Slow Down To Do More: “How To Help the Brain Slip into Alternate Mode” with Ashley Graber and Ellen

Slow Down To Do More: “How To Help the Brain Slip into Alternate Mode” with Ashley Graber and Ellen Petry Leanse

Even simple things like being in nature or doing a routine task (chopping vegetables is my favorite) or getting exercise allow the brain to slip into the “alternate mode” where it updates itself with new information. Simple tasks, or even taking time to space out, invite the brain to take the information we’ve been recently exposed to and map it to other pathways. We can’t slip into this important modality when we’re in “always on” mode.

As a part of my series about “How to Slow Down To Do More” I had the pleasure to interview Ellen Petry Leanse. Ellen brings decades of experience with high-impact companies like Apple, Google, and dozens of technology innovators to her work on leadership and life purpose. Today, as Chief People Officer of Lucidworks, she calls on her experience to guide culture, contribution, and success for her company. A respected speaker, coach, and author, she has taught at Stanford University and coached numerous executives and organizations on leadership. Her book, “The Happiness Hack,” offers easy, brain-aware ways to bring more focus, purpose, and satisfaction to everyday life.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey has been more “path” than “career.” It’s been a series of steps building upon an early interest in design, the serendipity of landing at Apple right out of college (in 1981 — a long time ago!), a long bout of entrepreneurship in and out of tech, and a return to full-time work at Google about 12 years ago. Since then I’ve focused on leadership and organizational dynamics. Psychology and neuroscience have been lifelong passions, and I use them as foundations of “humanizing” all we do at Lucidworks. The company is such a technology innovator, and it makes my role as Chief People Officer very exciting indeed.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

We’ve reached a pace that’s unsustainable. We humans are a “more more more” species and we have this orientation that whatever is working, we need to do more of. There’s a feeling in our culture that everyone is inadequate, and that “doing more” will solve that, especially for women. Expectations of women skew higher than the population as a whole and we are conditioned to prove, please, pretend, and protect. The good news is that there are signs of change. Women are becoming more realistic about what’s sustainable, and sharing the load more equally with their partners.

For both men and women, it can be easier to focus on checking off the little things rather than stepping back and addressing the bigger challenges — the things that matter. Couple that with the short-term reward cycles triggered by much of our technology and you can see why we all feel like we’re spinning so fast. It takes a lot of effort to break out of the frenzy that often seems to drive our lives.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

Remember that we live in a very different world than the one our species evolved to inhabit. The levels of noise, sensory bombardment, and constant frenzy we have to process is very different than that which we came to master all of those multi-millenia ago. When we’re exposed to threat or stress, the chemical and electrical patterns literally shift the parts of the brain that process information and can limit our ability to think rationally or objectively.

When we’re constantly being pushed to our max and rushing around endlessly, we take attention away from the things that really matter, including relationships and connections with other people. We also compromise our sense of personal contribution — doing the things that really mean something to us, because it’s all too easy to ignore those while we simply get stuff done. This limits our sense of mastery and personal growth. Yet these three things — relationships, contribution, and growth — are the very experiences that lead to life satisfaction. Attention we put towards staying in the frenzy takes us away from really matters, costing us productivity, health, and happiness in the long run.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

I hear all the time of people who only work. They don’t have hobbies or outside interests, or don’t even consider making time to have time to discover what non-work activities they’d enjoy. Needless to say they feel cut off, wondering “Is this really what my life is supposed to be about?” Ironically, feeling this way can actually reduce a person’s creativity and contribution at work.

We’re so busy doing more that we forget what matters to us, and this comes at a cost. When we “single track” with work and more work, we pay a cost in our ability to integrate, process, and grow from new types of experiences. When we’re constantly scrambling to get things done, we deny our brains — and ourselves — the opportunity to rise above the noise and figure things out at a level that actually matters. All of the hustle denies the brain its opportunity to integrate new information.

Even simple things like being in nature or doing a routine task (chopping vegetables is my favorite) or getting exercise allow the brain to slip into the “alternate mode” where it updates itself with new information. Simple tasks, or even taking time to space out, invite the brain to take the information we’ve been recently exposed to and map it to other pathways. We can’t slip into this important modality when we’re in “always on” mode.

If you’re not making time for these types of brain breaks, you’re limiting your capacity for learning. Even a 15 minute break from the daily frenzy can invite a worthwhile reset. You simply have to use that 15 minutes right: browsing your favorite shopping site or checking social media isn’t going to cut it. The whole point is to help your brain remember what it’s like to not always have one more thing to do — and we all know that tech is great at unendingly giving us one more thing to do.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I approach each week with three key things in mind to keep myself from feeling overwhelmed. Each one has their own strategy to keep me moving forward at a sustainable pace.

#1 — What are my key intentions in life?

These are the themes I want to shape my life and learning around for an extended period of time. This year I’m focused on health, sustainability, and commitment to core priorities. I remind myself of these three themes as I make decisions through the course of a day, and even as I plan longer-term. If a decision I’m considering doesn’t align with these intentions I generally choose not to proceed on it.

Use your own intentions as guidelines to set goals every morning: not simply “to dos” but thoughts or actions that point to your key priorities and intentions. Even if this goal-setting only changes 20 minutes of the day, I find that those 20 minutes can bring a whole lot of satisfaction.

#2 — Limit time spent starting at a screen.

I use my phone absolutely as seldom as possible; be in charge of it so it’s not in charge of me. I’m a big fan of taking a multi-hour break from any sort of screen at least once per week. Try this even once and you’ll realize how dependent we’ve become on the constant stimulation our technology gives us. With a bit of practice, that screen-free time often becomes the most satisfying and generative time of the week.

Be patient with yourself when you do get caught up in the frenzy. Try to balance constant flipping between Slack, Email, and Instagram with time to focus on what’s important — not simply what seems urgent. There is a big difference between the two.

#3 — Prioritize sleep.

So many people undervalue how important sleep is in our lives. Not only does it affect the way we think, it raises our stress levels in ways that have a lasting negative impact. Sleep allows us to create pathways for incoming information and map new inputs and experiences to important older ones. This, in a word, is how we learn — more on sleeping to learn here.

Use the last minutes before falling asleep to reflect on what you did during the past day that felt aligned with your true purpose or key intentions. Then bring to mind two or three things you want to remember the next day to help you continue on this path. Close your eyes, and drift off into dream world.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

Truthfully, I call it “re-mindfulness.” For me, it’s the process of remembering to pay attention to what’s actually happening in the moment, and then responding to it rather than reacting based on past stories or future assumptions. It’s a practice and a process that I have to remind myself of all the time.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

The brain — which I call “the ancient technology we use to navigate modern life” — is constantly mapping whatever is going on around you to past experiences and emotions. Left to itself it will simply do that to shape your perceptions of whatever is going on around you. Makes a ton of sense when it comes to surviving. Maybe less when it comes to, say, thriving. By learning to — and remembering to — pause the naturally occurring interpretations of the brain to whatever is going on around you, you can learn to be more objective and intentional in the moment.

The classic way to do this is with intentional breath, even one of them. A pause and a deep inhale can shift your perspective from what your brain would naturally map, reacting based on past experiences. It may free you to respond more objectively. We know well that certain reactions reduce the flow of oxygen to the parts of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. So breath is a great place to begin.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

The main thing is keeping my phone completely out of sight when I’m working. Research shows that even a glance at it changes our ability to focus for between six and 23 minutes. I also try to keep a plant or two on my desk. I can’t see much of the outdoors from my San Francisco office, so having a bit of green reconnects me to nature, even for a moment. Taking a short “microbreak” to look at plants turns out to improve concentration and ordered thinking.

One of my co-workers practices mindfulness by pausing every hour to simply focus on his hands. A minute of that and he feels “re-tuned” and ready to go back to work. Another sets a daily intention for HOW she wants to work — not simply what she wants to work on.

Another co-worker has a secondary career as a professional dancer. Her outside commitment requires her to make incredible use of her time in the office. I’ve also seen people do this with families, pets, and any sort of outside interest. Having something that matters beyond your work is a great way to practice mindfulness at work.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices?

I always look for new sources of inspiration and enjoy scanning through Thrive’s content (not sponsored, I promised), especially the well-being and wisdom sections. I also enjoy Krista Tippett’s On Being and the Brain Matters podcast.

Most of the books on my shelf are a nerdy combination of the neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and mindful leadership stuff that gets me excited. One of the more approachable books I’ve been reading recently and can recommend is Bring Your Whole Self To Work: How Vulnerability Unlocks Creativity, Connection, and Performance by Mike Robbins.

Yet I also make time beyond reading and podcast-listening to simply be in my body. When we learn to be in our bodies through doing yoga, dance, and exercise, we’re learning to get out of our heads. Believe it or not this can be a form of mindfulness. Learning to use our body to quiet the chatter in our heads is great training for quieting that noise in other settings.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It has to be “Think Different,” a quote Steve Jobs made famous in 1997. That phrase challenged me to get beyond the obvious and even the easy, and helped me trust the part of me that said “You don’t have to be like everyone else.” Looking back, hearing that quote set me on a course of asking why so many of us end up thinking the same — staying in our comfort zones and not reaching more of our potential. It’s a phrase that’s fueled my teaching, my writing, and hopefully the way I live my life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love your question! Thanks for asking. Again and again I hear wonderful stories from people who simply slow down and break the never-ending cycle of “busy.” Now, I know we can’t get away from “busy” entirely — we all feel it — yet even finding a few moments in the day to simply pause and be grateful? That can make a huge difference in our quality of life.

So many of us feel that our lives are overwhelming and unsustainable. I’m not going to disagree! Learning to simply pause helps us rebalance our perspective and reconnect with ourselves, as well as with others. Even something as small as eye contact in the morning coffee line can leave us feeling more present.

Matching presence with gratitude is a powerful combination. Once you take a moment to think of all of the things you have to be grateful for, it’s hard to stop. I often start with water — that’s right, simple drinking water, or cooking water, or even water to put on my little desk plants. Think about taking a shower… a luxury we completely forget to appreciate. In the long history of human life we are among the very few who have had access to water as effortlessly as most of us do. And yet we take it for granted since, for so many of us, it’s simply always been available.

Remembering how fortunate we are to simply be able to get water out of a faucet is, actually, a hugely mindful act. If all we did was simply take the time to appreciate that, I suspect that we’d all start to live in a bit of awe about so many other things. What an incredible movement that would start!

About the Author:

After 15 years working in Commercial Real Estate in New York City, Ashley Graber changed the coast she lived on and the direction of her life from Real Estate to the worlds of Psychology and Meditation & Mindfulness. Ashley came to these practices after getting sober and in the decade plus since, she now runs a busy mindfulness based psychotherapy practice at Yale Street Therapy in Santa Monica, CA where she see adults and children and speaks on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices.

Ashley is an Owner and Director of Curriculum for the next generation meditation app & mindfulness company ‘Evenflow’ and launched the company’s one to one online mindfulness mentoring program. Ashley also educates teachers and administrators in schools and presents in businesses across Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

Ashley was trained in Meditation and Mindfulness practices by prominent teachers; Elisha Goldstein, Richard Burr and Guiding teacher at Against the Stream Boston, Chris Crotty. Her Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) certification was done through The Center for Mindfulness at UC San Diego. Additionally, Ashley is trained by Mindful Schools to teach Meditation and Mindfulness practices to children and families. Ashley’s unique combination of psychotherapy, trauma reprocessing and meditation and mindfulness practices make her a sought after therapist and mindfulness educator and speaker. Her passion for the benefits of mindfulness practices as well as her enthusiasm for helping young kids and adults is the drive to teach these very necessary, life long skills and why she wrote and runs the Mindfulness for Families program at The Center for Mindful Living. This is where she teaches groups of families with children ages 6–12. Ashley was featured on Good Morning LaLa Land, presented on Resilience at the renowned Wisdom. 2.0 Mindfulness & Technology conference, and presented at the TED Woman conference offering an in-depth look at the profound psychological and physiological consequences of chronic stress, and how meditation and mindfulness practices can alleviate these effects.


Slow Down To Do More: “How To Help the Brain Slip into Alternate Mode” with Ashley Graber and Ellen was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.