When you train your body, you actually don’t get stronger while you’re lifting weights. You get stronger after your training session and during your recovery period. For your muscles to fully adapt and recover, you need to eat plenty of food and get plenty of sleep. To really get strong, you need to take your recovery as serious as you take your training.
What’s true for the body, is true for the mind as well. At least that’s what my guests today argue. Their names are Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness and they’re the co-authors of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success.
Today on the show, Brad and Steve share how their respective backgrounds in elite running and business consulting taught them the importance of rest and recovery from brain work. We begin our discussion on how the American ethos of 24/7 grind and hustle actually hinders performance in school and work. We then dig into the science of burnout: what it is, how it feels, and why it happens. Brad and Steve then share how you can start incorporating “recovery” periods into your intellectual life that will allow your psyche to get stronger and more resilient.
If you’ve been feeling burnout from work or school or if you simply want to perform better, this episode is for you.
- Brad and Steve’s personal experiences with burnout
- Why it’s more important than ever to take burnout seriously
- What is burnout? How is it defined? How is it different than just fatigue?
- The Stress-Recovery-Adaptation Cycle, and applying it to the workplace
- Why your best ideas tend to happen when you step away from your work
- Why recovery is overlooked
- Getting into a workplace flow state
- Why growth is built through struggle
- Why managers should actually let their employees flounder sometimes
- How to become comfortable with the uncomfortable
- What we can do day-to-day to mitigate bad stress and focus on growth stress
- What recovery looks like in the workplace
- Why you need to let your mind wander
- How to convince your boss that you need more rest
- How can having a greater purpose help in all this?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM’s series on depression
- How to Manage Stress
- Embrace the Grind
- Get Stronger by Improving Your Post-Workout Recovery
- Vacation Deprivation
- How and Why to Take a Tech Sabbath
- How to Effectively Manage Your Attention
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- How to Hack Your Flow
- Podcast: Flow and the Rise of Superman
- Podcast: How Bad Do You Want It?
- Podcast: The Value of Deep Work
- Outsourcing Your Life
- The Rise of Shadow Work
- 22 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
- Podcast: Bored and Brilliant
- Podcast: Finding Your Life’s Purpose
As someone who’s extremely familiar with the Stress-Recovery-Adaptation Cycle in weight training, the application of it to our mental life just clicked. Brad and Steve do a great job providing research-backed advice on how to take your recovery as serious as your work so that you can perform in all aspects of your life. Peak Performance is a must-read.
Connect With Brad and Steve
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you train your body, you actually don’t get stronger while you’re lifting weights. You get stronger after your training session is over and during your recovery period. For your muscles to fully adapt and recover during this recovery period you need plenty of food to get plenty of sleep so to get really strong, you need to take your recovery as serious as you take your training.
Here’s the thing, what’s true for the body is true for the mind as well. At least, that’s what my guest today argue. Their names are Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness and they’re the co-authors of the book, Peak Performance, Elevate your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
Today on the show, Brad and Steve share how their respective backgrounds in elite running and business consulting taught them the importance of rest and recovery from brain work. We begin our discussion on how the American ethos of 24/7 grind and hustle actually hinder performance in school and work. We then dig in to the science of burnout, and what it is, how it feels, and why it happens. Then, Brad and Steve share how you can start incorporating recovery periods into your intellectual life that will allow your psyche to get stronger and more resilient.
If you’re feeling burnout from work or school or if you simply want to perform better this episode is for you. After the show is over check out the show notes at aom.is/peakperformance.
All right. Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness welcome to the show.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. Great to be on it. Thanks for having us.
Brett McKay: You guys published a book together, Peak Performance, Elevate your Game Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Before we get into this because it’s about work place. How to avoid work burnout in the workforce. You guys have some interesting backgrounds. One of you is a coach for distance runners. The other one who writes about human performance. Guys, Brad, start out to me with you, your background, and then, Steve, and then, how you two got together to write this book.
Brad Stulberg: Sure. Right out of undergraduate school I went to work for the large international consulting firm McKinsey & Company. I absolutely loved it. I was a total pusher, type-a personality, really quite ambitious. Probably a slightly fragile ego too, which is a dangerous combination to turn someone into a workaholic. I threw myself into the work and very quickly ramped up and started working 80 to 90-hour weeks. It wasn’t really the fault of McKinsey and Company. Granted they push people, but I was diving in well beyond what I had to.
It was great, for about a year I was completely dialed into my work, really thriving, vault on top of the world, was advising CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at like the age of 22. I thought I was in a pretty good spot, but about a year into that experience, I just started to feel really burnt out. Emotionally losing motivation and a little bit apathetic, asking myself, “What am I doing with my life?” Then, also physically. Just struggling to sleep even in the six to seven hours I was normally sleeping, struggling with sleep, cold hands and feet.
Really just this culmination of physical and emotional symptoms made me step back and realize something’s wrong. This isn’t sustainable. The irony is most of my projects at McKinsey and Company were in the healthcare industry. Here I am advising healthcare companies in what to do and I’m not very healthy myself. That led me to make a good realization, I guess, at that point in my life that this just, this path was not sustainable as it was.
I decided to go back to graduate school and of all things study public health. It was in graduate school while studying public health that I became really interested not just in the prevention of disease, but what it means to thrive, and then, particularly, what it means to perform at a really high-level like I was doing for that first year. How can someone do that and sustain it?
Then, ever since public health school about five, six years ago, I’ve been writing about health and the science of human performance. That’s where I am today.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Steve?
Steve Magness: Yeah. It’s funny. Our stories are actually kind of similar, pretty similar, but in completely different domains. I grew up, as he said, I coached distance running now, but I grew up as a runner myself. I was a really good runner in high school almost like phenom status. My senior of high school I was the number one ranked miler in the country for high schoolers, number like three or four in the world for under 20-year-olds.
I ran a mile in four minutes and one second, which is right off that like magical mystical four-minute barrier that lives in our sport. I was running and competing at the highest level. I was running professional track meets as a high school senior. At that point, like my world was running. That’s all that mattered. I was obsessed with it. I went to school but I couldn’t tell you how I did on grades or anything like that. It didn’t matter.
My future plan was, “Okay. I’m going to go to college. I’m going to compete in the NCAA. I’m going to improve. I’m going to try and win national titles, and then, clear in my vision was like Olympics and let’s go for it.” Given my performances up to that time they were all realistic goals. I did what any athlete who had a desire to run or to compete professionally did. I chose my college, university only almost solely based on running.
I was obsessed runner performing at a really high level, but what happened was I was putting so much into it that I eventually just burned out. Physically, emotionally, psychologically I was done. The fastest mile I’ve ever run even after six, seven years of trying to run faster as an 18-year-old kid in high school, which should not happen. No one hits their physical maturity peak as a 18-year-old.
What God in my, what I realized was that I got in my own way. That drive to succeed, that motivation, that internal motivation to be great was also the thing that eventually led to my downfall because what hurt me as the athlete and as a person is similar to Brad as I was the extreme pusher. If I was going to do something like it was going to be 110%. It was going to be, “Okay. This is the work I need to do. I’m going to do more than that.”
What I quickly realized after becoming burnout is that’s not sustainable, right? You asked about us getting together and I think to write this book and I think that our stories led us to this connection where we both had performed at a very high level nationally, internationally, but we both had this question as we went through our second phases of life is can you reach that level without having the risk of burnout, the drawbacks, the mental, psychological fatigue? Can you do it in a healthy, sustainable way?
It’s kind of funny when this book project came about. Brad sent me an email who I’d gotten to know through his writing. He sent me an email saying, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for a book project. What do you think?” I sent an email back like two minutes later, and said, “Oh, my gosh, man. Like I’m thinking about the same thing. I went through the same thing and here’s like 40 pages of notes that I’ve been keeping in anticipation of doing something on this topic.”
It was like one of those weird life happenstances where it was like, “All right. It’s meant to be like let’s delve into this thing.”
Brett McKay: Yeah. What I love about the book is that you guys take stuff from for sports science and the stress recovery adaptation cycle. We’ll get into that a little bit, but apply it to the world of business or your work life. Brad, I’m curious you worked for a pretty high performance consulting firm. Why do you think it’s so important for people in today’s economy to learn how to perform at their peak, but not just at their peak for a short period of time, but for the long game?
Brad Stulberg: I think it’s two things. I think the first is around just technology. In the last 15 years, there’s been the emergence of all of these technologies. Just think about like the growth of smartphones both in their prevalence and what they can do over the last 10 to 15 years. We’re always connected. As a result, there’s always a temptation to do more work and the irony is all of these devices they were supposed to make it easier to have some work-life balance, right? Like more flexibility, but what it really means is that you can just always be working.
I think it’s more important than ever to understand the importance of reining yourself in and not consistently working because if you do consistently work, it’s just a matter of time, you’re going to end up like I did, like Steve did, pretty burnt out, and if not burnt out then your performance will suffer. Yet, at the same time, it’s a more competitive economy than ever. The same devices that allow us to work all the time have really opened things up to a global talent pool.
It used to be I’m just competing with the people in my community, that I’m competing with the people in my state, that I’m competing in the people within my country. Now, almost every industry is international. There’s increased competition, there are devices that allow us to work all the time so you combine that pressure with the ability to work all the time and the result is a lot of people are feeling burnt out.
The literature says that it’s something between 40 or 50% of people right now are experiencing burnout.
Brett McKay: What does … Is burnout an actual thing? Like it’s a psychological diagnosis or is it just a way that we describe fatigue? What exactly is burnout? We hear it all the time, but I … Is it an actual thing?
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. It’s a good question. It is an actual thing. I describe it as the tipping point of fatigue. Anyone that pushes and works really hard is going to feel fatigue and maybe we’ll get into this later, but it’s actually not a bad thing. It’s a pretty good thing. You can’t really grow unless you get fatigued and you push yourself, but when you keep on pushing yourself and you don’t respect your mind and your body’s need to step back then fatigue spills over into burnout.
Burnout is more than just feeling tired. It’s really like a complete loss of motivation. There’s a big difference between fatigue and apathy. I think burnout is almost closer to depression than fatigue. Then, physiologically the symptoms of burnout often mirror the symptoms of just stress overload. Like I said in myself cold hands and feet, inability to sleep, frequent headaches, onset of bad anxiety if you’ve never had that happen before so a whole range of things that are definitely a step further than just being fatigued.
Brett McKay: Yes. Steve this sounds a lot like overtraining in the world of sports science like that’s what burnout. It’s like a sort of psychological overtraining.
Steve Magness: Yeah. Exactly. That’s what I think we realized in doing this book and coming at it from two different angles as my background is in addition to coaching as an exercise physiologist. You see all these symptoms and these ideas in the sports science world and you realize, “Hey, like that person over there burning out from working 70, 80-hour weeks is just the same as like me burning out from lifting too much and not being in and doing too much conditioning and not being able to sustain it.”
It’s actually funny is like the symptoms mimic each other very well as Brad said, the apathy, the lack of motivation, but you can also see things on like a physiological level where you’ll see like either very heightened stress hormones like cortisol through the roof and people are burnout or the opposite side is they just can’t like, they can’t get any stress hormones so that when it comes to get like excited to take on a day, it’s almost like they’ve run out of fuel so they can’t get that natural bump that allows us to perform at a higher level.
Brett McKay: As I said earlier the book, you guys basically took this stress recovery adaptation cycle from the world of sports science. I love it because I’m keyed into this — I lift weights. I’m always worried about, “Okay. Am I adding enough stress? Am I doing adequate recovery?” That’s how you get stronger is the cycle. For those who aren’t familiar with it, can you describe the stress recovery out of it? How does that work in say running or weightlifting or in sports and how do you guys taken that and applied it to the world of just work?
Brad Stulberg: If you think about stress recovery adaptation in sport, I think that the easiest way to describe it is to think of how you’d strengthen your biceps muscle on your arm. When you go to the gym if you pick up way too heavy of a weight, something that is beyond what you’ve ever even dreamed of lifting before and you try to lift it, odds are you’re going to injure yourself. That’s too much stress.
Now, the flip side is if you go to the gym and you pick up like a two or three-pound weight, something that hardly weighs anything at all, you could sit there and curl that thing all day and your bicep is not going to grow. It’s not going to get stronger. That’s not enough stress. The first part of making a physiological muscle grow is to find a weight that is the right dose of stress. It should be something that is very challenging, takes you damn near close to fatigue, but isn’t so challenging that you’re going to throw out your back or tear your bicep tendon ripping it.
Then, the second part of getting a muscle to grow is how often you stress it. Even if I found that sweet spot weight if I lift weights every single day really hard, same thing. I’m going to get injured. I’m going to burn out. Literally, my muscle is not going to recover in between sessions and it’s going to fatigue. What you’ve got to do is you’ve not only got to find that right amount of stress, but you also have to allow for rest after you stress the muscle.
It’s really interesting. People think that a muscle gets stronger and grows when you’re in the gym lifting weights, but that’s not the case when you’re in the gym lifting weight you’re actually tearing the muscle down the muscle doesn’t get stronger unless you rest. It’s while you’re sitting on the couch while you’re sleeping that’s when your physiological growth occurs. You almost want to think of it like lifting the weight is just applying a stimulus, but that stimulus only has value if you step away and let the muscle recover to grow.
Now, what we found is that that same cycle holds true for psychological and cognitive growth. If you think about how creativity works in problem-solving what the research shows is that it follows almost the same exact cycle. You want to immerse yourself in the work that you’re doing. That can be reading, research, working at the whiteboard, you name it, but the breakthrough moment, the breakthrough thoughts they tend not to happen when you’re actually working. They tend to happen when you step away from the work. That’s because your mind it consolidates stores, connects information not while you’re actively working, but when you step away. It’s also when your creative engine turns on.
I think, again, the easiest to understand example is probably having an aha moment in the shower. There’s a reason this happens because most people have been working throughout the day in thinking on something, and then, they go shower and the shower allows them to turn off their mind and zone out and it’s during that time period where there’s no doubt that an aha moment can occur.
The same thing happens with taking a walk, waking up from a nap. There are all kinds of examples of stressing your mind. Then, stepping away letting it recover for a bit, and then, having a breakthrough thought.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You mentioned that the recovery is probably the most important part of this process, but it’s overlooked not just in sports, but in the world of work. Steve, why do you think that is? You’ve probably seen coached athletes who they’re just like, and this happened to you. It’s just go, go, go, go grind, grind, grind. I’m going to do CrossFit every day. I’m going to train every day, and then, Brad you see this in your work history just go, go, go. Why do we have this ethos particularly in the United States of just constant grinding?
You see those memes on Instagram. Rise and grind. What’s going on there?
Steve Magness: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head with it. It’s just in our DNA and our ethos. If you look at other countries right particularly some European countries they don’t have that same demeanor. They still work hard, all that other stuff, but if you look at, for example, how many vacation days or their off days or their, even things like their lunch breaks. They’re not 15 minutes at the desk. They’re going to the cafe for two hours. If you look at other countries like that ethos isn’t there.
I think part of the reason it is in the US is because we have this idea that to reach the next level to get where we want to be, to reach our American dream like it takes work and effort. That is very true. We should be proud that you have to put in the work to get better, but on the flip side of that is what generally happens is we obsess over the idea of putting in work and not because it has better outcomes, but because we feel more productive, right?
When I go to the gym every day, I feel like I’m getting better. When I stay an hour or two after work after closing time like I feel like I’m doing work. The same thing happens with multitasking. We mentioned in the book like if you look at the science something like 98% of people cannot multitask. It’s just, it doesn’t work in the brain. The vast majority of us can’t, but still if you ask most people like they multitask. We’re at home on the computer we’ll, watching TV while talking to our wife or husband.
It’s always more things than we realize, and the reason that we choose to do things like that is because it feels like we’re getting more things done. I think one of the reasons that we wrote this book and one of the reasons why we tried to shift that emphasis is that rest, as Brad mentioned earlier, is when you grow. It’s when you get better. It’s when you adapt. If we can like shift that mindset a little bit then I think we’ll see better outcomes than just that sensation of effort.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. The one quick thing that I’d also add and it’s funny. It parallels I think meditation in America and Steve mentioned like productivity. I think that our ethos is so let’s be productive. Meditation has taken on not as like a deep spiritual contemplative practice, but a lot of people are meditating because the end is that they’ll be more productive.
I think it’s the same thing with rest. In European countries people rest because they enjoy rest, but here what I found in the response to this book, and then, working with entrepreneurs is that the best way to frame rest is to let someone know that, “Hey, rest should be seen as a part of your work. Rest is going to make you more productive.”
If you just tell someone to rest because it’s going to feel good and it’s good for their health, they’re never going to do it. Steve’s point, they’re going to be scared that they’re sacrificing work, but if you have someone understand that it’s actually when you step away and when you rest that you’re going to do your best thinking in problem-solving then all of a sudden rest doesn’t become something that’s separate from the work, it becomes a part of the work, and people are more likely to respect it, but I think it all just comes back to that productivity that’s in our ethos.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s pretty funny. You have to frame rest as work. Get Americans to do it.
Brad Stulberg: Bingo.
Brett McKay: It’s funny and it’s sad that we’re at this point, but whatever works. Let’s talk about this stress aspect. In long-distance running the way you increase stress is intensity, going faster or volume, length of running and weight train, the same thing. You can increase the weight or increase the amount of reps you do to add stress. How do … Can we increase stress in our job where week after week so that we’re contributing to this stress adaptation, stress recovery adaptation cycle?
Brad Stulberg: I think it’s, it’s a question that we get asked a lot because it’s not as clear-cut as I was lifting a 25-pound weight, now I’m going to lift a 30-pound weight, but if you think about the difference between a 25-pound weight and a 30-pound weight, it’s really just the next logical step. How I like to think about increasing stress in a professional or even just in personal relationships, but in a way that’s non-physiological is to ask yourself, “What am I doing now? Where do I want to be? What skills, what capacities do I want to develop? Where do I want to go in my career? What’s the next logical step to get there?”
Then, I think another helpful way to really hone in on what that next logical step is, is that it shouldn’t be something that you think that if you take it on, you’re going to succeed 10 out of 10 times because that’s not going to stimulate growth. That’s just sitting there lifting the same weight you’ve always been lifting.
Now, the flip side is if you take on something that makes you so nervous that you can’t sleep at night that you feel your pulse in your neck that you constantly are thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I could fail.” If you rate yourself as, “Oh, I might only succeed 3 or 4 out of 10 times.” That’s not good stress either. That’s like going from a 25-pound weight to a 50-pound weight, it’s probably not going to work out. I like to think of it as something that you think that you’ll succeed about 8 out of 10 times.
There’s a little bit of uncertainty. You’re just not sure, but you think that if you really hone in and give it your all, you’ll succeed. That can be taking on a new project at work. It can be taking the next step in a personal relationship. It can be, in my life going from writing articles to writing a book. It’s not like I went from like a blog to a book. It was a very methodical progression. I think that’s the progression that you’d have in the gym, you also want to have that progression outside the gym.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Steve, you guys bring in research from like the flow research from … I can’t say his name. Anyway, the flow guy.
Brad Stulberg: We have to learn his name — Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a prerequisite to write a book about this topic.
Brett McKay: Right. You guys use that as like the, what the activities that engage you and flow that get you in that flow state. That’s like you know you’re pushing yourself once you get there. How do you know, like what is the … How do … What are the type of activities that get you into that flow state?
Steve Magness: It’s all about what Brad just talked about. It’s all about challenging. It’s about like there’s balance between challenge and this fear of like can I do it. In the book, we call it taking just manageable challenges. You only get flow if the stress or the challenge is high enough where it’s going to make you be focused and attuned and attention. You don’t get flow by accidentally getting there and work. You don’t get flow by, “Hey, I’m just going to go out for a jog and walk and let my mind wander.”
Flow only happens if there is focus and attention to do that. The only way to get there is if you’re challenging yourself. On the flip side of that it can’t be so challenging that there’s no hope of you succeeding because if there’s no hope of you succeeding, your mind and your brain is just going to shut down and be like, “This is like a failed cause.” If I go run a race and I go out way too fast at the start, your brain is just going to shut you down and fatigue you early. The same thing happens in the work environment.
It’s really about focused on this just manageable challenge idea where you’re taking that, as Brad said that next logical step. The way I like to explain it to people is you can feel, you should feel a little bit of that like nervousness. A little bit of that unease and you know where your shoulders might go up a little bit and you just feel that sensation of like, “Oh, man. Like I can do this, but it’s going to be tough to do.”
Brett McKay: Great. You also highlight … I’d love that you brought this research struggle is where skill is built. If you feel like you’re struggling, you’re in a good place because that means you’ve reached that, you’re not, it’s not so bad you can’t do the thing but like it’s hard. I guess you bring in research with math tutors. There’s certain math tutors that produce students that do better in math compared to other ones and the difference was some math tutors didn’t give the answer right away or show how to do it. They let their students struggle a bit with the problem.
Steve Magness: Yeah. Definitely. I think that’s again if we look at some societal norms right now is a lot of times as teachers as coaches as bosses even whenever we see someone struggling like the feeling of what we need to do is to step in, right? I see someone struggling out on the track as a coach like the idea is like, “Oh, I better step in and like correct them right away so that they can learn.”
What the research shows which you just rightly pointed out is that like growth doesn’t come when you’re given an answer right away. If I’m struggling on math, and then, my teacher steps in and says, “Oh, here’s how you could do it. Here’s the answer.” That sends a signal to me and my brain that says, “Oh, okay. Like if I don’t know how to do this it’s okay. Someone’s going to help me out.
The reality is to show value, to show growth we need to struggle and comprehend and try and figure things out in our mind a little bit before our brain says, “All right. This is of high importance I really need to figure this one out.” Then, if we step in and get the answer that’s fine, but it’s like really having this struggle is where skills are developed.
Brett McKay: Brad, I guess this means if you’re a boss or a manager you need to let your folks flounder a bit before you swoop in and save them.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. I keep on going back to that gym analogy, but you don’t want your employees to just be sitting there lifting with three-pound weight all day because they’re going to get bored. You want to look out for them and make sure they don’t pick up the 50-pound weight way too soon, but you want to help them find that kind of just manageable challenge as Steve said that 25 to 35-pound weight and struggle a little bit before you come in to help.
I think that as a manager it’s a lot easier to help than to let someone struggle. Letting someone struggle takes a lot more guts, but that’s where growth occurs.
Brett McKay: Right. This also means you have to be willing to accept some mistakes, they’re going to mess up and you got to be okay with that because that’s how they’re going to learn.
Brad Stulberg: Exactly. Context is key, right? If you’ve got someone working on an enormously important initiative that if it fails, it’s going to be catastrophic for the company then that’s probably a time where you want to lean in and you want to stop the struggle bus before it gets too far down the road, but there are very few context where that’s the case, and to Steve’s point about coaches, I think the same is true with managers. I think that the inclination is often to step in and help too soon and some of the best managers that I’ve observed, they actually do the opposite. They’re really good at seeing what their employees don’t see. They’ve got the broad view and they can step in if they need to, but they restrain themselves and they let folks struggle.
I think it’s more fulfilling for the employees. If you think about what makes for a good workout, you feel like you’ve really exhausted yourself and you’re just content after. You’re like, “Whoo. That was tough. I gave it my all. Now, I can step away.” I think that’s what also what makes for a happy workplace.
Brett McKay: Also, I guess, on the flipside also for the employee, don’t go asking for help right away. Try to figure it out on your own. I imagine it’s hard for a lot of younger employees who are entering the workforce where they’ve had someone holding their hand through college with clear instruction what to do, and now they’re put in a position where everything’s are sort of, things are nebulous, there’s nuance, they have to figure out on their own.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. There’s this thing that I love. It’s a lot easier to say than to do, but I think a really important skill is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because it’s during those times where you’re slightly uncomfortable that you grow. You’ve got to be comfortable in those spaces. Really, the only way to learn like what’s too much discomfort is to try, but if you don’t try, then you’re just going to end up on this path where you’re going through the motions. That to me is every bit is as dangerous as burning out because going through the motions, that’s like what leads to midlife crisis.
Brett McKay: Right. Steve, on this topic of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, you guys also highlight research that shows how our mindset towards stress can influence whether that stress has a positive effect, a growth effect or a negative effect. What does that research say about our mindset towards stress?
Steve Magness: We’re used to seeing stress as a negative thing like where, hey, I have to go do this big presentation or this big meeting and stressing and anxiety is getting in my way like it’s a negative. It’s going to pull me down, but what recent research shows, what you highlighted is that what actually matters is how we appraise things. As we appraise it as like this is going to be a negative, then what happens is our body follows.
Our hormonal shift will occur where we might have high-stress hormones and cortisol through the roof and all of a sudden like we’re in a bad position to perform, but the opposite side occurs as if we see it as for lack of a better term a positive. As we see this stressful situation as an opportunity to be challenged to grow to see where my limits lie like then what happens is the body follows in a positive direction.
Instead of cortisol going up through the roof to prepare us for that stress, we might see like a hormone like testosterone increase a little bit, which gives us that maybe a little bit of a needed boost and aggression to get through that performance. You see this whether it’s in the office place, whether it’s in presentations, or whether it’s outside on the athletic field. Actually, one of my favorite points of this from a coaching standpoint is that a lot of times when we see someone stressed, we go up to them and say, “Hey, relax. Calm down. It’s going to be okay.”
Actually, that’s like the worst thing in the world you can do because if you think about it, if I come up to someone, let’s say, before they’re about to compete in a big game and I say, “Hey, relax,” what that person’s mind gets, the message it receives is that, “Oh my gosh, like I must look super stressed. That’s going to hurt my performance. I need to force myself to relax.” What happens is we force ourselves to relax like our body just goes into the cycle of being more and more stressed because we think stress is a negative.
In the book, we call it turning anxiety into excitement. It’s about shifting our mindset so that, well, yes you’re going to feel the same sensations that like nervousness, that feeling in the shoulders because it’s a stressful time. What you should see is that’s an opportunity. Now, as I like to tell people where I work with, if you start feeling those sensations of stress, all that means is your body saying, “All right. We’re about to take our performance to another level like we need to kick in these hormones and get ready like we’re feeling this way because we care, and it matters.” Let’s get ready and go to battle.
Brad Stulberg: I think perspective here is also huge. If I think about the times in my life when I actually felt most stressed and like down and not in a good spot, looking back, I grew more from those experiences than any other experiences. It definitely holds you on a micro scale like Steve said, but I also think on a macro scale, so when you’re in a moment where you’re feeling really stressed, it sucks. It’s awful. Don’t get me wrong. If you can take that perspective and just remind yourself of, hey, it’s like when I’ve been through tough times when I’ve been most stressed, those are the experience. This had actually led to the most growth. Just reminding yourself of that can really help shift the narrative. Then, like Steve said, your biochemistry, your hormones follow.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I loved also the research you highlight how managing your expectations about challenges can help you get through the challenge. Steve talked about runners like having your runners do some self-talk saying yes this is going to be hard, yes this is going to suck.
Somehow, that helps them get through the hardness and the suckiness of a hard run.
Steve Magness: Yeah. It’s all expectations. It’s funny how the mind works and how the mind and body combining and work together there, but are as I said, like our temptation is almost always to when we’re facing something hard is to downplay it. if I have a big presentation and say like, “Hey, I’ve been in this before like this isn’t going to be this stressful,” or if I have a big hard workout, a lot of times what you do is you downplay. You say, “Okay. Yeah. It’s hard, but I’ve done hard things before. I’m going to be okay.”
What happens is your mind uses that expectation to judge like, okay, what’s the reality of this is like, okay, I’m self-talking myself down so that this isn’t going to be that difficult.” Then, your mind prepares for a thing that isn’t that difficult. Then, when it becomes really difficult, your mind’s like, ho, hey, wait a minute like, you just five minutes ago were telling me this wasn’t going to be that tough. What we actually have to do is do the opposite of our inclination and sit there and say, “Hey, this race is going to suck like it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a challenge. I’m going to be on the pain train. I’m going to have to figure out a way how to get through it.”
What happens is when you shift your expectations like that, when the pain starts to come or when that nervousness starts to come, your body and mind are prepared for it. It knows what to do.
Brett McKay: It helps you maintain that edge because I feel like in the … You do take that approach to a pitch like, oh, it’s no big deal. I’ve never done it. You get lazy, can cause you to plateau and make mistakes as opposed when you have that, ideally, this is going to be hard. Your body, your minds repair your body to just be on its top game.
Steve Magness: Exactly, 100%.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. I do that in my weight training like if I know it’s going to be a lift I’ve done before like no it’s still going to suck. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s okay and just push through it. You’ll be fine. Besides these mindset shifts we can do, what can we do throughout the day to ensure that we get this positive stress because we have a lot coming at us? There’s family life. There’s fires that come up, decisions we have to make every day that add up. It increases stress in our minds and our bodies.
What could we do in our day to mitigate the bad kind of stress and focus on that growth stress?
Brad Stulberg: I think the first thing if you do one thing, this would be the one thing, is to try to carve out a few blocks of time, even just two to three, where you are doing deep focused work. You’re not multitasking your phones in the other room. You’re distraction free. You’re really getting to put your head down and let your mind give it all toward a single objective. That is the most gratifying type of work. Then, that’s also the quote-unquote good kind of stress that is going to help your brain grow.
I think then the second thing would be much along the lines of the first is to just think about the things in your life that are causing stress that are somewhat trivial and try to eliminate those things. The kind of cliche example is Mark Zuckerberg wears the same hooded sweatshirt every day, Barack Obama had the same suit. He wore the same suit every day. Albert Einstein was known to wear the same exact outfit.
What they’re doing is they’re not wasting any cognitive energy. It’s going to sound crazy, but stress is stress. They’re not wasting 1/10 of a percentile of “stress” to decide what to wear. They’ve completely automated that decision. What the research shows is, trivial as it may seem, there are so many small decisions that we make throughout the day that they do take a toll on us. To the extent that you can automate the things that don’t really matter, you protect your stress budget for the things that do matter.
Steve Magness: I’d add on to that as in addition things that matter and don’t matter is it’s also about the things that you can control and that you can’t control. If you step back and do like a deep dive on what causes you stress in the day, a lot of those things are things that you have no control and impact over. If I can’t have an impact on it, why am I stressing on it? What I try and do in my own life and suggest to those who I work with is say, “Hey, when something is stressing you out, take a step back and ask like, okay, what’s causing this stress, can I control it, can I alleviate it, or impact it in any way.” If not, then like I’ve got to learn how to like put that in the back of my mind and move on from it.
Brett McKay: This idea of deep work, what does the research say and like we should set aside blocks of time for that like how far can we go with that until where there’s diminishing returns. Like how much can we actually do that deep work?
Brad Stulberg: Go ahead, Steve.
Steve Magness: Okay. I was just going to say. The research basically says that up to about 90 minutes is the max time at one instant that you can do deep focus work for. Now, having said that is going to be highly individual. What we suggest is like keeping track of it when you start doing some deep focus work at first and say like, hey, when does my mind start to wander, when do I start feel that urge to like go check my cell phone or go get up and do something else. That is your brain telling you when the terms of fatigue that I’m getting tired. I’m not going to be able to sustain this very much longer.
It’s no difference and when you go lift weights and you’re on rep number eight of 10. You’re feeling that fatigue. That’s your brain telling you like, hey, I’m not going to be able to do this much longer. Step one is paying attention to it and figuring out where your individual zone lies, but most of the research says between 60 and 90 minutes is about the max that you can push that before you need some sort of break to step away, but it’s almost like when you’re doing any sort of intense exercise. The more intense it is, then the shorter that time frame goes before you need a break to recover so that you can repeat it again.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about recovery. We mentioned earlier like recovery is where the growth happens. It’s not when you’re training, not when you’re lifting weight. It’s not when you’re running. It’s not when you’re working really hard on a presentation. For example in the world of sports recovery, primarily is just like eating enough food, getting enough sleep, letting your muscles rest. What does recovery look like in our professional lives? Brad, what’s your take on that?
Brad Stulberg: I think it’s two really important things. The first is letting your mind wander throughout the day. Then, the second is sleep. Starting with letting your mind wander. There’s a wealth of research. I touched on this a little bit earlier that shows that the way that breakthrough thinking and problem solving occurs is that it’s only after we’ve delved into work and then stepped away that the creative network in our brain fully comes alive and turns on.
There are studies that show that taking a shower which isn’t so pragmatic for people midday can help spur that mind wandering that leads to creative thinking and problem-solving. Also, taking a walk, meditating, listening to music really just anything that allows you to turn off your effortful thinking, conscious-focus minds because what the neuroscience shows is that the brain has two networks. In one network, it’s called the task-positive network. That’s the part of your brain that is on when you’re doing deep focus work when you’re effortfully consciously thinking of something.
The other part of your brain is called the default mode network. Sometimes, it’s referred to as the subconscious. That’s the part of your brain where creative thinking and associative linkages occur. What the research shows is that it’s a zero-sum game. When you’re effortfully thinking and working on something, that more creative side of your brain, it doesn’t light up in neural imaging like when they look at people’s brains. It stays dark.
In order to access that more creative side of your brain, you have to turn off the conscious operable thinking side of the brain. The way to do that is to let your mind wander. Again, the activities that I mentioned; walking, meditation, listening to music, looking at pictures, those are really just conduits to letting your mind wander. Those would be the types of breaks that you’d want to take throughout the day so in between periods of deep work.
Then, the second and equally if not more important way to rest is sleep. I think it was in early 2000s, some researchers in Harvard did a ground reading study that showed that it is during sleep that we consolidate, link and retain all the information that we were exposed to throughout the day. If you think about a normal day, we are exposed to so much like there’s the stuff that we’re effortfully thinking and working on, but then there’s also like the color of the car on the parking lot and the person that I saw at the grocery store like just constant stimuli coming in through all of our senses.
Obviously, we don’t retain all of that because if we did, our brains would be completely overcrowded. The brain does the work of figuring out what to store and where to store it when we sleep. That’s why sleep deprivation can lead to just terrible cognitive performance, poor self-control, you name it. Almost every single cognitive or psychological function goes down when we don’t sleep.
Back to putting the American ethos around it, I’m saying that I’ve adopted coming out of this book is that sleep is one of the most productive things that you can do because when you sleep, your productivity is going way up. I think everyone has had an experience where they have some deadline the next day. They’re pushing on it late at night. Then, they finally just say screw it, I need to go to sleep. Then, they wake up the next morning. They redo whatever they did because there’s so much pressure. That is like the prime example of the importance of sleep.
Brett McKay: Besides these little mini breaks you take throughout the day, taking a walk, maybe taking a nap, getting out in nature, what role does like just taking time off from work completely play in the recovery part of this stress recovery adaptation cycle in our professional lives?
Brad Stulberg: I think it’s very similar again in athletics. If you look at the best athletes, particularly endurance athletes, who are really taxing their bodies, most of them after their most important big peak races, they take between two and five weeks off where they don’t do anything. They just allow their minds and bodies to completely recover. That, to me, is what a vacation should be. To the extent that one can time their vacations to follow the culmination of a big work or a big project, that’s great because, otherwise, you’re just bouncing from one big stress to the next. All that stresses compiling without an opportunity to deflate a little bit and come back to homeostasis.
Then, the second part about vacation is research shows that just taking two days off can prevent the onset of burnout. For someone that is actually in the midst of burnout and experiencing it, the 7 to 10-day vacation can reverse it.
Brett McKay: Steve, how do you make this case to their boss that oh, hey, Mr. Boss, I need to take more breaks during the day and also need more vacation. Do you guys have any case studies where an organization of business allow their employees to unplug from work and it actually increased productivity?
Steve Magness: Yeah. I wish I had the magic answer for convincing your boss, but what we try and do is give people the data to show that, hey, this isn’t me being “lazy.” This is me trying to increase my productivity for you. If I’m able to step away during the day, if I’m able to recharge with the vacation afterwards like I’m going to come back refreshed and more productive.
There was actually a research case study done with a consulting group where they took their high-level consultants and essentially said, “Hey, at first, we’re going to give you one night off per week, not a day off from work, just like one night where you go home and like you got to put your work away and that’s it.” The consultants in this case study freaked out. They thought like, oh, how are we going to get our work done, like, I’m going to get bad reviews, I’m going to get fired like all this negative stuff.
Even the people, the bosses who accepted to do this study were worried and freaked out about it, but what ended up happening is that their productivity and the ratings afterwards for the work they were doing went up. It increased with them just taking one night off a week. What they ended up doing is follow-up study to expand this a little bit, increase that recovery. You saw again performance improvement.
I really think it’s this mindset shift that we need to have that makes us realize that if I’m working all the time at 20% of my max capacity, then what good is that. Wouldn’t you rather have me work five days a week at 100% than every single day, every single hour at 20%. That’s how we have to start looking at this. Recovery is work.
Brad Stulberg: That’s it. Rest is a part of the work. That’s how we’re going to sell it here. I think that’s the only way to sell it. To be totally honest, I’m not above that until I tell it to myself.
Brett McKay: You guys in the book I thought was interesting, you get high level. You talk about the importance of having a purpose in facilitating this stress recovery adaptation cycle. Brad, ow can figuring out a bigger purpose help us through this cycle?
Brad Stulberg: This is some of the most fascinating research in the book to me. I’ll start an exercise science. In exercise science, there are two predominant theories of fatigue. One is called the central governor of fatigue. What the central governor of fatigue says that fatigue happens in the brain before the body. The brain literally shuts down the muscles when the muscles have more to give.
The brain does this because it is an evolutionary programmed protective mechanism. It’s saying, whoa, you’re pushing to the extreme. If you push any harder like you might do some real damage and get hurt. The way that they’ve studied this is they’ve had people go into a gym and lift weights, do leg curls until they were completely tapped out, till they said I cannot do one more curl. Their legs are quivering and shaking.
Then, they ran an electrical current through the muscle and the muscle contracted with full force. What that told the researchers is that the muscle, the energy system in the muscle still had plenty to give, but the brain was putting the brakes on early by creating the sensation of fatigue. Hold on to that thought. That’s the central governor of fatigue.
Then, the other model of fatigue in exercise science is called the psycho-biological model. It’s very, very similar. What that model shows is that at any given point of physical exertion, our brain is doing an evaluation in weighing perception of effort, so how hard, what we’re doing feels versus motivation. When perception of effort is greater than motivation, we slow down. But when motivation is greater than perception of effort, we keep on pushing. Both of these two predominant theories come at the same thing from the same place, which is that if you have a really strong motivation, then you can push your body further.
What we found is again the MO of this book when you look at the management literature, the same thing occurs outside of the gym and in the workplace. Employees that tend to perform best and also have long sustainable careers, they tend to find meaning in their work. In particular, they tend to link their work to some sort of greater costs. It’s the same phenomenon that’s happening. If you have that motivation that’s beyond yourself something greater than yourself, you’re not so worried about protecting yourself. You’re willing to put in more work because there’s something else there.
I could sit here and talk about the research all day, but I think the easiest way to explain it is just to ask folks when you’re like really working hard putting an effort uncomfortable. If you’re doing it for a paycheck or you’re doing it because you know that someone else is going to really benefit and it’s going to make an impact on someone else’s life, which way are you more likely to do the work? Almost everyone says the latter. It’s like for that greater costs. Again, what’s happening is in our brain, there’s a little switch that says I’m not so concerned about protecting myself. I’m not so concerned about being uncomfortable because I’m doing this for something beyond myself.
Brett McKay: Right. That purpose could be, say, you’re answering emails it’s real mundane. These emails help people like the clients we serve or it could be like this is how I support my family. It could be anything.
Brad Stulberg: Totally. I have a very interesting example with the emails. Before I started writing, I was in a job where I managed a big spreadsheet. It was a report. It got published every single month. It’s in the healthcare system. Without fail, every month after that report went out, my phone blew up with calls from the local leaders asking me endless questions about the report. I’m sitting there thinking like I cannot believe that you’re asking the same questions month over month. This is so straightforward. Nothing has changed.
What would happen is the phone would ring. I’d have that attitude. I’d probably give shitty answers. I wasn’t performing at my best. I wasn’t happy. Then, I started getting into this research. I had the switch or this, excuse me, this kind of flip switched in my mind, which is that report, the contents of that report and those managers, it had direct impact on how patients in this health care system were being cared for.
On my phone, I took a little sticky note. I wrote this report saves lives because if you trace it all the way to its end, it truly does. Then, when the phone would ring, my entire attitude shift. I spent more time with these people. I was feeling more fulfilled and happy. Same report, same phone calls, but just reminding myself of what the real end was completely shifted my relationship with it.
Brett McKay: Are there exercises you recommend people go through to figure out their purpose, Steve?
Steve Magness: Yeah. We outline a series of exercises in the book to do that and what it really comes down to is figuring out almost doing a deep dive of what really matters in your life and then looking at what your core values are and assigning, hey, this is what is important to me. This is what I value in life. Then, from there, it’s about taking a step back and saying like, okay, out of these core values, what is the most important thing to me. How do I rank these core values among things to see like what really matters?
Then, the final step of that is to get to what we call the purpose statement. Taking those core values and seeing how much importance they have to you and then sitting down say like, “Okay, how do I fit this into my greater narrative of life?” What is the purpose of this? It’s not that everyone needs some grand answer and grand overarching purpose, but there has to be a reason for doing what you are doing.
It could be something as simple as Brad mentioned there with his report and phone call. Similarly, the research has shown that if you take garbage man, for example, and you say, “Hey, you’re not a garbage man, like your title is sanitation officer and you’re helping to keep the streets and houses clean and safe and all that and helping to eliminate the spread of disease.” What happens is their overall enjoyment of their work actually goes up, and they no longer see it as a mundane task that has no meaning. It’s really about trying to figure out and frame how you can bring meaning to whatever work it is that you’re doing.
Brett McKay: Well, Brad, see, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about Peak Performance?
Brad Stulberg: The book is available on Amazon and wherever else books are sold, so all booksellers. Then, the books website is www.peakperformancebook.net. Then, both Steve and I are fairly active on Twitter. I’m at bstulberg and Steve is at stevemagness.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brad Stulberg: Thank you.
Steve Magness: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, the author of the book, Peak Performance. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores, everywhere. You can find out more information about their book at peakperformancebook.net. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/peakperformance where you find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
(music) Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast and you’ve got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. Also, tell your few friends about the podcast because we found that most people discover the podcast because a friend recommended it.
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Last updated: December 7, 2017