Expert Interview: Michael Delman

April 14 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Michael Delman discuss productivity tips while working from home. Michael Delman

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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Michael Delman.

Michael Delman is an award-winning educator and entrepreneur. In 2006 he founded Beyond Booksmart, which as its CEO he has grown into the world’s largest executive function coaching company. Prior to that, Michael co-founded and was the principal of McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham, Massachusetts. In 2018, he published his first book, Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention.

Michael brings his unique combination of business acumen and an educator’s perspective to his visionary work. His passion is helping people discover their strengths, develop their confidence, and become more effective at whatever challenges they face.

Michael, welcome. I’m so delighted to have you here today.

Michael Delman: Thank you, Mari. Really glad to be here with you. Appreciate it.

Mari Ryan: Thank you. Suddenly we’re in a world in which people have found themselves working in places they might not have expected before, in particular, home offices as we are dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. For many people this means disruption in the ways they are working and the ways they are used to working, and not only to their worklife, but to their homelife as well. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people where you see that there are kids in the background, or the dog running by, or swapping the dining room table with the husband or partner.

So in today’s discussion what I’d like to explore is how has this sudden change and the amount of disruption that we’re dealing with impacting people’s ability to focus on their work and to be productive? As an executive function coach, can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do in that area?

Michael Delman: Sure. The essence of executive function coaching is teaching people how to manage this part of the brain, the part where we slow down and make conscious decisions. Very different from the part of the brain, if this was a model of your brain, this is the prefrontal cortex, this is the amygdala where we go oh my gosh, I’m in flight or fight. Part of the problem is that with constant anxiety and bombardment with the number 19 and everything that people are worried about, the economy, health, and so forth, that the prefrontal cortex can get disengaged. Right now the number one job for all of us is to reengage the prefrontal cortex, to stay calm.

If you remember that old Maslow’s Hierarchy, the needs? Physiological needs right up to social needs, achievement and so forth, everybody has dropped a couple of levels down to basically hunting down toilet paper. We want to all remember that underneath it all we are human beings with ambitions and goals. So we need to begin with that self-regulation piece. That’s what executive function skills are. They allow you to work your way back up the pyramid to more productive capacities.

Mari Ryan: You’re right. It feels like everybody has slipped a little bit on that pyramid. I think that’s a really good analogy because we’re focused on different things than perhaps we were a few weeks ago. Michael, I’m curious, how did you come to this work of executive function and the kind of coaching you are doing?

Michael Delman: Two ways; I think on a professional level there was an acknowledgement that the students I worked with, and when I became a leader and managed adults as a school principal that people were not just focused on content. The things that we thought we were supposed to be focusing on, other things kept getting in the way, like being able to organize and being able to prioritize and being able to focus. If those things aren’t intact, everything else is insignificant.

Fifteen years ago I made the shift on focusing full time and building a large staff on how can we help people to become productive regardless of the content, regardless of the details.

Mari Ryan: You’ve done a lot of work with children, but now you’re doing work with adults and in the workplace. How is it different working with children versus working with adults?

Michael Delman: In some ways not so different. In other ways it is because the consequences to adults are not just to ourselves but to other people. When a child is struggling … and adults can hopefully manage their own emotions and handle it and be able to soothe and nurture and so forth, but when an adult is having problems, it affects your colleagues, it affects your direct reports and everybody else. So there is that much more at stake.

We have been coaching adults for five, six years now because they sought it out. It started with a VP at a big company who said, I know you’re helping my three sons, but could you help me? We realized that the need was there for adults too because we still are struggling with some of these issues.

Mari Ryan: I can see where we would be and at various points in time all of us might be struggling with some of that, but people seem to be struggling a lot right now, given everything that’s going on. I’m curious, from your experience and your perspective, for those of us who are finding it hard to stay focused and stay productive and stay away from the media or whatever it might be, what are some of the suggestions that you might make on how we can stay productive and stay focused?

Michael Delman: I can tell you what we’ve been coaching and the families we work with and the clients we work with. The first thing, actually, is very much in line with what you were saying, Mari, which is when you get out of bed in the morning, the very first thing you need to do is to establish an intention for the day. What is that one big thing that you really want to get done? The tendency is to reach for the phone, maybe turn off your alarm and then check the news and social media posts, or text messages. All of the above basically turned us into a pinball that is getting knocked about hither and thither by whatever somebody else is finding important.

Before we are responsive or reactive, worse still, we want to make sure we are proactive and that we decided, okay, the thing I really want to focus on today is, for example, reaching out to the small business administration, making sure that I understand these forms, or checking in on my employees and seeing how many hours are they still able to work given their new situation. But, establish that intention, make sure that’s your focus, and then schedule a time to do it. Even then, if after that you find yourself getting sucked down the rabbit hole a little bit, and that probably will happen, at least you’ve got some dedicated time on something that you know is really valuable, and so your day will not have been totally a waste, at which point you look back and say, what, oh my gosh, and you end up feeling badly about it too.

Mari Ryan: Do you encourage people to actually write that intention down?

Michael Delman: Not only write it down, but actually say it out loud. There is a see-say-do on principle and education, so very little of what we read actually stays with us. A little more of what we hear and then when we see it, when we say it, and when we write it down, it makes a huge difference. I actually have an app called “One Big Thing.” You can get it, it’s free, and at the top of the screen is a big space for the one big thing, and then three small things. Below that are the “things I might do,” which is also nice because although you probably won’t do them, at least you don’t have to have them sitting around in your head taking up that mental space. That’s one of the first things I would recommend to people to begin the day.

Mari Ryan: Great, setting intention is so important because it gives us some direction. What other suggestions, Michael?

Michael Delman: As the day goes on, it’s working in chunks of time that are actually doable for you. Everybody’s got their own rhythm to this. Really importantly, if you are someone who works effectively for 45 minutes, work for 45 minutes. Then, take a break, a rejuvenating break, but before you take that break write down what the next thing is that you’ll do when you come back. This is kind of like setting that intention, but it’s setting your next steps for when you return. The reason you do that is because if you don’t, you not only have to muster the energy when you come back, and the willpower, which is a little harder these days, but you also have to overcome the mental stress of deciding what you’ll do. By writing it down before you break, you don’t have to do that. You’ve already eliminated that part of the task. So in a sense, you’ve already started before you’ve started. That’s kind of the second thing.

The third things is, definitely, those breaks, try to structure them in a way that they are actually productive. Harvard Business Review had this article on unfocusing that I believe you shared with me that I found so useful. That whole principle, whether it was a nap, or positive, constructive daydreaming, or whatever it is, finding a way to step away but refreshes you. So, getting out for a walk, or something productive like that. There’s a way to go to YouTube and block the next YouTube video from popping up; those kinds of things are really useful because you might intend to break for only 15 minutes, you might even set an alarm for 15 minutes, but then the next video comes up and you think, well, this one’s actually pretty cool and it might be important.

We do best as a species generally by keeping temptations away from us, as opposed to resisting them, because even if we resist them, it’s still a drain on us. So, actually put those temptations out of sight, and it really is out of sight, out of mind. Those are a couple of next steps.

We can talk more if you want to hear more about focus, or if you have other questions we could move to those.

Mari Ryan: Let’s go back to your second point. I sometimes find that I tend to be really productive when I, for lack of better – what I call time blocking, when I literally set an alarm and I say for the next 45 minutes, which happens to be the timeline for me, and I set an alarm for it. So, I’ve dedicated that time to just that.

Michael Delman: I do that and I’m a CEO and this is the advantage that I have, I encourage all of my employees to think as they are leaders and they control their schedules. To put in blocks of time, literally on their Google calendars because we can see each other’s calendars and even if they just say “busy,” shift the mode from everyone sees what you’re doing, just “busy,” put aside that large block of 45 minutes to an hour, put in a little longer so people will “do not disturb.”

The other part with that, Mari, is it’s not just the time, it’s actually putting aside that time for the hardest things when you are the most productive. We all have our … some people are night owls, some people are early morners and people use “get up and go.” For me, I have my high-caff tea – I’m a tea drinker – and I have that, I do my push-ups and sit-ups, I do a little yoga, I take a shower and I try to stay in professional mode, even though I ‘m working from home almost always, and then I say my best time is probably 9:00 to noon, maybe 8:00 to noon. That’s when I’m best. So, the hardest, I’m going to do the worst first, do the hardest things first.

The other reason for that is not just that you’ll get it done, but because of the pat on the back you’ll get from that encourages you to move forward for other things. So, you might give yourself a reward after that, but you’ll feel more competent, and feeling competent is key to being confident, but it doesn’t happen without actually doing something. First we do something useful, and then we say, you know, I can reflect on what just happened. I’m pretty capable, even under these circumstances, I’m getting good things done. You know what, I can now tackle the email pile that was sitting there and I’ll push right through it.

Mari Ryan: That’s great, those are really good suggestions and I appreciate those. Let’s just talk a minute about email because I know personally it’s just this bottomless thing that never goes away. Do you have some suggestions; you talk about the time block thing, so would you close your email? Do you set certain times of the day just to work on email? How do you feel that – because I think that’s one of the rabbit-holes that we can get so caught up in and get nothing else done except just doing email.

Michael Delman: In terms of managing email, again, email is us being a pinball, just whatever way the world bounces us. That’s not a good way to stick to things that matter, and yet, we do need to check it because sometimes there are actually important things buried in the pile.

First off, I will set a “do not disturb” sometimes on my email. I’ll put an “out of office,” and if it’s important, I’ll say “please text me.” You know who knows how to text me? Pretty much everybody who I really need to speak to. It’s not disingenuous, it’s not rude, it’s simply a matter of getting the things done that matter. You can set your “out of office” and have people reach you that way.

Another couple of quick things you can use is an app called Forest on your phone that does not let you pick up your phone. If you do, you’ll actually kill the tree that was growing. You can use apps on your laptop, like Self-Control, or Stay Focused to blacklist sights you don’t want to go near.

When you actually get to the email, again, I would not make it the first thing you do in the day. I’d have scheduled times. I’ll check at 10:30, I’ll check again at 2:00, I’ll check again at 5:00, and I’ll give it an hour at each of those times. When you do, it’s important to … speed matters. So, slowing down is not a good idea. It’s first good to get the lay of the land. It would be like skimming a textbook in college, for example. Skim it all over. See which ones jump out. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, get rid of the 50 that are just complete garbage. Someday, if you have time, unsubscribe from a whole lot. Then, this one can be addressed in 30 seconds, so, boom, boom, boom, boom, and then what are the ones that really require your attention – focus on those and put some heart and soul into those.

Again, prevent email from even being on your mind, through the apps, block it, then it is scheduling the right times when you will do, and then it is prioritizing within the email by a scan first approach.

Mari Ryan: That’s great, those are great techniques. I’m definitely going to employ some of those. I’m curious, are there any other practices, Michael, that you would suggest that can help individuals build executive function skills?

Michael Delman: It depends on the particular skills. There are eight to twelve important ones. Here’s an easy one that anyone can do; if you’re finding that your colleague, your kid, your partner, your spouse is driving you nuts and you’re about to say something you don’t want to say, obviously walk away, but you can do this five-finger breathing, trace your fingers, trace one hand, breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe in, and breathe out. Suddenly, you become a human being again instead of a reactive, you know, electric wire. That’s for self-regulation.

In terms of focus, we went over a bunch of those and ways to stop those things. For planning and prioritizing, I would again emphasize that having that one big thing and having dedicated time.

Then there’s organization and space management. One of the things that we’ve done in our family – my wife wrote out a ‘quarantine doctrine” and some of the ways that helped. Having a family conversation every night the night before about the use of space and establishing what the family culture is, and what’s first. For example, in our family the first priority is actually sleep. So if somebody is sleeping, whatever else you have going on, you need to be quiet enough that you’re not bothering them. That’s first.

Second is washing the dishes and doing work around … if you’re doing that, you get to do your own music or whatever it is. Third, professional work, obviously, that’s going to be critically important, but other people need to give space for that if that’s what’s going on. For example, if I want to work at the kitchen table and no one else, for example, is washing the dishes, or doing something big, I don’t have to move. If they want to listen to something, watch Netflix, they have to move. So I get to control the space if it’s work. If my wife is doing work as a business call, I move.

We have those priorities articulated, I think that really helps. Again, that check in the night before, before you wake up and go, ah, what’s everybody got going on today? No, we all know what the schedule is for the next day.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. Those communication techniques, I think are so important because we’re in uncharted territories here, literally being around our family members for periods of time that we never...  For better or worse, we would have never imagined this. So it really does take a lot of communication and sometimes negotiation, as you say.

Michael Delman: It does.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. All right, those are great skills. Well, thank you for sharing some of those and some of the ways that we can practice these and make everyone happier and more compatible in the time we are spending together.

Michael, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?

Michael Delman: Two ways, they can go to my website, my company is Beyond Booksmart, that’s If they want to reach out to me directly, feel free, I’ll just say my email, it’s Happy to help them if I can.

Mari Ryan: Wonderful, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. I really appreciate it.

Michael Delman: Real pleasure, Mari.

Mari Ryan: And I’m going to put some of those suggestions to work as I try to stay focused at this time …

Michael Delman: Me too!

Mari Ryan: … this challenging time. Thanks, Michael.

Michael Delman: Pleasure.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, productivity, employee well-being, personal productivity, remote workforce, employee enagement, remote working, work from home

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.