’re this rational, intelligent person, but really you are in the middle of this crazy mix of I call them the three forces, which are your systems, your stories and yourself. In other words, the history, how our work culture evolved, how our thinking about idolizing productivity, why work is considered to be morally good, all these things, how those ideas developed.

You have just the history of productivity systems and how businesses evolved. You have the stories that we tell ourselves about success, so all those articles that you see about why you should get up at 4:30 in the morning to get the job done, how we sort of worship productive people, how any magazine cover, business magazine cover, you’ll see the ‘secrets of the highly productive people,’ ‘get more done.’

We have this reinforcing narrative that takes thing like the American dream, if you just work hard enough, you’ll be successful, combined with this obsession of being busy and productive. We have these stories that we tell ourselves about what success looks like in our culture.

Then finally you have ourselves, which is our body, how our brains and bodies are wired. These three forces together mix and they give us a very specific set of beliefs about the role that work plays in our lives, the role that it plays and links to our self-worth, to our identity, to our value in society, to whether or not we’re worthy, whether or not we’re enough, to whether or not we have accomplished our goals and what that means, to our social standing.

You have this really complex emotional relationship that’s been built on years and years and years and years of stories and belief systems and attitudes and reinforced narratives that you see in the media. Then you now have this new era of work, where most of us are being paid to do creative work, knowledge work.

Here we are trying to do a type of work, but we’re forcing ourselves to evaluate our performance based on systems that were designed during the industrial revolution, systems that weren’t designed for the type of work that we’re doing. They weren’t designed for us. Plus, we have this constant narrative that if we’re not always hustling, always pursuing, always chasing, that we’re shameful and that we don’t deserve our own success.

When you look and you see, for example, why is it that most people check email on their vacations or most people don’t even take the full allocation of vacations that they have, it’s not because they don’t want to enjoy their vacation. It’s because we have these deep drivers that are linked to our vulnerabilities and our ego that are convincing us that our work is linked to our worth as a human being.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh my gosh, this is so good, so good. What’s funny, as you were speaking, I was transported to a time I was on a fishing, outdoorsy vacation with my BFF, Connor, and company. We had a fishing guide. We were doing fishing. It was kind of fun to do, hanging out, nice sunny day. Then in the afternoon, I remember Connor, he looked at his phone and his emails and then he said out loud, “Why am I looking at my email?” He was like genuinely bewildered that it just kind of happened to his surprise.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, it’s a powerful motivator.

Pete Mockaitis
It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t deeply addictedly habitual because some folks – I guess there’s a whole continuum or spectrum of that behavior. But it happened and it surprised him. I was sort of surprised as well. It was like, “Yeah, why do we do that?” It sounds like you’ve actually gotten somewhat to the bottom of the answer, why do we do that?

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah. It’s really sad in a way because we’ve put so much of ourselves, which is now tied up in our jobs. When I was going through my burnout, the thing that kept rattling around in my brain the whole time was, “If I’m a writer that can’t write, what do you do with a writer that can’t write? Who am I if I’m not a writer?” I didn’t realize how much I had absorbed that part of what I do into who I was.

Then you start to understand, okay, now we’re dealing with all of this economic turbulence, we’re dealing with automation, we’re dealing with new industries, we’re dealing with globalization and all of these things are shaking the foundations of what we use to define as work. The definition of what work is, what a jobs is, what a career is, that’s all changing.  But all of that is so linked to how we see ourselves and how we see each other.

Of course we’re going to get a little bit nervous when people start rattling at that foundation. It makes sense that we’re behaving this way.

I’ll tell you a super really quick anecdote. During the 2008 financial crisis, this really crazy thing happened where a lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people were out of work. There was a lot of panic. But during this time, job satisfaction went up.

Even though during the financial crisis when companies fired people that meant that the rest of the work had to be divided amongst the people that were left. A lot of people suddenly found themselves doing 1.5 jobs, 1.75 jobs, maybe even 2 jobs, but because everyone was so terrified of getting laid off, happiness at work during that time actually increased. Job satisfaction went up because people were just so grateful to have a job.

At the same time, they were too afraid to ask for time off, they were too afraid to ask for extra help. We sort of solidified this traumatic economic experience, but we fused it with this bizarre thread of happiness, which I think kind of scrambled our brains a little bit.

Then when the economy recovered, many companies didn’t hire all those people back because they thought, “Huh, we’re getting by fine without it.” Many people sort of kept the link between their job satisfaction and the overwork they were performing and that overwork became the norm and it also became a reflection of the security that they had during a time of incredible economic turbulence.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. You’re saying that – and maybe you have some data to back this up – that if you look at workers in say 2000 to 2007, sort of pre-2008 recession, to now, there’s a whole lot more hustling and idolization of the hustle now as compared to a mere 12 years ago.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah. Yeah and it almost acts like – in the book there’s a whole chapter devoted on it in the book, but it’s almost like a form of Stockholm Syndrome. We ended up being exposed to these really unpleasant working conditions. People were working twice as hard for half the pay basically or doing two jobs, getting paid for one job.

I think the Wall Street Journal called them the rise of super jobs, where suddenly everybody was expected to do a lot more than before. But at the same time, because we were so grateful for the opportunity, we were still like yes. It was still seen as a good thing. We almost emotionally imprinted a different norm of work.

I talk a lot about the history of work, but for our generation and for us and all of us now, the 2008 financial crisis was one of the most defining economic moments. Most people in some capacity were touched by it or knew people that were impacted by it. It’s this very important emotional part of our work history.

We sometimes overlook the fact that it kind of changed a bit our approach to how we look at what work norms were and we never really bounced back from that. Even though the economy quote/unquote recovered June of 2009, we still maintained those same behaviors. It’s not like the economy recovered and suddenly companies were like, “You can go back to working one job.” It’s like the economy recovered and they were like, “Yup, this is the new normal,” and we never went back.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Let’s talk about identity first because that sounds huge with regard to being a master skeleton key that can unlock a bunch of this stuff.

You reflected, “Hey, what do you do with a writer who can’t write?” I’ve got the tune ‘what do you do with a drunken sailor’ in my head now. That notion that our identity, our worth, our value is wrapped up in our work and what we’re producing, can you deconstruct this for us in terms of if that’s not it, what is, and how do we combat this tendency to identify our very worth with our productivity in our jobs?

Rahaf Harfoush
It’s a really fascinating story because – I went back and I sort of traced the history of work, all the way back, especially in America, going back to the Puritan work ethic. I’ve heard this phrase – I don’t know how familiar you are with the Puritan work ethic – I had heard this phrase so many times over the years, but I never really understood the finer details of what that meant.

What did the Puritans actually mean? Where did this work ethic come from? It turns out that they believed that when you were born that your soul was predetermined, meaning before you were born God had already decided if you were going to go to heaven or not. God already knew. This was already all written. But they didn’t know, so they spent their entire lives looking for signs of which way God had decided, so signs that they were chosen or signs that they were not chosen.

Because of this, they kind of hypothesized that the type of person that God would choose would be somebody who was respectful, industrious, hardworking. These norms emerged where if you were hard working and if you were not lazy, which was also synonymous with being immoral, that if you were hardworking, then it’s clear that you were chosen.

From the very early, early point of work culture history, we started linking work with morality, work as being an indicator of the goodness or badness of your inherent self.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so fascinating because I’m thinking right now from Christian theological perspectives, there’s plenty of occasions when Jesus went away to a deserted place or he was talking about Mary and Martha and how the person doing all the work – he was like, hey, the person not doing the work has actually chosen the better half.

It’s interesting that the Puritanical work culture chose to, I guess preferentially, select the verses that kind of promote the industriousness over the others because even in the scriptures themselves, there’s a pretty good case to be made for rest, silence, rejuvenation, and not just work, work, work, work, work.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah. But you also have a lot of quotes about idle hands do the devil’s work. I think that’s it or something like that. From the very beginning, we started linking our work to our worth as a person. The work that we did was inherently linked to whether or not we were good or not.

That’s a really kind of fundamental building block right there. That also never really went away. We just built more and more and more on top of it. We just added more narratives. Then with the American dream it was – think about it this way – if how hard you work depends on your goodness or badness, then the American dream also says that if you work hard enough, you’ll be successful.

The problem with the American dream ideology is that the flip side was if you’re not successful, you’re not working hard enough. When you couple that with this Puritan ideology, if you’re not working hard enough, it must mean you’re not good enough.

All of the sudden we’re not just talking about a job. We’re talking about the moral sanctity of your soul. We’re talking about your worth as a person. We’re talking about the value that you bring.

We have created a culture now where, again, combined with the economic things that happened in 2008, combined with the way we worship startup entrepreneurs and tech titans and billionaires. All these little signals come together to form this almost concoction that creates this ideal of what we think work should be, the role it should have in our lives and who we are in reaction to what we do.

All of that together forms a really strong bridge between our vulnerabilities, our ego, our weaknesses, our insecurities, and we link all of that, we anchor all of that to our jobs.

This becomes really problematic because if you’re a writer that can’t write, if you get laid off during the recession, if you get fired, if there’s no work, then we have absorbed – we’ve imbued work with so much value that when we take it away, we are just kind of lost. We really take a psychological blow when somebody takes that piece of us away.

That’s why you see so much attitude. For example, think about how we talk about people that are on welfare. Think about how we talk about people sometimes who are unemployed. There’s all these attitudes that we have that if you start picking apart the pieces that make up those attitudes, you can draw a direct trail right back to this idea that your job is linked to your goodness as a person.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s some powerful stuff. So if we’re enmeshed in this and you want to escape and this is also reminding me of there’s an awesome article recently in The Atlantic about what they called ‘workism’ and how that has completely become sort of the new religion for many people.

Okay, if that’s where we are, point of departure, and we want some liberation from that so we can start making some wiser choices, set some prudent boundaries, get some rejuvenation, how do we, I guess, reprogram our brains here?

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, often they say the first step is just recognizing that there’s problem. I think the first step is realizing that these three forces are influencing your life. They influence everybody a little bit differently. It depends on your own history, your background, the values that your parents instilled, the behaviors that you saw your role models.

They can manifest in a lot of different ways in people’s lives, but the first step is to recognize that they are there. The first step is to look at the things that you just assume were to be true about the world, about work, about yourself, and just start to question where those beliefs came from.

[24:00]

In the book, there’s a whole list of questions that you can ask yourselves, things like, “How important is your work ethic and your identity? What does hard work look like for you? Why is it important? Who are your work role models?” And to really just start to understand your own relationship with some of these concepts because the most important thing is getting out of your own head, getting out of your own way.

So many people will try – they’ll be like, “I’m going to wake up at 5:30 AM in the morning. I’m going to do David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I’m going to do inbox zero. I’m going to do-“ They try to do all these frameworks not realizing that the frameworks are just Band-Aids that are trying to address the symptoms.

What we have to do is really address the root cause, which is our fundamental relationship with our beliefs about work. To do that, you have to start by questioning everything you think you know.

Once you start asking yourself these questions, “Where do my beliefs come from? How do they manifest? How much do I like my identity and my job?” at least then you can start to see, the same way that I did, like “Oh, maybe all these articles I read about the top successful tips of entrepreneurs that always push the same type of thing, that’s a certain archetype, that’s a certain mythology that I’ve absorbed, but if I take a step back, that’s not actually linked to what I think a successful life looks like.”

You start trying to break apart, again, going into your OS, going into the programming, the algorithms and starting to say, “Are the assumptions that I used when making these predictions about how I see the world, are they really true or did I just accept them as true because of the media, because of our history, because of our biology?”

Once you do that, then once you see the forces, they can’t influence you that much anymore. Once you see them for what they are, then you can be the one to choose what serves you and you can be the one to choose what you keep and what you leave.

What’s really funny about this is I’ve had a lot of very polarizing reactions about this because so often, people want to pick up this book and they want to see some sort of five-step method, framework, easy acronym, let’s just get the solution right on the way. I’ll have people email me and be like, “You went too much into history. This is too convoluted. You didn’t get to the point. What’s the solution?”

It’s like, I feel like it’s a bit subversive, but it’s like, “Guess what? The only solution is, ironically, we each have to do our own type of emotional labor to figure this out. I can’t do it for you. You’re the only one that can unlock those belief systems, unlock that self talk, unlock all of those. I can’t do that for you and no framework will do that for you.” But there’s an impatience because everyone just wants a quick fix.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, this is so powerful and really potentially super transformative in terms of getting at the root as opposed to – I love GTD and David Allen, episode 15, so—

Rahaf Harfoush
I love him. I love him. I use it. I use OmniFocus. I’m all about that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. It’s my favorite, OmniFocus.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, but my point is OmniFocus and Getting Things Done will never fix you if you feel productivity shame about the fact that you don’t think you’re good enough unless you’re constantly busy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, absolutely. Well said in terms of the fundamental psychological belief identity stuff at root, certainly, as opposed to hey, GTD and OmniFocus as a tool in order to organize all the incoming stuff so you can feel good about where it’s going. Those are sort of two different things we’re solving for.

I guess what really gets me going here is as I reflect upon what you’re saying, I recently had a podcast interview with Michael Hyatt, and that will release a little after this one I believe, in which we talked about Elon Musk, who’s Mr. Hustle himself, like sleeping at the Tesla plant and doing all these things. He really does seem to be heroically idolized.

I thought Michael Hyatt did an awesome job. He said, “Well, I guess it depends on your priorities. He’s blown through a couple marriages. He’s had these troubles.” Then you’re right in terms of the hard emotional labor, you’ve got to thing though, it’s like, “Well, would I like to have a life like Elon Musk in terms of those pretty cool entrepreneurial successes, but at those costs, or would I like to have a life that is different and prioritizes things differently?”

Rahaf Harfoush
Okay, but maybe I’ll push back on this a little bit because I don’t think that’s the actual choice. I think forget the personal costs. Put that aside for a second. Let’s just talk about performance. Let’s just talk about being an entrepreneur, you need out make the best possible decisions in order for your company to perform.

I want you to imagine yourself after sleeping on a factory floor. You just spent eight hours. You’re tired. You haven’t slept properly. Think of your state of mind. There’s no way that you’re going to convince me that the you that has had a terrible night’s sleep, that is uncomfortable, maybe has a backache, that crick in the neck, whatever it is that’s going on, you’re not going to tell me that that is the best version of you that’s going to make the best decisions for your business.

The problem is that we have started to talk about overwork as though it’s an admirable trait, when in reality when you look at creative performance from a biological perspective, from a psychological perspective, just all the research says the same thing, that you need to take breaks to let your brain recharge so that you are at peak performance.

You running this marathon, pulling all-nighters, not sleeping, doing all these things, sleeping at the factory, you’re not actually getting closer to peak performance. What you’re doing is getting closer to performative suffering so people can say, “Look how hard he’s working. Look how much he’s suffering,” because if you remember, the harder the work, the more deserving you are.

What he’s doing is he’s just hitting all of these emotional symbols to get us to say, “He’s so hardworking. Look how much he’s suffering for his business,” whereas honestly when I heard that I was like, “Elon, go home, man. Take a shower. Have a meal. Sleep for a couple of hours. Shut your brain off. Let it all settle down and then come back the next day and then you’ll be at the top of your game.”

I know myself when I’ve been overworked, I’m not producing my best work and I’m not making the best decisions. I make more mistakes and the quality of the work that I am producing is subpar.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. All right. It’s like, hey, not only are we talking about outside work; we’re talking about inside work things and performative suffering. What a turn of a phrase. That’s lovely. That’s compelling.

I’m intrigued. You mentioned in the beginning you talked to a lot of high performers who experienced a bout of burnout at some point and they knew the things they should be doing with regard to hey, take a nap, take vacation.

Are there any things that you discovered that we should be doing that are not so obvious? You mentioned some good research and science associated with peak performance and creativity and what it takes. What are some of the key things we should do or not do that can prevent or rejuvenate us from burnout that really pack a wallop?

Rahaf Harfoush
One of the things that I looked at was, again, how historically we’ve devoted a lot of the work systems that we have today, the 40-hour work week, 9 to 5, all that stuff. I think the biggest injury that has been done to us from many of these methodologies is the fact that we are expected as human beings to show up for work in the same way, at the same energy level that is consistent for the entire time that we’re at work, 365 days a year.

That is just not the way human beings are wired. We have ebbs and flows of energy, ebbs and flows of creativity. We have different cycles. We’re productive at different times of the day. We’re more productive at different times of the year sometimes.

One of the things that we have to look at is the way that you’re working, is it designed to maximize your performance? Are you actually creating a way of working that works with your strengths instead of just trying to take yourself and shove yourself in a system that was designed for work that you’re not doing, designed for a way of work and a type of work that no longer really exists for most knowledge workers?

One of the things that I found is really powerful is starting to reframe the way that we even approach performance. Not every task in a job is created equal. A big presentation that you’ve got is going to suck up a lot more energy than just doing some admin and answering emails. Or when you’re travelling, that’s going to take a different type of energy level than when you’re sitting at your desk working.

We have to start to think about how can we conserve and optimize for this type of energy usage. That often depends, like breaking away from this mold of needing to conform to some arbitrary metric like 9 to 5 or that you have to work in the same way from 9 to 5 in the exact same way at the exact same energy level.

If we start to accept that these cycles happen in our creativity, in our performance, in the way that we approach hard tasks, in the emotional response – often creative performance, it requires a lot of emotion. You’re really excited that you have an idea, but then you get kind of frustrated because you hit a block. You get sad because you think you’re not going to solve it. Then you’re elated when you do solve it.

Those emotions also take an energetic toll on you as well. But we don’t really create systems that take all of this into account. We need to design systems that are made specifically for creative performers.

That respect I would honestly challenge you to look at your own natural rhythms. I’m a night owl. I am not productive in the morning. For so many years I killed myself trying to fit into this standard, into this ideal, where I’m raring to go at 8 AM. That was never going to be me. I am honestly at my peak hours between 6 PM and midnight. That is when I do my best work. That is when I do my most writing.

I had to design a business that worked around that. I had to say, okay, there are days when I’m going to manage my energy. I’m going to work on a highly cognitive task in the evening, which means maybe in the morning I’m going to do some lighter stuff.

Once I started paying attention to when I needed to step away, when I needed to replenish, when I needed to downshift to easier tasks, when I needed to really hustle and focus on high cognitive tasks, the craziest thing happened, which is I was better rested, I was happier, and most importantly, my output—which is the thing we’re all obsessed with anyway—my output went through the roof.

That’s when I realized that your output, your creative output, is not linked to how hard you work, how many hours and how many nights you spend and how much you don’t sleep and how many meals that you skip. It’s really based on optimizing to the fullest possible potential this limited reserve of energy that you have, so how you’re going to invest it or you’re going to spend it, how you’re going to replenish it.

Then if you do that in a way that’s designed for you and your body, your performance, your success, your happiness, your relationships, everything will go through the roof.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. And you’re crushing it right now in your peak zone. I guess it’s just after midnight now in France.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Then I want to hear then, part of it’s just knowing yourself in terms of when you work best, you’re a morning person, you’re a night owl. Are there any kind of universal best practices that are great for allocating and optimizing and being strategically wise with your limited reserve of energy?

Rahaf Harfoush
This is the funny thing, all the solutions that I’m saying, none of them are new. It’s not like somebody’s going to be like, “Oh, I should really take a break,” or “Oh, I should get a good night’s sleep.” None of this advice is new. What’s new is that now we have the ability to start unraveling why we’re not taking this good advice.

You know. Everyone who is listening right now, you know what you have to do, you know what your body needs, you know the conditions that you work best in. you know this. What’s more interesting to me is why you’re not doing it. What is blocking you? What is holding you back from this? Where did these beliefs that you have come from? Is it shame? Is it insecurity? Is it fear? Is it ego? Is it the need for validation?

Because those are the behaviors that are hidden, that work in the background that often sabotage you so that when you’re tired that little voice will say, “Are you kidding? You’re going to take a break? No way. You’ve got to push through. You’ve got to hustle, otherwise you’re weak, otherwise you’ll never succeed.”

For me the best practices are really about having these conversations with your friends, with your teams, with your spouse, with your family about the role that work plays in our lives.

I’ll give you a quick example, which is with my friends. I noticed when I was researching this book that oftentimes when I ask my friends, “Hey, how’s it going?” the response was always some variation of “Oh, I’m so busy. Things at work are crazy right now. Oh man, I’m so overloaded. I haven’t stopped running. I’m on the road nonstop.”

All of these, going back to that term that you love, performative suffering, was basically the same thing. It was just reinforcing verbally to each other in a social context how much we were working, how much we deserved our jobs, and how we were deserving of our success because of how much work we were putting in.

What we said as a group, we actually said we’re going to ban saying “I’m so busy.” Let’s dig deep and try to find something else out use to describe our lives. It really highlighted how much this idea of being hyper busy, hyper productive was a behavior that we were all holding up like it was some sort of positive ideal.

Again, there’s no quick fix here. You already have all the quick fixes. You literally have everything you need at this instant to optimize your creative performance, but what is it that is blocking you from doing that?

Pete Mockaitis
In your research, what have you found to be the most common blockers?

Rahaf Harfoush
Shame and self-worth, thinking that you’re not good enough, thinking that if you rest it means that you’re not strong enough, it means that you’re not worthy enough, feeling the need to be validated, feeling like you don’t know who you are outside of your job. Those are the things that often manifest, especially in high performers because when you’re doing really well at your job, you’re even more tempted to link your job to your identity.

The funny thing is if you just start listening to yourself talk, like there were days where – and I run my own business, so I don’t have a boss telling me when I need to come in or what I need to be doing, and yet there were times when I was like the hardest on myself than any boss I’ve ever had in my life, where I said things to myself about why I couldn’t hack it or why I was feeling tired or how I could have hustled more or how I’m letting good business ideas pass me by or how I was watching an hour of Netflix instead of working on a side hustle.

All of these things that we’re constantly reinforcing these attitudes about my own self-worth, ended up really damaging the work that I wanted to do.

The biggest one is really feeling like you’re not enough, which is why when I work with groups, when I do these workshops and I go into organizations, I work with teams, it’s often saying something as simple as, “You self-worth is not tied to your productivity. Your value as a human being has nothing to do with your output or your job or what you do to pay your rent or what you do to pay your mortgage.”

Every time we have these conversations, the next day or two days later, inevitably, I will get a couple of emails of people saying, “I really needed to hear that. I really needed someone to tell me that this is not the sum of my identity.”

The flipside of that point, which is also interesting, is there are people – if you are not ready to hear this, if you are not ready to tackle some of these forces in your own lives, then much of what I’m saying is going to annoy you. You’re going to feel anger. You’re going to be like, “What is she talking about? She doesn’t know how to hustle!”

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got to hustle.

Rahaf Harfoush
You’ve got to go get it. I will tell you, that emotive response is also something that I’ve seen. Anger, defensiveness, being very insulted. I’ve had people tell me, “Well, you just don’t have what it takes to succeed. You just don’t know what hard work looks like,” the whole thing.

What fascinated me is not the criticism, so the argument, let’s debate, let’s debate whatever you want, but it always the intensity of the emotion, which gave me the inkling that it had very little to do with me and much more with how they were responding to what they felt was a perceived threat on their identity, their status.

If you feel those emotions, I would encourage you to just sit with them and really try to understand where that resistance came from because when I was working through this stuff through the book, I was really resistant to a lot of it. There were parts of it, took me months to implement, months to wrap my head around, months to really feel it in my gut. I was angry and defensive. I was like, “Well, this can’t be the case. I don’t know about this.”

But once you do that work, once you unravel all of those things, and once you get to the point where you feel like my productivity is not linked out my self-worth, what you might not know is that it’s incredibly freeing. It actually frees you up to take even more risks, to do even more things because you don’t really have anything to lose because you’re already enough. You’re already worth everything.

For me, for example with my fiction, that’s when I started working on fiction stories because why not? If it bombs, it bombs. If it never sees the light of day, that’s okay. I found it incredibly liberating to be so secure in the fact that I was enough and I was worthy. That the work that I was doing, while challenging, while enjoyable, while I really liked it, was not the end all and be all of who I was as a human.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, to the notion of you’re enough and you’re worthy and your value does not come from your work and your productivity, how does one arrive at that place?

Rahaf Harfoush
Well, if that one is me, it’s when you hit rock bottom and you have nothing left. I had an option. It was either, “Okay, well, I guess I’m nothing because I can’t write anymore or I have to rethink the way that I look at myself.” It’s just a matter of really separating it. We have a really hard time doing that. We have to separate who you are, who you are as a human being. Your value and your self-worth as a living, breathing soul is enough in itself.

That could be something as simple as just reminding yourself of that, of recognizing that when you’re at work or when you’re doing really well at work, when you’re doing really poorly at work, that that is just a consequence of the information economy that we live in of jobs and all of that stuff. That is not tied to you. It’s kind of in the same way where – it’s almost the same kind of like Zen approach, where I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Four Agreements? I don’t know if you’ve read that book?

Pete Mockaitis
I have read the Blinkist summary of The Four Agreements.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah. Actually, hilariously, me too. But the thing that I really took from that book was nothing has anything to do with you. If somebody’s angry or somebody is sad or somebody is kind of mean to you, that in reality when you really stop and think about it, it has nothing to do with you. That’s just a reflection of their own inner turmoil and their own inner state.

Once you kind of do that similar separation from your job, you kind of realize that it loses the power to kind of knock you around, for everything to feel so scary all the time, especially if you are somebody that self-identifies as a high performer and you have these big goals and big dreams and big risks that you want to take.

I found it incredibly comforting to separate that because that meant I could be a high performer, I could take risks, I could fail. I could have tons of failures and it doesn’t matter because my failure is not a reflection of my lack of hard work, which is not a reflection of my lack of moralness. That was really key for me. I actually found it made me enjoy my job a lot more because it didn’t feel like it was so personal to what I was doing.

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

Rahaf Harfoush
Just again, don’t pick up this book if you want a quick fix. I don’t want to hear your angry Amazon reviews. If you’re not willing to do the work and to have a complicated nuanced look at our history and how we got here, honestly, this book is not for you.

But if you are really interested about the origin story of how knowledge workers and productive creatives, how we can thrive in this new environment, you have to know where we’ve been and how we got here. Then you can figure out where we’re going.

I just really wanted to put that disclaimer out there because I don’t want anybody to be disappointed. But if you are willing to do the work and if I can support you any way in your own journey as you’re answering these questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I would love to hear from you.

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

Rahaf Harfoush
Ralph Waldo Emerson has this really wonderful quote about how – I’m going to paraphrase here, so please forgive me. He says something like “The implanting of a desire indicates that its resolution is in the constitution of the creature that feels it.”

Basically he says that if you have a desire to do something, if you have a dream to be a writer, to be an entrepreneur, to be a whatever, then just the fact that you have that dream means that there’s something inside you that can fulfill it.

As a writer, it’s a very lonely job sometimes. You’re kind of on your own. You’re facing your own insecurities every time you look at that damn blank page. There’s something really nice to say, “The fact that I really want to be a writer, the fact that this is what I love to do, must mean that something in me can do this.”

I always remind myself that, especially when I’m in that valley of despair. The implanting of that desire means that my ability to fulfill it is in me. I just find that very motivating.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Rahaf Harfoush
My favorite bit of research was they took a person’s phone away, put them in a room and this room only had a device that if you touched it, you would get electrocuted. It turned out that people would rather electrocute themselves than be bored for 15 minutes. I thought that was quite telling about our addiction to information stimulation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Rahaf Harfoush
A favorite book. My favorite read of last year was Bad Blood about the Theranos scandal.

Pete Mockaitis
I listened to the podcast, The Dropout.

Rahaf Harfoush
Absolutely riveting, like jaw dropping. If you had told me it was fiction, I would have said it sounds too crazy. But I just thought that book was such a wild ride, so many interesting things.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool?

Rahaf Harfoush
This is a little nerdy, but please bear with me. One of my favorite tools when I really want to get in the zone is I go on YouTube and there is an audio file of the sound of idling engines that the Starship Enterprise makes from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I know this is super obscure, but I have literally listened to hundreds of white noise machines and they never seem to work and this noise is just – it’s just magical. It just envelops you in this cocoon of creativity. When I have that on with my noise cancelling headsets, I am in the zone. I am a writing ninja. If it’s your thing and you need something to kid of help you focus, check it out. I know it’s a bit weird, but I really swear by it.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned this before we hit record and I loved it. It’s not so nuts because crysknife007, thanks for putting this video up, he put up three of them – or she, I don’t know who crysknife is – their total views are just over five million.

Rahaf Harfoush
I’m not alone. It’s really soothing. It’s really soothing. It’s just humming enough that it blocks out the noise, but not so much that it’s a distraction. I just find I can hear myself think better. A friend recommended it to me and it’s almost like been passed on from writer to writer in secret. I’m letting you guys know on this magical secret tool. If you do use it, send me a Tweet and let me know.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s powerful for me as well is because as I think about – so I’ve watched most of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone on that crew is a high performer, from Jean-Luc Picard, Geordi La Forge, impressive folks. In a way, it’s kind of nice to have a sound that just reminds you, at least it reminds me, of excellence.

I think the dorkiest book I ever read was entitled Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s not bad. I think they were trying to just cash in on a built in audience of people who like Star Trek and leadership. Let’s see what we can do with this. But it was a fun read for young Pete at the time. But it’s true; those are some rock stars in their respective domains on the Starship Enterprise.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, and space is kind of like your imagination, sort of like the final frontier. It’s sort of like you’re exploring, you’re out there, you’re taking risks, you don’t know what you’re going to find. I just kind of find it – it gets me right into the zone.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Rahaf Harfoush
A favorite habit is to leave your phone outside of your bedroom and to just not have it anywhere near you when you’re sleeping so that you can just kind of read for 15 – 20 minutes before you go to bed and just have that silence.

I’ve become very intentional about how I use my social media tools and realize how silence is becoming a very rare luxury and how most good creative ideas come from silence and come from periods of silence and to be very protective of that silence in your life. Especially if you’re a strategic thinker or researcher or writer or you need to solve problems or innovate, those moments of silence, cultivating habits where you block off times where you can have that silence, is the best thing you could do.

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

Rahaf Harfoush
I think it’s that we just have to get a little bit better at remembering why we’re working so hard. Many of us just fill all the efficiencies that we gain from all of these GTD systems, we were supposed to fill with the good things in life, instead we’re just filling them with more work. I think I always like to remember just what’s important. You touched on it with the Elon Musk example.

I think very few people get to their deathbed and say, “Man, I wish I slept at my factory a few more nights.” At the end of the journey, no one gets out alive, it’s like what is the important thing and to always remember your health is the most important thing, that’s a big one, as well as your relationships and nurturing the people that you’re with and loving them and being happy with them for as long as you have them because nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.

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

Rahaf Harfoush
You can find me RahafHarfoush.com or on Twitter or really anywhere. If you just type Rahaf Harfoush, I’m pretty sure I can connect with you on your platform of choice.

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

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, take a look at your work hero, take a look at somebody that you really idolize and admire and challenge yourself to see how much of what you admire about them is their productivity and how much is what you admire about them is their creativity. Then see how you feel about the answers that you get.

Pete Mockaitis
So good. This has been such a treat. Thank you for going deep and staying up past midnight – when you do your best work – in France.

Rahaf Harfoush
Yeah, I’m just getting started.

Pete Mockaitis
This has been a real treat.

Rahaf Harfoush
Same for me. Thank you so much.

417: Managing Infinite Expectations with Laura Vanderkam

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Laura Vanderkam says: "The choice to do anything is the choice not to do something else."

Laura Vanderkam reveals time management wisdom as presented in her charming new fable, Juliet’s School of Possibilities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A handy mantra to keep choices in perspective
  2. How  to better handle your email  inbox
  3. The most useful questions for directing your time

About Laura

Laura is the author of several time management and productivity books, like Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Laura’s work has appeared in publications including The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalUSA TodayCity Journal, Fortune, and Fast Company. She has appeared on numerous television programs, radio segments, and has spoken about time and productivity to audiences of all sizes. Her TED talk, “How to gain control of your free time,” has been viewed more than 5 million times. She is the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Laura Vanderkam Interview Transcript

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

Laura Vanderkam
Thanks for having me back.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m excited to discuss your fable, but first I want to hear about the story behind the story. Did you really write it in one month for National Novel Writing Month?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I did.

Pete Mockaitis
One month. That’s quick and impressive.

Laura Vanderkam
Well, it’s not that long a book. You can read it certainly in about two hours, so it isn’t that lengthy in terms of word count. But the trick is it took a lot longer than that to come up with the idea. I had written stuff for National Novel Writing Month, which is when people try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s November.

Laura Vanderkam
It’s a whole social media thing. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Where others are growing mustaches, you’re writing novels.

Laura Vanderkam
Others are growing mustaches, other people are writing novels. Thousands of people try this every year. It’s great because it’s not going to be a good novel at the end of the November, but it’s going to exist. You can definitely take something that exists and turn it into something better. That’s often much easier to sort of work into your normal life than turning nothing into something. That challenge can really get people going.

It’s somewhat like Whole 30. People can do anything for 30 days. It’s just like, well, I only have to go crazy on the writing for 30 days. I’m a big fan of National Novel Writing Month, but yeah. That’s when I cranked it out, November 2017, then spent about a year editing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh okay. I was going to say, as I read it, it sure seemed like it took more than a month to create.

Laura Vanderkam
The rough draft existed in a month. Everything else took quite a bit of time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. You’ve written numerous nonfiction books. We’ve talked about one on a previous occasion, so check that out. It was a fun one. What have you found are some of the key benefits of writing in a fable format?

Laura Vanderkam
What I’ve learned over the years is that people really like stories. When I give speeches people seldom come up to me afterwards and say, “That statistic, that statistic just moved me.” It’s always a story that I’ve been telling about something that people can remember and then recite back to you with a reasonable amount of accuracy, whereas people can never get the statistics right when they come back to you and try to cite them again.

I learned that people like stories. That’s how we remember information. Certainly if you look at some of the most popular business books of all time, they are things like The One Minute Manager or The Go-Giver series, books like that, that tell a story. I thought I’d give it a whirl. My publisher on all my other time management books said that they were looking to commission a few fables, so asked me if I was interested and I was, so Juliet’s School of Possibilities is the result.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, lovely. I’d love to get your take when you were doing some of the researching and writing, did anything in particular strike and your readers/fans as particularly as a fascinating and surprising discovery?

Laura Vanderkam
Juliet’s School of Possibilities is a fiction story, a novella. The funny thing is though, you can probably work a lot of time management themes into a novella. I think that was sort of surprising for me as I realized, oh, these things do suggest themselves to a story line.

The heroine, Riley’s, life is completely falling apart because of being stretched too thin, trying to respond to everything instantly, having no idea what she should prioritize, so she leaps at whatever is most urgent in front of her. A lot of people have told me that they can really sympathize with that idea, that this is something that they go through themselves. Hopefully, in the course of the fable, as fables need to do, she learns how to live life differently from a mentor figure, Juliet.

But yeah, I think a lot of people suffer from that feeling that there’s just not enough time in the day. It’s not that we’re necessarily wasting time. Certainly there is a lot of wasted time in life, but people aren’t watching 8 hours of TV a day. They’re trying to do the stuff they’re supposed to do, but there’s no way they can do all of it. The question is when you can’t do all of it, what do you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. We’re going to dig into that, but first I’ve got to address what just made me chuckle the most is so Riley, our heroine, is working for a firm called MB & Company, which is a strategy consulting firm and the top three strategy consulting firms are named McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group, and they’re often referred to as MBB as a category.

It’s pretty clear that you were alluding to one of these three and the lifestyle. Tell me a little bit why you chose this as the backdrop here.

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, well, through my own personal life I have a bit more involvement with perhaps one of those consulting firms that people can go look that up if they would like. But it is not any of them in particular, but yes, by being MB it could be any of them.

Certainly these places are known for a certain lifestyle that people travelling a lot, being on call for their clients, certainly a very high-paced, very competitive environment. Very amazing people that these firms hire too. Certainly incredibly smart, driven, who get to solve very interesting problems.

I thought it made sense that Riley would be at a place like this because she’s a smart, ambitious person who wants to solve the world’s problems. This seems to her like a place she can do it while getting paid fairly decently at the same time.

Of course, the issue for her, the challenge is she feels like she’s constantly proving herself. Many of the people who work in the MB-type world, the Ivy Leaguers and such, and, of course, she isn’t. She’s just very, very smart and ambitious, so she feels like she’s constantly proving herself. That’s one reason she feels she has to work harder than everyone else.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that was fun for me because I worked at Bain.

Laura Vanderkam
Okay, so you’re one of the MBs.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I went to the University of Illinois.

Laura Vanderkam
Yes, all right, so you appreciate this.

Pete Mockaitis
It was that, yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
I have to say, Pete, do you think I got it right? Do you think I got this MB Consulting Company, was I accurate?

Pete Mockaitis
I’d say it was close enough to the mark certainly in terms of hey, like the demanding review process and the interesting performance categorization buckets.

Laura Vanderkam
I was going to say, do you have a euphemism for firing people because there were some funny ones out there?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I thought that was funny. It’s like ‘resignation suggested,’ I think what it was in your book. I remember at Bain it was like the top was ‘consistently outperforms,’ and then there was ‘frequently exceeds expectations.’ Almost everybody was in the middle, which was called ‘strong contribution.’ Then below there was one called ‘inconsistent contribution,’ which you didn’t want to be.

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, you don’t want to be inconsistent.

Pete Mockaitis
Then there was one even lower – one time – I don’t think anyone I know has ever seen it, so yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
One of the firms has the euphemism ‘counseled to leave,’ which I just find hilarious, but, yes, ‘resignation suggested’ is the fictional one. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Anyway, it was a fun read. It was quick and it was inspiring. But you tell me, if you would like for readers to take away one thing, what would it be?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, Riley learned that you do have a lot of choice over how you spend your time. It may not appear that way when there’s all this stuff coming at you, but the choice to do anything is the choice not to do something else. In fact you are always choosing, so the question is which choices are you going to make. She is empowered, perhaps, by the end of the fable to make choices that in line with her long-term goals both professionally and personally.

I hope people will think about this that there’s a phrase in the book that “Expectations are in ; time is finite. You are always choosing; choose well.” That pretty much sums it up. We could never do anything that somebody might hope we would do, that we might internally hope we would do.

Get 500 emails a day, you’re not going to be able to answer them all. This is setting yourself up for failure right there. Given that we are always choosing, how we can learn to choose well? I hope the readers will come away with tools to make good choices in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that phrase is what struck me the most, “Expectations are infinite; time is finite,” because, well, it’s just so true – it’s very liberating for me as I reflect on it in that indeed, expectations are infinite, and so there is – it’s basically just a fool’s errand to try to meet them all. You’re asking for trouble if you do that.

I don’t know remember who had the quote, it might have been a comedian or someone. He said, “I don’t know the secret to happiness, but the key to unhappiness is trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations.” Who said that? It was good.

Laura Vanderkam
I don’t know, but it’s a good quote.

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. I should know it because it’s so good. That was just connecting/resonating. We’ve got two kids under two years old right now in the house. Our home is way less tidy than it’s been historically. Go figure. I was chatting with my wife about in terms of like, “I don’t even know how people can do it all.” She’s like, “I don’t think they actually do.” It’s like they’ve got helpers or they just accept, “All right, this is the squalor we’re going to be in for a little while.”

Laura Vanderkam
It is a squall. Two under two will definitely do that for you. A lot of things get de-prioritized during that time. We have to learn to be okay with that. I think where people get into trouble is when they decide that they’re still going to have the pristine house, that for some reason that should be a priority because if it is going to be a priority, then absolutely nothing else will never happen because you will constantly be picking up after the small children who are destroying it.

You might be happier to decide that it just isn’t a priority for now. When the children are 12 or something, maybe you can have a nice house again, but for now, not so much. That’s great. We have to choose what matters to us in any given moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Can you share what are some of the other top productivity and time management implications from the book?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I certainly hope that I may steer a few people away from attempting to maintain inbox zero because – it’s funny, a lot of people assume that I must always have an empty inbox because I write about time management in people’s minds, therefore, you must always have an empty inbox. That’s not true at all. I have hundreds of unread messages. I don’t archive anything or delete much, so there’s thousands of things in there. I just don’t really care.

In my mind, email is a tool to do your job. It’s not your actual job itself. If I am answering something, great. If I’m not, I’m not and that’s fine. I generally would prefer to focus on the projects I have chosen to do and then let email fit in around the edges of that.

The issue with attempting to achieve inbox zero constantly is that, you can’t last in that state because whatever you send out to get yourself down to zero, people will then respond to, so you’re right back up.

I’ve seen people on time logs because I’ve had thousands of people track their time for me over the years, like writing down what they’re doing, sending in their log so I can analyze them. I’ve seen people attempt to pursue inbox zero in the course of the time they’re logging for me and it’s just funny. Some people have put like notes like “I’m at 200. Okay. Inbox 185. Inbox 135. Oh wait, back up to inbox 165. All right, down to inbox 120. Oh, we’re back up to 180.” It’s just, you’ll never get down there.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I love your quote from wise Juliet in the book. She said something like, “I have 24,000 unread emails and I know they’re all unimportant because my assistant has told me that they’re not important.”

Laura Vanderkam
Which is a much more efficient way really. Would it have been a wise use of Juliet’s time to read through those 24,000 emails? Well, probably not, especially since she has someone whose job is to support her professionally.

One of the things that Riley, the woman whose life is falling apart before she meets Juliet, hasn’t seemed to get her head around. I think a lot of us see or have this issue too. I don’t have a dedicated assistant, so it’s not something that’s really an issue for me in this case.

But she has an assistant and yet she doesn’t really use her because in her mind she still needs to do everything, like somebody sends you an email, you must be the one reading it and responding within the first ten seconds, but, of course, if you’re doing that, you can’t do anything else.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Well, so you say you tackle email around the edges. Does that mean that nowhere in your calendar is there a dedicated processing buffering email time? It just sort of happens when it happens?

Laura Vanderkam
No, I would say there is, but I try to have it be later in the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
This is the key thing that I try not to go through and process all my email in the morning because that is when I’m most productive, most able to crank out creative stuff.

These few weeks I’ve been focusing on book launches, there’s been a lot more back and forth with people than there would be normally, so some of this has not entirely been happening in the past two weeks. It’s funny, I feel a little cranky about it, actually.

But I try to have most of my email processing and triaging, as I call it, later in the day. Around 3:30 I’m not doing all that much. It’s really hard for me to be cranking something out at 3:30 in the afternoon. That’s a really good time to sort of go through the email, delete the stuff I’m not going to respond.

If I see something that I want to put some thought into, I’ll make a note and put it on the to-do list for the next day or two to go through and have a thoughtful response to that and everything else I either deal with or I don’t, but I try not to spend too much time on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so not to make it all about you and your day and your processes, but yeah, let’s go there for a little while. 3:30 is kind of a lower energy time, fine for emails. Then when are you done with the work for the day?

Laura Vanderkam
It depends. I have a couple of children who get off the bus between 4:00 – 4:15. I often am doing car runs to various activities, but I will come back to my work later. Certainly if there’s something I decided to respond to later, I might do that. I might do a project at night while the big kids are reading in their rooms and the little kids are asleep.

Sometimes I do work between 9 and 10 PM, which is a strategy that I found a lot of working parents do. I don’t know if you’ve stumbled upon this one yet with your two under two. The issue a lot of parents face is you’re trying to work sort of normal hours and your kids go to bed relatively early, you then won’t see them very much.

But if you leave the office at a fairly early time, go home, hang out with your kids, and then do those hours that you would have done at the office at night after they go to bed, then you’re trading off work time for TV time as opposed to work time for family time. That’s a choice a lot more people are willing to make.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. Well, talking about 9 to 10 PM work and TV, now I’m thinking about blue light. I’m thinking about sleep quality. I’m thinking about melatonin. Any pro tips there?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. Well, I definitely think you should end it before too late. Working what I call the split shift, where some of your work is done at night after the kids go to bed, requires being careful about it. You need to make a to-do list for the time that you’re going to work.

People are like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to get through my thousand email backlog after the kids go to bed.” No, you are not. What are the three things that do need to happen before you start work tomorrow? Let’s do those things. Or what would help set you up for a good morning tomorrow and then you can triage again at lunch the next day to figure out what you need to do.

But those things that have to happen are the things that you have identified as being important. Those are the things you should do.

Then you should set an end time. Maybe in past life you would have left the office at 6:30 and now you’re committed to leaving at 5:00, so you should probably only aim to do an hour to an hour and a half in the split shift. Don’t suddenly be the person who’s going to be doing three hours at night because that wasn’t what you were doing before. You don’t need to add hours to it.

But yeah, I try to be off at least 30 – 40 minutes before I’d like to go to bed so I can have some time to relax, to read, to talk with my husband, all that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. I want to talk a little about some of the nice question prompts you’ve got at the end of the book. Tell me, in your experience working with clients, what have you found to be some of the most useful prompts that really get people thinking and prioritizing and coming to insight, clarity, revelation, like, “Aha, yes, I should do this or stop doing that.”

Laura Vanderkam
Well, one of my favorite things to ask group is what they’d like to spend more time doing. It’s funny, I have people make a list on their own and then afterwards I ask, “Okay, who put exercising down?” It’s like every hand in the room goes up, it’s just, oh, I’ve never seen that before. Imagine that. People want to spend more time exercising.

But if you sort of nudge people to make a longer list of the things they want to spend more time doing both personally and professionally, you get some interesting answers. People have good conversations with each other about it.

We can usually think of lots of things on the personal front between exercising and reading or spending more time with family or doing certain hobbies. Those are all things that people want to spend more time doing. Volunteering.

But there actually are professional things that people want to spend more time doing too, even if we don’t necessarily want to spend more time at work. People want to mentor younger colleagues. They want to spend more time doing strategic thinking, maybe doing things that would establish them as a thought leader, giving speeches or writing papers or otherwise doing that.

Reading for work, all those great studies or papers that do come out. It’s hard to stay on top of that when you feel like you’re constantly responding to emails. Those are things people want to spend more time on too. Or actually developing employees. Really nudging people to think through those things too.

One of the prompts in the Juliet’s School of Possibilities book that somewhat gets at this is the idea if you’re going to spend an extra hour this week on – or if you had an extra hour this week to spend on one professional priority, what would it be?

On some level, I think it’s a very silly question. I kind of had an argument with myself about putting it in because the truth is there is nobody who couldn’t find one extra hour per week right now in their lives to do whatever it is they say they don’t have time to do, professionally or personally.

Yet, it’s a good question to prompt people to think about because it immediately gets people to that, “Oh, what is that one thing I know would be impactful and I know that I’m skimping on?” Same thing with your personal life. If you one more hour this week to do something in your personal life, what would it be? Immediately we get to that thing that people love, enjoy, find meaningful, and don’t feel like they’re doing enough of. It’s a way to quickly get at that concept.

Pete Mockaitis
I found that it’s something about making it small and bite-size and approachable with one hour, somehow made it easier to answer because it was-

Laura Vanderkam
I could ask you what you’d do if you went off in a cabin in the woods for three months, but you don’t know. You have no idea what you’d do. Maybe you do, but most people would, “I have no idea. I’d probably watch TV. Does my cabin have cable? I don’t know,” whereas that one hour is much more manageable.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. It makes it all the more clear in terms of, “Okay, that’s what I want to go do. That’s what I want to not do.” I’d like to hear what then, once you’ve identified the activity you’d like to do some more of or some less of, tends to be the very next step for people to making that come to life?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, well then you need to figure out how you can find space for this in the life that you currently have. I really do believe that anyone can find the space. I know people are busy. They have lots of commitments.

I always talk through this story of the lady who kept a time log for me and in the course of her time log week, her water heater broke, which created this massive flood in her basement. Magically enough, she found the time to deal with it. It’s the same thing. If you treated this priority for you as the equivalent of having water all over your basement, you would probably find the time for it.

For most people, mornings are good. It tends to be time that the emergencies have yet to arise, although, I would also challenge people that you create the sense of emergency by plugging into things like your inbox. Maybe you could show up at work and just do whatever the priority is for an hour and then go into your inbox. It might be a weekend morning if it’s something that’s personally important to you.

People say, “Well, I want to work on creative writing. I just want to find one hour in my week to do it.” I’m sure you can. Get up a little bit early on the weekend.

Or even if you have two young kids as you do, hopefully they nap at some point. Maybe you can use nap time not for chores, but for doing some creative adult fulfilling thing. Or after they go to bed at night or maybe trading off with a spouse that each of you gets two hours on Sunday afternoon to do your thing and you trade off. Then you’re each getting a chance to have that extra hour in your life. It doesn’t have to be too complicated.

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

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, well, I hope listeners might check out this fable. I know it’s a little bit different. I was worried about this of asking my readers, who I know love just productivity tips, straightforward productivity tips, to give it a chance. But as I said, people really do like stories. It’s so much easier to remember lessons when they come in the form of a story. I’ve certainly found that as I read things. Sometimes it’s things we know, but it’s good to be reminded of them.

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

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I wrote this ‘choose well’ quote in my book. I actually got those words ‘choose well’ engraved on a bracelet that I wear. Juliet wears a bracelet that says ‘choose well’ and said well, if it’s good enough for her, maybe it’s good enough for me. I’m walking around with a bracelet saying ‘choose well.’ It’s reminding me in any given moment that I do have a choice of how I spend my time and I should think about it.

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

Laura Vanderkam
Writing nonfiction books, I’ve come across all sorts of fascinating studies. My favorites are always the ones where the researchers clearly have a sense of humor. I read about one not long ago, where how people react when they feel rushed and late.

These researchers actually set up seminary students to go deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan who is in the Bible because he stopped to help a wounded man. They then told some of these seminary students that they were late to deliver their talks. Those seminary students were actually highly likely to rush right past an injured man lying on the ground because they were late to deliver their talks. That’s pretty funny. It doesn’t say good things about human nature, but it’s humorous.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, and I think – call me an optimist, but I’ve reflected on that study at length. My hopeful spin on the matter is that if we are being selfish jerks, it’s not because we are full of malice or spite or selfish or just sheer self-absorption, but rather we just feel kind of busy. If we can solve that problem, well, then we can make the world a better place, Laura. Are you inspired by my vision?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, then we just need to tell ourselves, “I have all the time in the world.”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Laura Vanderkam
“So I can deal with this.” Yeah, that’s the banality of evil. People seldom set out to do horrible things. It just sort of one small choice leads to another.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Chill out and everyone will be better off. How about a favorite book?

Laura Vanderkam
I probably said this last time I was on, but I’m still a big fan of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I reread that once a year. It’s just very evocative prose and packs so much into just 200 pages. Anyone who wants to write a lot in a quick book would do well to read that.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Laura Vanderkam
I’ve really been reflecting on the wonders of Uber of late. In years past when I started giving speeches, it was always just a hassle to go anywhere other than your hotel and the airport if you were in a town that wasn’t New York or Chicago. There’s no taxis in most smaller towns. Now you can get everywhere. You can go try a restaurant just because. It’s not this huge horrible thing attempting to get back.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Laura Vanderkam
Favorite habit. Well, I recently started putting some strength training into my life. I kept saying I wanted to do it. It was probably one of those things I would have said I would have done if I had more time, which, again, I know is a ridiculous question because I do have plenty of time. I just wasn’t doing it. But what I realized is that I needed a good cue in my day that now is the time to do this.

The way my mornings are currently structured, some days I bring my middle schooler to school and then I come back and I have about 10 – 15 minutes before I need to get the middle kids out to the bus stop. That’s my time.

I had been just deleting emails and feeling like, “Oh, well, I can’t use this time. It’s too small. Or maybe I could read, but I feel like I should be working.” Now I just go into my office and throw around a kettlebell and do some resistance bands, do some plank poses and I’ve done it by the time it’s time to get the kids out to the bus.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. How about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, I use that phrase ‘I have all the time in the world’ that we need to be telling ourselves. That’s one that’s in the book that Juliet says several times, “I have all the time in the world.” I’ve been thinking about it. It is such a good mindset to have. It isn’t actually true. Everyone’s time is limited. We have many things that are on our plates that we need to do, various obligations we’ve taken on at various points.

But we’re so much better off believing that we have all the time in the world because whenever you have a thesis, you look for evidence to support it. Somebody who feels like they have all the time in the world isn’t going to race past the injured person. Somebody who has all the time in the world is actually going to have a conversation with an employee who’s come to you to talk about something very important.

Somebody who has all the time in the world is going to sit at the breakfast table for five minutes longer when a kid really wants to talk, whereas somebody who doesn’t have all the time in the world might rush off and they would really miss out. Better to have that phrase in your mind rather than saying, “I’m so busy. I have no time for anything,” because if that’s your story, then you certainly look for evidence to support it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that a lot. It sure feels better having that in my brain than the opposite. Could you share some of the most compelling evidence that makes that kind of true?

For example, I could think that “I have all the time in the world because the amount of time required to do a given task is highly compressible.” You could do a task in 20 hours or 1 hour and you can outsource/automate, etcetera that thing. In that sense, time can fold and become – I feel like the Matrix right now.

Laura Vanderkam
Time can fold and stretch and climb in and out of it or whatever it is we do with our Matrix. Time is a funny thing. It is all about our impressions of it.

One thing I encourage people to do is to celebrate the time dividends that they have in their lives. There are certain things we do that are much easier for us now than were in the past. Maybe it’s a skill, like writing an article for me is very quick or recording a podcast can be done relatively quickly. I don’t have to spend a ton of time preparing for it.

Or even giving a speech, I have a basic outline, which I then change for different groups, but I know the stuff that might go in there and I cycle through different things depending on who I’m talking to. Writing the speech originally took quite a bit of time and effort, but now I have it and I have it memorized and so you reap the benefits of doing that.

Sometimes if I’m feeling like, “Oh, I don’t know that I did all that much this week,” I’m like, “Well, I didn’t spend 30 hours writing a speech because I didn’t need to.” I should celebrate that fact. I encourage people to recognize those time dividends in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. When you talk about it being quicker now than it used to be, that reminds me, Steven Landsburg is an economist. We had him on the show. He had a talk all about how just the insane amount of time it would take to say do laundry in the 1920s. It’s just massive.

Now we can do it pretty darn quick with washers and driers. I have a washer/dryer combo in one tub, so that’s pretty cool. That kind of really does provide some good evidence for having in the world because it’s like well people survived and lived their lives in a pre-laundry machine world.

Laura Vanderkam
They were scrubbing on those washboards. It was tough work.

Pete Mockaitis
And in a pre-internet world and in a pre-smartphone world, they were getting by just fine. Now we have all these time saving devices. What’s intriguing is instead of us just hanging out in leisure for three times as many hours in our weeks, we manage to still do lots of work.

Laura Vanderkam
Although less than in the past. This is a little known fact, but the average work week has in fact declined over the past two generations. People like to think they’re more overworked than ever, but on the whole, society-wide, it’s not true.

Pete Mockaitis
Now is that worldwide and US?

Laura Vanderkam
I know it’s US. But as people move out of hard manual labor, I don’t know that you realize how many hours it takes to run a farm. It’s a lot.

Also, there’s different kinds of people in the workforce now too as more women have gone into the workforce. Women, in general, tend to go into jobs and fields and also in the way they make their choices, tend to log fewer hours working for pay than men do. They log more hours obviously in childcare and housework. The overall work level market and nonmarket is exactly the same. But because there’s more women in the workforce, that lowers the overall time too.

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

Laura Vanderkam
I would ask them to come visit my website, which is LauraVanderkam.com. I blog most days there. You can read that. You can find out about all my books and hope people will come check it out.

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

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I always challenge people to try tracking their times at least for just a few days to see where the time really goes. Some people do this automatically at work because they’re lawyers or accountants or other people who have to do it. But if you’re not in that camp, just try it because it’s enlightening to see where the time really goes.

Try to do it outside of work as well because sometimes we’ve been telling ourselves, “Oh, I have no time to join that softball team,” or something and you track your time and say, “Well, actually on Thursday nights I’m not doing much of consequence, maybe I could join that softball team and practice with them.” I promise you’ll feel a lot better about life if you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, this has been so much fun. Thank you and good luck with the book and all your adventures.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you so much.