How not to choke under pressure

The right kind of preparation can keep us from stumbling during stressful situations, says cognitive scientist Sian Leah Beilock

“They choked.”

It’s one of the most humiliating things you can say about a person.Just about all of us have choked at some point in our lives, whether it was during a test, a game, a talk, or a sales call.

And, boy, do I know the feeling. Growing up, I was an avid athlete. My main sport was soccer, and I was a goalkeeper, which is both the best and the worst position on the field. All eyes are on you, and with that comes the pressure. I distinctly remember one high-school game in particular. I was playing for the California state team, which is part of the Olympic Development Program. I was having a great game — until I realized that the national coach was standing right behind me. Then everything changed. In a matter of seconds, I went from playing at the top of my ability to the very bottom. I choked under the pressure of feeling those evaluative eyes on me, my team lost, and the national coach walked away.

My experience on the playing field — and in other important facets of my life — pushed me into the field of cognitive science. I wanted to know how we could use our knowledge of the mind and the brain to come up with psychological tools that would help us perform at our best.

I also wanted to find out: Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to our capabilities when the pressure is on? 

It might not be so surprising to you to hear that in stressful situations, we worry — about the situation, the consequences, and what others will think of us.

But what may surprise you is that we often get in our own way precisely because our worries prompt us to concentrate too much. When we’re concerned about performing our best, we may try and control aspects of what we’re doing that are best left on autopilot and outside conscious awareness. As a result, we mess up.

My research team and I have studied this phenomenon of overattention, which we call paralysis by analysis. 

In one study, we asked college soccer players to dribble a soccer ball and to pay attention to an aspect of their performance that they wouldn’t otherwise attend to. Specifically, we asked them to pay attention to what side of their foot was contacting the ball. We found that when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details of what they were doing, their performance was slower and more error-prone. Much of this paralysis by analysis comes down to activity in our prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain that sits over our eyes. While it usually helps us focus in positive ways, it often gets hooked on the wrong things.

In basketball, the term “unconscious” is used to describe a shooter who just can’t seem to miss a shot. NBA All-Star Tim Duncan has said, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.” In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, used to urge his dancers, “Don’t think; just do.” When the pressure’s on, we frequently try and control what we’re doing in a way that leads to worse performance.

So how do we unhook our brains?

We can do something as simple as singing a song or paying attention to one’s pinky toe — as pro golfer Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do. Or, we can find some other mindless activity that can help take our minds off the details of what we’re trying to do.

Another strategy requires closing the gap between training and competition, so we can get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. 

This means practicing under the conditions that we know we’ll be performing under. Whether we’re getting ready for an exam or a talk, we can put ourselves in a simulation of the future stressful situation.

If you’re taking a test, periodically close the book while you’re studying and practice retrieving the answers from memory in a set amount of time. If you’re giving a talk, practice a few times in front of other people. And if you can’t find anyone who will listen, rehearse in front of a video camera or a mirror. Our ability to become accustomed to what it will feel like can make the difference in whether we choke or we thrive.

We can also take steps to rid ourselves of those pesky self-doubts that creep up in pressure-filled situations and lead to paralysis by analysis.

Researchers have discovered that simply writing down our thoughts and worries before the stressful event can help download them from our minds. Journaling or jotting your thoughts on paper or on your phone can make it less likely they’ll pop up and distract you during the moments that count.

Fast-forward from my high school soccer game to my freshman year in college. I was in a chemistry class for science majors, and I did not belong there. Even though I studied for my first midterm exam, I bombed. I got the single worst grade in a class of 400 students. Not was I convinced I shouldn’t be a science major but I thought about dropping out of college altogether.

Instead, I changed what I did. 

Rather than study alone, I studied with a group of friends who’d close their books and compete for the right answers at the end of the study session. We were learning how to practice under stress, closing the gap between training and competition.

When the day for the final exam came, my mind was quiet, and I got one of the highest grades in the entire class. As it turns out, it wasn’t just about learning the material; it was about learning how to overcome my limits when it mattered the most.

Sorry to bother you, but do you say “sorry” too much? What to say instead

When we needlessly apologize, we end up making ourselves small and diminish what we’re trying to express, says sociologist Maja Jovanovic.

Think about all the times you use the word “sorry” in a typical day. There are the necessary “sorry”s — when you bump into someone, when you need to cancel plans with a friend. But what about the unnecessary “sorry”s? The “sorry, this may be an obvious idea” at a meeting, the “sorry to cause trouble” when rescheduling a haircut, the “sorry, there’s a spill in the dairy aisle” at the supermarket.

Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes the “sorry”s we sprinkle through our days hurt us. They make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.

Jovanovic, who teaches at McMaster University and Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, became interested in this topic when she attended a conference four years ago. The four women on a panel were, she says, “experts in their chosen fields. Among them, they had published hundreds of academic articles, dozens of books. All they had to do was introduce themselves. The first woman takes a microphone and she goes, ‘I don’t know what I could possibly add to this discussion’ … The second woman takes the microphone and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought they sent the email to the wrong person. I’m just so humbled to be here.’” The third and fourth women did the same thing.

During the 25 panels at that week-long conference, recalls Jovanovic, “not once did I hear a man take that microphone and discount his accomplishments or minimize his experience. Yet every single time a woman took a microphone, an apologetic tone was sure to follow.” She adds, “I found it enraging; I also found it heartbreaking.”

Jovanovic found the outside world not so different: “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating,” she says. Since then, she’s collected needless apologies from her colleagues and students. One stand-out? “My research assistant said ‘Sorry’ to the pizza delivery guy for his being late to her house,” says Jovanovic. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, we live in a new subdevelopment. I’m so sorry. Did you have trouble finding this place?’”

We can eliminate the “sorry”s from our sentences — and still be considerate. “The next time you bump into someone,” Jovanovic says, “you could say, ‘Go ahead,’ ‘After you’ or ‘Pardon me.’” Similarly, during a meeting, Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry to interrupt you,’ why not try ‘How about,’ ‘I have an idea,’ ‘I’d like to add’ or ‘Why don’t we try this?’” The idea is to be polite while not minimizing yourself.

The “sorry”s that fill our written interactions also need to be noticed — and banished. For emails, Jovanovic says, “There’s a Google Chrome plug-in called ‘just not sorry’ that will alert you to all the needless apologies.” With texts, she points out, “Every single one of us has responded to a text you got when you weren’t able to respond right away. What did you say? ‘Sorry.’” She says, “Don’t apologize — say, ‘I was working,’ ‘I was reading,’ ‘I was driving, ‘I was trying to put on Spanx.’ Whatever it is, it’s all good. You don’t have to apologize.”

And, in some of the instances when we’d typically throw in a “sorry,” we could just use the two magic words: “thank you.” Jovanovic tells of the moment when she realized the effectiveness of gratitude. She says, “Four of us were at a restaurant for a work meeting, and we’re waiting for number five to arrive … I put my sociological cap on, and I thought, ‘What would he say? How many apologies will he give?’ I could barely stand the anticipation. He arrives at the restaurant, and you know what he says? ‘Hey, thanks for waiting.’ … The rest of us said, “Yeah, you’re welcome,” and we all just opened our menus and ordered. Life went on, and everything was fine.”

Another time when “thank you” can work better than “sorry”? When you’re with a friend and you realize you’ve been doing all the talking. Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry for complaining’ or ‘Sorry for venting,’ you could just say, ‘Thank you for listening,’ ‘Thank you for being there’ or ‘Thank you for being my friend.’”

Besides removing them from our own communications, we should tell other people when they’re overdoing their “sorry”s, suggests Jovanovic. You can start with your family and friends — and if you’d like, go beyond them. She says, “I have been interrupting these apologies for three years now. I’ll do it everywhere. I’ll do it in the parking lot, I’ll do it to total strangers at the grocery store, in line somewhere. One hundred percent of the time when I interrupt another woman and I say, ‘Why did you just say ‘sorry’ for that?’ she’ll say to me, ‘I don’t know.’”

5 Little Words That Will Make You a Much Better Leader

Author Simon Sinek offers a dead simple mantra to instantly level up your leadership.

We all know great leaders excel at articulating their vision. What’s less often appreciated is that listening is an equally valuable leadership skill.

Why? First, because feeling truly heard is deeply empowering for a team. As Yale business professor Marissa Kind has explained, “when employees feel listened to, they are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted and less likely to quit their job. They are also more likely to trust — and like — their bosses, and feel committed to them.”

Second, because you need to actually hear and process information about the world to be able to set a sensible vision in the first place. Listening well makes you smarter.

So how do you get better at this essential but under sung skill? There are a million suggestions out there, but perhaps one of the most powerful is also the simplest. It comes from author Simon Sinek and consists of all of five little words.

“Be the last to speak.”

In the quick snippet of a talk below, Sinek offers a profound leadership lesson that’s dead easy to remember: be the last to speak.

“I see it in boardrooms every day of the week, even people who consider themselves to be good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into the room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinion. Let’s go around the room.’ It’s too late,” he warns.

Instead, cultivate the skill to hold you tongue until everyone else has weighed in. Not only does this allow other participants to feel heard, but it gives you an obvious advantage: you get to hear everyone else’s brilliant ideas before you contribute your own. Of course, you’ll say smarter things compared to when you first walked in itching to put your ideas instantly out there.

The logic behind the idea is unassailable, but actually putting this wisdom into practice can be harder than it sounds, Sinek warns. We’re all dying to jump in and prove our brilliance or correct others’ errors, after all. But if you can manage to just keep your mouth shut, you’ll instantly level up your leadership.

Here’s Sinek’s complete advice if you want to check out the complete two-minute clip.

Our fundamental attribution error

When someone else screws up, it’s because of who they are, their race, their upbringing… a glimpse into their true character.

When we do something, it’s because the situation we’re in caused it to happen.

The fundamental attribution error is based on a glitch in the way we understand causation and statistics, and it’s fueled by our unique view of ourselves. Because I’m the only person who can hear the story in my head.

It’s obvious that gender and other easily visible traits are not completely correlated with behavior. And yet we act as if they are, writing off countless individuals instead of embracing the contribution they can offer.

How to Crush Your Habits in the New Year With the Help of Science

It’s the shiniest time of year: that hopeful period when we imagine how remarkable — how fit and kind, how fiscally responsible — our future selves could be. And while you may think “new year, new you” is nothing more than a cringey, magazine-cover trope, research supports its legitimacy.

“It’s not like there’s something magical about Dec. 31,” explained Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit.” “What is magical is our mind’s capacity to create new narratives for ourselves, and to look for events as an opportunity to change the narrative.”

One such opportunity? January. Since most of us consider it a fresh start, Mr. Duhigg said New Year’s resolutions can be “very, very powerful” — as long as they’re backed by science, patience and planning.

At the core of every resolution are habits: good ones, bad ones, stop-biting-your-nails ones. So if you want to change yourself, that’s where you need to start. Here are seven science-based strategies for making sure your new habits endure.

Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct,” suggested asking yourself this question before making any resolutions. “It’s crazy to me how often people work from the opposite,” she said. “They pick some behavior they’ve heard is good for them, and then they try to force it on themselves and hope it will lead to greater health or happiness.”

Sounds familiar, right? To avoid that trap, Dr. McGonigal recommended reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a “theme” for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.

Take the theme of reducing stress, for example. You might try meditating and hate it. But, since your goal wasn’t “meditate 10 minutes a day,” you don’t have to abandon the resolution completely. Maybe you try yoga next.

Electing a unifying theme will also stimulate your brain to look for additional opportunities to advance your goal, said Dr. McGonigal, whereas narrowing yourself to a single behavior will cause your brain to “shut off once you check it off the list.”

According to Mr. Duhigg, research shows that rather than “breaking” bad habits, you should attempt to transform them into better ones. To do so, you need to determine your habit’s trigger (cue) and reward, and then find a new behavior that satisfies both.

While Mr. Duhigg said cues usually fall into one of five categories — time, location, people, emotion or ritual — rewards are more difficult to ascertain. Do you always get an afternoon snack because you’re hungry? Because you’re bored? Or is it because you’re starved for office gossip? To determine an effective replacement habit, it’s vital to understand what reward you crave.

“Any habit can be diagnosed and shifted,” Mr. Duhigg said. “You need to give yourself time to really figure out the cues and rewards that are driving that behavior — and oftentimes the only way … is through a process of experimentation.”

You may have heard the key to habit formation is starting small. But you’ve likely never considered starting as small as James Clear suggests in his new book “Atomic Habits.”

His “two-minute rule” prescribes only completing the outset of any new habit. So if you want to read a book a month, you read a page a day. If you want to play the piano, you sit at the bench and open your songbook.

Although he admitted it might sound frivolous, Mr. Clear said mastering “the art of showing up” helps put a behavior on autopilot. He shared the story of one man who drove to the gym every day, then exercised for a few minutes before going home. By performing that seemingly futile action for six weeks, Mr. Clear said the man slowly became “the type of person who works out every day.”

For a habit to abide, it must have immediate rewards. But before you go buying a smoothie after every workout, note that, according to Dr. McGonigal, the most effective rewards are intrinsic, or the ones you feel, not the ones you procure.

So maybe, instead of that frozen strawberry-kale-hemp delight, you simply notice the renewed energy you have after lifting weights. Or the pride you feel when you don’t smoke cigarettes. Naming the payoff, she said, helps your brain build positive associations with the activity.

If you can’t find an intrinsic reward, it might not be the right habit. You shouldn’t, obviously, volunteer to build trails if you dislike being outside. If your goal is to give back to your community, volunteer with animals or at a homeless shelter instead. “Choose the form of the habit that brings you joy in the moment,” Mr. Clear added. “Because if it has some immediate satisfaction, you’ll be much more likely to repeat it in the future.”

We humans are weak. Which means environment design is our “best lever” for improving habits, according to Mr. Clear.

“The people who exhibit the most self-control are not actually those who have superhuman willpower,” he explained. “They’re the people who are tempted the least.” If you want to save more money, unfollow retailers’ social media accounts. If you want to watch less mindless television, unplug your TV. Dr. McGonigal also recommended displaying physical reminders of your goals — yes, that includes motivational Post-its.

Your environment encompasses the people around you, too. Mr. Clear suggested finding a group “where your desired behavior is the normal behavior,” and then forging friendships with its members (which will really get the habit to stick).

Despite your best intentions, chances are you’ll fail at some point along your new-year-new-you journey.

“The question isn’t ‘Are you going to be able to avoid that?’” said Mr. Duhigg. “The question is ‘What are you going to do next?’” If you have a recovery plan, or if you can learn from your failure, he said you’re “much more likely to succeed” in your goal.

So write down the obstacles you foresee and how you’ll surmount them. If you’re trying to drink less wine, for example, you should probably outline a plan for after your mother-in-law’s next visit.

Also effective, said Dr. McGonigal, is sharing your goals with other people, and then telling them how best to support you. By “outsourcing your willpower,” she explained, others can “hold your intention” for you, “even when you’re exhausted or you’re feeling really stressed out.”

Cake might only be for special occasions, but celebrations are for every day. Science says so.

“Celebration is one of the emotions that propel people further on the path of positive habits,” said Dr. McGonigal. Celebrating tells your brain a behavior is beneficial, and that it should look for more opportunities to engage in it.

The celebrations don’t have to be grand. If you finally study for your licensing exam, tell your co-worker. If you survive a tough workout, take a sweaty selfie. Dr. McGonigal said celebrations can actually change your memory of a particular experience, making it more positive than it was. “And that makes you more likely to choose to do it again in the future,” she added. Taking it a step further, you can send yourself a thank-you letter or FutureMe email expressing gratitude for your new habit.

That gratitude and that authentic pride, along with hope, social connection and compassion, are the most effective emotions for promoting long-lasting behavior change, according to Dr. McGonigal. The least effective are shame, guilt and fear.

So even if you stumble when forming your new habit — which research says you probably will — be kind to yourself. Although big, long-term change isn’t easy, it is possible. “Habits are not a finish line to be crossed,” said Mr. Clear. “They’re a lifestyle to be lived.”

by Susan Shain

Winston Churchill’s Secret Productivity Weapon

How a Midday Nap Can Boost Your Performance all Day Long

One of the more unlikely museums in London is located in the basement of the Treasury, between 10 Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster: the Churchill War Rooms, the underground complex from which Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his ministers and generals fought World War II.

The War Rooms is a large warren of small offices, dormitories, and dining rooms for the prime minister and his staff, top cabinet officers, and general staff, hidden under a bomb-resistant five-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete ceiling. During World War II, hundreds of people worked in them, from clerks and secretaries to generals and ministers. Today, though, the space is dominated by the memory of Churchill.

The exhibits describe the ups and downs of his political career; his indefatigable energy defending Britain and the empire; his eloquence and skill as a writer; his daily life during the war; and his mix of political opportunism, realpolitik, and idealism. But one aspect of his working life gets only a brief mention, at the end of the tour: his habit of taking daily naps.

Churchill himself regarded his midday naps as essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits. He had gotten into the habit of napping during World War I, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and even during the Blitz, Churchill would retire to his private room in the War Rooms after lunch, undress, and sleep for an hour or two. Unless German bombs were falling, he would then head to 10 Downing Street for a bath, change into fresh clothes, and return to work. Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, later recalled, “It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

Not only did a nap help Churchill keep up his energy, his sangfroid also inspired his cabinet and officers. Napping during boring parliamentary debates was one thing. Going to sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that the dark days would pass.

Churchill wasn’t the only Allied leader to nap regularly. George Marshall advised Dwight Eisenhower to take a daily nap; on the other side of the world, Pacific Command adjusted its schedule around Douglas MacArthur’s afternoon nap, which was part of a daily schedule that “had scarcely changed since his days as superintendent of West Point,” according to his biographer William Manchester. (Adolf Hitler, in contrast, kept more erratic hours at the best of times, and as the Allies closed in on Germany in 1944 and 1945, he tried to stay up for days at a time, powered by a mix of amphetamines, cocaine, and other drugs.)

Winston Churchill has been a model for many leaders, and at least two American presidents were inspired by his example to take up napping. John F. Kennedy was so “impressed by Churchill’s eloquence in praise of the afternoon nap,” said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that when he entered the Senate he imitated Churchill’s practice of keeping a cot in Parliament. Later at the White House, Kennedy would normally take a 45-minute nap after lunch; like Churchill, he wouldn’t sleep in the office but would head for the residence and change into pajamas. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, likewise broke up his long day with a nap and shower in the afternoon.

The power of power naps

Why do naps do you good? The most obvious benefit of napping is that it increases alertness and decreases fatigue. A short nap of around twenty minutes boosts your ability to concentrate by giving your body a chance to restore depleted energy. But regular naps—the habit, not just a single nap—have other benefits.

Regular napping can improve memory. Just as the brain uses a good night’s sleep to fix memories, so too does it use naps to consolidate things you’ve just learned. Neuroscientist Sara Mednick found that napping for an hour or more during the day—a nap long enough to allow one to dream—improves performance on memory and perceptual tasks. In a study published in 2003, she had people learn a texture discrimination task in the morning. If you’ve ever been to the eye doctor, you’ve probably had a peripheral vision test: you focus your attention on a light into the center of a large screen and push a button when you see a light on the periphery. Mednick’s test was a bit similar. Subjects were shown a field of little horizontal lines with an L or T in the center. After an irregular interval, some of the lines in the lower left morphed into diagonals. Subjects had to indicate when they saw the change, whether the lines formed a horizontal or vertical row, and what the central fixation target was (partly to keep people from just focusing on the lower left-hand quadrant). It’s a simple test, but this sort of visual discrimination is the kind of thing our brains are designed for, you can quickly get pretty good at it.

After the test, subjects were divided into three groups. One group didn’t nap at all and went about their normal days. The other two took either an hour-long or ninety-minute nap in the afternoon. Everyone was then retested that evening. The subjects who didn’t have a nap did worse on the test. Among the subjects who napped, though, Mednick found that a third had essentially the same scores, while two-thirds did dramatically better in the evening.

So a nap was helping the brain fix this new pattern-recognizing skill. But what accounted for the two sets of results among the nappers? It wasn’t just the length of the nap: while the ninety-minute nappers were almost all in the high-performance group, people who slept an hour were split between both groups. Medick found the answer when she looked at EEG tracings of their sleeping brains.

When you sleep, you go through a 90-to-110-minute-long cycle that proceeds from light sleep to deep slow-wave sleep and finally to REM sleep. In REM sleep, your eyes twitch (REM stands for “rapid eye movement”), your brain waves pick up again, and you’re more likely to dream. The balance of slow-wave and REM sleep varies depending on when you fall asleep and how tired you are. Some people had fallen into slow-wave sleep during their naps, while others had both slow-wave and REM sleep. The slow-wave sleep group performed the same on the morning and evening tests. The slow-wave and REM sleep group, though, were the high performers. Finally, Mednick had the subjects take the same test again the next morning, and then two days later. Everyone’s scores went up after a night’s sleep, but the nap group’s scores rose more sharply than the non-nap group.

Other researchers have found that even a short nap can improve memory. At the University of Dusseldorf, Olaf Lahl showed two groups of students a list of thirty words for two minutes and told them to memorize as many as possible. One group was then allowed to nap for up to an hour, while the other stayed awake. When they were tested to see how many words they could recall, the students who napped did significantly better than those who didn’t. In a second experiment, one group was kept awake, a second napped as long as they wanted (about twenty-five minutes on average), and a third was woken up after five minutes. Lahl found that even a five-minute nap yielded measurable improvements in retention: not as great as a longer nap, but still statistically significant.

Naps can also help workers avoid mistakes and bad behavior. Jennifer Goldschmied, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, found that naps improve emotional regulation and self-control. She measured her subjects’ levels of tolerance for frustration by giving them paper, a pencil, and a set of diagrams. They had to copy the diagrams without lifting their pencil from the paper or tracing over a line.

What they didn’t know was that half the diagrams couldn’t be copied without violating one of those rules. The participants thought they were being tested on their visual acuity or problem-solving skills, but Goldschmied really wanted to see how much time they would spend trying to come up with a solution before they quit. She found that people who had taken a nap before trying to complete the Frustration Tolerance Task were less likely to give up than those who hadn’t napped, were less impulsive, and were better able to handle frustration.

In separate studies, Dan Ariely and Christopher Barnes found that chronic fatigue or mental exhaustion decreases a person’s self-control and decision-making ability, making them more likely to impulsively cheat than their better-rested colleagues.

How long and when?

Short twenty-minute power naps are good for boosting alertness and mental clarity. But sleep research Sara Mednick argues that by paying attention to what time of day you nap and scheduling longer naps with an eye to your sleep cycle and the highs and lows in your energy and attention levels (which follow an ultradian rhythm, rising and falling repeatedly through the day), you can tailor naps to be more physically restorative, to feed your creative activities, or to improve your memory.

Mednick did some of the first work that scientifically measured the benefits of naps. By the time she started graduate school at Harvard in the late 1990’s, sleep scientists had developed a whole toolkit to study the effects of nocturnal sleep and sleep deprivation on things like memory, alertness, and perception. Mednick applied some of those tools to study naps. Previously, researchers had mainly been interested in naps in the context of shift work and sleep deficits, no one had paid much attention to how naps could affect the cognitive performance or alertness of people with stressful or challenging lives but more regular schedules.

To her surprise, she found that a sixty- or ninety-minute nap provided the same kinds of cognitive improvements seen in people who had slept for eight hours. (That’s not to say you can trade a night’s sleep for an afternoon nap. It doesn’t work that way.) Further, she found that timing your nap can affect the balance of light sleep, REM sleep, and slow-wave sleep, and shape the kinds of benefits you get from it.

Sleep scientists have long observed that our need for sleep is governed by two things: sleep pressure and our body’s twenty-four-hour circadian rhythm. Sleep pressure is the body’s need for sleep, and, under normal circumstances, it’s what’s responsible for our feeling sleepy at night. When you wake up refreshed in the morning, your sleep pressure is at a minimum, and it builds up over the course of the day, until it reaches a peak the next night. Circadian rhythm regulates your alertness level. Under normal circumstances, you reach peak alertness around 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.; your alertness dips a little in the early afternoon, then rises through the rest of the day until late evening.

Circadian rhythm and the sleep pressure cycle operate independently of each other. Under normal circumstances the two are in sync: when we go to bed, our circadian cycle is at its lowest ebb and sleep pressure is high; when we wake up, our circadian cycle is revving up and our sleep pressure is low. But they can be thrown out of sync by jet lag, night shifts, or irregular work schedules.

The interaction of the two cycles helps determine what kind of sleep you get. When sleep pressure is high, your body demands more short-wave sleep. This is one reason why, when you go to bed at night, the first phase of your sleep tends to be dominated by deep, restorative short-wave sleep. As the night progresses, sleep pressure is eased and the need for short-wave sleep declines. In the middle of the night, your circadian cycle hits bottom and then starts to climb upward; as it does, you shift into REM sleep. By the time you wake up, your brain has been getting more active for a couple hours.

Mednick discovered that you can use knowledge of the relationship between sleep pressure, circadian rhythm, and sleep type to tailor a nap to your needs. About six hours after you wake up, your body’s circadian rhythm starts to dip and you’re likely to feel drowsy, especially if you’ve had a busy morning and lunch. A twenty-minute power nap at this point (say at 1:00 p.m.) is enough to give you a mental re-charge without leaving you groggy: if you keep it short, you’ll wake up fairly alert and can quickly get back to work. If you stretch it out to an hour, the balance between your circadian rhythm and sleep pressure will produce a nap that balances REM and short-wave sleep.

If on the other hand, you take a nap an hour earlier, five hours after waking, the balance will be different: more REM sleep, less slow-wave sleep. This kind of nap will deliver a little creative nudge: you’re likely to dream and more likely to enroll your subconscious in whatever you were recently working on. If you wait until an hour later, seven hours after waking, your body needs more rest, and an hour-long nap will be richer in slow-wave sleep and more physically restorative than creatively stimulating.

These aren’t dramatic differences: no nap will consist exclusively of one phase of sleep, and no single nap will magically turn you into Albert Einstein (who did nap regularly, it should be noted). And it’s also important to remember that there’s always a gap between laboratory studies of memory, cognition, and creativity, and real-world creativity and work. Few of us have jobs that require us only to memorize strings of numbers or remember pictures or think up unusual uses for tape. But Sara Mednick’s work on naps helps explain why, throughout history, so many dedicated, obsessed, competitive people have, in the middle of the day, stopped what they were doing and gone to sleep, and why they benefit from it.

A powerful but unused tool

In much of the world today, naps have fallen out of favor. They’re now something that young children do on kindergarten mats, not something for adults, least of all leaders and serious minds. As we move into a world and economy that seems to defy the constraints of geography and time, that operates globally and twenty-four/seven, we feel the need (or pressure) to work continuously, to ignore our body’s clocks and push on even when your bodies are pleading to rest. But this is a mistake.

Naps are powerful tools for recovering our energy and focus. We can even learn to tailor them to give us more of a creative boost, or provide more physical benefit, or explore the ideas that emerge at the boundary between consciousness and sleep. Even during his country’s most desperate hours, when he felt the fate of the nation and civilization hanging in the balance, Churchill found time for a nap. We would be wise to ask if our days and our work are really more urgent.

 

 

 

 

Shorten the Line

Joe DeLoss Strives to Not Simply Serve, but to Passionately Solve

“I believe in work. If somebody doesn’t create something, however small it may be, he gets sick. An awful lot of people feel that they’re treading water — that if they vanished in smoke, it wouldn’t mean anything at all in this world. And that’s a despairing and destructive feeling. It’ll kill you.” ― Arthur Miller

Raised in a hardworking, compassionate and service-centric family, Joe DeLoss grew up as a serial entrepreneur with a desire to better others.

Even as he grew older, and his life became busier with school, a business, and a growing family, Joe continued to make time to serve those who had less than he. He volunteered with the elderly, the homeless, the incarcerated and the sick.

Yet, it was during an encounter with those who were hungry that the trajectory of his life changed. And because of it, so too would the lives of numerous others. Let me explain.

After volunteering in a soup kitchen for several months, Joe began to recognize the individuals coming through his line. He became so familiar with those he was serving that he knew what they liked to eat, what they didn’t care for, and was even able to call them by their first name.

But Joe’s inflection point came when he looked up from a large tub of soup he was serving, looked past the gentleman in front of him, and noticed the length of the line stacked behind him. He understood he and his fellow volunteers were doing a tremendous job feeding the people in line, but they were doing nothing to actually shorten the line.

This recognition set Joe on a journey to learn more about who these individuals in line really were, what lead them to this point, and what might liberate them to not only receive a meal, but step out of the line and back into their lives.

Hot Chicken Takeover Provides Opportunities to Those in Need of Supportive Employment

Through conversations with the individuals in line, Joe learned that many of them longed for work, but due to a lack of clean clothes and steady transportation, along with past mistakes they had made, these individuals simply weren’t able to secure employment. He began to work through a business model that would seek to hire individuals who had been incarcerated, homeless, or simply beat down by life. The model would provide them a chance at supportive training, an actual job and an opportunity at a living wage.

The business he created was Hot Chicken Takeover.

Hot Chicken Takeover began with Joe and a few of these new friends cooking chicken on the weekends and serving from a parking lot until the food was gone. They took the proceeds, invested in a few more individuals longing for a supportive work environment, more chicken to cook, and an actual restaurant to serve guests.

By serving great chicken, with a remarkably loyal, passionate and mission-driven staff, Hot Chicken Takeover has grown from a weekend parking lot chicken stand to three full-service family restaurants in Columbus, OH, with a desire to take their model national. Hot Chicken Takeover is growing because the food is delicious and served in an uncommonly welcoming atmosphere.

But the secret ingredient in this business is actually their people.

The restaurants provide jobs to individuals who needed a fair chance to work. They support their new team members with financial stability, opportunities for personal growth, actual chances for professional development, and an array of benefits including flexible schedules, counseling, and even cash advances with no interest. And in an industry with high turnover, HCT prides itself on the fact that they retain their talent 250% as successfully than the industry average.

What Joe DeLoss’ Example Means in Our Own Lives

The inflection point in Joe’s life occurred when he finally recognized that while the work he was doing in the soup kitchen mattered, it wasn’t actually shortening the line.

My friends, as you look around your community, within your home, and in your personal life, where are the lines forming?

As inspired leaders, we are called to not simply observe, but to actively participate; to not merely sympathize, but to lovingly empathize; and to not simply serve, but to boldly, passionately solve.

Lines packed with dysfunction, brokenness, and tragedy wrap around all of our lives. We see them within our families, locally and globally.

But with a heart like Joe’s we can strive together to not only serve those waiting in the lines, but to actively seek to shorten them.

What Superpower Successful Entrepreneurs Have in Common

3 Practices to Cultivate Your Empathy Advantage

It’s no secret that entrepreneurship is a difficult path, with many pitfalls along the way. According to Merriam-Webster, the very definition of an entrepreneur is someone who “assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”

There’s no magic solution that’s going to remove that risk or guarantee your business will succeed. When you set out to build a new business, you do so with the knowledge that many who have gone before you have failed.

That said, there is one skill you can cultivate that will significantly increase your chance of success: effective empathy.

Unlocking your empathy advantage

It’s easy to brush past empathy as another “soft skill” that’s nice to have, all things considered. But in the modern world of business, effective empathy is a skill that can make or break your ability to succeed.

At its core, empathy is the ability to see life from another person’s perspective, to “put yourself in another person’s shoes,” as the saying goes. In business, effective empathy allows you to get inside the mind of your target audience, and identify problems (from their perspective) that you can help solve.

Contrast this with the approach many entrepreneurs take: scratching their own itch by solving their own problems and selling the solution. Sometimes, this works—but only because enough people with the same problem are seeking a solution. Maybe you’ll luck out, but it’ a risky bet.

Ángel Cabrera, President of George Mason University, put it this way in a report from Forbes, “At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off—these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.”

Here are three practices I’d recommend for cultivating your empathy advantage:

1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

This comes directly from Stephen Covey’s classic bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When this approach becomes your priority, every interaction with a potential customer becomes “How can we help you?” instead of “Here’s how we can help.”

That subtle difference completely shifts the conversation, making your potential customers feel valued. This approach keeps you on track to create products or services that meet real needs your audience shares.

If you only adopt one of these practices, choose this one. Setting your own ambitions aside to truly understand another person is a required first step to cultivate empathy.

2. Use data to understand others

Conversations with customers are crucial. But as your business grows, they become increasingly difficult to scale. That’s where data comes in, which provides a high-level perspective on your audience’s needs.

This data could be in the form of purchase trends, campaign success, or digital tracking data from a tool like Google Analytics. Inside Platform University, we also recommend audience surveys as a great way to get a pulse on your audience from time-to-time.

Whatever the source, it’s best to inform your empathy rather than relying solely on “gut feelings” or “hunches” you haven’t backed up with audience research first.

3. Test your assumptions, repeatedly

By its very nature, every new business is filled with assumptions. It’s impossible to avoid that. The key is to identify your assumptions and test them, before betting the farm on a “sure bet” that might surely fail.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries identifies two core “Leap of Faith” assumptions which every business makes. The first is the “Value Hypothesis,” which assumes your product delivers value to the customer in some way. The second is the “Growth Hypothesis,” which assumes new customers will find the product, and that the business model can scale.

For your business to succeed, your assumptions about both value and growth need to be accurate. That’s why you should identify the assumptions you’re making, and find creative ways to test these with your audience or target audience.

The ability to empathize effectively is one of the surest indicators of whether or not an entrepreneur will create a lasting business, regardless of the industry or niche.

Regrettably, it’s also one of the most likely skills to be overlooked, denigrated as an innate skill you either have or you don’t. The truth is, anyone can cultivate empathy with an intentional approach.

Use this to your advantage, and place empathy at the core of your business. With that superpower in place, you’ll drastically increase your chance of success.

12 Simple Habits That Set Ultra-Successful People Apart

A study at Strayer University found that most people think success is about achieving your personal goals.

Ultra-successful people delight themselves by blowing their personal goals out of the water. They succeed along many different dimensions of life: their friendships, their physical and mental health, their families, and their jobs (which they are not only good at, but also enjoy).

TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people and found that ultra-successful people have a lot in common. In particular, 90 percent of them are skilled at managing their emotions in order to stay focused, calm and productive.

These ultra-successful folks have high emotional intelligence (EQ), a critical quality to achieving your dreams.

Although I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that ultra-successful people employ to reach their goals, what follows are 12 of the best. Some of these might seem obvious, but the real challenge lies in recognizing when you need to use them and having the wherewithal to actually do so.

1. They’re composed.

Ultra-successful people are composed because they constantly monitor their emotions; they understand them, and they use this knowledge in the moment to react to challenging situations with self-control. When things go downhill, they are persistently calm and frustratingly content (frustrating to those who aren’t, at least). They know that no matter how good or bad things get, everything changes with time. All they can do is adapt and adjust to stay happy and in control.

2. They’re knowledgeable.

Super-successful people know more than others do because they’re constantly working to increase their self-awareness. They vow constant growth. Whenever they have a spare moment, they fill it with self-education. They don’t do this because it’s “the right thing to do”; they do it because it’s their passion. They’re always looking for opportunities to improve and new things to learn about themselves and the world around them. Instead of succumbing to their fear of looking stupid, truly exceptional people just ask the questions on their mind, because they would rather learn something new than appear smart.

3. They’re deliberate.

Ultra-successful people reach decisions by thinking things out, seeking advice from others and sleeping on it. They know that (as studies show) impulsively relying too much on gut instinct is ineffective and misleading. Being able to slow down and logically think things through makes all the difference.

4. They speak with certainty.

It’s rare to hear super-successful people utter things, such as “um,” “I’m not sure,” and “I think.” Successful people speak assertively because they know it’s difficult to get people to listen to you if you can’t deliver your ideas with conviction.

5. They use positive body language.

Becoming cognizant of your gestures, expressions and tone of voice (and making certain they’re positive) draws people to you like ants to a picnic. Using an enthusiastic tone, uncrossing your arms, maintaining eye contact and leaning toward the person who’s speaking are all forms of positive body language that super-successful people use to draw others in. Positive body language makes all the difference in a conversation because howyou say something can be more important than what you say.

6. They leave a strong first impression.

Research shows that most people decide whether they like you within the first seven seconds of meeting you. Then they spend the rest of the conversation internally justifying their initial reaction. This might sound terrifying, but by knowing this, you can take advantage of it to make huge gains in how people respond to you. First impressions are tied intimately to positive body language. A strong posture, a firm handshake, a smile and open shoulders help ensure your first impression is a good one.

7. They seek out small victories.

Successful people like to challenge themselves and compete, even when their efforts yield only small victories. Small victories build new androgen receptors in the areas of the brain responsible for reward and motivation. The increase in androgen receptors increases the influence of testosterone, which further increases the confidence and eagerness to tackle future challenges. When you achieve a series of small victories, the boost in your confidence can last for months.

8. They’re fearless.

Fear is nothing more than a lingering emotion fueled by your imagination. Danger is real. It’s the uncomfortable rush of adrenaline you get when you almost step in front of a bus. Fear is a choice. Exceptional people know this better than anyone, so they flip fear on its head. Instead of letting fear take over, successful people are addicted to the euphoric feeling of conquering fears.

9. They’re graceful.

Graceful people are the perfect combination of strong and gentle. They don’t resort to intimidation, anger or manipulation to get a point across because their gentle, self-assured nature gets the job done. The word gentle often carries a negative connotation (especially in the workplace), but in reality, it’s the gentleness of being graceful that gives ultra-successful people their power. They’re approachable, likeable and easy to get along with—all qualities that make people highly amenable to their ideas.

10. They’re honest.

Super-successful people trust that honesty and integrity, though painful at times, always work out for the best in the long run. They know that honesty enables genuine connections with people in a way that dishonesty can’t, and that lying always comes back to bite you in the end. In fact, a Notre Dame study showed that people who often lied experienced more mental health problems than their more honest counterparts.

11. They’re grateful.

Ultra-successful people know it takes a lot of ambition, passion and hard work to get where they are in life. They also know their mentors, colleagues, families and friends all play a huge role in their success. Instead of basking in the glory of achievement, super-successful people recognize others for the wonderful things they’ve done for them.

12. They’re appreciative.

Truly exceptional people are able to achieve so much because they know the importance of slowing down and appreciating everything they already have. They know a huge amount of their positivity, grit and motivation comes from their ability to stay grounded, and appreciate the opportunities that life has given them thus far.

These habits can make any of us more successful if we use them every day. Give them a try and see where they take you.

The Science of Words

How Repetition Can Be a Game Changer

The idea of self-talk elicits images of less-than-sane people muttering to themselves as they stumble about less-than-safe streets. I try not to look like that when I talk to myself. In theory, this means ensuring my internal monologue is actually internal when other people are about. In practice, people are always sneaking around corners and into elevators with me as I recite my day’s to-do list or ask myself if I turned off the stove.

Luckily, self-talk is more the rule than the exception and most people respond to its externalization with a knowing smile and a polite nod of the head. It’s polite to stop once caught in the act, of course, but having followed this protocol no one has ever backed slowly away from me in fear.

In fact, as scientists learn more about the benefits of self-talk, whispering “tuna fish” while hunting for cans on grocery store shelves has become more common.

Positive words enhance

Self-talk is a growing research field, especially as it relates to sports performance. In one study, basketball players instructed to self-talk using the word “relax” experienced enhanced performance results when compared to those who either didn’t self-talk at all or used the word “fast.” Likewise, a 2017 study found that positive self-talk increased tennis players’ “enjoyment and perseverance.”

What is it about self-talk that helps athletes perform at such high levels?

Researchers believe it has to do with attention. Self-talk serves to help people focus, blocking out distractions and minimizing ego. Given this mechanism, you would expect self-talk to influence performance outside of sports, and you’d be right.

In a classically designed study of preschoolers, children were left alone in a room with an alluring, forbidden toy. Videotape footage revealed strategies of self-control, as well as showing which kids succeeded and which ended up with a shiny new toy in hand. Children who used verbal self-talk were more likely to avoid touching the toy.

In another study, nine cyclists spent two weeks training in motivational self-talk. The training was specifically meant to increase both physical and cognitive heat endurance. An additional nine cyclists were used as a control. Both before and after training the cyclists underwent rigorous training in the heat, punctuated by breaks in which executive function, reaction time, and working memory were tested. The self-talk group saw significant improvement in physical heat endurance, measured by time to exhaustion. They also saw improved executive function in terms of both speed and accuracy. The control group exhibited no such improvement.

Negative words limit

Just as positive words can build us up, negative words have the power to cut us down. The link between critical self-talk and anxiety is recurrent in the literature. Medical students with test anxiety, for example, point to a critical inner monologue during their test preparation period as a culprit and negative self-talk has been linked to anxiety in children.

Words and the biology of perception

Though perception is often thought of as merely a mental process, it isn’t all in our heads. There is evidence that language changes the very biology of how we process the world around us.

In a 2013 study, researchers showed volunteers two images. Before one eye, a familiar shape. Before the other, high-contrast, flashing squiggles. The technique – continuous flash suppression – is a trick of sorts. Visual exposure to dynamic lines overpowers the familiar image, leaving it invisible to most people.

To test the power of language, volunteers were primed with either the word for the suppressed object, a random word, or static noise. Those who were primed with the word were more likely to see the object. Interestingly, subjects exposed to the wrong word were less likely see the suppressed object than those exposed to static noise. This indicates that language has a real impact on our systems of perception.

“If language affects performance on a test like this, it indicates that language is influencing vision at a pretty early stage. It’s getting really deep into the visual system,” explains researcher Gary Lupyan. In a subsequent study, participants were better able to find an object if they said its name out loud, so keeping whispering “tuna fish” at the grocery store.

Though visual biology has been most researched, preliminary data suggest that words can impact more than sight. One study, for example, points to self-talk as a possible mechanism of pain relief.

Applying the power of words

The more we learn about the power of words and self-talk, the more we can use this information to our advantage. Beyond grocery store incantations, words can be used to build our self-esteem, enhance performance and self-regulate our impulses. Whether repeated in your mind or out loud, words have power.