Resources for Recovering Resilience: The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

I love it when resources I recommend are truly both practical and transformative. The ideas in Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work are just such a resource.

Christine is a well-respected sociologist at the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley and the happy, resilient mother of four teenagers. She’s had to learn how to find ease and flow and balance in a life that could easily become (and sometimes has) overloaded and overwhelmed.

The section titles of the book give you a sense of the trajectory:

Take Recess
Switch Autopilot On
Unshackle Yourself
Cultivate Relationships
Tolerate Some Discomfort

In each chapter of Sweet Spot, Christine shares her own experiences and distills the latest behavioral science and neuroscience research on performance, productivity…and happiness, then offers “micro-habits” that can help us move from overworked and overwrought into genuine relaxation and satisfaction; how to be calm and focused/energized at the same time. I’ve offered one example from each chapter here; there are many, many more.

Especially as we move further into the new year, may you find these suggestions useful for you and yours:

Chapter 1: From Working Overtime to Enjoying the Seasons

We are all dying, some sooner, some later. The real exception is to truly live.
– Lee Lipsenthal, Enjoy Every Sandwich

Exercise 1. Take a recess

Today, take a good old-fashioned recess in the middle of the day. Go ahead and do your hardest or most dreaded work – or whatever you need to do – but after about sixty to ninety minutes of focused attention [when your brain starts to become fatigued] honor your ultradian rhythms and take a break. Rest. Don’t do anything that exists on a to-do list anywhere.

Take a nap.
Read something just for fun.
Look at pictures of pretty living rooms on Pinterest.
Go outside into the great outdoors (or the plaza across from your office) and let the sun shine on your face.

Chapter 2: The Stress/Success Tipping Point

Broaden your perception in the moment – that restores the functioning of your body-brain to the sweet spot where we experience the least stress, the greatest intellectual power, and the most sophisticated social skills.

Exercise 2: Contemplate death and destruction

(Bet you didn’t see that one coming!) When researchers have people visualize their own death in detail, their gratitude increases. This is a traditional Buddhist practice….Similarly, simply imagining not having something you love can make you feel more grateful for it. When researchers had volunteers envision the sudden disappearance of their romantic partners from their lives, they felt a lot more gratitude for them. We also feel more gratitude when we imagine that positive life events never happened – as when we imagine that we never landed a new job or moved closer to family.

Chapter 3: Doing Without Trying

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
– Aristotle

Exercise 3: Establish a tiny habit

After discussing the biology of habit, Christine suggests beginning to rewire our brains, and thus our behaviors of recovering resources, with one tiny habit and offers examples from Stanford habit researcher BJ Fogg:

After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.
After I sit down on the train I will open my sketch notebook.
After I hear any phone ring, I will exhale and relax for two seconds.
After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.
After I arrive home, I will hang up my keys by the door.

Chapter 4: Cracking the Habit Code

[These 21 Tips for 21 Days are fully elaborated in the book Sweet Spot. I’ve only given the highlights here:]

Exercise 4: Cracking the habit code

1. Sketch a draft of your whole routine
2. Identify your mini-habits within your larger routine
3. Now, throw ambition out the window
4. Look for “keystone” mini-habits
5. Play offense
6. Identify your trigger
7. Designate intrinsic rewards
8. Measure your progress
9. Fight self-sabotage
10. Build your willpower muscle
11. Pre-decide as much as possible
12. Comfort yourself
13. Take a nap
14. Take teatime
15. Never say never
16. Gather your “cabinet”
17. Expand (Really, really) slowly
18. Expect (at least minor, sometimes major) failure
19. Beware the “what the hell” effect
20. Regroup, revise, and double down
21. See relapse as an opportunity to begin again, stronge

Chapter 5: Easing the Overwhelm

When it comes to our cultural beliefs that busy people are high status, the herd is leading us in the wrong direction, off a cliff. Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance or success. Taken to an extreme, it is more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear. We often work long hours in part because we are afraid that we will lose our job or we won’t have enough money to have all the latest stuff. We schedule our kids in every enrichment activity possible because we are afraid that they won’t develop the mastery, intelligence, and athletic prowess they need to get into the right schools or land the right jobs. We “helicopter parent” in our new time-and-energy intensive ways because we are afraid that our children will fall down or be average or simply feel discomfort, boredom, or disappointment.

All this is to say that easing the overwhelm in your life may mean straying from your herd, which can be a terrifying experience.
– Christine Carter, Sweet Spot

Exercise 5: Decide your five top priorities and say “no” to everything else

1. Disable push features, alerts, and notifications on your mobile devices and desktop and laptop computers.

This is the hardest step for many people. You don’t have to turn off your phone altogether, but do turn off distracting dings and vibrations (junk stimuli) when you are working for focusing on something besides the incoming emails and texts.

2. Designate the spaces in your life in which you will not use devices and computers.

Just because we can take a laptop into the bathroom does not mean that this is a sensible thing to do. (Fecal matter can be found on one in six cell phones. Do we need to outlaw pooping and texting at the same time?) Similarly, your bed is for sleeping, not for checking Facebook, even though you can. Neither is it safe to text in the car, while driving yourself, nor is it polite if you’re a passenger in a car and the driver is a friend or someone expecting conversation. Tempted to check your email at a red light? Turn your attention to your breath and just breathe: you will gained more in productivity and well-being from the one-minute relaxation. Remember, boredom is not health hazard, but technology overuse is.

3. Decide on the times during which you will not use a device.

During meals.

While someone is helping you with something, like a clerk in a store.

After 9:15pm (30 minutes before going to bed, so the low-energy blue light of a device no longer stimulates the chemical messengers in our brains that make us more alert.)

Before breakfast.

Chapter 6: How to Die Happy, Giving, and Beloved

If we look back at the past two centuries of research in sociology and psychology, the single strongest finding about our well-being is that our health, happiness, and longevity are best predicted by the breadth and the depth of our positive social connections – our friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, and perhaps whether or not we know our grocery checker’s name. People with many social connections are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping, and are more likely to experience life positively.
– Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot

Exercise 6: Do a handful of favors that take five minutes or less each week

Make an introduction
Help a fellow traveler with their luggage
Hold a door open
Send a helpful article to a friend who’s looking for information
Email a co-worker acknowledge their good work; copy the rest of the team
Make a card for your child’s teacher; invite the entire class to sign it with appreciation

Chapter 7: Mending Ruptures

There are two pillars of happiness revealed by the seventy-five-year-old Grant Study…One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.
– George Vaillant, Triumphs of Experience

[I’m offering the 9 highlights of this chapter – Repairing Connection Dis-Ease – and their antidotes; Christine offers excellent explanations and instructions for all nine in Sweet Spot.]

1. Technology misuse…Use gadgets to facilitate real-life connections
2. Busyness and overwork….Find friendship efficiencies
3. Envy….Celebrate other people’s success
4. Disappoint….Consciously practice gratitude again
5. Predictability and Boredom….Shake things up, maybe a lot
6. Annoyances and irritations….Acceptance
7. Unresolved conflict….Problem-solve together
8. Holding a grudge….Practice forgiveness
9. Wealth….Pay it forward.

Exercise 7: How to apologize

Little cracks appear in our relationships all the time, and while we can certainly spend a lot of time and energy examining fissures and assigning blame – or pretending they aren’t there or never happened – often the easiest thing is to just repair the crack.

According to Aaron Lazare, who has studied the psychology of apologies extensively, effective apologies include some or all of the following: (1) a clear and complete acknowledgement of the offense; (2) a non-defensive explanation; (3) an expression of remorse; (4) reparation.

Say you called your husband a lazy jerk before you read this chapter and realized it would be more effective to start with an appreciation and an “I” statement. Here’s how to fix that:

First, acknowledge your offense without mentioning what you were mad about. Say, “I’m sorry I called you a lazy jerk,” not, I’m sorry I called you a lazy jerk, but your really do nothing to help out around here anymore.” For an apology to work, the offender needs to fully confess to the crime without hemming, hawing, or making excuses.

Second, offer an explanation if you want, especially if you truly didn’t intend to hurt the other person’s feelings or if the offense isn’t likely to re-occur. If you do choose to offer an explanation again, remember that your apology needs to include an actual confession, and anything that makes it seem like you aren’t taking responsibility for your mistakes will nullify your apology. For example, “I know It sounded like I called you a lazy jerk, but actually I meant to say hazy clear, which is what the kids call a person who is relaxed” isn’t going to build trust in your relationships. But it could help to say, “I was annoyed and not thinking clearly, and I really regret saying that.”

Third, express remorse, guilt, or humility that recognizes why your comment might have hurt the other person. Finally, good apologies often include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Perhaps you lean in for an apologetic smooch, or offer to help with something you know he needs as a peace offering.

Chapter 8: Making Hard Things Easy

Given that life includes a boatload of disappointment, risk, discomfort, and even failure, we need to develop an ironic comfort with discomfort if we are to truly build strength and find ease. We need to make sure that every setback doesn’t send us headlong into a massive fight-or-flight response. This means that we need to be able to do three things. First, we need to tolerate the discomfort that comes from difficulty and challenge inherent in pursuing mastery, because mastery ultimately makes hard things easy. Second, we need to be able to cope with the discomfort inherent in our own vulnerability by becoming brave enough to follow our passion and purpose instead of the crowd. Finally, we need a plan for bouncing back when the going gets rough – which it inevitably will!
– Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot

Exercise 8: The difference between perfectionism and mastery is the ability to risk, and even embrace failure.

1. Something happens.

2. We react to it emotionally. We feel embarrassed, horrified, struck with fear, etc.

3. We have predictable thoughts about the event that led us to continue to react emotionally or to avoid our emotions altogether.

4. We accept our feelings and untangle our thoughts, and the negative emotion dissipates. The sting of the mistake or misstep clears, the grief waves, the situation blows over.

Chapter 9: How to Be Divergent

This chapter focuses on differentiating our own choices from the expectations of others and the norms of our culture and society, and honoring our multi-faceted selves, including our strengths and vulnerabilities, either of which might separate us from our herd.

Exercise 9: Seek a smaller pond

[When we need to develop a new competency, we need to create experiences outside of our comfort zone [new learning rather than old habit] but not experiences so intense that they are super stressful. Psychologists call this the “inoculation principle of graded exposure.” Christine gives an example that you can try or modify for your own needs:]

When a man needs to be more romantic with his spouse, but is frightened by the vulnerability that exposes him to, he can begin with small steps, even practicing with people other than his spouse to ramp up to more and more challenging behaviors.

* Tell his children at bedtime what he specifically loves about them.

* Talk about what he is grateful for at dinnertime, when perhaps the rest of the family does this as well.

* Verbally link the little thoughtful things he already frequently does for his wife to his love for her. Saying thing like, “I ordered you new printer toner today because I know you hate dealing with stuff like that and I love you and I wanted to do something nice for you.”

Chapter 10: A Short Guide to Getting Your Groove Back

[This chapter offer ways to work with set-backs and falling short and reiterates many of the principles covered in previous chapters.]

Exercise 10: Take responsibility and course-correct

1. Take recess

2. Return to routine

3. Ease overwhelm

4. Connect with friends

5. Tolerate the discomfort that comes with growth.

Conclusion:

Compelling research indicates that the pursuit of pleasure and gratification won’t ultimately bring us ease and it most certainly won’t bring us strength. The pursuit of pleasure won’t allow us to live and work in our sweet spot. Although we claim that the “pursuit of happiness” is our inalienable right and the primary drive of the human race, we humans do better pursuing fulfillment and meaning – creating lives that generate the feeling that we matter. Social psychologists define meaning, as it applies to our lives, as a cognitive and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact.

* * * * *

The Sweet Spot: How To Find Your Groove at Home and Work by Christine Carter, PhD. Ballantine Books, January 2015.

You can read stacks of the best books on stress management and well-being, sign up for classes about resilience, and hire a personal coach to help you find true happiness or you can just pick up a copy of The Sweet Spot. Refreshing, timely, and inspiring, it will help you experience a new way of being: calm, energized, and free to focus on what really matters most.
– Renee Peterson Trudeau, author of The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal