Sean Li chats with Dr. Sahar Yousef, one of our faculty lecturers here at Haas. She teaches an extremely popular elective called Becoming Superhuman on the science of productivity and performance. Today, she shares with us how to increase human performance and improve productivity – without using any kind of “limitless” pill.
Dr. Yousef grew up in the Bay area, to parents who were recent immigrants from post-revolution Iran. She was confused about her bilingual status but quickly realized that so much of that experience is fundamental to being human – that it doesn’t matter where we’re from or what we look like, we’re all the same in so many ways. There are aspects to our upbringing and to our perspectives that become shaped over time.
Dr. Yousef always had a fascination with the concept of human consciousness and realized that everything is seen and understood through the lens of the human brain. Most of the research that she conducted during her Ph.D. studies were dedicated to enhancing cognitive performance and function. She is the founder of Stoa Partners and is currently its Managing Director; helping to make teams more productive with neuroscience.
On how to make everyone superhuman – “The goal is always more productivity, but not to say we should just become workhorses and work more hours. It’s always going to be, more productivity but with less hours, so that folks can actually live their lives and do what is most important to them.”
On how to avoid burnout during this pandemic – “The number one piece of advice I would want to give to anyone listening is to start to create boundaries. Not just physical boundaries, but mental and cognitive boundaries around work and home mode.”
[00:00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas podcast. I’m your host, Sean Lee. And today I’m joined by Sahar Yousef, a faculty member here at the Haas School of Business. She teaches a popular elective called Becoming Superhuman on the science of productivity and performance. She continues to do research on campus in the areas of neuroplasticity and psychopharmacology. Welcome to the podcast, Sahar.
Sahar: Thanks, Sean. It’s really great to be here with you.
Sean: Well, thank you so much for coming on. You know, I recently finished your class, which I loved. And the one thing I was curious about this whole time was what made you go into this field? You know, it’s not something I think undergrads think about or know to go into the area of neuro-plasticity, right?
Sahar: I had a fascination pretty early on with the concept of consciousness, human consciousness, more philosophically. To me, I’ve always loved science, but I wanted to understand how the universe worked. I wanted to understand how everything worked and operated. I had this realization that everything, learning, learning physics, learning chemistry, learning math, all of this is seen and understood through the lens of the human brain. Really, the universe in the way in which we perceive it, our reality really presides above our shoulders. We are constantly wearing these rose-colored glasses, so to speak, perceiving, and processing the outside world.
Everything from society to business to again, the laws of physics even, all of this is really being processed through the lens of human consciousness. So if I want to really understand the entire universe, the first step is really to understand the brain and the mind. So I was initially interested deeply by the concept of consciousness, where human thought comes from belief, feelings, all of these different phenomena in the human brain. Quickly within the first couple of years of actually starting out in philosophy and the philosophy of mind, realizing that very quickly you hit a brick wall in that field. If you’re trying to understand consciousness, you can’t really do it from an armchair with a chalkboard and a piece of paper. And I had a faculty member that I was working with very, very early on in my undergraduate in philosophy, who had the foresight and the wisdom to say, Sahar you got to go to neuro, you got to get into a lab. You’re asking questions that we do not have the answers to and we’re not going to get to the answers sitting here in my office, you know, with a bunch of books, you know, collecting dust, it’s not going to happen. You’re young enough, it’s not too late. Just switch gears. And so I did. I still remember the first day I sat in on my first cognitive science class and I got a chill down my spine when on the screen, we first got an introduction to neurons and the human brain, a basic introduction, and very quickly transitioned to talking about Descartes and the original, sort of, the Cartesian problem, you know, I Think Therefore I Am., those two things, those two worlds marrying together in that moment was just really exciting to me in a way that I had not been excited by any other field or area of study. Once I got hooked on neuroscience and I was like, I’m dedicating my life to this field, I joined a lab and I became very intrigued by how the human brain evolves and how it adapts to its environment and how the human brain could potentially become better. So I started out actually in psychopharmacology, applying pharmaceuticals, some sort of drugs, increasing and decreasing different levels of neurotransmitters in the brain to see how and in what ways performance is really impacted. Everything from memory to attention to information processing speed. Then after a few years of that work, I became intrigued by the question really, what can we do? What are the limits? Noninvasively, what can we teach? How can we train a human brain and a human being to be better, to increase performance and attention memory and information processing speed? You know, this is why the class is called Becoming Superhuman. How do we make superhumans without the drugs? I remember this was a, I don’t know if you remember that movie, Limitless with Bradley Cooper. he idea was, and you know, as someone who used to study psychopharmacology, I remember going to conferences and people would say, what’s, you know, the elevator pitch of what your research is all about?
And I’m like, have you ever seen the movie Limitless? And they’re like, yeah, that’s like, it’s kind of like that, less exciting, no Bradley Cooper. But the new motto became, how do we become limitless without the pill? And that became, you know, for the past 10-12 years, my obsession. So that you end up running the gamut, studying meditation and attention training. You study what the department of defense has been doing for years, trying to train, you know, super soldiers, everything from rehabilitation research to research on focus and multitasking, which is, you know, you’re familiar with this. This is what we ended up diving into the class as well.
Sean: What made you curious about the human consciousness?
Sahar: I think it was curiosity. I think I became fascinated at an early age by perspectives and perceptions. I grew up actually here in the Bay area, so I’m a local but to parents who were recent immigrants from Iran post-revolution, and so they didn’t speak English. So I grew up bilingual, but very confused about my bilingual status. So I don’t think I was fully onboarded to the fact that I speak two languages and I seem to swing between them rather naturally at a young age. So I had no idea sometimes at school that if I spoke a certain way, I was lost in translation there. I’d come home, I was lost in translation there. I quickly realized I think, growing up that so much is fundamental to being human. And it doesn’t matter where we’re from, what we look like, we’re all the same in so many ways. But, there are aspects to our upbringing and to our perspectives that become shaped in time. So I suppose it’s this nature versus nurture aspect that my personal experience with this intrigued me to wonder what’s different about my brain than anyone else’s and what things are the same.
Sean: So tell us more about your Ph.D. studies. What did you do after you graduated Berkeley undergrad? Did you immediately go into your masters and Ph.D.?
Sahar: I spent a year working in a lab on campus and, in that year I think I was considering all options. Literally every option was on the table. I, at one point in time, considered opening up a coffee shop where I could discuss everything from philosophy to pure mathematics with other academics, and just, you know, make espresso for them in cappuccinos.
I thought about going into medical school but had to really embrace the fact that I really don’t like blood, so that was going to be a bit of a bottleneck. But really, everything was open for me. I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I wanted to continue doing research. Really everything was open and up for discussion.
But at the end of the day, after many, many months of self-reflection, I had to truly accept the fact that the one thing I would regret really looking back on my life is not pursuing research more fully. I can always go back and become an entrepreneur. I can always move into that category, you know, move into that line of work. I can always open up the cafe of my dreams when I’m 80 years old, maybe, and I have nothing better to do. But right now is really the time for me to be of service, to take my mind at its peak performance and its youth, and to really offer up my mind in the best way I can really be of service to the rest of society, which if you’re already knee-deep and educating yourself in a certain topic and you have the bandwidth to be a scientist, to push our understanding of what human beings are capable of, to cure a disease, let’s say, to do any kind of research really, I think that research is a noble field and I commend all other scientists and researchers who dedicate themselves to that kind of work because it’s a, it’s a lonely job. It’s a scary job. It comes with a great amount of failure, which I know many fellow Haasies, especially those who are in entrepreneurship, understand deeply. You don’t get a lot of pats on the back and you’re playing the long game. Really. You can spend years in the lab with nothing to show for it, but it is a noble thing to do because you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before.
Sean: And to that point, to definitely follow up on that, can you share with us some of your research?
Sahar: So most of the research that I conducted during my Ph.D. studies were dedicated to enhancing cognitive performance and function, and doing that in two different populations, and not only populations that are traumatically brain injured. And this was work done with the VA. So these are students actually at Cal that were either traumatically brain-injured from service in the military or through some form of an accident.
So concussed students, many of them were also student-athletes. The goal for both populations, the other population being healthy, high performing, students was to enhance cognitive function as much as possible. It was a very, I would say, especially for that second group and almost Sci-Fi laughable. I remember I actually had a Stanford faculty I gave a talk early on in my graduate work at Stanford to a medium-sized group, and I had a faculty member sort of laugh off the entire thing. This was at the early stages of the work and he was pretty much like, no, this is not gonna work.
You can’t take a 23-year-old, you know, 4.2 GPA, UC Berkeley undergraduate who is at the peak of his or her health and cognitive function, and they’re already at the upper echelon, the cream of the crop in terms of national averages, and then arbitrarily just raise the roof on their performance. This is, you know, this is not a sci-fi movie.
And then my sort of rebuttal to that was that if you look incrementally at all of these different avenues, again, outside of pharmacology work, noninvasive, what small things, small adjustments we can do to the human brain? Look at how much memory can be enhanced if we just remove distractions. So if we can enhance memory, then we can potentially also be impacting information processing speed. There’s all of these different nuts and bolts that if we can just hone in and really teach people how to work, how to study, how to focus, how to focus longer, how to focus better, managing stress, redirecting attention when it wanders away. All of these little tips and tricks, really the kitchen sink, truly, I would say of every type of bio-hack or a tactic that you can utilize in the pursuit of the highest performance possible for your cognitive abilities. If we just put them all together, I think that we can raise the roof and yes, it’s a little Sci-Fi, but I’m pretty sure it’ll work. And it did. So, we had a seven-week training program which was a class actually on campus. And we had students who just go in through this classroom experience in small batches. And every single week they would come in and they’d have homework where really they were just using the techniques taught in the classroom and applying it to their schoolwork, to their jobs if they had them, doing things like making sure that they were sleeping better, eating healthy, meditating, et cetera, but really just applying all of the best practices. And in seven weeks, lo and behold, we saw significant improvements across the board for so many different cognitive metrics that are typically unmoved in a short amount of time. So this was an exciting finding. So the question at the end of many years of doing this research was, now what? How do we take this out into the world? Cause otherwise, you know, I can sure write a publication and it will, you know, collect dust on other academics as desks around the world. But, but how do we actually help people with us? How do we impact the world?
Sean: So what’d you guys do next after you graduated? After you got your dissertation approved?
Sahar: At that point in time? My life forked. I wanted to be able to teach because I love teaching and I see that as long term having the most fun impact that I could have in the world, doing what I love doing. And also just being in service of our students on campus. I wanted to continue teaching. I’ve been lucky enough to take a faculty position at Haas to be able to do that. And the other fork is really taking this research and applying it out in the world, boots on the ground with teams, with executives, with departments and companies around the world that wants to be more productive and work in line with their biology. So the goal is always more productivity, but not to say we should just become workhorses and work more hours. It’s always going to be more productivity, but with less, so that folks can actually live their lives. That’s my sort of secret goal is to make everyone superhuman and make them really, really effective and efficient at getting their work done and their best work done so that they can then take what is left of their energy, left of their brainpower, and left of their time in the day, and then do what is most important to them. And typically that’s not going to be their work.
Sean: Do you see differences in your clients from say the student body to company employees to executives? What are the differences that you see amongst these groups, if any?
Or is it the same problem and the same solutions for all of them that your research can apply?
Sahar: That’s a phenomenal question. I would say the differences I have predominantly been able to measure and see is not necessarily in seniority. I would say the only differences I see in terms of seniority from let’s say a CEO to an IC that has just started out of school. The CEO just might be more readily accepting of their limitations because they have no choice, and they may have more regrets in the way that they have spent their time in their life.
So, and you see the fresh out of school, highly energetic and highly ambitious folks, they’re the ones that will, unfortunately, make the mistakes of burning themselves out and spending way too much time working and burning the midnight oil, and then they’ll just regret it once they’ve reached the seniority level. I’ll just see those same students 30 years from now and I go, whoops. I don’t see much difference there in terms of seniority and rank. However, I do see differences in roles, I would say. So an engineer, senior or otherwise versus a sales professional or someone who’s in business development. Do you see just different sets of issues that they will burn out in very different ways?
They will make different mistakes and productivity for them is also going to be wildly different. So that is where we, there’s some customization to, I would say, taking the best practices, again from biology but customizing it to those fields. So for an engineer, let’s say, or for someone who’s an R and D or a data analyst, the goal will be to carve out as much quiet, focused, isolated time as possible so that they can do their best work and actually get into the flow and create in a way that, again, is in line with how the brain best operates.
And that’s not going to be multitasking in tiny chunks and allowing themselves to get interrupted constantly. For a sales professional or someone in business development, let’s say, if you are client-facing, then the marker of success really, for your work and your productivity many times is attached to you managing and maintaining high levels of energy and mental clarity throughout the day for as many hours of the day as humanly possible. They don’t have off periods. They need to be able to go game-on mentally at the drop of a hat and for far more hours than the rest of us really do. So for that particular group, for those individuals, we focus heavily on energy management. Energy management and creating cognitive routines and associations to get them almost like professional athletes into and out of certain brain states reliably.
Whereas for, again, for engineers and knowledge workers, it’s wildly different.
Sean: You know, during this COVID period, during this pandemic, what are some of the tactics and advice that you have for folks to avoid burnout? Now, I understand that there probably are different tactics for different roles, but what are some general ones that you think are really helpful and useful?
Sahar: I think the number one is, especially if folks don’t have a history of working from home, so you have found yourself newly working from home. You now find yourself, your brain finds itself rather confused as to what is happening in terms of the boundaries of work and home life. I’ll talk briefly about how the human brain really works. The human brain is really just an electrical system and the way that the human brain works are through what are called neural networks, and these are just patterns of electrical activation in the human brain. Now the human brain is constantly looking to its surroundings to stimulate in the environment for cues as to which neural networks should and should not be activated. Now our behavior, which is what we see on the outside, and it’s how we think and feel as well, all of that is a downstream effect of which neural networks are electrically activated in the human brain. So if you really think about what we had before, which was you would wake up in the morning in your home. Your home, if you think historically in terms of the percentage of memories that you have in your home, think about what percentage of those memories is associated with rest, relaxation, fun, play, time with loved ones, shared meals, cooking, cleaning. This is what our homes are associated with. Those are the neural networks that have been activated and reinforced over and over and over again for years. You would leave those associations and physically commute to an office or to campus. Once you’re in that new environment, you have an entirely new set of stimuli. You wear different clothes. You have different triggers in the environment, different individuals that you don’t live within your home. All of those environmental stimuli activate an entirely different set of neural networks. And then at the end of the day, you leave that and then you come back home. Then those neural networks are turned off and deactivated, and then the home ones are reactivated again. Well, now that we’re all sheltering in place and stuck at home, your brain has no idea what is going on. It’s confusing. All of the different networks are becoming active at the same time. So you’re sitting in your living room and let’s say for decades, you’re looking at your couch across the hall and your living room is associated with all of these memories of playing board games or watching TV with your family, but then all of a sudden you’re like, no, no, no. It’s go time. And I am in a very heated meeting with a colleague right now on Zoom, and your brain is completely muddled. So electrically speaking, this is quite physiological, your brain has like multiple neural networks being activated at the same time. So the number one, I would say, piece of advice I would want to give to anyone listening is to start to create boundaries. Not just physical boundaries, but mental and cognitive boundaries around work and home mode. Do anything you can. And, quite honestly, and it might sound silly to do this, but many times the solutions don’t look elegant, but they do work. You can literally cover your dining room table or your kitchen table with a tablecloth or an old tee shirt, and then all of a sudden you’re introducing a new stimulus and your brain goes, Oh huh, that’s new and weird. We don’t usually put t-shirts on the table. So you’re trying to create a kind of a mental clean slate for your brain so that your brain goes, Oh, no, no, no. This isn’t my dining table. This is not my kitchen table where I share meals with my family. No, this is something else. This is something different. And then you have an opportunity to design those neural networks and associations that are in that environment. This is, of course, if you’re low on space. If you have lots of space, I mean, repurpose a closet, work in to grab a corner and set up a workstation for sure. But do as much as you can to really create ramp up routines and ramp down routines, like have a song that you listened to that marks the beginning of the day so your brain hears that and goes, it’s go-time now it’s work and it’s no longer home. And then have a song that you play when it’s time to just unplug and your day’s done and then no more work after that. You just have to make sure that these boundaries are kept clean and clear. You have to be very disciplined with this, otherwise, it won’t work.
Sean: This is huge. I mean, this is huge even for me as a stay at home dad, entrepreneur. Even having been an entrepreneur for over 10 years now, it’s still something that I constantly struggle with. And I think it’s because I don’t create these boundaries and I didn’t really grasp what these boundaries meant until how you just described it from a physiological standpoint in that, correct me if I’m wrong, but effectively you’re chunking your neural networks and is it when you have all these things muddled, now it’s just these different chunks trying to connect with each other because they think they should be associated when they shouldn’t be associated, and that creates this massive confusion, right?
[00:23:00] Sahar: That’s a beautiful summary. No, that’s absolutely right. And so for me, Sean, I have, historically, as a researcher, I work from home a lot of the time. My work is portable. I have data on my computer. I can bring it home and analyze it. There’s no reason for me to be in a certain place or in an office, and I have created so many different disciplined routines around making sure that when I’m working, even if it’s in my home, that my brain knows when it’s time to be off and on.
And there are a lot of different things you can do. There could be a work shirt that you wear and then you make sure you never wear your work shirt when it’s time for you to relax in your house. There could be a beverage or a mug that you use only when it’s work time and you don’t use that mug when it’s now time to unplug during the weekend, let’s say, for example. It doesn’t have to be a location, you know, especially if you’re low on space. I’ll give you another example that I’ve used reliably. This is now a weird personal anecdote, and this is actually from my PhD years. For over 15 years now, I have consistently when analyzing data, listened to very obnoxious German and Swedish, like techno music. It’s the same playlist. Basshunter comes on and my brain knows what’s happening. It’s time to get into that headspace and I want to see numbers and I want to see code, but I make sure that I never listen to that music outside, even though I do rather enjoy it. So if even if I want to feel a little bit more high energy, I make sure that I keep that association very clear and now reliably, after 10 years of reinforcing that neural network, even if I don’t feel like getting focused, productive work done, the moment I hear that playlist, and it’s the same playlist with the same order of songs for 10 years that it’s like, I’m like a Pavlovian dog. It’s like that music comes on and even if I’m tired, I get into that headspace. And, I have a playlist for when I want to crank through emails as quickly as possible. I have different playlists for different things. I have a playlist that I listen to when I’m trying to unwind and I keep all of these very neatly, you know, clean and tidy, and I make sure not to cross-list them. And this is just a way that I help myself get into and out of certain brain states. But you’re absolutely right. For those of us working from home, you need to be extra mindful of this because your brain just yet, it has no idea. You’re sitting down to try to work on, let’s say a proposal, put a proposal together, put a deck together, and all of a sudden you remember, it’s like, Oh, I need to get milk, or we’re running out of paper towels. I got to get on Amazon. And that’s only because those neural networks are now completely, I would say, associated inappropriately.
Sean: Well, that makes so much sense. My life has changed once again. I have something new to implement and try out. My assumption is that it takes about 30 days, right, as they say, to train a new habit. How long do you, from your research, how long does it take to create these new boundaries?
[00:26:00] Sahar: Hmm. I would say it takes more, it can take more or less, but probably more. Every time I see one of those, Oh, it takes 21 days, or 60 days or 30 days to create a new habit, I just find that slightly silly. It would be, so if you kind of repositioned the definition of the human brain, really just take it out of the black box.
It’s not all that mystical if you really start to see the brain, although it is a little bit of a simple oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one, especially when we’re talking about neuro-plasticity. If you really start to see the human brain as a muscle or a set of muscles, that’s like saying to yourself, can I get fit in 30 days? You know what I mean? And can you get closer? Yes. Oh yeah, you can make some strides. It really just depends on how disciplined you’d like to be. So if you are very, very disciplined about retraining, let’s say a neural network and you work on it every single day, day in day out, maybe multiple times a day, you are going to see a massive improvement in 30 days. Is it over in 30 days? No, of course not. You have to continue to reinforce it. So it’s a lifelong commitment, just very similar to fitness, which I know is probably sad for folks here. I got to hope this is the part where it’s not like the limitless pill. It’s not a pop one and done kind of thing. These are just habits that need to continue to be nurtured. Just like plants, you have to continue to water them and be disciplined and prune them when they start to get unruly. So, you know, if you would all of a sudden notice there’s bleed over effects where you’re allowing yourself, let’s say when you’re laying down in bed to start thinking about work or you’re not thinking about strategy. When you’re trying to fall asleep at night, it’s like, Oh, that’s pruning. You need to get up and get out of bed. You have to make sure that lying down in bed is never associated with work. If you want to keep those boundaries also clear, otherwise you’ll have trouble sleeping 10 years from now. When you lay down and put your head down, your body has no idea, your brain has no idea what is appropriate or inappropriate thoughts and behavior. You want to make sure that when you lay your head down on your pillow, your brain says, Oh, I know what’s happening. There’s only one to two options. It’s either sleep or sex. That’s it. But besides that, you know, this is not the time for the third S which is strategy. You know, this is not time to think about emails or reflect on, you know, what my week looks like because otherwise, you’re going to have muddled associations with your bed as well.
Sean: How do you advise somebody who has many muddled associations for people who’ve just blended their work and their personal life, how do people even start? Because it can feel overwhelming.
Sahar: In terms of where to start, my advice is always when trying to initiate behavior change or any type of even biological change or organizational change actually, you always begin with leverage points in a system. So that’s going to be always going to be the philosophy in a systems approach.
Leverage points are defined as small changes or areas in which we can focus that are high leverage, that if you were to make this one small change, it would have the biggest impact. So I would say, and I’ll give you a few examples for one person that could be, I’m starting to approach burnout because I find it very difficult to turn off at the end of the day, and I’m finding it difficult to fall asleep reliably and I’m just not feeling well-rested.
Well then I would say, let’s focus in on creating clear boundaries for when it’s time for you to turn off, and the moment you start to get thoughts, work-related thoughts, when it’s time to be off, you have to be very diligent and not allow those thoughts to come in, redirect your attention to something else. Have a routine associated with redirecting your attention from the work-related thoughts back to rest again and be diligent about, let’s say the bed example that we went over before. For those that are finding it difficult to get into a focused mode and be productive while at home, I would say that’s the leverage point, then you need a ramp-up routine. You need a routine that, you know, creates a clear boundary so that you don’t feel like it’s Netflix and chill time when you should be really working. So I would say just focus on where you think you’d have the biggest improvement really in your own life. And it’s going to be different for every person.
Sean: Can you share with us a bit about your work outside of Haas?
Sahar: The work I do outside of Haas is both, I would say, the most challenging part of my daily, weekly rhythm, but also, the most fascinating, because I get to see these somewhat theoretical concepts and strategies actually implemented in messy ways in real organizations. I get to take an idea or a methodology and actually go and deploy it with humans, which by the way, as a biologist, humans are the messiest pieces of data. I can’t contain a human being in a Petri dish or in a lab. They’re out in the world. They’re messy. It’s messy data to begin with, and then you take it out there into the world and you say, well, let’s see how this plays out. Let’s see what humans really do with it. So that’s actually what I’ve noticed the most fascinating thing. You know, we develop methodologies of working that will not only increase productivity but decrease stress. That is always the goal and increase energy as well. So it makes folks happier, healthier, and more productive. That’s always the goal. And then we take these methods and then implement them in customized fashions with teams out in the world, all around the world. And what’s interesting is, again, yeah, what they ended up doing with it. But knock on wood, it continues to work beautifully. And I am always both honored and fascinated by the creative ways in which executives, their teams, managers, I seize, take these concepts, and really make it their own. And that is, I would say, the most fun, fun piece of it, is helping them reimagine what work can look like for them and seeing the downstream positive effects of that and really being a part of, like really rolling my sleeves up as a faculty member and saying, I’m off-campus. I’m here with you, and we’re going to figure out how we’re going to make this work.
Sean: That’s so inspiring.
Sean: Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. This was truly a pleasure. We can’t wait to have you back.
Sahar: I can’t wait either. This was so much fun. Thank you for taking me down memory lane and asking so many insightful questions. This was wonderful.
Sean: Thank you for tuning in to another episode of the OneHaas here@haas podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe to us on your favorite podcast player and give us a rating or review. You can also check out more of our content on our website at OneHaas.org, where you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Until next time, go bears!