David Burkus: The One Thing Remote Leaders Need to Know

David Burkus: The One Thing Remote Leaders Need to Know

David Burkus is a speaker, business thought-leader, professor, and best-selling author. His TedX talk, “Why You Should Know How Much your Coworkers Get Paid” has been viewed over 2 million times. He teaches courses on organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, and strategic leadership at Oral Roberts University where is an associate professor. He writes regularly for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Psychology Today. I recently interviewed David about his new book, Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?

David Burkus: To some extent, all of my work thus far has been focused on using psychology to help individuals and teams do their best work. And the past year has put up some big roadblocks for most people to do that best work. One of the big ones has been the forced work-from-home experiment millions of people have been living (and working) through. At the same time, this shift in the way we’re working, and collaborating isn’t new…just the scale of it is. Remote teams have been around for a long time. At the same time, a new reality has set in that, whenever it’s safe to bring everyone back to the office, we’re not all going to come back.

At least not all of us, and not all of the time.

The future of work is working from anywhere, and so leaders need to develop the skills to lead from anywhere.

And that’s the real goal of the book. To distill the best research on virtual or remote teams and the habits and behaviors of companies that have been remote for a long time and offer something to the millions of newly-remote leaders—because even when the pandemic is “over” they’ll likely still have a significant number of remote teammates.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

DB: Before the pandemic, we mostly assumed that remote work meant a lighter workload. We would joke that “work from home” was synonymous with “not working.” There was even a well-documented stigma against many employees (particularly women) who requested workplace flexibility as being less committed employees. (Nir’s note: see NYT article)

But the truth is, in almost every study conducted, remote workers work harder than office-based ones. They tend to start their work day when others start their commute and keep working until others would just be arriving back at home. They are also more likely to respond on nights and weekends. In fact, the biggest struggle for most remote employees is working too much and burning out quickly.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others

DB: In line with the above, the biggest challenge for remote workers is working too hard and not drawing boundaries between their work life and real life. That doesn’t mean you should go back to working only Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. But it does mean recognizing that the rhythm of office life created some useful boundaries. And that maybe you need to build new boundaries between the two modes of working and not working.

These boundaries also help with the opposite challenge as well, keeping distractions at bay. When your work hours are sufficiently defined, and you’re in the proper state of mind to focus on work, it’s a lot harder to get distracted. Not impossible, but those outside distractors have to climb a much higher wall.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

DB: I actually tried a little different tactic this time than while writing all of my other books, and partly because I wrote the entire book in about three months. I met up virtually with two writer friends of mine every weekday morning for a “work sprint.” We signed onto Zoom at 11 AM, talked about what we were working on, and then got to work by 11:05—leaving the cameras on but muting our microphones. It was like having an accountability partner in the room. And then about 30-45 minutes later (over time we could focus for longer) we’d take a break and chat for a few more minutes before diving in for a second sprint.

The combination of structured, focused time and scheduled breaks made it easier to stay focused. And, because I wrote this book while my kids were also home from school, the idea that Dad had a “can’t miss” conference call every morning made it easier to break away from the rest of the house.

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

DB: I actually found that one of the ways I could build better boundaries and stay focused was with more devices in my life, not less. I know. It sounds crazy; let me explain. I have two main devices: a smartphone and a tablet. But what’s on those two devices is very different. The smartphone is the work device, with email, Dropbox, and “professional” social media like my LinkedIn and Twitter. The tablet only has my private Facebook account and media apps like Netflix and Kindle. At the end of a work day, I walk to the charging station we have in our house and switch from my work device to my life device. (Though I hate referring to any piece of tech as my “life device.”) I could always walk back through the house and grab my smartphone to get lost in my email after work…but that little bit of friction makes it a lot less likely that I do.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?

DB: Before the pandemic, many people had to build the rest of their life around the working hours (and location) demanded by their organization. You put work at the center of your calendar and squeezed life into the margins. Now, many people have built a much more enjoyable life by rebuilding their calendar from scratch based on their real priorities. It was difficult, for sure, but now a lot of people are finding it was worthwhile.

If you haven’t yet, now is the time. And if you have, and you lead a team, now is the time to understand how everyone on your team is building their best life…so you can help them. If you do, then everyone on the team will be able to do their best work.

Email Management: How to Hack Back and Cure Inbox Insanity

Email Management: How to Hack Back and Cure Inbox Insanity

Email is the scourge of the modern workplace. Here are four rules that can help keep it in check.

Email is the curse of the modern worker. Some basic math reveals just how big the problem is. The average office-dwelling professional receives a hundred messages per day. At just two minutes per email, that adds up to three hours and twenty minutes per day. If an average workday is nine to five minus an hour for lunch, then email eats up nearly half the day.

Realistically, though, that’s a very conservative estimate, since those three hours and twenty minutes don’t include the wasted time needed to get back on task between checking emails. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Information Management found office workers took an average of sixty-four seconds after checking email to reorient themselves and get back to work. Given the hundreds of times per day we check our devices, those minutes can add up.

Lest you think email time is well spent, researchers writing in the Harvard Business Review have concluded that an astonishing number of workplace emails are an utter waste. When it comes to the hours managers spend on email, they estimate that “25 percent of that time is consumed reading emails that should not have been sent to that particular manager and 25 percent is spent responding to emails that the manager should never have answered.” In other words, about half the time we spend on email is as productive as counting cracks in the ceiling.

Why is email such a persistent problem? The answer can be found in understanding our psychology. Email is perhaps the mother of all habit-forming products. For one thing, it provides a variable reward. As the psychologist B. F. Skinner famously discovered, pigeons pecked at levers more often when given a reward on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Similarly, email’s uncertainty keeps us checking and pecking. It provides good news and bad, exciting information as well as frivolity, messages from our closest loved ones and from anonymous strangers. All that uncertainty provides a powerful draw to see what we might find when we next check our inboxes. As a result, we keep clicking or pulling to refresh in a never-ending effort to quell the discomfort of anticipation.

Second, we have a strong tendency for reciprocity — responding in kind to the actions of another. When someone says “Hello” or extends their hand to shake our own, we feel the urge to reciprocate — not doing so breaks a strong social norm and feels cold. Though the grace of reciprocity works well in person, it can lead to a host of problems online.

Finally, and perhaps most materially, email is a tool we have little choice but to use. For most of us, our jobs depend on it, and it is so woven into our daily work and personal lives that giving it up would be a threat to our livelihoods. Email is a central concern in many of my articles on productivity and time management.

However, like many things in life that take more time and attention than we’d like, we can get email under control. There are techniques we can deploy as part of our working routines to defuse the unhealthy magnetism of email. Let’s focus on a few techniques that deliver the best results with the least effort.

The amount of time we spend on email can be boiled down to an equation. The total time spent on email per day (T) is a function of the number of messages received (n) multiplied by the average time (t) spent on each message, so T = n × t. I like to remember “TNT” to remind me how email can blow up a well-planned day.

To reduce the total amount of time we spend on email per day, we need to address both the n and t variables. Let’s first explore ways to reduce n, the total number of messages received.

To receive fewer emails, we must send fewer emails.

It seems obvious, but most of us don’t act in accordance with this basic fact. So strong is our need to reciprocate that we reply to messages moments after they’re received — nights, weekends, holidays, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Most emails we send and receive are not urgent. Yet our brain’s weakness for variable rewards makes us treat every message, regardless of form, as if it’s time sensitive. That tendency conditions us to check constantly, return replies, and bark out whatever requests come to mind instantaneously. These are all mistakes.

cat typing emails

Open up office hours.

In my case, I receive dozens of emails every day asking to discuss something related to my books or articles. I love talking with my readers, but if I responded to each email, I wouldn’t have time for anything else. Instead, to reduce the number of emails I send and receive, I schedule “office hours.” Readers can book a fifteen-minute time slot with me on my website here.

Next time you receive a non urgent question over email, try replying with something like, “I’ve held some time on Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00 to 5:00 pm. If this is still a concern then, please stop by and let’s discuss this further.” You can even set up an online scheduling tool like mine to let people book a slot.

You’d be amazed how many things become irrelevant when you give them a little time to breathe.

By asking the other party to wait, you’ve given them the chance to come up with an answer for themselves — or, as is often the case, time for the problem to just disappear under the weight of some other priority.

woman asking to just wait a minute

But what if the sender still needs to discuss the question and can’t figure out the problem for themselves? All the better! Difficult questions are better handled in person than over email, where there is more risk of misunderstandings. The bottom line is that asking people to discuss complex matters during regular office hours will lead to better communication and fewer emails.

Slow down and delay delivery.

Following the maxim that the key to receiving fewer emails is sending fewer emails, it’s worth considering how we can slow down the email ping-pong game by sending emails well after you write them. After all, who made the rule that every email needs to be sent as soon as you’re done writing it?

Thankfully, technology can help. Instead of banging out a reply and hitting send right away, email programs like Microsoft Office and tools like Mixmax for Gmail allow us to delay a message’s delivery. Whenever I reply to an email, I ask myself, “When’s the latest this person needs to see this reply?”

By clicking just one extra button before sending, the email goes out of my inbox and off my plate but is held back from being delivered to the recipient until the predetermined time I selected. Thus, fewer emails sent per day results in fewer emails sent back per day.

Not only does delaying delivery allow time for the matter to resolve through other means, it also makes it less likely I’ll receive emails when I don’t want them. For example, while you might enjoy clearing out your inbox on a Friday afternoon, delaying delivery until Monday prevents you from stressing out your coworkers and helps protect your weekend from relaxation-killing replies.

Eliminate unwanted messages.

Finally, there’s one more highly effective method for reducing inbound emails. Every day, we’re targeted by an endless torrent of spam, marketing emails, and newsletters. Some are helpful, but most are not.

How do we stop email messages we never want to hear from again? If the email is a newsletter you signed up for in the past but no longer find useful, the best thing you can do is hit the Unsubscribe button at the bottom of the email. As someone who writes such a newsletter, I can tell you that we newsletter writers want you to unsubscribe if you are no longer interested. We pay email service providers per email address on our list, so we prefer to send only to those who find them useful.

However, some spammy marketers make it hard to find the Unsubscribe button, or might even stubbornly keep sending you emails even after you’ve unsubscribed. For such cases, I recommend sending them into then “black hole.” I use SaneBox, a simple program that runs in the background as I use email. Whenever I encounter an email I absolutely never want to hear from again, I click a button to send that sender’s email to my SaneBlackHole folder.

Once there, SaneBox’s software ensures I’ll never hear from that sender again.

Of course, managing unwanted email messages takes time, but by reducing the likelihood of unwanted messages creeping into your inbox, you’ll see the number dwindle to a trickle instead of a torrent.

Now that we’ve covered ways to reduce the number of emails we receive (the n in our equation), let’s transition to the second variable — t, the amount of time we spend writing emails.

There’s mounting evidence that processing your email in batches is much more efficient and less stress-inducing than checking it throughout the day.

This is because our brains take time to switch between tasks, so it’s better to focus on answering emails all at once. I know what you’re thinking — you can’t wait all day to check email. I understand. I too need to check my inbox to make sure there’s nothing truly urgent.

Checking email isn’t so much the problem; it’s the habitual rechecking that gets us into trouble.

See if this sounds familiar: An icon tells you that you have an email, so you click and scroll through your inbox. While there, you read message after message to see if anything requires an immediate reply, leaving anything that doesn’t for another time. Later in the day, you open your inbox and, forgetting precisely what was in the messages you read earlier, you reopen them. But you don’t have time to respond to them all. Later that evening, you go through the emails again. If you’re anything like I used to be, you might reopen some messages an embarrassing number of times. What a waste!

graphic image of two arcade game players playing ping pong match

Use tags the right way.

We tend to believe that the most important thing about an email is its content, but that’s not exactly right. The most important aspect of an email, from a time management perspective, is how urgently it needs a reply. Because we forget when the sender needs a reply, we waste time rereading the message.

The solution to this mania is simple: only touch each email twice. The first time we open an email, before closing it, answer this question: When does this email require a response? Tagging each email as either “Today” or “This Week” attaches the most important information to each new message, preparing it for the second (and last) time we open it. Of course, for super-urgent, email-me-right-now-type messages, go ahead and respond. Messages that don’t need a response at all should be deleted or archived immediately.

Note that I’m not telling you to tag emails by topic or categories, only by when the message requires a response. Tagging emails in this way frees your mind from distraction because you know you’ll reply during the time you’ve specifically allocated for this purpose in your timeboxed schedule.

In my case, I give my inbox a quick perusal before my morning coffee. Tagging each new email by when it requires a reply takes no more than ten minutes. It gives me peace of mind to know nothing will fall through the cracks. I can leave those messages alone and do focused work until it’s time to reply.

My daily schedule includes dedicated time for replying to emails I’ve tagged “Today.” It’s much quicker to respond to the urgent messages than to have to wade through all my emails to figure out which need a response by the end of the day. In addition, I reserve a three-hour timebox each week to plow through the less urgent messages I’ve tagged “This Week.” Finally, at the end of my week, I review my schedule to assess whether the time on my calendar for emailing was sufficient and adjust my timeboxed schedule for the week ahead.

Why not quickly type out a response when you first open a message? Taking two minutes to reply to an email on your phone doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize that with the hundreds of messages we receive per day, those two minutes can quickly add up. Soon, two minutes turn into ten, fifteen, or sixty, and you’ve wasted your day frantically banging out replies instead of focusing on what you really want to achieve.

Slaying the messaging monster requires a host of weapons to hack back this persistent source of distraction, but by experimenting with these proven techniques, we can rein in the triggers that take us off track.

Remember this:

  • Break down the problem. Time spent on email (T) is a function of the number of messages received (n) multiplied by the average time (t) spent per message: T = n × t.
  • Reduce the number of messages received. Schedule office hours, delay when messages are sent, and reduce time-wasting messages from reaching your inbox.
  • Spend less time on each message. Label emails by when each message needs a response. Reply to emails during a scheduled time on your calendar.
This article also appeared on Medium.
What You Need to Know When Visualizing Your Goals

What You Need to Know When Visualizing Your Goals

Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Dr. Todd Snyder. Dr. Snyder is a Psychologist and Productivity Coach at ToddSnyderCoaching.com

The world is full of self-help myths and half-truths. One bit of folk psychology that won’t seem to die is the idea that we can “visualize” our path to success by imagining the life we want. In fact, studies find visualizing our personal goals as if we’ve already achieved them can hurt our chances of ever making them a reality.

While visualizing the wrong thing tends to make us less likely to achieve our goals, researchers believe visualizing the right thing in the right way, can increase our odds of success. Keep reading to learn a simple, yet powerful research-backed way to achieve even your loftiest goals.

The (Dubious) Power of Your Subconscious Mind

In 1963, Joseph Murphy wrote a book titled, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. I was sixteen years old when I first read it, facing a low point in my life while trying to adjust to a new high school. I liked the message I found in those pages.

Sitting alone in my bedroom, I was comforted by the thought that I could change anything in my life simply by imagining the outcome I desired. In Murphy’s words,

“The feeling of health produces health; the feeling of wealth produces wealth. How do you feel? Imagination is your most powerful faculty. Imagine what is lovely and of good report. You are what you imagine yourself to be. You avoid conflict between your conscious and subconscious in the sleepy state. Imagine the fulfillment of your desire over and over again prior to sleep.”

So that’s what I did. I imagined the fulfillment of my desires over and over again. But there was one nagging doubt in the back of my mind. There was a missing link. I read claims that my thoughts could change reality, but no one explained how that could happen.

The Missing Link

How could my imagination change events in the physical world? What could possibly be the mechanism of action? Maybe it was just wishful thinking.

This doubt bothered me, but not enough to dissuade my interest. I continued reading book after book by authors with similar claims. Each of the books was replete with anecdotes of people who claimed visualization as one of the keys to their success.

However, recent research reveals that visualizing your goals as if you have already accomplished them may actually be a bad idea.

According to researchers at New York University, visualizing a goal creates an emotion similar to having already accomplished it. The researchers believe this may de-motivate you to actually do the hard work since it temporarily provides the positive sensation you seek.

One study found positive fantasies about idealized futures actually sapped people’s motivation.1Kappes, H., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 719–729. It was as if the drive to achieve the goal decreased when people visualized having already achieved it.

Other researchers have found that repeating positive affirmations about oneself does not boost self-esteem, and actually lowers it for people who had below average self-esteem to begin with.2 Wood, J. V., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–866.

Still, I wanted to believe there was something powerful about visualizing goals. I poured myself into the research hoping to find reasonable evidence, or at least a good hypothesis about how the imagination could create changes in our physical reality.

Visualizing the Process, Not the Outcome

As I began my graduate studies in clinical psychology, I became increasingly interested in motivation and the active ingredients of behavior change. I wanted to know why some people take massive action to create the lives they want while others consistently make choices they later regret.

I stumbled across a body of research you might call “the psychology of action.” I’d like to share a key finding that has emerged within that field of inquiry.

Shelley Taylor and Lien Pham, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, divided a large group of college students into two experimental groups.3 Pham, L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), … Continue reading One group was asked to visualize themselves walking up to a board where their grades on a final exam would be listed. They were asked to visualize an “A” grade by their name. They repeated this procedure several times in the weeks leading up to the exam.

The other group was asked to create a different mental simulation. They were asked to imagine the process of studying for the exam. They were told to imagine going to their dorm room, closing the door, and turning off distractions. Then, they were asked to imagine themselves putting in the time to study for the exam.

Can you guess which group performed better on the real life exam?

It was the group that visualized the process of studying rather than visualizing the outcome of the goal. Researchers concluded that the mind becomes primed to follow through on the things we visualize. Like an athlete practicing a jump shot in their mind, we can mentally rehearse our future behaviors. Visualizing an action leads to following through on that action. And it’s our actions that get results.

Picture a Fork

Your actions, not your daydreams, determine whether you achieve your goals. So here’s the trick when using visualization to influence your future behaviors — visualize choice points.

A choice point is a fork in the road. Choice points are the moments in time when your actions will either lead you toward your goal or away from it. As Nir Eyal describes in his book, Indistractable, “the opposite of distraction is traction.” By visualizing the choice you will have to make between what you want to do, “traction,” and anything that takes you off track, “distraction,” you prime yourself to make the right choice when the time comes.

Let’s look at an example. Trying to lose weight? Don’t visualize yourself waking up to a slim physique and enjoying just how good it feels to show off your body. Instead, visualize the choice point you’ll face at a dinner party tomorrow night when the host offers you a dessert. Mentally rehearse the act of politely declining the dessert by deciding what you will do and say in advance.

Stay on Track With Mental Contrasting

Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University, calls this “mental contrasting”.4 Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behaviour change. European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 1-63 Decades of research has led her to the conclusion that visualizing the decision making process and its various positive and negative impacts on achievement creates a self-regulating phenomenon, allowing a person to execute the correct choices in real life—leading them to the ultimate goal.

Your focus should be on visualizing the actions you will take to make your desired goal a reality. Don’t visualize the outcome. Instead, visualize the path that will lead you there and the steps you need to take along that path.

A 2019 meta-analysis that examined the results of over a thousand research studies found the effects of mental contrasting on health outcomes can be seen within four weeks. The study suggested the effects get stronger over time.5Cross, A. & Sheffield, D. (2019) Mental contrasting for health behaviour change: a systematic review and meta-analysis of effects and moderator variables, Health Psychology Review, 13:2, 209-225. That’s impressive, given the high failure rate of most behavioral interventions when it comes to creating sustainable change.

Now that I understand the active ingredients that make visualization work, I use it on a daily basis. I visualize the choice points I’m likely to face and how I plan to respond. I proactively define “traction” and “distraction” when I know I’ll be tempted to slip off track. By visualizing the path that will lead to my goals, I’m more likely to live the life I envision.


This is How to Repair a Toxic Work Culture

This is How to Repair a Toxic Work Culture

When Harvard’s Leslie Perlow began to study The Boston Consulting Group, she was well aware of the firm’s round-the-clock reputation. After conducting interviews with BCG’s staff, Perlow found that this reputation was coming at a major cost.

Employees were leaving the elite consulting firm, in part because they lacked control over their schedules. To address the issue, Perlow offered a simple proposition: If everyone who worked at BCG hated the always-on lifestyle, why not try to give consultants at least a “single predictable night off a week”? This would give people time away from phone calls and email notifications and allow them to make plans without the fear of being pulled back into work.

Perlow ran the idea by George Martin, the managing partner of BCG’s Boston office. He told her to keep her hands off his team. He gave her permission to “wander around the office” and look for “another partner who might be willing.”

Perlow found a young partner named Doug who had two small children at home and a third on the way. Doug was struggling to balance his own work life and agreed to let his team serve as guinea pigs in Perlow’s experiment. Starting with Doug and the people he managed, Perlow began to study how the team found a way to let everyone unplug from the job.

First, Perlow confirmed that one night off per week was a universally desired goal for everyone on the team. After hearing a resounding “Yes!” the team was left to figure out exactly how they would achieve that goal. The team met regularly to discuss roadblocks that were preventing them from achieving the “one night off” mission and came up with practices they’d need to incorporate to make it happen.

For years, BCG consultants had heard countless reasons why they had to be accessible at all hours. “We’re in the service business,” “We work across time zones,” and “What if a client needs us?” were common responses. However, once they had an opportunity to openly discuss the problem, Doug’s team discovered there were many simple solutions. A common workplace dilemma often dismissed as “the way things had to be” could be addressed if people had a safe space to talk about the issue.

The meetings yielded far greater benefits than Perlow had expected. Participants began to address topics well beyond how to disconnect for one night a week. Discussing predictable time off “made it okay for people to speak openly,” which, in Perlow’s words, “was a big deal.”

“There was no taboo,” one consultant said. “You could talk about anything.” The senior members of the team “did not always agree, but it was okay to bring anything up.” Managers also found a venue to explain their objectives, items that had previously been brushed aside when things got busy. And team members felt more empowered now that they had a clearer vision of how they work related to broader goals.

Distraction is a Sign of Dysfunction

Embracing Perlow’s challenge helped the team reconsider why they couldn’t disconnect from work. Rather than blaming technology for their problems, the teams reflected on the reasons behind its overuse.

What began as a challenge to find a way to let members of one team disconnect one night per week profoundly changed the working culture at BCG. Today, teams throughout the firm (including George Martin’s Boston office) conduct regular meetings to ensure everyone has time to disconnect. More importantly, these meetings create a safe space for dialogue about all sorts of issues, increasing employees’ sense of control and improving job satisfaction and staff retention.

The Secret to Great Workplace Culture

Companies often confuse the disease of bad culture with symptoms like tech overuse and high employee turnover. Treating these symptoms often involves examining and addressing how teams work together.

Google recently set out to understand the drivers of employee retention and positive team outcomes. The search giant announced the results of a two-year study to understand, once and for all, the answer to the question, “What makes a Google team effective?”

Heading into the study, the research team was fairly confident of what they would find: That teams are most effective when they are composed of great people. As Julia Rozovsky, a researcher on the project, wrote:

Take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right? We were dead wrong.

What did they actually discover? The individuals on a team matter less than how those team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.

The Antidote to a Toxic Work Culture

The researchers found “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart,” including dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. However, “far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found … the underpinning of the other four,” was something called “psychological safety.” Rozovsky continued:

Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

The term “psychological safety” was coined by Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard. Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Speaking up sounds easy, but if you don’t feel psychological safety you’ll keep your concerns and ideas to yourself. Rozovsky continues:

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles.

Psychological safety is the antidote to unhealthy work environments and a toxic work culture. It’s also the magic ingredient BCG discovered when they began regular meetings to give employees predictable time off.

How does a team, or a company, create psychological safety? Edmondson provides a three-step answer in her TEDx talk:

Step 1: “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.” Because the future is uncertain, emphasize that “we’ve got to have everyone’s brains and voices in the game,” says Edmonson.

Step 2: “Acknowledge your own fallibility.” Managers need to let people know that no one has all the answers—that we’re in this together.

Step 3: Finally, Edmondson suggests that leaders must, “Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.”

Edmondson insists that organizations—particularly those operating in conditions of high uncertainty and interdependence among team members—need to keep motivation levels and psychological safety in good working order, a state she calls the “learning zone.” When teams are in the learning zone, they perform at their best and air concerns without fear of being attacked or fired. They can solve problems, like tech overuse and distraction, without being judged as unwilling to carry their share.
Note: This essay is adapted from Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal. This article also appeared on LinkedIn WEEKEND Essay.
How to Master Hard Skills Quickly with “Ultralearning”

How to Master Hard Skills Quickly with “Ultralearning”

Scott Young is an “ultralearner.” He’s known for learning M.I.T.’s grueling 4-year computer science curriculum in just twelve months. He speaks six languages. In fact, he’s presented his lecturers to audiences in Chinese.

It’s fitting that Scott is also the author of the recently published Wall Street Journal bestseller, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition and Accelerate Your Career. The book digs into the science and strategies behind amazing feats of mastery and learning. Ultralearning argues why being able to quickly master hard things is an essential skill and shows you exactly how to do it.

I met with Scott to discuss his book, as well as the role habits and distractions, play in supporting or impeding our learning.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?
Scott Young: This book has been the obsession of pretty much my entire adult life. The process of getting good at things fascinates me endlessly, and I think this is a message that’s particularly relevant now. School is unaffordable and inflexible. Many of the skills we need to learn are difficult to teach in normal classes. At the same time, being really good at difficult things is increasingly valuable. The confluence of all these things means that those who can teach themselves hard skills will thrive, and those who can’t will struggle.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

SY: Quite a few things! First, that the actual academic research on feedback shows it can often backfire. Getting the right kind of feedback, and knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore is critical.

Second, that people are lousy at transferring what they learn from books and classes to real situations. Study after study shows that you can spend months (or years) teaching someone a skill and then they fail to apply it in the real world. This is particularly dangerous because if you go back to get an MBA, attend a pricey conference or read a ton of business books—you don’t want that money and effort to go to waste.

Finally, that we’re often wrong about what matters for learning well. Studies on retrieval show that recall beats passive review by a mile, but when given the chance to choose how to study, people often don’t pick it. We think we understand things we really don’t. We think we’ll remember something but then forget it almost immediately. Without knowing this research, I think a lot of people would be surprised at how often their intuitions about learning lead them astray.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

SY: The biggest lesson is the idea of directness. This is that you ought to ask yourself, before learning anything, “in what kinds of situations will I need to use this knowledge?” and then try to create practice activities that are the same or mirror the thing you’re trying to get good at. Too much learning is indirect and fails to transfer to the real world.

The second lesson is that it’s really possible to teach yourself hard things, with the right approach. Choosing the right method to learn something can make all the difference between success and failure, and yet we usually attribute this to raw talent.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

SY: Wake up and start writing first thing. I went to a coffee shop nearby to get writing. Like you talk about in your book, I found the problem wasn’t literal distractions but my own inability to push through the difficult aspects of writing. Being in an environment where I can’t legitimately claim to be working on something else made that easier for me.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
SY: The brain is not a muscle. Most people think of learning like lifting weights—you learn a lot and you get stronger. The truth is that most learning is remarkably specific, and often welded to the situations you start learning them in. Flexibility and transfer are possible but much harder than most people expect, and usually the result of learning many specific things rather than a simple rule.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
SY: My best habit is to invest in a system to keep track of your tasks and your time. Nothing is worse than trying to remember what you need to do and what you ought to work on.
NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?
SY: Right now I’m working on improving my eating habits. I like red-line rules which are easy to maintain perpetually, but I haven’t been as keen on some of the more common approaches to eating that are like that (paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting, etc.) so I’m working on creating my own rules that fit my life, but I’m still experimenting with what works best.
NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
SY: I like the app DONE which I use for tracking daily habits.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?
SY: Learning impacts every part of your life, long after you’ve left school. It determines how good you are at your job, your ability to lead a team, your ability to innovate, produce and excel. Knowing how to learn, and more importantly, having a system for doing it repeatedly and efficiently, is the most valuable skill you can cultivate in our modern age.