Tag Archives: Negotiation

Getting In The Zone at Work Using HRV

The Impending Quantified Workplace

There was an article in Bloomberg this week about UK companies measuring employee’s heart rate and other biomarkers to determine if traders were getting in the zone. It suggested in the future we will see corporate workers measured like professional athletes.

Getting In the Zone

The concept makes sense on the face of it. If you can improve an athlete’s performance by measuring output, a similar measuring of performance should be applicable in business. The problem in the business setting is the lack of clarity around what the improved outcome might be. A 100m dash sprinter has one number they are improving, the finish time. All measurements and interventions revolve around that number. In more complex sports there are multiple metrics, all are clear and measurable.

What is the Worker’s Goal Line?

For the worker in business, what is the equivalent? Take the case of the construction worker. Would we look at strength, hand-eye coordination or compliance with instructions? Or the retail clerk. Would they be measured in pleasant demeanor, speed of button strokes at the cash point or sales presentation? When we move to knowledge worker the potential measurements become much more elusive. Is the programmer’s ability to create a complex solution driven by cognitive ability, knowledge or access to good tools?

In each of these cases taking heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) seems very far away from finding the relevant connection to the drivers of performance. I have been working on this for some time, having writing 15 blog posts about different interaction performance tests I have done at work. When I started with Quantified Self, my hypothesis was to see if I could improve negotiation outcomes using a physiological training plan similar to how a runner would prepare for a marathon. To test the idea I measured HRV in 86 different meetings of various types. Very few of my interventions had any impact on outcomes.

An Example of the Challenge

Here is a specific example of how difficult it would be to have access to biometric data from an employee and make sense of it. This is real data. Say you were my boss and our company’s biosensing device gave you these two graphs. In the first, I was meeting with you and several of your peers. The blue lines are that period of the meeting where I was in Vapor Lock and not at my mental best.

Getting In the Zone


The second graph shows my physiology ten minutes later as I was brainstorming with a colleague. Very few blue lines.

Getting In the Zone

How would you counsel me to improve? What do these graphs even say? Was I not “in the zone” with the you and your colleagues and “in the zone” with my colleague? In a world where performance feedback is hard enough to conduct already, you can see how there will need to be a very significant new framework to make sense of data like this.

So the London traders can keep measuring heart rates and perhaps achieve some improved performance. For the construction worker, the retail clerk and the programmer we have a long way to go. In my study from which I pulled the graphs I did draw a conclusion about how to prepare for meetings like that with the Big Bosses.


I would encourage you to try a small work study of your own. Hop over to QuantXLaFont and have a look at how to use a short break before a meeting with the Breath Sync app. You can start measuring your performance and explore this brave, new and complex world.


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Exercise and the Daily Energy Curve

One critical task that I solve for is ensuring that I maximize my energy during daily negotiations. I want to be present and balanced when I engage with others and not have my physiology defaulting me to Vapor Lock because the night before I had a bad batch of cannoli. So I look to maximize my Daily Energy Curve.

To measure my state of balance I use Heart Rate Variability (HRV).  I know that my balance and energy goes down over the course of a day as I shared in a past post. If that was the case, was a hard workout in the morning depleting my energy before I went into negotiations?


Logic said that using energy early in the day would leave less for the remainder of the day. So I had to test it.

My Question

Was exercising early in the day lowering the remaining energy I had for the remainder of the day when I would be in negotiations with others?

The Resulting Potential Action

If exercise first thing in the morning had no effect on my energy levels I would continue to exercise in the morning. If it did have an impact on energy levels on the days when I was engaged in important negotiations I would either skip the workout or workout later in the day after the negotiations.

What I Did

I created a random list of Workout/No Workout days to ensure that the results were not skewed by some personal bias. On days I was to workout, I exercised for 30 minutes on an elliptical machine either at my house or in a hotel on the road.

I took a measure of my HRV at least three times a day, one on waking, one in the afternoon and one on going to bed in the evening. The combination of these three measures I put into a Google spreadsheet and calculated the slope of the three measures. To measure my HRV I used a Polar H7 heart rate belt, an iPhone6 and the Heart Rate Variability app.

I took 25 readings over the course of a month. 19 of the readings were from randomly generated instruction, 6 were due to life events (elliptical not available, had an opportunity to workout).

What I Learned

The difference in my HRV slope on days I exercised had no statistically significant difference than on days that I did not exercise. There was no correlation between exercise and my energy levels.

The idea of the HRV slope reflecting my Daily Energy Curve which would steadily drop over time  means that we would expect the slope to be nearly always negative. Supposedly HRV starts high and ends low. With that assumption, the workout would drop the early day energy and the negativity of the slope would increase. The Daily Energy Curve in the Exercise or Not Exercise would look something like this:

Slide1In the actual readings, there were 9 days that the slope of the curve was positive, with close to an equal number of those positive days being on both Exercise and No Exercise days. You can see the positive days in the scattergram of the readings over time:


And a scattergram of the Exercise (1) vs. No Exercise (0) showing the distribution during the study:

Slope Exercise or Not

Running a few statistical tests on the data it came back that there was no difference between the HRV slope on days of exercise and a random sample of HRV slope readings. On both a T Test and Pearson Correlation the difference was not significant.

So in a (semi) randomized test of exercise effect on the Daily Energy Curve I dispelled a cherished personal myth. In the past, when I would wake up on the day of an important negotiation I would say “I should save my energy for the discussion” and blow off the workout. A study and a bit of math now tell me that I’m not really saving up energy if I skip the workout. I’m just blowing off the workout.

I have to give full credit for the randomization method to Cara Mae Cirignano of Whatify. I did use Whatify for a portion of this study but because I did not get the entire study done with them they are off the hook for methodological irregularities. I highly recommend you check out their service.

So going forward my workout decisions are independent of my pending negotiations. And I have to take more of a look at the HRV Slope. If sometimes it is positive, what is driving that? For a future study.



Facing the Big Boss

Have you every had to give a briefing to the Big Boss, the Boss above the person you report to? And in that have you ever gotten this look?

Uhappy Big Boss

And when you got that look your brain just froze? You could not think of what to say? The start point for my work in Quantified Self was to try and understand that “freeze” phenomenon and how to train myself to experience it less. I negotiate a lot for business and my hypothesis was that control of physiological reactions in meetings could make me a more effective negotiator.

I had an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing this week as I briefed not one, but SIX Big Bosses. Nine people total were in the room. One Boss had showed up uninvited because he opposed the concepts being discussed. And to make matters even more fun, I was told I was the primary presenter thirty minutes before the meeting. After hearing that I thought, “This will be a great HRV reading.”

The meeting was on a controversial topic and several of the Big Bosses did not agree on how to resolve it. I had been asked a few weeks earlier to help create a resolution. We were scheduled for an hour. There were two points in meeting I remember feeling the “brain freeze” moment and had to push on by looking at the slide and restarting my mental engine. Because of the late notice that I was the presenter I could not use my standard practice of memorizing the material prior to a high intensity presentation. Here is my reading for the session:


This reading recalls the shape of the meeting very well. At the start each of Big Bosses tried to steer the meeting toward a resolution they thought was best. Big Bosses can’t help it, they get paid to steer. The Biggest Boss kept coming back to “let’s let him go through the material.” The dark blue from interval 426 to 2996 was me trying to get a word in edgewise.

In the middle of the meeting I had made my points and the Big Bosses began debating the merits of the resolution. As the spotlight moved from me I did deep breathing, listened and took notes. My memory of that period was that my brain was turned back on and I could feel a lighter feeling in my chest and head. The reading shows that I dropped from Fight/Flight as indicated by the white spaces from interval 2996 to around 6000.

Then the Biggest Boss said something to the effect that the resolution I had presented was incomplete. You can see around interval 6000 I go back into Fight/Flight as I was trying to explain how the missing part he was concerned with actually was completed. This lasted for a good period because other Big Bosses saw this as an opportunity to re-introduce their specific personal points and we were off and running. It was in this period I recall a specific “freeze” moment regarding a question on a detail that I resolved by having the group look at a different slide.

Finally I was able to get the Big Bosses to turn to the last slide where there was a collective “Oh, here it is” and you can see around interval 8900 my physiology begins to relax. The part of the resolution they were looking for was there. To my recollection the room relaxed as well. Some jokes where shared and people began to prepare to summarize and end the meeting.

During this hour long meeting I was in Fight/Flight 46% of the time, a full 27 minutes. I can’t reveal any details of the meeting, but I can believe that quality of my answers was more reactive and less thought out during those two periods. My personal variability training did make an important contribution as I was able to break up the 27 minutes into two periods that each had a specific topic I was “fighting” to make. In the first period I was concentrating on getting my main points across. Once done I was able to use my breathing and get myself to a relaxed state where I had ticked the box of “points made.” When the second period started I was only “fighting” to show the one completion point. I believe that if I had not allowed myself a completion state in the middle I would not have been as focussed on a single point which I was able to make in the end.

To see how much the environment like a meeting can change very rapidly, I had the opportunity to measure a meeting immediately after the meeting recorded above. As in I walked from the conference room for that meeting to the office for the meeting in a period of five minutes. I already had the kit ready so I just hit “record” for the second meeting.

In this second meeting I was brainstorming with a colleague on how to handle a problem that would play out over several months. There was no urgency, the colleague and I get on well and we were coming up with good ideas. Here is the reading:


That means I came from a pretty intense Big Boss meeting where there was a lot of Fight/Flight, did a BreatheSync session for two minutes and entered the second meeting. In this one there was very little Fight/Flight at all and it was a very productive 35 minutes.

Breathing tools, understanding how the physiology reacts when meeting with the Big Bosses and finding the balance between Fight/Flight and relaxation can improve both how you prepare, and how you ramp yourself down when in an intense situation. And these same tools allow a fast transition to a new environment where you can be productive as appropriate for the situation.

I will be presenting more about how I use heart rate variability at the Quantifed Self Conference and Expo in San Francisco June 18 – 20. I look forward to it and I look forward to meeting many of you there.

Feedback While Training – Stayfit & Breathe Sync

When I started looking at Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool to train myself I was drawing on my experience using heart rate monitors for physical training. When I went for a run I would see my heart rate in real time and adjust my exertion accordingly. I found this a powerful way to both increase my fitness and extend my training by not overdoing it.

Most of the apps today either lack context on the data they gather or give you a passive report on a past period of time. For example, the Jawbone UP tells you your steps but it is up to you to index that against other measures to see if you are improving your fitness. Multiple HRV apps will give you a coherence or stress reading after a session is complete. Two apps I am using now structure the feedback in ways that make the experience more interactive and provide good enough context for a user to take action in real time.

Stayfit by Marco Altini. I have just started using this app and really like it. It does not use HRV, but it creates very nice context by indexing resting heart rate against daily exertion. A quick measure of resting heart rate in the morning is very easy to do, then watching your exertion the rest of the day helps you work on fitness. The interface is very clean:


I find that I look at it often during the day to watch my kilocalories expended and make adjustments to my schedule and activities to increase exertion for the day. It is only available on iOS is its only drawback.

Breathe Sync by Michael Townsend Williams. I have written about this app in an earlier post and still have it as one of my go to apps. The reason is that its primary use case is to bring you back to a coherent and relaxed state very simply and quickly. It does give a measurment but that is a secondary part of the experience. The camera on your phone picks up your heart beats and then shows with a simple blue and white ring visual how your heart rate is slowing or speeding up as you see here:


Over the course of the session the ring visual will allow you to match your breath with the increase and decrease of the interval between heart beats. Very powerful and effective. I use it when I feel amped up or just prior to a meeting to get into a balanced place.

The context of indexing one measure against another in Stayfit and the very active intervention quality in Breathe Sync put them both on my daily use list. Ultimately I want to train myself to use awareness and respiration to set myself “in the zone” when it comes time to negotiate, interview and brainstorm in a professional setting. These two apps are great tools as I work on getting there.

Superpower Series: Introduction

Our strength as a species that can envision a potential future is also the source of our greatest perceptual error. We tend to freeze a picture in place as a goal and once a situation is to our satisfaction we will want to maintain that situation frozen permanently.

This mechanism is effective when we want to achieve an outcome. We see something we want to build in our minds and keep it fixed until we see the outcome achieved. This same mechanism backfires when we try to freeze a situation in place despite it being dynamic by nature.

When we picture relaxation or stress reduction, we picture permanent relaxation frozen in time. Our expectation is that we will enter a permanent state of enlightenment where everything will be calm and ok from that point on.

Our work here is about finding the variability in our physiology so we can compare it to external circumstances. We naturally physically accelerate and relax as we go through life. These up and down reactions can come from our circumstances, or it can come from our imagination. When we are reacting to our circumstances we are in alignment with what is real and reacting appropriately.

When we react with our imagination we can be reacting to fictions, and fictions can make us accelerate when it is not necessary. So our goal is not to dumb down our accelerations or artificially amp ourselves up, it is to accelerate when circumstances call for it and to rest when no acceleration is needed.

If you want to learn more about developing a Superpower read about Basic Training.

Superpower Series: Why You Should Memorize Your Speeches

One superpower that some people seem to have mastered is the ability to stand in front of a group of people and give a speech. For most people it is the most stressful of events, up there with losing a job and divorce. So how can you use Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to keep your fight or flight mode from kicking in and you entering a panic state in front of the group?

Well, it does not appear you can avoid the fight or flight response standing in front of a group of people. From measurements I have taken when speaking I think that the only strategy you can employ is to have more material embedded in memory so you just speak automatically without having the engage your prefontal cortex.

The mechanics of this are straightforward. When you are in fight/flight your body optimizes blood flow to get you out of danger. Blood flows to your limbs and the back of your brain, allowing you to maximize your ability to react. When you are in this reaction mode your thinking brain is offline. You can’t wing it when your thinking brain is offline.

I took readings while speaking at two different Quantified Self meetups. This is a very sympathetic crowd. There is no pressure to perform for this crown. And I have experience speaking publicly, from corporate engagements to speaking competitions for Toastmasters. I enjoy public speaking, so I should be on the more relaxed end of the spectrum. The data shows that even experienced speakers are not immune to the stress of presenting to groups.

As a baseline for compare readings from a meeting with senior people that I am working for as I presented in an earlier post. This was a high intensity meeting where I was expected to present information. The graph shows with blue bars where I experienced the fight/flight impulse.

Readings on a speech I did at the meetup July 28th of 2014 showed how much stress the system kicks in when on a stage. I started the measurement about five minutes before the speech and did some breathing exercises to see if that would have an effect on my measurements. Here is me giving the speech.

Qs Speech

The breathing exercises did help kick in my relaxation response for the first five minutes of the reading. Once I got to the podium, however, the fight/flight kicked in. I spoke for 14 minutes and answered questions for ten minutes. You can see the readings in this graph: The red box shows the period in which the speaking portion of the presentation took place.


A second speech showed a similar pattern. In March of 2015 I spoke again at a Quantified Self meetup to a smaller group. Again a very sympathetic group. I knew the material and was pleased to be presenting. This was a shorter speech, five minutes speaking and five minutes of Q&A. You can see from the chart and the red box that the during speaking portion I was almost entirely in fight/flight state.


Why this is important is  as described above the pre-frontal cortex is offline when in this state. Meaning that you can’t think through what you are going to say in real time when you are on the podium. You are in reaction mode. So rehearse the material. When a slide comes up, you react to what you have memorized. I have had experience of “watching” myself giving a speech when I have memorized the material and am bouncing along well. And I have had the experience of freezing in place when I had nothing in my deep memory to react to. And I just stared blankly at the audience.

So memorize your material before you get up to speak. Your physiology will ensure your brain is offline. If you react well throughout the speech you will give a great speech. Even this guy had to memorize his speech:


Parasympathetic Flatline Talking versus Listening

I wanted to look at how often I entered the Parasympathetic Flatline while in a 1:1 conversation with a colleague by phone. For the discussion I read by heart beat intervals using a Polar H7 heart rate belt and the Heart Rate Variability Logger app for iOS. I also recorded my side of the meeting on a smart phone. When the meeting was complete I downloaded my heart beat intervals via csv file and pulled them into excel. Once in excel I used a formula mechanism I created that graphs segments where more than 10 consecutive interbeat intervals are less than 17 milliseconds apart.

During the 60 minutes session I measured 4,451 heart beats and the intervals between them. Of those intervals, 14% were in groups of consecutive intervals that were close together, meaning during 14% of the meeting I was in what I call Parasympathetic Flatline. This measured the periods where I was in fight/flight mode during the discussion.

Here is a vizualization of the meeting:


In the session the forty-seven stress events triggered. Of these, 22 of 47 occurred when I was talking and presenting information to my colleague. 25, or 53%, occurred when I was listening to my colleague.  When listening to the recording, it is clear that the stress event, even when occurring when I am talking, begin when I was no agreeing with my colleagues response or trying to move him to a different position. The stress response was a result of not liking the direction the conversation was going.

Again physiology has shown that anticipating and trying to shape another person’t response is the source of stress in a 1:1 interaction. I once thought presenting my own opinion was a source of stress but that has turned out not to be the case. The stress, it appears, is not agreeing with someone else presenting their opinion.

Added clarification: From Twitter, fellow QS’er Gustavo (@GGlusman) asked the percentage of time I was talking versus not. Pushed by the question I went back beat by beat and looked at the session. As I reported above 736 beats were “in stress ” meaning that those beats were in a grouping with more than ten beats that occurred with a difference in beat interval less in 17 milliseconds to the adjacent beat. Of those beats in stress, I found that 238 were while I was talking and the remainder while listening. So that means 38.5% of the stress beats occurred while I was talking, 61.5% while I was listening. Impatience while listening was clearly more stress creating than flapping my gums. Thanks to Gustavo for asking the clarifying question!

Pushing Poise Outward

I spent 1.5 hours today working on getting myself back to Poise and added some imagery to see if it intensified the improvements but I feel the need to push a little harder. Rather than seeing how far down I can screw the return to Poise while working at my computer by myself, I want to take this into the realm of dealing with other people directly. So I am now going to start measuring my Upset reactions while dealing with others in person, by Skype or on the phone.



I started down this path with the 800 Number project which failed because trying to read from just heart rate and self report did not really yield much useful information. I did try multiple calls and logged them but was not satisfied it was going to go anywhere. Now with Heartmath and the satisfactory results of the previous look at respiration I am going to start exploring this again.

I feel pretty strongly that all the tech companies are going to introduce a large number of products that will help you return to a relaxed state while you sit quietly and count your breaths. Its a good thing and an excellent start point. But very soon it will not be cutting edge to sit relaxed for ten minutes a day and have your app turn green when your stress drops past a certain level.That will be center of the crowd. I want to push further afield.

To embed the learning from the past studies I am going to log 20 hours of returning the Poise while on a computer so I can lock in the sequence and have it at my disposal. Every five hours on the computer I want my 40 extra minutes of Poise so I am going to stick the basics and put in the miles.

In the meantime, I have a call with my bank in 30 minutes for which I have to get the kit set up so I can start measuring the baselines in that direction!

On we go.