“Busyness is not a sign of success, significance or importance. It’s a sign that we are not fulfilling our potential.” — Christine Carter in the Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
“Busyness is not a sign of success, significance or importance. It’s a sign that we are not fulfilling our potential.” — Christine Carter in the Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
Jill Suttie sat down with me recently to talk about my new book
In 2009, Christine Carter felt like she had it all. On top of her dream job here at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, she had two wonderful kids, a best-selling book called Raising Happiness, a popular blog, and frequent requests for speaking engagements.
Then she got sick. At first, it seemed like no big deal—just a little strep throat. She took a round of antibiotics, but didn’t recover; then she took more. Nine courses of antibiotics later, she still hadn’t healed. Instead, she ended up in the hospital with a severe kidney infection. The diagnosis?
“Exhaustion,” says Carter. “My body had basically lost the ability to heal itself.”
That’s when she realized something was really wrong. Her life had become completely out of whack, and it was taking its toll.
“Here I was, an expert on how to sustain high performance and be happy, and I could not get myself healthy, because I was overwhelmed and exhausted,” she says. “The irony was not lost on me.”
Carter began to chart a new course. Drawing on her background studying productivity, positive emotions, and well-being, she put together a plan to reinvent her life. That process, as well as correspondences from her readers who also felt overwhelmed by the pace of their lives, inspired her to write a book about her path to healing: The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work which is being published this week by Ballantine Books.
Carter will be talking about The Sweet Spot tonight, January 21st, at 7:30 PM at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, in an event co-sponsored by Berkeley Arts & Letters and the Greater Good Science Center.
We sat down to discuss her book—and the science behind finding one’s sweet spot.
Jill Suttie: What exactly is the sweet spot?
Christine Carter: Most people think of the sweet spot as a point of maximum impact in sports—the point on a bat or racket that hits a ball with its greatest power, and with the least stress or resistance. So, as it applies to our lives, the sweet spot is the overlap between where we have the most ease in our lives and the place where we have our greatest strength.
Think of it as a Venn diagram, with a “strengths circle” and an “ease circle.” I tend to operate from my strengths circle: I’m a high achiever, I get a lot of hits. But, before I changed my life, I couldn’t get those hits without operating outside of my ease circle.
It’s pretty common for people to favor one side or the other. The trick is learning where your overlap is, and expanding that area of overlap.
JS: Your book is coming out just after the New Year, when many of us are thinking about forming better habits, using willpower and determination. But your book says that willpower isn’t the best way to create healthier habits. Why is that?
CC: The activities that we consciously control in our day-to-day lives are few and far between relative to everything that we do unconsciously, on autopilot. Our brain’s ability to train itself to do things without willpower, without self-control, without any sort of conscious control is one of our greatest advantages. Being able to do something with no effort or resistance, completely automatically—that’s the definition of ease.
One of the ways I grew the ease part of my life is that I put a lot of my life on autopilot, so I wouldn’t use up my limited supply of willpower on things I could do automatically. The things that take self-control or willpower, for the most part, involve decision-making, and we don’t want our willpower muscles to become fatigued by every day decisions when they could be automated. We don’t’ really need to spend a lot of time deciding whether or not we’re going to exercise in the morning, or what to eat or what to wear. A lot of people spend time making decisions in the morning that, in my opinion, could be automated.
JS: But don’t you find people resist routines?
CC: It depends. Some people are high in novelty seeking, and they find it hard to get into routines, so they resist. And to them, I’d say: It’s not as hard as you think.
My husband and I are novelty seeking—we really love change. For me it’s important to automate mundane things in your life as a way to free up attention for new things, new endeavors. It’s not that I have less novelty or change now that so much is automated. It’s that I can seek change and growth in more important realms.
JS: In your book, when writing about the balance of mastery and ease, you start with the ease side of the equation—the importance of relaxation and taking breaks. Why start there?
CC: Because stress is pretty epidemic in North America and in the West. Most people don’t understand the benefits of ease, and they need to.
We have a whole cultural mantra around busyness—How are you? Oh, I’m really busy. By that I mean: I’m busy and important. I’ve got so much going on. Busyness is seen as a sign of success, and the marker of character and importance. If you’re not busy and stressed and overwhelmed, then the reverse might be true: You might not be important or very significant; you might be lazy and of low character. This is the big cultural thing we’re up against.
Researchers call busyness “cognitive overload.” The state of cognitive overload makes us worse at everything. It hinders our ability to organize ourselves, to plan, to think clearly, to be creative, to innovate. It makes us irritable. It impairs our verbal fluency, and our ability to remember social information. And it hinders our ability to control our emotions.
So it makes us worse at everything. When somebody tells me they’re busy, what I hear is, this is someone who is not fulfilling their potential. They’re not able to do the best work in this world that they can, or enjoy the work that they are doing or the life that they are leading.
JS: Speaking of busyness, it seems like we have become so enslaved to technology. How can we find more balance in our lives around technology use?
CC: I think it’s really important not to demonize technology, but to realize that something can happen in our brain with it: It provides what’s called “variable ratio reinforcement”—it’s like a slot machine. If you have your email open, and you see that you have a new message, your attention is drawn away from what you’re doing, because every so often the email is rewarding you in some way.
Also, we have a dual attention mechanism in our brains—like a seesaw—so we can either be focused on a task, getting things done, or our minds can wander and be unfocused. It can’t do both of those things at the same time. That’s why we get so stressed and overwhelmed with technology: because we’re constantly pulled between those two states. And that’s why it’s super important to close down your email, turn off alerts, and put your cell phone on sleep mode while you’re working on something else.
The other important thing is not to push yourself too far with technology. We turn ourselves into zombies if we have just been sitting in front of a screen all day. In order to do our best, most enjoyable work, we need to engage our mind-wandering mode from time to time. When our mind is wandering—when we’re staring into space or going for a walk in nature or doing anything but focusing on a task—there’s a neural network that’s constantly making connections, which can lead us to our greatest insights. Unfortunately, it’s the focusing part of our brain that often gets all of the credit for our work.
JS: One thing I appreciated in your book is how you included “ridiculously small” steps people could take to make real change. What ridiculously small step made a big difference in your life?
CC: The example I give in the book is still true for me: my better-than-nothing workout. Every morning, I do a one-minute plank, 20 push-ups, and 25 squats. Doing two years of just that, you should see—I have Michelle Obama arms! It only takes me three minutes. Three minutes, every morning.
Does that mean that I don’t do any other exercise? No, I get a lot of other exercise too, but not consistently. This better-than-nothing routine is what has made a huge difference in my overall health.
JS: The book is geared toward individuals changing their own lives. But, do you feel the book has a message for society at large?
CC: Many of the reasons we feel so overwhelmed and busy and don’t operate in our sweet spot come from social structures that aren’t working for us and from really big cultural lies—for instance, that busyness is a marker of importance, that more is almost always better.
I’m getting asked a lot now to come and talk at corporations to their administrative teams and big HR departments, and it’s thrilling to me to be able to expose them to these ideas. They may say they want to work smarter, not harder—but they don’t know what working smarter is!
At their companies, working smarter currently means working long hours. But if we examine what is really smarter—and how they can change their work culture—it will do a lot to undo those unhealthy and unproductive behaviors in their employees.
Jill Suttie writes about the science of wellbeing, and she is the book review editor for Greater Good, the online publication of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is also a singer songwriter, and has recorded two CD of her original songs, both available at cdbaby.com/cd/jillsuttie.
Photo by Avern
This week is an important one for people who made New Year’s resolutions (I hope that’s you)! If you can keep your resolution for the rest of the week, you’ll be much more likely to end the year having kept it, too.
When starting a new habit, it can be frustrating to fail. But failing is also essential to the process of creating a habit that sticks. Unless you are some sort of superhero, you will not be able to get into a new habit perfectly the first time. You’ll trip and fall and royally screw up. And then you’ll have the opportunity to learn something from your failure that you probably couldn’t have learned any other way.
Faltering is a normal part of the process. It doesn’t matter if you have a lapse, or even a relapse, but it matters how you respond. If you’ve had a slip, don’t get too emotional or succumb to self-criticism.
Take Action: If you’ve started faltering with your resolution, the first thing to do is forgive yourself. Remember: lapses are a part of the process, and feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success. Make a plan for the next time you face a challenge similar to the one that caused your lapse. What will you do differently? What have you learned? What temptation did you face that you can remove? Is there something that you need to tweak? Were you stressed or tired or hungry — and if so, how can you prevent that the next time?
Join The Discussion: Tell us about your lapses in the comments. Be sure to ALSO tell us how you’ve gotten back on track.
Need more structure? If you want more support in making a change like this one, please sign up for my free online class. You’ll get a worksheet and an email everyday for 21 days that will give you more help establishing good habits like this one.
“In our materially rich but spiritually bereft culture, we often forget that how much we enjoy our lives really matters.” — Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
Photo by Jon Jordan
Before I wrote The Sweet Spot, I needed a manifesto–something to organize my passion for the project. I started keeping lists of phrases and pieces of advice that captured my message. When I was done writing the book, it was fun to go back and look at all the little lists and edit them down into this manifesto. I hope you are inspired to download the beautiful printable version my publisher created.
If this manifesto doesn’t do it for you, find one that does! Or create your own. Having go-to sources for inspiration and motivation can guide us towards those thoughts and behaviors that bring us the most meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
And…I can’t resist exclaiming…TODAY IS BOOK LAUNCH DAY!! TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY MY BOOK IS AVAILABLE!! Undeniably more exciting for me than anyone else, but just the same, I hope you will help me spread the word.
May you be happy today!
The Sweet Spot Manifesto
Life might be short, or it might be long. Either way, better to enjoy it.
If you are tired, rest.
If you can’t solve a problem, take a walk.
If you feel overwhelmed, stop checking your phone.
Forgive yourself, again.
Focus on the journey, not the achievement.
More is not necessarily better.
Learn to apologize.
Repair your mistakes.
Let yourself feel what you feel.
Smile at the barista.
Chat with folks on the train.
Chase meaning, not happiness.
Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity.
Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.
Consider that your worry isn’t legitimate.
Say no strategically.
Say yes with abandon.
Accept that you’re divergent. Go with it.
Embrace the better-than-nothing plan.
Remember when you’ve been brave before.
Understand that happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.
Sign up to receive my weekly Happiness Tips emails and we’ll send along a download link for a printable Sweet Spot Manifesto, pictured here.
“Each Happiness Tip takes less than one minute to read, but they make me think, and they make me happier. I share them all with my clients.”~ Kendra Perry, Wellness Coach, Chico, CA
“Fabulous advice that works.” ~ Tweet from Dr. Alex Barzvi, Assistant Professor at the NYU School of Medicine, New York City, New York
“Christine Carter is smart, witty and real. And she knows her stuff.” ~ Robert, film producer, Los Angeles, CA
Read what other people are saying about the Happiness Tips.
If you find that you make more errors while multi-tasking, you aren’t alone. Watch this to learn how to multi-task skillfully and strategically — so that you save time and effort.
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
Photo by Andres Rodriguez
I would love some help figuring out a tiny habit to help me unplug from my phone. It’s the first thing I reach for in the morning, when I’m stopped at red lights, when I get home from work–my brain has become used to checking my email, text messages, facebook, playing plants vs. zombies constantly. It’s hard because I use my phone for so many things throughout the day (except of course as a phone!), so it’s constant presence makes it hard to forget it’s there at the times that I’m not really using it. Any ideas?”
Pamela, you’ve got a great goal for the New Year. Two new studies support your sense that you will be happier (and less stressed) if you check your phone less. A study of college students at Kent State University found that people who check their phones frequently tend to experience higher levels of distress during their leisure time (when they intend to relax!).
In another study, Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently participants checked their email throughout the day. Those aiming to reduce their email checking to only three times a day (vs. an average of 15 times) were less tense and less stressed overall.
Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work to just will ourselves to stop a compulsive behavior. We check our phones and our email because it provides us with what researchers call “variable-ratio” reinforcement–once in a while we get an email or message that is particularly rewarding, and that once in a while is enough to keep us checking compulsively. (Slot machines also provide variable-ratio rewards.)
Instead of willing ourselves to just check less often, we can configure our devices and work time so that we are tempted less often. The goal is to check email, social media, and messages on your phone just a few times a day–intentionally, not impulsively. Our devices are thus returned to their status as tools we use strategically– not slot machines that randomly demand our energy and attention.
Take Action. Here’s a plan to lower your stress and tension:
1. Make a strategic decision about when you will check your email and messages. I check my email quickly before work to delete or unsubscribe from junk and respond to anything urgent. I respond to everything else in my work email at 3:00pm and my home email at 7:45pm. I actually block this time out on my calendar as a recurring task, and then move it around as necessary — that way I check strategically, not impulsively. I look at (and maybe post to) social media once in the morning before work, if I have time, and then I close it for the day. I respond to texts and voicemails once mid-morning and once mid-afternoon (between calls and meetings).
2. Tell your family and colleagues that you are establishing a strategic checking schedule. Worried that people will see you as unresponsive or slacking at work? Leslie Perlow’s research indicates otherwise; in fact, your colleagues will likely notice your increased productivity and see you as more collaborative, efficient, and effective when you reduce constant phone and email monitoring.
3. Remove distractions. Set your mobile devices to automatically go into sleep mode an hour before you go to bed until your first pre-determined checking time. Consider removing email from your phone, or at least moving it to a back “page” of apps, so that you don’t see it if you are turning off your alarm or using another app. I think of this as hiding the Halloween candy: If you wanted to eat less candy, you wouldn’t put a bowl of it on your bedside table, bathroom counter, kitchen table, dashboard, and desk at work–right? So don’t do that with the slot machine that is your smartphone. While you are on your computer working (or in the car driving), keep your email program closed. Turn all notifications off. Put your phone in sleep mode. This may seem drastic, but trust me. Your life is about to get way better.
4. Focus on other things. Now, do your most important work or something that brings you peace, or joy. Replace checking your smartphone constantly with something better. I set reminders for two-minute relaxation breaks three times a day, when I take a dozen deep breaths (breathing in for 5 seconds, and out for 5 seconds). This triggers my vagus nerve, inducing a feeling of calm, and reversing the ill-effects of stress.
5. Savor the benefits of this effort. You will likely start sleeping better. You’ll be more focused, productive, and efficient at work. You’ll have a heck of a lot more time to do the things that really matter in your life, things that bring lasting happiness. But none of those benefits really matter unless you take the time to enjoy them. Studies by Fred Bryant suggest that by consciously and deliberately savoring positive events in our life, we can increase the amount of happiness we derive from them in the short and long run. So enjoy being less stressed and less tense–relish your new life.
Join the Discussion: What do you struggle with the most in trying not to check your phone and email constantly? What has worked best for you in creating a strategic checking schedule? If you need help, post a comment here.
Need more structure? This is a pretty hardcore Happiness Tip (usually they are much less dramatic.) If you want more support in making a change like this one, please sign up for my free online class. You’ll get a worksheet and an email everyday for 21 days that will give you more help establishing good habits like this one.
If you are wondering whether you are pursuing the right goals in 2015, or whether your resolutions will truly make you happy, watch this. (Or watch if you are just looking for a hit of inspiration!)