Author Janice Litvin: Getting An Upgrade; How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus
Break huge tasks down into smaller chunks. That is the best way to remove the feeling of being overwhelmed. And having a small task helps you stay focused. The best habit I have found to help with this process is to write down the tasks for the next at the end of each day. That way you are not worrying about what you should be working on when you start work in the morning. Also, write down only three to five tasks for each day, so that you can create a feeling of success.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janice Litvin.
Janice Litvin is on a mission to help leaders and teams banish burnout in their organizations. She does this through keynote speeches, workshops, and accountability groups.
As an award-winning speaker, certified virtual presenter, and SHRM Recertification Provider, Janice wants to help as many people as possible take care of their physical and mental health, including teaching them to manage stress to prevent burnout, to eat healthfully, and to fall in love with fitness. In these ways, she is helping people develop new habits, which impact their lives. She has developed unique strategies to maximize engagement in workplace wellness and has also developed a stress management methodology (Banish Burnout) to help people form new habits of behavior, available through her workbook, Banish Burnout Toolkit.
What makes Janice unique is that in addition to 20 years as a technology recruiter, 10 years in IT, and her study of psychology, she has overcome all the challenges she teaches about in her presentations. She went from being overweight and sedentary with a critical, negative attitude to a lighter, fitter, happier person who now teaches Zumba Fitness and leads stress management and healthy eating workshops and accountability groups. She is certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.
After forming Micro Search in 1983 to help clients learn how to manage their business using a desktop computer, she became a human resource executive Silicon Valley recruiter in response to her Fortune 500 clients’ needs for technology talent. Over the next twenty years, clients included Charles Schwab, Oracle, The Gap, Computer Partners, Network Appliance, QuinStreet, Symantec, Vodafone, Chiron, TheraSense, Nokia, Borland, United States Army, Pacific Gas & Electric and Pacific Bell.
Janice has served on the Workplace Wellness Committee of the American Heart Association and spoken on their behalf. She is a member of the National Speakers Association, WELCOA (Wellness Council of America), and SHRM Northern California (Society for Human Resource Management). In 2017 she formed the Bay Area Wellness Association.
In addition to SHRM Nor Cal, Janice has worked with a range of other clients to present wellness workshops and stress and burnout programs, including PIHRA (Professionals in Human Resources Association), CAL SAE (California Society of Association Executives), Meetings Today, Coral Reef Alliance, San Mateo Unified High School District, WellRight, HR Southwest, Minnesota State SHRM Council, NCHRA (Next Concept Human Resources Association), First Republic Bank, Robert Half, Cities of Walnut Creek and Sunnyvale, and US HHS.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Grew up in Houston in a Jewish home in which both parents were from the East Coast. My father was a meat packer, and my mother stayed at home for many years, volunteering for synagogue events, until she went back to school at age 50 to become an accountant and revenue agent for the IRS.
I loved taking ballet lessons my entire childhood and dreamt of becoming a professional dancer, a dream which I realized after working four years as a computer programmer for Bank of America in San Francisco.
One thing I learned along the way as an adult is that if I don’t identify and reach for my own dreams, no one is going to give me the opportunities.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My mother was a very strong and independent person who encouraged me to be self-sufficient. To that end, she encouraged me to get a technical degree because a woman with a technical degree would never have trouble getting a good job. That is true. I got a degree in mathematics from UT Austin and became a computer programmer after a 3-day interview trip during the spring break of my senior year. As mentioned above, I had a dream of leaving Texas and San Francisco seemed like the best choice.
The lesson that experience taught me was that I could accomplish whatever I wanted within reason. Over the years I have set a variety of goals for myself, including starting my own software consulting and training business, culminating in technology recruiting (as described earlier).
After 20 years of recruiting and needing a change, I went to the gym and discovered Zumba Fitness. Subsequently I went back to school to study kinesiology and found the world of workplace wellness.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve mostly made my own opportunities and choices, but did have some help along the way. Ironically when I quit my “fabulous” (my parents’ term) job at Bank of America to become a starving artist, my mother passively was my biggest supporter. My father was bemoaning, “What’s a nice Jewish girl doing becoming a dancer. You owe it to me to live a normal life.” My mother was saying, “Do you need help reviewing your dance contracts?”
Another source of support came from the best boss of my corporate career. Frank was my tech support boss at Computer Sciences Corporation where I supported software consulting clients. Whenever I had a problem, Frank asked what I thought the solution was. No matter what response I gave, Frank would always say, “That sounds great. Don’t forget X.” X might have been the more important part of the solution, but he always made me feel like I could solve my own problems. In this way he groomed me to become a strong, independent, creative problem-solver no matter what endeavor I was working on. In addition, Frank gave me the opportunity to become the software trainer for the San Francisco branch. Indirectly that opportunity led to my becoming a professional speaker, starting with technical training earlier on.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
After the recession, I had to figure out something new to pursue. I had been a technology recruiter in Silicon Valley for 20+ years and was really ready for a change. The recession of 2008 helped me take the next step. I needed to get in shape so I went to the gym and the same week I reached my goal weight, I became a Zumba Fitness instructor. With a 50-year old body & and 35-year old mind, I accepted 7 Zumba classes in a 4-day period. The first time I had to teach 3 classes in one day, I had to really use all my mental strength of mind over matter to teach that 3rd class. That lasted 6 weeks until I could cut one out. Now I look back and laugh.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
This is a huge question. I would start with the advice both parents gave me directly and through their role modeling… never give up hope, keep your head on straight, be careful whom you take advice from, and always be able to support yourself. You never know what’s going to happen.
Identify a passion and go for it. I’m aware of so many young people who are brilliant but have no aspirations. I was never the all-A student, much to my mother’s chagrin, however I was a hard worker and made friends easily. One of my biggest strengths is my ability to “find things out.” Like now, with launching my book, I am trying brave, new paths for marketing. I ask a lot of questions, interact with a lot of groups of people, such as speakers, authors, and meeting planners, and take the sage advice I am given.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie.
Somewhere along the way I learned that people were going to be my biggest source of help and ideas as described in the last question.
I learned a lot about life and business from this book. One such lesson was that people like to hear their own name and to be able to talk. So I learned to ask questions and listen.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Never give up hope. My father had his successes and his business challenges but the most important lesson he taught me was to never give up hope. That has stayed with me my entire adult life, as I try attempt new challenges, the most recent of which was the writing and launching of my new book, Banish Burnout Toolkit.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Again, the most exciting project I’m working on now is the launch of my new book, Banish Burnout Toolkit. I have developed a methodology (aka toolkit) to help people learn how to change the way they react to stress. This does not mean simply mindfulness, exercise, and sleep. It goes into the psychological behavior patterns one has adopted along the way and teaches the reader how to untangle the web of difficult behavior patterns which may have caused self-doubt and limiting beliefs. Once you dig into your past, you are ready to take on your future.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly.
Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Reasons that it is important to create good habits.
When I think about good habits, I think about not only physical habits like eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep, but also the mental and emotional habits of learning to control our thoughts which impact our emotions and our behavior.
A story: A client of mine recently recounted that she was on her way to a friend’s party. She was proud that she had created a healthy dish to share and was really looking forward to seeing her friends. As soon as she entered, one of her friends, accosted her verbally with some random criticism.
Instead of getting defensive and fighting back, she practiced what I call S-T-O-P (from Tool #1 in Banish Burnout Toolkit, which stands for:
Take a breath
This method was penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn the father of modern-day mindfulness. This process allows you to pause and think before you react, which is exactly what my client did.
She stopped, took a deep cleansing breath, paid attention to her feelings, and excused herself by saying she had left something in her car. She then proceeded to take a walk around the block to settle herself down and think about how she wished to behave at the party. She made the decision to return to the party and be civil to the negative friend. She went on to have a good time at the party.
This is S-T-O-P in living color, a very powerful technique to catch yourself in the act of over-reacting and change your thoughts from negative to positive. This technique has broad implications for not only the workplace but also for parenting.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
In my own life, I had a few areas that I wanted to work on. First, I needed to lose the baby weight after the birth of my son. I thought it would just spill off if I exercised. But that did not happen. Luckily I like to move, as a former professional dancer.
So I went to the gym and joined Weight Watchers at the same time. Not only did I learn new eating habits, but I also learned to change the way I looked at food, which was as a salve for difficult emotions, anger, sadness, hurt, etc. Food does not provide love, which is what I think most people are looking for when they engage in addictive behavior. Dr. Gabor Mate, Hungarian-born Canadian physician, who specializes in childhood development and trauma says, “addiction is a person’s unconscious attempt to escape pain.”
Later, as I was peeling back the onion to try to become a happier person, I noticed that certain situations or people would cause me to overreact and stay upset for days, complaining to my family. In one such situation I was being criticized for the way I was leading my Strength Training fitness classes. A person in the class would blurt out negative comments every single week. It got to the point that I dreaded the class the day before and the day after each week.
I finally took the time to journal this situation (a journal, which became my Stress Audit in Tool #1 of the Banish Burnout Toolkit) only to discover that my mother, the critical perfectionist would often criticize anything, which of course made me feel bad about myself as well as insecure, and self-doubting.
Once I uncovered the patterns that my mother role modelled and that I adopted, I realized I could change my thought patterns and hence, change my life. I learned to catch myself in the act of overreacting and turn my mood around from negative to positive.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
The best way to develop good habits, like with any life change is to start with awareness as they say in the 12-step programs. If you are not aware that you have a problem then you don’t think you have anything to change.
So that means, becoming aware and then making the decision to change and committing to do whatever work is necessary to make the change.
As you may have heard it takes 21 days to build a new habit. The more recent science says 66 days. Whichever it is, the point to remember is that you have to work at the new habit every single day. You have to think about it and focus.
A habit has three parts: a cue, an action, and a reward.
The cue triggers you to do a behavior. It could be something you see or smell, or a time of day, an emotion, or a place. The action is obviously the behavior, and the reward is the benefit you receive from doing the action. It usually includes a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure, which encourages you to repeat it.
So, for example, after I teach Zumba Fitness, I go for a healthy smoothie. The cue is the Zumba class, the action is going to get the smoothie and drinking it, & the reward is the good feeling from having replenished my electrolytes.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
Three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness:
- Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep impacts not only your body’s ability to repair, it also impacts mood and mental clarity. Example: have you ever noticed how off-balance you feel or more sensitive after a poor night’s sleep?
- Spend at least 10 minutes per day outside, even in the winter. Did you know that natural daylight impacts a number of physiological, mental, and emotional functions? The physiological benefits include increased Vitamin D, which reduces blood pressure, and boosts immune system. The mental and emotional benefits include: enhanced alertness, memory and happiness, as well as reduced effects from depression. Sunlight relieves stress by lowering cortisol, the stress hormone.
Example: notice how you feel when you first arrive at a beach destination. You take a deep breath and smell, see and feel the wonderful relaxing feelings of being on the beach.
Focusing on your social life is more important than one might think, especially now during Covid. People of all ages including children and teens are feeling the impact of not being able to spend time with friends. There is a “spark” or emotional reaction when we spend time with a close friend and trusted confidante. They just make us feel better. This is particularly true at work. Having someone to bounce ideas off of is invaluable. Loneliness in the workplace was already a mounting problem before Covid hit. The required quarantine of Covid simply exacerbated the problem, especially for those who live alone.
Another benefit of having a close friend at work, besides the social connection, occurs in the case when you have to have a difficult conversation with a subordinate or teammate. Having someone to role play with can help you discover the best way to deliver a difficult message and to see the impact of your words.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
Three good habits than can lead to optimal performance at work or sport.
- Productivity — productivity is a difficult habit to master because there is always so much to be done. Start with setting goals, so that as you accomplish them, you feel that rush of happiness chemicals from finishing a big task. One practice that can enhance productivity is to turn off distractions. Check email at only specific times of the day, such as 8:00 am, 12:00 pm and 4:30 pm. Don’t be looking at email all day.
- Develop strong bonds with people in your department as well as other departments. And when you are trying to get a new program established, garner support one person at a time so that in team meetings you will have gathered together your backers.
- Take breaks at work. Just like you need a good night’s sleep to refresh and repair, you also need a break every hour to sustain your work focus and productivity throughout the day. One example is the metaphor of the movie True Grit the 2010 film with Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges. When they set out to find the man who killed Hailey’s father, they are so determined that they don’t give the poor horse a break running across the hot, arid desert. Eventually the horse simply drops from exhaustion. Just because you work 12 hours a day does not mean you are effective 12 hours a day. Working less time would garner more throughput.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- Break huge tasks down into smaller chunks. That is the best way to remove the feeling of being overwhelmed. And having a small task helps you stay focused. The best habit I have found to help with this process is to write down the tasks for the next at the end of each day. That way you are not worrying about what you should be working on when you start work in the morning. Also, write down only three to five tasks for each day, so that you can create a feeling of success.
- Exercise gets the heart rate up. After at least 20–30 minutes of moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise your mental clarity is enhanced as well as concentration, memory and mood. I recommend three ingredients to develop intrinsic motivation for exercise:
Finding a fun activity that you truly enjoy like Zumba or volleyball, whatever you really like to do.
ii. It has to have a social element. As mentioned earlier, when you have a social connection, oxytocin, a happiness chemical is released and you just “feel better.”
iii. Regular schedule. The way to maintain an exercise regimen to schedule it at the same time every week and make sure it’s a time you can really maintain. If you are not a morning person, then I wouldn’t schedule a 6 am Yoga class.
- Create a well-defined plan that keeps you on track to reaching your specific high level goals. That way you don’t get distracted with accepting smaller requests that don’t get you closer to reaching those goals. When you keep your plan in front of you on a bulletin board where you can see it at all times, it’s easier to stay on track. Example: let’s say you are the kind of person that always says ‘yes’ to everybody. You would be the person who gets easily distracted from your key goals. So one of the habits I recommend is learning to say ‘no.’ In my new book Banish Burnout Toolkit, I get specific techniques for saying ‘no.’ Here is one of those: “I’m sorry, I wish I could, but I just can’t.”
At work when someone asks you to do something that does not align with your major plan, try saying something like, “I will be finished with my current project in two weeks. May I reconnect with you then to see how I may be able to help you?”
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful.
Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
First, try to find something you are passionate about. If you have to take a job you are not passionate about, then find a passion project outside of work. Find or start a charity that meets a need you care about. For example, one young college graduate decided to move to Africa and raise money to start a school. She developed a non-profit and raised enough money to live on, while creating a school to improve the lives of a group of children.
Second, know when your best time to work is. If you are an early bird then jump on your most important tasks or projects first thing in the morning before checking email. As said earlier, it’s important to take breaks and at least get up once per hour to stretch, walk around the office or home-office and drink some water.
Finally, some people like listening to soft music when they are trying to create something, like a written document, report, or chapter of a book. I have never had more of a burst of creativity for a speech I had to write than when I was sitting at the San Francisco Symphony. There is something magical about listening to an excellent piece of music. The sound waves from the instruments actually travel to your body and you “feel” the music, viscerally. Simultaneously, the brain is flooded with the happiness chemical, dopamine so that one feels a sense of joy and enhanced mood and even euphoria.
Suddenly you grab whatever writing implement you prefer, pen or iphone and the words simply “flow.”
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would start a Banish Burnout movement in which people learned not only to take care of themselves but also of everyone around them. I would teach people how to listen and communicate with empathy and I would teach people how to be emotionally intelligent. Most managers are promoted for technical skills, but the World Economic Forum has declared that emotional intelligence is what will be most important in the future.
The Banish Burnout movement would include a moment of empathy or gratitude at the beginning of every meeting. It would include teaching leaders that without employees they would have no company, so it is of the utmost importance to treat employees with respect in terms of culture and policies. It would include taking the employees into consideration when deciding to make a company-wide change. For example, when deciding upon a new computer system, why not probe the employees for all the issues surrounding the existing computer system. After all they are the ones on the front lines using the system and interacting with customers.
Another facet of the Banish Burnout movement would be changing the attitudes and stigma around Mental health. Stigma comes from fear and ignorance. The best way to combat those is to have leaders share their own struggles with mental health like they are doing at Prudential. [Note: let me know if you need the reference to the Prudential story.]
Finally, perhaps the most important part of the Banish Burnout movement would be to teach leaders and teams how to help people identify where their emotional baggage is impinging on their ability to get along at work.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
She has started a Thrive movement and I would like to talk with her about how to make my movement a reality.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can find me at www.JaniceLitvin.com and on my social channels: