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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.

 

Please Stop Interrupting Me!

Why interruptions make us irritable, anxious, and unproductive

Several years ago, I devised a system for quickly getting into the “zone” while I wrote. Free from distractions and interruptions, I wrote quickly, joyfully, and with surprisingly little effort.

But then we moved, and now my husband and I both work mostly from home. And although we work in separate rooms, at opposite ends of the house, he is forever interrupting me, jarring me out of that coveted state of flow. He’ll saunter into my office to use my recycling bin, and even if my attention is clearly fixed on my work, he’ll put his face right in front of my computer screen and lean in for a smooch.

I recognize how sweet this is. And I am super grateful to have such a loving and affectionate husband. And I appreciate being able to work from home, because it allows me more time with both my husband and my children (who also interrupt me constantly once they are home from school).

But by 4:00 pm, each interruption causes me so much irritation that it sometimes borders on rage. Even when the person interrupting me is a considerate and whispering middle-schooler needing homework help, or a loving husband who wants to shower me with affection, I feel frustrated and snappish.

Am I overreacting? Perhaps I could try harder to keep my irritation in check, but research gives me some grounds for it. In fact, studies have found that getting interrupted isn’t just a nuisance; it’s costly and problematic. Here are three sometimes hidden costs to interruptions.

For starters, they cost us a lot of time. On average, interruptions take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from–even if the distraction is only a minute!

For example, say I’m uber-focused, but then my hubby (or perhaps your co-worker) comes in for a minute or two to chit-chat about dinner plans (or for an upcoming meeting). Before I turn my attention back to my work, I might decide to take a quick peek at my email, and while I’m doing that, notice that I’ve missed a call and three texts. If I answer just a few of these incoming communications, it may well be longer than 23 minutes before I get back to work.

I suppose, if I tried really hard, I could get back on track faster. But that effort takes focus and energy that I could be putting toward my writing or other work.

Second, interruptions lower the quality of our work. A mountain of research has demonstrated time and again that interruptions increase our error rate. For example, when college students that are concentrating on a task are interrupted for 2.8 seconds, they make twice as many errors as those who are not interrupted. When they are interrupted for 4.4 seconds, their error rate triples.

According Glenn Wilson at the University of London, just being in a work situation where you can be interrupted by text and email can decrease your IQ by 10 points. For writers like me, the news here is even more depressing: Interruptions measurably lower both the quantity and the quality of writing we can do in even a very short period of time (20 minutes).

Finally, interruptions contribute to stress and overwhelm, making us feel conflicted and time-pressured. As we shift our focus between tasks–as when we steal a glance at our email while we are working on a presentation–it increases our perception that we have too much to do in the time that we have to do it.

According to Gloria Mark, who studies interruption at UC Irvine, when we are diverted from one task to another, we can pick up our work pace to make up for lost time, but this increased speed comes at a cost: People who’ve been interrupted report having a greater workload, more stress and frustration, feeling more time pressure, and exerting more effort.

And guess what? This makes a lot of people feel annoyed, anxious, and irritable, as I do. Behavioral scientist Alan Keen believes the stress and overload that comes from constantly being expected to multitask is causing an “epidemic of rage.” Interruption and task switching raises stress hormones and adrenaline, which tends to make us more aggressive and impulsive.

The takeaway: Interruption drains our energy and dampens our performance. The stress, inefficiency, inaccuracy, and time pressure that interruptions create are the very opposite of being in the sweet spot.

Many working parents face high interruption threat this summer, when kids are out of school and hanging around while we try to do our work. Not only that, summer can also bring a shortened work day, as we shuttle our kids to camps that start later and end earlier than school. This only increases time pressure, making it all the more important to be able to focus and work efficiently- WITHOUT INTERRUPTION.

Whether or not you are a working parent, let’s help each other out: How do you maintain your focus at this time of year? How do you minimize interruptions?

Dear Christine: How Can I Get More Sleep?

Hi Christine,

I have a habit of going to bed later than I want and then being rushed in the morning and getting to work late. For several years now, I’ve been wanting to get to bed earlier, but I can’t seem to do it.

I have a tendency to feel pretty driven and busy during the day, and the evening feels like my only time to relax. I binge-watch Netflix, scroll through my social media and news alerts, and generally get caught doing random things on my phone until late at night. But when I think about going to bed early, I feel kind of deprived. I think I actually do need time to wind down and take a break before I go to sleep, even when I’m totally exhausted.

I would like to try again to go to bed earlier, but I feel a little nervous about it because I’ve made that resolution before and not been successful quite a few times.

Thanks,
Tired and Running Late

Dear Tired and Running Late,

I hear you on all fronts. Who hasn’t resolved to get to bed earlier, only to find themselves going to bed late night after night? I think most people these days have experienced the same frustration (if not with sleep, then with another resolution). It’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns.

Though frustrating, it’s normal to struggle to change our daily routines. Research suggests that 88 percent of people have failed to stick to their resolutions to change; we humans are creatures of habit. Our brains crave routine and resist change.

So how do we change our habits?

Going to bed earlier is a realistic and worthy goal—one that will have very real benefits for you in your busy life. To do so, however, you will do well to change your thoughts before you try to change your habits.

For starters, I’m guessing that the reason you feel nervous about trying to do this again is that failing to keep your resolutions in the past has been stressful. This is normal, but we usually aren’t successful at changing our habits when we’re anxious about it.

Failing at our resolutions is more stressful when we opt for self-flagellation in the face of our setbacks or lapses. We tend to think that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or we’ll motivate ourselves towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Why? Because self-criticism doesn’t work. It’s stressful, and it doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion—being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves—does help when we fall short of our intentions or our goals. It leads to less anxiety, less depression, and greater peace of mind—and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

So, the first step to making lasting change is to simply forgive yourself for having failed in the past. It’s okay; it’s normal, even. You did the best you could with the skills you had. Take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a really good friend: Use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Remind yourself that few people are successful the first time they try to change their routines, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

The next step is to figure out what’s holding you back.

This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing you to go to bed later than you are intending to.

You’ve already identified a major obstacle to getting to bed at a reasonable hour: You don’t relax during the day, and so you need time to unwind at night. This is likely more of an identity obstacle than a practical one. By that I mean that I doubt there is an actual, physical obstacle that is keeping you from unwinding earlier in the day or evening. Instead, I’m guessing that there is something that you believe (maybe about yourself, or about your success) that’s holding you back.

A chart of how beliefs influence emotions then behaviors then routines

Our beliefs really matter when it comes to our behavior. Our thoughts—about ourselves, other people, our circumstances—and the meaning we attribute to our world tend to trigger our emotions, and our emotions are often the motivation for our behavior. Our actions, when repeated, become habits.

And what we do repeatedly tends to add up to our accomplishments. Our outcomes are usually often lagging measures of our habits. You’re tired and running late (outcomes) because of your habit of going to bed late. Feeling deprived of rest led you to stay up late. What beliefs do you hold that keep you from taking breaks during the day? When we get back to our identity, we can see how much what we believe about ourselves can influence our habits. For example, you mention that you are busy and driven. These are beliefs about yourself common to many ambitious people these days.

I relate totally. Until a few years ago, every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy. Busy and important. As such, I was always running late, white knuckling it through an over-packed day.

I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. At one point, for example, I ran a half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven five hours to support me. The busier I was, the more important I felt.

I held a common mistaken belief: that busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security. And I believed the reverse, as well: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, and they are missing out.

Part of my identity included a constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and values about busyness that triggered emotions (feelings of importance, significance), which motivated behaviors (not resting—running with a fever). Over time, staying busy all the time and never resting became a habit, and it really affected my outcomes: Eventually, my body broke down. I got really, really sick, again and again—and this forced me to rest. It also caused me to change my beliefs about myself, and my success.

Behavior that conflicts with our identity doesn’t last. As long as I believed that my busyness was a sign of my productivity and the source of my success, even the idea of resting created a vague anxiety that I was possibly about to fail at something—or that I was about to miss an important email or opportunity.

In order to finally change, it wasn’t that I had to try harder to sleep more, or that I needed more willpower or self-discipline to rest when I was tired, injured, or sick. It was that I needed to change my beliefs about myself, and about my success.

The more deeply something is tied to our identity, the harder it is to change it. By the same token, the more a new behavior is aligned with our beliefs about ourselves, the more likely it is that we’ll adopt it.

Just as I had to upgrade the part of my identity that was keeping me in a continual state of busyness and exhaustion, I suspect you do, too, Tired and Running Late. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that feeling busy and tired isn’t contributing to your success. At all.

In fact, you can probably already see how getting enough sleep, not rushing in the morning, and getting to work on time are better bets than busyness and exhaustion. Can you take the part of your identity that feels driven during the day and upgrade that from “busy and driven” to “relaxed, focused, and productive,” or something like that?

And then dig into your beliefs about what leads to productivity and focus. I can tell you with certainty that never resting and not taking breaks throughout the day will not help you do your best work, get a lot done, or stay focused when you need to be.

Plenty of research has shown that taking breaks, even brief ones, dramatically improves our performance and productivity. When we don’t take breaks, our focus and the quality of our work usually suffers. But when we do rest throughout the day, we can work for much longer without the quality of our work, or our focus, suffering.

Your mission then, should you choose to accept it, is to take breaks throughout the day. Take a proper lunch break. Go for a short walk between meetings at work. When you get home from work, don’t immediately jump into the next activity—wind down a little. Read a book. Watch a 20-minute sitcom. Call a friend.

Try taking as many breaks as you need to take so that you don’t feel deprived of rest at bedtime.

Do this as an experiment, and record how much you get done and how well you do it. Gather evidence that you are relaxed, focused, and productive—or whatever your upgraded identity is—throughout the day. Note it if you experience greater feelings of relaxation, or more focus. Relish it if you take time to relax before it’s time for bed.

Above all, enjoy the heck out of your breaks. Don’t plan them, don’t worry about them—just let yourself take them. All you need to do is show up, and a little added rest will work its magic on your life. And do let me know how it’s going. I’m hoping, Tired and Running Late, that you’ll soon be signing off as Relaxed, Focused, and Productive.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Sign up for Christine’s monthly email list (that’s right: it’s only one email per month) to receive notifications of new columns. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

A Family Guide for Surviving the Summer

While not all of summer is destined to feel like a day at the beach, setting routines and expectations for the season can make it more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family.

I don’t know about you, but I fantasize all year about the leisure that summer will bring. And then summer arrives, and instead of cocktails at sunset and naps at noon, I find that the potential for chaos has skyrocketed.

So over the years, as I’ve sought to make my summers less chaotic and more joyful, I’ve developed a three-step guide for setting my family up for success. I hope you will find it helpful!

1. Create new routines for summer.

The familiar routines of the school year will not survive even the first day of summer, like it or not, even if our adult work schedules don’t change in the least. But we human beings need routines and habits, or we get stressed. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals and habits are a primary way to manage stress. The fast-paced world we live in can feel quite unpredictable, but our daily rituals can help us feel more in control, often without us ever realizing it.

Before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. Click To Tweet

So before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. For starters, this means redefining bedtimes and mealtimes, which all get moved later in our household. I change my exercise routine to maximize the time I spend outside and my morning routine, because I have more time to meditate.

The summer is prime time for more digital detox. We don’t relax tech rules for our kids over the summer, we step them up. If we don’t designate device- and social media-free time for all family members, I’ve found my kids walk around in a screen-stoned stupor. Even a few minutes on social media and they suddenly find it impossible to do anything productive, creative or truly restful. And we parents also easily get sucked into compulsively checking our devices while we are trying to “work” from the beach, playground or camp pick up.

To counter the siren song of our phones, we designate specific times and places we’ll spend without devices each day (always dinnertime, and, for the kids, throughout most of the day as well); each week (we try to have technology-free Sundays); and each month (we do a full digital detox when we are on vacation together).

The key, I’ve found, is to actually spell out the new routines and expectations for kids.

2. Create a family calendar.

Maybe this is utterly obvious, but everything is calmer if things feel predictable. We have four kids with four different camp and summer schedules, so it’s helpful for everyone to be able to track everyone else’s whereabouts. Instead of relying on our complicated online calendar – which I love and couldn’t live without, but I am the only one in our family who looks at it consistently – one of my teenage daughters created an adorable top-level calendar in a Google spreadsheet that we print out and tape to the refrigerator. We also have the summer chore rotation on this printout. This calendar has all family events, such as birthdays and vacations, everyone’s camp schedules, major events like tournaments and my work travel schedule.

3. Raise expectations regarding chores and responsibilities.

Kids have more time on their hands over the summer, which means that they have more time to help out around the house.

We don’t tie their allowance to their regular household responsibilities or weekly chores, and we don’t pay them extra over the summer when they are doing more to help out. We know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do.

We’ve had to spell this out for our kids, repeatedly. The lawn needs mowing more often in the summer, and Dad doesn’t get paid a dime to do it. This week, in addition to my paid work, I’ll take all the kids to their annual exams at the doctor’s office; I’ll help them label all their clothes for camp; I’ll purchase and wrap a lot of graduation gifts. I’m not getting paid to do any of these things, even if I don’t feel like doing them. And that’s OK. We don’t need to love every single thing we do every single minute of every day, so long as we can see the bigger picture – the bigger reward. Being in a big, stable, high functioning family is awesome. And it requires a lot of work. Families are built on mutual obligations – the ways that we help and nurture each other – not paid work.

Kids are happier and more confident when they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Giving them real responsibilities around the house fuels an intrinsic sense of place and belonging. Research shows that kids who do unpaid chores are happier and have a higher sense of self-worth. But when we pay kids to play a role in the family, we unwittingly kill their intrinsic motivation by providing a flashy external motivator: money. They often start to see themselves more like household employees – and quit their “jobs” when their allowance is no longer enough to motivate them.

Our summer routines, calendars peppered with vacation days, and the increased help around the house (for those of us with kids older than 8 or 9) can mean that there actually is more time for leisure and rest this summer. Perhaps tonight I’ll meet my husband for a sunset cocktail while one kid preps dinner and another mows the lawn. Cheers to making this the best summer yet!

Originally posted on US News & World Report, June 2017

This is What I Hope I’ve Taught You

This week, my sweet Fiona graduates from high school.

As longtime readers of my blog know, Fiona went to a boarding high school. Having her leave home four years early was very hard for me at first; truly, there were a few weeks there when I thought I would never stop crying. Anyhoo, before Fiona left, I attempted to write down everything I’d hoped I’d taught her during her childhood. (I did start by thinking it would be a 5 or maybe 7 item listicle; clearly, I had issues letting go because the list stretched on and on.) In honor of her graduation, here is the original list. Fiona, CONGRATULATIONS! Thank you for letting me blog about you: You are a joy and an inspiration.

1. Make kindness the central theme of your life. Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity. Don’t be tricked into thinking that happiness will come from getting what you want; happiness comes from giving, not getting. When you’re feeling down, help someone else.

2. Tolerate discomfort. Have the difficult conversations. Let yourself truly notice when other people are suffering. Do the right thing even when the right thing is hard. You are strong enough.

3. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

4. Let go of what other people think of you. Another person’s opinion of you is their business, not yours. Great leaders are often criticized. Especially ignore critics who seem delighted when you stumble.

5. Invite constructive criticism from the people who want the best for you. Other people offer us a different view; we need their broader perspective to grow and improve.

6. Accept that well-meaning and loving people will sometimes give you bad advice. You’ll know when something isn’t right for you because you’ll feel it in your body. Our unconscious mind is our best source of intelligence, communicating through intuition and bodily sensations, not words. Learn how to read your “body compass.”

7. Know the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Legitimate fear, like terror in the presence of a dangerous person, makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. When you feel legitimate fear, run like the wind. Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. (Like when we are afraid of looking stupid and so don’t ask an important question.) Ignore your hesitation. As Maria Shriver wrote in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring … Whatever you’re afraid of–that is the very thing you should try to do.”

Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly. Click To Tweet

8. Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly.

9. When you hurt someone, apologize. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, or you think they are over-reacting.

10. Look people in the eye. Chat with people in elevators and in line at the store. Look up. Smile.

11. Develop a strong handshake. Try to connect with people in your first interaction. Let them feel your delight in them (even if you are scared to death).

12. Hug people liberally. Even people you’ve just met. People are stressed. They need more love. Don’t withhold it.

13. Don’t compare yourself to others. When we get caught in a web of thinking that we are better or worse than others, we usually end up depressed, anxious, and insecure. If you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, try asking yourself these questions: What do I appreciate about those people? How can I connect with or learn from them? How can I add value to their lives?

14. Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.

15. Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, even if everyone else is doing it. High heels are like cigarettes; they are bad for your health. More than that, they get you in the habit of ignoring pain in order to look good to others, which is never a good idea.

16. Let yourself feel what you feel. When we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed), we live in a world that offers many ways to numb those negative feelings—to not really feel them. But to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. Practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

17. Train your brain to see the positive in your life by keeping a gratitude journal.

18. Don’t believe everything you think. If a thought is stressing you out, it is probably untrue.

19. If you feel overwhelmed, unplug. Create times and places in your life every single day where you are free from technology.

20. Make your bed, and keep your room clean. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The outside tends to match the inside.

21. Know when and how to say “no.” That way, you’ll feel more joy when you say “yes.”

22. Chase meaning, not happiness. What purpose or value does your work and your passion have for other people? If you don’t know, find out.

23. Focus on the journey, not the achievement. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, or saving your happiness for when you get where you are going, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

24. Remember that talents are actually skills. Talent” comes from hard work, passion, and great coaching or teaching.

25. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone does something hurtful or annoying, consider that it isn’t about you. Practice compassion and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others.

26. Make mistakes. In the classroom, in your relationships, on the athletic field, at parties, at home. We learn stuff from our mistakes that we couldn’t learn any other way.

27. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-criticism makes us depressed, and much more likely to make the same mistake again. Instead, remind yourself that mistakes make us human. Feel compassion for your suffering. It can feel really awful to make a mistake. It’s okay to feel awful—to feel frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, disappointed, etc. You can handle these feelings.

28. Repair your mistakes. Use them to become a better person.

29. Love what is. Wishing to be older or younger, wanting other people to be different than they are, wanting it to be sunny when it is raining—this is fighting with reality, and it is a futile and frustrating pastime.

30. If you are tired, rest. Working 24/7 will get you nowhere fast. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

31. Remind yourself that more is not necessarily better. Do this especially if you are worried that you won’t have enough of something, if you feel like you don’t have as much as others, or if you are feeling ungenerous with your belongings or your time. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more likes on Instagram, more clothes, more popular or important friends, more prestigious schools. But as they accumulate more, odds are, they’ll just want more! True abundance is not a quantity of something; it is a quality of life, a feeling of sufficiency. When we step back from the idea that more might be better, often we see that we have enough to share.

32. Surround yourself with people and situations that make you laugh uncontrollably. Laughter is heaven on earth.

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.” —Alfred Mercier

Thursday Thought

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”
—Alfred Mercier

Many of our children are graduating this month! My wish for my children and yours is that they look back on the past year with gratitude and forward with optimism for the future.

Dear Christine How Can I help my stressed-out teen?

Dear Christine: How Can I Help My Stressed-Out Teenager?

Dear Christine,

I know you have teenage daughters around the same age, so I’m hoping you have some insight about how to help kids deal with stress. My youngest daughter has always been confident, gregarious, and goal-oriented. But starting in her sophomore year in high school, she’s not been herself. She’s stressed and bitchy with us, and suffers from general malaise. She’s had a lot of stomachaches and headaches and was even experiencing hair loss, so we took her to the pediatrician and then a specialist to make sure she didn’t have an underlying medical problem. She doesn’t. The doctors say her symptoms are due to stress.

As a family, we try to keep things mellow, upbeat, and relaxed. We don’t put pressure on her to perform or achieve. She goes to therapy, and we are in close contact with her doctors. But, still, she is not herself. I understand that she cares a lot about her grades and schoolwork, but to be totally honest, I’m not really sure what she’s so stressed about.

How can I get my daughter back?

Thank you,
Pulling Out My Own Hair

Dear Hair-Puller,

Your daughter is not alone. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that fewer than half of her generation would rate their own mental health as “excellent” or “very good.” And it doesn’t seem to get better as they get older; more than 90 percent of today’s 18 to 21 year olds experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month (this is very high compared to other adults). In addition to the physical symptoms your daughter is experiencing, other common symptoms of stress include feeling depressed or sad, showing a lack of interest in school or their daily lives, lacking motivation or energy, and feeling nervous or anxious.

What seems to be new about today’s teenagers is that they aren’t just stressed about what’s going on at home or at school or in their own lives—they’re stressed about the world they are living in. For example, three quarters say they are stressed about mass and school shootings. More than half feel stressed about the current political climate, and more than two-thirds feel significantly stressed about our nation’s future. About 60 percent are worried about the rise in suicide rates, about climate change and global warming, and about the separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. The list goes on and on and on.

It’s no wonder that our teens are suffering. Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do for our stressed-out teens. You’ve already done a couple of important things: You’ve taken your daughter to the doctor and gotten her into therapy. Professional help is always a great place to start.

What else can we do? I’ve taken a lot of advice on this topic from Lisa Damour, who has a relevant new book out called Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide to helping girls cope with stress, this book is the best one I’ve read. Here are three steps to helping teens cope.

1. First, just listen

Ask them to describe the difficult circumstance that is stressing them out. Maybe it is a problematic friendship; perhaps they didn’t make a team they really wanted to be on.

At this stage, acknowledge that their difficulties are real—even if they sorta seem dramatic or overblown or irrational. The key is not to deny what they are going through and how it is making them feel (e.g., by saying something like, “But you have so many friends!” when they say that they are lonely). Instead, have them simply give you the facts of the hard place they are in, and, in response, show calm curiosity about their experience. The goal is not to take away their pain. The goal is for them to feel seen and heard by you.

Second, help them identify how they are feeling in response to the stressor. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I feel stressed and nervous.” This is the “name it to tame it” technique; research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If they start telling you a story that is making them more emotional, gently bring them back to what they are feeling. The task here is to identify WHAT they are feeling, not necessarily WHY they are feeling that way. This can be hard; we get attached to our narratives about why we are upset. It’s usually easier to stick to our story than it is to reveal how we are feeling. But again, the task here is to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.

See if you can sum up their stressful experience or circumstance (the facts, not the story) and their feelings about the circumstance in a simple phrase or two. For example, “You didn’t know how to solve five questions on your math test today, and you are feeling really scared that your grade is going to drop in that class.” Throw in a little empathy if you feel like you need to say something else: “That’s so hard. I can remember some very difficult math tests when I was in high school, too. It’s awful.”

Again: Resist the urge to give advice, make suggestions for how they can fix the problem, or offer platitudes like “This too shall pass.” You do not need to offer reassurance. Really. Right now, teens need to feel heard, and if you say something along the lines of “Everything will be okay” or offer specific reassurance like “Even if you fail the test, you’ll still probably have an A- average,” they’ll notice that you’ve missed the main thing they are trying to communicate, which is that they are very stressed out.

The other goal here is to show them that you are not anxious about their anxiety; you accept it. This helps them drop their resistance to the stressor. Why? Because resisting the current reality doesn’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better—it just amplifies the difficult emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the old aphorism that what we resist persists; weirdly, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty.

The more our kids resist reality, the more likely it is that they will start showing signs of a dysregulated stress response. In other words, when kids aren’t managing stressful or difficult situations effectively, they tend to start having larger and larger stress responses to smaller and smaller stimuli.

2. Encourage them to diagnose their stress

Damour’s stance is that we parents are most useful to our teenagers when we help them ask themselves: “What is the source of my stress?” and “Why am I anxious?” It might be obvious to you what is going on; the task here isn’t to hand them a diagnosis but, rather, to help them see for themselves what is going on more clearly.

It can help to let kids know what stresses most people out. Sonia Lupien at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress has a convenient acronym for what makes life stressful: NUTS.

Novelty
Unpredictability
Threat to the ego
Sense of control

We can help our kids identify causes of stress by looking for what might be new or changing in their life; looking for sources of unpredictability; identifying ways that their competence or safety is being threatened; and asking about the things in their lives that feel out of their control.

In addition to searching for sources of stress, it can be helpful for teens to classify the particular strain of stress they are experiencing: Is it related to a negative life event? Is it the result of cumulative day-to-day difficulties that are beyond the teen’s control?

Life-event stressors are things like the death of a loved one, or changing schools, or dealing with your parent’s divorce. The more change a life event requires a teen to make, the more stressful it will tend to be.

Chronic stress is when “basic life circumstances are persistently difficult,” according to Damour. Chronic stress is caused by things like living in poverty or living with a severely depressed parent, or having a chronic illness like cancer. I also suspect that many of today’s teens are experiencing a form of chronic stress caused by current events—global warming, rising suicide rates, mass shootings, etc. And social media is a source of chronic stress for many teens; nearly half say social media makes them feel judged, and more than a third report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.

Surprisingly, one study found that the number of daily hassles a teen faces can predict their emotional distress over time, and that daily hassles have a greater impact on teens’ well-being than other types of stress. Daily hassles are often related to negative life events and chronic stressors, of course—a death in the family, for example, can create a mountain of hassle.

Surprisingly, daily hassles tend to be more distressing for teens than negative life events or chronic stress. Knowing this, often we can help kids solve some of their daily hassles, even if we can’t change their circumstances.

For example, last year one of my teenage daughters was going through a really hard time at school socially, and she was having some minor but persistent health problems. She also had a daily hassle: getting home from school. She had to walk 1.2 miles to her bus stop, and she was often waiting, sometimes in the rain, for 40 minutes or more for the bus to come. This was precious homework time. She was super stressed and having a hard time keeping up in her classes. I couldn’t ease her social pain or fix her health (both chronic stressors), but we eliminated the daily hassle of getting her home from school—the straw that was breaking the camel’s back—by creating a carpool.

3. Finally, help them see where their stress is healthy

It can help teens to teach them the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress, according to Damour, is the tension or strain we feel when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. Stress is healthy and helpful when it creates enough tension and strain to foster growth.

Think of a muscle that is stressed by weight training: It tenses up and even breaks down a little. The weight might be very hard to lift, and the muscle might be sore afterwards. But the stress of a heavy weight—so long as it isn’t so heavy it causes a significant injury—strengthens the muscle.

Stress can work the same way. School is supposed to be stressful in this way. A mountain of research shows that we learn and grow when we are out of our comfort zone—when we are exposed to novel challenges. Stress can act like a vaccine for future stress (researchers call this “stress inoculation.”) People who are able to weather stressful circumstances frequently go on to demonstrate above-average resilience.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is the fear and dread and panic that can come up for us in the face of a stressor (or even just the mere thought of a stressor).

Sometimes anxiety is an important warning system that we are in danger. It’s appropriate for us to feel anxious when we are a riding in a car where the driver is texting, for example. Legitimate anxiety makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. I once had a really nice-seeming neighbor who scared the bejeezus out of me. Every time he’d stop to chat, friendly and normal-seeming as he was, the hair on my neck would stand up, and my heart would start racing and thudding in my chest. It was all I could do to not run and hide from him. It turns out that my anxiety was legitimate: I later found out that he had spent a decade in a maximum-security prison for violent sex crimes.

And sometimes anxiety is more about excitement than it is a sign of danger. As Maria Shriver writes in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring . . . part of your agitation is just excitement about what you’re getting ready to accomplish. Whatever you’re afraid of—that is the very thing you should try to do.”

But more often than not, our anxiety isn’t helpful. Unhelpful anxiety makes us hesitate rather than bolt. We are afraid of looking stupid, and so we don’t ask a burning question. We fear failing, and so we don’t even try.

We can help our teens figure out whether they are experiencing legitimate anxiety or unhelpful anxiety. Do they have the desire to get the heck out of whatever situation is making them anxious and afraid? If so, their anxiety is likely legitimate. We can support them in getting out of that dangerous situation.

But if their anxiety is making them hesitate, help them consider that their anxiety is unfounded—and that it is holding them back.

All of this requires trust, Hair-Puller. Trust that if our teens are still here, still breathing, everything is actually okay. Trust that even if we don’t immediately fix everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that even if it all goes to hell, even if other people make mistakes or do things differently than we would do them, our kids can deal with the outcome. Trust that they (and we) can handle all the difficult emotions that come up in response to what does or does not happen.

When we accept the reality of a stressful or scary situation and our limited control, it allows our kids to do the same. Importantly, our acceptance also frees them up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed by stress and anxiety.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life.
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My children and stepchildren

How Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a  professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (albeit science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.

So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.

The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for a decade. I’ve loved and supported them, but at first from a distance — we didn’t really live together until about five years ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.

But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.

I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.

Take the time that I had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who was at the time in 9th grade, and Molly, then in 6th grade, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.

I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.

I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue. Click To Tweet

My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.

It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.

It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,

Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.

However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.

After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:

  1. Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Snapchat than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “I do need some help with dinner, because we don’t have much time before we need to leave for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language — don’t dictate or boss kids around. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.

None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.

As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.