…You need grit. Life will throw lots of challenges your way. You have to know how to manage them and stay on your path. If you experience failure, you can’t let that deter you; you can’t just give up. You might pivot and find something that works better, but you always come back to the work you have to do and move forward. Giving up is easy. You need a warrior mentality and work ethic. This is where your purpose comes in and helps to keep you going.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Sharon Grossman.
Dr. Sharon Grossman is a psychologist, success coach, and the author of the international best-selling book, The 7E Solution to Burnout: Transforming High Achievers from Exhausted to Extraordinary. For the past two decades, she has coached physicians, lawyers, and other professionals in high-stress industries who are struggling with anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout. Dr. Grossman works with them to stay calm, even in situations that are seemingly scary, to effectively manage the demands on their time, and quickly bounce back from adversity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
When I was a kid, I’d sit around the table when the adults were talking and I would overhear how they dreaded going to work. I didn’t know it then, but that experience left its mark on me because I didn’t want that to be my destiny. All these years later, I’m grateful to have a career I’m passionate about and serve people who love what they do but don’t know how to keep doing it without burning out.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
No one really. It took me a long time to figure out what career I wanted to pursue. I wanted to find work that would inspire me, challenge me, and allow me to be the best version of myself. So I started taking intro classes to a variety of subjects as a way to sample what items from the career menu might feel like. I also took notice that the books I was reading were, by and large, self-help books.
After taking an intro to psych class, I was hooked. The more I looked into the possibilities of what I could learn as well as what I could do with my degree, the more I was convinced I was in the right space.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It’s so true that there is always someone in the background to help you shine your light. For me, it was my parents. My mom is a lifelong learner. Growing up, she became a role model of how I wanted to be and has always taken an interest in my pursuits.
My dad was more vocal and I’ll never forget what he said when I started my first semester in college. He said, “Just know that if you change your mind, it’s OK.” He gave me permission to fail.
The other big influence my dad had on me was that he was always self-employed. Once I decided to go into private practice as a psychologist, become a coach, write a book, and take on a hundred other projects, he was always there to hear about my ideas and back me up.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I first went out on my own, I joined a business networking group. Over time, I found that this format didn’t really work for my industry. Perhaps it just didn’t work for me personally, but members of that group kept telling me that “you have to go long.” The longer you’re in the group, the more relationships you form. That made rational sense because business is based on trust, but it didn’t actually pan out for me. I definitely stayed in it too long until I realized I could utilize my resources in far more productive and profitable ways. But I also learned that although I didn’t get what I came in for, there were other benefits from being there. I did meet some amazing people and it was a platform for me to test out some of my ideas and for that, I am grateful.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I would say — think of it as a recipe that requires four important ingredients:
- You need to be clear on what your goal is and why it’s important to you. Too often, people are vague — they’ll say, “I want to make more money.” Think about what you want to accomplish that when you provide that product or service would help you be profiable. Who do you want to serve?
- Once you have clarity, you need to be super focused. One of the things I talk about in my book is optimal performance and much of that has to do with having the right mindset, good time management, and eliminating distractions.
- Third, you need grit. Life will throw lots of challenges your way. You have to know how to manage them and stay on your path. If you experience failure, you can’t let that deter you; you can’t just give up. You might pivot and find something that works better, but you always come back to the work you have to do and move forward. Giving up is easy. You need a warrior mentality and work ethic. This is where your purpose comes in and helps to keep you going.
- Lastly, you will likely need coaches and mentors along the way to help you get beyond your blindspots, share with you tried-and-true formulas for success, and hold you accountable to your goals. By the way, I have hired at least a half dozen coaches over the past 5 years. Each one had certain experiences that proved helpful in shortening the time for me to reach my goal. At times, their perspectives also allowed me to adopt ideas into my business that I would not have thought of by myself. Now as a coach, I hope to pay it forward to my clients who are where I was when I started out.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s hard to pick one book that stands out, but one that comes to mind is the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. In this context, it stands out less for what the book is written about and more for the story shared in it about the Stockdale Paradox. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the story of a United States military officer who was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. What resonated with me was that while Stockdale was able to make it out alive, the optimists in his group didn’t. They kept imagining they would get out by a specific date and when that didn’t come to pass, they reportedly died of a broken heart.
At first, I really didn’t like this message because I think of myself as an optimist and I believe the reason I’m as resilient as I am is because of my mindset. But on second glance, I understood that to be truly resilient, you have to face your challenges, not wish them away. I talk about this in my book because burnout is so closely related to resilience and mindset and often people who are pessimists burn out more so. But I think the lesson here is that you need to focus on what is in your control and accept what you can’t control. In short, this story is a reminder of how challenging and uncertain our reality can be and how we need to stay mentally strong to withstand the challenges.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
My favorite is the quote by Albert Einstein that says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The reason I love this quote in particular is because I’m in the business of helping people overcome their self-sabotage and too often we get in our own way. This quote seems to cut through the fog and get straight to the point that — hey, you need to make a change if you want a different outcome.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Several months into the COVID epidemic, I saw that burnout rates were even more on the rise. So after I published my book, I thought that some of my readers might really need to work through the steps to overcoming their burnout but need more structure and accountability. So I launched a 3-month program called Exhausted to Extraordinary that so far has been very well received. It’s been incredibly fulfilling to see the transformation my clients are going through in such a short time because the program is about so much more than just burnout. It is a blueprint for how to live your best life. I’ve brought together all of the most effective tools from my two decades in the field, broken them down so they are easily absorbed, and pieced them together so you as the client can learn how to think differently, feel differently, and behave differently. It’s powerful stuff.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Absolutely. Habits are essential for our success and wellbeing. Without them, we are subject to just react to whatever is happening around us. Too often, for instance, my clients who experience anxiety tell me they start the day by reaching for their phone to check their email. As soon as they start thinking about all the work they need to do, they become stressed and anxious. But there is a missed opportunity here.
Early morning is a time to focus on yourself. If instead of checking your email you start your day by meditating, exercising, reading, or journaling, you are priming yourself for growth and resilience. By doing so, you are making a statement — that you are worth it. When you invest in yourself in these small ways, you set yourself up for success.
Meditation is particularly effective as a habit because it is a form of brain training. If you are someone who tends to be reactive, who becomes easily stressed, or who is negatively affected by other people, creating a meditation practice trains your brain to be less reactive by slowing down. What’s so amazing about this is that you don’t need to white knuckle your way through a situation anymore. It happens naturally because the brain region responsible for emotional processes, the amygdala, actually gets altered.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
When I tell you about the benefits of meditation, it’s not something I read in a book. This is based on my personal experience.
I am a Type A personality so I have a tendency to go all in with my work. Because I like to keep moving and make progress, I used to lack patience for other people. And as a parent, being impatient was particularly challenging because kids require extra attention. When I found myself losing my noodles one too many times, I said to myself that I cannot blame others and say it’s because of them that I’m reacting in this way. I knew I had to take responsibility for myself and work to change.
I had heard that meditation was a good thing to practice but I didn’t really know how it would help me. But over time, I noticed that it changed me. I am still a high achiever, but today I feel so much wiser because I can stay cool, calm, and collected no matter what’s happening in situations or with people around me. Now that I’ve lived it, I teach others how to create those changes in themselves.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Building good habits is simple on paper. You just need to commit to consistent practice. Coming back to the example of meditation — if you wanted to create a meditation habit, it is more about spending a few minutes daily meditating than it is about spending long periods of time on it once in a while.
The better question is — what does it take to get to that commitment. Most people struggle to create habits or stick with them because of their mindset. They convince themselves that they don’t have the time, that they don’t have the energy, or that they have too much else to do. To develop a good habit, you must understand why it is worth your while and decide to dedicate yourself to it.
Lastly, it helps to practice your habit in the same place at about the same time each day. The more consistent you become with it, the easier it will be to stick with the practice. It’s like the habit you have of brushing your teeth when you wake up. No one has to remind you to do it, tell you where to find your toothbrush, or convince you that just because you brushed your teeth yesterday, you can skip today.
Stopping bad habits is similar in the sense that you need to make a decision ahead of time. For example, one of my clients complained that he kept hitting snooze on his alarm clock every morning because he wasn’t getting enough sleep. The reason for this was because each night when he’d sit down to watch Netflix, he would be lured into episode after episode of his favorite show. He said at that time of night his willpower was too low.
I asked him to identify what time he would need to get to sleep in order to get adequate rest and reverse engineer his bedtime. Instead of relying on his willpower to turn off the TV, he could just go by a decision he made ahead of time. Now, he is more mindful of the time and knows based on the clock whether he can allow himself one more episode or, if instead, he needs to head off to bed.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
There was a study done by Michael Babyak at Duke University were he took a group of 156 depressed patients and divided them into three groups. The first group was provided with antidepressant medications. The second was asked to exercise regularly. The third group was given meds and asked to exercise as well. After four months, 60 percent of the patients were no longer depressed.
But here’s the interesting part. Six months after the study, the medication-only group had a 38 percent relapse rate. The group with medication and exercise had a 31 percent relapse rate. But the exercise-only group had only a 9 percent relapse rate.
The conclusion was that rather than thinking of exercise as an effective antidepressant, we can think of a lack of exercise like taking a depressant.
Hopefully this helps change your perception of exercise and its importance. Now to create the habit, and it’s recommended that you exercise for 30 minutes about four times per week, it’s best to pick something you enjoy doing. If you love dancing, playing tennis, or going for a run, pick the activity that has the least mental hurdles for you to overcome. Exercising with a friend or in a group has also been shown to be effective to help you stick with the habit more. Alternatively, if you love learning but tend to be short on time you could combine your exercise with listening to a podcast or an audiobook.
Optimal performance results when demands are resources are in proper balance. Some of the demands will come from your work or family life while the rest will be your own. If you are a perfectionist, for example, you’ll be more likely to put yourself through the ringer and never feel satisfied. This will not only lead to procrastination which will reduce your performance, but also negatively affect your confidence levels.
When it comes to resources, consider what you need to meet the demands. If you have too many demands and too little resources, you will burn out. So the habit to create here is looking inward and checking in with yourself. The more self-aware you are, the better you’ll know whether you need to decrease the demands or increase your resources when you’re overwhelmed.
On the flip side, if demands are too low, regardless of your resources, the lack of challenge will leave you feeling either bored or apathetic so by being self-aware, you can focus in on increasing the demands in this case.
Like everything else I’ve mentioned so far, optimal focus starts with your mindset. The problem I see most often with people who struggle to stay focused is the fear of missing out. When you have notifications going off on your phone, when you’re constantly checking your email, or when you are frequently interrupted or distracted due to your environment, it will be impossible for you to stay focused for long.
You have to first decide that you are taking a period of time to work without interruptions. This may require you to set expectations about your availability with others.
I worked with a client who was drowning in her work. Part of the issue was that she had too many things to do in the time available and the other issue was that there were too many distractions. We came up with a strategy whereby she would take two hours each morning to work uninterrupted. She would lock herself up in an office and get things done. The other thing she did was identify someone she could groom for a leadership role and have them fill in for her at meetings. This freed up some of her time to work on more important tasks that only she could complete. Lastly, she told her staff that if they had questions, they needed to schedule a time on her calendar. As a result of that, people had to really question themselves about whether their issue warranted a meeting or if they could figure out the answer on their own. Once they stopped coming around to ask questions all day long, not only did my client get more done but the lack of distraction for those who work around her helped them get more done as well.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
There are five top practices to help you develop a new habit. The first is setting up reminders. That is because the activity you want to engage is in not yet an established habit. So you might need to have an alarm go off at a certain time, have a sticky note up on your bathroom mirror, or have the message pop up on your phone.
It is also helpful to couple your habit with something else you’re already doing. I once heard of a guy who wanted to get in shape so he decided to do 50 situps each time he went to the bathroom. You can imagine how many situps he ended up doing on a regular basis. When you have this sort of precedence, the outcome you are going for becomes a no-brainer.
If you are trying to change a bad habit to a good habit, one thing to consider is removing temptation. In my book, I share about a study by Dr. Katherine Milkman from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In her study, “Dr. Milkman set out to find out what level of motivation would be most successful in getting 226 students and faculty members to engage in physical activity. She placed participants in three distinct groups. The first group received an iPod and was able to access audiobooks only at the gym. Members in the second group had audiobooks loaded onto their personal iPods and were encouraged to only listen to them at the gym. The third group received a gift card and an encouragement to work out more.
The results showed that the first group worked out 29 percent more than the second group and 51 percent more than the third group. The relative success of the first group resulted from bundling the temptation of the audiobooks with the challenging activity of working out, which increased the group’s motivation and follow-through in facing the challenge.”
As mentioned earlier, working on your goal with a buddy has been shown to lead to increased success. Imagine that you wanted to go jogging three times a week to get into shape and your neighbor just happens to have the same goal. You decide to go together. Now Monday rolls around and you don’t feel like going, but you know your neighbor will be waiting for you. This helps you overcome your excuses and keeps you accountable to your goal.
Lastly, I would say it’s important to have compassion for yourself. If you decide to start a daily habit and you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be consistent as much as possible. I built up a meditation habit by meditating on weekdays and taking weekends off. Be realistic and flexible and you’ll be more likely to stick with your habit longer term.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
The three best habits I can share that lead to optimal performance at work all center around self-management.
The first is about managing your mind. Too often, the reason our performance suffers is because we are filled with self-doubt (which keeps us from making timely decisions), fear (which leads us to avoidance), and negative chatter (which makes us feel less confident in our capabilities and keeps us stuck). A huge part of what I coach people on is how to shift out of this kind of thinking that leads to anxiety and overwhelm and which contributes, in large part, to burnout. In a nutshell, when you understand that the reason you feel as you do is because of your thoughts rather than the events in your life, the sooner you’ll feel empowered rather than victimized by your circumstances and the sooner your performance will improve.
The second aspect of self-management is around your energy. It can seem counter-intuitive for you to work less in order to achieve more, but when you don’t take breaks or engage in energy-restoring activities outside of work, your performance will suffer.
Lastly, your performance will become optimized when you manage your time properly. This requires you to have goals, to check in with your goals regularly, and schedule your activities ahead of time so you ensure the important tasks get done and that you keep making progress on your goals.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
One practice to help you manage your mind is to check in with your emotional state. How do you feel? If, for instance you feel irritable, identify the thought that led to this emotion. Then ask yourself, “How do I want to feel about the situation that I’m in instead?” Once you identify the emotion you want to feel, ask yourself, “What would I need to think in order to feel this way?” As soon as you adopt this new way of thinking about your situation, you’ll shift your emotional state and behaviors as well.
There are several ways in which you can manage your energy. These might sound obvious, but unless you are doing them, you aren’t implementing what you know and until you do, you won’t reap the benefits. So create a routine of taking breaks throughout the day, getting on average 8 hours of sleep per night, moving your body daily, and taking your vacation days. You’ll feel a shift in your energy and the more alert you feel, the sharper your focus on your tasks will be.
A great way to habitualize your time management is to sit down for an hour at the start of each week and put everything that you want to achieve on your calendar. Then you’ll need to reference your schedule throughout the day to keep you updated on what’s next. This will help prevent you from wasting time wondering what you should be doing and from focusing on things that pop up but aren’t important and serve as distractions.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
Although we’ve already touched on habits that can increase your focus, I want to share more on that here.
One of the biggest issues people struggle with in this day of ever-shortening attention spans is mindfulness. We tend to spend most of our living moments focusing on events that have already passed or on those that have yet to come. But then we are missing the present moment and that’s where we need to be in order to increase our focus.
The keys to mindfulness that I think will help you the most are two-fold: The first is managing your thoughts. Each time you feel anxious, recognize that you are in the future and bring yourself back to the present moment. If you feel upset, guilty, or down, recognize that you are in the past and reorient yourself to the here-and-now.
I have many clients who struggle with guilt and frustration, mostly at other people. One way I have them recenter their mind is I tell them to identify the “should” statement they are telling themselves. If you think someone else “should” have done something differently than they did, you’ll feel frustrated. If you think you should have done something differently than you did, you’ll feel guilty. Both are in the past, so you need to let them go and focus on what you can control instead.
A second habit to increase focus at work is having a daily to-do list. I found that when I complete a task, I tend to get lost in a sea of confusion. I become unfocused and my auto-pilot response is to check my email. This can easily lead me to doing 10 other things that just waste my time. Instead, if I have a to-do list for that day, as soon as I finish a task, I don’t have to wonder what to do next. I can just look down at my list and jump into the next task.
Lastly, it’s crucial, as I mentioned, to take breaks throughout the day. This may be hard to do at first because you are focusing externally on the tasks you need to accomplish rather than within on your energy levels to complete those tasks. But as soon as you tune inwards, you’ll be better able to identify and address your needs and this will keep you focused longer than otherwise.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
A great way to establish the mindfulness habit is to practice it daily. There are a few ways you can do that. The first is to practice a mindfulness meditation where you sit quietly with the intention of not thinking. Each time you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your breath.
Another way to establish mindfulness is to do a body scan. I had a client who tended to build up tension in his body throughout the day and was unaware of it. Once he started doing his body scan, he found the areas of tension and was able to release them. By doing so, you can prevent burnout from happening because instead of letting tension build and build until you are overwhelmed by it all, you are constantly releasing anything that accumulates.
With regards to your daily to-do list, there are two ways to go about this. Either, as mentioned earlier, you plan your weekly activities in advance at the start of the week and then from there determine what today will entail. Or, start your day by thinking about what you will focus on, when you will do it, how long it will take you, and how it pertains to your long-term goals.
There are also different approaches to taking breaks. You can use the Pomodoro method, which has you working for a block of time (e.g., 25 minutes) and then taking a short break (e.g., 5 minutes) or if you want to get into a state of flow, plan on longer work sessions (e.g., 90 minutes) with a longer break period (e.g., 10–15 min). Alternatively, you can just pause anytime you want to reach for a sweet, caffeine, or nicotine and take that as an indication that your energy is waning. Use this as an opportunity to recharge by taking a walk, listening to uplifting music, or meditating. These practices will help you have more sustained energy that will support your focus.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
You hit the nail on the head. Flow is when you are simultaneously inspired and challenged. This leads to optimal engagement whereby you become less distracted and will get more done.
In my book, I explain that to get into flow, you need to:
- Set clear goals that are suitable to your skill level
- Find tasks that are challenging yet completable
- Focus on pleasurable tasks or shift your perception of the task so you can see it in a more positive light
The reason for this is that when task difficulty outweighs your skill level, anxiety ensues. When the opposite is true, and the task lacks challenge given your skill level, you will likely feel bored. And when you find pleasure in your work, it is much easier to dive in and lose yourself (in a good way).
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would want to help people see that they have so much untapped potential and the way they can tap into it and live their best lives is by managing their mind. Empowering them in this way can help them see they have choices available to them always, even when it seems they are trapped, and that this work is simple but hard because it requires us to focus inward and filter out external influences that serve as distractions.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
More than anyone else, I would be overjoyed to be sharing a meal with Brene Brown. She has been a huge influence on my life. I feel so inspired by her authenticity, her courage, and her drive, and I love her sense of humor. I not only quoted her in my book several times, I also share her work with all of my clients. That’s how much I believe in her!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I invite readers to visit my website where they can enroll in my free webinar to dive deeper into this work. I am also active on LinkedIn where I share daily tips and articles around burnout prevention and stress management.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.