“The brain loves progress”, Erika Ferszt of Moodally and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Track your progress, even at the smallest level. The brain loves progress. Make a chart that you hang on the refrigerator of your 30-day challenges, so you can see every day how far you’ve come. If it’s productivity you’re trying to encourage then add things like “get out of bed” or “make coffee” to your […]

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Track your progress, even at the smallest level. The brain loves progress. Make a chart that you hang on the refrigerator of your 30-day challenges, so you can see every day how far you’ve come. If it’s productivity you’re trying to encourage then add things like “get out of bed” or “make coffee” to your to-do list. The thought that you’ve already ticked off two things on your day will give added motivation to make it through the rest.

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

Moodally founder Erika Ferszt was raised in New York City, where she graduated from The Dalton School and New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. In her 20+ year career in advertising, she has won over 70 awards for her work, most notably in her role as the Global Advertising, Media & Digital Director at Ray-Ban.

In 2015, Erika was hospitalized after suffering stress-related vision loss and became interested in studying the impacts of burnout on employees. Putting her successful career on pause, she completed 2 years Post Grad studies in the Neuroscience of Mental Health at Kings College London and went on to pursue a Masters in Science in Organizational & Behavioral Psychology at London Metropolitan University.

Erika combined insights from these educational pursuits with her previous work as a high-ranking ad executive to create Moodally. Moodally ( offers extensively researched training courses that help employees combat workplace stress through the day-to-day management of their mood. Recently selected as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Ventures, she looks forward to sharing her vision with the world and helping organizations remove work-related stressors and effectively manage stress.

Erika lives in Milan with her 15 year old daughter Isabel and their rescue cat Zoe. She loves rock music, travelling, throwing dinner parties for friends, and great conversation. Her primary form of meditation is baking.

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?

My childhood is actually a bit of a wild story. My mother used to be a party organizer for Peter Gatien’s nightclubs in New York in the ’80s. My dad worked as a copywriter in an ad agency, while studying to be a priest at the New York Theological Seminary. As you can imagine, they divorced. We lived in a loft in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side — back before it was safe to go there. My neighbors were rock stars and my house was always filled with some of the more prominent figures in culture at the time. At the same time, I went to a very posh private school on the Upper East Side, which was a stark contrast to my home life. In the mornings I was weaving through drug addicts to get to school on time and on the weekends I would be spending my free time in my friends’ gigantic apartments on Fifth Avenue. I like to think that my life has been about exploring all the possibilities and finding the common ground across seemingly very different life situations. It’s one of the skills that helped me do well in advertising. I’m able to see past the demographics and into the common human experience. It does sometimes leave you feeling without roots, in the traditional sense, but like everything in life, there are upsides and downsides. Either way, I have a collection of some very interesting growing-up stories.

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

What I’m doing now is a career pivot, so I’ll start with my advertising career. I was in my last semester of college and I had been interviewing for my first post-college job. I was really drawn to advertising because I liked the mix of creativity, strategy, and business. I was studying Fine Art History at New York University and one of my professors was the absolutely brilliant Kay Larson. At the time she was the head art critic for New York Magazine and, it was said, Si Newhouse’s personal curator. I adored her and thought she was the most enlightened woman I’d ever met. Every class she would blow my mind wide open. Not surprisingly, she now lives full-time in a Buddhist commune upstate — but I digress. I was torn about taking the job in advertising because I also really wanted to intern with her after college was over. I loved art, I loved to write, and I loved sharing my point of view. Training to be a critic seemed like a very natural next step. We discussed me coming to intern for her and I’ll never forget it. It was after class and she told me “I would love to have you with me and I think you’re a really good writer, but if you ever hope to make any money in your life this is not the step I would advise you to take. You will not survive on a critic’s salary and that’s assuming you get there.” I took the job in advertising the next week. One of the things I am constantly seeking in my professional relationships is the mutual respect of total transparency. So much of our psychological stress comes from trying to uncover hidden expectations, requirements, and meanings. One of the simplest ways to help each other manage stress is to simply be honest about what is available and expected. While some people thought her gesture was cynical, I found it to be a tremendous gift. Incidentally, the lessons I learned in her classes, about communication analysis, are what made me great at my job in advertising.

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 very fortunate to be blessed with guardian angels along the way. Since my path has included a series of pivots and shifts, including moving from New York City to Milan, I’ve noticed that at every stage of my life I had one woman present who ended up opening the door to my next phase. My bosses, Alyson Henning and Catherine Lourie, at Ammirati Puris Lintas NY helped me get to Milan. My boss in Milan, Lidia Roscelli, helped me go client-side and introduced me to the man who brought me into Ray-Ban/Luxottica. Most recently, and this may sound very cheesy, but it’s been my teenage daughter who has been my north star in my latest venture which is more about humans than business.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

I was 26 and had just started working at a new job at an advertising agency in Milan. This would actually be the last job I did in advertising before moving client-side. I didn’t like the job at all. The person I was working for was as stereotypically “bad boss” as you can get. The product we were working on was also as uninspiring as they come. I had just moved back to Milan, I was busy planning my wedding, and I just needed a job while I got settled so I accepted this one. Plus my future father-in-law had facilitated me getting this job and I felt obliged to accept it. Right there, taking a job I shouldn’t have, was my first big mistake…that I never repeated again. I would show up and do my job, but my heart was definitely not in it.

We had a big meeting in London with the international client. My “bad boss” spoke very little English and so my job was essentially to be his live translator. I was feeling very disgruntled about this trip because I believed my skill level was way above what I was being asked to do. We met in the morning at the airport, bright and early, and we get on the passport line to enter the boarding area for flights to London. (The UK never dropped the passport requirement during its tenure in the EU.) I suddenly realized that I hadn’t brought my passport with me and was not allowed to board the flight. My boss had to head to London alone. Even if I had gone home to get it, catching the next flight would have meant that I would have missed the meeting anyway, not to mention the extra costs incurred.

I was mortified. I kept thinking about how he was going to be able to get through the day and how my mistake would inevitably reflect really poorly on him. I thought about how my first introduction to the senior people on the international management team was having made a really avoidable mistake. Even today when I think about it, I can still remember exactly how I felt when I realized that my carelessness had me looking unprofessional, unprepared, and immature. I learned then that if you take the job, you show up for the job because the only person who looks bad in the end is you. If you don’t like the job then leave, but never let other people down because you don’t want to do what you agreed to. If you can’t be there at 100%, then don’t be there. There’s someone else who would love to be in that position. I left soon thereafter, but while I was there I showed up at 100% every day, after that. Not because I owed my terrible boss anything, but because I was a professional and I owed it to myself to behave that way. I also learned to do a packing checklist the night before any trip.

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 advise staying open and being true to a vision. Be open to really listening to yourself and what you want. Be open to messages and inspiration that can come from the most unexpected places. I’ve never had making money as my primary goal. I consider monetary rewards as a natural consequence of a job well done. I focus on making things that have a positive impact on the people that see them. I want to bring identification, belonging, and optimism to the people who come into contact with my work. This means being in touch with what people want, what’s going on in their lives, what their hopes and dreams are, and where they feel they’re missing the mark. In all of my encounters with people, I am always kind of doing a form of consumer research when I listen to others share their life experiences. These two elements have helped guide me through the major career shifts in my life.

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?

This sounds very uneducated, but I’m not much of a reader. At least not of books. I devour academic articles and anything that answers any one of the thousands of questions that go through my mind on any given day. One year I did make a bucket-list style project where I wanted to read, with adult eyes, many of the classics that had been assigned to me in school over the years. So at the very least, I have a decent base. If I had to pick one book that really stuck out over my life I would have to say there are two that I frequently quote. The first is an Italian collection of Osho’s teachings called La Via del Cuore (The Way of the Heart). I was reading it during a very difficult time when I had just separated from my husband, and it offered me such a unique perspective about how to handle life when it is challenging. It’s probably the book that I gift the most to other people when they’re soul searching. The other book that I frequently reflect on, although I’m not sure it counts as a book, is Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. The section “On Children” brings me to tears every time I read it. I think anyone who is, or wants to be, a parent should be obligated to read it.

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

Wow, I have so many quotes I love, but the one that I really resonate with most right now, especially after having studied Neuroscience, is Henry Ford’s “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t you’re right”. Mindset is so much more important than we know. There’s a significant amount of research evidence showing that the people who do better in the workplace do so because they are convinced that things will go well. This dose of optimism sets up a domino response where you kind of always assume there is going to be a solution and so you go looking for it. A lot of times life is 10% dream and 90% logistics. I’ve always found that if you know where you want to go and you’re convinced there’s a way…you always end up finding it.

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 been so fortunate to have such a rich career filled with incredible projects, people, adventures, you name it, and yet, I think what I’m working on now is the most exciting. It’s exciting because it can bring real positive change to people. I’ve developed a series of stress management seminars to help shed some light on this very elusive disease we know as stress. During my studies over the past 3–4 years, I was able to dig into the latest neuroscience and research about the brain, the mind, the body, and how our stress response works. It’s an incredibly complicated mechanism that has potentially damaging effects on every system in our body. At the same time how to effectively deal with stress is far simpler than we might imagine. I am so excited about having the possibility to share this knowledge with others.

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?

This may sound insane, although it’s scientifically sound, but our personalities are essentially a compilation of automated emotional response habits that we’ve been developing since we were children. There’s a book about it titled “You Are Not Your Brain” by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. It’s complex to explain here but essentially any behavior we repeat, the brain rewires itself to repeat that behavior faster and more automatically. This doesn’t mean only habits like smoking, not drinking, or exercising every day. It means getting happy when see or think of certain people, it means reacting to comments that bring up something that triggered us the same way in fifth grade, or feeling a lack of self-esteem and walking straight to the refrigerator. The brain does this to free up cognitive load so we can keep an eye out for new threats. Since the brain’s primary function is to make sure that we make it to the end of the day still alive, its focus is on anything that can threaten us. Once upon a time, a threat might have been an invading neighboring tribe, today it can mean someone buying the last bagel that you had your eye on at Starbucks. Here’s the downside: the brain doesn’t care if what you’re doing is good for you or not. It “sees” that a behavior is being repeated so it thinks it’s important and it wires itself to automate that behavior. Lots of people frequently ask at the end of a break up “Why can’t I stop thinking about them?”. The answer is that you’ve made a habit of thinking about that person and now it runs on auto-pilot. Stopping any behavior requires an intentional overwrite of the existing behavior. At the end of the day, even though we might not love this thought, we are what we repeatedly do. So we are our habits. It’s up to us to ensure those habits are healthy and useful.

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

Procrastination is one of the greatest forms of self-sabotage and it derives from fear. We can have fear of failure or fear of success, they are both equally powerful. Procrastination was very common for me as I was thinking of setting up my company. The brain does not like uncertainty and will do its best to avoid moving out of comfort zones. Every time I needed to sit down and do the work I would text a friend, or check in with my daughter. I’d maybe walk around the house to see what else needed to be done. Essentially I was actively looking for anywhere else, besides my work, to put my energy. I didn’t notice that I was developing this habit of avoidance. I just thought I was really busy at home, but it was an excuse that I was creating for myself. Once I was aware that this was happening — and being aware of the problem is the first necessary step to solving it — I was able to see where I was getting in my own way. I had a very clear talk with myself and said “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but if you want to then do it.” From then I started putting some really good boundaries around how I spent my time. I took WhatsApp off my computer, I put my cell phone in another room, and I set specific windows of time where I am in Do Not Disturb mode. One other way we self-sabotage is through negative self-talk. Again this goes back to us not wanting to leave our comfort zone. When we try to do something new there can be a very active conversation in our minds about all the risks involved andthe numerous reasons why we shouldn’t. What I like to do when those thoughts creep in is actively interview them. I’ll ask for evidence of why things could fail and listen. I’ll then suggest that if there’s a chance I could fail there is also an equal chance that I could succeed so why not try. It may sound odd to have a conversation with the naysayer in your brain, but that’s really how you take the power of your thoughts back. It’s a technique I use and teach. It’s one of the most powerful ways to push through those mental blocks.

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

There is a decent amount of scientific evidence around this thanks to recent neuroscience. The short answer to what’s the best way to develop good habits is repeat, repeat, repeat. The more you do it, the more it will become automatic. Habits take a while to form, especially if they are overwrites of old behavior. If they’re new behaviors — let’s say you want to learn a new language — then it’s all about practical application and repetition. The more it is integrated into the other aspects of your life, the more it sticks. The more your brain spends time with it, the more it becomes part of your existence.

Track your progress, even at the smallest level. The brain loves progress. Make a chart that you hang on the refrigerator of your 30-day challenges, so you can see every day how far you’ve come. If it’s productivity you’re trying to encourage then add things like “get out of bed” or “make coffee” to your to-do list. The thought that you’ve already ticked off two things on your day will give added motivation to make it through the rest.

Plan things in bite-size steps. The idea of writing a book is overwhelming to our brain. The distance between where you are and where you want to be is so great that the effort/reward calculation results in “not worth it”. Plan things in accomplishable steps. If you want to write a book, then make it about “Write 5 pages today”. This is a much more manageable, and reachable, goal. Five pages a day means at the end of the week you have a chapter. Progress.

As far as stopping bad habits, we know that we don’t just “stop” a habit. We redirect the energy elsewhere. This usually means there is a behavioral substitution. This is why many people who stop smoking will gain weight. Instead of smoking, the trigger goes to food. But a strong enough trigger can reactivate an old habit at any moment. Kelly McGonigal, from Stanford University, writes about this in her books. To be successful, it’s very important to plan a habit change, including giving clear and visible reinforcement of why you want to change a habit, a strategy for alternate behaviors or substitutions, and a plan for obstacles. Concretely speaking let’s say you wanted to lose weight.

First, we have to reframe it to our brains in a way that doesn’t feel like a loss. Loss means punishment to the brain and that means the brain will do its best to avoid. It’s better if we give ourselves a positive outcome. Something like “fit into those jeans” is far more specific and positive than lose 15 pounds.

Instead of eliminating things you like, you want to create substitutes. If you have a habit of eating cookies every night after dinner, what low-calorie, healthy alternative can we offer that will be satisfying to the brain. When I was doing a hormonal balancing diet that took out many carbs, I would make desserts out of coconut milk (the watered-down kind), gelatin, and stevia. It feels like a dessert but completely fits into my plan.

Finally, make a plan for obstacles. If you know that there’s a dinner party with friends, carefully think about what you can order in advance so when you get there, you’re not caught off guard. In a moment of “panic”, the brain will default to an old habit and you could order something unhelpful by accident. Being as prepared as possible helps those instinct moments that can derail your progress.

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.

In Wellness, I think the most important thing you can do is to be nice to yourself. This sounds like pointless advice and most of us would think “of course I’m not mean to myself”. When I was coaching, the first exercise I would give to my clients was to do a thought journal. All they had to do was pay attention to the quality of their self-talk. What did they say to themselves all day, were the thoughts encouraging, discouraging? Did they have the same kind of conversations with themselves that they had with other people? Without fail, every person came back to me after the first session in shock. They could not believe the tone of the conversation in their own head. We can say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t say to our worst enemy. Many of these thoughts/beliefs stem from childhood experiences that we processed withouthaving a full understanding of the situation. The beliefs tend to come at us in the forms of all-or-nothing thinking. “Why are you so…..” “Why do you always have to…..” “You never….” Getting enough distance from these thoughts to be able to see them is the first step towards disarming them.

Besides checking our self-talk, other ways that we can be nice to ourselves is by watching the people that we allow into our space. We can often accept friendships or behavior from people because we think we have to. Maybe they’re old friends, maybe they’re friends of friends. Emotional labor, which is the process of suppressing negative feelings for positive ones, can put the body under a tremendous amount of stress leading to burnout. We’re aware of it in the workspace but we may be more open to it in our personal sphere, although it is equally damaging.

This leads me to my final point, which is that we need to really develop habits of listening to ourselves and our energy levels, learning how to respect what our body needs and when.

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

The first step is really observation. In all three of the practices, we have to be aware of the dynamics first and foremost. Paying attention to our thoughts, paying attention to how we feel around certain people, and paying attention to our energy levels allow us to get better in tune with ourselves. When we’re in tune with ourselves we begin to develop a habit of listening and responding. This creates the grounds to want to develop healthy habits.

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

For Performance, I would say first very clear goals on what it is that you are trying to achieve. Goals should be quantifiable and you should be able to express them in a tweet. These goals can then be broken down into bitesize action plans, which is the second good habit I would suggest. As I mentioned above, we can lose motivation if we focus on a far-off goal, but we can keep motivation high if we’re consistently seeing progress. And finally, I would suggest making sure that you track and measure everything. Organize your action steps so that progress can be achieved every day. This will help with momentum.

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

I would advise writing everything by hand with a good old-fashioned pen and paper. There is evidence that writing things down has a different effect on the brain than just typing it into a computer. It becomes more real, it enters into our 3D existence and not just in the mind. It gains importance. It’s called the Generation Effect. As I mentioned above, make lists of bite-size goals that can be easily ticked off a list.

Also, celebrate when goals are achieved. Decide in advance something that you really want as a reward. It’s better if it’s an experience as opposed to a material object. The anticipation of achieving that experience increases motivation and the projection of the enjoyment of the reward works to improve mood and reduce stress. Material goods have a different reaction. Do watch out, however, for communicating your success to others. An NYU study shows that telling people about reaching your goals prematurely can reduce your motivation to actually achieve them. This is because the brain processes the near win in the same way it does an actual win.

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

For Focus, I’m going to give the most boring, and most accurate, advice possible: stop trying to multi-task. First, the concept of multi-tasking is a neural impossibility. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. We might think we’re paying attention to everything but it’s not the case. There is a fantastic presentation done by Earl Miller from M.I.T. on this topic. Remember the point about the brain rewiring to do things easier and faster? What happens when we multitask is that we train our brain for distraction. This means that it becomes harder and harder for us to focus as our response instincts are very superficial. This also causes an increase in errors in the work we do. The less we focus, the harder it becomes to focus. Unfortunately, research shows that the multi-screen lifestyle is only making this problem worse.

The second good habit is to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is a make-or-break necessity for cognitive functions.

Finally, and this may be unexpected, drink enough water. There’s evidence that shows that even a small amount of dehydration can cause the brain to contract, which negatively impacts our ability to think. Water also flushes our system of cortisol, which helps moderate stress levels. When we’re stressed the part of our brain that does our best thinking is debilitated.

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

Stopping multi-tasking is a question of imposed will. We have to clear our desk of distractions, turn off notifications on our phones or, better yet, move our phone into another room. Close all open windows on our computer except what we need to be working on and shut off wi-fi so we can’t Google or get emails while working.

For sleep, the brain and body love a good routine. The more you can do the same things every night before going to bed, the more your body will know that it’s time to start powering down.

Drinking water can be a challenge. The best advice is to have two full bottles on your desk every day next to your computer. The proximity will have you naturally reaching for it without having to think about it.

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?

I like to triage projects in terms of what needs to get done first and what I’ll have more fun doing. I like to space them out. For example, I hate dealing with financials, but I love answering questions or writing. So I will schedule thirty minutes of financials and then 45 minutes of answering questions. What usually ends up happening is once you start doing something you get into the groove and you can spend more time on it. I’ll tell myself I’ll only do a piece of the financials, but then I’ll end up finishing them. That frees me up to have more time for the things I like.

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 have the dynamics of our brain and emotional self-regulation taught in grade school. If we understood how our brains worked, there are a lot of behaviors we would avoid.

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’m going to say Arianna Huffington. I am in absolute awe of what she has been able to achieve. Twice. She’s unstoppable and has broken every stereotype in the book. I think she’s a tremendous beacon of what’s possible for women in their careers. I would love to find out where she gets all of her energy!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My programs can be found at our website, in the bio, or you can check us out on Instagram at Moodally.Wellness. If you want to say hi to me, I can be found on LinkedIn.

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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