Anne-Laure Le Cunff is the Founder of Ness Labs, a neuroscience-based website centered on creativity. It's one of the best sources of information, inspiration and practical tools to support ambitious makers who think that running a business or working on side projects is compatible with mental wellness. In this conversation, she joins Future Crunch co-founder Dr Angus Hervey and Future Crunch facilitator, Shasta Henry, for a no-BS discussion on productivity, and how to get things done in an age of digital distractions and overwhelming demands on our time.

You can watch the recording here. There's also a full transcript of the conversation below.

Gus:

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are. Welcome to Future Brunch. We are delighted that you could join us today. We're really looking forward to today's session. My name is Gus. I am a political economist and co-founder of Future Crunch.

Shasta:

And my name is Shasta. I am one of the facilitators for Future Crunch. And I am an ecologist, a bio-geographer and an entomologist. And I am based in Tasmania.

I am always thrilled to have an opportunity to acknowledge the indigenous traditional owners of the land where I am, where I was born and where I grew up. And that is Palawa. That's the Palawakani word for Tasmania. As people are tuning in from all over the world, I invite you to take the opportunity to consider the indigenous sovereignty of the place where you are right now. If you haven't told us where you are yet, give yourself a shout out in the comments. Where are you tuning in from?

As a scientist, I had a really interesting opportunity for an epiphany, this National Science Week, this August just passed, where I got to see one of my colleagues in their acknowledgement of country point out that with 30,000 years of continuous culture in Australia, the Australian Aboriginal community are the traditional and first scientists to have ever been in Australia, to have ever studied and learned about Australia in a systematic way. And that just blew my mind. I literally saw the libraries of Alexandria burn all over again. It's a really profound moment that I realized that my profession is now effectively committed to gaining back information that we once had, just outside of our grasp when the when Australia was colonized, when my people came to this land. And I found that such an interesting, profound personal moment of access to acknowledgement of country.

And so not only am I grateful to live in Australia, and to study in Australia, but I'm grateful that my education carries on growing through the examples and conversations with the remarkable people around me. Speaking of whom...

Gus:

...we are delighted today to be joined by Anne-Laure Le Cunff who runs one of our favorite newsletters. She is a writer, she's a coder, she's super smart, she's a budding neuroscientist. Anne-Laure, it is awesome to have you today. Welcome to Future Brunch.

Anne-Laure:

Thanks so much for having me.

Gus:

Great. So just to bear in mind everyone, we've got about an hour. If you have questions, comments, you want to follow along and make comments in the chat box. Please do that. And if you have questions for Anne-Laure, if you could just ask in the little question box over here. We'll start digging up some of those questions as we go along.

The other thing is, please just remember, this is a live conversation. It's not an edited podcast, so it's not going to be perfect. We're making this up as we go. Hopefully the rawness and the realness of the live conversation more than makes up for the fact that we'll be thinking out loud as we proceed, which means quite a few ums. So we beg for your forgiveness in advance.

All right, let's get into it.

Shasta:

Fantastic. So Anne-Laure, a question that we like to ask everyone to get the ball rolling for Future Brunch, and it is brunch in some of the places where people are tuned in from (always exciting to see the global map play out in the commentary). What was the most surprising thing for you about the year 2020?

Anne-Laure:

Oh! I think the resilience of people around me. Obviously there's been lots of awful stuff happening. But I've been so surprised at how inventive and flexible people were to come up with different ways of doing things. And I'm thinking about founders who completely changed their business model because their original business model didn't work.

I'm thinking of companies that have to switch from one day to the other to remote work. And that made it work. Doesn't mean it was easy, doesn't mean they figured everything out on day one. But along the way they learned and they tried to make it better. And also, just in terms of friendships and families, the amount of effort people put into staying in touch, helping each other despite the fact that they couldn't travel.

I have a sister who lives in Seoul, Korea, and then one brother in Hungary. I live in London, my parents are in Paris. And despite the fact that we could not be in the same country, we use Zoom, we just called, etc. And that's the story that I've seen repeated across many families, many groups of friends. So the yeah, the resilience and the support was probably what was most surprising.

Gus:

Thank you, I think a lot of us feel the same way. It's a great answer. I want to start off with a bit of science. What I really love about your work Anne-Laure, is that it's not just more productivity porn, it is actually science based. And you are studying neuroscience at King's College, which is such a great institution. What do we know about neuroscience now that we didn't know 10 years ago? Or another way of asking this question is, what myths or ideas have been blown up in the last 10 years? What's new, essentially in neuroscience?

Anne-Laure:

I could talk about that for so long. But as a follow-up to the first question, is one of the most interesting areas, I think, is around emotional intelligence, and especially around emotional agility. And we used to have a much more black and white view of emotions in neuroscience of thinking that emotions are something that we can't control. And because as human beings, we are very uncomfortable with things that we can't control. The thinking was, "How can we control them better? How can we control them? Or how can we even get rid of them?" And there's been lots of research in drugs, for example, where the goal was to suppress the chemicals, the reactions in the brain that were causing certain emotions, sadness, etc, that were linked to some conditions like depression.

And more recently, in the past few years, we've discovered that emotions actually play a role that is not necessarily negative, that can be either just neutral, the role of giving you information as your mental state and body state, or even positive, something you can actually learn from and grow with. And there's really been a shift. And even though there are lots of pharmaceutical companies that keep on making billions and selling drugs, that help you shut down these emotions and manage to go to bed, even though you're feeling anxious, etc. So these still exists, and so it's still the very beginning.

There is a whole branch of research that is looking at other ways to better manage your emotions. And that includes mindfulness, that includes meditation, that includes sometimes also just psychotherapy, just talking about what the actual problem is, and where these emotions stem from. And I really think that this is a positive shift in research where sure, medication is incredibly helpful, and sometimes people do need them, but it's not always the only solution. And sometimes what we see as a problem, in need of a solution is just a source of information, something we can learn from.

Shasta:

Cool, that makes me think of a thing. As a zoologist, I'm really fascinated about how our human evolution impacts our human experience in the modern world. And I was thinking when you were talking about that, do you have any insight as a neuroscientist as to, I think a lot of people enjoy mindfulness but find it really challenging to practice and I am a lot of people, I'm just talking exactly about myself here. Do you have any insight as to ... is that a unifying human thing? Is that a phenomenon or is that a thing that we can unpick or work against?

Anne-Laure:

It's very similar to other things that are good for us today, but that don't make sense from an evolutionary perspective. The simplest example I can give you is food. Our brain has been wired to eat as much as possible of it the way you find it and to store the most sugary, the fatty food etc, that will give you a lot of energy because being wired this way meant survival, you did not know when your next meal was going to be. So if you found food, you eat it as much as possible, you store it, and this is how you survive.

Shasta:

Thousands and thousands of years of that behavior keeping us alive.

Anne-Laure:

Exactly. And all of a sudden, in a few hundreds of years, actually, this is killing us now because we have supermarkets, they're full of it. And we are addicted to sugar, we just love sugar. And this is something that's really hard to break. So that's like the simplest example. There's lots of other things like public speaking, the stress you have when you try and speak in public. From an evolutionary perspective, if you're in the jungle, and all of a sudden, there are 100 pairs of eyes watching you, that doesn't look good. That means you're supposed to run as fast as possible.

So our brain is wired to see this and be like, "Whoa! I need to get out of here. This is not looking good." And it's really hard to retrain yourself to be like, "These people, they're just sitting in the audience. They just want to hear from you, they don't want to eat me. Everything is fine. So that's the same for mindfulness and meditation, which is something that is really good for us today, to deal with the modern stress of the life that we have today that we're not the ones that we had before. But it is not something that is naturally wired in our brain. There is nothing in evolution in the jungle, that would make vegetation something that would make you more likely to survive.

So absolutely, it's completely normal if the first few times you do it, it feels uncomfortable. You're sitting here and you're like, "Why I'm I doing it? I feel itchy everywhere. I don't want to just stay this still. I don't want to just stay like this with my thoughts." It just feels very uncomfortable for people, that's absolutely normal. It doesn't mean it's not good for you, it just means that's the same as eating well, exercising, and all of these things are good for us, but that are not wired in our brain because we never needed them for thousands of years. You need to actually consciously, proactively practice it, so it becomes a habit.

Gus:

That's a nice segue into something. You've spoken about this before, which is the idea of mental gym, which I love. I think it's a great framing concept. What I'd like to know, I think the concept of mental gym is pretty obvious to everyone. So what is good mental gym, and what is pseudoscience mental gym? I'm thinking here of the pseudoscience of like, I don't know, Sudoku, or wordplay games that promise to make you think better.

Shasta:

Those apps that are like, going to make you smarter, stronger, faster.

Anne-Laure:

Yeah, absolutely.

Gus:

So what is good mental gym, and what is a pseudo mental gym?

Anne-Laure:

Pseudo mental gym is - mainly you mentioned them, it's brain games, brain apps, and there's been lots of research on them. And you can play them if you find them fun. This is completely fine, this is good entertainment. And if you're bored on the bus, and you really don't feel like listening to podcasts or reading a book, and you just want to play a game, fine, but just know you're playing a game because research shows that they only make you good at one thing - which is becoming better at playing this specific game.

But there's no transfer. That's what scientists used to say if you do activity A, does it transfer to activity B? And in this case, there's no transfer, you literally just become good at playing these puzzles. If you enjoy it, that's fine. Sudoku is great. And I love playing it but I know that it's not making me smarter, it's not helping with my memory or anything. It's just a fun thing to do, so that's pseudoscience.

Another one also is that there are lots of people who are going to think that they can just apply a one size fits all regimen, and then be like, "If I do this, I'm going to be smarter, I'm going to be more productive, I'm going to be more creative." And you have lots of-

Gus:

Silver bullet productivity hacks, yeah.

Anne-Laure:

Exactly. And that's a word actually, that I really don't like, productivity hack because there is no hack really. You could call it, there's productivity hygiene, there's productivity habits, there are routines, but there's no hack, you can't just play this magic trick that is going to make you more productive. And so in the case of the mental gym, I don't want to do a laundry list of all of the good things that you could do. There are so many different ones that can be good for your mental health.

The really important thing - and that applies to physical gyms as well - is that when you want to really make the most of a physical gym, you just don't show up and grab whatever is there and start doing crunches because that's just like there's a mat here, and so that's what you can do, right?

Sometimes you do it on your own, sometimes by doing research, sometimes with a coach, but you take the time to figure out what is the right series of exercises that are good for you depending on your own goals. And so someone who wants to build more muscle is going to do something different from someone who wants to lose weight. And this is the same in a mental gym. I think it's very important.

The only one thing I recommend for absolutely everyone is making space for self-reflection, making the time and having the mental space to think about what are my goals? What's going well, what's not going so well. And so what should I change? What should I improve, etc. And if you do this regularly, if every week, you block a little bit of time to review your current mental gym, your current exercises, your current tools, your current strategies, and you consciously proactively decide, this is what I'm going to keep, this is working well, this is what I'm going to change because it could be improved. And this is what I'm going to get rid of because it works for my friend, my friend has been raving about this thing, but it just doesn't work for me. So I'm not going to keep on doing this. If you keep on reviewing it this way. After a few weeks, I truly believe that everyone can design a mental gym that works for themselves, their own custom mental gym.

Shasta:

Maybe this doesn't work as a question then. But this is my first time hearing the phrase mental gym, it makes a lot of sense. But now I want to know, are there any good pieces of equipment that fit into most people's mental gyms? Or do you like ... You could ask me something, and I can tell you something I want and I want to know more about mental gyming like some actual things that you recommend is great. Rather than just like mental junk food.

Anne-Laure:

Yeah. One that I think works for everyone is just getting enough sleep. It's not necessarily something that you would think about putting in your mental gym. And again, the number of hours actually does vary a little bit with people. So trying to stick to exactly a number that you heard, some people have heard, you need to sleep seven hours, some others, or over eight hours. The truth is, depending on the kind of food that you eat, the job that you have. If you spend all day running around lifting heavy stuff, obviously, you're going to need more steep than someone who's staying at their desk. So it's really a matter of figuring out the right amount of sleep, but getting that right amount is probably something that I would put in anyone's mental gym.

Anne-Laure:

And then there are things that are good for everyone. But that some people struggle much more than others to implement. And so the example you gave earlier of meditation, most people who do manage to stick with it report feeling better, feeling calmer, and having lots of positive effects in terms of managing your stress and anxiety, etc. But lots of people struggle to implement it. And so I think it's also a matter of finding like, what's your tool that works for me.

I actually really struggled to stick with meditation. And I do it at times in my life where I'll do 10 days because I really need it as a tool at that time. And I don't necessarily feel like I need it all the time. My tool that I do every week, though, is journaling. That's my own mindfulness practice that I managed to stick with. So a form of mindfulness, whichever is the one that works for you, I would say would be a second tool. And that's it, I think the rest you need to experiment.

Gus:

So what I love, when I look at your work Anne-Laure, it's mindfulness, not in the way that we think about mindfulness in a lot of the wellness literature, or what passes for wellness online, which is sit and meditate or just be present to the moment. When you talk about mindfulness, you talk about being aware of what's going on in your mind. And one of my favorite distinctions in your work is the distinction between mind frames and mental models. Can you talk about that a little bit? And can you give us an example of each that has been particularly useful for you?

Anne-Laure:

Yes, so I see mind frames as general mental scaffolding that you have in your life and that you try to improve over time. So one of them is self-authorship. For example, it's the belief that you can craft your own life and make your own decisions, which is not necessarily something that everyone has at the same level. Some people with lower self-authorship, would for example, tend to follow a bit more with their parents and family expect from them. People with high self-authorship will tend to question that a bit more and to ask themselves, "What is it that I actually want to do?" And if my mom and my grandma and you can go back, everyone has been a doctor in my family. But I have my self-authorship, and that's not what I want to do. I can ask myself that. So that's an example of mind frame, self-authorship. And as you can see, that's a general scaffolding that you have in life. Whereas, a mental model-

Gus:

Sorry. Can you give us one other mind frame? Another example?

Anne-Laure:

Yeah, metacognition is another one is being able to think about thinking. And so it's people who have high levels of metacognition or metacognitive skills, instead of just doing things and applying your whatever concepts in the way that they think work, they will always ask themselves, "Why did I do it this way? What happened in my mind here?" And they always take that step back of trying to figure out not only I did A to get B, but like, what was everything in the background that happened, the factors that I may have been conscious or not conscious of that have influenced the way that I made this decision, or I work. And again, that's not just a one tool, as you can see, it's just do you have high metacognitive levels or lower ones. And so do you tend to be that kind of more introspective person that is going to ask yourself these things or not? So that's another more of a mind frame. And it just helps you think, and it helps you make a decision in life in general.

Another important thing about mind frames is that they're more of on the spectrum, I don't think you can ever say, "I'm the best at metacognition or I have the highest self-authorship in the world," it's just more on the spectrum, and it's just higher or lower. And I feel like you will try for your whole life to get better at them. But it will be a constant learning process, so that's mind frames.

And for mental models, they're more like tools for thinking. They're like rules of thumb, like heuristics where in life, as you can learn from different experiences, personal experiences, or from science or from research or from how the world works. And you can start seeing patterns. And you can start thinking, "Okay, in most cases, when this happens, this happens," and you can use this. These can become mental models that help you make decisions in situations of uncertainty, or in situations that it's the opposite, that you face them enough where you're actually like, "I know what's going on here, because I have a mental model for it."

So it's always quite interesting. Whenever you're faced with a situation that's completely new to you, you generally don't know what to do to try and figure out is there a mental model to be uncovered here that I could use in the future. And uncovering this mental model can be through either your own hard work making all of the mistakes, in this particular case, and discovering your own mental models for dealing with that situation in the future. Or it can be learned from an expert in whatever problem you're facing, and reaching out to them. Because if they're an expert with this problem, it's likely they have a couple of mental models that they have acquired throughout the years that they can teach you so you can use them.

Or you can also find a mental model by translating one from another area of expertise. And you're like, "Oh, actually, that works here, too."

Gus:

Can you give us a specific example of a mental model that you've used in the last month or two?

Anne-Laure:

One that's like a very famous one that can be used in so many areas in your life, it's just supply and demand. And you can use it for so many things. You can use it in the economic like, obviously, if you study, you will know, but you can also apply to your own life and your time. It's like, I only have this supply of time, and they are the people who demand my time. And so you try and figure out, "Okay, how much do I want to give to them? How much do I want to keep for myself?" What's the value of my time, and it helps you organize yourself.

Anne-Laure:

And so, for example, for me, I offer one-to-one coaching to people. And because of this, I had to be like, "Okay, I actually need to charge more because at this stage, there's more demand than what I can actually supply. So you can use that in lots of different parts of your life. So that's an example of a mental model I've used.

Gus:

Thanks. That's a great answer.

Shasta:

That's actually brought me right on to a thing that I just started wondering, which is a lot of these concepts that we're discussing, like self-authorship got me thinking of it, but also as we were discussing kind of meditation, and these things that can help make you more productive, make you feel better. And I was wondering about the intersection of those kinds of concepts and those behaviors, and even that kind of mental access and privilege and accessibility. And I was wondering if you had spent any time contemplating that also, and come out with any thoughts about how time, money and opportunity play into some of these concepts that you're discussing with us?

Anne-Laure:

Absolutely. And this is something that always comes up in conversations at Ness Labs, when we do meetups together, and we talk about these things, we always kind of take the time to acknowledge the fact that we are very privileged to even be able to have these conversations. Because first, we have quite a relatively more control over our time, the way we spend our time. And again, it's a spectrum. And at the highest end of the spectrum, there are probably people who just have enough money that they don't need to work a day again in their life. And so it is just really their choice of deciding what to work on. And they're probably also ... I'm trying to imagine what would it look like? The maximum freedom with your time. They probably don't have kids, they probably don't have people to care for. It's just them, I guess, so [crosstalk 00:26:21].

Shasta:

And no health issues...

Anne-Laure:

No health issues, yeah.

Shasta:

... brain injury and no food intolerances...

Anne-Laure:

Exactly.

Shasta:

Nothing else to think about.

Anne-Laure:

Yeah, which would kind of be weird, because it almost sounds like a machine. Like I'm picturing robots in my head right now.

But then, if you look at the spectrum, and as you mentioned, there's so many things that chip away at the control we have on our time, and it would take so long, I think to try and consider them all because they're all very personal. And sometimes just feeling anxious, for example, will make you less productive, will make you feel paralyzed in terms of looking at your schedule, and be like, "Oh my God! How am I going to even manage to do this?"

And anxiety can stem from lots of different things. It can stem from lack of money, just how and again, it's ranging. It can go from how am I going to pay my rent this week to I actually, once I pay my rent, I have very little money left than that's a problem. Or I'm supposed to pay for my tuition, if I'm a student, and I don't have that money right now. There's lots of different ways money can be a problem, and can cause anxiety. Can be anxiety for health issues, as you said, for yourself, or for a loved one, having a parent or a child who's sick.

I currently have a very good friend of mine, she's an intrapreneur, and her little girl who's five, and has been sick for the past week. And we know it's not something that is really bad or anything. But I can definitely tell that in terms of anxiety, she has been much more stressed. She's had to shuffle around her agenda a lot of times, and so she doesn't have the calm, she doesn't feel as routed as she usually is.

So yeah, I do think about that a lot. And I do try always in my writings and in my research to try and consider the alternative situations where people don't have as much control. And this is why I talk a lot about mindful productivity. And for me, it's not just about mindfulness, being present, etc. It's also just about being mindful of the fact that we're all human. We have lots of internal and external sources of good and bad stress. And all of that shapes the way we feel, the way we think, the way we work, how creative we are, how productive we are. And for me mindful productivity is also about not beating yourself up if you're not achieving the goals that you set to achieve, and that's fine. And it's also about acknowledging the fact that not everyone has the same timeline. It's not a race. And if you're seeing someone else achieving the goals that you have for yourself quicker than you are, being mindful is knowing that they don't have the same life as you do. And they may not have the kid that you have, or they may not have the health issues that you have, and they may not have this.

And so it's amazing for them. And it's good, you should be happy for them. Great for you, and cheer for them. This is great that you're managing to do this faster than I am. But also cheering for yourself saying like, "Great, you're also doing great, I'm doing great." And despite everything that's going on, I'm making progress and how fast doesn't really matter, as long as I'm making the progress that I want to make.

Shasta:

That's super nice to hear. It's really humanizing. Like you were just describing, we can see other people's success or we can read about people encouraging success and it can just feel really isolating sometimes when you don't feel up to the challenge. I think it can be far easier to interact with that kind of material even when people just here are hearing you say, "Yes, I understand that we are human, and that that plays in all these facets." And so you can view it from that light. Anne-Laure reminded me that I'm human and that's good enough.

Gus:

Shasta you're not a robot! Good news. All right. Anne-Laure, I want to put you on the spot a little more here. What have you changed your mind about?

Anne-Laure:

I changed my mind about myself, I think a lot in the past two years, where really thought when I was younger. And when I worked at Google, I really thought I wanted to work in startups and raise a lot of money. And I don't know what kind of picture I had in my head, I was probably reading a little bit too much wired in TechCrunch. And I had this cliche of success in my head. And I'm not saying cliche, but I'm saying cliche for myself in the sense that I do know lots of startup founders. And they're doing this for the right reasons because they really care about what they're doing. But I was dreaming about this life for the wrong reasons. It just sounded cool, and I never really taken the time to ask myself, "Do I really care? Is that really the lifestyle that I want?" And in the past few years, I realized that I actually enjoy much more of the process of reading, writing, researching, asking myself questions.

Just the whole reflection process is something that I'm much more comfortable with. And not comfortable because it's easy, but comfortable because I'm generally excited about it. I can wake up in the morning and be like, "Oh, this is what I'm going to research today." And I go from not knowing the thing about a concept in the morning to the evening like, "This is pretty cool, actually." You don't know what you don't know, but I have a glimpse of everything I don't know here, and this is very exciting.

So I just changed my mind about what ... And I still don't know exactly what I want in life. And I think that's completely fine. So I changed my mind about what I want in life. And I changed my mind about thinking that I knew what I wanted. And now I'm much more comfortable not knowing and being more in an exploratory phase. And this is something that if anyone on the webinar needs to hear too, this is fine. Whatever your age, if you're not 100% sure where you want to go, what's your next step? If you don't have a perfect career path in your head, where those are the five steps I need to take, so in 10 years, I'm here.

When people ask you, "What do you want to be in 10 years?" And if your answer is, "I have no idea." This is completely fine. This is fine. So that's something I changed my mind on. It's okay not to know where you want to go, basically.

Gus:

Okay. And then the other thing that I wanted to ask you. There is a potential criticism in your work in the sense that you, on the one hand, you're talking about how to be more productive, how to get things done better, and you're putting that all on the internet. But on the other hand, you're perhaps perpetuating the exact problem that you say you're solving in the first place. How do you resolve that tension - if at all?

Anne-Laure:

I do think it helps a lot, and I wouldn't be doing the work that I'm doing, if I didn't give that, obviously. But I think the fact that I'm putting this on the internet. I'm creating a conversation. And the fact that we're talking about it right now shows that it's working, right? And that's my goal, basically. I generally don't think I have all the answers. I but I also know that we spent, I don't know, actually, I would need to look up the stats for this. But we spend a lot of our waking hours and a lot of our life working. Work is a big part of life.

And there are too many people who are miserable at work for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, they're miserable at work, because they're working on something they generally don't care about. But they don't think that they can change career or work on something else. Sometimes they're miserable at work because they care too much about what they're working on. And they're not taking care of their mental health and they're not sleeping enough. And as a result, they burnout and you have startups that are failing, people who quit their jobs. And when you ask them afterwards, when they get a little bit better, you ask them, "But did you care about your job?" And they're like, "Yeah, I did care too much, actually. That was the problem here."

So for me, putting all of this on the internet is a way to create the space for if you have these conversations and to tell these people that productivity is not just about doing work for the sake of doing work and it's not about doing as much work as possible. It's about figuring out a way where you can achieve your goals, the ones that actually matter to you, and doing it so in a way where you can still take care of your mental health.

So that's how I resolve this paradox where I think it is important to keep on talking about it. And I also think that because there's so much toxic content around productivity online, I could feel defeated and say, "Well, too bad." Like, "That's what the space looks like." Or I could even if I'm like, a tiny dot in the middle of a sea of productivity porn, I could be like, "No, I'm going to grow my little island here." And because it's so tiny, it may be hard for people to find me. But at least it's there. And when people find me, they can be like, "Oh, cool. There is another way to think about this." And that's all I want people to find out that there's just another way to think about this.

Gus:

Speaking of finding you, if people would like to find on Anne-Laure's website, down there, they can navigate to it. It's called Ness Labs, and you'll see the button at the bottom of your screen.

Shasta:

I'm now wondering if there's an intersection between some of where we started out and what we're just talking about here with the human evolution. And there's a criticism that sort of does the rounds when we discuss universal basic income, and that everyone will just lie in bed and do nothing. And obviously, the economy and the world will collapse.

But as you're describing, it seems that the tendency is for people to do too much, to work too hard. And I'm wondering if you have observed that intersection with the human evolution that the basic human condition and work and where that relationship actually is for the naked ape, which is us? Why do we work? And why do we work so much?

Anne-Laure:

I love this question. I want to say first, that I'm very, very, very pro universal, basic income. That's something I really believe in, and I hope that you're not ... It's definitely a topic of debate with my friends. And I have friends who are not, I'm very pro. And I'm really hoping that before I die, I can see your country really implement it. And because it's obviously completely subjective. But in my head, I'm like, "Let's do it, so we can show people that it can actually work."

Anne-Laure:

And the reason why I think it would work touches on your question of why we work. And I do not think that if you had universal basic income, people would just sit at home and do nothing. I think that people and this is the biggest question and maybe it has an answer. Everyone has their answer. Maybe it has no answer. I don't know. But why are we here? Like what's the meaning of life? Basically, the big question.

And everyone, most people spend their life trying to answer this in a form or another. And I really believe that even unconsciously, I don't think everyone walks around thinking about this all the time, obviously, because there's life, there's stuff going on, and we keep busy. But work for me is either a way for people to actively answer that question to try and figure out, why am I here? What is my contribution? On my deathbed when I look back, what is it that people are going to say that I did and why I was here? What was my purpose? Or the opposite, unhealthy? But work for some people is a way to avoid that question, because they're really scared of the fact that they're not going to find an answer. And so they throw themselves into work as a way to not think about it.

But for me work is however you look at it, is linked to this question, either as a way to try and answer it or to try and avoid it. And because of this, I truly believe that whatever happens because this is such a big question, and because I don't think anyone has a universal answer to it, and it's more about each individual trying to figure out what the answer is for themselves. It's not just about money, people are going to keep on working. And if at some point we get in a society where health is sold, food is sold. How do you call that in English? But everyone has a roof on their head, basically, like all of this is sold and you don't need to work for these basic things.

I think people are going to keep on working on other stuff. There's going to still be scientists who want to understand how the universe works. And if this is the Omni-Universe or are there other universes? Everyone is going to keep on. They're still going to be artists writing poetry, painting, trying to express themselves and trying to think about their legacy in a different way. There are still going to be people having kids. And so we're still going to need teachers to teach them stuff and educate them, and train the next generation of curious minds who are going to keep on asking questions.

So for me because human beings are inherently curious, we'll keep on working, whatever happens, we'll keep on working. But if money is not an issue, my hope is that it will not feel as much as work and people will work on stuff they actually care about versus working because they need to put food on the table.

Shasta:

Yeah, I definitely agree. I hope that we would fit into some kind of new equilibrium where every role still gets filled by people who didn't have to earn any money to fill it, but Gus.

Gus:

Thanks Anne-Laure. Cannot believe the two of you have turned Future Brunch into an advert for universal basic income. I'm horrified.

All right, let's get into some of the questions from our live viewers here. Kim has got a really interesting one, I might see if I can try and fill around the question here, Kim. Is the larger part of the problem recognizing that a problem exists in real time, rather than after the event's information overload as well as motions? I wonder whether maybe I could ... Anne-Laure, if you could answer this more on like, if you've got a problem, or let's phrase this another way, if you've got a goal, what's the best way of dealing with that problem in real time? And what are some strategies I suppose for getting something done or for overcoming a challenge?

Anne-Laure:

I think, before he dealt with the problem, it's good to create an environment where you're going to deal with it in the most effective way. So doing just a quick check. I like doing this, obviously, don't do this every time you have the tiniest of problems, because sometimes it works to just intuition being like, "Okay, I don't have time to deal with this. And if I'm wrong, the consequences are not going to be that big." Like, that's fine. You don't need a framework for every single decision.

But I assume this is about bigger ones, where they would be bigger consequences. If you get things wrong. Doing a quick check in terms of cognitive biases is a good thing. First, just make sure that you're looking at this in as much of an objective way as possible. And so just asking yourself very quickly, where am I coming from, looking at this question? Do I have any vested interests in terms of how this is going to happen that would maybe make me take a decision that is not the right one. But that just feels like the right one for me right now.

So this quick check first, I think helps a lot. And then a tool that I really like, but I can never remember all of the letters, but it's the decide framework. And basically, it has six steps, but it's really about taking the time to list all of the alternative options that you have, which is something that surprisingly, we don't do very often. We just straight away go with one or two of the solutions that we thought about. But we don't take the time to think about all of the other potential ones. Try and find all of the potential solutions, even the ones that were not obvious to you. And you can do this either by doing extra research or bringing in like a thinking buddy, and be like, "Hey, can you come look at this with me, let's generate solutions." And then you just wait them and you try objectively to try and figure out what's the right one.

And the E in decide at the very end, I do remember this one, is evaluate. And that's also something that we rarely do. We never look back at a decision that we made and what was the result of it, we just look at the result. And we're like, "Oh, no, that didn't work." But the E of evaluate is about evaluating how you made that decision. And so instead of just saying, "That didn't work." It's like going back, "Why didn't it work and what in the decision led us to this result?"

And we talked about mental models a little bit earlier in the conversation. That's an amazing opportunity to potentially create a mental model for later where you can be like, "Oh, actually, in this situation, that's a good mental model to apply," or, "I tried this one and it didn't work." And so you put that into your thinking toolbox that you can reuse for later.

Gus:

Great. Thank you. I can see Shasta is furiously scribbling notes there. It's okay Shasta, it's going to be recorded.

Do you mind if I do another quick question, and then I'll pass it over to Shasta?

Shasta:

I'm carving neural pathways with my pen, Gus. Thank you.

Anne-Laure:

Love that.

Gus:

I think you're carving neural pathways in all of us with that jumper as well, it's incredible.

Shasta:

I bought it especially for Zoom meetings. I got this when we went into lockdown. I call it Karen.

Gus:

It's magnificent. All right. Anne-Laure, I have a question for you. And I'm not going to see if I can combine two people here. We've got Julia, who said, "Do you think it's even possible to preserve mental health working in the corporate world? Short-termism, insecurity, overwork, total erosion of work-life boundaries. We all know the story. And then actually, we also had Eric asked a question sort of similar. He said, "What's the way that people who hate work and are just walking to their grave, can they break out of that way of thinking?"

So here's my question to you, for people who are walking to the grave, or who are stuck in horrible corporate jobs, or who are just feeling overwhelmed by that. You've written about so many tools? You've got 30, 40, 50 different bugs? What's the one you've used the most in the last year? The one that you've actually used because you've got a huge toolbox? And is that something that people can use to break out of this death spiral of work?

Anne-Laure:

Okay, I'm going to just like, change your question a little bit, because it's like what I have ... Well, some of the tools I have used the most for myself in the past years, I think, won't be useful for these people. Because I am very privileged in the sense that I run my own company, I have complete freedom over how I manage my time. So my tools for myself, I don't think are going to be helpful for them. So I'm just going to talk about a tool that I think would be helpful for them. And this tool doesn't come from neuroscience, doesn't come from painful productivity. But I have found that many people who hate their job are stuck there for various reasons, as we talked about earlier, because of money, because of health. And whatever reasons, you don't actually have the freedom of just quitting your job, even if you don't like it.

But side projects, I think can be incredibly helpful in restoring a little bit of balance in your life. And a side project doesn't necessarily have to be like a pure work one. Some people who are very entrepreneurial, they're going to go full blown side project, I'm launching a store on Etsy, and I'm going to sell necklaces or I'm going to whatever and I'm like, "Ooh, that's intense." For some people that works for them. But for others, it can simply be like, "Actually, I want to learn how to draw, for example, I want to learn how to make illustrations, or I'm going to have a side project of ... " My side project at the moment, the personal one, you're not necessarily going to see me post about it online. But I'm doing something that I made up for myself called Hundred Days of Trees. And every day, I need to take a picture of a tree. That's it, it's very simple, but it helps me because it forces me to ... I love it, your photo of your [crosstalk 00:47:28].

But I work from home. And sometimes it's very easy for me to just let the day pass and just not go outside, which is not good. And I also just generally love trees. And I'm in the city. And this project for me gives me a new appreciation for the little bit of nature that we have. There's not a lot in London. So just being intentional and walking around. So it's good for exercising, so that's my little side project. And it's a tiny thing, it doesn't require a lot of work, but it brings me joy every day when I do this. It's just this little fun thing.

So yeah, that's the tool I would recommend for anyone who's unhappy in their job and for whom quitting is not the solution, because that's the obvious solution if you can is quit and find a job to like. But I also fully acknowledge the fact that is actually in 2020, things are hard. So if you need to keep your job, make yourself a little side project, something that you can look forward to and it is not necessarily going to always make your job easier. But at least in the 24 hours of the day, you can carve this little time that is just for yourself, and that is this joyful thing that is good that you're excited about and looking forward to.

Shasta:

You know - what we used to call those hobbies!

Anne-Laure:

Yes.

Shasta:

Is there value in labels? As a taxonomist, I think there is.

Anne-Laure:

Totally. Actually, and I wrote an article about this where I was like, "Don't turn all of your hobbies into a side project, so I actually wrote about this. So great point, actually. Yes, please replace the word side project by hobby, if you want in this, but I also know that for some people actually, they do you need a side project. So whatever works for you, like try if you want like a light hobby, or if you need something that's kind of like consuming more of your time and mental energy, but in a good way that you're really excited about, that's good too.

Shasta:

A passion project, the thing you go home too.

Anne-Laure:

Exactly, yeah.

Gus:

Great. All right. I've got another great question here from Monica, "As an entrepreneur and having your own business, what are your top three tips for other entrepreneurs?" And I'm very aware that what might work for you might not work for other entrepreneurs. But are there a few practices or things that you found particularly useful let's say in the last year, with building Ness Labs?

Anne-Laure:

My number one would be time blocking, but not the crazy time blocking that you see sometimes where people fill their whole calendar with blocks of time. If you looked at my calendar right now is quite empty, actually, I'm very mindful of it, I'm very protective of my calendar. And for me, if on Monday, if I look at my calendar, and it looks all blue, like in Google Calendar, it looks all filled in like, "Ooh, there's something wrong here," I'm going to move some stuff, because that's too much. So I'm trying to keep it as free as possible. And I block time for the things that really matter, that I really want to get done.

So I'm not going to block time being like, "Hey, block time for admin stuff or whatever," because, for me, I'll do this in the gaps when I have time. But that's not like my highest priority thing. But I block time for writing, for example. I have writing blocks in my calendar because for me, that's the one thing that I need to happen every day, it's just writing.

So number one tip would be just be mindful of your calendar. In my case, that looks like time blocking. In your case, that may look like something else. But be mindful of this and don't see a full calendar as a sign of productivity, because it doesn't mean anything. And there's so many successful entrepreneurs that have actually posted screenshots of their calendars on Twitter, they're so empty, and you're like, "Whoa! You're running this billion dollar company and your calendar is actually empty." That's what I strive to achieve. That's what I want, an empty calendar and a successful company, so that's the number one thing.

The second one, I already mentioned it earlier about something I so strongly believe in that I really recommend it to anyone, especially including entrepreneurs, is carve time for self-reflection, whatever that looks like. In my case, that's one hour every Sunday. In your case, that can be some people do morning pages in the morning, that can also be like a quick check in with yourself 15 minutes every morning just being like, how am I feeling? What was going on?

Some people use, and I use it too interstitial journaling, where in between tasks, you just write a little bit about how you feel and what you want to work on next, etc. But whatever the format, the tool that you use, make sure you carve time for self-reflection because as an entrepreneur, it's very easy to just go through your to-do list and feel a sense of achievement, because you're like, "Yeah, I checked everything." But they're not taking the step back to figure out like where do things on this list, the things that really mattered? Did I actually go in the right direction, or was I mindlessly productive for the whole day?"

So second thing, self-reflection. And the third one is try and create balance in the sense that ... And the balance that works for you. I don't believe in work-life balance in the traditional sense of the term, where people are like, okay, from 9:00 to 6:00, or whenever 9:00 to 5:00 I'm at work, and that's work and then there's life. For entrepreneurs, there's no such thing as work and then life, it's all blended. Your company is a bit like your baby, etc. But it also means that you need to be even more intentional in making sure that you have time for seeing friends, for spending time with your family, for exercising, or whatever it is, whatever you think is again, that makes you happy. That recharges your serotonin levels. Like, "That felt good, I talked to my friend, I went for a run or I cooked something nice for myself, but whatever your thing is."

But as an entrepreneur, you're more likely to not do that because you're passionate about your job. And you can end up just kind of like working your life away. And it's great that you love your company. I love working on my company, but be especially proactive in terms of having a bit of life outside of your company as well.

Gus:

Great. Love it. Shasta, you're nodding.

Shasta:

Are you learning value? I'm nodding at you, Gus. But yes, I just sitting here vaguely contemplating that the thesis had started to sneak in and push out the hobbies, which I only just recently clawed back. So I'm having a fun daydreaming of those passion projects that I have waiting for some of my life, balance outside of work.

Gus:

Waiting for you on the other side of the PhD Shasta, you're almost there. All right. I've got one more question here. And it's... actually I have a whole bunch.

Shasta:

You should have written it down.

Gus:

It's another tip. But I want to talk a little bit about it. Let's see if you can ... Let me see if I can rephrase this. If you think about a conscientious person, this is something that we admire. It's something that we all strive to be, we want to be a conscientious people. Conscientiousness is actually divided into two parts. There's industriousness, which is kind of the drive and the willingness to do stuff. And then there's orderliness, which is, like it sounds like actually being organized and getting your stuff done. For someone who is an orderly person, but lacking industriousness or vice versa, someone who's maybe an industrious person, but is lacking in orderliness. Is there a way that one can be more of the other? So how can an industrious person be more orderly? And how can an orderly person be more industrious? And I'm aware that that's quite a tough question.

Anne-Laure:

So I'm still going to try and answer it. But first, I would question, is that something you want in the first place? Because why do we need to be conscientious? I'm super messy, like literally. I'm not going to show you my desk right now. But I have a very, very messy desk, and it works for me, it's fine. My output, my goal in life is not to have an orderly desk, that's not my goal. My goal is to write interesting content. And if for me, the messiness doesn't get in the way of that, then that's completely fine. So I'm still going to answer it. But first, I would also say, "Maybe you don't need to, that's completely fine."

But if it is something that gets in the way, and you do want your hard working industries, but you're kind of messy in your process, or vice versa. So if orderliness is to something you want more off, obviously, just create frameworks for yourself. If this is not something you do naturally, just create frameworks for yourself, forcing mechanisms where it is going to happen, whether you want it or not.

And there are lots of different ways to do this, but I really recommend reading the book by James Clear, called Atomic Habits, because he talks about a system that I really like where you kind of link together a thing that you enjoy doing with a thing that you don't enjoy doing. So after a while, you associate them together. And the example he gives in the book is watching a series you like while exercising on the treadmill. So you associate these things together. In the case of cleaning your desk, especially now that if you're working from home, maybe you like to dancing, put good music on and just do it while dancing or whatever.

If you're in an office, you can also find a friend who has the same challenge as you and say, "Hey, let's make it a challenge together. And we're doing two weeks of clean desk. And whenever your desk is not clean, you're buying coffee." Or something like that, you can create these things for yourself. So just creating forcing mechanisms and hoping that after a while, you can start creating the habit if you do it enough times. That's how we create habits, you need to do it enough time so it becomes natural for yourself.

If the goal is to be more industrious, again, I would ask myself, why is it that I am not industrious? Is it because I'm not an industrious person? I don't really believe in this, I think it's probably a problem with the work too. Maybe you're not interested, maybe your team is not motivating. Maybe there's not enough psychological safety. So you feel like taking risks and owning the project.

So first, I would ask myself these questions. And if that's not a problem with this, it's just you have the type of personality where not being industrious ... I don't know. It's just such a weird thing to think about. Because I'm like, "What's the opposite of that? Are you lazy, basically?" And if that's it? Yeah, I don't have a good answer for that other part because for me, when I see people not wanting to work on something, it's just that is boring to them, or it's like, they don't care about it. But everyone finds something interesting to do in general. And if for them, it's like playing a puzzle or doing something else or whatever. Like that's not necessarily a way to make money. But that usually it's more of a problem with the task, I think, or the way it's presented rather than the person, if you really don't feel like doing something.

Sorry. I really don't have a good answer for that other part.

Gus:

I'm not sure it was a great question, but I think you answered it beautifully.

We are at the one hour mark. Just to wrap it up. Shasta, is there anything that is clearer to you now on this side of the conversation than to when we started?

Shasta:

Oh, everything but also nothing. No. What have I come away excited about? I think it really cemented for me, I think I must have seen something written down that it was time to reclaim hobbies. And so I think that it's always nice for me, it's like a skeptical scientist, to hear that really cemented by a person who's a real aficionado in their field of neuroscience, it's chef's kiss, so that the hobby is there to kind of nurture in to feed us.

I was really interested that I may be inadvertently asked by our most important question, which is like, why do we work? And like I said, I'm interested in humans as an animal, and how that creates the modern human experience. And as a biologist, I'm all about, there's no more purpose to a human than there is to a snail or a stick insect. But I also love work, and I know that I wouldn't just stagnate if somebody gave me a whole bunch of money to do whatever I wanted. And so I might have accidentally asked myself a deeper question, which is, why do I love work? And what is my purpose, and I didn't think there was one. So I think there'll be some journaling for me in the future.

I'm definitely really interested in engaging with actively building mental models. So I love problem solving. I love putting together maybe disparate pieces of information and turning that into a solution like MacGyver style of the television show, rubber band and a piece of cardboard and now you can defuse a bomb. But I think what you just explained was taking that the next step and then asking myself, "Well, how did these two things turn into a solution and maybe streamlining and putting wheels on and things onto those ideas and packaging them up? As I think you were calling that the mental models and so turning a thing that I already do, and already enjoy doing and hadn't seen and next step for that behavior that is already buying to build it out and make it more useful. That was really exciting.

Have so many things, Gus. You can't have just one. Anne-Laure, thank you so much. Yeah, I'm feeling really energized.

Anne-Laure:

Thank you.

Gus:

Yeah, that's helpful. Thanks, Shasta.

Gus:

All right. Anne-Laure, we will finish with you. While we're doing this, could everyone please thank Anne-Laure for appearing. You're welcome to put your comments into the chat box here. Let us know what you thought.

Gus:

Anne-Laure, a few questions for you to finish off here. First of all, do you have any questions for the audience, something for them to think about? Or something for them to ponder as they walk away from this conversation? And finally, what do you want them to do? Do you want them to go to your websites? What do you want them to do there? What would you like the audience to do? So what should they think about? And what would you like them to do?

Anne-Laure:

I'm just going to combine it together, I want you to ask yourself this question. He's like, take after this call, take a few minutes. And whether you write it down or you close your eyes, or you just go for a walk, but just put yourself in a quiet environment and ask yourself, "How do I really feel right now?" That's it and just take that time, don't try to then necessarily problem solve what's going on or whatever. But just take that time. And if you find it helpful, try and make it a habit every week to just create that little moment of self-reflection where you look inwards, and you ask yourself, "How do I actually feel right now?"

Gus:

Great. I love it.

Folks, please thank Anne-Laure. In our opinion, she's one of the very few people on the internet that actually knows what she's talking about, which is very, very rare. We love her work in Ness Labs. We're huge fans of Future Crunch, of what she does. Please go sign up to her newsletter.

Anne-Laure, thank you so much for joining us. It's been awesome. We've learned a ton. And we hope you have a wonderful day [crosstalk 01:04:05].

Anne-Laure:

Thanks so much for having me. Thanks for the great questions, and thanks for everyone for joining.

Gus:

Awesome. Future Brunch out.