Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn so we can make our highest contribution. Have you ever had so much stress and anxiety that you could barely sleep at night? Today I will share a powerful story, something counterintuitive I’ve learned, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will have five research-based tools for reducing stress in two minutes a day or under. Let’s begin.
If you want to learn faster and understand more deeply the tools that I share with you in this podcast episode, take action on one of them within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Bill Rielly really had it all. He had a degree from West Point; he was an executive at Microsoft. He had a great family life, a strong faith, and plenty of money. He even got along well with his in-laws. So why did he have so much stress and anxiety that he could barely sleep at night?
I’ve worked with Bill for several years now, and we both believe his experience could be useful for other capable, driven, otherwise successful individuals like he was. At one point in his career, no level of success seemed enough for Bill. He learned at West Point that the way to solve problems was to persevere through any pain, but this approach didn’t seem to work with reducing his stress.
At one point, when he finished his second marathon, a few minutes slower than his goal, he felt he had utterly failed. So to make things right, he ran another marathon just five weeks later, and his body utterly rejected the idea. He finished an hour slower than before. Finally, his wife convinced him to figure out what was really driving his stress. He spent the next several years searching for ways to find more joy in the journey, and in the process, he found five tools. Each is ordinary enough really, but together they proved life changing for him and enabled his later success as an Apple executive.
Number one is breathing.
He started small by taking three deep breaths each time he sat down at his desk. He found it helped him relax. After three deep breaths became a habit, he expanded to a few minutes a day. He found he was more patient, calmer, and more in the moment. Now he does 30 minutes a day. It restores his perspective while enabling him to take a fresh look at a question or problem and come up with new solutions. So it’s highly relevant for him in his intense work environment and home environment. And I can observe that spending time with Bill calms me down. There is a power in his presence, and it grew from a practice so small. It’s almost strange to call to practice. Three breaths every time you sit down at your desk? That’s almost nothing. And yet that almost nothing has turned into something. And deep breathing exercises, of course, have been a part of yoga practices for literally thousands of years. And every major religion teaches its own version of the same.
But more recent research done at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital document the positive impact deep breathing has on your body’s ability to deal with stress. And we’ll put this link in the show notes at gregmckeown.com/podcast. The article is Genomic Counterstress Changes Induced By the Relaxation Response, which is a bit of a mouthful, but the study provides the first compelling evidence that inducing the relaxation response through breathing deliberately elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners.
So the results provide empirical evidence that there can be changes in gene expression resulting from the relaxation response, and that the effect of this is to lead to long-term physiological impact and improvement. In other words, even a small but deliberate improvement in our breathing process can change our body’s ability to deal with stress.
And if you haven’t yet been taught the power of box breathing, this is a good time to mention it. Box breathing is that you breathe in for four, you hold for four, you breathe out for four, and you hold for four. And you continue doing that perhaps four times.
That is an excellent beginning into the practice of breathing and meditation. So let’s move on to meditation.
When Bill had first heard about meditation, he just thought it was all for hippies. He was surprised to find meditators he recognized in business, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey and Mark Benioff and Russell Simmons among them. And that encouraged him to start with a minute a day. His meditation consisted of the simplest body scanning, which just involves focusing his mind and energy on each section of the body from head to toe. And recent research at Harvard has shown meditating for as little as eight weeks can actually increase the gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and learning. In other words, these meditators had actually increased their emotional control and brain power in such a short period of time.
The third tool was listening.
Bill found that if he concentrated on listening to other people the way he focused when he meditated, his interaction immediately became richer. The other person could feel he was listening almost physically. And when they knew he was listening, they formed a bond with him faster. Life almost immediately felt richer and more meaningful. As Professor Graham Bodie has empirically noted, listening is the quintessential positive interpersonal communication behavior.
And if you’re interested in more on that subject, I could encourage you to go back and listen to episode 70 of this podcast about the absolute hell of being misunderstood, where we discussed that the greatest single need for people is to be understood and that the root cause of so much of the strain in our relationships is in shallow listening and shallow conversation where we only ever get to the surface level and never to the things those jugular issues under the surface. And one of the reasons we don’t do that is because we are so distracted, so busy rushing from person to person and thing to thing. And my goodness, the pandemic hardly did us a favor in regard to this kind of necessary human connection.
In the last two weeks, I have had two conversations with two separate individuals who have shared a most vulnerable experience independently. They have no idea about each other or each other’s experiences. Each of them lived alone through the pandemic. One for six months was in total isolation. Think of that; think of the trauma of that. And I know full well that there are people listening right now who went through that or something similar to it. And then, in fact, just today, I spoke to somebody else who went through the same experience. But for 18 months, my goodness, for 18 months, he didn’t have a job. He had been furloughed. He lived alone. And in total isolation at the beginning of that isolation here in England, he was allowed only to go for two walks a day.
The collateral damage of that kind of psychological separation of people is difficult to overstate. Our deepest need is to be listened to and understood. And for months and, in some cases, years, we have the entire human race not having that need met sufficiently. And it’s not like it was being met, especially well before, but we just have no idea what this has done to the human condition. But if I’m reading it right, there are a lot of people who are in need of recovery in this very particular way who may not even know that they have such a need.
So to do what Bill suggests and listen to other people the way he focused when he meditated, had an immediate improvement on his life. Every interaction immediately became richer. People could feel he was listening almost physically. That’s something that you can begin right now. It will reduce your stress and other people’s, but in a way that builds connection and bondship.
Number four is questioning.
Now, this tool isn’t about asking other people questions. It’s about questioning the thoughts your mind creates. So just because your mind creates a thought doesn’t make it true. And Bill just got into the habit of asking himself, is that thought true? And if he wasn’t absolutely certain that it was, he just let it go. He said, thank you, mind, for coming up with that thought and moved on.
He said, “I found this liberating because it gave me an outlet for negative thoughts, a relief valve I didn’t have before.” The technique of questioning your thoughts has been popularized by Byron Katie, who advocates what she calls the great undoing.
Her experience in research shows that there is power in acknowledging rather than repressing negative thoughts. So instead of trying to ignore something we believe to be true, questioning allows us to see our thoughts face-to-face and to discredit them because they are untrue.
Number five, purpose.
Bill committed to living with purpose, not so much a life’s purpose. It was easier than that, smaller than that, more doable than that. He committed to purposefully doing whatever he was doing to be doing it, and only it. If he decided to watch TV, he really watched it. If he was having a meal, he took the time to enjoy that meal.
There is research to support Bill’s experience. In A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons. An empirical study of work without email, Gloria Mark and Armand Cardello cite evidence to suggest knowledge workers check email as much as 36 times an hour. The result is increased stress, obviously, really.
Giving each activity your undivided attention ensures you are in the moment and fully able to live that experience. And this research from Dr. Gloria Mark is especially interesting to me right now. Because in episode 171, coming up on Thursday, I interviewed Dr. Gloria Mark. She has spent 30 years studying attention span, especially as it relates to our interaction with technology. And something that she said got my attention. She said, “Goals are the best shield we have against distraction.”
In other words, if you look at your goals, that helps you to put off the natural inclinations to distract yourself because approximately 50% of our distractions are internally generated. They’re not from an external interrupt, not from a ding of our phone, even, not from a text or an email coming in. It’s us searching out distraction. And this idea that goals can be a shield against that tendency is fascinating.
But the plot thickens because setting goals once in the morning is not enough. We need reinforcing reminders throughout the day. And research by Dr. Mark found that we need it every hour of the day. So they found empirically that the effect of exposing participants to their goals lasted only about 60 minutes in helping them keep distractions at bay.
You can think of it as getting power for an hour. So this piece of research, to me, suggests the simplest of tools. You can recharge your attention span every hour by looking at the essential goals you identified at the beginning of the day. You can, number one, write down the most important thing you need to do today. You can use the six-minute ritual that I laid out in episode 168 to turn the clutter into your head, into clarity, and then into creativity.
Number two, you turn that clarity into a list on paper using a pen, not using digital technology.
Number three, draw out several small checkboxes. And every time you look at your list, approximately every hour for one day, you check one of the boxes. So you keep yourself accountable for checking and rechecking the goals that are most important to you, and then can reflect on the results of that at the end of one day’s experiment.
Now, coming back to Bill for a moment. An important key for Bill in all of this was starting small, very small. It’s important because you just can’t take on stress in a stressful way. Often we try to bring about change through sheer effort, and we put all of our energy into a new initiative. Of course, I’ve challenged that approach in the whole of the research and writing of the book Effortless. But certainly, there are some subjects for which that approach is completely counterproductive. You cannot beat stress using the same techniques that created the stress in the first place. Instead, the key is to do less than you feel you want to. If you feel like breathing for two minutes, do it for just one minute. If you are up for a day of really listening to people deeply do it for the next meeting only. Leave yourself eager to try it again. What you want is to develop a sustainable habit, a stress-free approach to reducing your stress.
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why did this matter so much to you?
How can you take tiny action on that idea in the next 24 to 48 hours? And who is one person you can share that application with?
If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Go to gregmckeown.com/1mw to sign up for the One Minute Wednesday to reinforce these ideas so that you can operate at your highest point of contribution. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.