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The science behind Inner Work®

February 4, 2022 - 12 min read


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3 ways the practice of Inner Work® works

Is Inner Work® selfish?

How Inner Work® can transform the outer world 

How to start? Establish a one-minute daily Inner Work® habit 

We tend to place value on outer work. The number of hours spent in meetings, the output of projects, calls, sprints, reporting and updates, progress toward a goal. Outer work is measurable and tangible. It looks like work.

But there’s a problem. A relentless focus on outer work does not make us more successful or valuable as humans. It doesn’t even make us more successful at our outer work.  

When we don’t balance it with Inner Work® — those mental acts and practices focused on our inner world that lead us to greater clarity, insight, and purpose — outer work can drain and deplete our creativity, productivity, and innovation.

The work we don’t see may be the work that matters most. 

"If we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must learn to value Inner Work® in the same way that we value Outer Work."   

Dr. Christine Carter, Ph.D., VP, Content Development, BetterUp 

On our first-ever Inner Work® Day, Dr. Christine Carter, Ph.D., author, and vice president, Content Development, BetterUp, sat down with Rhonda Magee, law professor, mindfulness teacher, and author, and Shawn Achor, author and happiness researcher, to talk about the science backing up this radical shift in perspective on what we know about success. 

In this session, Rhonda, Shawn, and Christine break down the science behind Inner Work® and how it benefits those who practice it. More importantly, they dig into why Inner Work® has the power to change our world. And it all starts with building a one-minute Inner Work® habit (yes, that’s it). 


3 ways the practice of Inner Work® works (according to science) 

Inner Work® comes in all shapes and sizes — and it can be hard work. It depends on what your brain and body need — from meditation to a hike outside to a thoughtful thank you note. 


"Mindfulness is a big part of Inner Work®. Inner Work® increases our ability to be present with greater awareness of the inner operations of our mind, our thoughts, the habits, patterns, and behaviors that drive us.”

Rhonda Magee, author, law professor, University of San Francisco 

Rhonda has dedicated her career to understanding the power of Inner Work® — specifically the practice of mindfulness — to support the challenging work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The science behind mindfulness is staggering.

Mindfulness supports positive developments in our psychological makeup and well-being. It supports a more flexible sense of self and helps us heal from trauma and wounds. It also can help us manage triggers — to be able to live without disruption to our daily experiences, fully in the present moment. 

Small acts of gratitude

"Inner Work® is not something that we’re just doing alone. This thing, this Inner Work® that we’re doing has a huge impact two, three, or even four degrees separate from us."

Shawn Achor, author, happiness researcher 

Shawn has observed Inner Work® show up in ways big and small. For example, practicing active gratitude by praising or thanking someone else in an email can cause a positive ripple effect in the workplace. If people received three touchpoints of praise — from the work of writing a two-minute gratitude email — retention rates of new hires went from 80% to 94%.

The best part is that it sparks a mini-movement of Inner Work®. People who receive praise are more likely to put praise back out into the system, creating a virtuous cycle that continues to positively impact others.   

Rest and recovery

"I actually aim for a pretty low bar with my own Inner Work® practice. The best way I practice Inner Work® is by taking screen-free breaks throughout the day. In fact, mountains of research show that rest is a critical determinant of whether or not a person can fulfill their potential.”

Dr. Christine Carter

Diagram of brain during meetings remember to take breaks

Brain scans show that people who take a break every 90 minutes report about 30% better focus than people who don’t take a break. Breaks also make us more creative and lead to greater innovation.

Even something as small as a five-minute break away from your screen can have an impact. Consider ways you can build brain, body, and mind rests into your daily routine. 

Is Inner Work® selfish? 

We live in a busy world. It might feel like the world is always a little bit on fire — there’s always a problem to solve. Taking time to turn inward can feel like a low priority when there’s so much left to accomplish in the world. 

But selfishness is about extrinsic goals, like image, money, power, and approval from others. Selfishness is a form of anxiety and insecurity. 

Inner Work® is about investing in our potential to make a positive impact on the world and the people around us. When we under-invest in our bodies, our minds, and our spirits, we damage the most important parts of us that make a positive impact possible. 

"The Inner Work® we’re describing here is not a substitute for the outer work. We’ve got to change the systems that are causing inequality and discrimination. Inner Work® is the fuel that allows us to achieve that at the highest possible levels. And I think we’ve become afraid of that  Inner Work®. I think we’ve become afraid of happiness. We’re afraid of joy and peace within our lives."

Shawn Achor 

But why the fear? This notion around happiness is rooted in fear. It’s also rooted in the misunderstanding that focusing on self is a distraction from the important work. Yet, the opposite is true as shown in Shawn’s research with a hospital system during the pandemic.

Teams that took the “hunker down” approach —  not participating in Inner Work® — had skyrocketing burnout rates within 6 weeks. But in the groups that focused on Inner Work®, burnout rates dropped to half what they were pre-pandemic. Even better, patient safety rose dramatically. 

How Inner Work® can transform the outer world 

Inner Work® can transform our inner world. It increases creativity and innovation and helps build mental fitness. It helps with emotional regulation, self-awareness, and critical thinking. The science also tells us that Inner Work® improves decision making, positivity, finding meaning, relationships, and overall job performance. 

Inner Work® also has the power to transform the outer world. 

Far beyond solitary gains, we know that the benefits of Inner Work® cascade from their origin and tend to have a multiplier effect. For Rhonda, the link between Inner Work® and social justice and equity isn’t obvious.

Yet through a consistent practice of Inner Work®, research shows it can support people in working through difficult issues like social identity-based bias, discrimination, and inequality. 

“As a Black woman coming from a particular neighborhood in the South, we learned something very, very early on about the importance of not only developing skills we have for ourselves but for others. We learned to extend those skills to those around us in kindness and gratitude to help transform the outer world.”

Rhonda Magee 

Inner Work® can minimize the harm that comes from being the target of stereotypes. In addition to minimizing automatic reactivity and bias, Inner Work® can assist us in behaving in ways that reflect less discriminatory actions. 

How to start? Establish a one-minute daily Inner Work® habit 

Start with one minute. That’s it. 

Pick something small that you can do in 60 seconds or less, like standing up and stretching in between meetings. Or texting someone you love why you’re grateful for them every day. Or take a mindful minute with your morning coffee before digging into your email. Or practice that single yoga pose. 

Examine how you feel in your body and mind at this minute. What do you notice? 

Inner Work® doesn’t need to be big. In fact, like that two-minute gratitude email to a co-worker, a big impact can come from small habits. And when we’re just starting to build a habit, we need to strip it down to its easiest form. 

“Our outcomes — how we feel, what we accomplish —  are usually lagging measures of our habits, not individual inspired acts.”

Christine Carter

Once you’ve developed a small habit, start building from there. Even better, you can stack an Inner Work® practice onto an existing habit — like thinking of three things you’re grateful for every morning in the shower. 

Once you’ve developed a habit of investing in yourself, in your habits, and your growth, you can expand and deepen your Inner Work® practices.

Inner Work® is some of the most important work of our lives — and we each get to shape it into our own lifelong practice. Consider ways you can start to build mental fitness with the help of BetterUp. 

Transform your life

Make meaningful changes and become the best version of yourself. BetterUp's professional Coaches are here to support your personal growth journey.

Transform your life

Make meaningful changes and become the best version of yourself. BetterUp's professional Coaches are here to support your personal growth journey.

Published February 4, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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