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Work doesn’t have to be hard: Vanessa Bennett

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with Vanessa Bennett.

Vanessa is the CEO of Next Evolution Performance, a global high-performance coaching business using neuroscience to help driven leaders and teams to optimize profitability, productivity, and energy, and to decrease their effort, sickness, burnout, and mental health problems. This ensures that success, and therefore profitability, is sustainable.

Vanessa also has over 20 years of experience in the financial services and health and fitness professions.

She has a Master of Science in Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health—with Distinction, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

Welcome, Vanessa!

Vanessa Bennett 1:00

Thanks so much, Michael. Lovely to be here.

Michael 1:04

Happy to have you here today.

As you reflect back over your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, when did you first recognize that this might be a valuable approach?

Vanessa 1:21

When I was working in finance for so many years, I just found that so many people were very busy.

They weren’t necessarily getting the outcomes that were required.

Not only that, people were getting really sick all the time.

People were really susceptible to colds and flu and burnout in some way, shape, or form.

Burnout wasn’t even really recognized as a thing back then.

But I could sense that it was definitely an issue.

And so, I always felt, when I was in a leadership position, that it was my job to make sure that I was leading a team for high performance without getting burnt out. If my team were getting sick and burnt out, then that was not a good reflection on my leadership skills.

But it was really just interesting that not all leaders thought that was their responsibility.

So, I just thought that there was something in it.

I remember thinking at the time, when I was deciding, “How do I actually do this? How do I make the move with my consulting? And we’re going into a large corporate to do this internally.”

And so I really sort of grappled with that.

I was 95% sure I was onto something and I was 5% completely freaking out.

I thought that was probably a good ratio.

So, I went out and luckily met my now-business partner, and we’ve been together for the past 10 years now in business.

And yes, we were definitely, definitely onto something.

Michael 2:58

Was this before or after you got your Masters?

Vanessa 3:03

This was before.

The Masters hasn’t been around for that long, in terms of linking psychology with the neuroscience.

We only really started putting people in MRI machines in the late 90s. That was when this whole birth of this new information came out, around, how do we optimize our performance during the day, getting a little bit smarter about how we use brain science.

More and more research has come out. Now there’s more studies that can be done, but that’s still fairly new in the scheme of things.

I started doing what we’re doing now with as much research as we had at the time.

I’m very, very pleased to say that there’s a lot more research now, and I’m looking forward to, in another 5 to 10 years, there being exponentially more research.

I might be telling people something different in 10 years’ time, I don’t know as the research comes out will evolve with it.

So, that’s the name of our company, Next Evolution.

Michael 4:07

What was the most interesting thing you’ve discovered from learning about the neuroscience, brain, side of things that you’ve brought in and it’s helping you bring out the best of who people are in the work environment?

Vanessa 4:29

The concept of cognitive energy. Some people call it mental energy. In a neuroscience environment, we tend to lean towards cognitive energy.

Some people think of emotional energy.

The main reason for burnout is really overspending our cognitive energy.

Fun little fact, we only really have about four hours a day available to us to have heavy, cognitive energy.

Think about it.

That’s a lot less than the hours that we work.

Now, I’m the last person to say we should be working less hours.

And in actual fact, it’s not the hours that we work that lead to burnout.

It’s how we work during those hours.

If we are working in a way that feels really hard, we’re not doing it right.

That probably goes against what most people were taught.

We used to think that productivity was something where it did feel hard, and we should finish the day and feel completely mentally exhausted.

Whereas now, the research is showing that we are performing at our best when we are not in that really exhausted phase.

Our brain needs rest, our brain needs a break to function really well.

If we can learn how to optimize these four hours every day, then we can basically get done in four hours what most people take about six hours to do.

That’s a gift.

Imagine being able to give everybody in the world back a gift of an extra two hours of effective time per day.

Do with that what you will. That’s not my problem.

Whatever you choose to do, you know that’s a good thing.

How wonderful to have that choice.

This gift of people not getting to their mid-40s and then going, “Oh my gosh, I’m really burnt out. I need to change careers, or pull back, or leave careers.”

We want people to be successful in a very sustainable way for as long as we possibly can.

We’re all living longer.

We want a better quality of life.

We’re probably going to have to work for longer because we’re living for longer.

The world’s not getting any cheaper.

So, it’s giving this gift of sustainability to make sure that people understand that high performance is by definition without burnout.

We used to think high performance was push, push, push, push, push.

Now, it’s, no.

High performance is really getting great outcomes, but in a way that feels easier for people.

When people can work like that, they just get to do their best work.

They focus more on their strengths, and they love it.

Life’s too short not to love what you’re doing.

Michael 7:12


How do I convince my manager that this is the way to do things?

Vanessa 7:20

That is such a great question, Michael.

It is becoming easier and easier as more awareness builds around this.

Ten years ago, we had a lot more of a lot more convincing to do. Because there wasn’t as much research around the idea of burnout being a thing. There wasn’t as much research around how the brain functions and therefore what impact that has on things like productivity and overall bottom-line performance.

Now, burnout was officially called a thing by the World Health Organization, but also from the International Classification of Diseases. It’s now technically a syndrome.

The fact that it is recognized for that, there is a lot more awareness.

There’s a lot of pushback.

When we think about, say, the Great Resignation and things like that, people have learned that they can do things differently.

People are basically tired of being tired.

It used to be something where you just kind of put up with that because that was how we worked.

But now, people are tired of being tired and they want a different way to do it.

And now there’s so much more linked to what impact does that have on your bottom line?

Even if you’re not coming at it from the angle of, I really want all my staff to be healthy, which I hope people are coming from that angle these days. And that’s obviously where we want people to go with that.

But, you can’t really deny the science and you can’t really deny the effects on people’s bottom lines.

So, there’s a lot more awareness around this.

Now I can see the difference even in the last five years compared to the previous five years. It’s just been a massive shift.

So, thankfully, we do a little less convincing on this.

But if we do need to do the convincing, there is a lot more science behind it now.

Michael 9:10

Hopefully, things keep heading in that happy direction.

Vanessa 9:14

Let’s hope so Michael. Let’s hope so.

Michael 9:20

If I don’t know how to sustain my movement, how to keep going in a sustainable fashion and so not burnout, how do I get started?

Vanessa 9:32

A really easy way to think about it is—and this is how we start with all of our workshops as well—is think about: if we know that we’ve got about four hours a day of heavy cognitive energy available, think of that as like your four most productive hours in your day.

If you can identify them, you are halfway there.

That’s a great place to start.

Now, that’s not to say that you can always do heavy cognitive work at your heavy cognitive time because we deal with other people.

We’ve got meetings.

We’re managing different time zones, depending on where people are based.

All of that kind of thing.

We’re not going to get it perfectly right.

But if we could even do maybe an hour a day of heavy cognitive work at heavy cognitive time where we’re not being interrupted, that’s a great place to start.

Even things like turning off notifications.

Going into email when we’re ready to go into email.

Even if that’s every 15 minutes at the starting point, just while you practice that, that’s still better than emails coming at us.

Because there’s another concept called continuous partial attention. Where if we’re kind of sitting in a meeting, but we’re kind of looking at emails that come in, and we’re kind of looking at our phones.

There’s a lot of research now that shows that that’s a really fast way to drain our cognitive energy.

It’s also a really fast way to drain our productivity.

It’s a double whammy.

Not only do people think it’s productive, but they don’t understand how detrimental it is to both our energy and our productivity.

So, even just switching off notifications, identifying your four best hours a day—even your one best hour a day—can be a great starting point.

Try to do your heavy cognitive work at that time.

If you’re not a morning person, don’t try to be. It’s totally fine.

If you are a morning person, capitalize on that.

How do you make sure that you’re getting your heaviest work done at that time?

Another thing is thinking about what are your heavy tasks.

Most people just prioritize their to-do list according to what is next most urgent on their list.

In actual fact, our to-do lists aren’t like, “I do that now because that’s due in 10 minutes or I do that now because that’s due in 10 minutes.”

We normally have a number of things that we’re working on, or due at certain times.

But we do have a little bit of leeway in terms of, “Do I want to work on that right now? Or do I want to work on this right now?”

And maybe I just flipped the order of how I work on something.

I still get them both done in a couple of hours.

But, I’ve chosen which one is best to match my cognitive energy.

Even just really tiny little tweaks around those kinds of things can make a massive difference to people personally.

Michael 12:25

One thing I like to have people do is draw up the list of everything they think they need to do, and then give everything a priority. Give everything a how much I liked doing it or look forward to it. Now I’m going to add how cognitively arduous is it.  Then either multiply those out and then that gives you a stack ranking to go from top to bottom, or decide today, or for the next task, which one of those columns do I want to prioritize. Then pick the one that’s highest in that.

Vanessa 13:05


That’s right.

You might have three things that are high priority, that take heavy cognitive energy, or you might have three things that are high priority, but one takes heavy cognitive energy, one takes medium cognitive energy, one takes light cognitive energy.

If you’re in your heavy cognitive energy time, choose the one that is heavy cognitive energy to do.

Do that throughout the day.

Because we don’t have the same cognitive energy throughout the day.

We can’t just have no idea about which order we want to do things and pay no regard to our cognitive energy because we just don’t have the same at every time of the day.

Michael 13:48

What restores our cognitive energy? Is this something we can refill over the course of the day and so kind of always keep topped off and just keep going?

Vanessa 13:57

It really is, Michael.

It comes up in our workshops all the time.

The first thing, if we treat it like a budget, for example, and there’s no borrowing facility of any variety in this budget, the only way that we can manage it is…think about more money. If we want more money, we can either earn more, or we can spend less. Then, I think the quickest thing that we can do initially is to spend less.

So, the biggest focus for people as a starting point is, how do we spend less energy credits unnecessarily?

Then once we’ve saved, because that’s what we call them, we think about these concepts of energy credits, how many energy credits does something take, treat it like a budget, treat it like money, treat it like you don’t want to just give it away.

You want to really protect these energy credits.

Then we say, “Well, if we have 70 energy credits in a day, and we want to get to 100.”

The first thing is, you can’t spend 70, because we need to invest in energy-giving activities.

If someone’s already spending their energy credits, then you can’t say to them, “Oh, go for a five-mile run, you’ll feel amazing.”

No, you’ll kill them.

So we need to make sure that we, instead of spending 70 energy credits that they have, we want them to only spend 40 or 50 energy credits, and then we have energy credits available for them to be able to invest in those energy topping up activities.

That might be some exercise throughout the day. It might just be some movement throughout the day. It might be having a conversation with a really energizing friend throughout the day. It might just be going for a walk around the block.

It might be something really simple like that, that doesn’t take very long, but does take a couple of energy credits to get there and do it.

But it gives you energy credits.

So we always use the example of, say, exercise. There’s still a certain amount of energy credits that’s required just to get your shoes on. We’ll get to the gym or get your gear on and get outside and do that.

But once you get there, you get a lot more energy credits for that.

You might be doing charity work, something like that.

There’s definitely ways that we can top it up.

But, if we are all out of energy credits to start with, then we need to firstly learn how to spend less and then we can work out how to earn more.

Michael 16:25

Just like if we were in our car, gas tank completely empty, we can’t take it to the gas station to fill up.

Vanessa 16:32

I love that analogy.

Yes, exactly.

We have to get to the gas station.

That’s exactly right.

Michael 16:40

And we’ll feel a lot happier if we get to the gas station with more than just a few drops.

Vanessa 16:47


Because how much anxiety do we get, and therefore how much energy are we spending, being stressed about maybe running out before we get to the gas station?

We think about that with our cars.

We think about that with our phones.

We wouldn’t let our phones run dead in most occasions.

So why do we let ourselves get to that point?

Michael 17:13

I talk with my clients about, there’s how we sustain our movement. And then there are the signals that we’re going over budget, to use your terminology, and there’s mitigations for what happens if we can’t do what we need to fill back up.

In the car analogy, our signalers are the gas tank dial is dropping toward zero.

And our mitigation might be, “Well, I have a couple extra gallons in the trunk, just in case.”

Even if we’re in the middle of a most important meeting, when we realize that, “Oh my gosh, I’m running out of gas,” there’s always things that we can do even in the course of the meeting without anyone else realizing to get through well enough that then we can go and take care of ourselves later in the way we really need to.

Vanessa 18:16


Michael 18:21

What has most surprised you, as you’ve been learning how to help people be who they are and bring their whole self to work and keep their energy balance topped off?

Vanessa 18:35

Not so much of a surprise, once you understand the neuroscience of belief systems, but just how attached people are to thinking that it needs to feel hard for them to be justifying their existence in the workplace.

They need to feel really busy to justify their existence in the workplace.

There is so much focus on what is being done rather than the outcomes being achieved.

So, a big part of what we do with our clients is to really help people to understand, how do we articulate outcomes, how do we agree on outcomes?

I always love the question of, “How do we do it easier?”

Or, I really love the question of, “How do I do it lazier?”

But that freaks a lot of people out.

So, “How do we do it easier?” And build up to “lazy.”

It’s getting them to focus less on what they’re doing.

Don’t just do it that way because that’s the way it’s always been done.

We really focus on, “ow do we get this really great outcome? But, how do we do it in a way that feels easier for us?”

If we can start to think about that, then we can start to change the neural pathways around, “Oh, it doesn’t have to feel hard. I got that outcome. And it didn’t feel that hard. That’s really cool.”

You almost need to get people doing that before they believe that that’s even possible.

One of those things around outcome-based leadership is it does take a really good accountability culture.

One of the things that probably had surprised me over the time since I’ve been doing this, but even quite frankly working in corporate I found that as well, is just the lack of accountability that’s out there generally.

Not just the lack of accountability, but also the lack of being able to coach accountability and having frameworks to coach accountability, and how much people shy away from a conversation around, “Well, hang on. We agreed that this was going to be done. And it’s not. Let’s talk about that. What happened? How do we avoid this happening again?”

People think that that needs to be a difficult conversation.

If you set up the right frameworks as a starting point, then it’s not a difficult conversation. It’s just a very rational conversation.

The reason people aren’t accountable is because there are no consequences. Because no one wants to have that conversation.

Even the most seasoned leaders that I say still tend to shy away from that in some way, shape, or form.

Those two go hand in hand.

That lack of accountability is probably something that did really kind of surprise me, even at all ranks, and the lack of being able to coach that, and that lack of belief around, it doesn’t have to feel hard.

It’s okay if it feels easier so long as we’re getting the outcomes.

That’s what we’re paid to get.

Michael 21:45

If having those accountability conversations feels really hard, how do we find our way to having those conversations and doing it in a way that isn’t so hard for us?

Vanessa 22:01

That’s such a great question.

That’s the angle that we need to take.

There’s a lot of people who go, “Let’s have a course on, how do we have difficult conversations.”

Whereas I much prefer the conversation to be around, “How do we set up great frameworks so that we don’t have to have those difficult conversations?”

A difficult conversation is only ever arising because there’s been a mismatch of expectations.

That’s it.

That is the only reason we have a difficult conversation.

So, if we can set up frameworks to be really clear around the agreement phase of what’s being done, why is it being done, how is it being done, who’s doing it, and when is it being done by, then you get much clearer on that upfront.

You have far less situations where that goes awry.

So, let’s be really clear upfront.

Let’s give people the psychological safety to push back.

If you ask someone to do something by Friday, and they really can’t do something by Friday, because they’ve got something else that they need to get done. Let’s give them the ability to say, “No, I can’t do that. But if you want me to do this instead, then I can. Or, how do we think about an easier way to get this done so that we still get you the outcome by doing it in a different way?”

When you empower people to have these conversations, then we’re reducing the ambiguity.

We’re reducing that mismatch of expectations.

We’re giving people the psychological safety along the way as well, to raise their hand if there’s any problems that come up along the way towards that due date.

If you start these great frameworks and this great culture as to, “This is how we get stuff done around here,” it doesn’t become a difficult conversation anymore.

Michael 23:58

So if I had only one thing I could do to start changing the way my organization works, is having conversations about what are the clear, describable outcomes that we’re expecting, is that where you would start?

Vanessa 23:23



So many workplaces have gone way too far the other way in terms of, we want to empower people and we want to give people the ability to choose how they work and things like that.

Which is a really great thing.

But now, we’ve almost got to the point where we’ve forgotten to tell people the outcomes of what they’re there to achieve.

I’m from a sales background in corporate, so I guess it was a lot less ambiguous. It was, “You have one number and you have 12 months. Sort that out.” That was a lot less ambiguous.

In other jobs, those outcomes are a bit harder to define upfront, but they do still need to be defined.

Even if it’s not a revenue-producing role, we still need to get really clear on what are the outcomes that would have occurred in 12 months’ time.

If we can both look back and go, “Yes, we both did a great job,” what would need to happen?

If we can get more focused on the outcomes, and then coaching the accountability to make sure that we’re holding people to those outcomes and supporting people to highlight any roadblocks that they might have along the way, then we’re in a far better position to let people work out how they get those outcomes.

That’s where the autonomy comes in.

We still need to be really, really clear on, what are we expecting in terms of outcomes.

Michael 25:54

Here’s a question I’ve learned not to have expectations for: what else should I ask you?

Vanessa 26:03

Ask me, “What happens in many workplaces, that leads to people not being able to manage their cognitive energy?”

Michael 26:13

I love that question.

What happens in many workplaces, that leads to people not being able to manage their cognitive energy?

Vanessa 26:23

Yes, so there are a few things. Two main things.

The first one is too much time in ineffective meetings.

We need to work out how to stop that.

The pandemic probably exacerbated the amount of time we were in meetings because people were trying to overcompensate.

We haven’t gone back yet.

There’s probably too much time in ineffective meeting.

If you are spending a lot of time ineffective meetings, then you can’t be in a position to do your heavy cognitive work at your heavy cognitive time.

That’s a big one.

There is the lack of accountability, which is leading to last-minute dumping of work on people.

It’s that classic situation of, “Well, I would have done my bit by the right time, but this person didn’t get their bit to me on time.” And therefore, we have this massive follow-on effect that the last person in the food chain is now stressing because they’ve got a really tight time frame to deliver to a client versus being able to do it effortlessly.

That is causing a lot of frustration, which also drains a lot of energy credits from people.

That situation alone is causing a massive problem.

Then, the other thing is probably that continuous partial attention.

People are feeling like, because they’re in an ineffective meeting, that therefore they should be doing emails at the same time.

And they should be keeping an eye on this, but it’s really draining their energy.

Whereas if we gave people permission to get out of those meetings in the first place, then we wouldn’t feel like we’re having to kind of do this constant multitasking and juggling and all that kind of thing.

They’re probably the three key things that we would see as leading to people not being able to manage their cognitive energy as well as they would like to at work.

Michael 28:12

That last item reminds me that if I’m not managing my cognitive energy, I’m probably hampering everyone else I’m working with from managing theirs. Because if I’ve been thinking, “I don’t want to be here, but I don’t feel I can leave. So I’m going to type away on my laptop or scroll on my phone,” everyone else is, “What’s he doing? Is he here? Is he listening? Is he looking at something that I need to know, I should go look myself?” Because they’re really hard for everyone else to focus.

Vanessa 28:49

You’re right.

The brain, the neuroscience for that exact same situation, is that the brain hates ambiguity.

If you’re scrolling on your phone, or if you’re looking somewhere else, or whatever, and you’re giving the vibes that you’re not really there, then other people’s brains are going into overdrive to make sense of that ambiguity.

“Is he not listening? Is he disinterested? Have I done something wrong? Oh, my gosh.”

Now I’m feeling like, “Am I gonna get it talking to you in a momen?”

Instead of focusing on the meeting at hand, we’re now focusing on all this chatter going on in the backgrounds.

Our brains are going into overdrive, thinking about 89 things at once when they don’t have to.

So, you’re so right.

The way that we operate in a meeting absolutely impacts other people, whether we realize it or not.

Michael 29:45

It just goes to show that the best way to take care of our people is to take care of ourselves.

Vanessa 29:50

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yep.

Michael 29:56

You have a couple of gifts for our audience today.

Which one do you want to start with?

Vanessa 31:10

Well, we have an online course. We think this is something that everybody deserves access to.

Not everything’s there, but the whole idea of, “How do we structure our own days, weeks, months, and years better?” is something that we believe everybody deserves to have access to. Not just people that can afford one-to-one high-performance coaches and things like that.

So, we have put together an online course for this on called, the main foundational workshops, The Neuroscience of Getting More Done, and only because The Neuroscience of Getting More Done in Less Time with Less Effort with Less Burnout doesn’t sound so catchy.

So that is something that we put together.

It is an eight-module course.

It goes over the course of about six weeks because we want people to implement this as they go.

That’s a really great way that we can give a gift to you to say, “Hey, get onto this. It will be such a great investment in being able to maximize your cognitive energy, your health, your success, everything.”

We really believe that that’s something that everyone on the planet deserves to have access to.

Michael 31:27

And then, your other gift is a clear follow-on from that. I go through the course, and I say, “Hey, I’m really stuck on this thing” and I can hop on a free call with you and get some insight.

Vanessa 31:40


We are very, very generous with our time.

We are more than happy that if people contact us and go to our website, then we are more than happy to give 20 minutes of complimentary time to people.

If we can point you in the right direction in that time, let’s do that.

If there’s further work that we can do together, absolutely.

We have online workshops that we can do as well.

We’ve also got a monthly series where people can be with us for 40 minutes, you register to get the recording if you can’t make the time. It’s called our 20/20 Series: Clearer Views on the Neuroscience of High Performance, completely free. We have a different topic each month.

Coming next is our four-day workweek, which seems to be gaining momentum around the globe at the moment in terms of discussion.

We pick a topic where for 20 minutes, we coaches riff on certain issues around that topic that we’re seeing globally.

For 20 minutes, we have the opportunity for people to ask us questions live and have some live discussion.

So, there are plenty of ways that people can interact with us and get some further information and really be well on their way to maximizing their cognitive energy.

Michael 33:07

Nice, thank you.

What’s the best way for people to connect with you and learn more, take advantage?

Vanessa 33:17                      

I am very active on LinkedIn. I love posting a lot of great content on LinkedIn for people to take away in just little tiny bite-sized chunks.

So, if you follow me on LinkedIn, Vanessa Bennett at Next Evolution Performance, hopefully, you’ll see some great things there as well.

I love it when people send me direct messages and tell me what they’ve tried and how they tried something and it worked.

If they want to reach out and have some complimentary time with me as well, that’s completely fine.

We’d love to hear from you.

Michael 33:47

Great, thank you.

What would you like to leave our listeners with today, Vanessa?

Vanessa 33:53

The main thing is that if work is feeling really hard all the time, we’re not doing it right.

And that’s okay.

The good thing is, there are ways out there to make it feel easier.

So please don’t live in this belief system of, “This is as good as it gets.” Or, “I’m just going to be tired because that’s the way it is.”

We don’t want to live like that.

Doesn’t matter what your job is.

We don’t want to live like that.

It’s something where we want people to believe that, “I can do my best work and it shouldn’t have to feel that hard.”

Michael 34:37


Thank you so much.

This has been a fabulous conversation today.

Vanessa 34:44

Thanks for having me, Michael. Lovely to speak with you.

Michael 34:48

And audience, please let us know: how do you fill your gas tank? How do you sustain your movement? Vanessa and I want to know.

Thank you so much.

Have a great day.

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