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How to Motivate Your Team During Crunch Time

There are times when work ramps up and you need all hands on deck. Ideally you want people to jump into the work excited and enthusiastic rather than dreading what’s coming. So, what can you do to rally the troops when the team’s workload is particularly heavy? How do you talk about the project or time period so that people don’t feel daunted? And, how do you keep an eye on stress levels while still motivating people to get through the crunch?

What the Experts Say
Whether it’s a seasonal crunch time or a particularly demanding project with a tight deadline, it can be hard to keep people focused and motivated when they’re overloaded. The fact is, “most people already have a lot on their plate,” says Lisa Lai, a business advisor and coach. And so when you ask your team for more, “it can leave people feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.” On top of this, as the pace of work increases and our always-on technology serves as a tether to the office, intense periods are becoming more prevalent, says Ethan Bernstein, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. “There is a greater quantity of crunch times and more of the work that we get done happens during a crunch,” he says. This has critical implications for you, the boss. By “focusing your attention on your employees” and projecting a calm, confident presence, you can make these times easier for the people on your team, Bernstein says. Here’s how.

Project positive energy
For starters, says Lai, “check your own emotional energy as a manager.” If you’re feeling beleaguered, worried, anxious, or frustrated about a project “there’s no way you can show up in front of your team” and be a confident guiding force. To lead, you need to be “engaged, motivated” and “emotionally bought in.” Start by “reflecting on why the work matters.” Figure out “why this project is relevant and who benefits from it,” she says. Remember, too, that crunch times can be useful learning opportunities. Yes, critical, time-sensitive projects are often tense, but “you want peaks and valleys,” says Bernstein. “Peaks — when everyone is engaged and motivated at the same time — are good” for team morale and drive. But they should not be the status quo. “There is a value to intermittency,” he says. If your team is in a constant crunch, employees “are not operating at an [optimal] level of productivity and effectiveness.”

Express empathy
Once you’ve personally connected to the work and its purpose, “convey that message to your team,” says Lai. “Don’t just say, ‘Here are the deliverables. Here’s the deadline.’” Instead, “develop the story” around why the project has meaning and what the ultimate goal is. “Define what success looks like.” Be upfront with your team and acknowledge the “burden and sacrifices” involved, such as late nights and weekends at the office. Express empathy and be vulnerable, adds Lai. “Say: ‘This is going to be hard. I am feeling it, too.’” Convey solidarity in the spirit of, “we are in this together,” says Bernstein. “We have to grind this out as one team.” And try not to dwell on the negatives. Tell your reports that, “there are going to be parts of this that are going to be fun, too.” Maintaining team camaraderie is a priority. That way, “it doesn’t have to hurt so much.”

Think about milestones
Next, consider breaking up the work into manageable chunks so that the overall deliverable isn’t so intimidating. Lai recommends, “creating meaningful arcs” to the project based on the work that matters most. Setting short-term targets for each phase directs the team’s focus, creates accountability, and helps to bring them closer to the end goal. “Say: ‘We will take a breath after each one. We will evaluate and make sure we’re on the right track. If we need to change course, we will do that.’” Milestones ought to help the team feel good about the incremental progress it’s making, so make sure you’re instituting them for the right reasons. “Don’t have all these mini crunches for the purpose of micromanaging,” says Bernstein. It’s also important to consider how multiple deadlines may affect the pace of your team’s work. If you give a team a defined amount of time to do a task, research shows that the team will work at a different speed before and after the midpoint. “The rubber meets the road” the closer a deadline looms, Bernstein says.

Offer autonomy
Allow the team to structure their workdays in ways that maximize their productivity. Crunch times are not the time for politics around face time or HR rules about working from home to get in the way,” Lai says. Let your employees play a role in defining the team and how they work together. “If they have a voice, they are more likely to lean into the work,” she says. “You want people to participate and feel involved in the process.” While they should be in charge, do what you can to clear the way for them. For example, says Bernstein, it’s helpful to clear the decks so employees can concentrate on the task at hand. You have the power to “take away distractions” and “make the crunch time relieving in some respects,” he says.

Be judicious with incentives
Rewards and incentives can be a key motivational tool. Lai suggests deploying them throughout the projected timeline, not just when it ends. “You need moments of celebration,” she says. “That’s how you create sustained engagement.” Think about ways to recognize your team’s hard work: a Friday afternoon off perhaps, or an all-office ice cream social. And yet, warns Bernstein, “extrinsic rewards have some downsides.” If, for instance, you tell your team that everyone gets the morning off after you reach a deadline, “you’re only incenting the completion of the work rather than the quality of it,” he says. Instead, he recommends “placing intrinsic rewards front and center.” Focus on how the project represents a “good developmental opportunity for team members,” and the reasons why “working closely together” will benefit the team in the long run.

Watch for red flags
You can often judge whether or not your direct report is anxious by the expression on their face or the way they talk. “You have an ability to read people, so use it,” says Bernstein. If you see that an employee is struggling, reach out. Don’t “keep plowing forward” at all costs, says Lai. “The biggest red flag is when people stop talking,” she says. “When your team goes quiet,” it’s an indication that employees “are feeling lost or overwhelmed.” Talk to your team. “Ask them: What’s going well and what is not going well? What do we need to pivot on? What roadblocks need to be removed?”

Be present and grateful
One final piece of advice: “be accessible,” says Bernstein. Lai concurs: “Even if you do all the other things right, if you disappear behind closed doors,” your leadership will be “an epic failure.” You need to be consistently available. Let your employees know you have their backs. “Walk the floor and talk to people. Ask: ‘Who needs help?’” Your colleagues “will value that you are present,” she adds. It goes without saying that you need to express gratitude for the sacrifices they’re making. Regularly say “thank you” and find small ways to show you appreciate what they’re putting in. And Lai adds: “it never hurts to bring donuts.”

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Check your own emotional energy. You can’t motivate your team if you’re not engaged and excited about the project.
  • Break up the work into manageable chunks so that the overall deliverable isn’t so intimidating. Milestones can focus the team.
  • Encourage your team members to structure their workdays in ways that maximize their productivity.

Don’t

  • Be dishonest or sugarcoat matters. Acknowledge to your team the burden and sacrifices involved.
  • Ignore obvious problems. If you see that an employee is struggling, reach out. Ask: What roadblocks need to be removed?
  • Disappear behind closed doors. You need to be accessible and visible to your team.

Case Study #1: Project enthusiasm and communicate why the work matters
Syed Irfan Ajmal, a digital marketing entrepreneur based in Pakistan, has had a lot of experience motivating teams during crunch times.

To “do it right,” he says, “you’ve got to know your team well. You have to know what excites them, what scares them, and what their deepest desires and biggest challenges are.”

In January 2013, Syed partnered with another entrepreneur — Yasir Hussain Sheikh — on a technology startup. The two of them assembled a small team of eight people to create and license a specialized spatial intelligence product.

The product, inspired by CNN’s “Magic Wall,” was to help TV hosts demonstrate the results of Pakistan’s elections using maps and data visualization on a multi-touch screen.

The pressure was intense — the elections were being held in May and so the team only had a few months to deliver. “We had an extremely short time period to work with,” says Syed. “If we failed to build and license the product by March 2013, all our work would have been futile.”

Syed and Yasir were worried about hitting the looming deadline, but they knew they needed to project positive energy to their team. Together, they reflected on what success would do for their startup and mean for Pakistan. They thought about their goals and their purpose. “What we were trying to accomplish had never been done in the country before,” recalls Syed.

When they communicated the significance of the product to their team, “everything changed for the better,” he says.

“My partner was very good at motivating the team by sharing his vision about what completing this project on time would mean for everyone,” he says. “Yasir’s passion was contagious, and did wonders for everyone’s energy and enthusiasm.”

Syed wasn’t bashful in laying out the sacrifices involved. “I didn’t use any scare tactics, but I told everyone that this project required us to work day and night,” he says. “I think the team appreciated my honesty.”

He and his business partner also tried to foster camaraderie and collaboration by dividing their small team into even smaller sub-teams, where each member’s skills complemented those of others. That way, each team member had a say in how the work would be accomplished. “Yasir and I were always available to provide instant and constructive feedback,” he says.

Ultimately, the team prevailed and was proud of their accomplishment. “We were successful and we witnessed our product being used on national TV.”

Case Study #2: Think about ways to be helpful to your team and say thank you
Carl Ryden, co-founder and CEO of PrecisionLender, an AI-powered software company for commercial banks, says that the most important thing to bear in mind when motivating staff during an intense period is that the “crunch has to be anomalous.”

“People can’t pedal as hard as they can all day, every day,” he says. “It has to be temporary. [Employees] need to trust that this isn’t the norm and that [they work] for an organization that respects work-life balance.”

Recently, his company — which is based in North Carolina, needed to launch the first release of its intelligent virtual assistant, Andi, within its application. “We had a deadline that we had to meet,” says Carl. As the deadline drew closer, it became clear that “there was still a lot of work that needed to get done and that many of our developers were going to have to work on the weekends to do it.”

Carl knew that the team was stressed — and he wanted to help in any way that he could. “I wanted to show solidarity but I also wanted to get out of their way and let them do their jobs,” he says.

Carl says that if he stayed at the office alongside his team, “it would have seemed like [he] was there in a supervisory role” in need of constant “status reports.” Instead, he decided to give his team autonomy. “I said, ‘I trust you to get this done. And I want to make sure you have everything you need. What can I take off your plates to let you focus your attention?”

“I didn’t want to make things worse.”

The team appreciated his vote of confidence. Once it was over — “the team got it done on time and it turned out to be a great success” — Carl made sure to express his gratitude. “I said thank you, individually and collectively, to the team,” he says. “I wanted to acknowledge their great work.”


Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

10 Quick Tips for Avoiding Distractions at Work

In a world of push notifications, email, instant messaging, and shrinking office space, we’re becoming increasingly distracted at work. The average employee is getting interrupted 50 to 60 times per day, and about 80% of these interruptions are unimportant. As a result, people are spending little time in what psychologists call “the flow state,” a space where people are up to five times more productive, according to research from McKinsey.

The constant distractions are not only leaving people less productive, but also more stressed than ever, with a lack of control over one’s work being cited as a major contributor to workplace stress, according to the American Institute of Stress. So, how do we avoid distractions in the office in order to take control of our days, do our best work, and improve our emotional well-being?

1. Practice Asynchronous Communication

When you get an email, it’s actually OK to think: “I’ll get to this when it suits me.”

Aside from the benefit of giving people more time for uninterrupted focus, asynchronous communication predisposes people to better decision-making by increasing the amount of time we have to respond to a request. When you’re on a phone call or video chat, you’re making real-time decisions, whereas if you’re communicating via email, you have more time to think about your response.

In order to practice this successfully, we must do away with the arbitrary “urgency” that still plagues workplaces the world over, almost a century after Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, quoting Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This “Eisenhower Principle” is said to be how the former president prioritized his own workload.

To optimize an asynchronous message and to avoid a lot of follow-up emails, include the following in your initial request:

  • Sufficient details
  • Clear action item(s)
  • A due date
  • A path of recourse if the recipient is unable to meet your requirements

2. Batch Check Everything 

“Just quickly checking” anything, even for one-tenth of a second, can add up to a 40% productivity loss over the course of a day, and it can take us 23 minutes to get back into the zone after task switching.

Rather than sporadically checking things throughout the day, we should batch check email, instant messages, social media, and even text messages, at predetermined times.

If you struggle with self-control, tools like Gmail’s Inbox Pause plugin enable you to pause your inbox once you’ve checked it and only unpause it when you’re ready. Blocksite and the Freedom app also allow you to block access to specific websites and apps during specified intervals.

3. Do Not Disturb

If you’re reading this and thinking: “But I work in an open-plan office, and it’s impossible to avoid interruptions,” try using a signaling mechanism to let your team know that you’re in the zone (or trying to get there) and that they shouldn’t disturb you unless it’s legitimately urgent. This could be as simple as a pair of headphones.

4. Avoid Calendar Tetris

In today’s workplace, it’s a widely accepted norm that others can book time in your calendar, usually at the expense of your own priorities.

Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried, told me on an episode of the Future Squared podcast that at Basecamp, you can’t book time in someone’s calendar without first getting buy-in. This means that most meetings just don’t happen because the would-be meeting organizer usually opts for a phone call or an instant message instead.

Alternatively, consider blocking out meeting-free zones on your calendar, or using a meeting scheduling tool such as Calendly so that people book meetings with you only during scheduled windows, leaving the rest of the day free for focus, and ensuring that you avoid the email tennis matches that scheduling meetings often degenerates into.

5. Close the Loop on Meetings

Instead of risking follow-up interruptions and a meeting to discuss the previous meeting, ensure that you leave each meeting with actionable next steps, clearly assigned responsibilities, and due dates.

6. Stop Using “Reply All”

Reply All, used as a mechanism to share accountability, only adds unnecessary chatter to people’s inboxes and headspace. Take more ownership over your decisions and only email people who need to be informed.

7. Use Third Spaces

As Sue Shellenbarger wrote for The Wall Street Journal, “All of this social engineering (open-plan offices) has created endless distractions that draw employees’ eyes away from their own screens. Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity.”

If you’re struggling with open-plan offices, then try to incorporate more third-space work into your day for critical thinking; try to find a quiet space in the office, a serviced office, or negotiate some time to work from home.

 

8. Turn off Push Notifications

The average executive receives 46 push notifications per day. To avoid our Pavlovian impulses to respond on cue, simply turn off your push notifications. Find out how here.

9. Use Airplane Mode

You can also use airplane mode to limit text message and phone call interruptions during certain times of day. If the idea of doing this gives you anxiety, you can always exempt specific numbers, such as those of loved ones or valued and important business associates. You can set “Do Not Disturb” mode on an iPhone to allow your designated “favorite” contacts to get through, while silencing other calls or messages.

10. Limit Layers of Approval

While harder to implement, becoming a “minimum viable bureaucracy” — stripping away unnecessary layers of approvals required to get trivial and not-so-consequential things done — means that there will be less paperwork to move around, which means fewer interruptions for people.

Awareness Is Key

Environmental changes aside, human beings evolved to conserve energy in order to stand a shot at surviving on the savannah. As such, we are predisposed to picking the lowest hanging fruit or doing the easiest thing first — think checking email instead of working on that presentation. Becoming more aware of our tendencies to pick the low hanging fruit, getting distracted by low-value activities, is step one towards changing our behaviors.

Organizations that build a culture around minimizing distractions will enjoy the compounding benefit of a focused workforce and will leave their people feeling less stressed and ultimately more fulfilled.


Steve Glaveski is CEO and co-founder of Collective Campus, a corporate innovation and start-up accelerator based in Melbourne, Australia. He hosts the Future Squared podcast and is the author of Employee to Entrepreneur: How to Earn Your Freedom and Do Work That Matters.

How to Overcome Your (Checks Email) Distraction Habit

How often do you have a day that leaves you feeling not only exhausted but also like you didn’t actually accomplish anything? If your answer is “always” or “very often,” you are not alone. In most professional jobs today, multitasking has become a coping strategy. We are constantly shifting our attention from trying to complete assignments and projects, tracking and responding to endless communications, and managing interruptions from colleagues and the office bustle.

Constant distraction leaves a trail of scattered thoughts and partly done tasks in its wake. It leaves us feeling overwhelmed and tired. And when our busy, exhausting days don’t come with a sense of accomplishment, our work feels unsatisfying at best — and demotivating at worst. This is a recipe for burnout because progress is what drives us.

In my work as a productivity trainer and speaker for nearly 2,000 organizations, I have found that distraction is the single biggest barrier to meaningful, satisfying work. Studies by Gloria Mark and colleagues show that we often switch what we’re doing every few minutes, and these frequent interruptions “cause us to work faster, which causes more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort.” And this sabotages not just our performance but the way we “show up” in the world.

In contrast, Georgetown professor Cal Newport defines “deep work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” He says that the benefit is that “it allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”

I think about deep work as needing “brainpower momentum.” It takes time to get started, get focused, and fully mobilize our resources in the service of our most important, most meaningful work. By “resources,” I mean not only our knowledge, wisdom, and experience, but also our empathy, passion, kindness, diligence and all of the other qualities we bring to our day-to-day lives to make them unique, richer and have more impact. The phrase I use to describe building this momentum in the service of a task, experience, or connection is “unleashing our genius.”

Consider this analogy: imagine your task is to ride a bicycle for 10 miles. You begin to pedal and just as you build up speed and start making progress, something unexpectedly makes you hit the brakes. Because you had to stop, you’ve lost your momentum and have to expend more effort to get going again. Imagine you are forced to brake every time you start to go faster. You can never coast. You have to pedal — hard — all the time. How much longer do you think it’s going to take you to get to your destination? How much more difficult and frustrating do you think it’s going to be? This is your brain power on distraction, and it causes unsatisfying, unfulfilling work days.

You cannot fully unleash your genius in the three-minute increments you have between distractions. Unfortunately, for many of us distraction has become a habit — one that has been so often and routinely reinforced that it is extremely difficult to break. Persuasive technology — technology that uses sophisticated techniques from behavioral psychology to “persuade” us to keep engaging with it — exacerbates the problem. So, over time, as our habit gains strength, we go looking for distraction. When things get quiet, or a task gets boring or frustrating, we reach for our phones.

Those of us habituated to distraction will find that we have shorter attention spans and less patience for applying our brainpower in a meaningful way. We now see it as an unpleasant and insurmountable task, which means we are less likely to build the brainpower momentum needed to unleash our genius. The problems associated with distraction have thus compounded: our ability to engage in thoughtful work has decreased, as has our desire to actually do it.

This is why I have become convinced that the path to improved productivity lies not in “time management,” but in attention management and kicking the distraction habit. Three easy things anyone can do to begin this process are to become aware of it, devise plans to overcome it, and take advantage of the principle of activation energy.

The first step is awareness because it’s hard to change a habit you don’t realize you have. Habits are triggered by cues, so try to notice how often and why you are allowing your attention to be stolen. Every time you find yourself switching away from a task without an intentional stopping point, note it on a piece of paper. Then think about what caused you to be distracted and jot that down, too.

Once you become aware of the cues, you can find ways to overcome them. For example, ask yourself and others what exactly you might do to keep people from interrupting you when you’re trying to focus or what exactly you might say if they interrupt you anyway. Or ask what you might to do prevent yourself from reaching for your phone. Record these ideas and identify opportunities to try them out, then note whether or not they were successful. Over time, you will begin to understand what works and what does not in your unique situation.

A third way to kick the habit of distraction is the principle of “activation energy.” Make it easier to engage in more productive attention-management habits. For example, to get started on those thoughtful, important tasks that might otherwise seem difficult, break them down and get specific. Instead of putting “write article” on your to-do list, put “list four bullet points for article.” Instead of “analyze report,” write, “identify the main idea in the first section of the report.” If it sounds fast and easy, you are more likely to do it. So make everything sound fast and easy. The hardest part is getting started.

The corollary of activation energy is what I call “friction.” (Happiness researcher Shawn Achor refers to this pair of principles as the 20-second rule.) This is a tool you can also employ. For example, if you find yourself in the habit of continually checking your email on your smartphone at home at night, it might not be because you really want to read email. It might instead be because you are simply “used to” checking your email at the office all day long — it’s a habit. So when you leave work, set an intention to leave it behind, and create some friction to back you up. Access your account settings on your device, and turn the mail account from “on” to “off.” Then even if you find yourself compulsively tapping your email app, you’ll be faced with a blank screen. It will take you a few additional seconds to go back into your settings and turn the email back on, which might be enough to remind you of your plan and dissuade you from the impulse.

Distraction leaves us feeling exhausted and like we aren’t accomplishing anything despite the fact that we’re always busy. And because it becomes a habit, when we’re not being distracted by someone else, we often distract ourselves. To avoid burnout, we need to recognize and devise a plan to combat the problem so we can get our most thoughtful, important work done and unleash our genius on the world.


Maura Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention management, and work-life balance. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of RegainYourTime, and author of Personal Productivity Secrets, Work Without Walls, and Attention Management. She frequently appears in major business outlets, and was recently named one of the Top Leadership Speakers of 2018 in Inc. Magazine.  Follow her on Twitter at @mnthomas, or sign up here to be notified when a new article is published.

Working Parents: Does Your Schedule Reflect Your Values?

A very wise friend once told me, “Talking about parenting is like talking about politics.” She’s right.

Because of the highly personal nature of parenting, individuals tend to have strong opinions of the way things “should” be as a working parent. Being pulled in different directions — the expectations from both work and home, and the stress that comes with them — can mean parents struggle with questions like: Can I make it home in time for dinner? Will I be able to help with driving to evening activities? Can I even arrive in time to tuck my kids into bed? How much work travel is too much? Is it OK to take time during the day to exercise if it means leaving before the kids go to school or getting home later? Is it OK for me to see my friends if I feel like I barely get enough time with my family?

As a time management coach, my role is not to critique your parenting style but to encourage you to live a life aligned with your values. Especially as a working parent, that requires you to be exceptionally intentional with your time. Part of that is developing — and living by — a values-driven schedule. A values-driven schedule requires you to determine what is most important to you and your family, and then craft your calendar around those priorities, rather than fitting your family and yourself in around whatever might land on your schedule. This helps ensure that you can feel overall satisfied with your time and parenting choices, instead of feeling guilty or frustrated that you’re not investing your time in the people and activities that matter most to you.

Here is a three-step process to create a values-driven schedule, based on strategies I’ve seen be effective for my clients who are working parents.

Step 1: Get Clear on What’s Most Important

Begin by listing these key items:

  • The categories you want to include in your schedule: Consider time for work, family, exercise, learning, social activities, alone time, hobbies, etc.
  • The level of achievement you want in these areas: Identify your goals and the time commitment required. Going to the gym to work out for 40 minutes three times a week is a different time commitment than training for an Ironman, just as making time to see some of your child’s soccer games requires less time than coaching the team. Be realistic about how much time you’ll need for each category you’ve written down.
  • Essential rituals for yourself or your family: Maybe you want to be home for family dinner at least three nights a week, attend a service at a place of worship each week, and detach from electronics by 10 pm so you can connect with your spouse before bed. Jot these routines down and how regularly they should happen.

Your time choices not only impact you but also the other members of your family. As you make this list, have some discussions with your kids and spouse or co-parent about what matters most to them. For example, maybe your son doesn’t mind you heading to the office before he gets up, but it would mean the world to him if you leave work in time to see him in his school play.

This is also a really good time to identify what’s not important for you to do. Perhaps there are professional organizations where membership would be nice but the decreased time with your family isn’t worth the trade-off right now. Or you may have the ability to get outside help with some tasks such as house cleaning, lawn care, errands, or handyman items, so you can use that time working on your side gig or spending time with your kids.

Step 2: Define Why They’re Important

Once you have defined your categories, levels of achievement, and essential rituals, think of why each one of these is important to you. Go through each one and write down why you believe they are significant.

Thinking about the “why” can strengthen your resolve to follow through. It’s one thing to say, “I should exercise,” but it’s another to frame it as, “I want to exercise because I want to live a long, healthy life where I can be present for my children and my future grandchildren.” It can also help you weed out false priorities. For instance, if the strongest reason you can think of for taking a job that will mean 50-75% travel is that it’s the usual next step in your career path, step back and think again. Would you love that job? Would it help you fulfill your potential? Would it match your goals? If so, go for it. But if it’s just what people usually do but you’re not that excited about it, seriously consider whether it’s worth that much time away from your family. We often have more options than we think in our jobs, and success comes in many forms.

As you evaluate the “why,” look at everything from a 50-year point of view. Think about what you wrote down and ask yourself, “Fifty years from now, what choices would I have been happy that I made? What would matter to me? What wouldn’t?” In the moment, things like a work contract can seem so incredibly urgent and important, but over the 50-year span, making (or missing) memories with your family will likely be what you remember.

Step 3: Fuse Your Priorities with Your Schedule

Once you’re clear on your priorities, identify related actions and get them in your calendar. This helps to make doing them more automatic and makes it much easier to live a values-driven life.

Start by plugging your essential rituals into your calendar, and then add new items as recurring events based on your priorities. Here are some examples of priorities translated into calendar actions:

  • Exercise: Go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before work from 6:30-7:30 am.
  • Family time: Eat Saturday morning breakfast with the family around 8 am.
  • Connection time: 15-20 minutes before their bedtime, talk to the kids about anything on their minds. Spend some time talking with my spouse before going to bed as well.
  • Activity time: Leave at 4:30 pm on Tuesdays to take my daughter to dance class.
  • Alone time: Take a 15-minute walk around 2:30 pm to clear my head and get refreshed.

Then have discussions with the people who this might impact about how you can make this work for all of you — and why it’s so important. Maybe your spouse helps with getting the kids ready on the mornings when you go work out. Then you return the favor the other days. With your children, there may be days when you need to work late to make up the time you took off to take your child to dance class or to participate in another extracurricular activity. But if you explain to them that you want to make time to talk before bed and really follow through on that commitment, that can help them still feel heard and connected. And if your values-based schedule adjustments impact your normal working hours, you may also want to have a discussion with your boss to explain your intentions.

The needs of each family are unique, but the importance of values-based scheduling is universal. I encourage you to take the time to think through these three steps and to create a schedule that reflects your priorities and values, so that you’ll look back with satisfaction on the choices you made as a working parent.

Our Favorite Management Tips from 2019

‘Tis the season for “best of” lists, so we looked back at our year in Management Tip of the Day newsletters to share some of our favorite quick and practical pieces of work advice. Here’s our top 10.

Is there a tip or other advice we published this year that changed the way you think about work? Or an article that you found especially useful? We’d love to hear from you. Please let us know in the comments.

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Don’t Just Have a To-Do List — Timebox It
The only thing worse than having a long to-do list is not knowing how you’re going to get everything done. Timeboxing can help: It’s a way of converting your to-do list into blocks of time on your calendar, so you have a plan for what to do and when. Start by looking at your to-do list and figuring out each task’s deadlines. For example, if a promotional video has to go live on a Tuesday, and the production team needs 72 hours to incorporate your edits, then put a hold on your calendar at least 72 hours before Tuesday. Repeat for each item on your to-do list. If you work on a team where people can see one another’s calendars, timeboxing has the added benefit of showing people that the work will get done on time. But the biggest advantage of timeboxing might be that it gives you a feeling of control over your calendar — which can help you feel happier at work.

Adapted from “How Timeboxing Works and Why It Will Make You More Productive,” by Marc Zao-Sanders

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Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills
To make good decisions, it’s important to think critically. And, yet, too many leaders accept the first solution proposed to them or don’t take the time to evaluate a topic from all sides. To guard against these mistakes, there are several things you can do to hone your critical thinking skills. First, question your assumptions, especially when the stakes are high. If you’re coming up with a new business strategy, for example, ask: Why is this the best way forward? What does the research say about our expectations for the future of the market? Second, poke at the logic. When evaluating arguments, consider if the evidence builds on itself to produce a sound conclusion. Is the logic supported by data at each point? Third, seek out fresh perspectives. It’s tempting to rely on your inner circle to help you think through these questions but that won’t be productive if they all look and think like you. Get outside your bubble and ask different people to question and challenge your logic.

Adapted from “3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking,” by Helen Lee Bouygues

***

Tips for Giving a Persuasive Presentation
When you need to sell an idea at work or in a presentation, how do you do it? Five rhetorical devices can help — Aristotle identified them 2,000 years ago, and masters of persuasion still use them today:

  • Ethos. Start your talk by establishing your credibility and character. Show your audience that you are committed to the welfare of others, and you will gain their trust.
  • Logos. Use data, evidence, and facts to support your pitch.
  • Pathos. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Wrap your big idea in a story that will elicit an emotional reaction.
  • Metaphor. Compare your idea to something that is familiar to your audience. It will help you clarify your argument by making the abstract concrete.
  • Brevity. Explain your idea in as few words as possible. People have a limited attention span, so talk about your strongest points first.

Adapted from “The Art of Persuasion Hasn’t Changed in 2,000 Years,” by Carmine Gallo

 

***

Are You Still Stewing About That Mistake You Made?
When you make a mistake at work, do you replay it in your head for days or even weeks? This kind of overthinking is called rumination, and it can lead to serious anxiety. To break out of the cycle, there are a few things you can do. For one, identify your rumination triggers. Do certain types of people, projects, or decisions make you second-guess yourself? Notice when (and why) a situation is causing you to start overthinking things. It can also be useful to distance yourself from negative thoughts by labeling them as thoughts or feelings. For example, instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” say “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” These labels can help you distinguish what you’re experiencing from who you truly are as a person and an employee. Another way to short-circuit rumination is to distract yourself. When your brain won’t stop spinning, take a walk, meditate, or fill out an expense report — do any simple activity you can focus on for a few minutes.

Adapted from “How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes,” by Alice Boyes

 ***

Managers, Know When to Stop Talking and Start Listening
As a manager, you probably have to talk a lot. You want people to have the guidance and direction they need, of course, and there are plenty of situations where you need to speak your mind. But at some point, talking a lot can turn into overcommunicating. You can end up dominating conversations, which means employees’ perspectives aren’t being heard. To make sure you aren’t talking too much, listen as much as you speak. When someone raises a question in a meeting, invite others to weigh in before you. In fact, don’t contribute your thoughts until several other people have offered theirs. That way everyone is included and feels that their input is valued. You can also schedule regular one-on-one sessions with your team members to encourage open communication. Ask employees about their wants, needs, and concerns — and then hush. You may be surprised how much you learn when you’re saying nothing.

Adapted from “Don’t Be the Boss Who Talks Too Much,” by Hjalmar Gislason

***

Before a Tough Conversation, Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Difficult conversations are never fun, but preparing for them can help you ensure they’re productive. Start by identifying your motives. What do you want out of the conversation — for you, the other person, and any stakeholders involved? Knowing your goals is a good way to keep the meeting on track if emotions rise. Next, gather facts to support your position. If you’re about to ask for a raise, for example, write down notes on how you’ve grown in your role. If you’re going to give someone tough feedback, bring examples of their work and behavior. Be ready to defend your point of view and explain how you came to it. And think through any stories you’re telling yourself about the other person. Do you see your boss as “the enemy” because she can grant or deny your raise request? Consider what your manager will care about in the conversation, and use that to plan how you’ll address her concerns.

Adapted from “4 Things to Do Before a Tough Conversation,” by Joseph Grenny

***

Set Healthy Standards of Work for Your Team
When employees feel constantly busy, so busy that they barely have time to breathe, it diminishes their creativity, drive, and job satisfaction. Managers need to take the lead in creating healthy standards for their teams. Here are some things to try.

  • Set an example. Let your team see you taking lunch breaks, leaving the office on time, and working flexibly. And don’t send emails or other messages late at night — it signals that employees should be working at all hours.
  • Plan extra time. Research has found we’re overly optimistic about how long a task will take. Encourage your team to block out extra time each week to finish up lingering projects. This will help people free up space on their to-do lists (and in their brains).
  • Increase workload transparency. Talk to employees about their workloads to get a fuller sense of what they’re working on. Use what you hear to think about whether the team needs more resources or should stop doing certain kinds of work.

Adapted from “Preventing Busyness from Becoming Burnout,” by Brigid Schulte

 

  ***

To Run a Good Meeting, Get the Basics Right
Plenty of meetings are a waste of time. They’re unfocused, badly run, and way too long. But improving your meetings isn’t rocket science — work on getting the basics right. When planning a meeting, know why you are scheduling it in the first place. Having a specific goal in mind will help you create a useful agenda. Next, decide who truly needs to be there, considering the key decision makers, influencers, and stakeholders. If certain people should be in the loop but don’t need to attend, you can ask for their input beforehand and update them afterward. Open the meeting by clearly laying out its purpose and focusing people on the task at hand. As the facilitator, your role is to get attendees to feel committed to the outcome. When the meeting is over, take a few minutes to reflect. Did everyone participate? Were people distracted? What worked well, and what didn’t? Use your reflections (ask others for their thoughts, too) to keep improving for next time.

Adapted from “Why Your Meetings Stink—and What to Do About It,” by Steven G. Rogelberg

*** 

Don’t Brush Off Positive Feedback — Study It
Most of us remember critical feedback. Because it’s jarring and threatening, it tends to stick in our brains. But positive feedback is an invaluable way to learn about your strengths and growth areas. Create a space (digital or physical) where you save the praise you get, anything from thank-you cards to written notes in your evaluations to comments in email threads. When you get mixed feedback, tease apart the positive and negative aspects, and put the positive ones in your kudos folder as well. Set a time in your calendar to periodically review and reflect on what you’ve saved. Ask yourself: What patterns or themes can I identify? How could I use my strengths in new situations? What else can I learn about my strengths, and who might provide that perspective? It may feel immodest or uncomfortable to bask in the positive feedback you get. But think of it like this: Someone has gone out of their way to highlight what you’re good at — so use it.

Adapted from “To Become Your Best Self, Study Your Successes,” by Laura Morgan Roberts et al.

***

Your Employees Want to Feel the Purpose in Their Work
Instilling purpose in your employees takes more than motivational talks, lofty speeches, or mission statements. In fact, if overblown or insincere, those methods can backfire, triggering cynicism rather than commitment. To inspire and engage your employees, keep two things in mind. First, purpose is a feeling. You could tell your team that their work is important, but how can you help individuals feel it firsthand? Think about ways to show people the impact of their jobs. Perhaps you could bring a customer in to share a testimonial, or send a small team into the field to experience the client’s needs for themselves. Second, authenticity matters — a lot. If your attempts at creating purpose do not align with how you’ve acted in the past, employees will likely be skeptical, and they might be left feeling more manipulated than inspired. Making the pursuit of purpose a routine, rather than a one-off initiative, will show employees that you’re serious about it.

Adapted from “Helping Your Team Feel the Purpose in Their Work,” by Dan Cable

What Meditation Can Do for Your Leadership

One of the things that stands in the way of many leaders’ success — and therefore the success of their companies — is their ego. Leadership expert Jim Collins found in his seminal study on what makes companies sustainably great that in two thirds of the comparison cases, it was “the presence of a gargantuan ego that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.” Fortunately, mindfulness can help. In fact, in my work teaching meditation to hundreds of executives, I’ve seen that one of the most valuable — and largely unrecognized — benefits for leaders is the ability to transcend their egos.

The defensive tendencies of our ego come at great costs. When it’s threatened, we hold on to past decisions for too long, we react defensively to or “explain away” negative feedback from teams or customers, and we get emotional when we need to be rational. Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund, refers in his book, Principles: Life and Work, to the “ego barrier,” which he defines as the “subliminal defense mechanisms that make it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses.” He also credits meditation as the single most important source of his success.

That’s because mindfulness meditation is an antidote to ego. It creates what Harvard neuroscience researchers describe as “self-transcendent” experiences, where meditators begin to notice that there is no stable self that is separate from others, but rather they are part of a whole. This may sound “woo-woo” but these experiences have major benefits for leaders: They allow them to see things more objectively and to form deeper relationships.

Seeing things more objectively

Our ego wants us to be right, and it perceives failure as a threat. With meditation practice, as our fixation on ego drops away, our tendency to take things personally drops away as well.

Take the example of Scott Shute, former VP of Customer Operations at LinkedIn, who now leads the company’s mindfulness programs. He explained to me that throughout the day he “will apply mindfulness practices when I find myself anxious to make a decision or feel defensive about criticism. I will breathe and contemplate for a few minutes and something that was formerly frustrating becomes almost playful. I can pay attention to details and may see things I had not seen before”.

Jeff, the president of a large retailer, experienced something similar during a meditation session I ran as part of a leadership workshop. He received an email from his new CEO right before the session. He told me, “My mind was racing, I felt frustrated and wrongly accused. After meditating I re-read the email. My mind was calm, and I had to smile. I had made the email all about myself and had taken his criticism personally. Afterward I could see it as what it was — just several specific things that needed to get done.” Even a short meditation lessened the grip of his ego, allowing him to read the email without feeling threatened and to act appropriately. 

Forming deeper relationships

These experiences also fundamentally change leaders’ relationships, allowing them to lead with deeper empathy and connection. Mike Romoff, head of global agency sales at LinkedIn, explained to me that after practicing meditation for several months, he “had a gradual realization that all beings are connected, and the whole construct of having adversarial feelings towards others as independent entities stopped making any sense.”

When he found his department mired in an intense rivalry with another one, he decided to help his counterpart rather than further the tension: “Projects moved forward, conflicts between departments got diffused, we made great progress. And it hugely benefited my own career. I developed a reputation as a collaborator and problem solver.”

Meditation can also help us deal with colleagues we perceive as “difficult,” allowing us to challenge the fear-based narratives our mind creates that get in the way of us taking action in a productive way. Take the example of Marisa, a senior executive at a large media company, who has been practicing meditation for several years. For years she dealt with a difficult colleague without openly addressing his behavior. After practicing meditation for a while she realized that her “fearful self disappeared” and she was no longer afraid to confront him.” She said that when she simply stated the facts, she felt “like the universe was speaking through me.”  She was able to see and communicate the facts clearly, without fear or emotional attachment as before. To her great surprise, the colleague was willing to hear her and agreed to stop his behavior.

Practice Meditation to Experience Self-Transcendence

Mindful meditation isn’t the only way to experience self-transcendence — our ego fixation can drop away while jogging, cooking, playing an instrument, or doing some other activity that fully engages us — but it is the more direct way. Here’s how you can create that experience for yourself.

Develop a practice focused on stilling the mind. One of the simplest forms of mindfulness meditation is to find a quiet place, sit comfortably on a chair or cushion, and set a timer for anywhere between five and 25 minutes. Then simply start observing the in and out of your breath. You might count the breath, starting with one on an in-breath, then two on an out-breath, going up to 10 and then returning to one. Whichever method you use, you’re likely to notice the nearly constant stream of thoughts that run through our minds (around 70.000 thoughts a day). Allow the mind to detach from these thoughts and to experience a sense of openness.

Practice regularly — every day. Although self-transcendent experiences can occur after short sessions, maintaining a steady state takes regular practice. Just like going to the gym sporadically may feel good but won’t help you to build muscle, irregular meditation practice won’t be enough to consistently experience self-transcendence. Most executives I work with practice meditation at least 20 minutes a day. For most, getting up earlier in the morning and starting the day with meditation is the easiest way to ensure they “get it in.”

 

Find extended periods for silence. Most executives notice that the longer they meditate, the more their mind starts to quiet down and thoughts eventually dissipate. Because it is our thoughts that create the sense of ego, when they dissipate our ego has a chance to drop away. In a world where we are constantly exposed to new stimuli (through emails, news, social media, etc.), you need to be deliberate about finding time for silence. You might go on an extended “retreat” led by an experienced meditation teacher or carve out times of the day when you’re not taking in new information.

Apply the insights of self-transcendence to problems throughout the day. Use what you gain from these practices to loosen the grip of your ego throughout your workday. You might quiet your mind with a few conscious breaths before you enter a meeting or open your email. You can also practice in the moment. For example, while you’re sitting in a meeting or responding to an email, turn your focus to your breath, and simply notice if your mind has started to take things personally. Taking a few breaths in and out, can help lessen your ego’s grip.

Almost a decade ago, I was fortunate to be able to go on a three-month silent retreat, taking a sabbatical from my busy life as a McKinsey consultant. In one of the weekly conversations with the meditation teacher, she said: “Remember: you don’t exist.” This made no sense to me at the time and it took me a while to realize, that self-transcendence can’t be understood by the mind. It needs to be practiced.


Matthias Birk, PhD has been practicing meditation for over two decades, and has taught meditation and leadership to hundreds of executives at Columbia Business School, NYU, and companies, such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company.

How to Break Up with Your Bad Habits

Breaking habits is hard. We all know this, whether we’ve failed our latest diet (again), or felt the pull to refresh our Instagram feed instead of making progress on a work project that is past due. This is largely because we are constantly barraged by stimuli engineered to make us crave and consume, stimuli that hijack the reward-based learning system in our brains designed initially for survival.

Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food), and a reward (feeling sated). We want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad — or stressful. These three components (trigger, behavior, and reward) show up every time we smoke a cigarette or eat a cupcake. This is especially true at work. Each time we try to soothe ourselves from a taxing assignment we reinforce the reward, to the point where unhealthy distractions can become habits.

So why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to replace bad habits with good ones? The doctrine of self-control has been promulgated for decades, despite the fact that researchers at Yale and elsewhere have shown that the brain networks associated with self-control (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) are the first to go “offline” when faced with triggers such as stress. Still, in medical school, I was taught to pass self-control rhetoric on to my patients. “Need to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Trying to quit smoking? Stop cold turkey or use a nicotine replacement.”

When I started actually practicing medicine, however, I quickly learned that it doesn’t work this way in real life.

Self-control theories have missed something critical: reward-based learning is based on rewards, not behaviors. How rewarding a behavior is drives how likely we are to repeat that behavior in the future, and this is why self-control as an approach to breaking habits often fails.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve researched ways to create a better method by bringing the scientific and clinical practices together. My time spent studying the behavioral neuroscience of how habits form, and the best way to tackle them, helped me find a surprisingly natural way to do this: mindfulness.

By using mindfulness training to make people more aware of the “reward” reinforcing their behavior, I can help them tap into what is driving their habit in the first place. Once this happens, they are more easily able to change their association with the “reward” from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one.

When someone joins our quit smoking program, for example, the first thing I have them do is pay attention while they’re smoking. They often give me a quizzical look, because they’re expecting me to tell them to do something other than smoke, like eat candy as a substitute when they have a craving. But because a “reward” drives future behavior, and not the behavior itself, I have my clients pay attention to what it tastes and feels like when they smoke. The goal is to make the patient aware of the “reward value,” or the level of positive reaffirmation they are getting from the habit they want to change. The higher the value, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior.

I see the same thing happen over and over again — the reward value of the habit decreases because it isn’t as gratifying as people remember. One client of mine, for instance, thought the act of smoking made her look cool as a teenager. Even though that motivation had dissipated in her adulthood, her brain still associated positive feelings with smoking. Hence, her reward value was high. When that same client started paying attention as she smoked, she realized that cigarettes taste bad, commenting, “Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.” This helped her brain update the reward value of her habit. She was able to get accurate information about how smoking feels right now, which then helped her become disenchanted with the process.

After seeing how effective this practice was with my clients, I decided to test it even further. My lab and I developed three apps that deliver this same kind of mindfulness training to anyone with a smartphone via short sequential lessons over a period of three to four weeks. The apps are designed to help people break bad habits such as smoking, overeating, and anxiety (which oddly enough, is driven by the same habit loops as the other two behaviors).

Tens of thousands of people from around the world have used these apps, and my lab has published a number of studies showing significant, clinically meaningful results: 5x the smoking quit rates of gold standard treatment, 40% reductions in craving-related eating, and a 63% reduction in anxiety. In a recent randomized controlled trial, we even found that our mindfulness app for smoking cessation taught users how to better control the part of their brain that gets over-activated by smoking cues and chocolate cravings.

While our research has been focused primarily on changing health-related habits, we believe it is highly relevant to the workplace. Our strategy can help workers up their productivity, morale, and overall performance by teaching them how to overcome the habits that may be holding them back from thriving. Here’s how to get started:

 

1. Map out your habit loops

Similar to the advice I give to people in my outpatient clinic, the first step to breaking a habit (no matter what it is) is to figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage?

Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values.

2. See what you actually get out of those actions

The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome. Remember my patient who struggled to quit smoking? Just like I asked her to pay attention to the act of smoking, I am asking you to pay attention to how you feel when you partake in your habit.

If you stress eat, how does it feel to eat junk food when you aren’t hungry? How does what you eat impact the state of your mind, and body, fifteen minutes after the fact? If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn’t helping you get your work done?

Remember your answers to these questions, or write them down to help solidify them in your mind.

This new awareness you have developed will help your brain accurately update the reward value of the habit you want to break. You will begin to see that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential.

3. Replace the reward with curiosity

The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behavior. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer.

Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like stress eating at work, and willpower hasn’t quite worked out for you. What if, instead of indulging in your candy craving to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted it with curiosity about why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind?

The reward value of curiosity (opening yourself up) is tangibly different than stress eating (closing yourself down) in this instance. Ultimately, curiosity feels better in the moment and is much more enjoyable than the rumination that often occurs after giving into a bad habit.

To tap into their curiosity, I teach my patients a simple mantra: Hmmmm. As in, be curious about your feelings. What does this craving feel like when it first arrives, before I have decided to indulge it?

People often learn, pretty quickly, that cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, and that these come and go. Being curious helps them acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, they can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in their bodies and minds from moment to moment — until those moments pass.

If you’re curious to see how well this might work for you, now is a good time to give it a try.

The next time you find yourself indulging in a bad habit, take a moment to pause and consider using mindfulness to help you overcome it. Your behaviors may not change immediately — but stick with it. If you can hack your mind using our methods, you will eventually be able to break free of unwanted habits and comfortably watch your cravings pass by.


Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, is an associate professor at Brown University’s Schools of Public Health & Medicine, Founder of MindSciences and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad HabitsTo learn more about his research and the apps mentioned in this article, visit www.drjud.com

How to Break Up with Your Bad Habits

Breaking habits is hard. We all know this, whether we’ve failed our latest diet (again), or felt the pull to refresh our Instagram feed instead of making progress on a work project that is past due. This is largely because we are constantly barraged by stimuli engineered to make us crave and consume, stimuli that hijack the reward-based learning system in our brains designed initially for survival.

Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food), and a reward (feeling sated). We want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad — or stressful. These three components (trigger, behavior, and reward) show up every time we smoke a cigarette or eat a cupcake. This is especially true at work. Each time we try to soothe ourselves from a taxing assignment we reinforce the reward, to the point where unhealthy distractions can become habits.

So why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to replace bad habits with good ones? The doctrine of self-control has been promulgated for decades, despite the fact that researchers at Yale and elsewhere have shown that the brain networks associated with self-control (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) are the first to go “offline” when faced with triggers such as stress. Still, in medical school, I was taught to pass self-control rhetoric on to my patients. “Need to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Trying to quit smoking? Stop cold turkey or use a nicotine replacement.”

When I started actually practicing medicine, however, I quickly learned that it doesn’t work this way in real life.

Self-control theories have missed something critical: reward-based learning is based on rewards, not behaviors. How rewarding a behavior is drives how likely we are to repeat that behavior in the future, and this is why self-control as an approach to breaking habits often fails.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve researched ways to create a better method by bringing the scientific and clinical practices together. My time spent studying the behavioral neuroscience of how habits form, and the best way to tackle them, helped me find a surprisingly natural way to do this: mindfulness.

By using mindfulness training to make people more aware of the “reward” reinforcing their behavior, I can help them tap into what is driving their habit in the first place. Once this happens, they are more easily able to change their association with the “reward” from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one.

When someone joins our quit smoking program, for example, the first thing I have them do is pay attention while they’re smoking. They often give me a quizzical look, because they’re expecting me to tell them to do something other than smoke, like eat candy as a substitute when they have a craving. But because a “reward” drives future behavior, and not the behavior itself, I have my clients pay attention to what it tastes and feels like when they smoke. The goal is to make the patient aware of the “reward value,” or the level of positive reaffirmation they are getting from the habit they want to change. The higher the value, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior.

I see the same thing happen over and over again — the reward value of the habit decreases because it isn’t as gratifying as people remember. One client of mine, for instance, thought the act of smoking made her look cool as a teenager. Even though that motivation had dissipated in her adulthood, her brain still associated positive feelings with smoking. Hence, her reward value was high. When that same client started paying attention as she smoked, she realized that cigarettes taste bad, commenting, “Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.” This helped her brain update the reward value of her habit. She was able to get accurate information about how smoking feels right now, which then helped her become disenchanted with the process.

After seeing how effective this practice was with my clients, I decided to test it even further. My lab and I developed three apps that deliver this same kind of mindfulness training to anyone with a smartphone via short sequential lessons over a period of three to four weeks. The apps are designed to help people break bad habits such as smoking, overeating, and anxiety (which oddly enough, is driven by the same habit loops as the other two behaviors).

Tens of thousands of people from around the world have used these apps, and my lab has published a number of studies showing significant, clinically meaningful results: 5x the smoking quit rates of gold standard treatment, 40% reductions in craving-related eating, and a 63% reduction in anxiety. In a recent randomized controlled trial, we even found that our mindfulness app for smoking cessation taught users how to better control the part of their brain that gets over-activated by smoking cues and chocolate cravings.

While our research has been focused primarily on changing health-related habits, we believe it is highly relevant to the workplace. Our strategy can help workers up their productivity, morale, and overall performance by teaching them how to overcome the habits that may be holding them back from thriving. Here’s how to get started:

1. Map out your habit loops

Similar to the advice I give to people in my outpatient clinic, the first step to breaking a habit (no matter what it is) is to figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage?

Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values.

2. See what you actually get out of those actions

The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome. Remember my patient who struggled to quit smoking? Just like I asked her to pay attention to the act of smoking, I am asking you to pay attention to how you feel when you partake in your habit.

If you stress eat, how does it feel to eat junk food when you aren’t hungry? How does what you eat impact the state of your mind, and body, fifteen minutes after the fact? If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn’t helping you get your work done?

Remember your answers to these questions, or write them down to help solidify them in your mind.

This new awareness you have developed will help your brain accurately update the reward value of the habit you want to break. You will begin to see that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential.

3. Replace the reward with curiosity

The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behavior. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer.

Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like stress eating at work, and willpower hasn’t quite worked out for you. What if, instead of indulging in your candy craving to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted it with curiosity about why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind?

The reward value of curiosity (opening yourself up) is tangibly different than stress eating (closing yourself down) in this instance. Ultimately, curiosity feels better in the moment and is much more enjoyable than the rumination that often occurs after giving into a bad habit.

To tap into their curiosity, I teach my patients a simple mantra: Hmmmm. As in, be curious about your feelings. What does this craving feel like when it first arrives, before I have decided to indulge it?

People often learn, pretty quickly, that cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, and that these come and go. Being curious helps them acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, they can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in their bodies and minds from moment to moment — until those moments pass.

If you’re curious to see how well this might work for you, now is a good time to give it a try.

The next time you find yourself indulging in a bad habit, take a moment to pause and consider using mindfulness to help you overcome it. Your behaviors may not change immediately — but stick with it. If you can hack your mind using our methods, you will eventually be able to break free of unwanted habits and comfortably watch your cravings pass by.


Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, is an associate professor at Brown University’s Schools of Public Health & Medicine, Founder of MindSciences and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad HabitsTo learn more about his research and the apps mentioned in this article, visit www.drjud.com

How to Recruit More Women to Your Company

Many leaders care about gender diversity — at least they say they do. LinkedIn research shows that 78% of talent professionals say that diversity is a top hiring priority for their company and gender diversity in particular is the number one issue they’re tackling in this area.

The latest Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org shows some progress in this area, but there’s still work to be done. While female representation in the C-suite is on the rise, only one in five executives in the C-suite is a woman today, and women remain underrepresented at all levels.

To explore this disconnect between the good intentions of leaders and true progress on closing the gender gap, LinkedIn undertook several studies around gender and work over the past year. The data has given us insights into recruiting strategies that can help leaders bring in more women today and set their companies up for success in attracting female candidates in the future.

Getting women in the pipeline — now.

Once in the pipeline, women are more likely to get hired. The challenge is getting them there. In our Gender Insights Report released earlier this year, we reported that while the average number of jobs viewed by men and women in 2018 were roughly the same (44 for women and 46 for men), women are 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing it. However, they’re also 16% more likely to get hired after they apply. If women apply for jobs at a lower rate, but tend to be the right candidates, why are they more selective about the jobs they apply to, and how can companies more effectively reach them?

Evidence compiled by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman for an article in The Atlantic found that men generally overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Often referred to as the “confidence gap,” women are effectively screening themselves out of the candidate pool before they even apply. Women usually feel they need to meet all of a job’s criteria, while men typically apply if they meet only 60% of the requirements.

Knowing this difference in job search behavior, companies can make some immediate changes to their recruitment model.

Make job postings more inclusive. Focus job descriptions on the expectations of the role. Remove language like “rock star” and “ninja” that tends to alienate female applicants, and use more straightforward job titles and descriptions. In our Language Matters Report, we found that 44% of women would be discouraged from applying to a job if the description included the word “aggressive.” Companies like Cisco and Atlassian use an app called Textio Hire that uses data science to highlight problematic words or phrases in job descriptions and suggest language that will attract more diverse applicants. (Disclosure: Cisco, Atlassian, Textio, and the other companies mentioned in this article are customers of LinkedIn.)

Share stories of women who are succeeding across all levels of your organization. Our Gender Insights Report found that both women and men are equally likely to visit a company’s LinkedIn page and research a company’s culture prior to applying for a job. When women see themselves represented in your firm’s recruiting collateral, they’re more likely to apply. Goldman Sachs, for example, promotes both women employees and initiatives on the “Life” section of its LinkedIn company page, as well as its careers blog.

Post salary ranges for positions. We found that salary and benefits information is ranked as the number one most important part of a job description for both genders, above qualifications, culture and long-term opportunities, but is 10% more important to womenWhen an employer is upfront about salary transparency and shares salary ranges, it’s a signal that they are committed to fair pay. Our Language Matters Report also found that jobs that promoted flexible work, working from home, and additional medical benefits were the most popular among women.

Planning for the future — using data to set and achieve goals

Building a gender-diverse recruiting strategy for the future requires purposeful intent. In the past, companies typically set diversity goals either based on bottom-up incremental improvement against the current state or based on a top-down aspirational target. Both of these approaches fall short. Aiming high across the board doesn’t consider differences in talent availability for different functions and roles. While it makes gender parity a priority, it doesn’t provide a realistic plan of action for managers and recruiters. On the other hand, while incremental progress, or goal-setting based on small, continual improvement, is certainly achievable, it’s hard to make those bigger leaps towards gender balance.

Using internal workforce data and external benchmarks, understand your current gender mix organizationally — by department, job function, and seniority level. From there, use data to set stretch goals that factor in the unique realities of your industry or function’s talent pool.

Making your company an attractive place to work.

There are other initiatives that help in the long term. Consider showcasing your company’s commitment to gender parity, helping to attract talent from both traditional and untapped resources. The Bloomberg Women’s Community, for example, connects and supports its female employees through gender awareness initiatives, relationship building, and career development. Bloomberg’s commitment to gender diversity also extends beyond their internal workforce, as they invite companies around the world to participate in their Gender-Equality Index (GEI), which this year selected 230 companies committed to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality in the workplace. It’s important to highlight your company’s commitment to gender parity in visible ways to attract more women and men who want to work in a more diverse environment.

Another long-term approach is to expand your early-in-career talent funnel. For example, Blizzard Entertainment, the video game publisher behind World of Warcraft, was able to increase its number of female interns by 166% by reaching out to on-campus women-led groups such as the “Women in Computer Science” club. For Unilever, recruiting from a broader range of universities and leveraging technology tools like Pymetrics to gauge candidates’ soft skills through short online assessments, has helped improve gender diversity at every level, boosting the number of women in management from 38% in 2010 to 47% at the end of 2017.

These changes matter and can have a ripple effect throughout your entire organization. For example, if women and men were promoted and hired to their first manager role at the same rate, 1 million more women would join the management ranks in corporate America during the next five years, not only narrowing the gender gap, but significantly increasing net margins. Through intentional career development at the managerial level, the road to advancement for women becomes more clear and accessible.

None of these initiatives will solve the problem overnight — progress towards gender parity can be slow. However, when combined with open dialogue and a commitment to change, implementing these initiatives can help business leaders craft a more deliberate recruitment strategy that better aligns with the behavior of both men and women.

How to Manage a Stubborn, Defensive, or Defiant Employee

Some of the hardest employees to manage are people who are consistently oppositional. They might actively debate or ignore feedback, refuse to follow instructions they disagree with, or create a constant stream of negative comments about new initiatives. Most often, these behaviors are meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict, or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent. I’ve found in my 30 years of consulting for both public and privately held companies, that there are three distinct approaches that can help you get the best from oppositional employees.

The first option is to adjust job responsibilities to leverage their strengths. One functional leader at a company I advised was known and appreciated for his technical expertise, but he was also an extreme micromanager and treated employees with disdain, leading to high turnover in his department. Whenever his manager or HR gave him feedback, he dismissed their input, because he felt that they didn’t understand what it took to succeed in his job.

It’s not uncommon for technical experts to struggle in management roles, and their resistance to feedback or support may be triggered when they realize they’re in over their heads but don’t want to be perceived as failing. One solution is to double down on their strengths and minimize their managerial responsibilities or give them a purely technical team. This worked for the functional leader, who, with a much smaller team of fellow experts to manage, ran into fewer obstacles and generated less unhappiness among his subordinates and superiors.

Another alternative is to temporarily overlook individual style while the person adjusts to their new circumstances. Some employees become oppositional when they feel insecure in a new role or with a significant change in their responsibilities. Rather than providing behavioral coaching on their negative or inappropriate communication, at least initially, it can be more effective to focus on the quality of their knowledge or output, and only work on stylistic problems once the employee feels more familiar with the changes and expectations.

I once worked with a nonprofit executive with deep institutional memory who was extremely sensitive to criticism, and became fearful and resistant whenever change was necessary, especially when new requirements were presented to her as fiats. She was so concerned with not looking stupid, weak, or out-of-date, that she became excessively defensive and reactive. This was particularly problematic because her position involved supporting new leaders, who cycled in and out of the job every two to three years, and she had to form new relationships with each one. But her behavior wasn’t oppositional all the time: whenever she worked for a leader who showed respect for her skill and knowledge, she served with loyalty and tenacious effort. Showing appreciation for an employee’s knowledge and overlooking — for a time — their delivery can help build a positive connection you can then expand on.

Finally, it’s worth considering that they may be right. At one service firm where I consulted, a longtime department head expressed great negativity about the changes a succession of new bosses wanted to make. She began to change her attitude when one new leader paid attention to her complaints and took her challenges as clues that some of her “old ways” might still have merit. She became more willing to hear him out and to sign on to some of his new initiatives. Over time, he gave her more related responsibilities and opportunities to share her knowledge with other areas of the company. She continued to challenge some of his new directions, but warmed up significantly as she saw that her subject matter expertise was being taken seriously.

On the other hand, know where to draw the line. At another client, a senior leader who was an external hire felt that his track record spoke for itself, and that he didn’t need to adjust to his new company’s cultural norms. When he behaved in ways that were counter to norms around work/life balance and demonstrating respect for individual differences, he was chastised and counseled multiple times by a colleague from HR, but he assumed that his financial performance would protect him. In fact, he made it quite clear to colleagues that he didn’t have to “listen” to the feedback he was receiving. Despite the success of his work product, when too many employees complained that they felt denigrated and that he was damaging the organizational culture, the executive leadership got involved and he was let go.

Sometimes, the behavior of an oppositional employee is so damaging to their team or colleagues that the company cannot sustain it and must encourage them to move on. But in many cases, after understanding their concerns and motivations, organizations can provide effective support to oppositional employees through job redesign and relationship building. Then employees who were once seen as problems can bring their greatest strengths to bear on behalf of the organization, rather than against it.


Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.