Box’s VP Engineering on Biohacks For A Better Career

Box’s VP Engineering on Biohacks For A Better Career

If your morning or nightly routine sounds about as far removed from your work life as you can get, think again. Biohacks, from blue-light blocking glasses to morning sessions in a sauna, add up — and can help you navigate not just your job, but a long, productive career.

Tomas Barreto, VP of Engineering at Box, takes biohacking seriously. Like sequencing-his-genome, running-currents-through-his-body seriously.

But don’t call it a hobby or a side project. Barreto draws a straight line between the biohacking work he’s done to not only a more thoughtful, healthier life but also the trajectory of his career. It’s brought him longevity and increasing responsibility at Box, where he’s been promoted five times, starting as a software engineer to his current role as VP of Engineering. He credits biohacking for giving him resilience and capacity, both of which he needed in spades to grow his subset of the engineering team from 5 to 130, from its early days through a high-profile IPO.

There’s no section on LinkedIn for biohacking bona fides yet, but if there were, Barreto’s would be voluminous. By his own estimation, he’s been at it for more than a decade, devoured over 100 books and 100 podcasts on the topic, attended a half dozen biohacking conferences, and invested six figures, easily, in this endeavor. And he’s not stopping there, nor is he alone: Box co-founder and CFO Dylan Smith is his most frequent biohacking collaborator and boundary pusher.

The good news is you don’t have to go quite as far as Barreto. He’s scoured the literature — and tried everything from supplements to daily blood draws to hacking the gut biome — and knows a thing or two about what works (and what doesn’t).

In this exclusive interview, he shares principles that anyone can start implementing today to be a happier, healthier person and, ultimately, a more effective professional. If biohacks sound a little daunting, consider this advice as a starting point. This isn’t a quest to become the protagonist in Limitless; it’s an offering of everyday considerations that can bolster and broaden an enduring career.

The Greatest Boost to Productivity is Ownership.

Biohacking is not just about supplements and biorhythms — it’s also about tools to accelerate mental shifts. To help, Barreto voraciously consumes the work of behavioral psychologists and social scientists. When it comes to productivity, he’s particularly inspired by the research of journalist Charles Duhigg. For his book Smarter Faster Better, Duhigg spent two years interviewing professionals about their productivity tactics.

“One of the themes that emerged is what Duhigg calls the ‘internal locus of control.’ It’s the idea that, if you feel like you're in control, your motivation will go up,” says Barreto, “I noticed this in my own career, especially over a decade at Box. Some of my most productive times didn’t necessarily correlate with my seniority.”

For example, once Barreto asked his manager if he could take point running an offsite, after the previous ones left the team feeling a bit bearish on the format. “In the past, when I attended offsites that weren’t exclusively for my immediate team, I felt more like an observer or passive participant. But after volunteering and running one, I realized that feeling full ownership didn’t entail running every session. It meant feeling like I was in control of my participation — and that I could step up to course correct when things were going off the rails.”

The irony for Barreto is that he didn’t need to formally run the offsite to replicate that feeling, and by extension, help his team feel the same way. “Encourage your directs to pretend they’re in your role. With my team, I ask them to go through the thought exercise of what they’d do differently — whether that’s giving feedback or project prioritization,” says Barreto. “Another tool that’s been helpful is meeting scoring. Imagine you’re going to have to share a score 1-5 about how a meeting went, along with actionable feedback to make it better. Now take it to the next level by giving that actionable feedback real-time during the meeting with the goal of ending with a score of 5. It generates influence and immediacy.”

Ownership isn’t always being in positions of power, but feeling you have the access and ability to rebalance power.

Role play to ditch the victim mindset.

When problems arise, though, Barreto often sees colleagues ceding — not seizing — control. “It's easier, and by giving up some ground, it feels as if you're going to get people to sympathize with you. But you end up feeling less powerful and are less motivated than when you take the ownership view of the same problem.”

Not only will you feel less powerful, you’ll appear less effective, too. Try a simple exercise with your team to see this principle in action: pair off, then ask one member of each pair to recount a situation as a victim. Have the other member describe how they perceive their partner. Then repeat the exercise with the speaker recounting that same situation as an owner.

“Not surprisingly, people perceive the victim persona as weaker,” says Barreto. “The owner persona, on the other hand, appears confident. Even though they’re saying, ‘I messed up’ or ‘This happened because I didn't do X, Y, or Z,’ people see that person as someone that they want to work with.”

If you’re having trouble going all in on ownership at work, practice this mindset shift with common, everyday occurrences first: when another driver cuts you off, for example, or your roommate takes something that’s yours. “As you recount any of those situations, are you describing something that happened to you or are you identifying what action you might have done differently, irrespective of whether you initiated it?”

Take control with a single sentence.

A blank memo. An empty deck. Everyone knows the hardest thing to do sometimes is just get started. Nowhere is this more true than with an overflowing inbox. That’s why Barreto recommends a practice of depositing one sentence in a response to quickly regain control over the request and its owner.

“Duhigg talks about responding to invitations to meetings he doesn’t want to attend. He began starting those responses with ‘I can only make it for 15 minutes,’” says Barreto. “Immediately, he puts himself back in control.” Sure, he’ll ultimately flesh out or explain his response. But he’ll have a foothold to push off from. The page will no longer be blank, and moving through his inbox will feel less onerous.”

On particularly busy days when his inbox explodes, Barreto will sometimes draft opening lines for twenty emails, versus write twenty lines in an email at a time. To encourage swift action, he'll set a timer for five minutes and work to get through the set. When the alarm sounds, he'll decide whether to continue or move onto another task. A checkpoint at five minutes gives him control via an option to grant more time.

“On those days, my response to each email is not the first order of business. It’s how I’m personally responding to my inbox itself,” says Barreto. “So drafting one line — the takeaway I want the recipient to absorb — for a few dozen emails bolsters me psychologically. I’ll sit with the partially-drafted notes open for a minute and regain that sense of control. Then I’ll return to the first one and elaborate, if needed. It’s shocking how many you can just reread the one line and send it as is.”

Canned responses or email templates are invaluable for repeated requests — especially ones you say “no” to. But this act of a single sentence is not only about answering a request, but the reclamation of a resource — whether that’s your current or future time — in a way where you register the shift of ownership. So, that’s not just shooting off a templated note to get it off your plate — that can result in incessant email ping pong. Instead it’s segmenting the process in such a way that allows you to internally log that transfer of ownership over the ask and tasks.

Tomas Barreto

The Antidote to Stress Isn't Happiness. It's Resilience.

According to Barreto, dealing with stress goes straight to the heart of a lot of life-hacking topics. Left unchecked, it can lead to burnout and quickly wipe out any of the gains you see from your new productivity-boosting habits.

Still, stress is part and parcel with working, and living, and you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to hack your way out of it entirely. But Barreto recommends a few practices for mitigating its impact, and for distinguishing between acute stress — which can actually be a valuable tool for building resilience — and more dangerous chronic stress.

Sweat before breakfast. Meditate daily. Float weekly.

If you’re using exercise, meditation, floating or any other techniques for stress, you have to start before you’ve burnt out. For Barreto, much of stress management involves finessing Newton’s first law of motion in your favor.

“Acute stress through exercise or relaxation through meditation both have the same neurochemical boosting effects that push your psychology towards positive psychological momentum which precedes flow states — or feeling like you’re in the zone,” he says. “I like to stack actions like exercise, sauna and meditation to build powerful, positive psychological momentum every day before I even check my first email. That may sound like a lot to do before your inbox, but it doesn’t have to be. Of course you can go longer, but I’ve found that it only takes 5 minutes of sprints — five 30-second sprints with short breaks, 10 minutes of mediation or a 15-minute session in 180-degree sauna to kickstart momentum.”

But when it comes to when to do it, not all times of the day are created equal. “Of course, humans are complex systems with different requirements, but I’ve found a rule of thumb for most people: exercise before breakfast,” says Tomas. “In terms of generating endorphins, it’s a direct way to affect your psychology. Starting your day with a physical activity is critical to building resilience against chronic stress.”

For many, exercise may be a more familiar habit, but meditation is increasingly part of the vernacular when it comes to stress relief. For those who can’t find a way to get started, there are tools to help. “Apps like Calm and Headspace are good. I’ve found that I get the most out of meditation when I can grab a conference room for 15 minutes between meetings,” says Barreto. “Like meditation, float or isolation tanks are a very powerful way to manage stress on a regular basis. The complete change in environment is just the start. Try an hour at Reboot Float Spa to get started.”

Not all of these habits have to be solitary efforts and done outside of the workplace. “There are a couple of practices that’ll generate momentum at the beginning of meetings. We have a leader at Box who will begin each team meeting with a short relaxation breathing exercise. Another brings a Jambox and plays music for a few minutes. There’s another who will ask everyone to go around and share their highs and lows for the week,” says Barreto. “I’ve personally tried all these, as well as bringing breakfast and using the first few minutes of a meeting to socialize. The pattern here is you’re finding a way to prime your neurochemistry for stronger resilience together and generate collective psychological momentum.”

Subject yourself to extremes.

There’s one more physical practice that has become a cornerstone of Barreto’s stress-management regimen: playing with extremes of heat and cold.

“Many people, when they try to manage their emotions and stress, try to work from the inside out — to affect their state from the inside. But Tony Robbins rightly says that, if you can change your body conditions, that's the fastest and most powerful way to change your state — from the outside in.”

Barreto has incorporated that principle into a daily practice. “I use the sauna in the morning, to kick off the day. If I'm exercising, I'll use it right after that, because there's a complementary effect,” he says. “It's a new kind of sweat, and it feels productive.” (For a life-hacking bonus, tie other habits to that time: do your meditating in there, for example.)

A cold shower is even easier to accomplish — no special equipment required. And if you have the time and inclination, data suggests that combining heat and cold can augment the impact of both. “You can jump from sauna into the cold and essentially get a double boost from the combo. At that point, you've been in temperatures of at least 160 degrees as well as a cold shower — and it's still 8AM. You’ve built momentum for the day. Throw in exercise first, and you'll feel unstoppable at that point.”

Changing your inner weather starts with outer weather. Use heat and cold as levers to reduce stress.

But these tactics aren’t just extreme for extreme’s sake — there’s science behind it. “Your norepinephrine, basically your hormone balance for the day, instantaneously changes. Norepinephrine has been tied to focus,” says Barreto. “You also become more sensitive to endorphins. So, if you exercise after you’ve heated up from the sauna, you will feel a better runner's high. Or when you get endorphins throughout the day from work you're doing, it's much more powerful.”

In many ways, it’s like the opposite of a drug. That is, while the body builds tolerance to a drug, there’s no such adaptation to heat and cold. “If you’re looking at how addictive drugs like cocaine affect dopamine pathways, receptors become desensitized — or, technically speaking, downregulated. Here, you're actually sensitizing — or creating new receptors — so you're achieving the opposite effect of a drug.”

Cold showers and hot saunas have benefits in and of themselves, but there’s a broader lesson there, too, one that can be extrapolated to workplace scenarios. If forced extremes can change the human body, how might they be leveraged to boost your — or your team’s — professional resilience?

Take, for example, the popular startup practice of creating “war rooms” to tackle key problems. “There’s organic acute stress, of course, say around a wave of attrition. But then war rooms are a way to induce stress. You're doing it for specific reason, and there's a lot of learning that comes from both of those kinds of situations.”

Box recently orchestrated a war room of its own to support a key project, and Barreto observed several interesting shifts in the psychology of that team. “We moved them to a different floor in the building, where they essentially had their own space. They could've felt like, ‘We're in a war room, and this is a bad state to be in.’ But I saw the team essentially rally around its purpose and mission. The ideas were flowing. The feedback from the team wasn't ‘Hey, why are you making me work in a different place or work longer hours?’ It was, ‘Hey, it feels like we have way more momentum.’”

Whether you’re handed them or actually create them, short-term acute stresses create what is called a hormetic response. “Regularly getting this hormetic effect in different ways in your life — by exposing yourself to some type of extreme in different areas — tends to be more powerful than chronic lighter stresses.”

Practice gratitude.

The human brain has a natural negativity bias and will react to and remember problems and disappointments with more intensity. While this bias is useful from an evolutionary perspective, it can cause problems for humans today.

“There’s something called the peak-end rule. It posits that people assess an experience mainly by how they felt at its peak — its most intense moment — and its end, versus the sum or average of each part of that experience,” says Barreto. “Using the peak-end rule learning, while you won’t be able to control the peak of any day, you can usually control the end. For example, I use a gratitude journal at the end of the day to force reflection on the things that went well to counteract the normal human inclination to mull over what went poorly.”

It took Barreto about 14 days before the gratitude journal stuck and became a habit. Experiment with whatever practices you can do consistently, as they’ll give you an entrypoint to weave gratitude into interactions in-real time. “When my journal became habit — I literally write 5-7 lines at the end of each day — I observed there was more to appreciate everyday than I originally expected. Try keeping a running tally in columns where you talk about problems and when you state something you’re grateful for,” says Barreto. “Before, I spent a lot of time talking — not solving or processing — problems… with friends, family and significant others. I’m cutting back, though it’s still a temptation. But now I hear myself — and others — talk about what they’re thankful for. It’s affirming, confidence-boosting and contagious.”

Psychologically, gratitude is medicine. It’s an an inoculation against fear, anger and sadness.

When thinking about stress, the underlying principle for Barreto is how to build resilience in his life. “I used to think happiness was the end goal. What I'm realizing is that no one is happy 100% of the time,” he says. “You should be able to embrace sadness and other emotions when the time is right.” At the end of the day, that’s the goal of Barreto’s stress hacks: not letting sadness, project failures or cold temperatures act as a barrier to engaging with the world.

Energy Doesn't Come in Finite Supply.

As you diminish and control the role that stress plays in your life, energy levels will naturally rise. But don’t stop there. Over the course of a day, a week, a year, there are concrete steps you can take to continue amplifying your energy. Barreto credits two principles in particular with giving him the stamina and energy to work better and push himself further.

Boost energy with power poses.

One of Barreto’s favorite biohacks is the use of power poses. For this, he draws inspiration from social psychologist Amy Cuddy, whose TED Talk discusses how simple body language can directly impact your psychology. “‘Posturing’ gets such a bad rap in business — we often talk about it as behaving in a way that intentionally misleads or tries to impress others,” says Barreto. “But Cuddy suggests that by taking certain postures — such as hands on hips and feet hips-width apart — you can boost feelings of confidence and energy.”

Barreto has used these power poses not only for giving himself more vitality, but also boosting the energy in a room. “These exercises can affect your psychology and neurochemistry, by increasing testosterone and lowering cortisol. So when I’m about to give a talk or leading a meeting, I’ll use power poses for a few minutes,” he says. “For a group, I have a habit of asking the whole group to do a minute of power posing to bring up our group's energy level. It’ll change how people are engaged with me — and each other — before we start the agenda. It might look funny, but I’ve even struck a power pose before diving into a particularly tough email.”

Take sleep seriously.

At the end of the day, lots of Barreto’s hacks — from morning saunas to isolation tanks — aim to mimic the feeling of having had a great night’s sleep. Another way to accomplish that? Get a great night’s sleep!

“If you could reproduce the ideal night of sleep, every day, imagine how that would affect every single one of these categories — productivity, stress, decisionmaking” he says. “There have been countless studies on sleep, and yet we don't fully understand it. To this day, I still spend a lot of energy on sleep hacking.”

First, some numbers. “I tend to spend about 25% of my night in deep sleep, so roughly two hours. Deep sleep varies from zero — some people aren’t getting any and don’t realize it — to 35% of total sleep time,” says Barreto. It’s particularly vital, as it’s during deep sleep that much of your night’s restorative, regenerative work takes place. “As far as REM sleep, the average adult gets something like 20-25%. I tend to get a little higher, around 30%. Those are good targets. You want to make sure that your numbers are in these ranges.”

If you have no idea what your sleep stats are, there are tools out there to help. “I have the ŌURA, which is the most accurate device on the market right now,” says Barreto. But you don’t have to go high tech or spring for a tracker, if it’s too costly. Simply logging your sleep and waking experiences can yield powerful insights.

When it comes to sleep, the main metric to look at is how you feel when you wake up. “Start quantifying that. You can even just rank it on a scale of zero to ten. Log those answers — in a notepad, a spreadsheet, whatever works — and start observing any trends that emerge,” says Barreto. “One of the patterns I noticed is that I slept worse on weekends than during the workweek. I monitored what I was doing differently. I narrowed it down to my caffeine intake. On weekends, I drank coffee several hours later than I did during the week, prompting headaches from caffeine withdrawal. That persisted to affect the quality of my sleep that night.”

Then you can start to tweak and play with key variables: how close to sleep you eat or exercise, the darkness or temperature of your room, your bed. “You’ll want to avoid exercising too close to bed because it’ll take time for your body to cool down and for your heart rate to lower. Eating affects your metabolism and heart rate which are important as well,” says Barreto. “Darkness and blue light affect melatonin production which is a key hormone for inducing sleep. Your body temperature organically drops as part of falling asleep and it struggles if you’re in a place that’s too warm or too cold. Every one of these variables affects your neurochemistry and hormones in different ways. Tuning these variables overtime is a great way to work your way to a more optimal sleep quality.”

It’s well worth investing the time to study and optimize your sleep, but Barreto does have one favorite hack that’s helpful for many: “If I had to give one starter tip that resonates with a lot of people — something people may not have tried yet — it’s not exposing yourself to blue light, which is emitted from your TV, computer or smartphone, before sleep. That blocks or slows down the production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. It’s really cheap to get glasses to block blue light, or you can change the colors of your lights to red at home.”

Bringing It All Together

If your morning or nighttime routine sounds about as far removed from your work life as you can get, think again. All of these tips and tools, from blue light–blocking glasses to a morning sessions in the sauna, are geared toward better equipping you to navigate not just a job, but a long, productive career. To be more productive, short circuit situations to claim — or simulate — ownership. To mitigate stress, create habits that lead to resilience over happiness. Get started by exposing yourself to extremes (such as heat and cold) or introduce a smarter gratitude practice into your regimen. Lastly, biohacking to restore energy is about ways to simulate the effects of sleep. Energy has as much to do with the postures you make, as tracking sleep itself. But the beauty of many of these biohacks is how they can interweave and compound.

“This doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Start small. The most effective life hacks come disguised as new habits — often relatively small ones. The trick is to attach new habits to something that you’re already doing, like having coffee in the morning. Attaching the new habit to an existing one — versus making it an island on its own — is most likely to make you successful,” says Barreto. “Over ten years later, I’m still stringing old and new biohacking habits together. Because they add up. If I can improve and support my energy and health, that’s the foundational layer of my life’s pyramid. It supports my work and productivity. A lot of people build the pyramid from the wrong direction. If you don't get the lower levels right, it’ll topple.”

Photography courtesy of the subject. Art by Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images.