Contributor: Jacob Adler
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Josh Davis, the Director of Research for the NeuroLeadership Institute, which is a global institute dedicated to synthesizing scientific research andguiding its use in the business and leadership fields. He’s a faculty member at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of the just published Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. They spoke about how to make the most of your time based on scientific research.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stewart Friedman: I understand, you come from the field of neurolinguistics. First, can you just tell us what that field is, because not everyone listening knows.
Josh Davis: It’s actually not the field in which I did my doctoral work, that would be area called social cognitive neuroscience. This is the study of the social contexts that we put ourselves in, the ways that we talk to each other, the ways that we use language, the ways that we talk to ourselves that can really influence actual brain function, can influence the emotions and influence whether we’re beating ourselves up or whether we’re working with ourselves most effectively. There’s a lot of flexibility we have in regulating emotions that comes from research in neurolinguistics, research in other branches of psychology, other branches of neuroscience.
SF: So neurolinguistics is really the study of the connection between brain and language, is that right?
JD: It is, yeah. Neurolinguistics is looking at what’s going on in the brain when we’re processing language, when we’re communicating or simply understanding language.
SF: Alright, so how did you get interested in using that science to understand how we can use our time more effectively?
JD: I realized we can be really effective for short periods of time. I’m sure you’ve had these moments where you have a couple hours or you figure out exactly what the lineup is going to be for the show, or for the whole fall. A big project which you can sort it out, get everything done you need to, and make tremendous progress in a short period of time. I know that I can have two or three days on end where I’m practically worthless, I’m getting very little done that actually matters.
SF: So you got those concentrated bursts of “ah, how the world seems right and I’ve figured it out”.
JD: Exactly — these short periods of time. So what I turned my mind to was this: if it happens sometimes, is there something we can learn about how to set up those periods of effectiveness, of really intense effectiveness, peak effectiveness at will, or more often. And that’s when I turned to the psychology and neuroscience research, to see what I could find about how to set up those conditions. The biggest-picture take-home was that many of the same things that help set up those conditions are also the same that create more work/life balance. So that’s the biggest-picture take-home. But working with how a human being works, aiming to set up periods of peak effectiveness is going to help us get more done that actually matters, get to the important stuff and not be working all the time.
SF: Alright, can you give us a brief overview of what you discovered and how it’s portrayed in our wonderful book, Two Awesome Hours?
JD: We can recognize that, most of the day, we’re actually on autopilot. We are right now, for example, in conversation mode. There’s a lot of things we’re conscious of, like deciding how to answer your questions. But for the most part, I’m in conversation mode. I’m not wondering how to spend my time and I’m not aware of a lot of things in the background, other things I need to get to. Once our conversation ends though, all of the sudden, the autopilot ends. Once you get to work after your commute, the autopilot ends. Once you get out of a meeting, the autopilot ends. Once you stop checking emails, the autopilot ends. In those brief moments, and we get them just a handful of times throughout the day: right before a test, right after one ends, or right when we’ve been interrupted. We get a chance to actually think much more deeply. We become more conscious. When we get to a crossroads, all of the sudden, autopilot can’t handle things anymore. We actually bring more conscious resources online in those moments, we’re more self-aware. It can be very unpleasant, it can feel like we’re not being productive, because we’re more aware of time passing, and it’s tempting to go for what’s right in front of us. But those moments, I call them decision points, they’re moments to really savor, to step back, recognize that you got a golden moment in the day to take a few minutes. It doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes, and just really remember what’s important. Then go ahead and decide what task to get working on, because we waste time when we get started on the wrong task. You start checking emails it takes an hour and a half, but we don’t waste time in those moments when we feel like we’re wasting time just because we haven’t decided yet. So it’s recognizing when those come and taking advantage of them is the first step and it paves the way for all the others.
SF: Can you give an example of how that might actually occur or how you’ve done it?
JD:. Literally, 20 minutes ago I had just finished working on something, I had sent something off, and I had 20 minutes to go before this show. And I thought, oh I have 20 minutes, how do I want to use it, I’ve got some time.
SF: How do I want to use it? I like that question.
JD: Right. I’ll be tired later. But I didn’t just jump in and look for what would take 20 minutes, those kinds of things. I took a moment, because I’ve learned to do this now, and I said, okay, wait a second. This is a decision point. I step back, literally, because that can help to give you more perspective.
SF: You mean you actually took a step in the rear direction?
JD: I literally got up from the desk and stepped back away from it, and I let myself stare out the window for a minute until I became more aware of the mental energy I have right now. It’s towards the end of the day, I’ve been doing a lot of hard work, and aware of the importance of showing up for this interview, in a way that I really want to be able to share with people something useful. And recognize that it’s actually going to be a better use of my time to take a break, have a little coffee, sit down and let my mind wander, and be ready for this call. The work that I would have done in those 20 minutes would have been very unproductive work, because I wasn’t in a good place to be working well. I’ll do that work much more quickly and effectively by saving it for tomorrow, and after our call I may go and do something relatively unimportant because I’ll be kind of spent. It’ll be the end of the day. But I had a chance to think about that, and end up showing up more effectively for the right work.
SF: So a decision point is really an opportunity for you to reflect on what you should be focusing your attention on, is that right?
JD: That’s right. And I do think that we all can be aware of what actually matters, what’s important. It doesn’t require a lot of deep soul-searching, for someone like me. If you ask me while I’m on vacation, what matters about your work, well I should be writing stuff and I should be speaking, public speaking of some kind or another. And if it’s not one of those two things, if it’s not really contributing to one of those two things, it’s not as important. For almost any job, we can figure it out fairly easily, but it’s remembering, having a way to remember the moments that matter, to do the important things and not just see urgent things, that’s the key.
SF: Right, because otherwise you’re wasting your attention on things that aren’t important. So identifying these points where you step back, quite literally in your case, and actually think about what’s going to be the best use of your time, that’s going to make a big difference in your making intelligent choices about how to invest your attention.
JD: And stepping back, by the way, this is one of those things that came from the research. I learned about the idea of priming something called “psychological distance.” When we think of something as being farther away, when we have an expansive view, or when you think of something being far off in time, that makes you more likely to be thinking big picture, to be thinking more abstractly, and that’s very useful for this type of thinking. So it actually primes that way of thinking.
SF: So that’s the benefit of stepping back from your desk or stepping towards a window where you have a broader vista, broader horizon?
JD: Yeah, so that’s the benefit of doing that. And actually stepping towards the window also has an additional piece of research that motivates that. This has to do with the value of having your mind wander. This one is a little counter-intuitive for a lot of people. You never see the report card that says: Joey’s great in class, but he should daydream more. Creative incubation happens when we let our minds wander, which doesn’t happen when we don’t let our minds wander, or not nearly as much. So if you’ve been working on something that needs creative thinking, who am I going to put on this team, how am I going to map out this chapter of a book, or whatever the creative project is, if you then let your mind wander, even if it’s just for a few minutes and come back to it, you’re more likely to have creative solutions and more of them, than if you just spend just as much time working on the problem. So actually, you’re better off in that context having the time spent wandering rather than working on it. It doesn’t just make you more creative in general, but it makes you more creative about those things you were already puzzling over. A second thing is, you’re probably familiar with the famous Marshmallow Test, the idea of delayed gratification?
SF: I am, but our listeners might not be, so a very brief recap of the meaning of that research?
JD: There’s a great book out by the author of the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel. It’s called The Marshmallow Test. The idea is this: you take some four-year-olds and you tell them you can have this marshmallow right now, but if you wait until I come back – and the kids don’t know how long that is and to a four-year-old it can be an eternity.–if you wait until I come back, then you can have this other treat that they had previously determined that the kid preferred over the marshmallow. Some of the kids actually waited the whole time, which turned out to be 15 minutes. Some don’t, and there’s variations in how long they waited. The ability to wait, the ability to delay gratification predicts things years later like SAT scores, college success, marital success, job success, likelihood to end up having trouble with the law, and all kinds of things. It’s not that there’s something magical about these kids, though. It’s not that they’re just gifted in some way, it’s that the kids are doing something different. And what the kids are doing is reframing the challenge in front of them. They’re thinking of it as the opportunity to get the thing down the line and not spending time thinking about how tasty the marshmallow would be. Or maybe they’re thinking about it as not a marshmallow, but just a puffy cloud. What daydreaming allows us to do is to reframe what’s going on. In the background, we tend to find new ways of thinking about challenges we face, so we’re more likely to hold out for something better in the future.
SF: So a wandering mind helps you to delay gratification because it opens you up to thinking about alternatives?
Garrison calling from Texas: You’re talking about brain activity as it relates to linguistics and the workplace environment and all the distractions and understanding when you’re in the zone, knowing that time of perfect efficiency and how social media and all these distractions play into it. I have friends and colleagues that are constantly distracted by what could be considered some alternate form of linguistics … How do you get in the autopilot? How do you get out of it? What’s the brain doing?
SF: Great question Garrison, and thank you for that. Josh, tell us, what are your thoughts about that question, how social media affects neurolinguistic functioning and our ability to focus on the things that matter?
JD: It’s right on target. The hardest thing for us to ignore when it comes to different sounds in the background, for instance, is speech. It’s been shown that people doing almost all kinds of work were more effective in silence, and what’s most difficult for us to tune out is speech, rather than white speech or music. We’re definitely designed to pick up on speech, but also there’s another element in the social media piece. It is quite linguistic, information is usually text-based. So whether or not we’re hearing it, it’s still information-rich, and it also has a very strong social nature. We are social creatures. There’s an argument that our brains have evolved in the ways that they have in large part due to the need to track the social environment that we’re in. There’s a study showing, across species, the size of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most different in humans than in other animals, right up front behind the forehead, the size of that correlates with the size of the social network that an animal needs to track across species. That and other data suggest that processing social information is very important to us. Social obligations, as everyone knows, are hard to put out of mind. They tend to be quite distracting, and social media is all about that. It’s about, am I getting back to this other person fast enough? Am I navigating this social relationship in the way that I need to? There’s excitement, because we’re learning where we fit in the social order, and we’re making friends, we’re making connections, and there are other social obligations involved. It’s the stuff that’s designed maximally to grab our attention. Our attention systems in our brain are not designed to stay focused. They’re designed to pick up on what’s changed. They’re designed to help us detect what’s changing in the environment.
SF: So we need to stop fighting distractions?
JD: That’s right. Trying to fight and use willpower, it backfires. It just increases the likelihood you’ll be thinking of exactly the things you’re trying to fight and makes you more likely to go searching for them.
SF: We just have another minute or so. We’re going to have to have you back; this is so fascinating and so important. Can you just give us a very brief recap of the other key strategies that you describe in your book?
JD: One of them, as you mentioned, is stop fighting distractions and it’s about what you can do instead. In what ways can you have compassion for yourself so that you can work with your attention system. Another one is to leverage your mind-body connection. We’re biological creatures, and there’s quite a lot we can do in terms of moderate exercise, food, coffee, water that actually has quite a big impact on the ways that we think and feel, and our concentration. And then finally, there’s making your workspace work for you. There are some things that anybody can do, regardless of how restricted your workspace is that have to do with controlling when you have noise, controlling the light that you have, controlling the clutter on your desk, understanding in what ways that’s affecting you, that you can make some choices about it. For those times that matter, recognizing you don’t need to be on all the time, and we can’t be, but we can be on when we need to be on, for short periods, and that’s really how to take advantage of a human system.
SF: And your strategies based on research are very useful in helping people to develop the skills, to be able to do just that.
To learn more about Josh Davis visit www.twoawesomehours.com.
Jacob Adler, W’18, is a sophomore at Wharton and contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.”