“Reflect on the good and find gratitude”, Laura Schwarz of i2 Leadership and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Given the choice, our minds go to what’s easy, immediate, and desirable in the moment because that makes us feel good and productive. However, that can be misleading. We may think we are being productive, but we are really just filling time with less important tasks that don’t get us any closer to our goals. […]

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Given the choice, our minds go to what’s easy, immediate, and desirable in the moment because that makes us feel good and productive. However, that can be misleading. We may think we are being productive, but we are really just filling time with less important tasks that don’t get us any closer to our goals. When we establish good habits, we make the difficult things easier by removing the wiggle room that allows us to opt out of the challenges we face daily.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Schwarz.

Laura Schwarz is a Fortune 500 Executive Coach and the founder of i2 Leadership. She’s spent the past 20 years working at some of the world’s most recognizable companies and coaching their leaders to help them fuel their mojo and build resilient, thriving teams. She is also the host of Mojo Mondays Bootcamp, the podcast she launched in response to the global pandemic when she recognized everyone around her struggling to find focus and motivation. During each episode, Laura interviews guests who have overcome significant obstacles to turn their dreams into reality, sharing their playbook of actionable strategies and inspiring listeners with their stories. Previously, she held leadership roles at American Express, Young & Rubicam Advertising, and Research International.

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?

As a 5’10” red head by sixth grade, there was no denying my presence. Despite my wishes, I stood out in a crowd, and that was challenging for a shy, self-conscious girl growing up on Long Island. All I wanted to do was blend in with the rest, but that was never an option. I realize now that what set me apart all those years ago gave me strength, confidence, maturity, and ultimately, opportunity. Early in my career, working as a global market researcher, I led senior leaders from AT&T/Bell Labs around the world for six weeks. It was a huge assignment that I’m certain I received because I appeared older having embraced my presence and realizing that at 5’10”, you either own it or you don’t. Ironically, I spend much of my time now helping others build their executive presence.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My first career was in marketing, and I really loved it, but when I went back to work after my maternity leave, I realized that I was exhausted, and it had nothing to do with caring for a newborn. The content of the job simply wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I decided it was time to start my own business and in the process of honing my plan, I, by chance met an Executive Coach. I didn’t even know what an Executive Coach was until then, and when I realized I could build a business by helping people get what they want in their careers, I knew what I was meant to do. That whole experience is a reminder to me of the power of mojo and movement. The more you try out new ideas and move forward, the more you discover that certain experiences stick with you and others don’t. But you have to take the first step.

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 give full credit to my parents for providing the foundation for me to build an amazing life, but it came at a cost to them, and I was keenly aware of that. My parents had good jobs, but the work wasn’t fulfilling for them. Despite their dedication and effort, it was clear something was missing, and I saw the toll that can take on a person each and every day. Then in 1987 when the stock market crashed, I saw a lot of my friends’ parents lose their jobs and what that lack of control of their professional lives did to finances and family. Considering all of that, I made a note to myself that I wanted to have my own business to control my own destiny.

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?

In my early 20s, my work took me to Japan, and I got myself into some trouble. I traveled to Tokyo with some clients and when we arrived, the team there was not ready for us. Completely unaware of the culture and dynamics, I publicly reprimanded a middle-aged manager in front of the people he supervised. I thought I was doing the right thing by standing up for my client. Little did I know how wrong I was, particularly given the cultural norms around hierarchy, respect, and deference to superiors in that country. After a colleague educated me, I apologized and did everything I could to repair the relationship. When I think back on this story, I cringe, but I was clueless. Lesson learned: Always understand the context in which you are operating, and above all else, prioritize relationships. Regardless of where you are in the world, remember, in public we praise, we course correct in private.

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?

As I just mentioned, life is all about relationships, so nurture them. The world is really small, particularly when you are starting off, and you don’t realize how connected everything is and how people are going to come back into your orbit. We can make the mistake of only reaching out when we need something, and we sometimes forget to do the small things that grow and solidify our bonds to others. People remember how you make them feel more than what you do, and when they think of you, it’s generally positive or negative. It’s very rarely in between. The depth and breadth of your relationships will enable what’s going to be possible in your life more than anything. Tasks end, and relationships continue, so invest in those connections.

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?

Boys in the Boat tells the true story of the University of Washington crew team’s quest for gold at the1936 Berlin Olympics. It centers on the heart-wrenching experience of the main character, Joe Rantz. After his mother died, his father remarried and left Joe in the woods to fend for himself. He found his way to school and discovered salvation in the relentless sport of crew. The book details Joe’s hard work to build his strength day after day on a bitter cold lake in order to make the team. In the end, he creates a beautiful life for himself and breaks the cycle of his family to become a great father. This story is a perfect example of the type of message I’m delivering in my podcast: no matter the obstacles, you can achieve your goals by using the tools that build resilience and remaining focused on what’s possible.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”

– Malcolm Forbes

I see this thinking in my coaching practice all the time. I hear my clients comparing themselves to others and wondering why they don’t measure up to someone else. They breeze over their strengths, and instead obsess over their development areas. In many ways, that tendency to focus on the weakness is biological. We are hardwired to search for danger as a survival skill, but it prevents us from seeing our assets. Instead, we underestimate how hard it is for other people to do the things that are easy for us. For myself, I’ve realized that I have an amazing memory for dialogue, and that helps me in my coaching practice when I can recall a previous conversation with a client. I didn’t recognize that unique skill in myself until people started sharing how they admired my ability to remember conversations.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’ve just wrapped up Season 1 of my new podcast, Mojo Mondays Bootcamp. I launched it in direct response to the pandemic when I saw everyone around me struggling to find focus and motivation. My guests have included business leaders, athletes, and journalists who have each faced significant obstacles and activated their mojo to come out on the other side. I’m grateful for their candor and the tools they shared that listeners can put into practice right away in their own lives.

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?

Given the choice, our minds go to what’s easy, immediate, and desirable in the moment because that makes us feel good and productive. However, that can be misleading. We may think we are being productive, but we are really just filling time with less important tasks that don’t get us any closer to our goals. When we establish good habits, we make the difficult things easier by removing the wiggle room that allows us to opt out of the challenges we face daily.

In addition, by creating good habits, we eliminate many of the decisions that zap our energy and free up our minds to deal with the things that really need our attention.

One simple strategy to dealing with this “decision fatigue” is weekly planning. For example, I map out my family meals on Sunday, order my groceries for delivery on Monday, and then I don’t have to think about it again. Setting a workout routine is another great step. If you establish a fitness regimen that dictates when you exercise, you don’t have to spend time and energy on that internal discussion about when to fit in an exercise class or three-mile run.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I wear many hats — mother, wife, daughter, friend, — and business owner. Needless to say, life is busy, and good habits help me carve out time and energy for the things that matter most. These good habits were particularly important when I went back to school to be an Executive Coach while I was working full time. I needed to establish schedules and boundaries to help me reach my goals. In addition to committing to a routine of meal planning every week, setting my commuting schedule, and signing up for exercise classes to provide structure and manage the “decision fatigue”, I also have learned to ask for support from others. By telling family, friends and colleagues about my goals, they helped me develop the positive behaviors that became habits. Engaging others is an important step because we overestimate our own will power. It’s really hard to change behaviors alone, especially if the people surrounding us are not aware of what we need from them.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

The best way to develop good habits is to start with the WHY. Ask yourself why you want to accomplish a certain goal and that will help you find the focus and motivation to stick to it. Watch out for the shoulds. When I hear my clients say that word, I know we have something to discuss. Who’s going to stick with a habit when it’s considered a should? Then, rally your support by telling those around you what you are trying to accomplish. If your colleagues know you are trying to create time to prepare before meetings, they are less likely to intrude on your space.

Conversely, to stop bad habits to need to reduce temptation. For example, if you know you tend to read emails while on Zoom calls, log out of your email before you join a Zoom call to make it harder to toggle between screens.

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.

Reflect on the good and find gratitude: I’ve created my own take on a gratitude journal. Before I go to sleep at night, rather than writing down what I’m grateful for, I visualize it. Lately, I’ve been focusing on the New York City skyline, and I feel fortunate that I live here in its beauty. I also spend time remembering my son’s Bar Mitzvah, my last pre-pandemic birthday celebration, and the feeling of family and fun surrounding me, and I remind myself that it will be there again.

Get outside & get moving: Throughout the pandemic, I have been taking daily walks outside with friends. Not only am I getting the physical benefits from the exercise, I am also getting the mental health benefits of connecting with friends as well as nature. Also, by making plans with a friend, I am much more likely to get in that walk because the exercise buddy keeps me accountable.

Limit social media: I highly encourage deleting certain apps, blocking notifications, and setting limits around social media which can take a toll on mental health. I took Facebook off my phone years ago. I still look at it on my computer, but I’m much more cognizant of the time and energy it absorbs.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

A lot of what I just spoke about comes down to being intentional and proactive. To develop habits you need to be purposeful in how you structure your day to align with you goals.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Establish rituals to start and end your day: Pre-pandemic, most people found commuting a hassle, but what we failed to appreciate was the important role it played in separating our work and home lives, giving us not only a change in location but also time to mentally shift from one part of life to another. Since most of us have lost the commute, we have to deliberately establish new rituals to start and end the day.

Create transitions: What I’ve noticed is when conversations go off the rails, usually, it’s not because of the person in front of you. It’s because of the last interaction that you carried forward with you. If you transition from one meeting to the next by creating time and space, you’re less likely to bring the baggage that can disrupt your interactions and get in the way of success.

Set your intentions: Similarly, ensuring your head is in the right place for what’s next in your day will better position you for optimal performance. Whether it’s deep breathing, listening to music, or reading your notes, prepare yourself. Take the time, spend it wisely, and you’ll thank yourself later.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

I’ve been thinking about how to establish the beginning and end of the work day now that I don’t leave my apartment to go to work. I used to start the day with a stop at the local coffee shop but now I use a different mug and coffee flavor at home for weekdays and weekends. And at the end the day, I review and acknowledge what I’ve accomplished that day and create a priority list for the next one. I then leave my home office, shut the door, and try my hardest not to go back in there until the next morning. For those who don’t have a separate place to work, do whatever is physically possible to put your work out of sight on your off hours.

For many of us, calendars dictate our lives, so the importance of how you plan and structure your day cannot be underestimated.

Remember to schedule time to transition throughout your day by planning meetings for 50 minutes and taking the rest of the hour for yourself to wrap up your notes, stretch your legs, or just look out the window. This ensures you are fully present and engaged in any given moment.

If you have an assistant, let them know your strategy to schedule transitions so they can share it with the rest of the team and help keep you honest. By training those around you, it ensures you can be present for them

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Remove distractions: You can’t focus unless you are presentso get rid of distractions purposefully by knowing what they are. Don’t sit looking out the window if you know it’s going to divert your attention. If you are sidetracked by people walking by, position yourself to face the wall. Turn off your email notifications and texts when you are on a Zoom call.

Manage your energy: Certain times of the day are going to be more productive for you than others, so plan your most challenging work for when you are at your best and save the simple tasks for when you are tired and running out of steam. As an extrovert, I get energy from interacting with others, so I know I can schedule my coaching sessions at any time. However, working independently on creating blog posts and developing training programs is a bigger challenge, so I block time in the morning for those projects.

Work in spurts: Don’t try to tackle an entire project at once. Break it down into manageable chunks.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. It helps you devise a system to break down those big projects into small achievable tasks. Basically, it suggests using a timer to give yourself 25 minutes to work and then taking a 5-minute break to reset.

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 realize you’ve achieved a state of Flow when you lose your sense of time and you open yourself up to possibilities rather than specific outcomes. Your focus and curiosity take over, you become truly present in what you are doing, and you are able to block out everything else. So again, staying present is key because it allows you to hear your inner voice and stay open to possibilities. Also, you have to suspend judgement and your inner critic so that you can learn, grow, and explore. Remember, Flow will never happen when you are working on the “shoulds” in your life.

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’m really worried about all of the people who are feeling disconnected from others after many months of social distancing due to the pandemic. What people need right now is to feel valued and acknowledged, so my movement would be about people doing random acts of kindness and reconnecting with others from the many stages of their lives. This would benefit not only the recipient but also the sender. Throughout this period, I’ve encouraged my clients who have been feeling off their game to make lists of people who have supported them at different times. Then, I suggest that once a week, they reach out to someone with a simple thank you or message. You don’t have to schedule an hour on Zoom. Just one quick text can have a significant impact on your day and theirs.

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 🙂

I’d love to have a coffee or cocktail with Mindy Kaling. Her shows make me laugh and escape from tough days. She’s a Hollywood rock star — crushing it on and off the screen. She’s a barrier breaker and amazing role model. I admire her candor and incredible work ethic. Mindy — just say when!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please follow me on LinkedIn and check out Season 1 of my podcast Mojo Mondays Bootcamp.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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