Life takes energy, and you can think of energy as a health currency. Just like money, we have daily usage and need to make regular deposits after withdrawals. An important part of energy management is making sure that you have down time. Athletes call this recovery, or a rest day. Others may know this as self-care. Whatever term you prefer, it’s the concept that matters; you need to give yourself some time to recharge.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingBetsy Leahy.
Betsy is a wellness travel coach who helps clients seeking life-changing wellness travel experiences, make the changes stick once they get back home. She’s also the founder of LovetoSpa.com, and the creator of The Exhaustion Fix, a course about how to have more energy for the life you want to live. Betsy is a former Learning & Development Lead for a Fortune 100 Company, CPA and MBA, who now pursues her passion at the nexus of work, wellness and travel.
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?
I grew up in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia. I think my childhood was fairly average in a family of four, including my older sister and our parents. I played soccer and danced ballet. Worked after school and summers in high school and college. Living close to Revolutionary War sites, including where George Washington crossed the Delaware River, I always loved history. So, in my travels I love getting to see places I read about. Sometimes, I am in awe of where I end up in my travels. I remember my first trip to Asia just thinking here I am this girl from Yardley, PA now halfway around the world. I am always humbled by the places I have been to. Growing up I could never have imagined all the places I’d get to go to see and the things I’d get to do, especially making connections with people in far-off places.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I read in Condé Nast Traveler about a travel company that just hired its first ever wellness expert, who spent the first months in her new role traveling to 40 of the best wellness destinations in the world. I thought how awesome! How do I get a job like that?
Because I believe so strongly in transformation and self-improvement, coaching felt like the right fit. Coaching allows me to empower others to achieve their goals. And while I can advise my clients on destinations that best support what they are seeking, be it mental resilience, health or fitness, through life-changing travel experiences, the real work begins when they get home. We’ll talk later about habits, but this is really where I partner with my clients to help them to make the changes stick. It’s easy to begin these changes within the nurturing environment of a wellness retreat or destination spa, but much harder in day-to-day to life. My job is to guide my clients to a better return on their wellness trip investment.
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?
I’ve been blessed with so many mentors and bosses who have helped me along the way. But in this most recent phase of my work, I have to say it has been some very special friends. It takes a lot of courage to leave the comfort and job security of a company you have been with for close to 20 years to follow a dream. These friends have always believed in me and encouraged me to go for it.
Two in particular were in an executive coaching certification program with me. As the program was drawing to a close late one summer, they asked me over lunch what I wanted to do. I shared my dream idea of focusing my coaching on wellness travel and wellness sabbaticals. The energy they gave back to me in the discussion around the potential was just awesome. The next day one of them said to me, “You know I was thinking more about your idea last night.” I was sort of blown away by the fact that they were as excited about my idea as I was.
Of course, at the time we couldn’t have foreseen a global pandemic that would disrupt travel. But I am optimistic that wellness travel will be even more important than ever. And with more companies adapting to remote work, it paves the way for more opportunities for employee wellness sabbaticals. I hope they become more accessible.
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?
Oh, I make mistakes all the time. But one of the more interesting wasn’t a mistake but more like what seemed a failure on my part — and in front of others. I was at the Miraval wellness resort in Tucson, Arizona. At the time, I was still in my corporate learning and development job, so this was really a wellness trip for myself. One of Miraval’s signature offerings is an equine experience, part of which was to get the horse to do a straightforward command. It looked simple enough when demonstrated by the guide but telling a large animal what to do was way outside my comfort zone. The other guest — only two of us had signed up that day — went first and got the horse to obey the command. When it was my turn, I could not get the horse to follow my command, no matter how hard I tried. I got so frustrated and in doing so, missed the obvious solution that was right in front of me. I won’t reveal specifically what that was out of respect for anyone who might want to experience this someday.
But I will reveal that I learned some powerful lessons from that experience — which was the whole point. I learned how the ego can sometimes block us from the easiest solution. I also learned that comparing yourself to others (the experienced guides and the other guest) can also set you up for frustration. And everything about this exercise was 100% about communication skills. Though I had often received praise for my communication skills, the exercise exposed blind spots. And rather than feeling foolish — okay a little foolish — I came back from that trip a better communicator in my relationships and as a leader at work. My time out of work had been just a few days, but I came back energized by what I had learned, even hanging a picture of horse in my office to remind me of those lessons. The dividends from that “spa” trip continued to pay out long after.
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?
My advice would be to not be afraid to create your own path. When I look back on my career, it was through special projects that I discovered my strengths were suited for change management, communication and learning and development. I realized my passion for continuous improvement. I was better suited for these roles than the traditional accounting and finance roles that had started my career, and therefore had greater success. I went off the beaten path and sought out these roles as often as I could and never looked back. Some of those very skillsets I was building back then are now skillsets needed as the profession undergoes great change.
Of course, it was my learning and development role that led me to coaching. Combining that with my passion for wellness and travel led to this interesting nexus of personal/professional development, wellness and travel. So, my advice would be to take those special projects or assignments outside your area because you may discover a whole set of skills and passions that you can combine for even greater success.
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?
You know, whenever I talk about transformation through travel, people immediately respond with “Oh, like Eat, Pray Love.” I definitely think that book by Elizabeth Gilbert brought the transformative power of travel to the forefront, as well as encouraging solo female travelers. Another book is A Trip to The Beach by Melinda and Robert Blanchard a Vermont couple who, after vacationing in Anguilla, decided to move there and open a successful restaurant. Again, the power of travel to transform your life.
But it’s funny you asked about my childhood because there was a book I checked out every week from the library when I was in kindergarten. It was the story of a girl who had been invited to a party and was nervous, but a new attitude that came from a new outfit and haircut gave her the confidence to go and make new friends. Looking back, I realize the themes of self-care and transforming into your best self and best life really resonated with me, even then.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I love quotes. In fact, some destination spas leave little cards with inspirational quotes as part of their turn down service, so I am always being inspired by new quotes. One that has stuck with me for decades might be more of a saying than a quote. It’s an Irish proverb that says “A man (or woman), may be his (or her) own ruin. It is a wedge of itself that splits the oak tree.” It resonates with me because we play a key role in what happens to us, good and bad, and we need to own that. We need to be accountable for our actions and choices, even if they are in reaction to someone else or something that happened to us.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Well 2020 was certainly interesting with the impact of a pandemic on wellness travel. I launched a Keep Travel Dreaming coaching program for those who had to delay their transformative wellness trips but didn’t want to delay their transformation.
The pandemic also gave me an opportunity to go back to my learning and development roots and create a couple of online courses — The Exhaustion Fix and How to Thrive During COVID. I really want to help busy working mothers balance work, while overseeing remote learning and take care of themselves despite all the challenges these days. So, I created these two courses for them.
Going forward, I’m excited to continue to create more courses and programs to help people jump start or recommit to a wellness lifestyle or mindfulness practice. I am also looking to pitch a wellness travel coffee table book to inspire or introduce people to wellness travel.
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?
Only about 5% of our behaviors are driven by self-discipline and willpower. That means 95% of our behaviors are non-conscious and automatic, largely the result of previously established habits.
A simple example would be what you put in your morning coffee. Chances are if you drink coffee, as I do, at one point you probably put milk and sugar in your coffee. But maybe to save calories you replaced sugar with a natural sweetener like stevia, or maybe you switched to almond milk instead. Now, you don’t even think twice about stevia or almond milk, it’s just what you do. That’s what we mean by automatic and non-conscious behavior. Only in this case we are talking about swapping habits instead of swapping our sweetener or creamer.
To successfully create good habits, we often have to overcome the daily repeated actions that cement habits and make change so difficult. Creating good habits takes time until these better habits become more non-conscious and automatic. When that happens, your habits work for you rather than against you.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Well yes, if you think about it, good habits are really crucial for peak performance. So, habits have absolutely been part of my success. Things like being on time, responding back within 24 hours, striving to do my best in all situations, or learning and reading on my own time to be informed and prepared.
But some of the habits that I attribute to my success may surprise you. I do not multi-task in the way that most people do. I found trying to answer emails and IM’s during meetings distracting. I noticed when I am fully present for the meeting, it’s more productive. I’m more engaged in the discussion and I retain more of the conversation. It’s the same thing with tasks, when I am fully present, I make fewer mistakes. Rather than trying to call into a meeting from the car, I prefer to focus on my commute. I found it just wasn’t effective for me, focused partly on the meeting, partly on the traffic. And honesty, it sends a better message to the other participants that the meeting is important enough for me to give my full attention.
Getting quality sleep is another habit for me. I’ve learned that I just do not function well on less sleep. I also found that working late and then going right to bed keeps me awake with a racing mind. Sometimes the hours of sleep we get aren’t always ideal, but I do try for the highest quality of sleep each night for the hours I do get. For me, that means no work or electronic devices right before bed and filtering out the blue light at least two hours before bedtime.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
When making changes it’s important to distinguish between habits and rituals. As I said, habits are non-conscious. They are designed by the brain to conserve energy. We don’t have to think about habits, because they are routine and common. We know what to do and how to act.
Whereas rituals are intentional behaviors that may lead to new habits (or replacing bad habits) when performed regularly. An easy way to think of rituals is reading your kids stories before bedtime. This starts out as a bedtime ritual, but over time becomes something you don’t even think about anymore.
Success in building good habits requires willfully investing in new rituals that support your ultimate goal. You see, willpower alone isn’t enough because, again most of our behaviors are non-conscious and automatic, making change so difficult to achieve.
There is a lifecycle to building new non-conscious and automatic behavior. Initially you need to be intentional about your change. Over time, you will then be drawn towards that new behavior, but it will still at times require attention and effort. Eventually you will be pulled towards the behavior, and then ultimately it becomes automatic. This lifecycle can actually take between 30–90 days. I know conventional wisdom says a new habit takes 21 days. But does it make sense that a lifelong habit or really big goal that has eluded you for a while will only take 30 days to change? Big changes take time, especially if there is an old narrative or belief involved.
Habits and rituals can always be added to existing ones. This is known as habit-stacking. In the same way you build a home on a strong foundation rather than sand, you can tackle big changes by focusing on a few new habits and rituals to start. Cement them into a strong foundation and then you can build on that with additional habits and rituals. If you tackle too much at once, you risk not being able to support those new habits long-term.
Building successful habits or making changes requires five things:
- Purpose: Where do you want to go? What matters most to you? And why is this important to you. By understanding its importance to you, you deepen your connection to your goal and why these new habits matter to you. It will inspire you to take action and more importantly, it also reminds you what is at stake if you continue on your current path and don’t make the changes you need to meet your goals. All of these are vital to overcoming any setbacks you may experience along the way.
- Honest Assessment: Where are you now? What are the gaps? In order to get to where you want to be, you have to be honest with yourself about where you stand. Just like a destination, you need to know your starting point. And you need an accurate starting point in order to identify the gaps that you ultimately want to address through new habits.
- Action: How will you get where you want to go? What steps will you take to enable and sustain change? Sometimes small steps will facilitate desirable actions. You want to be specific in spelling out your action. You also want to make it measurable, since we manage what we measure.
- Accountability: Accountability is anything that helps you stay dedicated to your goals and the change you want to make. This can be sharing the change with someone and keeping them updated, creating a support network with other people making a similar change, using a tracker or working with a coach. It also means asking for help if you need it, a step we often don’t take.
- Planning for Setbacks: We don’t often plan for setbacks, but remember, your old habits can be non-conscious and automatic. Without vigilance while your new habit is building, it’s easy to slip back into your old habits. Having a plan for when that happens helps you to get back on track. This way setbacks don’t derail you.
To recap, success requires willfully investing in new rituals that build new habits to support your ultimate goal. In addition, you need to build in accountability for these rituals and plan for setbacks in creating new habits, because your old habits may be dominant.
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.
Sure, if I looked at the top three habits for optimum wellness it would probably be to eat a plant forward diet, drink more water and give yourself a break.
- Eat a plant forward diet. One of the secrets to the longevity populations in the world, known as Blue Zones by National Geographic, is that the majority of their diet is plant based. Eating a plant forward diet isn’t about eliminating anything but adding more vegetables and grains to your day. Pick the vegetables and grains you like and try to find ways to make them the focus. In other words, rather than planning a meal around your protein, plan your meal around the plants and add your protein second.
- Drink more water each day. We know how important water is for us. We often mistake dehydration for hunger. By the time we realize we’re the thirsty, the body is already dehydrated. Staying hydrated helps to keep us energized, alert and focused.
- Life takes energy, and you can think of energy as a health currency. Just like money, we have daily usage and need to make regular deposits after withdrawals. An important part of energy management is making sure that you have down time. Athletes call this recovery, or a rest day. Others may know this as self-care. Whatever term you prefer, it’s the concept that matters; you need to give yourself some time to recharge.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Yes. This is exactly where those rituals I talked about come in to play. Example of practices or rituals for these habits may look like:
- Drink more water each day. A ritual may look like: I will drink 1 bottle (16–20 ounces) and refill it 4–5 times throughout the day. To do this, I will set a reminder on my calendar every two hours during the workday. I will prepare for any setbacks by making sure I always have a bottle of water with me.
- Eat a plant forward diet. So, this ritual may look like: I will plan my meal around the vegetables three times a week to start. To help prepare for setbacks, I will meal prep each Sunday to ensure vegetables are ready to go, handy and more accessible. Another ritual may be having a green juice at breakfast for x number of days each week, to start off the day with more nutrients from vegetables.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
Yes, for optimal performance at work, one habit would be managing your schedule or calendar strategically
1.) Hold time in your schedule to focus on certain topics. Companies increasingly want innovation and problem-solving from their employees. But currently many organizations run on “busy-ness.” You aren’t going to get innovation or problem solving if everyone is too busy attending back-to-back meetings and answering endless emails. Too much time is wasted in unproductive meetings and non-essential emails. So, reducing unnecessary meetings and having more time in your day allotted to brainstorming and actual work on problem solving is important.
Another habit is visualization strategies or mental rehearsal
2.) Incorporate mental rehearsal into your work. This is exactly what top athletes do. Not only do they physically go through the motions during their training, they also mentally rehearse. For instance, a golfer may visualize the course, and stepping up to the tee, then visualize the swing and follow-through of the drive and the flight of the ball as it lands perfectly on the green. At work you can visualize a meeting, a presentation or a difficult conversation going well. Imagine as many vivid details as possible.
3.) Also, keep in mind that habits which support wellness and focus also help performance. For example, try movement or stretching. Have you ever gotten up from your desk after a long period of time and felt energized? Probably not. They say sitting is the new smoking. Getting movement breaks in throughout the day keeps you energized, which allows you to be more productive, and when done as a break in between tasks, can actually help you regain focus for the new task.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Again, the practices are the rituals that will work best for you. Some examples of what that might look like are:
- “I will hold an hour each workday for brainstorming and problem-solving” or “I will hold an afternoon each week to work on tasks that require my focus. If for some reason I have to give that time up for another meeting, I will commit to finding myself another hour so I can keep this time for productive work.”
- “Once a day I will spend a few moments visualizing upcoming meetings, presentations, discussions that are important. I will make this as vivid as possible, almost like I am watching a movie. If I am short of time, I will do this for just 60 seconds.”
- “I will set a reminder on my phone or computer for every two hours during the workday to remind me to get up and stretch, (and then go get some water). If I miss the reminder for some reason, I will get up at the next opportunity”
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
Yes, a couple of these habits may not appeal to everyone, but they do lead to optimal focus.
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is really about awareness, which ultimately builds focus. Most people think of mindfulness as meditation, and that makes some people uncomfortable. But, in reality the mindfulness meditation is just a way of building awareness by being fully present and focusing on your breath. You could practice mindfulness and focus in other ways. One example is eating mindfully in which case you bring all of your attention and awareness to what you are eating, focusing on the flavors and textures, things like that.
- Multi-tasking the right way. Multi-tasking is usually a way for many to get more done in the limited time they have. It is essentially a time management technique, but it’s not optimal for focus. What happens is that multi-tasking actually scatters your focus rather than optimizing it. Therefore, having greater focus requires doing one important task at a time. And that’s a key word. It’s not to say you can never be multi-tasking. But multi-tasking should only be done for unimportant tasks and never for tasks that involve people, such as emailing during a meeting, which we’ve all done.
- Seeing to your physical needs can also help keep you focused. Have you ever noticed when you start to get hungry that’s all you can think about? Or maybe you can’t concentrate as much on a task or meeting right before lunch. The same goes for when you are tired, you aren’t as sharp and can’t concentrate. That’s loss of focus. Making sure you keep your body fueled and get a good night’s sleep and enough exercise all help with focus.
You can see how inter-related all these are. Wellness habits help focus. Wellness and focus help performance.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Like the others, a few examples of rituals for these habits might be:
- Once a week I will take time for lunch and eat by myself. I will give all my attention to my meal and observe what I am tasting and how I feel.
- I will sequence important tasks and book time on my calendar if I need to. Or I will never multi-task when the two tasks involve other people.
- I will make sure to carry snacks with me at all times so that I am prepared in case I get hungry. Or I will commit to a regular bedtime each night, or I will filter out the blue light two hours before I go to bed.
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?
For me, a state of flow is really about optimal energy and wellbeing across four dimensions: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Each of these dimensions needs to be engaged in order for you to have more of that flow. You mentioned doing something meaningful, well that is really about your spiritual wellbeing. Spiritual wellbeing isn’t necessarily religious. It’s about a “bigger picture,” being connected to our purpose, meaning and convictions. You also mentioned a mental state, so obviously there’s a connection to mental wellbeing, and you used the word “pleasurable” which indicates joy and emotional wellbeing. So, you highlighted a few of these dimensions in describing a state of flow, but doesn’t flow also feel energizing? Are you in a state of flow if you are exhausted? Full flow relies on all four dimensions being optimally engaged.
You can absolutely achieve more of this in your life, but you do need to be intentional about investing in the areas you want to enhance — whether that is physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, emotional or spiritual wellbeing. You can do that by looking at areas where you experience more obstacles and barriers. Reduce those and at the same time invest in the things you want to grow. Essentially it equates to identifying the new habits you want to form through new rituals to replace the old habits that drain you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
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.
Well, I would love to see wellness get more traction in the workplace and wellness sabbatical policies become more commonplace.
The former learning and development lead in me views wellness as part of leadership and professional development. As it stands, I think too often it falls under benefits management. People are more likely to connect wellness with health and biometrics, but look at what we discussed today. Everything was about wellness — a broader definition of wellness — across physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions. We also discussed how habits for wellness and focus have an impact on our performance, productivity and engagement on the job.
Burnout is real and recognized by the World Health Organization. Studies show that burnout is more likely among high achievers and top performers. Why have an employee seek a different job due to burnout when you can allow them to take a wellness sabbatical and come back renewed, more engaged and productive? They learn how to build good habits that benefit not only their personal life, but on-the-job performance, and the company retains a valuable employee.
So, I see synergies with embedding wellness concepts into corporate leadership development. Already, Google includes mindfulness in its employee programs because mindfulness has been shown to build self-awareness, which in turn drives emotional intelligence. So again, wellness is broader than just biometrics and health, and there are real benefits for companies and leaders. In the future I think leaders will need to increasingly look after not only their own wellbeing but that of their teams.
That also means taking a look at how we view productivity vs. busyness. I think busyness is sometimes viewed as a status symbol and maybe even a sign of success. I’d love to see people recognize the real value in taking time to replenish and renew yourself. Just like we need to refuel our bodies with food, we need to replenish in the other dimensions to be in that state of flow. To me, that’s really what self-care is all about. Doing what you need to replenish and reset physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But the term “self-care” tends to imply pampering or something not essential for success and peak performance. I’d like to find the right terminology to underscore the importance of self-care for all employees.
And similar to self-care, I think people see spas as places of pampering and luxury. And while there is some of that element, as we discussed in my example with the horse, wellness destinations offer so much more. They truly offer opportunities for personal growth physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And of course, the benefits of that flow back into productivity, performance and engagement both in life and on-the-job, especially if someone is working with a coach who helps to extend and build on the benefits of a wellness trip.
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 🙂
Oh, I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with Arianna Huffington. I’ve referenced her work in my coaching and courses. So much of my work lines up with her dedication to wellness for performance, productivity and engagement in the workplace and living your full potential, that there would be so much to discuss with her. Not to mention an enthusiastic discussion about a good night’s sleep!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
If readers want to sign-up for wellness tips or register for The Exhaustion Fix, they can do so at www.lovetospa.com and if they want wellness and travel inspiration they can follow me on Instagram @love_to_spa. For corporate contacts, they can visit betsyleahy.com
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Thank you very much, I enjoyed the discussion.