Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How to Perform Better at Work. Podcast with James Hewitt

Many of our jobs are changing rapidly. As technological progress continues with little restraint, numerous workplace tasks are likely to become automated, and economists from the University of Oxford recently estimated that nearly 50% of jobs in the US are at high risk of computerization in years to come.

Building skills that are transferable between a variety of jobs may help us thrive during this turbulent time. In the meantime, to consistently be at our best in the workplace, we need to recognize the complex array of factors that affects our performance. But we also need to understand ourselves.

At what times of day are we best suited to particular tasks?

In our attention economy, how can we shape our environments to make it easier to stay focused?

And how can we balance work with recovery so that we consistently perform well at work in the long term?

These questions bring us to the latest episode of humanOS Radio.



In this podcast I speak with James Hewitt. Tommy Wood kindly introduced me to James after forwarding me a terrific talk that James gave at the Royal Institution. James has a particular interest in how people can achieve sustainable high performance, and in addition to his role as Chief Innovation Officer at Hintsa Performance, James is doing a PhD at Loughborough University, where his research focuses on how workers’ lifestyle and work patterns influence their wellbeing and performance.

In this interview James shares many useful insights regarding how to perform better at work. Among other topics, we discuss:

  • What “knowledge work” is
  • What traits and behaviors differentiate the successful from those who fall by the wayside
  • The importance of understanding our daily rhythms in cognitive function
  • How planning sports training has influenced the way James helps people perform better at work
  • The idea of “cognitive gears”, and why many of us would benefit from clearer demarcations between focused work and recovery
  • The reciprocal relationship between physical endurance and mental endurance
  • Physical activity for workers
  • The importance of mood and learning in workplace performance
  • How to start the day on the right foot
  • How to prepare for restorative sleep at night (note that I’ve written about caffeine, alcohol, light exposure, and temperature previously)
  • How to become better at public speaking

Want to perform better at work? In this podcast, @jamesphewitt explains how you can do so
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How to perform better at work: other useful relevant resources

While we’re on the subject of work, I’d like to share a couple of resources that I think you’ll find useful, regardless of what stage in your career you’re at. I’d strongly suggest that you pick up a copy of 80,000 Hours (and check out the 80,000 Hours website). This book provides by far the most rational career guidance I’ve come across, and it’s also brimming with information relevant to how leaders can bring the best out of their employees.

Finally, enacting the principles shared in this podcast may require you to change your habits, and if you haven’t already listened to it, Dan spoke with James Clear about how to build constructive habits. It was an excellent interview, so you should tune in to that episode too!


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James Hewitt: 00:00:06 And so I think that we are going to see this shift towards these higher level cognitive capabilities, periods of intense focus followed by periods of real recovery are going to be essential for us to be able to do the work that can’t be automated.
Kendall Kendrick: 00:00:18 HumanOS. Learn, master, achieve.
Greg Potter: 00:00:33 Welcome back to HumanOS Radio. My name’s Greg Potter and I’m hosting the show once again. Today I’m joined by James Hewitt. James has a particular interest in how we can achieve sustainable high performance without compromising our health and the process. In addition to his role as Chief Innovation Officer at Hintsa Performance. James is a researcher at Loughborough University where he is working to understand how knowledge work as lifestyle and work patterns influence that well being and performance as well as how the digitally disruptive work context influences these relationships. Tommy [inaudible 00:01:03] put us in touch after forwarding the A Terrific Talk that James gave at the Royal Institution earlier this year, so I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation. James, welcome to HumanOS Radio.
James Hewitt: 00:01:13 Thanks Greg. It’s good to be here.
Greg Potter: 00:01:15 I’m going to start with a very important question. I fell onto mine, but do you ever steal away your bright purple Loughborough University sports science track suit.
James Hewitt: 00:01:24 It’s locked away in a special place for very special occasions, but if there’s ever an opportunity to bust out the African violet it’s important that we know that’s the official name of the color. Yeah, and the opportunity at it straight on.
Greg Potter: 00:01:36 Maybe gone to less important matters. Can you begin by defining what knowledge work is?
James Hewitt: 00:01:41 That’s a good question. Knowledge work, some would say was originally a term that was coined by Peter Drucker. I often talk about knowledge work in the context of people who generate the majority of their value with their brain rather than [inaudible 00:01:53] Or You could say that knowledge work is are workers whose main capital is their knowledge. And this phrase has been around for quite a long time. Peter Drucker was a incredible management theorist, he talked to us about it back in 1959 in a book called Landmarks Of Tomorrow and it’s worth digging into that. To be honest, this isn’t really a succinct definition. It’s still something that we’re trying to define and certainly in terms of my research, trying to measure.
Greg Potter: 00:02:17 Focusing now on workplace performance. If people want to perform better to reach their job goals, it’s useful to understand which traits influence success in the workplace. In general, traits such as intelligence and conscientiousness seemed to be somewhat predictive of career success. What do we know about predictors of workplace performance in knowledge work specifically and might the most important traits change in years to come?
James Hewitt: 00:02:39 That’s a deep question and there’s a lot of point to unpack there. One of the initial challenges is how do you actually define performance in knowledge work. There’s some interesting self rated measures of performance which can be quite helpful, but at the same time, the experiments or the [inaudible 00:02:53] experiments to try and understand performance in knowledge work and what might influence it. There are often quite flawed.
James Hewitt: 00:02:58 There was a study written recently looking at the four day work week, for example, when I think they did some kind of experiment in New Zealand and I need to dig into in a bit more detail, but it seems to be that the design was based on getting people to assess whether they felt more productive or some measure of how effective they were on a four day week versus a five day week. But the problem is that it’s impossible to blind that and if your employer came to you and said, we’re going to do this experiment and see whether you feel better and more productive on a four week rather than a five day week.
James Hewitt: 00:03:25 You’d have to be very honest or stupid to suggest that a five day week was better. If the prospects of a four day week was on the table in front of you. There is in that question what are the traits of high performance in knowledge work? First, we think about performance and one of the things that I look at to try and deal with the ambiguity is to suggest that if knowledge work is really around knowledge as capital and cognition and the function of our brain as the means to actually create that knowledge capital, then it probably makes sense to start by measuring some of these more fundamental cognitive capabilities and how they’re influenced by practice in the environment or maybe predispositions.
James Hewitt: 00:04:00 And you mentioned conscientiousness there obviously in terms of personality research and the big five. There’s been some interesting work there, but the focus of my research is more on lifestyle factors and also rhythms and shifts in things like stress and mood and how these influence or even could predict some of these more fundamental cognitive capabilities ranging from the basic things like simple reaction time as a global measure of cognitive function to slightly more complex capabilities like response inhibition, which you might measure with the Stroop task or Go/No-Go task for example.
James Hewitt: 00:04:30 But then combining that with measures of self report of performance as well to see whether there’s a relationship with what we can measure objectively and what we perceive in terms of how well we’re performing relative to normal. But from the research that I’ve done so far and it’s important to know that these results are preliminary and I’m writing some of them up to the moment. They’re pretty consistent with what we see in the literature already. And although this isn’t a trait in terms of personality, one of the characteristics of people who perform most sustainably is that they sleep adequately. They sleep for seven to nine hours per night. And interestingly we see quite a strong relationship between adequate sleep and more manageable levels of stress. And also adequate sleep and cognitive performance. Particularly in those more complex cognitive capabilities such as inhibitory control.
James Hewitt: 00:05:10 But we also see this really interesting relationship between the length of the work day and cognitive performance. And in terms of the work that I’m defining that as the interval between when you actually start doing real work, which for many people it’s minutes after they wake up when they’re doing emails, to when you actually finished work. And we see this quite significant relationship between the length of the work day and some of these cognitive capabilities.
James Hewitt: 00:05:31 It seems like if you go over about 10 hours, it seems that he starts to have some negative impacts in terms of the declines in cognitive performance that we see. So this is practice, which will be interacting, stress, sleep, work day length, influencing cognitive performance. These other measures like burnout and resilience have significant relationship. So I think this is a very, very long answer to your question, but in terms of the traits and the characteristics and the patterns of lifestyle, the influence performance in knowledge work, I’d describe it as a cocktail really no much as we see in a sporting context. There’s a number of different variables which predicts performance but also interact with each other to help us achieve more sustainable high performance.
Greg Potter: 00:06:08 Just to pick up on two things, you mentioned the performance decline over the course of the waking day. Is there any evidence that that carries over to the next day? And then secondly, what do you think about how the most important variables might change in years to come?
James Hewitt: 00:06:22 That’s a really good question I’m pleased you picked up on it again. I got carried away [inaudible 00:06:26] and forgot about that bit. To your first question, does it carry over? One of the strongest relationships that we see in terms of that carry over effect in decline is predicted by accumulating sleep debt in individually and in groups. Where they accumulate a larger sleep debt during the working week. Either sleeping less than seven hours per night. We see that that is associated with greater declines in cognitive performance. It’s really important to say that it’s preliminary data, but it’s not been written up and peer reviewed yet. I’m not going to stick my stake in the ground and say this is true, but there’s a relationship there and also it is consistent with what we see in the literature, so I do think that we can end up in these vicious cycles where we don’t sleep enough.
James Hewitt: 00:07:04 This inadequate sleep is probably diminishing our inhibitory control, which is a really important cognitive capability for influencing managing our behavior and helping us to stay on track with a high level goals. And potentially we are then less likely to make good decisions that will help us to improve our sleep or achieve adequate sleep perhaps we are even more likely to watch that extra episode on Netflix or drink the glass of wine there will the extra glass of wine and then actually perceive more inadequate.
James Hewitt: 00:07:28 And then this effect compounds because we see these further declines in cognitive performance, which leads to further bad decisions about wellbeing. And it gets worse and worse and worse. In relation to that, what kind of capabilities? What kind of skills, traits are going to become increasingly important in the future of work? Well, I think there were two parts to this and one part is that I’m convinced that wellbeing will become a business value of strategic importance and that has implications both at an individual and an organizational level.
James Hewitt: 00:07:53 For example, this current way of living and working that we’re seeing with inadequate sleep with unmanageable stress isn’t sustainable and we’re seeing that in terms of the increase in prevalence of burnout. There’s some interesting statistics about the billions of euros that work related stress is estimated to cost the European economy. Work related stress maybe according to some studies responsible for a fifth in staff turnover. So in the future we want to help people and I think we’re going to see highest performing knowledge workers in environment, in organizations, but also with personal tools that help them to manage stress more adequately, that help them to develop patterns which they can achieve more adequate sleep for example.
James Hewitt: 00:08:29 But it’s important to note that that needs to be addressed at both in individual and organizational level. Just giving people individual tools isn’t sufficient, but then there’s a high level and this as well about what will be important in the future of work. And one of the reasons I think seeing these kinds of lifestyle shifts and wellbeing shifts is going to be crucial. Isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do and we want people to feel better and perform better and to be happier at work. It also is about the skills and capabilities that we’re actually going to need in the future of work.
James Hewitt: 00:08:56 And so there’s a lot of different opinions and perspectives and studies and some data is more robust than others, but it there is a good report published by Mackenzie Global Institute a couple of years ago which was looking at automation. And they suggest that in most human roles, 30 percent of the work could already be automated. But as a human performance scientists, that leaves me with a question, well what will the other 70 percent be characterized by? And there’s another report that was published by the World Economic Forum which hold people about what kinds of skills and capabilities are going to be increasingly important in the future of work.
James Hewitt: 00:09:27 That quite clear and I’m inclined to agree that the human capabilities which are going to differentiators and be increasingly important are things like creativity, complex problem solving, collaboration. But these capabilities are the output of the brain which is rested, which is focused, which is in an environment that is engineered towards being able to concentrate but also recover effectively. And so I think that we are going to see this shift towards these high level cognitive capabilities, periods of intense focus followed by periods of real recovery are going to be essential for us to be able to do the work that can’t be automated. But that requires a conversation about what are humans really good at? And what are machines good at and how can we actually create systems where these two can work together more effectively?
Greg Potter: 00:10:11 You spoke about sleep and one of the things that I’ve written about briefly previously is using a type of libertarian paternalistic approach to try and nudge people into better decisions and I know that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and written extensively about this and interestingly there was a report by the Rand Corporation published recently and it suggests that if school start times were delayed in the US. I think in 47 states, the savings per year for the next 20 years would be 9.3 billion dollars on average. So that I think really reinforces that important point.
James Hewitt: 00:10:44 Absolutely, and it was called the cost of inadequate sleep or something like that. I’ve read the same paper. Is a really important point and that point about circadian rhythm as well. I know you’re much more of an expert in this than me, but it’s one of the things that I think is going to be increasingly important in the future of work is that we give more people the possibility to work in line with rhythm and particularly the circadian rhythm. But I think that one of the challenges with this is that many of us have got no idea what our inherent rhythm is because it’s so chronically disruptive.
James Hewitt: 00:11:13 This idea of who’s a morning type, who’s an evening type and who somewhere in between. I think a lot of us really, I’ve got no idea. A lot of are being driven by our environment, but I think the evidence seems quite clear in particularly young people and teenagers as you just alluded to and that the Rand Study highlighted, we are forcing these young people to operate in a way which is contrary to the way that their brain and their body should be operating for optimal wellbeing and performance with the costs that are associated with that, both personally and also at a national level.
Greg Potter: 00:11:41 Yeah, and we will definitely circle back to many things that you just mentioned there. I’m particularly keen to get your thoughts on what our listeners can do to perform better at work. I know you’re a competitive cyclist and that planning training cycles has shaped your approach to helping knowledge workers. Which concepts from the periodization of sports training have you drawn on when helping people optimize their knowledge work?
James Hewitt: 00:12:02 First a little clarification. I used to be a competitive cyclist a long time ago. It’s rapidly fading memory, so I raced full time for a few years about 15 years ago I moved to France to pursue my dream of becoming a professional cyclist, which is what you did back then if you were in the UK and you wanted to try and make it. I was fortunate enough to get on a good elite under 23 team, was able to ride full time that was linked with a pro team but never really quite made it, but during that time, that’s where my interest and my passion for measuring and improving human performance first began to really grow and accelerate. When that didn’t work out, I returned to the UK. I ended up studying sport science and then eventually set up my own coaching business and most of the people that I coached were amateur cyclists, so I had very demanding jobs in London near to where I was based. And then outside of that work they also proceeded very demanding cycling events.
James Hewitt: 00:12:52 And during that time three important things happened and the first was that I became fascinated with the work day that these people were participating in. That was their day job. Because I saw that actually something was going on in the work day that was having a very significant measurable effect on their physical performance. And I started to try and dig into that and one of the ways that I did that was to try and apply tools and frameworks from sports science to try and understand that knowledge work. Most of my clients were knowledge workers. These knowledge workers are engaged in and one of the ways that I started to look at it was just by asking them how hard they felt their work day they was. I could see that there was a very strong link between how hard they felt that day was and how hard they felt the session was and often how they perform physically in that session.
James Hewitt: 00:13:30 And then when I started to think about knowledge work and the length of time that people worked for during the average day and what a career path looked like. I’ve had this revelation that knowledge work is a cognitive endurance activity and as you alluded to, some of the frameworks from endurance sport may be able to be applied to try and understand knowledge work better and maybe distribute work in a more effective way. I think really there’s three principles from endurance sport that apply equally well to this cognitive endurance activity of knowledge work.
James Hewitt: 00:14:00 And the first principle is that we can achieve better results for similar efforts if we apply effort in the right place at the right time. If you were developing performance plan for an athlete, even just focusing on a single event without thinking about a training program for a while, you deconstruct the profile. For example, if it was a cyclist and you’d say, where’s the point in this profile that you are likely to be able to make the biggest difference? If it was a client that you were working with who had a really good power to weight ratio but there were quite light and so that absolute power was relatively low.
James Hewitt: 00:14:30 You naturally be looking at that course. You can say, well, you’re likely to be at your best where those climbs get steep. Where the people who have got high absolute power that are a little bit heavier probably going to struggle a bit and you’d create a plan for their physical endurance based upon them being the best at that critical point in the race or the event. And I think there’s a principal there in knowledge work where often cognitively we get our best hours to the most ineffective work and if you go back to that rhythm idea, according to some research, about 20 percent of the population experienced their day as a peak a valley and a rebound about another 20 percent seem to experience in reverses this rebounds, a valley and a peak.
James Hewitt: 00:15:04 But regardless of where you are, often what we find is that those peak hours end up getting spent doing busy work. They end up getting spent doing emails and switching tasks rather than the work where they’d really make a difference and they could be at their best. So I think the first principal that I look at from endurance sport for improving knowledge work performance, is this idea of pacing. You could call it trying to achieve a better result with similar effort just by simply applying the effort in the right place at the right time.
James Hewitt: 00:15:28 But there’s a second principle as well, which I take for endurance sport and that that’s you need to recover even if you don’t feel like it. This can be applied base in terms of a day, but also over time. So you mentioned periodization, this idea that we maybe work on specific capacities at specific points, but also one of the fundamental principles of periodization is that you’re a periods of overload followed by periods of recovery.
James Hewitt: 00:15:49 And I think that one of the things that we see in knowledge work, is that we fall into this trap of believing that we can always be on. And so rather than having these periods of focus and intensity followed by periods of recovery, we just get stuck in work or cognitive middle gear where we just maintained this moderate intensity continuously from very shortly after we wake up to very shortly before we try and go to sleep.
James Hewitt: 00:16:10 One of the principles, just like with an athlete who may be when you give them a rest week or a rest day a highly motivated athlete, often doesn’t want to, especially earlier in their career when they’re very enthusiastic and full of energy. And similarly with knowledge workers maybe they want to take a break, but they feel like if they take that lunch break or they take that weekend, they just won’t get the job done.
James Hewitt: 00:16:28 Whereas actually I think there’s even some evidence to suggest that these breaks. There’s some interesting perspectives on naps for example that suggests that the productivity gains which could be achieved by taking breaks and naps could more than compensate for the time that we take to recover. And so that second principle being the importance of recovery even if you don’t feel like you can recover. And finally the principal from endurance sport that I think sums up those earlier two points and provides a bit of a meta narrative how I think about endurance sport linking to knowledge work.
James Hewitt: 00:16:57 We need to find and follow our own rhythm. Just as an endurance athlete will start to learn over their career. What parts of the core suit them best? What their strengths are? What their weaknesses are? When they’re at their best? Even at a very micro level, thinking about the timing of training sessions for an endurance athlete, while most people will probably be the strongest later in the day when their core body temperature starts to increase a bit, just recognizing where you are at your best and trying to find a way to synchronize the type of work you do with that rhythm.
James Hewitt: 00:17:24 That would be my summary really. You can achieve better results for similar effort if you apply effort in the right place at the right time. We need to recover even if we don’t feel like it and we need to find and follow our own rhythm and really start to pay more attention to when and where we’re at our best.
Greg Potter: 00:17:37 It’s a very comprehensive answer. I suppose that it might be good time for you to tell us about the three components of cognitive load in the framework that you use.
James Hewitt: 00:17:45 One of the ways that I tried to operationalize that idea of those three components I think apply from insurance sports knowledge work is through a framework called cognitive gears. And it links with the idea of finding your own rhythm and the different parts of the day might be better suited to different types of work. That peak of the day being probably best suited to focus to analysis and that really productive work that valley in the day being better suited to rest, recovery and reflection and that rebound in the day better suited to the menial tasks and the switching work, which we will have to do.
James Hewitt: 00:18:16 But the progression from that is I thought, how do you give people some kind of heuristic to think about how they distribute their cognitive work? And the first step in that was I started to think about what is cognitive load? You can measure cognitive load in a number of ways and probably one of the best ways is to stick a electroencephalogram on someone’s head and do some EEG and pickup on the electrical activity in the brain and you can actually infer cognitive load from that.
James Hewitt: 00:18:40 But most of us aren’t going to wear an EG headset all the time, and so I came up with this heuristic, which is based upon a model called the Cognitive Task Load Model, which has been used quite a lot in the literature and it’s often used by observers who are trying to classify the cognitive load associated with a task often in human factors research where for example, there might be looking at someone operating some kind of new system in an aerospace context and they want to make sure people don’t get overloaded and lockup and make bad decisions or not make decisions at all.
James Hewitt: 00:19:10 And so basically this cognitive task load model suggests that cognitive load is the aggregation from the interaction between three components. And those three components are time pressure, switching, and the complexity of the task. And so one of the things that I encourage people to do is cognitive task is to think about their day in the context of these three components and think about the phases of their day. How much time pressure are they under? How much switching are they engaged in? How complex are their tasks? And thinking about how you periodize your day better could start with actually just thinking about can you, for example, try to eliminate unnecessary switching which we know should decrease load. But then also engage with those more complex tasks and the time of the day it’s best suited to ideally in the peak of your day.
James Hewitt: 00:19:54 And with time pressure, time pressure is what it is, but actually it seems that there is a sweet spot for time pressure and so try to avoid unnecessary time pressure, but maybe create some positive pressure and in that peak period that could be using something like the Pomodoro Technique. Twenty five minutes on, five minutes off or maybe with a switching work is actually about setting time boundaries so that that switching work and those menial tasks don’t invade every moment of the day.
James Hewitt: 00:20:18 That’s a starting point, but to take it one step further, I came up with this cognitive gears framework which is basically inspired by this idea of three intensity zones in endurance sport. And so I’ve defined these three cognitive gears as a low gear, a middle gear and a high gear. And if you imagine that that low cognitive gear is characterized by those times of rest, recovery and reflection, that high cognitive gear is characterized by times of focused analysis and productivity, and that middle cognitive gear is characterized by the menial tasks and the switching work which represent part of our day.
James Hewitt: 00:20:49 But you mentioned this polarized model and we know that in endurance sport, when they’ve done studies of the training intensity distribution of world class insurance athletes, the distribution for many of them exhibits a starkly polarized model. They spend a lot of that time in this low intensity zone, maybe even 80 percent. They spend really focused time with this very structured high intensity work and intervals for example, and then they spend a remarkably small amount of time in this middle zone, which is actually really in contrast to what a lot of amateur endurance athletes do. They pootle around in that middle zone all the time and I think there’s actually something that we can learn from for knowledge work performance.
James Hewitt: 00:21:22 Where actually we’d probably benefit from taking a more polarized approach to the distribution of cognitive work and spend increasingly amounts of time in low gear reflecting, for example, because we know that that reflection is going to be increasingly important for the kind of ideation and creativity that will differentiate us in the future of work. And then also spend some really focused structured time probably more than we do in that high cognitive gear where we are focused, where we’re engaged in this kind of complex analytic work and we actually maybe do some of the production that was associated with that creativity.
James Hewitt: 00:21:52 And I think that most of this will probably agreed that we could do with reducing time in that middle cognitive gear and reduce or at least compartmentalize those menial tasks and the switching work so that it doesn’t leak into every moment of the day, which I think many of us find. It does.
Greg Potter: 00:22:06 I’ve question that might seem esoteric but I think is actually quite interesting. While in the low gear, the mind wonders and we often reflect on our lives and this is associated with increased activity in the default mode network. Now, on one side there are people suggesting the activity in this network is important for things like restoration and creativity, but then there are others such as John Kabat Zinn fore father of the science of mindfulness meditation, who seemed to suggest that we should seek to minimize activity in this network if we value our mental health. Interestingly, practices such as mindfulness, that quiet network activity are generally good for mental health and higher default mode network integrity has been associated with depression and rumination. What do you think about using practices such as meditation in place of spending time, letting the mind wander?
James Hewitt: 00:22:54 This isn’t really good debate, isn’t it? My view personally is that we risk polarizing this argument and saying the default mode network bad and activities associated with mindfulness for example, and quieting of this activity good. And my inclination is to say that actually I think there’s value in both and actually to try and polarize the argument, especially given … to be honest, I think the relatively limited knowledge that we have is a bit dangerous and is likely to compromise future research and maybe we should be taking a more interdisciplinary and integrative view. Personally, I’m inclined to think that there is value certainly in idle time. One of the things I sometimes say is idle time is not a waste of time.
James Hewitt: 00:23:33 There’s some evidence to suggest that this idle time where we’re in a task negative state that seems to be associated with activity in the default mode network could be associated with some of these outputs that could be really important for productivity like creativity for example. There’s even some evidence to suggest that time in the default mode, maybe associated with how we process social emotions for example. But you could see how this idle time could also be hijacked and become rumination. One of the construction I’m actually quite interested in is work related rumination which was developed by Somebody called Professor Mark Cockley and I’m actually working with them on my next study.
James Hewitt: 00:24:08 And so work related rumination being this perseverative thinking about work. I’m inclined to say maybe the issue isn’t so much idle time or the activity of the default mode, but maybe more what is going on in our inner world during that time. And now I think it’s great that mindfulness meditation is a tool that’s available to quiet activity and I think time spent engaged in practices which might be able to quiet some of that activity is likely a good thing and there’s some really good evidence to suggest why it might be a good thing. But the counter to that is there’s also some evidence to suggest that some mindfulness meditation interventions actually seem to make some people more anxious.
James Hewitt: 00:24:43 So by the same token, you could also say, well, maybe meditation is a bad thing. My view based on the balance of evidence at the moment is that both meditation and idle time or time in default mode can be good or bad things. Depending on what’s going on during that time, probably depending on the timing, depending on the context, depending on the individual idle time can become perseverative thinking about work and rumination just as potentially meditation could increase anxiety for some people. And for me this just highlights the fact that we still don’t know a lot and we need to continue to explore this area rigorously to understand more about how individuals respond differently, but also maybe even understand better dosing and timing.
James Hewitt: 00:25:22 Again, in some ways this parallel, some of the work and research in sports science when we’re thinking about training interventions, but as we know in sport science, one of the problems is training interventions they are so difficult to do experimentally. We find that in psychology as well. The practical output for me as an individual and for individuals that we work with is I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. And one of the things that I’m resistant to is providing a message that suggests that any one intervention or approach is the solution to everything. And I think sometimes we risked polarization as a way to deal with the complexity. When actually I think we need to become a little bit more comfortable with the messy middle and try and find a way to navigate that both as researchers, but also to help clients and individuals that we might be working with, navigate that complexity as well and come up with approaches which help them and also that we can actually measure.
Greg Potter: 00:26:11 Switching gears now, back to the high gear. You’ve spoken about the parallels between endurance exercise and knowledge work and it’s interesting that it seems that an unusually large proportion of financially successful people gravitate to very strenuous endurance exercise in their leisure time. Do you think there’s substantial overlap between the biological determinants of endurance in both exercise and the workplace?
James Hewitt: 00:26:34 Is a really good question and something that upon the department, I think there’s some interesting evidence for in some ways. If we took out the biological determinants of high performance in knowledge work and high performance and endurance sport. If we look at improving your capacity to produce physical work over an extended period of time, we are improving our body’s capacity to regenerate ATP, the energy currency of life. And we know that this energy currency of life, this ATP is the energetic resource for everything including thinking and brain activity. One of the things that could hypothesize is that improving physical endurance and our body’s capacity to regenerate this energetic resource, to both do the work and recover from the work, is very possible that that could carry over to improve the endurance in knowledge work.
James Hewitt: 00:27:18 The interesting thing about knowledge work and endurance sport is that it does seem that how hard we feel something is has a significant effect. For example, in endurance sport rating of perceived exertion is this incredible integrator of all kinds of different signals and has very strong associations with our endurance performance. And actually one of the things that is becoming increasingly clear about endurance training is that we become habituated to that feeling of working hard. It just becomes more normal.
James Hewitt: 00:27:43 And so I think that there’s potentially across over there, but in terms of what’s going on, a neurological level or a psychological level and lightly an integration of the two. If you think about endurance sport, you rely on response inhibition because there’s a primal part of your brain when you’re out on a bike or you’re doing a swim or you’re doing a run, which knows that this is a pretty useless activity. You don’t need to ride your bike for 100 miles. You’re not doing it for your health and you’re not doing it to go and find resources or escape from something.
James Hewitt: 00:28:10 And so you have to manage this urge to stop with this high level goal of keep going. And I think that there’s actually a plausible hypothesis that we can increase our capacity to inhibit, to resist these prepayment responses to stop when something feels hard and actually keep going towards a high level goal. Potentially that transfers to the same kind of effort for work that’s required in knowledge work. Where sometimes we have to resist the urge to stop or to be distracted or to check our phone or to do whatever and to keep going towards that goal.
James Hewitt: 00:28:40 Now, in terms of the link between cognitive performance, physical fitness and exercise, there’s been a lot published on this and I think that the strongest evidence is still in the capacity for this to have an effect in terms of the aging brain. If we’re physically fitter, if we improve physical fitness, it’s likely that that can reduce or mitigate against some of the age related declines in self regulation, in executive control across our lifespan.
James Hewitt: 00:29:04 There’s some evidence to suggest that acute bouts of physical activity may be able to improve certain types of cognition, but there seems to be this underlying reciprocal relationship between physical activity and executive control. Executive control being a fundamental building block for high performance in knowledge work. So this fitness cognition link, I think it’s clear that it’s there. There’s also potentially these fitness enhancing effects on the brain in terms of brain derived neurotrophic factor, but again, quite a lot the evidence of this is in aging populations and I think we need to be a bit careful about suggesting whether it’s going to help a 35 year old investment banker.
James Hewitt: 00:29:39 But my view is that there’s a plausible that it also helps that if you are in a high performance knowledge work occupation and you’re being compensated well. You can afford the equipment in these sports, so we’ve got to be aware of that as a confounder. But I don’t think there’s really any downsides of trying to improve our physical fitness likely for cognitive performance, but certainly just in terms of our longevity, health and wellbeing.
Greg Potter: 00:30:02 It’s as if you’re reading my mind during the early parts of your answer James.
James Hewitt: 00:30:06 Good sign out.
Greg Potter: 00:30:07 The reason being I was thinking about work by the likes of Samuele Marcora, who’s showing that mental fatigue during endurance exercise increases perceived exertion and impairs endurance performance, suggesting that our capacities for mental work and endurance exercise draw on some of the same reserves. Have you thought much about combining exercise and cognitive load simultaneously?
James Hewitt: 00:30:27 I’ve even thought about it because of Samuele Marcora’s work and he did quite an interesting study with the British Military where they combined exercise with a cognitively demanding task and then they found that the improvements in performance that they got in the group that did this cognitively demanding intervention plus training relative to the group that did just the training were significant. And it seems that one of the effects areas is that if you combine the cognitively demanding work with the physical training, you actually make it feel harder than it would if you just did the physical training. And so when you remove the extra load and you actually then test performance as an outcome, the group that got used to this kind of doubly hard, the experience of training performed better. And sometimes I’ve said to some clients, listen to a complex podcast while you’re doing your [inaudible 00:31:11] session then maybe that’s going to help you.
James Hewitt: 00:31:14 That’s just so messy and [inaudible 00:31:15] one, but try it and it’s probably a placebo effect there, time efficient as well. So I think definitely there is potential to combine these interventions for maybe improving physical performance. I think Samuele Marcora’s work is an indication that that could be fruitful pathway to explore and it wouldn’t surprise me. It could be so simple, especially in cycling where you’re sitting on the turbo trainer to operationalize. And the problem is that the cognitively demanding tasks that you do are a bit tedious.
James Hewitt: 00:31:40 But on the other side of this can that combination improve cognitive performance and it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because Leckey found that brain derived neurotrophic factor mediated the effect when they did walking intervention on task switching performance in an elderly population. We see certain patterns of electrophysiology activity, oxygenated blood and the prefrontal cortex that are associated with better fitness and executive performance, but whether there’s a benefit from combining these at the very same time, I don’t know, and that’s the bottom line. Basically more research is required, but I think it’s an exciting area. I’d love to see some people exploring this and seeing what the outcomes were.
Greg Potter: 00:32:16 And thinking about knowledge workers specifically who wants to use physical activity to improve that brain function. Do you have any thoughts on how to optimize such physical activity in terms of the activities they do, the timing of activities and also the context in which the activities completed? So indoors versus outdoors for example?
James Hewitt: 00:32:33 Yeah, it’s a good question. One of our challenges as amateur endurance athletes is that, because we’re time limited, we often end up trying to look for the hacks and look for the little thing that we can do that’s going to improve our performance and compensate for the fact that we have to work for 14 hours a day or whatever. And that’s why there is such a huge market for supplements a few of which work. And if you go to the kitchen cabinet of the average kilometer endurance athlete, you probably find way more supplements than you will in a professional athlete’s. The bottom line is if you want to improve your physical performance in endurance sport, consistency trumps almost everything. You’re better off to be consistent in your training then to worry about these tiny nuances. And so with that in mind for knowledge workers trying to improve their physical performance, often what I recommend in terms of the sessions is that, they try and time the sessions when they’re most likely to do them and complete them.
James Hewitt: 00:33:20 Some of that is related to your physiological readiness. I mean now, for example, you’re probably better off doing interviews later in the day. But actually for an endurance athlete who’s also working hard, often I find that it’s more important to time those sessions when they can just face it mentally and for a lot of people that means doing intervals before work because while it’s hard, it’s even harder if you wait to the end of the day when you’ve had a really hard stressful work day.
James Hewitt: 00:33:42 So often I encourage knowledge workers who are doing endurance sports, if their objective is improving endurance performance, then time that physical work when you most likely to get it done and you’ll be consistent and you’ll get the training load you need to see the adaptations that you need. The flip side to that is how do you time things for the optimal knowledge work performance, and there’s two sides to this.
James Hewitt: 00:34:02 One of the things that I often say to people as well is, I’ve seen too many really enthusiastic amateur endurance athletes fall into these cycles of beating themselves up because they’re in a really hard period of work and they feel like they should still be doing the really hard sessions leading up to this particular goal that they’ve got. And so they try and mix it all together and they ended up just really overloading themselves both psychologically and physiologically.
James Hewitt: 00:34:24 And so one of the things I encourage knowledge workers to do is thinking about optimizing knowledge work performance is sometimes it’s okay to compromise the physical component, just remind yourself, you’re not getting paid for this. You supposed to be doing this for fun. Sometimes that means maybe when you’ve had a really stressful week, rather than doing that six hour endurance ride, you need to just do a two hour recovery ride and sit in the coffee shop and talk to your friends for a bit. That’s fine and actually you’ll probably end up performing better even though it’s incredibly small sample size in terms of athletes that I’ve worked with relative to a research project.
James Hewitt: 00:34:53 I’ve seen very good results. People have improved when they actually start to care for themselves a bit more and not be quite so hard on themselves and over time that training consistency is higher as a result of it. But it tends to be a very, very specific timings and getting quite granular. Some physical activity during the trough in your day. That valley in your day seems to be very beneficial and actually there’s some evidence to suggest that these brief bouts of high intensity activity may be able to improve some aspects of cognitive performance.
James Hewitt: 00:35:20 Practically many of us would benefit from as a minimum, drawing that valley in our day. Getting some physical activity which could be as simple as taking a walk outside and even if that doesn’t have some BDNF boosting effect, I think it will often make us feel better and actually positive mood is very strongly associated with cognitive performance as well. But if you did want to try it be more of a potent tactic. If you go to the gym on your lunch break, for example, if you’re lucky enough to get lunch break, we probably all should have them during that lunch break. If you’re doing some kind of workout, hop on a bike or a rowing machine and do a couple of ten second sprints and see what happens.
James Hewitt: 00:35:52 That’s a very simple tactic, but again, even with that, sometimes we fall into this trap as endurance athletes in particular of thinking that it’s not a two hour session it’s not worth it. When actually often, I think that especially as amateurs who are also working, we need to just try and dial down our expectations slightly and say even 20 minutes is worth it. Do something, move more. Maybe take a couple of sprints in there and I think there’s enough evidence that it’s likely a good thing, once again, potentially in terms of cognitive performance, but certainly in terms of health.
Greg Potter: 00:36:21 You made several critical points there. First compliance is king. Second, I think that if you’re going to look at circadian variation and cognitive performance then perhaps the so called post lunch slump is the most pronounced effect. So during that period when many of us feel sleepy, typically in the early afternoon, that’s prime time to spend time in the low gear and spending that time outside walking with friends is a great activity. And then one other thing that I thought I’d add is just that many people spend their time, sat at their desks. So if they’re thinking about activities to break up those patterns, then it makes sense to engage in activities that counter some of those postures. So if you’re spending all of your time in hip flection with your thoracic spine hyper flexed and with your cervical spine hyper extended, then it probably makes sense to maybe do some mobility exercises to counter those postures.
James Hewitt: 00:37:12 Is great point, Greg, and it doesn’t feel like proper work often do some mobility exercises, but it does make a difference and our friends at Loughborough did a study published recently where they looked at standing desks and while it was reported that it didn’t have a measurable effect on cognitive performance, there were some really positive outcomes rather than to health and also to mental health, which in term have significant positive impact on mood for example. Again, I think they polarized the debate say, well everyone needs to have standing desks and sitting is really bad, but I think as you mentioned, the key is to mix it up lightly the best approach is that we’re not holding any one posture for too long and breaking it up with some simple mobility seems to be able to improve our mood at the very least and likely has some positive outcomes for our musculoskeletal system as well.
Greg Potter: 00:37:52 Sure. So other than physical activity and sleep, what do you think are some key things people can do to boost cognitive load capacity in the longterm?
James Hewitt: 00:38:01 Probably one of the most effective things that many of us could do would be to find ways to manage our stress and to boost our mood. We know that that are so many negative outcomes associated with stress that’s too high for too long, both in terms of health but also in terms of cognitive performance. We can essentially hijack our high level cognitive capabilities with unmanageable levels of stress. There’s a really interesting evidence, was mentioned in Harvard Business Review a couple of weeks ago and it was a study that was led by somebody called Mayer. And they suggest that learning activities seem to be able to buffer workers from the detrimental effects of stress. And interestingly data that I’ve gathered, I’m working my way through saw some really interesting relationships in a construct called Thriving and one of the factors in that construct is related to learning and we saw some more relationships with this learning fact and stress.
James Hewitt: 00:38:47 I think that this is really important in terms of what we can do longterm to improve wellbeing and performance cognitively, but also in terms of our health. And there’s an argument I think that, as well as this having a beneficial effect in terms of performance and wellbeing, potentially the ability to learn, relearn, unlearn and perhaps learn faster than other people or machines is going to be the only sustainable competitive advantage in knowledge work.
James Hewitt: 00:39:11 The top performers are going to be the people who can out learn anybody else. If this learning and learning something new can also buffer us from stress, then I think that’s really meaningful and logical target for us to think about what can we do? The operationalization of this idea is really that we need to be committing to have dedicated time regularly. If not everyday, then at least a few times a week where we’re actually learning something new. And I’m very fortunate in my role that so much of my role is orientated around learning and certainly my experience is that when I’m learning something new, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my day.
James Hewitt: 00:39:42 Even if it’s cognitively demanding, it fills me up and increases my capacity for the rest of the day. And so one of the things I would encourage people to do is to invest more time in learning. The other side of this is, we see these very strong relationships between mood and cognitive performance and the capacity that we have. Mood also seems to be linked with resilience and resilience was a construct that I measured in this recent research and unsurprisingly we see resilience being associated with stress and needs as well.
James Hewitt: 00:40:09 And so as well as thinking about these basic behaviors adequate sleep, for example, we need to be thinking about what are we doing that is actually putting some energy back into the system. Resilience if we define it as that capacity to bounce back from stress or trauma. Lots been written in terms of positive psychology, but one of the things that I do think we should be investing in longterm to increase our capacity to improve our performance and our wellbeing, is actively trying to build our resilience.
James Hewitt: 00:40:35 And part of that is about our positive emotion and good relationships. And I think that I’m very pro technology, our smartphones and these other devices and technology more broadly. There’s been some incredibly beneficial effects in terms of both work and life, but it does seem like we are seeing this increasing prevalence of things like depression and depression related illnesses and a lot of us aren’t feeling very positive. Our mood isn’t great.
James Hewitt: 00:40:58 Some of this I think is maybe driven by the increasing isolation and this kind of fake interaction that we get through these devices sometimes and one of the most powerful things that many of us could do would be to try and create some more time to build positive relationships in the real world and spend time with people. Long term that’s likely to have some really significant benefits both in terms of wellbeing, but in terms of performance we know that collaboration is going to become an increasingly important differentiator in the future of work.
James Hewitt: 00:41:25 And creating diverse teams where we can pull our cognitive capabilities, where there is cognitive diversity, where there is security which has been built by positive relationships and trust and mutual respect and empathy. Some would argue that they’re very abstract concepts, but I think that if we want to achieve truly sustainable high performance at an individual level, at an organizational level, these are the kind of things that we need to be investing in to create the foundation for that.
Greg Potter: 00:41:51 I really enjoyed your answer there James, and something that I’ve become more interested in recently is learning how to learn faster. I actually took the Coursera course on learning how to learn and one of the things that I came across was the Pomodoro Technique, which you mentioned earlier. Related to that, do you have any tips on how to overcome procrastination?
James Hewitt: 00:42:12 Well, I’ll just draw you a complete wildcard in the mix. What if procrastination isn’t a bad thing? There’s some interesting ideas popping up that actually suggest that maybe procrastination could actually be useful Adam Grant the organizational psychologist is been a bit more vocal about this. He talks about it in a book called Originals and he published some stuff around it. I’m reluctant again to polarize and say that procrastination is a bad thing.
James Hewitt: 00:42:35 One of the things I would say though is many of us are probably procrastinating at the wrong time and maybe in the wrong context. We can look at it through the lens of this cognitive task loads and also this cognitive gears model. Because it seems like, for example, when you want to get that high gear productivity work done, that is likely not the time to procrastinate. If I need to start writing up a paper, which I’m doing at the moment, there is this temptation to procrastinate because it’s hard to start writing a paper and to start to structure is effortful.
James Hewitt: 00:43:00 But what I do is I created this rhythm where I know where my high yield periods are. For me it’s early in the morning. And so I make sure that when I wake up, I start the day on my schedule on days when I’m trying to start with this high gear work. And so very practically that means that I have a morning routine and then I don’t check my email, I don’t check social media. I actually just go from waking up, I get my coffee, and then I’ll start work during that peak period. So I think that the key to avoiding procrastination at the wrong time is to try and synchronize that high gear work which requires you not to procrastinate with the peak periods in your day. Because I think during that time is where, you’re most likely to be able to resist the urge to procrastinate.
James Hewitt: 00:43:37 The key is to resist procrastination. It has to become a habit and you’ve got to create these automatic patterns because the evidence is pretty strong in terms of behavior change that whenever we rely on self control too much, we generally fail. And generally what we’re relying on to resist procrastination is self control. And so it’s really about trying to create these habits and routines for that high gear work, which is probably one of those powerful things we can do to resist procrastination.
James Hewitt: 00:44:02 The flip side of this is that it does seem that sometimes some procrastination might be useful in terms of ideation and maybe by procrastinating the ideas that emerge or processed during that procrastination time at a subconscious level might help us to actually achieve a better outcome in the end as opposed to if we just lept straight into, which is one of Professor Adam Grant’s suggestions which is investigated. But with that in mind, one of the things I’d say to people is drawing that rebound in your day, we’re actually more likely to procrastinate anyway actually our inhibitory control is slightly reduced anyway.
James Hewitt: 00:44:31 That kind of reduced inhibition which we exhibit during that rebound period might make us more open to insights. So I think give yourself permission to procrastinate, but maybe try and synchronize procrastination with the rebound in your day, if that’s possible. One of the most unhelpful times to procrastinate probably after and perhaps even equal to procrastinating when you should be in high gear time, is that instead of just getting serious about recovery, we procrastinate and often mess around on social media.
James Hewitt: 00:44:57 The lunch break or the brief break, which might be a 15 minute coffee break where you could have got a coffee and maybe rested, you could have meditated if you are that kind of personality and it works for you. You could have enjoyed some default mode time if that doesn’t make you ruminate or you could have had a great conversation with somebody for 10 minutes. Instead of having that time, we procrastinate about having the conversation or doing the thing and instead we feed it with this kind of [inaudible 00:45:20] work which is checking email, again, refreshing, scrolling, repeating in search of the surprise and the dopamine hit and essentially sticks us in that middle gear and we don’t really rest properly.
James Hewitt: 00:45:31 So much of sustainable high performance for knowledge work and looking at how we can improve wellbeing and performance is really about thinking about timing and the distribution of intensity. Very much like we would approach it with an endurance athlete.
Greg Potter: 00:45:44 James you make me feel better about procrastinating.
James Hewitt: 00:45:47 Good. When I read it, I felt the same way and we’ve got to be careful of that confirmation bias, but I think that there’s something there once again, that’s not fall into the trap of taking extreme positions about what’s good or bad certainly until we’ve got a bit more information.
Greg Potter: 00:46:01 And just add something, I know I’ve been susceptible to structure procrastination previously during which I just tick easy tasks off the to do list first and while I was writing my PHD thesis, I would just hit blocks occasionally and I would go for a walk. Eventually I’d sit back down at my desk and be able to write again and actually I think in retrospect that was really important to me. Anyway, returning to something that you mentioned earlier, digital devices, one idea that’s come up in recent years, probably since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize, is that of ego depletion. The idea that we have a finite willpower capacity. I know there’s contention over whether ego depletion really exists, but since you’re so interested in the effects of digital devices on productivity, do you have any tips to help people modify their use of these devices to reduce the number of decisions they have to make each day?
James Hewitt: 00:46:51 The ego depletion theme is a really interesting one and I think that Roy Baumeister who is most famous for researching and coining a lot of the phrases and the ideas around ego depletion had a really hard time when those experiments have failed to replicate in many cases. But, the problem is again, there’s definitely something there in terms of decision fatigue and this idea that self control is a finite resource during the course of a day. I think one of the reasons why the idea got so much traction is that it does resonate with us.
James Hewitt: 00:47:17 One of the perspectives that has been quite helpful for me is I’ve started to look into behavior change and ego depletion and self control is this idea that actually it seems that self control and if we use self control and willpower interchangeably here for ease of communication. So when we rely too much on willpower and self control, we generally fail, but it actually seems that self control operates more like a valuation process than this kind of finite resource.
James Hewitt: 00:47:40 There’s some evidence behaviorally where it seems that when you can influence someone’s motivation, perhaps through rewards this seems to be able to replenish the self-control resource. And in terms of neuroscience, there’s some evidence to suggest self-control might be a value based choice. Where we see that there’s this region of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that might be associated with calculating the return on investment of the effort required by a task.
James Hewitt: 00:48:03 And so in terms of how this relates to our use of devices and smartphones, one of the challenges is that a lot of the experiences that we have with a smartphone or taking advantage of our dopaminergic system and they’re creating very powerful cycles of reward. It feels very rewarding and the reason why we refresh, we scroll, we repeat when we’re refreshing email or social media feed, is that we’re looking for the surprise. We’re looking for the thing that’s new that will give us that dopamine hit.
James Hewitt: 00:48:30 But actually even the anticipation of the novelty of a new email message appearing, of the new items on new twitter feed and the posts that appear or new slack messages. Even if you go into slack, even if there’s nothing new, that just the anticipation. It means that your brain will secrete dopamine. So I think that to actually try and address this, we need to first accept that these experiences are pleasurable and highly rewarding and as a consequence of the fact that they are pleasurable and highly rewarding, regions of the brain associated with this dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Folks that create the assumption that there is a high return on investment. Especially given the effort associated with it. Because it’s so effortless to just scroll repeat in search of a surprise.
James Hewitt: 00:49:12 And so somehow we’ve got to try and interrupt that process and my experience has been that we cannot rely on self control. My experience on the evidence would back that up, that if we want to interrupt this dopamine driven loop, then we need to stop beating ourselves up and just accept that this is likely being driven by some very deep processes and actually we need to just get more assertive about removing the devices from us or us from the devices and practice.
James Hewitt: 00:49:39 That can mean switching off devices. It can mean putting them away in a drawer. When you walk to the coffee machine, intentionally leave your phone in a drawer in your desk or put it in a backpack or a bag that you’re carrying rather than in your pocket so that when you walk to your next meeting or whatever, you’re not looking at your phone. Some evidence would suggest that we check in on that communication tools once every six minutes and I think that’s about right. And I see myself sometimes.
James Hewitt: 00:50:02 I travel a lot with my role. A lot of my role involves walking around between meetings, between places and I love walking along. I’ll try and walk places rather than get in the tube in London for example, I actually live just about half an hour from Geneva, but I go to London quite a lot. And often I walk 20 minutes rather than get in the tube and if I’m walking 20 minutes I know that urge to pull out my phone comes at least twice on the way to that meeting. I better check if an email has come in the last 20 minutes. How ridiculous is that? And actually for me, the only way for me to actually enjoy that 20 minute walk and resist the urge, I have to put my phone in the bag that I’m carrying because there’s a sufficient effort required that my brain says I’ll calculate the return on investment.
James Hewitt: 00:50:40 If it’s in my pocket, the return on investment for the effort required to pull out my phone is so small because it’s right there. The brain is incredibly complex, but in some ways its decisions are so basic. If the thing is in my bag, walking along, having to unzip the bag and pulled out my phone and my brain says it’s not worth the effort. And so actually I think that the best way we can probably start to manage our phone use to fixate on smartphones in particular batter is actually we need to manipulate our environment and we need to increase the effort that is required to access the novelty on those devices.
James Hewitt: 00:51:08 Whether that’s putting the phone in a physical place, whether it’s lockouts, whether it’s something else, because even things like rescue time, which monitor phone use, you just create justifications. I think we’ve got to create some physical barriers, otherwise we’re going to be stuck. That’d be my practical advice based on my experience and what the literature seems to be saying.
Greg Potter: 00:51:26 I’ve gotten the habit of keep my phone on airplane mode in a different room and that seems to do the trick for me. Other than not using your phone immediately on waking up, do you have any other tips on how to start the day on the right foot?
James Hewitt: 00:51:39 So I used to say starting the day with email is starting on someone else’s schedule, but then I was challenged on that because a guy I’ve done some work with is very much the evening type. An owl. And he was saying waking up and he’s a big fan of inbox zero. If I wake up and start my email, I can get to inbox zero before I’ve had my first coffee and he just feels that that is a great way to start his day because then he feels that his mind is free to actually go in with the interactions, the meetings, the meaningful work that he wants to do. So again, I’m a bit resistant now to actually saying to everyone, don’t start the day with email because it does seem to work with some people.
James Hewitt: 00:52:11 But I do think again, we need to start approaching life and work a bit more experimentally, both organizationally and individually. And by that I mean, commit for a period of time, maybe two weeks, to be more intentional about monitoring your rhythms of work and rest. When you feel at your best. Pay attention to how you feel when you wake up in the morning, ideally when you’ve got adequate sleep. There’s a bit of a tangent, but I think many people think there are evening types just because they feel so awful in the morning because it not slept enough. But ideally achieve adequate sleep. Pay attention to those rhythms and start the day on your schedule. And so that would probably is my best piece of advice.
James Hewitt: 00:52:45 Pay attention to when you are at your best and try and start that first 20 minutes of the day on your schedule. Filling it with the activities which are going to set you at best for your day. This incredibly powerful messages that are coming out that suggests that everybody needs to start their day with at least 20 minutes of meditation, ideally done before 5:30 AM. You need to be in the gym doing heavyweights immediately followed by a key to Janet kale shake. And if you’re not, are you really serious about your performance?
James Hewitt: 00:53:11 I won’t give this podcast an explicit label by saying what I think of that perspective, but undoubtedly it works for some people and so if you are the person who does 20 minutes of meditation before 5:30 and then straight in the gym followed by your key to Janet kale shake, then fantastic for you. I know people who do this and it works exceptionally well for them, so I’m not criticizing that approach in and of itself. What I’m criticizing is this idea that this is the recipe for success, because it’s not for everybody. And if one thing has become clear out of some of the research that I’ve read and some of the research that I’m doing is that there is a high degree of individual difference.
James Hewitt: 00:53:42 There are some underlying principles. I think sometimes we can overstate the difference between human beings, but actually we need to start to deconstruct when we’re at our best, pay better attention to it and create patterns that really suit that kind of lifestyle and what happens which are going to underpin our sustainable high performance. Rather than just being driven by the latest trends and the blog posts about my daily schedule on Business Insider. It’s unlikely that those people are actually following that anyway.
Greg Potter: 00:54:07 James you forgot microdosing LSD.
James Hewitt: 00:54:13 Yeah. There was this great article in the Financial Times a few months ago and I’ve quoted it in some of my presentations. It was fantastic because they interviewed this guy called Paul, probably not his real name, who’s a startup founder from New York, and in this article was talking about how he and his team felt more creative and focused and even less stressed since they started microdosing with LSD, but the Financial Times has been really deadpan. Continued to interview Paul and Paul revealed that he actually couldn’t be sure about the cause and the effect between microdosing and these positive outcomes. Because at the same time as they started microdosing, they also started using the project management system assigner and maybe assigner was responsible for these positive outcomes.
James Hewitt: 00:54:49 If we can’t tell the difference between a software as a service and a psychedelic substance, we’re not addressing the root cause of the problem. And I think that story really sums up where we are often at the moment. We’re looking for the hacks and the quick fixes where consistency, compliance to the basic boring behaviors is probably actually going to be the key to sustainable high performance in the long run.
Greg Potter: 00:55:11 Just as an aside, I had the great privilege of speaking to Robin Carhart Harris last week and I asked him about microdosing LSD and he just said that we really don’t know much about it at the moment. It’s interesting. Sometimes they use a very low dose for a control group and right now there’s not really much evidence showing that it does anything, but partly that’s because it just hasn’t been studied as yet.
James Hewitt: 00:55:32 Yes. Let’s wait and see, more research required.
Greg Potter: 00:55:34 Thinking about the other side of things, what strategies can people use before bed to set them up for the next day’s work?
James Hewitt: 00:55:41 You’re probably better equipped to answer this than me sleep being one of your specialist areas, but I think that the evidence is quite clear that melatonin and its concentration in our body is very strongly associated with circadian rhythm and actually we can screw up our circadian rhythm and processes associated with melatonin secretion by exposing ourselves to bright light. It probably not going to come as a surprise to anybody listening to this that one of the best things that we can do to improve the quality and the duration of our sleep, but also avoid disrupting our circadian rhythm more than it’s already disrupted, is to try and have as big a time window as possible before going to sleep where we’re not looking at electronic screens which are emitting that blue light that is just tricking your brain into thinking that the sun is coming up.
James Hewitt: 00:56:26 Somebody will say, well, can you use blue light blocking glasses? I’d be interested to hear whether you’ve read anything about, but I’ve not seen an awful lot of academic evidence where they’ve actually explored that as an intervention. I think let’s try and create a buffer before we go to sleep. When we’re not using our devices. But even just in terms of mindset, it seems like one of the things that really helps people to get sleep is having some kind of ritual. And I travel a lot in my job last year I did over 150 flight segments and this year I’ve already done certainly like 70 something flights this year.
James Hewitt: 00:56:52 And so I spend between two and four nights a week in a hotel if not more. And so it’s very difficult to establish a routine. But I do have a routine. Even then and for me, one of the most helpful things is when I gets to the hotel room if I’ve got off a flight, I try to limit my light exposure not just from devices but just generally on the way. And when I get to the hotel room I will try and avoid that situation where every light in the room comes on when you walk in.
James Hewitt: 00:57:15 And then for me, my routine involves reading some fiction before I go to sleep because that takes me away from thinking about work and transports me to a different imaginary realm. And then another practical one that I found quite helpful for me and I think there’s some evidence to back it up as well is thinking about temperature and the temperature of the room, which in hotels is often difficult to manage, but easiest as about home.
James Hewitt: 00:57:35 Unfortunately, two of the big ones, which I know are really effective but sometimes not so happy about is avoiding caffeine for as long as possible before sleep and similarly avoiding alcohol for as long as possible before sleep because caffeine has a long half life of about five hours. So you have a few coffees even if you stop at 11:00 AM, there’s still some caffeine circulating in your bloodstream. I’m not saying don’t drink coffee anymore, but try and correct this bigger buffer as possible. Stopping Caffeine intake before you go to sleep.
James Hewitt: 00:58:00 If you think you’re immune to it, it’s very likely you’re just deceiving yourself. You’ve just got used to that effect. And then also with alcohol, we know that alcohol disrupt sleep architecture and obviously there’s a dose dependent relationship there. So the gold standard, if you’re trying to get an amazing night of sleep, would be to avoid alcohol completely, but certainly if you’re drinking before sleep, just accept that there’s a cost associated with that. And so practically I would say if you’re going to drink in the evening, make sure you drink something good. Because it better be worth it because you sleep is going to be affected.
Greg Potter: 00:58:27 I agree with all of that and I know you’re short on time. So rather than me elaborating on some of my thoughts, I’ll email you shortly after this James and I’ll just direct listeners to the humanOS Blog because I think that I’ve written about all of those things previously. So a couple of questions to finish. You’re an excellent public speaker. Do you have that pre-talk routine and do you have any tips for people who are petrified of public speaking?
James Hewitt: 00:58:50 Thanks. I appreciate your encouragement and interesting about public speeches, I’ve been doing it for quite a while. I still feel I’m quite early in my speaking career, but have had some success in that and I’ve got some really good feedback. But often what you hear from people when people give you feedback is, oh, James, you’re really excellent public speaker or you really talented. And I think there’s no doubt that in any kind of skill performance, there is some level of gifting associated with it. If it’s endurance sports, it’s VO2 max, which has got a huge genetic component. If it’s public speaking, I’m not actually sure what the gifting component is but it’s likely there’s something there. It seems to be easier, some people to get good at it than others, but I do think that the biggest thing with public speaking is, it is a skill that you acquire and that you can improve.
James Hewitt: 00:59:27 And so one of the best things that I would advise people to do if they want to get better at public speaking, especially if they’ve got fears associated with it, is to get some coaching. Whether that’s through reading some books, get talk like Ted, for example, there’s a good intro with some great communication techniques, whether it’s actually getting some formal coaching. Just learn the skills because you’re not necessarily a bad public speaker, you might have just not learned how to do it yet.
James Hewitt: 00:59:47 And often I think we find that when our skills improve, anxiety associated with that performance can be reduced because we can focus more on the process, we learned to trust that we’ve got what it takes. I do have a pre-performance routine for public speaking and it’s not really elaborate. One of the things I do is that I make sure that I’ve talked a bit before I do the presentation. So if I’m doing a presentation in the morning, for example, if you’re not careful, you barely talked at all before you actually get onstage and you end up sounding a bit croaky.
James Hewitt: 01:00:13 And also it is a muscular performance. There are muscles in your mouth and your tongue and in your neck and your shoulders and in your lungs, and so I make sure that I’ve been active even if that’s just a walk before I talk and that I’ve made sure that I’ve said a few different things and it sounds ridiculous, but I do a vocal warm up. I actually do a few tongue twisters. You can do it and equals an experiment. Do that tongue twister. Say it once. Say it again. Say it a third time. You get better and then when you actually trying to speed you actually speak more clearly. You can enunciate more clearly, but again, these are things I got trained to do through some coaching, but I think for me the most important part of my free performance routine I would recommend to people, especially if they have a fear associated with public speaking, is start by remembering that the primary objective of public speaking is to serve the audience.
James Hewitt: 01:00:55 You’re not there to look good. You’re not there make people like you are there to serve them, to inform them, to entertain them. They’ve given you your time and take the focus off yourself and think about how you can engage and that you’re there to serve that audience. But secondly, when I stand in front of a group of people, I always rehearse a little phrase to myself in my head when I stand in front of that group of people and I say, everybody likes me. Everybody is really interested in what I’ve got to say. Because it doesn’t matter if that’s not true, but assuming that’s not true is awful, isn’t it? So you might as well assume until you’ve got more information that everybody likes you and everybody’s really interested in what you’ve got to say. And tell yourself that and believe it because it will completely change your delivery.
James Hewitt: 01:01:33 And I see so many people who get up in public speaking in context and they stand at the front and they start with some kind of apologetic thing about hope I don’t talk for too long and some kind of self deprecating thing. And self deprecation is all good at some point in the presentation, but just start there and know that you were there with something important to say that people are interested in, that people like you. They wouldn’t be sitting there if they didn’t want to hear from you.
James Hewitt: 01:01:55 You’re there to serve them and assume good, assume positivity, assume interest and you’ll probably find that your delivery will be better, you’ll be more relaxed and people tend to reflect what they perceive. And so if they see you coming with this kind of open mind, with this positive attitude, there to serve them, assuming the best from them. It just changes the dynamic and I’ve consistently found that that has been a really helpful tool for me to try and keep improving. Communication which is a skill that I’m really committed to continuing to develop.
Greg Potter: 01:02:22 That’s such great advice. Finally, what’s wrong question that you think is really important that you wish that you were asked more often and why is it so critical?
James Hewitt: 01:02:32 Maybe I wish I’d said [inaudible 01:02:33] questions. That’s a tough one. I’m just endlessly curious. I know I’ve talked to a lot in this podcast, but I think my biggest value and strength I would suggest is curiosity. My preference is often to go and ask other people questions and see what I can learn and often the communication that I do is an expression of that. But when people ask me questions, the question that I’m often asked, which actually I wish I wasn’t asked to say more to flip it on its head, is actually what is the hack or the quick fix or the supplement that I can take to improve my performance? And I just get it so much and I think that the reason it frustrates me is not because of where the individual is coming from because I think it’s very natural for us take that approach.
James Hewitt: 01:03:09 It’s basically an indication that of scientific communication. I think that communication around human wellbeing and performance is so skewed and so unhelpful often because we’ve kind of created a culture and a mindset that is looking for the answer in a pill or a patient or hack. The fact that people ask it so much says that we’ve got quite a lot of work to do in terms of approaching human wellbeing and sustainable high performance as a series of practices where small, good decisions accumulate over time.
James Hewitt: 01:03:36 And unfortunately that’s not as sexy and it’s not as easy to productize and I think it’s probably a bit utopian to think that people are going to start walking up to me and asking me that question. I know I’ve not answered your question directly, but the question I’d like to hear less of is what is the hack or the quick fix? And if we start to hear that a little bit less than I think we’re probably moving in the right direction.
Greg Potter: 01:03:53 You’re a man after my heart. James where can people find more of your work online?
James Hewitt: 01:03:58 A good place to start would be the company that I work with, so I work with a company called Hintsa Performance that tries to help to improve wellbeing performance at an individual and organizational level and there’s a website hintsa.com. That’s hintsa.com. I’ve also got my own website where you can read some more of my thoughts and blogs and this and download as some people might find helpful and that website is jameshewitt.net and so here is how you spell that, James, H-E-W-I-T-T.net, and then you can also find contact details and more information about speaking, I regularly speak at events and so I’m always open to those possibilities. And then Twitter is a good place to connect as well. James P Hewitt on Twitter and I’d love to hear some of your listeners thoughts and reflections and questions and challenges. Please feel free to connect with me on Twitter. I’d be more than happy to continue this conversation.
Greg Potter: 01:04:44 You’ve been very generous with your time. James thanks so much and keep up the great work.
James Hewitt: 01:04:49 Thanks Greg. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Kendall Kendrick: 01:04:53 Thanks for listening and come visit us soon at humanos.me

The post How to Perform Better at Work. Podcast with James Hewitt appeared first on humanOS.me.

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