Modern working life is overrun with distractions, obligations, and burnout. Arianna Huffington, author and CEO of Thrive Global, has made it her mission to infuse more humanity into how work gets done. In this week’s episode, Arianna sits down with Dr. David Rock, NLI Co-Founder and CEO, to explore the problem of being “always on” and offer leaders strategies to make their own organizations more human.
Chris Weller: 00:04 How human is your organization? I don’t mean how many humans work in your office or what percentage of tasks are automated. I mean, how are people treated? Are they told what to do, how to do it, and supervised until the deadline? Are they expected to work at odd hours with no time to refresh or reset? According to a recent Gallup poll, just 34% of US workers say they’re engaged. And while that’s the highest in history, it’s still shockingly low, just four percentage points higher than it was a decade ago. Arianna Huffingtonuffington has visions of catapulting that number far higher, through her work at Thrive Global, the company she founded in 2016, as a way to end burnout for good. And all it takes, she says, is 60 seconds a day.
I’m Chris Weller and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the Neuroleadership Institute. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Arianna Huffingtonuffington, author and CEO of Thrive Global and Dr. David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute. We discussed the problems of an always on culture, how to stay balanced at work, and what role leaders play in keeping their organizations human. Arianna and David, thanks for joining me.
Arianna Huffington: 01:21 Thank you.
David Rock: 01:22 Thanks Chris. Great to be here.
Chris Weller: 01:24 There’s so much we can talk about when it comes to the role that stress and fulfillment and reward plays in our daily lives. We spend so much time at work, relative to any other place, except maybe sleeping. I want to just start in a place talking about the current state of affairs. How does modern work, in the way that it operates today, either help people feel fulfilled or inhibit people’s jobs?
Arianna Huffington: 01:44 So as we know, ever since the first industrial revolution, we started making the mistake of treating human beings like machines. And the goal of a machine is to minimize downtime. And the goal of software is to minimize downtime. So, for some reason we bought into the delusion that that is also the goal for human beings. And as a result, we now have this epidemic of burnout and stress, which the World Health Organization in May acknowledged as a real workplace syndrome that has a huge impact, both on our mental health and our performance. And all that has been compounded by a growing addiction to our phones. So things were bad enough before the addiction to the phones, but now the fact that we are all, at least slightly addicted, and there is no end to our working day and even when we end our working day, we’re addicted to other things like social media or games or simply checking our inbox and our texts at all times. So that has created this real epidemic that is having a huge impact, both on our health and on our mental health.
David Rock: 03:09 That’s really well put. I just finished a new edition of Your Brain at Work, which is the most recent book of mine. And I was reading back over how I was thinking about overwhelm 10 years ago, when I first wrote it, and it was like, luxurious. It was like, imagine we could go back 10 years and we kind of look back, but what we’re forgetting is that this is probably the least overwhelmed we’ll be compared to 10 years from now.
Arianna Huffington: 03:32 Very good point.
David Rock: 03:32 And that if we don’t take steps, it is going to continue. And I am reminded of when cars first came out, we sort of went from horseback speed, which was very slow, eight miles an hour or something, to automotive speed, which was suddenly 30 or 40 miles an hour. And there were no road rules or speed limits, it was just like drive and people would just get killed and it was terrible, terrible. And it took a while for road rules and speed limits to actually be put in place, with this thing that could go faster. Well information now can go from car speed to the speed of light, but there’s no rules for how to interact with all that possibility of information. And I think that we’re starting to see some principals come in, but I think we’re going to see more and more thoughtful application of road rules and speed limits, to just the digestion of information as we go.
Arianna Huffington: 04:24 I love that. That is so true because if you think of the iPhone being about 10 years old, there are really no rules of the road, including as parents. You know, as we work with many companies, we are finding that one of the biggest sources of stress for employees who have children, is what’s happening to their children. And the growing incidence of anxiety, depression, even suicides, is becoming an absolutely dominant theme because this is happening more and more now.
David Rock: 04:59 It correlates quite directly with the rise of smartphones.
Chris Weller: 05:01 So we have this reality that we’ve kind of painted, let’s actually take it more from a scientific point of view for a second. What’s going on to the person in a daily interaction at work when they’re in this kind of state? If they’re bombarded with all of these things pulling them, and their notifications, and these demands, are they operating at their full capacity?
David Rock: 05:19 Well there are three big ideas that we should all understand about the brain in the workplace. We think there are three big groups of ideas and one is around just general capacity. What is our capacity to process information? Second is around kind of, how does motivation work? And the third is around bias. And so we see those as the three big chunks that every organization should be designing their processes around, capacity, motivation and bias. Respecting that and noticing the correlation between noise and ability to focus is important. The more noise you have, the fewer insights and creative ideas you have, but also just the harder it is to focus. So I think there’s a whole world of insight, it kind of comes down to, we need to be doing less and be able to be more focused and have more quiet time.
And so we’re trying to educate people about that. I know you’re working in a similar space, but how do we get people to be more disciplined with their inputs so they can focus and actually get work done. That’s how we see it.
Chris Weller: 06:20 Maybe more intentional with disconnecting or unplugging, to give yourself the time that people might be robbing you of.
David Rock: 06:27 Even like, we try to schedule meetings, if it’s a 30 minute meeting, it’s a 25 minute meeting. So we’ve got the five minutes. If it’s an hour, it’s 50 minutes. So you’ve got time just to have some minutes to reflect, collect your thoughts, use the restroom, get a cup of tea, just let your brain quietly mind wander. And you have all of these insights in that time. And do we achieve that every time? Definitely not. But probably well more than half the time. In our meetings we manage that. And so you’re leaving that buffer for the brain to kind of reflect and catch up. So there are all sorts of little tips and techniques that I’m sure you guys are sharing.
Arianna Huffington: 07:00 No, Absolutely. And we break down everything we suggest to our clients and the consumers we interact with, to what we call micro steps, tiny daily incremental steps that become daily habits. And we break them down to really tiny ones. Like in the morning, take 60 seconds to set your intention for the day, or to remember what you’re grateful for, or to breathe consciously before you go to your phone. If somebody says, I don’t have 60 seconds, then they don’t have a life.
David Rock: 07:38 Right.
Arianna Huffington: 07:38 But if you tell people take five minutes, they may not do it. So we try to break it down to do an act that you cannot say no to, if you are at all sane.
David Rock: 07:49 Right?
Arianna Huffington: 07:50 And so again, as you know David, the science is very clear that how you start your day and how you end your day are pretty critical. And how you end your day is particularly important when it comes to priming your brain for sleep. And the majority of people end their day by being on their phone, in their bed, answering texts, emails or scrolling through social media, whatever they’re doing. And then when they get too tired to even look at their phone turning off the light and leaving their phone on their nightstand. Which is absolutely insane because you are tired, you’re physically tired, so you’re going to fall asleep, but your brain has not really calmed down. So it’s going to wake you up in the middle of the night. And this is the most unproductive time,
David Rock: 08:44 Yeah it’s crazy.
Arianna Huffington: 08:44 And we’ve all had it, when your brain actually goes through every unresolved issue in your life and your work, at the very moment when there’s nothing you can do.
Chris Weller: 08:54 Oh, I shouldn’t have said that thing 10 years ago to that person.
Arianna Huffington: 08:56 Yes, exactly. So for us, one of our over 700 micro steps is exactly about how do you end your day. And what we ask people is to declare an end to their day. There is really no end to our day, so we need to actually declare an end. And people learn through rituals. So for us the ritual that marks the end of your day should be turning off your phone and charging it outside your bed.
Chris Weller: 09:28 I love that idea of the micro-steps and declaring the end of your day. I’d be curious to hear what your current micro-steps and end of your day ritual looks like.
Arianna Huffington: 09:37 So I have a 30 minute end to my day, but we recommend that people start with five. I kind of built to it. And my ritual is turning off my phone, 30 minutes before I want to turn off the lights, having a hot bath, which I love because it’s not really for cleanliness, it’s more for your brain becomes a little bit like mush. And if you don’t like baths, have a very hot shower,
David Rock: 09:37 It’s good for sleep.
Arianna Huffington: 10:11 It’s excellent for sleep. Then I, again based on the latest science, wear dedicated clothes to sleep. Even if you’re wearing a t-shirt, don’t wear the same t-shirt that you wear to the gym. It’s like don’t send your brain confusing messages.
David Rock: 10:27 Confusing signals, yeah.
Arianna Huffington: 10:28 And in bed I only read real books. And I read real books that have nothing to do with my work. Nothing to do with the neuroscience of the brain, David. It’s poetry, it’s philosophy, it’s novels, something that takes me away from my world.
David Rock: 10:47 It’s very restful and good for pleasant dreams as well.
Arianna Huffington: 10:52 Yes, exactly.
Chris Weller: 10:53 After a short break, we’ll talk more with Arianna and David about what exactly leaders can do to set their employees up for success. Stay with us.
Speaker 4: 11:01 If you like Your Brain at Work, you’ll love the Neuroleadership Summit even more, but if you can’t make it this year, you can tune in November 19th and 20th to watch the keynote sessions and select breakout sessions from the comfort of your office or home via the events live stream. You’ll hear from business leaders at Microsoft, GE, Patagonia, HP, Nokia and more. There’ll be joined by leading brain researchers and authors. To tune in and receive live updates, be sure to bookmark summit.neuroleadership.com/live. That’s summit.neuroleadership.com/live.
Chris Weller: 11:34 So let’s say we take all of these steps. We declare the end of our day, we get good sleep, we build in our technology to serve us, rather than being pulled from it. What cascades from that in our daily work life with other people, how we treat people? What can we expect when we start doing all these things for ourselves?
David Rock: 11:56 Maybe I’ll answer that first. I know you’ve done a lot of work on sleep. One of the things that really jumped out to me about good sleep is when you don’t have good sleep, you remember the negative things. You don’t remember positive experiences when you’re suffering from poor sleep. And you’re overall negatively focused. There’s also, and I’ve written about this, we need to get to a point where organizations think of lack of sleep the same way they think of alcohol use. So if someone really has had two or three nights of very poor sleep, significantly fewer hours than normal, they shouldn’t be undertaking a task that has any risk. They shouldn’t be driving a train or flying a plane or other things that require good cognition. And so we need to be able to think like that as a rule because it literally has the same effect. Not enough sleep has the same cognitive effect as a very well defined number of drinks
Arianna Huffington: 12:50 And as well as the cognitive impact, there is an impact when it comes to empathy and creativity. And so even if you are not driving a train or piloting a plane, if you’re managing a team, you’re going to be less empathetic, you’re going to be less creative. And so it’s really absolutely crucial to recognize how connected sleep and recharging throughout the day, like the little breaks that Dave mentioned to recharge during the day, how important they are for performance.
So even if somebody didn’t care about anything else in their lives, they didn’t care about their health, their happiness, their families. Let’s assume for a minute, they are sociopaths. Their performance is affected by how they take care of themselves. And we see that with founders. I mean, we have a lot of founder stories where they buy into the founder myth that you need to be always on, and it’s affecting your performance. I mean, I wrote an open letter to Elon Musk who seems to think that he has to make every decision and be up at all times of the night Tweeting things that turned out to lead to SSE investigations and big huge distractions.
Chris Weller: 14:19 Right.
David Rock: 14:21 Yes. He needs some new habits, perhaps. He has some interesting challenges, but what an inspiring vision he has at the same time, it must be difficult.
Arianna Huffington: 14:28 Oh, absolutely. But that’s really what is so important, that to be an amazing leader, like he is, an incredible visionary, but at the same time be buying into a very unscientific and outmoded view of perfecting your performance. I mean when I collapsed from exhaustion and burnout two years into building Huff Post, I had become disconnected. If you had asked me that morning, Ariana, how are you? I would have said fine. Because I had come to associate running on empty as fine. So that’s kind of the sad thing, that you lose track of yourself fully charged.
Chris Weller: 15:12 A lot of leaders listen to this podcast and probably walk away thinking, okay, what can I do tomorrow? Maybe what are those micro-steps I can do for my team? What are the ways that they can build these healthier habits into their organization?
Arianna Huffington: 15:24 One of the things that we bring into our workshops and our digital programs is the recognition that we want to hire people who are fully engaged. We don’t want to hire people who want a nine to five job, or who want to chill under a mango tree, but to recognize that there may be times when you have to pull an all nighter. There may be times when you have to work over the weekend because you have a presentation or a conference you are planning, or whatever.
What we do, and what we recommend to our partners and clients to do, is to then take thrive time off, immediately after. If you’ve worked over the weekend and you go to work Monday as though you had actually recharged over the weekend, you’re going to be less effective. You are much more likely to get sick, because your immune system is suppressed, so everybody’s better off to take a thrive day, as we call them, and fully recharge and come back. So I think that has been game changing because first of all, it recognizes the fact that there’s no really great job that starts at nine and ends at five, right?
David Rock: 16:42 There’s nothing wrong with some intensity but then you need the recovery time. That’s how you build muscles, intensity and the recovery is really important. I think respecting that is key.
Arianna Huffington: 16:51 Respecting that and treating recovery the way athletes do, as an essential part of intensity and winning games. If you were an elite athlete, you wouldn’t just show up, sleep deprived for a game or having just eaten food that’s not digestible.
David Rock: 17:12 I do something every August. I have a halftime August where I have four long weekends, each one. So I basically only work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday for all of August and I’m usually somewhere outside the city, and I just have a lot more time to think and process and end up doing some of my best work, actually. So I just take a month where I’m literally at halftime of the normal pace. I’ve done that for five or six years. It’s tremendously helpful for my own balance and thinking and time with my family as well. So, there are some practices like that.
Arianna Huffington: 17:41 And also sends an important message to your team.
Chris Weller: 17:45 So I’m hearing that it’s important, Arianna, to communicate as a leader that sometimes expectation, we know how important expectation matching is for people, you might be expected to work on these odd hours, but you should also expect there’ll be given the latitude and the flexibility to receive some time off, in what would otherwise be working hours.
Arianna Huffington: 18:02 We call it thrive time, and we want you to take it right after the intensity. Because again, we are discovering all these things as we are instituting these practices and there are people who thought I’m going to take these two days and take them in the end of my vacation. No it’s use them or lose them.
David Rock: 18:20 Yeah, yeah. No, it’s important. I don’t know if we have a policy around that but I find myself saying that to people a lot. If you’ve just had an intense time, make sure you get some downtime. Some recovery time, it’s really important.
Arianna Huffington: 18:30 But because a lot of what we’re saying is still counter cultural, even with all the science we have, people still brag about working around the clock, being always on. We haven’t changed the culture. So because it’s counter-cultural still, we believe that these practices need to be embedded in the HR rules.
David Rock: 18:53 In the systems.
Arianna Huffington: 18:54 In the systems. Because otherwise people are going to be very reluctant to ask for it because they still see it as indicating that they are not as dedicated to their job, that they are not as macho and as able to power through etc.
Chris Weller: 19:09 David, we recently talked to Dean Carter, the Patagonia CHRO on the podcast. Could you say a little more about what they’re up to? I think this fits in nicely.
David Rock: 19:17 What’s fascinating about Patagonia is they’re doing all these experiments in thinking really systemically and longterm about humans. And they noticed that a lot of their people love surfing and skiing and climbing, and they kind of hire nature people. And they noticed that they would lose a lot of people on a Friday to go away for a long weekend. And they said, well, let’s do an experiment. What if every second Friday we basically shut down and see what happens. And they did it in a part of the business, they tested it quite a while, collected all the data and they found actually that people were much more effective. And people were incredibly happier working there and the families were happier, they were healthier, they were just much more enriched as humans. And he’s challenging us, and challenging the whole summit coming up to, what are the practices that we need to challenge that are sort of accidental byproducts of just scaling things.
What do we need to challenge? And it could literally be the number of days we work, where we work, how we work, when we work, who we work with, everything. And I think as we struggle with bringing the humans back into a very digital world, I think we’ve got to be willing to experiment and try things and collect real data on what actually is better. And it’s a great time to be having those kinds of explorations.
Arianna Huffington: 20:34 No, I love that. And this emphasis on the human part is actually key, because we believe that so much of behavior change at the moment is based on just what’s happening to your mind, and not what’s happening to your heart. And for us the goal is to connect the two because if we just give you micro steps that affect the neuro pathways of your brain, that’s fantastic, and we know now so much about the plasticity of the brain and it can be really effective. But if we don’t touch your heart, it’s not going to have the same impact.
Chris Weller: 21:19 It really starts with the leaders modeling the behaviors, I think, because it’s such a top down thing people take their cues from. I know we’re close to time, so I’m mindful of that, I wanted to wrap up soon. People can start coming in maybe five minutes later and building in time for themselves, but until they’re given the permission explicitly, I think it’s always a matter of kind of working within the system and that builds resentment too. So Arianna, I wanted you to give you the final word before I sign off, so is there anything else that you wanted to-
Arianna Huffington: 21:50 This has been great. I have actually been making notes because I loved what you’ve been saying and I love learning constantly. I think that’s the best thing is that the science keeps bringing new insights, new actionable insights to our work. And I just want to end by saying that, we live at this amazing inflection point where we have actually done so much to put an end, in many parts of the world to communicable diseases, and now we are dealing with an explosion of chronic diseases. So there is really no other solutions except changing how human beings are behaving if we want to make a dent, when it comes to diabetes or heart disease or mental health. And that’s why I think the area we’re working in is just so exciting and inspiring.
Chris Weller: 22:59 I love that. Arianna and David, thank you so much. It’s been great. This concludes the first season of Your Brain at Work. We’ll kick back up with season two in early 2020, but in the meantime, keep an eye on your feed as we’ll have some bonus content from our annual Neuroleadership Summit, held in November in New York city.
Your Brain at Work is produced by the Neuroleadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain at Work is Noah Gelb. Danielle Kirshenblat is our editor, Gabriel Barisan, our associate producer and Brian Crimmins, our sound mixer. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky and logo design is by Catchwear. a special thanks to Arianna Huffingtonuffington and Dr. David Rock, and to you for listening. We’ll see you next time.