In an age of overwork, Arianna Huffington, the force of nature behind internet success story the HuffPost, explains why we urgently need to audit our lives.
If ever there was a big, fat example of “Do as I say, not as I’ve been doing”, it’s media mogul Arianna Huffington’s new “mindfulness” crusade.
The woman who from humble beginnings has blazed trails through feminist thinking, politics and business, and was among the first to crack the holy grail of internet media profitability, is now telling us how she did it all wrong.
We should not, like her, be in such an almighty hurry to succeed. There is such a thing as hurry sickness. And unlike her, she says, we should absolutely “sleep our way to the top” – meaning being actually asleep in a bed for eight hours.
If Huffington didn’t have good science behind the assertions in her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life, it would be tempting to try a fourth metric: book-binning. Hers is among a growing stack of books on work-life balance, but Thrive presents a fascinating counterfactual, simply because of who she is and what she has achieved.
Huffington offers convincing arguments that had she not worked like a navvy, depriving herself of sleep and other restorative activities away from her various career demands, she would have made fewer mistakes, made both herself and others happier and been healthier.
Conversely, had she not been schooled from an early age in the benefits of yoga, meditation and spirituality, and been blessed with a close, nurturing family, she reckons she would have ended up a sight worse off.
Speaking from New York in her trademark Greek-accented torrent of enthusiasm, she says she has become evangelical about the discovery that people can get to where they want to go faster by slowing down. A big part of that is they are better able to identify where they really want to go if they’re in tune with their real feelings.
She admits it’s a big call suddenly to start decrying the laser-focus and long hours that made her so successful. “But, for instance, I become erratic when I’m sleep-deprived. I make mistakes. Oh, I’ve made them! When you are exhausted, you are not a good judge of things.
“Handling criticism? I’ve been working on that. My own evolution … I think I’ve reached the point where while I may be upset, I don’t hang on to the upset.”
Huffington has had a steady stream of upsets spanning five decades – from losing a gubernatorial race, to being sued for plagiarism, including the plans for her pioneering website the Huffington Post, and ridicule for her allegiance to cultish spiritualists.
She says “mindfulness” isn’t about insulating yourself from such upset. That would be maladaptive. But people can teach themselves, just as they master other skills through patient practice, how to process criticism and adversity, learn what they can from it and lay it aside, and then “it’s like sunshine!” But they can only do that if they keep their minds and bodies amply rested and fuelled.
SLEEP ON IT
Thrive marshals an array of clinical trial findings to support Huffington’s conviction that the general workforce needs to husband its energies more discerningly than the traditional workaholic method widely glorified through the 80s and 90s. Researchers are increasingly focusing on the optimal periods of human concentration, the efficiency penalties of not getting enough sleep and the cumulative cognitive hazards of ineptly managed stress.
Huffington says it’s no wonder we’re turning increasingly to neuroscience to give us clues about why even our hearts’ desires, once achieved, can leave us so flat. “Look at all the drugs people are taking – illegal drugs and prescribed drugs. Anti-depressants, sleeping pills. Addiction.”
Although workplace drug-testing has been the most immediate response, Huffington points to the growing list of big employers that are tackling the problem – with its costly productivity loss and risk of error – more compassionately. She gives the example of Starbucks prioritising healthcare benefits for its staff over investors’ wishes, even during the global financial crisis. “These CEOs are starting to make this core business practice, because not to do so is actually false economy.”
She quotes Safeway supermarket chain chief executive Steve Burd’s discovery that the company’s vaulting healthcare costs were 70% driven by individuals’ choices rather than by accident or illness. “Now, as a business guy, I thought if we could influence the behaviour of our 200,000-person workforce, we could have a material effect on healthcare costs.”
Safeway offered its employees financial incentives for weight loss, healthy cholesterol readings and being smoke-free, and found costs went down. “I can’t think of a single negative in doing this. Making money and doing good in the world are not mutually exclusive,” Burd said.
Why Huffington’s charter is gaining so much attention – including an Oprah Winfrey special – is because, by the dawn of the HuffPost in 2005, she had come to epitomise in the United States the hard-driving, take-no-prisoners prescription for business achievement. None of this Lean In business. The Huffington method was 110% workaholism, at a minimum. It bears an umpteenth repeat that she was once famously described as the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus. Seemingly she did and had everything: children and family, long and close friendships, money, power, creativity, red carpet allure and industrial quantities of gall.
Her first eruption onto the global scene was in 1973 with The Female Woman, a critique of feminist orthodoxy that contended women were being driven towards denying their femininity, thereby risking becoming anxious and dysfunctional. Equality should not mandate sexlessness, a denial of or a shamefulness about innate gender differences, she argued.
She went on to forge a lucrative, high-profile career as a right-leaning media commentator, only to reinvent herself as a leftist in 2008 with her book Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe. She even tilted against Arnold Schwarzenegger for Governor of California in the 2003 recall election. Then camethe Huffington Post, which confounded media and fiscal gravity by being a rip-roaring success. She rode out criticism for building an empire on free labour – many of the founding contributors being already-established public figures and commentators – and eventually pocketed tens of millions of dollars through the site’s sale to AOL for US$315 million.
Huffington has fascinated and infuriated the American media and intelligentsia for all these decades. Reporting on the HuffPost launch, Vanity Fair asked – without being able to settle on an answer – what was it that she was in it for: money, fame, power, ideas, ideals? Now we know: she didn’t know either.
For although one of the site’s underpinnings was a Lifestyle section that advocated mind/body balance, she was a promulgator, not a follower.
ALL FALL DOWN
The crunch came when, after a stint of 18-hour days, she keeled over, gashed her head, fractured her cheekbone and was hospitalised with exhaustion. This was two years after the birth of HuffPost, and the woman named on Time’s most influential people on the planet list was faced with the humiliation of being grilled by doctor after doctor about what had floored her. Their conclusion was not some rare and exotic brain tumour or metabolic outage but simply her lifestyle.
Having, she thought, generally watched her health, this was a highly reductive diagnosis. As a slim, fit, dynamic person, it was a comedown to be told she was in terrible nick.
She responded as only a journalistic hurricane could: research. The quest for self-restoration even took her back to her childhood grounding in the Greek philosophers. Their musings on what constituted a happy life gave her much to work with, she says. She also tapped the brainpower of her slew of influential contacts, delved into the latest randomised controlled studies on health and diet and – inevitably given her temperament – a whole new Huffington shingle was hung out in bold type: SLOW DOWN AND THINK.
The trick, obviously, was to launch into the campaign without ending up on the floor again. She says over time she has built into her life all the techniques she pretty much already knew, but had failed to heed, until she was forced to by ill health and helped by a better understanding of the science behind them. So she counts her blessings. Gratitude is like “white blood cells for the soul”. She jealously guards her sleep time, reckoning it “the best performance-enhancing drug”. She recalls a fellow dinner guest boasting he had only had four hours sleep. “I resisted the urge to tell him we’d all be better off if he’d had five.”
Huffington is also more careful about overcommitting, even to the “bucket list” private promises people make to themselves. She once had a hankering to learn German and cookery, perfect her skiing … “As soon as the file (in my brain) was open, each one took a little bit of me away. These countless incomplete projects drained away my energy and diffused my attention.” Completing those projects by dropping them was part of “evicting the obnoxious room mate in my head”.
There was also dispensing with unhealthy cynicism, or as she prefers to describe it, opening oneself to wonder. In this, she had as a role model her mother. “She was just so open and curious. She was always noticing things, finding joy – ‘look at what that seagull is doing’, ‘what an interesting colour!’ She never lost that ability.” She says her mother was naturally “time affluent” and had a shrewd way of advising her daughters not to let negative thoughts “marinate”.
Huffington says another maxim is there’s nothing meditation doesn’t improve, by “rebooting your mind”. “Mindfulness” was a big theme this year and last at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and, as the Daily Telegraph last week reported, is the latest corporate course enthusiasm to sweep the City of London.
Huffington says all these well-being tools need to be part of the quest to refine what really makes for a satisfying life. She drew an important clue for her book from remembering the fêted life she suddenly led as a young woman promoting The Female Woman, which was such a hit it left her constantly contemplating the Swiss chocolates and yellow roses in yet another hotel room, while the disconcerting soundtrack playing in her head was Peggy Lee’s Is That All There is?
She discovered a slew of outwardly successful women who also felt unexpectedly and inexplicably flat despite their many hard-won achievements. “We need to redefine success. We’ve become so used to thinking about it a certain way. It takes time to create a more balanced view of success.”
For her, and other burnt-out workaholics she has researched, there may have been the initial Aha! moment of realising that something was badly wrong with their lives. But there was no follow-up eureka about what was missing or how to improve matters. “Really, you need to make small daily changes that begin to become part of your life.” And then, eventually, “sunshine!”.
Here she is riffing on the much-popularised new research on human willpower, which brain and behavioural scientists now understand is best treated as a muscle to be exercised daily in small but deliberate ways. Adding a new good habit or curtailing a deleterious one every so often is the key, so as to recalibrate one’s routine, but without triggering overload and susceptibility to thoughts such as “what the heck, I’ve been so good all day, I may as well now eat a packet of chocolate biscuits”, or “I’ve made so many decisions today, I’m exhausted, so I’ll do the easiest thing next”.
NOT ALL ABOUT YOU
Huffington is adamant, however, that self-improvement is not just about self. You can’t do it alone and it can’t be done just for yourself.
“You need to create your own rituals. I have a support group of people who like me used to lead of life of unrelenting pressure. We go for walks.” She says the simple regular connection is emotionally and physically restorative.
She was tickled pink to find research showing that doing something that benefitted others actually increased the markers for pleasure measured in the brain. People doing work that they can see is of service to others are themselves rewarded, and more so than people doing things that just gratify their own goals. She cites other studies that show altruism need not be a branch of martyrdom, but its own neurological reward.
There’s that sort of connecting – and then there’s disconnecting. That, she says, should include sleeping on the job, and keeping information overload at bay. “There are companies where, at say 6pm, the phones are turned off. So people can actually take time out and recharge themselves.
“You see, this idea of protecting people from burning out is starting to make sense for the bottom line. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, discovered the benefits of acupuncture and yoga when he broke his neck in a skiing accident. He was so inspired he made yoga and acupuncture available to his 49,000 employees, then saw healthcare costs drop by 7% and productivity go up by 69 minutes a day.
“A lot of CEOs are now documenting the benefits to the bottom line of having employees who are well rested and healthy.”
Huffington says she has been delighted to see an increase in workplace facilities such as sleeping pods, exercise classes and craft lessons – restorative activities provided in company time, the companies confident productivity and profits will rise as a result of a more centred workforce.
She says the financial crisis followed a mass outbreak of unmindfulness, which included companies forgetting that to make money they needed to provide value. The post-financial crisis era has refocused attention on that.
She also sees a new reckoning with internet-style connectedness. Despite having been so nimble at the crest of the online tide, she now advocates putting the technology firmly in its place. Her book lists all manner of apps and tricks designed to get people to step away from the iPad, get out of the echo chamber and seek relief from email.
On the still-vexed question of the future of the media? Again with the mindfulness. “Of course a lot of the news we have to report is about conflict, about horrible things that happen. But people want to learn about positive things too. We need to reduce the amount of negativity, because it is very disempowering.”
She agrees with the orthodoxy that quality content will be what saves the world’s great media titles from bankruptcy, as well as the Warren Buffett proposition that people will come to value again the very local news that only committed regional journalism can provide.
But her overall concern about the media’s direction is its tendency to accentuate the negative. “Obviously we have a responsibility to unearth corruption and anything dysfunctional. But [the media] shouldn’t be so much about exclusivity, but about having a platform. Let’s have a place where important conversations can take place. Where people share what’s important to them. We can learn from other people and we can teach them. It should be about people sharing stories.
Why is it that New Zealanders put in long hours but produce comparatively little?
Greece, on paper, is the second-hardest working country measured by the OECD, its people putting in an average of 2033 hours of toil a year.
Greece is also bankrupt.
Evidence is mounting that long hours do not equal productivity, and may even indicate the opposite. It’s one of the reasons Sweden is about to try a six-hour working day in Gothenburg with a view to making it a national policy. Swedish workers already put in considerably fewer hours than New Zealanders, but are economically considerably better off – counter-intuitive to our constant self-exhortations to “work harder!”
Productivity is complex to measure, as a person’s paid work output is affected by numerous factors, including the provision and quality of tools such as computers and machinery, skill level, general working conditions and health.
However, as the Productivity Commission found in a study last year into why New Zealand’s work output has been falling behind Australia’s for more than 40 years, longer hours on this side of the Tasman do not equate to working better. This is just one of numerous studies into the factors behind productivity that appear to undermine the old workaholic ethic. It seems the more often the time-to-productivity relationship is measured, the more likely it is to reveal an inverse correlation.
Not for this reason, but for reasons of health and safety, the United Nations has urged members to institute a legal maximum number of work hours. Our Government has declined to do this, and at least in terms of the OECD average of 1765 hours per employee per year, we are not at risk of working ourselves to death, at our average of 1739 hours.
But we do have a higher-than-average count of people working 50 or more hours a week: 20% of males and 7% of females. That’s an overall 13% of over-workers, compared with the OECD average of 9%, and many more overtime hours than Australian workers clock up.
Typically, countries much wealthier than ours work considerably fewer hours. In the Netherlands – which records the OECD low of 1381 hours – four-day weeks are not unusual. Germany achieves a 70% greater GDP than Greece, despite its workforce that includes a high proportion of part-timers, working 37% fewer hours: 1396.
Confoundingly, however, shortening work hours may not be the whole answer. Sweden’s six-hour trial comes despite an abandoned 2005 experiment in the country’s most northerly town, Kiruna, which found shorter hours were putting people under too much pressure. Productivity improved, but workers were more likely to become stressed and the incidence of sickness increased.
Small wonder, then, that workplace initiatives to recognise that all work and no play make Jack a less efficient worker remain tentative. Innovations such as sleeping pods are still a fringe trend rather than a revolution. Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg, an advocate of healthy work-life balance, departs the office each day at 5.30pm. But another Silicon Valley high-flyer, Yahoo! chief executive Marrisa Mayer, was widely dumped on when she rescinded her employees’ right to work from home on the grounds that it decreased collegiality and creativity.
In this country, a Government desire to abolish compulsory tea breaks, leaving individual workplaces to make their own arrangements, has incited a predictable union reaction. However, in time employers and staff may reconsider such aspects of “workplace flexibility” in the face of repeated studies of humans’ concentration spans that suggest there is a limit to the duration of peak performance. Estimates range from 40 to 90 minutes, after which, without a short break, a person’s work output will suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Such studies have shown willpower can, like a muscle, be strengthened with training. But concentration, particularly that required for making multiple – even small – decisions, steadily depletes over a day.
As for the taboo about being asleep on the job, employers at the Cheltenham Science Festival in Britain this week were urged to sanction workplace naps, and to free employees to set their own optimal work hours. Vincent Walsh, a professor of human brain research at University College London, said our habit of only sleeping at night is a post-industrial revolution practice. In earlier ages it was common for people to sleep during the day and a daytime nap still suits some people.
The variation in individuals’ biorhythms and the different sleep demands people experience at different stages of life are slowly gaining recognition. Some schools have experimented with later start times for young teens, with some evidence that allowing them to sleep later helps their concentration.
Of wider concern is that, despite research showing human intelligence is improving, concentration spans may not be.
Concern about the modern attention span is the stuff of eternal intergenerational warfare, but it’s an issue being taken increasingly seriously. In 1985, cultural critic and theorist Neil Postman entered the canon of media studies literature with his controversial book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argued the move away from reading and contemplation, which he believed reached a peak in the 1800s, in favour of the electronic media and infotainment-based news services – delivered by “talking hairdos” – was making our concentration spans narrower and shallower. He portended a Brave New World society, in which people thought less, letting their rights and general intellectual development atrophy because they were perfectly happy being entertained.
A quarter of a century later, Nicholas Carr wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains – to defensive anger from internet proponents. His thesis: the net is making our reading cursory, our thinking distracted and our learning shallow. While he acknowledges that it’s too soon, given the relative youth of the internet, for researchers to tell what, if any, effect it may be having on our brains, he points to a host of indications scientists are turning up that it is having some effect. A UCLA study of the brains of three long-time net users and three people who did not use the technology found the three net users had developed distinctive neural pathways.
And don’t we all? Carr only managed to write The Shallows after isolating himself from the net and social media – and has since plugged right back in.
‘I was a bully who pushed and hurried a small child’
When a Huffington Post item about a carefree little girl became a social media sensation – seven million page views and 1.2 million Facebook “likes” – Arianna Huffington had an early inkling of pending counter-revolution to the very business she was in.
In The Day I Stopped Saying “Hurry up”, special education teacher Rachel Macy Stafford confessed to having made a vow to stop harrying her six-year-old daughter. She wrote movingly of realising she was depriving her daughter of the right to enjoy her carefree, “stop-and-smell-the-roses” nature because of a needless sense of urgency.
If not at the root of this hurry sickness, then a rigid enforcer of it was her daily clamour of electronic cues: ringtones, notifications and sundry self-imposed agendas effectively keeping her to a timetable, which she realised was scarcely necessary and certainly not more important than her daughter’s time.
“I was a bully who pushed and pressured and hurried a small child who simply wanted to enjoy life. And although the words ‘hurry up’ did little if anything to increase my child’s speed, I said them anyway.”
The hurrying stopped the day she heard her elder daughter upbraid the little one for being slow in exactly the language her mother used. Horrified, from then on Macy Stafford rationed the electronic reminders and worked to eradicate needless hurry.
Huffington says the piece struck a chord, partly because of what children can teach us about living in the present and because of the joy that can be missed by following pressured agendas.
Huffington’s surprising animal role model is the antelope. It only makes haste when there is really something to worry about, like a stalking leopard. Unlike humans, an antelope never hurries just for the sake of it.
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