[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we look at how to use insights from behavioral science to improve your life. We examine what it means to have a good day and figure out how to reverse engineer more good days by examining decision-making, the power of rest, recovery and breaks, intention setting, boundaries and much more with our guest, Caroline Webb.
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In our previous episode, we learned the memory tactics and strategies of an international grandmaster of memory. We looked at why there is no such thing as a bad memory or a good memory, only bad memory strategies and good memory strategies. In real-time, we built a memory palace that you can use to memorize and effortlessly recall the 10 emotions of power. We went deep into a system for organizing and remembering huge chunks of information and much more with our guest, Kevin Horsley. If you want to learn how you can use the tactics of a memory grandmaster to improve your own memory, listen to that episode.
Now for the show.
[0:02:49.7] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Caroline Webb. Caroline is the CEO of Sevenshift, a firm that uses insights from behavioral science to improve their clients’ working lives. She's previously a partner at McKinsey Consulting and is the best-selling author of how to have a good day, which has been published in 16 languages in more than 60 countries. Her work has been featured in Inc., Forbes, Fortune and much more.
Caroline, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:15.1] CW: Hi Matt. I'm delighted to be here.
[0:03:16.6] MB: We're super excited to have you on the show today. I'd love to start out with at a high level. Tell me a little bit about what does it mean to have a good day?
[0:03:25.6] CW: Yeah. It's an audacious title for a book, isn't it? Because it does suggest that I have a strong perspective on what a good day is. The truth is of course everyone's a little bit different. For many years at McKinsey, their consulting firm, I was doing organizational change work and at the beginning of every single project, and that meant working across an enormous number of organizations, I would always ask people in interviews what is a good day for you and what is a bad day and what would it take to get more good days?
Over the years, the number of data points that just started to come together really struck me that there were three big themes. There was something around feeling that your time was spent on the right things and that was something about priorities, it was something about productivity and going after those priorities.
There was something about feeling great about knocking the ball out of the park on whatever it was that you were doing, and of course sometimes that's about having brilliant conversations and really having perfect interactions with everybody you meet. Sometimes it's about just being brilliant in the way that you express yourself and the influence that you have and sometimes it's about being brilliant in the quality of the thinking that you do.
Then there's always something about the extent to which it feels like it's something that people can repeat at the end of the day. You get to the end the day, are you exhausted, or do you feel you've got some energy, do you feel you've been able to be resilient to the ups and downs, has there been some enjoyments and pleasure, even some laughter?
I think those were the pillars that just came up again and again with people at beginning of their career, late in their career and all sorts of different cultures. That's what I wanted to write a book about; what's the science that tells us how to do all of those things?
[0:05:03.2] MB: I think that's a great point, because you talked – when you hear have a good day, it sounds a bit fluffy. Obviously, the book and your work is a lot more rooted in science and data than that. Tell me a little bit more about the scientific research behind a lot of the work that you talk about in the book?
[0:05:20.9] CW: Well, I had a first career as an economist, which was a very technical role. I took that interest in an evidence-based approach to as it was then – I was making public policy. I was a public policy economist. I took that interest in always being grounded in what the evidence says, really through every part of my career.
After about a decade working as an economist, I went into consulting, because I was interested in getting a little bit closer to the human side of what economics, it always been appealing to me about, and interested in the sense of what is it that really enables people to change and what is it that allows an organization to move its culture in a more positive direction and so on?
I did some additional training in psychology and neuroscience as it became obvious to me that economics really wasn't the whole story when it comes to behavioral science. What I noticed was that when I was working with people on changing their team's behavior, their company’s culture, there was a lot of skepticism about well people coming in and waving their arms around the saying you should behave differently, as you can imagine.
What I noticed was that people were way more willing to explore new ways of behaving if they understood what the science was behind it. I started to understand that really quite a small amount of understanding of how our brains work, why we think and feel and behave the way we do actually made a dramatic difference to people's willingness and ability to make changes in their lives.
That just became really central to my style over 12 years as a management consultant, that I would always start with the science of what we were trying to do. Of course, then very quickly moved to the practical implications of that. I always found that smart people need a clear sense of the why, as well as the how in deciding what they're going to shift in the way they operate. That blend of science and practice has been so central to my practice now for a really long time.
[0:07:18.9] MB: Let's dig into some of the scientific components of having a good day and living a productive life. One of the core ideas that you talk about is this notion of the two system brain can you tell me a little bit more about that.
[0:07:30.8] CW: Well, that's something that exists in just about every strain of behavioral science. You probably, if you've read down in comments, thinking fast and slow you'll notice the slow and the fastest system two and system one in that order. We have this understanding now over many decades of research, that there are two systems that interact in our brains. One is that it – one is the one that takes care of everything we do consciously.
It's responsible for reasoning, for self-control, for planning. It's the thing that we think of as ourselves, because it's what we're conscious of. That is known as system two and that is the slow system and it has its limitations; it's what makes us feel as if we're intelligent human sentient human beings.
It's also got limitations in the amount of information it can process and the extent to which it can process multiple activities at once. We're very lucky to have this other system, which is the automatic system, which takes care of everything on autopilot and filters out a ton of information that the deliberate system would find overwhelming to process.
It's the interaction of these two systems that really makes us the amazing human beings that we are. A lot of the time when we're working from day-to-day when we're going through our lives, we're not really all that conscious of the fact that our automatic system is taking shortcuts all the time. Sometimes doing some dumb stuff, it's what makes us when we are feeling stressed, it's what makes us blurt out silly things, it's what makes us perhaps fall prey to fallacies and scams.
It's always taking the easy answer rather than the right answer. Thank goodness, because we don't want to overthink absolutely everything but it does trip us up. It really helps to understand how we create the conditions for our deliberate system to be at its best from day-to-day, not to get too tired, not to get too overloaded, and recognize the limitations of the automatic system so that we can make good choices and not do dumb things.
[0:09:37.0] MB: I think that's so important and in many ways comes back to the the evolution of the brain and the physical limitations of our mental hardware. The subconscious mind has so much processing power, but yet, it falls prey to all these shortcuts, which really manifest themselves in cognitive biases and misperceptions and improper reactions.
[0:10:00.5] CW: Yeah, exactly. I think one of the simplest things that we can do to get the best out of ourselves from day-to-day is to recognize that if we tire out our deliberate system, then our automatic system will kick in and it just doesn't make the choices that are always right. If you are making a big decision about where to invest, I don't know, where to open your next branch, or where to make a big new investment, you want to think about all the different options, you want to weigh out your pros and cons and you want to be thoughtful about making sure that you're not just jumping to conclusions.
The thing is that if you saw an Italian colleague this morning, it might just plant subconsciously the idea that investing in Italy is a fantastic idea, which it might be, but that's an example of the shortcut that your brain might take that isn't necessarily something you're conscious of, but that might lead you in a direction that isn't quite right.
On the other hand, if you see an Italian colleague and you are organizing over where to take your client to lunch; fine, it's great if it then leads you to decide to go for an Italian restaurant. I mean, that's not a big deal. It's quite useful to have our automatic system taking shortcuts for the small everyday stuff. We just need to be aware that when we are making bigger and more important decisions, we should slow down and make sure that we're considering multiple options.
[0:11:20.0] MB: How do we take that, sort of the distinction between system one and system two and what are the practical implications for that from the way we should be shaping our behavior?
[0:11:30.7] CW: Yeah. Well, I think being super kind to your deliberate system by thinking about the fact that the longer we go without taking a break, more exhausted it is and the worse our decisions are, there’s fascinating range of studies from buying a suit, question of whether you wash your hands if you're a hospital worker. People make poor choices, poor decisions the longer it is since they've taken a break, because their deliberate system is tired.
I think one of the biggest shifts that I've seen my life and I've seen in colleagues lives is to understand that breaks are not for wimps. Breaks are actually crucial reboot opportunities for your deliberate system. If you don't take that time, you are going to find that your thinking is less sharp. You won't be aware of it necessarily, but you will be making poor choices. It doesn't have to be a long break. The evidence is pretty clear, that actually pretty short breaks and pretty frequent short breaks will give you an enormously enhanced ability to make good choices throughout the day.
You think about the length of the average meeting and how long we go before really taking a break, we might go from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next, and we often don't give ourselves the chance to step back and reflect. If there were one thing, I would say is helpful in giving our deliberate system the situation it needs to be at its best, I would say to take more breaks.
The other is of course, as you will probably know is to do more single tasking, and not to overload our brain with requests, because we know that the deliberate system can actually only do one thing at a time, much as we think that we can do multiple things in parallel.
[0:13:08.5] MB: I want to get into multitasking, but before we dive down that rabbit hole, tell me a little bit more about what are these breaks, or what should these breaks look like, how long should they be and what should we do during the breaks?
[0:13:20.6] CW: Well, everyone's a little bit different. Research suggests that if you are in a situation where you can't actually get up physically and go for a walk, there is a huge benefit to some physical activity in terms of boosting your focus and your mood very quickly if you have an ability to get a moderate amount of cardiovascular activity. That means just going for a brisk walk for 10 minutes.
If you can't do that, in fact if you're rooted say at your desk and you can't actually physically get up, what's been interesting in the research is that it helps to shift task to something different, and that when you return to the original task, then there's just enough refreshment in your brain that you're able to come to what you were looking at before with some fresh insight.
Some of that is about resting the brain, but some of it is also about what goes on in the so-called resting brain, which is that we continue to encode and consolidate information that we've previously been exposed to, when we are supposedly stepping away and not doing anything with it.
That's why when you do step away and come back, there's not just perhaps a little bit of extra energy and more cognitive ability, more focus, but often new insight, because your brain has been processing the information in the background and doing interesting things with it. I would encourage people to think about how to, you know if they're in the middle of a writing task, maybe think about doing something visual, or vice versa, or if they're sinking into the depths of Excel to maybe take out a piece of paper and do a little bit of freehand writing about their next big project. This refreshment has been shown to be pretty helpful when we're trying to have a breakthrough into what we’re doing.
[0:15:04.6] MB: That's such an important concept. I think there's a some neuroscience literature around the phrase creative incubation, which we described as similar or the same phenomenon, which is that idea that if you're struggling with something and you step away for 10 minutes, or an hour, or even longer and then you come back, you almost immediately often figure out what was causing you to struggle with it.
[0:15:25.2] CW: Yeah, and we know that overnight when you – the idea of sleeping is also something, and then you suddenly see the way forward the next day. Studies have shown that even a two or three-minute incubation period can be enough to come back with fresh insight. Again, as I say, it's the fact that you were obviously soaking in a bunch of information, you step away from it and your brain doesn't stop thinking about it. It's subconsciously and the automatic system is doing some interesting processing. If you think about what insight is, it's connecting existing information in new ways. It's allowing you to see a new way forward, because you're connecting the dots in a different way.
That background processing is exactly what you need quite often to solve things where there isn't an obvious linear way forward. Yeah, just taking – if you do nothing else, getting up and stretching for two minutes and then coming back, I mean, frankly just going to the restroom can be enough to come back and then suddenly see a new way forward.
Yeah. I know lots and lots of people who don't really give themselves those breaks during the day, and it would be one very simple thing that people could do to boost their productivity and their insight.
[0:16:32.1] MB: What about longer planned periods of downtime and recovery? The notion of working an 80-hour a week, versus working a 50 or 60-hour week and what's the productivity difference between those two strategies?
[0:16:48.3] CW: That’s a good question. I'm speaking as someone who worked in consulting, which is famous for long hours, but had entirely average normal person stamina. I can tell you that it turned out to be pretty possible to do 80 hours work, what was supposed to be 80 hours work in 50 hours work if you were very, very clear about your boundaries. I had to actually work shorter hours than the people around me.
I just didn't have the physical stamina to run short of sleep. That speaks to me quite personally that question. There's certainly obviously industries where there is an expectation that you're always on, because perhaps you're in client service and it's always the client first, whenever the client wants something you have to jump.
The evidence is clear that once you get beyond – Well, there are lots of different studies that paint different points. There's definitely evidence to suggest that after you've worked eight hours that your productivity starts to decline in a day. Everyone is again and as I said before a little bit different, but I think recognizing that if you are really strict about the boundaries that you set during the day, the chances are you can probably reduce the amount of time that you're spending in a day. I mean, just the fact that single tasking means that you are working on average about 30% faster than multitasking is going to give you back a bunch of time in the day, for example.
[0:18:15.9] MB: Let's dig into that a little bit. Tell me more about single-tasking and whether or not it's possible to multitask?
[0:18:24.7] CW: Yeah. The brain has a single attentional bottleneck, which means that when we're doing things that require conscious attention and we're doing them in parallel, we think that we're actually processing in parallel, but actually we're asking our brain to switch attention from one thing to the other and then back again and then back again and back again.
In each of these tiny switches, which are so small we don't really notice them, but if each of these switches we are losing a little bit of time and mental energy. I sometimes demonstrate this by getting people to say 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and then to say ABCDEFG as fast as they can. Then to mix them up, so you say A1, B2, C3 and so on.
If you're trying this at home, what you'll notice is first of all, it suddenly becomes very hard to get through the combination. It should take about the same amount of time put together as when you do less as a number separately, but the cost of switching from one to the other is so great that what you experience directly by trying that is more or less what's been found in the laboratory, which is that when we try to do two things at once and that's not counting trying to do three things at once or four things at once, if you've got Slack open while you're on a conference call, then you're e-mailing at the same time.
You've got you've got a hit, which is really dramatic; you make between two and four times as many errors and you slow yourself down by about 30%. That's on simple tasks. There's also interesting studies that look at the quality of decisions, that you can make when you are constantly being interrupted. Yes by and large we make poorer decisions when we're interrupted, and we get more stressed when we are trying to multitask. It's much harder to be creative and so on.
Studies just pile up on this, and it is all because your poor deliberate system can only actually do one thing at a time. I think sometimes we think we can, because the automatic system can do multiple things at once. Something really doesn't require any conscious attention, then you can do it in parallel, which is why you can maybe check your e-mail while you're brushing your teeth. I mean, obviously not that anyone does that, right?
[0:20:39.4] MB: That's a great example. I just tried to do the ABC exercise in my head. After about C3, I basically started –
[0:20:47.6] CW: Yeah, you lose the will.
[0:20:48.6] MB: Yeah, melting down. That’s a really concise way of looking at the fact that doing the single task is much more effective.
[0:20:57.8] CW: Yeah. The thing is it's hard, because we like to have little signs that we wanted and needed by the rest of the world. Actually a little ping, a little buzz here and there is quite exciting and people who are listening to this probably have seen lots of evidence on the fact that one of the reasons that we find our smart phones so addictive is because you don't know when the next exciting thing is going to come. That novelty and uncertainty is actually a very powerful seductive combination.
What can we do? We can be way more deliberate about figuring out what's the most important thing that I'm doing today and how do I get myself to single-task on that, knowing that I'll be faster and smarter when I'm doing that?
I think, a lot of people think that they just should leave that to willpower. I think the evidence on personal change is really leaning against willpower, being the right way to do to make big things happen in your life, I think it's about changing the environment around you to make it easier, to make the choices you say you want to make. That means turning off notifications, that means figuring out how to block out ambient noise, if you are in an open plan office, which most of us are.
I'm also very much trying to use tech to try and fight tech as it were. I use stay focused, which is a an extension that blocks my access to well, whatever site I decide. It manages my time on social media. I use my phone settings to make sure that I can switch my phone to monochrome very easily, which makes it so much less exciting to pick up the phone. I use something called Inbox When Ready, which means that I don't get to see my inbox unless I really, really choose to. Tiny little things like this start to make it a lot easier to actually create the focus, the single-tasking time when you need it.
[0:22:52.9] MB: That's really, really interesting. What's the app that you use to switch your phone to monochrome?
[0:22:57.5] CW: It's buried. Whether you've got an Android or an iPhone, it's actually – it exists, the accessibility shortcut’s buried in your phone's DNA. It's obviously deep in the settings. You want to look for accessibility shortcuts. On the iPhone, there is something that you can set your phone to do when you press the home button three times, and you have various different options that you can choose.
One of them is to change the color. One of the color options is to make it monochrome. Why not, right? I mean, that's not to say that you wouldn't want it to be in full color for a lot of stuff you're doing, but if you just want to stop that grazing behavior and make it just a little bit less delightful to pick up the phone, then it's a little thing, little nudge that pushes you in the right direction.
[0:23:52.2] MB: We touched on this briefly in the pre-show discussion, but tell me about, you know I think many listeners might be familiar with the idea of nudges, but tell me about a sludge as you described it.
[0:24:03.6] CW: Yeah. Well, nudge is a term that was popularized by the marvelous Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, which laid out the concept of understanding the biases that we have, recognizing that our automatic system always wants to do what's easiest, and recognizing that it's a certain behavior that we want to create in ourselves or in others that making it easy for someone to do that thing is always going to make it more likely that we do it.
If you want to drink more water, pour water within reach and move the soda a little further away and so on. These are nudges, because they don't make you do something. They just make it easier for you to do the right thing.
Quite recently, I mean, I would say in the last few months, I've seen this term sludge be used, which makes me smile. Where it's being used is to describe things that make it harder for you to do the wrong thing. If nudges make it easier for you to do the right thing, then sludges make it harder for you to do the wrong thing.
Sludge of course, can be used in very negative and naughty ways, like if you're trying to unsubscribe from a website, you might be put through multiple steps to make it harder for you to see it through. I mean, that is a nefarious use of sludge. We can use sludges in our own working lives as well. That Inbox When Ready example is a really good example of it. The very fact of just simply having to click an extra button to see my inbox so that I’m not mindlessly grazing my e-mail, it's barely there as an intervention. It's just a tiny thing that makes it a bit harder to look at my inbox when I'm actually trying to batch my e-mail processing.
I love these things, because then it stopped you from checking your e-mail if you really need to, but it just makes it that tiny bit harder to do the thing that you said you don't want to do, and that's sludge.
[0:25:58.5] MB: That's fascinating. I think we had a previous interview a couple weeks ago with Adam Alter, where we went really deep in the phone addiction and how dangerous it is. After that interview, I installed the moment app on my phone, which and it doesn't really do anything other than just track how much screen time you spend every day. Even after conscious awareness has helped me reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone.
[0:26:20.1] CW: That's fantastic. Adam is such a great thinker in this field. I think we're all experimenting with this wildly. We need to right now, because we are in an environment where we're bombarding ourselves with more information than we've ever dealt with before. You've probably heard the term that Clay Shirky popularized a while back, which was filter failure.
His argument was that there are advances information technology throughout human history, and what happens is that after a certain point we see more information, so when books were invented and then when the printing press was invented and so on, each of these advances in technology resulted in a massive increase in the amount of information available to the average person.
Initially, people just felt completely overwhelmed. Then it turns out that it's possible to think about, well how do you filter out the information that you don't need? There's definitely a sense that I'm feeling that finally people are starting to think about the fact that they shouldn't be trying to consume all the information. It just makes us feel miserable and stressed and makes us less able to think clearly. Now to think more intelligently about when is it that I engage with the information stream and how do I make sure that I really do focus my intense engagement at those times, and how do I filter out what I really don't need to see in here?
I think we're all figuring this out, some of us faster than others. It's definitely one of those areas where if I'm talking to clients, or giving a talk about this topic, I am not holier than now. This is something I'm working on myself every single day.
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[0:29:06.4] MB: When we were talking about priorities, or when we were talking about single tasking you touched on the idea that single tasking on your key priorities is really essential. I want to back up the conversation and come back to that idea, because I think that's really important and I know you've written and talked a lot about how and why we should set priorities.
[0:29:26.1] CW: Well, the currency of our lives, if you like, is attention. It's where do we put our attention? Where do we choose to direct our focus? I mean, what else do we have? You can say it's time. I mean, certainly. There's a question of time, but we all know that we can spend time just gazing into space. The question is where you where do you want to put your attention?
I think that most of us are a little bit mindless about that. We might be in jobs where we are working very hard and we've got a bunch of stuff that's incoming all the time and a long to-do list. A lot of the time, we're not that proactive in thinking ahead about, okay, well what really matters most here and where do I really want to put my attention?
Actually, the most basic level, there is a question about what you want to notice, because the deliberate system of the brain can only take in a certain amount of information at once, and there are trillions of pieces of data around us any given time. We can't perceive it all. We simply can't, and we don't know what we don't know, but what's happening is that our brain is constantly making choices about what deserves our conscious attention.
The automatic system is filtering out a ton of stuff. That's one of its roles is to lighten the load on the deliberate system of the brain, so that we can get things done and we don't have our brains crash like overloaded computers. The thing is that there's a bit of a rule on how brain decides what's important enough for us to see consciously, and what's not important that should be just filtered out as spam that we're not noticing. It basically goes like this, whatever you have top of mind, will tell your brain that you should see or hear things that are relevant to that, and then everything else is filtered.
We know that in a way, if you buy a new car, you see all the cars on the road that are the same model. I bought some Nike sneakers for the first time a couple of years ago, and I don't know why I never bought a Nike sneakers before, but I hadn't. I was in the Flatiron store in New York despite my accent, that's where I live.
I came out of the store and I was super excited about my new Nike sneakers. They were so comfortable. Then I suddenly noticed that half of New York was wearing Nike sneakers, which I've never seen before and it was probably unlikely that they just bought the sneakers. It was just that I hadn't noticed before, because Nike sneakers weren't top of mind for me.
That's what's going on all the time. If we go into a conversation then and we have something top of mind, we're going to see things that confirm and/or match our state of mind. There was a study that was done where people signed up for a psychology experiment and they were all given a test to take. Half of the people were put in a slightly bad mood by being told randomly that they had they'd failed the test. It wasn't a big deal, but it was enough to take you off just very slightly.
Then everybody was given a neutral description of an individual, and they had to tell the researchers how likeable this person was. Because there were some people who were totally fine, they went and looked at this description of the individual. They thought this person was perfectly likeable.
Then the others who were in a slightly bad mood, because they were in a bad mood perceived this person as less likeable and that's how subtle this effect is, that what is top of mind for us as we go into a situation will determine what we see. If we go into a conversation expecting someone to be a jerk, we will notice everything that confirms we're right. That's what confirmation bias is.
At the very basic level, being more deliberate about what really matters to us as we go into a conversation actually dramatically shapes the way we experience reality. I'm not saying that the person you're going to talk to isn't a bit of a jerk to be clear, but if you go into the conversation and you're focused on your negative expectations, you are likely to see what confirms that. If you go into a conversation and you said, “Okay, this person's a bit of a jerk, but I'm really looking for signs of possible collaboration here.” Magically, you are more likely to see that, because you've told your brain that that's one of the things that's relevant enough for you to see rather than to filter out.
You are entirely capable of missing things that and filtering out things that don't seem relevant or on point. This really matters and it can really shape the way you experience every conversation and every day.
[0:33:51.1] MB: I think it's such a great point and I mean, it’s something that's experimentally been shown many, many different times. I'm sure people had experiences in their own life, where their perceptions or their filters have shaped what they perceive to be true.
[0:34:06.9] CW: Yeah. Do you know, everybody knows the classic study that kicked off this whole field of research in selective attention, the one that Chris Shibori and Dan Simon's did with the gorilla, where you have eight students playing basketball and the audience is told to watch the passes made between the four players wearing white t-shirts. Then halfway through the game, a woman in a gorilla suit comes on and starts beating her chest and she stands in the middle of the frame and then walks off.
Then when you ask people, did you see anything strange after you’d had some – how many passes were there between the people in white t-shirts? Only half the people will see the gorilla, because that wasn't what was top of mind for them. You see this playing out in so many different studies since then, which often use gorillas as an homage to the original gorilla, to show what it is that we're capable of filtering out.
There's one thing that I do every day, it’s decide what my intentions are at the beginning of the day. What do I really want to focus on? If there's one thing I do before I'm going onstage, or before I'm running a workshop, or before I'm coaching a client. It's to say, “Okay, what do I really want to pay attention to here, knowing that if I don't and if I'm not deliberate about that I might miss stuff that really matters, just because it's not top of mind for me.”
[0:35:25.7] MB: The practical application of this idea is that we should try and use this natural feature of the brain’s hardware to our advantage by priming and thinking about the right things.
[0:35:38.6] CW: Yeah, absolutely. That we've all heard this new-agey term of being intentional. Well, there is actually this hard science that sits behind it, which is to say if you are deliberate about setting your intentions before you go into a conversation, you decide what you want to have top of mind. What's your aim, what attitude do you want to have as you go into this? If you've got negative assumptions, can you check them? There might be a reason why they're not true just today.
You are going to shape where your attention goes and some of you might have notice there's a bit of alliteration there, aim, attitude, assumptions, attention, and that's because it helps me remember before I'm going into something important, that actually I want to check my aim, my attitude, my assumptions, knowing it's going to direct my attention.
If I do nothing else, then I say, “Okay, what do I most want to notice?” I just ask myself the attention question. That really helps if you're going to a meeting, say that you're not really looking forward to, if you're in a bad mood, you're going to see everything that confirms that you're right to think it's a bad meeting. If you check yourself before and say, “Okay, my aim here really is to help this be a good meeting,” then you're going to see opportunities to actually improve the quality of the conversation that you might have missed otherwise.
[0:36:49.4] MB: I want to zoom out a little bit and talk about a related concept that you've shared. Tell me how this weaves in with the idea of being in a defensive mode, versus being in the discovery mode.
[0:37:01.5] CW: Yeah, we talked about the two systems of the brain; deliberate system, automatic system. This is a double-click on the automatic system. We've talked about the fact that the automatic system does a lot of really helpful things for us. One is obviously filtering out things that are irrelevant and helping us make quick decisions when a quick decision is a good thing.
Another thing that the automatic system does is keeps us safe. If it perceives a threat in the environment, it launches a defensive response. Obviously, historically there is threats of often mean physical threats to our safety. The classic example is the saber-toothed tiger bouncing towards you on the savanna.
Brain is constantly scanning automatically for not just physical threats, but also threats to our sense of self-worth and our sense of social standing. It doesn't have to be a physical threat. It can be a threat to our sense of competence, our sense of autonomy, our sense of purpose, our sense of fairness, inclusion, respect, all these more existential things.
If any of those are under threat, the brain does perceive it as a threat and launches a defensive response. That is sometimes known as the fight-or-flight response. In fact, research shows there's also a third response which is to freeze. In doing that, it takes a certain amount of mental energy to launch this defensive response. What you see is that when someone is under pressure in a negative way, if you put them in a brain scanner and you show them even mildly upsetting images, enough to make them feel that there's potentially a bit of a threat to the subconscious level, then what you see is there's less activity in their prefrontal cortex, because the brain is directing mental energy to more basic functions.
The prefrontal cortex as you will probably know is where reasoning, self-control and planning and so forth sit. In other words, what happens is there's less activity in the part of the brain that's sophisticated and thoughtful, which means in even plainer language that when you feel at all threatened or undermined, you become dumber, which is a real shame, because it's often at the moment that you need to step up, and that's why we might do stupid things when we are under pressure, or feeling that our competence we're out of our depth, or that we are feeling that our toes are being trodden on.
Understanding that that's what happens to us when we're in defensive mode and understanding that actually that's mostly what's causing most bad behavior that you might encounter in anyone else, it's super helpful. I mean, first of all it makes you feel it restores a tiny bit of faith in human nature to know that most bad behavior is because of someone's brain being somewhat on the defensive.
Also, the more that you can tune in to what defensive mode looks in yourself then the more likely you are to be able to get yourself out of defensive mode and to get yourself thinking clearly in difficult situations. I spend a lot of time with people helping them tune into what does this look in me when I'm on the defensive and what does it take – there is a ton of interesting techniques you can use to reduce the defensiveness and then allow you to essentially bring your prefrontal cortex back online, though I don't think a neuroscientist would like that language, I think that's perhaps a nice analogy for us to think about.
[0:40:12.9] MB: Tell me about some of those strategies and tactics for producing that defensive reaction.
[0:40:18.5] MB: There's some stuff that works super quickly. The research is fascinating on these techniques, because there you can really easily build them into routines. One is distancing. When we put ourselves at some distance from the situation, we essentially tell our brain that the threat is further away. It can come off a lot. You can do that in a simple way of saying, “What will I think about this when I look back in a year's time?”
Or you can get distance not in terms of time, but in putting yourself in someone else's shoes. You can say what would my wisest friend advise me about this, or what would I advise a friend if they were in this situation? What happens, you know how brilliant and amazing and insightful you can be when you're giving other people advice on their problems. that it might be harder for you to take in your own life?
One of the reasons that you are so intelligent and wise when you're giving other people advice, is because you're not threatened at all by their problems, so you can think really clearly. You're borrowing about that wisdom of distance, by simply asking yourself, getting yourself a go-to question to ask in the heat of the moment. For me I do say, “What will I think about this in a year's time?”
The other thing that's really immediate is actually just to label how you're feeling. Decades of therapists have understood the power of this. I think research has caught up with it in a way. We now know that by labeling the emotion that you are experiencing it, doing it crisply, not wallowing, but just saying, “I'm feeling frustrated, because I've sent three e-mails to this person and they haven't replied.”
Just the very fact of labeling and acknowledging seems to, well and now I'm going to use some narrative to describe what we think is happening. Seems to tell our brains that the threat has been acknowledged, we've got a message. Then it dampens the immediate response system, which allows us then to think more clearly.
I think we're still working out exactly what's going on and why this is so effective, but there's no doubt that this has been used in practice for many, many years really, really effectively. Just at the end of the day, if there's something really riled you up, taking a piece of paper – you don't have to take a piece of paper. You take a piece of paper if you want and just writing, “I feel really annoyed, because.” Then, I mean for added dramatic effect, you can screw up the piece of paper and throw it in the trash, if you like. These things really – they have a very quick effect and that's very useful when you're in the heat of the moment.
[0:42:53.0] MB: Any other strategies that are worth digging into that listeners might be able to quickly implement?
[0:42:58.9] CW: Yes. There are lots. What else do I like? I like something called reappraisal, that actually is a little slightly deeper technique, which I will say has long-term effects. It's been shown to have particularly long-lasting effects, I think because it starts to train yourself to think flexibly about alternative explanations of what's going on. That's really what reappraisal is. It says, first of all, what are the facts of what's happened?
Often when we think about something that's really annoyed us or stressing us out, we generalize and I mean, maybe not catastrophize, but we do say they never treat me with respect when actually what's happened is perhaps something very specific. It might be a repeated behavior, but if you can say instead of, “They never treat me with respect,” and say, “I've sent three e-mails and I have not received a reply to any of them.”
That's the thing that you know. You start with the facts, the actual facts that you can say for sure. Even if you start to say they ignored my e-mail and that is actually an interpretation, because that suggests they're conscious of it and they've ignored it. Now, you start with the facts and then you say what would be an alternate – what am I assuming? I'm assuming that they've seen the e-mails and they're willfully ignoring them. What would be an alternative explanation? That’s it. That’s the reappraisal is to say, “What would be the alternative explanation?”
Frankly, the alternative explanation doesn't have to be true. It's just the contemplation of the fact that the person who is annoying you is not necessarily evil. Of course, the moment you start thinking about anything, well maybe there's something about my e-mail addresses that’s being tagged as spam, maybe they're entirely overwhelmed and they're ignoring everybody at the moment, maybe there's something terrible going on in their lives, maybe their mother is really sick, maybe something.
I discovered recently, there was someone who had ignored an e-mail of mine, and something awful had happened with his child. It really helped me in the moment to just consider the possibility that something else had happened. I was very glad when I realized that I hadn't jumped to conclusions about what was going on.
The story isn't always as dramatic as that, but just the fact of entertaining an alternative explanation is helpful, because only 1% of the population is a psychopath. Actually, just thinking about what could be a different explanation tends to reduce our sense of being wronged and therefore, reduces our state of alert, which reduces our defensiveness and then allows us to think more clearly about what the right next step is.
[0:45:40.5] MB: That reminds me a lot of, I don't know if you're familiar with Byron Katie and her method called The Work, but it's a very similar series of questions that pour it down, negative thoughts and is I guess using the reappraisal strategy.
[0:45:54.8] CW: Yeah and to be clear, I'm not saying that the bad thing isn't the true story. The point is that if you want to take yourself off the defensive considering what other alternatives might be in the mix is a good way of helping you think more clearly. There's a bit of a backlash at the moment about positive thinking and how negative emotions are important.
The truth is yes, of course. The idea is not to just think positively about everything, but it's to understand the way that your brain works, so that you can – you said earlier on, that you can hack the way that your brain works, so that you can use this knowledge to think more clearly, to have more energy, to feel more motivated. In this particular case, just the flexibility of considering alternative explanations has been shown to dramatically increase our resilience, our emotional resilience to things that are annoying us, and to help us find ways to move on. That is a skill that all of us really benefit from learning.
[0:46:56.3] MB: Another topic that I know you you've talked about, that I want to touch on is being in – I think it underscores a lot of the things we've talked about today about tying them together in some ways is being in a proactive positive place, versus being in a reactive place.
[0:47:12.1] CW: Well, I think that's in a way the meta theme of everything that I do, which is to say you've got more control than you think. I mean, this isn't the secret. We're not saying you can stand in front of a mirror and say everything is awesome and then it will be. We do have more control over what the things that seem to be done to us, or that seem to be random, the most of us realize and we talked quite extensively about selective attention and the fact that the intention is you have top of mind will shape the perception of what seems to happen to you. That's probably the most profound.
The same thing might be said about more practical stuff we've talked about with multitasking and single-tasking. We feel overwhelmed, we've got so much to do, our days are so long. Well, if you could make yourself 30% faster and getting stuff done by single-tasking, I mean that feels like a bit of a superpower, doesn't it?
I think, just understanding that we do have these small tweaks we can make to our everyday lives that can have disproportionate effects and the way that every day feels. I'm not saying that if something terrible is going on in your life, maybe there's a bereavement, maybe you're in the middle of a war zone, I'm not saying you can wish these things away, but there are tiny things that we can do that can make every day feel better, whether it's using reappraisal to think more clearly in a difficult situation, whether it's single-tasking, whether it's, well, there are any number of other things as you know. There are about a hundred things in my book. The point is we do have these. There’s a little bit more wiggle room than we tend to exploit from day-to-day. Yeah, I'm a big fan of being proactive.
[0:48:46.3] MB: One of the things that I think can often contribute to overload, or being put in a reactive place, and I know this is true for myself especially is not being able to, or not wanting to say no to people. How can how can we deal with other people's demands on our time?
[0:49:03.1] CW: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, none of us is in a vacuum. Here we are talking about, yes the importance of setting boundaries and try to work 50 hours, not 80 hours a week. A lot of people were saying, “Well, that would be nice, but that's not the reality that I'm in. How do I set boundaries, and how do I do it without ruining my relationships?”
There are lots of fantastic techniques out there for saying no elegantly, gracefully. There's one that I particularly like, which I call the positive no, which I borrowed from William Ury. The way it works is because of the neuroscience around defensive mode. Normally when we think about saying no to something, we start with sorry. It seems like a reasonable thing to do if you're not a terrible person to – if we say, “I'm sorry, I can't attend the meeting,” or, “I'm sorry, I have to cancel my participation in this out of the other.”
The interesting thing is that when we're tied up with our stress at saying no to something, we often forget first of all to say something appreciative that keeps the other person in what I call the opposite of defensive mode, I call discovery mode. If you start with something first of all that talks about appreciating what it is that they're asking; maybe it's a meeting that you definitely now can't go to and you know that you're supposed to go to, but you just can't make the time because you're really trying to single-task around something enormously important project, for example and you need to get a nice big unbroken chunk of time in order to do that.
You say, “It's great to see where the project has reached and I know this meeting is really critical juncture and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” You say something appreciative about the requests, the fact that I'm really grateful that you thought to include me. Then you start with what you're saying yes to, not what you're saying no to.
You say, “I've got an exciting project is on my plate that I need to complete by the end of this week. If we get it right, then it's going to be transformational for the way that the company moves forward.” As a result, and here's your no, but only after your yes, then you say, “As a result, I'm having to make some tough choices about where I'm putting my time and that means I'm having to clear some space in my calendar and I'm not going to be able to come to the meeting. I'm so sorry.”
Then you get to say sorry. It’s not that – you're not a nasty person. You get to say sorry, but you start with warmth, then what it is you're saying yes to, and then you say you'll know. Of course, you're going to end with warmth and wish them well. That's also something we tend to forget when we're stressed about saying no. The interesting thing about this is that it reduces the defensiveness in the other person's mind, because you are first of all being respectful in talking about what they're asking and you're just giving them a little bit of surprise and delight and interest in what it is that you're doing instead.
Of course, you're still being apologetic, but what it means is that you're not immediately putting them on the defensive by saying, by starting with the “I'm sorry,” at which point they know that there's no good news here. Sometimes people say yeah, but don't they know that that's really where this is going?
I say yes, but it's still somehow lands differently because their brain isn't so much on the defensive. You’re not just saying something negative. You know what? I've taught this to people and then I've had – there was one client who did it back to me, and I didn't realize until the end of the e-mail that that’s what he had done.
I spent the whole e-mail thinking, “Oh, it’s great that he's going to go do this thing with his son. Then then he can't come to do this meeting with me.” I was so thrilled about reading about what he was going to do with his son, that I got to the end of the e-mail before I realized, “He's just done the positive no on me.” I felt more expansive and more generous towards him if you'd simply said, “I'm sorry, I can't come to the meeting.”
[0:53:03.4] MB: That's great. I love that. I’ll definitely be implementing that into my life. Just one aside, I know we're hitting the hour, do you have maybe like two or three minutes for a couple quick wrap-up questions?
[0:53:14.7] CW: Yeah, very happy to. Yeah, absolutely.
[0:53:16.5] MB: Perfect. What would one piece of homework be that you would give to our listeners to start implementing some of the ideas that we've talked about today?
[0:53:27.1] CW: Well, I think recognizing that your brain’s liberate system has limitations and a certain amount of attention and it's not infinite amount of attention. Meaning that you can be more deliberate about what you notice and then what you remember. Starting the day by saying, “What are my intentions for today? What really matters today? What do I want to have top of mind?” Perhaps as I go into the most important interaction of the day, what my aim? What is my attitude? What assumptions do I have? Where do I want to put my attention?
Then at the end of the day, to look back and say, “Okay, maybe it was a good day, maybe it was a bad day,” but what are three good things that happened today knowing that the way that our memory works, we tend to remember only a small number of the things that actually happen to us? Directing your attention to the things that you really want to make sure you remember, perhaps even the especially important on a bad day, you often forget a few good things that might have happened.
Yeah, maybe you remembered your umbrella. Okay, maybe that was a tiny thing, but the fact that you maybe were planful enough that you remembered your umbrella. That is not nothing. To remember at the end of the day what went well also hacks something that economists call the peak end effect, which is to say that when you remember the quality of an experience, we tend to average two points; the most intense moment, the peak and the end.
If you end the day by looking back at what went well, you're in effect hacking that mental trick of saying actually what you're going to remember of the day is going to be disproportionately influenced by the way that it ends. You might as well end it by reviewing what was good, and recognizing that where we put our attention becomes how we feel about our lives. I think that that start and end is really a very good place to start if you're keen to think about what does behavioral science tell me about how to improve the way I feel about my life.
[0:55:23.9] MB: Where can listeners find you and your book and your work online?
[0:55:28.8] CW: I am at carolinewebb.co. That is not .com, because it turns out there are a billion Caroline Webbs in the world. I did not get carolinewebb.com. I got carolinewebb.co and you can find a ton of articles there, you can sign up for very occasional newsletter. There are videos, there are wonderful podcast like this one.
You can also take a quiz, which is linked to all the themes in the book and you can download a free chapter of the book. That's probably a place I’d go. I'm also on Twitter and Facebook and all the usual places, and I'm posting little nuggets of science-based advice there each day, so hopefully that gives people a sense where to find me.
[0:56:07.9] MB: Well Caroline, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom; lots of really practical and actionable insights that are rooted in science. I really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing all this knowledge.
[0:56:19.8] CW: Fantastic. It's been great talking to you, Matt. Thank you.
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