According to new research, Americans check their phone an astonishing average of 80 times per day. Technology has enabled instant and perpetual connection, yet as a society, we feel more disconnected than ever before.
It’s an unintended consequence of innovation that author, Stanford instructor, digital pioneer and Silicon Valley visionary Ellen Petry Leanse knows all too well. She spent 35 years working with extraordinary leaders at Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to name a few, programming habits that revolved around our devices.
But, what if we could instead program habits that revolve around happiness? Drawing from decades of life lessons as a road-tested entrepreneur, that question inspired Leanse to develop a deeper understanding of neuroscience, design and mindfulness for her new book, The Happiness Hack.
In this episode of Project Luminary with Kristen Aldridge, learn how to reclaim focus for what matters most, reduce stress and make time to do the things we love.
Very few people have the perspective of how much technology has changed the world like you do. Over the past three decades, you’ve worked with extraordinary leaders at companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, to name a few. Your journey is so fascinating. What originally drew you to the tech industry?
Ellen Petry Leanse: I always believed that there was a connection between business and the arts, and I didn’t see any of that happening in the world of computing as I knew it. When it came time to look for a job, computers were the last thing I would have ever been looking for. So when I sent out hundreds of resumes, I didn’t expect something to happen one morning. I was thumbing through my stack of rejection letters, and I froze, and in the corner of one of these envelopes there was a rainbow apple. Any company that would use that as their logo understands this connection between art and business, art and humanity. And I said, “Oh, I hope this isn’t a rejection letter!” And I tore it open, and it was. But back in the day, rejection letters had people’s phone numbers, and I called that number, and I said, “I think you’ve made a mistake.”
So how do you go from rejection letter to actually working on the Macintosh launch team, as Apple’s first user evangelist?
Ellen Petry Leanse: Well, I guess that same spirit of try which is what I did when I got that rejection letter. That same spirit of try is what moves all of us forward in whatever path we take in life. What is the next best thing we can do? I think something that’s very, very important in any life story and in any sense of our personal growth and evolution, is becoming very comfortable with discomfort, with being uncomfortable. Pushing yourself to new levels, new potentials. Exploring what is possible within you. Opportunities like this exist for all of us and it really is the mindset and the intention that we bring to it that lets us navigate whatever it is that’s going to become something better than what it is now over time. You know, I can’t say that we were a startup, we were more than a startup but we were an upstart and we were taking big risks and we didn’t know where it was gonna go. But there was this agreement, it was a very explicit agreement, that if we really focused and had the right intention, that we would get somewhere better than we could get if we didn’t have that mindset.
Working with such visionary people like Steve Jobs, what did you learn from him that had the most profound impact on you?
Ellen Petry Leanse: There was one very specific thing that really changed my life, and that was on the first day that I was setting up in my new office, one of those interoffice envelopes came across me and it said something that I’ll never forget. It said, “How is the decision you’re making right now helping us to ship the greatest personal computer the world has ever known?” It was the first call to mindfulness that I’d ever experienced, but it’s really saying, “Your time matters, and every choice you make in it matters, and that your impact will be the summation of tiny step, after tiny step, after tiny step, and those steps will be shaped by your intention. So how is the decision you’re making right now affecting not only our ability to ship this incredible product, but how do those tiny steps actually shape the story of your life?”
The 80’s was of course this revolutionary period of time for personal computing. What were some of your early observations of how people interacted with this new technology?
Ellen Petry Leanse: I didn’t know back then that the Macintosh was going to be what it turned out to be. There was this incredible feeling of a groundswell of something changing. We watched these changes that made technology better and better, but our interaction with this technology was in sessions. We would sit down, and we’d file off a letter, and then we’d turn the computer off and go out and live our lives. The biggest change I’ve seen is the “always on-ness” of technology now; it is something that’s always with us. And when we see people who are feeling senses of tech addiction or anxiety, we are seeing the price we pay for that always on-ness.
What I think is so remarkable about you is, here you are working and innovating deep inside Silicon Valley and you have these epiphanies about how technology is affecting us. Did you feel like you could share these observations with your colleagues, or did you feel like you had to keep this epiphany to yourself?
Ellen Petry Leanse: First of all, I love your question so much because it calls on something that I think is really useful to someone to hear. I thought I was really different and something was wrong with me. I felt like everyone else was loving this stuff and thinking it was the greatest thing that’s ever happened, and I had a little hesitation. So I doubted myself and I tried to make myself more like the other people and think how great tech was, but somewhere inside, I sort of had this feeling that there would be some unintended consequences. And I always made it a priority to take time away from tech and even to say, “No, I don’t want these notifications coming, I don’t want a hundred apps on my phone.” So I was little bit weary and distant. But I felt that that was something that was weird about me. And the lesson that I take from that now is that it was actually on some level, some form of my own intuition or intelligence really protecting me from getting swept into something that probably didn’t serve my intention or my higher purpose. Maybe we can rewind that spec, “How is your decision right now helping you to do your great life work,” right? So thank goodness I had the maturity simply by the timing of my life to say, this isn’t a high quality use of my time, and my time is precious. That’s definitely something I learned at Apple. How will I protect this precious time so that I do what’s important. Rather than simply do what’s nudging me to do what’s urgent now.
You now have a new book out called The Happiness Hack. With all of this incredible knowledge, in the book you talk about the power of mastering our minds so that we can master our habits, and focus, as you say, is a big part of that. So how do we reclaim our focus to make sure that we make time for the things that matter most?
Ellen Petry Leanse: There are three very important things we can do, and they all focus around taking a break from tech. There’s a great phrase in neuroscience, and it goes like this, “Your brain will do more of whatever it’s doing right now.” So if what you’re doing right now is [looking at your phone], your brain will say, “Ah, this is what is takes for her to survive.”
When we wake up in the morning, usually the first thing we do is press that stop on our alarm, and the second thing we do is see what happened overnight that we might have missed. Put that [phone] down and go do something else. The most important thing is really to set an intention for that day that is independent from your tech.
The second is to take a break from tech at night, and I think at least 20 minutes is a great time. And then use those last 20 minutes to bring thoughts up of the things that matter to you, the things that feel important. While we’re sleeping the brain nurtures and kind of tends to the actions we’ve prioritized during the day, but then very gently sort of starts to sweep away the things that aren’t on the main path. So if we call to our attention the things that really matter to us before we sleep at night, the brain will nurture those as important thoughts.
The third thing is kind of an expansion of those, and that is find time at least once a week where you can go into an extended session with no technology. Take three hours to do what Cal Newport calls “deep work” and drop into what he calls a “Monk Mode Morning” which is something that’s really focused on what matters most to you.
So, the three things would be: do something other than tech when you wake up; do something other than tech and set your intentions for the next day as you fall asleep; and treat yourself to such a wonderful thing which is a three hour session without tech one morning a week.
What is the one thing you hope happens as a result of this book being out into the world?
Ellen Petry Leanse: I hope people learn how powerful they are and that they are in charge of their life. I hope it really gives them both the clarity and the conviction that they can hack back and they can reclaim more of what they want in their life and who they want themselves to be.