In this episode, we continue the conversation initiated during our Business Education Webinar that focused on the topic “Quest for Balance – Reclaiming Wellness in all Aspects of Life”.
Amy Brandli returns to provide a wealth of tangible and time-tested practices proven to increase our sense of well being. Centered around the ‘Four Pillars of Well Being’, Amy shares daily best practices and practical tips for all aspects of well being – Physical, Mental, Social and Emotional. Come prepared to take notes!
Cummings-Krueger: Welcome everyone to Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. I’m Megan Cummings-Krueger, and today we have the opportunity to continue a rich conversation that first took place during our January Business Education Webinar. The focus of that session was on the “Quest for Balance – Reclaiming Wellness in all Aspects of Life”.
A topic which of course is relevant for all of us as we continue to navigate the challenges which have accumulated over the years. In fact, Gallup’s most recently published book Blind Spot, focused entirely on the reality that global happiness is at an all-time low, and that both organizations and individuals need to recognize that the most important metric we need to pay attention to today is the health of our sense of wellbeing. As you can imagine during January’s discussion on the quest for balance, the audience asked many excellent questions, some of which went unanswered due to time limitations. But happily, one of our panelists was inspired to take note of the unanswered questions and then took the time to reflect on what she could offer in response. All to say that I am delighted to introduce you all to Amy Brandli, who has returned to be our guest today, and share her insights and perspective and tangible practices that she has learned along the way.
Now, before we hear from Amy, let me share with you a little bit about her background. Amy has over two decades of diverse experience at startups in healthcare, digital health, and data analytics, including leadership roles in account management and product marketing at Red Brick Health, now Virgin Pulse, as well as positions at DarioHealth, United Health Group, FICO, and Accenture. She now leads operations at Visana Health, a comprehensive virtual women’s health clinic.
Amy enjoys and is skilled at building teams, guiding colleagues in their career growth, creating a supportive and inclusive company culture, and not taking herself too seriously. Amy is a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and when she’s not working, she’s navigating life with her two teen sons, seeing live music, practicing yoga, or planning her next international trip. I will add, she’s also a valued partner at Menttium. She just finished mentoring her first Menttium mentee. Welcome Amy.
Brandli: Good morning and thank you.
Cummings-Krueger: I’d like to start out by asking you to share from your own personal perspective what helps you most in terms of your personal wellbeing that you’re practicing daily. Now, I know you have mapped this out into the four terms of wellbeing and what helps in each case to either help you maintain or increase your sense of wellbeing. Would you share that with us now?
Brandli: Absolutely, I would be happy to do so. It was fun for me to take some time to reflect about the four different pillars of wellbeing: physical, mental, social, and emotional. I like to come down to brass tacks if you will, talk through what are the things that truly help me, and maybe give folks tips that they could apply to their daily lives.
I started out by looking at it from the physical aspect and even reminded myself of this while you were doing the intro, breathe. Sometimes it is easy to hold your breath, your shoulders rise. You start to feel your pulse, heartbeat, and blood pressure increase. Simply to be aware of your physical state and breathe, exhale. It sounds simplistic, and guess what? It is. Guess what else? It works. So, simply being aware of your breathing. You don’t need to analyze or judge yourself, but simply have awareness of your breathing. I realize that it is common, and my own tendency, is that you tend to hold your breath. You get nervous. You get a question that you don’t know the answer to. You are being asked something that you’ve never done before by a boss or a colleague.
This also ties into a past webinar regarding resilience that Menttium did on the fight or flight response. We might tense up and be on guard, and to simply allow yourself to unclench your hands, take a breath, and exhale can help open your brain, calm the coursing blood flow, and put yourself in a place where it’s much easier to be open to thinking, receiving, and minimizing your stress. So that was a lot for a simple word, breathe. That is really the key piece that I try to do and truly remind myself every day. Silly thing, but put a post-it note with the word, breathe on it, put it on your monitor. That has been helpful for me.
Another thing that I do, because I am a remote employee, I work for a 100% virtual company. We do not have a physical office presence, so it’s not as easy to have a walking meeting with your colleagues. Even as such, I still sometimes will take one-on-one calls, especially with colleagues where I’m not needing to present or something more formal. In this Minnesota winter that we’ve had, I will pace around my house on my phone. I’ll take the call on my phone versus sitting in front of Zoom and walk to get some blood flowed instead of getting stuck sitting in your seat all day. That sometimes also helps facilitate just making you feel a little bit more balanced.
In that same vein of the physical aspect, goodness, we are ready for spring here. Once that happens, as soon as we can get out there for a walk outside, I really find incredible value for getting some time out, 15-minute walk, 20-minute walk, as long as an hour. It clears my head. It helps reduce stress. It makes you feel good and it’s a good physical activity. So that is something that I try to do as much as I can when the weather allows.
The last piece that I would like to share from the physical aspect is, I joked about this during the webinar as well, and it’s a potentially controversial statement, but I stand behind it very firmly, napping during the day. Obviously not as easy to do if you have a traditional office setting. But for those of us that may have the luxury or the flexibility to have a sometimes or all the time virtual setting, there are times when I will block out my calendar and I will lay down for an hour. I tell you that is better than most other types of reprieves that I get. To have it during the workday, I become more mentally unstuck, to have that physical time away from staring at a screen. That was my physical. I have three other sections. As you mentioned Megan, I got a lot to share, so we’ll see how much we can get through with the time we have.
Cummings-Krueger: Before you go to the next one, I just want to comment, this is such great advice. Honestly, these are things that I wish I’d heard years ago. It took me a long time to understand the power of breathing, and I think because it is so simple, and it is absolutely the best. I do want to add that Einstein took naps every day, so I think that’s a promising sign.
Brandli: I certainly do not think you should be comparing me to him, but yes, I will take that little aspect of it. Alright, for the next one, for mental wellbeing, the main piece, my headline basically, is distractions, distractions, distractions. We live in a world where we are or could be easily distracted all the time. How often do we sit down and do only one thing? Think about that. If I’m reading my book, I still have my phone next to me and it’s pinging me with notifications. Even with that, you’re multitasking. What I try to do, and I apply this both in work and in my personal life, is reduce distractions wherever I can. We think as humans that we are good at multitasking and there are countless research studies that counter that fact. People think I could do a whole bunch of stuff at the same time. It ends up diminishing your own ability to be successful in the multiple things that you’re doing. If you can isolate and focus, reduce other distractions, you usually are able to be more productive, get things done more quickly, and may even be more efficient at each different task if you’re reducing your distractions.
So, what does that mean, Amy? A couple tactical pieces that I do in my work life, I disable phone notifications from things that are on my phone, for things that come from work. For example, emails. If I’m sitting in front of my computer, I’m going to get an email. We also use Slack, so Slack pops up on my computer, along with meeting invites and reminders. For those three tactical pieces, I’m already getting those reminders on my computer when I’m sitting in front of my laptop. I also don’t need them pinging me on my phone at the same time. That is just a tip that I have found that has been helpful for me so that I’m not being pulled away from my phone to my computer and back and forth.
The other piece that I do and I’m diligent about, I think it’s called phone hygiene, of trying to be restrictive about how I use my phone. Because all of us are plugged into it from morning to night, every waking hour, and I like to turn off my notifications overall on my phone.
The other piece that I do, and most people do this, Google if you don’t know how to, but on your specific phone, you can set do not disturb with exceptions. For example, I’m a mom. I have got kids, so I want to make sure that if my teen son who’s away at college needs to get a hold of me that he is able to do so. You can turn on do not disturb notifications with an exception for my key contacts. Obviously, my kids are on my key contacts, so that’s what I have found is a helpful piece. I’m not getting spam calls, I’m not getting pings from text messages from friends, who I appreciate. But in times when I don’t want to have distractions, that also has been a helpful tip that I do.
The other piece that I do specifically for those types of distractions, in addition to blocking my calendar like I mentioned when I take naps, is to block my calendar for deep work/no meetings. I try to preserve my schedule or reserve my schedule so that I can do some serious project-based work, not just little bits of pieces here and there. I really like to block at least two hours at a time and sometimes an entire day. I let the team know this is what I’m doing. If an emergency arises, communicate in a way that they can contact you, but set those expectations and communicate that effectively with your team so that they know, I must leave Amy alone today because she has an upcoming deadline. She must do some deep thinking for an upcoming project. Those can work if you set those expectations with your teammates so that they understand why you might be blocking your calendar.
Then the last piece, I leave my phone away from my bedroom, so back to the do not disturb. I have it in my kitchen, but I have it so that I can hear it if someone needs to call me who is in my key contacts overnight. This way you can balance if you don’t have a landline phone anymore, you can still be reached in an emergency.
Cummings-Krueger: I personally appreciate some of these tips. For example, I have grown daughters and I keep the phone by the bed. I’ve read research that says how just having the phone beside you is a distraction. There are all kinds of research on this, and I love your point of paying attention to where it is and to know that you can have a few people, like children be able to get through is a wonderful tip. Thank you.
Brandli: You’re welcome. It just helps reduce my stress and balance the worries of a parent that are always there.
Then I move on to the next two sections of the social and the emotional aspects of how to reclaim that balance, and the social one is especially challenging for me. I am an extrovert. I get energy from people around me. In my virtual work setting where I don’t have other humans in my physical space, it’s very important for me to find those connections and to maintain them in real life, even more so since the pandemic. In doing so, I also have discovered that I need to balance when I say yes and when I say no. That is hard, and every person has a different place on social connections in a spectrum.
For example, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I said, yes to this. I said yes to participating in the webinar in January. I said yes to following up and sharing my additional thoughts now in this podcast. That is pushing me outside of my comfort zone, but it also is incredibly rewarding after I’ve done it and honestly while we’re doing it. This is fun for me. Choosing the things that you also want to say yes to, but and here’s the big but, being selective so that you don’t become a bobblehead and say yes to every single solitary thing that comes along with your opportunities.
My example here is back to the social aspects. I love to go see live music, love to interact with friends. But I’ve found that I now need to balance the times and not say yes to every single concert that comes down because I would love to, but I get tired if I am up too late every night. What seems like something that should be fun, turns into what feels like an obligation and it sucks the joy out of what should be an enjoyable interaction. So, I just give that as, think to yourself, push yourself to say yes, but know when to say no. That’s kind of squishy, but I always try to balance that, which is the whole point of trying to reclaim that balance.
The other piece is then bleeding into, for me it’s social and emotional. They’re so inextricably linked in my personality because my own emotional state helps my social interactions and then that feeds back into my emotional state. The emotional wellbeing then for me, the connection goes all the way back to physical. My emotions feel better when I do things like get a hug from my kids. Obviously, that is a physical interaction that releases all the dopamine, the happy chemicals in my brain and it really helps me in times when I feel wiped out and worn down.
The other kind of tangible silly thing that I have enjoyed doing when I am using my phone, because yes, I do use my phone a lot just like most of us, Instagram reels. The little five, ten second videos. I have told the Instagram reels that I love watching baby animals. I love watching human babies, and sometimes I watch human babies and human animals do cute little things together, and it is a fun little kind of happiness that is complete distraction from my day.
Cummings-Krueger: I must laugh. I also have said that animal videos got me through a lot of COVID, but I was recently reading that of course they’ve done research on this already and apparently if you watch more than two minutes of an animal video or baby video, it reduces your blood pressure and it has even a physical, maybe a set dopamine. I don’t know. I’m glad research backs us.
Brandli: Yes, I love it. Sometimes things that feel good are good for you.
Cummings-Krueger: Exactly. First off, thank you for all those tangible suggestions, and I appreciate how you have organized it. It’s a valuable perspective.
Now what I’d like to do is shift over and think about not just from the personal perspective, but also in terms of your role as a leader of others. I’d love to hear your perspective on what you think your teams are most challenged by when it comes to their ability to feel connected with each other and be able to maintain high performance?
Brandli: This is absolutely an ongoing challenge, or the positive version of that word, opportunity, that we as an organization are working and focusing on to recognize the fact that, like I had mentioned previously, because we were a 100% virtual organization, there are several employees we have never actually met in real life, and we are spread across the entire United States. How do you maintain or establish in the first place some of those connections, which is what we have found is helpful for us as a team to collectively be high performing teams? How do you do that? You’ve got a person that’s brand new on the team. They are in California, where some of us are here in Minneapolis, in various locations across Minnesota. What do you do?
What we have tried, and we continue to evolve to see what makes sense. We have done things like establishing weekly presentations in which each employee gets a chance to share whatever they would like to share about themselves with their fellow colleagues. The purpose being, when you get to know someone outside of just a fellow employee and get to know them as a human, a person, a mom, a friend, a sister, a daughter, things like that, it really helps you realize, maybe I have something in common. Maybe they went to school the same place I did. Maybe they love to travel like I do. It offers opportunity to make non-work connections with someone, even though you may not be in the same physical location, because understanding and appreciating each other, I have found time and time again throughout my career, it builds trust, it builds understanding, and it lets people know that you are more than just the work that you do.
I don’t think I can count more than maybe twice in my entire life of all the people that I’ve had the benefit and the pleasure of working with that people who aren’t always trying to do their best. They are trying to do the right thing. They are trying to show up every day and do what they can. Approaching every interaction that you have as if they are in the same situation as you are, which is, I’m a high performer, I want to do well, approach every interaction with that same stance, and it usually serves you well. The kind of joke of API, which stands for application, programming, and interfaces, of sending data back and forth. API also stands for assume positive intent. I try to do that with our team as well.
Then the other piece that as an organization we keep working on, trying to find the right balance and hold each other accountable for is finding the Goldilocks of what is the right communication approach. Too many meetings, too few meetings. Too many emails, too few emails. Too many documents, too few documents. All those things, especially for us as an early-stage startup in which we’re moving fast, we’re making a lot of decisions and progress and having a lot of actual achievements every day. How do you keep the team abreast of where we are and where we’re going? It is a constant evolution. We want to make sure, and we continue to work on this as a company, call each other out on things. Hey, do we need this meeting? Can we jump on a call so that someone doesn’t feel isolated?
Making sure that we’re meeting not just for the sake of meeting, but there is a purpose and an objective for the times that we are collectively working together in a synchronous environment, like in a Zoom meeting versus a 15-minute touch base, and then everyone jumps off the call and then do your work and maybe regroup daily. Just in this past week, we had a daily meeting for 30 minutes every day as we were standing up a new process. As of today, we’re having our conclusion of these daily meetings, and from there we’re shifting to weekly. Be flexible and be open to find ways that you can work together as a team so that they feel connected, but not overly burdensome for showing up just to show up without making forward progress.
For example, especially meetings. I know that in meetings in particular, people’s calendars usually just get chockablock full, call after call, and then the big conundrum at the end of your supposed workday is, how do I get my work done if I’m in meetings all day every day? That’s not a sustainable approach when you’re working evenings and weekends. I don’t think that is something an organization should stand behind for a long-term balance and wellbeing for their employees. Then how do you find that balance to carve out time to do the work that you need to do?
Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. Then what about on the flip side, what have you found is the result or perhaps the sign when you are working and living out of balance? How have you seen that personally or as a team leader?
Brandli: I see it. Here’s me being vulnerable and open and honest with my responses here. I get impatient, I get frustrated by others, and that’s not fair. I also become overly self-critical, and I think that’s something that is actually very common for people to think that they’re not delivering. Because if you’re working so hard and you’re pushing the proverbial boulder up a hill or pushing a noodle, you can’t push a noodle. Sometimes with things like that, the harder you try to accomplish something, it can create a mental block. My example there is that I have found that if I am trying to unlock something that I’ve been tasked to do, especially if it’s something that I’m attempting to do on my own and just having time on task to figure something out by myself, I feel like my brain short circuits after a certain amount of time. It’s different depending on what the task is. If I’ve never done it before, if I’m trying to do some deep thinking, create a new calculation, new approach, new something, that my brain has not done before.
I also have discovered that sometimes even simple questions, if I’m overworked, whether it’s hard questions, easy questions, my brain just shuts down. I can’t even process a response. So, guess what I do? I try to apply the things that I’ve talked about earlier. I try to take a step away, go for a walk, take a nap, call a colleague, look at an Instagram reel, something to jar my brain and to reset it to give myself a bit of a mental reprieve. And guess what? I’d say maybe seven times out of ten, I come back and look at that challenge, issue, opportunity, whatever it is that I was stuck on. Sometimes the answer comes to me immediately, almost embarrassingly so. If I find out that I have been pushing so hard that I just can’t see the answer that’s on the tip of my tongue right in front of me. I try to remember that is what happens and to recognize it and not be self-critical and realize that it’s usually because you are just overworked.
Cummings-Krueger: I think I may have shared this with you already before, but I always call it the crossword puzzle phenomenon where anyone listening who does crossword puzzles knows this. I can be staring and racking my brain for the answer. If I put it down, walk away, and then pick it up 10 minutes later, immediately the answer comes. It is absolutely what you’re saying. We know all the research, lack of creativity, but it absolutely is amazing, almost miraculous how letting yourself take a brief break can really unlock the mind again.
Brandli: And giving yourself permission to do so without guilt. It’s a helpful thing that will likely complete your task more quickly if you take the break.
Cummings-Krueger: I really like how you frame that. That’s exactly right. Thinking about this more broadly when it comes to our culture, what have you observed that seems to indicate that there may be some room to shift toward more balance?
Brandli: I have been hopeful in what I have seen just in the last handful of years. I think the pandemic has also helped accelerate it, as well as younger workers entering the workforce. I have had a very noticeable positive influence from younger workers. I am solidly Gen X and to have younger workers point out the fact that we don’t need to sacrifice our own health, be that any of the aspects of wellness that we’ve been talking about. We don’t need to, nor should we sacrifice our health for the sake of our job. Even if this is not my situation, but even if someone is an entrepreneur, even if someone is a founder of a company, there is a balance that we should strive for. Having that reminder of individuals who are younger that simply say, I’m not going to do that, is refreshing and something that I would never have contemplated verbalizing when I was in my twenties. I applaud younger workers for doing that and then the Gen Xers like me for following that.
Then always trying to come back to a tactical aspect or a reminder. I think it is fantastic that in the company that I work for, we have a younger CEO, who has the following in the email footer, every email it says as follows, “my working hours may not be your working hours. Please do not feel obligated to reply outside of your normal work schedule”. I love the power of that, the permission that it allows the fellow colleagues to say, boss didn’t say jump, so I have to say how high. It provides I think a reduction in someone’s potential of holding your breath, shoulders coming up, heart rate racing, if you get an email from the boss who has that as their email footer.
Cummings-Krueger: That is phenomenal. I love that. What an amazing communication and release of guilt for others. That’s one great idea.
Since you view wellbeing and you’ve shared this with me as a skill that can be learned and practiced, what would you recommend to your listeners as the daily best practices that you’ve found helpful? Now of course, a lot of this you’ve been saying, but if you think about it in terms of what would you like your listeners to walk away with?
Brandli: Absolutely. Back to a shorter list of tangible things for those folks that want to take notes, grab your pen and paper. Two things and then I have a couple more. I did not come up with this. I had a close friend of mine when I was unbalanced point this out to me. The first is, it’s okay to ask for help. If you have not done something before, if you are overwhelmed, it does not mean you are weak. It does not mean you are unintelligent. It is the inverse; it shows that you are strong enough to recognize that no one can do it all on their own. I have learned over the years, this has taken most of my career to get to this place, that one of my self-identified leadership traits that I’m very proud of is I am vulnerable. That did not come without a lot of imposter syndrome, which we’ve talked about in previous webinars and coming to the place of realizing no matter how much you know, you are never going to know everything, and making sure that you make it okay to ask for help if you need it.
The second thing that my close friend has helped guide me on, is say no. This is specifically in a work setting, but we don’t need to simply say yes or may I have another. If something else comes down your plate, and your workload is already, or maybe even beyond a proverbial tipping point, it’s okay to say no. That sets healthy boundaries that you cannot fit yet another item on your plate. The other way that I would like to reposition is that if you think I can’t say no to my boss, or I can’t say no to x and y, then say, help me reprioritize my other main items that I’m also expected to deliver on. Where does this fit so that I can help reprioritize my workload to do this if no is not an option. Then it becomes a collective discussion rather than feeling like an order taker.
Other pieces are, especially the Menttium audience, folks are high performers and what comes with high performers is you’re likely to be more critical of yourself than anyone ever will be of you. Remember that and be gentle, be kind to yourself because we are usually much more self-critical than anyone else around you.
The other part of that, that usually helps validate it, ask for feedback all the time, not all the time, but frequently from both colleagues as well as management. People you report to, people that report to you, people that are your fellow coworkers, ask for feedback and usually it can be in informal settings like, how did I do with that presentation that I just delivered, anything for me? To say that on an ongoing basis, it opens the opportunity for people to say, I do have a safe space that I can say, yes, you’re doing well or here’s a place where you can improve. Ask for that feedback, it’s a great way to grow.
The last piece that I have, because we are self-critical usually, high performers are usually very hard on themselves, when you have asked for feedback, write it down. Write down all the amazing things that people say about you. Reread them whenever you need to. Like I said about the breathe post-it note on my monitor, I also have a running list of quotes that former and current colleagues and clients have said about me, and that helps as a reminder for everybody that you are pretty darn amazing.
Cummings-Krueger: I do that as well. It is a surprisingly helpful tip. All these were great. We could probably listen to several more hours with you, but I only have one final question and then I will let you go.
You’ve shared that the Well Workout has identified the four pillars needed to achieve wellbeing at work and in life, and that they include connect, play, rest, and reflect. Of those four, what I’d like to hear is what would you recommend focusing on first, both personally and professionally and have you found that to be the same or different for your work versus your overall life?
Brandli: Good question. So, for me, professionally, because of where we as an organization are right now, I would say reflect. I have been at an early-stage startup for 13 months now. We had three employees when I started and now, we have about 20. There has been a crazy amount of growth in this past year plus, so with that, it has been important for me to take some time, look back at what we and me have accomplished on behalf of the organization in this past year. That also helps reframe or frame in the first place where we go from here. As a leader of the organization, as we continue to grow, as we continue to scale our organization, bring in additional individuals, what are the right decisions that we need to make to both sustain and successfully grow our business? It’s hard to do that unless you take the time to really both physically and mentally step back and reflect on the progress that has been made. So that’s the word that I have been coming to and reflecting on a lot.
Personally, this probably isn’t a surprise from what I had previously said, but in my personal life, it is connect. This past year has been so busy in my work life that I’ve been remiss in reaching out to friends, former colleagues, as much as I usually have and usually really enjoy doing. I have made an effort, even in the last six to eight weeks, I even have a couple unread texts that I need to respond to from former colleagues and friends, of just grabbing a drink, going out for coffee, or catching up for lunch. I am finding that those are helping to reignite my connections and make me feel more balanced.
Cummings-Krueger: Wonderful advice Amy, thank you so much. This has been an enlightening conversation. I’m going to re-listen to this with my pen and paper in hand. The many tangible suggestions and specific ideas that speak to the real struggle that we can all find ourselves in at times, to pay attention and tend to our own wellbeing. I think about in times when we are stressed, we know we’re less creative and we’re less able to see the forest through the trees. It is exactly these tangible types of suggestions that you’ve offered that can be most helpful to help us to find our way out of the woods. Thank you so much.
Brandli: You are welcome. This has been fun.
Cummings-Krueger: I also want to thank all our listeners for joining this Menttium Matters podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to share it with your friends and colleagues. If you are interested in additional resources, you can find our show notes on the Menttium website. We look forward to having you join us for our next interesting conversation.
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