The Busier You Are, The More You Need a Break

woman-breathing-fresh-air1Recently over here at Skillsoft we did a survey in collaboration with Scott Eblin, leadership expert and author of the new book Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative.

In this short study we asked many questions about how we, all busy professionals, spend our days – when we wake up, how long our commute is, how many texts and emails we receive each day, how many meetings we sit through, how much exercise we get, and even how many cups of coffee we drink.

And then we asked a few questions about our sense of happiness, contentment, productivity, and how much of the time we feel “at our best.” The objective of the study was to understand how our daily behaviors impact our sense of well-being, productivity, and happiness – in our work, in our communities, and with our families.

Some of what we discovered may not surprise you, but one insight might: The busier we are in our work, the more we need to both schedule, and take, regular breaks in our day in order to sustain high levels of happiness and productivity. The happiest, and most productive professionals, take regular mini-breaks throughout the day. And the more responsibility we have, the more important this becomes.

Here is some of what we discovered:

Individual Contributors, that is professionals who are not bosses, with no direct reports, suffer through the fewest number of meetings, receive the least number of emails and texts (although 24% stated they receive over 50 per day), have the shortest commute to work, and for the most part are good at leaving work at work. Only a third of this group spend more than 40 hours a week in the office. These individual contributors and team members also reported the least amount of hours working outside of work – at home, in coffee shops, etc.

The majority of Managers surveyed stated they had about two to six members on their team, received slightly higher volumes of email and text messages regarding work, and unsurprisingly had to sit through a few more meetings each day. Managers also described slightly higher commuting distances, presumably because they were willing to travel farther for their position. This group is getting about the same amount of sleep as their individual contributor counterparts, but dedicating a little more time each week to exercise.

Apparently gone are the days of Executives having martini lunches and golfing twice a week, because in our survey the Executive group overwhelmingly reported the highest volume of emails (31% say they receive over 100), nearly twice as many meetings (many up to 6 meetings per day!), and up to 80 hours of being connected to work each week, both at the office and elsewhere. This group also travels the farthest to work, and unsurprisingly spends the most amount of time on airplanes. However, the Executive group also reported the most hours dedicated to sleep and exercise.

Here’s the piece of data that surprised us:

Contributors and Managers reported comparable levels of happiness and productivity, and comparable number of mini-breaks in their work day to refresh and recharge. And those with the least work obligations suffered the least when they did not take regular breaks.

Meanwhile, we found that the greater the responsibility and obligations we have, in terms of meetings, direct reports, email correspondence, travel, etc… the more important the mental breaks become. Those with the highest volume of meetings, emails, obligations and distractions reported a much greater drop in productivity at work, and satisfaction in all aspects of their lives when they did not take mindful, and intentional breaks in their day.

Do yourself, your work, and your family a favor. Take a break.

Is Luck a Choice?

Rabbit’s feet, four leaf clovers, and rain during sunshine are all signs of fortune and good luck. The good luck ritual of “knocking on wood” comes from pre-christian rituals in which it was considered important to invoke the powerful and benign influence of the tree gods.

Cats throughout history have been both powerful and good (ancient Egypt), and powerful and bad (medieval England). In the 1560’s in Lincolnshire England, the story goes that a father and son chased a black cat into an alley, and then threw stones at it before it escaped to the home of a nearby woman suspected of being a witch. The next day they returned to discover the woman limping with bruised legs, presumably from the stones the night prior. Thereafter it was believed witches could transform into black cats.

When a ladder is propped up against a wall a natural triangle is formed, symbolic of the holy Trinity. To walk under the ladder would break the Trinity, and therefore bring ill fortune. Yet numerous experiments demonstrate such superstitions have no real worldly effect. (Unless of course some higher power is influencing you – just watch BF Skinner get a pigeon to turn in circles in less than 60 seconds.)

In his book The Luck Factor, Richard Wiseman describes luck in terms of choice. In his research working with more than 400 individuals, he found several key attributes of those who describe themselves as “lucky”:

  • They create opportunities for uncertainty and embrace change. They are creative and curious. Wiseman has a fun game in which participants write down six activities or experiences they have not tried but would be willing to try, then roll a die and do the activity that corresponds to the outcome. This game reinforces our willingness to try something new.
  • They make good decisions without consciously knowing why or how they did. Those who describe themselves as lucky make better gut decisions. Intuition-driven decision making seems impossible to control, yet Wiseman discovered those lucky decision makers actually spent more time reflecting and meditating on the decision once considered, and spent more time envisioning hypothetical circumstances in which they may have to make decisions. So when the situation arose, those who were “lucky” were actually better prepared to make a decision in the moment.
  • They have dreams and ambitions that have a knack of coming true. Lucky people expect the best outcomes, despite any negative past experiences, whereas unlucky people allow past negative events to dictate future expectations. The lucky people also described their expectations of upcoming interactions with other people as generally positive. That is, they anticipate their own good fortune.
  • They turn their bad fortune into good luck or opportunity. Wiseman describes two primary ways people turn bad luck into good luck. Basically they interpret the bad as “could have been much worse.” And when they reflect on past events, they spend a greater amount of time visualizing and selectively remembering the positive. In other words, the bad wasn’t all that bad, and the good was pretty great.

You too can create your own luck. People who consider themselves lucky put themselves in the position of having chance encounters that lead to interesting new possibilities and opportunities, see the upside of the experience, and harness the power of curiosity to be creative. Good luck!
Start one small act at a time. Try our course Small Acts of Leadership to build action into your life every single day.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

You are Successful. But Distracted. Possibly Bored. What Happened?

You are successful. You worked hard for years with laser focus developing unique and sought-after expertise that no one else could quite replicate at your company. It paid off. You are highly valued. People ask your opinion. They invite you to join projects. They buy you drinks.

But lately you are distracted, almost bored. It’s not that you don’t have lots of projects going on. You do. Actually a ton of interesting people and projects keep arriving at your feet. They are all fascinating and exciting, and brimming with opportunity. For five minutes.

The problem is they aren’t your projects. They are someone else’s. And while their enthusiasm is contagious and fun, in the end it’s their project, not yours. And for that reason the buzz doesn’t last. You became sought-after and valuable because of your unique and unparalleled expertise. And that success has brought opportunity. And those opportunities have created distractions which leave you unfocused, drifting, and wondering when you can get back to what you love. Which is hard to do since all of these enticing opportunities keep presenting themselves.

Only Do What Only You Can Do: You became passionate, and excellent, and sought-after, by focusing the bulk of your time on only doing what only you can do. In other words, taking on the kinds of projects and challenges that you are uniquely predisposed to do.

Let’s take a few tips from choice expert, Sheena Iyengar, on how to bring some discipline to your decisions.

Step 1: Write down all of the things that you do in a given work week. What is extraneous, redundant, or can be offloaded to someone more qualified? According to Sheena, it should be at least 50%, ideally 75%.

Step 2: Of what’s left on the list, ask yourself, “When I work on this task do I experience greater frustration or greater joy or reward to others upon accomplishing it?” Of those items high in frustration, you want to 1. do quickly 2. offload, or 3. just stop doing. Because remember that tasks you find frustrating, someone else finds easy or rewarding.

Step 3: What’s left should be tasks in which you create greater value than frustration, produce greater joy than pain, and build greater value than distraction. Categorize them by type of task. Ah, you just learned something about the types of things you do.

Step 4: Finally, of what’s left in the high impact, high value, high reward, low frustration category, ask yourself, “Am I the most qualified person available to be doing this?”

You have now arrived at Only Do What Only You Can Do. In this place you have found the intersection of skill, passion, and impact. In this place you love your work, learn quickly and deliver high value to the team around you. In this place you can recapture your mojo.

But this does not give you license to become a prima donna, or shirk shared obligations. There are always chores that need to be done by any team, and you likely have specific deliverables that make you yawn every week. Step up. Lean in. It’s what keeps the trains running.

My suggestion is to remember what made you valuable in the first place, and not lose sight of honing that expertise.

Start one small act at a time. Try our course Small Acts of Leadership to build action into your life every single day.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Five Traits of Leaders Working at Scale

sweepersIt’s not a glorious job. And would likely be completely forgettable, if not for the frantic brushing down the ice. It’s distracting until you figure out that they are actually making the stone go faster by polishing the ice in front of the sliding stone. Sometimes I wonder if they accidentally bump into the other stones on the ice. I’ve never seen it happen. But it’s the role of the sweeper that can often make the biggest difference in the outcome in a game of curling.

Effective leaders who create excellence, at scale, in the companies and communities in which we work, have this skill of clearing the way ahead, along with several other key traits. These unique people operating at the highest levels of leadership can divest their ego from the end goal. They have accountability when things go awry but not granular responsibility over individual elements, because the journey toward a shared audacious goal must be emotionally owned by the entire organization to create scale.

Those leaders who can create innovation and excellence at scale possess these five traits:

Sweep away barriers: In order for excellence to grow rapidly and unimpeded, the clutter of antiquated bureaucracy and organizational roadblocks needs to be mitigated or removed entirely. This is the job of the best managers – not to create work that distracts, but instead identify obstacles and have the power and political clout to remove them. Jack Welch likes to use the analogy of the sweepers in a curling match, whose job is to clean the ice in front of the oncoming stone.

Mine the organization for expertise: Lou Platt, the former CEO of HP once said, “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.” By that he meant that there was redundancy and untapped capability within their own organization. The best leader creates environments and communication patterns to recognize untapped potential and surface latent expertise. Sir Howard Stringer of Sony, once hosted an international gathering of their engineers just so they could meet and talk, and discover the great capabilities Sony already possessed. Many later thanked Howard, saying they had no idea the depth of skill and knowledge within their own organization.

Build an ownership culture: One of the strongest and fastest ways to build a culture of ownership is to facilitate the building of shared language. When leaders create the circumstances and opportunities for the people around them to define the language use to build projects and collaborate, it creates a higher sense of ownership because suddenly each team member has a vested interest in the eventual outcome. When you have the team name the project, or the outcome, it becomes more about how “we” play the game. This is a stepping stone to building signature solutions. A signature solution is a process or result that has the character, the personality, of it’s contributors baked in to the finished result.

Give credit: A hallmark of a great leader is one who doesn’t want the credit. Or more specifically, doesn’t need the credit. These leaders who can scale excellence recognize that by giving credit, they allow those around them to step to the front – to become leaders themselves. In this way, remarkable leaders are more inclined toward starting something with a greater purpose, and then allowing those more capable people around them to execute on the details and drive scale.

Emphasize process over results: I once had an interview with the Dean of Melbourne Business School, Zeger Degraeve, who has a strong passion for understanding how people make decisions, and create excellence at scale. In our discussion, he strongly reinforced the power of process-driven cultures in eradicating blame tendencies among managers and peers. When individuals and teams are punished on the basis of poor outcomes, despite strong collaboration and decision making, it sends a signal to the rest of the organization that failure is dangerous, and therefore risk should be avoided. Yet inversely, rewards-centered cultures create disincentives for people to make mistakes at a time when making mistakes is the most reliable way of figuring out what works.

Most organizations today create bonus and reward structures that focus on and reward results. If we want an outcome to be repeatable, we instead need to focus on the process that created the result and reward for that. To truly connect with people in our organizations, we should spend more of our time and energy as leaders asking them to examine more closely how they perform their tasks and collaborate as teams, and how the organization, as a whole, operates.

Your Decisions Become Your Possessions


If I make a decision it is a possession, I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. A decision is something you polish.
– Paul Gleason, wildland firefighter

In 1994, 14 heroic firefighters perished in the South Canyon fire in Colorado. Although they had been instructed to drop their gear when fleeing the advancing fire, none did. One body was found only 250 feet from the safety of top of the ridge still wearing his heavy pack and carrying a chainsaw. After the event, experts calculated that less than .5 mile per hour of faster speed would have saved them. Average humans, unencumbered, can run about 12-14mph for short distances. Carrying their gear the firefighters might have been half as fast. Perhaps they were disoriented in the smoke and fire. Perhaps the act of dropping gear would be to admit failure. Perhaps in the moment, and in spite of their training, they didn’t hear the order and simply never thought of it.

We also overvalue our possessions. In the 1949 wildfire disaster at Mann-Gulch, crew foreman Wag Dodge clearly ordered everyone to drop their gear and run from the advancing fire. Walter Rumsey testified that even though he was running for his life, he saw his partner Eldon Diettert was carrying a shovel. Rumsey grabbed it from him to lessen his load, but then searched around for a tree so that he could carefully lean the shovel against it.

Foolish consistencies aren’t only the domain of individual judgment. The final report of the Columbia shuttle disaster investigation stated that NASA “management was not able to recognize that in unprecedented conditions, when lives are on the line, flexibility and democratic process should take priority over bureaucratic response.” They simply couldn’t see beyond standard operating procedure in the face of changing circumstances and evidence.

Conviction can be a good thing. Conviction bolsters confidence and spurs action. But failing to abandon past practices and habits can also be catastrophic. We can become so enamored with our possessions that we self-identify with carrying them. To carry a Pulaski fireman’s axe is a badge of honor, just as carrying our habits and opinions with us everywhere we go affirms who we are.

So how can we identify those fixations that are holding us back and weighing us down, versus reaffirming those closely held convictions which empower and propel us? Taking a tip from Harvard medical researcher Jenny Rudolph, the best advice is to say what you are thinking out loud, in the presence of those whom you trust and who will hold you accountable.

In her research she found that once medical students made incorrect diagnoses, they would often persist in ineffective treatments long after it had become obvious that the treatments were not helping. They were simply unable, or unwilling, to revisit their original diagnosis. They became stuck – fixated – on their original decision.

Dr. Rudolph found that by doing three simple things, the medical students were often able to change their opinion quickly and effectively treat an accurate diagnosis.

  • Say out loud an expanded list of the symptoms identified
  • Say out loud an expanded list of the possible diagnoses that would fit the symptoms identified
  • Say out loud a plan to eliminate each diagnosis one by one

By simply saying out loud what we are thinking in the face of changing circumstances and evidence, we force ourselves to consider our opinions and biases. We not only hold ourselves more accountable, but implicitly ask those around us to also check our judgment.

After all, remember what Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Hacking the Super You

superhumanOver the years, my friend Erich and I have probably logged thousands of miles cycling together. In all conditions – cold, wet, early, or in the fading warm July sunlight – we have ridden these Maine roads together. And when you train with someone for long enough you recognize their strengths (he climbs like a scalded cat), odd proclivities (he prefers riding on the right side of someone else), and their hesitations (he often descends cautiously).

We trained for a triathlon together a couple years ago. We would meet and ride the 40km course a couple of times a week, sometimes twice in a day. We got to the point where we knew the entire course in great detail – every crack in the road, every undulation of pavement, when to push and when to recover. And more or less, it seemed we were evenly matched.

On the day of the triathlon I had a fine race and the ride was my strongest leg of the event. I was pleased to finish in the top 10% of riders. Meanwhile, Erich blazed the ride. While averaging nearly 25mph on the hilly course, for some sections he led the entire field chasing only the pace car in front of him. On that day over 800 people raced the event. Only four individuals – all pros – were faster than Erich, and only by mere seconds. I was astonished. He was dumbfounded. He beat me by over 7 minutes on the ride. And he did it in celebration of his 50th birthday.

I had many questions about where this super-Erich performance came from. As I listened to him talk about his ride, he never once made any comparisons to other riders. He never spoke of how he was performing in relation to anyone else. He didn’t talk of the event as a competition. All of his language around preparation and performance was in terms of him versus the course. Actually “versus” isn’t quite the right word. It was more that he spoke of being in tune with how he felt in each moment – riding with the road with a sense of totally embodying the experience.

Another interesting comment Erich made was that during the ride itself he was aware that he was crushing it. He knew, on an innate level of consciousness, that he was absolutely killing the course, but there was no emotion associated with it. He felt not frustration, pain, angst, or struggle – only focus. The celebration and elation would come later. During the ride itself, he was all focused execution, hyper attention to nuance, flowing with the road.

As Steven Kotler describes in his mind-bending book The Rise of Superman, this sense of “deep embodiment” is one of the external Flow triggers of immersion in the moment. In short, Flow is an induced state of energized focus, heightened awareness, complete absorption, and elevated performance. And often, exceedingly high performance accompanies Flow states.

While these states are often spoken of by top adventurers, Flow states are also common among artists, musicians, professional athletes, and yes, even business professionals. According to this McKinsey study, business executives stated that when they were at their most effective – in a state of Flow – they were more than five times more effective than their more mundane, and common, moments of activity while attending meetings, interacting with colleagues, and executing tasks.

Much has been studied and written about the importance of developing a strong creative capability for today’s busy professional in this always-on, bottle rocket economy. IBM’s global CEO study asserts that creativity, mental flexibility, and collaboration have displaced one-dimensional intelligence and isolated determination as core ingredients of competitive advantage in today’s turbulent market. Creativity is treasured among the most-valued traits of sought-after talent. Yet, creativity is hard to teach.

Here’s the thing: Flow states induce creative states. As Teresa Amabile’s 2005 study shows, Flow states often precede creative states. Early findings at Kotler’s Flow Genome Project suggest Flow states later induce up to seven times the creativity in test subjects.

While developing creative triggers can be elusive, finding Flow triggers can be more predictable. We recognize that feeling when we felt hyper-present and alive skiing through the trees, immersed in a book, hypnotized in a provocative conversation, even mesmerized by an addicting video game. These induced Flow states lead to creatively productive states, often in the following hours and days after a Flow event.

Don’t seek on-demand creativity of yourself or those around you. Instead seek those circumstances, environments, and personal and social triggers which induce your own Flow states. To inspire creativity in those around you, start by finding it yourself. Model finding those Flow states you want to encourage in others. Creative productivity will surely follow.

Escaping the ignorance spiral


Honesty about performance, complete transparency about whether or not you’re doing it well. I think it’s a human right.”
– Jeff Immelt

Our son is in a phase in which he believes he is right about everything. He will correct or contradict just about anything I say, including the color of the sky. It’s cute until it’s not. His confidence on subjects he knows almost nothing about can be staggering.

The Germans have a word, fremdschämen, which is that feeling when you are in the presence of someone who should feel embarrassed for themselves, yet simply is not. And so you feel simultaneously horrified and embarrassed in their place. It’s that feeling you get when watching terrible auditions on American Idol. I can get a hint of fremdschämen listening to my son prattle on about subjects he is woefully ignorant of.

This ignorance can become a vicious cycle. As researchers Kruger and Dunning discovered, those students who scored in the bottom quartile estimated their mastery of the course material to fall in the 60th percentile. Just as 82% of drivers say they are in the top third of safe drivers, which is mathematically impossible. Or similarly a Bain study which revealed that while 80% of CEOs say their company delivers a “superior” product, only 8% of their own customers would agree.

And as Dunning and Kruger demonstrated, ignorance rewards confidence. But also, silence rewards ignorance. Yet, there may be a way out. In their study, once students had completed the test, the researchers gave half of the students a small tutorial on how to correctly solve the problems they were just presented. After the tutorial, the students were permitted to look over their own tests and self-evaluate their performance. Those students who received the tutorial on how to effectively solve the problems were much more accurately critical of their own performance.

Understanding this effect can often lead us to critically evaluate how astute or accurate others are, and take on the responsibility of correcting someone else. Wrong approach. Start with yourself. Critically self-evaluate your own performance, and seek ways to learn how to improve. Be the example you wish to see in the world.

Or as David Dunning himself put it so well, “The presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as it’s been come to be called, is that one should pause to worry about one’s own certainty, not the certainty of others.”

[For more on this subject, I recommend Chris Lee’s article here.]

Redefine your competition. Think bigger.

thinkbiggerJeri Finard has made some valuable decisions on her way to the highest echelons of business. She stopped trying really hard to get ahead, she listened closely to trusted mentors, and she stopped following the conventional wisdom of focusing on your competition.

I had the privilege to interview Ms. Finard last week in New York. Currently the President of Godiva, and formerly the Global Brand President of Avon, and Chief Marketing Officer at the immense organization Kraft Foods, Ms. Finard is no stranger to executive offices and boardrooms. But as she described to me, the key to getting ahead was finding what she loved. And one key to finding what she loved was ignoring the ladder-climbing game. Let me explain.

Years ago as a manager at Kraft Foods, she was invited to lead the confectionary business for the newly acquired Nabisco. It was a generous and plum position offer. She declined it for personal reasons to focus on her family and children. She explained to me that while she was dedicated to her husband and kids, and unwilling to relocate her family for new opportunities, she also felt a sense of frustration while others around her were getting promoted. At the time her mentor was Ann Fudge, who went on to be President of Kraft General Foods and recognized as one of the savviest and most successful women in business. Ann advised her to follow her own path and passions, and disregard what her colleagues were doing.

As somewhat of a consolation, Ms. Finard was offered a lateral move to run the desserts division within Kraft. The desserts division was comprised of brands such as JELL-O, Cool Whip, Baker’s Chocolate and other brands which were stagnating. JELL-O already owned 85% of the gelatin market, Cool Whip had saturated their own market, and home baking was on the decline. From the perspective of many within Kraft it was considered a dog division with no prospect of growth opportunity. The expectation was that she would go babysit a flat line of products.

Ms. Finard took a new perspective. She didn’t know it wasn’t possible to build growth in a flat market. Yes, JELL-O had 85% of the gelatin market, but she focused on the fact that gelatin wasn’t the competition. The real competition was snack foods like yogurt, fruit, chips and candy bars. And JELL-O was less than 2% of the snack foods industry, so from her perspective there was nothing but growth opportunity. She focused on fun, like JELL-O Pudding Pops, and healthy alternatives, like JELL-O with less sugar and more fruit, JELL-O smoothies, even created popular recipes to reinvigorate desserts.

As she described, “Ultimately you’re competing for share of stomach. So I think it’s important that you don’t limit yourself by defining who your competitors are. Because if you do that, you’ll never think big enough.”

She also once had a hilarious dinner with Bill Cosby when working with him on the JELL-O Pudding Pops project.

It’s OK, Einstein talked to himself too.

talktoself“Dad, they’re huge!” The other team was way bigger. Faster, and more physical too. At one point during the game my son Will was being marked by one of their defenders who looked like he might trip over him. But the match remained even throughout the first half as our team deftly moved the ball around the field. True, the opposition had more breakaways and explosive plays, but once we recaptured the ball we passed tightly up the field to create opportunities.

Okay, this was U11 soccer and not actually as elegant as I describe. But while we were clearly outmatched in size and speed by the older U12 team we were playing, we eventually won the game decisively simply through superior team play, passing and handling skills. From what I could see, the boys never hesitated in their confidence despite what could have been an intimidating first half playing a bigger team.

In the words of performance coach Jaki Hitzelberger, she would call this the difference between proactive and reactive confidence. Reactive confidence is confidence built by responding to external conditions like a poor warm-up, the first few plays of the game, or the size and demeanor of the opposition. Whereas proactive confidence originates from the internal mindset of the player. Players with proactive confidence have stable confidence throughout the game, focus on their strengths, trust their teammates and visualize success before the game even begins.

High performers often do something else people may regard as odd or strange. They talk to themselves. Einstein famously didn’t talk at all until about four years of age and then began talking by often quietly muttering sentences to himself. An interesting recent study discovered that people who talk to themselves about what they are trying to accomplish, or trying to find, are more successful than those who don’t.

And as Dan Coyle reminds us here, how you talk to yourself matters a great deal. The most effective phrasing turns negative stress into positive challenge.

Before any meeting, interaction, activity or game, remember Jaki’s advice to remain confident despite changing circumstances or early failures, trust your teammates and colleagues, and visualize success. Try saying these things out loud too.