The Thrive Questionnaire//

Science Correspondent Alie Ward’s Smart Advice for More Productivity, Stronger Connections, and Better Sleep

“People spend a lot of time waiting for their chance to talk, but asking questions is much more rewarding.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

If being curious were a career, Alie Ward would be the CEO. Ward is an Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’ “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca,” host of “Did I Mention Invention?” on the CW, and also hosts the popular podcast “Ologies with Alie Ward.” She is on a mission to make science approachable and cool by blending her knowledge of all things scientific with humor and creativity. Just one listen to her podcast and you’ll have fun-fact fodder for first dates, work events, or family functions for years to come.

In her Thrive Questionnaire, Ward  shares her top tips on being productive, how volunteering led to her dream career, and how science can help her in any situation.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Alie Ward: Ask my dog why she’s so cute, and if she is a muppet possessed by an angel. Then I put my contacts in. Before my contacts are in, I’m in a state of suspended consciousness.

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

AW: I put the tea kettle on and go walk the pup so the water’s hot when I come back. I hope this isn’t dangerous. 

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

AW: Time-blocking. In the morning, take your day’s to-do list and block out exactly what you’ll do at what time, so you focus only on that task during that block of time. This works like gangbusters and yet I’ll forget and go weeks without doing it. I do not know why I do this. 

TG: How do you deal with email?

AW: I try to remember that it’s better to send a quick reply with a possible typo than to sit on a draft for weeks, wanting to make it the Best Email Ever Written, then forget about it until they send a “gentle reminder.” Timely is better than perfect. 

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day; what do you do with it?

AW: After years of wanting one, I splurged and purchased a massage chair that looks like a giant space egg. It’s in my guest room and it is the most ridiculous thing to own. 15 minutes is the perfect amount of time to sink into it, and when I have dinner parties, people just take turns disappearing into the space egg and it makes me so happy. 

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

AW: A few weeks ago, I stayed up all night finishing an episode of Ologies before hopping a plane for “Innovation Nation.” So, I started the morning wrecked. It was 5 a.m., and my Lyft driver’s first day on the job. He got lost, and I nearly missed my flight, but I panic-rushed through TSA, had to toss my cursed shoes on the X-ray, and one shoe fell behind the belt and no one could reach it. Game time decision: I left it behind and sprinted the half-mile through LAX in my socks, getting to the gate wheezing and sweaty right before they closed it. Triumph. Then I learned you can’t board a plane in socks. My producer had been waiting for me and happened to have another pair of shoes, which I put on. I took my seat panting and coughing and wanting to quit my life and grow a beard and live in the forest.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?

AW: A few weeks ago, I did a pop-up science event in a park for fun, prepared to give a talk about the mating habits of a few animals. Then realized there was a five-year old in attendance. So I switched Keynote decks, gave another talk I was wholly unprepared for, and fumbled my way through it. I sucked. I should have prepared a back-up talk that was family-friendly. But when I fail, I try to imagine myself on my deathbed. Will this incident come up? Will I think about an awkward talk I gave in a park? No way. So if it’s not something that would trouble me on my deathbed, I just try to do everyone a favor and move on quickly.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

AW: “Trying is winning. Failure still makes you a legend, because you tried in the first place.” — actor/goddess Jameela Jamil

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

AW: Listing things in the order they need to get done and the times I’ll do them. Bonus: I use a gold Sharpie to cross to-do’s off, which feels deeply glam and rewarding. Whoa. Wait. I just realized it’s the grown-up equivalent of giving yourself a gold star. Holy sh*t. 

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

AW: Procrastination does not make your writing better. First drafts are your friend. Do not fear the first draft. 

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

AW: I’m lucky to be close friends with Dailyn Rodriguez, a TV writer, showrunner, and total bada*s who has incredible work/life boundaries. She gets her work done and then has a lovely dinner with her amazing husband, takes vacations in France, and knows that recharging is essential. I also ask her advice on everything from solar panels to investment portfolios to wine. She is my idol, whether she wants to be or not. 

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

AW: In a moment of high anxiety, deep breathing can work wonders. I also ask myself — I learned this from Fearologist Mary Poffenroth — what I’m afraid of. Stress is usually fear, and the fear is usually that you’re not enough. So I try to talk down those fears. I ask myself: “Can this thing actually kill you? No? Then chill out.” Also: a bath, a session in the space egg, or a jog to music that makes me feel invincible. 

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

AW: I talked to a Dendrologist (tree expert) for an episode of “Ologies” and he told me that looking at greenery can increase calm and productivity. So I set up my desk near a window facing trees, and when I’m writing or need a break, I’ll just look up at birds or a squirrel. Even 30 seconds is a great brain break. It’s kind of like having an aquarium, but you never have to clean any algae. 

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

AW: I try to look at anxiety scientifically. I think: “If this were a hypothesis, is there enough data to prove that my soul is a dumpster and I am destined to fail?” and there’s usually not. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how you sustain this habit?

AW: I can fall asleep anywhere: In my 20s, I napped at goth/industrial nightclubs. Drifting off is never a problem. But on my best days, I start getting ready for bed hours ahead of time when I’m still alert, so I don’t have to drag the human sandbag that is my body to the bathroom to floss. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

AW: Asking smart people stupid questions is the motto of my podcast, and I really take it into my whole life. Asking people questions and letting them share what they know is a great way to connect. People spend a lot of time waiting for their chance to talk, but asking questions is much more rewarding. 

TG:  Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

AW: Turn. Off. Notifications. Or airplane mode your phone when you’re on a deadline. Can you imagine if every three minutes, someone came in your office to tell you about a sale at Macy’s, or a coupon for boba, or if you let someone you went to high school with interrupt a meeting to show you photos of their kid’s soccer match? Unthinkable. Our phones do the same thing all day if we let them. 

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

AW: In 2013, my dad was just diagnosed with the cancer multiple myeloma, and on top of it, the love of my life was having a mental health crisis. I was working in food TV, and from the outside, had an enviable life — but I didn’t feel like I was living authentically at all. I started volunteering at a science museum one morning a week simply because it made me happy, and it taught me to reconnect with what I love in life. My partner and dad are both doing well now, and that period of time taught me to be grateful every day for what and who you have. Cheesy but true. 

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep?

AW: The best nighttime advice I’ve ever gotten was to stick to a schedule. Off work at 7 p.m. Dinner from 7-8 p.m. Do something you love that is unrelated to work (read, carve a spoon, whatever) from 8-9 p.m. Tidy up, do dishes, lay out tomorrow’s clothes from 9-10 p.m. Get in bed at 10 p.m. and read if you want. Lights out by 11. When I do this, I am so happy it actually scares me. 

TG: Fill in the blanks: People think I/I’m _______, but really, I/I’m ______.

AW: People think I’m a redhead but come on. My hair is brown and grey and this is a choice. 

TG: Name a book that changed your life. 

AW: The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr & Toy Schwartz

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

AW: It sleeps next to my head, which is earnestly probably the worst place in the world for it. 

TG: What brings you optimism?

AW: I love hearing about other people’s passions; nothing lights me up more than seeing others light up. It makes me realize how many people are trying to do good and how much love we have for each other and life. 

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