The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

Many people are disengaged at work and not energized and thriving in their lives. One major reason is that they’re not using their strengths—the things they’re good at—regularly.

According to data from Gallup’s global client database, most people aren’t using their strengths every day at work. See the chart below.

Source: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (Gallup Press).

Many of us are either working in areas of our weaknesses or focused on fixing our weaknesses instead of leveraging our strengths more in what we do. For example:

We’re doing things we’d rather avoid—perhaps things that bore us or make us feel weak or incompetent.
We keep trying things but don’t get traction on them and don’t seem to improve much.
We’re working on things even though we know others who are much better at them than we are.
We feel drained by the things we’re doing.

Could it be that we’re thinking about things the wrong way—focused on just doing what we’re told or what’s in front of us, or on shoring up our weaknesses to avoid looking bad, instead of actively crafting our work and activities in line with our strengths?

In their book, Living Your Strengths, Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld note the following:

“If you’re like most people, you have grown up with the ‘weakness prevention’ model. You’ve been told that to become strong, successful, or truly serve…you must ‘fix’ your weaknesses.…That thinking is just plain wrong.…
the evidence is overwhelming: You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around
your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses.”

Enter strengths.

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 Is a Strength?

Strengths are the things at which we most excel. According to English consultant and author Marcus Buckingham, “Your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong.”

In Living Your Strengths, Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define it as follows: “A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity.” They conceive of a strength as a powerful, productive combination of innate talent, relevant knowledge, and skills.

“The fundamental building block of any strength is talent.
When you enhance a talent by adding the right skills and useful knowledge, you have created a strength.”

-Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths

Let’s look at the three components of a strength in turn:

Talents, they write, “are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” Examples include a natural tendency to make people laugh, tune into others’ emotions, or thrive under pressure. These talents naturally exist within us as our inborn predispositions (unlike knowledge and skills). We do them instinctively and derive satisfaction in the process.

“The man who is born with a talent which he was meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.”
-Johann Wolfgang Goethe, German poet, novelist, and scientist

Knowledge is what we know—whether factual or experiential knowledge. We can acquire knowledge through various means, from reading and courses to conversations and challenges. Ideally, we have a learning mindset and continually look for new ideas and methods.

Skills, they note, “are the abilities to perform the steps of an activity.” Examples include preparing seminars, presentations, or lesson plans. When we focus on developing our skills, we can boost performance significantly.

Talents, knowledge, and skills are the fundamental building blocks of strengths, but there are other relevant factors that influence their development. Such other factors include practice, coaching, repetition, and feedback. When we do things repeatedly and get targeted guidance and feedback on how we’re doing, we can really amp up our performance.

In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, consultant and author Tom Rath notes that there’s incredible room for growth when we focus on developing our natural talents. He says it’s not realistic to be anything we want to be, as the saying goes, but we can be a lot more of who we already are. By building on our innate talents and interests, we can make incredible strides and thrive.


The Benefits of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

There are tremendous benefits to knowing and using our strengths in our work and daily lives, according to researchers. For example, knowing and using our strengths can:

  • enhance our confidence and help us overcome self-doubt (and keep our negative self-talk in check)
  • boost our motivation and engagement dramatically (1)
  • increase our productivity
  • give us more clarity about how we’re likely to succeed
  • help us achieve our goals
  • set us up for more opportunities for advancement
  • make us happier and more fulfilled
  • help us avoid burnout
“Burnout doesn’t happen when you are working long hours on invigorating activities. Long hours may tire you out, but they rarely burn you out. But fill your weeks with the wrong kinds of activities, activities that weaken you,
and even regular activities will start to burn.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t use our strengths. When we’re not operating in our strengths zone, according to Rath, we’re much more likely to be disengaged at work. We may even dread it. We’re more likely to have more negative interactions with colleagues, treat customers poorly, and achieve less.

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 Signs of a Strength

Unfortunately, we tend to take our strengths for granted. In some cases, they’re so much a part of our daily lives that they’ve become invisible to us. We’re not aware that others may struggle with the things that come easily to us because we’ve been swimming in our strengths for so long.

So, what are the signs of a strength? In his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham identified four signs of a strength, using the acronym SIGN (Success, Instinct, Growth, Needs):

Success: the things we do that make us feel successful. We’ve received recognition or praise for these things.

Instinct: the things we find ourselves drawn to, even if we’re not sure why. We’d like to do them every day, and we may volunteer for them spontaneously.

Growth: the things that were simpler for us to pick up and develop over time. We don’t have to try very hard when we do them. Also, we stay focused on them naturally and lose track of time when doing them.

Needs: the things that fill an innate need of ours and that leave us feeling powerful, fulfilled, and restored instead of drained. We feel a need to do them, and they give us a lot of personal satisfaction.

In sum, our strengths make us feel successful, draw us to use them, are relatively easy for us to develop, and fill a need of ours. We also feel energized while using them.


Signature Strengths

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes about what he calls “signature strengths,” which he defines as “strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises.” They’re essential to who we are, and they tend to give us the following:

  • rapid learning curve as they’re first practiced
  • feeling of excitement while using them
  • sense of authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • desire to learn or find new ways to use them
  • feeling of enthusiasm and invigoration rather than exhaustion while using them
  • desire to pursue projects that revolve around them

To determine our strengths, we can take assessments (see the resources at the end of this article), ask those who know us well (perhaps via a 360-Degree Assessment), and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

When have I achieved success, and what strengths did I use in the process?
What things do others come to me for help with because I’m good at them?
How have I overcome significant challenges, and what strengths did I use in the process?


How to Leverage Our Strengths in Our Life and Work

Here are nine steps for leveraging our strengths effectively in our life and work:

  1. Know what our strengths are.
  2. Clarify how and when our strengths help us with our most important work.
  3. Measure how much time we’re using our strengths (e.g., over the past week).
  4. Set goals for how much time we’ll do so in the future (e.g., over the next week).
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take to use our strengths.
  6. Create a plan for how we’ll develop our top strengths further with new knowledge or skills.
  7. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working in areas of our weaknesses. (It may not be possible to eliminate it altogether.) An important caveat: though we should generally avoid working in areas of weakness for us, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses can be valuable.
  8. Seek colleagues who have different strengths and who compensate for our weaknesses.
  9. Continually seek ways to leverage our strengths in service of worthy endeavors that we’re passionate about.

It may also be helpful to have a coach because we’re often blind to our strengths. Others can often see our strengths more clearly and help us figure out ways to develop and use them more effectively.


How Leaders Can Leverage Strengths for High Performance

Strengths are also relevant for leaders and organizations. They can be a powerful performance booster. To begin with, leaders should know and use their own strengths in their work.

“I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them.”
-Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

Next, managers should pay close attention to strengths in people selection and advancement as well as in job and team design. The team overall should have a well rounded and complementary set of strengths. For example, a founding team in a startup can map out the skills of its current team members as well as the skills gaps it’s looking to fill with new hires. See the table below.

Third, leaders should ensure that all team members are using their strengths as much as possible.

“While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance… the master lever is getting each person to play to his strength. Pull this lever and an engaged and productive team will be the result.
Fail to pull it and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it’ll never fully engage.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

 Finally, leaders should invest in the development of the strengths of everyone on the team (including themselves).

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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



We’re all born with certain talents and interests, and we’re all drawn to certain activities and endeavors. If we can discover what we’re good at and build our life and work around those strengths, we can feel more engaged and energized, and we can thrive. And what if we applied our strengths toward a purpose or calling and used them to serve others in meaningful ways? That would be remarkable.


Reflection Questions

  1. What are your core strengths?
  2. To what extent are you using your strengths (at work, home, etc.)?
  3. Are you using them every day?
  4. How could you use your strengths more?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?


Tools for You

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.


Related Articles


Additional Resources

  • Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (including an online assessment)
  • Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths
  • Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (including an online assessment for a personalized leadership guide)
  • Clifton Strengths Assessment
  • VIA Survey of Character Strengths


Postscript: Inspirations on Strengths

  • “Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.” -Gay Hendricks, psychologist and author
  • “Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to being abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” -Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
  • “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strengths at the right time.” -Dr. Donald Clifton, psychologist and researcher

(1) According to Tom Rath in StrengthsFinder 2.0, workers who can focus on their strengths every day are “six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.”

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. 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!

On Spirituality and the Good Life

Article Summary: 

How spirituality and the good life are related, including the benefits of having a spiritual practice and examples of it.


We all want to live a good life, but are we living in such a way as to make it likely? In many cases, the cultural influences around us aren’t helping. Think about it.

How many of us feel anxious and stressed much of the time? To what degree are we influenced by cultural messages and forces related to consumerism and materialism, status and ego, fear and greed, manipulation and division? How many of us feel time-starved and struggle with numbing or workaholism? These are common traps, and they take us away from a life we’ll be proud of.

“The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually.
Its balance is disturbed.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, French novelist and philosopher

When we focus on material circumstances, what happens when things change for the worse, as they’re wont to do? What happens when we’re shaken up with a health scare, relationship wound, or job loss? Do we really want to let our happiness depend solely on how things are going in our life, given that change is inevitable and that we all experience ups and downs regularly?

Enter spirituality. To some, it’s a loaded word, because it comes with baggage. But to many, it’s a powerful centering practice that adds depth, richness, and meaning to their lives, whether through prayer, worship, meditation, or other means.

Those who avoid spirituality for whatever reason may want to give it a second look, because it can be an important and powerful part of human experience.

“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.”
-Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, theologian, mystic, and social activist

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 Is Spirituality?

Part of the problem is that there’s no widely accepted definition of spirituality, and many people conflate it with religion or dogma. We can think of it very simply as having to do with the human spirit, as opposed to material things. Here are some ways to think about it:

“Spirituality is the measure of how willing we are to allow grace—some power greater than ourselves—
to enter our lives and guide us along our way.”
-Mastin Kipp, author of Daily Love: Growing with Grace
“Spirituality is the process of living out a set of deeply held personal values,
of honoring a presence greater than ourselves.”
-Peter Block, author
“Spirituality for me is recognizing that I am connected to the energy of all creation, that I am a part of it and it is always a part of me. Whatever label or word we use to describe ‘it’ doesn’t matter. Words are completely inadequate.”
-Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author

Many people view spirituality as an age-old quest for inner peace and liberation, for awakening and enlightenment. It can include a search for self-transcendence—or rising above and beyond our ego (what some people call “ego death”).

Spirituality tends to involve asking fundamental questions (e.g., Who am I? Where do I come from? What’s my place in this vast universe? Is there a higher power? What, if anything, gives life meaning?). For many, it entails a recognition of our interconnectedness, and perhaps a quest to reach a higher level of consciousness or experience a sense of oneness with all.

Spiritual routines can range from daily practices to weekly services to personal prayer or faith. They tend to evolve as we age, grow, and have different life experiences.

For some, spirituality is about faith and forgiveness, or ministry and service, or peace and joy. For others, it’s about a search for meaning and purpose, appreciation of truth and beauty, or reverence of the sacred. It can entail connecting with nature, the cosmos, or the divine. And for some people, it’s about mystery, miracles, and revelations—or deeply held aspirations for heaven or nirvana. For most, compassion and love are at the heart of it.

Paul Anderson, University of Minnesota professor emeritus, noted in a scholarly article that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning “breath,” and is defined as “the vital principle or animating force traditionally believed to be within living beings; one’s essential nature.” The definition of the word “soul,” Anderson wrote, is comparable: “The animating and vital principle in the human being, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion.”

Author and social forecaster Patricia Aburdene noted five hallmarks of spirituality: meaning or purpose, compassion, consciousness, service, and wellbeing. According to her, “The quest for spirituality is the greatest megatrend of our era.”

“We suffer when we don’t find ways to allow the concerns of the soul to manifest into our lives.”
-Rabbi Mordecai Finley


The Difference between Spirituality and Religion

Some people equate religion and spirituality, but that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same. Here’s how the Dalai Lama described it:

“Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is the acceptance of some form of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others.”
-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in Ethics for the New Millennium

It’s been said that religion is an institution while spirituality is an experience. The way many people think about spirituality today often includes a sharper break from traditional religious institutions than in the past, and spirituality sometimes comes with an interesting blend of things (e.g., humanistic psychology and mystical traditions, or yoga and workplace wellness).

“Every religion is the product of the conceptual mind attempting to describe the mystery.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

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 Benefits of Having a Spiritual Practice in Our Lives

Spiritual practice—and living in accordance with deeper truths and our highest values—can transform our lives by bringing us a sense of unity, interconnectedness, awe, mystery, abundance, eternity, unboundedness, lucidity, tranquility, liberation, transcendence, flow, and presence.

“The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it, he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers.”
-Evelyn Underhill, English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist

A deep and lasting spiritual practice can help us realize that we’re whole regardless of the circumstances we happen to find ourselves in—and that we don’t need anything from anyone or the world to be and feel whole. A healthy spiritual practice can:

  • be a source of hope and comfort in hard times
  • provide a sense of meaning
  • give us inner peace
  • enhance our ability to cope with anxiety and stress as well as with difficult conditions or experiences
  • give us a state of expanded awareness and a more pure form of consciousness
  • lead to a clearer and more accurate understanding the nature of the world and universe as it really is, not as we’re conditioned to view it
  • give us a better sense of perspective and help us look beyond ourselves and our petty preoccupations and concerns
  • help us make sense of our life experiences and tribulations
  • help us tap into our inner strength and resilience
  • connect us with a spiritual community that provides not only solace and support but also companionship and joy
  • help us discover our purpose and core values—and build them into our daily lives
  • help us stop reacting so negatively to external events and stop being triggered by the same people and situations over and over
  • help us drop the yoke of judgment—of constantly judging ourselves and others
  • enhance our happiness and fulfillment
  • fill us with a deep and lasting joy
“…scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier than those who don’t. Study after study has found that religious people tend to be less depressed and less anxious than nonbelievers, better able to handle the vicissitudes of life than nonbelievers. A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses, or participating in a political or community organization. It’s as if a sense of spirituality and an active, social religious practice were an effective vaccine against the virus of unhappiness.”
-Bryan Walsh, “Does Spirituality Make You Happy?” TIME, August 7, 2017


Examples of Spiritual Practices

Some people have never been exposed to spiritual practices, so they don’t know where to begin. Others may have had negative experiences with religious institutions (often involving shame or guilt) that they wish to avoid. So, it’s important to understand our options.  Here are some common spiritual practices:

  • Praying
  • Worshipping at a religious service
  • Meditating
  • Experiencing nature—even just walking and being present with the sights and sounds around us—and savoring it
  • Reading things that engage our heart and soul
  • Creating things (via art, music, writing, film, dance, etc.)
  • Being in community with others where we feel each other’s presence, engage in deep dialogue with trust and vulnerability, and avoid judging or trying to fix each other. (Author Parker Palmer notes that “inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along by community.”)
  • Serving others and giving back
  • Engaging in spiritual contemplation (e.g., reflection on the divine)
  • Practicing yoga
  • Fasting
  • Journaling
  • Chanting
  • Practicing silence and/or solitude
  • Engaging in rituals (e.g., christening, bar mitzvah) or services (e.g., funerals)
  • Embarking on a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage

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.


Spirituality and Connection

Connection and connectedness are fundamental aspects of spirituality. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brene Brown writes, “The heart of spirituality is connection.” To her, spirituality is “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

Martin Buber, an Austrian-Israeli philosopher, once observed that “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” “True compassion,” wrote Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, “does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

“We’re all just walking each other home.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher


Spirituality and Ego

One of the challenges with modern living is that, if we’re not careful, we can get to caught in our ego, which causes us to focus excessively on things like material possessions, image, or success—all of which lead only to fleeting pleasure for most. In this way, our ego keeps us from living from our heart and soul.

In his book, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra distinguishes between the nature of the ego and the soul. The ego, he writes, tends to be rejecting, critical, opposing, clinging, agitated, resentful, selfish, conflicted, and judgmental. By contrast, the soul is accepting, approving, cooperating, detached, calm, forgiving, selfless, peaceful, and nonjudgmental. He notes that the ego and soul have two very different visions of fulfillment. See the table below.

The ego’s vision of fulfillment:

The soul’s vision of fulfillment:

I have everything I need to be comfortable. I am everything I need.
I am serene because bad things can’t come near me. I am secure because I have nothing to fear in myself.
Through hard work, anything can be achieved. The flow of life’s abundance brings me everything.
I measure myself by my accomplishments. I do not measure myself by any external standard.
I win much more often than I lose. Giving is more important than winning.
I have a strong self-image. I have no self-image; I am beyond images.
Because I’m attractive, I win the attention of the opposite sex. Other people are attracted to me as soul to soul.
When I find the perfect love, it will be on my terms. I can find perfect love, because I have discovered it first in myself.

A key part of spirituality is living more from our soul and less from our ego.

“When the ego dies, the soul awakes.”
-Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader



For many people, spirituality is an essential aspect of living a good life. There are many different spiritual traditions and practices. For many of us, a disciplined spiritual practice can be powerful and transformative as we take the focus off ourselves, give thanks, stand in reverence, and come back to our true nature, wholeness, and divine source.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you too caught up in the hustle and bustle of modern life?
  2. Do you have a spiritual practice that enriches your life?
  3. What more will you do to live from your heart and feed your soul?


Tools for You

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.


Related Articles


Postscript: Inspirations on Spirituality

  • “Little by little, wean yourself. This is the gist of what I have to say. From an embryo whose nourishment comes in the blood, move to an infant drinking milk, to a child on solid food, to a searcher after wisdom, to a hunter of invisible game.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
  • “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French priest and scientist
  • “But you are not your bank account, or your ambition. You’re not the cold clay lump you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are Spirit, you are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely.” -Anne Lamott, writer, teacher, and political activist
  • “The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status. Some of my friends are billionaires, but they are very unhappy people. Power and money fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour…. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life—well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.” -Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
  • “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it.” -Harold Kushner, rabbi, author, and lecturer
  • “As we become more obsessed with succeeding… we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
  • “Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the called is God.” -Dave Wondra, executive coach
  • “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” -Matthew 6:19-20
  • “God takes our willingness and leads us mysteriously down the path where our deepest longings will finally be met in relationship with him and others.” -John Burke, founder and lead pastor of Gateway Church
  • “The deepest desire of our hearts is for union with God. God created us for union with himself: This is the original purpose of our lives.” -Brennan Manning, author and priest
  • “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. We have to recover our original unity.” -Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, theologian, mystic, and social activist
  • “Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “…our purpose for being alive is fulfilled by moving more and more deeply into our spiritual hearts and experiencing the presence of love.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” -Romans 12:2, King James version
  • “My religion consists of a humble admiration for the Superior Spirit who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds….” / “There has to be something behind things, something deeply hidden.” -Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting.” -Warner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist
  • “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful.” -Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
  • “Amidst all the mysteries by which we are surrounded, nothing is more certain than that we are in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed.” -Herbert Spencer, English philosopher and psychologist
  • “Invoked or not invoked, God is present.” Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. (Latin inscription over the entrance to Carl Jung’s home in Switzerland)
  • “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “And then the knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet and novelist
  • “Man’s aim in life is not to add to his material possessions, but his predominant calling is to come nearer his Maker.” -Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader
  • “…the kingdom of God is within you.” -Jesus Christ to his disciples in Luke 17:21
  • “…spiritual truth is diametrically opposed to the values of our contemporary culture and the way it conditions people to behave…. The collective disease of humanity is that people are so engrossed in what happens, so hypnotized by the world of fluctuating forms, so absorbed in the content of their lives, they have forgotten the essence, that which is beyond content, beyond form, beyond thought. They are so consumed by time that they have forgotten eternity, which is their origin, their home, their destiny.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “…underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” -St. Catherine of Alexandria, princess, scholar, and Christian saint
  • “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French priest and scientist

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 personal development and leadership. 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 Importance of Service in Living a Good Life

These days, it’s easy to become self-involved. So much is coming at us so quickly. We live in a world of speed and busyness in an age of social media, celebrities, and influencers.

These cultural influences are strong, pulling our egos toward a certain way of living that can become superficial and materialistic. We can be obsessed with climbing professionally, with chasing success. And we can take all that we have for granted, as we’re so focused on chasing more.

This may keep us occupied (if not overloaded), but it’s not a recipe for good living. In all the chase, with all its focus on success, we can miss out on one of the great gifts and joys of life: serving.

Service is a remarkable thing because it allows us to help others while also helping ourselves.

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 Serving Others

There are many benefits of serving and helping others, according to the research. Here are some of the main ones:

Helping others feels good. Researchers call it a “warm glow.” Even small acts of kindness can bring emotional rewards to the helper. (1)

“I don’t think there’s anything as wonderful in life as being able to help someone else.”
-Betty Ford, activist, former U.S. first lady, and founder, Betty Ford Center

Service is a powerful contributor to our happiness, fulfillment, and overall life satisfaction. According to a large and growing body of research, helping others is often associated with and can lead to higher levels of happiness. Volunteering leads to a boost in our mental health and happiness, especially among people who volunteer more often (e.g., at least once a month), and people who volunteered in the last year were more satisfied with their lives.

Service can help our life and work be more meaningful. And it can help us discover our purpose and core values.

Serving others can help us discover who we are. It’s an important part of what I call “discover mode”: learning about who we are (including our core values, strengths, passions, and aspirations) and what we can do in the world.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
-Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader

Helping others can help us transcend our egos. When we’re helping others, it’s hard to remain preoccupied with our own petty dramas.

Serving people can help us feel more grateful for what we have. We may begin to glimpse how fortunate or privileged we’ve been. It may give us a sharper perspective.

Serving others can be a powerful source of motivation. If we take the time to discover our core values and excavate our convictions, we’ll find that we long to contribute to some people, groups, or causes. We have a lot of energy to activate if we’ll only get started on it.

Serving other people with commitment and skill can help boost our confidence. As we help and have impact, we develop a greater belief in our capacities and conviction that we can add even more value.

Helping others builds our character. It may help us develop generosity, humility, empathy, trustworthiness, responsibility, loyalty, and even moral excellence.

Helping people can help us heal from deep wounds and traumatic experiences. There’s an intriguing expression: “When you feel sad, serve.” Too often, we get lost in our own wallowing and don’t see how readily we could change the dynamic if we’d only reach out and try to help someone else.

“…if you’re hurting, you need to help somebody ease their hurt. If you’re in pain, help somebody else’s pain. And when you’re in a mess, you get yourself out of the mess helping somebody out of theirs. And in the process, you get to become a member of what I call the greatest fellowship of all, the sorority of compassion and the fraternity of service.”
-Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author

Serving people can bring us out of isolation and back into relationship and a sense of belonging in community. This could include spiritual communities that promote service or a focus on something larger than the self.

Serving others can help us create new or stronger friendships. We can befriend the people we’re serving or the people we’re serving alongside. These can become some of the most important relationships in our lives.

Helping others can warm up our cold hearts. Our hearts sometimes take a beating in today’s world. Our heart may be asleep, closed, or cold from pain, suffering, or isolation. Enter the warm glow of serving others.

Service can help us redeem some of the wrongs we’ve done and some of the pain we’ve inflicted on others. Let’s face it: we’ve all made mistakes and hurt people, including our loved ones. Too often, those are the ones we’ve hurt the most. Service can be an agent of redemption in our lives.

Helping others can have positive effects on our own health. According to the research, it can lead to lower stress and inflammation, reduced pain, healthier hearts, and even protection against anxiety, burnout, and depression.

Service can be inspiring and contagious. When people see someone serving others, it summons their better angels and makes them want to join in or follow suit. As this phenomenon spreads, it can help uplift communities.

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 Go About Serving Others

Service doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s often best when we keep it simple, heart to heart. Still, here are a few tips for going about it:

Developing self-awareness can be a great place to start. If we know our strengths, we can look for ways to use them when serving others, giving us a double win because it feels good to use our strengths on something important. The same holds true for our purpose, values, and passions.

If we pause to consider how we’re uniquely or powerfully qualified or positioned to help some people, groups, organizations, or causes—based on our knowledge, skills, experiences, or even our wounds—it can help us target our service efforts more effectively.

When we take time to discover what people, groups, or causes we feel called to serve, it can elevate our motivation and make it more likely we’ll stick with it.


Pervasive Service

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I wrote about something that intentional people who integrate their purpose and passions do well: “pervasive service,” which is “an ethic of contribution as a defining feature of our lives.”

Can we build service into our daily habits? Can we creatively find ways to serve—in ways big and small—our spouse or partner, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, workplace, and community? What if we walked around with our helping antenna up, scanning for ways to respond to needs around us?

Service and giving shouldn’t be relegated to an occasional good deed—or to an annual tax write-off.  What if we looked to bring them into each of our days—thus adding up to a lifetime of contribution? Viewed this way, service can become an organizing principle of our lives, a habit that permeates our personal lives and work and community endeavors.

Ideally, our acts of service evolve into deeper commitments that ripen us and enhance our inner life.

“There are occasions and opportunities for service that will vary throughout anyone’s life. The initial gate is that you understand that that’s a piece of being a full person. It’s a matter of saying yes to the opportunity when it appropriately appears. Every day is a preparation for serving something.”
-Buie Seawell, attorney and professor, University of Denver

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.


Some Cautions about Service

As with many things in life, there are some important nuances and even potential traps here.

First, let’s not make this about giving and expecting something in return. Not everything has to be transactional or come with an expectation or obligation. That just cheapens it.

Second, serving others doesn’t make us better than them. We all have dignity and potential. And we all have ups and downs and our unique context and challenges.

Third, there’s an ego risk that can come with serving. Let’s not let serving morph into a savior syndrome, and let’s not become self-righteous and smug about it.

Fourth, let’s watch out for the trap of being too focused on others—and giving ourselves away in the process. As the flight attendants wisely advise, let’s put on our own oxygen masks first. (See my article, “Are You Focusing Too Much on Others’ Needs.”)

“If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests…. Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.”
-Adam Grant, Give and Take



Service, while remarkable in its own ways and often uplifting, as we’ve seen, doesn’t have to be grandiose and world-changing. Our little acts of contribution can make a real difference day to day and add up over time to big sums.

So, yes, let’s dedicate ourselves to worthy and mighty causes, if we can. Let’s follow in the footsteps of great servants through the ages, if we can. But let’s also focus on what’s right in front of us: Raising our kids as best we can. Holding the door open for someone. Being kind to people we encounter on the street. Thanking the barista with a kind word and a smile. Stopping to see if someone needs help. Giving someone a ride. Checking in on a friend or colleague.

We’re likely to regret it if we don’t build service into our lives. If we do serve and serve often, it’s a beautiful gift both to the world and ourselves—and a way for us to honor the lives we’ve been given.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you helping and serving?
  2. What more could you do?
  3. What will you start with, right now?


Tools for You

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.


Related Articles


Related Books

  • Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World
  • Billy Shore, The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back
  • Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
  • Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways that Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself


Postscript: Inspirations on Serving Others

  • “Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.” -Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • “Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” -Marian Wright Edelman, activist for civil rights and children’s rights
  • “…taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “…the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” -Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician
  • “…when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “A growing body of evidence suggests that the single greatest driver of both achievement and wellbeing is understanding how your daily efforts enhance the lives of others.” -Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question
  • “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” -John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
  • “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.” -Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, writer, and social reformer
  • “Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…. I’d like for somebody to say some day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…. I just want to leave a committed life behind.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The old… should, it seems, have their physical labors reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavor, too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.” -Cicero, De Officiis

(1) Serving others is a form of what researchers call “prosocial behavior” (including giving money to charity, volunteering, sharing food, donating blood or an organ, or otherwise voluntarily helping others). Researchers have discovered that people derive pleasure from helping others. Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans found that it matters how people go about helping. Looking at the evidence on helping using self-determination theory, Aknin and Whillans discovered that prosocial behavior is more likely to lead to happiness when people have autonomy and choice over who and how they help, when they see the impacts of their help, and when they have opportunities to connect with people while helping. (Source: Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans, “Helping and Happiness: A Review and Guide for Public Policy,” Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2021)

“Human beings are exceptionally prosocial.
Not only do we go out of our way to help other people, but we often feel good when we do.”
-Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans

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 personal development and leadership. 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!

Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices

We humans have been journaling, writing diaries, or otherwise writing down our thoughts, feelings, and experiences for centuries. It’s a practice that dates back to the ancients. And it’s a tool that’s been used by pilgrims, explorers, soldiers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

People journal for different reasons. Some people journal to engage in deeper reflection, while others do it to help manage stress or process difficult experiences. Some journal as a way to reinforce their strengths or accomplishments; others focus on gratitude. Many therapists, counselors, and coaches recommend journaling, and many teachers assign it in schools.

Those who journal are in excellent company. People known to have engaged in some form of journaling include: John Quincy Adams, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Joan Didion, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Martina Navratilova, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Seneca, Susan Sontag, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Oscar Wilde, Oprah Winfrey, and Virginia Woolf.

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone,
and I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.”
-Anne Frank’s first entry in her journal, 13th birthday, June 12, 1942
Anne Frank writing at her desk at school, 1940

Different Types of Journaling

There are different types of journaling. One common form is “expressive writing.” It involves writing continuously about an issue in our lives, including our deepest thoughts and feelings. According to James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, authors of Opening Up by Writing It Down, it can include different variations, including writing about a problem we’re facing, journaling about our worries and concerns, or doing a word association around a certain word (e.g., “stress”).

Another common form is “gratitude journaling”: writing about positive experiences that we’re thankful for.

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 Benefits of Journaling

Hundreds of studies over several decades have documented an impressive array of benefits deriving from journaling. For example, it can help us:

  • discern the lessons and patterns of our experiences
  • understand our experiences and feelings in new ways
  • get a clearer sense of our progress over time
  • remember the good things we experience, which can otherwise be easy to forget
  • become more self-aware
  • boost our confidence
  • remain more mindful of our thoughts and feelings

Journaling also comes with a large number of mental and physical health benefits. For example, it can help us:

  • cope with stressful events
  • reduce anxiety
  • regulate our emotions and ease our distress when we’re struggling with difficult feelings
  • reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts
  • improve our mood
  • enhance our psychological wellbeing
  • make sense of our personal history, of the events and experiences that have shaped us (1)
  • cultivate a greater sense of purpose and meaning
  • have a lower risk of depression

According to the research, journaling is associated with lowered blood pressure, better sleep, and fewer stress-related doctor visits and less time spent in the hospital. It’s also associated with improved function of our immune system, lungs, liver, and memory as well as reduced symptoms of chronic diseases. In addition, it can help with recovery from traumatic events, in part because it allows us to process our experiences and emotions.

Journaling can also benefit our brain and cognitive capacity.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.”
Judy Willis, board-certified neurologist and teacher

At work, journaling is associated with less work absenteeism and less time out of work following job loss. And at school, it’s associated with higher grades. Journaling can help us address many of the common traps of living, including overthinking, self-doubt, negative self-talk, drifting, settling, and more.

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.


Journaling is not only inexpensive and straightforward to engage in but it also avoids the need for having people there to listen every time we want to get something off our chest. The pages are always there for us, and they never interrupt or misunderstand. As Anne Frank once wrote, “Paper has more patience than people.”

Benefits come not only from journaling itself but also from going back and reviewing what we’ve written some time later. This review process can help us recapture forgotten stories or experiences and see patterns.

Note that there can be downsides of journaling for some people—or of journaling in certain ways. For example, it’s not always a pleasant experience, since it sometimes involves dredging up painful feelings.


How to Journal: Best Practices

When it comes to how we should journal, there’s of course no single formula. Different people will approach journaling in different ways. The key is to find what works for us. Still, here are some tips:

Remember that journaling is for us and us alone, not for an audience. If we’re self-conscious as we write or concerned about judgment from others, it can reduce or eliminate the value of journaling.

Start small. For many, it’s best to begin with only a few minutes on a manageable topic (e.g., a recounting of the day or a single incident).

Try journaling in different ways. Try writing in a bound journal or spiral notebook. Or try using a digital writing app or voice recording app. (Note, though, that writing by hand comes with real benefits that can easily outweigh the slight loss of speed compared to typing or speaking.) Experiment and see what works.

Try different frequencies. There’s a debate about the ideal frequency of journaling. Some people swear by the practice of daily journaling, in part because it builds a healthy habit, while others warn against the monotony that can come from having a regular cadence. In the end, we should find out what works for us and do that.

Find a quiet and peaceful space without interruptions and distractions. Going deep into our thoughts and feelings requires focus and concentration.

Choose a time of day that works best—the time when our thoughts and reflections flow most naturally. Many people swear by morning journaling. Others prefer to wait until they feel inspired or troubled.

Be sure to include both feelings and thoughts. This helps us avoid unhealthy rumination and makes it more likely that we’ll see patterns and themes. Start with expressing feelings first and then move on to thoughts and thinking patterns.

Be forthright in expressing exactly how we feel without any editing or filtering.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
-William Wordsworth, English Romantic poet

Bear in mind that journaling may bring up painful feelings or some anxiety, and that’s okay. Feel free to take a break and come back to it later. Keep in mind the strong potential for long-term benefits if we stick with it.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
Natalie Goldberg, writer

Don’t get caught up in written rumination—in rehashing difficult things over and over. That can actually be counterproductive.

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need.”
-Dr. James Pennebaker, social psychologist

Feel free to draw in the journal. We don’t have to limit ourselves only to text. But researchers advise against drawing only, as it can lead to worse moods.

Try journaling prompts, especially if we’re not sure where to begin. Examples: things that bring us joy, what we’re feeling or noticing right now, people who or places that make us feel the happiest, dreams we have about the future, or what deserves our best attention now.

“…one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there. In other words: Writing in your journal
is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.”
Hayley Phelan, “What’s All This About Journaling?” New York Times, October 25, 2018

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.


Journaling for Leaders

Many leaders have noted how journaling has helped them become a better leader and grow as a person. These days, many leaders are time-starved and deluged by inputs and information, so having a simple process that facilitates thinking, reflection, and analysis can be powerful.

Leaders can use journaling to process difficult events, think through important decisions, prepare themselves for upcoming challenges, vent their frustrations, or document their journey and see progress and patterns. And they can use it to reconnect with their inner voice when they’re flooded with outside inputs.

Journaling can help leaders be more mindful and present with their colleagues—and empathetic toward their struggles. It can also help them make better decisions and unearth important insights about vexing situations, including innovative ideas that may otherwise have been lost. Importantly, journaling can serve as a pressure valve that allows leaders to process difficult emotions and release some of the stress and pressure associated with the job. Finally, it can help steel them for tough battles ahead.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
-Anne Frank


Journaling for Creativity and Innovation

British entrepreneur Richard Branson keeps notebooks full of questions as part of his creative process. Journals can be a great tool for entrepreneurs to capture their ideas about new products and services to launch, based on observing customer problems and spotting market gaps.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, advocates a distinct form of journaling as a way to recover our creativity and reconnect with our own inner spiritual guide. With her “morning pages,” as she calls them, she advocates writing three pages of strictly stream-of-consciousness, longhand writing every morning—simply writing down whatever comes to mind, jumping from topic to topic, no matter how banal or bizarre—until the three pages are filled. She explains:

“Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included… Nobody is allowed to read your morning pages except you…. Morning pages are nonnegotiable. Never skip or skimp on morning pages. Your mood doesn’t matter…. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’”



With our busy lives and frenetic work schedules, journaling can be a great way to slow down and reflect, reawakening a rich inner life. There’s a reason so many different types of people have been doing it through the ages.

“How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal. Everyone is welcome to this prescription; it costs nothing and is definitely useful.”
-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you using journaling as a practice for personal development, emotional expression, gratitude, creativity, or leadership?
  2. If you’ve tried journaling before but not kept up with it, will you give it another try using some of the tips above?


Tools for You

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.


Related Articles


Postscript: Inspirations on Journaling

  • “Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain.” -Jack London, novelist, journalist, and activist
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” -Louis L’Amour, American novelist and short story writer
  • “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist
  • “Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” -Julia Cameron, American teacher, author, and artist
  • “Listen. The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish economist and diplomat


Resources on Journaling

  • Nancy J. Adler, Leadership Insight Journal
  • Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  • Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning Journal
  • Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic Journal
  • James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain
  • Five Minute Journal (app)


Appendix: Why Does Journaling Work?

Based on a large body of research over time, we know that journaling comes with many benefits. It’s less clear, though, why that’s the case. Here are some of the most likely reasons why it’s so beneficial for so many. Journaling:

  • helps us get distance from painful or confusing experiences, seeing them in a fresh light without the pressures of the moment
  • can facilitate emotional release of unconscious conflicts
  • helps us avoid the problem of stuffing our emotions down (it’s healthy to acknowledge, express, and label our feelings about difficult events)
  • facilitates the process of mentally organizing our experiences, allowing us to examine root causes and formulate a coherent story
  • helps us uncover new insights about ourselves and the way we’re suffering or experiencing the world
  • can lower our emotional inhibition
  • gives us a heightened sense of control over our emotions and our lives
  • involves a powerful combination of both recording and processing, of both remembering and reflecting
  • can provide a sense of emotional catharsis

(1) Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams notes the importance of “narrative identity,” an internalized story we create about ourselves. It helps us form a coherent story of our lives, which in turn can help us view our lives more holistically and positively.

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 personal development and leadership. 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 We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever

meditation illustration

With the way we’re living in the world today, many of us struggle with stress, anxiety, and other harmful mental states. Many people struggle with worrying, overthinking, or ruminating. Some struggle with “monkey mind,” with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. In some cases, we’re too frazzled to have a rich inner life, and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the day and concerns of the world.

Enter meditation.

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. Meditation is a means of quieting and focusing our mind.

Though we can stop there if we wish, focusing only on the psychological benefits, we’d be missing a big part of the point—and the other potential benefits. As a time-honored practice in several religious traditions, with roots in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, meditation is a contemplative practice intended to help us achieve greater spiritual insight. It can awaken our compassion and help us feel more connected to others, potentially including all beings, God, and the universe. And for some, it can lead to a more mindful and enlightened state of awareness and existence.

That leads us to the deeper territory of mindfulness. So, what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to meditation?



According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past.” Quite simply, we can think of it in terms of just three words:

Be here now.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

When we’re mindful, we’re fully aware of the present moment while calmly noticing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in or judging them. Mindfulness is both a state and a practice. When we’re practicing it, we deliberately refocus our attention on experiencing the present moment, or what spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle calls “the now.”

Mindfulness has seen a surge of interest in recent years—from mindfulness in the workplace (including at companies including Aetna, Alphabet, BlackRock, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, Meta, Pixar, and more) and mindful eating to the rapid spread of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs at medical schools, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.

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The Link between Meditation and Mindfulness

Though some people use the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same.

Meditation is a practice that can lead to a state of mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is one of several forms of meditation. (See below for examples of different types of meditation.)


The Benefits of Meditation

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 changes in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, brain imaging studies reveal that a half-hour of daily mindfulness meditation can increase the density of gray matter in the parts of the brains associated with memory and empathy.

According to researchers, meditation has many beneficial physical effects, including potential improvements in:

  • blood pressure
  • metabolism
  • immune response
  • sleep
  • longevity
  • alleviation of pain (including chronic pain)

Researchers also point to many mental and emotional benefits. For example, meditation, when done well over time, can:

  • improve brain activity and cognitive function (including mitigation of cognitive decline)
  • enhance attention, focus, and concentration
  • improve our mood and increase positive emotions that help provide resilience against negative emotions
  • help us cultivate self-awareness
  • promote empathy and compassion
  • decrease our anxiety and emotional reactivity
  • help us manage and reduce worrying and rumination
  • help improve performance on specific tasks (e.g., ones that require attention and accuracy)
  • help us manage our cravings (e.g., if we struggle with alcohol or overeating)
  • help us overcome burnout
  • help reduce symptoms of depression

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Different Types of Meditation

With its long history through the ages and its practice in different parts of the world, it’s not surprising that there are many different ways to practice meditation. Here are several different types of meditation:

Mindfulness meditation. 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. Many people consider focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation as branches of mindfulness meditation.

Body scan meditation. We direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over different regions of our body, from head to toe.

Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation). We silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves and people we love—and perhaps other people we don’t know or even rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.

Transcendental meditation. We use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for a certain period of time or turn our attention within and end up with simple being, perhaps leading to what’s called “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

Death meditation (maranasati). We meditate on the fact that death can strike at any time. The idea is that being mindful of death can help us live well. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”


Mindfulness Practices

Beyond meditation itself, there are also other things we can do to help make us more mindful. Here are several:

Deep breathing practices. During deep breathing practices (also included in many different types of meditation), 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 exercises like 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.)

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

Engage in everyday activities mindfully. When we’re doing something—anything—we can place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. For example, we can focus on the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating, or on the sensations and smells of the dishes we’re washing.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The goal here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction so we can be more mindful about what we’re doing and experiencing.

Play the “game of fives.” Notice five things in our immediate vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to imagine that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that thing. When we do this, all our attention moves to what we’re noticing in the now. (1)

Find sanctuary. Find or create places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart—and build them into the flow of our lives. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our busy days and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, awe, and wonder.


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



  • Greater Good Science Center’s guide to mindfulness practices
  • UCLA Health guided meditations
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
  • Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
  • Calm app


Postscript: Inspirations on Meditation and Mindfulness

  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise.” -Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian Hindu monk, yogi, and guru
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and writer
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer
  • “You can learn more in an hour of silence than you can in a year from books.” -Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.” -Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

(1) A similar approach is the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.

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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 Self-Awareness Is So Important–And How to Develop It

Article Summary: 

Self-awareness is critical in our life, work, and relationships, but many of us struggle with it. How to develop self-awareness.


To be self-aware is to have a good understanding of ourselves, including conscious knowledge of our feelings, motives, and desires. Self-awareness (also known as self-knowledge) involves having a clear, accurate, and deep understanding of our emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. It also involves having a realistic view of ourselves, including a good and true sense of how we’re coming across to others.

In her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich defines self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She calls it the “meta-skill of the 21st century.” It may be an important skill in this century, but we’ve known about the importance of self-awareness for millennia.

“Know thyself.”
-inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE

According to researchers, there are two types:

  1. Internal (or private) self-awareness is about how clearly we see ourselves and whether we notice and reflect on our own internal state.
  2. External (or public) self-awareness is about being aware of how we appear to others.


Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is closely associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Pioneering psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management)—and emphasizes that it’s the foundation for the other three.

According to Goleman, self-awareness involves certain personal competences, including:

  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing our strengths and weaknesses
  • Emotional self-awareness: reading our own emotions and recognizing their impact
  • Self-confidence: having a good sense of our capabilities and self-worth

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 Consequences of Lacking Self-Awareness

When we lack self-awareness, we have blind spots that get us into trouble, and we don’t know the underlying reasons for our actions. As a result, we’re likely to keep making the same mistakes, and we’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging our credibility.

Think of the compulsive talkers who don’t let others get a word in during conversations, unaware that people find it off-putting because it shows a lack of interest in others. Consider the frequent criticizers who spend so much time judging others instead of addressing their own issues.

Think of the people who keep bringing up politics out of the blue and saying things that hurt or offend the people around them without realizing it. Consider the people who speak loudly in public places, unaware that they’re disturbing everyone around them.

Think about the reserved introvert who unintentionally comes across as aloof or uninterested. Note the chronic complainer who never asks others how they’re doing. Consider the perpetual dreamers who never get around to the things they need to do to get started.

We’re all flawed—and prone to self-deception—so we should approach these cases with empathy and grace. But in many cases, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward helping people get out of their own way.

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet


20 Benefits of Developing Self-Awareness

The good news is that we can develop self-awareness, even if we’re low on it (as many are). Having a high level of self-awareness can help us in many ways. For example, it can:

  1. help us see our blind spots for the first time—or see them more clearly
  2. improve our decision-making
  3. help us communicate more effectively
  4. increase our confidence
  5. help us manage stress
  6. enhance our sense of personal control
  7. help us develop our social intelligence and relational awareness, in the process improving our relationships
  8. help us avoid wearing a mask or creating a persona that lacks authenticity
  9. increase our happiness and fulfillment
  10. help us recognize the ruts we’ve fallen into
  11. help us use more of our potential
  12. enhance our influence
  13. facilitate higher job satisfaction
  14. improve our ethical behavior, making us less likely to lie, cheat, or steal
  15. help us avoid looking to others too much for what we should do
  16. help us find good work that’s a good fit for us—and know what work we should avoid
  17. help us understand what makes us come alive and what drains us
  18. help us discover our purpose and what feels meaningful
  19. help us answer the question of what we should do with our lives based on what we’re good at and how we can best add value to others
  20. help us connect with our dreams, including a vision of our ideal self, in the process invoking our energy and excitement for life

Developing our self-awareness is a necessary step in honoring our nature and becoming who we want to be instead of conforming to the desires of others. It’s also a necessary step in developing self-acceptance and self-compassion. Developing self-awareness also helps illuminate our “shadow side”—the parts of our personality that we don’t want to admit—which is a necessary part of human development.

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Why Self-Awareness Can Be So Hard

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness via multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants. She describes their results as follows:

“…even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality:
We estimate that only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

Why is this so hard? Several reasons.

We’re subject to all sorts of influences from our family and friends, and from our culture, that cause us to question who we are and pull us away from it. We’re confused by the cultural influences that don’t align with our own values. Sometimes, we end up defaulting to the values given to us by our parents, peers, or culture (e.g., values related to money or success) and rarely take the time for self-inquiry—or to consider the downsides of those values and whether there may be better alternatives.

It’s hard to admit our weaknesses and face them. Being self-aware often hurts, so we tend to avoid it. This is the work of our fragile ego in defense mode.

We’re used to hiding tender parts of ourselves when we don’t feel safe admitting or revealing who we really are. We fear harsh judgment by ourselves or others.

We’re too busy or overscheduled, so we don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

We tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters instead of pausing to reflect on our inner state and how we may have contributed to things.

We’re accustomed to leaping right into action instead of having the patience and humility to inquire into the deeper reasons for things and our self-sabotaging patterns.

We feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s too painful to look at our shortcomings, so we remain in denial.


How to Develop Self-Awareness

Clearly, developing self-awareness is difficult, for many reasons. But given all its powerful benefits, it’s worth our focused and ongoing attention.

So, how to develop self-awareness? Before answering that, we’re wise to ask: Awareness of what, exactly? What does self-awareness include? Ideally, it includes our life story, purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, emotions, motivations, needs, desires, successes, curiosities, weaknesses, shadow sides, traps, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Given that, here are things we can do to facilitate greater self-awareness:

Develop a propensity for frequent self-reflection (1), including taking time to reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Also, pay attention to what we love and long for, and what makes us come alive. This requires a commitment to self-inquiry and an intentional discovery process (what I call “discover mode”), including listening to our inner voice.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.”
-Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and writer

Seek input and guidance from family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Ask for honest feedback, including about our weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this should include “360-degree reviews.”

Convene a small group to facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things in members’ lives. Make sure the conversation includes self-reflection with input from the group, so participants have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment and search for patterns.

“…inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter:
inner work can be helped along by community.”
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Try using the Johari Window. It’s a framework that helps us identify what’s known to ourselves (or not) and what’s known to others about us (or not). See the image below.

Source: Adobe Stock

For many of us, we don’t let many people see our true selves (limiting what shows up in the upper left “Arena” quadrant). Also, we may have several blind spots—things that are known by others about us that we’re not aware of (in the upper right quadrant). Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself (your main characteristics) and then having one or more people who know you well do the same for you. Then, compare the lists to see the extent of overlap on the different lists. One goal of this work is to get us to show more about ourselves to others, in the process shrinking how much of ourselves we hide or that remains unknown to others.

Journal intentionally, since it can help us reflect on our feelings and experiences, sometimes uncovering insights or patterns.

Take time for renewal and sanctuary, including daily restorative activities (e.g., gardening or yoga) and places or practices of peace that help us recenter our hearts. Without time for renewal and sanctuary, we’ll be too scattered and frazzled to maintain self-awareness.

Take assessments that facilitate our self-awareness and personal growth. Examples include:



Self-awareness is sometimes painful—like when we discover hard truths about how others see us or first learn about major blind spots. Still, it’s well worth it. Without self-awareness, we’re likely to fall into several traps—and perhaps remain in them unknowingly, blind to our unhappy predicament.

Developing self-awareness can help facilitate real growth and development—and sometimes breakthroughs. We can only grow and develop when we have the courage to admit the traps we’re in and acknowledge our shadow side.

As we commit or recommit to developing our self-awareness, we’re wise to consider where many people get it wrong and trip up. Here are three final cautions about this process of becoming more self-aware:

First, self-awareness isn’t only about introspection and talk. The real value comes when we take action in the world based on a high level of self-awareness, such as when we build our life and work around our strengths and find viable workarounds for our weaknesses and blind spots, like asking for help from people who are strong in those areas.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
-Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president

Second, self-awareness isn’t only about the self. It’s also about the self in the larger context of our lives, including our family, friends, community, work, convictions, and commitments. As Quaker teacher Douglas Steere wisely noted, the ancient question “Who am I?” inevitably leads to the question “Whose am I?”

Third, our identities aren’t fixed. We’re multifaceted and dynamic, so our self-awareness needs to keep up with the changes in our inner and outer lives. New challenges and changes will continue—both imposed on us and chosen by us—giving us opportunities for more depth and insight in our quest to know ourselves so we can live more fully and freely.


Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself, and how can you be sure?
  2. Do you keep falling into old traps and patterns that hold you back, indicating that you may have some blind spots?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly and truly being open to 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

“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business…. It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being…. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far….”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher


Related Books and Videos

  • Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
  • Tasha Eurich, Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More than We Think
  • William L. Sparks, “The Power of Self-Awareness,” TEDxAsheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDxMileHigh


Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “Full wise is he that can himself know.” -Chaucer, 14th century British storyteller
  • “If a man does not know himself, how should he know his functions and his powers?” -Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer
  • “Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, poet, scientist, and statesman
  • “The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American essayist
  • “…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, spiritual teacher and author
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “Most folks go through most days on automatic pilot and don’t reflect upon it. When you say, ‘Why did I do that? What was that in service to inside of me? What old button, or issue, or agenda did that hit in me? When have I been here before?’ these are questions that begin to open up the mechanism working within each of us. And through that, you gain some greater sense of self-awareness. And with that, the potential for a great sense of freedom in how you live your life.” -James Hollis, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

(1) Caution: introspection is helpful but can sometimes lead us astray, especially when we use it to ask the wrong questions. Based on data from her research on the most self-aware people, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends asking ourselves “what” instead of “why” questions to improve the value of our introspection. The “why” questions (e.g., “Why do I feel so bad?”), she notes, often concern unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives, and our instincts about them are often wrong. What’s more, those “why” questions tend to invite negative thought patterns, including rumination. Better questions, she proposes, are “what” questions: “What are the situations that make me feel bad? What do they have in common? What are the patterns?” Those “what” questions are more likely to lead to productive insights. (Source: Tasha Eurich, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (And How to Cultivate It),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.)

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 Power of Reframing to Change Our Outlook


Article Summary:

Many of us suffer with a large volume of negative thoughts. Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. On the power of reframing.


Many of us are walking around much of the time in a mild state of anxiety, frustration, or negativity, and it colors almost everything we think and do. Our thought-streams are heavy with negative self-talk, worrying, rumination, and harsh self-judgment from our unhealthy propensity to engage in flawed and superficial comparisons. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias: we tend to over-focus on negatives and underweight positives.

One factor at work here is the prevalence of cognitive distortions, which occur when our thought patterns are flawed or irrational—and usually unhelpful or even damaging. Common cognitive distortions include:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Discounting the positive
  • All-or-nothing thinking: imagining there are only great or terrible outcomes to a situation
  • Blaming: finding fault with others or circumstances instead of looking within
  • Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion
  • Overgeneralizing: seeing negative events as an ongoing pattern of problems
  • Mind-reading: making assumptions about what others are thinking (e.g., that people are judging us negatively), with little or even no evidence
  • Mental filtering: focusing only on negatives and ignoring positives
  • Emotional reasoning: drawing conclusions or labeling ourselves from how we feel (e.g., leaping from “I felt stupid in that meeting today” to “I am stupid”)
Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”
-Byron Katie, Loving What Is

The problem with such thinking traps and cognitive distortions is that they have an array of negative influences, including:

  • loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility
  • sense of helplessness
  • more stress
  • lower confidence, wellbeing, and joy
  • reduced motivation
  • lower performance
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is also dangerous in teams and organizations, because such negative thinking can become normalized and spread rapidly through groups, poisoning the culture. Whole teams can get stuck in downward spirals of negative thinking.

What to do about it? Enter cognitive reframing.


Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing—also known as cognitive restructuring—entails shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a more helpful perspective. With such reframing, we can replace flawed or destructive thought patterns with better ones. In doing so, we can change the way we view people, situations, and even memories—and thus our experience of living and our behavior.

The essential idea behind reframing is that the frame through which a person views a situation determines their point of view. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes, and thinking and behavior often change along with it.-Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author

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 Reframing

When our mental frameworks are causing us distress, cognitive reframing can help us shift them to more helpful ones. This has all sorts of benefits, including positive effects on our mood, mental health, general wellbeing, and self-esteem.

Reframing can help us promote gratitude and appreciation, attract new opportunities, strengthen relationships, reduce stress, and manage loss and grief. Perhaps this explains why cognitive reframing is used to treat a variety of conditions, including: addiction, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, pain disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and stress.


Practical Reframing Approaches

Reframing is something we can all do, whether we’re students, parents, workers, salespeople, managers, or CEOs. It’s relevant across all areas of life, from personal happiness and marriage to teamwork and work performance.

There are many different reframing approaches. Here are several of the main ones:

Asking questions and investigating the evidence. When we’re experiencing negative thought-streams, we can ask ourselves if there are other ways to look at the situation. What evidence supports this thought, and what evidence contradicts it? If we’re judging ourselves harshly, we can ask what our manager, colleagues, and/or staff would say about our work.

Puzzle framing. We can reframe problems not as weights that bring us down but as puzzles to be solved. Problems are a downer, but puzzles come with challenge, fun, and mystery. Here, we can take a cue from Quincy Jones:

I don’t have problems. I have puzzles….
I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses me out.”
-Quincy Jones, record producer, songwriter, and composer

Reframing failure. A manager who sees people on the team making mistakes can jump right into corrections and reprimands, or the manager can reframe it as evidence that team members are stretching themselves, trying new things, and attempting to innovate. All these, of course, are essential for high performance over the long haul.

Three gifts. In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes about the “three-gifts technique”: when facing a bad situation, we brainstorm three scenarios in which that situation could turn into an opportunity or even a gift. It could take days, months, or years to unfold, but the situation ends up having benefits. Example: the head of sales of a company that had recently lost its biggest customer was initially skeptical about this exercise but, with some thought, she realized:

  1. It could be a wake-up call for the company that it’s losing its edge, thereby triggering more urgency in new product development, which could attract many more clients over time.
  2. The loss could help the sales team be more open to new skill development.
  3. It could free up the service staff to provide better service to existing customers, resulting in more referral sales.

Gratitude recasting. Here, we change the focus from a regret or loss to what we’re grateful for. Example: If a grandparent regrets not having had enough time with the grandchildren when they were younger, a recast could be: I’m grateful for the time we did spend together, and we still have time to get to know each other and do fun things.

According to researchers, subjects who engaged in grateful recasting had more healing, closure, and redemption as well as less unpleasant emotional impact from upsetting experiences. They also demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why a bad event happened, whether it could’ve been prevented, and whether they caused it.

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity.”
-Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis

“The work.” In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie notes that we’re all a mirror of our own thinking coming back at us. Her methodology of “inquiry,” with its four questions, is a powerful form of reframing. When we have a troubling thought, she notes, we can ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can we absolutely know it’s true?
  3. How do we react when we believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would we be without the thought?

Context reframing. Here, we change the way we think about the set of circumstances around our challenges. For example, if our flight is delayed, instead of focusing on the hassle, we can pause to consider the larger context of having so much wealth and privilege to be able to fly to places we want or need to go.

Stop taking things personally. In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz notes that most of the things we experience in the world aren’t directed toward us, though we assume they are. Too often, we’re quick to take personal offense and let resentment fester. Instead, we should consider the likelihood that the situation had nothing to do with us: perhaps the person who made that comment was having a bad day or is struggling with some personal challenges or past traumas—or just lacks emotional intelligence or social grace?

Multidimensional view. In her book, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life, Laurie Polich Short recommends viewing things through four lenses:

  1. Big view lens, to view our lives from a broader perspective
  2. Present view lens, to help us see what we’re missing now—and what each moment can bring
  3. Rear view lens, to help us see how we’re wired and how our past is affecting us so we can retain faith for what’s ahead
  4. Higher view lens, to help us see that our life may be given to us for a purpose much bigger than ourselves, in the process seeing more of what God wants us to see
Where we choose to focus makes all the difference in what we see.”
-Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life

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.


Examples of Reframing in Action

Those reframing approaches can lead to an incredible array of possibilities in virtually all areas of our life and work. Here are examples of this phenomenon in action in common scenarios:

If we’re stuck in traffic, instead of getting frustrated, we can appreciate the opportunity to practice deep breathing or listen to nice music or interesting podcasts.

When facing a challenging situation, we can ask ourselves questions like: Is there another way to look at this? What are some other possible reasons for it? What would I say to a friend faced with this?

If we have limiting beliefs, we can simply add the word “yet” to our thoughts about them or change the focus to things we know we can do. For example:

Limiting Belief Reframe
“I can’t do this.” “I can’t do this yet.”
“I’ve never led anyone before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out. I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
“I’m not good enough to manage this project.” “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable. And I have what it takes to figure this out.”

If we’re feeling helpless, we can change our focus from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to address our challenges, much like becoming a detective trying to solve a mystery.

If we’re feeling stuck, we can realize that we’re never truly stuck because we always have the capacity to generate new ideas, as Dave Evans and Bill Burnett point out in their book, Designing Your Life.

When feeling nervous about public speaking or leading a meeting, we can change our focus from fears of screwing up and being embarrassed to a more positive frame: Great, all this adrenaline shows that I care and will give me the energy to share my passion for this subject.

Every single important thing we do is something we didn’t use to be good at,
and in fact, might be something we used to fear

-Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author

If we’re struggling with a daunting transition, we can view it as a challenge to overcome or even an exciting opportunity for learning, growth, and adventure.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman

If we’ve been handed a tough assignment at work, instead of dreading and resenting the pressure, we can view it as an opportunity to learn something new and raise our profile by adding more value to the team.

When we receive tough feedback or criticism, instead of shutting down and feeling resentment or self-righteousness, we can extract value from the feedback, noting that it can help us improve—and that it shows the person cares about our development.

If team members are feeling frustrated and disempowered, they can reframe their mindset about their role (and manager). Too often, workers give too much deference to their managers or are too quick to abdicate responsibility for what’s happening in the organization, blaming people in positions of authority. The best workers do all they can to help the organization achieve its goals. This means taking risks, shaking things up, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, asking tough questions, and letting their manager know what they need to succeed).

If managers are concerned about conflict on a team, they can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence. (See my article, “Why Conflict Is Good—And How to Manage It.”)

If we’re struggling with micromanagement or a need to swoop in and save people, we can change how we see a situation involving someone in need. For example, instead of believing the thought that the person will suffer without our help, we can note how the person can develop new coping skills that will serve them well going forward.


Conclusion: The Power of Reframing

Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. This will help us become more resilient.

For reframing to work, we must learn to recognize distorted thinking and have the motivation to change our ways. Since our thought patterns can be deeply engrained, sometimes it’s wise to get help from a therapist or coach.

Reframing can be the difference between a life of frequent disappointment and one with more satisfaction and ease. What’s more, its effects are cumulative. Positive thought-streams have favorable effects that ripple out, helping us and others.

Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it.”
-Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author


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 and Books


Postscript: Inspirations on the Power of Reframing

  • “It’s only a thought and a thought can be changed.” -Louise Hay, author
  • “The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” -Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned meditation teacher and best-selling author
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust, The Captive
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Everything can be taken from a man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “The secret to living your best life lies largely in your ability to see all that is in front of you.” -Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything
  • “There is enough light for those who choose to see, and enough darkness for those who are of a contrary disposition.” -Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher
  • “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” -Matthew 6:23-23 NIV

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!

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.

Quality of Life Assessment

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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

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 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?


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 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.

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!

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.”

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.


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, journaling, 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
  • “Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete, and it is something that I continue to rely on every day.” -Tom Brady, American football quarterback and champion
  • “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, World War II 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.).

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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!

Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

There are three key drivers of our health and wellness: good nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

They may seem simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on exercise for health and wellness. (We cover nutrition and sleep in separate articles.)


The Problem of Not Enough Exercise

Many people struggle with not getting enough exercise—and with too much sitting and sedentary behavior. Adults between age 20 and 75 (from a sample of more than 2,600) reported spending an average of 9.5 hours of sedentary time each day, not including sleep.

It’s been said that “sitting is the new smoking” because of its serious adverse health effects. Our bodies were made to move, and they pay a price when we don’t. When we’re sedentary, there’s a dramatic drop in the production of enzymes that burn fat (a drop of as much as 90%) and our metabolism slows.

“Sitting is the new smoking….
Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting.”
-Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic

Excess sitting is associated with a shorter life span. According to Dr. Michael Greger in his book, How Not to Die, “men who sit for six hours or more per day have a 20% higher overall death rate compared to men who sit for 3 hours or less, while women who sit for more than 6 hours have a 40% higher death rate.”

“…exercising for 30 to 60 minutes does not come close to making up for the damage done by sitting….
We are built for motion.”
-Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life


24 Benefits of Exercise

Exercise comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. management of anxiety and depression
  2. appearance
  3. balance and coordination
  4. blood pressure
  5. bone health and strength
  6. brain health and cognitive capacity and function, including concentration, focus, learning speed, mental stamina, memory, and mitigating cognitive decline
  7. body weight (both preventing excessive weight gain and maintaining healthy weight levels, which is important for blood pressure and cholesterol as well as lower risk of heart disease and diabetes)
  8. chronic condition management (e.g., arthritis, diabetes)
  9. confidence
  10. creativity
  11. disease prevention (including the flu, pneumonia, covid-19, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and cancers such as bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, stomach)
  12. energy
  13. happiness
  14. immune system function
  15. longevity
  16. mental health and wellness
  17. mood
  18. motivation
  19. muscles and strength
  20. relaxation
  21. sex drive and sexual function (including enhanced arousal for women and fewer problems with erectile dysfunction for men)
  22. sleep (including quality, latency, and depth)
  23. stamina
  24. stress management

Exercise improves our ability to do daily activities, and it helps us avoid falls—a leading cause of injury and deaths, especially among older people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one out of four Americans aged 65 or older falls each year. Falls are the leading cause of injuries (both fatal and nonfatal) among older adults. Exercise helps lower the risk of premature death from all causes, according to the research.

Because it stimulates brain chemicals, exercise leaves us feeling happier, more relaxed, and less anxious. Also, it delivers oxygen and nutrients to our tissues and helps our cardiovascular system work more effectively.

If we want to live good lives, we need to move our bodies. Nearly every marker of vitality—from reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes to enhanced brain function, elevated mood, better ability to deal with stress, reduced anxiety and depression, and amped cognitive and physical abilities—is made better by exercise. Exercise is powerful medicine.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life


Exercise, Productivity, and Work

How does exercise affect our work capacity? According to a Leeds Metropolitan University study of the effects of daytime exercise among more than 200 office workers who had access to a company gym, workers—on days when they exercised at the gym—reported managing their time more effectively, being more productive, having better interactions with colleagues, and feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.*

Equally telling, when we don’t exercise, we get tired more easily and lose energy and stamina. We get stressed, irritable, and more forgetful and impulsive.

Importantly, exercise is also a “keystone habit” with multiple spillover benefits in other areas, from mood and mental health to confidence, nutrition, and productivity.

“Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

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.


Why Exercise Is Hard for So Many

Though we know exercise is good for us, that doesn’t mean we’ll do it—or stick with it. When we were children, most of us moved a lot naturally. Exercise came naturally through play and curiosity.

That often changes as we grow older. Why? Many reasons. We tell ourselves we’re too busy to exercise. We say we’re too tired, or we don’t feel like it. Perhaps the weather isn’t quite right (too hot, or too cold, or wet or humid). Perhaps we think of ourselves as lazy.

In some cases, we’ve had bad childhood experiences with exercise. Maybe we felt self-conscious in gym class at school. Or we were embarrassed in sports—or felt guilt about letting our teammates down. Maybe we were hurt by overly critical parents, coaches, or physical education teachers.

Some have pain, injuries, or disabilities that make exercise harder. Others view it as punishment or something to be endured instead of something fun.

Many of us nowadays feel time-starved. We’ve allowed our days to get so packed with meetings, activities, deadlines, and deliverables that we’ve cheated ourselves of the health and energy needed to allow those to continue effectively. It’s a recipe for stress, resentment, and burnout.

“Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.”
-Ron Friedman, “Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job,” Harvard Business Review, October 3, 2014

There are also biological and evolutionary factors at work. According to Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, we humans are hard-wired by evolution to tend toward inactivity. When food was scarce, going for a workout was maladaptive because it wastes precious energy. By resting as much as possible, our ancestors would wisely conserve their energy for when they really needed it. In today’s world of material abundance for so many, people have to override those ancient instincts to conserve energy.


Top Strategies for Getting Enough Exercise

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for exercise and movement:

Start small and keep it simple. Exercise doesn’t need to be complicated. We don’t necessarily need workout clothes, equipment, or a gym membership. Walk more. Take the stairs. Park at the back of lot. Get off the bus a stop early. Walk or bike to work or school, if possible.

“Some physical activity is better than doing none.”
-World Health Organization

Make exercise and regular movement as easy as possible. Keep those running or walking shoes by the bed. Have that gym bag packed and ready to go. Eliminate barriers and excuses.

Choose activities we enjoy. A little fun factor goes a long way. We tend to feel more confident and perform better when we enjoy what we’re doing. Incorporate play or a challenge into exercise, making it fun again, with novelty and change. Use the principles of “flow”: ensure there’s a clear set of goals, immediate feedback on our progress toward goals, and a good balance between perceived challenges and our skills (so things aren’t too difficult or too easy). Facilitate exercise through enjoyable hobbies that require some movement (e.g., gardening).

Find powerful and sustainable motivation to drive our exercise. Connect our exercise to a deeper why and our higher aspirations and life goals—ones that have emotional resonance for us. Keep those higher aims front and center in our minds. Examples:

  • “I exercise and stay healthy so I can feel great when I work on my new business.”
  • “I work out so I can be alive and energetic with my kids (or grandkids).”

Create habit loops for exercise so we stop thinking about it and just do it automatically. In his book, The Power of Habit, investigative reporter Charles Duhigg notes that we create more effective and lasting habits when they have a three-step loop:

  1. Cue: a trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode—and which habit to use.
  2. Routine: a physical, mental, or emotional practice that becomes standard.
  3. Reward: a psychological or emotional payoff that helps our brain decide that this habit loop is worth remembering and repeating.

Duhigg writes, “The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.” He provides an example:

“Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.”
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Set challenging but realistic goals. Too many people don’t have any goals or set unrealistic goals and end up quitting out of frustration when they fall short. Good goals help us with focus, motivation, and commitment—especially when we keep them visible and top of mind. Write them down, display them, and talk about them.

Set milestones to shoot for and celebrate on the way to achieving goals. This will help us avoid the problem of insufficient or fading motivation from goals that are distant. Examples: 500 more steps walked per day on average vs. last month, or celebrating each pound lost on the way to a target weight. (See my article, “Goal-Pursuit: Best Practices.”)

Use implementation intentions. These are concrete plans to follow through on our goals. They come in a specific form: “I will (BEHAVIOR) at (TIME) in (PLACE).” Example: “I will exercise for 40 minutes at noon on weekdays at my local gym.” In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear cites research from the British Journal of Health Psychology on 248 people and their exercise habits. Researchers placed the people into three groups:

  1. the control group (asked only to track how often they exercised)
  2. the “motivation” group (asked to track their workouts and to read and hear from the researchers about the benefits of exercise, e.g., improved heart health)
  3. the “plan” group (who received the same presentation as the second group but were also asked to devise a plan for when and where they would exercise: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”)

The results were surprising: a much higher percentage of people in the third group exercised at least once a week (91% vs. 38% and 35%). See the chart below.

Find out what works for you and do more of that. There’s no need to try everything. Start with one or two simple approaches that seem promising and see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t expect perfection and risk getting frustrated.

Replace bad habits with good ones. For example, go without devices for an evening and focus on walking or moving instead. This comes with a double benefit of building momentum while reducing harm.

Build in social and group components to exercise. Join a team or enlist a workout buddy, trainer, accountability partner, or hiking hive. Note that there are different types of “social.” In one type, we’re doing things individually but in the presence of others (e.g., at a yoga class). In another type, we’re working together as a group on things (e.g., doubles tennis or pickleball, or a sports team). The latter can be more effective in instilling routine and accountability because it involves more mutual dependence.**

“We tie physical activity to community. I think that has ancient and deep roots…. The most effective exercise programs are ones that are social and communal and it’s always been that way.
People for millions of years went out [hunting and gathering] in groups.”
-Daniel Lieberman, expert in human evolutionary biology

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.


10 More Tips for Exercise and Movement

Here are 10 more things we can do to ensure we’re moving and exercising more:

  1. Walk more, including a brisk walk daily***
  2. Use a step counter or other technology to track our progress
  3. Calendarize exercise to help instill regularity and accountability
  4. Build movement into regular microbreaks
  5. Engage in both cardio and strength training
  6. Get out into nature and get some sunlight (e.g., try “forest bathing”)****
  7. Build in enough recovery time to avoid injury and ensure our exercise is sustainable
  8. Drink enough water and ensure proper hydration
  9. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it may give us too much energy and make it harder to fall asleep
  10. Give ourselves grace and avoid harmful self-judgment


How to Make It Stick

How to ensure we keep exercising and don’t give up? A New Mexico State University study of 266 people looked into not why people exercised but why they continued to do so regularly.***** The reason, in a nutshell, was the reward they began to crave. The majority of people in one group continued exercising because they felt good after doing so (with the endorphins and other neurochemicals generated by exercise), and they grew to expect and crave that feeling. The majority in another group reported that they continued exercising because it gave them a sense of accomplishment, and they craved the positive feeling they got when they tracked their performance.

In the end, one of the most powerful things we can do is change our mindset about exercise and movement. Not everyone has the gift of health and movement. Too often, we take it for granted. Better to view movement as a privilege, not a chore—and something we can invest in so we have the ability to do all the other important things in our lives.

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


  • Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage (Avery, 2021)
  • Kelly Starrett and Juliet Starrett, Built to Move: The Ten Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully (Knopf, 2023)
  • Caroline Williams, Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free (Hanover Square Press, 2022)
  • Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (Flatiron Books, 2015)
  • Michael Greger, How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss (Flatiron Books, 2019)
  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)


  • Feel Better, Live More (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)
  • Model Health Show (Shawn Stevenson)
  • The Rich Roll Podcast (Rich Roll)
  • The Driver (Dr. Peter Attia)
  • Found My Fitness (Dr. Rhonda Patrick)
  • 20 Minute Fitness Podcast
  • Nutrition Facts (Dr. Michael Greger)


Postscript: Inspirations on Exercise and Movement

  • “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigor.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero, ancient Roman statesman and philosopher
  • “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” -Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president
  • “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” -Joseph Pilates, German-born physical trainer, writer, and inventor
  • “A fit, healthy body—that is the best fashion statement.” -Jess C. Scott, writer
  • “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” -Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author
  • “The greatest wealth is health.” -unknown
  • “Time and health are two precious assets that we don’t recognize and appreciate until they have been depleted.” -Denis Waitley, speaker, writer, and consultant
  • “Happiness lies first of all in health.” -George William Curtis, writer
  • “Good things come to those who sweat.” -unknown
  • “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” -anonymous
  • “When it comes to health and well-being, regular exercise is about as close to a magic potion as you can get.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and teacher
  • “If you don’t make time for exercise, you’ll probably have to make time for illness.” -Robin Sharma, Canadian lawyer turned writer
  • “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
  • “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” -John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
  • “A feeble body weakens the mind.” -Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Swiss philosopher and composer
  • “Exercise is amazing, from the inside out. I feel so alive and have more energy.” -Vanessa Hudgens, actress and singer
  • “A healthy outside starts from the inside.” -Robert Urich, actor and producer
  • “Physical activity can be an effective treatment for mental health problems.” -Ben Singh, lead author of a large new meta-analysis with 97 reviews and more than 128,000 participants, research fellow, University of South Australia
  • “Sustained high achievement demands physical and emotional strength as well as a sharp intellect. To bring mind, body, and spirit to peak condition, executives need to learn what world-class athletes already know: recovering energy is as important is expending it…. When people feel strong and resilient—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—they perform better, with more passion, for longer. They win, their families win, and the corporations that employ them win.” -Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” Harvard Business Review, January 2001
  • “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” -1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (New International Version)

* Coulson, J.C. & McKenna, Jim & Field, M.. (2008). Exercising at work and self-reported work performance. International Journal of Workplace Health Management.

** Finlay, Krystina & Trafimow, David & Villarreal, Aimee. (2006). Predicting Exercise and Health Behavioral Intentions: Attitudes, Subjective Norms, and Other Behavioral Determinants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

*** According to Dr. Michael Greger in How Not to Die, “Walking 300 minutes/week (about 40 min./day) drops overall mortality by 14%.” Try walking meetings. They get us moving instead of sitting and they can also make the meeting more collaborative and enjoyable, with added benefits of fresh air and sunshine.

**** Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) was started in Japan in the 1980s. According to the research, it can help us manage stress and anxiety, improve our circulatory health and resilience, and generate an enhanced immune response.

***** In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg points to fascinating research conducted by a social scientist and a mathematician to help the YMCA figure out what got people to keep working out at their facilities. Emotional factors were big drivers of retention. An example: whether YMCA employees knew members’ names and greeted people when they walked in. “People,” Duhigg writes, “often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill.”

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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!