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721: How to Balance Caregiving with Your Career with Liz O’Donnell

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Liz O'Donnell says: "Sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home."

Liz O’Donnell shares her tips on how to deal with the stresses of taking care of your aging parents while managing your career.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset that eases the burden of caregiving 
  2. The most important thing you can do when things get overwhelming
  3. The motto to remember when times get tough 

About Liz

Liz O’Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter, a community for women balancing eldercare, career, and more. An award-winning writer, her book, Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living, was named one of the Best Books of 2019 by Library Journal. 

Liz is a recognized expert on working while caregiving and has written on the topic for many outlets including The AtlanticHarvard Business Review, Fast CompanyForbesTIME, WBUR and PBS’ Next Avenue, and has been featured in Health and Ozy Media. She also works with companies to create programs in support of working caregivers.

Resources Mentioned

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Liz O'Donnell Interview Transcript

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

Liz O’Donnell
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. It is a tricky topic that a few listeners have requested and you are one of the top experts in the field, so maybe you can orient us a bit. What’s the backstory behind the book Working Daughter?

Liz O’Donnell
The backstory is that both of my parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the exact same day. So, I went from one hospital where the team told me my father had Alzheimer’s and could never go home. And before I even left the parking lot after that meeting, I got a call from another hospital where my mother had been brought a couple of days before, it was stomach pains, and they told me she had ovarian cancer and probably three months to live, and could I come right away and we could tell her together the news.

And I was working full time at a marketing agency, I had two kids in elementary school, I had my first book that had just come out, and I already thought I was as busy as could be, and I felt completely alone and completely unprepared, and working through elder care was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. So, I vowed no one else should feel this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s powerful. And thank you for sharing your story and your journey with us here, and the book to enrich folks. Boy, what a day. So, tell us maybe a little bit of the story in terms of a little bit of the ups and downs and key best practices and discoveries you made that somehow make it possible to make things kind of still somehow work?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. Well, I’ll start backwards, I’ll start at the end. And the end was realizing that sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home. And so, we have to forgive ourselves when we’re not on our career paths because I was the breadwinner in my family. My husband and I had an agreement that he would be home with the kids and I would go to work. And I laugh now thinking, “What was I thinking?” But at one point, I was all in on my career so I couldn’t not show up for work. And I worked for a small company, and I was really lucky that I had paid time off and I had flexibility because so many caregivers don’t.

And so, I had all of these things going for me as far as trying to make this work but, again, probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. I lost a lot of influence at work. I lost key clients. I still had a seat at the table but I could tell that my voice didn’t carry as much weight. And so, like I said, if I start at the end, I just had to really forgive myself and realize that, one, you should never feel guilty for showing up for your family, and, two, you should never feel guilty for having to go to work and earn a living. And in between, do the best you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we definitely want to hear a little bit about sort of the how one forgives one’s self because that’s so much easier said than done. But, first, can we hear a little bit about sort of, in practice, in terms of like at the ground level, how is it that you lost influence at work and key clients? Like, how did that translation unfold?

Liz O’Donnell
The next six months of my life after those two diagnoses, I can only describe them as completely wild. I had an Excel spreadsheet, I had at the time 196 items on it. I would wake up every morning and highlight the ones that had to happen that day. So, it’s things like I had to find a memory care facility for my dad. My mom was an hour away but, now that she had a terminal diagnosis, I wanted to move her closer to me but I wasn’t moving her in with me, “So, was I moving them to the same facility?” They had different care needs. I was digesting these two diagnoses and what they meant and trying to learn about them.

I end up moving my parents four times. So, if you can imagine four phone calls to the phone company for a hookup and four calls for a change, so that alone, I think, could kill a person, waiting on line on hold for the phone company, and medications, and hiring nurses, and looking for wills, and I had no sense of their financial package, so literally digging through Rubbermaid bins where my parents, who were Depression-era, which meant they kept everything. So, digging through trying to figure out what their financial picture was, what they could afford, if they had burial plots, like all of that stuff had to happen every day.

And so, I don’t know how else to describe it but I was kind of a mess. And in the middle of all of this, or on top of all of this, I still had to show up at this very demanding job. And so, as I said, I was really lucky in that I had flexibility. So, I went to my boss and asked if I could extend my flex time and my paid time off, basically, so that I didn’t take any one chunk of time off but every week I would set a new schedule, and that was such a God-send.

But that’s one thing, I know I’m kind of jumping ahead, but one thing that when people think about elder care in the workplace, they think, “Well, it’s like child care.” But assuming you have a healthy child, child care is much more predictable. You know when your kid will start preschool, and when they’ll start kindergarten, and when they’ll start first grade, and when their vacations will be, and when their well-checks at the doctor will be, and you can put all that on a calendar.

With elder care, I didn’t know, “Was my mother going to live three months? Was my dad going to live ten years? When were these moments that I needed to drop everything and show up? When were they going to happen?” And so, I was flaky.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, flaky as in you ended up making additional errors and not following through on some commitments at work due the sheer overwhelm and stress of all this stuff happening unpredictably day after day.

Liz O’Donnell
Absolutely. The hardest thing I think was caring about work. As I said, at one point when my husband and I were planning a family, I was like, “I love my job. I’m not giving it up.” And now, here I am, and I’m literally dealing with life and death, end-of-life decisions, and the fact knowing that my parents…we all know our parents are going to die someday, we’re all going to die someday, but now it’s imminent and it’s being discussed.

And to show up at work and care about you’re on conference calls and people are like circling back, and parallel pathing, and strategic paradigm shifts, and it’s like, “People are dying. I don’t care about any of this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Wow. Well, Liz, you’ve really painted quite a picture in terms of so that’s what life…that’s what the experience of life was like in the midst of that. And so then, you learned a few things in terms of some principles and some practices and some tools in order to cope with that, whether our listeners are specifically dealing with exactly this, parent elder care, or other realms of illness or wild stress and unpredictability in the personal life.

Share with us, what are some of the key principles and practices? You mentioned forgiveness, and so just to make sure we don’t lose it because it sounds huge, tell us, how does one go about forgiving one’s self? Because I think it might be easier to know intellectually, “Hey, this is a difficult time right now, there’s some special unique demands that need my attention, they’re very important, and so I’m going to need to tend to those.” And, yet, we could still feel some guilt about the tradeoffs that we have no choice to make. So, how do you wrestle with that?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. To be perfectly transparent, I don’t think I came to this conclusion, forgave myself, until later when I was writing about the experience. And, for me, it’s through writing I realized what I was thinking. So, if people are wrestling with it right now and not figuring out how to do it, I would say you’re right on path. You’re totally normal. Don’t beat yourself up.

You asked me, well, your question has a lot of parts to it, so I’ll start with the practical stuff that I learned at work. And what I learned at work is that I needed to be prepared every day for an emergency. So, years prior, I went out on maternity leave twice. And leading up to maternity leave, which, again, is predictable. You get a date. It might not be the exact date but you kind of know when you’re going out on leave. And so, I started to keep a running list of projects and what the status was, and I made it really easy for whoever was going to fill in for me to be able to fill in for me.

When I got these two diagnoses and when this crisis first sort of erupted in my family, my house, if you will, at work, was not in order. I hadn’t filed an expense report in months. I was storing stuff on my hard drive, not on the Google Drive or the server. I wasn’t really good about cc’ing co-workers. So, one of the things I learned through the whole experience – my dad lived for, I don’t know, maybe another five years, so I was a caregiver for quite a while – was to always keep your house in order, and, like I said, keep stuff on the hard drive, I mean, on the Google Docs and Google Drive, and cc everybody in the company, and make it really easy for your co-workers to help you out.

And then just know. I was a Gen X worker with a lot of younger millennial co-workers, so they had not been through this experience yet. They also hadn’t seen all the equity I had built into my career, the years of sweat equity, to sort of earn that flexibility. They just knew that this older woman was a flake. She was leaving a lot, just taking lots of personal calls. I just had to trust in the process that we don’t always get to see what comes around but know that someday they would experience it too, and that there’s just sort of this cosmic payback in the workplace. And maybe my reputation was taking a hit with them and they didn’t understand what I was going through, but there had been people ahead of me that I had filled in for, and there are going to be people later that you need to be filled in.

So, a lot of it was mindset. So, there were those practical things I did at work to hopefully make it easier for people to cover for me, but a lot of it was just mindset, constantly telling myself, “This is okay. This is normal, and you really can’t worry about your reputation at work right now. It’s is not the most important thing.” And death has a way of kind of giving you perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s beautiful as we’re talking about forgiveness. So, it’s not only forgiving yourself, but then forgiving others and the co-workers. Like, if you see them, I don’t know, gossiping or chattering about you, or maybe just a look on their face, or whatever, that a subtle or not too subtle contempt or frustration, that that is a beautiful perspective in terms of not so much like, “I hate them, they suck,” but rather, “Hey, you might not realize it yet, but there will come a day when you, too, need and will appreciate this flexibility, and right now happens to be my time. And so, that’s where we are.”

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. And that’s easier said than done, and part of that is because we all have so many jobs now. It’s not like we’re all working at the same company for 20 or 30 years and we sort of evolved together. So, I had to know that I might never see my co-workers go through this. They did not see my early stages of my career in sort of a, “So, what now?” kind of perspective. And I don’t mean to minimize this process because I think, for many of us who are career-oriented, being mediocre at work is really hard. It’s a big adjustment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know what, that reminds me of, this is under the most random of connections, but I think it was Ronda Rousey, the ultimate fighter, who was defeated and she gave an interview. She’s very vulnerable in which she just started crying, and she’s like, “If I’m not this, what am I or who am I?” in terms of her identity was so wrapped up in like winning and victory and being a champion. And that can happen amongst folks who like being awesome at their jobs when there’s a period of time in which the environment is not so conducive to awesomeness at the moment.

And so, you shared a couple mindset bits. Did you have any other kind of phrases, or mantras, or mottos, or kind of go-to things you reminded yourself of in those moments?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah so, prior to the crisis, the two diagnoses, my parents were needing more and more care, and I was finding it quite disruptive to my life and my career. I was working. I was traveling. On the weekends, I want to be with my kids. I was spending at least one day a weekend helping my parents with shopping and bills and mowing the lawn and all of that stuff, and I was really resentful of it.

And I remember after this crisis and coming home that night after being at the two hospitals, and it was really late by the time I got home, everyone was in bed, and I just sort of sat on the sofa in the dark, and I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, the only way through this is through this,” which is a bad paraphrase of the Robert Frost quote. I didn’t know that at the time but I just remember thinking, like, “You can’t get around this so you might as well just get in it and just figure it out.” So, the only way through is through kind of kept me going.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And that sounds simple but I think the alternative thoughts to that are numerous and tempting, like, “There must be some kind of a trick, or approach, or a strategy, or a tactic, or a resource, or a something that’s going to make this all better.” And we’re chatting about some things that kind of help a bit but, ultimately, the fundamental difficult circumstances are there and are not just going away.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. And I had been thinking about elder care, as I mentioned, for a couple of years prior to the crisis because my parents were needing more, I was giving it to them, I was feeling squeezed already as a busy working mother. So, I had been waking up at 2:00 in the morning, thinking, “I know they need more care but I don’t know exactly what, I don’t know exactly how I’d fit it in.” I’d been Googling and finding these websites that were all, I call them halo and angel websites back then. And this was like 2013, 2014, and it was just like, “What a blessing to be a caregiver and just sit down and chat with your family, and divide the work, and everybody will be okay.” Useless. Completely useless.

So, I’d been searching for the tools and the resources up until this point and I hadn’t been able to find them, and so that’s why I thought to myself. And so, I was just…I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so, this concept of the only way through is through was really, for me, about how you’re going to use your energy. You only have so much energy. Energy is probably boundless and all of that good stuff, but at the time I was feeling depleted.

And so, was I going to use up my energy resisting, like, “I don’t want to do this. Why is this happening?” or was I just going to use my energy to get it done?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And, let’s hear, inside your mind, what is resisting sound like, so we can readily recognize it in our own minds and curtail it sooner rather than later?

Liz O’Donnell
It sounded like, “This isn’t fair.” It sounded like, for me, the typical family caregiver of elder care is, I mean, I fit the profile. I was a woman in her late 40s, early 50s, with a parent over the age of 65, and a child under the age of 18, she’s working outside the home, and she’s busy. So, I fit the poster child for this, but the difference is it’s usually the oldest daughter, and I’m the youngest of three, so there’s a lot of, “Why me? And what about my siblings? And why don’t they step up?” And I bet if any of your listeners are going through that, because siblings come up all the time, it’s like one of the top two questions I get, “So, where are my siblings? This isn’t fair.”

And the other thing that I was feeling, and I hear from caregivers all the time, was, “This is putting my life on hold.” And so, again, I learned after the fact, after I wrote about this and processed this, that it didn’t actually put my life on hold. It’s just the turn that my life took. And I think if people can learn to live through these life crises as opposed to wait until, that’s another huge step.

And I think, whether it’s elder care or anything else, we tend to, “When I get the next promotion,” “When I find the right partner,” “When I drop 20 pounds,” this whole concept of waiting until, if we can figure out how to wake up every day, and be like, “Okay, this is my life. How am I going to make it work? It might be ugly today but…” then I think that’s just freeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, so in your book, your chapter titles are imperative verbs, which is a style we like to use in our gold nuggets actually, so it resonates. So, it sounds like you’ve done some talking about how you accept and how you absolved. And you teased a little bit about prioritizing with 196 items in Excel, and you have limited energy. How do you prioritize well in the midst of these difficulties?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, the 196 items, those were the tactics. And, for me and what I talk about in the book, the prioritizing is when something, some kind of wrench comes into your life, or your career plans, or whatever it might be, like elder care did for me, and when you realize that the path you thought you were taking and the ladder you thought you were climbing isn’t quite what can happen right now, figuring out what’s most important and what you can shed.

So, back to that concept that I hear from other working daughters all the time, which is, “Caregiving has interrupted my life, or stopped my life, or put my life on hold,” I understand that concept, I felt that concept, but not necessarily true. Your life just needs to shift right now. So, what are the top three things in your life that are non-negotiable.

And so, for me, it was staying employed, because I was the breadwinner. I couldn’t lose my job. And it was showing up at some level as a parent. And I don’t remember what the third thing was at this time, but what are those three things? And so, everything else was a no. I said yes to those three things every day. I was going to be there for my parents. I was going to not lose my job. And I was going to be an okay parent myself. And everything else fell off for a while.

I was very involved in local politics. I was an appointed official. I resigned from that position and I had been promoting my first book, and I decided I was going to give that a B or a C effort. I had these three things that were most important in my life, and that’s what I was going to do. So, prioritizing for me was more bigger bucket items, and realizing that there were other things, so many other things in my life. I knew I wanted my first book to do well enough that I could write a second book. And I knew that I wanted to be an okay enough mother so that my kids wouldn’t be talking about me in therapy in a few years.

So, what were the things? And I knew that I had to stay employed but I wasn’t going to keep fast-tracking at that point. So, what were the things that I wanted to have in place when caregiving was over? And what was the minimum I had to do to make sure that I could step back into those roles?

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a question that many of us haven’t asked much and don’t like asking, “What’s the minimum I can do?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Liz, so you’ve got some other great verbs here: deflect, choose, manage, disrupt, renew, plan, reflect. I’m intrigued about the renew, in particular. So, could we hear about some of the best practices there and another one or two things that you think made all the difference?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, so renew is in that chapter, I talk about, I think, it’s seven most annoying words that a caregiver hears, which is, “You should take care of yourself.” And, in my case, when I finally told my boss what was going on in my life, that’s what she said. And, luckily, I had worked for her off and on almost all of my career so I was able to take her head off and keep my job and the responses.

We know we’re supposed to take care of ourselves. What we can’t figure out is how and when with the 196 items, waking up every day, going through all of this stuff. And so, she said to me, she goes, “Well, why don’t you start with hydrating?” And it was so simple. I had been waking up every morning, starting the coffee, caffeinating all day long, drinking Diet Coke all day just trying to stay awake and go, go, go. And then at night, I would be so caffeinated that I would have a glass of wine to try to unwind, so I was definitely dehydrated through this whole experience.

And it was such a simple thing to do. Who can’t fill a CamelBak or a plastic water bottle and walk around all day? And so, I said, “Okay.” And because I had promised my boss, I committed to it, and I started just adding more water to the day. And then eventually I started keeping a pair of sneakers, or trainers, or tennies, depending on what part of the country you’re from, in the trunk of my car, and going for walks when my parents were sleeping, if I was bedside or waiting. There’s a lot of waiting in elder care. There’s hospital time. There were doctors who were late. So, I just started throwing on a pair of sneakers and walking around whenever I could. And little by little, I was adding these small things. So, in my book, I write about, I think, 50 things you can do for self-care.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 5-0. Nice.

Liz O’Donnell
Well, they’re really small and simple, and some of them are physical and some of them are mindset. This is kind of embarrassing, but what the heck. I had certain songs that I would play at certain times in the day to just sort of shift my mind and put me in a good mood. Like, there was a song I always turned on as I was driving up to…my mom eventually moved into a hospice home, and I never knew on any given day what I was walking into, and I worked from the hospice home a lot of times. I worked remotely so I wanted to be as upbeat and positive.

So, I’d clicked on my iTunes. If it’s singing in the shower, if it’s sometimes helping other people out, it didn’t have to be hit the gym every day because that wasn’t realistic. But what are the little things we can do to feel better every day? And it really makes a difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful. You know, it’s so funny, hydration, that’s a great place to start because it’s easy to neglect, and that makes a big impact. So, suddenly, I’m looking at a pair of eye drops on my desk, which is true. Sometimes I like tough through a day with dry eyes for no reason, all day. It’s like I just don’t have to live like that, or dry lips with ChapStick.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. Exactly. Yeah, I just kept going to the soda machine for Diet Coke. I didn’t have to live like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Liz O’Donnell
You’re actually less tired when you drink water.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, water, songs, walking, sing in the shower, helping others. Any other thing that leaps to mind of the 50 that’s huge for renewal?

Liz O’Donnell
I think anything that helps you escape, that helps you sort of shift out of the stress that you’re in. So, reading, comedy, podcasts, all of those things might not sound like the traditional self-care that we talk about, but anything that can give your mind, which is on overdrive, a break is really helpful. So, are crafts as a parent. I didn’t practice this but my research shows that doing any kinds of crafts, knitting or…because they take your brain away from the stress that you’re thinking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. Well, so outside of renewing, any other top tips or best practices you want to make sure to share with listeners who are dealing with elder care and career at the same time, or other, just personal challenges with work at the same time?

Liz O’Donnell
I want to go back to that planning what happens after because I think it can be really uncomfortable. Because when you’re thinking about what happens after, you’re actually thinking about, “What happens when my parent dies?” And we have a term in the Working Daughter community that we call grelief, and it’s a combination of grief and relief, and that’s often how we feel when our parents die. And it can feel really uncomfortable to admit that there’s an element of relief there.

But the person you love is no longer suffering, you’re no longer struggling, and so I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this. And so, thinking about, “Okay, someday this is going to be over. What are my goals and how do I keep moving towards them?”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Liz, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Liz O’Donnell
You know, the other thing I want to mention, and thank you for asking that, is just to talk about this at work. As recently as 2013, 2014, when I was first going through it, nobody was really talking about this. And more and more, we’re seeing articles about elder care, there’s a lot of conversation about workers who are parents, but there haven’t been that many about workers with parents.

And it’s not just elder care; it’s spousal care, it’s sibling care. COVID has made us all caregivers at some level, so I think being comfortable, and trailblazing a little at work, and talking about caregiving, and when your companies might be talking about parents, reminding them it’s not just parents. Because the more we talk about it, the more normal it’s going to become. And it is, there’s like 54 million of people out there who are going through some kind of caregiving and working. So, why isn’t it more discussed?

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

Liz O’Donnell
My favorite quote now is “Action is the antidote to despair,” which is attributed to Joan Baez, the folk singer. And, for me, it’s the things that have you stressed out, if you just take one small step, you’re going to feel that much better. And, specifically the elder care, part of the reason we are so unprepared when it comes to elder care is nobody wants to talk about these things. We all know we should be talking about our wills. We all know we should be talking about burial plots. And often, like, “Eww, who wants to talk about that?” But if you just take one little action and move in that direction, ooh, your stress just goes away.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, I found these two professors when I was writing the book. One is at Johns Hopkins and one is at University of South Florida, and they have been studying the impact of caregiving on people. And they have found all the things that I just told you that it is stressful, it impacts your health, your relationships, etc. However, they also found something they call the caregiver’s gain.

And when they looked at non-caregivers compared to caregivers, they found that caregivers have better physical strength, cognitive ability, self-esteem, and actually longevity. So, I think the more we can talk about the caregiver’s gain, the more people will realize that caregiving, while it often feels like something that takes from you, it actually gives you something tremendous as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. You know what came to mind is, “So, those deadbeat siblings can suck on that.” That’s not the kindest.

Liz O’Donnell
That’s exactly the kind of conversation you’d hear if you joined the Working Daughter Facebook group.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m not too out of line. Okay. All right.

Liz O’Donnell
No. And that’s part of the reason I wrote the book, and I started the community, was back to that, like, it was all angel wings and halos, and people would always like they kind of tilt their head, and their voice gets sappy, and they’re like, “You’re a caregiver. It’s a blessing.” But I wanted a place where people could say things just like that. And that’s what I love about that research and what these two professors have done, is that their research doesn’t say that caregiving is all wonderful and it’s going to be better for you. They say both things can be true at once. And I think I just answered one of your upcoming questions, but I’ll wait till you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
A favorite book?

Liz O’Donnell
Oh, no, not that one. My favorite book is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Just can’t say enough good things about it.

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

Liz O’Donnell
I think it’s Spotify. I have a playlist for like every scenario. Like, if I wake up and I’m feeling stressed, I have a playlist for that. And if I’m giving a big presentation, and I’m having impostor syndrome, I have a playlist for that. And I have a Working Daughter playlist that reminds working daughters that they’re doing amazing work. So, I think Spotify is actually one of my best career tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Liz O’Donnell
A favorite habit? I think it’s water.

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

Liz O’Donnell
And that’s what I was just alluding to a second ago. In the Working Daughter community, we say all the time that two things can be true at once. And it’s we can say, “This completely sucks,” and also know at the same time that we’re glad that we have the opportunity to do it. We can feel grief and relief at the same time. Not something that people always embrace but we can hold two opposing truths.

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

Liz O’Donnell
WorkingDaughter.com, that points you to the private Facebook group and the book and all kinds of stuff.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. It would be to think about how we can be more compassionate at work because it was First Lady Rosalynn Carter who said, “There are four types of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers.” So, this is a workplace issue, and it requires that we’re compassionate with each other as we go through it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, thank you. This has been powerful and helpful, I hope, to so many. I wish you the best in all of your adventures.

Liz O’Donnell
I appreciate you talking about it. Thank you.

713: Accomplishing More with Fewer Hours: Insights on Productivity, Rest, and the 40-Hour Work Week with Joe Sanok

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Joe Sanok shares compelling research on how we can achieve more by working fewer hours.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What Iceland learned from a four-day work week
  2. The 1-minute trick for dramatically improving productivity
  3. Quick focus hacks for achieving flow faster

About Joe

Joe Sanok is the author of Thursday is the New Friday: How to work fewer hours, make more money, and spend time doing what you want. It examines how the four-day workweek boosts creativity and productivity. Joe has been featured in Forbes, GOOD Magazine, and the Smart Passive Income Podcast. He is the host of the popular The Practice of the Practice Podcast, which is recognized as one of the Top 50 Podcasts worldwide with over 100,000 downloads each month. Bestselling authors, experts, scholars, and business leaders and innovators are featured and interviewed in the 550 plus podcasts he has done over the last six years.

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Joe Sanok Interview Transcript

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

Joe Sanok
Oh, Pete, I am so excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s been over four years and 500 episodes since we last recorded our conversation. So, I’m just going to put you on the spot, Joe, and say, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered in that time that can help folks be awesome at their jobs?

Joe Sanok
The most exciting and awesome at their jobs, I would say that our biggest creativity comes when we slow down. I took my daughters on a nine-month road trip.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Joe Sanok
And did that during COVID. And through that process, I think it made me awesome at my job because I had so much creativity while working on the road and being remote, that it just was this epic trip that also lit me up in a very positive way that actually helped my job be better.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that message, and you share some of those themes in your latest book Thursday is the New Friday: How to Work Fewer Hours, Make More Money, and Spend Time Doing What You Want. What is the main message here?

Joe Sanok
Yeah, I would say the main message of Thursday is the New Friday is that the four-day workweek is better for society, creativity, and productivity, and that the research and case studies we’re seeing emerge actually show that large- and medium-sized companies that switched to the four-day workweek actually are doing better and having their profits go up rather than go down like most few people would expect.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, and before listeners tune out and say, “Yeah, that’s great, Joe, but I have no power to make that happen,” can you share with us what do we have to learn from these principles if we are in a five-day workweek and there’s nothing we can do about it?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, for me, whenever I think about when I’m going to approach, “Let’s reconstruct something. Let’s tear down the old way,” I always go to, “Historically, how much of what we believe right now is actually the truth and how much of it might just be things that we think are solid and unmovable?” Because if the way that we work right now is maybe not as solid as we think, then it actually gives us some hope that we can recreate things.

And so, to do that, I think we have to go back a little bit to about 4,000 years ago. The Babylonians, they made up the seven-day week. They looked up, they saw the sun, and the moon, the Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter, and said, “Let’s have a seven-day week.” Egyptians had an eight-day week, and the Romans had a 10-day week. So, even the week is completely made up. There’s nothing in nature that points to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, geez, I think that’s worth a pause right there because, wow, you know, because the Earth really does take 365 days for the Earth to go around the sun. That’s a real thing. And a day, from like a sunrise to the next-day sunrise really is approximately 24 hours. That really is a thing. But the week, huh, we just made that up.

Joe Sanok
Totally made up. We could just as easily have had a five-day week and had 73 of them in a year. And so, it’s completely arbitrary. And so, if we fast-forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, the average person was working 10 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week, so they had a farmer’s schedule but they weren’t all farmers. They were just working all the time.

And so, if we understand that historically context, where, in 1926, Henry Ford switched over to the 40-hour workweek, specifically with the goal of selling more cars to his own employees. His belief was that people weren’t going to buy a car to just get to work faster, but if they had a weekend to go see friends and family, to go recreate, that they would buy a car from the company they worked for. And it worked. And things started to take off.

And so, we see that this thing, that to us, this 40-hour workweek, we got to work five days, that’s less than a hundred years old. And so, well, this thing that we thought was so solid is actually kind of shaky. And then we entered the pandemic of 2020 and 2021, and, globally, we have an experiment to see if we have to keep working the way we’ve been working.

And that’s why right now we’re seeing this great resignation where people are recognizing, “I work for these industrialists who the thing they care the most about is a 40-hour week of me sitting in a chair, and that’s just not what I want out of life anymore.” And so, we see all these people resigning, but the best companies are the ones that are adapting and changing.

So, I would actually argue that, as a post-pandemic generation right now, that we have a window of opportunity to say, “How are we going to reshape society in the way that we think is healthier and can approach the challenges of this century with more creativity?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s intriguing just in terms of expanding our thinking associated with both a five-day 40-hour workweek and kind of everything, like, “Hi, is this sort of built into nature or is this something we made up and when?” That’s just a good little frame to put on all kinds of critical thinking issues in life and work, so thanks for that.

Okay, so then lay it on us some of the research whether folks, indeed, make a shift to a four-day workweek or they just take some nuggets associated with rest and strategic use of hours and some of the other takeaways. Well, either way, I think everyone can be enriched by what we’re saying here. So, let’s hear it, some of the research in terms of companies that made the shift, what happened?

Joe Sanok
Yes. So, the Iceland study that actually just came out a couple of months ago is one of the largest studies of the four-day workweek. And what it did is they had 2500 people that worked a 32-hour week. So, it wasn’t 40 crammed into four, it was an actual 32-hour workweek.
So, the really interesting thing about the Iceland study was that even though it was 32 hours, not 40 hours, we saw a boost in productivity, a boost in creativity, better health outcomes, better happiness. And so, if we think about that and just step back and say, “Okay, at 40 hours, we’re less productive, that means those last eight hours with this study, actually, are detrimental to productivity, meaning that they’re going against productivity, that it peaked at 32 hours.”

And so, we also see, in other ways, the idea of going where we have the macro of the three-day weekend, to then going to the neuroscience around the micro of how we actually do breaks within our regular workday. And so, we start with the internal because so many of the productivity books start with, “Here’s the actual steps you take,” which is very industrialist-minded. That’s the way that the industrialists wanted. They want it to be, “Here’s the blueprint, here’s the exact formula,” but, instead, the new way of writing is giving a menu to help people grow and try things and have their own experiments.

So, we start internally, then we move into slowing down, and then we move into absolutely killing it. So, the problem, typically, that we see is that most people work stressed out and maxed out throughout the week, and then the weekend is a reaction to that stress. So, they overdrink, they oversleep, they aren’t productive, or they’re stressed out even more with their kids. But the researchers point to that when we flip that and actually slow down first and optimize the brain, then we can do better work within our jobs on the other side of that.

And so, for example, there’s a study out of the University of Illinois.

Pete Mockaitis
ILL.

Joe Sanok
ILL, whoo-whoo, there we go.
So, University of Illinois did this study on vigilance decrement. So, vigilance, how well we pay attention to something; decrement, meaning that it goes down over time. And so, the leading idea at the time of this study was that we have a certain amount of energy in a day, and we pour it out, and over time, we just are out of energy and we can’t focus anymore, and the test after that, we just have to pause and not come back to.

Well, they wanted to see if that was actually true. And so, they had this study where they brought in college students, they gave them a random four-digit number, say, it was four-three-one-two. So, the student has four-three-one-two. Over an hour, this four-digit number is going to pop up on the screen, and whenever your four-digit number pops up, you hit a button. There’s going to be loads of other numbers that come up that you have to ignore. Super boring task for this period of time.

They saw that there was vigilance decrement at the end of the study. So, the amount they paid attention at the end was worse than how they had at the beginning. Totally what we would expect. But then, with the second group, at the one-third mark, what they did is they gave them just a one-minute break. They said something like, “We put you on the wrong computer. Just hang out in the lobby.” These students didn’t have their phone, and they just had a one-minute break. Came back, had another third of the study, had one more one-minute break, and then finished up the study.

They found that there was no vigilance decrement at the end of the study, meaning they paid attention just as well at the end as they had at the beginning. And so, evolution in our brain has not caught up to the technology we have, where when we take that one-minute break, it moves us out of our environment, and then it retriggers us to re-engage, and our brains are fearful. It’s paying attention. It’s able to then engage in a way that’s different than if we just work, work, work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. So, powerful breaks, that’s huge. Tell us more about the internal inclination.

Joe Sanok
Yes. So, the internal inclinations are the three inclinations that top performers have based on the research. So, if you want to be amazing at your job, one might say awesome at your job, then you want to really focus on where you’re at with these three internal inclinations. So, the first one is curiosity. The second one is an outsider perspective. And the third one is an ability to move on it.

So, the first one, curiosity. When I was writing this chapter, I was like, “What comes to mind if I was just to start with a blank slate here?” And the idea of curiosity killed the cat, like that’s a terrible thing that we say in our society. “If you’re curious, you’re going to die”? That’s terrible. Where did that come from? There’s actually a cat that got stuck in a chimney in the early 1900s. It was national news for five days. It was like a ridiculous news week. And so, this cat, the world is like following this cat. And then, at the end of the week, there was a frontpage headline in The Washington Post that said, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

And so, this has become something that we think, that when you’re an adult, you stop being curious. But effective leaders maintain that curiosity, so when they enter into something, whether it’s a pass or a fail, they see it as data. And so, if they do a big Facebook ads campaign, or they do a marketing campaign, or whatever it is, even when it “fails” they view it as data about their clients, about their money, about “We’ve learned something here.” So, we want to retain that.

The second thing in the internal inclinations is an outsider perspective. So, there was a research study that looked at this small group of six to eight people at a time. They would show them the color blue or the color green, and say, “Is this blue or is this green?” There were colors that were very blue and very green, and there were ones that were sort of in the middle. For the most part, the group agreed.

Now, in the second version of the study, two of the participants were actually working with the researchers, and there were particular colors that were very blue that they would say it was green, or green that was blue. And they were able to statistically sway the group towards their color that was incorrect. And over and over, we’ve seen studies show that an outsider actually has more perspective and sway over a group than an insider.

Anytime you’ve had a new job and you’re doing the onboarding, and you see things, you have that outsider’s perspective, and oftentimes, you have more sway than you should. So, I remember when I joined a community college, this was in like 2010, so computers were around but they were still handwriting their progress notes for counselling. They were filing them by day in a binder rather than by a person’s last name.

And so, if I wanted to know if somebody came in for counselling before, they had to go back to a calendar, look through it, find it. Outsiders, when you come into a new job, have these eyes to say, “That’s crazy. Why do you do it that way?” And so, effective leaders actually retain that as they move up to have that outsider perspective.

And then the third one is an ability to move on it. And so, we typically have a spectrum where on one side we have speed, and on the other side we have accuracy. And there are tons of times within your job or other things that you want accuracy. So, if I go under the knife, if I have surgery, I want my doctor, I want her to do as good a job as she can, be as accurate as she can. I don’t need speed when I’m in a hospital setting.

But most of business and life and jobs, speed is going to trump accuracy almost every time. And you know when we have jobs and we have supportive supervisors that understand this, that makes it a lot easier because you get more done and you’re able to get that feedback loop quicker as you move forward. But ineffective leaders are the ones that get paralyzed by perfection, they get worried about messing up, getting worried about getting fired over just little mistakes, so then they overthink it, and they’re accurate but they’re slow.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, ability to move then isn’t just about power but speed. And I’ve heard, I don’t remember if it was Korn Ferry or one of our guests talked about a key variable for people being successful in their careers is their decision-making. And by decision-making, they didn’t mean perfect decisions. They meant fast decisions, which I find intriguing. And I think it’s Ramit Sethi, I think he says it very well, something like, “We spend way too much time on most decisions, and way too little time on a couple really critical ones.” And so, most of our decisions, we can just crank and rock and roll, and there’s no need to sweat it, and there’s really just a few that you truly need to nail and take your time on.

Joe Sanok
Yeah, that idea of how much we spend time on making decisions, when you think about rising leaders, they’re usually people that make decisions, they can back up those decisions, they can think on-the-fly oftentimes, and practice thinking on-the-fly. So, these are skills that it’s not pass/fail with the internal inclinations. It’s more we just want to know, “Where are you at with these three?”

If you aren’t boosting your curiosity on a regular basis, or putting yourself in situations where you can build an outsider perspective, or feel uncomfortable, or have the ability to just move on it, you need to be putting yourself in those situations to build that muscle over time so it becomes more natural for you to think critically, outside of the box, as we often hear, or to be able to move on things, or to be more curious.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so I’m all for the breaks and those principles. That’s awesome. I want to hear, so for the skeptics in the crowd, so 32 hours versus 40 hours. I’m thinking there’s probably some distinctions here. Like, if someone is truly in a crank widget factory situation, I think less time is going to yield less output. Is that fair?

Joe Sanok
That’s definitely fair. And I think there are certain industries that are going to shift differently. This isn’t going to be in the same way that the industrialists just gave us a one-size-fits-all 40 hours. That’s why going through some experiments that I talk through in the book, and we can walk through it here as well, are important for teams to say, “How do we apply these principles specifically to our team?”

So, imagine an IT team that helps with passwords in a bank, you can’t just say to your banking clients, “Sorry, you’re locked out. There’s nobody here to help you. It’s Friday. Peace out.” You’re going to have to have somebody that’s on call. So, that’s going to look different for that team versus other teams. But there’s a lot of traditional industries that have an enacted this.

So, I love the story of Kalamazoo Valley Community College in southwest Michigan. This guy Ted Forester was an HVAC instructor. So, he’s a professor of HVAC, teaching about big-building heating and cooling, so a regular blue-collar guy.

Pete Mockaitis
This is like John Goodman in the Community TV show, who is awesome. He nailed that role so good.

Joe Sanok
I know. Right. That’s Ted Forester except Ted Forester is thinner and better-looking. So, Ted, he realizes on Fridays in the summer, there’s like no students on campus. So, he goes up to the roof, and every Friday, takes a picture of the parking lot, just Friday after Friday taking pictures. And then he does it in the fall to show how many people are there.

He then presents to the board of the directors, this HVAC guy goes to the board, and says, “This is what our Fridays look like in the summertime. This is how much we’re spending on air-conditioning costs to cool empty buildings in the summer. This is how much savings that we would have just from turning off the air-conditioning on a Thursday night and turning it on a few hours before Monday morning classes.”

So, they end up switching, five years ago, to a four-day workweek in the summertime, and they did save the millions of dollars in air-conditioning, but, on top of it, their staff satisfaction has gone up, their staff retention has gone up. So, you just think about how long it takes when someone leaves to replace that person in that role, to get them back up to the same productivity of the prior person. Their health outcomes are better and also the student success has gone up because students then can come in earlier in the day, Monday through Thursday, or later in the day, because people are flexing their schedules in really unique ways.

And so, they’re working 36-hour weeks and HR “donates” four hours. And so, they’re working a little bit longer days, but then there’s flexible scheduling where they can work through their lunch, they can come in early, they can keep the office open later. And so, Michigan is winter, like, nine months of the year, and so for people to have a summer where they have a four-day workweek, they’re going to stay in that job longer and be happier in it because of that. And then they’re still saving them millions of dollars in AC costs.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay. Well, so tell us, I’d love to hear, are there any other pro tips for in a world, I guess, fundamentally, whether organizations switch full-scale to a four-day workweek, or we just switch internally to a four-day workweek because we have that own flexibility, or we just decide, “Hey, I’m going to give you more output in less time, and then just kind of chill out a little bit that you won’t notice”? Either way…

Joe Sanok
And I think that’s already happening. I think when we look at Friday productivity, it’s not exactly through the roof, or like a Monday morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, fundamentally, what are the key practices that let us generate more output in less time? So, we talked about one-minute breaks making a world of difference for not having that vigilance decrement. That’s cool. What are some other magical things we can do so that we do more with less?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, one thing that we want to do is we really want to think about the environment in which you’re working, and to give different environments to different tasks. And this can be harder or easier depending on how much control you have over your office space. But even, as I was writing the book, I was using the very principles I was learning to write the book faster than what I thought I could.

And so, even being able to on the day of writing, to protect my brain in the morning. So, I wasn’t checking texts, I wasn’t checking email, I was blocking out the time to work on an important task. And even when I had a full-time job, I would do this. I would say to my boss, “Hey, I’m going to be batching and working through all of these items. I’m going to be in my office if you need me, but I’m going to try to just have my head down for three hours and just go crazy.” And she would respect that, and she would know ahead of time. And then I got so much output done, it was like, “When Joe is in monk mode, just like don’t even pay attention to him.”

And so, what I would do is I would then get together the food that I needed, so I had my green smoothie, I had my coffee, I had my green tea, so all the drinks I need for the morning, and then I set up my environment in a way based on the task. So, this is one of those quick hacks you can do in your office environment to have different lighting and different things for particular tasks.

So, I changed the lighting in my office while I was writing. I moved the chair that I was working at to a different part of the office. I had specific headphones that I only used for when I was writing, with a playlist I only listened to while I was writing. So, that then dropped me into flow state significantly faster than if I had just looked at a white screen, and said, “What am I going to write today?” I came in prepped. I had prepped my brain. I had thought through, “What is this chapter going to look like?” And so, in a typical work world, we can enact these environmental changes to drop into flow state faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I imagine with that environment, those beverages part of it was being set up right next to a bathroom.

Joe Sanok
Yes. Yes. And understanding when are you most productive. For me, from about 9:30 to 11:30 is like my peak performance time for a day. Like, the food, the caffeine, the wakefulness, all has me in a point that that’s when I get my best work done. And so, that’s what we want to do, the work that’s most important is when our bodies feel most amped up and most ready to go.

The other thing that I would recommend is for people to really understand their sprint type. And so, a sprint type is similar to a personality type. When we think about sprinting or batching parts of our job, oftentimes we think, “Well, that didn’t really work for me,” and it’s because we don’t know our sprint type. So, some people, their brains are naturally wired to be able to have breaks every 20 minutes while you’re working on the same task. So, spending one to three hours just working on the same task over and over and over.

And so, you break it into 20-minute sprints, you’re just going crazy on that one task. Whereas, other people, what we call task-switchers, are people that they need to have variety. And so, they sketch out what their sprints are going to be, but they’re going to change every single sprint. The other side of it is knowing, “Am I the type of sprinter that needs to have this automated, so an automated sprinter, so every Thursday, in the morning, I’m going to be working on a particular task? Or, am I an intensive sprinter that needs to take time away from the office to really dive deep into particular tasks?”

And so, some people will rent an Airbnb to just dive deep, to get out of the office, they’ll schedule with their boss to work from home or to go away so that they can dive deep into a particular task. And so, when we understand our sprint type, we actually get more done during that period of time than if we just were kind of going along with our regular schedule.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what I really like about this…maybe a theme that’s coming to mind in terms of the things that you’re putting together here is that we’re serious here. There’s a time on the calendar and there’s an environment. There’s a set of conditions: food, beverage, peak energy. There’s a mission, and it’s like, effectively, you’ve turned not messing around into a series of practices that has a date and time and mission and supportive elements around it, and then some rituals, like, “These are the headphones, this is the music, this is the beverage,” that then get associated over time. So, all that’s really cool.

And part of me, I don’t know, my hunch is, and I want to pore over all this research that you’re sharing, with that 40 hours versus 32 hours, I guess part of me thinks that we’ve got over 20% of our workweeks that we’re just sort of frittering away by not being serious.

Joe Sanok
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I guess my question is, if someone is already a kick-butt high-performer, would they still see those gains even though the “average” knowledge workplace, it seems like has no problem?

Joe Sanok
So, I would actually ask the question of this high-performer, “Do they think they are trying new things? Are they stressed out and maxed out? Or, do they have time and space for creativity and daydreaming?” Because, if we are stressed out and maxed out, the research shows that we are not going to try new things. We are going to go with what we know. And for a period of time, that can work, to just go with what you know.

But if you’re really looking to get to the next level in your career, you have to be innovative, you have to be creative, you have to make connections outside of the lane that you’re in. And that almost always comes when we slow down, when we’re taking a shower, or going for a hike, or on a long drive. We start to make these neural connections that we wouldn’t have made if we’re just stressed out and maxed out. So, for the high-performers, I would actually say that they’re going to do even better and more creative work to help themselves stand out within their careers if they slow down.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Joe, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, the final thing I would leave you with, because sometimes we hear this four-day workweek, or three-day weekend, and it’s just, “Where do I even start?” And I would actually start looking forward to this future weekend, even if it’s just two days, and I want you to add something and remove something. So, what do I mean?

So, I want you to add something that you know is going to help you rejuvenate in a way that is just expansive beyond what you’ve done. So, it might be that there’s a book on your nightstand that you’ve been meaning to read, and if you gave yourself two hours of permission to read that book, you know it would light you up. Or maybe it’s connecting with a friend that every time you see them, you say, “We should get together sometime,” and you just keep putting it off. Find that thing that’s going to add something to your weekend.

And then I would say remove something. So, you may have coffee scheduled with a friend on Saturday morning, and every time you leave that meeting, you feel like trash, “That person is toxic.” Like, I give you permission to cancel that. Maybe you’re sick of working on your lawn and you want to pay the neighbor kid for one weekend to work on it. Or, maybe you’re sick of going and getting groceries, waiting in line, bringing them home, and losing half a day of your weekend. Maybe this weekend, you give yourself permission to take that off of your plate.

And when you do this over time, where you add something and remove something, you learn what’s best for you. It may be that the grocery thing doesn’t really like amp you up as much as you thought it would. It may be that the lawn care actually does. And so, over time, you’re adding one thing and removing something for you to best know how to optimize your brain for the next week, whether or not if you’ve jumped into a three-day workweek or not, or three-day weekend or not.

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

Joe Sanok
Yeah, the quote that I, for a long time, have tried to live and heard so early in my career is “When you say no to one thing, you say yes to all sorts of other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a favorite study or experiment or a piece of research?

Joe Sanok
To me, the one I go back to is the vigilance decrement one because it just shows how just that small little bit can make such a difference. And I’m sure there are so many other things like that, that research, that has yet to uncover.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Joe Sanok
I would say there’s two. I’m going to cheat here. The ONE Thing is, by far, my favorite book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Joe Sanok
In regards to just business and focus, but The Untethered Soul, to me, is equal in regards to just allowing myself to realize that at my deepest core, I’m awareness, I’m not my emotions, past feelings, my physical body, and to allow those heavy feelings to just move through my body, has just been a game changer for me.

Pete Mockaitis
You tell me a book can do that for me, huh?

Joe Sanok
It’s a good one. Michael Singer rocks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Just to have total enlightenment over emotion. Okay, that’s worth a read. Thank you.

Joe Sanok
Yeah, little things that I like to pay attention to, like, global enlightenment.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Joe Sanok
I would say that I still…I probably said this last time. Trello, to me, I use so frequently with my teams and my personal life to just stay organized overall.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Joe Sanok
I would say my favorite habit is slowing down, that to genuinely turn my brain off and to go have fun with people, to me, that makes life worth living.

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

Joe Sanok
I would say that they’re shocked at how slowing down really was the thing that helped them completely kill it and grow their businesses. Most people, when they try that, are just absolutely shocked at how well it works.

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

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, wherever they want to buy Thursday is the New Friday, it’s available wherever you buy your books. I‘m sure your local bookstore would appreciate that. We’re also doing a mastermind group starting the first Thursday in November. And so, when you buy 10 copies of Thursday is the New Friday, you get access to that by just submitting your receipt over at ThursdayIsTheNewFriday.com.

We’re going to be having some top-level podcasters in there. We’re going to be talking about how do you actually implement the book, doing some hotseats. But, most importantly, you’re going to be able to meet new people that are thinking in the same way so that we can have a genuine community of friends that are enacting this together.

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

Joe Sanok
I would say that we are the post-pandemic generation, and we have a short window of time here before people try to go back to what was “normal” before the pandemic. Now is the time when you have the most power to push back. And, especially, with the great resignation, there are so many employers that are looking for creative ways to attract new talent. And if you can be one of those leaders around the four-day workweek, I know it’s going to help you continue to level up in your career. Be a leader, and to live a life that’s more in line with what maybe nature intended.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Joe, thank you. this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in your four-day workweek adventures.

Joe Sanok
Thank you so much, Pete.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Brent

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

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

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

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

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

Brent Franson Interview Transcript

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

Brent Franson
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, man. Hustle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Franson
Yeah. Thanks, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Bryan

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

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Bryan Robinson Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, it is.

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Is it mind-blowing?

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Oh, yeah.

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

Bryan Robinson
Well, let me tell you the difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, please do.

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

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

Bryan Robinson
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
But musturbation is a new one.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
What did you do, Bryan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
The ones who might get a shock.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
It’s the growth mindset.

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard it as a phrase.

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

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

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

Bryan Robinson
Just the opposite.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got it.

Bryan Robinson
It’s the opposite, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Chris

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Chris Bailey Interview Transcript

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

Chris Bailey
You have me back.

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

Chris Bailey
Wow, really?

Pete Mockaitis
Did you forget one already?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That too.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yup.

Chris Bailey
Sorry, rant over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
You’re savoring it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bailey
What song are you savoring right now?

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

Chris Bailey
Oh, that’s a classic tune.

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

Chris Bailey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how does one savor?

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

Pete Mockaitis
I enjoy hanging out with my kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bailey
Well, we just bought a drill…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, good choice.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’ve seen those.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, right on.

Chris Bailey
Hey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bailey
Thank you. You, too.