How burnout left Arianna Huffington with a broken cheekbone, forcing her to change her unhealthy work habits

  • Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global. Marina Khidekel is the company’s head of content development.
  • The following is an excerpt from Arianna’s foreword in their new book, Your Time to Thrive (March 23).
  • In it, they discuss how changing damaging habits in small steps daily can promote wellness.
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We are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. According to a study from Duke University, around 45% of our everyday actions are made up of habits. Our habits, then, are a fundamental reflection of who we are. “Habit is but a long practice,” Aristotle wrote, which “becomes men’s nature in the end.”

So our lifestyle is, in essence, the sum total of our habits. Change your habits and you change your life. But as most of us have learned, unlearning bad habits and learning new ones are not so easy. Even the most generous estimates show that half of us fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions.

That’s because most of us start off too big. We decide to launch into a whole new lifestyle all at once. Or we think we’re just going to get there by the sheer exercise of willpower. But that ignores the science of how willpower works.

In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Roy F. Baumeister, a leading expert in the subject, and coauthor John Tierney show that willpower isn’t a fixed, genetic trait — it’s a muscle, and one that can be strengthened.

And the best way to use our willpower to adopt healthier habits is by starting small. It’s a common element of every successful behavior change program. “Make it easy” is how James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” puts it: “The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits.”

For BJ Fogg, director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford, it’s about making the minimum viable effort — going as small as you can. “To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior,” he said. “Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”

The benefit of even one small win goes beyond just the new healthy behavior you’ve created — it actually builds that willpower muscle to create even more wins and good habits.

“The more you succeed, the more capable you get at succeeding in the future,” Fogg said. “So you don’t start with the hardest behaviors first, you start with the ones you want to do and you can do and you persist.”

In one of my favorite passages of Fogg’s book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” he shows how our tiny habits can spark a positive impact beyond just ourselves:

Habits may be the smallest units of transformation, but they’re also the most fundamental. They are the first concentric circles of change that will spiral out. Think about it. One person starts one habit that builds to two habits that builds to three habits that changes an identity that inspires a loved one who influences their peer group and changes their mindset, which spreads like wildfire and disrupts a culture of helplessness, empowering everyone and slowly changing the world. By starting small with yourself and your family, you set off a chain reaction that creates an explosion of change.

In my conversations with Fogg and Clear, I have been inspired by how they have pushed our understanding forward and helped establish the scientific foundation for the power of taking small steps. “Your Time to Thrive” builds on this foundation of behavior change, sharing a practical system for exactly how to implement Microsteps into each facet of our life. When it comes to leading a healthier, more fulfilling life, most of us know what we should do. And yet, all too often, we fail to act on this knowledge. We need a little help moving from knowing what to do to actually doing it. That’s what our system is here for.

More action, more meaning

When we take Microsteps, we are not only moving forward, we’re going inward. By creating rituals in our day, we allow ourselves to get into the metaphorical eye of the hurricane — that centered place of strength, wisdom, and peace that we all have inside ourselves. We all veer away from that place again and again — that’s the nature of life. And it’s a place that we are too distracted to access when we are living life breathlessly and always “on.” But from that place we can tap into the inner reserves of resilience and wisdom that make behavior change possible.

You can see it in this Microstep, which happens to be one of my favorites:

Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices — and gently escort them out of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects, and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.

It’s one of my favorites because, for me, it is impossible to separate this Microstep from a very specific moment in my life — a moment when behavior change wasn’t just something I aspired to, but something I desperately needed.

On April 6, 2007, I woke up in a pool of my own blood. I was two years into building the Huffington Post. A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I had just returned from a week of taking my eldest daughter on a tour of prospective colleges. And since she had insisted that I not use my Blackberry during the day (the Blackberry, if you’re not familiar, was a communication device used in ancient times), I would stay up each night working.

And so, the morning after we returned home, I woke up burned out and exhausted — and then I collapsed. The result was a broken cheekbone, several stitches over my eye, and the beginning of a long journey.

In the days that followed, I found myself in a lot of doctors’ waiting rooms, which, it turns out, are great places to think about life. And that’s what I did. I asked myself a lot of questions, like “Is this what success really looks like? Is this the life I want to lead?”

The answer was no. And the diagnosis I got from all the doctors was that I had a severe case of burnout. So I decided to make a lot of changes to my life. I started meditating again, which I had learned to do as a child. I changed the way I worked so I could be more productive, more focused, more energetic, and less tired and stressed. I started sleeping more. I knew my sleep deprivation was directly connected to my addiction to my phone — it was an addiction — and to my flawed definition of success.

I got deep into the growing body of science on the connection between wellbeing and performance, and how we can actually be more productive when we prioritize our wellbeing and take time to unplug and recharge. And — eureka! — a Microstep was born.

My 70h birthday, in July 2020, was a powerful reminder to me that we don’t need to wait to begin living our best life. At the time I was sheltering in place with my daughters and sister at our family home in LA, and while cleaning out the garage I came across dozens of old journals and notebooks filled with pages and pages of my thoughts and goals and worries and dreams from my twenties on!

And as I read back through half a century of notes, I was struck by four things. First, by how early I knew what really mattered in life. Second, how badly I was at acting on that knowledge. Third, how draining and depleting all my worries and fears were. And fourth, how little those worries and fears turned out to matter.

As I paged through my old notebooks, I wanted to shout advice at myself across the years — telling the younger me not to worry or doubt so much, or to just go ahead and take that risk. And that is one of my biggest hopes for this book: that instead of looking at those fearless and wise elders among us and thinking, “I want to be that way when I’m old,” we can use Microsteps to tap into what is wisest, boldest, and most authentic within us and live each day from that place right now, however young or old we may be.

Excerpted from Your Time To Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Wellbeing, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps by Marina Khidekel and the Editors of Thrive Global. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global, the founder of The Huffington Post, and the author of 15 books. In 2016, she launched Thrive Global, a leading behavior change tech company with the mission of changing the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success.

Marina Khidekel is Thrive Global’s head of content development, bringing Thrive’s corporate and consumer audiences compelling multimedia storytelling and actionable, science-backed advice to help lower stress and improve wellbeing. 

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