James Hewitt is the Head of Science & Innovation at Hinsta Performance. His work and research focus on the holistic wellbeing of knowledge workers, specifically searching for methods to sustain acute cognitive performance without compromising health in the process. From Formula 1 racers to Fortune 500 c-suite executives, James helps high-performers reach and maintain their full human potential.
Hey, James. Thanks for being on the program.
Thanks for inviting me.
So, you have an interesting background and I think cut from a similar cloth from folks in the HVMN community where you come from a sports physiology exercise background and also have a foot in productization in making the academia work into something tangible. Can you just zoom back to the beginning? How'd you get interested in this whole field of improving human performance?
It's actually almost 15 years ago, maybe even a bit more, actually. I moved to France to pursue a career as a professional cyclist. Basically, at the age of 19, I decided that I wanted to try my luck, and so I moved to France. At that time there wasn't a lot of structure in the United Kingdom, where I'm from, in terms of helping road cyclists develop their careers. The thing to do was still to pack your bags and move to the continent. So I moved to France and I was riding for a regional amateur team and then gradually my career progressed. I ended up riding for quite a good elite under 23 team, and that was linked with one of the professional teams. We were all kind of told we have a shot at super-stardom if we were good enough, but I made the decision that basically if I reached the end of my under 23 career and I wasn't realistically knocking on the door of a good professional contract, then I'd go back to university. While I got to ride full-time for three years, for three seasons, once I got to that final year as an under 23 I had to be honest, and I knew that I really didn't have quite what it took to get to the top of that sport. But during that time, one of the interesting things that had happened is that it really cultivated my passion for measuring and improving human performance, and I was a very early adopter of technologies like power meters, for example.
I wasn't the most naturally talented athlete, so I knew that I needed to think carefully about putting my effort in the right place at the right time, quantifying my training, and quantifying the racing.
This is how I could really try and get the most out of my physiology and get the best adaptation.I realized along the way that other people were interested in this kind of knowledge and I wanted to build on it, so I returned to the UK, I studied sports science in an institution called Loughborough University, and then eventually I set up my own coaching business. Now, a few of the people that I worked with were elite and professional endurance athletes, particularly cyclists, but actually the people who paid the bills were amateur cyclists. They were people who had very demanding jobs in London, near to where I was based at the time, so they were finance professionals, and they were architects, and they were solicitors, and for whatever reason outside of those incredibly demanding jobs and those 14, 16-hour workdays, they decided that they wanted to race 100-mile bike races and do iron man triathlons as well.
Reminds me a lot of folks in Silicon Valley who are the exact ... And they're into their iron man. It's definitely like a set of personality.
Absolutely, and they were kind of my core clients and I loved working with them, but there was a challenge, and that challenge was their workday was a black box, and I started to become intrigued by what was going on during their workday because I could see in their training data and the other variables that I was measuring that what was going on in the workday was having a significant effect. Really it was exerting a load, which I couldn't really account for, except for in the outcome on their training, you know, the bad days.
And which biomarkers were you measuring at the time or still measuring?
It was quite simple, really. One of the things that I actually think is the most important to monitor is the rating of perceived exertion for a session. Actually, the great thing about rating perceived exertion is that it integrates so many different signals from your body and from your brain. It represents kind of how you feel. And actually, there's a really strong relationship in rating perceived exertion and, actually, our endurance performance, how long we can sustain an effort for. One of the things that I'd see straightaway was actually what was going on in the workday was having a very significant effect on how hard people felt the sessions were, and it's very intuitive. You know, had a bad day at work, suddenly the interval session is harder. But I'd also start to see, even, kind of changes in their power output, how long they could sustain efforts for, their rate of recovery in between intervals, for example. You see a significant effect on sleep in terms of sleep and sleep disruption. At that time we were just starting to get into some more wearable measurements, which wasn't perfect but it was accurate enough for them. I could see change in an individual.
Have some directional data, at least.
Exactly. And so I started to say I've got to try and understand what is going on during this workday better, and I need to try and quantify it, and so I started to apply tools and frameworks from sports science to try and understand knowledge work better. So the kind of work they're doing, they were cognitive endurance athletes in many ways, and I started to try and understand it. During that time, I virtually had a revelation.
My revelation was that knowledge work, fundamentally, is a cognitive endurance activity.
I could apply many tools, frameworks, principles to try and both understand knowledge work, but also look at how people could integrate their physical work and their knowledge work better, but also maybe even distribute cognitive effort better. That's inspired a lot of my work in research that I do today, and I'm actually still an academic researcher. I'm actually finishing my PhD. Finishing is a very relative term, isn't it, but I'm doing my PhD at Loughborough University still. It's been ranked the number one university in the world for sports science. Just thought I'd drop that in there. And explores specifically knowledge work as a cognitive endurance activity and gathering data among some of the world's highest performing companies to try and build a better picture about what's going on.
It's refreshing to hear, because we've been ensconced in Silicon Valley and that's a lot of very similar analogy that I make as well where if you're a number one company in ride sharing or social networks, the value that you create and capture is exponentially larger than the number two, number three player. So just like in sport where a couple of milliseconds or a couple of meters is the difference between a gold medal and a silver, bronze medal, the very small dynamic, if not a more extreme dynamic, happens in the intellectual battlefield. It's always been puzzling to me that professional athletes, the folks that we work with, and I'm sure that you work with as well, they're very, very thoughtful and dialed in around your protocols or training and measuring their recovering fatigue and load, and for intellectual workers, at least a lot of my friends coming out of the Stanford Computer Science program, their protocols are very haphazard, kind of like the stereotypical pull an all-nighter, jam for 22 hours straight, crash for another 16 hours and just do this haphazard routine while chugging a bunch of sugary caffeine water. I think, clearly, one can extract and just deliver much higher quality work if they were a little bit more thoughtful about the routines. I think on the other side, we had a recent conversation with Alex Hutchinson, who's author Endure, who I think his recent book, that was a New York Times bestseller, but I think it really covered a lot of the notions that you're investigating with Tim Noakes's and Samuele Mercora's work around how cognitive fatigue or perceived exhaustion is one of the dominant factors that predicts performance, which implies the perception of exertion is such an important factor of how one ultimately performs.
Absolutely, and some of the data that I've been gathering, obviously it's preliminary, but I'm looking in particular at cognitive performance, so I'm measuring cognitive performance twice a day using a smartphone-based cognitive testing app. I'm also simultaneously measuring self-report measures of things like stress and mood using validated scales and then objective measurements of sleep as well, for example, including a number of other variables. But you're already starting to see some really interesting relationships in that data and a lot of it's quite intuitive, but I think that everyone thinks that they're the exception, don't they? We all like to think that we're the exception to the rule, particularly when it comes to sleep deprivation and inadequate sleep. There's this great kind of stat that I could roll out over and over again, which I'm sure that many of your guests have shared before, but after 18 hours awake, so that's equivalent to working from eight a.m. to two a.m., your performance is equivalent to being legally drunk, and someone came back to me once and they said, "Well, there's some studies that suggest that a moderate dose of alcohol can actually improve productivity." I mean, you're way beyond that. You're legally drunk in most European countries after 18 hours of wakefulness. They did a really other interesting study. It was back in 2004, I think, by a research group led by someone called [van Dongen 00:09:55], and basically they restricted sleep for this group in a number of different conditions, and they restricted sleep for one unfortunate group entirely, so they went without sleep entirely for one night. Another group they restricted it for four hours, another group six hours, another group eight hours, which wasn't really a restriction, but they controlled those conditions for a two-week period and then they monitored their cognitive performance using something called Psychomotor Vigilance Task, and in particular they looked for lapses of alertness and working memory. What they found was, as you'd expect for the group whose sleep was restricted entirely for one night, that their lapses in their alertness and working memory shot right up. The group who slept eight hours a night were fine, but then the group who slept for six hours, after 14 nights of sleep-restriction to six hours, their performance in terms of that lapses in alertness and working memory was equivalent to going without sleep for an entire night. Now, a lot of people they listen to that and say, "Wow, that's interesting," but actually the second part of the study was more interesting for me and that's because they also got people to do something called your local sleepiness scale. Basically what they found was that, as you'd expect, the group whose sleep was restricted entirely for one night, their self-rated sleepiness leapt right up really quickly. The group which slept for eight hours per night, self-rated sleepiness was pretty static; they were getting adequate sleep. But most interesting to me was that the group that slept only six hours per night, initially their sleepiness kind of increased a little bit, but then it tapered off. So, essentially, after 14 nights of really inadequate sleep, their performance was equivalent to going like they'd done an all-nighter but they felt like they were fine. This is the interesting kind of tension when we talk about things like perceived exertion, and our own perception is that it is really important, but at the same time we can trick ourselves so easily, and when it comes to sleep in particular, I think a lot of us are fooling ourselves. We think we're fine and we're probably performing like we're drunk and just don't realize it.
That's an interesting result. We should definitely have that paper linked in the show notes, because I think a lot of people claim, "Yeah, I feel good on six hours," and this piece of literature perhaps suggest that they've tricked themselves, which is funny.
We're good. Sometimes I think you can use it. If anyone's interested, that paper's called The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness. So you can add it in the show notes. But there is this cumulative cost. It was a really great title; it summed it up really well. But there's also some interesting studies around sleeping cognition that suggests that our perception of how much deep sleep we have in terms of what we're told actually has an influence on our cognitive performance, and actually if we're told that we have more deep sleep or less sleep, that it essentially induces a placebo effect, for good or for bad. One of the things that I sometimes do myself and also recommend to other people, especially me and many other people that I can hang around with are very keen self-quantfiers, to greater or lesser degrees. In certain conditions where you can't influence your sleep, then it's actually better not to record it because, actually, once you've got this data and you know how bad performance it can be when your sleep is impaired, then it can just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So you nocebo yourself.
Exactly. So there's a lot of complexity here, which is kind of what makes it interesting.
I think one of the interesting aspects for cognitive measurement is how applicable are some of these reaction-time experiments really applicable to broader intelligence? Curious to get the latest thoughts on literature there. What measures in terms of psychomotor vigilance tests or inspection time, reaction time, what do you think are the most in line with broader intellectual function?
It's a really good question, and it's one that I ask myself regularly, because a lot of the tests that I'm doing are based on quite basic cognitive tests. I'm not measuring real world work performance, I'm measuring things like simple reaction time, procedural reaction time. But one test in particular that I use measures inhibitory control. There's a very plausible relationship between the control and downstream effects that affect real world performance. There's some suggestions that diminished inhibitory control might cause an increase reliance on biases in heuristics, for example. Because there's a suggestion that inhibitory control, essentially it's our ability to resist instant reaction. So we might talk about system one and system two has kind of been popularized in thinking fast and slow. And so you can think about inhibitory control, but basically it's a thing that for a moment puts the brakes on system one, that instant reaction, and can help you think about the bigger picture, and it could maybe help you to not rely on that bias or that heuristic or that stereotype and gather a little bit more information to make a better decision. And as knowledge work, it's absolutely key whether it's kind of problem-solving or decision-making or even interactions in the context of a team. So I think there's a really plausible relationship there, and I've seen some quite significant effects on inhibitory control that seem to be strongly associated with things like with sleep but also with mood. I'm writing up some of those papers at the moment, actually.
But you're right that these are blunt instruments. And actually, I'm looking at the measurement tools, I'm looking at things like EEG, for example, to try and get more sensitive measures of what's going on. I'm experimenting with some EEG measurements at the moment, and I'm working with a company called Emotiv who produces a number of neuroinformatic technologies. I'm convinced that probably not that long I'm going to look back on the research I'm doing now, I'm going to say, "Wow, my instruments were so blunt," but it's kind of the best we've got at the moment. We've got to start somewhere and the statistical analysis I'm doing is encouraging. I think we're looking down the right path, and I think it makes sense to start with these fundamental building blocks of cognition. But I'm really interested in how we can maybe start to develop some more sophisticated tools to model and measure performance in the context of knowledge work, and I think there's some great things on the horizon.
Absolutely. I think my interest in nootropics and cognitive enhancers, I think that's the ... But I guess a limitation or a limitation of how we understand how the brain functions is a way to show efficacy or show null facts. And I agree with you that these seem fairly blunt, but it makes sort of building block sense that if you have faster inspection time or reaction time, these are building blocks of higher order cognition, so while they're not necessarily saying, "Hey, we can necessarily prove that you're going to be able to solve calculus problems faster," or maybe could just measure that directly, but there doesn't seem to be some affect of some of these interventions on some very primal cognitive measurement tasks. I'm curious, though, for the inhibitory function measurements, what does that look like in terms of the actual task? Just to break it down for someone to imagine, "Okay, what tasks am I being measured on my phone or on a computer screen?"
There's a number of different tasks that you can use to measure inhibitory control, and a really classic one is called a Stroop Test or a Stroop Task. For example, in the Stroop you will be instructed to press space bar, for example, on your computer when you see one kind of stimulus, but then resist pressing space bar when you see another kind. A typical one is where you have to press space bar when you see a word that is written in blue color, but then the word that pops up is red, and so it's the word red written in blue and you have to inhibit that response. And so you measure with a Stroop Task, typically there'll be three different conditions. There'll be a baseline and then it's what's called a congruent and then an incongruent condition, but that task can take a little bit longer. Actually, one of the tasks that I use and get people to do a couple of times a day over a tracking period is a bit simpler. It's called Go/No-Go task. In this particular version, then, people are presented with this kind of grid. It looks like windows in a house and they have to basically shoot one type of alien and not shoot another type of alien, depending on their color.
It sounds so simple, but, again, it will test these building blocks of cognition. We've seen some statistically significant results, and these tests have been used for a long time
But that question still remains, how does this translate? I think that we need to push that forward and continue to explore that question. In the next study that I'm doing, one of the things that I'm looking at is comparing this with some self-report measures of work performance that have been validated quite well, and then some other measures which look at, for example, our ability to switch off from work, because it's very plausible that that mechanism around inhibitory control might be associated with that and there's already some evidence to suggest that link. So, yeah, there's some interesting avenues that we can delve into.
Yeah, and I think that in sports science we've actually looked at things, I think, that actually sound quite similar to your inhibitory control markers for sports performance in terms of conflicting information, making a high-risk decision. You could do like a rugby run and you'd go left or right. You have conflicting information to go turn left or right, and that's something we've been looking at with our research partners with nootropics or ketone esters as an intervention. Perhaps while it's hard to extrapolate towards software engineering ability from inhibitory control task, but from a sports performance perspective when you are making go left or go right decisions, or go or no-go, that, to me, is a lot more of a direct jump from inhibitory control task to left or right turn decision on a rugby field or a soccer field. And then perhaps from there we can start building up more building blocks towards something like creative working terms, so making advertising campaign or coding an extra line of code. How about working memory? I think, obviously, working memory seems to be another obvious task for if your digit span memory increases. That seems pretty fundamental, but I guess on the con side, people argue that that kind of working memory's only specific for that kind of task. Or, like a chess master, they can hold some really, really high number of board positions in their head, but when they do a completely different memory task, their working memory capacity is similar to another average human. What are your thoughts on some of the working memory capacity questions?
I think working memory is a fascinating area, and actually there's some recent evidence emerging that's challenged some of the ideas we've got about the limits of working memory. We always used to say, "Oh, it's between four and seven items," but there's some challenges to that now. But in your working memory, people have been exploring this for a long, long time, and I think one of the most famous tests of working memory that many of you will have heard of is called the N-Back task. It tests continuous performance. I think it was developed back in the '50s. But I agree that I think your working memory, it clearly has a very clear role in our day-to-day life and work, and we could see how, if we can improve working memory, then it's likely that we could see some benefits in our life. You made another interesting point then, again, about the transfer, and I think one of the challenges of, for example, many of the games and many of the techniques and courses to try and improve cognitive performance, especially ones that are based on smartphones, when people have investigated them it's basically demonstrated that it makes you better at the game but not necessarily at anything else. I think there was quite an interesting study recently that looked at teaching kids chess and found that absolutely if you teach a kid chess, to play chess, then they get better-
Get better at chess.
Better at playing chess. But it doesn't necessarily mean they can take over the world. I think that, again, this is an issue, and one of the things that I see in the data and the literature, certainly in my research as well, is that basically once we start to get impaired, whether that's through inadequate sleep or too much stress or whatever, or we just simply get tired and fatigued or bored, it actually seems to be those more complex cognitive capabilities that stats to diminish performance first. I see it in my data the most significant effects generally in a knowledge work population with those more complex cognitive tasks representing slightly more sophisticated cognitive abilities, and so working memory is a good example of a task which is a bit more complex and it is a bit more demanding. I've got this wonderful test that, basically, it's probably one of the most comprehensive cognitive tests called the RVIP test. It's got some similarities with psychomotor vigilance, but basically it stands for Rapid Visual Information Processing. It lasts for about eight minutes and basically you're presented with a continuous stream of numbers on the screen and you have to tap space whenever you see a sequence of three even or three odd number. It sounds really simple, but because it's completely continuous and it switches between even and then odd and then even, you're constantly having to switch between trying to pay attention to whether you're looking for another even number or another odd number, and it basically takes people to their limit. We see with that test some significant differences. But the problem with that, again, is that it's a really horrible thing to do once, never mind getting someone to do it every day, so we're always trying to kind of balance with cognitive assessment, what will the participant tolerate and in terms of burden and time and the commitment, and what will give us the best data, and it's always a bit of a trade-off. A lot of people in research used to look at simple reaction time, for example, but one of the problems with simple reaction time is that in some conditions, like conditions of sleep deprivation, for example, we actually see improvements in simple reaction time.
Why? Just less inhibition?
That would be my hypothesis. But what you find is that it seems to be like researchers are kind of a bit ... 'Cause I saw this as well in some of my participants that actually, in simple reaction time, performance improved and you can't believe it. I was scanning through the data. If anyone wants to get really geeky into this I'm using some linear mixed effects models, and so I'm testing kind of the model with this.
I'm looking at the sleep duration versus cognitive performance in these different tasks and suddenly I see this significant relationship pop up between a simple reaction time and sleep duration.
I'm all excited, but then I plot it and I see it goes the wrong way and people are getting faster when sleep is inadequate. I'm like, "Crap, this is not what I want to see," but you've got to report it. But, anyway, a few researchers have seen this and maybe it's due to, as you say, reduced inhibition. There was actually a paper published just a few days ago in Frontiers in Physiology. They did a experiment where the Finnish Army, they restricted sleep in this poor group of participants for 60 hours. 60. And during that time they looked at the effects in physical performance and also cognitive performance, and sure enough they found, in the cognitive performance, and actually in some of their simple reaction time, actually improved. But then, overall, it's a bad thing.
Yeah, that's funny.
Go and read the paper for yourself, but you don't want to be awake for 60 hours. I think that's the bottom lime.
But they might shoot the wrong person.
Exactly. They might shoot their friends. And in all seriousness, the cognitive test battery that I use twice daily in the knowledge work population was originally developed and deployed with the US military, and that's one of the reasons it's this kind of alien Go/No-Go task about shooting friends and not foes. Sorry, the other way round. Maybe I'm thinking about shooting foes and not friends is because there's a real world consequence to that. And, back to your point, in a sports context, athletic context, in a military context, that link between these fundamental cognitive capabilities and a real world impact is more clear.
I think simple reaction time is an interesting marker. I think there's an interesting relationship around inhibition control there. We recently had a professional gamer who's been on the program, Noted, who's been measuring and optimizing his simple reaction time speed, and I think he tested himself down to, like, 60 or 80 milliseconds. I think the average baseball player's around 101 or 120, so definitely he was seeing that he was able to optimize himself through a program of nootropics and all these kind of crazy interventions. Obviously N equals 1. Have you looked at different interventions or is your work more focused on the framework of measuring cognition? And if you look at interventions, what do you think are the most promising interventions that you've seen or that you play around with personally, whether they're Nootropics or different meditation, mindfulness exercises before a task, diet, ketones, caffeine, not caffeine, a lot of things that I think people are already experimenting, especially in our community with nootropics or things that can alter some of these things?
In terms of the focus of my research, and particularly around my PhD, I'm really quite focused around measurement. One of the reasons I'm really interested in measurement is because I want to create a useful toolkit so we can test interventions. But I'm pretty agnostic in terms of interventions, in terms of my research work. But in my professional work, I work in knowledge work with various different organizations, but I also work in sport. The company that I work with, Hintsa Performance, works particularly in motor sport, and so we work across a number of different series including Formula 1, Formula 2, Formula 3, GP3. So our coaches and that team there, they're working with measurement, but also obviously trying to optimize race performance of these drivers, and simple reaction time is a significant component of that. The most potent performance enhancer: adequate sleep. Now, actually, in a Formula 1 driver, that can be quite difficult to maintain because they're traveling so much, so some of our interventions are actually based around mitigating the effects of jet lag and looking at how you can reduce circadian disruption by basically just starting to move into that time zone in advance of travel, selective use of melatonin at particular times, but also caffeine. I think caffeine is probably one of the best molecules in the world. It's so potent. And sometimes I wonder if caffeine was just synthesized today, would it be legal? Would it be controlled?
I think it definitely would be. I think you can maker an argument for sugar as well.
Yeah, these potent molecules, and caffeine chemically is in the same group as a number of different molecules which you'd get arrested if you use them and were carrying them around. One of the interesting things that we see is that in some of the people that we worked with is that you can basically get people to do some of these more basic cognitive tests and determine the optimal caffeine dose both in terms of dosage and timing, and it does seem that there is an optimal dose you can actually start to see deficits or declines in performance when you take too much.
There's actually a big US Army research ... I don't know if you've seen that paper, but they've looked at optimal dosing for the war fighting.
That's very interesting. I've not come across that paper. I'd be interested to read that.
Yeah, it was interesting 'cause I think there was some critique around, "Why'd you guys spend millions of dollars on telling people how to use caffeine?" It's like, well, I guess people kind of well understood caffeine, but I think at that level you want to finely tune exactly how much you want to dose according to body weight and the length of exercise and all these bespoke variables. Sounds like sleep and caffeine are obvious things that work. Anything else in terms of things that are more on the cusp or things that you're exploring?
One of the challenges when you're working in an athletic context is obviously that these athletes are part of World Anti-Doping Agency testing pools, and so you've got to make sure that whatever they're taking that it's the athlete's responsibility, ultimately, but also the coach. Our coaches are very conservative, rightly so, about what they're recommending and what people are taking, and I think even for top athletes and top drivers, actually it is still about getting the basics right. But on a personal level, I know there are some people experimenting with some Nootropics and not necessarily clients, and that's not something that at a company level we'd recommend, but some people are interested in it and they're interested in particular in saying, "Look, I'm going to do this regardless, but can you help me measure the impact?" And certainly I'm interested to see that. But I've got to say...
It doesn't seem like many things work very well, even N equals 1, and I think that with a lot of these things the most powerful impact is often placebo.
But that said, I think that the demand is huge. They published a study in Nature last year about the use of stimulants for the purposes of cognitive performance enhancement based on an anonymous survey, and in all the regions they looked at the self-reported use of stimulants. Both prescription and off label and illegal had increased, particularly in Europe, and so there's this really interesting thing where, personally, I'm very interested this area and I'm pro getting the basics right, but also I think that it's important that we also explore how some of these molecules might be able to help is. I'm thinking in terms of ... obviously there's a performance enhancement in the workplace, but there's people in really critical roles where, again, like I said, you can't always control your sleep. One of the things I can talk about is ... it's a little bit of a tangent, but I encourage people to think about life more in seasons, and I certainly try and apply this to myself. Because one of the challenges, like the current way that we live and work, is that we just try and be on all the time, whereas actually, for most of human history, we've lived in this very seasonal way where there's been times of war, there's been times of peace, there's been times of feast, there's been times of-
... famine. We're very well set up, our genetic load has prepared us for that kind of lifestyle, but we always try and be on. And I think one of the problems with so-called smart drugs is that sometimes it's just masking, actually, some deeper problems about how we live and work, but actually I'd like to think that we could look forward to a time where we could have these genuine periods of recharging where we look to try to recover the most natural and best way possible. We maybe try to tweak a few things in normal time. But actually, when we were in these kind of mission periods, whether you're a management consultant trying to finish a really important project for a client, whether you're a war fighter in a combat situation, whether you're a medic who's dealing with a crisis and has had to pull a double shift just because they need you to help, if I was getting treated by a doctor in a crisis situation and she'd had to pull a double shift, because that's what it took with all the people who needed help, and she wasn't able to sleep, but if she was able to take a proven product to improve her cognitive performance, I'd much prefer the doctor in that context who had taken the proven safe product that could improve their cognitive performance to help me rather than the doctor who hadn't. So I think it's another one of these situations where it's very easy to take an extreme position and say, "Well, we should do it all natural." Or go the other way and say, "The future is biohacking everything and becoming trans-human," when actually I think that the challenge is is how do we navigate and try and take the best from these different approaches and take a more thoughtful, seasonal approach to life and work that's more sustainable, that actually helps us to try and take some of the benefits from these different approaches and also maybe mitigate some of the potential downsides as well?
Well said. That's something that I've been thinking a lot about actually, personally, around the notion of periodization or cycling, the cyclical nature of dieting or training blocks. Again, I think this is something that's very common in professional sport where you have training blocks of hard sessions, light sessions, recovery sessions, maximal sessions, and I think that with some of our athlete and military customers, they're starting to apply that for nutrition as well. I can imagine that very much in line with what you're saying, I think why aren't knowledge workers also applying some of these notions around cycling or periodizing workload, creative load, or recovery load? I sense it's something that will be more and more common and popularized within the biohacking community and something that I think people are cycling on and off. I think for like a keto drink diet, that's what I do personally, I think it's just more sustainable and I think the data on, at least for some of the longevity data on animals, a cyclical ketogenic diet was just as effective as a ketogenic diet for longevity markers, so I think there's going to be just a lot more research in the area of just how do you periodize and optimize some of these interventions? How do you find that balance? One thing that I thought was interesting was the Formula 1 racing, where I think, and compared to a lot of other sports it's more similar to an intellectual chess match, almost, over a physical attribute sport, 'cause you're just making decisions. It's quite physically demanding but it's more of like a endurance and, I guess, an ability to not get freaked out 'cause you're moving so quickly but you're making split second decisions all the time as opposed to necessarily having to lift a lot of weights or sprint really fast. What, in your experience, is the difference between an elite Formula 1 driver versus someone like myself? I don't even drive anymore, 'cause I live in San Francisco and everyone takes Ubers and Lifts, but like an average person who isn't able to make that split second decision?
One of the incredible characteristics of the best Formula 1 drivers, in my opinion, is their consistency. So if you look at the average Formula 1 race and the duration and for a couple of hours, basically, they are driving the limit of that mechanical system with millimeter precision again and again and again for hundreds of laps in an environment that in some ways is quite well controlled, but you're not there on that track on your own, you're on that circuit with multiple other drivers, but yet they're still able to produce this consistency and to hit exactly the point that they need to all at these incredible speeds, and they're processing huge amounts of data, and you talk about working memory again, the number of items that they're holding. It's interesting. I've actually gathered some cognitive performance data on some Formula 1 drivers and, actually, drivers in some of the series, and there are actually measurable differences you do see in terms of a normal distribution. There are definitely outliers. I gathered quite a large body of data. It's large for the kind of copulation that I looked at where basically I was in Davos in the World Economic Forum, and outside of that event, in the town, we set up a testing station and tested CEOs and all kinds of interesting people, but then also measured a Formula 1 driver and then also an F-16 pilot and some other people. Basically, I don't think we'll be able to publish it just 'cause the conditions weren't super well-controlled, but I'm kind of gathering this personal interesting dataset.
When I looked at that data, I found they do perform exceptionally well, particularly in terms of sustained attention. They are able to sustain their attention better than someone in the normal population.
But when I did this little experiment, I basically got people do it both in a controlled condition, in a quiet condition, and then also in a distracted condition. One of the things that we saw in the drivers as well is they seemed to be more resistant to distraction. When a task is put in front of them, they are better able to focus on that task and ignore the irrelevant stimuli. The other funny thing, and just kind of anecdotally that I've seen in working with these drivers both in Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3, is in that test that I mentioned before, that eight-minute rapid visual information processing kind of marathon, the majority of people who do that test, when they finish it they never want to do it again. Sometimes I worry that people are going to start crying, it's that bad. I'm sure some of your listeners will probably leap at the chance to take part, but most people don't like it. But almost every person, the Formula 1 drivers and the drivers in those top series, when they finish that the first time, their immediate response is, "Can I try it again 'cause I want to do better. How can I improve?" I think there's these very specific skills we can measure, some things that are very special about Formula 1 drivers and drivers in these top series, but I think there is that kind of great sustained attention, the precision, the consistency. But a lot of it, I think, comes down to just this deep drive to improve this pursuit of excellence. Which if you look at the footage in a Formula 1 car and you see the speed and the circuit and the barriers that are going past you and how fast the corners are coming up to you and you think about the precision with which they need to actually create a lot of force in braking to make sure they brake at the right time, in the right way, and it's completely overwhelming but these people have been driven to do this from such a young age and it's been this kind of incremental improvement season after season after season, where the cars have got gradually faster, where the braking points have got later and have got harder, where the mechanical grip has improved. So they have gone on this journey over time that has equipped them to do that, which has been driven by this desire to improve and to optimize. And, as you said, that I think Formula 1 in particular is a really interesting metaphor and in some ways it's a kind of microcosm. We sometimes call it a laboratory for how do you optimize human performance, particularly where you're blending the physical and the cognitive. And so we've been very privileged to work in that environment for about 20 years now and we've got a great team of coaches there and a great team supporting them doing some really interesting work.
One thing that struck me as you were explaining some of the work you do there around sustained attention is that do you have some suspicion around the population change over this generation where we're constantly being interrupted with smartphones and deluge of data versus previous generations? My suspicion is that I just know, for me, personally, when I was 12 I didn't have a smartphone, I just knew that my ability to sustain attention was much better, or I could just get obsessed with building a Lego set for, like, seven hours straight, or taking apart a watch or something, and now it's just hard not to get a ping and get distracted. Do you have any thoughts on that suspicion, that there's a population level decrease in the ability of people to sustain attention now? 'Cause it is kind of funny that you mentioned, oh, eight minutes of just looking at numbers and people are crying. It's like, hardly that's torture. But I understand where you're like-
You've never tried it, Geoffrey. You've got to give it a go.
I've done some of these tests myself. I think my ability to sustain attention is reasonable, so I think I'm cut more in that pool, but do you suspect that just our generation is less able to sustain attention because of the environment?
I am concerned. My wife and I got two kids. Two boys, four and seven years old, and so many parents talk about this and people who just no kids, friends have got kids, relatives' got kids, and you just see how adept they are at navigating their way around an iPad, for example. They figure out your password just by watching you and before you know it they're on Netflix and watching, hopefully, something appropriate. I'm very pro technology. What a surprise. And I actually think that these systems that we've got are incredibly powerful tools, but they're terrible masters. I think one of the risks, one of the traps we've fallen into is that we've conflated familiarity with expertise. I can watch my kids navigate their way through an iPad and everyone's like, "Oh, they're experts." They're not. They're just very familiar. Actually, I think there's a really powerful analogy in language and the acquisition of language, because we accept that language is a powerful tool. It's arguably one of the most powerful tools that humanity has ever had access to, and we look at language and how we acquire language and we accept that a lot of language acquisition comes through exposure. So we live in France, but we're originally from the UK, and our kids have learnt most of their French through simple exposure. My wife and I are both English, and so they picked it up at school with friends, but they're both pretty much fluent now. But at the same time they also learn structure around language, and so they're in French school and they're learning the grammar, and they're learning how to construct sentences, and their vocabulary is expanding in a more structured way so that they can actually become masters of this language, eventually. But with technology, it's so new in terms of the span of human history that we like to think that we're experts, but really I think we're basically just like toddlers trying to figure this stuff out. So I think the challenge is, how do we find the right balance between learning through exposure, and also what do we need to really achieve mastery of these tools so that we're not slaves to it? I think this is kind of the bigger picture that I think the metanarrative I think about when I'm considering what does it mean for sustained attention and distraction, for example? I think you ask a good question: is sustained attention worse now in young people than it used to be? I think one of the challenges is we don't have a particularly great dataset to compare it with. All we've got is anecdote. But anecdotally we've got a number of friends who are teachers. Our friends who've been teachers for decades would say that, well, kids now can't pay attention as well as they used to. I think the interesting thing is the technologies to distractors have accelerated in terms of their maturity and sophistication much faster than our capacity to really understand what's going on. Back in end of 2013, something like that I think it was, I read a book by Nir Eya. I think I'm probably mispronouncing his name, but basically he wrote a book called Hooked, about how to build habit-forming products. So what's that? It's getting on for five years ago. He had this great model around how to build a habit-forming product. I remember I read this and I was like, "This is great." There's the trigger, there's the action, there's the variable reward, there's the investment.
Yeah, this is a game of vocation. This is a Silicon Valley sort of why they're getting critiqued in recent months. They're just mentally addicting dopamine hit of like a notification.
And everyone's like, "Oh, this is news." You know, people have been talking about this for ages, and we're basically creating new systems to take advantage of our dopaminergic system. We're kind of dumping dopamine and we wonder why. The challenge is is that basically, if you look at the biases that we have, many of those cognitive biases have been adapted for most of human history, and so if we just zoom in on the novelty bias that we have, for example, we know that actually there's research that demonstrates that even in the anticipation of novelty, so even just anticipating discovering or being exposed to something new, our brains secrete dopamine, and so we sense that reward. If you think, for most of human history, that has been incredibly adaptive because if I was living in a village society and I was walking through that village and I looked up at the mountains, and I've never been to the other side of that mountain range before but in anticipation of discovering something new on the other side of that mountain range my brain secretes dopamine, and that sense of reward and anticipation of that novelty will probably drive me to invest the energetic resources and the time to go and explore that other side of the mountain and find new opportunities to grow and find new resources and new people.
There's an argument, I think, that suggests that that novelty bias, for most of human history, may have been responsible for driving our expansion across the planet.
But today that same incredibly powerful novelty bias is connected with the continuous stream of novelty on my smartphone.
Now you're addicted to checking your Twitter feed or Instagram or Facebook feed.
And the problem is ... and then we just feel bad about it, and so a lot of people now are saying we've got to kind of resist this stuff. But the problem is, as well, we know in terms of behavior change that generally when you rely on willpower you generally fail. So regardless of what you look at and how you look at willpower or self-control, if you choose to kind of interchange the two, the interesting thing about self-control and behavior change is that for most of human history self-control has been appropriately balanced with the choices that we have available. I mentioned before about seasons. We didn't need a strategy to think about our food intake because, generally, times of plentiful food, which were few and far between, would be rapidly followed by a period of famine. But at the moment we've kind of got to this stage where I think we've started to beat ourselves up about our technological habits now and feel bad about it, and so you're going to probably see some kind of behavior change interventions around trying to address this, but I don't necessarily think it's addressing the root cause of the problem. There's some quite interesting research that sheds a light on this that suggests that rather than willpower operating like a finite resource, that actually self-control operates more like a valuation process rather than operating like this kind of battle that we can win or lose. There's actually some quite interesting neuroscience related to this. There was a researcher called Berkman, and his group last year published a paper called Self-Control as a Values-Based Choice, which suggests that there's a region of the brain called the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex that might be responsible for calculating the return on investment of the effort required by a task. If you think, we've got this valuation system built in, but for most of human history that valuation system was basically built for a different age. But I wonder whether some of these kind of solutions, potentially, to this distraction, interruption epidemic and the tools that we're using is actually, again, maybe taking advantage of some of that inhibitory control, taking a step back and thinking about what we really value, what we truly value, rather than being caught in this kind of fake value that's driven by these dopaminergic manipulation, essentially.
I would say that, yeah, you're absolutely right. Only within the last 56 years are we surrounded in an environment that we're fortunately, compared to most of human history, a environment overabundance, overabundance of food, overabundance of information, and perhaps that new environment is why we're seeing about one in two Americans pre-diabetic, one in two Americans obese, and within the last 10 years I would say that there's a overabundance of available information where... I think that's an interesting point for the valuation of return on investment of like a swipe on your smartphone is very, very low investment in a single instance but is a variable word of what kind of cool information? Like, "Oh, is your friend getting married? Is there a new baby?" Or they have a new toy. Or is it just boring and you feel like you just wasted 10 minutes for life? So, in your mind, then, do you see this as willpower, as a limited resource or scarce resource. Does that mean being more thoughtful of the environment we put ourselves into? I think this is an unsolved question, right? I don't know if anyone has the solution here, and I think we also want to be thoughtful, not being overly Luddite, be like, "Hey, all technology's evil." 'Cause I agree with you that technology has essentially resolved the things that have killed most people, which has been famine and then lack of information or lack of ability to access information. But what do you suspect would be interesting paths to explore?
We've got to figure out ways to truly master technology. We could get really into the weeds here and also kind of way outside my scope of practice, but one of the things that interests me peripherally is this idea of explainable AI, for example. Actually, if we look at how artificial intelligence and machine learning and these associated technologies are developing, actually it seems to me that one path that is absolutely crucial that we explore is explainable AI, and actually there's some quite interesting companies looking into this to help us to actually understand these systems and truly master them so they don't master us. But taking it back a step and focusing in on the human, which is more my area of expertise, there's some interesting research around self-control, and one of the things that interests me is there was some research done by Galla and Duckworth. That's Duckworth, Angela Duckworth, who wrote quite a lot about grit and that idea. They published a paper called More Than Resisting Temptation, and they suggest that, according to their research, people with the highest self-control actually seem to use it the least day-to-day. That's to your point that self-control, to some extent, I think it does operate like a resource. Roy Baumeister, who talks about ego depletion, has got a bit of a hard time because, actually, some of those experiments, if they were to replicate them, it does have some characteristics of a resource, but it also seems to be fundamentally linked with our sense of valuation and our motivation and we seem to be able to instantly replenish this resource in certain conditions if suddenly you can kind of hack your motivation and that system.
But self-control does seem to be most effective when we deploy it before we need it and if we link it with goals that are associated with something that we really value.
So I think that one of the paths that we do need to explore in terms of whether it's optimization or behavior change is actually accept some of the vices and limitations that we've got and try and find ways to manage them and work around them. Because I think one of the most unhelpful things is that we can just fall into this trap of just beating ourselves up and thinking that we're bad people 'cause we fail. I think it's so funny 'cause I always needs to take my own medicine, but, as I'm sure you do, often you're kind of in this kind of ... not exactly I'm not in a biohacker community necessarily, but you're surrounded by people who are really interested in optimizing themselves and other people, and you can fall into this trap of thinking that if you haven't woken up in the morning, done 20 minutes of meditation, of course you fasted breakfast 'cause you're doing a intermittent fasting restricted eating protocol, but once you've done your squats, 'cause you're squatting every day, and written your goals down for the day and taken the dog for a walk, and if you've not done all that stuff before 5:30 a.m. then-
You're a failure.
... why are you even bothering?
Was it Mark Wahlberg who published his daily routine-
Yeah, he wakes up at 3:30 or something. I was like, "What? Who is this guy?"
Yeah. I mean, you know what? Maybe that's true. And good for him. But I think the problem is is that we also know with behavior change and goal setting that one of the biggest ways to set yourself up for failure is to set completely unrealistic goals, and so sometimes I just think maybe the starting point in the paths is to actually just take a step back and just to say, what do you really care about? What do you really value? And build a kind of a aggressive path to help you to achieve that and try and sequence as well, rather than trying to achieve everything all at once. It kinds of goes back to ... you mentioned periodization, and I'm very much inclined to agree that we need to take a more periodized, seasonal view of how we approach improving life and performance and actually start to say, these are the things I want to achieve, but actually I'm not going to try and do them all at once. I'm actually going to create a plan. And there are a lot of people who are already starting to think this way but it can be quite liberating.
Are you applying it to yourself? I know that one of the topics and on some of these ideas is that, how do you stack something like the low cycle cognitive load with medium load, high load? Is that something you apply personally as you're thinking about these ideas? Have you incorporated for yourself? Do you have frameworks or guidelines for how our listeners can take away? How should we start thinking about periodizing some of our work in the intellectual field?
So you've teed me up perfectly for my topic. So, going back to right at the beginning, I mentioned I was an endurance athlete, and so I tend to look at knowledge work as an endurance activity through that lens. I was looking at how we distribute physical effort and we plan for physical endurance, and the simple way that we do it for athletes is we think about intensity zones. And, broadly speaking, there's only three zones you really need to think about and you can think about it as low, medium and high. But I was kind of thinking, could I come up with some kind of framework like that to help people to create a plan for cognitive endurance?
I was basically inspired by that kind of simple framework for endurance sport, and I came up with something I call cognitive gears...a plan for cognitive endurance.
If you imagine for a moment that there are three cognitive gears. There's a low gear, which is characterized by times of rest and recovery and reflection. There's a high cognitive gear that's characterized by times where we're focused, where we're maybe doing some kind of analysis, where we're really being productive. And then there's this middle cognitive gear that's characterized by the menial tasks and the switch in work which makes up at least part of most of my day. But if you think for a moment about your average day, most of us will find that we spend the majority of our day stuck in that cognitive middle gear, and that middle gear's characterized by being caught in pseudo-work, pulling our phone out every opportunity instead of having a break, feeling like we're stressed, that we're on someone else's schedule.
Responding a bunch of emails, just like reacting to inbound.
Yeah, all the time, and we know that switching as well actually makes it harder to switch into that high gear for focus or down into low gear when we really need to, 'cause there's this thing called attention residue. One of the things I encourage people to do is to start off by thinking about that framework and then considering when they are at their best. 'Cause basically cognitive performance varies by about 20% during the average day and about 20% of the population experience that variation as a peak, a valley and a rebound. I call them early birds. They feel at their best in the morning. Some people, about 20%, experience it as a rebound, a valley, and a peak, and I call them owls. They generally prefer evenings. About 60% and somewhere between. So basically those three phases in regards to where you are have distinct characteristics, and that peak is generally the best time for that high gear focus for that analysis and that productivity. That valley is the best time for rest, for recovery and reflection, and that rebound is the best time for the menial tasks and the switching work that characterize at least part of our day. And actually, in that rebound period, interestingly, it actually seems like our inhibitory control is reduced, so we're more likely to switch anyway. But interestingly, that reduced inhibition might make us more creative or more open to having creative ideas which we can then, hopefully, produce in the peak period which kind of eventually comes round. But I think if we start by maybe thinking about those three cognitive gears, we could begin by simply doing an experiment where we try to schedule that high cognitive gear work with the peak in our day, and that's that principle from endurance sport knowing where to focus your effort, and during that time experiment maybe with the Pomodoro Technique or something like that, 25 minutes on, five minutes off. That's quite an interesting experiment for a lot of people because some data would suggest that we check in on our communication tools once every six minutes, so rescue time, which is an app or a piece of software you can install to track your use of various applications, basically that better data from tens of thousands of people suggest that we check in on communication tools like Slack, or whatever, once every six minutes. So high gear, 25 minutes on, five minutes off. And then I think, as an individual, we need to try and engineer environments to focus for ourself, but I think perhaps, more importantly, if we are leaders with teams, how can we engineer environments for focus for our teams? So that's high gear. For the low gear about when to take a rest, well, for a lot of us that could begin by simply scheduling rest in our diary. Most of us never, ever do that. We don't put recovery. And if you can, schedule that rest and reflection with the valley of your day. And then during that time, the most effective breaks, according to the evidence, seem to be active, social and natural, so go for a walk in the park, something like, once upon a time, I think it was called a lunch break before it went extinct, and I live certainly on the west coast and in London.
Or a smoke break or a lunch Martini or something.
There was some good things about that. We can talk about that, but we've lost it. And then obviously sleep is the big one. But then that middle gear, I think that middle gear, that starts by setting some boundaries for the switching tasks so it doesn't leak into every moment, having those periods where we put the phone away. But then when we are going to be doing those switching tasks and using these incredible digital tools that enable us to switch tasks rapidly and get through all that inbound, well, schedule that for the rebound in your day. If you're an owl, that's probably going to be in the morning. If you're an early bird then it's probably going to be later in the day.
One of the most important things that I'm saying, thinking about these cognitive gears and the periodization, is that the most practical tactic is to start the day on your schedule.
So pay attention to when you're at your best and start that day with your schedule. If you're an early bird, really create some time for that peak work. If you're an owl, maybe the morning isn't the time for you to get through the email and the inbound. But whatever the case, let's try and move beyond this kind of post-industrial idea of working like we're on a production line in front of our laptops and start to rediscover our own rhythm.
Well said. I want to ask, have you been able to successfully apply this to your own working routine?
I reckon most of the time, but it goes in seasons still.
I think that the challenge is, again, I think I'm in what I call a mission at the moment. I try to think about three seasons I mentioned before. There's recharge time, and during the recharge time I'm really disciplined about trying to follow these principles, trying to put my phone away, make sure I sleep adequately. During what I call normal time, I reckon I manage to follow this 80% of the time, so if I'm in a routine like that. But that 80% sometimes is loaded at a particular time in the year, and in the last four weeks of I've done 14 flights and I'm about to start a new research project and I'm finishing setting that up. I'm also working on a number of different projects and I'm right in it, and you know what? It's gone completely out the window. The only thing that I'm clinging onto is, like, seven hours of sleep a night. Everything else is in the toilet. But I think, again, one of the things I often say to myself and other people is progress isn't linear and don't make perfection the enemy good enough. I know that I'm not practicing what I preach in all aspects right now, but I'll get back on it. And that's fine. That's life. No one's perfect, and I think we've got to keep the end goal in mind and sometimes cut ourselves a bit of slack and just trust the process and I think we get there in the end.
This is a fascinating discussion. A lot of topics that you've been looking at are very dear to my heart, so it's a fun conversation. So how do people follow your work? How do people learn more about what you do with Hintsa? What have you got for the rest of the year and 2019 that you're excited about?
On a personal level, one of the things I'm really excited about is my next research project where I'm going to be looking at some cognitive measures and combining some heart rate variability stuff and looking into that. That's going to be exciting, and I'm going to be traveling around still, kind of speaking at events for a number of clients. I haven't got anything particularly big and public going on, but if anyone would like to invite me to an event I'm always open to potential opportunities there. But if people want to follow my writing and my work and some of the preliminary results for when I can share them, then I work with a company called Hintsa Performance and we have a website there. It's hintsa.com, and you can check out the blog. I've also got a personal website where that's more kind of orientated towards my obsessions and looking at sustainable high performance and knowledge work and cognitive performance as an endurance activity. My website is Jameshewitt.net. It's H-E-W-I-T-T, and then of course on Twitter at James P. Hewitt. And on any of those channels, please feel free to get in touch and ask your questions, share comments. I've learned an incredible amount from the audiences I connect with and there's always something new to find out, so it would be great to hear from some people.
All right. Pleasure. Thanks so much, James.
A healthy brain is a happy you. Feed it knowledge, evidence-based nootropics, and quality nutrition. By joining our newsletter, you'll receive the latest news and information on how you can keep your cognition running on all gears.
Once a week, we'll send you the most compelling research, stories and updates from the world of human enhancement.