It’s an exciting time to work on the front lines of industries like transportation, robotics and genomics, where cutting-edge technology is making it possible to solve complex, societal problems.
Yet our focus on work often means we’re creating everyday problems for ourselves. In Silicon Valley and beyond, we have a tendency to push ourselves to the point where sleep, exercise and self-care become luxuries, dismissing any health concerns as sacrifices necessary to achieve our ambitions.
But we’re making a mistake. Peak performance isn’t just something for the tools we create and technology we invent. It’s critical that we take steps to ensure that our minds and bodies are functioning well. When we don’t, our ability to lead suffers—even if we aren’t aware that it is.
These issues have been top of mind for us at Mayfield lately. In fact, we think they’re so important that we made them the focus of a conference we hosted recently. There, we heard from experts in the field of human performance about the mistakes we’re making, and behaviors we can adopt to make us better leaders.
Among the key lessons:
Sleep, move, breathe
Late nights at the office and post-midnight emails may feel necessary for professional success. But over time, they chip away at our ability to make good decisions. And no amount of hard work can compensate if we pursue the wrong strategies.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain chemistry changes. We may not feel tired, but physiologically, we’re not capable of thinking as clearly. This is compounded by our diet—coffee throughout the day to stay awake, alcohol at night to help us fall asleep—and the sedentary nature of most office work.
The solutions are quite simple. Yes, we should sleep more, and getting at least seven hours a night is something we should all have as a goal. Short of that, we can compensate with a routine of deep breathing. Kelly Starrett, who has trained Navy Seals and Tour de France cyclists, says that breathing this way for 10 minutes a day can make the brain more prepared.
We can also stand more. Pacing in meetings or using a standing desk, for example, can increase our focus and make us more productive.
We should also aspire to spend less time on our phones. Our devices train us to be distracted. From checking email, texts to reading articles, we’re confronted with multiple communications and tons of information at the same time—different pieces of news, swiping through apps and flipping through social media posts.
Author and science reporter Catherine Price calls these mini distractions. And eventually, they impede our creativity. Our brains need space to connect ideas that might not initially seem related to one another. It’s a physical process that can’t be faked: Our brains create new proteins in order to absorb experiences and learnings, and then to draw connections between them. We can’t do it when we’re constantly distracted.
These days, some of us feel the constant need to check our notifications, whether it’s emails or social media. At the conference, Price shared tips with us on how to break up with our devices, in the name of alleviating anxiety and encouraging better phone etiquette, including deciding where you focus your attention, changing your lock screen, and checking your body posture.
At some point, Price argues, we all decided that it would be unacceptable and rude to show up to a meeting without clothes on. We should adopt the same standard for how we interact with devices when we’re around other people.
Be more thoughtful
Also at the conference, pediatrician and parenting expert Ronald Dahl shared his thoughts on how to be an effective guardian in a fast-changing world. His focus is on learning to thrive in areas we can’t yet predict.
Here, curiosity is an important tool, Dahl said. It can help a parent speak without judgment, and simply express interest in what his or her child is experiencing. Curiosity shows interest and engagement and is emotionally neutral.
The same thinking applies in the workplace. Taking a neutral approach that prioritizes engagement over judgment can also help us eliminate bias. Everything from how we define success to whom we label a genius comes with certain associations. The words on their own are not bias, but the variation of calling a woman “bossy” but a man “authoritative” is the beginning of what can lead to inequality.
Lori Mackenzie, a business management expert at Stanford University, reminded us that inclusion is not just about making people feel included. Rather, inclusion also means every person is recognized for his or her contributions, and they get opportunities based on those. Not feeling like their contribution is appreciated causes many women and people of color and different backgrounds to leave an organization.