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High Productivity and then Utter Burnout.
Brad Stulberg worked 14-17 hour days for a big consulting firm. He was exceptional; successful but, he couldn’t turn off. He hit a wall.
As a high school student, Steve Magness was #1 running time for the mile in the US (4:17); he was #3 in the world! In college everything tanked. He hit bottom.
Together they sought to discover how to get good without wrecking.
They looked at entrepreneurs, athletes, intellects, and professional musicians to discover what were the sustaining principles and commonalities that worked; sustainably. What is the right amount of stress (high productivity) and the right amount of rest (what kind of rest)? There is an equation that works.
Work rest balance looks different to different people.
Studies show that we need sleep; as much as 7-9 hours a night. Rest helps us maintain willpower. Rest helps us to be more productive throughout the day also. Though it looks different for each of us it could be as simple as a walk or even looking at pictures of nature. Then, when we work, we can produce more; much more.
Purpose gives you sustainability.
Magness and Stulberg’s research found that your why, the reason you get out of bed, will give you the ability to keep going when things are tough. Also, they firmly believe that preparing your workspace or body before you work or workout sets you up for greater achievement in whatever you do. Rituals, in a sense, prepare your mind and body for success.
– Hey, welcome back to the Urban Monk, Doctor Pedram Shojai. Hanging out live in studio with a couple of fit athletic guys who are talking about peak performance. I got Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness here. Welcome to the show.
– Thanks for having us.
– It’s great to be here.
– Yeah, so you guys are both runners, and different kind of distances. So you were track, in high school. You run kinda longer distance stuff. I’m envious ’cause I can’t really run. I used to trail run a lot, and I just had to give up on it, it hurts too much. It is one of the best ways to lose weight. It’s one of the best ways to clear your head. It’s one of the best ways to just kinda manage stress, if you can do it, right? And so, I know a lot of people that run despite their orthopedic issues, because it just feels, it’s a good drug, right?
– Totally. You guys have been looking at how people can eliminate burn out. You’ve been looking at how people can do this the right way. So, let’s just get a little bit background, how did you get into running? How did you get into studying peak performance? We’ll start with Brad, and we’ll get Steve.
– Yeah, so we’ve actually both had kind of parallel tracks in our lives, but in different realms. So, about 10 years ago, coming out of undergraduate school, I went to work for one of the big box consulting firms, called McKinsey & Company. I had a wonderful experience there, but I really struggled to turn it off, so I could not disconnect from the work. And I was performing really really well, but I just kept on digging and didn’t really understand the notion of rest and recovery, at all. I ultimately just burnt out. So after two years of grinding, I don’t know, on average probably between 14 and 16, 17 hour days, it just caught up to me. And I think that now, I could probably do that for a week, but back then you’re 22, 23, your ego’s kind of tied into it, you’re doing really interesting work, it’s intellectually stimulating and invigorating, I had two years of that to give. But yeah, then I burnt out pretty hard.
– Yeah, you can take that out of the end of your life, in your twenties you don’t realize that. You know, when your bank account is somewhat full and you start depleting it, you still see money in there, you don’t think about it.
– [Brad] Exactly. Then you’ve hit rock bottom, that’s when things get real ugly.
– Yeah, um, so I was fortunate, I had a natural inflection point. I went to graduate school and started studying public health. And it was then that I kind of became interested in how do world class performers sustain that level of performance? Are they just have a reservoir of energy that I don’t, and they can constantly put in that kind of world class work? Or is there something different that they’re doing that’s allowing them to be more sustainable. So from there I started researching and learning more about health and wellness more broadly, but also in particular burn out and the principles of human performance. And have, over time, transitioned in my career and spend much less time doing the kind of corporate consulting work and now write professionally about this kind of stuff.
– Fantastic, and Steve?
– Yeah, so my story actually kind of parallels his only in an athletic realm. So, I started off as, I’d call myself, like, a phenom. Like, in high school, I ran a four oh one mile, which at the time was number one in the U.S. for high school kids, number three in the world for high school aged athletes, and, like, number six all time in the U.S. list for high school runners. So I was really good, and to get there I was one of those guys who just like, oh, to get good I just have to put my head down and do all the work that I can. So, as a 17, 18 year old kid, I was running 17 to 18 miles a day, just, like, day after day. Just, you know, forget everything else, it was just like, alright, I gotta go run. And that was, that was life, and at that age I could sustain it for a year or maybe two. And then, as I got into college and my college running career, it just like, hit rock bottom. Like, I couldn’t run fast anymore, hated doin’ it.
– Spent it.
– It was just spent. And your inclination at that age, it’s just like, well I got here through hard work, so I have to double down and work harder to get out of it, and you just dig yourself a hole. So, like, my experience coming at it, is like, alright I know how to get really good, but is there a way to get really good without risking all these negative aspects that I had to go through. So that really started my quest for understanding can we achieve really high performance but do it in a way that we can be sustainable? Not wrecked, not burning out, and all those things.
– It’s funny man. So, we’re doin’ this film on conscious capitalism and one of the biggest problems with the economy is short-termism, and everyone’s like, I want quarterly earnings, bop-bop-bop-bop, and it doesn’t matter what the long term thing is. It’s like the same story here, running through your guys’ bodies. It’s like your burn rate was too hot and you burned up. Did you guys get sick, or did you just run out of juice?
– I mean, I describe it as, I walked around like a zombie for a while. I mean, I had various health problems show up, just energy levels were done, and what happens is it infiltrates the rest of your life. I mean, you could see it in my GPA and grades just went down too, because there’s just like, once you’ve hit that lethargic self, there’s no motivation to do almost anything. So for me, it like, took over my life.
– Yeah, and just kind of flat-tired you.
– I’d say that, you know, the issue, or I guess when I realized that I was struggling was, I’d be on a phone call with my at the time girlfriend, or my family, or my grandmother, and even though I’m on the phone with them, my mind was on slide 19 of the PowerPoint deck, or in the third tab of the spreadsheet. So again, I realized I cannot turn it off, like this is not sustainable. And it’s not to discredit, I think Steve would say the same thing, and we get into this in the book. It’s not to discredit places like Mckinsey & Company, they do outstanding work. It’s not to discredit high school runners that run four minute miles, that’s phenomenal. It was just the way that we were going about approaching it, we didn’t have the tools to do it in a way that was healthy and sustainable. And I think, like Steve said, that’s what kinda started this quest to figure out what are those tools? Is that possible?
– So you guys both burned out, went unsustainably, hit walls, and then started looking for answers. And so, let’s get into it. So you started looking at athletes, presumably, CEOs, who did you start studying to look at performance? Because performance isn’t just physical, right?
– Yeah, and I think that’s what we’re trying to get across, is that it’s not just like, ah, I’m a runner and I burned down and it’s a physical thing. This applies to runners, to consultants, to doctors, to entrepreneurs, to CEOs. As we all deal with this, this whole combined physical, psychological, emotional thing. And like, where we started and the natural inclination was looking at athletes. I also coached, so I coached some really world-class athletes, and looking at what they did, but it’s like branching beyond that. In the book, what we tried to do is look at people coming at it from as many different domains as possible, and seeing if it essentially, like, alright, where are the answers? Like, what are you doing that’s allowed you to have this 10, 15, 20 year career that’s been really well, and having a family at the same time. What are you doing that maybe we missed out on?
– So you got the commonalities between the different high-level people. And who did you look at in particular? What kind of people?
– So we looked across entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, I guess what you’d call intellects, like mathematicians, and… And, athlete, art, intellect, science. So really, like a broad swath. Some examples, we spoke with Matt Billingsea, who is the drummer for Taylor Swift’s bands, and arguably the best pop rock drummer alive right now. A sculptor named Emil Alzamora, who’s got internationally acclaimed works of art. We spoke with a fair amount of world class athletes, so Olympic cyclists, Olympic runners, various successful venture capitalists. So, again, really trying to go broad, to come to try to find these principles that are applicable whether you are trying to perform at your peak in sports or in business or in art.
– Amazing. So what commonalities did you guys find?
– So, where I like to start is the first one that is kind of the overarching principle that I have tried to practice in my own life since reporting and researching on the book, is what we have come to call the growth equation. Which is stress plus rest equals growth. And the easiest way to describe it is to use the analogy of your bicep muscle. So if you wanna grow your bicep muscle and you pick up way too heavy of a weight you’re going to literally tear your bicep tendon. You’ll get injured. If you pick up a pretty good weight, but you lift non-stop, and it’s all you do, your muscle will fatigue and burn out. The flip side is if you pick up a weight that is hardly anything and sit there doing curls, nothing’s gonna happen. So you’ve gotta find the right weight, the right amount of stress, to stress your muscle but then step away from it and rest to let your muscle regenerate and recovery. Excuse me, and recover. And while that is very very logical and there’s tons of evidence behind that and physiology, it’s the notion of periodization, what we learned is that intellectual and emotional growth works very very similarly. So, in order to grow one’s mind you need to challenge it, immerse yourself in deep focus work and take on projects that really push you to the edge of your comfort zone, but you can’t do that non-stop. You have to insert periods of recovery to absorb that work, grow from it, adapt to it, before you can move forward. And I think back to what you were saying about conscious capitalism and the focus on the short term, I think when you focus on the short term, you see that first side of the equation, which is stress, which is do the work, push, push, push, but you’re not creating enough space to absorb the work and to let it set in, and to recover from it, so then you can take on more in the future.
– And that’s kind of built into the system of Wall Street and reporting and quarterly earnings and also, so there’s a lot of talk in that space of just factoring out some of that insanity for long term growth, right? It’s like, you know, farming happens over time. So having sustainable yields happens by replenishing the soil. And so you’re saying, using that same metaphor, in the mind, with the emotions, you need time to digest these things, you need time to unplug.
– Exactly, and if you look at the science of it, people think that it’s when you really work hard, whether that’s physically or mentally, that you get better, but the brain and body adapts when you rest, when you step away. So if you look at challenging a muscle, physically, it’s not when you’re doing that lifting that you get better, it’s when you step away, have that rest day, you get sleep, when all the recovery hormones, the proteins, come in there and repair it and make it stronger. And the same thing happens in the mind, it’s like, when we sleep, when we’re recovering, is when the mind is processing things, like connecting, like synapses, and things like that, so that we can increase our learning and our understanding.
– I’ve seen some of this with certain coaches now, where they build in rest and recovery periods for their athletes. For CEOs, I mean, dudes go play golf. You know what I mean? If you know how to unplug, you do it. Where I see people getting destroyed is mid to high level, whether you’re kind of a low level, like VP level, up to C level, or somewhere in management, where those people are just like, look yo, when is it due, it’s due yesterday, keep going.
– And so how you negotiate that at work? How do you negotiate that? I mean, you do this at McKinsey, or you did this at McKinsey. That stress level is right there in that tier where people just get destroyed.
– And I think that part of goal for the book is to have individuals in organizations that can influence how work is structured to realize that if they want to get the most out of their employees and not have high employee turnover, that they ought to think about structuring the work so that there are these periods of rest and recovery. I think the other area where this just crushes people is entrepreneurs, because you can always do more and when the business is your baby and you’re passionate about it, it’s really really hard to have the self awareness to realize that I’m actually digging a little bit too deep, I need to step away from it. As a writer, I struggle with this massively. Because I can constantly be tweaking and refining the things that I’m writing. I can constantly be writing more stories, trying to get stories placed in different outlets, and there’s no end trying to make it as a writer, and it’s been a challenge, it still is a challenge. I think writing this book has at least brought it to the front of my awareness, just the importance of making sure that I step away. Whether that’s on a daily cycle for a few minutes, whether it’s taking one day off a week, or taking a vacation every few months.
– Yeah, it’s hard, I think the world has been really unfair to Hawaii and Tahiti, you know? There’s just too much expectation there, it’s like, no no what’s your gonna do is you’re gonna get this bungalow with this great view and you’ve got six nights, right? And you’re like, I’ve been going for 18 months, can you catch up? No. And so, that kind of paradox of less is more really has a hard time translating. But you guys have looked at the data. You guys have worked with the highest level people and the proof is in the pudding, right? The performance numbers improve with rest and recovery, and that’s the part that a lot of people who are on that drive, that burn out kind of trajectory just can’t slow down to get.
– Yeah, well we’re taught, almost like, just grind away, and the harder that we grind the more benefits, the better our output is gonna be. But if you actually look at the research, it shows that inserting periods of rest, inserting an off day, or a vacation more frequently, actually increases productivity. One of my favorite studies that we came across was in the Harvard Business Review, where they took a pretty high end consultancy agency and they essentially forced them to take, I think it was like, one night off a week.
– [Pedram] Oh my God.
– I know, right!
– And the reactions were like, freak out. I’m gonna get fired, like, this is gonna be the end, like, one night, this is gonna kill me. But what they found is productivity went up. So then they tried it with a little more, and productivity went up. And I think it surprised everyone in that consultancy, because it’s so counter-intuitive, but that’s what actually happens. Because if we’re honest with ourselves and we say, oh I’m putting in 18 hours, 17 hour days, how much of that is actually quality work? And if you actually give yourself the rest and the ability to recover so that when you really do work, it’s really high quality work, then you can get more done in less time.
– But I could also snort Adderall and put on a pot of coffee and somehow feel like that’s gonna get me through this quarter, right? And that’s that fundamental imbalance. So let’s talk about rest, because a lot of people their definition of rest might be different than what you guys are talking about. Like, parking in front of the TV watching a whole Netflix series could qualify as rest to some. What is rest? What have you found is rest?
– So I’d say that the foundation of rest is sleep. And, you know, reporting on health and science for a while, you’d think that I wouldn’t be surprised, but I was still surprised to learn just how important sleep really is. Seven to nine hours a night is just integral to, like Steve said, to physical reprocessing and repair as well as psychological growth. Another very interesting study that we came across had to do with, I guess it could fall in the emotional category, willpower. So, when you don’t sleep or when an individual doesn’t sleep, he or she literally loses their willpower, it’s like their filter is gone. So you might be in an argument with your spouse, or your boss at work, and if you’ve been sleeping well you’ll have the part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex, will be online enough to be like, you should think twice before you’re gonna say that. Whereas if you’re not sleeping well, that goes to crap, and you lose that ability to control your emotions. So I think that sleep is the foundation. Then, layering on top of sleep, what we’ve learned is that throughout the day, if you think about how an athlete does interval training, so very very hard interval, followed by a period of rest, then another hard interval. Turns out, that that is a really really productive way to work, pretty much regardless of the task at hand. How to rest during those off periods, like you said, yeah, we haven’t seen research, that doesn’t mean there’s not evidence out there. Maybe watching half an hour TV show could work, but where the research is currently, three main areas. It is very very light physical activity, so something like taking a walk, meditation, and nature. There’s some fascinating work that even if you don’t have access to nature, but you can just look at pictures of nature, that helps turn off your conscious effortful thinking brain and allows your subconscious to go to work.
– That’s amazing. To me that feels like a Labrador waving it’s tail looking out of a window. Please take me on this walk. Yeah, but that’s reality, right? That’s where we live. You know, this whole conversation is making me think Europe may have gotten it right because they did this excessive burnout and then fell back into a lifestyle thing. Like, we make fun of them for taking all these vacations and breaks, but their productivity’s fine, right? And their living their lives and they’re happier, in a lot of ways, right? It’s built into their culture.
– Yeah, exactly, and that’s what the research plays out. I mean, it’s like the, it’s almost laughable, we work so long and then have a week of vacation. And we expect that to last, but if you look at it, those benefits last for like two to three weeks and then it’s like you’re back down to square one stress levels. So how do you expect this week long vacation to carry you through? Europe has, you know, figured it out, where it’s like, hey, if they want healthy productive people and then they have to look them as people and give them what they need.
– [Pedram] God forbid.
– I think the other nuance though, and it’s funny because we don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the, oh, just rest, and all you have to do is rest and you’ll
– Chill out.
– be a peak performer. Like, the opposite side of that is the stress part of the equation. And you do really really need to work hard to grow at something. And, I think Steve mentioned this earlier, what we found is that if you keep your easy days easy and your easy periods easy, your hard periods will actually be much harder. And what ends up happening with continuous work is maybe you start here and you’re working really hard for a few days, but then what feels like really hard is actually kind of like in the middle, right? You’re grinding, you’re going through the motions, you’re working as hard as you can perceptually, because your tired. But if instead, you would think of work as polar extremes of really really hard, deep-focused, single-tasking work, in the zone, and checking out, taking a 30 minute walk where you just allow yourself to mind-wander. Sitting and meditating for a little while. Taking a nap. Working on those two polar ends actually allows you to have more productivity because you are working really hard, you’re just not getting stuck in that gray zone.
– So it’s like interval training for work, where it’s like sprint and pant, recover, don’t do anything. Don’t check your phone, don’t take a work call while you’re on your walk, or stuff like that.
– Interesting. So I’ve played with a lot of different methods, I like the Pomodoro Method for the most part, 25 minutes, you know, these little sprints, and I’ve played with different things, like chunk time in the mornings and all that. What have you found in terms of routines that have been the most effective?
– You know, it’s really about the individual, and although the research kinda showed okay, 25 on, 5 off, or 50 on, 10 off, is there’s, all of them seem to work to some degree. But it’s really what the individual needs. And that’s what really came out when we talked to all these performers across domains is that everyone kind of experimented until they found what seemed to work best for them. And I think that is our message in this book, more than anything. Don’t think like, oh, this guy did 25 on and 5 off, so I’m gonna stick to this meticulously. Well it might not work for your schedule or the way you have adjusted to things. Give yourself the flexibility to explore.
– So, given the nurturing environment where your boss allows you to do that, that’s something you can negotiate. If I’m sitting at my job job, and I’m like, yo dude I have this thing where I’m gonna take a break and walk out every 25 minutes, trust me it works, that may or may not work. But if I say, hey, look at the data, so I’ve been able to prove that my productivity is higher based on my own analysis so now it’s worked together, that’s quantitative, right?
– So the question is how do I go about knowing what’s my best burn rate? If I’m gonna do a self assessment, how do I figure this out and be honest with myself?
– Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I would start by trying to have some kind of baseline of what your output is, and that wouldn’t just be quantity, but also quality. So you’d almost want to rate, how much am I producing and of what quality. And then I would also rate, how do I feel? Because there’s all kinds of research that shows that a happy worker and a healthy worker is a better worker. And again, coming back to less employee turnover, better job satisfaction leads to better performance. So I would establish that baseline and then I would give yourself some time to experiment with various tweaks in your routine, and kind of come back and self rate on those parameters. So, quantity of output, quality of output, and how one feels.
– Yeah, I think a lot of people just don’t have a culture of measurement, right?
– So they don’t know how to measure their, like maybe the boss measures your performance by certain metrics, but I don’t think that’s built in to people’s operating systems. Which is part of the problem is if you don’t track it, you don’t measure it, then will it move?
– But I would say that, you know, it’s interesting, so Steve said it’s very individual and I totally agree. I think that the framework of this notion of stress and rest, whether that’s 25 minutes, five, 50, 10, 90, 15, that works, that makes sense. I can confidently say the science is clear that alternating between stress and rest is a good way to work. I think where the tinkering has to happen is figuring out what that means for you. And it might vary based on the task. I know if I’m working, if I’m writing, I can write for about 90 minutes before I need a break, but if I’m doing some other kind of work, if I’m working on PowerPoint, I start to get very cloudy after 30 minutes. So it’s person specific, and to an extent, it’s task specific.
– And I think a lot of this can be figured out if you just are aware, asking the right questions, and understand the feedback. It’s like you said, most people kind of go through it and never think to think, when am I at my best? How do I measure productivity? If you can start asking those questions, you’re gonna be in a better place. And then also, paying attention to what your body is telling you. You know, if you’re 60 minutes into working on a project and all of a sudden every couple seconds you’re checking your phone, that’s probably telling you, you’re fatigued, you’re tired, you’re checking out.
– I think there’s a culture of checking out that a lot of people have accepted as reality.
– [Steve] Yes.
– And in doing, the awareness level just isn’t there, where you’re like, okay what am I doing right now? Wow, I was not here.
– Right? So bringing that back in is tough. Okay, so, dude runs a four minute mile. Actually, that one second probably fucks with you a lot.
– It does. It drives me nuts. But thanks.
– It’s not a four minute mile, it’s a four oh one. You’re like, let me run it again. Right, but you could measure that, I mean, it’s done. It’s like, boom, here it is, next time we’ll run faster.
– Or you didn’t hit that line. At work it’s a little more subjective, possibly objective, but it’s like, did you do your spreadsheets better? So that’s something you just gotta work out on your own, whatever your job is. That’s hard, that’s hard for some people and I just want to make sure you guys have a clarity on this because I want you to be able to execute on this, and move. Now, some of the things that you mention in the book have to do with purpose and having an overarching purpose, which, to me, it seems obvious, right? But a lot of people aren’t linked into purpose. So, first of all, what did you find with the people that you interviewed? And then how does one go about developing purpose to be able to roll like this?
– Yeah, I mean, what we found is when we, again, we were looking for commonalities, and what we found is when we talked to people, talked to all these great performers and asked them, why do you do this? Where do you go, for example, Matt Billingslea, who is Taylor Swift’s drummer. Where do you go when you’re in the middle of performing in front of 80,000 people, and you’re struggling, or maybe you miss a beat there, and you’re thinking, oh my gosh, I’m gonna screw this whole thing up and I’m gonna mess up Taylor Swift’s performance? Where do you go when that happens? And almost inevitably they’d all say, you know, I go to my family, or I go to some overarching reason that I’m doing this. And what that lead us to see is that if you have a purpose, if you have a reason for doing what you’re doing, that it’s beyond yourself, it not only leads to better performance but it makes it sustainable. And one of the reasons for that is if you’re only doing it for selfish reasons and you mess up or you fail, then it’s an attack on yourself. Right? But if it’s this bigger purpose from that, then it’s not your identity is tied to this drumming, and if I fail this hit, then I’m a failure as a person, it’s just, oh I just messed up, I’m gonna correct this, learn from it, and do a better job for more than just myself. I think Brad can probably go in how to develop a little bit.
– Yeah, absolutely. And there’s some really interesting science too, so conceptually that is 100% true. You could ask just about anyone that, if you are doing something that is really hard, and you’re struggling, and you’re doing it for yourself, or you’re doing it for your mom, or so you can pay rent for your kids. Generally, if the answer is the latter, for someone else, the person’s more likely to stick to it. The extreme example of that is, in the literature they’re called acts of superhuman strength. So it is when a child is stuck under a car, or an animal is under a car, and the person comes up and lifts the car. And this does not happen frequently, but it happens more frequently than we might think. Enough where people study this phenomenon. And what they suspect is that, that is like the ultimate expression of transcending yourself. So the parts of your brain that are associated with the fear response, that would normally say, do not lift that car, you are going to throw out your back and mess yourself up, those parts of the brain go offline.
– You don’t even exist in that moment.
– Bingo. It’s simply the person under the car. And what the researchers that study this point out is that if you were to offer someone $10 million to lift a car, wouldn’t be able to lift the car. But if someone is stuck under that car, again, not frequently, but definitely more than once, those cars can get lifted. So I think that that is the extreme, and while the science is still unfolding, a lot of the work right now is on what parts of your brain are associated with yourself and protecting yourself, and how you can transcend those parts of your brain and kind of overcome that protective mechanism to get more out of yourself. On the less extreme end, and there have been meta-analysis tracking thousands of workers, and they find that individuals who link their job to a greater source of meaning or some greater purpose tend to perform better and sustain their performance.
– In spiritual practice 101 is become selfless and, you know, whittle down the ego, get out of your own way, make the Y bigger than the U. All these things that we know are now being validated in a lane that we deem to be so important because everything is based on our performance. Like we’re only as good as our productive capacity, the world’s gonna judge us, how much money do you make, and so, it’s like, oh wow, if I have these spiritual principles adopted and I learn how to rest and spend more time chilling out and being with my family, it actually makes me better here as well. So I don’t have to compartmentalize, I just have to be a whole human, and be balanced, which is kinda cool.
– Totally, and that is like, I’m so glad that you said that because it’s almost like we need to say that you’re gonna increase your performance to convince people to do this. But I hope more than anything, that readers just feel better. Like they feel better about themselves, they feel more grounded, they give themselves space to cultivate a spiritual practice, and those other things, those other interests, and their gonna perform better.
– Totally. Enlightened self interest, right?
– Yeah, exactly.
– Yeah, and that’s really it. So, if I want to hack my environment and make it so that it’s easier to remember to do this, I wear something around my wrist, I got this thing beep at me, you know, whatever it is. What have you found as queues for someone who might be going, okay, I get this but I struggle with the awareness, I struggle with X, Y, and Z. How do I adjust my environment, and for me, I personally, I got rid of my desk. I have a standing desk, right? I can’t sit there and get lazy. I suddenly start to get fidgety and I go, okay, something’s up.
– Yeah, in the book, what we found, there’s a chapter on what we call priming. And what we found is that all the great performers, they didn’t sit down at their desk and say, alright, I’m gonna write the best novel now and gonna get it done. It’s like, let’s get it, let’s go. It’s, it’s similar…
– Need that Adderall again.
– Yeah, maybe with some Adderall. But what they did, is they set themselves up for performance. And that didn’t matter whether you’re an athlete, whether you’re a writer, or whether you’re an entrepreneur, they set themselves up. The examples I like to use is, just like an athlete would go through a very specific warm up routine before a race or gameday or a competition to get their body and their mind right, the same thing happens with artists, with intellects, with writers, if they do that same thing. And what we found is, there’s some really interesting science that explains why it works. It’s going all the way back to what we call behaviorism, is, like, you can create a habit by ringing the bell, and if you do it enough it creates that, right? But the more recent science shows, called affordances, is that if I see a computer and I only write with that computer, then the area in my brain that signals my fingers to start writing gets activated. You see a little, almost like a priming effect in the brain telling you I should go do that. So if you set up your environment where, hey, I only write at this desk and I only write on this computer or I only, when I need to get work done, I go to this coffee shop, at this time, if you can set up your environment like that, you can almost prime your brain to say, alright, I know when I’m at this desk I’m gonna do this activity and I’m gonna blank out everything else. And the brain will follow and get that done.
– Predictability. It’s almost like rituals built into your everyday life. It’s funny, when I wrote my last book I hogged the conference room upstairs over here, ’cause it’s got all these white walls and I was just like, guys, this is my space for a while. And literally, just ideas, it’s like I would get in there and just bang out chapters, it was amazing, ’cause I was in that space.
– And anywhere else, I wasn’t in the same zone. That was the space to write that book. And so, you can get that luxury and you don’t have to take over a whole conference room, you just have to set that up and queue that in your life somehow.
– Right, exactly. It’s all about creating that queue and creating that space where it’s like, that is the only activity that takes place in there, or that is what it is. ‘Cause if you can set up that queue and link it to something, then you’re chances of being productive are much more than if you go sit on your couch and, you know, the TV remote is right there, or you know the WIFI is on, and all these other things that are potential distractions. We’re essentially trying to protect ourselves against ourselves, from going the wrong way. ‘Cause I think it’s foolish to think you have the self discipline to ignore all these distractions in the current age that we live in.
– Speaking of which, this thing, this laptop in front of me. When this thing ends up in the bed, how dangerous is that? Like the phone, or the laptop, all these things, when you’re in your rest space, when you’re in that ritualistic place where your, okay, I’m unplugging. And then you hear ding, or bing, or an email comes in from your bank or something, how does that impact your ability to actually decompress and do the rest that you need?
– Not positively. So it’s a negative on two fronts. The first front, when it comes particularly to sleep, these devices emit something called blue light, and blue light will throw off your body’s biological clock. You look at blue light and your body literally thinks, oh, it’s the middle of the day and then your hormones follow, and you’re less likely to fall asleep well. So the device manufacturers, they’re smart, so now you can download apps that allow you to turn down the light emitting from the screen and there are blue light filters, all kinds of products. That’s all good, but what that doesn’t stop is the mind racing that comes with picking up your computer or picking up your phone. Even if your phone is off or on silent, just having it in the room is detrimental for your ability to truly rest and recuperate. Because there is a part of your brain wondering, did someone tweet at me? Did someone text me? Did I get an email? Are my kids actually okay? So it’s just like this anxiety loop that’s created just by the mere presence of having a phone in the room. Again, like Steve said, relying on self discipline is really really tricky, particularly when our phones, our computers are designed to suck us in. So what we found, in both the research and the reporting, is that the best bet is just to try to remove objects of desire, like a phone or a computer, from your visual sight altogether.
– Just out of your space, out of your mind.
– Out of sight, out of mind.
– Yep, yep, that makes sense.
– And it’s not to say that technology is bad. The two of us actually met on Twitter. So technology is wonderful. It’s a wonderful way to share ideas and to connect people that otherwise couldn’t be connected, you just have to use it mindfully.
– Well, that’s just it, look, we’re on technology right now, broadcasting on the world wide web.
– This would never have been possible.
– Yeah. So, that’s not the problem. The problem is unplugging and keeping everything in it’s place so that you can also rest, you can also recover, and grow. So the book is called Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Brad, how do you pronounce your last name?
– [Brad] Stulberg, you got it right.
– Stulberg, I got it right. And Steve Magness. Yep, and boom, there’s the book. And Arianna Huffington, David Epstein, so you got some great great people behind it, and obviously interviewed some great people for it. I love it. This to me is spirituality for our new era, which is data driven, you know, data driven reasons to go do the stuff the guys have been talkin’ for 6000 years.
– Just chill the hell out. And push hard, rest hard, have fun, all the things that, you know, now science is starting to validate it. I’m assuming you guys have both adjusted your burn rates. You’re both more relaxed, right?
– That’s positive. That’s really positive. Check out the book, let me know what you think, let’s continue this conversation on social. I will see you next time. This is Doctor Pedram Shojai, the Urban Monk.