The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside

Nature – path by water trees and mountains

How much time do you spend inside? How about staring at a screen? These days, we’re spending more and more of our time indoors and online. Many people don’t get outside enough.

Too many of us are nature-deprived. It’s part of a larger historical trend from the Industrial Revolution. With bigger cities and factories and more office work and indoor living, more and more of us have started feeling separate from nature—or even alienated from it. This has real implications. Richard Louv, an author and co-founder of the Child & Nature Network who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” noted:

Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” (1)


The Benefits of Getting Outside and Being in Nature

Being in nature has all sorts of benefits. According to the research, being in nature can lead to a reduction of anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, anger, attention fatigue, muscle tension, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a mood disorder in climates where there’s less sunlight during parts of the year), and more.

Furthermore, spending time in nature can help promote the following:

  1. greater attentional capacity, including focus and concentration
  2. our ability to connect with others (a key contributor to our happiness)
  3. creativity and creative problem-solving abilities
  4. empathy and love (2)
  5. more exercise
  6. immune function
  7. a sense of meaningfulness
  8. physical wellbeing
  9. positive mood
  10. sleep quality
  11. vitality
  12. healthy management of body weight
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.
’” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

To be clear, being in nature doesn’t have to mean deep wilderness expeditions. Many people these days live in cities or suburbs, and they’re wise to take advantage of what Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of The Open-Air Life, calls “nearby nature.” That means just getting outside in our local neighborhoods and finding whatever green or blue (water) spaces we can.


Sunlight plays an important role here. Direct sunlight has about 200 times the intensity of office lights. Our body’s internal clock depends on the daily cycle of sunlight and darkness. Getting exposure to sunlight helps us feel more tired at night and shorten the time to fall asleep. Sunlight exposure can help with fatigue and low mood. It also helps us get Vitamin D, which is important for our bones, blood cells, and immune system, as well as absorption of certain minerals (e.g., calcium and phosphorus). Also, it helps keep our serotonin levels up, which keeps our mood calm, positive, and focused.

Getting outside can also help us be more social. When we go outside, we get more chances to see and connect with people, which is essential for our health and happiness. (See my article, “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

There are different theories as to why being in nature is so beneficial. One is “biophilia theory”: since we evolved in wild, natural settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive and need to be in nature. Another is “attention restoration theory”: being in nature replenishes our cognitive resources, like our ability to pay attention and concentrate, when they get depleted.

If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.
-David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science, University of Utah

Most likely, it’s a combination of these and other factors.

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10 Tips for Getting Outside

When we learn about all the benefits of getting outside, it can motivate us to do so. Still, we have work obligations, time pressures, and all sorts of online distractions and temptations. It’s a challenge for many of us. So, here are ten tips for getting outside more:

1. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be trekking into the deep wilderness. Take advantage of your nearby nature and do simple activities like walking.

2. Make it a habit and create outdoor rituals, like morning coffee on the deck, mid-day walks, or evening chats on the patio.

3. Exercise outside sometimes, including walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, or other outdoor activities or sports. (See my article, “Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellbeing, and Great Work.”)

4. Limit screen time, since it keeps us from enjoying the great outdoors. Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. Check those daily screen time stats regularly. And be sure to unplug sometimes when out there walking or running so you can listen to the birdsong and be present where you are.

5. Experience nature with a friend. This comes with several benefits: deepening our social relationships (a primary contributor to our happiness), exercise, and all the advantages of nature.

6. Try gardening. It has many positive health benefits, according to a large body of research. Gardening, with its digging, planting, raking, carrying, squatting, kneeling, and more, entails functional movement that incorporates whole-body exercise, including movements similar to squats and lunges. According to the research, gardening can:

  • lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • improve our cognitive function and mood
  • reduce our body mass index
  • provide helpful structure to our days or weekends
  • increase our psychological wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of life satisfaction
  • enhance self-esteem and creativity
  • reduce the effects of dementia

What’s more, it’s gratifying to plant, tend, harvest, eat, and share home-grown food. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well. Gardening is also a great activity for practicing mindfulness.

7. Visit city parks, nature reserves, and national parks. They’re there for a reason. They can help bring calm, gratitude, or awe back into our lives.

8. Go camping, boating, climbing, or trekking. These are great ways to bring fun and adventure back into our lives.

9. Try forest bathing (spending time in a forest environment). The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku. Studies show that it can help boost our energy and immune system as well as help us sleep better and recover more quickly when we get sick.

10. Go wild sometimes, i.e., do go to the forests, jungles, prairies, mountains, lakes, seas, or oceans sometimes. As writer Linda Åkeson McGurk points out, the wilder it is, the more restorative it’s likely to be.


What about Office Workers?

Thankfully, office workers aren’t doomed to nature deprivation. They’re wise to take breaks (including lunch) outdoors and have walking meetings whenever possible. It helps to have a supportive workplace. (3) For example, managers wanting to support the health, wellbeing, and productivity of their team can:

  • provide a space for employees to relax and get away from the office (e.g., an outdoor area with comfortable seating)
  • give workers flexible hours
  • offer wellness programs
  • have bicycles on the workplace grounds, if applicable, and/or provide incentives for commuting by bicycle
  • employ outdoor team-building activities
  • incorporate nature in company meetings and retreats

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What the Nordic Countries Taught Me About This

When I moved to Sweden many years ago, the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) that first winter. A bit colder, and we could have reached the place where Fahrenheit and Celsius converge (minus 40 Fahrenheit equals minus 40 Celsius). For this man who grew up in southern California, it was a shock. But not as big of a shock as seeing all the Swedes get out into that bone-chilling cold. There’s a famous saying in Swedish:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Enter what the Swedes and Norwegians call friluftsliv (which we can translate as “free-air life,” “fresh-air life,” or “open-air life”). Linda Åkeson McGurk wrote a book about it: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day.

Friluftsliv is about connecting with nature in simple ways. It’s a lifestyle in the Nordic countries that’s been passed down across generations, that’s taught in schools, and that’s used as preventive care for mental health (nature therapy), often for people with burnout.

When in the Nordics, you can see it all around you, from people enjoying time in their summer cottages for weeks at a time, to grilling hot dogs outside in the middle of winter (grillkorv), to baby strollers placed outside on the porch of daycare centers and preschools in the middle of winter, with the children swaddled in cozy blankets and breathing fresh air. It’s also a part of the work culture, with gå och prata möten (“walk and talk meetings”). There’s also a conservation aspect: the more connected we are to nature, the more likely we’ll be good stewards of natural places and resources.

During that first winter in Sweden, my inclination was to hunker down by the fireplace. Eventually, I learned a better approach. In Sweden, you just pile on with about seven layers of clothing, including snow pants and great winter gloves, boots, and hats, and you get out there in that magical winter. And in the dark rains of November. Rain or snow, you just get out. It makes a big difference. Friluftsliv.

What are your favorite ways to get outdoors?
How can you build more of them into your routines?


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Related Articles


Related Books and Podcasts

  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day (TarcherPerigee, 2022)
  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (Touchstone, 2018)
  • Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016)
  • Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008)
  • Podcast: “We Know Nature Is Good for Us. Here’s How to Make Time for It, Scandinavian Style,” Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast interview with Linda Åkeson McGurk, August 28, 2023.


Postscript: Inspirations on Nature

  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “They will forget the rush and strain of all the other weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to those who every morning and every night can lift their eyes up to Mother Nature.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher
  • “Nature itself is the best physician.” -Hippocrates
  • “If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” -Buddha
  • “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
  • “The earth has music for those who listen.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor
  • “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • “I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build….” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist


Appendix: Research on the Benefits of Nature

A study of 19,806 people by University of Exeter environmental psychologist Mathew White and his colleagues found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces (e.g., local parks or other natural environments) were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t. This finding held true whether the visits to green spaces were all at once or spread out over multiple visits. Source: White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

“Walk in nature and feel the healing power of the trees.”
-Anthony William

In a Japanese experiment, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of people who were assigned to either walk in a forest or an urban center. The walks were of equal length and difficulty. Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and reported better moods and less anxiety than the others. Finnish researchers found that city dwellers who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than people who walked in a city center.

Dr. Gregory Bratman and his Stanford University colleagues conducted a 2015 study in which 60 participants were randomly assigned to walk for 50 minutes in either a natural setting of oak woodlands or in an urban setting along a four-lane road. The people who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (likelihood of experiencing negative emotions), plus more positive emotions and better performance on memory tasks. Dr. Bratman and his colleagues noted evidence from a review of the research that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life—as well as decreases in mental distress. Source: Gregory N. Bratman et al., Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).

According to a meta-analysis from Dr. Alison Pritchard at the University of Derby in England and her colleagues, people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic wellbeing” (experiences associated with living a life of full flourishing, growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence). Source: Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. et al. The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, (2020).

Peter Aspinall and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland studied participants while they walked through an urban green space. Mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors showed lowered engagement, arousal, and frustration while in the green space and higher engagement levels when departing from the green space.

Roger Ulrich and his Texas A&M University colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a stressful movie and then either videos of natural scenes or videos of urban settings. The people who viewed natural scenes demonstrated a much quicker and more complete recovery from their stress. In a study of gallbladder surgery patients, with half of the patients given a view of trees and half given a view of a wall, the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in the hospital. Nurses also reported that they had fewer negative effects from the surgery.

Juyoung Lee, Dacher Keltner, and other University of California, Berkeley researchers showed participants nature scenes, independently rated for their levels of beauty, and then observed their behavior in two games, one measuring generosity and another measuring trust. Those who viewed the more beautiful nature scenes experienced greater positive emotions and acted with greater generosity and trust in the games than the others.

Penn State University sound researcher Joshua Smyth has found that when people hear songbirds, the tension in their nervous system falls. The opposite occurs when they hear cars and airplanes. Another study compared participants who listened to nature sounds (e.g., waves crashing and crickets chirping) to those who listened to urban sounds (e.g., traffic and the noises of a busy café). Those who listened to nature sounds performed better on demanding cognitive tests. Source: Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychon Bull Rev 26, (2019).

According to a 2015 study of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, more exposure to nature was associated with more community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates. Source: Netta Weinstein et al., Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
-William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor

The benefits of nature aren’t limited to green spaces. They also come from blue spaces, including marine and freshwater environments.

(1) According to researchers, concentrations of air pollutants are much higher indoors than outdoors, and there’s a risk of respiratory problems because of that. Being outside can also help reduce the chances of contracting airborne viruses like the flu and covid-19.

(2) When study participants viewed nature scenes, it activated the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love, according to fMRI scans.

(3) More and more organizations are paying attention to and investing in this. We’ve even seen an increase in “forest schools” in many countries. Forest schools are found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and Japan, among other countries.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Great Sleep for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are three key drivers of our health and wellness.

No surprise there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on great sleep for health, wellness, and great work. (We covered nutrition and exercise in previous articles.) Sleep is the “sleeper” of the three—often overlooked but hugely important. I used to focus mostly on exercise and nutrition but have recently come to see how sleep really is the linchpin.

“Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
-Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Wellness Institute, Cleveland Clinic


Many People Struggle with Sleep

Many people struggle with not sleeping well. The National Sleep Foundation reports that about 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, 62% of U.S. adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, and 30% of Americans experience insomnia at some point over the course of a year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in four U.S. high school students gets the recommended amount of sleep per night. (1)

Of course, this is a worldwide problem. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, about 30% of adults report having had “some insomnia problems over the past year”—and about  10% report having chronic insomnia.


The Problem of Not Sleeping Well

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a form of torture. With poor sleep comes a wide range of risks and side effects. For example, it leads to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and depression.

Sleep loss slows our metabolism and triggers food and sugar cravings. (2) It elevates cortisol, a key stress hormone, and scrambles our blood sugar.

Poor sleeps impairs our memory—both short- and long-term—including our ability to consolidate learning during the previous day. It downgrades our mood, negatively affecting our relationships and parenting. And it reduces our productivity.

“When you are tired, you are not yourself. Well, at least not the best version of yourself.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Generally, sleep deprivation may facilitate or intensify all sorts of problems, including:

  • accidents
  • addictive behaviors
  • anxiety
  • appearance issues (e.g., dark circles under our eyes)
  • appetite surges
  • attention problems
  • blood pressure problems
  • concentration problems
  • confusion
  • depression
  • reduced enthusiasm about positive events
  • headaches
  • increased stress hormone levels
  • immune system suppression
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability
  • lower libido and sexual health in both sexes
  • memory lapses or loss
  • motivation drops
  • obesity
  • relationship problems
  • violent behavior
  • temper tantrums in children (and some adults)
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.”
-JoJo Jensen

According to a study in The Lancet, surgeons who had not slept the previous night took 14% longer to complete a task and made 20% more errors than those who had a full night’s sleep.


Effects of Poor Sleep on Leaders

For leaders, poor sleep can be an occupational hazard—especially if they work in an organization with a culture of burnout.

Too many leaders brush this aside. “Sleep is for wimps,” they say, or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“The Western workplace culture… is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”
-Arianna Huffington, Thrive

Unfortunately, poor sleep negatively affects skills and capacities that are important for leadership effectiveness, including:

  • ability to focus
  • cognitive speed
  • decision-making capacity
  • mathematical processing
  • performance on tasks

In a nutshell, being tired is a terrible state for leading and living. Importantly, sleep deprivation also makes us less ethical, according to researchers, in part by reducing our resistance to pressure. In his book, Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson notes that when we don’t sleep, our parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose a significant amount of their glucose, impacting our social control and ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

According to researchers Christopher Barnes, Brian Gunia, and Sunita Sah writing in their Harvard Business Review article, “people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.” In an experimental study, tired participants (after an all-nighter) were given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money. The result? Tired participants were more likely to abandon their morals for cash.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, distinguishes between what she calls “good tired” and “dangerous tired”:

“Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years)…. it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail ‘just one more time’ before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night.”

Our state of sleep deprivation impairs our judgment and can bring out the worst in us, causing damage to our health, families, teams, and organizations. (See my article, “The Problem with Tired Leaders.”)

“We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.” -Tony Schwartz, “Sleep Is More Important than Food,” Harvard Business Review, March 3, 2011

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Benefits of Great Sleep

By contrast, quality sleep comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. appearance
  2. bones
  3. cognitive function
  4. disease prevention
  5. emotional regeneration
  6. hormonal balance
  7. immune system function
  8. inflammation (reduction)
  9. longevity
  10. memory
  11. performance
  12. relationships
  13. sexual function, including desire and arousal
  14. skin health
  15. stress resilience
  16. weight loss
“Sleep… will magnify the results you get from your food and movement in the most amazing way if you allow it to…. Sleep is the secret sauce. There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Good sleep is also a driver of athletic performance. It’s no secret that top organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to professional sports teams, as well as athletes (including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Phelps), musicians, and artists, have worked to tap into the amazing power of great sleep. Stanford University researchers tested members of the men’s varsity basketball team after increasing the amount of sleep they got and discovered the following:

  • increased speed (faster sprint times)
  • improved shooting (9% improvement in free-throw and three-point shooting)
  • faster reaction times
  • less fatigue
  • improvement in mood and overall physical wellbeing

According to Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level” before their sleep time was extended. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt…. It’s not that they couldn’t function… but that they might not have been at their full potential.”

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Top Strategies for Getting Great Sleep

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for getting great sleep:

Make sleep a priority, since it affects everything we do so profoundly. Turn the good sleep practices below into rituals and habits. Reject a “grind culture” at your office or a mentality of toughing out late nights.

Get enough sleep, consistently. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. (1) Find out what works best for you by learning to listen to your body. If in doubt, start by increasing sleep by just 30 minutes for a few days and see how it feels—or take a short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day, if possible.

Awaken early in the morning. According to researchers, waking early can help reduce negative thoughts and set us up for better quality sleep the next night. Also, “night owls” tend to sleep less overall than early risers, and they’re more likely to develop sleep disorders.

Get adequate sunlight during the day—including some sunlight as early as possible after waking up. Our sleep cycle depends in part on the amount of sunlight we get. Not getting enough sunlight can disrupt our circadian timing system.

Get adequate exercise. When we sleep, our body releases many beneficial hormones and does the repair work necessary for us to benefit from our workouts. The relationship between sleep and exercise is powerful—and bidirectional. Getting good exercise—including strength training two or three times a week—helps us sleep better, and getting good sleep helps us exercise and perform better. Morning workouts are ideal for the best sleep, so be sure to move in the morning even if you do your main workout in the afternoon. When we exercise early in the day, it gets us in a good cortisol cycle. Meanwhile, exercising too late in the evening raises our temperature, which can make it harder to fall asleep.

Limit screen time, especially before bed. According to researchers, using electronic devices before bed can negatively affect our alertness and our circadian clock. Shawn Stevenson notes that eliminating screen time at night is “likely the number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately.” If we shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime, we help our bodies normalize our natural melatonin and cortisol levels. Little things like blue light blockers and “Do Not Disturb” phone settings can go a long way.

Manage caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that excites our nervous system, and it causes our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which work against our sleep. If taken in excess, caffeine can make us jittery and can cause insomnia. It has a “half-life” of between five to eight hours. Avoid energy drinks because they provide excessive amounts of caffeine (e.g., 80-300mg) and use natural sources (e.g., green and black tea or coffee) instead. According to many experts, most people need a caffeine curfew of 2:00 p.m. (3)

Calm our inner chatter. Many people have difficulty falling asleep because their mental wheels won’t stop spinning. Many struggle with overthinking, rumination, and worrying. Simple calming or relaxation techniques can go a long way. For example, try deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming apps (e.g., the Calm app), stories, or audiobooks.

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.” -Charlotte Bronte, English novelist

Create a sleep sanctuary—a cozy place that your mind and body associate with rest and sleep. That begins with a comfortable bed with a quality mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Set it up for peace, quiet, and comfort.

Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Start winding down 30 to 45 minutes before bed. Do something relaxing, like listening to light music or reading a book (ideally, fiction, poetry, or something spiritual—and not something that will generate stressful thoughts about work).

“A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times.
It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.”

-Jessica Alexander, National Bed Federation

Maintain a regular bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule (both going to bed and arising in the morning—even on weekends) can dramatically improve our sleep quality because our body gets into a good sleep rhythm.

Set an eating and snacking curfew well before bedtime. It’s best to give our bodies at least 90 minutes to digest food before bedtime—and even better with more time.

Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol can significantly disrupt our REM sleep and prevent our brain and body from fully rejuvenating. When we do consume alcohol, it’s best to stop at least three hours before bedtime.

Remove devices from the bedroom. According to a 2023 survey of 1,000 Americans, 60% sleep with their phone by their sides (e.g., nightstand) at night, and many check alerts and notifications in the middle of the night, seriously disrupting their sleep. Watching television before bed also disrupts our sleep cycle.

Make sure it’s dark when we sleep. Light sources can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly by throwing our biological clock out of whack. We sleep better when it’s dark enough that we can’t see our hand in front of our face. Blackout curtains are a good investment.

Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom—ideally, between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16-20 degrees Celsius.

Use technology to measure sleep duration and quality (e.g., sleep tracking devices), and make adjustments accordingly.


What to Do If You’re Having Trouble Falling Asleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed after a while and go do something relaxing (without a screen), instead of just lying there and getting frustrated. If there’s a lot on your mind, such as unfinished projects or ideas about how to address a problem, write it down. That way, you can avoid having your working memory churning on it. (A caution: Don’t try to suppress unwanted thoughts because that only makes it worse. Consider scheduling worry time in the afternoon and writing down worries and stressors so they’re captured on paper—leaving no need for your mind to keep spinning on them. See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”

Other recommended practices:

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for about your day while lying in bed.
  • Count backward from 100 to zero as slowly as possible.
  • Check with your doctor for underlying sleep conditions (e.g., sleep apnea) if the problem persists.
  • When needed, take natural, herbal supplements (e.g., nighttime tea with chamomile)—and don’t go straight to sleeping pills or melatonin. (4)



In the end, sleep is pivotal to everything we do. It affects everything. If “sitting is the new smoking,” as they way, then sleep is the new cool. So hit that pillow without guilt and enjoy the experience of life when we feel rested, fresh, calm, energized, and ready for the day. Our lives are too important to spend them in a foggy state of fatigue.

Wishing you well with it!



Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles


Related Resources


  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)
  • Arianna Huffington, Thrive (Harmony Books, 2014)


  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)


Postscript: Inspirations on Sleep

  • “Sleep is a necessary part of life, though most of us scrape by with as little as possible. Most physicians and public health officials ignore it as a cornerstone of optimal health…. It turns out that sleep can make or break your ability to lose weight, age slowly, prevent cancer, and perform at a high level.” -Dr. Sara Gottfried, physician-scientist
  • “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” -Thomas Dekker, English dramatist
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” -Irish proverb
  • “Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” -Frank H. Knight, economist
  • “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” -E. Joseph Cossman, inventor, entrepreneur, and author
  • “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down.” -David Welsh, a University of Washington professor
  • “With too little sleep, people do things that no CEO in his or her right mind would allow.” -Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • “Tired officers are always pessimists.” -General George S. Patton, WWII U.S. Army General
  • “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton, former U.S. president (famous for getting five hours of sleep a night)
  • “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” -John Steinbeck, writer



(1) Most teens should get between eight and ten hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our life. Here are guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep by age group:

  • newborns: 14-17 hours
  • infants: 12-15 hours
  • toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • school-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • adults: 7-9 hours

(2) Sleep deprivation triggers higher activity in our amygdala, an emotional and reactive part of the brain associated with our motivation to eat. Also, it reduces activity in the more advanced parts of the brain associated with judgment, maintaining social appropriateness, social control, and decision-making.

(3) Those who take too much caffeine are wise to consider reducing it gradually, because it can have withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, and fatigue. Few people realize that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine (e.g., 2 to 15 milligrams), though much less than regular coffee.

(4) Stevenson points out that many experts agree that melatonin supplements can be very effective for some people, but it’s a hormone that has a risk of potential problems, including down-regulating our body’s natural ability to use melatonin on its own and creating a dependency. Many people turn to sleeping pills prematurely without understanding the causes of their sleep problems (e.g., too much caffeine, irregular schedule, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, physical problems, side effects from other medications, etc.).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Asking for Help

Many people struggle with asking for help. It just doesn’t feel right, or it goes against their nature.

This fits with a narrative we’ve been fed all our lives. In our culture, we tend to worship the self-made man or woman. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (a truly ridiculous phrase, if we stop to think about it).

Perhaps we grew up admiring the Lone Ranger, Superman, Ironman, or Wonder Woman. It’s part of U.S. history, with the rugged individualism and self-reliance inherited and lionized from the frontier days of the Wild West.*

We value being independent and self-sufficient, a grinder who can push through hardship and get things done.

There’s surely value in much of this, but it comes with a hefty price. If we’re reluctant to ask for help, it can get us into big trouble in life by keeping us stuck or slowing down our advances.

Asking for help is an important life skill, work skill, and leadership skill. Those who struggle with it are wise to address it urgently.

“I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, it didn’t get us to the moon, build our nation’s highways, or map the human genome. We did that together.”
-Cory Booker, U.S. Senator, former Mayor of Newark


The Problem with Not Getting Help

When we fail to reach out and ask for help, we’re more likely to get and stay stuck. We’re more likely to struggle with overwork and burnout. And we’re bound to experience the emptiness of going it alone.

It can prevent us from maintaining closeness with friends and family. When we let our relationships and social ties lapse, it reduces our happiness and can lead to anxiety or depression.


Types of Help

Since many people aren’t accustomed to seeking and accepting help, they may not be clear on the many distinct types of help available to them. For example, types of help we can receive include:

  1. listening as we process difficult emotions
  2. sharing their experience with similar challenges
  3. brainstorming potential solutions
  4. serving as a sounding board
  5. providing input and feedback
  6. reviewing our work for errors or things we’ve missed
  7. encouraging us to stay the course despite challenges
  8. giving advice or counsel
  9. teaching us a new skill
  10. asking tough questions
  11. holding us accountable to our commitments
  12. introducing us to people who can help

At any given time, any one of these can be significant. We’re wise to be open to them so we can operate at our best.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


What Prevents Us from Asking for Help

We may “get” the conceptual case for seeking help, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. There are many reasons we may be reluctant to do so, including that we:

  • don’t want to feel stupid or embarrassed
  • are too proud
  • don’t want to be a bother
  • are too shy
  • would rather just figure it out on our own
  • are afraid of appearing weak, stupid, or incompetent (at work here is the deeply mistaken belief that vulnerability is weakness)
  • fear rejection
  • worry about losing status (e.g., tarnishing our image of being a go-getter) or control
  • don’t want to feel beholden to others
  • believe we don’t deserve help

Sometimes, we can trace one or more of these common thoughts and feelings to a source. For example, maybe someone criticized or belittled us as a kid when we asked for help. According to Deborah Grayson Riegel, coauthor of Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask For, and Accept Help, “starting at about seven years old, we start to associate asking for help with reputational costs. We’ve been conditioned to think ‘They’re going to think I’m dumb/bad/lazy/weak if I admit I need help.’”

Additionally, we may have inherited a personality trait that makes it difficult to ask for help. For example, perfectionists often insist on doing everything on their own because they feel strongly that things must be done a certain way and believe it’s better just to do it all themselves—even though that often makes them a bottleneck and prone to overload.

Our mindset is also relevant here. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, distinguishes between a fixed mindset (in which we believe our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and fixed) and a “growth mindset” (in which we believe we can develop them). A fixed mindset, she argues, leads to a desire to look smart in front of others, making it harder for us to ask for help.

Our personal core values can also get in the way. Those who have self-reliance as a core value, for instance, may pride themselves on being able to manage things on their own. Or perhaps we identify as a high-performer and overachiever and feel like it’s beneath us to ask for help, or we’re a martyr and wish to make others feel guilty for our suffering.

Cultural influences are also relevant. Many Western societies value individualism, as do many families and organizations. It’s part of their ethos. People don’t want to ask for help in cultures where it’s looked down upon.

Finally, we often misjudge how others will respond to our requests. According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science:

“Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” **

There’s research indicating that serving others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. *** In other words, when we ask for help, in some ways we’re helping those we’re asking, because it allows them to do things that help them enjoy life and thrive. It’s called the “helper’s high.”

“The person who is being asked to help also gets a huge benefit from being in that position. They are strengthening social ties and they are able to feel generous. Asking for help is quite generative for both parties.”
-Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D.

At the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates said, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others,” and we’re most successful when we’re driven by a “hybrid” engine of those two forces.


The Benefits of Seeking Help

Getting good at asking for help can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. For example, it can help us deepen our relationship with others, because asking for help involves courage, vulnerability, authenticity, and trust, which are powerful connecting forces in relationships.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

Asking for help can help us gain clarity on the issue at hand as we describe it to others. It can set up a powerful dynamic of reciprocity that benefits all. And it can inspire others to stop going it alone and ask for help more as well.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown recounted the personal implications of this in her life:

“…my greatest personal and professional transformations happened when I started asking hard questions about how my fear of being vulnerable was holding me back and when I found the courage to share my struggles and ask for help…. I also learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me…. Sometimes out first and greatest dare is asking for support.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


How to Get Better at Asking for Help

Though it’s sometimes hard to ask for help, thankfully there are many things we can do to develop this valuable skill. For example, we can:

  • recognize that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, because it means we’re committed to our goals and confident enough to demonstrate some vulnerability
  • consider that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing our frustration or suffering
  • recognize that nobody succeeds in life without the help of many people from different areas of life (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, even rivals sometimes)
  • recognize that our fears about asking for help (e.g., that we’ll lose status) are misplaced, given all the research on how people underestimate others’ willingness to help
  • recall that most people like to help others, as it makes them feel good
  • evaluate whether it’s a good time to ask for help, given that most people tend to wait too long to do so (good things to consider include how much time we’ve already spent on the issue at hand, whether we have the time to keep working on it alone, whether it’s something we’re good at solving, and whether there are better uses of our time and energy)
  • trust others to set boundaries for themselves and say “no” if warranted
  • flip the script and recall times when people asked us for help and whether that made us feel burdened and resentful or glad to be asked and happy to help
  • consider the worst-case scenario (i.e., the person refuses to help or can’t right now, and perhaps we feel awkward for a bit)
  • tally the potential benefits of getting help (e.g., having more bright people working on potential solutions or sharing how they’ve solved a similar problem, as well as the support and solidarity that may arise)
  • start small when first learning to ask for help, and build out from there (this will make it more manageable and less likely that we’ll abandon it)
  • share with others that we struggle with asking for help but want to improve (this will make it easier to ask when the time comes and help us be accountable for improving)
  • set a target for how many “asks” we’ll make in a week or month—and keep track


Things to Do When Making the Ask

Sometimes it’s helpful to address the mechanics of how exactly to go about asking for help. Here are some tips:

Do substantial initial work and thinking on the issue before turning to others. Don’t be the person who goes straight to asking others without putting in some initial thought or work, as that can drift into taking advantage of them. Sometimes, Google and YouTube searches can go a long way.

Ask in person or by videoconference or phone and not email or text, if possible. That will help make it more personal. (According to the research, in-person requests are much more successful anyway.)****

Provide enough information and context for the person to make an informed decision about whether and how they can help. The more clarity and transparency upfront, the better.

Respect their time, expertise, context, and preferences.

Be specific on what the ask is and isn’t, with clear boundaries, including why it matters to us and how we think the person we’re asking can contribute. Many experts recommend making what they call “SMART” requests for help, an acronym that stands for Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound. The clearer we can be on exactly what kind of help we want and need, including the time and resources involved, the better. But even while we make our requests specific, we should be open to new information as we learn what people know, who they know, and how they can help. Let the people we’re asking for help decide how much help they can offer (or not)—and how.

Don’t apologize for asking and don’t minimize the request. That can take away from the other person’s generosity. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.

Don’t emphasize reciprocity when making the ask. By promising a return favor, we risk turning the request from altruistic and noble to transactional.

Follow up afterward to thank them and let them know how things went (and, ideally, what impact they made).

Watch out for the “illusion of transparency” (the mistaken belief that our thoughts, feelings, and needs are obvious to others). Don’t expect people to read our minds about what we want and need. Also, watch out for the “curse of knowledge” (when better informed people find it difficult to adopt the perspective of others—or subconsciously assuming others know what you know about a topic or situation).

Recognize that it can take time to become comfortable with and good at asking for help, because old habits die hard. We can surely get better at it with practice. According to Dr. Wayne Baker, faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, “You’re working to become desensitized to the fear of what might happen when you ask for help.”

Develop this practice into a habit, not a one-and-done activity.

Ensure this is reciprocal. If we want help from others, we must be willing to give help—and sometimes actively to seek ways to help others (but without being needy about it). Ideally, we can earn help from others by being a helpful person—not just once but consistently over time. Still, someone has to start the cycle of helping first, which means that someone needs to receive help first.

Try a “reciprocity ring,” a fun and rewarding approach created by Wayne and Cheryl Baker. In such a ring, a group convenes so that each person can ask for something they need and can’t easily get or do themselves. As each person takes a turn articulating their request, the others think about the resources they might have to help. They can make as many offers of help as they like. Even if they can’t help personally, they can connect the person to someone in their network who might be able to help. Such a practice is powerful because reciprocity is hardwired into our brains, and it can normalize the act of asking for help.


Implication for Leaders

Leaders are wise to create a culture in their team or organization in which asking for help is not only encouraged and common but also rewarded. At IDEO, designers receive coaching on this and executives model it. And at Zingerman’s, a Midwestern food company, all attendees at the induction of new managing partners state what they’ll do to help each new partner succeed. The company’s founding partners participate as well, sending an important message from the top.

Notably, asking for help can help reduce burnout levels in organizations. A global study conducted by Rebecca Zucker from Next Step Partners found that lack of help-seeking was one of the top two predictors of feeling overwhelmed at work. Those who don’t ask for help, she found, scored 23% higher on overwhelm.



For many, asking for help is difficult—and one of the most important skills we can develop because of the connections and breakthroughs it can engender.

Be patient with this process. It may take time, because it involves unlearning old habits. But it’s well worth it.

“If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this:
Ask for help. You need it more than you know.”
-Marshall Goldsmith in The Earned Life


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you in the habit of powering through adversity without asking for help—or even considering it?
  2. Do you wait too long before seeking help, wasting precious time along the way?
  3. In what areas are you comfortable asking for help?
  4. In which cases did you not ask for help when you should have, and why?
  5. What will you do today to develop this important skill?


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Traps


Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle, writer
  • “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart.” -Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take
  • “How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right? Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


* There are cultural differences at work here. For example, many Western societies value individualism, while East Asian and Latin American societies tend to place a greater value on the group, the community, and the collective.

** Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.

*** Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.

**** M. Mahdi Roghanizad, Vanessa K. Bohns, Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 69, 2017, 223–226,

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.


Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.


The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author


Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No


The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.



How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamont, writer

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)



Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.


Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Traps


Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.


Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor, author
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace–The Benefits and Top Practices

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace— The Benefits and Top Practices

We don’t need to look at the data on “quiet quitting” and the “great resignation” to understand that many workers today feel undervalued and underappreciated. They feel like disposable widgets in a heartless organization.

Though recognition is a fundamental human need, many managers think that having a job and salary with benefits should be thanks enough for their workers. Those managers may not only be stressed but also unappreciated themselves.

But they’re missing something fundamental. In a previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have,” we saw that gratitude can lead to better moods, more happiness, better sleep, lower blood pressure, less stress, and more

What about gratitude at work?


10 Benefits of Gratitude in the Workplace

According to researchers, gratitude and appreciation in the workplace can:

  1. boost worker health, wellbeing, and optimism
  2. help improve the work environment and organizational culture
  3. facilitate closer and better relationships among co-workers and between works and their managers
  4. help managers be more effective
  5. help protect workers from stress and burnout
  6. help make workers more enthusiastic about their work and motivated to do a better job
  7. help reduce employee turnover
  8. produce more trust and teamwork
  9. generate higher job satisfaction
  10. lead to better performance
“…study after study has shown that no one is immune from the motivating effects of acknowledgement and thanks.”
Mark Goulston, “How to Give a Meaningful ‘Thank You,’” Harvard Business Review, February 2013

Here’s a sample of some of the research on gratitude and recognition in the workplace:

  • According to a 2023 Great Place to Work survey, recognition was named by workers as the most important driver of great work.
  • In a Glassdoor survey, 81% of workers reported they’re motivated to work harder when their manager shows appreciation for their work.
  • In another survey, 40% of working Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often for their efforts.
Research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors,
are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.
Christine M. Riordan, “Foster a Culture of Gratitude,” Harvard Business Review, April 2013

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The Problem with Lacking Gratitude and Recognition

It also cuts the other way. Problems abound when gratitude and recognition are missing at work.

In a January 2023 Workhuman report, 46% of workers reported feeling only somewhat valued and 11% reported not feeling valued at all in their workplaces. What’s more, those numbers are worse for women and workers of color, with 48.8% of women and 49.3% of workers of color reporting that they feel undervalued.

According to a 2023 Wakefield survey of 400 U.S. adults, 42% of workers overall say their organization lacks the strong culture of appreciation that’s essential for their success. It also found that workers who feel appreciated are more than seven times more likely to feel completely secure in their jobs.

In a 2022 poll, 59% of workers reported that they’ve never had a boss who truly appreciates their work, and 29% say they’d willingly give up a weeks’ worth of pay for more recognition from their employer.

According to a 2021 survey of 1,417 American workers, 49% of the workers said they had quit a job before because of a lack of recognition. And according to a study of 1,714 adults conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association, half of all workers who say that they do not feel valued at work reported that they intend to look for a new job in the next year.

People may take a job for more money, but they often leave it for more recognition.”
-Dr. Bob Nelson


8 Ways to Bring More Gratitude into Our Workplaces

Worker recognition is a $46 billion market globally. Based on the data above, though, it’s clear that many managers and or have much work to do on this important front.

According to a Templeton Foundation survey, of all the places people express gratitude, workplaces are among the places where people are least likely to express it. What a shame.

What to do? Below is a punch list of gratitude-related workplace practices. (As you read through it, use it as a checklist to determine how you’re doing in each area—and consider getting input from your team as well.)

Employ simple expressions of appreciation via notes, letters, or emails. These can be surprisingly powerful for the recipient, especially since many people almost never receive thanks or praise in the workplace.

Launch appreciation programs and success celebrations (e.g., of accomplishments, launches, retirements, etc.) via events, newsletter features, appreciation parties, etc.

Create opportunities for workers to interact with their customers, users, or other beneficiaries of their products and services. This helps them get a sense of the value experienced.

Give simple gifts or rewards. This can be free meals, gift cards, event tickets, or company swag (tech accessories, bags, drinkware).

Encourage peer-to-peer recognition among workers. This can be done via thank-you notes or in meetings.

Give gratitude journals to workers to help them keep gratitude top of mind.

Educate workers about the benefits of gratitude and the many different gratitude practices they can consider. Distribute blogs, articles, videos, or books. (See my previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have.”)

Initiate a 30-Day Gratitude Challenge. Some tips on how to go about it:

  • Make an organization-wide announcement so people understand what it is and how it will work.
  • Ensure that the senior management team is actively involved with and communicating about it far and wide.
  • Promote it creatively via promotional materials (posters, flyers, etc.) and social media.
  • Consider providing incentives for participation, such as gift cards, meals, or a half-day Friday.
Take time to appreciate employees and they will reciprocate in a thousand ways.
Dr. Bob Nelson, expert on worker recognition

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How to Do It Well

In addition to the “what” of workplace gratitude and recognition efforts, it’s also important to think about the “how.” Some tips:

  1. Workplace gratitude and recognition efforts don’t have to be big and complicated. They’re often better when they’re simple and straightforward.
  2. Recognize people and express gratitude to them both in private sometimes and in public other times. Both are necessary.
  3. Thank people at key moments. It can be in the middle of a big push, during a stressful period, or after a big win. Pay attention to timing. Thank people immediately or very soon after the relevant action.
  4. Express appreciation for going above and beyond the call of duty. Acknowledge the effort and sacrifices involved with their work. Share what it means to you and the organization.
  5. Ensure expressions of appreciation are specific, relevant, and authentic. They can also be spontaneous. Standard, generic thank-you’s can be counterproductive.
  6. Personalize the thanks and recognition. Tailor them to the recipient.
  7. Pay attention to frequency. Many leaders don’t recognize and thank their people nearly enough. Researchers* have identified three levels of gratitude in the workplace:
    • Episodic gratitude, in which workers feel grateful for a particular experience.
    • Persistent gratitude, in which workers have a stable tendency to feel grateful for their organization or work context.
    • Collective gratitude, in which many, most, or all the members of an organization feel persistent gratitude. Why not shoot for more persistent and collective gratitude?
  8. Add in some creativity and fun. Many of us have sterile and joyless workplaces that lack life and heart. What a shame. In their book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp noted a clever example in which a couple weeks before the year-end holiday party, the organization asked workers to write three to five qualities that they most appreciated about each member of their team. The organization gathered all the qualities listed for each person and turned them into a word cloud. At the party, the word clouds were displayed anonymously around the room, with names hidden. Workers were asked to guess which word cloud was theirs, and they held a contest to see how many people could be correctly identified via the word clouds.
  9. Smart leaders also build celebrations into the rhythm of their organizations. In their book, Corporate Celebration: Play, Purpose, and Profit at Work, Terrence Deal and M. K. Key outline different types of celebration at work, including:
    • Celebrations with seasonal themes or organizational anniversaries
    • Recognition ceremonies
    • Celebrations of collective accomplishments (e.g., new office or product launch)
    • Personal transitions: entrances and exits
  10. Make sure no one is left out in the larger scheme of gratitude and recognition efforts over time. Appreciation is especially important for front-line workers who often bear the brunt of customer complaints. Think of salespeople, service personnel, customer support staff, and call center workers—and how cruel and vindictive stressed-out customers can be sometimes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Dark Side of Gratitude in the Workplace

The benefits of gratitude are clear and powerful, but as with most things, there are some nuances to consider. In some cases, dynamics around gratitude can become problematic, according to researchers. For example, it can cause resentment if gratitude becomes like a type of currency in a relationship or team, with one or more people feeling underpaid or exploited. Also, those who receive large gifts or favors may struggle to establish appropriate boundaries, in part due to expectations around reciprocity.

We should also be wary of gratitude that’s based on flawed foundations like obligation, shame, or guilt. Some people, including narcissistic or toxic leaders, may seek to manipulate people via gratitude. For example, if we feel we should be grateful to our boss for our job, it can make us blind to their flaws and harms. That gratitude can also make us more willing to violate our values to protect them if they misbehave.

Researchers have also found that gratitude in the workplace can solidify existing power structures, with low-power group members dependent on high-power ones, and high-power group members pacifying low-power group members with expressions of gratitude. (For more on this, see “Gratitude Traps: Why We Should be Critical of Gratefulness.”)



Too many workers today feel undervalued and unappreciated. Gratitude and recognition are key components leaders can employ to humanize the workplace, giving people a sense of pride and belonging for their efforts and contributions.


Reflection Questions

  1. How are you doing when it comes to recognizing and thanking your colleagues?
  2. Have you checked with your team or surveyed your organization to determine how well you’re doing with gratitude and recognition—and in which areas you need work?
  3. What more will you do on this important front, starting today?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles


Tools for You


Postscript: Inspirations on Gratitude in the Workplace

  • “When a manager recognizes an employee’s behavior, personally and sincerely, both feel proud, gratified, and happy. There’s a human connection that transcends the immediate culture to create a shared bond. The power of this bond is stronger than you might think; indeed, it’s the power that holds together great organizational cultures.” -Erik Mosley and Derek Irvine
  • “Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work.” -Tom Rath, author and consultant
  • “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” -Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller and leadership author

* Source: Fehr, Ryan & Fulmer, Ashley & Awtrey, Eli & Miller, Jared. (2016). The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations. The Academy of Management Review. 42. See also Waters, L. (2012). Predicting Job Satisfaction: Contributions of Individual Gratitude and Institutionalized Gratitude. Psychology, 3, 1174-1176.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Hidden Trap Catching Many High-Achievers

The Hidden Trap Catching Many High-Achievers

We all have wants and needs, but most of us don’t think of ourselves as needy. That may be true, but in many cases we’re more needy than we think.

For many people these days, and especially high-achievers, neediness shows up as excessive attachment to recognition, praise, or success–or to saving others–for self-acceptance. It comes with an excessive desire for reassurance or affirmation from others. This is easy to miss because we’re probably reluctant to admit it when we feel it.

Such achievement-based approval is baked into Western culture and our society’s views about what’s expected in life—and what comprises a good life. At work here is the mistaken assumption that success and prestige in the eyes of others will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (They won’t.)

Neediness can hit us hard when we encounter hard times in our career, such as a layoff, and when we go through big transitions in life, such as graduation, career change, or retirement.

It has pros and cons. On the one hand, neediness can motivate us to work hard, achieve at high levels, and contribute to others. On the other hand, it can detract from our quality of life and harm our relationships.

In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine describes the profile of what we calls a “hyper-achiever:” someone who is “dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation.” (This is one of ten “saboteurs”—automatic and habitual mind patterns—he’s identified that work against us and our work teams.)

Some people become insecure overachievers. They seek to win by accomplishing the love,
admiration, and attachment they can’t get any other way,
but of course no amount of achievement ever gives them the love they crave.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain


White Knight Syndrome

One version of neediness comes in the form of what psychologists call “white knight syndrome” (or “hero syndrome”). It’s a need to rescue or save people via helping, such as with advising or coaching them or sharing ideas with them, as a way to boost our sense of self-importance.

Often, it leads us to give unsolicited advice often, in all sorts of settings, with the justification that we’re just trying to help. It can also come with feelings of anxiety or aimlessness when we’re not helping others and annoyance or hurt when people don’t come to us for advice or follow the advice we gave—and sometimes with fishing for praise after we give advice to get acknowledgement about how much we helped.

Drs. Mary Lamia and Marilyn Krieger, clinical psychologists and authors of The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others, defines it as “a compulsive need to be the rescuer” and notes several signs that we may have it:

  • We base our self-worth on our ability to “fix” people, and it’s a core part of our identity in relationships or work as we’re overly keen on offering help and advice
  • We have a strong need to be viewed as important
  • We have a tendency to engage in controlling behavior under the guise of helping people
  • We’re quite self-critical
  • We gravitate toward those who are needy
  • We fear emotional distance and seek to entangle people back into a position of needing our help when that fear arises

According to Dr. Lamia and other psychologists, it can come from many sources, including: a lack of healthy and affectionate bonds during childhood, authoritarian parents, being deeply affected by the suffering of a caregiver, a history of neglect or unhealed abandonment wounds, or having to take on a parent role due to a parent with addiction or health issues.

Though there’s a desire to help that’s part of this, there are also selfish and controlling dynamics at work. People can sense that, so they may begin to resent the help and pull away. Many people can feel put down when others step in with unsolicited advice or unrequested help.

They may also sense that the advice that comes from another, while valid in its original context, often misses the mark in the new context with different people, personalities, and dynamics at work. It can take a high toll on both parties and lead to misunderstanding and mutual resentment, as well as codependency and the undermining of the recipient’s ability to address their own issues.

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Signs of Neediness

There are degrees of neediness. We’re probably all needy to some degree in certain areas, while some people are very needy in several areas of their life and work.

With neediness, we tend to do at least a few of the following fairly often:

  • have a frequent urge to be noticed
  • go out of our way to impress others
  • feel attacked when receiving criticism—or obsess over it
  • be hyper-competitive
  • have a strong desire to be the one who comes up with the answer or solves the problem
  • play status or power games or want to control the people or things around us
  • be prone to adapting our personality to impress others
  • pay people excessive compliments as a way to earn their favor
  • experience discomfort with self-disclosure, emotional vulnerability, or intimacy
  • pull away when close relationships are beginning to form
  • be skilled at hiding insecurities
  • only feel good when we’re successful and held in high esteem
  • have a hard time feeling lasting peace and contentment due to a recurring itch for the next win
  • be image- and status-conscious and spend a lot of time on social media (e.g., tracking follower counts and likes)

(Note, also, that many of these can be blind spots for us. We can go long periods without being aware that we’re doing some of these things, then get surprised with forthright feedback from a trusted friend or mentor.)

When everybody loves me, I’m gonna be just about as happy as I can be.”
-The Counting Crows in their song, “Mr. Jones”


Where Neediness Comes From

Psychologists note that neediness often comes from not having our needs adequately met as children (e.g., feeling neglected, dismissed, invalidated, or rejected). When we’re children, even minor incidents involving these feelings tend to get blown up.

Many children learn early on that they can gain acceptance, praise, affection, or love by proving themselves with obedience or achievement, setting up a conditional view of self-regard that can become problematic later on if not balanced with a healthy sense of self-worth.

Even with well-intentioned, caring parents, we can get the sense that we’re only worthy and loved when we do things as our parents expect—i.e., that we’re only worthy of conditional love.

Neediness can also come from mistaken beliefs about ourselves (e.g., we’re not worthy or good enough) that we’ve never examined critically, as well as from insecurity, trauma, or abuse.

Part of the challenge here is that we’re battling our own neural wiring. Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards, via neuro-transmitting hormones, of achievement leading to praise (and the avoidance of mistakes leading to disapproval). It’s a stimulus-response feedback loop that begins early in life and becomes etched deep into the neural pathways of our brains.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.


The Problem with Neediness

Though neediness can come with certain benefits, such as intense effort that can lead to achievement, it also has many drawbacks. For example, neediness can:

  1. make us overly intense, controlling, or demanding
  2. make us dependent on or excessively vulnerable to other’s judgments and opinions
  3. make us feel bad, ashamed, or distraught when others don’t like what we did
  4. make us feel as if we’re never enough
  5. lead to dysfunctional behaviors, such as people-pleasing
  6. bring anxiety, stress, burnout, disappointment, or loneliness into our lives
  7. be a heavy burden to bear—always carrying the pressure of living up to imagined and exaggerated demands and expectations
  8. lead to compulsive overwork or workaholism, creating an obsessive relationship with work in which we can’t switch it off and in which we feel guilty when not working
  9. lead to underinvestment in other priorities like our health and close relationships
  10. lock us into the wrong career path or a job that’s no longer a good fit for us because we’re so focused on what others think about us
  11. cause us to give our power away
  12. make us vulnerable to manipulation and control by others since we’re so focused on their approval
  13. cause us to compromise our integrity and make poor decisions as we downplay our personal values to continue a positive appearance among others whose moral fiber may be compromised
  14. make it hard for us to make decisions without input from the ones we seek approval from
  15. further the illusion that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our circumstances (e.g., where we live, what we drive), as opposed to deeper and more lasting things (e.g., our character and contributions)
  16. further the mistaken belief that climbing the ladder of success is the point of life
  17. take us away from ourselves (from who we really are and what we value), as we seek to remain the good graces of others with different values and priorities
  18. induce us to play the comparison game as we obsess over our standing among others
  19. cause us to obsess over what we don’t have
  20. inhibit the level of authenticity, connection, vulnerability, and intimacy in our relationships
  21. push our partner, friends, or colleagues away because it’s not an attractive quality and can feel clingy and smothering
  22. make us waste a lot of time seeking feedback and assurances from others instead of doing what’s needed to get things done
  23. make us reluctant to accept help from others
  24. cause us to become addicted to approval and external validation
  25. lead to selfishness or being perceived as self-centered and overly image-conscious
  26. haunt us throughout our lives with fears of disapproval, rejection, or abandonment
  27. inhibit our spiritual life or development as our need for external validation crowds out ultimate matters

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


How to Overcome Neediness

It’s clear that neediness has many drawbacks. So, what to do about it?

There are many things we can do to address neediness, including:

Develop more awareness and understanding of this behavior pattern. Ask ourselves these questions: When does it show up? Where does it come from? How does it affect me?

Cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion—and shut down our inner critic.

Celebrate our successes (even when others don’t).

Spend more time alone, in the process building our comfort level with solitude and working to overcome the cultural bias against it. As we do this, we see more and more that we can fulfill many of our own needs with the right disposition and mindset.

Change our focus from working for approval to working for some other higher aspiration. Examples: contributing to others, supporting our family, expressing our true nature, just doing the work for its own sake, or feeling satisfied when we’ve worked hard and done our best.

Focus on being an equal partner to those we’re with, not a savior, and on letting them figure out their own path, perhaps guided by gentle questions or things for them to think about instead of advice

Ensure we have clarity about what success means to us, instead of letting conventional views about money, status, or fame dictate our choices.

Stop equating ourselves with our results or our titles.

Reflect on whether our goals are mostly concerned with how others view us or with our deeper intrinsic motivations (such as earning a degree or certification because it interests us).

Avoid overthinking and ruminating—as well as jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking and why.

Connect with ourselves more, tuning into our inner life, purpose, and core values.

Recall that true self-worth comes from inside ourselves and not others.

Don’t assume that someone’s feeling or opinion about us makes it accurate. They may be missing important aspects of the story or have some other confounding influence or bias.

View criticism as information to consider and potentially helpful feedback, not as disapproval or a personal attack. Also, note that many people struggle with both giving and receiving feedback well.

Maintain perspective: even if someone disapproves of something we did, how much does it really matter? How much will it matter a few months from now?

Focus less on ourselves and more on others—and serving them. Oddly enough, the more we focus on ourselves, the more miserable we tend to be.

Focus on replacing ego and fear with acceptance and love.

Realize that relying on the opinion of others for happiness, love, or peace is bound to disappoint. Consider looking instead to something more transcendent and lasting such as fidelity to a community or worthy cause, creative inspiration, reverence for nature, religious worship, or spiritual liberation.



If we struggle with neediness, it’s worth addressing because on the other side of it lies real power, freedom, and contentment. Without such neediness, we can experience more ease, appreciation, and joy. We can let go of things that won’t hold up over time so we can dive into and savor the things that will.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you attached to recognition, praise, success, or saving others for self-acceptance?
  2. How is it impacting your quality and your relationships with others and with work?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?


Related Articles and Books

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Tools for You


Appendix: Notes on Neediness and Fame

One facet of neediness for some can be a strong desire for fame. According to social psychologist Orville G. Brim, about 30 percent of survey participants in Beijing and Germany and over half in the U.S. report daydreaming about fame. Recent studies have shown that the biggest goal in life for U.S. children aged 10 to 12 is fame. A survey of British children found that the most coveted career choice was “YouTuber.”

Mathematician Samuel Arbesman devised a crude but clever method for estimating the percent of the population that is famous, taking Wikipedia’s “Living People” category and dividing it by the world’s population. The result? About .0086% of the world’s population is famous, using that method. A tiny number indeed.

Meanwhile, how many of those people are pleased with the baggage that comes with fame and how it changes their experience of life? With all its appeal, fame can be one of the trickiest human experiences to manage. A problem of privilege, no doubt, but still a tough problem for many.

I think everybody should get rich and famous and everything
they ever dreamed of so they can see that that’s not the answer.
-Jim Carrey


Postscript: Inspirations on Neediness

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” -Martha Beck, writer
  • “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” -Dalai Lama
  • “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what people think.” -C. Joybell C., writer
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” -Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy.” -Alex Dias Ribeiro, former Formula One race-car driver
  • “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important… They do not mean to do harm…. They are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” -T.S. Eliot, “The Cocktail Party”
  • “We are not devastated by failing to obtain a goal. We’re only devastated when our sense of self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon achievement of that goal.” -William James
  • “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world….” -Frederic Laloux
  • We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
  • “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
  • “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” -Norman Vincent Peale

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Many of us are going through much of our lives with a “monkey mind” that’s restless and easily distracted, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. (1) The problem is that chaos in our minds will bring chaos in our life, work, and leadership. It will make us anxious and make it harder for us to accomplish our goals.

Unfortunately, this monkey mind phenomenon is as common as it is old (the term having been coined by the Buddha), and it’s aggravated by the way we tend to work in our modern world.

I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind.
The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit, and howl.
My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, writer


Signs of Our Monkey Mind Going Wild

How to know if we’re afflicted by a monkey mind? When our monkey mind is active, we:

  • have scattered thoughts
  • feel anxious, restless, and unsettled
  • find our mind wandering after just a short while of doing something
  • experience mental fatigue
  • feel impatient often
  • are often bouncing from thought to thought and task to task
  • have a hard time focusing on the present moment
  • spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future
  • return to the same thought loops over and over again (rumination)

Our monkey mind is a bit like Curious George—always causing trouble. How much of our day do we spend worrying, complaining, or relitigating past sleights? How about assuming the worst and running worst-case scenarios through our minds again and again? These are telltale signs of the monkey mind in action.

Give anything to silence those voices ringing in your head.”
-from the song, “Learn to Be Still,” written by Don Henley and Stan Lynch, recorded by The Eagles

Take the Traps Test

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The Problem with Our Monkey Mind

Though it’s common, monkey mind isn’t harmless. Its restless bouncing from thought to thought comes with many problems, including:

  1. making us anxious and restless
  2. amping up our stress levels
  3. impeding our ability to focus and concentrate
  4. inhibiting mental clarity
  5. preventing us from being in the moment, present with people, or focused on the task at hand
  6. pushing others away if they find it draining or chaotic
  7. reducing our sense of calm and wellbeing
  8. disrupting our sleep
  9. pulling us away from the things that matter most
  10. reducing our contentment and happiness
  11. becoming a lifelong habit that harms our mental health, quality of life, and career

Monkey mind is related to what psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, called “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder that impairs our control over our attention and our effectiveness. With psychic entropy, a negative feedback loop can form in which we feel unpleasant emotions that make it hard for us to focus, thus causing us to fail in achieving our goals, then starting the cycle all over again—and sapping our confidence. He wrote, “Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals.”


How Our Monkey Mind Inhibits Our Leadership

A monkey mind can also haunt leaders and managers. Think of Karen, a busy executive facing a steady stream of challenges in her work. At breakfast, she’s preoccupied with the presentation she will give to an important customer later, and she’s running late. She’s also worried about her son’s new friends. In her two morning meetings, she’s thinking about what to do with Jerry, a longtime colleague who’s been struggling with an important new project, and how to approach the upcoming board meeting.

When she calls her husband over lunch, she remembers that she forgot to schedule her car for service. In her customer meeting, she nails the delivery but then spirals into self-doubt when the conversation turns to future product releases, and she relives a heated exchange she had with the IT team this week.

At the gym after work, she’s revisiting her answers to the customer’s questions about functionality, and at dinner with her family she’s wondering again about what to do with Jerry. In bed that night, she’s reading a novel, but her mind keeps drifting to the problems of the day, so she must go back and re-read almost every other page. When the lights are out, her head keeps spinning.

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.
If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm,
and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—
that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.
Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.
You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
-Steve Jobs

Monkey mind inhibits our leadership by:

  1. leading us to poor, impulsive decisions or slowing down our decision-making
  2. making us more reactive than proactive
  3. harming our credibility
  4. preventing us from focusing on our priorities
  5. reducing our executive presence
  6. preventing us from listening well to others
  7. frustrating our colleagues
  8. killing our enjoyment of our free time
  9. increasing our stress and anxiety
  10. harming our sleep

Monkey mind relates to many of the leadership derailers that inhibit our leadership effectiveness, potentially including avoiding tough issues, being a bottleneck on big decisions, causing chaos for the team, not being sufficiently clear, becoming ego-centric, being hyper-critical, impulsive, indecisive, or insecure, not listening well, being obsessive or perfectionistic, being pessimistic or prone to overreaction, and becoming a workaholic.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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What to Do About It

We’ve seen how our monkey mind can detract from our work, leadership, and quality of life. So, what to do about it? Here’s a punch list of things we can do to start addressing our monkey mind:

Think of our monkey mind as something to befriend as opposed to an enemy we need to vanquish. In some ways, it’s built into our brain’s design. Calm redirection will serve us much better than judgment and resentment. According to Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, “if we create a calm space for the monkey mind to jump around in, it will eventually settle down.” (2)

Meditate. With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Studies have found that meditation can lead to improvements in brain function, blood pressure, metabolism, sleep, focus, concentration, and even our lifespan, as well as alleviation of stress and pain. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to change in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. (See the Appendix below for some common types of meditation.)

Be here now.
-Ram Dass, Be Here Now

Breathe deeply and do breath work. During breathing practices, we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include deep breathing exercises, such as box breathing in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.) Then repeat the process.

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—
the key to all inner transformation.
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in mindful, offline activities. When we’re doing something—anything—place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. Focus on the sensations of washing the dishes on our hands or the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating. Meanwhile, we should engage more in real-world offline activities. Read a book. Play a musical instrument. Go for a walk. Watch the squirrels and birds in our backyard. And we should be mindful and present while doing it, bringing our attention back to the moment when it wanders.

Play the “game of fives.” Writer Marelisa Fabrega recommends pausing our thinking and noticing five things in our vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to pretend that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that sight, sound, or smell. When we do this, all our attention moves to the present moment.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions, from texts and emails to videos, breaking news alerts, streaming shows, and social media posts. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The key here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction, in which our brains are constantly flooded with stimuli designed to capture and control our attention. Along these lines, we should wean ourselves from the habit of taking out our smartphone every time we get bored. That mindless, compulsive behavior only stimulates the monkeys in our mind to race quickly from thought to thought as we keep swiping.

Take breaks in between activities. Grab a cup of coffee. Gaze at the horizon. Get some fresh air and sunshine. Take some deep breaths. Take a nap. Even short breaks are restorative.

There is more to life than increasing its speed.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Journal. Jotting down our thoughts and feelings in a diary or journal can be beneficial because it allows us to express our emotions freely, clear out distressing thoughts, organize our thoughts, gain new insights, recover a sense of control, find patterns, and deepen our understanding of the events in our lives (and ourselves). According to research studies, journaling can help with anxiety, hostility, and depression. It’s been linked to measurable effects on our health and immune system response. Tip: For best results, include both thoughts and feelings when journaling (and avoid rehashing troubling thoughts over and over), and consider adding some drawing or doodling to the text as well. (For a great summary of the research, see “How Journaling Can Help You in Hard Times.”)

Practice self-care. Engage in regular self-care practices, including sleep, exercise, nutrition, and relaxation. Turn these into habits and regular routines. All of these can have calming effects on our minds through various mechanisms that are well documented.

Find sanctuary. Create a space of sanctuary associated with a calm mind, such as a place to think or write, or a place to meditate or pray. It can be a place of worship, a quiet retreat in the backyard, a trail in the woods, a quiet park nearby, or a peaceful kayaking outing on a lake. For some people, it can simply be a centering practice, and not necessarily a place.

Get out into nature. More than a hundred studies have documented the benefits of being in or living near nature—and even viewing nature in images and videos. According to the research, it can have positive impacts on our thoughts, brains, feelings, bodies, and social interactions—including reduced stress, enhanced recovery from illness, and changes in our behavior that improve our mood and overall wellbeing. Viewing nature can calm our nervous system and lead to a cascade of positive emotions that can in turn promote things like creativity, connection, cooperation, kindness, generosity, and resilience. Experiencing nature can also induce powerful feelings like awe, wonder, and reverence. Unfortunately, many of us today suffer from what environmental writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” (See my article, “The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside.”)

Do deep work. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport notes that to produce at our peak level we need to be able to do “deep work”—working “for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” Such deep work is now as valuable as it is rare, and it will be a big differentiator for those who develop the capacity to do it well. It requires discipline and weaning our minds from the easy comforts of distraction. “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Write things down. If our monkey mind is bouncing between several thoughts and worried about missing or forgetting things, the simple act of writing things down can be surprisingly reassuring for many of us.

Use a shutdown ritual at the end of each workday. Newport also recommends implementing a strict shutdown ritual at the end of our workday. For every incomplete task, goal, or project we face, we should either have a plan for its completion or capture it in a place where we can revisit it later. That way, we’ll know “it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”

Engage in activities that put us in a state of “flow.” Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi characterized flow as a state of complete absorption, almost effortless attention, and peak performance. In flow, he writes, we invest our attention fully in the task at hand, and we function at our greatest capacity. When in a flow state, we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we stop thinking about ourselves as separate from the activity. We’re so absorbed in it that time seems to slow down or stop for us. How to experience flow more often? We need three things:

  1. a clear set of goals
  2. clear and immediate feedback so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals
  3. the right balance between the challenges we face and our skills (if there’s too little challenge, we’ll get bored, and if there’s too much challenge, we’ll feel anxiety)

Serve others. The monkey mind tends to be ego-centric, focusing mostly on ourselves. We can disrupt that narcissistic loop by focusing instead on serving others—and being present in the act of contributing.

Find and embrace things worthy of our focus. Too often, our monkey mind is ruminating about things of little significance. We should be disciplined in dedicating more of our lives to things that matter—to things that honor our purpose and core values and allow us to contribute to others and make an impact—with consistent routines.

If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions
you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing,
and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
-David Brooks, “The Art of Focus



We’ve seen that the monkey mind can cause great suffering in our lives and be a real disruptor in our work. And we’ve covered many ways to address it.

The result should be a mental disposition that more often than not is the opposite of monkey mind—one of tranquility and inner peace. A disposition of acceptance (or “nonresistance” as the Buddhists call it) and of equanimity and ease.

Filipe Bastos from MindOwl makes a distinction between monkey mind and “monk mind,” which entails presence, focus, compassion, discipline, perspective, and consciousness. See the image below.

Monkey Mind and Monk Mind
Source: MindOwl

The good news is that our brains have an amazing capability to rewire their neural pathways. With neuroplasticity, our brain’s neural networks can change through growth and reorganization. As a result, investments in our focus, attention, and consciousness can pay real dividends over time if we commit to daily practice over time.

Science writer Winifred Gallagher notes that the findings from many disciplines “suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience…. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on…. I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

Here’s to a life in which we can focus attention on things that are worthy of it, thus lifting us up.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with the chaos and disruption of a monkey mind, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions, causing distraction and anxiety?
  2. How is it affecting your quality and enjoyment of life and work—and your productivity and performance?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?


Tools for You


Related Articles


Related Books


Postscript: Inspirations on Calming Our Monkey Mind

  • “Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” -Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha)
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass
  • “When you are tempted to control your mind, stand back and realize that the task is impossible to begin with. Even the most disciplined mind has a way of breaking out of its chains.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield
  • “Many people are so completely identified with the voice in the head—the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it—that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind…. The greater part of most people’s thinking is involuntary automatic, and repetitive. It is no more than a kind of mental static and fulfills no real purpose. Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you…. The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth


Appendix: Some Common Type of Meditation Practice

  • Body scan meditation, in which we direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over every part of our body, from head to toe.
  • Focused attention meditation, in which we focus on one thing, such as our breath, and when our mind wanders to other thoughts, we gently bring our attention back to our breath.
  • Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation), in which we silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves, people we love, neutral people, rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.
  • Mindfulness meditation (also known as open monitoring meditation), in which we observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. (3)
  • Transcendental meditation, in which we use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, with an eventual aim of experiencing what they call “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

(1) The term “monkey mind” is attributed to the Buddha, and there are later uses of “mind monkey” expressions from the Later Qin dynasty in China. Side note: Apes are the ones that usually swing through the trees, while monkeys more often run on tree branches rather than swing.

(2) Source for this tip: Leo Babauta, “Monkey Mind: Shifting the Habit of Feeling Distracted Throughout the Day,”, undated.

(3) The default mode network includes regions of our brain that are active when our brains are idling (i.e., not focused on a specific task) and moving from thought to thought by default. According to researchers, mindfulness meditation can deactivate the regions of the brain associated with this network, perhaps even changing the structure of the brain over time, allowing us to switch off this network more and more.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Escaping the Trap of Our Ego

Article Summary: 

Ego is a problem for all of us. It comes with many related problems, including selfishness, arrogance, self-importance, and mental suffering. How to escape the trap of our ego.


There’s a long list of people who have famously been captured by their ego, from celebrities and CEOs to politicians and professional athletes. It’s a well known problem, and one that keeps causing mayhem.

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
-Proverbs 16:18

But this is a problem for all of us, not just the rich and famous. There’s a long list of related problems that come with an unhealthy attachment to our ego: selfishness, arrogance, condescension, self-importance, superiority, hyper-sensitivity, hyper-competitiveness, and corruption.

With ego traps, we see perfectionists, overachievers, and underachievers (our ego prefers us on the sidelines so we don’t run the risk of coming up short), as well as curmudgeons (who express disappointment or disgust every waking minute). It’s a parade of dysfunctions.

“Ego clouds and disrupts everything.”
-Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership


How to Know When We’ve Been Captured by Ego

Our ego-driven thoughts are there to protect us and help us perform for others in a way that buttresses our chosen identity.

When we’ve been captured by our ego, we tend to bask in praise and let it go to our heads. We resist or ignore negative feedback or things we should consider improving. Our defense mechanisms kick in, placing us in a protective shell in which we’re not open to reality. We get caught up in defending an image of ourselves—an image of how we want to be seen to be.

When we’ve been captured by our ego, we tend to be or feel:

  • selfish
  • judgmental
  • critical of others
  • arrogant about our abilities and contributions
  • bad at listening
  • needy for attention, recognition, or praise
  • agitated
  • unwilling to admit our mistakes
  • resentful of things that happened in the past
  • worried about what may happen in the future

These feelings are all signs that our ego is doing a number on us.

“When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely….
when everybody loves me, I’m gonna be just about as happy as I can be.”

-The Counting Crows in their song, “Mr. Jones”

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


The Problem with Our Ego

Ego is one of the worst traps in our lives. It affects everything when it’s in charge of our thinking, from our happiness and quality of life to our relationships, work, and leadership. And it affects us all. It’s one of the great challenges of being human.

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.”
-Laurence J. Peter

At its worst, our ego does many things. It:

  • traps us in obsessive thought loops in which we ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings
  • leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves at the expense of our family, organization, community, or society
  • places us in a state of fear, in which we’re operating out of the more primitive parts of our brain and nervous system
  • hands control over our happiness and wellbeing to others and to circumstances beyond our control
  • hides our weaknesses and shortcomings, leading us to inaccurate self-assessments
  • makes us feel defensive when we receive negative feedback, in some cases causing us to “shoot the messenger,” thereby detracting from our ability to learn and improve
  • harms our relationships and leads to disconnection from others as we get so absorbed in our own career or image
  • prevents us from showing the vulnerability that leads to deeper human connection
  • inhibits our compassion
  • leads to more conflict (with each person’s ego needs escalating demands and resentments)
  • reduces trust in our family and teams
  • gets us stuck in harmful patterns of emotional reactivity to people and situations
  • causes us to focus excessively on success and material things
  • keeps us trapped in the past as we continue to litigate old sleights and harms
  • makes us feel inferior to others
  • makes us feel resentful when the idealized state of the world that our ego keeps unrealistically expecting never appears
  • pushes us into a “fixed mindset” (in which we believe our capabilities are set in stone), making us want to avoid challenges and risks
  • drains our energy and robs us of peace when things change (as they always do)
  • traps us in a logical fallacy of conditional happiness: “When I get or achieve X, then I’ll be happy” (see my article, “The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness”)
  • degrades our happiness and wellbeing
  • makes us feel perpetually unsatisfied, as it inevitably defaults to wanting and needing more attention and praise no matter how good things are in our lives
  • drives us to workaholism and all its attendant costs, including health and relationship problems
  • becomes a lifelong addiction in which go through our days just trying to protect and satisfy our fragile and insatiable ego
  • keeps us from connecting with God and living with grace from our heart and soul

Our ego craves attention. It desperately looks for situations in which it can receive recognition and praise or in which it can create conflict so it can feel agitated or superior.

“Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.”
-Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Our ego thrives on superficial comparisons in which we look good at the expense of others. It clings to an idealized image of reality and self so much so that, when change occurs, as it always does, the ego barrages us with negative thoughts and feelings, making us anxious and unhappy.

Our ego tells us lies about ourselves and others and, since these mischievous thoughts come from our own minds, we tend to take them as truth.

We may have a sense of this in the abstract, but there’s a real challenge at work in our daily experience: we’re often not aware when we’ve been hijacked by our ego. The master illusion is that our ego is ourself. We may get glimpses of the illusion when we invoke our deeper consciousness and observe the thought stream of our ego in action as a watcher of our own thoughts. (The question arises about who’s doing that watching? The answer, it follows, is our true self.)

This ongoing lack of awareness means that the ego has a firm grip on our psyche nearly all the time, and it explains why it’s so rare for us to escape that grip. Even as we consider whether our ego is a problem, our ego secretly kicks into denial mode and tells us that, while it may be a problem for others, for us it’s not a big deal.

Addressing our ego is also tricky because of the cognitive dissonance that comes from knowing that having confidence is good for us. We want to avoid being a wallflower and getting stepped on, but humility doesn’t mean insecurity, just as confidence doesn’t mean arrogance.

Quality of Life Assessment

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How Ego Degrades Our Leadership

Ego is one of the great killers of effective leadership.

“The ego is seductive, the kiss of death to true leadership…. For too many leaders, their ego is their worst enemy.”
-Bob and Gregg Vanourek, “Your Ego Is Not Your Amigo

Our ego takes us away from a focus on our team and our purpose, instead swapping in a focus on how we appear to others. It gets us so focused on managing our image that we’re not accomplishing nearly as much as we could if we just focused on getting the job done.

People can sense it when we’re in it only for ourselves and not a loyal member of the team committed to the shared purpose.

They can also sense it when we’re full of ourselves and breathing our own vapors, assigning ourselves all the credit and neglecting all the contributions of others through the organization. They can see it when we’re unwilling to admit it when we’re wrong, causing us to lose our credibility, one of the most valuable assets for any leader.

“Arrogant leadership is toxic to an organization. It looks like strength but is a debilitating weakness.” -Ira Chaleff

When we’re hijacked by our ego, we unconsciously hire people who are like us to please our delicate ego, or people who are agreeable and will let our ego get away with its self-absorbed shenanigans. This leads to a weaker team without the diversity of thought, skills, and experience to make breakthroughs and without the will and wisdom to speak truth to power.

Dr. George Watts and Laurie Blazek also point out that it leads to teams that are immature, hyper-competitive, dishonest, political, and dysfunctional. They note five ego traps of leaders, depending on a person’s foundational personality traits:

  1. The need to be superior, based on a fear of not receiving the status we feel entitled to
  2. The need to be admired, based on a fear of not receiving the recognition we feel we deserve
  3. The need to be liked, based on a fear of not being included as much as we want
  4. The need to be correct, based on a fear of being judged for making a mistake and being viewed as less than perfect
  5. The need to win, based on a fear of not succeeding or coming out ahead
“Unchecked egos are the most destructive force in business.” -Bo Peabody, entrepreneur and venture capitalist

Ego also threatens to ruin or degrade our experience with big challenges and transitions such as a job change, layoff, empty nest, or retirement, when we’re too attached to our role or position. (See my related article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”
-Colin Powell

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.


How to Get Beyond Ego

Clearly, there are big downsides to having our thoughts captured by our ego. So how do we escape this trap? It turns out that there are many things we can do to get beyond our ego, from simple practices to mindset changes. We can:

  1. recognize that the ego is a false and misleading identity that causes us suffering because we grow overly attached to it
  2. develop our self-awareness so that we can notice more often when our ego is hijacking our thoughts and see ourselves and our behavior with greater accuracy and clarity
  3. develop the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable, embracing the “audacity of authenticity” and replacing perfectionism with healthy striving, as Brene Brown recommends
  4. stop comparing ourselves to others and focus on contributing to others instead
  5. stop thinking about ourselves so much, since it’s a recipe for unhappiness, and start thinking more about other people, a cause, or God
  6. give credit to others and learn to enjoy recognizing their efforts and contributions
  7. submit to a committed relationship with our spouse, family, community, and/or faith, recognizing the emptiness of focusing on individual material success
  8. recall that success, wealth, and fame are fickle, that they can change in a heartbeat, and they’re not the point of life or the source of our lasting happiness and fulfillment
  9. keep learning new things and exposing ourselves to people and experiences outside our zone of expertise
  10. get deeply immersed in something (e.g., a challenge or sport or performance) and focus on developing mastery to get out of our own head
  11. solicit feedback and get good at receiving it openly, without resistance or rationalizations
  12. develop a keen focus on the work itself and the process of doing it—perhaps even leading to a sense of flow—instead of a focus on the potential results and how we may look or feel if we achieve them
  13. become a servant of a higher purpose that contributes to the lives of others instead of focusing on advancing our own interests or agenda
  14. join a small group and share openly with each other, developing trust and camaraderie so group members can call each other out when egos get inflated
  15. stop complaining, since it only fuels the ego with negativity and pulls us out of the present moment and into resentments about the past*
  16. think about what we’re grateful for
  17. engage in what researchers call “self-distancing,” in which we view ourselves from the perspective of an outsider or imagining that we’re observing ourselves from a distance (researchers have found that people who do this recover more quickly from negative feelings and reduce their anxiety about future concerns)
  18. stop identifying with things and ideas, instead allowing ourselves to remain free and present in the moment
  19. find sanctuary—a place or practice of peace, quiet, and tranquility that restores our heart and soul (e.g., in nature or a house of worship)
  20. contemplate the vastness of the universe, putting our small egos in perspective
  21. realize that our mental suffering will continue as long as we’re captive to our ego



Our ego can be a mega-trap in our lives, secretly running a mental script that doesn’t serve us and that takes us away from a life we’d want to live. It causes pain, anxiety, and anguish, over and over again on a nefarious loop.

When we get beyond our ego, it can have profound effects on our experience of life. We can be and feel calm, accepting, forgiving, selfless, peaceful, trusting, serene, still, and complete.


Reflection Questions

  1. Is your mental script captured by ego most of the time?
  2. How is it impacting the quality of your life?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to get out of this trap?


Related Articles

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Tools for You


Postscript: Quotations on Ego

  • “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.” -Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy
  • “There is an unhealthy desire for prestige and money that is ruining people’s lives. The desire for prestige and money is why we: 1) spend an outrageous sum of money on education, 2) kill ourselves at jobs we don’t like, 3) put up with colleagues and bosses we despise, 4) never pursue our dreams, 5) neglect our children, and 6) eventually fill our hearts with regret.” -Sam Dogen, the “Financial Samurai”
  • “You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…. Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious.” -Paul Graham, “How to Do What You Love”
  • “Self-image is constructed by the ego. It gives you a facade that you can show the world, but it also turns into a shield behind which you hide…. real change requires a relaxed attitude. Sadly, most people extend untold energy in protecting their self-image, defending it from attacks both real and imagined.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “The ego is only an illusion, but a very influential one. Letting the ego-illusion become your identity can prevent you from knowing your true self.” -Wayne Dyer
  • “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” -Maxime Lagacé
  • “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
  • “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance. Arrogance is being full of yourself, feeling you’re always right, and believing your accomplishments or abilities make you better than other people. People often believe arrogance is excessive confidence, but it’s really a lack of confidence. Arrogant people are insecure, and often repel others. Truly confident people feel good about themselves and attract others to them.” -Christie Hartman
  • “Arrogance is a self-defense tactic to disguise insecurities.” -Caroll Michels
  • “Conceit is God’s gift to little men.” -Bruce Barton
  • “Pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” -John Ruskin
  • “…the ego needs problems, conflict, and ‘enemies’ to strengthen the sense of separateness on which its identity depends.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “…the ego-self is like a small, comfortable hut, while what the soul offers is a vast landscape with an infinite horizon.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “The ego doesn’t know your only opportunity for being at peace is now.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The ego, for all its claims to running everyday life, has a glaring defect. Its vision of life is unworkable. What it promises as a completely fulfilling life is an illusion…. When you become aware of this defect, the result is fatal for the ego. It can’t compete with the soul’s vision of fulfillment…. The difference between a prisoner captive in his cell and you or me is that we have voluntarily chosen to live inside our boundaries. The part of our selves that made this choice is the ego.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

* Note that refraining from complaining can be very difficult to pull off. Consider starting small, e.g., by trying to not complain for a whole day, and then a week, or start a complaining fund in which you drop a dollar into a jar every time you complain.

** Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

Many people aren’t clear about what they want and where they’re going. Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into.


Do you know who you are?
What you want?
Where you’re going and why?

We may have a vague sense of these things but no real clarity. We lack a clear vision that pulls us forward toward its sweet and compelling destination.

Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and stay busy as a form of avoidance. Sometimes this situation continues for a very long time, placing us in an extended state of drifting.

Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into. Why? Because lacking clarity affects everything, including our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and dreams. And because having clarity is a superpower. Life is so much better and richer when we have a clear vision of a better future, anticipation about what it will feel like when we realize it, and conviction about what’s important and meaningful.


What We Should Get Clear About

Okay, so clarity is important, but clarity about what? Here are the ten most important things we should get clear about:

  1. purpose: why we’re here; our reason for being
  2. values: the things that are most important to us; what we believe and stand for
  3. vision: what success looks like—a mental picture of what we want to be, do, and contribute in life and with whom
  4. strengths: what we’re good at, including our knowledge, skills, and talents
  5. passions: what we get lost in, consuming us with palpable emotion
  6. goals: what we want to accomplish
  7. priorities: the relative importance of our top aims
  8. strategies: how we’ll achieve our vision and goals and what we’ll focus on given our available time and resources
  9. capabilities: what knowledge and skills we need to develop to realize our vision
  10. service: who we seek to impact and how

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.



Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

There’s a big price to pay when we don’t have enough clarity about these things. When we lack clarity, we tend to:

  • suffer from anxiety, stress, self-doubt, indecision, and frustration
  • struggle with knowing where to begin
  • question ourselves and our actions
  • procrastinate
  • begin projects without finishing them
  • struggle with minor decision-making
  • feel like we need advice from others before making most decisions
  • feel overwhelmed and burned out
  • agree to too many things
  • feel confused and uncertain about what to do next
  • be more prone to distraction and disorganization
  • keep comparing ourselves with others
  • put in inconsistent effort
  • remain too busy and frazzled to think about and work toward a better future
  • see a decline in motivation and performance
“Lack of clarity is the primary reason for failure in business and personal life.”
-Brian Tracy


Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, there are many powerful benefits that flow from having clarity in our lives. For example, having greater clarity:

  • eliminates distractions and helps us focus
  • helps us establish a definitive direction
  • makes it easier to identify actions to take and prioritize them
  • helps us overcome fear and doubt
  • makes it easier for others to help and support us because they have better insights into what we want
  • allows us to put our energy into what we want
  • helps us get things done
  • makes it easier to say no to things that don’t matter to us
  • helps us manage challenges more effectively
  • reduces feelings of overwhelm and helps us manage stress more effectively
  • helps us make better decisions and reduces decision fatigue
  • allows us to set and enforce boundaries
  • helps us save money since we avoid spending it on things that don’t matter
  • helps us feel contentment and happiness
  • provides the serenity that comes from knowing what matters most
  • leads to healthier relationships
  • boosts our confidence
  • facilitates better performance
“…compared with their peers, high performers have more clarity on who they are, what they want, how to get it, and what they find meaningful and fulfilling.”
-Brendon Burchard, writer and speaker

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


How to Get More Clarity

Given all the compelling benefits of achieving greater clarity, the question then becomes how to go about it. What can we do to bring more clarity to our lives? Here are 16 actions we can take:

  1. Eliminate distractions, clear out clutter, and create more white space in our lives. This makes room for self-awareness, pattern-mapping, and new insights.
  2. Do one thing at a time.
  3. Take more action more often. Many people assume they need clarity before acting, but sometimes clarity comes from taking action. Act, assess, learn, and adjust. Then repeat.
  4. Reflect after acting. Step back periodically to see how things are going. What’s emerging and what’s getting in the way?
  5. Talk to others. Share what we’re unclear about and ask for their input. They may be able to see things we can’t from their vantage point. (Consider doing this in small groups.)
  6. Develop a clear vision of what life will be like when we’re living the life we want. Start by defining what success looks like in different areas, including family, relationships, health, work, education, community, and more.
  7. Spend more time thinking about our desired future. Also, engage in planning and actions that move us toward that future. Best to schedule time for it on our calendar.
  8. Journal about what’s going on and what isn’t clear yet. Write freely and let thoughts appear uninhibited.
  9. Start acting like the person we want to become. Bring our desired future into our present.
  10. Turn our purpose, values, and vision into a daily mantra or affirmation.* This will help embed them into our consciousness and build them into the fabric of our days.
  11. Ask what we would do if we had less time. By doing so, we force tough choices about what to focus on.
  12. Reduce exposure to negative influences. They extract a tax on our energy and attention. And they pull us away from our own priorities.
  13. Engage in regular centering activities. Take breaks and go for walks. Try deep breathing or meditation.
  14. Follow a regular, daily routine. Be sure that it includes time for quiet reflection.
  15. Make time for systematic self-care. Don’t neglect good habits of nutrition, hydration, movement, and sleep.
  16. Work with a coach or mentor. Focus on getting more clarity on purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, goals, priorities, strategies, capabilities, and service opportunities.


Related Traps

Lack of clarity is common, and it can be pernicious, affecting so much of how we think and what we do. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Achieving clarity about who we are, what we want, and where we’re going can be very challenging. But lacking clarity leads to drifting and settling. And having clarity is a superpower that adds energy and richness to all we do.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you clear about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going?
  2. What more will you do, starting today, to achieve greater clarity in your life and work?


Tools for You


Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

  • “Clarity precedes success.” -Robin Sharma
  • “Clarity is essential. Knowing exactly what you want builds your self-confidence immeasurably.” -Brian Tracy
  • “Clarity is the child of careful thought and mindful experimentation.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur and author
  • “It is essential to know yourself before you decide what work you want to do.” -Stephen R. Covey, leadership author
  • “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” -Cal Newport
  • “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli
  • “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold
  • “…as your inner world becomes more orderly and clear, your actions in the outer world should follow suit.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and writer
  • “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung
  • “Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening…. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen.” -Diane von Furstenberg
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “We want luminosity—the sense of possibility and promise we feel when we absolutely know that all is well and that we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing, right here, right now. We reach luminosity through a different quality of action—clarity, focus, ease, and grace in action.” -Maria Nemeth
  • “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more—more unseen forms become manifest to him.” -Rumi

* Brendon Burchard recommends choosing three aspirational words that describe our desired future self (e.g., “kind, loving, joyful”) and making them a daily smartphone alarm to keep them top-of-mind.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Be More Decisive in Your Life and Leadership

“Should I stay or should I go?”
-the Clash

We make many decisions every day. Many are trivial, but some are consequential and taxing. Which career to pursue (or transition into). When to make a big move. Who to live with, work with, or hire. Whether to start a new venture.

To live and lead well, we must get good at making decisions.

On the leadership front, do we want leaders who wallow and waffle? Or leaders who move forward despite uncertainty; home in quickly on the key issues; actively gather input before deciding; involve others in decisions; invoke their experience, judgment, wisdom, and gut instinct; and remain calm under pressure?

There’s a lot at work with making good decisions. The neurological mechanics of decision-making are breathtaking. When we make decisions, we’re using the brain’s prefrontal cortex for what’s called “executive function.” We’re drawing upon an array of cognitive processes, including: attentional control; cognitive inhibition; working memory; cognitive flexibility; reasoning; problem-solving; differentiation between conflicting thoughts; value determinations (good, bad, better, best, worse, worst); prediction of outcomes; and more.

No wonder so many people sometimes struggle with indecisiveness—wavering between different courses of action and having trouble deciding and moving on—and its related problem of “analysis paralysis.”

Truth be told, getting good at decision-making isn’t easy. This isn’t a new challenge. Even Aristotle mused about the absurdity of the idea that “a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.” Indecisiveness indeed.

The challenge can be even more complex with making decisions in organizations. As expected, there’s much room for improvement here as well. According to a McKinsey Global Survey, only 20 percent of respondents say their organizations excel at decision making. What’s more, a majority report that much of the time they devote to decision making is used ineffectively.

Clearly, we have work to do.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


The Problem with Indecisiveness

“Indecision may or may not be my problem.”
-Jimmy Buffett

Indecisiveness has many drawbacks—and sometimes costly and painful consequences. For example, indecisiveness can:

  • make an already difficult situation worse
  • create delays that have spillover effects, impeding important progress
  • cause frustration
  • reduce productivity, effectiveness, and credibility
  • inhibit innovation
  • bring about stress
  • lead to team and organizational stagnation, breakdowns, and failures
  • prevent us from realizing new opportunities
“Indecision is the greatest thief of opportunity.”
-Jim Rohn

When making decisions, we can experience “choice anxiety”: feeling distressed because we can’t seem to determine what’s right, with the fear of making the wrong decision shutting us down.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about the “paradox of choice” and claims that the freedom to choose, while sounding nice, is actually one of the main roots of unhappiness today, in part because we live in such abundance. Choice overload leads to anxiety. We fear making the wrong choice or fear missing out on the “right” choice.

Schwartz cites an intriguing “jam study” in which a store gave one set of shoppers a range of six jams to consider, and another set of shoppers a range of 24 jams. In the end, shoppers were ten times more likely to purchase jam from a range of six jams than from the much larger set. 10x.

Choice overload can easily lead to not making a choice. We simply walk away. (See my article, “Choice Overload and Career Transitions.”)

Another big problem is second guessing—when we keep revisiting previous decisions and agonizing over whether we should change them. An unproductive and frustrating doom loop.


Causes of Indecisiveness

There are many causes of indecisiveness. Here are eleven of the leading causes:

  1. personality (e.g., our levels of neuroticism and anxiety)
  2. fear of making the wrong choice: we’d rather not decide than risk making the wrong decision, due to loss aversion
  3. fears of failure or of rejection or loss of social status
  4. lack of confidence
  5. excessive risk aversion
  6. lack of clarity about what we want or where we’re going
  7. conflicts between our own preferences and the expectations of others
  8. decision fatigue (a state of mental overload and depletion from making many decisions)
  9. family or cultural conditioning (such as excessive punishment for making mistakes)
  10. lack of accountability for indecisiveness
  11. a history of perfectionism


Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


How to Be More Decisive

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to become more decisive. Note that decisiveness doesn’t mean making hasty, impulsive, or rash decisions. It means making decisions quickly, firmly, and effectively. Here are 22 tips and techniques for developing our decisiveness:

  1. recognize that decisiveness isn’t a set trait, and that decision-making is a skill that can be practiced and developed
  2. acknowledge that indecisiveness is a form of self-sabotage, only making things harder for ourselves and others
  3. become clearer about what we want—including clarity about our personal purpose, core values, and vision of the good life
  4. build our confidence (the good kind, which is earned through hard work and disciplined attention to growth and development), since this is a key factor in decisiveness
  5. develop systems to make as many decisions as possible habitual, routine, or automatic—such as having a regular reading or workout routine at a certain time on certain days (this helps us avoid decision fatigue and frees up cognitive resources for other decisions)
  6. increase our self-awareness so we know under what conditions we work and decide best (and worst)
  7. recall that most decisions involve uncertainty, which tends to come with anxiety, and learn to expect and account for that
  8. develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety and stress, since these contribute to indecisiveness
  9. recognize the difference between fear and actual danger, noting that our fears are often exaggerated versus the actual dangers we face
  10. recognize that being decisive isn’t about always being right (instead, it’s about being able to make clear decisions—even tough ones—quickly, firmly, and confidently despite uncertainty)
  11. distinguish between irreversible and reversible decisions (Jeff Bezos wrote about this in his 2015 letter to shareholders with the distinction between one-way doors, where there’s no going back, and two-way doors in which you can simply “reopen the door and go back through.” He lamented that too many big companies use one-size-fits-all decision making, treating all decisions like one-way doors and in the process slowing everything down.)
  12. get curious and investigate why we avoid making decisions
  13. build our decisiveness and decision-making courage by working to make decisions more quickly and more boldly—and then take stock of how things turn out
  14. start small and make less consequential decisions more quickly at first, building from there to bigger decisions
  15. divide bigger decisions into smaller ones (or a series of steps) that are less intimidating and more manageable
  16. summon more urgency into our lives, since time is precious and wasted time is a common regret
  17. set deadlines for making decisions
  18. “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the expression goes. Look for the point where we have enough information to make a reasonable decision instead of waiting until we have nearly all possible information, variables, and scenarios accounted for. Focus on pursuing learning and growth instead of perfection when making decisions.
  19. recognize that we can’t control our future and that we can’t make perfect decisions
  20. use the “only option test”: imagine that only one of the two options were possible and then see how it feels; then imagine that the other option was the only possible one and see how it feels; then consider whether we have two good options, and it doesn’t really matter so much which one is chosen*
  21. focus only on the most important things and don’t get caught up in the rest, thereby reducing the total number of decisions to make
  22. pray on or sleep on important decisions, summoning deeper wisdom and grace
“If you were omniscient and had a time machine, you would know everything you need to know about the [the results of your decision], but the problem is that we don’t have either of those things, so we don’t have perfect information when we’re making a decision.”
-Annie Duke

The key isn’t just decisiveness. What we really want is skills in making good decisions. It’s about both decision-making quality and decisiveness. Surely it’s easier to be more decisive when we know we have a good decision-making process. So what does that look like?


How to Get Better at Making Decisions

A good decision flows from a good process for deciding. Here are several ways we can get better at making decisions:

  • look into whether there’s more information readily available that would be important for making a good decision—or not—and gauge whether we have enough of the right kind of information to decide
  • get input on decisions from trusted friends and colleagues
  • evaluate the likely impact of a decision before making it
  • invoke our intuitive sense (gut instincts) as well as our reason and logic when making important decisions
  • distance ourselves from the situation (e.g., project forward decades into the future and think about which choice will serve us the best over time)
  • view the issue from a different perspective (e.g., ask ourselves what we’d advise our best friend to do in the situation at hand)
  • look for innovation solutions such as creative combinations or trials* (example: when I was in graduate school, I did two different summer internships to get a feel for both opportunities—and learned that neither was a good fit for me)
  • get feedback and coaching or mentoring on decision-making

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Final Thoughts

One of the keys to decision-making and decisiveness is learning to trust ourselves more. Without self-trust, all of this can fall apart quickly. We don’t need to be perfect. We just need to apply ourselves consistently at getting better.

Once we make a decision, it’s important not to dwell and not to agonize. We must let go of the myth of the one perfect decision and focus more on making the best of the decisions we’ve made. Focus more on developing and using a good decision-making process instead of on whether any decision is “right” or “wrong,” and then trust in that process to serve us well over time.

Refuse to live in a state of regret: take full responsibility for our choices and move on. Make changes when needed. Give ourselves credit for doing our best.

Finally, consider this: If we can get good at making decisions and being decisive, it will help us with everything we do. There’s incredible leverage that comes from improving this. Wishing you well with it.



Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent is indecisiveness causing you problems (and in which areas)?
  2. What can you do to improve your decision-making process?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to become better at making good decisions with urgency and resolve—at becoming more decisive?


Tools for You


Related Articles


Resources on Decision-Making


Postscript: Quotations on Decisiveness and Decision-Making

  • “Indecisiveness is the number one reason for failure. Lack of ability to make a decision in a timely manner causes most people to fail with their projects and plans. Identify this challenge and decide to no longer let it be a setback from your success.” -Farshad Asl
  • “Be decisive. A wrong decision is generally less disastrous than indecision.” -Bernhard Langer
  • “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt
  • “Ambivalence is like carbon monoxide—undetectable yet deadly.” -Cherie Carter-Scott
  • “A person’s greatest limitations are not genetic, but imposed by self-doubt, insecurities, indecision, and timidity.” -Kilroy J. Oldster
  • “What is fear after all? It is indecision. You seek some way to resist, escape. There is none.” -Anne Rice
  • “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.” -Tony Robbins
  • “When you make the best decision you can at a particular time, it’s never worth looking back. Getting stuck in ‘I should have’ or ‘I could have’ is only a waste of precious time and energy.” -Dr. Carla Marie Manly
  • “A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” -Tony Robbins

* Source: Erin Bunch, “Decisiveness Is a Learned Trait—Here Are 11 Tips To Master the Art of Decision-Making,” Well and Good, March 22, 2021.

** Featured image: photo by Jon Taylor on Unsplash.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!