Newsletter: January 2015

The Sweet Spot Expanded: More Tips on How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

[This month’s newsletter is an expanded version of my January 8, 2015 Resources for Recovering Resilience post on how to find your groove at home and at work, with the quotes, stories and exercises I can include in the newsletter format. Especially as we move further into the new year, may you find these suggestions useful for you and yours.}

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.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SWEET SPOT

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, stronger

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.

POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE

A person in flow is completely focused….Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes it own justification.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Chinese character for busy is composed of two characters: heart and killing. In other words, busyness is devastating to our soul…When we are increasingly drained, pressed for time, and afraid…we are inclined to grasp for some substitute. We are more easily seduced by certain behaviors or possessions that promise to give us not precisely what we dreamed, but something that looks close enough. Most importantly, it is always the thing we can get easier, cheaper, and faster, in an increasingly busy life – the bone-weary ache of our exhausted heart – and this kind of swift comfort can become irresistible.
– Wayne Muller

Before you allow yourself to question your entire life, and any decision you have ever made, check: hormones, sleep deprivation level, messiness of house, whining level of children, ridiculousness of colleagues. If none of these is the guilty party responsible for your unhappiness, then you may indeed have bigger problems.
– Kristin van Ogtrop

Some cures require a radical intervention of the soul: a change in our mindset and our way of being. These cures require us to stop racing through our busy lives, working, providing, and consuming. Some cures require that we stop and enjoy every sandwich.
– Lee Lipsenthal, M.D.

Flourishing is not about feeling happy all the time or about trying to turn every thought and emotion into a positive one. Our human brains are differential systems; our perception of good depends, in part, on our experience of bad. Positive psychology pioneer Fredrickson compares this to sailing – flourishing people move through life using both sail and keel. Positive emotions put wind in our sails, propelling us forward, giving us direction. Negative emotions are like the weighty keel before the waterline. They balance our boat and help give us direction, too.
– Christine Carter

Increasing the social connections in our lives is probably the single easiest way to enhance our well-being.
– Matthew Lieberman

Love is our supreme emotion: its presence or absence in our lives influences everything we feel, think, do and become. It’s that recurrent state that ties you in – your body and brain alike – to the social fabric. To the bodies and brains of those in your midst. When you experience love you not only become better able to see the larger tapestry of life and better able to breathe life into the connections that matter to you, but you set yourself on a pathway that leads to more health, happiness, and wisdom.
– Barbara Fredrickson

I’m not urging everyone to go out and fail just for the sheer therapy of it, or to quit college just to coddle some vague discontent. Obviously, it’s better to succeed than to flop….I only mean that failure isn’t bad in itself, or success automatically good.
– Willaim Zinsser

While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life events – an accident, a scary diagnosis, a botched presentation, a breakup -can trigger depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But what most of us don’t realize is that post-traumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune – even tragedy – has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose. In this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation. Misfortune offers us the opportunity to choose new meaning and purpose.

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself.
– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

STORIES TO LEARN FROM

Something is Better Than Nothing – Christine Carter’s own mini-story

I have my little two-minute three-exercise routine that I affectionately call the “better than nothing circuit.” If I’m traveling or I oversleep or am just not feeling all that well, I can do this simple circuit of three exercises in my pajamas. And because it takes only a few minutes, I just do it – there isn’t any internal resistance to doing it. Here’s the key: I do this every single weekday because I want the groove of this habit to be deep, and because I’ve chosen to anchor my exercise to something I do every weekday: wake up to an alarm and them meditate. For the rest of my life, as Long as I wake up to an alarm, I’m going to wake up, go to the bathroom, get dressed, meditate, and then exercise (even if I only do a two-minute routine).

If I’m really not feeling well, I make myself go through the entire routine in my head, visualizing myself doing each of the exercises. This may sound crazy, but what I’m doing is preserving and deepening the neural pathways in my brain that lead to the habit.

* * * * *

The late Lee Lipsenthal – a wonderful doctor and teacher of work-life balance – told me and some colleagues about his gratitude for his wife a few months before he passed away. “I’m so grateful for the love in my life,” he told us repeatedly. “I have had a great marriage”

For years – maybe a decade – Lee had a very specific way of cultivating his gratitude for his wife (with whom, by the way, he didn’t always see eye to eye, so much that he once almost left her, as he disclosed in Enjoy Every Sandwich). Every morning, he would wake up and meditate. But instead of getting out of bed, he would open his arms, and his wife would roll over onto his chest and go back to sleep. Lee would then do a forty-five minute “gratitude meditation” with her on his chest as he thought about her and all that he appreciated about her.

Lee may or may not have expressed his gratitude out loud to his wife; I don’t know if he did. The key thing was that he cultivated his own deep feelings of gratitude for her on a daily basis. Research suggests that it is feeling gratitude for our partner – not necessarily expressing it to him or her – that predicts how satisfied we feel with our relationships and how satisfied our partner feels as well.

Let me say that again. When we cultivate feelings of gratitude toward people, we feel more satisfied with our relationships, and – amazingly – our friends and partners feel more connected to us and more satisfied with the relationship, too. We are taught to think that our feelings of love or affection or fondness are entirely dependent on the character and behavior of the other, but the truth is that we can cultivate these feelings.

EXERCISES TO PRACTICE

9 Ways to Ease Overwhelm

1. Make your bed. There is something true about the adage that the state of your bed is the state of your head.

2. Set your phone to automatically go into silent mode an hour before your bedtime. Enjoy the peace and quiet.

3. Develop a way to “give good no.” As in, “Thank you so much for asking, but that isn’t going to work out for me right now.”

4. Turn off your TV unless you intend to watch something specific. Never watch commercials – record your show and skip through them.

5. Eat at least one meal a day without doing anything else at the same time. No driving, reading, or responding to email.

6. Make decisions about routine things once. Buy the same brands at the grocery store every time; get the same outfit in different colors so you don’t have to decide what to wear every morning; prepare the same basic meals most week days.

7. Clean out one drawer or shelf a day. Eventually, everything in your home will have a place, and this will make it easy to find what you need when you need it.

8. Establish “predictable time off” with your colleagues and family. When will you commit to not working? Start with dinnertime; work up to weekends.

9. Stop multi-tasking. It makes you error prone, and even though you think you’re getting more done, it’s actually quite inefficient.

Easy Things You Can Do to Enjoy Today (and Tomorrow) More

1. Take a good old-fashioned recess in the middle of the day. For every 60 to 90 minutes that you focus, take a 10 to 15 minute break. Go outside and play! Or at least sit inside and daydream.

2. Increase your ratio of positive to negative emotions by watching a silly YouTube video, expressing gratitude to someone, or reading something inspiring. (Yes, you get credit for watching funny animal videos!)

3. Establish a tiny time-saving habit. Put your keys by the door where you will be sure to find them. Set up your coffee machine at night. Sometimes a small effort today can have a big impact tomorrow! Allow yourself to feel gleeful when you succeed.

4. Establish a happiness habit. Do a daily crossword puzzle if that does it for you. Read a favorite magazine at lunchtime. Throw the ball for your dog every morning. What would make you really happy if you did it every day?

5. Take 10 minutes to do nothing. Unplug from your phones and computer. Sit down in a room where you can be alone. Stare into space. It’s fine if you feel bored – you’ll be more productive later.

6. Smile at the barista and strike up a short conversation. Or with the people sharing your elevator. Or with the crossing guard.

7. Repair a minor crack in an important relationship Call your mom and invite her to lunch, even though your last conversation with her was tense. Find something nice to say to your spouse, even though he can be frustrating.

7 Ways to Feel More Love and Connected

1. Celebrate other people’s success. The people we love feel closer to us when we actively rejoice with them. When they succeed, whoop and holler like a cheerleader, bring them cupcakes, or pop open a bottle of champagne.

2. Consciously practice gratitude. Everyday, express appr4eciation to a friend or family member.

3. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Vulnerability can be uncomfortable, but it allows trust and intimacy to develop.

4. Accept that people are often annoying. Love them anyway.

5. Learn how to apologize effectively. We all make mistakes; the trick is knowing how to repair them.

6. Forgive people. Forgiveness is not about erasing the original hurt. It is about choosing positive emotions over negative ones.

7. Stop thinking about yourself so much. Turn your attention to the things that you can do to make other people happy.

RESOURCES

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