Welcome to the Science of Success. I’m very excited about the guest we have today. Josh Davis, Columbia PhD, who’s currently the director of research for the Neuroleadership Institute, a Neuro-coach, and a master practitioner of NLP. Josh is the author if the recent book, Two Awesome Hours, where he shares science-based strategies to get your most important work done. With that, let’s welcome Josh to the show.
Josh: Thanks so much for having me here, it’s really nice to be on the show.
Matt: And we’re super excited to have you. Do you want to kind of tell readers or give them just a little bit of a kind of introduction to what Two Awesome Hours is about and what your story, your background?
Josh: Yeah I’d love to. Where this came from was that I was realizing something that we were all realizing, but it just was feeling compelled to see what I could do about it. I was working all the time, my wife was working all the time, my friends were working all the time. And good people working hard, trying to get a lot of stuff done, really contributing to their jobs and yet, feeling bad at the end of the day. And feeling like we hadn’t done enough. And the sort of constant sense of overwhelmed. There’s no way to catch up. And when I saw that, I guess I really came to a point where I just thinking that’s not right, that’s not how to live a life. That’s not what I want for myself and for others. I want to create more o fa culture if I can where we have some of that balance. Where, when we put in that kind of hard work we can say “yeah, I accomplished something” and leave it alone, and not feel that sense of there’s this constant overwhelm. And of course it’s only continuing, it’s only getting worse as we’re so accessible. We’re going to be wearing our technology within the year, and maybe longer. But we’re - it’ll be implanted, who knows where it’s going. But we’re just going to be more and more accessible, and with that we have increased social pressures and social obligations to get back to people, because most of us are caring, thoughtful people and do want to help one another out and get back quickly. So there’s every reason to think that it’ll increase. So, what I wanted to find out was is there some way we can start to get back some of this work-life balance, some of this self-compassion, and the key that kind of launched the whole book idea was sort of identifying this idea that typically what we do when we get overwhelmed is we just think “alright I have to work every minute, I need to stay on task as much as possible, I have to work every hour, there’s just so much work, how am I going - how else am I going to do it?” It’s logical, but it’s actually based on a model of how a computer works, not of how a human being works. A computer, you get the same output every time you run it. So you should just run it as often as you can. You know, always keep it on and you'll get more done. But for a human being, a biologically based system, you’re not going to get nearly the same output every time. But you can quite unlike a computer, you can do a remarkable amount of unexpected things. You can be extremely effective for a very brief period of time - 1, 2, 3 hours. Now, I might be able to figure out how to map out a chapter of my book you know, you might be able to figure out just the right marketing strategy for a new podcast, solve that problem of how you’re going to have just the right team for the product line that’s going forward. The big, important stuff, the stuff that’s going to carry you for the rest of the week. Then we can have, I don’t know about you, I can have 2-3 days where I’m kind of worthless, I’m not kidding. So, then, what I started wondering was - can we set up the conditions for those brief periods of being highly effective. If that’s what happens naturally, then there must be something that leads to it. And what I started to learn as I dug into the psychology and the neuroscience research, because that’s my background, was that there are things that we can do to set it up, and those things that we can do to set it up are often the very same things that we integrate in our work-life balance. That we can really leverage this idea of being highly effective for short periods of time. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to work the rest of the time, it means we’ve recognized what really matters, set up the conditions to be highly effective for that, and then do the unimportant work at the other time, when we’re not so effective. And that’s the core, that’s kind of the core message of the book. And then it’s specific strategies based on the science about how we set up those conditions.
Matt: And I love the distinction between - or I guess using the word “effectiveness”. That’s something I’m really passionate about as kind of the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, which I’m sure you’re familiar with that distinction.
Josh: Yeah, I think it’s a critical distinction. Efficiency is about doing as much as we can in a short time. And so, in some sense, I suppose that’s what, when we’re highly effective we’re getting a lot done in a short period of time. But the base - the bigger idea, the idea the undercurrent when we’re talking about efficiency, is that we’re just trying to optimize the schedule, the calendar. Pack things in. And it doesn’t take into account how well the system is operating. How effective we are. But that is a huge variable for a human being. It’s such a big variable in fact that we probably, this is my hunch, I don’t yet have data to back this up. We probably actually get less out of ourselves when we try to work around the clock. It’s not just diminishing returns, but we probably actually get less useful work done, is my guess. When we just try to keep working all the time.
Matt: I think I heard about a study, and I guess I’d have to go and do some research but I feel like I remember hearing something that people who work more than 40-hours a week, they’re actually less productive.
Josh: That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. It would follow quite naturally based on what I’ve been learning and writing about in the book.
Matt: So, one of the things that you mentioned before, and I love he comparisons of humans versus computers, because one of the things we talked about in an earlier podcast is the idea of the biological limits of the human mind, and sort of the hard constraints that evolution and biology have created for the way that we think, and the way that our mind works.
Matt: What do you tell to the busy executive, or the friend of yours. I have people like this in my life who say everything is important, and I’ve read 4-Hour Work Week, and I’ve read Two Awesome Hours, and I tell people, I’m like “Hey, you gotta refocus, you’ve gotta trim down what you’re doing, you’ve gotta prioritize and-“ you know, they have this kind of view that everything is a priority, and they just - this huge sense of overwhelm. What would you say, or how would you help people who maybe they’ve kind of understood this but they have some colleagues, or friends, or employees who are struggling with this distinction or kind of struggling to make a leap to really understanding this?
Josh: Yeah, there’s a couple things that I think can be helpful. One is that, one thing that I’ve had that you know, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy is that when I share with people scientific findings, then it’s very different than just hearing advice, because while advice - I might be giving the exact same advice, and a couple times in the book you’ll see things that you’ve already heard. I might be giving the exact same advice at times as someone else, but when you hear advice there’s always the reasonable thing to wonder, which is “Did it just work for you?” or some context where it doesn’t fit. Do you have to have the right personality? You know, is there something else that I don’t know about it? But when you have the research so you can understand when and why something might work, then it’s very different, then it’s more of an experience of “hey, here’s how the brain works, do you want to work with that or not?” and so it’s much easier for someone to feel like it’s worthwhile to give it a chance. Much easier for someone to believe there’s something in it for them. And that little shift can make a huge difference. So that’s one thing that can definitely go a long way.
A second piece I think can be quite useful is to help people start with just one of the strategies, which will kind of create the space for all of the others. Everything on the schedule is there for a reason. It is important to someone, and it has some level of importance. It’s not like it’s just anything if we just got rid of it, it would have no consequences. So I think it’s worthwhile acknowledging that. However, there are over a handful of things that are on the agenda that are really going to matter for advancing your career, helping the company succeed, making you feel like you’re accomplishing something worthwhile. And one of the things that I’ll encourage people to do is to take advantage of what researches will call psychological distance. When we get some distance in time, or in space, or we imagine it pertains to someone else, or it isn’t that likely. That’s what we call psychological distance. When you have psychological distance, it’s much easier to recognize, just more automatically, your brain goes there. It’s much easier to recognize the big picture, the abstract, the desirable aspects of something. So, when you’ve got a weekend day, for example. Great to just have you know, lot of people if you manage to get away from work, probably don’t wanna think about work too much. But I would recommend just ten minutes of asking the question, when you are away from work, maybe relatively early in the day on a weekend day, you’ve got some good mental energy, what actually matters? And when I ask people that question when they’ve got some psychological distance, it’s usually not that challenging of a question. If you ask me for example, I should be writing papers. I should be writing books. And I should be presenting. These are - it’s a short list of things that are really going to matter, that are going to move things forward in my career with companies that I work for with that are going to matter a lot to me. And for any job, there’s - we can identify those things a little more easily with a little more distance. The trick, then, is how do we actually remember to focus on those things when we need to? And that’s strategy one in the book: recognize your decision points. They don’t come that often in a day. Most of the time we’re on auto pilot. It’s not that you're not conscious, but you're not consciously monitoring and choosing what to do. Right now, we’re in interview mode. You and I are pretty much focused on what we’re going to say to each other. We’re not in… we’re not thinking about all of the other things in our day, and what are options are for tasks to do. But, as soon as the interview ends, we’ve got a decision point. Unless you have something scheduled and you have no options, we’ve got a decision point. It’s a cross-roads. What do I do? And it’s at that moment we become highly aware. Self-aware. Aware of how uncomfortable we are that we’re not doing anything productive, aware of time passing. It only lasts for a couple of minutes, but it feels like an eternity, and it can be uncomfortable, and we can have the urge to just grab at whatever’s in front of us. Because of course there’s some importance to anything. But that’s the moment to recognize. Right before a task, right after a task, or right after you’ve been interrupted. That one’s a hard one to learn because we usually hate interruptions. But right after you’ve been interrupted. You created a crossroads, you’ve got to decide. Much more aware than you are when you’re on autopilot. You can’t just choose to snap out of auto pilot, but when you do get one of these decision points, you’ve gotta take it. Because that’s the moment in the day when you can actually decide what task to work on. When you’re capable of remembering what’s important as opposed to what’s urgent.
Matt: I think that’s a critical - I think that’s a really important point, which is that: having the ability to monitor your own thoughts, and having a moment of kind of awareness of, hey, this is a decision point. This is a time when I can change direction. This is a time when I can step out of this pattern and refocus on what’s really important. And one of the tools that’s helped me personally be able to do that more frequently is meditation. And I know you talk about that in the book. Is that something that you use, or are there other tools or strategies that people may be able to implement to kind of recognize decision points more frequently.
Josh: You’re exactly right, it’s the moment of being able to catch yourself. Those moments, they don’t come around all that often during the day. One of the things that, for example, mindfulness based meditation has been shown to be helpful with is to help people catch those moments. Or create a moment of actually checking in with yourself and saying “wait a second, am I doing the right thing?” because you can be more aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in that moment. So there’s every reason to think that that kind of a practice would help. I also don’t think that it’s necessary to have that kind of a practice to learn to take advantage of these moments. That there are other things that we can do if you’re someone who isn’t - doesn’t do a lot of meditation of that sort. There’s some great, simple planning ahead that we can do. If you plan ahead and put in what’s called an implementation intention - often described as an “If Then” plan - you can be more likely to actually capture the decision point when it comes. So, for example, I can think about my calendar. And I don’t know exactly what’s coming next week, some new things will be scheduled I’m sure, and some things will be cancelled. However, I do know that there’s going to be somedays when I arrive at the office. There’s going to be some days when I have phone calls and then I hang up the phone. There’s going to be some days when I have meetings with a group of people. There’s going to be some day when I’m more likely to be interrupted, and other days when it’s less likely to be interrupted. I can plan ahead and say, when a meeting ends, I’m likely to be at one of those crossroads. I’m going to plan for that. If a meeting ends, rather than pulling out my phone and looking at the list to see, oh yeah, what were all the things I’m supposed to do, what’s my name again? That moment, disorientation. Instead, I’m going to plan ahead and visualize myself actually taking a moment to, until my head is clear enough that I can remember what actually matters and why I do the job. What’s in it for me here, what’s the point of this work. At that point, it doesn’t need to take more than a minute. Could take two, maybe three minutes. When we indulge in these things, it’s not going to be a huge amount of the time of our day, but it can make a huge difference in choosing the right thing to do. Then I’m going to pull out my calendar and look at the list of things, it’s going to be much easier for me to sort having done that thinking. Because time doesn’t get wasted when we’re taking those moments of actually deciding. Time gets wasted when we choose the wrong task. When you choose the wrong task and get going on it, you can waste an hour, hour and a half no time. That’s where you end up with that feeling of the whole afternoon, “Where did it go?”
Matt: Yeah, I think that’s a critically important distinction, which is that time isn’t wasted when you have a moment of decision. Time is wasted when you make the wrong decision or when you just on auto-pilot go and do something that’s not - it might be an efficient use of your time but it’s not an effective use of your time.
Matt: So, changing gears a little bit. One of the things in your book you mentioned Ben Franklin as an example of somebody who was tremendously effective. But at the same time, really cherished his downtime and lived a very full and rich life. Why did you choose him as an example and tell me a little of how that kind of plays into the idea of what the message of Two Awesome Hours.
Josh: Ben Franklin. I was so happy to come across that example because - who’s known as being the example of productivity like Ben Franklin? Around the world he’s known as well. To be honest, I want to influence people around the world. And so, some character that’s known around the world as a paradigm example of productivity. And when you look at his autobiography, he’s gone to great lengths actually to spell out his approaches. You find, you do find all of the things that he did to work on his career as a printer, which is how he made his fortune. But you also find all of this information about this schedule that he really tried to keep to on a regular basis that included a two hour lunch. He would give himself time to read books, and take care of his affairs. He had music and conversation and fun in the evening. He had all kinds of hobbies that, one of his hobbies, was a part of a book group that eventually led to everyone sharing their books and now we’ve got the great library. You know? These weren’t things that he was doing as part of his printing empire. He was doing things on the side, inventor, stove, and his scientific work with electricity. These were things that he did as hobbies, I would say. These were things that he did out of fun. He also spent a lot of time flirting, and being joking around. So this is a guy who you’re looking at this and it’s so tempting to say “Well, I have to choose. I have to choose. Do I want to be the guy who’s working all the time around the clock to get all my work done. Or do I want to be the guy who actually has some work-life balance?” But what Ben Franklin helps to show is that it’s a false choice. It’s a mistake in belief to actually see it as a choice, because those things that we can do to take care of ourselves, actually make us more effective when we’re working.
Matt: I completely agree with that. Actually another example that I personally really like is Warren Buffet. I think he’s quoted as saying that he basically spends almost all of his time just sitting in his office reading.
Josh: Is that right?
Matt: Yeah. Which, if you look at how tremendously successful he’s been, he spends - and Charlie Munger, his business partner as well, they spend a vast majority of their time essentially reading and just kind of cultivating their minds. But I love the word false choice, because I think that’s a perfect description of how people kind of fall into this trap of - I need to cram every minute into every hour, and I have to answer the extra e-mail and be super productive, when the reality is as you’ve shown and the research shows - often it’s taking that down time and really taking the time to recharge and kind of pull your conscious mind away from some of the work when you really end up producing the most and doing the best work.
Josh: And this is on the short-term basis and a longer term basis, so just a few minutes of downtime when you find your mind drifting for example. There’s fantastic research about what happens in those minutes when our minds are drifting, as well as the longer-term downtime. What happens when you actually take a break, and have a half hour without just taking in lots of information, or get some exercise, or get a chance to have a full-night’s sleep. So the short and long term of it, both have been shown to be quite effective.
Matt: That kind of segues. You mention in the book, fighting distractions, and you have some pretty counter-intuitive advice to sort of combat when your mind wanders and drifts. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Josh: Yeah, so this is probably the most counter-intuitive thing in the book. You never hear a report card for a kid that says “Johnny’s really great in class, but he needs to daydream more”, right? It’s so antithetical to what we are encouraged in our lives. Daydreaming, mind wandering, it’s a bad thing, it’s something to scold ourselves for. And, correct me if I’m wrong, let me know if this has ever happened to you, that you’ve been working hard on something and after 15 or 20 minutes, your mind starts drifting. And what do you do? You yell at yourself. You try to beat yourself up to stay on task. What’s wrong with you? Stay focused. That kind of approach. I’ve done that too, I tried that approach for decades. Most people I know have tried that for many, many years. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we tried that experiment, and it failed. Despite yelling at us every time, we still do it. It’s because our attention systems are working quite well. When our minds drift after 15-20 minutes, that’s because our attention systems are doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re not meant to keep us focused, they’re meant to pick up on what’s changing. So they’re meant to pick up on what potential could be threatening, or exciting, or new, or interesting, or worthwhile. That’s what they’re for. If we didn’t have the ability to detect changing things in our environment, we’d just be sitting ducks. So, that’s what we have these systems for. So after a little while, our minds wander, they drift. we should expect that. If we just try to yell at ourselves, clearly that hasn’t worked. But an interesting thing happens if we try some of the alternatives. So basically, I think the two other alternatives are these.
One is that you go and do something worthwhile or fun. Like you check your e-mail or you see who liked your post on Facebook, or something like that. You read the news, check up on the sports listings. There’s many different ways we might do that. All of those, though, involve tracking a lot of new information. And there’s lots of little exciting things that can grab our attention, positive or negative, but that’ll just keep us in a loop. So easy to get sucks in on auto-pilot and get lost for half hour or more.
Matt: Easily, yeah. I think everybody’s had the experience of - you click one article and 30 minutes later you’re like “What have I been doing?”
Josh: Exactly. But that’s not the only option we have. Compared to that option - it makes a little bit of sense to just yell at yourself to try to do anything to try to stay on task even if it’s not actually working. But there’s another option which is actually just to have your mind wander for a few minutes. What happens when our minds wander? Research has shown 3-4 different kinds of effects. One of which is that we integrate the neural circuitry that has to do with executive functions - staying focused on a goal. And the neural circuitry that has to do with thinking about ourselves and thinking about our social interactions. Usually it’s one or the other, neural network that’s more active. But when we’re mind wandering, meaning when our minds are just drifting not thinking about whatever it was we were doing before, then there’s an integration between these networks; they’re active at the same times. So we can find the ways that our goals and our social lives can be linked up together. Which is important, because it’s a single human being doing both. There’s also something called creative incubation. If you’ve been working on a creative puzzle, creative challenge: how am I going to work out this new brand issue? But also it could be something in a management space like “how am I going to choose the right team for a product?” in that case, you’re working on something creative. Then when your mind wanders, and you come back to the challenge. People have been shown to come up with more creative ideas and ideas that are more creative. So both rated more creative, and also more of them. There’s also —
Matt: That’s fascinating, because that phenomenon. Creative incubation, I’ve never heard the term but I’m intimately familiar with the idea, which is essentially - you’re working on a problem and you step away or you get distracted, or you go have lunch. And you come back to it and suddenly you kind of immediately solve it. Your subconscious has essentially solved the problem for you when you stepped away from it consciously, or when you refocus on something else.
Josh: Exactly, there’s background processing happening. There’s still things happening in your non-conscious mind. There’s a lot of neural activity going on. Associated with recognizing patterns and connecting the things together, that we can block - we can get in the way of that when we’re tracking new information. So, to most effectively mind wander, though you want to do is do something that will distract you from what you were thinking about, but that doesn’t require you to track new information because that will block the mind wandering. So that’s also been shown in research. We can learn how to effectively mind wander. How do be good at mind wandering. So, some things that will do that well, are for example staring out the window and just watching the people go by. Or looking at some art on the wall. It's thing that holds some interest, but don’t require you to track information. And this is my favorite part of it. There’s a built-in end point. It gets boring. So after a few minutes, you’re going to drift back. So if your mind wants to wander, the thing to do is to let it wander. Facilitate that even by going and staring out the window. Taking that moment. After a few minutes, you’re likely to drift back, and when you do you’re going to be more effective at the work you’re doing, and you’re going to be back far quicker than any other method that you’ve got. So you'll be back to work quicker, and you’ll be more effective when you do. If you let your mind wander. So that’s why it’s so counter intuitive. Because really in that moment what we really need to do is have a little self-compassion and recognize: my mind is wandering for a reason, I’m going to let it and just wait until I’m back. Because that turns out to be the fastest way to get back in a really useful way. There’s a couple other things we can go into about what mind wandering enables, but those two examples may be enough for now.
Matt: Yeah I think - let’s - I want to cover a few other topics as well but I think that’s an incredible important idea and I’m definitely going to do some more digging on the creative incubation topic, I’m glad now that I have kind of the buzzword for that phenomenon.
Josh: And it doesn’t make people more creative in general, it makes people more creative about what they were trying to solve right before the mind wandering.
Matt: Fascinating. One of the other topics that I was interested in talking about - you mentioned a number of times in the book “working memory” and how important that is. I was curious, one if you could talk a little bit about why working memory is so important. And two, what are some ways that people can sort of train or improve their working memory?
Josh: So, working memory is a term for what we are able to hold consciously in mind at any one time. So those things, it’s memory in the sense that we’re actually retaining information, but it’s a very short term kind of thing. It’s what we’re working with in the moment. So, a lot of research on that pertains to productivity will have, as a dependent measure, how it effects working memory. Sometimes the dependent will be concentration, sometimes it’ll be attention, sometimes it’ll be emotional consequences, effects on anxiety. Sometimes it’s a general perceived sense of it being able to feel refreshed and be present, and feel focused. Working memory is definitely part of that. It’s an important part of what researchers will call the executive functions. The functions that we really rely on are uniquely human parts of our brains for that have a lot to do with the information that we’re consciously aware of in the moment. Now, there’s clearly as we were just talking about, mind wandering, lots of important stuff that happens in the background, not conscious. But your working memory, the more you’re able to hold in mind and kind of work within the moment - well, the more flexible you can be in the way that you solve problems. It definitely can be helpful. There are debates about whether or not a person can really change their working memory capacity, but what we can do is make it easier for us, for ourselves to really rely on to use our working memory. So if I’m highly distracted by being overly anxious by something. That’s going to make it hard. That’s going to make it harder for me to hold in mind those things that I need to hold in mine. Something that will really help me become less anxious is a little bit of exercise. One of the more reliable things we have for it. Also, it’s been shown that certain environmental factors like bright lights, especially lights that are more on the cool end of the spectrum, have some of the blue in them. Make it easier for people to do some of these executive functions, like making use of their working memory. Another thing that’s quite helpful for that and this one also similar to the anxiety example I was giving has a lot to do with sort of competing input - is sound. When there’s silence, it’s much easier to do tasks that require working memory. When there’s a little bit of noise in the background, sometimes that’s been shown to be helpful with very creative kinds of tasks, probably very - probably doesn’t really apply to writing. I’d like to see research that specifically looks at that just because that’s so verbal, so that should interfere with sound. But we have some creative tasks when it primes the concept of being free from constraints, then a little bit of noise has been shown to help. But for the most part, tasks that are going to require executive functions and rely on working memory for example, are going to be a lot harder for us to do when there’s noise in the background. And that’s noise of any kind, but the absolute hardest thing to work around is speech.
Matt: And that was one of the most surprising findings for me when I read the book, was the idea - I love kind of putting on some background music. It’s sad, but you can’t argue with the research that even a little bit of background music actually negatively impacts your productivity.
Josh: Yeah, it is sad. I felt the same way and also I love coffee shops. But the truth is - the research would suggest, and as I look at it, I guess my experience does seem to follow that too. I am less productive there with all that background noise. One thing I will say though is that we don’t need to be at our best all the time. And, we can’t be at our best all the time. So, when you’ve got that work that’s really important - you’ve decided this is a project I need to nail. I’ve got to pitch to the CEO. I really want to nail this. When you’re working on that, that would be an ideal time to give yourself a quiet space with good lighting and to maybe come to it after a little exercise, or at least not come to it right after doing something else that really depleted you. Then you’re likely to be highly effective. You don’t need to be at your absolute best for everything. There’s some things you can do where you're just doing an initial draft of some thoughts, and you know you’re going to clean it up the next day. Or you’re going through some paperwork, some reimbursements, or something you need to file that doesn’t really need your attention - you’ve done it a hundred times. Sure, put on some music, you will work more slowly, and you’re not going to pay as much attention to detail, but that won’t matter in that case. You might enjoy it a little bit more. So it doesn’t mean we have to never work with music on in the background, but just realize that for those periods, for those two awesome hours, then we want silence.
Matt: So one of the kind of related question that I had about working memory and you may not have an answer to this because this is a little bit outside the scope of the book, but I’m curious. Do brain games, or brain training or anything like that, do those things work and do you think those things can help people improve working memory?
Josh: Here’s what I’ve heard. I know that there’s been research independent of the companies, obviously when the companies are doing the research then they’re motivated to find things that will support them, which doesn’t mean it’s bad research. It’s still good research. It’s just you also want to have research from independent sources. So, some things I’ve seen. First of all, the training, it does seem to make people better at the specific thing that they’re working on. And we’re talking very specific. So, if someone’s trying to learn to control their responses on a Tetris-like game, a game where you need to quickly move a piece so it doesn’t fall into the wrong spot on the screen. Then that is - can definitely help them to improve the skill of visually moving pieces around and making sure they don’t fall into the wrong spot. Whether that’s going to then generalize though, is the piece that is not yet showing up. And it may. But at least one piece of research that I’ve seen was showing that self-control in one domain, training that, didn’t improve self-control in a different domain. Even though we know there’s a lot of overlap in the brain structures that are involved in self-control, let’s say for controlling your emotions and controlling what you eat. None the less, they must be different enough that the kind of brain training that can happen in these computer training things didn’t seem to carry over. Now that’s just one domain, that’s self-control, whether that would be the same for working memory and attention and various other things like that, remains to be seen. So, it’s an empirical question. A question for research, and I’m sure we’re going to see research on that over the next five years.
Matt: Speaking of emotions. You have a pretty interesting take on how to handle and potentially use negative emotions to your advantage. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Josh: Oh, yeah. So, emotions are something that I think many people think of as something that just happens to them. That we’re a victim of our emotions, it’s like “Oh I wish I wasn’t feeling sad today”, or “I’m happy, I’m feeling confident, feeling really good today”, that it’s just something that happens to us. But, in fact, our emotions are adaptive. They are things that we use. They have utility. They don’t just exist in a vacuum. Our emotions are important parts of what motivates us. And different emotions motivates us in different ways. So anger is unique among the negative emotions and that’s the only negative emotion that motivates us to move towards something. So, anger is especially useful in a context where we need to move towards something that is unpleasant. If we’re moving towards something pleasant, say a pretty girl looks at you from across the room, well, yeah, you want to go and approach her, there’s no downside, presuming that you’re single and etc. but if you want to approach something that’s unpleasant, that maybe you need to raise prices and your clientele, psychotherapist needs to raise prices periodically. And my fear that in doing so, that’s going to drive some people away because they’ll feel like there was a verbal contract, an agreement, about what the cost of the services were. Every couple of years, anybody needs to do this, and so having a little bit of anger around, that might actually be helpful in motivating yourself to take that on. Saying, you know what, getting a little angry about the injustice of it. “I deserve this, I give so much.” That actually can be motivating, can help the person. It’s not the only way to motivate yourself, but recognizing that every emotion is there for a reason. It has value, it’s adaptive in certain consequences. Can actually help us look at our emotions differently, and rather than just trying to get rid of them, instead be aware of what your emotion is when you come to a decision point. “Hey I’m a little angry right now! I’m going to go ahead and take on that price increase idea that I was dealing with.”
Or sadness is an emotion where in fact we tend to pay more attention to the detail. We tend to be more likely to actually think about somebody’s arguments rather than just thinking about whether it’s an attractive person giving the argument. So, when you need to be really kind of prudent, a little sadness can be useful. Might be helpful to get yourself into a mood where you’re remembering something a little sad. Not the only way to do it, but it actually can be helpful in that context. Anxiety can help us focus. Now it’ll help us focus only on what we’re anxious about, but it can help us focus. Little bit of anxiety is also very energizing. Lot of energy, focused energy on particularly something that you want to avoid going wrong. And that can be just the right thing at certain times. So these are not necessarily bad things, and when you know that about anxiety, then perhaps you find yourself with a little anxiety, just taking a moment and saying to yourself, “Hey thanks! Thanks, self, thanks biological self. For helping to get me energized for this. You wouldn’t be anxious unless there was something to be energized about.” Maybe it feels a little negative, but that’s readiness. And when we don’t recognize that, and we try to just get rid of the anxiety, then we can get anxious about feeling anxious. And then it feels much more unpleasant. So with a negative emotion, if we think about the utility of it, and on the positive side, positive emotions - when you’re feeling good, you’re more likely to collaborate effectively. Because you’re more likely to see, you’re more likely to anticipate the collaboration going well. When you’re feeling good, you’re more likely to come to creative solutions. You’re more likely to just let the small things go, look at the big picture. Does this seem like a generally likable person? And not be so critical of the specific arguments they might be making. There are times when that’s exactly what you want. So, emotions are a great thing to check in on when you’re having a decision point. But there’s also - if you don’t want to get that granular with your emotions, you can just think in general, am I strongly emotional right now? Therefore, is it going to be hard for me to concentrate. Maybe this is not the time for me to take on preparing for that CEO pitch. Maybe I should wait an hour. Or, did I just do something that made me strongly emotional? Having a really tough conversation, or getting some really tough feedback. Maybe now is the time to go do something like get a little exercise to reset for the rest of the day. So we can really take into account our emotions at these decision points.
Matt: I think that’s a fantastic idea and it’s such a useful tool to be able to harness those emotions instead of just being upset about them or not coping with them.
Josh: Yeah, we can use them, we don’t have to just wish them away.
Matt: So, one of the other topics that you touch on in great detail in the book is the idea of mental fatigue, which I think, correct me if I’m wrong, is similar or the same as the concept of decision fatigue? Tell me a little bit about that and how that impacts our decision making process.
Josh: I would consider decision fatigue a subset of mental fatigue. That essentially, we wear out, and in particular, we wear out our ability to control ourselves. And decision making is a part of that. We come, we made too many decisions. Each time you’re making decisions you’re essentially controlling yourself. You’re trying to - you know, not make all the other decisions in favor of just one. So, I’ve got to decide not to eat the Danish in the morning. I’ve got to decide not to have the cookie at lunch. I’ve got to decide not to have the cake when somebody’s got a birthday party at work, then finally at the end of the day just worn out with all of this trying to keep myself from doing that, and I have a bunch of ice cream. We’re wearing that out as we go. Where the decision fatigue really comes in - we’re making decisions all the time, and it doesn’t matter how big or small they are, we’re still wearing out the same resource. When I say wearing out, it’s not that you couldn’t keep going if you were sufficiently motivated, you could keep going - like to think of it like running. If you just ran a half hour, you could keep going if you were sufficiently motivated if someone was chasing you. But you’re probably not all that interested in doing it at that point. Similar thing happens with our mental fatigue or decision fatigue. After we’ve been doing it for a while, we just don’t want to keep doing it. And there are consequences to this because we can’t get through the day without making a lot of decisions. Oftentimes, though, this is the piece that I think is really helpful for people to capture. Which is that, just because something’s important, doesn’t mean that we’re making more decisions. You can wear out your decision making abilities by making a lot of unimportant decisions, or by making decisions about things that are unimportant. So, for example, I like to pick on e-mail because it’s such a common experience. A lot of e-mails are not that important. Some, certainly are important. But a lot of e-mails are not that important. But still, you’ve gotta make decisions about whether this is the right time to send it, whether we’ve included the right people, whether we’ve said something in an offensive way. So many little decisions for each one. So, at the end of an hour, hour and a half of checking e-mail. You can pretty reliably expect that you’ve got some real decision fatigue. And it’s going to be a lot harder to actually then do some really effective work. You’re less likely to be good at doing effective work at that point, than if you had a half hour break between e-mail and effective work. Or if you just did the e-mail after the effective work. Because you won’t be fatiguing yourself. There’s consequences in this in legal arenas, medical arenas. When I say legal arenas, judges for example, by the end of the day to get to the afternoon, they’ve got decision fatigue. They’ve been making decisions all day long. So the kinds of decisions they hand down, they tend to resort to whatever their default is. If it’s a more conservative judge, the more conservative decisions, whatever their default is, they’re just sort of fatigues essentially. And they’re not necessarily aware. They’re not necessarily aware of making a different decision, but they are making different decisions. It’s just too hard to actually deliberate at that point.
Matt: I think I’ve heard, and it may have been in the book of a study where they looked at judges kind of before each of their meal periods. I think they were more likely to sentence people to longer sentences right before they ate. Or I guess right before they got a break. It’s a fascinating study, but it’s pretty shocking when you think that even the judicial system is impacted by something like that.
Josh: The biological consequences on decision making are what essentially what we’re talking about. What does it mean to have a human being making these decisions? It mean we need to optimize the human decision making machine. We need to try to find ways to get judges to be in a really good mental space when they’re making those decisions. And human beings are still the best at making complex, morally based decisions. We haven’t created a computer that can do that better than a human. So, what we can start to do though, is really focus on how do you do get a human being to be able to really give their best to the decisions that they’re making? And part of it is going to involve having a shift in the way that they organize their days. That was research that was not in my book, so you must have found it elsewhere, but it definitely fits.
Matt: The most important take-away for me there is it’s not the importance of the decision that causes mental fatigue. You can make a bunch of totally irrelevant decisions and you’re still going to enter a state of mental fatigue regardless of how important the quality of those decisions were.
Josh: That’s right, you can be making decisions about what to wear, and when to schedule something on your calendar, what flight you want to take to go across the country. Those are decisions that are not going to have a major effect on your life, but it’s still fatigues. It still wears out that decision making ability.
Matt: So, changing directions a little bit. You’re a master practitioner of NLP. Tell me how does NLP play into Two Awesome Hours.
Josh: That’s a different arena. The ways that it probably influences me when I was writing is that NLP, for those people who don’t know, is essentially a branch of psychotherapy that some people have adapted for other things as well. But in the late seventies, early eighties, there were some linguists who studied some very successful psychotherapists and looked at the language patterns they used. Then went around teaching those to psychotherapists, and teaching as well what those original therapists were paying attention to in the language of their clients. Eventually they also expanded it to non-verbal communication. So those patterns that they were detecting were very successful. They were in the realms of hypnotherapy, of family therapy and gestalt therapy primarily. So, it’s a collection of language patterns and non-verbal communication patterns that are associated with some very successful psychotherapists. Over time, people have adapted that to be relevant to marketing, and coaching, and various other things. So, for me, what NLP is quite helpful with is helping me to recognize in myself and in others, the ways that we’re actually thinking about the work that we do. So, if I hear someone talking about how they just have to get to a certain project by a certain time. That kind of feeling of overwhelm. I know it’s a very different experience for them than if they’re saying, well I get to do this project, or I want to do this project. I helped me to really tune into some of the challenges that were facing as well as some of the things that people are doing that are successful. Those served as hypothesis about what might be useful. How we might be able to set up the conditions for these brief periods of effectiveness. So that when I did go to the research, that could guide me towards things to start to look for. Then I might find the hypothesis sometimes come from there, it would sometimes come from other places, and then I’d go to the search and if the research didn’t back it up, then I would use that to color what I could say and try to bring that to the book. And if the research didn’t back that up, then I would leave it. Because it wasn’t a fruitful way to go. That’s kind of how the pieces fit together for me.
Matt: Awesome, and that was a great description for NLP, thank you very much. That was probably helpful for the audience. That relates a little bit to one of the topics you talk about is the idea of priming, and obviously with NLP it’s about language and the non-verbals that prime you, but you talk about physical spaces and how they can prime us. I thought that was fascinating.
Josh: Right, there’s three categories that I really focused on in the book that I chose because I wanted to just talk about things that anyone would have some ability to influence. There’s so many of us work in work spaces that we have no control over. Maybe it’s an open plan office, we have no say over the color of the walls or the lighting or anything like that, that’s coming from overhead. The sound in the space can be tough. I wanted to focus specifically on some of the things we do have control over within that that we could influence. This is also relevant for of course anyone who does have complete control over their environment or who works from home and uses part of shared space for their work and partly for something else.
The categories are these, and one of these we talked about before, which is sound. Which is noise. That understanding the importance of it for concentration, I think can help go a long way in terms of people making decisions about when they really want to carve out that time. I think it’s useful to come back to this idea for a moment, that we don’t need to be on and at our best all day long, and we can’t be. But what we can do is think about the work that really matters, then think about how can I set up a couple hours, maybe just one hour, maybe three hours. Nothing magic about two, it’s just that it’s achievable for anyone. How can I set up a brief period of time to really get to that work? One of the things that will matter is silence that will make a big difference. What we can do is, because it really makes a difference, is it actually is worth if you can doing it in the morning before you go into work and going in a little bit later. Reserving a conference room if you can in your workspace if you have an ability to shut a door and do it. Or actually getting noise cancelling headphones so you can put them on for that time period. And you could have music at other times, but during that time you’d have it silent. So this is speech, white noise, music, any of those things they all have been shown to be worse. There’s only a couple of exceptions. Some research for example with kids that have a lot of trouble paying attention seem to perform a little bit better at some tasks when there is some background white noise, that just sort of nondescript sounds like a fan. But for most people, they’re having an easier time paying attention without noise, and the hardest one to tune out is speech. So if there’s no option but to have either speech or white noise, then yeah, better with white noise. But even better is silence. For those periods when it really matters, you’ll work more effectively, you’ll work more quickly, it’ll be easier to stay on task.
The second one is lighting. Now, you may not be able to influence the overhead lighting or whether you sit next to a window. One thing that has been shown is bright lights make it easier for people to stay focused and that light on the blue end on the spectrum. So apparently we have photo receptors in our eyes that are not part of vision. They were only discovered within the last 15 years. They had been hypothesized before that, but we finally know about them now, they’ve been identified. They don’t have to do with vision, what they have to do is resetting the circadian clock. The part of the brain that runs those 24-hour cycles. Those roughly daily cycles about when we’re hungry, when we’re alert, when we’re sleepy. Light at the blue end of the spectrum, the best example of that would be clear blue sky. Light at the blue end of the spectrum activates these receptors and helps to reset the circadian clock. So when we have access to that kind of light, cool light, they’re - you can look at when you go to the hardware store it’ll say whether it’s cool light or whether it’s warm light. It’s not for everything - we want warm light is nice when you’re having people over for dinner or you’re just relaxing. But when you want to focus, cool light has been shown to be more effective. And even more effective at things like the kind of mental rotation work that engineers or designers have to do, they seem to be more effective at it with that light. So really it does make a difference. You can have a lamp at your desk that adds some additional light just for brightness, or you get one of those bulbs that’s at the cool ends of the spectrum. Don’t have to have it on all the time, but when you really need to focus, that’s been shown to help. As with sound, dim lighting also can be helpful for creativity. One of the exceptions is creativity and what matters is whether the environment primes the idea of being free from constraints, and that might happen with dim lighting, it might happen with having a little noise in the background, it might happen by being by a window, or being out in nature. But if that idea is primed, people tend to be more creative. So that’s sort of a caveat, an exception. But for the most part with the work we’re trying to do, it’s helpful to have the bright light.
In the third piece with the environment has to do with the space you’re sitting at or standing at. There’s a couple of things that matter here. One of them is clutter. And for some people you can think, well you know I can get my work done well enough with all the clutter, I just don't have the time to get that out, I’ve got to get down to work. Somebody once did a study about what we leave on our desk when we leave stuff out. For the most part, it’s reminders, it’s things that are meant to be reminders of something, and if you take a moment and kind of just think about what we would be reminding ourselves of, well it’s the things we didn’t get to, because they were hard. Or because it was unpleasant, or because we didn’t know how to do it. So because of that, they’re probably going to continue to sit there for a couple of days, maybe more. And then what gets added to it is the negative association, this embarrassment, I haven’t gotten back to someone, the social obligation. It’s all the stuff that our attention systems are so well attuned to. Very important to us, things that pertain to social obligations, things that have weight, have some that are threatening in some way because we don’t know how to do them but they’re still pending, right? They are exactly what you don’t want to expose your attention system to when you’re sitting down to really do some work that you’ve already chosen what’s worth spending your time on. You can work at a cluttered desk when you’re doing the unimportant stuff, but when you’re sitting down to have a really good period, it’s worth it just to stack those things up and move it out of sight. What that also does, and this is the final thing I’ll say on it. It creates the opportunity to move more freely at your desk, to spread out, to have big expansive movements. To reach for that cup of water on the far-end of the desk or your phone at the other end of the desk. When we have bigger, more expansive movement, that activates, primes, the idea of power. Especially in western cultures. Bigger expansive movements. And that can put a person in an optimistic space, in a more comfortable taking risks - that kind of a space. There’s even some research to suggest that that can influence our hormone levels and put us in a more resilient hormonal space. So the consequence of that - there’s also then you can think about your workspace in terms of movement in the sense of how easy is it to get up and walk away? To step back for a minute and clear your head. Or to switch from a sitting down to standing desk, not everybody has that capacity but the ability to stand up and walk away, that’s going to create greater opportunities for mind wandering and for making use of your decision points. So those are some of the ways that I think - some of the ways that the environment can prime our thinking and therefore get us into a space to be really effective that I think anyone has some influence over.
Matt: I think it’s really funny, there’s a quote, you’ve probably heard it. I think it’s Einstein that said it, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what’s the sign of an empty desk?” Something like that. Which people use of course to kind of defend their messiness. But of course you can’t really argue with what the research says at the end of the day.
Josh: Right, yeah. I mean, yes it is a very full mind. A mind full of things that you have to keep track of when you’re trying to work on something. I think so, I think you have a very full mind when you’ve got lots of things, and we want to actually clear that out for the sake of the work. Just temporarily.
Matt: For people like me who’ve read Two Awesome Hours, what further books or resources would you suggest checking out.
Josh: There are a few authors who endorse my book on the back cover who I strongly recommend their work, you’ll see Heidi Grant Halverson, she’s written a number of books, her most recent one is No One Understands You, which is a dive into the science and practice of recognizing - not just how to communicate well, but also what it is we do that we’re not aware of about the ways we communicate and the messages we give off without even meaning to and how to correct that. David Rock is also one of the people who endorsed my book, Your Brain at Work, if you like what you’ve read here you’d probably love that. And also Peter Bregman, the author of both Eighteen Minutes and Four Seconds, really similar lines of thinking. For people who like to - you mention the book, The Art of Learning. In that space, there’s a work I’d also recommend by Art Markman, at the University of Austin Texas and has authored a couple of books that have essentially teaching people how to think. How to learn so they’re more likely to have smart solutions to new things that come their way. There’s a lot of great stuff out there right now. There’s also a book coming but it’s not out yet, keep an eye out for a book by Jamel Zaki, I don’t have the title to be able to give you just yet. Those are some of the things that I would recommend. Also, you can see my stuff, I write periodically blog posts that you’ll see on the Harvard Business Review or Huffington Post site today. If you want to take a look at what’s in Two Awesome Hours there’s also an excerpt available for it on the website for it, twoawesomehours.com
Matt: So where can people find you and the book online?
Josh: The easiest way to do it is twoawesomehours.com, you’ll find links there to contact me, you’ll find links there excerpts there, links to the various bookstores, ways to find it, amazon.com directly of course too. Barnes N Noble, all the other main sources of ways to get it. Link too from there, and you can contact me there, contact my publicist there, I’d love to hear from you. So please stop by and visit the website or if you already know you want it, then of course you can get it right away. It also should be available in many bookstores in your area.
Matt: Josh, thank you so much for being on the science of success, I know people are going to love this interview. I think everyone should absolutely check out Josh’s new book Too Awesome Hours, science based strategies to harness your best time and get your most productive work done. I think everyone will really enjoy that book.
Josh: Thank you so much, it’s been great talking with you.