Expert Interview: Sarah Reiff-Hekking, Ph.D.

January 08 2019 / by Mari Ryan

Dr. Sarah Reiff-Hekking is a speaker, coach, and clinical psychologist with over twenty years’ experience helping people achieve and create their goals. She has developed a unique system to help her clients get a grip on their time and step up to the next level of their life or business.

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Sarah explore personal productivity.

 Sarah R-H


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

Dr. Sarah Reiff-Hekking is a speaker, coach, and clinical psychologist with over twenty years’ experience helping people achieve and create their goals. She has developed a unique system to help her clients get a grip on their time and step up to the next level of their life or business.

Sarah received her Ph.D. from SUNY at Stonybrook, New York in 1997, and a coach certification from Mentor Coach. She was on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for six years. She founded True Focus Coaching in 2005 and as a business-savvy entrepreneur, she grew her successful coaching practice during a down economy. Sarah, I’m so excited to have you here with me today.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Thanks so much, Mari, it’s a pleasure.

Mari Ryan: As I wander in my business and in my life, I come across people all the time talking about how stressed they are. Their chief complaint seems to be that they don’t have time to fit in all of the things that they need to do. Research has shown that stress in particular seems to worsen, or increase, the risk of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease – all kinds of chronic conditions that diminish our health. As an expert, in the areas of time management and productivity, I’m curious about why you think so many people are feeling overwhelmed and overloaded.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: I love this question, Mari. I feel like – I’m sure you deal with this every day with your clients and organizations that you’re supporting, and this is a question that I talk with my clients about every day. I think a lot of it has to do with one, the 24/7 flow of information that we are going constantly bombarded with. Whether it’s your smart phone, or your tablet, or your computer, or your smart watch, there are so many ways that information comes at us. We often feel like we can’t control that, or we are not allowed to control that.

We know that our experience of stress has to do also with our understanding and our belief in our ability to control our surroundings. I think that is number one, particularly in the workplace when people feel as though they are not allowed to set any kind of limit. Sometimes I talk to people, often they will say “I’m not allowed to not answer email at super-early in the morning, or late at night. I always need to be accessible.” I think that is part of what is really amping up the stress and the fact that we have access to these things anywhere these days.

Mari Ryan: Is technology the main culprit, or is it our inability to set boundaries around these things – or both?

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: I think it’s a combination; I think what has happened is that the people who designed technology want to grab our attention. They are really good at figuring out how to do that. Our environments … you know, when you think about a hundred years ago, even twenty years ago, when I first started in the workforce twenty-thirty years ago, there was no such thing as me looking at email at home. There was hardly such a thing as me looking at email.

Now what happens is our electronics allow us to do things like we’re doing here today, connect remotely and share things remotely, which is an amazing blessing; we can reach people in places and locations that we couldn’t do otherwise, we get to reduce our commute time, all sorts of things that can be very helpful, but the other side of that is we don’t have those clear boundaries that we used to have when we had a workplace and a home place.

Mari Ryan: Very true. Right.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Yeah, and the “I can work from home” opportunity, I think has caused us to blend those boundaries in ways that often – and in the beginning felt really freeing, and now can feel very tethering and very draining, and very, very stressful.

One of the things that’s important here, and a tip for people listening right now, is to get clear about when are you working, and when are you not working. Also, what does your work environment look like to you? I’m coming to you from a home office. I run my whole business out of this office. I do travel, occasionally, I do go out and meet clients, but I do a lot of work here. Without the boundaries of people knowing beyond that door that I’m not available if there are other people in the building, whether it’s a team member or a family member, or an animal, so let’s talk about the reality of working at home, without setting that boundary and having people know when I’m working and when I’m not working, this can feel very, very stressful.

Mari Ryan: I think it’s the matter of recognizing what is healthy for you, and when it becomes unhealthy. When I am waking up at night and checking messages for my work email, that’s unhealthy.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Well, and … so I want to play a little bit of a Devil’s Advocate. Yes, it may be unhealthy, but we have to talk about what is your experience. Because, I know, sometimes, it’s freeing. I remember when the first time I had a cell phone, and one of my friends said if you have a cell phone, people can call you 24/7. How are you ever going to get away from work? I said, I don’t give it to people, first of all, for work purposes, and second of all, it gives me freedom. If I’m running late, I can let somebody know and I’m not really stressed about it.

So, it depends on how you’re using the technology and what you need to do to take care of your own wellbeing. So, yes, waking up in the middle of the night and looking at your phone … I actually had a friend who is a very accomplished businesswoman in her own right say to me, how do you not look at email in the middle of the night? I said my phone is nowhere near my bed, nor is the computer, or any device that I can actually access the email. She went, oh … (laughs) It’s a fresh thought.

These things that used to be part of how our environment was set up and created that division, now is much more of a blend, and we each need to figure out what is our own work-life blend that supports our own wellbeing. We all have individual differences in terms of how that blend is going to be put together.

Mari Ryan: Exactly right, exactly. In the case of employers, when we think about what employers can do to help employees be more productive and to help them reduce some of the stress because oftentimes work is the source of stress.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: There’s a couple of things here; one, to get clear with your employees and with yourself. I oftentimes think managers, people who are good at managing, are often good at planning and sequencing and mapping things out over time. So, that’s why you become a manager, oftentimes -- sometimes, sometimes not, but it’s important to know that we’re all human and our brains are similar. We are all born with different strengths and weaknesses in terms of how we notice time is passing, how we can plan and sequence, how we can keep things in our own head to be able to use later in the day, the year, or the month.

The first thing is to understand that other human beings’ experience, particularly in your workplace, may not be the same experience that you have. You can start to help them set up customized systems to help them manage what they need to get done and when they need to do it.

That’s the first piece. Now, customize yes, there are some clear things that everybody needs to be able to do in terms of their core skills, in terms of time management. I teach people about those all the time, I’m sure that many workplaces have some structure to support people there. The thing that I see that is the biggest issue in terms of that is that employees are not allowed to customize things in a way that works for how their brain works.

For instance, we all need a to-do list or a project management system, some way to capture all the things that are coming across our desks that we need to get done, and then figure out how to sequence them, but the one that works for me may be very different than the one that works for you, Mari, and it may be very different than the one that works for my assistant. You want to make sure that people can set up, create the control that is going to support them in getting the work done in a way that works for them. They know that they can control it in a way that works for them, that’s going to help reduce the stress, reduce that flight or fight responding, all of that adrenaline cortisol that adds to disease down the line when we are exposed to it at a chronic level.

Mari Ryan: That’s a good reminder. I’m curious how you think about when we might need down time and how having and planning downtime fits into the scheme of all of this.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: I love the downtime conversation. One of the things – I’m reminded of a client a couple of years ago, and when I help people set up their weeks, I give them a few guidelines. When we’re doing weekly planning, I want to know when you are working, and when you are not working. I want to know when you are doing your must-do work activities, your must-do home activities, and your must-do fun activities – and yes, fun is a must-do – and I also want to know when you have twenty-four hours off in a row in your week.

Now, I know there are a whole lot of people saying what? Twenty-four hours off in a row? You get to determine what down or off looks like for you. Some people might need a day with nothing scheduled; some people might need a day that is just a free-flow day; some people might need to plan in something that is fun and nurturing for them, whether it’s a hobby, whether it’s spiritual studies, a connection in their community, or just downtime with a pet.

In order for us to function optimally and this peak performance conversation that happens a lot these days in the workplace, and I think also just in our own lives, you need to understand that our brains can’t do the same sort of work repetitively for long, long periods of time. We all have different attention spans for different activities. This is where that customized piece comes in where I know that I need to have a certain number of breaks in my day given the kind of activity that I am doing.

Make sure you give yourself whatever kind of brief breaks you need during the day that fuels you, whether that’s a lunch away from your desk, whether it’s a walk down the hallway to the water cooler, a walk around the building, or it might be connection time with a colleague if that’s what energizes and fuels you. But think about it and notice when you are taking a break, and what kind of breaks from work breaks – I’m putting breaks here, because breaks sometimes look this, right? I’m looking at my phone, I’m taking a break – that might be fueling, but it might not be. It might be more about distraction and energy drain.

You need to take breaks during the day that fuel you, and they can be very brief. Sometimes we need longer ones. That’s fine, just make sure you plan it in a way that helps fuel the rest of your day and your life.

Mari Ryan: Those are good reminders. Sometimes when I’m working with a client, based on the kinds of questions we ask, either doing qualitative data gathering or quantitative data gathering, we’ve been able to uncover that sometimes the culture is such, the workplace culture can be stressful, and we are taking a break, people feel like they do not have permission to take breaks, and so they don’t. They eat lunch alone at their desk, and then they don’t take breaks. It is so limiting to their creativity and to peak performance because they are constantly heads-down, working.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Absolutely, and our brains need those breaks. That’s why you feel exhausted. Sometimes just a shift in activity … I know when I used to work in a more traditional work environment I would make sure that I had at least a half hour away from my desk for lunch. Sometimes it was with a colleague, sometimes it was with myself, or going for a walk, and I knew if I took that half hour, then I knew I was going to be focused and engaged for the rest of the afternoon, but if I didn’t, it was much harder for me to do a good job. Here’s the thing; when it comes to time management every moment is a non-renewable resource.

Time is a non-renewable resource, and I often hear people say I don’t have enough time to do all the things that I need to do. Sometimes it’s because we are not energized and focused. It takes us a lot longer to do something than it needs to because we’re not providing ourselves a break. This is what I like to call the “click of the kaleidoscope” where, you know, Mari, you’re looking at a kaleidoscope, you see one pattern, and then sometimes there is another beautiful pattern just one click to the right, but you don’t see it because you don’t know what causes that click.

Mari Ryan: I’m wondering if you’ve got a few quick hacks that our audience can use to make their days feel less stressed and more in control?

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Of course! The first one is what I call a flexible template for your week. I want to preface this by … this is not a “one-and-done.” What happens when people start to put together, plan a time-map for their week is that … this is what people call “time blocking.” I call it a flexible template for a reason, because there needs to be flexibility. It’s rare these days that you can time block and stay on time, and I can tell you most people don’t time block well. You are going to try and cram two hours of work in a forty-five-minute block and it’s not going to work and you are going to throw it out the window. I want to make sure you are setting yourself up for success here, so know this is not a one-and-done. What I want you to start with is when are your working, and when are you not working.

It sounds simple, but when you ask yourself in your day, am I working now or am I not working, it helps you get clear about your boundaries. One of the things I see so often that is an emotional and energetic drag, is that we’re not clear about what we’re focusing on. We allow interruptions that either pull us emotionally or psychologically, or just the focus; pull us away from what’s most meaningful and important in our work or in our life.

By asking yourself this one question, am I working or am I not working, I want you to get clear. If I am working, I am turning off anything related to home. I’m going to park it. I doesn’t mean I can’t go to it when I choose, but it means I’m parking it for now and I’m making a choice to be focused on what I am doing right now at the workplace.

You can also use this if you are somebody who doesn’t feel like it’s the home/work challenge, you can use this is terms of what am I work on now, so that you are clear. This is my task right now. You might even write it down on a sticky note or a piece of paper if you are somebody who gets pulled easily, or working in an environment that pulls you easily. You know, oh, that’s right, that’s the thing I’m going to keep coming back to until it’s completed, or for this time block, I’m going to keep coming back to it until I choose to make a switch.

Mari Ryan: I think too often we don’t have these bouts of hyper-focus. We just keep wandering and have distractions and the next thing you know, half the day is gone, and it’s like I haven’t accomplished anything. So, great advice.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: I also think along with that it’s very helpful to keep a running list of what you did get done, particularly if you work in a fast-paced environment it’s easy to feel like I didn’t get anything done at the end of the day. One of the things, again, that helps us feel in control is to notice what went well, and what we did get done. That’s another very powerful conversation that you can start to have with yourself and with your teams about what did we get done today, what are we proud of, and what went well, so that you can notice how are we setting ourselves up for success, and what do we want to keep replicating so that we can continue to be successful and focused.

Mari Ryan: Great suggestions, really appreciate those. If our audience wants to learn more about you and your work, where can they find you?

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: They can find me at, and you’ll see there’s a lot of free resources there, there is information about me and my programs, and if you want to reach out to me directly, you can always email me at Sarah – that’s Sarah with an “h,” S-A-R-A-H at

Mari Ryan: Fabulous, well, thank you so much for being here today, sharing your wisdom and experience, and the great tips that you have shared. Thanks again, Sarah.

Sarah Reiff-Hekking: Thanks for having me, it’s been a pleasure.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, productivity, hr, employee well-being, corporate wellness, personal productivity

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.