One Simple Thing that Makes You a Star

from my article in the Huffington Post

There is one very simple thing you can start doing right away that will sustain you at the top of your game, day-in, day-out. It will also provide you with higher energy and the steady flow of creative insights that solve problems and inspire you with new ideas. And if that weren’t enough, they tell you that this very simple thing is an essential step in achieving mastery in your chosen profession.

It’s taking a 20-minute break every 90 minutes.  It’s simply stepping away from your computer, leaving your smart phone behind, and going for a peaceful walk; preferably outside amongst the birds and trees and sky, allowing your mind to relax and your brain to refuel (I’ll explain the refueling part in a moment.)

The science that has established this fact is not theoretical; it’s definitive. Yet when I lay out the science for people in corporate seminars about the powerful benefits achieved by taking a break every 90 minutes, many of them say, “I can’t possibly stop every 90 minutes.” Moreover, they can’t imagine that a 20-minute break is actually the key to becoming a star performer.

It’s all about the brain and a biological cycle called the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC,) [1] which recycles every 90 minutes. During the first phase of BRAC, brain waves oscillate at a fast rate making you feel wide-awake and able to focus your attention. Your mind is humming. Ideas flow more easily and faster. The ideas your brain produces during this phase of BRAC are usually better, and you tend to have more of them. Your memory is also better and your brain generates what is called “memory consolidation,” which is essential for envisioning something novel or learning something new.

But in the second phase of the cycle, brain waves gradually start to slow down until, in the last few minutes of BRAC, you begin to feel tired and somewhat fuzzy.[2]  The ideas dry up and it’s harder for you to connect the dots.  You start to experience minor but annoying memory lapses, such as looking for something and momentarily forgetting what it was you were looking for. These are telltale signs of brain waves slowing down.

During the fast brain wave phase, brain cells use sodium and potassium ions to generate electrical signals. These fast brain waves burn through these ions, which means your brain requires a period of rest to recharge with new ions. The restoration process requires twenty minutes of rest, after which your brain has the fuel to run fast brain waves once again.

Related research also found that the 90/20 cycle was how musicians achieved mastery. This research focused on young violinists who had mastered the instrument. It was discovered that these virtuosos universally limited the rigors of practice to ninety-minute sessions, systematically distributed over the day, followed by a leisurely break, and sometimes even an afternoon nap.[3]

People don’t take breaks partly because of guilt, partly because they are afraid it will cause them to fall behind, but mainly it’s because we’ve been conditioned to keep our nose to the grindstone.

It’s time we change our mindset and embrace fifty years of research which shows that working non-stop is an unproductive way of getting things done, and a hopeless approach to excelling, innovating, or achieving mastery.


So, monitor your mental energy and before it hits bottom, take a break (usually around 90 minutes of sustained effort). Here’s how to do it; it couldn’t be simpler:

  • Step away from your work. Leave your smart phone behind.
  •  Go for a stroll outside or simply look out a window. Gaze at the sky. Watch the wind blow. Smell the roses.  Look at the people you pass with non-judgmental eyes.
  • Let your mind and brain relax completely.
  • While on a break, keep your mind open just enough to catch a creative insight that might emerge.

 If you can’t imagine taking a break every 90 minutes, start out with a break mid-morning and another mid-afternoon. Do this for a couple of weeks and the tangible increase in brain function you’ll experience will motivate you to add more breaks to your day.


[1] “Basic Rest and Activity Cycles,” Polyphasic Society, http://www.polyphasic

[2] Ibid.

[3] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406.

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Back-to-School: The Best Predictor of Your Child Doing Well

from my article in the Huffington Post

This month parents all over America are busy preparing their children to go back to school, but one task that’s probably not on anyone’s to-do list is lowering mom and dad’s stress level. And yet, alleviating stress at home is one of the most important factors for increasing the odds of a child achieving higher grades, strong social skills, and good behavior at school.n-SCHOOL-BUS-large570

Here’s why. A parent’s frame of mind shapes a child’s mind set, which in turn shapes that child’s brain. If a parent is stressed and anxious, it’s quite likely their child will be stressed and anxious as well. Unhealthy amounts of stress hormones will course through their developing brain and that can mean learning and behavioral problems.

The area that is most vulnerable to stress is the prefrontal cortex or higher brain. [1] This region generates everything we think of as human intelligence, and provides the top-down regulation for emotions, desires, and impulse control. Stress hormones cause synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex to atrophy. [2] This means that a child’s brain will struggle with learning and be prone to aggression or escape behaviors. Additionally, stress hormones dampen the immune system causing frequent colds and flu.

Make no mistake, stress is a significant problem for children and teenagers. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) study on stress found that nearly half of tweens, and one-third of teens say they feel sad; one third of tweens and 43 percent of teens say they feel worried [3] This means their stress response system is on more often, secreting these toxic hormones.

Here’s a big wake-up call for parents from a study on what stresses kids the most.

  • The APA study cited above also found that 83 percent of kids say what stresses them most is how stressed their parents have become.[4]
  • Yet the same study found that 69 percent of parents are oblivious to the impact their level of stress is having on the kids.[5]

And here’s another wake-up from a study on what kids want most.

A study c0nducted by the Families and Work Institute found that stress-free parents areactually what kids want most. [6] In this study, interviewers asked children to make one wish for a change in their parents. Parents were then asked to guess what the children wished, and most parents guessed it was for more quality time. Not so. The majority of children wished for their parents to be free of stress. Kids are very good at detecting subtle cues about a parent’s mood, such as their down-turned expression or heavy footsteps.

One child in the study said, “I know when my mom has a bad day because when she picks me up from after school she doesn’t smile. She has a really frustrated look on her face.”

Another child said, “If our parents were less tired and stressed, I think that the kids would be less tired and stressed.”

Every good parent wants their child to be happy. Every good parent wants their child to excel. One of the chief characteristics that leads to a child doing well and being well is their parent’s well-being.  Kids model their parents and a stressed parent models the polar opposite of well-being.

So here’s the key take-home message.J. Keeler

A child’s ability to tap their full measure of brain power depends on a brain free of stress hormones. And achieving that condition depends largely on their parents learning to transcend stress in their own lives. The research I just cited indicates that most parents have not yet understood the significance of this.

Tools for De-Stressing the Family

The picture that research paints is something we can change. It’s simpler than you might imagine and results can accrue faster than you might think. Click here for a free starter kit that begins the process of making your home more peaceful. It’s as important as buying the kids pencils, backpacks, and new school clothes.


 [1] R. Sinha, Cumulative Adversity and Smaller Gray Matter Volume in Medial Prefrontal, Anterior Cingulate, and Insula Regions Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 1, Pages 57–64, July 1, 2012

[2] Eduardo Dias-Ferreira,  João C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado, Ana R. Mesquita, João J. Cerqueira,1 Rui M. Costa,2,4,* Nuno Sousa1,* Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making, Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 621 – 625

[3] APA Stress Survey: Children are More Stressed Than Parents Realize by Public Affairs Staff, American Psychological Association, 2010

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Jeanna Bryner, “Kids to Parents: Leave the Stress at Work,” Associated Press (January 23, 2007).

 Images from, other than the cartoon figure which is by permission of J. Keeler.



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Stress, the Brain, and the Neuroscience of Success

from my article in the Huffington Post

A new field of neuroscience has emerged in the last ten years that has mapped the mental zone that can literally change the brain to quiet an overly active stress response system and simultaneously pave the way for higher brain networks to perform at optimum. The more we function from this mental zone, the less we stress, and the more our brain lights up with the mix of intelligence that predicts a successful life.

When these higher networks wire and fire together, humming away at the brain speed of a hundred million computer instructions per second, we not only succeed, we excel at every level of life: from career to family, from physical and emotional well-being to fully actualizing our talent and ability. It’s a brain generating the fluid and creative intelligence to achieve goals, along with the emotional and social intelligence to instill joy in our work, peace in our life, and harmony in our relationships. It’s also a brain generating the homeostasis that promotes health and longevity. The key to all of these positive outcomes is building the mindset that transcends stress.

First, the Bad News You Need to Know

Stress hormones erode higher-brain networks, inhibiting you from succeeding fully at life.  Chronic stress means the stress response system is turned on nearly full time, releasing toxic hormones into your system.

Add together all the life threatening stress-related illnesses and you have the #1 killer of Americans. At work, stress dampens performance, thwarts teamwork, leads people to make bad decisions, and accounts for nearly half of turnover.[5] The greater the stress at home, the more spouses will argue, criticize, withhold affection, and judge the relationship negatively, not realizing that stress is the real problem.[6] Stress isn’t something we should someday do something about.

Yet 83 percent of Americans are doing nothing about it.[7]  And neither are organizations, and it’s cutting into their collective brain power. Think about it; when a company hires an employee, they are actually hiring that person’s brain and hoping it’s a smart brain that will grow even smarter.  Place that person in a high pressure work environment without the tools to transcend stress, and the likelihood is that he or she will lose brain capacity.

There are two brain scans from the Mayo Clinic that show the impact of stress on brain function. One scan shows a brain beleaguered by stress. The other shows a brain functioning at optimum, lit up and pulsing with activity. The scan of optimal brain function looks like the massive networks of light you see when flying on a dark night over a metropolis like New York, while the stressed brain looks like the dim lights you see scattered here and there as you fly over Nebraska’s farmland.  The difference between the two brain scans is a good representation of the brain power a company has lost and could retrieve if they could solve the problem of stress.

The Good News in All this Bad News

The good news is neuroscience has identified a solution to stress that goes far beyond conventional stress management.  This approach not only repairs the damage stress hormones cause, but also generates the neurological conditions that stimulate the growth of new connections within the higher brain that expand brain capacity, making people smarter, more innovative, and emotionally intelligent. The solution lies in the power of our mental state to rewire our brains. Change your mindset in specific ways and you can literally change brain structure to extinguish stress reactions and amplify higher brain function.  The technical term for this change is neuroplasticity. Here’s a list of the positive change neuroplasticity can produce:

  • The usual networks that generate the brain’s executive functions grow larger and PET_Normal_brain_US_dept_of-health_and_human_services-public domainbecome more fully integrated with other neural networks.  This means you increased your skillfulness at planning, decision making, error correction, and troubleshooting.  You build strong cognitive abilities and can think abstractly.
  • Gamma wave activity is far better organized and coordinated, signaling the higher mental activity and heightened awareness found in peak performers.
  • The right brain and the prefrontal cortex work together to elevate intuition and creative insight into practical innovation.
  • Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the seat of positive emotion, swamps activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the seat of negative emotion. This condition enables you to achieve a high level of emotional intelligence.
  • There is greater activity in the center of the brain, especially the caudate and right insula, generating the social intelligence that sustains interpersonal resonance.
  • Your physiology functions at optimum, securing optimal health and energy.[8]

Who in their right mind wouldn’t want a change like that? Who in corporate leadership wouldn’t want a work force operating at that level of brain function?  If an individual or company is not actualizing the mindset that transcends stress to empower higher brain function, they are not maximizing their full extent of fluid, creative, emotional, and social intelligence. There is no excuse for not making this change.

Achieving the prescribed shift in mindset is easier than one might imagine, adding little to your to-do list. It’s essentially about practicing a to-be list. Even better is the fact that change in brain structure happens quickly, within four to eight weeks.  More and more, CEOs and HR executives are contracting with experts on neuroplasticity to heighten the brain power in their company. Mark my words, neuroplasticity will soon become the new competitive edge.


[1] Eduardo Dias-Ferreira,  João C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado,Ana R. Mesquita, João J. Cerqueira,1 Rui M. Costa,2,4,* Nuno Sousa1,* Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making, Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 621– 625

[2] S. T. Charles, J. R. Piazza, J. Mogle, M. J. Sliwinski, D. M. Almeida. The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462222

[3] Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1998), 144-153.

[4] Ibid

[5] Wesley E. Sime, MPH, PhD, Stress Management: A Review of Principles, an online series of lectures on stress management, Lecture 1, University of Nebraska, Dept. of Health and Human Performance

[6] L. A. Neff and B. R. Karney, “Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (2009): 435–50.

[7] American Psychological Association, “Stress in America, Missing the Health Care Connection,” February 7, 2013, pg. 5 [

8] Daniel Siegel, MD, The Mindful Brain (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 41–44.

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7 Ways Stress Ruins Your Life & 5 Steps To Turn It Around

from my article in the Huffington Post

We think our problems produce the stress we experience but it’s actually the reverse. Stress causes most of our troubles– from money, family, and work problems, to physical and mental health issues. Most of us realize that stress is harmful, but few understand it as causal … at least until they come across the following research findings:

  • Stress and money: When our mind is preoccupied with fears of financial scarcity, it activates stress reactions, releasing stress hormones that dampen the brain’s executive functions. This leads to a decline in fluid intelligence, which is the “smarts” the higher brain generates to solve money problems.[1]
  • Stress and bad decisions: The greater the stress the greater the likelihood you’ll make bad decisions at home and at work.  Knee-jerk reactions will cause you to make risky or premature decisions. You’ll drop long-range goals for immediate survival needs,[2] and every day you’ll wonder why you keep falling behind instead of getting ahead.
  • Stress and declining performance: Stress hormones shrink higher brain networks and break the connections between them. This inhibits you from maximizing your full measure of talent and sustaining peak performance.[3] You’ll have a good day now and then, but your brain won’t be able to generate your best day every day.
  • Stress and dampened creativity: Your capacity for creative insight and innovation is thwarted by stress.[4] Those sudden “aha” moments of insight, inspiration, and comprehension will be few and far between.
  • Stress and emotional negativity: Stress locks you into fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Your emotional set point switches to negative, predisposing you to anxiety, anger, aggression, paranoia, and depression.[5]
  • Stress and family: The greater the stress, the more reactive you’ll be to the normal ups and downs at home. You and your partner will argue, criticize, blame, and withhold affection, not realizing that stress is distorting how you see the relationship. Stress hormones also lower sex drive, adding to the estrangement.[6]
  • Stress and health: Chronic stress impairs the immune system. It wreaks havoc

    on the cardiovascular system. It damages chromosomes prematurely aging your body and causing the production of cancer. It kills brain cells, and if left unchecked, will eventually kill you.[7] If you add up all the deaths from stress-related illnesses, you have our #1 killer.

Obviously, if you want a healthy, happy and successful life, ending stress belongs at the top of your to-do list.  Yet 83 percent of us are doing nothing about it.[8] Too often, the wake-up call comes on the gurney in the emergency room. Make no mistake, stress is life-threatening serious. “It is not something that maybe someday you should do something about,” says Carol Shively of Stanford. “You need to attend to it today.” [9] There is a solution If you have a problem with stress it’s because genetics and hard knocks have wired you for a hyperactive stress response system. There is a solution to stress that is based on the capacity of the human brain to: a) rewire primitive neural circuits that habituate stress reactions, and b) stimulate the growth of higher brain networks that enable you to succeed fully. The process of rewiring, called neuroplasticity, is surprisingly simple. It’s achieved through a specific shift in mindset. Norman Doige of Columbia University calls neuroplasticity “the single most important change in our understanding of the human brain in 400 years.”[10] Neuroplasticity works in real life situations, where stress abounds. It’s been studied in high pressure corporations and found to achieve impressive results in increasing morale and productivity in previously unproductive groups. [11] In an independent evaluation of a training my firm conducted at Wells Fargo, more than 300 managers making a similar shift experienced a significant improvement in their level of stress, job performance, creativity, and personal relationships … all in three weeks. [12]  Who doesn’t want those outcomes? It starts with making stress a priority.

5 steps that start to turn it around If you’re one of the 83 per cent who are procrastinating, here are five simple neuroplastic steps that can get your mindset moving in the right direction 1: Bust Stressful-Provoking Thoughts: Be aware all day of stress-provoking thoughts as they occur. Tell yourself: These thoughts are in me, not in reality. Then refuse to believe the stressful thought and see what happens to your experience. An anxious thought not believed doesn’t turn into stress. 2: Stop Worrying (The Clear Button): Imagine there is a button at the center of your palm that, when pushed, signals the brain to stop worrying. Keep pressing the button while you slowly count to three, thinking of each number as a color. As you exhale on the final breath, let your mind go completely and relax into the present moment. Repeat the process until your worries are gone. 3: Start Each Day in Quiet: Set aside five-minutes first thing each morning to frame a positive mindset. Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life. Set your intention to have a rewarding day. Commit yourself to being at peace on the inside, regardless of what happens on the outside. 4: Take Regular Breaks: A 15-20minutebreak every two hours allows your brain to rebound. So, every two hours step away from your work and go outside or to a window.   Watch the clouds pass, the wind blow, or the sun shine, allowing your mind to grow quiet and to connect with life. 5: Count Your Blessings: Once a week, at bedtime, recall three things that happened during the previous week for which you are grateful.  Then acknowledge three things in your life for which you feel blessed. NOTES [1] Sendhil Mullainathan, Ph.D. and Eldar Shafir, Ph.D., Freeing Up Intelligence, Scientific American Mind, January/February 2014, p.58-61 [2] Wesley E. Sime, MPH, PhD, Stress Management: A Review of Principles, an online series of lectures on stress management, Lecture 1, University of Nebraska, Dept. of Health and Human Performance [3] Eduardo Dias-Ferreira et al., “Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making,” Science 325, no. 5940 (31 July 2009): 621–25. [4] Amabile TM, Hadley CN, Kramer SJ , Creativity under the Gun, Harvard Business Review, 2002, 80(8):52-61, 147 [5] S. T. Charles, J. R. Piazza, J. Mogle, M. J. Sliwinski, D. M. Almeida. The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462222 [6] L. A. Neff and B. R. Karney, “Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (2009): 435–50. [7] Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1998), 144-153. [8]American Psychological Association, “Stress in America, Missing the Health Care Connection,” February 7, 2013, pg. 5 [9]Killer Stress, A National Geographic Special, PBS, 2008, produced by Stanford University and Nation Geographic  [10] Nancy Churnin, Brain has ability to adapt and change through life, March 22, 2010, The Dallas Morning News  [11] R. J. Davidson, J. Kabat-Zinn, et al., “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation,” Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003): 564  [12] Don Joseph Goewey, The Solution to Stress that Not Only Works in the Lab; It Works in High Pressure Corporations, April 6, 2013,

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Take Your Vacation. It Will Rebuild Your Brain.

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More than one in three of us are forfeiting our vacation time.  Instead of taking time to renew, most of us are working harder than ever, an average 49 hours a week. We are putting in 100-200 more hours per year than our parents.  We sleep less than our parents did; one to two hours less.  Those are averages; you might be working more and sleeping less than that.

Two million years of lost vacation time

We talk about vacations, plan them, dream about them and then fail to take one. As much as a half billion vacation days will go unused this year.  Surveys reveal that we don’t take vacations because we fear an adversary will get ahead of us, or that work will pile up while we’re gone.  If we do take a vacation, we take work with us.  A survey found that 92% of those away on vacation frequently check in with the office.  That’s really not a vacation.

The Reward for Taking Vacation Time

A proper vacation can repair and expand higher order brain function that a stressful year has debilitated and even damaged. The reward for the time you invest in a vacation is a brain humming with the creative intelligence, emotional balance, and physical energy that sustains you at the top of your game. When you return from vacation, neurologically you will be ahead of the person you worried would get ahead of you.

Here’s How to Take Your Vacation

Think of your vacation as an intensive care unit for your brain, where no one from the outside is allowed to enter your personal space who might stress you. That means that before you leave for your trip, put your email account on auto-responder.

When you arrive at your destination, put your Blackberry in a drawer. If you have to use it, be disciplined about letting non-urgent business calls go to voice mail.

Here’s a simple approach to making your vacation rejuvenate your brain.

(1)  Start your day in quiet in a place where you won’t be disturbed and follow the process below:

  • Close your eyes or take a downward gaze.
  • Tilt your head toward your heart. Follow your breathing. Imagine each breath softening your heart and opening it wider.
  • Take a few minutes to frame the day in a positive light.
  • Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life.
  • Feel appreciation for another day to be with the ones you love.
  • Set the intention to have a relaxing, happy day.
  • Make your goal to succeed at love, peace and joy.

(2) During the day,

  • Practice being present, right here, right now.
  • Practice letting go of worries and judgments.
  • Commit to tuning into your loved ones. Rediscover them all over again.
  • Hold the intention to listen better, judge less, and forgive more. In fact, practice judging nothing that happens while on vacation, from traffic jams to unpleasant people.




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