Written by Christopher Kelly
Aug. 24, 2017
Christopher: Before we get into this week's podcast, I wanted to tell you about the Nourish Balance Thrive 7-Minute Elite Performance Analysis Tool. Here's how it works. The analysis tool utilizes sophisticated predictive models that we developed using data collected from all the 1000 athletes over a three-year period. First, we surveyed our athletes using a standardized health assessment questionnaire, then using a powerful machine learning algorithm called XGBoost, we were able to predict the results of blood, urine, and stool test using only the questionnaire data. Normally, athletes would have to spend a small fortune to get this test taken, but the 7-Minute Elite Performance Analysis Tool will give you a great sense of where you need to focus without the additional time and expense.
If you would like to do the seven-minute analysis, you can come to the very short URL nbt.ai. 'NBT' is short for Nourish Balance Thrive; 'AI' is short for Artificial Intelligence, so that's nbt.ai. Now, over to the podcast.
Tommy: Hello and welcome to the Nourish Balance Thrive Podcast. My name is Tommy Wood and today, I am joined by James Hewitt. Hi, James!
James: Hi, Tommy!
Tommy: It's really great to have you join us. I know James from his work as the Head of Science and Innovation at Hintsa Performance. He has a background in sports, science and some athletic performance coaching, and also previously spent some time as a professional cyclist. That's right, isn't it? I don't know if you --
James: I was an elite cyclist to put it that way. I raced for an elite under 23 team that was linked with a professional team in France when I was an under 23 rider, but I never got that professional contract, so I rode full-time, but I can't say I was a professional cyclist.
Tommy: Okay, even though that's what paid the bills as much as it did.
James: Yeah, it did. I made a little bit of money, really not a lot, enough to buy food and make sure that all I had to do is train and chill out, but if you want to be technical and official, I wasn't a professional rider in terms of my license. I wasn't quite good enough.
Tommy: Okay, then how did you transition from that to what you do today? I want to briefly mention that you detailed some of the story in a book, which is very good and which I enjoyed called 'Exponential' which you wrote with your mentor, Aki Hintsa, who is the namesake of the company that you now work for, so that maybe gives a bit of a hint into how that happened, but can you tell us about that story?
James: Yeah. Being a failed athlete is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. When I was riding, I realized that I probably wasn't the most talented, and so there's a spectrum. Now, I was talented enough to be able to get a contract that meant I could ride full-time and race, the mixture of amateur events and professional UCI events as well, but I knew from my physiological testing, I knew from the values that I saw that I wasn't going to be kind of a galactic or I wasn't going to be a really top rider.
I was always very interested in finding ways to maximize my performance, to make the most of the potential that I had. I was racing in the early 2000s and we were fortunate that power meters just started to become a bit more affordable, so I was a very early adopter of that technology and started to try and understand with my coach what was going on with my physiology and really to describe accurately where I was starting from, establishing strengths and weaknesses to be able to plan a logical progression to help me to make the most of my potential, and that approach was actually quite radical at the time. There were some people doing it particularly in France where I was racing, in Europe. A lot of people still just said, "Ride your bike. It's all about hours, all about low intensity."
There were some good things in those principles, but not many people were thinking very logically in a particularly scientific way, but for me, that really sparked an interest in how can you measure human performance, how can you help people to reach their potential or achieve more of their potential. One of my focuses initially was on my own performance. It became other people's. When I realized I wasn't going to be a great pro cyclist, I moved back to the UK. I studied sports science. I started to work with different endurance athletes, but actually, I started to -- there were some general principles here, ways that you could describe where a human being is starting from, plan what they wanted to achieve and help them to build a logical path to get there.
And so, I'd say that I moved from sports science into probably what I'd call performance science, so thinking about human performance in different contexts. And along that journey, I met Dr. Aki Hintsa who had founded this company, Hintsa Performance. At the time, I had my own small coaching company based in London. He invited me over to Geneva for an interview and offered me a great position. I was actually keen to be part of the bigger team to work with a wide range of experts rather than trying to be a jack of all trades. That was the start of another journey really, another chapter where I started to try and apply these principles and this learning to different populations, not just athletes, athletes in different sports particularly motor sport, but then also with corporate populations or business people. I'm still on that journey today. I joined Hintsa about three years ago and it's still a process of really understanding how do you describe performance, how can you help people to realize more of their potential.
Tommy: Yeah, absolutely. You actually don't know this, but I have a highlights email which I write every week and give people some actionable tips and a small amount of science about things that can help boost their health and performance. One week, I wrote about multitasking less or trying to multitask less. I basically cribbed stuff that you've written obviously recognizing you as the author or the ideas person behind it and hopefully I did that justice, but it's based on some things that you've written both in your book and as a blog on The World Economic Forum about cognitive load in the modern day knowledge worker. You've broken down how the main work I guess it is done nowadays, so it's mainly cognitive where you sat down, maybe standing, thinking rather than working our bodies, but you can draw analogies between the two, the way we use our bodies and as athletes and the way we use our brains as knowledge workers, so maybe you could expand on that thought process and how you then apply it.
James: One of the things that's always fascinated me about human beings is time and energy are limited. Energy can be renewed, but the time is obviously a limited resource. When I was working with athletes, one of my questions is always how can we distribute that time and energy most effectively? Now, with endurance athletes, there's a lot of research around the polarized model of training intensity distribution, this idea that we should spend increasing amounts of time at low intensity, focused and probably relatively significant amounts of time at high intensity and trying to minimize time for this moderate intensity, essentially three gears of work.
And then as I started to look into knowledge work, one of my questions was is there a way to measure cognitive performance, to measure cognitive effort in a similar way that we measure physical effort? So I looked at all kinds of models that are available and there are all kinds of techniques, but one that's quite simple that I think represents quite a simple, heuristic device as a rule of thumb is this idea of cognitive task load.
Essentially, this model describes cognitive load in three dimensions. One of those dimensions is how much time pressure we feel. Another dimension is how complex a task is or how much conscious processing is required. The third element is how often we have to switch during a given time. These three dimensions combine to create an overall task load. It's interesting because you can apply this heuristic to almost any kind of knowledge work. If you think about your average day, how long would you spend switching during a period of time? Probably quite often. Most of your tasks will be quite complex in terms of the conscious process than it's required. You're probably under a fair amount of time pressure sometimes.
And so, actually what we find is you can look at this cumulative task load and describe three gears in a similar way that you might describe three gears of physical work. You've got a low cognitive gear, a medium cognitive gear, a high cognitive gear. And actually, if you look at the average knowledge worker's day, we spend all our time or a lot of our time in this middle gear and that's actually in contrast to what we know about learning, what we know about attention and focus that it seems that we do our best work often either in a high gear where we're focused, where we're single-tasking, where ideally we're not distracted or interrupted, and actually we can get some credible, creative insights or actually just let our attention restore and recover during times of real low gear.
Actually, it's in this middle gear where we're switching, where we're distracted that actually it's antithetical to the kind of the meaningful work, the real valuable work that knowledge workers need to do, where we're creative, where we solve complex problems, where we think critically. Actually, this corresponds with some quite interesting research. It was done by The World Economic Forum that you've mentioned last year where they asked the question, "What are going to be the most valuable skills and capacities in this fourth industrial revolution in light of these macroeconomic trends of automation, of digitalization where many human jobs might actually be replaced in whole or in part?"
They did find that critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity, they're going to be some of the most important skills and capacities, but actually the way that we're working now is really contrary to that. Actually, the people who need to pay attention the most, the people who need to focus the most are often the most at risk of distraction, and this idea of cognitive gears can provide a bit of perspective on how we're distributing cognitive load and maybe some ideas to actually help us to upgrade our cognitive performance, but I think there's a well-being component there as well and we could explore it.
Tommy: Yeah, absolutely. I guess there are two levels of that. One is how you approach your cognitive load or the work that you need to do for your own performance both in the short-term and the slightly longer term, but then there's also how we're going to adapt as more and more things become automated.
We've talked about on the podcast before -- Chris has interviewed some machine learning experts. We've talked about ways where we're trying to use machine learning to optimize or shorten some of the process of some of the work that we do. I remember listening to this really interesting TED podcast about the digital industrial revolution and right at the end, Jeremy Howard, who's a very famous AI guy, actually paints a pretty bleak picture about how all of our jobs are going to be taken by machines and then we're basically screwed, or that's how I interpreted what he said. I know you've written about -- and maybe you can expand on how you think we need to adapt and change, what's going to be important when that happens and why we're not necessarily going to become obsolete.
James: I'm fascinated by the perspectives on the future. Often I think we've got a tendency to polarize debates in a helpful way. When we think about automation, when we think about an automated, augmented, roboticized feature, there are these really polarized perspectives where as you've suggested, some people are kind of painting this dystopian picture of the future where we're ruled by robot masters and Matrix-esk in pods where some machines extract our vital human resources. And then on the other hand, you've got this kind of Utopian fantasy where we're all working in harmony with robots and nobody has to do any kind of boring work anymore and we can all just pursue our passions and heart's desires.
I think the reality is probably going to be somewhere in between and probably both could be true in folks depending on who you are and where you are in the world. I think what's clear is that some level of automation is likely to have a significant impact on many people's lives. There've been various different studies. Oxford University did quite an influential study a few years ago that suggested that 47% of human roles could be replaced by automation. The McKinsey Global Institute published quite an interesting piece of research at the beginning of this year where they looked at the kind of potential for various different work activities to be automated. One of the findings of that was really that many human roles could be automated in part. They suggested that up to 25% of a CEO's role for example could be automated in part.
And so, what seems clear is that one of the impacts of this automation and the outcomes of it will be that many routine tasks will be automated. I heard one quite controversial statement. I can't remember who actually said it, but they suggested that if you can describe your role then it's likely to be automated. I think there's a kernel of truth in that. I think if you can write a system for it clearly and is repeatable, it'll probably be automated, but actually there are some interesting studies around the activities and the human skills and capacities which are less likely to be automated and it still seems that complex problem-solving, creativity, actually collaboration as well, the capacity to collaborate with other human beings -- I've mentioned critical thinking before as well, these four C's. Actually, I think that what we're going to see is that those human capacities and the cognitive capabilities that underpin those are going to become increasingly important, but actually we see that for example with collaboration, actually there's some interesting research around default mode, the default mode network, this distinct network of brain regions, interconnected brain regions that seems to activate when we're in a state of wakeful rest, when we task negative.
There's some interesting research that suggests that time spent in default mode might be associated with perceiving social emotions, for example. Actually, there's something that's interesting that seems to go wonder in this task negative state that is going to be really fundamental too, is being able to collaborate effectively, but actually one of the challenges that I see is that every time we get a moment of downtime, we fill it with a kind of pseudo work.
I'm traveling quite a lot with my role at the moment and I just got back from Singapore. I was in Kuala Lumpur when I was over in Asia as well. I'm about to go to California. I've been in Europe, in Amsterdam, in Zurich in the past week doing a little informal experiment on my travels. The experiment is when I'm standing in queue for a takeout coffee, I watch what other people in the queue do and I found that there's an epidemic globally, is that no one is capable of standing in a queue without pulling out a smartphone anymore.
And so, every moment when we may have entered what I'd call low gear, probably one of the lowest state during a wakeful time when we enter default mode, actually we don't do that anymore. We fill it with a pseudo work where we're on our phone maybe checking email, maybe using social media. Actually, if you look at those activities through the lens of cognitive task load, you think about the complexity of that task. There's quite a lot of conscious processing going on. There's often quite a lot of switching even if you're on one app. You have various different activities that you're engaging in.
And so, I wonder whether we're going to need these more complex human cognitive capabilities in the future, but the way we're living and working might actually be compromising our capacity to operate in them and actually nurture and build them.
Tommy: Then do you see us needing a way to force ourselves to switch off and disconnect? Is that something that we're going to need to try and roll out across the whole species to stop us becoming constantly overloaded in such a way that we're unable to access our creativity that's going to prevent anybody from advancing in maybe the way they need to?
James: It's a good question. I do think we need to come up with some solutions and I've got a few ideas. I think one of the challenges that we face is that we are trying to work against our hardware and software and actually some very ingrained patterns. The humans have got this inherent, this innate novelty bias. For much of human history, that's been incredibly adaptive. If I was in a village society and I was walking around and I saw the mountain, I've got this desire to go and discover what was on the other side of this mountain and I'd be driven by the desire to seek out novelty. Actually, I'd probably be prepared to take some risks as a result of that, so I'd get over this mountain and I might find some new resources. I might find some other communities. As a consequence of that drive to seek novelty, humans have been able to populate very successfully in most of the planet.
But the other challenge that we've got is that kind novelty is enhanced by uncertainty. So actually, the anticipation of the reward associated with finding novel information is actually enhanced by uncertainty. It's enhanced when sometimes it's good. Sometimes what we find is bad. Actually, we get some similar circuits that we activate during gambling behaviors. So the problem is that same enhancement of the reward associated with novelty when it's uncertain. It's actually triggered by many of the technologies we're using.
I check my email too much. I'm always telling people to reduce the amount that they check their email, but I'm driven by the novelty associated with it. And actually, the fact that sometimes when I check my email it's good but sometimes it's bad actually reinforces that relationship with that device. Now, very practically one of the ways that we might be able to address some of the challenges and kind of retrain ourselves is simply to limit the amount that we check email. They did an interesting study where they found that checking your email three times a day relative to as much as possible was actually associated with significant reductions in both physiological and psychological stress.
James: I don't think we can necessarily completely adapt. I think we're always going to have a novelty bias, but I wonder if we can become more aware of it and maybe adapt to our environment, turning off notifications for example, time boxing our use of these devices rather than just using them ad libitum. Actually, maybe we can start to create some patterns that can help us to interact with this technology more helpfully especially in light of the kind of brains that we're going to need for the future of work.
Tommy: Yeah. What you've described is exactly something that we've talked about before coming from Robert Sapolsky, who is a very famous neuroscientist. He's given this great lecture that we've linked to before where he talks about how 'maybe' is probably the most addictive thing, so you might get a reward, you might see something you like on Facebook, you might see a picture you enjoy on Instagram, but when you go onto those things, it's not definite, so it's that anticipation of a potential reward that really drives up the dopamine. And so, that's what we're constantly going for. That's exactly what you seem to describe.
How then do we start to build this into the work that we're doing? How do we start to put together some habits that maybe give us the space that we need to do some of the default mode, the low intensity work, give ourselves the time to do that, but then also do very high intensity-focused stuff? I'm thinking of most of the people, myself included, who have email in one window and maybe I'm writing a paper in another window and there's probably Facebook in another window and there's something I'm enjoying reading in another window. I've always kidded myself, so since I was an undergrad, I had to do ten minutes of really focused work, whether it was a revision or writing the thing that I was writing, and then I'd look up for like two or three minutes and I'd look at some annals and then I'd get back down. I always told myself that that was making me maximally efficient because as soon as I got bored of the thing I was doing, I do something else then I go back, but I feel like now, I was just kidding myself.
What I really should've done is spent more time in the truly low intensity in my aerobic zone and then actually done much more hard sprinting, high load for better periods of time. So how should I restructure things or how should people restructure things so they're getting the most out of their brains?
James: It's a good question. I think [0:19:53] [Indiscernible] is in terms of the evidence base that's available for this about what really works is still growing. We're actually exploring this ourselves, but it seems like one step might be to just begin by thinking about what are you actually trying to achieve.
I think one of the challenges that we have is that we can easily fall into this trap of what I call productivity without purpose. It's the busyness trap and it's been written about extensively. I think we're all probably aware of it, but so often we start the day in a reactive state. There was an interesting piece of research that suggested -- I think it's by IDC on 2014 and they were looking at our relationships with electronic devices. They found that 79% of people check their smartphone within 15 minutes of waking up in the morning. Unfortunately, I'm afraid to say that for many years, I've fallen into that kind of pattern, but one of the simple ways that we could start to build a more proactive mind habit that challenges to maybe interact with technology in a more helpful way I think would be to try and create a block of time in the beginning of the day where we interrupt that reactive decision that maybe starts a kind of pattern of reactive behavior throughout the whole day.
One of the things I try and do now is actually not check my smartphone at least for half an hour. I'll start the day by waking up, I make coffee and try and create some kind of plan about what I want to achieve, maybe establish that one thing for the day. If I manage to achieve that, I'll call the day a success. Just start the day in a more proactive rather than reactive state, and I think by doing that, we actually prime our attention. If we try and decide what we want to achieve, I think we're more likely to pay attention to the things which are important by priming that.
There's actually a really simple little -- another heuristic, another rule of thumb that you can use that I call the prime method. So what I do when I start the day or maybe if I start a particular period of time when I'm going to try and focus on the task, I'll ask myself three questions. The first one is related to priorities. I say what is the most important thing that I need to achieve right now and why? Why is it important? The second component is I think about my mindset and I say is this an opportunity? How can I grow through this opportunity? How can I learn through this opportunity and approach it with a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset and try and prime my attention to see the challenges as opportunities rather than threats. The third component is elimination. I ask myself how can I reduce the chance that I'm going to be distracted, something that's involuntary or interrupted, and that's something that my attention is drawn to voluntarily.
So think about those three things, my priority, my mindset, elimination. I find that if I do that, I can start to structure my time in a way that actually increases the likelihood that I'll be able to spend time in that high gear. So if I can control my day, I try and structure it in 90-minute blocks. At the beginning of each of those 90-minute blocks, I'll think about that prime method, but then in addition to that, I also think about that low gear when I know that my attention will be restored, where I'll be more creative. As I've said, if I'm at home, if I can structure my time, great. Maybe in between those 90-minute blocks, I'll go for a walk and I look outside. I'll get some natural sunlight. I'll expose myself to what we call natural fascinations. It seems like when we look at trees, when we look at the clouds -- there's a theory called attention restoration theory which suggests that that's one of the most effective ways for our attention to recover and restore, but if I'm traveling then one of the things that I do is if I'm sitting in a departure lounge, I challenge myself. Rather than getting out my phone and filling it with more emails which never end, I just look out the big glass window and watch the planes taxiing around, or maybe if I'm standing waiting for coffee, I'll make sure that I put my phone away. I watch what other people are doing and judge them about using their smartphones and let myself feel good about myself.
Tommy: So the way this starts to sound like it's panning out is very similar to what a lot of people write about, say, the most successful people, most successful businessmen or politicians or anybody in that similar line of work, which is that they start the day by achieving things or setting things up early in the morning, so the morning is kind of their -- first thing in the morning is the way they set the tone for the day, so they get the things done that they really need to get done and then that also sets the tone for the rest of the day. So do you see the morning as that kind of optimal time where you get things right then that's going to make things much easier for the rest of the day?
James: For me, it is, but I'd suggest probably more of a lock. In terms of my circadian rhythm, I favor mornings. I find that I'm more motivated in the mornings. I'm more alert, whereas I know some people who their circadian rhythms are such that we call them owls. They tend to perform better in the evenings. Maybe their kind of circadian rhythm is slightly longer than 24 hours. Who knows? So for me, I find waking up in the morning, priming my attention for the day, being proactive is a really helpful way to make sure I get the best out of myself.
I know some people who they get up and actually the most [0:25:09] [Indiscernible] thing they could do in the morning is just spend it. Maybe they have lunch and maybe after lunch they say, "Okay, I'm going to sit down now and really plan and structure the afternoon and evening" where they tend to get their best work done.
I don't think there's a blanket rule. I know a lot of people find mornings most effective. I think it fits with many of the work and life structures that many of us set up, but I think the key is that at some point during the day, you do take a moment to take a step back and ask yourself what you want to achieve, what's really important. And hopefully with that, I think we can start to be a bit more proactive and manage our attention more thoughtfully and particularly distribute our time and effort, our cognitive effort in a more thoughtful and hopefully a more effective way.
Tommy: You make a good point, which is that maybe the people who succeed in a certain way in a certain career are the people whose natural rhythms fit into the nine-to-five workday that we've constructed in society. There's an interesting book called The Power of When where they talk about people having different chronotypes, but how the majority of people or the people who fit into that nine-to-five structure, because the majority of people are like that, that's why we constructed the nine-to-five workday and then everybody else is just forced to get into that mode of thinking just because that's what everybody else does.
But equally, there's some interesting research they did at the University of Colorado Boulder I think just last year where they took people and they had their locks and they're night owls and they took them camping for a few days, and they found that the people who thought they were night owls actually -- they did have a later circadian rhythm. They did come closer to what people would normally suggest as more of a normal pattern, so waking up when it's light and going to bed when it's dark. So maybe part of the owl set is based on the fact that we have light at night. We can basically fix our daylight however we like it to be, but if we really worked to get our natural circadian rhythm back in line, maybe we would move a little bit earlier, so I guess it kind of goes both ways.
James: I think it's a fascinating area, isn't it? I saw that study and it confirmed one of my hypotheses, which is that many of us have got a form of social jetlag because of the way that we use electronic lighting, the way that we use screens in particular and how we expose ourselves to them late at night. Many of us have got this social jetlag. We're constantly adjusting our circadian rhythm depending on when we go to bed, when we wake up, whether we got lights on, whether we've got screens on. Unless you do an experiment like go camping or do some kind of experiment at home then most of us probably don't really know what optimal is. And so, you try something and find out.
Tommy: Yeah, absolutely. We call them game level interventions, so basically anything where you don't need to focus on the exact pathways, the exact science, which some people like to really focus on, but you just do an intervention, which is probably going to be much closer to how we were normally adapted to live and see what happens to your health, see what happens to your well-being. Obviously, camping is one of the best game level interventions because you remove all of those factors. Maybe even you leave your smartphone at home or you go somewhere where there isn't any cell service and then you don't have to worry about it.
But when we're working on this on a day-to-day kind of scale, we talked about performance but also well-being, which is really, really important. A lot of the people that we work with, that's going to be a big aspect of their life going forward, so they come to us with a specific performance goal, but in reality, we want to improve well-being so that that's going to be part of improving performance. So how does your model fit into increasing well-being which is going to be a really big part of health and longevity going forward?
James: I think it's a great point. I think from the conversations we've had before, I know we're very much aligned on this. I think so often we fixate on the idea of performance. Actually, I think one of the challenges that we've got in society probably because of some aspects of the media, you promote these myths about high performers. In sports people, we glorify these moments where people play through injury and we celebrate in the corporate world -- we talk of these heroic efforts where people are pulling all nighters. And it's interesting because on the all-nighters and the sleep deprivation point, there are some interesting studies around sleep deprivation that I'm sure you're familiar with. There was one that suggested that after you've been awake for 19 hours then if you do some cognitive test on an individual, their performance will be equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration of about 0.05%, which is equivalent to being legally drink in most [0:30:02] [Indiscernible] countries.
So often we talk about performance and we'd pat people on the back for doing an all-nighter, showing the commitment. How many times have people been applauded for turning up to work wasted? Not many in the places I've worked. So we know that if people get adequate sleep, if people recover adequately and sufficiently that they will perform at their best. And so, we see this mirrored in many other aspects of health and well-being that if you build a foundation of well-being, not just the absence of disease but actively look after your health in a proactive way then actually that will build a foundation for high performance. Actually, performance can actually be a byproduct of well-being.
When we talk about this cognitive component, obviously sleep is a huge component in that. I think Van Dongen did an interesting study where they restricted people's sleep to different durations over a two-week period and they found that after restricting sleep in this group so that people slept for six hours per night for two weeks, their performance was impaired equivalent to being awake continuously for 24 hours. And so, some of this is about just helping people to increase their awareness over the significance of sleep on both health and on performance, and then again, encouraging them to do some experiments, maybe increase their sleep by 30 minutes or an hour progressively until they notice a difference, but in our daytime activity as well, I think there are some quick wins in terms of improving health and well-being.
I've mentioned that email study before that simply checking your email three times a day relative to as many times as possible actually results in significantly reduced physiological markers of stress. Off the top of my head, I think they measured blood pressure as one of the markers. That's a really meaningful result in terms of your health and your well-being, as well as reducing perceived negative stress as well, but we also [0:31:59] [Indiscernible] this switching. We talk about multitasking, but the reality is that most of that behavior is rapid switching. There's actually a switching cost and that switching cost is characterized by it takes longer to complete a task. It increases effort, but it also increases stress as well, unhelpful stress. And so, in terms of improving well-being, one of the ways that you can reduce stress would be by time boxing, reducing the number of times you switch. Maybe shifting a few of those tabs, maybe shifting some of those windows you're got open --
Tommy: I have like 400 tabs open at any one time, so sorry, that's why I'm laughing when you said that.
James: Yeah, we will do it. The average human being can only hold about four, maybe six items in their working memory. There's a little game I sometimes do with people. I ask them to remember five words and then I ask them to recite the last five letters of the alphabet backwards and then ask them to do a piece of mental arithmetic. And then after that, I ask them to remember the first five words that I called out, and generally most people can only remember four, some people five. We're demanding so much of our working memory all day. One of the little devices that I use sometimes measures galvanic skin response. We know that electrodermal activity responds quite sensitively to both physiological load to psychological load. You see it respond to increasing cognitive load, for example.
And so through our day, we're creating quite significant amounts of physiological and psychological stress through the way we work and some of that is inevitable, but actually one of the things that I think we can do is by making some better decisions particularly in terms of reducing the amount of times that we switch unnecessarily and eliminating this pseudo work when we end up on a device when we could probably be resting. We can probably significantly reduce some of the cognitive and the physiological load that we are under during the day. And actually for many people, it might create extra credit that they can put into their physical training if they've got a sporting objective or it might help to bring their physiological and psychological stress load down into a more sustainable level maybe if they're in a really hyper stressed time.
So I think there are lots of things that we can do, but a lot of it does come down to our behaviors and our choices and moving from this very reactive state, the state of constant partial attention that we live in to a more proactive and more considered way of thinking and working.
Tommy: So this light bulb is going off now. In my head, when I'm thinking about again the people that we work with -- and obviously, we cover -- so they often come with a performance goal because they're athletes, but it might be performance elsewhere in life like they want to be able to play with their kids longer or something like that, want to be able to perform better at work, but we focus on the sleep, the diets, the social interaction and all those important things that circadian rhythm come into well-being, but should we be focusing on how they're approaching the work that they're doing? Because that's an eight to ten-hour block of the day where yes, maybe they have a better lunch, they have a better breakfast, a better dinner.
But if they're constantly in that switching mode and there's the accumulation of stress constantly checking emails, that's potentially some way you can get a huge win if you focus on that too. So this really makes me think about something we need to work into our protocol, so that's really cool.
I did have a question about sex differences. Obviously we kind of think that women are better at multitasking than men are, and this also seems to go along with that kind of celebrating heroics. It's often like, "Oh, you manage to do so many things at the same time." It goes up there with, "Oh, you never need to sleep" or pushing through the pain. I fit that in the same box. So have you seen a true difference in terms of people's ability to cognitively switch tasks as a sex difference or would you think that this is something that we're all doing incorrectly in both sexes who can benefit from it?
James: I'm getting asked increasingly the question about sex differences and cognitive function and cognitive performance. There's one neuroscientist who I follow in particular and one of his perspectives is that while there are differences between men's and women's brains actually in terms of the performance outcomes that those differences are probably overstated.
Now, there's some evidence that suggests that women might be better at rapid switching and switching quickly between tasks, which is actually what most of us call multitasking, is actually rapid switching, but I think the question is even if women are better at rapid switching, does that mean that they should pursue that way of working and living? Because we know that for everybody, there is a switching cost associated with moving quickly between tasks, between switching our attention from one thing to another.
And so, I always try and draw this back to n=1 and I say to people you might be a woman who is better at rapid switching, but actually, experiment for a period of time. Have 90 minutes each day or maybe just try one 90-minute block where you single-task rather than try and multitask or rapid switch and see what the effect is. Do you feel better? Do you perform better? Is there an objective improvement in your work output?
Anecdotally in terms of the clients that I work with and we work with Hintsa, I found that people generally do feel better. They feel less stressed. They feel that they've got better work done when they have moved away from this kind of rapid switching approach. I think there are all kinds of interesting reasons why women may be better at switching, but if we look at society as a whole particularly in the West, particularly in the knowledge work population that I'm interested in, people who think for a living, I think there are many people who need to try and switch more. I think much of us would benefit from trying to switch less and have increasing blocks of time where we single-task.
Tommy: Yeah, and the more I read around this subject, the more I'm certain you're right, but then one issue really comes up, which is how do we -- I know you've given us some great tips in terms of things that we can enact to try and start to do that, but do you have any tips on the broader ways that we can help people change behaviors? Because in general, knowing what's going to help somebody work better, perform better, feel better, that's the easy bit. Getting somebody to actually do it is the challenge. So do you have any insight as to how you've done that with people, how you do that at Hintsa or something that maybe coaches or even somebody themselves can help to get over the activation energy and make those changes?
James: Yeah. There's a great quote by -- I think it was Derek Sivers, the guy who founded CD Baby, and he said something along the lines of if information was enough, we'd all be billionaires with perfect abs, and he's got a point, so information isn't enough. Sometimes I think we get to the point that we get to transform information into inspiration, but actually, how do you transform that into action?
Behavior change does fascinate me. Some of the principles that we use at Hintsa are related to this idea of nudging behavior and choice architecture. Actually, I think relying on will power doesn't seem to be a very effective strategy unfortunately, and so some of what we do is to encourage people to proactively modify their environment in a way which is going to help them to make these new behaviors more automatic, less conscious. A good one is turning notifications off on your phone, setting expectations with coworkers, with clients even, with family about periods of time that you're going to be unavailable. One of the ones that we do quite practically is encourage people to have [0:40:00] [Indiscernible] time at home where post a certain period, they switch off electronic devices. So obviously, you can manipulate your environment I think that make good decisions more likely.
I think another good one is that we use a technique called implementation intention, which has been demonstrated to increase the stickiness of new behaviors. One simple way to put implementation intention as a practice is to [0:40:24] [Indiscernible] stuff you want to do, but then identify a trigger for that behavior, and actually writing it down seems to be a helpful component in that as well.
For example, one of the implementations that I set myself when I was trying to improve my relationship with my smartphone was to say if I have a moment to spare then I will take a look at the sky or the world outside me, around me instead of looking at my phone. It just was a reminder to me. It primed my attention so that when that moment came, I remembered that little piece of paper that I wrote this down on and I felt the responsibility to do the right thing.
Related to that, we know that us human beings, we're hardwired to try and please people. We want to be good members of the tribe. We don't want to get choked out into the wilderness. And so, another thing that you can do is leverage that, the behavior change. If you identify a behavior that you want to start to put into practice, I think it's always a good idea to think of something that you want to replace a bad behavior with a good one rather than try and eliminate something. In the example of the smartphone, I didn't just say I will not look at my phone. I say if I get a spare moment, I'm going to do something else, do something more productive.
When you've established that implementation intention, tell somebody what you've committed to do and ask them to keep you accountable and ask them to check in. You can do that in a very informal way, just have your friend, stick it up somewhere that people can see, and that kind of desire to be consistent we know is a really powerful component in driving behavior and you can use that against yourself in a really positive way.
There's another interesting area of coaching and mentoring. They did some interesting research on this idea of coaching and mentoring to the positive emotional attractor (PEA) and the negative emotional attractor (NEA). They've actually done some [0:42:18] [Indiscernible] on this where they've demonstrated that if you coach somebody, if you interview someone in such a way that encourages them to imagine a positive vision of the future, the future that they're looking forward to, rather than in a negative way, which identifies the problems that they're trying to overcome, actually that positive vision of the future seems to activate distinctly different brain regions and also seems to result in improved outcomes in terms of behavior change.
Tommy: So rather than somebody comes to you -- and you could be some kind of physician or coach -- rather than the person comes to you with a problem, you then help them restructure it such that -- and rather than the goal being to fix the problem, the goal is to create this certain positive future outcome, whatever it is, so you focus on the positive outcome rather than focusing on the problem itself.
James: We can't ignore the problems completely. That would be crazy. It's about your entry point into the process. Some of the evidence seems to suggest that if your entry point into the process is this positive vision that that actually can have quite a significant effect. It activates different brain regions. Now, one of the reasons for that might be this visioning process. It's about what happens to our attention. We know that if you are problem-focused, we've got an inherent negativity bias anyway.
If you imagine -- go back to that village society where my novelty bias is encouraging me to look over the other side of the mountain. Well, can you imagine what would happen to the over-optimistic caveman? He's walking around. He sees a lion and he says, "Oh, wow! What a cute lion! I'm just going to go and stroke his fluffy coat." He wouldn't last very long. Those genes will be taken out of the gene pool pretty quickly. Actually, the pessimistic kind of ancestor who looked at every animal and thought, "This thing is probably going to kill me," he wouldn't get to know many friendly animals but he'd probably stay alive a bit longer.
And so, that negativity bias is pretty much hardwired in us, but we can work with it, to put it that way. We can become aware of it. Actually, rather than entering in with a problem-focused negative state where we're probably going to end up activating our survival mechanisms, probably our attention is going to narrow and we're just going to try and escape. Actually, with a positive vision where we feel more relaxed, where we feel more open, where our attention broadens, where we might start to activate some of these reward circuits, where we start to think about -- one of the questions we do ask is, "What's your reward?"
So you think about -- back to your smartphone again -- what is my reward for taking the moment to look around me rather than looking at my mobile phone? I'm not just trying to be a good person and do the right thing and be more present or whatever.
Actually, it might give me an opportunity to interact with people, to have an interesting conversation. It might just be a moment to enjoy the context I'm in. As I mentioned, I travel a lot. I realized that I've missed out on so many opportunities in recent years to just enjoy the place that I'm in because basically my head has been stuck in my phone or in my laptop. Actually, on these more recent trips, I've been trying to practice what I preach and also not let the people down that I've told I'm going to do this. Actually, just by going for a walk and looking around or sitting or waiting and not pulling out my phone, I've had some pretty interesting conversations with people, with all kinds of people, and I've been able to appreciate the environment that I'm in.
And so, we can actually trigger some really helpful mechanisms by taking this positive approach, coaching and mentoring to the PEA rather than the NEA. I think there's actually some early convincing evidence to suggest that that is a good way to go, but also anecdotally, intuitively, it does seem to make sense.
Tommy: Absolutely. I think that building in those mental approaches like you talked about writing things down, trying to create default responses is almost certainly going to be the most robust way to do this, and I say that because a lot of people are almost relying on the technology itself to tell them when they should stop using the technology, so you have some timer that pops up that tells you to go for a walk.
I remember I once went to a talk by Deepak Chopra and he talked about his new mobile phone app that was going to fix everything and make everybody much healthier, and one of the things was that occasionally, there would be a thing that popped up on the phone to say you need to turn your phone off so you can spend time with your loved one. I thought as soon as you need the phone to tell you to turn the phone off to spend time with your loved one, you're already so far disconnected from the whole process that you should build that into your own brain so you appreciate that rather than rely on the technology to do it. Do you think that we can use any of this technology to set those habits or should we be relying on ourselves to do that?
James: The thing is I love technology. I'm doing a whole series of workshops at the moment and one of the things that I'm doing is I use this mobile electroencephalogram. I've got this 14-channel EEG, wireless EEG and I put it on my head and show people what's going on in my brain in different brain regions as I'm doing this presentation. I've mentioned that kind of device for measuring electrodermal skin activity. There are all kinds of cool stuff out there and I'm always experimenting with different apps on my phones whether I'm using the camera to measure HRV or whatever, so I'm very pro-technology and I think that it does offer a lot of solutions and a lot of potential to make our lives better.
I've got a smart watch and I was traveling. I can't remember where I was going. I was going somewhere last year and for a while, I've had the timer set so that it would buzz when I've been sitting for too long. I was actually flying to an event to speak about the benefits of physical activity, not just in terms of training, but in terms of intellectual activity. My watch buzzed and said that you've been sitting too long, and I thought, oh wow, what kind of world have we created where we've become so disconnected from our bodies that we have to have a watch remind us to move? So something is wrong.
And so, I do think that ideally we want to reprogram ourselves because I think this natural desire and tendency to move is innate, but sometimes we need to reactivate or retrain ourselves. I do think sometimes technology can be assistive in that. Sometimes some of the coaches that I work with have used apps with clients where they get some feedback about the amount of time that they've spent actually on their phones on various different applications, how much time the phone's been off to bring some awareness about their behaviors and the habits, and I think as well there are some interesting opportunities with biofeedback as well.
I've mentioned that kind of device that measures galvanic skin response and that's been used for decades in lie detectors and all kinds of things, but it's actually introducing people to the idea that the way we work, the way think has a physiological impact and showing people how when they're switching, for example, you see increased -- we call it arousal probably relative to single-tasking. And so, technology can be great and I think it's a really powerful tool, but I think our reliance on it can be problematic. We use an application with many of our clients as a platform where people can track behaviors, any kind of behavior. One of the positive things about that is that it's social, so people can receive cheers. It's kind of like 'Likes', so you can get all kinds of little emojis.
We know that emojis actually seem to trigger quite a positive response or at least an emotional response in humans. And so, people can track behaviors like they can commit to taking the stairs instead of a lift in their office and their coworkers can cheer them when they say that they've done that. And so, I think digital platforms and technology can be really useful tools for increasing awareness, for helping to support behavior change, but it's got to start from within ideally. I think it's got to start with the human with our operating system before we start to outsource it and layer on these other tools and technologies on top of that.
Tommy: Just going back, you've mentioned the galvanic skin response a couple of times. Now that you've mentioned it two or three times, people are going to want to know how they can measure their own. Is that something that you can easily get access to or does it correlate with something like heart rate variability that you can use on your phone or do you need to buy any special equipment? How can people maybe use that to track their emotional responses to things and their stress load?
James: Yeah. I don't have any affiliation with this company at all, but there's a company who had produced a device called the PIP. If you Google it, you'll find it. I've been experimenting with it for a few months. Basically it's a wireless device. You hold it between your thumb and your forefinger. It connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and there are various different apps associated with that. One I use is called Stress Tracker and it's basically just a line which will go up or down in a very linear way relative to the electrical conductivity of your skin. And so, it will respond to stress. It will respond to cognitive load. You can track it for a period of time, I think two minutes plus over different types of activities and get a summary score at the end, which will [0:51:48] [Indiscernible] relaxation, stress events.
I find it's quite a useful tool to demonstrate what's going on underneath our skin literally because I think one of the challenges that I see sometimes in myself and also in some of the clients that we work with is that often I end up working with high performers. I'd like to put myself in that category as well and I pride myself on being able to perform well under pressure. If performance and stress is an inverted U where you've got stress on the X axis and performance on the Y then I would like to see myself with the face shift to the right. My inverted U is fairly far over to the right, so I perform quite well on the high levels of stress. I've got that [0:52:30] [Indiscernible] window, but one of the downsides for that for me and I think for many of the people that we work with, many of the people who are quite driven and focused and want to achieve, is that we become quite numb to the perception of stress. We say we're pushing through it and actually we ignore it.
And so, having some kind of feedback mechanism where we can start to see how our body is responding can be quite helpful. It's not something that I use every day. It's mainly something that I use actually in demonstrations with people. You could use galvanic skin response. You could use these various different methodologies and measurement devices that could be helpful in providing some kind of biofeedback, but actually to be able to put some numbers and put some visuals on our body's stress response, on the load that we're feeling or our body is actually experiencing I think can be quite helpful.
Tommy: Yeah, that's great. I completely agree. This is a new piece of kit that I haven't heard of, so this is definitely something I want to try out particularly because you have neurofeedback headbands like the Muse. You have various different heart rate variability or breathing applications, and then this is another one based on galvanic skin response. So based on what people may prefer, they could find the thing that works well for them and I think that's really cool.
I think this is probably a great a place to start wrapping up. If people want to learn more about you and your work and how you think people can start to build in habits to make themselves perform better, be that athletically or proactively, where should they go and how can they read more about that?
James: There are a few different options and thanks for the opportunity to self-promote and promote my company. That's great. The company that I work with is called Hintsa Performance and you can find out about what we do there at our website, hintsa.com. You've also mentioned the book. I wrote a book that's published at the beginning of this year and that's called 'Exponential: Better Life, Better Performance from Formula 1 to Fortune 500'. You can find that on Amazon and that will give you a really good idea about some of the way we think and we work. It's also got quite an extensive reference list at the end of that, so all the references, all the papers that I've mentioned today, you'll find references there if you want to dig into the detail.
I've got a personal website as well. That's jameshewitt.net where you can find some articles and some other things there, so they're probably the three best ways and I encourage you to reach out to me on Twitter @jamesphewitt.
I'm always interested to hear people's perspectives and questions. That's part of the fun of this process for me, going back to the beginning, is really learning more about human performance and human potential.
Tommy: Fantastic, James. Thanks so much for joining me and I really do encourage people to read what you've written, read the book, go to The World Economic Forum and read your blog posts. All of that I think is really, really great and really, really helpful, so thank you.
James: Thanks, Tommy.
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