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Author: Christine Carter

How to Help Kids Adjust to College

At this time of year, I start receiving dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.

“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.

Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?

Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:

1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.

2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.

3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.

What to do instead of trying to rescue them

Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”

2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.

3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. Research shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to be more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.

4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.

A word of caution: While it’s important to let college kids know they can rely on their own inner capacities and family support to get through tough times, it’s also important to let them know that reaching out for help is appropriate—especially if they have any suicidal thoughts and incapacitating depression or anxiety.   If the situation seems intractable, parents should consider encouraging kids to seek mental health services through their college health department or the National Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.

 

Christine Carter - 5 Steps to End Your Email Addiction

Unplug and Reconnect

From sundown on Friday, March 6 to sundown on Saturday, March 7, 2020 is National Day of Unplugging.  Before you think, “there’s no way I can unplug for 24 hours,” bear with me. It is SUPER worth-while to consider doing a digital detox every once in a while. Why?

Research suggests that screen time (especially social media usage) leads to unhappiness. Three recent studies all found basically the same thing: The more people used Facebook, the lower their happiness (or the higher their loneliness and depression) was when researchers assessed them again. It’s important to note that it’s not that people who were feeling unhappy used social media more; it’s that Facebook caused their unhappiness.

This short 24-hour detox is a wonderful way to dip your toe into a full digital detox. This will free up tons of time (and don’t we all want more time?). Let’s read! And stare into space! And most importantly: Connect with family and friends! If you have an anxious or distracted teen, this is a perfect time to model both unplugging and reconnecting IRL.

While most of us can’t give up screens at work, or if we are in school, we can give up digital entertainment and social media for 24 hours. Even if we can’t go completely screen-free, we can reduce our exposure. It’s easy to spend most of our entire waking existence monitoring our email and social media feeds. We can begin the day by turning off the alarm on our phone . . . and then checking our messages. Before we are out of bed. And then we can bring our phones–and our feeds–with us to the bathroom. And we check again at breakfast.  Lunch? We “catch up” on email or Facebook. For most people, the checking continues long into the evening.

Does this sound familiar? If so, here are five steps that will help you check less, but work — and play — more.

Step 1: Decide what to do instead of checking constantly. If you are going to spend less time monitoring your email (and social media feeds, and anything else that is constantly nagging you for attention), what would be more productive or joyful for you? My clients often want to spend more time doing focused, intelligent, creative work, and more time relaxing, exercising, and hanging out with their families. Actually block off time on your calendar for stuff like “Read with hubby” or “Do focused writing/thinking.”

Step 2: Hide the bowl of candy. If you were trying to eat less candy, would you carry a bowl of it around with you? Would you put it on your nightstand and reach into it first thing in the morning? And then carry it with you to the bathroom? And then set it next to you while you try to eat a healthy breakfast? And then put it on your dashboard? I didn’t think so. So keep that smartphone tucked away during your 24 hours of unplugging. (Maybe make sure your water bottle isn’t leaking before you keep it stashed in your bag, though.) Think of it as a tool, like a hammer, that you don’t need to pull out unless you need it for a phone. Make adjustments: Dig up your old-fashioned alarm clock, update your car’s navigation system, and put that digital camera back in your bag for the times when getting a call or text will tempt you if you are using a camera.

Step 3: Notice what happens. Notice the difficult bits with curiosity (and maybe humor). How do you feel as you detox from constant checking? How are people reacting now that you don’t respond to everything instantly? Notice also the moments of ease and focus. Your tension levels will likely drop, and you’ll probably be less stressed. How does this feel in your body? Really see the people around you, now that you are looking up from your phone. Smile.

Want support? Well, join us!

If you need a little more support or guidance planning your digital detox, I developed a complete plan in my free eBook, How to Gain an Extra Day Each Week.  Sign up to receive my monthly newsletter here and I’ll send it right over.

The Quiet Secret to Success

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, they all have grit: persistence and passion for their long-term goals. But this doesn’t mean that they burn the midnight oil day in and day out in pursuit of achievement.

Just as elite performers are strategic about what they practice, they are also strategic about how long they practice for. If you think success requires practicing until your fingers bleed or mind spins or muscles give out, for hour upon hour upon hour of endless, relentless, intrinsically boring practice, I have some good news for you: Research suggests that’s not the way to get there.

In our modern, fast-paced, and technology-driven culture, we sometimes forget that we are humans, not computers. Like other animals, we humans are governed by our ultradian and circadian rhythms. Most people are familiar with the concept of our circadian rhythms: In the 24-hour period between when the sun rises and sets, we sleep and wake in predictable cycles. When we travel into different time zones, our circadian rhythms get out of whack, and as a consequence, our lives also can feel similarly discombobulated.

Our brains and bodies also cycle in “ultradian rhythms” throughout the day and night. An ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle that repeats throughout the 24-hour circadian day, like our breathing or our heart rate.

Our brain-wave patterns cycle in ultradian rhythms as well, and about every hour and a half to two hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip,” when our energy drops and sleep becomes possible. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert—instead of letting our bodies and brains rest, we become stressed and jittery, and our performance falters.

In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance about whom I wrote previously, found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session.

So it isn’t just that elite performers work more than others; they rest more, as well. The top violinists mentioned above slept an hour a night more than their less-accomplished classmates. They were also far more likely to take a nap between practice sessions—nearly three hours of napping a week.

Super-high-achievers sleep significantly more than the average American. On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (Even though studies show that 95 percent of the population needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.) Elite performers tend to get 8.6 hours of sleep a night; elite athletes need even more sleep. One study showed that when Stanford swimmers increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night, they felt happier, more energetic—and their performance in the pool improved dramatically.

High performance requires more sleep because it involves higher rates of learning and sometimes physical growth. When we are awake, adequate sleep allows us to focus our attention on our practice; when we are sleep deprived, our overworked neurons become uncoordinated, and we start having trouble accessing previously learned information.

When we sleep, our brain consolidates what we’ve learned while we were awake, making it a part of our working memory that we can access later. Sleep allows us to remember tomorrow how to do what we’ve practiced today, and it enables us to recall the information and knowledge we’ve just learned.

The amount of sleep that we get—and how disciplined we are about following our body’s natural circadian and ultradian rhythms—affects not just our health but our productivity and performance. It also affects our grit, a key component of success.

Grit is the ability to maintain perseverance and passion towards our long-term goals; we cannot persevere in the face of difficulty if we are fatigued physically, mentally, or emotionally. We can’t persist over the decade or so it takes to achieve true mastery if we become sick or exhausted or burned out along the way. And we can’t improve our skills—intellectually, physically, or artistically—if our learning, memory, and reaction times are impaired due to lack of sleep and rest.

So being gritty isn’t just about pushing yourself 24/7 toward your goals, in both good and bad weather. It’s about making progress toward your goals consistently and deliberately, in a way that works with our human biology, allowing for proper refueling and consolidation of knowledge.

 

If you like this post, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

How to Raise a High-Achiever

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, what do we know about how they got there?

We used to think that people were successful thanks to their genetic make-up—their inborn talents and innate passions. We called these people “gifted,” and assumed their success came from God-given talents more than their efforts.

The belief that success comes from God-given talent is not only discouraging—what if you don’t feel “gifted”?—but profoundly incorrect. Because researchers love to study super-high achievers, we know that the vast majority of achievements don’t spring from innate talent as much as they emerge from hard work and passion.

Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time. She explains:

Distance [is] an apt metaphor for achievement. What is achievement, after all, but an advance from a starting point to a goal? The farther the goal from the starting point, the greater the achievement. Just as distance is the multiplicative product of speed and time, it seems plausible that, holding opportunity constant, achievement is the multiplicative product of skill and effort…

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.  Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.

This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort (which I describe below). Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.

It isn’t just putting in any old effort that will build the right skills and lead to elite performance. People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success. These three things together are the very essence of “grit.” In the rest of this post, I’m going to zero in on the importance of deliberate and persistent practice; my next two posts will cover other facets of grit.

Deliberate practice

Elite performers practice a lot, in a really specific way. Accomplished people spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.

There are a few ways to learn how to spell words for a Spelling Bee, for example. One way is to simply pay attention to words when you read for pleasure. Another way is to have your friends and family quiz you. But how exciting must it be to study long lists alone?

Yet it turns out that the most effective way to become a National Spelling Bee champion is the third option, solitary study. (This explains why I’d be lost without spell-check.) The highest performers in the National Spelling Bee spend the most time in this type of deliberate practice—the most effective, but probably the least fun, way to learn to spell obscure words.

What typically predicts how much effective-but-boring deliberate practice a champion engages in? In the Spelling Bee study, it was grit. The champions’ perseverance and passion for their long-term goals enabled them to persist with a preparation technique (solitary study) that was intrinsically less rewarding but far more effective than other techniques. Grit gives us the ability to practice the right thing, rather than to just practice what is fun.

Persistence over time

High-achievers also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time. Ericsson says that “elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.” Spending a half hour jogging over the weekend isn’t going to make you a great runner, but training every day might. Dabbling with your paints every once in awhile isn’t going to make you a great artist, but practicing your drawing every day for a decade might.

True masters gain experience over the long haul—specifically, for 10 years of dedicated work, or 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers, made the “10-year-rule” famous by colorfully illustrating Ericsson’s research. Most successful people average 10 years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he’d been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

And there is something else: People who go to the top of their fields don’t just practice deliberately and persistently, they also rest strategically. This is a key component of success, and one that we often overlook in our 24/7 go go go culture.

For more about the science of rest and how it contributes to performance, check out my next post!

If you like this series of posts, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

Are We Wired to Want Stuff?

I’ll never forget a holiday moment several years ago, when I found myself in a negotiation with my daughter, then a first-grader, over her gift list. (Which, by the way, I don’t believe in. In theory, I’ve never wanted my kids to make lists of things they want for Christmas and Hanukkah. But we did “go see Santa” when they were little, and they did prepare to ask him for a gift, so I’ve never really put my money where my mouth is.)

Anyway, my daughter was in the back of the car rattling off all the things she wanted for Christmas, excitedly, as though it were a done deal and she would soon be receiving everything she ever hoped for. And I was anxiously trying to do damage control: Santa only brings one toy (“Nah-ah, Mom, he brought Ella THREE last year!!”); Santa can’t bring live animals (she passionately wanted a live llama); if your grandparents get you Uggs instead of Payless knock-offs, you won’t get any other presents from them (economic logic lost on a seven-year-old).

I thought I was going to lose my mind. I’d been trying to create special holiday traditions that foster positive emotions like gratitude and altruism—traditions that would bring meaning, connection, and positive memories. And it all seemed to be falling on deaf ears. My children had wish-lists longer than they were tall.  Even my parents were fighting me on going to church Christmas Eve, because they thought it would cut into the gift exchange.

I know I’m not alone. But if we don’t want our children to be whipped into a consumer frenzy, and we value other things, why does this happen, year after year?

One answer, of course, is that on some level our society has come to believe that our economy depends on a gift-giving extravaganza and that the holidays wouldn’t be fun without all the gifts. I’ve been reflecting on this, and on the other forces at work this time of year. Here’s why I think we want, want, want so much stuff come the holidays.

1. We systematically confuse gratification, which is fleeting, with real joy or lasting happiness.

It’s a complex concept for a seven-year-old (and sometimes, for a 37-year-old): We can feel gratified when we get something new—we might even get a hit of pleasure—but that gratification isn’t really the same thing as happiness. Think of how gratitude feels—or compassion, inspiration, or awe. Think of how you feel when you are madly in love with your new baby, or appreciative of your longtime spouse. Those are deep positive emotions—and to me, they’re the positive emotions that are at the foundation of a happy life.

Gratification still feels good. It is central to our brain’s reward and motivation systems. But when we confuse it with actual happiness, we think that we can’t really be happy—or that our kids won’t be happy—without all the gifts and shopping.

2. Our brains are hardwired to pursue rewards.

Happiness is a reward. It’s not that we aren’t built to pursue happiness, because we are. But the keyword here is pursue: Our brain’s built-in reward system motivates us toward all the carrots, large and small, that are dangling out there. We’ll pursue anything that seems like a reward, and our kids will, too. When our brain identifies a possible reward, it releases a powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine. That dopamine rush propels us toward the reward. Dopamine creates a very real desire for the carrot dangled in front of us.

It makes us more susceptible to other temptations as well, which is why when we decide that we want a cashmere sweater, that cookie over there suddenly looks pretty good. High dopamine levels amplify the appeal of immediate gratification (which is why you suddenly can’t stop checking your email), and makes us less concerned about long-term consequences (like your credit card bill).

Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t distinguish between rewards that actually will make us happier and the things that won’t. Dopamine just motivates us to chase them all.

3 . All the carrots being dangled out there are dizzying.

They don’t call it neuro-marketing for nothing—believe me, the advertisers know how to stimulate that dopamine rush in our children. And how does a kid pursue a reward in December? They put it on their wish-list and endlessly nag us until we break down and concede that, yes, sometimes Santa does bring more than one gift. Or that every night of Hanukkah can bring a “little something.”

So when our kids seem greedy or materialistic at this time of year, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed to instill good values in them, or that they are spoiled and bratty. It means that they are human, and that they are under the siege of a marketing-induced dopamine rush.

This is an important lesson for our kids to learn! Here’s how we can help: We can teach them to recognize what makes them want, want, want. We can teach them to realize when they are being manipulated by advertisers.

This is hard, but I’ve seen that it’s possible: The other day, one of my kids was barely watching a distant TV in a Thai restaurant, and she said, “Wow, I know that commercial was meant to make me want those pants, and it WORKED. I really want those pants. I feel like I might be happier if I had THOSE PANTS.” She still wanted the pants, of course, but at least she was gaining some insight into her desire. She couldn’t prevent the dopamine rush, but she could respond to it.

And when we create meaningful traditions, we can teach our kids what truly WILL bring them lasting happiness during the holidays—like starting a gratitude tradition or helping others. Those are the things that they really will remember.

Celebrate “No”vember with 5 Research-Based Ways to Say No

“No”vember means it’s time to start saying no to the people, places, and things draining your energy.

‘Tis the season to practice saying no. Many of us frequently say “yes” to invitations, favors, and requests in order to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying “no,” according to the research of Columbia psychologists Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake.  But saying “yes” when we mean “no” is a recipe for overwhelm and exhaustion.

Fortunately, there are ways to make saying “no” feel less uncomfortable. Below are research-based strategies for saying “no” (without ruffling too many feathers) in five different situations.

#1: You’re asked to work late, but you had been planning to take some time for yourself, like by getting outside for a walk with your dog.

It’s hardest to decline a request when our reasons for doing so are vague, abstract, or seemingly unimportant—especially if we have to give our excuse face-to-face.

One helpful strategy can be to make our excuses more concrete. “I won’t get enough exercise today,” can feel like a weak explanation. But if you actually block off time for things like “hike with Buster” on your calendar, you’ll be able to clearly see when you do and don’t have time to work late. That way, you’ll be able to say with “no” with more conviction–for example by saying, “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

As a bonus, when you have your most important priorities already blocked off on your calendar, you’ll be able to see when you actually do have time to help out. Offering those times to help out can make saying “no” even easier.

#2: A committee, team, or group asks you to take on more work because they are all “too busy.”

Saying “no” to a group can be especially hard, as we risk disappointing not just one person, but many.

However, we probably don’t need to worry as much as we do. Because of what psychologists sometimes call the “harshness bias,” we often believe that people may judge us more negatively than they actually do. The reality is that most people won’t think less of you if you say no. In fact, people tend to respect us more when we are able to set healthy limits.

How best to say no in this situation? Take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of the group, but in the long run it always feels better than being dumped on. Then be candid: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”

#3: You’ve been invited to a party and are really tempted to go, but you’re tired and suspect that you’re getting sick.

We human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will be best for our future, especially when the present option is as pleasure-packed as a party.

We can make better decisions by visualizing the future as clearly as we can, rather than thinking about what we will miss out on now. Think about the last time you skipped sleep for a party. Visualize what happened in as much detail as possible. How did you feel the next day? Ask yourself: What will I look and feel like tomorrow morning if I don’t stay in and get some rest tonight?

Then in your response, summon your crystal ball: “Right now, in this moment, I want to go with you to that party more than you can imagine. But I know that I will regret it if I do. I can see my future if I go to that party, and I know I’ll be too tired to enjoy tomorrow if I go.”

#4: Your plate is already too full.

It’s counter-intuitive, but being short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. That’s according to Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, they explain that the busier we get, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time saying “no” to the next request.

The solution? Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities this week.”

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say “no” rather than “yes” to requests by rehearsing a go-to response when people ask us for favors. Research shows that when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.

#5: Someone asks you to do them a little unethical favor, like cover for them while they skip work.

Americans tend to admire strong individuals who don’t cave in the face of peer pressure, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reject an unethical request. In a series of studies published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts—such as to vandalize a library book by writing the word “pickle” in it.

Fully half of the people asked to do something unethical did it. To say no to a request like this is even more difficult when it comes from a friend. To do so, we need to put our values front and center, reminding ourselves—and our friends—what matters most.

In this situation, two things are important: 1) compassion for your friend’s troubles and 2) your own integrity. Express both of these. Say “no” clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words, if necessary: “I’m so sorry that you are struggling right now, and I wish I could help. But I can’t lie for you. Integrity is really important to me.”

“No” may be very difficult for your friend to hear—as difficult as it is for you to say. Stand your ground. Repeat your compassionate refusal as many times as you need to. By using the same words with each repetition, you indicate to your friend that you aren’t going to be influenced no matter how much pressure he or she lays on.

15 Questions to Ask Kids at Dinner

Dinnertime conversation, I’ve found, goes really well when it’s structured. I’ve posed planned questions for my kids at dinnertime since they were in preschool, starting with “What are you grateful for”? and “What’s one good thing that happened today?” They are all teenagers now, and much better at conversation, but I’ve still found that they talk more openly when we start with a single question that everyone answers.

Conversations like the ones that ensue from the questions below help kids experience themselves as a part of something larger than themselves. This, in turn, is likely to make them more resilient, better adjusted, and more successful in school (as I wrote about here). So here’s an extra challenge: See if you can weave your own answers to the questions below into a narrative demonstrating that your family members have been through both good and bad times together, but through it all, you’ve stuck together.

  1. What are you especially grateful for right now?
  2. What is one kind thing that you did for someone else today?
  3. What is one kind thing that someone else did for you today?
  4. What are your favorite stories that grandpa/grandma told (or still tells)?
  5. For an adult: What did you have as a child that kids today don’t have? How was your life better? How was it worse?
  6. For a kid: What do you have that previous generations didn’t have? How would your life be better without it? How would it be worse?
  7. Who has taught you something important about life? What did they teach you?
  8. For adult: What was your favorite movie or book when you were my age?
  9. For kid: What was your favorite movie or book last year, and what is your favorite now?
  10. What was the hardest thing you went through/have gone through as a child? How did you overcome it?
  11. If you could know anything about our family history or about a relative who has passed away, what would you want to know?
  12. What is the most embarrassing thing your mother or father ever did to you?
  13. What three adjectives would your grandparents use to describe you?
  14. What is the best thing that your grandparents ever cooked? What about your parents?
  15. How are you most different from your parents and grandparents? How are you the same?

Some of these questions were adapted from the “Family Gathering” edition of Table Topics

If you like this post, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

Why I Aim to be a “Deeply Disciplined Half-Ass”

Throughout my life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with hard work.

I credit both my past successes and my past anxiety problems to how hard I’ve worked, to the strive-y part of me that always wants to be right, always wants to be the best, that always wants to do everything correctly.

Ironically, I’ve worked hard to minimize this strive-y part of my personality. I’ve become quite wary of my past “blood, sweat, and tears” method for getting things done, in part because I tend to conflate perseverance with perfectionism. Fortunately, the two things are not the same! There’s nothing wrong with determination towards a worthy goal, especially when the mere pursuit of it— the process — is joyful. But perfectionism is the tendency to persevere well past the “good enough” stage, to persist even when an activity or project becomes joyless, painful, or counter-productive in some way.

There are a lot of problems with perfectionism. For starters, perfectionism is not a happiness habit. Perfectionists are prone to depression and severe anxiety, and they are more likely to commit suicide when things go wrong.

A lot of people incorrectly assume, as I used to, that perfectionism will propel them to the top of their field (or the top of their class or team). But perfectionism doesn’t contribute to success. On the contrary, perfectionism tends to detract from success. Here’s why:

  • Perfectionism creates a steady state of discontent fueled by a stream of negative emotions like fear, frustration, and disappointment. Negative emotions drain our energy and reduce our cognitive abilities.
  • Because failure is not an option for perfectionists, fear of failure becomes a driving force. All that fear diverts energy from more constructive things, making perfectionists less able to learn and be creative. Perfectionists expend a lot of energy on the things they are desperately trying to avoid: failure and the criticism they imagine it will create. Ironically, this preoccupation has been shown to undermine performance in sports, academics, and social situations.
  • Perfectionism — like all fixed-mindset thinking — keeps us from taking risks and embracing the challenge. Overcoming an obstacle is one of the best ways to go from being good at something to being great.
  • Perfectionism leads us to conceal our mistakes and avoid getting constructive feedback. In nearly every field — writing groups are the most obvious example here — group critique is a fast way to get better at something.

Perfectionism is NOT about setting high expectations or being successful in your endeavors. It is about being concerned about making mistakes and about worrying about what others think.

Perfectionism is not a happiness habit. Click To Tweet

About ten years ago, I was able to get my perfectionism under control, but the tendency (for me) is always there. Here’s the weirdest thing about me: At times, I’m a little anxious that I don’t feel guiltier for not continually striving to earn myself an A+ in every little realm of my life.

For this reason and many others, I am totally in love with Liz Gilbert’s book Big Magic. In it, she clarifies: Success and happiness aren’t just about not being perfectionistic. They come when we allow ourselves to be mediocre if that’s what it takes to complete a project or task. We don’t need to feel guilty about the areas in our lives where we’re half-assing it, she assures us when we prioritize completing tasks and projects over perfecting them. She explains:

The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to develop quite the opposite: You must learn how to become an intensely disciplined half-ass.

It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.

“Become a deeply disciplined half-ass” is some of the best happiness advice I’ve ever heard. And in a world where people begin loads of projects but are too busy (or afraid of not being good enough) to complete much of anything, completion is a strategy that will put you ahead of the pack.

If you need more discipline, think about cultivating work rituals or developing some new habits. If you struggle with perfectionism, read Big Magic to become your most authentic, good-enough self.

Want more tips for conquering perfectionism, or developing discipline? You might like my free guide to saving time, How to Gain an Extra Day Each Week. This free eBook will leave you with practical results so that you can generate more time for the things that matter most to you.

how-and-why-to-go-on-a-real-vacation-christine-carter

How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

Nearly 40 percent of US employees feel like they have too much work to take a vacation. But research suggests you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you do.

Last year, I was invited by KJ Dell’Antonia of The New York Times to coach Julie, a partner at a law firm who was feeling overwhelmed and inefficient at work. Julie planned to leave for a family vacation right after we spoke, and she worried that she was going to forget everything she learned about finding more ease and efficiency at work by the time she got back from vacation.

But I saw an excellent opportunity: Julie could use her vacation as a way to increase her enjoyment and productivity after she returned to work.

How? For starters, we know that vacationing can increase happiness and lower depression and stress. Productivity increases at work both before and after a vacation. And vacationing can also increase creativity and improve health. (Did you know that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack? And that women who rarely vacation are an astounding 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack; they are also much more likely to suffer from depression.)

Maybe you can’t afford not to take a vacation this year.

There are some caveats, however: Happiness only increases when a vacation is relaxing. So how can we actually relax on our vacations?

First, plan a true vacation — one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work.

This might be blazingly obvious, but not working is a critical aspect of actually taking time off. So don’t do what Julie was planning to do, which was to hide that she was out of the office from some of her clients. She could easily do this by checking and responding to email throughout the day from her vacation. While you might be able to work from your vacation, you won’t reap the many benefits of a vacation if you do so.

So see if you can find a vacation partner, someone who will cover for you at work should an urgent situation arise. (A reciprocal relationship is ideal: They handle your work while you are gone, then you do the same when they take their vacation.)

Then tell your team at work your plan: You are going on vacation. You will be totally unplugged from work. You will not be checking in, or checking email. But you’ve planned well: In case of emergency, they can contact your colleague, who will either handle the situation or, as a last resort, get in touch with you.

Don’t forget to do this for any unpaid jobs you might have as well. If the kids’ swim team counts on you to organize volunteers, make sure you’ve handed this duty off to someone while you’re gone. I’ve found that having someone handle things on my behalf while I’m gone enables me and the people I work with to relax a little more.

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally.

It is possible (as you probably know from experience, especially if you have kids) to return from vacation more exhausted than when you left. Research indicates that having pleasurable and relaxing experiences on your vacation, along with savoring those experiences, are important for remaining happier after a vacation for a longer period of time.

Again, this is totally obvious, but not all vacations are relaxing. The lure of adventure or philanthropic travel for novelty-seeking people like me is great. We pack our vacations with nonstop action when what we really need is time at the pool to nap. Here, from my desk, it seems so much more fun to travel to multiple areas in a new country rather than just see one beach. Our more more more culture leads us to believe that more will definitely be better–more activities, more destinations, more sights to be seen.

Plan a true vacation -- one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work. Click To Tweet

Before you pack your vacation with a lot of stuff that will actually leave you needing a vacation from your vacation, schedule yourself some downtime. Will you be able to get eight hours of sleep each night? (And if you accumulated a sleep debt before you left, will you have time to nap as well?)

Is there some aspect of the travel likely to cause you so much anxiety that you’ll be better off skipping it? Will you have time to truly savor the pleasurable aspects of your time away? Eliminate all preventable stress and time pressure from your schedule before you leave, and don’t let people tell you what you “should” do, or “have to” do while visiting a place that they love. Instead, ask yourself what you need most out of your vacation. Plan from there.

Finally, plan your re-entry.

What do you need to do so that your first day back is joyful rather than hectic? Here are a few things that work for me:

  • I have a “no hellish travel” rule — no overnight or complicated flights home that will leave me sleep-deprived and wiped out.
  • I dedicate the first day I’m back at work to just playing catch up — I don’t actually try to accomplish anything other than get through my email, return phone calls, go grocery shopping, and get my laundry done and put away. If I’m traveling home from a different time zone, I come back a day early to allow myself to adjust. (It is tempting max-out vacation time by staying away as long as possible, so I often need to remind myself that my goal is to come back rested and rejuvenated.)
  • I think of the email that comes in while I’m on vacation similar to the snail mail that comes to my house — someone needs to pick it up and sort it while I’m gone. (When I didn’t have an assistant to help me with email, I paid a high school aged neighbor $10 a day to do this for me; she loved the job and it was easy to get her set up.) I create special folders before I leave, and I have someone sort new incoming email into them once a day, deleting promotions and sending personal “vacation responses” where necessary.

My first day back, my inbox is — get this — empty. The emails I need to respond to first are nicely prioritized into a folder. This system isn’t perfect, of course, but it is much better than returning to 1,000 unread messages.

Join the Discussion

This summer, will you be taking a vacation? Will any aspects of it be difficult? If so, which ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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How to Only Do Things You Actually Want to Do

Recently, I started getting loads of requests for help managing too-long task lists, and so I published this process for organizing them. Ineffective task lists make us feel like we have too much to do in too little time, which makes us feel overwhelmed. Ironically, this makes us worse at planning and managing our time.

You might have a perfectly organized task list, though, that is still triggering overwhelm — I just went through one with a client, and frankly I was exhausted just looking at it. If your task list is sending you into an “I don’t have enough time to do all this” tail spin, it’s time to whittle that puppy down into something more manageable. This is a different process than organizing your to-do list, or formatting it in a more effective way. This is about shortening that list — dumping the stuff you dread — without suffering the consequences of not doing what you actually have to do to get done.*

In an ideal world, we would all be able to apply Marie Kondo’s world famous principles for cleaning out our closet to our to-do list: Anything that doesn’t “spark joy” we put in the trash (delete) or give away (delegate). Most of my clients start off with very little on their task list that they look forward to doing; one recently declared that she only puts stuff on her to-do list that she doesn’t want to do, because she remembers to do what she actually wants to do.

How to transform a too-long to-do list into a list of only the things that you actually want to do. Click To Tweet

So here’s how to transform a too-long to-do list into a list of only the things that you actually want to do:

Step 1: Highlight all the items on your to-do list that you dread doing. Hold each task list item in your mind’s eye, and notice how it feels to think about doing that item in your body. Do you lean forward a little, feeling a longing to get right to that task? (Don’t highlight items that feel like that.) Or do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach, with a corresponding desire to put the task off as long as possible? Highlight anything that makes you feel anything akin to aversion.

Highlight all the things that you’ve been procrastinating because you simply don’t want to do those things. And highlight the things that are on your list because you feel like you “should” do them, or because you feel you have to do them, but that you don’t want to do or wouldn’t say you are choosing to do (or that you wouldn’t say with some delight that you “get to” do). In other words, highlight the things you plan to do simply because someone expects you to do it, or because you’ve always expected yourself to do those things, or because doing them would bring you status or power (but no actual joy in the process).

Step 2: Delete or delegate as many highlighted items as you possibly can. Start by deleting, then move on to delegating. Be truthful here; if you know in your heart of hearts that you’ll probably never do a task item anyway, or that there will be little consequence if you don’t do a highlighted item on your list, just scratch it off the list and be done with it.

You may feel relieved, or even accomplished (given that your list is getting shorter so quickly!). Or, you may feel anxious or even sad while doing this. Acknowledge your emotions, whatever they may be, as you madly delete items from your task list. Be curious about whatever you are feeling, and accepting of your emotions — but no need to get involved in them. Maybe you need to mourn (a little tiny bit) the fact that you are never going to make those photo albums (that you hate making but really felt like you should make). It’s normal to feel sad, or a sense of regret — but also, be real: you aren’t grieving anything tangible, you’re grieving the loss of a fantasy. For example, you’re giving up the fantasy that you are the type of person who makes photo albums. Or that writes strategic plans. Or that answers every single email. Oh well. Let yourself feel what you feel, and move on. This is a process of letting go.

If a highlighted task is something that absolutely does need to be done and thus can’t just be deleted, try to think of someone else who’d actually enjoy doing it, and make a plan for how you can delegate it to that person. If you don’t have an assistant or employees or children to delegate to, consider neighborhood teens and retirees who’d like experience, your company, or a little extra cash. Or, think of people who need help with something you enjoy doing, and negotiate a trade with them. All of this may seem like a lot more work than just doing the task yourself, but I promise, you will thank me later. Having a task list that is both short enough to not be overwhelming and that is loaded with things you’ll enjoy doing is worth the initial inefficiency.

Step 3: Transform anything left on your list that is highlighted into something that you actually want to do. If you can’t delete or delegate tasks that you dread, then you’ll have to make them better. Be creative. My favorite way to do this is to pair a not-fun task item with something you want to do more of. I’ve been known to sit on the lawn in the sun and make doctors appointments, and I listen to fun audiobooks while driving to pick up kids and while cleaning the house (I just listened to A Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and I highly recommend it). My co-worker and I have been putting off reviewing our financial systems for, oh, years, but we just made a plan to do it together this summer poolside. There will be margaritas involved, and needless to say, we aren’t dreading the task anymore!

Understanding the value a task has for other people is another good way to make it more fulfilling (thus decreasing the dread factor). In a stunning series of studies, Adam Grant showed that briefly showing people how their work helps others increases not only how happy people are on the job but also how much they work and accomplish.

Grant’s most famous series of studies were conducted at a call center with paid fundraisers tasked with phoning potential donors to a public university. As anyone who’s ever dreaded making a cold call knows, these people probably did not have the to-do list of their dreams. People receiving cold calls from solicitors are often annoyed and can be downright rude. Employees must endure frequent rejection on the phone and low morale at the office—all in exchange for relatively low pay. Not surprisingly, call center jobs often have a high staff turnover rate.

In an effort to see if he could motivate call center fundraisers to stay on the job longer, Grant brought in a few scholarship students (who presumably had benefited from the fundraisers’ work) for a five-minute meeting where callers could ask them questions about their classes and experience at the university. In the next month, that quick conversation yielded unbelievable results. Callers who had met the scholarship students spent twice as long on the phone as the fundraisers who had not met any students. They accomplished far more, bringing in an average of 171 percent more money.

What made the difference? What, essentially, shifted the task of making cold calls from one people didn’t enjoy to one that they did? A shift in the callers’ beliefs about the meaning of their work for other people, and an increased sense of their purpose, value, and impact. So find out what value your work has for other people. How are you making their lives or jobs better?

Voila!

You’ve just Marie Kondo-ed your task list! Everything left on it at this point is now the stuff you actually want to do, the tasks that “spark joy.” If you’re like my client who doesn’t need to keep a list of the things she wants to do, you no longer need to keep a to-do list — you just need to remember to delete, delegate or transform the things you don’t want to do. And if your list still feels too long and overwhelming, now is the time for some task-list organizing — check this post out for how to do that.

*I learned this method from Martha Beck, so many thanks and 1,000 hat tips to her. These steps are an adaptation of her “Better, Barter, or Bag” it strategy.