How Physicians and other Healthcare Professionals can use their character strengths to influence burnout prevention, well-being and ultimately to living their best life, right here on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.
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“If a physician is empowered to turn to their highest strengths, whatever they are, if it’s teamwork or creativity, they are empowered to be themselves in their practice, which can kind of manage burnout too. Because burnout can happen if we’re completely pushing down all of the qualities that uplift us and energize us naturally. – Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D.
For episode , Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer welcomes psychologist, Dr. Ryan Niemiec. Dr. Niemiec is a leading international figure in character strengths and is the Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. So what are character strengths? Dr. Niemiec summarizes them as the qualities that are best in you. Why should you know more about your character strengths? In this episode, you will hear all about how your character strengths can influence your life and well-being and ultimately help you to THRIVE. Dr. Niemiec will describe, in detail, the science behind his work in character strengths, how you can utilize your specific character strengths and which of the 24 character strengths you may want to strengthen in yourself based on the five pillars of health that Dr. Niemiec defines. We hope that you tune in and tap in to what is best about you!
Visit https://viacharacter.org to learn more and find out what your top character strengths are and which you may want to cultivate.
Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D. is a leading international figure in character strengths that are found in all human beings. As an educator, scientist, and practitioner, Ryan is the Education Director of the renown VIA Institute on Character, a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, Ohio, that leads the global advancement of the science of character strengths. Ryan is an award-winning psychologist, annual instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of 11 books, over 100 academic papers, and several-hundred user-friendly articles. His books include the bestselling consumer book, The Power of Character Strengths, the popular stress workbook The Strengths-Based Workbook for Stress Relief, the 2020 workbook The Positivity Workbook for Teens, and Positive Psychology at the Movies. He’s also the author of the two leading practitioner-focused books in positive psychology – Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths. The latter book contains the evidenced-based program he founded, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), used by practitioners and researchers across the globe. He created VIA’s first character strengths certification program – MBSP Certification – in 2021.
His research areas include character strengths, MBSP, positive interventions, peace psychology, nature/environment connection, spirituality, life meaning, disability, and positive health.
Ryan has been interviewed by a number of luminaries including the legendary Larry King in 2020. He’s given over 1,000 presentations on positive psychology topics, including a character strengths world tour in 2009-2010, a TEDx talk in 2017, a speaking tour of Australia, a keynote at a Harvard conference, and invited keynotes and workshops at conferences across the globe. He is Fellow of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) and serves on their Council of Advisors. He is co-founder and president of the Spirituality/Meaning Division of IPPA.
Ryan lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three young, zestful children. His highest strengths are hope, love, honesty, fairness, spirituality, curiosity, and appreciation of beauty. Ryan’s hobbies include playing tai chi, chess, basketball, and guitar; watching Michigan State athletics and The Walking Dead, and collecting vintage and rare Pez dispensers.
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Please enjoy the full transcript below
Ryan: If a physician is empowered to turn to their highest strengths, whatever they are, if it’s teamwork or creativity, they are empowered to be themselves in their practice, which can kind of manage burnout too because burnout can happen if we’re completely pushing down all of the qualities that uplift us and energize us naturally.
Jill: Hello, everyone. We are so glad you’re here for DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Jill Farmer, one of the cohosts of the podcast and lead coach at DocWorking. Our program is sponsored by DocWorking THRIVE, where you can get the support you need to thrive in your life and work. Go to docworking.com today to check it out.
I am so excited about this conversation. This is something that is really near and dear and passionate to my heart. We are joined today by Ryan Niemiec. He is a leading international figure in character strengths that are found in all human beings. As an educator, scientist, and practitioner, Ryan is the Education Director of the renowned VIA Institute on Character, a nonprofit organization based in Cincinnati, Ohio, that leads the global advancement of the science of character strengths.
He is an award-winning psychologist, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of 11 books. Ryan, we could go on and on about all the things that you continue to do about this work that I think is also one of your passions, which is helping people to use character strengths in order to thrive. So, let’s start with the basics. What are we talking about when we say character strengths?
Ryan: Sure. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here, Jill. Thanks for inviting me and it’s great to be here with all the wonderful physician listeners and healthcare providers that are doing so much important work for so many people at this just deeply needed time. So, just a genuine bow to everybody for all your great work. In terms of the character strengths, in a nutshell, you can think of character strengths as those qualities that are best in you. We can summarize it in that little snapshot. Those qualities, those characteristics of your personality, that are most core to you and that are best about you.
We can go deeper with that in studying the science of character strengths. For the last 13, 14, 15 years, I’ve assembled a three-part definition that’s based in the research on character strengths and the 700 or so studies that have come out in the last 10 years. And that is that character strengths are these positive, personality traits that then reflect three things. They reflect our personal identity. That means that it’s who we are at our core. And then the second is, they produce positive outcomes for ourselves and others. They’re connected with better relationships, and more achievement in life, and better physical health, and better health habits. This is what science is telling us and bringing more benefit and wellbeing to other people.
And then third, these character strengths contribute to the collective good, to the greater good. You could just take that and imagine it with your family, or your work team, or your community. Imagine: what if you didn’t have gratitude on that team? What if you didn’t have love, what if you didn’t have perseverance, what if you didn’t have bravery, or self-regulation, or curiosity? These are the ingredients in the glue that make a stronger community that contribute to that greater good. So, that’s how I think about it in a nutshell and then those deeper ways of looking at it.
Jill: And you mentioned all of the hundreds of studies that have been done related to character strengths, the Institute, where you do a lot of the work VIA is values in action, so, character strengths are another way of describing values and action in that work. We know a lot more than we did. Thanks to all those hundreds of studies. What do we know now that we didn’t know 20 or 25 years ago that can make people’s lives better?
Ryan: Well, we know a lot. One piece is, we now have what we think of as a consensual nomenclature, a common language for describing what’s best in people. We didn’t have that before the year, say, 2000. There’s been people throughout time, each of the world religions and ancient philosophers like Aristotle, and Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers in the United States and so on. These different prolific people have assembled a collection of words to describe positive qualities or virtues. But we’ve never had a universal classification. So, these 24-character strengths represent those qualities that are best in all human beings and researchers took a painstaking approach to make sure of that.
Back in the early 2000s, they were surveying people across all the continents except for Antarctica, and traveling to some of the most remote areas on the planet, to speak with remote cultures about these qualities, to see if they have these qualities in their remote cultures. Cultures such as the Inuit people, far north in Greenland, and the Maasai, tribal people far off the tour circuit in Kenya, and then sending surveys across the world, and studying the themes across the great religions and ancient philosophies. These 24 didn’t just come out of thin air. These represent a very solid research-based language for describing our best qualities. So, that’s a really major, we could even say groundbreaking, contribution that we didn’t have before.
And then since all of those hundreds of studies, it’s been fascinating to look at how we can go into all sorts of nuances with each one, because there are studies in the workplace, studies in hospitals, studies in the education system, studies in parenting, studies in intellectual developmental disability, studies in spirituality. By that, I mean, character strengths, and all of those domains, and many more. But I summarized those 700 studies as I’ve been gathering them and summarizing them in a user-friendly way for people in really two words that it’s about: wellbeing and adversity. The character strengths are really equally about both. So, it’s about building up those many areas of wellbeing that often we as physicians, or we as psychologists or counselors, don’t always give a lot of attention to. We’re very much focused on what’s wrong, and diagnosing, and treating, and all those really important pieces, but maybe not spending as much time on, “How might I just flat out go after happiness” and boosting this patient’s happiness, or boosting their positive relationships,” those kinds of approaches. So, those are wellbeing approaches. And we’re finding character strengths are very strongly connected with wellbeing.
And then on the other side, though, the adversity side, study after study across different cultures is showing the character strengths are really central for resilience, for managing problems, for helping out with different conflicts that we have. It’s both sides of the coin. We don’t look exclusively at one or the other. It’s about all of the vicissitudes of life. The rising and falling of life and character strengths since they’re already just a part of you. They’re a part of those wellbeing elements, they are a part of those tough moments, and they can be part of those boring moments, too. How can we bring more freshness into all of those?
Jill: First of all, how have you developed a way for people to better identify their character strengths that isn’t just looking at those lists of 24 and circling and saying, “Oh, I think I’m good at this or I think this describes me?”
Ryan: Yes, there’re a few responses to that, but the main one since the early 2000s, when this classification was developing, it was a new science that was developing, is that science needs a measurement tool. Exactly what you’re speaking to. In 2001 or so, more than two decades ago now, the VIA inventory of strengths was created, or for short, VIA survey. That was a measurement tool using a Likert scale, one to five rating scale, with the wording, “very much unlike me” all the way to “very much like me” across the 24 strengths to measure these. From the early 2000s on, this measurement tool developed by the scientists in collaboration was found to have good psychometric accuracy. So, good reliability, meaning that the results are repeatable. You’ll get similar results over time and good validity. It’s measuring what it’s supposed to be measuring.
The scientific institute, the VIA Institute, is always wanting to keep improving that measure. While it was launched in the early 2000s, we continue to make changes, and we have experts in psychometrics, and test development, and test construction that continued to make improvements and changes rather than us just thinking, “We’ve got something static here, we’ve got it, we’re done,” which we could do because millions and millions of people take it. We’re now at over 21 million people. Someone takes it every 10 seconds of every minute of every day. Just as we’ve been talking, there have been– I don’t know the math on that, but maybe a hundred people somewhere in the world have taken it. We want to keep doing that due diligence to improve it. So, the main way is to go to the viacharacter.org website. They say whether they want to take the VIA adult survey or the VIA youth survey, if they’re 17 or under, and then they answer 96 questions, and then they get immediate free results with your rank order of character strengths from one to 24. Making sure that it was free was a way to reach so many more people. So, it was a wonderful decision.
Long before I joined VIA, one thing the developers insisted on, is to make this measure free so that it can reach people that don’t have any money, economically disadvantaged people in hard to reach populations, maybe in prisons, and shelters, and mental institutions, and so on. That’s been our approach ever since, is to be as inclusive as possible. So, we’ve had disability experts study it for its inclusiveness for people with autism, Down syndrome, and different developmental disabilities. We’ve painstakingly looked at how to measure character strengths in younger people and we just launched a version of the VIA youth survey that now goes down to age eight. And then we’ll just continue to keep advancing that science.
Jill: We’ve talked about how taking the assessment gives you a view of your values and action of where your strengths are in that rank order. What is helpful about that? I know for me as a coach and how I work with my physician clients and healthcare professionals is looking at those top five strengths often. When people are feeling their needs are not being met or they’re in a sticky situation as you said, where they’re facing some adversity, looking at how they can put one of those character strengths in action is, I always say, “It’s a lever that moves you out of the stuck place.” And I think it’s really interesting, from that wellbeing perspective to look at ways that we can strengthen, maybe the values that are showing up lower on our rank order and see how, for instance, in my case, how can I look for ways to play with humility [chuckles] in a way even though it’s not one of my top five or is down on the list? What are some ways my life is enriched by doing that? So, can you talk a little bit about ways you see it working and helping individuals thrive by using the information and the assessment?
Ryan: Yeah, we have to realize that just taking the test in and of itself is actually an intervention. Even though it’s an assessment, it’s also an intervention. Because so many people have never had questions asked about their strengths. It may be beyond something like a generic little, “what are your strengths and weaknesses,” but you really know, what is really best about who you are as a person? We ask that of our patient. That’s unique. To suddenly have 96 questions that are positively oriented about your fairness, about your love, about your kindness, about your curiosity, creativity, your judgment, and critical thinking, that is a booster of wellbeing for a lot of people. Not for everybody, but for a lot of people. But then they see this rank order results from one to 24 and then we can begin to work with that profile from one to 24.
Our general recommendation is to start by looking at your highest strengths. These are the character strengths that are most energizing to you, most central to you, easiest to use, easiest for a physician to help build up in the person. You would want to start with say that rank from one down to maybe seven or so. But then other people will say, “I want to work on my lowest strength” and that’s certainly okay, too. There’re a number of ways we might do that. We might do that by having a discussion about the strength and how you’ve used it in the past. You might do it by journaling about the strength and exploring it. What science tells us is that the intervention to use one of your highest strengths in a new way is one of the strongest interventions in all of the wellbeing literature. What a patient would do, it’s very easy, very easy for a physician to recommend the steps, is take the VIA survey, identify one of your highest five strengths, just pick one, and then use it in a new way each day.
There’s even been a meta-analysis, a study of studies just of that intervention and found that it boosted wellbeing, it lowered depression, it boosted flourishing, it even boosted the person’s just strengths use in general. That’s a nice intervention, because it works for everybody. Because like you’re saying, Jill, with humility being last, you want to focus on that and I want to give an idea on that, but that wouldn’t be useful for everybody. But the signature strengths in new ways, whatever it is for the person that can work for anybody, potentially. Again, that’s really strong scientifically. The physician would say, “Okay, your highest strength is kindness, your highest strength is spirituality, or your highest strength is prudence. Let’s talk about how you could use that in just a very small way each day.”
For example, for me one of my highest strengths is curiosity. If I was going to use that in a new way each day, today, I might do one new internet search for five minutes to explore a new topic. Tomorrow, I’m going to ask one person in my life a question that I’ve never asked them before to explore. The next day, I’m going to try one new food. The next day, I’m going to take a new route home on my drive to explore a new neighborhood, a new part of the city. The next day, I’m just going to explore and appreciate the trees I’m looking at in the backyard, just explore that. It could be very small things. But what I’m doing then is expanding upon this quality that’s best in me: my curiosity. That’s why that intervention can work for any of the 24 and that’s a collaborative discussion between the physician and the patient to come up with some ways for that.
But I want to also just finally just talk about humility for a moment, because that is one of the least common strengths around the world. It’s one of the least common strengths to be high in, it’s almost always in people’s bottom five character strengths. We have to be low in something. By rank order, by definition, you’re going to have a 24th strength and a 23rd strength. I’ve talked about humility for 15 years, but I want to tell you about a study that I just came across last week. A good study that found that a way to boost humility specifically is the practice of listening or mindful listening.
In this particular study, those people that practice being more attentive and they’re listening to the body language, the person, the words, and letting go of what we’re thinking, and what we’re going to ask next, or what we might say to something. Instead, it’s the whole back from the 1960s, the meditation teacher, Ramdas, would say, “Be here now” in the listening. That actually literally boosts your levels of humility. Not you, but anybody in that sense, or at least on average as studies go, more people than not. So, we could do that with any of the 24 strengths. We look specifically at, “Well, what does the literature say about leadership, or about appreciation of beauty, or about forgiveness and it’s going to be different for each one.”
Jill: I love that. That’s such a great example. There’s data which we’ve talked about on the podcast previously that physicians, who listen even 30 seconds longer, there was a study, I believe at the University of Massachusetts, where there were better patient outcomes.
Ryan: I love that.
Jill: There’s just a lot of ways that these character strengths and actions have meaningful impacts. I can talk about a specific physician situation from a number of years ago with a client, who teamwork was at the very top of the list. What they had discovered about themselves is, during medical education when there was a lot of emphasis, particularly in residency on competition in the particular setting that we’re in, I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but in this particular setting, and a lot of every person for themselves thinking, there had happened subconsciously siloing of teamwork is something I do on my off time. That’s where I get that. And so, when we talked about ways to put in small ways to try to express teamwork on a more daily basis, just simply thinking about life as a practicing physician or looking for ways every day to not be siloed competitive, separate from part of that team thinking changed that physician’s life. So, I really do love thinking as a trusted thinking partner with clients about ways that they can put their character strengths in action, because I just see the impact that it has.
Ryan: What a powerful example. To play that right out with any patient, it’s so empowering and so beneficial. I love that.
Jill: Yeah. Let’s talk about what the impact is that you see in organizations. When people begin to use the nomenclature, the common terminology, when we’re thinking about how to, for instance, look for character strengths in each other and support them in each other, what impact does the research show it has in organizations and workplaces, etc.?
Ryan: Sure. Yeah, so, you’re hitting on that area in terms of the domains that we could talk about, whether it’s workplace, or schools, or healthcare, parenting, disability, you’re hitting on the domain that’s got the most research in terms of character strengths. We know now that character strengths are very much connected with more engagement by employees. They’re more aligned with what they’re doing, connected with what they’re doing, absorbed in their work, characteristics that connect with greater productivity at work, which is what every employer wants, is for the employee to be productive, to do more to help the bottom line in that sense. The employees are just happier as well. We know that a happier employee is a more productive employee. It’s one of the mantras that goes in the workplace.
But also, character strengths help the climate, they help the organization to create more of a strength-based organization, more of an approach that’s oriented around strengths. And then we know in terms of the medical setting, the hospital setting, there’s been some studies in Austria that have looked a lot at the connection between physician strengths, and medical staff strengths, and the climate that they’re in. They’ve actually found interesting results that physicians’ signature strengths, so physicians’ highest strengths, are connected with a more positive climate. The reverse is also true. A more positive hospital climate is more connected with signature strengths for the physician.
What that means is that, if a physician is empowered to turn to their highest strengths, whatever they are, if it’s teamwork or if it’s creativity, they are empowered to be themselves in their practice, which can manage burnout, too, because burnout can happen if we’re completely pushing down all of the qualities that uplift us and energize us naturally. If the physician can be themselves, then there’s going to be a more positive climate, and people are going to connect more, and just report more positive experiences, and want to go to work, and so on. So, those are some results in Austria, not the United States, but very interesting in terms of healthcare and some of the benefits that can happen with these character strengths.
Jill: Let’s talk finally about another research study that hasn’t been published yet, but I’m fascinated by, the pillars of strength study that I know you’ve done in collaboration with Harvard that could, I think, have a big impact on what we’re talking about today as well.
Ryan: Sure. Yeah, so, I collaborated with a couple researchers at Harvard and we looked at 60,000 people that have taken the VIA survey, and we asked them a number of different questions on key health habits, what I’ve called for a long time the five pillars of health, which I don’t think will surprise anybody. Those five pillars are one, healthy eating, healthy drinking habits. The second is healthy activity, movement, and exercise habits. The third pillar is healthy sleep, healthy sleep hygiene. The fourth is healthy social interactions. It can be social, it could be spiritual, but basically, it’s connecting with other people and feeling part of a community, having mutuality in those relationships. And then the fifth is healthy self-care. Taking that alone time, taking that time to relax, taking that time to meditate or pray, taking that time to just chill out, whatever that might be for your own self-care.
We ask questions about all of those. We use CDC questions, and questions on smoking, and drinking, and then added in our own questions when something like healthy self-care wasn’t really adequately addressed in the literature. What we found across those 60,000 people was a number of different patterns. Just almost mind-boggling connections between character strengths and all of these pillars of health. The overall finding is the character strengths are very much connected with these five pillars of health. It’s not a causal study, but perhaps there’s just a really strong connection where future studies could show causation. Now, some of the specific strengths that were the pattern across those pillars, was the strength of zest. It was high across all five pillars. The strength of zest is about energy, and enthusiasm, and being excited to get up in the morning. If we can tap into a patient’s zest, tap into our own zest, that can help us with the pillars.
The next two strengths that were significantly high in the five pillars were self-regulation and curiosity. Self-regulation meaning, to have a sense of discipline, establishing good habits, and so on. And being organized so we can teach our patients to be more self-regulated to have more of a structured plan and that’s going to help with any of these five pillars. Curiosity also tied for second. Curiosity, meaning, to be interested in new things, to be trying to explore new things. This can be very useful for these different health habits with having patients to explore, what might be their ideal self-care area. To really be asking themselves that question, what’s going to help them feel peaceful, refreshed, or connected. They can ask that of themselves and the physician can help them brainstorm tapping into their curiosity.
A couple other strengths that were particularly high in this study were gratitude, having a sense of general appreciation for life, appreciation for one’s own health, however much health one has. You can be unhealthy and still be appreciative for things and hope, having a sense of optimism, positivity toward the future. It was interesting because you could look at any of the specific domains and pull out other interesting strengths that were connected. For example, for healthy sleep, it was interesting to see that forgiveness was one of the strengths that was high and it makes sense if you look at it, because forgiveness, someone that’s high in forgiveness is going to be good at letting go, releasing things. That’s what we do when we sleep ideally without a pill, or anything to help us to sleep, or alcohol, or whatever it is, is we lay in bed, and we have a good, comfortable environment, and we let go. We let our mind go, we breathe, and we just release.
A lot of that is paralleling what forgiveness really is. I think of forgiveness as letting go in that sense. Yeah, we can go into each one specifically like that, but it’s fascinating. So, yeah, I hope that that’s going to be published in the next six months or so and we’ll be happy to send a copy to anybody.
Jill: That’s fantastic. Ryan Niemiec, psychologist, you have really helped I think a lot of us understand even better, how we can not only identify character strengths, but in the smallest way be able to let ourselves express our character strengths a little more every day, and how that does help us to thrive, and flourish, and feel more happiness, and satisfaction in life. It’s good work and I think it’s good to be able to support our physician and health professional community to be able to tap into how they can flourish and thrive more by understanding their character strengths. So, if you want more information, go to viacharacter.org. There’s a lot of fantastic information on there for you, if you’re curious about learning more about character strengths. But thank you again, Ryan, so much, for being with us here today.
Ryan: Thank you, Jill. Thanks for the service that you’re offering to so many people.
Jill: And we’re going to hear more from Ryan coming up in a future podcast. So, make sure you stay tuned for that. Make sure you’re telling your friends and colleagues about all the incredible information we have here on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Until next time, I’m Jill Farmer.
Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe, and head over to docworking.com to see all we have to offer.
Coach Jill Farmer
Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.
She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.
She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.
Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.
Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.