Using behavioral science to improve the employee experience


Dr. Sahar Yousef


Lucas Miller

Find your focus: behavioral science and DEX

Today’s always-on work culture is full of constant meetings, calls and emails that make it nearly impossible to get focused work accomplished. Dr. Yousef and Professor Miller, UC Berkeley neuroscientists and founders of consultancy Becoming Superhuman, will share what behavioral science tells us about optimizing our experiences to regain focus and become more productive. Learn how to manage distractions, find time for your most important work, and stay connected in a balanced way.

To make sure you get the most out of this session, Dr. Yousef has generously offered for every session participant to take a Biological Chronotype Assessment (5 minutes). The assessment allows a person to receive their individual energy profile and learn how to optimally schedule their day for peak performance (ideal times for focus, collaboration, and creativity). Complete the assessment at with the project code: ‘ATTUNE’ and you’ll receive your individual results via email, as well as recommendations on how to optimally design your day for peak productivity.

Video Transcript

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Thank you so much, Rachel. All right, we’re so excited to be here with everyone, and there was quite a bit of a negotiation to see what we should include today for this particular group, just because we as neuroscientists have so much in common with those of you who care so much about people. We’re all people people. How do we best communicate? How do we best collaborate? What really are the best practices, and what do we do right now in this ever state of change in the professional world that we’ve all been going through for the past year? So today, we wanted to narrow that down to really, as the talk title says, Find Your Focus. What we can share with you all in short amount of time, on what neuroscience and physiological science really tells us about how to optimize, how we focus, how we collaborate, and how we can best communicate with one another.

Lucas Miller:

So with that, Sahar mentioned, it was a true negotiation to figure out what to pack in to about 50 minutes today. We have a whole semester-long class called Becoming Superhuman, where we teach busy professionals how to get their most important done in less time. If you know anything about Sahar, or you’ve seen her before, she likes to pack everything in. I like to focus on one or two few things, so we’re going to really give you the best of the best today, drawing extensively from our lab’s work, and our MBA course.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Absolutely. So, to start, many of you have already taken that chronotype assessment that Attune was kind enough to send out and offer to everyone. Today’s talk is really going to be centered around rhythms. Everything in nature is based on rhythms, and oscillations, and waves. We see this not only in the physical world and in the natural world, but we also see this inside of the human body. Even the heart beat expands and contracts, our lungs expand and contract, everything about the way that the human body operates. From the molecular level, all the way to the largest macro level, really is built upon the nature of rhythms, oscillations, and waves. And this is something that I want everyone to keep in the back of their minds as the presentation wears on.

Lucas Miller:

So with that, one of the rhythms we want to talk about is the human rhythm, starting with a basic fact and that is, the hours of our day are not equal. You are not the same as the day progresses. You at 9:00 AM, in terms of your focus, your energy, not the same as you at 2:00 PM, or 9:00 PM for that matter. That’s because every single human has a biologically pre-set circadian rhythm. This is actually Nobel Prize winning research that went out in 2017, Nobel Prize in medicine, went to three researchers who discovered this fact. Known as a chronotype, this biologically pre-set and genetic rhythm dictates all sorts of different performance factors, but especially the optimal time to fall asleep, when to wake up, as well as, when we’re awake, what happens to our energy? When does it peak, when does it dip, over the course of a normal 24-hour cycle?

Now, there are three core chronotypes. They’re fairly obvious, maybe you’ve heard of them before, but starting with Type 1, our AM-Shifted folks, these folks wake up early, go to sleep early, they wake up with the sun. They start bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, [inaudible 00:03:52] decrease in energy over the course of the day. Then you have the vast majority of the population, they’re actually called Bi-Phasics. Over 50% of people go to bed and wake up on the earlier end, but they’re susceptible to shifting sleep rhythms. Here’s what their curve looks like. Bi-Phasic means two peaks, or two phases. So you can see there’s a core peak around 9:00 to 11:00 AM, a core dip in the afternoon, if you have too much pasta or you’ve been working too long, that’s going to be long and severe, that afternoon dip, which many of you have probably heard of. Then there’s a second peak in the late evening, potentially into the 9:00 to 10:00 range.

Now, the last chronotype is, PM-Shifted, and these folks are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, they go to bed late, they wake up late, no matter what. Even if they’ve had eight hours of sleep, they still wake up groggy. Sahar, she’s a PM-Shifted person. Her hormones work differently. There’s no such thing as a good or bad chronotype, there are just differences, and they’re genetic, and our goal is to help you figure out what they are, so you can work in line with them, versus trying to fight them. Because they’re not going to change and it’s better to have self awareness and build off that from a place of strength. So with that, we’re going to launch a quick poll to identify the distribution for this group. Take a second and identify. If you haven’t taken the assessment yet, that’s okay, do you best to self identify what is your chronotype. Either AM-Shifted, PM-Shifted, or in the middle, being a Bi-Phasic.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

All right, lots of results coming in, and it’s looking just like the normal population. We’re looking at majority so far, around the mid-50s at Bi-Phasic. We’re looking at a healthy 30% AM-Shifted. Oh, it’s going down. I love this, it’s super dynamic.

Lucas Miller:

The night owls are getting more confidence.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

I know, the PM-Shifted, the night owls are coming out. Yes, my people. My people. And while these results are coming in, I’ll just chime in here with a fun little anecdote about why evolutionary biologists believe PM-Shifted people exist. Why is it that there’s a subset of the human population that just wakes up feeling like they’ve got an empty gas tank, but we keep the party going late at night? Well, the answer is that because human beings are really not that competitive in the animal kingdom, when we sleep we needed, when we were living in tribes and not protected by so many, of course, homes and structures, that we needed a subset of the population to actually stay awake all night, making sure that they stayed alert. They kept the fire going, they made sure to protect the entire community if a threat were to approach in the middle of the night. So entire families were literally assigned the night watch, so to speak.

And so if you are a PM-Shifted person, you are a descendant of the night watch. So I know life is not easy for PM-Shifted folks, but you come from a long line of wonderful protectors, myself included, so you can hopefully, it eases a little bit of the tension that the world does not revolve around our energy profile. All right, the poll is looking awesome. I love that. I love that. All right, let’s go ahead and keep it going.

Lucas Miller:

So with this knowledge, the advice you see in so many books, and blogs, and podcasts out there about, you need to wake up at 5:00 AM and then meditate, and then do this morning routine, that’s terrible advice. If you’re not AM-Shifted genetically, don’t force yourself into a bucket that doesn’t make sense. The goal, again, is self awareness, self knowledge, and if you don’t fit into this mold, stop trying to force it. There is an ideal schedule for every single chronotype, from when you focus, to when you meet, to when you communicate, to when you dip, and we’re going to go over all of this with both implications for you, as you try to optimize your own focus and productivity, but as well as those who are managing teams and thinking about entire workforces in a variety of different circumstances and on different schedules.

So with that, if you have not yet taken the chronotype assessment, there’s a link in the chat. You can go to, use the code ATTUNE to take it for free. It’s about three or four minutes, you’ll get your assessment results via email afterwards, and that can help start a conversation with yourself and your team about how you can start making some strategic tweaks to the way you design your day.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Dave is asking, “Where do we get the results?” They’ll be sent to you automatically via email once you submit the survey. It may take a couple of minutes, but you should get them in your inbox.

Lucas Miller:

So with that knowledge as a foundation, we’re going to be talking today about, how can we use biology, especially this notion of what your biological chronotype is, to optimize three things. First we’re going to start with focus. So, when should you be focusing and how do you get the most of that time? Second, when should you be communicating, and how do we otherwise optimize communications? And lastly, when should you be resting, and how do we make sure that when it is time to rest, we’re getting the most out of it so that when we come back to work we’re fully there, we’re fully engaged, and we’re at 100%?

So diving into focus first. It’s essential to know your chronotype because of the simple fact that when McKinsey ran a 10+ year study looking at executive performance, they identified that those who are able to carve out time consistently during what’s called their peak focus hours, they reported being up to five times more productive during that window. Now here’s the catch, most executives, most managers, are actually quite busy, so they’re not able to consistently every day carve out a two to three hour chunk and have heads-down work. Most reported being in this state of deep engagement, sometimes called flow, 5% of the time. Increasing that to 20%, because of this non-linear relationship, would ostensibly double your productivity. Which means, if you were able to carve out your entire Monday, be in that peak zone, you would be able to basically, double yourself. You’d get all of your important work done twice as fast.

Mike Libert, one of our former clients who works in private equity, he’s a principal at TA Associates, he has use chronotypes with his deal team. He says, “I feel absolutely superhuman from 7:00 till 10.00 AM almost every day.” He’s genetically AM-Shifted. “The problem is …” Makes sense because he’s in private equity, “I rarely get to carve out that time for my most important thinking. Now my deal team uses chronotypes and we’re all encouraged to protect a few of our peak hours each week.” Now it’s going to be impossible, unless you have full control, full autonomy, to carve out every single day. But one day a week, two days out of the week, I just talked about how you can get up to a five times ROI on that time, so start a conversation and start small. Start by picking Tuesday, or Wednesday, a less busy pocket of the week, and protect that time because you’re going to get so much more out of it and you’re going to be way less likely to make mistakes.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

So now let’s say, you know when your peak performance hours are. You’ve done the chronotype assessment, you’ve even done some personal self awareness tracking, and you’ve really figured out when you can get the most high ROI on your own time. Well, what do you do in those peak hours? How do you actually make the most of that time? And the answer is, a focus sprint. A focus sprint is a methodology of work pioneered at the Becoming Superhuman lab, our lab at UC Berkeley, and it is a how of working. It is a method of working. I’m going to go over an example for a one-hour focus sprint, but you can absolutely do a focus sprint that lasts 15 minutes, all the way up to 90 minutes, whatever have you. A focus sprint, again, is a method of working, it is what you do when you finally do in fact sit down to get work done. On average, individuals rate themselves as being up to 42% more productive during a focus sprint, than if they just worked without necessarily any serious methodology.

So, let’s go through the steps here. Step number 1, set aside a block of time in the calendar. This is absolutely crucial. If the people that you work most closely with can actually see your calendar, you are implicitly communicating that, “Hey, listen, I’m doing a focus sprint, so this is an important time of day for me to get my most heavy lifting done for my job. So I’m not MIA, I’m not trying to answer messages during this time, or answer communications, this is the heaviest time for me to do the most cognitively-intensive work that I could be doing for the team, and for the company.” So set it aside in advance in a calendar.

Step number two, write down what you aim to accomplish. This is absolutely crucial, especially for high performers, and I’ll explain why. First, when you finally get a block of time that you actually get to focus and get important work done, what do so many of us have a tendency to do? If I were to, let’s say, I was chatting with Rachel and I said, “Rachel, what do you plan on doing during your focus sprint?” She says, “Oh. Oh my gosh, I have so much work to do. I need to catch up on XYZ. I’m going to get a lot of important work done.” And I go, “Huh, Rachel, quick question. When is work done?” Work is never done. Work is like a conveyor belt, as you’re actively getting work done, more work is coming down the pipeline. And because of this, because of this shear fact, we do not get an increase in dopamine at the end of a focus sprint. We need to be able to gamify the way in which we work so that we not only feel good, but that we actually get excited about getting our work done in the first place.

Writing down what you aim to accomplish and actually scoping out what work actually needs to get done, is absolutely critical, and actually breaking it down into small subtasks. So not only writing down, what is the work outcome, or the work product at the end of that hour, let’s say for example, but also breaking that hour-long goal into tiny little subtasks. Into I would recommend 10 to 15 minute chunks. So, what can I do in the first 10 minutes, then what am I going to do in the following 10 minutes, so on and so forth? So, actually to time block it out in very, very clear terms. You will notice that you’ll not only work more efficiently, but it will just feel so much better when you actually work this way.

Step number three is to eliminate distractions. Eliminate distractions, that means email is completely closed out, out of sight, out of mind. Your phone is put away, out of sight, out of mind. All communication tools are put away, out of sight, out of mind. Why is this the case? Well, I want to introduce you all to a concept from our lab called Digital Hygiene. Digital Hygiene is a phenomenon defined as your relationship as an individual, with your devices and your notifications. Now, before I dive in to the research, the data, and what I would love for everyone to be able to do differently after this talk, I do need to admit something. And that is, that our lab is trying to really right the wrongs that were done by evil versions of people like us. Evil versions of people like myself and Lucas, these are behavioral neuroscientists that were hired hand-over-foot by certain tech companies to really make our phones, our devices, and our communication tools as addictive, or-

Lucas Miller:

Sticky, is the other word that’s used.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Sticky, right. The PC word for addictive as possible. Now all of this was, of course, pioneered and done by, as I mentioned, evil versions of people like myself and Lucas, so we’re trying to right these wrongs here by informing everyone on small little changes they can make to how they use their devices, to make them a little bit less, let’s call it, sticky. Okay? Now, why is this so important? When we are constantly monitoring a bunch of communication channels, let’s say, that looks like your phone is always out on your desk when you’re working, your email is perpetually open, or Slack, or other kind of messaging tools are perpetually open when you’re sitting down to work, not only will work, without a shadow of a doubt, this is across 20+ years of research, across every single lab that studies productivity, performance and attention.

Not only will your work take up to 40% longer to do, but you’re also 50% more likely to make mistakes. When we are “multi-tasking,” which I’m putting in air quotes because it’s not really physiologically possible, we are in fact, not multitasking because it’s impossible to do that, we are context switching, we are switching rapidly. But every single time we make a switch, there is a cost associated with it. There is a measurable cost associated with it, and so we pay for it. We pay for it in time, and we pay for it in energy. So when we sit down to actually get the most out of the focused time we have, we must make sure that we have what is considered good Digital Hygiene.

So step one, re-evaluate your relationship with those notifications. My recommendation is to make sure that they’re all turned off, except the ones that you absolutely need on. Of course, this is so important for the digital experience that we’re talking about so much today and yesterday. So we need to figure out not only as organizations, but also at the individual level, which one of our notifications, which one of our messages are absolutely make or break? Which ones do we need to actually come in and interrupt our train of thought, to interrupt our workflow, because it’s that much of an emergency, and what can possibly wait till the end of the hour? At the end of, let’s say, a focus sprint, at the end of a shift? What can wait, and what can’t wait? We must differentiate between the two. And on a personal level, I would highly recommend turning off notifications for personal apps that you absolutely do not need to be notified about. Things like the news, things like social media, we absolutely do not need to be getting notifications about this.

I want you all to treat yourselves like athletes, like Olympic athletes from the neck up. We must protect our conscious experience because our brains are really the most important asset we have in our lives. Now, if you might be saying to yourself, “Okay, Sahar, I get it. I’m going to turn off the notifications, that’s going to be the big thing that I do, I’m in the clear, right?” Unfortunately not. This study that came out of UT Austin in 2017, took a large sample of healthy, high-performing adults, and they had them take a battery of cognitive assessments. A battery of cognitive assessments, and these are tests of attention, tests of memory, and the most frightening, a test of general fluid intelligence. And they had them take this battery of cognitive assessments in three conditions.

Before any of the tests began, the researchers asked, “Do you have a cell phone?” Of course, everyone is going to say, “Yes,” it’s in 2017 in Texas, so it’s like, “Uh-huh, absolutely. Why?” It’s like, “Well, in order for your phone not to distract you, you want to make sure you get the highest score on all these brain tests, right?” “Yeah, of course. Of course.” “We’re asking for you to just shut your phone completely down, at least for the next hour or so when the tests are happening.” That makes sense, it’s like going in to get an x-ray, I’m not going to take my phone, I’m not texting during x-raying. At the doctor’s office, same situation here. Okay? So all of the phones were asked to be powered down, like fully, fully, fully shutdown. Okay? Three conditions. Condition one, your phone is completely off and it’s left in another room, before you enter the room where you’re taking the assessments.

And here are the scores, I’m showing you two different scores here. The first is a score for your working memory capacity, and the second is very frightening, a test of your general fluid intelligence. Okay? Next condition. They allowed the off, shutdown phone to be carried into the room with the individuals, but they asked them to be put into a pocket or a bag. They said, “Turn your phone completely off in front of me.” Everyone says, “Okay, it’s completely powered down.” And then, “Okay, go ahead and put it either in your pocket, or your bag, just so it’s not out and about in front of you while you’re taking the assessments.” As you can see, there is a significant decrease in not only working memory capacity, but also in general fluid intelligence. The worst possible is if your phone is out in the open.

If you can see your phone out in your visual field, I am here to tell you, we are all, including myself, measurably dumber. We are not at 100% when we see our phones in front of us. So right now, during Attune, I know we technically use our phones to do a whole lot during this conference, however-

Lucas Miller:

Including to click the slides right now too.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

I know. But if you see your phone out in front of you, do yourself a favor and put it away. And it doesn’t have to be all the time, I’m not suggesting everyone become a [Ledi 00:19:43] and never use their phones, however, be strategic. Be strategic. I’m saying, when you want to be at 100%. When you want to be at 100%, when our employees are doing their shifts, when they’re doing their most important work, when our pilots are flying planes, their phones should be out of sight, out of mind. Not only off, but at least in Do Not Disturb or airplane mode, but just not in front of them. Because if you can see your phone, I assure you we are measurably dumber. Quote from the actual study from the researchers, “The mere presence of a smartphone reduces brain power, even if it’s turned over and even if it’s off.” This is one of the most frightening studies that I’ve ever come across in my many years of being in this field.

Now, next step of how to do a focus sprint, actually using a timer. Human beings and actually most mammals, are absolutely impacted by what are called markers of progress. That means, if you can actually see time ticking away, think progress bar, think any kind of timer. I actually use this one right here behind me, people actually think my office, that the bookshelves behind me are just for decoration, they’re not, totally functional. I like the romanticism of using an old-school sand-based timer, but you can absolutely use anything. The photo you see here was actually sent in by an old student of ours, we can happily send you all links to our favorite timers. Absolutely you can use a digital one. You could use ones that are physical. But if you use a timer and you get a sense of time ticking away, remember the earlier step, you’ve written down what you aim to accomplish, you’ve scoped out what you’re doing to do during the focus sprint. You said, “First 10 minutes, I’m knocking X out. Next 10 minutes, I’m knocking Y out. Next 10 minutes, Z.”

You need to be working at a steady click. As you see time ticking by, you will absolutely be working much more efficiently, according to multiple studies. Last step is to take a brain break. A brain break is defined as a period of time where you’re no longer processing information. That means no reading, no writing, no arithmetic. Those are my rules, that’s how you take a proper brain break. So, no processing information. Scrolling through social media, checking email, does not count as a break, even if it’s fun. I remember I had a wonderful executive actually come up to me and say, “Oh, I’m really good about taking breaks.” I know previously we were talking about role modeling, right? They were like, “Oh, I’m great at role modeling. I make sure I bring my favorite fantasy novels into the office, actually, and I take these little breaks throughout the day and I read my book.”

And I had to come in and say, “Listen, unfortunately that’s not actually not a break for your brain. I’m glad you’re doing some role modeling to say, ‘Listen, work isn’t everything, do some stuff for your personal life.’ However, when you’re actually taking a break, you need to not process any information.” So, that is how we define a brain break. Focus sprints is not something that you can just do at the individual level, you can do this at the organization level. Visa, every lawyer that gets onboarded, no matter what region, this is globally, internationally across Visa, gets a focus sprint desk and office flag, in addition to an entire productivity toolkit, on how to do focus sprints properly. Including, obviously, videos from our lab on how to explain everything, but this is something that groups of lawyers in pods actually sit down and do focus sprints together. This has been an absolute game changer, and is for any organization or individual, but it not only increases productivity, but it also decreases feelings of stress and burnout that one might be experiencing. Because again, our brains are adapted to focus, we are focus machines.

When we’ve got email, Slack, a bunch of messaging open, phones out when we’re trying to actually focus and work, remember, it’ll take you longer and you’re going to make more mistakes in the process, and it will be a huge energy drain. There is a cost associated when you’re trying to multitask and you’ve got all those comms tools open, all at the same time. Be intentional, focus intentionally, have nothing else there to interrupt you, so eliminate the distractions and then go into comms mode, wear that hat. After 20-minute focus sprint, go in and go into your inbox, and try to crank through as many messages as you possibly can. Oscillate between the two.

All right, now let’s jump in, deep dive into communications. How do we use biology to actually optimize how we communicate? The biggest mistake, not only organizations but individuals make when it comes to non-optimized communications, is just scheduling their communications at the wrong time. Okay? Let’s talk about Dr. Simon Folkard, he is the father of this entire concept. Dr. Folkard’s research including a huge variety of other studies that have come since this time, were able to show that the time of day when you are presented information, affects not only your memory, but people will both learn and process information that you’re giving them faster, depending on the time of day. They’re either more likely, or less likely to remember it, which is related to their retention, or they will also either be able to focus better on the information that you’re providing them, or not, depending on the time of day. This is absolutely crucial and critical, and so many of our organizations are just not leveraging this basic science.

I wanted to share a couple of both, they’re somewhat success stories, or I think that they’re optimistic, even though they’re slightly pessimistic, but it gives us information and ammunition to try to do things differently. A quote from Kelsey Beecher, a physician’s assistant at Head Start, she says, “I got an email from my employer during the busiest time of my shift. By the time my shift was over and I would have had the time to read the message, I forgot it came in. I wish we could optimize when we get pinged, so I don’t miss anything.”

Also, I wanted to share a touching story with a group that we worked we last year, a truck driving group. And one story was from a guy named John who wanted to remain otherwise somewhat anonymous. And he was a PM-Shifted truck driver. So, we chronotyped every one of the truck drivers in this organization, and John happened to be one of the PM-Shifted ones which made him really well suited to do the graveyard shift, to drive through the night. And he said, and this is again, it breaks my heart but I really wanted to include this here for Attune, he said that nothing made him feel more invisible than getting messages during the day when “everyone else in the organization is awake and working,” but when the org knows, they know when he clocks in and clocks out, they know when he’s working. They know that he’s asleep during the day, and nothing made him feel more invisible than getting all of the messages and communications related to his job while he was sleeping.

So during the evening when he was working, that’s his work day, he was all alone. It’s already a lonely enough job. So many of jobs out there in the world right now are absolutely by nature lonely. The best we can do for those of us that are in charge of communications, is to communicate to our employees when they ought to be communicated with. And timing our employee comms based on when they should receive the message is critical, but also making that predictable. So this is a nice fun bio hack, when we can actually predict when our messages come in. For example, having a message that comes in every single day, 10:00 AM my time. So it’s my time zone at 10:00 AM, and I know I can expect to get a message from my employer during that time, you actually get anticipatory pathways in the brain that become activated. There are actual anticipatory neural pathways that get excited about messages coming in.

All of us, including myself, we’re all like Pavlovian dogs, we know when certain things are coming. If anyone out there watches morning shows, like Good Morning America, or they watch the news, the evening news at exactly the same time, exactly the same place, that predictability feels really amazing to the human body and that’s because of any area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is in charge of all the dopamine, the mains primary reward chemical in the brain. It’s in charge of all the dopamine that takes place in the human brain. So if we can make our comms not only appropriately timed, but also predictable, we can make it feel super amazing to the employee experience to receive all of those messages. And more importantly, people will actually read your messages, they’re going to remember it better, they’re going to process it faster, and they’re actually going to focus on it as opposed to not.

Lucas Miller:

Shifting gears a bit as we continue to think about how to use biology to optimize communications, let’s talk about how you can personally get through the deluge of daily email. The best strategy that I can recommend to you is one called batching, which means you pick regular intervals to check your email, you jump in, you check in, and then you check out. Now, it doesn’t matter how frequently you do it. In this particular study from MIT back in 2016, they gave people five intervals to check their email. They created two conditions, one group they said, “You can check your email as much as you want over the course of the day. Check it as if you normally would check it.” The other group, “You’re only going to get five windows, and we’re going to scan your inbox and give you the five optimal windows.”

Those who were given only five windows, not only got through the same amount of information and the same amount of messages in less time, but they reported two things. A greater feeling of productivity and accomplishment, on top of actually getting through it faster, and lower measures of cortisol. This is especially important from a stress and burnout perspective. If you’re not familiar, cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones in the human body. So my takeaway to you is to batch your communications. Start conservative, perhaps every hour, or every 30 minutes, check your email, check Slack, see what you need to deal with right then and there and then get out. Don’t have it always open because the way the human brain works, you’re like the dog from the movie Up, whenever you see a message come in, you’re going to think, “Squirrel,” and you’re going to look at it, and you’re going to be really tempted to gravitate towards something that’s easy, that’s easy to respond to, that’ll give you a quick hit of dopamine.

So, my takeaway strategy is to treat email, and chat, and messages like laundry, do a load every one to two hours. It would make no sense if after every single outfit you wore, you went, “Oh. Well, now I have some dirty clothes, I need to go do a load of laundry.” Nobody does that. Nobody does a load of laundry for every shirt that they use at the gym, you wait until the end of the week, till you have a full load. Then you go, “Okay, finally, it’s Saturday, now it makes sense to go through the effort and do the transition, and put a full load in.” So figure out that frequency for you, start conservative, and then gradually ramp up from there.

What about meetings? Different type of communication. Let’s first talk about when to meet. You can use the idea of biological chronotypes to optimize this exact question, when should we all meet? In this particular case, we worked with a sales org at the company, Abbott Labs, a biotech company in Europe, and we chronotyped an entire group of 100+ sales and marketing folks. This distribution actually ended up being really interesting. As you can see here, almost every single person in this 100-person group was either AM-Shifted, or Bi-Phasic. They’re drastically different than the population distribution. Which means, with that alignment we’re able to create some really interesting guidelines around when people should focus and otherwise have quiet hours, or not be expected to respond, and when we should try to push meetings.

In this case, 98% of people because only three people were PM-Shifted, should be scheduling their focus sprints, their quiet hours, before 2:00 PM local time. And then meetings, including one-on-one’s, collaboration time, when people are starting to dip anyways, generally push that to the afternoon. This is now standard policy because they have data to start these conversations around, when are we at our best, when are we at our worst, or when are we lower energy, lower motivation, and what time does it make sense to do certain types of work?

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

And we wanted to sneak in a little bit, just for this group in particular, because video fatigue is just such a topic that is top of mind at the very least for knowledge workers, those of us who as a job are in a lot of meetings day-in day-out. And not necessarily out in the field, and not necessarily frontline, but many of you who are here today are in fact those knowledge workers. So I know video fatigue is in fact real and I wanted to be here to tell you as a neuroscientist, there’s actually science behind it. We’re not crazy for thinking that we’re more exhausted now over Zoom and over video, compared to when we were back in-person. Video fatigue is in fact real.

The first piece of data that I wanted to share with you all is this really interesting study from Microsoft in 2020. This is during COVID, at the height of COVID. Microsoft wanted to understand why are people actually saying that their more exhausted over video than they were in-person? Well, it turns out if you actually measure the brain waves, what’s going on inside of the human brain, when you’re in a video-conferencing meeting versus when you’re in person, we see a few differences. Specifically, we see a massive increase in what are called beta waves. Beta waves are a marker of alertness and how much effort really your brain has to put in to pay attention and to focus. For in-person meetings, the beta waves hover around … If you see that horizontal line across that plot, typically in-person meetings, beta waves hover around that line till about the 60-minute mark.

So we not only see a massive spike in beta waves more than an in-person meeting, meaning what? That means that your brain actually has to use more energy to continue to pay attention and focus during a video meeting, compared to an in-person conversation or meeting. It’s literally actually more draining, it’s taking you more neural effort to continue to pay attention. Also interestingly, do you all see what’s happening at that 30, 40-minute mark? You see a massive drop off in beta waves. Your brain used so much beta that it just exhausted, and it completely nosedives in energy. So not only does it take more energy to pay attention during a video meeting, we also see this massive nosedive in energy around the 30, 40-minute mark, which is why our lab’s new motto that we’ve been sharing as loudly as we possibly can, that “30 is the new 60”, and thankfully it’s not about age, otherwise 60’s the new 30. But 30 is the new 60 when it comes to video-conferencing meetings based on science. And it’s because we’re not getting as much out of ourselves, and we’re not getting as much out of our teams and our people, after the 30, 40-minute mark as we think that we are. So, really having a very good reason for scheduling a 60-minute meeting, or a 90-minute meeting is absolute paramount.

All right. And the other piece I wanted to share very briefly is, the fact that seeing yourself, especially over Zoom, is one of the most deeply biologically unnatural things to the human brain that could possibly be happening. Let’s think about it this way, let’s say for example, Rachel, Lucas, and I are in a meeting. Okay? And we’re in-person, it’s good old-fashioned in-person. We’re having lunch and we’re just catching up. Okay? I’m looking at Rachel, Rachel’s looking at me, then she’s looking at Lucas, then I’m looking at Lucas, and we’re just looking around. But imagine if to mess with each other and ourselves, we all wheeled in a massive mirror and put it right on the table in front of us. So, I’m trying to look at Rachel when she’s trying to talk to me, and she’s saying, “Sahar, blah, blah.” And as she’s saying something to me, I can’t help but, “Oh. Oh, my hair.”

Lucas Miller:

“There’s something in my tooth.”

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

“Oh, am I okay?” This is absolutely natural. Why? There’s an area of the human brain called the fusiform face area, or the FFA for short. This area of the human brain has one job, and one job only, and that is to process human faces, but especially your own image. It is so deeply biologically unnatural for you to see yourself while you’re trying to talk to somebody. It absolutely causes so much brain drain. Best thing you can do, if you’re an organization that uses Zoom, hit that little three dots, that ellipsis, hover over your own image. Find the little three dots, if you hover over it it’ll come up, hit the little three dots and then you’re going to see a button called Hide Self View. If you don’t use Zoom and you use something else for your video meetings, have a stack of Post-Its on the side of your computer, and then just cover.

Typically you’re in the lower-right, whatever have you, but cover your own image up so that you don’t have to be forced to stare at yourself. And again, you can’t help but process yourself if you see yourself. It’s not vanity, I assure you. I’ve talked to so many people that are like, “I swear I’m not a vain person, but I just can’t help but stare at myself the entire meeting.” It’s not you, it’s your brain. We’re all like this, I promise you. I’m a scientist, I couldn’t care less what my hair looks like, however, I also find myself going, “Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh.” And you can’t help it, so you’ve got to hide Self View. And if you’re panicking about how you’re “showing up,” honestly, you don’t know what you look like in person, so don’t worry about it now. So, that’s my stance on that.

Lucas Miller:

Now, that’s the primary reason for Zoom fatigue. If you are curious about additional reasons, Stanford last month published the first peer reviewed article on four primary causes for video fatigue and really simple fixes. We can send that out as well in the follow-up resources once we get that. Moving into the last section, using biology to optimize rest. It is well documented that more car accidents occur at 2:00 PM than any other time of day. Car accidents occur at 2:00 PM more frequently than any other time of day. Also, risk of error during surgery, highest from 2:00 to 3:00 PM. Why is this the case? We’re talking local time. Well, if we go back to that chronotype curve, average energy level versus hour of the day, what do we see from 2:00 to 3:00 PM? Everyone is dipping. AM-shifted, Bi-Phasic folks are in that dip. Their lowest energy, lowest motivation, lowest vigilance, which means the likelihood of making errors is at its high.

For you, as you think about your day, you inevitably will have a dip. Instead of trying to fight it, instead of trying to power through 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 PM, trying to do your hardest work and trying to work, work, work, which is just going to make you push back the end of the day and burnout even more, accept that we have peaks and troughs. Accept your lower energy, lower motivation during that period and game it. Rack up a bunch of emails, things that need to get done, yes, but aren’t that important. They’re a little bit faster, administrative tasks, routine tasks, so you can schedule them strategically during that window, versus trying to tackle strategy, your hardest analysis, during that window when you’re just going to take longer and be more likely to make mistakes during that time.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

An analogy here is to use surfing. Ride the wave as opposed to just pummeling right through it. We all have these waves. That was where we started today’s presentation, remember? Nature, we cannot fight the natural biological laws of nature, they’re there, we are all susceptible to them. There is not one human being that doesn’t fall victim to all of the natural biological laws, except, of course, Beyonce, who seems to have infinite energy and infinite time. However, the rest of us are all susceptible to following the normal biological laws of nature. Which means, in order to get the most out of your life, in order to get the most out of yourself, in order to help our colleagues, our loved ones get the most out of their selves and themselves, we’ve got to encourage folks to ride the wave.

One, self awareness. Know what the wave is. What is your wave? What is our organization’s wave, because we talked about the individual level, but you can also do this across teams and orgs. What’s the organizational wave look like? How do we optimize how we communicate and how we operate as an organization? And ride the wave, do not fight the wave, because it’s truly not in our best interest to fight it.

Lucas Miller:

Now looking at this graph, you can see starting at 9:00 AM for the vast majority of the population, we’re talking about Bi-Phasics here, that’s when they hit their peak, 9:00 to 10:00 AM. Which means 80% of workers, this includes many folks who are Bi-Phasic and PM-Shifted, likely are suffering from a work schedule that is misaligned. They’re being forced to start earlier than their body is ready for, which causes a vast array of negative physical and mental health consequences. For example, workers at mobile phone companies, packaging manufacturers, and oil transportation companies show, when there’s this misalignment, that these employees are more stressed and they experience more work-related discomfort and even physical pain. Now, it’s not necessarily about any schedule being better or worse, it’s about the mismatch. It’s about one person who may be extremely AM-Shifted being forced to work the night shift. Or conversely, someone who is extremely PM-Shifted being forced to work from 8:00 till 4:00. It just doesn’t make sense.

Diving deeper into a little bit more data, this one’s scary. 2015 Harvard Medical School study found that for night owls, when they’re forced to work during the day, it increases diabetes risk. Now I want to introduce you, as we round out this presentation and get into all the questions that we have, to a novel 21st Century concept that we are confident is going to make its way, not just into knowledge work, but into all types of work across all types of industries, and has chronotype-based scheduling. Instead of scheduling being roughly, a Tetris game where you just try to see if someone’s available, or you just set a random schedule because it’s easy, because it’s easier to say, “Hey, you should start at this time. You should take a break at this time. You should end at this time,” we’re going to see companies and teams think strategically about when people are at their best, and when they should do certain types of work.

For example, AbbVie, an international biotech company, their Danish offices a decade ago, ran a nine-hours, a full-day training program where they asked people after taking a chronotype assessment, to think about their optimal schedule and then co-design it with the company. They ended up having folks who were AM-Shifted start on an earlier basis, and those who were PM-Shifted start later. And they found that over a decade, work/life balance, wanted to focus in on that metric, but they also tracked productivity, retention, and a bunch of other factors, rose from 39% 10 years ago, to over 90% today. Just by giving people the freedom and the autonomy to work a little bit more in line with their natural biology, which is not going to change regardless of policy.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

And I just will add one note here. Within AbbVie’s case, it doesn’t mean we’re working 24/7 as in, “Oh no, what happens? People can’t collaborate anymore, they’re no longer overlapping in their hours, and are no longer overlapping even in the office.” Even this doesn’t matter if it’s remote or in-person, we want to make sure that some percentage of our workforce is in fact overlapping. It’s not to say it was a full graveyard versus full AM-Shifted, it’s just slight shifts make such a big difference. Allowing someone who’s PM-Shifted or Bi-Phasic to instead of starting at, having an 8:00 AM meeting, have their meeting start at 10:00 AM or 11:00 AM is absolutely game changing. Because they feel amazing right when they wake up, they can crank out so much important work, high-quality work, in that, “Just give me an hour of silence and I will get so much done, and then hit me with all the meetings.”

Where on the flip, allowing folks to work a little bit earlier, you have AM-Shifted individuals like, “Let me stop work at 3:00 PM because let me be honest, nothing important is going on in this noggin after that time anyway because I’ve been awake since at 4:30.” Like, “I started working when people were still sleeping and having breakfast, so I’ve been go go go go go, so why do I need to stay online and seem like I’m continuing to work at 5:00, 6:00 PM, just because other people started a little bit later?” Giving folks this autonomy, and again, it’s just a slight shift. It’s like two-hour shifts make such a big difference.

Lucas Miller:

Southwest Airlines, in an effort to reduce risk of pilot error and also reduce pilot fatigue, lets pilots choose between evening and morning schedules. Not just because of their preferences, but because of data. They actually bring in pilots into sleep labs and figure out where they are on this spectrum, and then use that data to accordingly figure out when they’re most mentally sharp, and when it’s best for them to schedule their daily shifts, which are often much longer than eight hours and come with a bunch of additional health trade offs. This might seem surprising to you, but it’s actually not industry standard and we’re starting to see this become a standard practice across more and more airlines year by year.

Lastly, Thyssen Krupp, a major steel manufacturer, did an experiment a few years back where they assigned the day shift in one of their factories to AM-Shifted workers, and the night shift to PM-Shifted workers. Those who are Bi-Phasic remained on a standard schedule, they were not included in the experiment. But they found that those who were AM-Shifted and PM-Shifted, by virtue of being able to either come in a little bit earlier and then leave earlier, or come in later and leave later, were able to increase their sleep duration by 16%. What does that mean? That means an extra hour per night. That’s the difference between someone sleeping consistently six hours, which is way under the standard and the minimum required for maintenance of daily functioning, to seven, being pretty much at the minimum level where you wake up, you’re refreshed, you’re ready to go, you’re not likely to make mistakes. That is a huge increase going from woefully insufficient to meeting the minimum for most adults.

Wrapping up everything today, because we obviously talked a lot, I want to introduce a paradigm shift in the way we think about scheduling, starting first with this quote from Dr. Camilla Kring. “In the 20th Century, the unions fought for the right to eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of leisure time. In the 21st Century, we should fight for the right to work at the right time of day. It really makes sense to think about when people have the most energy and when they’re peaking mentally.” Right? We used to have to battle for a reasonable number of hours, now we have new tools, new data, new assessments, we should start thinking about how to get the most out of our people. Not necessarily to try to extract more, but how to enable them to work in a way that’s uniquely aligned with their biology, because we do see there is so many differences. And often it’s just a challenge of, we don’t know, we don’t know the distribution on our team, we don’t know how to start this conversation, we don’t have a term for it.

But now, hopefully you can start by taking this assessment, sharing it with peers, sharing it with your partner, start a conversation around how we can all be a little bit more strategic with the way we schedule our time.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Now with that, that’s the end of at least the official presentation. I see so many awesome questions that have come in, so we’re going to get to those next. If you want a copy of the slides, which I saw was one of the questions from Matt, awesome question, the answer’s yes and there are these QR codes that you can use. If for some reason your phone can’t scan a QR code, you can in fact go to, so perhaps I can ask Lauren to maybe put that in the Slido. You can go to and you can use the code, attune, to sign up for the newsletter, and that will be the marker for our research team to grab your email and then make sure that you get a copy the slides and some follow-up resources from today’s talk. And of course, I will be yelled at by our lab if I don’t mention that we recently launched a lab Instagram account, so if you’re into that sort of thing and you have an Instagram, give us a [inaudible 00:47:23] @becomingsuperhumanlab and there’s a QR code for that as well.

Okay, now with that I’m super excited to dive into some of these questions. The number one question that has been up-voted the most number of times, one of my favorites, Angela, thank you for the question. Can you speak to, while they’re listening to music while working counts as multitasking? It seems to help me focus, but is it actually a distraction? So the answer to that question is, it does help, but it’s nuanced. Okay? So actually utilizing music can in fact help you focus … Actually, if we can keep the final slide up for just a bit of time while we’re going through the QA. Now, music can in fact help you focus, that is absolutely the case, however, two things need to be met. One, you have to make sure you’re either listening to music with either no lyrics at all, or lyrics in a language that you don’t understand. And the reason why is because the human brain, the auditory system, continues to try to process anything that it understands, so understandable speech.

So if you can understand what’s being said, and this counts if you have the TV on in the background when you’re working, if you’re listening to a podcast while you’re working, but also of course in the case of music. If you understand the lyrics that are being said, your brain in the background, it’s not going to feel like you’re listening, especially if you’ve heard the track a million times, but your brain is still processing it. It can’t help but do that. So one of the easiest hacks around this, and I’m not condemning everyone to a lifetime of listening to classical music or elevator music forever and ever, you can absolutely listen to all kinds of different music, just in languages that you don’t understand. So things like, I listen to German and Swedish techno music when I’m analyzing data, and I listen to Spanish dance music when I’m cranking through my emails and my communications. That’s just something that I like.

I’ve listened to those same playlists for over a decade now, that’s why I have an added benefit of a lot of memory and predictability built into it. But the neat part is, I don’t speak any of those languages, so it doesn’t really take up a lot of mental bandwidth for me to have that music playing in the background. So, I hope that answers your question.

Lucas Miller:

“I’m always asking for a program like Social Chorus where the content is OnDemand, no push notifications. Does it matter as much what time the content is actually posted?” If there are no push notifications and it truly is OnDemand, the most important factor is that whenever people are likely to check the content is there, and there is something that it new, timely and relevant. So if they check and nothing has been posted, that’s a no-no. And if they check and there isn’t predictably something that is novel, it’s going to decrease the frequency of them checking on their own the next time.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

Absolutely. Margo is asking, “How can we as communicators help our employees learn and act on Digital Hygiene?” Step one is education and awareness. Having folks like us and different individuals come in and actually educate the entire workforce on what Digital Hygiene is. What performance are we leaving on the table? What impact does it have on our brains? What impact does it have on our kid’s brains even? Having that basic education and actually having it be data-driven, people are smart, they don’t want to just hear people say open-ended pieces of advice like, “Try not to be on your phone too much, phones are bad for you, apps are bad, social media’s bad.” It just doesn’t feel scientific, it doesn’t feel data-driven. So having a data-driven educational conversation about what happens inside of the brain and body, like for example, the cell phone study. When we bad Digital Hygiene really, and the benefits of having good Digital Hygiene. I think education is the first, and the second, of course, once we have the education, is having some conversations around what we want to change organizationally to help digital hygiene best practices.

For example multiple organizations, some of them we mentioned, AbbVie, Visa, Google, for example, is client of ours that they encourage everybody. When people get onboarded they get training done on, this is a focus sprint, this is what Digital Hygiene is, this is what we recommend for not only your mental health, but your productivity, we care about your career with us. So we are totally fine with you not checking messages in real time. Treat messages and communications like laundry. Check every hour, but do it intentionally and do it quickly at the end of the hour, and then spend the hour actually going in and focusing, and getting the most out of yourself and the most out of your energy, conversing as much energy as you can and enhancing focus. So actually training and having a shared language as an organization.

Organizations like Google, Visa, as I mentioned, have a shared language around this. They know what a focus sprint is, so they put it in their calendar, their manager sees it. Their managers are also doing focus sprints. Everyone is doing them together. Sometimes teams will do focus sprints together, you can do one with a buddy, and you can have a little Zoom link and you can even get on remote and do focus sprints at the same time. And it can be a silent focus sprint where you just hold each other accountable, or it could be a joint one. But having it be a part of the DNA and the backbone of an organization is absolutely critical. But first, education, and then actual adoption.

Lucas Miller:

I see a question from John on, “Does your current type change over time? My kids sleep in till noon and my parents get up at 5:00 AM every day.” The answer is, yes, but again it’s nuance. Your chronotype is genetic, it’s set at birth. That said, there are shifts in your chronotype over time. Many babies, and toddlers, and young children tend to be on the AM-Shifted side of the spectrum. Teenagers, especially those in high school and college tend to be on the PM-Shifted side of the spectrum. And then right around 25, 26, that’s where you start to see a reversion back to your genetic norm. Which means, if you’re genetically AM-Shifted, when you’re a teenager you might stay up until midnight and wake up at 8:00 AM. It’s later than most AM-Shifted adults, but it’s still AM-Shifted compared to other teenagers who are staying up until 2:00 or 4:00 in the morning and are much later on the spectrum.

Dr. Sahar Yousef:

All right, I see some other questions here. Sonia’s asking, “Suggestions for group or team focus time if you work in many different time zones?” Yes, absolutely. Two suggestions. One, is to have time zone-specific focus time, that you’re recommending or at least encouraging people, “When you are in your peak performance window.” So let’s say, for example, you’re Bi-Phasic and you feel amazing 9:00 to 11:00 every day. Not every single day, but some of the days of the week, see if you can protect one hour in that peak performance window. So encouraging people at the individual level, “Whenever you are in your time zone, and whenever you are feeling at your best, see if you can protect maybe one hour, two hours, in your peak performance window because of the return that you get, the ROI that you get on that time.”

Tim is asking, “Do you have any science on persons with autism or SPD? Some need visual, physical, or audio input to help the mind focus. Any thoughts on this?” Absolutely. And I, a proponent of really seeing not only autism spectrum disorders, but including attention deficit as super powers. And neurodiversity is an amazing thing, and folks that are either on the autism spectrum, or on the attention deficit spectrum are absolutely many times amazing, super focusers. Those are the individuals that can many times focus for hours on end and get into amazing bouts of flow. So, two pieces of advice here. One, you may need a little bit of background stimulation to get yourself to focus, as Tim is mentioning in his question. If that is you, absolutely take advantage of a few things like light in addition to music. Always having music playing in the background. Get a standing desk so that you can sit up and down. A fidget spinner. Something to increase a little bit of baseline activity, to help yourself actually zone in and focus.

On the flip, you may be the type of individual that once you are in that state of focus, it’s very very dangerous to pull yourself out, because every single time you end up taking a break because people say, “Oh, it’s important to take a break every hour or so.” And we did say, “You’ve got to take a break,” yes. However, this is why neurodiversity is a super power. If you are on either the autism spectrum or you have attention deficit, many times you actually have a different hormonal profile and you’re capable of sitting down to focus for many many hours at a time, without dipping and crashing in energy. So I would say, “Take advantage of it.” Sometimes you can go into those bouts of flow and get more done in that few hours than most of us can get done in half a day or an entire day. So, lean into that, it’s an absolute super power.

So I would say in that case, do focus sprints for two, three hours at a time, but still scope. Scoping becomes absolutely critical if you have either attention deficit or if you’re on the autism spectrum. Scoping as in literally, what am I doing for the first 10 minutes? The following 10 minutes? And keep going throughout whatever it is that you’re trying to do, to keep yourself goal oriented and on tasks.

And on that, I think we’re up on time, but thank you all so much for your attention and feel free to get in touch with questions.


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