Written by Christopher Kelly
Nov. 27, 2018
Tommy: Hello, and welcome to the Nourish Balance Thrive podcast. My name is Tommy Wood and today, I am joined again by James Hewitt. Hi, James.
James: Hi, Tommy.
Tommy: Thanks for joining me. Since we've last spoke about a year-and-a-half ago now, I think, you've been promoted to Chief Innovation Officer at Hintsa, congratulations.
Tommy: As part of that, you've been traveling around the world pretty much nonstop, it looks like, giving talks on your work about how lifestyle and work interact with, enhance or inhibit sustained high performance, which is obviously your main area of interest and expertise. It looks like it has been a crazy few months and maybe you can give us a bit of a synopsis of what you've been doing.
James: A lot of what I've been doing has been living the life that I suggest that we don't live myself, so my main area of interest, as you said, is in sustainable high performance, particularly sustainable high performance in the context of knowledge work which is most of us today, people who think for a living.
Lots of the people that I speak to are in executive positions that are also traveling a lot, and they're working late into the evenings. Basically I tell everybody they need to sleep adequately, exercise more and think about their nutrition, all things that I struggle to do as I'm flying around telling people to do that.
Quite a lot of the work that I do is with clients in high performance knowledge work organizations so think about, could be finance professionals, management consultants. I've been traveling around, basically, sharing some of the findings from some of our research, hopefully sharing some practical tools and inspiration, also talking to teams and organizations about how you can maybe start to overcome some of the systemic issues which actually prevent us from living and working in a way that would be closer to optimal.
I think that's one of the big challenges is that we often talk about these well-being behaviors and needing to exercise more regularly or even just move more, as I mentioned, sleep adequately, but actually, often, the will is there but sometimes the workplace where most of us spend the majority of our time can be one of the blockers, actually stops us from being able to do that consistently.
So I'm talking to individuals, also talking to organizations, working quite a lot in Europe but also in the United States and in Asia as well. Last year, I did something like 168 flights and then 14 flights in the last four weeks and do my own personal experiment about what happens when you travel too much and sometimes don't sleep enough but, seriously, actually, try and implement some of these practices even in a high pressure environment myself because if I can do it, I know that I can speak with integrity when I suggest that the clients do it as well.
Tommy: Absolutely. Are you tracking anything for yourself in terms of -- or similar things that you might ask other people to track?
James: Yes, I track different metrics periodically. At the moment, I'm an active academic researcher as well. I'm actually finishing my PhD at the moment at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. I've got a number of studies. I've got one I just finished. There's another one that's just about to start, looking specifically at trying to use what I call relatively low-cost, field-deployable technologies to measure knowledge work in their natural environment and practice.
That means I use academically validated variables, things like actographs, to monitor things like sleep and activity. I also use a smartphone-based cognitive testing app and then also some basic survey measures delivered through the smartphone to monitor things like stress, upper section of stress, anxiety and mood. So whenever I design a study, I always make sure that I'm the first guinea pig. I test it on myself initially and so I've got some data from myself.
It's interesting, particularly looking at sleep and cognitive performance. I see, particularly in terms of certain cognitive capabilities in my own data, quite clearly linked between things like sleep, stress and mood and cognitive function, and that's replicated. It plays out in larger groups in the studies that I've done as well, so far. There are some days that I do but sometimes, to be honest, I just don't track anything.
There's quite an interesting study that was published around this idea of placebo sleep, I can't remember the reference off the top of my head, I'm sure we can find it and share it in the notes, but essentially the findings of the study suggest that our cognitive performance can actually be influenced by how deeply we are told that we slept. So sometimes, when I can't control it, actually I think maybe it's better not to measure anything at all.
Tommy: This is my main issue with some of the sleep trackers. I'm thinking specifically of the Oura ring, which I actually have and use, but the deep sleep part of the algorithm isn't as accurate as we'd like it to be. It always tells me that I'm missing on deep sleep. They've compared that to polysomnography and showed that it seems to underestimate deep sleep. I know that if I'm going to have a bad night's sleep, I don't wear the ring since it's going to tell me that I had a bad night's sleep. I knew that was going to happen anyway, so I don't need to be told again, and I feel even worse about it.
James: Yeah, agreed.
Tommy: So as we work through all the things that you talked about, I think it's worth going back to what you talked about on the first podcast which was your framework for cognitive gears, which has definitely helped a number of our clients. I know that you've been expanding on this overtime, so maybe you can just start again by giving us an overview of the cognitive gears and then also explain why knowledge work is like endurance exercise.
James: That's a great theme. It's something I'm really, really passionate about. This journey, as I mentioned in the previous podcast, began for me when I'd moved to France about 15 years ago to try and be a full-time racing cyclist with this aspiration of becoming a professional cyclist. I was fortunate that I could ride full-time for a number of years. I rode for some development teams that were linked to some pro teams. Unfortunately my cycling career didn't quite reach the heights that I hoped.
In the end, I returned to the UK. I studied Sports Science eventually, set up my own coaching business, but most of the clients I worked with were amateur cyclists. They had very demanding jobs in London, near to where I was based, finance professionals, architects, management consultants, and outside of that work, for some reason, decided to pursue very challenging cycling events.
Three important events happened during this time that have really influenced a lot of my work and research since then. The first was that I became fascinated with knowledge work, what was going on in their workday, and one of the reasons for that was that I could see that what was going on in that workday had a really significant impact on their physical performance, but I didn't know why. I didn't know what was going on.
The second thing that happened was I started to apply the tools and frameworks that I had acquired in my studies as a sports scientist and in my practice as a coach, to try and understand knowledge work better. The final thing that happened was that I had this revelation. Essentially, knowledge work is a cognitive endurance activity, and that has inspired a lot of the work and research that I do now.
Basically I took a simple framework that we're all quite familiar with in endurance sport, this idea of intensity zones. Because basically you could really distill endurance sport and say that the key to sustainable performance in endurance sport is applying effort in the right place at the right time so, essentially, we use these at the intensity zones to plan for physical endurance.
There's a slow intensity zone, we go slow for a long time, medium intensity zone, moderate for a medium amount of time, and then high intensity zone where, if you're a cyclist, you ride fast but only for a short time. The key is really that we know where to focus effort, we know when to take some rest and that we discover our own rhythm and where we can best apply our effort. So I was inspired by that.
I came up with a model that I call cognitive gears. Essentially cognitive gears is a plan for cognitive endurance. It's a heuristic device that lets you think about cognitive work essentially in three zones that I call three cognitive gears. You can imagine that there is this low cognitive gear which is characterized by when we're in times of rest, recovery and reflection. There's a high cognitive gear that's characterized by we're in times of focus, analysis and productivity.
Then there's this middle cognitive gear that's characterized by menial tasks and the switching work that makes up at least part of most knowledge workers day. But then what I do is encourage myself, other people to consider those three gears and to think about how they distribute their cognitive work during the average day.
What most of us find is that we spend most of our day stuck in this cognitive middle gear, this middle gear that is characterized by being caught in pseudo work, by that I mean pulling your phone out at every opportunity rather than taking a rest, feeling stressed, feeling like we're in someone else's schedule, and it means that this constant switching often means it's harder to get into that high cognitive gear for the focus and productivity or down to low cognitive gear for the rest and recovery when we really need to.
So that framework and some lessons and practical tips behind it provides a bit of a plan to help people hopefully achieve more sustainable, high performance and knowledge work. I guess one of the progressions since then is that I've started to actually try and measure some of these different rhythms in cognitive performance in knowledge work and also to look at other literature as well which describes this to try and help people to start to think about how do you synchronize those gears with your rhythm, how do you discover what that rhythm is, and how could that practically help you to achieve more sustainable high performance, maybe more manageable stress, improved mood along the way?
Tommy: So when you're explaining this framework to somebody and you probably have some idea that spending a lot of time in this middle gear pseudo work is maybe where they spend a majority of their work time, how do you put together a framework by which they can understand this and then create the motivation to change the way they're approaching their work?
You've mentioned stress and that task switching increases stress, probably all task switching pretty much all the time. What's the underlying process there? Is explaining that part of how you get people to do less of that and then focus on the other ends of the spectrum as well, or how do you start to put that together?
James: I think I probably shared this quote in the previous podcast, and that's, "If information was enough, we'd all be billionaires with perfect abs." I still think it's true. If only we could just tell people what they need to know and tell ourselves what we need to know and just do it, that would be fantastic. Many of us would probably be out of a job as well.
I think it does still start, it needs to start with some kind of information but then hopefully, we can provide some inspiration along with that and that actually maybe there is a better way. I think it's quite interesting. One of the cognitive capabilities which seems to be most inhibited or diminished by having too much stress, unmanageable stress, but particularly, inadequate sleep is called inhibitory control.
We know that inhibitory control is an incredibly important cognitive capability for managing our attention. It may also be associated with, it might be important in behavior change as well. It certainly helps us to pay attention to the right things and hopefully ignore the less important stimuli or information in our environment. One of my hypotheses is with our current way of living and working, too high levels of stress, not enough sleep and this diminished inhibitory control, that might actually reinforce some of these unhealthful cycles we get in.
A really practical example of that is if inhibitory control is healthful in terms of encouraging us to do the right thing and resist the wrong thing then it wouldn't get us into the evening and you watching Netflix, the next episode is automatically queuing up of whatever boxset you're binging at the time. Conceivably, inhibitory control might be the thing that gets you to hit pause so that that episode doesn't play, and you go to bed and get an extra 45 minutes, an hour of sleep.
If you've not slept the night before and your inhibitory control is diminished, perhaps that cognitive capability is actually going to stop you from inhibiting that response to get the dopamine hit at the next episode, so you watch the next episode and maybe the next and then you've lost 45 minutes, an hour-and-a-half of sleep so then you're even more sleep-deprived the next day which is probably going to make you feel a bit more stressed and diminish your inhibitory control further and make it less likely that you're going to do the right thing.
Some of how the rhythms and information links to information change is to start unpack maybe what is causing us to fall into these unhealthful cycles, try and identify some of the root causes and then try and pause into that system and maybe even a reset and actually try to encourage some more virtuous cycles of better sleep, more manageable stress, better inhibitory control, just to fixate on even if it's not the most important thing necessarily, and then create this pathway to more sustainable performance and better well-being.
I think one of the challenges is that it requires you to press reset, and sometimes we feel like, where do we start? Our schedule is packed with back-to-back meetings. Maybe our inhibitory control is diminished. We're feeling too stressed already or feels like too much. So one of the things I encourage people to do is to start with one small positive change and to look at it like an experiment. That could be an experiment people do as N equals 1.
Ideally it's actually something that we often encourage people to do as a group. It could be with peers. It could be as part of an organization, and pick a behavior which is going to have the biggest impact, could be some intervention to manage stress, could be something about sleep hygiene to improve sleep, and commit to do that for a period of time to measure the effect.
What we find is that if you can introduce that brief reset period, if you say, look, we're not going to try and get you to change your life and do it forever. Start with one small positive change, do it for a limited period of time, limited cost, some kind of measure then that can kick start that kind of behavior change and make people feel better, start to perform better, and you can start to stack those habits and build from there. There are some quite conventional ways that many people are using in terms of looking at behavior change interventions.
Tommy: Habit stacking was the exact phrase that came to mind as you were talking about that. You obviously mentioned it yourself. One of the questions I have about that is, some of those accountability factors, we know that can go both ways. If you have a group of people who all try to do the same thing and then you fail to do it, you might then withdraw from that group and you're less likely to interact because you don't want to be seen as a failure.
How do we then build these kinds of groups to support one another to make these behavior changes without that risk of those who are starting to fail then leaving the group or feeling bad about the fact that they didn't maybe manage to do whatever it was they were trying to do that day?
James: It's a great question and I'll probably reflections on this rather than definitive solutions because I think many of us are still trying to figure out how to make this work with ourselves and with people that we work with. One of the challenges that I think we have particularly, I'd say in the West, more affluent societies and people who are very motivated to succeed is that we have this underlying perfectionism which drives actually a lot of what we do.
Many of us are very, very hard on ourselves and actually if we're hard on other people, it's often a byproduct of actually being hard on our self and so the problem with this perfectionism is, for a start, it is a myth. Perfection is a myth and often what happens is we start with these great intentions and as soon as we fail, we beat ourselves up. If we're in a group context, we withdraw from the group.
Some of this starts with a bit of a mindset shift and actually not making perfect the enemy of good enough. There's classic fixed versus growth mindset stuff that Carol Dweck popularized. The fixed mindset, looking at challenges and sometimes trying to avoid them, especially if we fail, rather than coming and embracing them and looking at the outcomes rather than the process, so we encounter obstacles, giving up easily rather than persisting.
In terms of effort, actually seeing effort as, it's not just worth it, I've tried too many times and I failed; but seeing effort and even failure on the way towards the effort as a path towards mastery. I think that kind of mindset shift is something that, actually, it can be cultivated in a group context if you set expectations around that from the beginning.
This process that actually, in a group context, one of the challenges of that fixed mindset is that we can sometimes see the success of others, the other people who are doing well in the group and feel threatened by that. Where a growth mindset would say, I can find lessons and inspiration and learn something from the success of others. I do think that that kind of fixed versus growth mindset model provides some quite useful thinking tools and frameworks when we think about behavior change individually but also in a group context as well.
Tommy: You basically just ticked off a load of great stuff that, Simon, our performance psychologist, talks about, so obviously there's a lot of agreement on the thinking there which makes a lot of sense to me certainly. One of the things that we've noticed, working with athletes and particularly, the highest level athletes that speak to this is that they don't tend to focus on the goal. They tend to focus on the process. Failure is often part of that process and opportunity to learn rather than feel about yourself, but it does get hard sometimes to think about that way.
James: Well, I was just going to say, I think it starts young as well, doesn't it, this kind of process. I'd be interested to know what kind of people listen to this podcast. I know I listen to it, I know other people listen to it, and I don't know, maybe you've got some data on it. Often what I find with me and my peers and people listening to this, reality is we're very privileged. We've been brought up in very affluent part of the planet. Yeah, I went to a pretty standard school, a state school, but the fact that I got to go to a school that was provided by the state and there was a schooling system already puts me in a top percentage in the world.
Along the way, we have been told these stories about how hard work is important, hard work always leads to success, and that actually achievement is the most important thing and that's how you create value in society and become important and significant and meaningful person in society. Along the way, these messages have been internalized. To be a member of our tribe, these are the values which are important and the behaviors that are important.
It can lead to this tendency that actually we do want to hide our weakness and we also want to, rather than risk failing, we'd rather sometimes not try unless we're really good at it. I think one of the challenges with behavior change is that we've often set up systems which really try and avoid or mask failure and actually, rather than just accepting that, again as I said, lead a path to mastery, is characterized by repeated failure.
The key is to learn from it. It's so easy to say, but I really think that we've got to reverse engineer and go back to the beginning and maybe recognize where some of this stuff comes from, b individually and culturally and as a society, to maybe think about how do we address this, particularly when most of the clients we work with are high achievers who did come from, on the global scale at least, affluent backgrounds and who have been driven for success and maybe internalized some helpful lessons about what actually underpins that along the way.
Tommy: If we go back to looking at cognitive task load and how we can use that to our benefit and be in the right gear at the right time, maybe you can talk about the dimensions of cognitive task load. Could we use those to our advantage and also how, you mentioned the rhythms of attention, how do those tend to change throughout the day?
James: When I talk about cognitive task load, it's actually a fairly well-established model. NASA used it quite a lot, this cognitive task load model in context where, for example, they were observing people in simulated missions and in different scenarios and wanted to try and create some way to quantify those observations in the context of how much load people were under, how much cognitive load so that people didn't become overloaded or lockup or make mistakes.
I've just basically simplified and adapted that existing cognitive task load framework but, essentially, you could describe cognitive load as the aggregation of three different dimensions; the first is time pressure, the second is complexity, and the third, perhaps the most insidious component that contributes to cognitive load is switching. If you think for a moment about if you were engaged in a particular task and suddenly someone put a countdown on you, instantly, for most people, that task feels harder. Time pressure increases cognitive load.
Complexity is quite intuitive. If I asked you to perform mental arithmetic, even if I asked you, what is 15 times 19, it requires some cognitive effort at high cognitive load relative to if I said, what is two plus two? If I mixed different types of tasks together and actually gets you to switch tasks, that will also increase cognitive load over and above what would be required if you did those tasks in sequence.
We see that experimentally. There are some quite interesting studies that demonstrate that human beings are quite good at compensating for the time lost associated with switching. We can work more quickly, and we can actually work harder. We still get the work done, but it comes at an increased cost. That increased cost is mainly effort.
Now the interesting thing is that if we think about how we spend most of our day, we're really probably under a degree of time pressure, engaged, as knowledge work is, in tasks which are relatively complex, and switching all the time, we're creating quite a significant amount of cognitive load.
Actually one of the ways that I look at this in the context of rhythms is to start to think about can we actually reduce some of this cognitive load by structuring the work that we do in a more intentional way? To give you the practical example of that, cognitive performance actually varies by about 20% during the average day. There was a study done that suggests that, by Hines done in 2004 called Time-of-Day Effects on Human Performance. People can have a look at that.
That 20%, actually we experience that variation in cognitive performance as a peak, a valley and a rebound. We might call these people early birds, generally feel our best in the morning. Then another 20% of the population experience that variation as a rebound, a valley and a peak. We might call these people owls. They generally feel their best later in the day. About 60% of the population, according to some research, experience somewhere in between. That data is from a study by Adan et. al., called Circadian Typology which was done in 2012.
Regardless of whether you're an early bird, a night owl or the 60% somewhere in between, those three phases of peak, valley and rebound actually have distinct characteristics. The peak is actually the best time for that focus, for that analysis, for that productivity. I would call that high-gear work. That valley in the middle is the best time for rest, recovery and reflection, that low cognitive gear time. That rebound is actually a good opportunity for the menial tasks and the switching work, which characterize at least part of most knowledge work this day, as I said before.
It's interesting because actually there's some evidence to suggest that during that rebound time, our inhibitory control is reduced slightly anyway, our response inhibition is reduced, so it's almost more likely, I won't say inevitable, but we're certainly more likely to switch anyway. So one of the things I encourage people to do and I try do myself is to try and synchronize the type of work that you do, cognitive load, with that time of day.
So if you think about cognitive load being that combination of time pressure, complexity and task switching, well in your peak time of the day, whether that's in the morning as an early bird or evening or somewhere in between, try and synchronize the highly complex work with that peak period but don't unnecessarily add to your cognitive load by switching during that time.
The other thing about time pressure is interesting because while time pressure can increase cognitive load, also, it can have a positive effect in the appropriate dose. During that peak time, maybe think about working with some kind of principle in that 25 minutes on, five minutes off or something like that. I think one of the most important things for us to do is actually -- the rebound generally takes care of itself. There are always menial tasks to do, but it's actually being more disciplined about the rest.
Lots of people like Cal Newport have popularized this idea of deep work, and it's fantastic. I think that was a great book. He really brought to light an important issue for many of us, especially his knowledge work is engaged in complex tasks that we need to reduce switching, we need to really create these sacred periods where we actually can get a better work done.
Increasingly, we need to talk about rest. We need to talk not only about sleep, which I've talked about loads and which is obviously really important, but rest during the day. Actually, one of the challenges is that we sometimes confuse amusement with rest and what should be a period of real rest, recovery and reflection, ideally synchronized with that valley in your day, actually becomes this form of pseudo work, as I mentioned before.
If you think for a moment about what happens when you pull your smartphone out and if you think about it in the context of time pressure, complexity and switching, there's actually quite a lot of those things going on. I might have mentioned in the first podcast, I've got an ongoing experiment, it's longitudinal, and basically wherever I travel in the world, I'll buy a take-out coffee. As I'm standing in the queue for that coffee then I have a look at the world around me and especially the people, and see what's going on.
The global epidemic that has spun the planet is that it seems that we're incapable of waiting for more than five seconds without pulling out a smartphone and doing some kind of pseudo work, whether it's social media, whether that's checking email, it's reading the news. We don't just do one thing. We actually have that refresh, scroll, repeat, in search of a surprise, in search of that dopamine hit on the news, on the email, on Twitter.
Rather than taking these micro breaks during the day when we could have reduced that cognitive load, we could have eliminated complexity completely, just gone into some idle time, we could have removed task switching and not really have a lot of time pressure. In stead we load it up in another form of work.
One of my hypotheses is that this is one of the reasons why see these increasing self-reported stress, why potentially we see this kind of negative mood, which the data that I'm starting to gather and also existing evidence demonstrates, there are some quite significant negative effects both on well-being and specifically on cognitive performance as well.
Tommy: The focus on the rest aspect but obviously, what people will have questions about is the sustained focus at the right time of day. You mentioned something like 25 minutes on, five minutes off. It sounds like the Pomodoro Technique. Is that --
James: Yeah, exactly.
Tommy: -- your preferred method, you have other methods? If people are committing to periods of high focus then obviously, just like if you go out and go and crush yourself really hard in the gym or on the bike or go running, you know you need a period of rest afterward. So if you want to do one, the other has to come with it. Is that the kind of approach that you tend to use?
James: I think the nice thing about -- I always pronounce it wrong -- Pomodoro, is it? That's the reason why I haven't said it before so I don't sound silly.
Tommy: I think so.
James: Maybe I just have now. The reason I like that 25 minutes on, five minutes off is that it's really achievable place to start. If you say, oh, I worked for two hours, two hours of deep work every day and turn off your phone. For a lot of us, it's a scary place to begin. Whereas, actually, saying 25 minutes on, five minutes off, that actually seems quite achievable, and actually you might even say you can do it every day. Sometimes I even say, one day per week, try and work for a couple of hours in that 25 minutes on, five minutes off.
The other reason that I like that 25 minutes on, five minutes off model is that there are some data that would suggest that we check in on our communication tools, on average, once every six minutes. So there's quite a helpful frame there, say, rather than interrupting yourself once every six minutes, have a five-minute break every 25 minutes. It's a helpful kind of way to just flip some of our thinking that draws into focus some of the realities of how we often live and work.
I think everyone has a different style. One of the challenges is that often, this is biased towards morning types. Culturally and societally, we've got all these things, the early bird catches the first worm, and in this post-industrial society, getting to the factory early and cracking on, we're screwing the bottle caps on or whatever, would have been a really good thing. Everyone needed to work like a robot to get the highest productivity.
One of the challenges of this is that we keep trying to work like machines. One of the quotes that I paraphrased, which I think was from Sydney J. Harris, a journalist, is that real danger isn't the machines are going to keep working increasingly like humans, artificial intelligence and robots, it's actually that we humans will keep trying to work like machines.
So I think one of the problems with these focus periods is that we start thinking we need to work like a machine, I need to do four hours of uninterrupted work, and then secondly we say, this needs to be at 4:00 in the morning after I've done my 25 minutes of meditation and my dead lifts. This is what real hardcore high performers do. When rather it's like, maybe, for you, you might actually be better off getting up in the morning, maybe checking your emails and doing those menial tasks because you might be your best later in the day.
I think the 25 minutes on, five minutes off is a good place to start, but actually I think that one of the most important things in this is trying to really understand what your rhythm is and what truly works best for you and then trying to synchronize the different types of work with that rhythm, if possible.
Again, it's pretty easy to say. I'm sure the people who are sitting here, working for themselves, they're thinking, no problem, but if you're in an office job, what do you do? This is why, again, going back to one of my original points, we try to work with leaders and organizations as well to try and find ways to help them introduce more flexible patterns of working.
Again, another challenge with this is that many of us have never pressed reset and done an experiment to try and actually figure out what our rhythm is. We've just been caught on this ongoing cycles, and we've done the same things that we've always done and never tried to actually re-engineer a different way.
Tommy: When you're talking about rhythms, this makes me wonder about some of that work looking at whether night owl is really a thing or whether it's just a product of our society whereby we're in these kinds of environments, maybe it's long workdays, having to work in the evening, being exposed to bright lights in the evening is obviously going to mess with your circadian rhythm, and if you remove people from that environment, the night owls start to look at lot more like the morning larks, at least in terms of things like the melatonin onset which may be part of the circadian rhythm. Do you think that this is something that's built in, your rhythm is just that's what it is, or is it something that might be a product of the environment and maybe we should be thinking about the environment to improve or change the rhythm rather than to adapt our workday to the rhythm that we already have?
James: Can we do both? It's a great question. The reality is sleep is something that I measure as part of my academic research, but sleep isn't my expertise, my specific area of expertise, so I've got an opinion but I'm certainly not the kind of the main expert in this.
If we look back to our ancient past, there's an argument which I heard it shared recently actually by, I think it was the author of Why We Sleep, is Matthew Walker, isn't it? He presented some good evidence that suggest that maybe these patterns of early birds, night owls and somewhere in between are maybe even encoded. Maybe there's a genetic pre-determinant for it.
Actually, for most of you in history, this probably was quite adaptive because it would mean, in terms of being able to monitor and respond to threat as a tribe, you would minimize the number of times that everyone would be asleep. Because if you've got some people waking up very early and you've some people in the tribe going to sleep very late then it might actually be adaptive for that tribe in terms of making sure that there's only relatively a small amount of time where the whole tribe is asleep and is more vulnerable.
I buy into that. It's intuitive, isn't it? At the same time, intuitive things are often risky because we like nice clean answers as humans and so where there's something that sounds intuitive, it's probably worth delving into. There obviously have been some very interesting studies around what happens when you take people and you put them in the middle of a forest without any electric light and they live in a tent and see what happens.
Some research, as we might have talked about before, actually went and lived in a cave or something, and see what would happen. Again, I'm a real proponent of people doing their own N equals 1 experiment, and I'd really like to do this when I eventually get the time, would be to go and camp somewhere a bit more remote without electric light and see what happened when I try to live according to these more natural rhythms.
Ideally that place would be somewhere in the summer where there is a light and dark cycle that is similar to somewhere near to the equator because I think that's another challenge. Obviously we look at the influence of artificial light which is obviously, in many ways, a huge detrimental effect on human well-being. The other problem with that is, well, maybe it helps us to discover some helpful things that has helped us live better lives which I'm sure is going to be a double-edged sword.
Even before then, there's an argument that suggests that as humans, our genetic load is still made up, for the most part, from the humans who originally came from around the equator and then we've gradually spread over the rest of the planet. So there's an argument that suggests that as soon as we started to move away from the equator, we started to have to adapt ourselves to these changing rhythms as the light-dark cycle has changed over the years.
As I said, my thoughts are perhaps meandering because this isn't my core area of expertise, but the practical application for it is that if we can do some kind of experiment to try and discover and reset again and say, what is your rhythm, I think that would be helpful because like so many of us, many people don't think that they are morning types because they're consistently sleep-deprived, so waking up in the morning is so hard because they don't sleep enough.
At the same time, some people maybe only think that they're evening types just because they work in the evening and they're on the computer when they finally get the chance, get the kids into bed or whatever and they're suppressing their melatonin production and so, of course, they're more alert, but maybe they'd be morning types if they actually gave themselves a chance to sleep and limited to that blue light exposure later in the day. [0:35:46] [Indiscernible], we don't really know. There's probably something there. Do an experiment on yourself and try and measure the effects and see what the result is.
Tommy: The answer is mindset. What's the question? So don't assume that you're a night owl or a morning lark because of what has been forced upon you. Maybe there's something better if you experimented. That's a good idea.
I was just thinking about myself. Throughout my life when I was a teenager, I got up early to deliver papers before school; as an undergraduate and in medical school, I was up either rowing or coaching rowing early in the morning. When you're working as a doctor, you usually have to be up and in the wards by 7 am probably at the latest on some rotation. So I was always somebody who was up, doing something early in the morning.
However during my PhD, as I got to know my now wife, she lived in America so the best way that we could actually spend some time talking to each other, if I stayed up late at night. Then it got to a point where I was getting into work at maybe 10 or 11 in the morning. I'd do my best work early or towards the end of the afternoon which was coincidentally when all my colleagues left and went home so then I was by myself in the office which was nice.
So my wife knows me as an evening person who would get up late, but I myself feel like I'm more of a morning person because if I get the opportunity to go to bed nice and early, I'll wake up early and that was when I'd do my best work. So this stuff shifts and changes, depending on the environment around you.
James: Definitely, and [0:37:15] [Indiscernible] actually know that our tendency towards being a late type is generally higher when we're younger. We see that in teenagers, and there's this whole conversation at the moment around school hours which has been going on for years now, and should school start later to help give teenagers in particular the best chance of doing well because they're more late types generally at that point in their development.
Again, it goes back to these bigger systemic problems because parents go to work and drop off their kids before they go to work and they don't want to leave too late, and this really interesting time where, in many ways, we've got the luxury to start to think about some of this stuff. It's a bit of a tangent, but I think we need, both in terms of well-being and the fact that we can live and work for longer than ever and also the fact that for many of us, if all the routine, easily replicable work is automated by robots and machines then the thing that we need to get backtrack is most human capabilities, and those capabilities are going to be the output of rested, focused brains, not the lower level repeatable work that is relatively easy to do when you're a little bit sleep deprived.
Tommy: That actually segues perfectly into the question I have on cognitive load and decision making in the era of augmented decision making, so you've got some machine-learning algorithm or augmented intelligence, artificial intelligence, whatever you want to call it. When that's helping you make a decision as part of your decision making process, how does that then change the way we approach our work?
James: It has to. There are loads and loads of studies out on that, and some are good, some are just opinions. There's one that I quite often -- it was published by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2017 called "A Future That Works." They suggest that in most occupations, about 30% of the work could already be automated and so that raises a lot of alarm bells for people.
As a human performance scientist, the question that pops up for me is, what about the other 70%, what will that be characterized by? I'm convinced that it's going to be characterized by our most human capabilities, and I do think that, ideally, we are moving towards this age of augmented intelligence and intelligent automation where humans and machines work together.
There's some really interesting statistics actually, unfortunately I can't remember them off the top of my head, but about how the improvements in performance are possible when you blend human experts and well-trained machine learning systems, for example, particularly in terms of systems that are trained to identify certain signatures in data. Obviously if you've got a human on its own, it takes an awful long time, but the accuracy is actually pretty good. If you leave a machine all on its own, it can do a lot of these tasks incredibly quickly but sometimes at slightly reduced accuracy relative to the human.
We always used to look at this as a kind of trade-off, well, I'll accept super speed even if the accuracy is slightly less or I'll accept if it takes ten times longer because I want high accuracy. Actually when they've done experiments and they combined humans and machines, you actually get the best of both worlds in some cases where you get much greater accuracy in terms of the identification and also at a speed that's slightly longer than if the machine did it on its own, certainly a lot quicker than if the human were on their own.
One of the interesting things for me is I'm obviously measuring cognitive capabilities or some cognitive capabilities, thinking about what cognitive capabilities or what capabilities are humans really good at and what capabilities are machines really good at and how might they work better together? You can think about that and classify it, and some people have made some attempts to do that which is quite helpful.
If you think about humans, they're actually very good at perception, they're actually pretty good at fine manual dexterity. I know that some machines and robots are, again, better at that, but at the moment humans are still really good at dexterity. Humans are good at selective attention, problem solving, oral and written expression, comprehension, complex problem solving and critical thinking. Humans are very good at handling ambiguity, persuasion, empathy.
Then you've got things that machines are really good at. They're actually really good at precision obviously, things like weight control and manual tasks. They're obviously better at seeing in the dark than we are, things like that, reaction time. They've also got much better scalable process and capacity. Single brains are good at fact recall, and they're potentially more impartial, depending on what data they've been trained on. There are all kinds of interesting examples of where that has gone wrong recently.
In summary, you can look at these capabilities, you can look at what humans are good at, you can look at what machines are good at and, ideally, we do move to this age of intelligent automation where we have, as humans, more specialized roles, hopefully improved decision making, ideally increased productivity and efficiency, in terms of my role, hopefully we look forward to an era of enhanced innovation. Again, I think this is about being really clear about what are machines good at and what are humans good at and how can we create a system so that we can work better together?
Tommy: It sounds like this is an opportunity to create the kind of framework that we now think, based on your work and others, is going to give us the best quality work which is that if some kind of automated or augmented process is helping you in your work, you can then do the same amount of work faster with potentially greater accuracy in focused periods and then maybe give you some more downtime to then do the more human aspects of thinking, rest and recovering.
James: I hope so, and some people would say it's Utopian, but I think that it's clear, a lot of stuff is going to get automated, and I think there's going to be a cost, a human cost in terms of people losing their jobs. Everyone says, "Well, every big change has created more jobs that have been lost." In a certain period of time, that's probably true, but there's probably going to be some struggle certainly in the early stages of this.
If we do think about this proactively, I do think that there is the potential that we can free humans to do what they're best at, and free time and resources and we can upscale people in the right ways so that we can look forward to an augmented future that is better for humans, that's more human, that's characterized by periods of more meaningful productive work, and that means that we get better rest. Hopefully we can extend the health span, that disease-free period of life, but it's not going to happen on its own.
It goes back to my earlier points about a growth mindset, again. Sometimes we look at all these challenges, we look at the problems, we look at the inevitable failures that will come along the way, and it almost feels like it's not worth it. Actually, somehow we've got to, as we're creating a new path towards mastery, mastery in terms of understanding how humans and machines are going to work better together, and what it's going to mean to be a human in the future of life and work and how that will be all mixed together.
That path of mastery means that we need to engage with the process and the outcome will come. In the meantime, it's going to be a bit messy. We've just got to try some stuff and try and measure it along the way and do the best we can.
Tommy: I think you've tied together a number of different strategies that are really important and the main things that I wanted to get your thoughts on that leaves me with a mixed bag of random questions that I have for you that we can go through towards the end of the podcast.
The first one was about willpower, and you mentioned in a recent talk of your that I've watched that willpower is less of a finite resource. A lot of people talk about the work of Roy Baumeister and others of willpower as a finite resource, but you mentioned that it's at least sometimes more like cost-benefit decision-making. Can you talk about that?
James: Yes, I'm interested obviously in behavior change and self-control. Roy Baumeister, he was famous for bringing this idea of willpower as a resource and ego depletion to light. Roy Baumeister got a bit of a hard time recently because when people tried to replicate some of the ego depletion experiments, they failed to replicate. There's a risk that everyone has thrown the baby out with the bathwater and they're going to say, "Well, we know the resource model of self-control, this idea that it's a finite resource that can be depleted is a complete nonsense and that we should just forget it."
Actually, in the pieces that I've read about Roy Baumeister and things I've heard him say, he has got a much more nuanced view than he's sometimes characterized as having. Do you still think there's a lot to be learned from this idea of this resource model? The problem that we have is that the evidence would suggest that whenever we rely too much on willpower, I'm going to mix this up and maybe frustrate some people by basically talking about willpower and self-control interchangeably, but for the purposes of this argument, whenever we rely too much on willpower and self-control, it seems like we generally fail.
It's a weird contradiction because there's arguably, and I tend to agree, the human capacity for self-control is one of the most powerful and beneficial adaptations of the human psyche. Someone else said that, someone like [0:46:10] [Indiscernible] I think in 2013 or something like that. Someone can fact check me. Anyway, the human capacity for self-control, arguably, the most powerful and beneficial adaptation of the human psyche.
Because it means that we do have this capacity to resist our preprogrammed responses and follow high-level goals and so instead of being like a puppy chasing squirrels around all day, we can work together, pool our cognitive resources, build things make things, think about the long gain, essentially. One of the problems is, is that kind of self-control or that kind of willpower resource, for most of human history, there has been a really good balance between the control that we have available and the choices that we have available.
We didn't need more self-control to govern eating behavior because most of the time there wasn't enough food, and the times that there were, would probably be followed by famine afterwards. We didn't need to think too much about sedentary behavior because we were generally running away from or after something and so activity and exercise wasn't a problem. We lived in times and in seasons of feast and famine and war and peace.
Even in terms of attention and managing attention and resisting distraction, actually for most of human history, it made sense to pay attention to as much information as was possible, it was adaptive, but this resource that we've got, self-control, willpower is basically too weak for the modern world. You can see that in the fact that, this is ropy statistics, but to make a point, 25% of people, apparently, abandon New Year's Resolutions after one week. I don't know whether I'm more surprised about that or the fact that anybody still makes New Year's Resolutions.
Apparently 60% of people abandon New Year's Resolutions within a month. We make the same New Year's Resolution ten times without success apparently. Basically, all this stuff isn't addressing the root cause of the problem, and there's actually some quite interesting research which was published last year by Berkman et. al., around this ides of self-control actually is a value-based choice.
There she did some MFRI studies which suggest that there's a region in the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that seems to be responsible or associated with calculating the return on investment of the effort required by a task. One of the challenges is that often we look at willpower just as a resource rather than thinking about what value we attribute to the particular behavior that we're trying to put into practice.
If we're just thinking, oh, I shouldn't eat the cookie because it's bad for me, the problem is you've got this other valuation system which is basically saying, eat the cookie because a famine is coming. If there's food in front of you, eat it. So somehow, in terms of behavior change, we've got a find a way to work with that system, that valuation system and start to link the behaviors that we are trying to introduce to things that we really care about, prime that System One, as Daniel Kahneman would talk about it, that fast-thinking brain, with information about what we really care about.
We activate that part of the brain and maybe make it more likely that we're going to do the right thing, but at the same time, we've almost just got to accept that whatever way we look at willpower and self-control, relying on it in modern world probably isn't the best thing. Actually there's good evidence to suggest that the people with high self-control, measurably, survey measures, actually seem to use it the least, day to day, and self-control seems to be most effective when we actually deploy it before we need it.
So the practice of that is take a step back, press pause, if you need to, you can press pause on this podcast, and ask yourself the question, what change in your life is most pressing right now, but perhaps more importantly, what goal do you value the most, and then link the behavior you need to put in place towards achieving that goal with that thing that you really value.
For me, around sleep, one of the big reasons that I try and sleep adequately even when I'm traveling all over the place is that I want energy and I want focus. I want a high-level of cognitive function not just because I want to do my job well, obviously I do want to do that and I do want to be engaged with the clients that I'm meeting and for the presentations I'm doing and the research that I'm engaged in, but also because I know that if I had a week where my sleep has been inadequate then I know that by the end of the week I'd be exhausted and when I get home and see my family, and while my two boys want to wrestle and play Lego and do a lot of that stuff, I haven't just got anything left.
So when I'm there in the hotel room and I get back, oh, yeah, I'll keep watching whatever it is, Better Call Saul, at the moment, coming to the end on that on Netflix, and my brain is primed to that thought of, okay, an extra 45 minutes of sleep because that's going to put something in the tank for when I'm back home on the weekend.
Maybe, I don't think we've quite operationalized that kind of neuroscience yet, but maybe what I'm doing is activating the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. I'm calculating the return on investment of the effort that's required to resist that urge to watch Better Call Saul on Netflix and switch off the light and go to bed.
I remember activating that valuation system and perhaps making that behavior more likely and, over time, building that habit, stacking them up and achieving better life and better performance, certainly sustainable high performance which many of us are hoping for.
Tommy: Then I have some questions about, the models of cognitive task load can then be applied maybe back to some of the sports field, sports performance area is obviously something that you and I are both are very interested in. The first one is about whether cognitive task load can help us better understand the concept of flow in sports and maybe other areas of our life too and if so, do you have any recommendations for athletes or us as coaches as to how you might be able to enhance that feeling of flow by using this model?
James: That's a really good question. I've not thought that much about how flow and the cognitive task load model fit together, but actually there's definitely a link there. If we think about flow, and I think it was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who conceptualized this idea, these eight characteristics. It's about having clarity of goals and immediate feedback.
The first one, clarity of goals, I think that cognitive task load model can enable us to think about how we create goals during a particular time. For example, if you want to achieve clarity of goals during your peak period of the day then don't be switching. Create a clear outcome that you're aiming towards during that time, if it's just working for 25 minutes on, five minutes off in two cycles, make it that and then put a timer on it, so you get some immediate feedback. That's one way to do it.
He talks about having a high level of concentration on a limited field. Again I think that really links very well to that cognitive task load model where, once again, you're engaged in a task with a high level of complexity but, again, you limit switching so that the field is limited.
The balance between skills and challenge, number three, in this flow model, you can look at it through the lens of the cognitive task load. Because if you are trying to engage in complex task switching regularly, you're trying to read a journal article as you intersperse checking emails and maybe going on Twitter at the same time, you can be the most skilled person in the world, but we have a limited cognitive capacity.
The whole point in that cognitive task load was it has been used and deployed by NASA because they recognized that people would lock up when it got too high. Create a balance between skills and challenge flow by recognizing that if you try and mix complexity, time pressure and switching, it's not going to work.
Number four is the feeling of control. That's an interesting one because I think that one of the helpful things about the cognitive task load model and cognitive gears model is that it provides a framework to help people feel like they can have more control over their day.
One of the things I sometimes say is that whatever your rhythm is, try to start the day on your own schedule. Now, for some people, the people who have the peak period at the beginning of their day, that's probably about starting the day with minimal or no switching by focusing on that complex work. That's certainly what works for me.
Someone challenged me and said, "You know I actually start my day with email because the start of my day is the rebound and I feel in control if I do those menial tasks, I get to Inbox, zero, early in the morning and then I'm free to do my complex work without switching later in the day." Whatever the case, you can elicit that feeling of control that seems to be important for flow by starting on your schedule and don't get caught up in someone else's, if you can.
Number five, effortlessness, it talks about flow involving flexibility and ease. If we, again, look at that cognitive task load model and think about cognitive gears, we can certainly reduce effort by eliminating unnecessary switching, staying on tasks, I talked about before.
Six, an altered perception of time. Well, again, I think that's probably what we find in that peak period, that kind of high gear period where if you haven't got your phone interrupting you every six minutes then you can get into that state where actually time can feel condensed, but it takes some retraining. It's one of the reasons why I recommend that's 25 minutes on, five minutes off because, initially, sitting there for an hour, you're going to feel that urge to check your phone continuously but over time, you can train yourself and eventually end getting, my experience has been, easily getting caught in these -- entering into this flow state much more easily when your brain -- there is a part of your brain hoping that you check in and get that dopamine hit.
In point seven, I think he talks about melting together action and consciousness. He talks about creating the state where there isn't a space for worry or fear or distraction. Once again, it goes back, unfortunately, to these wonderful devices that we have. I actually love technology. Sometimes people think I'm anti-technology. I'm not. I just think we need to use our tools in the right place at the right time. There's a time for switching off notifications and if there's a new feature on the new iOS update on the iPhone so that you can actually, and it's called Screen Time.
We're all on this page now. We're getting a sense that these are powerful tools but terrible masters. Certainly, thinking about the complexity, time pressure and switching that's associated with our devices should encourage them to put it away and then maybe we end up, his point eight, the autotelic quality of the flow experience where it's not only achieving the goal of an activity that's rewarding, but actually that process, again, back to process, is in itself fulfilling.
Then, interestingly, and I've just thought about this, but he talks about the activity being rewarding and maybe reactivate that rewards center. When we activate that dorsal frontal cingulate cortex, maybe the brain says, well, I could return on this investment of working in this way, in this kind of framework and you're more likely to do it again.
So, yeah, there goes my thoughts on flow and cognitive task load and cognitive gears. If anyone who is listening right now, thinks, wow, James remembered those eight things off the top of his head, isn't he great? I actually just Googled flow really quickly before I did that stuff, so I don't want to take any false credit.
Tommy: I was also going to say the same thing about the question. It was actually a question that Simon sent me to ask you, so I'm not going to take credit for a really nice question, but also a very nice summary on your part which I think certainly makes a lot of sense, putting all that stuff into context.
Another question regarding the cognitive load and performance, going back to sports, just any thoughts on whether that fits in with the perception-based models of exercise performance. There's some data that suggests that increase in cognitive load before or during physical exertion can help the brain to better tolerate increases in perceived exertion. Is this something that we can use for sports performance itself, and does it relate back to knowledge work at all?
James: That's a really interesting question. This relates to maybe some of the work by Samuele Marcora on brain endurance training. Is that what you're thinking of? This is interesting, isn't it, because on one hand we know mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Actually, there seems to be this interesting phenomenon where if you do physical endurance training and you simultaneously do some computer-based brain endurance training which actually induces mental or cognitive load then when you remove that endurance training but keep the physical load, our perception of effort is reduced.
I really think there's something in this. There's something potentially pretty special in this. Because we know, increasingly, in a sports performance environment that actually perception of effort is really, really key, and we've known this for a long time but I think it's just becoming increasingly clear that how hard something feels, is one of the most important things to pay attention to and also potentially one of the best targets to try and manipulate. It seems like caffeine, for example, when it's most effective, one of the reasons that works so well is it makes things feel easier.
We should definitely investigate this, and it's worth experimenting with. The other interesting thing is, in how it relates to knowledge work, for example, is that there's a conference paper I remember, I can't remember the pictures of it, but basically they looked at novel interventions designed to improve inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue in endurance athletes.
It's interesting to me that, again, it comes back to this inhibitory control piece again and how, if you think about -- they also saw, I think it was 2016, a different group found that road cyclists have superior inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue. So it seems whether we're an athlete or whether we're a knowledge worker or cognitive athlete, this cognitive capability inhibitory control is so, so important. It makes sense because it's one of the things I do think it makes us most human.
Now I know that it has been too easy to mix up inhibitory control and self-control, and there's study that show they're separate things. Whatever the case, this capacity to resist our preprogrammed responses, resist those reactions and do the thing that we know, at a high level, is the right thing to do, seems to be so, so key for both cognitive performance and physical performance.
For example, when you're going for a run or you're going for a bike ride, we've all been there when you're going up a long hill on a bike and you're at a relatively high intensity, there's a little part of your brain that's just saying, stop, stop, why on earth are you doing this? Then the high level part of your brain is saying, you want to get the time, you want to get the segment, you want to beat the person, you want to beat yourself. We use that inhibitory control to resist to urge to stop and keep going.
In knowledge work as well, I think that that inhibitory control seems to be so diminished by inadequate sleep, by too much stress, actually, it seems to be improved by positive mood which is quite interesting but, again, when you're in that 25-minute period, the focus, or the five minutes of rest, if you first start doing that after having years of constantly switching and being stuck in the middle cognitive gear, it's likely the inhibitory control is playing a role in helping you to stay focused and not go and check your phone and get that little refresh-scroll-repeat dopamine hit.
It's a bit of a meandering response to your question, but I do think that there's a huge crossover, and it goes back to my original thinking which is that, fundamentally, knowledge work is a cognitive endurance activity.
Tommy: Just very briefly, I know you measure this in the people you work with, maybe measure it in yourself, how are you looking at inhibitory control? Are there apps or something that we can try so we can measure it in our self and track it in our self, and are there any other things -- because you mentioned in that paper, they trained inhibitory control and they saw improved performance, so how can we measure it and is there anything else, obviously sleep being maybe one of the key grounding factors, but is there anything else we can do to train our inhibitory control?
James: To your first question, how do we measure inhibitory control, well, I'm measuring it quite simply. I use a brief go-no go task which is a quite well-established cognitive assessment, and I actually use those smartphone-based cognitive assessment battery. It was originally developed for use by the US Military actually.
So the go-no go task in this context is pretty simple. It takes a couple of minutes, and you basically see some target pop up on the screen, and you have to decide whether to get those targets or ignore them. I've also used longer form assessments on inhibitory control which is this group task which is also quite well-known.
You can actually find online these free resources where you can do Stroop tasks. In my study protocol, I actually use this app I get to people twice a day. So, in practice, when I compare that with sleep data, for example, you see quite significant associations.
I'm actually in the process of writing up an academic paper on that at the moment. Again, this has been described in the literature. I think the difference here is that I'm measuring it in a natural environment, it's a high-frequency assessment that's very close to the participant.
In terms of how can you improve inhibitory control, well, to be perfectly honest, in terms of brain training, I think the jury is still out a little bit. There's some evidence to suggest that the brain training works, there's some that says it doesn't, there's some that says you can improve inhibitory control. There are still big questions about, if you improve these fairly fundamental cognitive capabilities, does that have a generalizable effect? To be honest, we still don't really know.
My view is that there's a risk in becoming too reductionist with this and so to say that if we improve inhibitory control, we can improve behavior or adherence to behavior change, for example, because actually we're seeing increasingly across all kinds of fields in science that actually when it comes to humans, we need this integrated approach. This is why, often, when people say, "Well, what is your most effective strategy for cognitive enhancement," I come back to sleep and exercise because you're actually inducing effects at a systemic level in a really integrated way.
The great thing about exercise as an intervention is that you are activating all kinds of pathways, and we don't really know exactly everything that's going on but for example, it does seem that certainly one of the most effective ways that you can mitigate age-related decline in cognitive function is to remain and improve fitness, particularly aerobic fitness. There's also some interesting emerging evidence around strength training as well related to that. There's also interesting evidence to suggest that even acute bouts of intense exercise can enhance certain cognitive capabilities.
Also, if you want to just make sure that even before you start thinking about enhancing cognitive performance and improving inhibitory control, you just want to make sure that it's not diminished. Well, back to the same old thing again, just sleep adequately, seven to nine hours. Sorry, I sound like a broken record.
I'd love to be able to tell you to sign up to my website for my new brain training app, and that will be fantastic. Maybe one day, but at the moment the weight of evidence would suggest that it is probably about getting the basics right and doing that consistently.
Tommy: That's the perfect answer. That's absolutely why I would tend to agree with you in almost every scenario that it's going to come back to just making sure those basics are all in place and there's pretty much no way to hack your way around this. There's no biological free lunch, as I sometimes say, so, that's great, and that's a nice way to reiterate that point.
My penultimate question for a complete, non sequitur, is I've watched quite a few of your talks recently and seen pictures of you speaking. I've a very important question. Do you get your waistcoats from Marks & Spencer's like Gareth Southgate does? Would you shop somewhere else?
James: No, I've actually never bought a Marks & Spencer waistcoat yet. Maybe I should because Gareth was looking pretty sharp in those photos. Actually, I got them from somewhere else. Maybe if I'm on the podcast again, I'll ask for a sponsorship and reveal who it is. I don't want to give them the publicity for free.
Tommy: Okay, all right, so one final, more serious question is, if there was one cognitive skill that we should all do more of today or tomorrow that most of us aren't doing right now, what would you suggest that be?
James: I think it would be the practice of switching off, quite simply. I think that many of the people listening to this podcast, like me, will be enamored with the idea of enhancing cognitive performance and improving focus and deep work and Pomodoro and 25 minutes on, five minutes off, and let's go, let's go, let's go, and we'll meditate. We'll do all these things, but I think one of the hardest things for many of us is switching off, is actually just enjoying some idle time, just letting our mind wander.
One of the things that's certainly I would probably benefit from most and the practice I need to engage in more and I think many of us would benefit from is maybe even before we start to think about enhancing our focus, it would be improving our capacity to rest and to switch off. So that is my challenge to the listeners and to myself as well, is let's practice switching off more and being the person who stands in the queue, waiting for their coffee and doesn't pull out their phone.
Tommy: What a great piece of advice and place to finish up. James, this was a huge pleasure, as ever. If people want to find some more of your work, maybe some videos of you speaking or some of the articles you've written, how can they do that?
James: There's a couple of ways. As you mentioned at the beginning, I'm the Chief Innovation Officer for a human performance company called Hintsa, and so you can find out a bit of what we do and my work within there, at our website which is hintsa.com. Also I have a personal website that's jameshewitt.net. You can find some blog articles and some videos there. Also on Twitter, I've got an account as James P. Hewitt, and I need some more followers there to boost my ego, but even if you don't follow me, it would be really interesting to interact with some people there and hear what you think and what you're interested in.
Tommy: Fantastic, absolutely recommend people go and check those things out, and we'll of course link to all of that in the show notes. Thanks so much for your time today, James, it's a huge pleasure.
James: You're welcome. Thank you.
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