Several years ago Arianna Huffington—celebrated author, political activist and cofounder of the Huffington Post—literally collapsed at her desk, a victim of overwork and exhaustion. From this harrowing experience of burnout, she started to examine how to redirect her life so she could combine hard work and a healthy lifestyle.
In this episode of What’s Ahead we talk about Huffington’s decision to leave the Huffington Post and launch Thrive Global, a company whose purpose is to help people avoid burning out through a series of easy-to-adhere-to “microsteps.” Thrive has a number of corporate clients such as Walmart.
Stress itself is unavoidable, but absolutely avoidable is letting it reach levels that lead to burnout. Crucial to alleviating stress is learning to get adequate amounts of sleep—seven to nine hours every night. Huffington dispels the myth that a lack of sleep shows you’re high-powered and committed to success. Studies show that lack of sleep makes you less effective and harms your judgment. One critical antidote to not getting enough sleep is to break the destructive habit of sleeping with your cellphone on your bedside table. (Thrive even offers a little bed in which you can tuck in your phone for the night in another room!)
This is a must-listen-to conversation in a new year that’s already filled with plenty of stress and anxiety.
Stepping stone to success
“My life after 2007 was by no means just a series of successes. There were plenty of failures along the way. And I say that, Steve, because I feel that once people succeed, people bury their failures. And I think it’s important for successful people to talk about their failures, because it encourages others to take risks. As my mother used to say, ‘Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success.’”
Behavioral change is hard
“I decided to leave the Huffington Post and launch Thrive because I wanted not just to raise awareness, which I could have continued doing through a media company, but I wanted to help people change behavior, which I couldn’t do through a media company. And that’s why we started immediately building a product — an app, a platform — that could help people go from where they are to where they want to be. And as you know, Steve, behavior change is extremely hard, and we cannot depend on willpower alone. So we brought together the power of microsteps, science-based microsteps that we call “too small to fail,” literally breaking down new behaviors into the smallest possible components and beginning to build a success muscle around them, and then bringing the power of storytelling because you have to touch the heart and not just the mind to achieve behavior change…. We’ve known for a long time that chronic diseases, 75% of them are the result of lifestyle choices and behavioral choices that people have a very hard time changing. I mean, when you see the skyrocketing increases in diabetes or hypertension, the connection between ‘What are we eating, how much sugar and processed foods, how much are we sleeping, how much are we moving?’ and these diseases has not been made super clear. And even when it’s made clear, people have a hard time changing. So that’s been the motivation behind launching a company focused entirely on behavior change.”
Sleep isn’t overrated
“Sleep is one of the journeys in our product, and it’s a foundational journey. And as a culture, we are kind of rediscovering the importance of sleep…. What matters is what happens chronically. Right now with Covid, with the political turmoil, people have a particularly hard time sleeping. In fact, even a new term has been coined, ‘coronasomnia.’ And we have a lot of microsteps to deal with that. And the most important microstep is to pick a time at the end of the day, when you declare an end to your working day. That means an end to answering emails and texts, and to scrolling through social media or even Forbes.com for news, and declare it an end. And I said, declare it an end, because the truth, Steve, is there is no end. Like, each one of us could spend the entire night handling things or doom scrolling, as it’s called, or bingeing on Netflix. There are endless distractions. And as Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist philosopher said, ‘It has never been easier to run away from ourselves.’ It takes a lot of planning to make sure you don’t run away from yourself, and that starts with the microstep of turning off your phone and charging it outside your bedroom.”
SF: “That gets to one of the other things you emphasize, and that is the importance of breathing. That it’s only a matter of seconds or a minute, but you can use it to make those crucial pauses during the day that allow you to refresh and not let the stress accumulate more than it should. Walk us through that.”
AH: “Exactly. This is the feature called ‘Reset,’ which is based on the latest neuroscience that shows that while stress is unavoidable, cumulative stress is avoidable. And it is cumulative stress that’s the killer, it’s not stress. So in 60 to 90 seconds, we can course-correct from stress. Literally, it takes 60 to 90 seconds for the cortisol hormone, which is the stress hormone, to leave our bodies. So in our app, you have this ‘Reset 60 seconds.’ Some are preloaded, like reset to breathe consciously for 60 seconds, or to have 60 seconds stretch breaks, or to take 60 seconds to remember what you are grateful for, because gratitude is a great antidote to anxiety. But my favorite thing is creating a personalized reset that you can play for 60 seconds during any time of stress. So mine, for example, has pictures of my children, my favorite quotes, a favorite piece of music, landscapes. And in 60 seconds, in the middle of stress, you’re suddenly reminded of what you love about your life, what you’re grateful for. I’d love you to create your reset, Steve, with all [these] beautiful grandchildren. And that’s really what helps you from one neuropathway of stress to another neuropathway, from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. I throw all this science around because it’s important for all the intellectuals listening to your podcast to know that this is not warm and fuzzy. This is rigorous. This is data-driven. And that’s the way we are changing our culture.”