Dr Kristy Goodwin on the four pillars to peak performance, digital guardrails, working with your biological blueprint, and improving micro-habits (Ep36) - Thriving on Overload

Dr Kristy Goodwin on the four pillars to peak performance, digital guardrails, working with your biological blueprint, and improving micro-habits (Ep36) - Thriving on Overload

Kristy, it’s wonderful to have you on the show. So, we live in a world immersed with information, and you focus on this idea of digital well-being, which we all can relate to, where the digital brings us many good things but if we don’t treat it the right way, it might lead us astray. How should we be thinking about, how should we be dealing with this world of digital wonder and danger?

Dr Kristy Goodwin: I often say whether you love it or loathe it, technology is here to stay. A lot of us have a love-hate relationship with our digital devices. My approach is that it’s here to stay, regardless of our approach. I believe we need to learn how to use technology in ways that are congruent with how our brains and bodies are designed, what I call our HOS, our Human Operating System. I’m worried that so many of us are using devices in ways that are completely incongruent and out of alignment with how our brains and bodies are designed, and this is why so many people are feeling overwhelmed, they’re feeling stressed, they’re distracted, and exhausted because our digital habits are out of alignment with how we are designed as humans. I often say we’ve got a biological blueprint, we cannot avoid that blueprint, and we have to start to work with it rather than against it.

Ross: A bit later, I’d want to dig into what you do. But firstly, I’d like to just pull back to some general prescriptions. You work with schoolchildren as well as grown adults, and we’d love to hear what your advice is, and how you help them to deal with a very common challenge we all have.

Kristy: I often say there are four pillars to peak performance in the digital age. It doesn’t matter if you’re a screen-ager, a teenager who has a digital infatuation with your phone or your gaming console, or whether you’re an adult, if we were all really honest, many of us would admit that we are tethered to technology. Adults often justify it, in terms of saying I need it for work, or I need to be responsive, maybe I’ve got aging parents or young children to care for, but the reality is that many of us have developed some unhealthy digital behaviors and dependencies.

I say if we want to thrive in this digital world that we’ve all inherited, there are four pillars for peak performance. The first thing that we have to do whether we’re a parent, a child, or an adult, is we have to create our digital guardrails. We have to have some digital borders and boundaries because we know technology has crept into every single crevice of our lives. Research tells us that upwards of 47% of us now toilet-tweet, that is we use our devices in the bathroom. Some other studies tell us that 90% of adults reach for their phone before their partner, first thing in the morning. If we don’t put some parameters in place, technology seeps into every part of our life, so the first pillar is borders and boundaries.

The second pillar is what I call neuro-productivity principles. We have to start to use technology in ways that work with our brains and bodies. For example, I often debunk the myth of multitasking. Many people today, however, are doing video calls and triaging their inboxes, they’re at home and watching Netflix and they’re also triaging their inboxes. We are working for really long stretches of time and our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that does that heavy lifting, is not biologically designed to work for long stretches of time. We’re just working against our neurobiology, so the second pillar is neuro-productivity principles.

The third pillar is around disabling digital distractions. We know that not only are distractions deadly to our focus, but they have a really strong lag effect. A study was done a couple of years ago that looked at once a person is distracted, be that with the ping of an email, be that a physical person coming to your desk and interrupting you, once we are distracted, it takes the average adult 23 minutes and 15 seconds to reorient their attention back into that deep focus state. It’s called the Resumption Lag. I really think we need to take back our control. We are being peppered throughout the day now with digital distractions, with alerts and notifications and reminders, and they’re really deadly to our focus and our well-being.

The fourth pillar is digital disconnection. We have to unplug. We are designed to take regular breaks. I don’t know about you, Ross, but I’ve never had a great idea in my inbox or an Excel spreadsheet, my great ideas come in the shower, they come when I go for a run, when I go for a swim, when I go on a plane with no Wi-Fi. We need that opportunity to enter what neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network.

Those four pillars are borders and boundaries or those guardrails. Neuro-productivity principles are working the way our brains are designed, digital distractions, controlling those, and digital disconnection. If we can get those four things right, we can thrive in this digital landscape that we all now find ourselves in.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. Our brains were developed quite a while ago, and this digital world is quite new. It’s a little bit of environment that our brains are used to, so those seem like some really valuable principles to follow.

Kristy: We have ancient Paleolithic brains, you’re exactly right. Our brains’ hard drives were designed pre-computers and pre-technology. We have brains that are biologically designed to go and forage and hunt and seek information. We used to go and borrow a book or read an encyclopedia, we used to go and get information. Today, we find ourselves in a world where we have information constantly thrust at us. The digital demands and the digital intensity of our day has grown exponentially in recent years, hence why so many people are overwhelmed.

Our brain isn’t designed to have information constantly coming to us. In fact, our brain perceives anything that comes to us as a potential threat. Our brain cannot actually differentiate between a tiger chasing us and the Team’s notification pinging at us. Our brain goes “Huh!” external source or external trigger, I’m in panic or threat mode, and yet, this is how many of us now operate on a day-to-day basis.

Ross: One of the things we could perhaps distill from your principles is we have times when we are engaged with the digital world, and there are times when we are not engaged with the digital world, preferably, for example, when we’re in the bathroom, or with our partner, or other things which may have a higher priority, would that be right?

Kristy: Absolutely. I often say digital detoxes or digital amputation if you’re a parent are not feasible strategies. We have to learn to live with technology but we have to take back our control. Because, again, if many of us critically examined the relationship we have with our myriad of devices, many of us would have to acknowledge that we have an unhealthy dependence. Our phone pings and we salivate like Pavlov’s dogs. We are really finding it hard to break away. We need to remember that to function optimally, we have that biological blueprint that I mentioned earlier, we have some hard biological needs that have to be met. I’m worried that our digital habits are encroaching on some of those basic needs. We need rest, we need to sleep, we need to be physically active, we need exposure to sunlight, and our digital behaviors have all significantly shaped and influenced each of those biological needs in some way.

Ross: The way I put it sometimes is that almost all of us are addicts to digital distraction. We have to just recognize that we are addicts so we need to try to control our behavior. But unfortunately, for example, in the case of alcohol, it’s not something we can give up completely because we do require our digital devices so we have to manage it, we have to be able to control, get the value from but also be able to let go of.

Kristy: Absolutely. That’s why I often say that we don’t need to strive for a digital detox or have really clear breaks from technology because the harsh reality is we’re going to live in a digitally saturated world. We often know that when people do take a significant break from technology, it often creates a binge and purge cycle, so they have three days offline but come back on Monday morning and catch up on the myriad of emails and messages that were awaiting them. What I think we’re better off to do is to create sustainable long-term behaviors and habits that will allow us to take back our control of technology and not be as digitally dependent as what many of us are.

Ross: I’d like to come back to this idea of what it is we can do to recreate those borders and boundaries, but I’d also like to dig in what happens when we are engaged with digital technology. A lot of your work is deeply research-based, you’re keeping across the science, so when you are engaged with not necessarily digital but probably largely digital sources, in your research, how is it that you find the best information? How do you identify sources? How do you focus your time? What are the ways and practices where you find the most relevant information and pull that together to the insights that you gain?

Kristy: Believe it or not, I do find some social media platforms a great starting point for current research, particularly LinkedIn is a great platform, especially with current research in terms of how people are working in hybrid and remote fashions. There’s some really current research being conducted and often initially disseminated or synthesized on those platforms. I then like to go a little bit deeper. I have some Google alerts set up so I am across any current news trends with key terms that I use for my research and keynote speaking, so I can stay up to date in terms of that. I have some journals that I subscribe to, so it is a matter of scanning the contents list and figuring out what articles warrant further investigation.

A really simple tool I have found is a tool called Pocket. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Pocket, Ross. It’s a plugin. I love Pockets. I gather any research articles or blog posts or longer forms of content and I love the Pocket feature of it being able to read the audio back to me so that I can digest that information sometimes on the go as well. I try and use a myriad of different approaches. I still love reading books. There’s a real merit in terms of reading traditional printed books, not audiobooks, I need to highlight, I need to scribe. This is still a work in process, how do I synthesize the information I get from those myriads of sources? And for me, I use predominantly Evernote, to keep track of information and notes. Then I have some running Google Docs and Google Sheets where I’ve come up with some frameworks along those four pillars that I mentioned before, where I try and archive, synthesize, paraphrase, and cite sources so that when it comes to doing something like writing a book or doing something where I need to draw on that research, I’ve got a central source of truth for where all that disparate knowledge and those sources have come from.

Ross: Is there a way that you link Pocket and Evernote? Or do you use those separately?

Kristy: I tend to use them separately. If I found something that I really enjoyed listening to in Pocket, I definitely then pop it in Evernote. But a Pocket is more my form of digesting content. So when I don’t want to get sucked into the digital vortex when I go in my inbox and see a link to an article that I know will be really pertinent, it’s so easy for me to click on it, and the one email that I went into my inbox to find, I’ve forgotten about it and I’m off down the digital rabbit hole reading a paper that really shouldn’t be done during that time. I’ve also found scheduling time so that I do have time to digest that information on Pocket or anything in my inbox. I’ve got a five-folder method in my inbox, and one of the folders is the Digest folder, so any information that I know I want to consume, I’ve assigned some time in my calendar each week where I will have designated time to consume the information, which is a core part of my job, staying current and up-to-date with the research is a really fundamental, if not the most critical, part of my job.

Ross: Absolutely. It’s what I describe as the difference between scanning and assimilating, so you can scan to be able to find things and then a separate period of time which is the assimilating, and that’s when you can take it in and make it part of your understanding, your knowledge, and mental models.

Kristy: A couple of years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a book about what the internet is doing to our brain and I loved the analogy in that book where he talked about how many of us now because of this infobesity, this constant saturation of information, have become jet-ski riders instead of deep-sea divers. In years gone by, we used to read the entire article from top to tail but now we’re looking for headlines, pull-out boxes, subtext, so we are really skimming the surface. Sometimes out of necessity, we do need to do that but we need to carve out time to do that deep, reflective thinking, and have that uninterrupted time where we can read something in its entirety, and make those mental connections as well.

Ross: Yes, that book in some countries is called The Shallows so it’s where most people spend their time. A lot of the value is not at the surface but deeper below. It’s a habit we need to pull back.

In the beginning, you started talking about LinkedIn, for example, as a source. LinkedIn, or any social platform, they all have value, but they can also be abused, used in abuse. Of course, there’s a wealth of wonderful resources on LinkedIn, but it can also have its own trap, so how specifically do you make sure that you are finding the best resources on LinkedIn, for example?

Kristy: I’ve been selective about who I’ve elected to follow, about what hashtags I’ve elected to also follow, and I find that really helps me to curate a really positive and helpful experience. I have a three-strikes policy, so if I see somebody sharing content that just doesn’t resonate, or is no longer of interest to me, if that comes across my radar roughly three times, I don’t have a formal striking system, but roughly three times, then I choose to unfollow or unsubscribe if they were sending newsletters, for example, so it’s really about being intentional. A lot of us have forgotten we do, and I know the algorithm serves us content, that it predicts very accurately, might I add, what would be of interest to us? But at the end of the day, we really do have a lot more control over who and what content comes into our feed than we often assume.

Ross: Absolutely. That’s a fantastic policy, this idea, whatever the social platform, if it’s not good, then you get it out of your stream. As you say, the platforms pick up on your behavior, so if you engage with content, it will assume that you like it, so only engage with things you want to see more on.

Kristy: Absolutely. We have to also be mindful because as humans, we have a negativity bias, we are naturally much more likely to click on a negative headline or something that insinuates perhaps something more negative will be in the article. Again, thinking of the time of the day when we do use social media. I often say to people don’t bookend your day with social media, so first thing in the morning and last thing at night. From a sleep perspective, we know obviously, at night, being on a blue-lit device can be really detrimental not only to the quality of our sleep but also the quantity of our sleep. But psychologically, being on a device, particularly if it’s a touchscreen, we’re very interactive so it’s not just passive, it can really hyper-arouse our brain. Equally in the morning, you only need to see one upsetting story or one upsetting news headline, which isn’t very hard to avoid these days, and you activate your limbic brain, that fight, flight or flee response, just by scrolling what we consume.

Often at night, our prefrontal cortex that helps us regulate our behavior, it basically limps to the finish line, it’s worked hard all day, in our roles, and it is often exhausted, so when we are tired, our prefrontal cortex that manages our impulses and our self-regulation, it doesn’t work as effectively, and part of the brain called our amygdala, at night, our amygdala fires up, which is the emotional hub of our brain, so we’re much more likely to click on something with a negative connotation or an upsetting headline, and this sends powerful messages to the Google recommendation algorithm that serve me up more of this content. If we’re careful about the time of the day when we use social media and have some parameters around who we follow, we can have a really healthy and positive relationship with it.

Ross: You mentioned negativity bias and certainly, we know that the news, any news source we choose to go to, will be almost all negative; not many good news stories around. I presume this is a cognitive finding in terms of a negativity bias, so where does that come from? Is there any way that we can control that negativity bias?

Kristy: It’s part of our biological DNA almost that in order for us to survive as a species, we had to be on the lookout, we had to be on the hunt for any potential threats or dangers. It’s baked into our biology to have that negative response. If there was a loud noise, it might be a predator approaching me, it might be a potential storm on the horizon. This is, again, why alerts and notifications are so detrimental to us because it’s an external threat that comes to us, it automatically kicks off that negative way of thinking, this is a danger, this is urgent, this is important, I’m under potential threat, where it’s just a Team’s notification or a reminder on your calendar. It is traced back to our ancestral roots as a human that in order for us to survive, we had to first assume that it was a negative or a dire experience on the horizon.

Ross: In terms of defining those borders or boundaries, that was the first principle, set some borders or boundaries, how do you go about that? Do you choose times? Do you choose places? If you’re telling somebody to define some borders and boundaries, how should they do that?

Kristy: Most certainly, all of those boundaries that you suggested, we need to have some firm, I call them our digital guardrails, about where we’ll use technology, where in your home are the no-go tech zones? Is it the meal area? Is it your bedroom? Is it the bathroom? If you’ve got young children, is it the car? Is that that car trip? That sacred place for conversation and engagement? We need to have really firm boundaries, this is where I’m working with a lot of organizations at the moment to establish their teams’ digital guardrails around when do we use technology.

Recent Microsoft data was telling us that 28% of knowledge workers are now working between 10 and 11 pm at night, that is a staggering finding. People are saying they can’t switch off, they feel they need to be responsive. Many people are saying they’re spending the preponderance of their work day going from one Zoom or Teams meeting to another with very little time now for their deep-focused work, hence why they’re working late into the evening. We need to have parameters around when we’ll use technology.

A part of this digital guardrail is coming up with what I call a communication escalation plan, so when there is a critical time-sensitive piece of information that you need to disseminate to your team, you know the one platform or one tool through which that will be communicated, so people don’t feel they need to be constantly checking emails or the Teams messages. Those boundaries around most certainly, when we use technology and where we use it, coming up with some parameters around how are we using it, are we going to have a digital curfew, for example, that’s something I recommend, that people switch off ideally 60 minutes before they want to fall asleep, and avoid using any small backlit and blue-lit devices, so coming up with some of those parameters, again, so that we take back control, rather than the other way around where technology really controls us and dominates our days and nights.

Ross: It’s interesting how few people actually explicitly set those parameters. They may have better habits than others, but not actually set specific boundaries. That’s something that could be of enormous value.

Kristy: It is, and that’s what I’m finding with teams, the teams that I have worked with to articulate their digital guardrails, these are team agreements, but where people come up with what I colloquially refer to as their “techspectations”. What’s an acceptable email response rate? When do I use a Teams chat versus an email versus the 15 WhatsApp messages that I bombard you with? Again, this is almost giving people permission to put focus mode on so that your Slack or your Teams notification communicates that you’re in a deep focus state and you don’t want to be interrupted. Yes, there are tools now that we can use to override so if someone is in a deep focus state and there is a time-sensitive, critical piece of information, you can in some instances override that, but coming up with those parameters in a team level really has made a big difference with people, not only their productivity, they’re saying now I feel like I’ve almost got permission to carve out deep, uninterrupted, focused periods of time, but also their well-being because people are saying, I feel I can switch off, if everybody’s singing from the same hymn sheet, it’s almost as though I’ve got a mental nod that it’s okay for me to unplug and disconnect.

Ross: That’s fantastic. When you talk about a team, coming to these kinds of agreements, typically, how large are these teams?

Kristy: I’ve worked with both small and large organizations, and with some smaller organizations. There are a few steps. The first part of this process is doing a digital audit. A lot of organizations at the moment are using Microsoft so they can get some data from their Viva Insights tool, which tells us how long they’re spending on meetings, how many emails, what time emails are going out, some really granular, non-identifiable data that we can look for the patterns and digital ways of working. Then I often run focus groups, and this depends on the size of the organization. Sometimes an organization picks a small team to roll this out with. Other times, I’ve worked with a really large organization, and that focus group involved participants from several different teams, from several different parts of the business, and with several different levels within their organizational ranks.

We had a real cross-section because it’s been really interesting the way that leaders often think that their teams are using technology, and the way that their teams are using it but wish their leaders would use it in a different way, has been really interesting. Once we’ve done the data analysis, we’ve had some focus groups, then I formulate a draft set of these digital guardrails, it then goes back to the focus groups, they then sometimes run it past their teams, or their divisions, or their fellow leaders, and then come back with feedback, and I revise a second copy of the guardrails, and again, it goes through the next process, and there’s very little that often is changed from then, and then it’s presenting it to the bigger team or the organization. But also bearing in mind that this is a living, breathing document because things are evolving. Anyone that tells you this is how hybrid-work works, he’s duping you because everybody’s figuring this out as we go.

Ross: Absolutely. In some cases, these agreements would go across the entire organization.

Kristy: They are, and with the caveat that understanding some teams might have a certain deadline or a project that might need a revision or adjustment, some teams operate and might have a different operational cadence, so there’s some variation, and because it’s an agreement, it’s not a policy, it’s not a strict you-must-do-this, but what we’re hearing from the teams that have rolled this out across their organization is that people feel like they can stick to some of the digital borders and boundaries that they want to put in place because there’s a unanimous agreement that this is how we’ll operate. It’s also giving people a common language.

I don’t want to say call people out, but to hold others to account. If they are, peppering their teammates with emails at 11 pm, at night, you can gently remind them, hey, remember, we said, we schedule those emails to go out during traditional business hours, by all means, if you have more flexible work arrangements, which means you are by choice wanting to work at night and send those emails, you can do so but please don’t send them out to land in other people’s inboxes. We come up with norms, practices, and principles around how do we use video meetings in an optimal way. How do we manage emails? When do I send an email versus a Teams chat? So really coming up with almost the digital parameters. Again, it is evolving and changing as we’ve got people going back into the office, and some people still working predominantly remotely. But it is a really good starting point, at least, for those organizations.

Ross: Absolutely, there’s a big difference between those organizations where these issues aren’t even discussed and where there is some kind of recognition that there are better and worse ways to do it.

Kristy: This is one of my concerns, we’d all agree, and the data is corroborating this, that rates of burnout are really at concerning levels. One of the chief reasons, not the only reason but one of the chief reasons, is that we have, and again, through no fault of our own, in March 2020, many team members took their laptop under their arm and said go home and work from home for a little while, so we’ve tried to come up with these digital ways of working on the fly. There was no big ramp-up period to undergoing a huge change program, which most of us did. What’s happened is we’ve embedded some unhealthy, unsustainable digital habits and behaviors and that is why so many people are experiencing clinical symptoms of burnout or concerning levels of burnout because we’re using technology in ways that are completely misaligned with how our brains and bodies work best.

Ross: Indeed. To round out on this theme of thriving on overload, prospering in a world of unlimited information, what are any concluding recommendations you would make to people that want to deal well with this world?

Kristy: I often talk about micro-habits. It’s not about going through a digital detox or a radical overhaul of your digital ways of working, it’s just making small little micro-adjustments, simple things like putting your phone somewhere where you cannot see it when you want to get your deep-focused work done. Why? A study told us from the University of Austin, Texas, that just seeing your phone, even if it is on silent and face down, if our phone is in our line of sight, it drops our cognitive performance by around 10%.

I often say to people seeing your phone makes you 10% dumber, so popping your phone in a drawer, in another room when you want to get that focused work done, disabling nonessential notifications, bundling, or batching, most platforms now, and apps give you the option of scheduling, what time do you want the notifications to come to you, creating VIP notification, so if you’re working with a colleague or a client on a time-sensitive project, when you put focus mode or Do Not Disturb mode on, everybody else is blocked but those people on the VIP list get through.

My third one would be unplugging. We’ve lost the art of being idle with our thoughts. Every piece of our white space now, waiting for the coffee while the barista makes your coffee, we pick up our phones, sitting at the red light, at the traffic lights, people pull out their phones. Our mind needs to meander. This is where we come up with creative ideas. I am worried we have become so accustomed to constantly consuming information that we don’t have the time that our brain desperately needs for ideation and also for creative thinking and a sense of identity. They’d be my three top ones, put your phone somewhere where you can’t see it, control your notifications, and digitally disconnect and daydream.

Ross: That’s fantastic advice. Anybody listening just needs to do one or even all three of those easy things and their life will be better. Kristy, where can people find more about your work?

Kristy: The irony isn’t lost on me: I’m encouraging people to digitally disconnect. But if you do want to consume, if I’m not hopefully going to get three strikes from you, I try and share bite-sized really practical bits of information. Yes, I’m a researcher, but someone introduced me the other day and said Kristy is a Pracademic and I thought they meant practically an academic. They said, No, you’re practical, and you’re an academic. I try and provide science-backed solutions, but really simple practical things we can do to tame our tech habits. I’m at drkristygoodwin.com and I try to share practical helpful information on LinkedIn and also on Instagram.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, Kristy. It’s been really valuable and insightful.

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