If you're feeling less productive and focused than usual right now, it's not your fault. Neuroscience shows that the part of the brain that helps you focus actually shuts down in times of ongoing stress and uncertainty. The good news? Neuroscience also shows that you can course-correct in just 60 seconds by focusing on the rising and falling of your breath. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your cortisol levels and your stress. It's one example of a microstep--a small, science-backed action you can take immediately to start building habits that will significantly improve your life. My new book, Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-Being, and Unlock Your Full Potential With the New Science of Microsteps, is full of them.
Making big, dramatic life changes can feel hopelessly daunting. That's why the unit of change in our approach isn't the giant leap--it's the microstep, an incremental mindset and behavior shift. No matter how busy you are, whether you're running a business, launching a startup, or simply trying to show up as your best self personally and professionally, Microsteps can help. Here are some of my favorites.
Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices--and gently escort them out of your bedroom.
As study after study affirms the connection between sleep and performance, more and more results-driven leaders in every profession are talking about sleep as a superpower. Jeff Bezos says that when he prioritizes getting eight hours of sleep, it makes a big difference. "If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra 'productive' hours, but that productivity might be an illusion," he told Thrive Global. "When you're talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity."
Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep--to-do lists, inboxes, ongoing projects, and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world before bedtime will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.
When your stress levels rise, double down on healthy habits.
Sleep, exercise, nutrition, and even time with loved ones are too often written off as things that can--and must--be sacrificed on the way to success. In fact, when you take time to recharge, you'll return ready to seize opportunities. That means setting boundaries, like ending your work day at a reasonable time even if you haven't completed everything.
During a particularly stressful time at work, Deborah Platt Majoras, chief legal officer at Procter & Gamble, doubled down on her healthy habits, resisting the temptation to go in the other direction. "In the past, I might have said that I felt so tired and miserable that I 'deserved' to eat a bag of Goldfish crackers and drink more wine and skip working out," she told Thrive. "This time I pushed myself to think about 'deserving' good, healthy foods and physical movement throughout my day, which were the things that really make me feel better." And despite the proliferation of late-night emails, she committed to getting enough sleep. "News flash: No calamity occurred because I went to bed at 10 p.m."
Block off time for focused work each day, ideally in the morning.
A report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that only 39 percent of our day is spent doing task-specific work. The rest is spent on email, tracking down information, tracking down colleagues, and all the other busywork black holes that suck up our time and attention. And multitasking isn't the answer. In reality, as studies have shown, multitasking usually means doing a suboptimal job on two things at once.
Instead, set a calendar reminder and ask your colleagues not to interrupt you during your focus time. Researchers have suggested that 75 to 120 minutes is optimal for productivity, but if that's too ambitious, even 30 minutes will make a difference.
Even the most generous estimates show that half of us fail to keep our New Year's resolutions. That's because most of us start off too big. We decide to launch into a whole new lifestyle all at once. But as the science makes clear, you don't need to turn your life upside down to make meaningful changes. There's nothing wrong with aiming big--but you can get there by starting small.