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Launch Day!

The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction launches today! Many of you have already pre-ordered it or are planning to attend a book event, and for that, I am profoundly grateful. 

100% of Profits Fight Poverty

Have you been meaning to get a ticket to a book talk or pre-order the book? If you do it now, you’ll be helping me AND many others. How? I am donating everything I earn on pre-orders to Tipping Point Community. Located here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tipping Point identifies and invests in the most effective anti-poverty solutions by funding a portfolio of poverty-fighting organizations.

Pre-orders matter a lot.

Booksellers take note of a new title’s pre-orders as an indication of reader support and enthusiasm. Those who haven’t yet stocked The New Adolescence are likely to do so if pre-orders are strong. And booksellers are more likely to feature it in their stores or online during the launch week — which is exactly what we need. So I’m humbly asking you to pre-order the book, as an act of kindness and friendship (in addition to hopefully being a helpful book for you to read). I will do my best to return the favor by sending you free gifts.

Okay. I’m done asking for favors. 

In thanks for all that you do for me, we’ve put together a few bonus gifts for you. Click here to pre-order and then claim your gifts here!

Again, THANK YOU.

Without you readers, there’s no gig for me here. I’m so, so, so grateful for you!

Lots of love,

Dr. Christine Carter Signature

 

 

About The New Adolescence

I wrote this book because, like many parents, I was baffled by problems that didn’t exist when I was a teenager (like social media, sexting, and vaping). It’s a practical guide to:

  • Providing the support and structure teens need (while still giving them the autonomy they seek)
  • Influencing and motivating teenagers
  • Helping kids overcome distractions that hinder learning
  • Protecting them from anxiety, isolation, and depression
  • Having effective conversations about tough subjects–including sex, drugs, and money
A highly acclaimed sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Christine Carter melds research–including the latest findings in neuroscience, sociology, and social psychology–with her own real-world experiences as the mother of four teenagers.

The New Adolescence is filled with road-tested, science-based solutions for raising happy, healthy, and successful teenagers in this age of distraction, anxiety, and accelerated change.

What Do Other People Have To Say?

“Mixing cutting-edge science with humor and personally earned wisdom, Christine Carter makes a convincing case that we need to step up our parenting with our teens. Fortunately, she also tells us how to do so in The New Adolescence in ways that seem not just possible in our busy lives, but deeply practical and empowering for both parents and adolescents.”

Daniel J. Siegel, MD
Bestselling author of Brainstorm

 

The New Adolescence is a sane, informative, and helpful book that I will be gifting over and over. It has already made me a better parent—and a happier one, too.”

Jessica Lahey
New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure

 

“Dr. Carter brings her wonderful blend of solid science, practical suggestions, and warm encouragement to the biggest challenge most parents face: raising teenagers these days. The New Adolescence is both deep and accessible, comprehensive and fast-paced, and honoring of adolescents and respectful of parents’ needs for reasonable authority.”

Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Author of Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, and Buddha’s Brain

 

“Christine Carter has spent the last two decades honing the art and studying the science of effective parenting. This hands-on book is the guide every parent of teenagers needs.”

Susan Stiffelman, MFT
Author of Parenting Without Power Struggles

 

“With solid research, relatable storytelling and practical strategies and tactics, Christine Carter provides teens, parents and families with the lifelines they need to create meaning, fulfillment and the human connection that makes real life worth living.”

Brigid Schulte
Author of Overwhelmed and director of The Better Life Lab at New America

Three Ways to Change Your Parenting in the Teenage Years

“Wow. Ugh. That’s amazing!”

This is the usual wide-eyed response when people hear that I have four teenagers. Sometimes people grimace, like the mere thought of it is a bitter pill. They are thinking, I know, that teenagers are hard, which, of course, they can be. Everyone assumes I must be insanely busy, or maybe just a little insane, and that raising four teenagers must be nearly impossible.

These thoughts occur because many teenagers tend to be either terribly disorganized, requiring constant nagging, or tightly wound, perfectionistic, and in need of constant therapy. There’s also all that new neuroscience showing, unfortunately, that the brain regions that help humans make wise choices don’t mature until kids are in their mid 20s, and that many potentially life-threatening risks become more appealing during adolescence while the normal fear of danger is temporarily suppressed. Knowing these things can make it hard for us parents to relax.

Though teenagers can be hard to parent, the good news is that parenting teenagers is in many ways a hell of a lot easier than raising little kids. For this to be the case, however, our parenting needs to shift. Here are the three big shifts that parents of teenagers need to make to survive their kids’ adolescence.

1. We step down as primary decision-makers and step up our coaching

When our kids are little, we have to manage pretty much every aspect of their lives. We set bedtimes, plan meals, and make doctor’s appointments. We arrange carpools and make all major decisions: where they will go to school, if they will go to camp, and where we’ll go on vacation. And when our kids are little, for the most part, they appreciate having involved and loving parents. It’s great having someone else manage your calendar and get you to your activities (mostly) on time.

But once kids reach adolescence, they need to start managing their own lives, and they do tend to fire us as their managers. Parents who are too controlling—those who won’t step down from their manager roles—breed rebellion. Many kids with micromanaging parents will politely agree to the harsh limits their parents set with a “yes, sir” or a “yes, ma’am” attitude, but then will break those rules the first chance they get. They don’t do this because they are bad kids, but because they need to regain a sense of control over their own lives.

The answer, according to neuropsychologist William Stixrud and long-time educator Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, is to hand the decision-making reins over to our teens. You read that right: By adolescence, we parents need to (take a deep breath and) let them make their own decisions about their lives. It’s not that we never say no anymore. Nor do we stop enforcing our family rules. It’s that we start to involve teens more in creating the rules, and we let them make their own decisions—which they are going to do anyway.

Letting our kids become the primary decision makers does NOT mean that we become permissive, indulgent, or disengaged. It does mean that the quality—if not the quantity—of our support shifts. We give up our role as their chief of staff and become more like life coaches. We ask questions, and provide emotional support.

2. We influence them differently

It’d be great if we parents could just download information to our teens—say, about sex and drugs—and know that they were going to use that information to make good decisions.

But giving teenagers a lot of information isn’t an effective way to influence them anymore. Interesting research on this topic shows that what is effective for elementary school children—giving them information about their health or well-being that they can act on—tends to be mostly ineffective for teenagers.

This is because adolescents are much more sensitive to whether or not they are being treated with respect. The hormonal changes that come with puberty conspire with adolescent social dynamics to make teenagers much more attuned to social status. More specifically, they become super touchy about whether or not they are being treated as though they are high status.

In the teenage brain, the part of themselves that is an autonomous young adult is high status. The part of them that is still a kid who needs our support is low status. They might be half independent young adult, half little kid, but they are hugely motivated to become 100 percent autonomous…even if they do know, on some level, that they still need our support and guidance.

When we give our adolescents a lot of information, especially when it is information that they don’t really want or that they think they already have, it can feel infantilizing to them. Even if we deliver the information as we would to another adult, teenagers will often feel disrespected by the mere fact of our instruction.

So, when it’s time to bring up the topic you want to influence your teen about, speak as you would to someone with the highest possible social status—someone you really, really respect. (I have to literally imagine that person in my head, and then imagine both the tone and the words I would use with that person.) Remember, if your teen feels disrespected, nagged, spoken down to, pressed upon, or infantilized, all bets are off.

3. We have a lot of hard conversations

Remember what you used to talk about with your kids before they hit puberty? There are days when I’d give anything to just be able to talk again about favorite foods and favorite colors and the tooth fairy. It isn’t that every conversation was easy when they were young, but I rarely felt the kind of discomfort I now feel while talking to my kids about things like sex—or even their college applications. What starts as a casual conversation can quickly become an emotional minefield. It’s hard not to let our own agendas creep in. And it can be really hard to manage our own big feelings about things.

Talking with teenagers about their lives can be stressful. But teenagers today are dealing with some really hard stuff, and we parents need to create safe spaces for our teens to talk about the hard things.

This takes a lot of courage. The simplest way to increase our ability (and, frankly, willingness) to have uncomfortable conversations with our teens is to practice doing it in baby steps. Instead of thinking about having a “big talk,” broach a difficult topic in short observations and simple questions. Let teens lead; our real value comes when we listen rather than instruct. Even when we have a lot to say, it’s more important to give them a chance to speak, to work out what they are thinking in a low-risk environment. Practice staying calm despite the discomfort. Keep taking deep breaths. Keep relaxing your shoulders. Notice your discomfort, and welcome it. It’s nothing to be afraid of.

As hard as it might be for us to watch, our teenagers are going to make mistakes. When they do, our anxious over-involvement won’t help. What will help, though, is our calm presence. This is more good news, because it is far more enjoyable to practice calm presence than it is to freak out.

Above all, we’ll do well to remember that their lives are their lives. It’s their journey, not ours. Our role is not to steer them through life like we would marionettes, but rather to help them feel seen, and to help them feel safe. For that, we need only to coach instead of manage, listen instead of instruct, and breathe through our discomfort.

 

This essay is adapted from The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction (BenBella Books, 2020, 230 pages).

If you’re in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll join us for the launch at the Hillside Club on February 20, 2020! Find more information about my book events here.

Dear Christine: How Do I Motivate My Teen?

Bossing them around won’t work forever; we need to help teens manage their own lives.

Dear Christine,

I have two teenagers, a boy who is in high school and a girl who is in college. My daughter has always been self-motivated and a great student. I’ve never needed to nag her to do her homework, and she has always gotten good grades and great teacher comments.

My son is another story. His study skills are lacking. He doesn’t like school, and he doesn’t work very hard. I have to constantly be “on him” about his school work. We’ve had him tested for learning disabilities and ADHD, and he does not have either, although the tests showed that he does have great difficulty paying attention to things that he is not interested in.

He’s now a sophomore. Still, I’m constantly “helping” him with his homework, figuring out what work he has due, what tests he has coming up, or what assignments he might have failed to turn in. I’m afraid he won’t do it otherwise.

Our son says he does not want me to back off and that he wants me to continue helping him. At the same time, he is not exactly welcoming of my help in the moment. He’s often a little surly when I remind him of assignments, and he usually makes excuses for why he doesn’t have to work on something. He lacks self-motivation, and without me pushing him (and keeping him organized), I fear (1) that he might actually get worse grades; (2) that he won’t get a college degree; and (3) that this will limit his job prospects. Ultimately, I’m afraid that he’s going to end up living at home into his early adulthood, stuck on the couch playing video games.

I can’t help wishing that our son was more like our daughter. I want him to be more independent and self-motivated. Above all, I want him to do well enough in high school to go to a decent college. What do you recommend I do? If I’m honest, I’m looking for permission to keep propping our son up.

Thanks,
Parental Crutch

Dear Crutch,

So, it’s good that you have college and work aspirations for your son. But I’m afraid that your current efforts on his behalf aren’t going to pay off. Unfortunately, trying to control our children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive. In some ways, you are right to be worried: About a quarter of young men in the United States in their 20s are unemployed. That statistic is mind-blowing to the economists who track these things, given that men in their 20s have historically been the most reliably employed of any demographic. While the trend toward unemployment encompasses young men of all education levels, low-skilled men—like those without a college degree or training in a trade—are particularly likely to end up living back at home. A staggering 51 percent now live with their parents or another close relative. And what are they doing instead of working? (Hint: They aren’t going to school.) You’ve already guessed it; many of them are playing video games three or more hours a day.

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 tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful at solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

And what’s true for children in terms of parental control is about a thousand times more true about teenagers. Once kids reach adolescence, they need to start managing their own lives, and they know this. Most kids with micromanaging parents resist what their parents want for them every chance they get. They do this not because they are lazy or short-sighted, but because they need to regain a sense of control.

This cannot be overstated: Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives. A mountain of research demonstrates that agency—having the power to affect your own life—is one of the most important factors for both success and happiness. Believing that we can influence our own lives through our own efforts predicts practically all of the positive outcomes that we want for our teens: better health and longevity, lower use of drugs and alcohol, lower stress, higher emotional well-being, greater intrinsic motivation and self-discipline, improved academic performance, and even career success.

You have an important choice, Crutch.

Choice A: Keep riding your son; keep him organized and on track. He’ll likely get a lot more homework turned in, he’ll study for tests he would have avoided or forgotten about, and he’ll apply to the colleges you put in front of him. The big question in my mind, though, is about what will happen when he’s off at college and he doesn’t have you there by his side to keep him on track.

Actually, in my mind, it’s not that big of a question.

The odds are he won’t make it. An astounding 56 percent of students who start at a four-year college drop out before they’ve earned a degree. Nearly a third drop out after just the first year. If your son doesn’t develop the study skills he needs to succeed (without you), he is not likely to develop them once he gets to college.

Which brings us to Choice B: Back off so that your son can build the skills he’ll need to survive without you. This does mean risking letting your son stumble, but at least he’ll be at home with you when he does.

Your son, of course, will not want you to back off. Why would he want to put in that kind of effort if you’ll do it for him? Plus, there is no risk for him right now; he can’t really fail if he doesn’t really try.

I’m not saying disengage from his life. It’s important for you to stay involved and supportive, but to do so without being directive or controlling. Set limits so that he knows you aren’t lowering your expectations. For example, if you expect him to maintain a B average, that’s great. What happens if he doesn’t do that? Decide as a family, and then be firm and consistent in enforcing your limits.

In fact, don’t dial back your effort at all, just shift your focus. Right now, you are propping your son up. Instead of putting all your energy into doing things that your son would be better off doing for himself, put your effort into supporting his self-motivation.

As I explained not long ago to another mom who was overhelping her husband, the way to foster self-motivation in others is to support their autonomy, their competence, and their relatedness. These are the three core psychological needs that, when filled, lead to self-motivation. You can choose to refocus your attention on promoting his self-motivation. Here’s how.

1. Give him more freedom.

He needs the freedom to fail on his own—and the freedom to succeed without having to give you credit. Your son can’t feel autonomous in his schoolwork if you are still the organizing force.

Instead of directing your son, ask him: “What’s your plan?” As in, “What’s your plan for getting your homework done this weekend?” Asking kids what their plan is makes it clear that they are still in control of their own behavior, and it helps put them in touch with their own motivations and intentions. Often kids simply need to make a plan—and sometimes if they aren’t asked to articulate their plan, they won’t make one. (Especially kids who are used to being nagged; those kids know that their parents will eventually get frustrated and do their planning for them.)

This not-making-a-plan thing is developmental, by the way—it is often more about their executive function than their motivation. Our frontal lobe, which enables us to make plans for the future, often doesn’t develop fully until our mid-20s. This doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t plan, or that we should do it for them; it just means that they need a little more support practicing planning than might be obvious given their other capabilities.

It’s also really important that we parents pay close attention to our tone of voice, especially if what we are saying could potentially limit our kids’ freedom in some way—if we are making a request that could be interpreted as pressure. Research suggests that moms who talk to their teens in a “controlling tone of voice” don’t tend to get a positive response, and they are more likely to start an argument.

It’s not enough to just stay neutral, unfortunately; although a neutral tone of voice is less likely to make teens defensive and argumentative, it was found to be equally ineffective in motivating kids.

What did work? The teens who were the most likely to carry out the request being made had parents who used a “supportive” and encouraging tone of voice.

2. Help him feel more competent.

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that your son feels incompetent compared to his superstar sister. This likely leads to resignation. Why should he try if he’ll never be as good as her, anyway?

Help him see where he’s done really well in the past through his own effort (rather than your nagging). Don’t be afraid to ask him: Where do you feel most confident? And then help him see that it is his own effort that has led to that capability.

You can also support him in building new competencies. It sounds like he needs to build better study skills, for example. Who would be a good study skills coach for him? It’s important for him to develop his ability to learn and push himself outside of his comfort zone.

3. Finally, support his sense of belonging and connectedness with others, particularly at school.

Is there a teacher whom he feels connected to who can encourage him? Or a coach who is also willing to talk to him about his life as a student? Or a peer group who would encourage him to pay more attention to school work? Sometimes the best way we can help our kids is to help them find a community where they can thrive. One way to do this is to enlist the interest and attention of another adult.

Crutch, I’m very clear about this: The time to take the training wheels off is now. When he falls, let him pick himself up and try again. This will build autonomy and competence. You can celebrate his successes—this will build relatedness. Let him learn how to ask for the help he needs; when he gets it, it will expand his sense of belonging and connection to others.

Redirecting your energy towards promoting your son’s self-motivation will not likely be in your comfort zone. But once you get the hang of not nagging and not being so directive, your relationship with your son is sure to be far more rewarding—for you both.

Yours,
Christine

MORE ON RAISING HAPPY TEENS


If you like this post, I think you’ll love my new book, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction.

If you’re in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll join us for the launch at the Hillside Club on February 20, 20! Find more information about my book events here.

 


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.

Thursday Thought

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.

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.  Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.

Innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great. Read the full post to learn more about raising a high-achiever.

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.

New Year’s Thought

You want to lose weight. Learn to meditate. Get out of debt. Eat more leafy greens. Call your mom more often.

But you’re afraid to really try, because of all the times you’ve tried before and failed. I meet plenty of people who refuse to make New Year’s resolutions for this reason: New Year’s resolutions can be a source of failure, year after year.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Check out this post for a quick start guide to setting a New Year’s Resolution that will stick. For a more comprehensive, science-based manual for changing your habits, get my free eBook here.

Why New Year’s Resolutions Succeed

Three steps to victory in keeping your New Year’s Resolutions

You want to lose weight. Learn to meditate. Get out of debt. Eat more leafy greens. Call your mom more often. 

But you’re afraid to really try, because of all the times you’ve tried before and failed. I meet plenty of people who refuse to make New Year’s resolutions for this reason: New Year’s resolutions can be a source of failure, year after year.

It doesn’t have to be this way! This post is your quickstart guide to setting a New Year’s Resolution that will stick. For a more comprehensive, science-based manual for changing your habits, get my free eBook here.

We fail to change our habits because our human brains crave routine and resist change. But it’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns.

Having failed in the past is stressful—and it’s even more stressful when we opt for self-flagellation in the face of our setbacks or lapses. We think that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or that 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 doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with reduced motivation and diminished 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. Most importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need. Here are three steps to achieve your resolutions for change.

1. Forgive yourself

The first step to making lasting change is to 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 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. Explain to your good-friend-self that feeling bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

2. Aim for an inherently rewarding target

Why do we so often fail at our attempts to change?

One reason is that we tend to set goals and pick resolutions that are inherently unrewarding. The goals we pick necessitate relentless hard work or remind us of our mortality in a way that makes us feel small instead of grateful.

The second step, therefore, is to set the right resolution, whether that’s a big audacious goal, a new habit you’d like to get into, or a bad habit you’d like to break.

To begin, let’s start with your desired outcome. It’s okay to be a little vague here; we’ll get more specific as we proceed. For example, you might want to:

  • Lose weight
  • Get in shape or establish an exercise habit
  • Spend more time with your friends

It’s important to figure out WHY you want to do this thing that you haven’t been doing so far. You might have a whole laundry list of reasons for wanting to do what you want to do, and that’s great. But right now, I want you to think of the single most compelling way that you’ll benefit from achieving your goal.

Chances are, you’ve come up with a super logical reason for, say, losing weight or exercising, like that it will lower your blood pressure.

Here’s the thing: even though we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, logic doesn’t motivate us nearly as much as our emotions do. Why? Because we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.

This means that we tend to stick with behavior changes for longer when we aim for something that feels good.  Doing something because we feel like we should do it doesn’t feel good. It feels like we’re being forced. It’s stressful, and stress makes us seek comfort, often in the very form of behavior that we are trying to avoid (think potato chips and Netflix binges).

So, ask yourself how, in your heart of hearts, do you want to feel? Identify a WHY for your resolution that will motivate you over the long haul.

Let’s think this through together.

Maybe you want to lose weight, for example, and so you plan to cut baked goods out of your diet, which happen to be your favorite foods. How will that make you feel?

At first, you might feel great, because you’ve just made a healthy decision for yourself. But if you don’t cheat on your diet, you’ll likely soon feel deprived. And if you do begin to cheat on your diet, you’ll probably feel anxious and guilty. Both of these feeling states are unmotivating and uncomfortable, which will make it easy for you to ditch your diet.

But maybe the reason that you want to lose weight is so that you feel healthy and strong. Feeling stronger and healthier are very motivating feeling-states, which will make it much easier for you to keep your new habit.

With this in mind, rethink your goal or resolution: restate it for yourself in terms of how you want to feel. For example:

  • I forbid myself to eat [delicious] baked goods could become → “I want to feel healthy and strong.”
  • I have to get more sleep could become → “I want to feel well-rested and energetic.”
  • I should spend more time with friends could become → “I want to feel loving and connected.”

3. Refine your resolution

What actions and behaviors have led you to feel what you want to feel in the past?

Maybe you tend to feel well-rested and energetic when you go to bed before 10 pm. Perhaps you tend to feel healthy and strong when you go for a hike. Maybe you feel loving and connected when you spend time one-on-one with your sister.

The important thing here is that it is something that you already have experience with; we human beings tend to be truly terrible at predicting how something will make us feel. But we do well to use our own experience to predict how we’ll feel in the future.

Here’s an example of how we frequently go wrong: say I’d like to feel stronger this upcoming year. This calls for a get-in-shape habit. So, what would be a good way for me to get in shape? Let’s see…I could train for a marathon! Fun! Ambitious! But before I start researching destination marathons (because why not make it a vacation, too?), I’ll do well to stop myself and ask: How do I feel when I’m training for a long run? Here’s my own honest answer: I tend to feel burdened by the time commitment. And arthritic in my left hip. And soul-sinking dread before each run.

Can we make a pact right now that we won’t make New Year’s Resolutions that are going to make us feel burdened, arthritic, and filled with dread? On the other hand, I can think of two activities that DO make me feel stronger:

  • taking long hikes with my dog and
  • high-intensity exercise classes where I sweat a lot.

Your “why” for your goal needs to be a rewarding feeling that you experience when you are doing your resolution, or at the very least, immediately after you do it. A daily hike must genuinely make you feel energized, for example, if that is the feeling you are after.

From here, refine your resolution one more time. Make sure that your resolution reflects a really specific behavior, so that you know if you are succeeding or not. For example, resolve to take three hikes per week after work on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays instead of resolving to “go for more hikes.”

Finally, do a little reality check. Setting unrealistic resolutions is a sure path to failure. If it’s just not realistic for you to, say, leave work an hour early on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that you can do your hike, please don’t make that your resolution. Or if you live in Maine and you know that it just isn’t realistic to hike in a snowstorm, please go back and find another behavior that reliably makes you feel the way you want to feel.

That’s it! If you are now aiming for a target that is specific, realistic, and inherently rewarding (because you know it is going to make you feel good) you are good to go!

If you’d like more tips — perhaps for how to make your resolution into an automatic habit, or for what to do if you feel stuck — I hope you’ll check out my free eBook here.

So You Gave Your Kid a Phone for Christmas…Now What?

Many lucky kids got new smartphones or tablets over this holiday season; these days more than two-thirds of kids own a smartphone by age 12. But owning one comes with serious responsibilities, both for us as parents and for our kids. 

Unfortunately, research shows that nearly a quarter of young people engage in what researchers consider “problematic smartphone usage.” This dysfunctional usage is associated with increased odds of depression, increased anxiety, higher perceived stress, and poorer sleep quality.

So, how can you help your child establish a healthy relationship with their new digital devices? Here are some ideas:

  • Create a technology contract (A sample contract can be found here). It helps to be super explicit with new device owners about your expectations—this is a part of the scaffolding discussed in chapter two of The New Adolescence. Creating a “technology contract” with your kids is a way to be really clear about your family rules and expectations. Key issues to address are: sleep, sexting, pornography, privacy. 
  • Help kids reorganize their phones so they are less distracting. For example, have them move the most addictive apps (like social media—and anything they check compulsively or on a whim when they see it) off their homepage.
  • Remember that you are the parent. Even with older teenagers, if you are paying for their device and cell phone plan, you are still in charge — and responsible. You get to set limits and guidelines. Because these devices are very addictive, even the most tech-savvy teenagers need their parents’ support.
  • Designate device-free times and spaces in your home. Just because our kids can physically take their computers into the bathroom these days does not mean that this is a sensible thing to do. Similarly, beds are for sleeping, not for checking Instagram. 
  • Teach them the art of “strategic slacking.” We all need stillness in order to function. The constant stream of external stimulation coming from our kids’ smartphones causes a state of chronic low-grade overwhelm that impairs their ability to plan, organize, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn, and control their emotions. 

The most important we parents can do is clearly state our expectations around our kids’ technology use. Even (maybe especially) teenagers need us to paint bright lines for healthy usage. We can do this without being too draconian about the dangers of problematic phone use; smartphones are amazing and fun and, actually, not dangerous when used properly. So enjoy!

Today: Comfort Yourself

This is a tricky time of year: We’re often tired and triggered and hopped up on sugar. Even when we really love the holidays, they can be brutal. It’s a time of unrealistically high expectations. Money gets a little tight. And many of us come into close contact with the most challenging people in our lives. Others are bound to disappoint us, and we will often disappoint ourselves and other people. 

(A reminder: Although it doesn’t feel right, it’s totally normal to be more reactive around your immediate family than you are with your friends. Our parents, spouses, and siblings know where our buttons are and how to push them, because in many cases, they installed them.)

This is also a time when we want to be our best selves. We want to be generous and loving and patient. We want to end the year by resolving to do even better next year. 

To boost follow-through on these good intentions, we need to feel safe and secure. When we are stressed, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item . . . Like an extra glass of wine instead of a reasonable bedtime. Or the entire breadbasket. Or an extra little something in your Amazon cart.

As Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, writes, “Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from clear-headed wisdom toward our least-helpful instincts.” When we’re relaxed, we’ll choose the locally grown organic apple, the earlier bedtime, the stairs instead of the elevator. We’ll respond to a difficult relative with love and compassion. 

And when we’re stressed? Personally, I have a weakness for tortilla chips and spicy queso.

So instead of turning to social media and Christmas cookies and booze to soothe our rattled nerves, this is the time to preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways. Fortunately, positive emotions like compassion and gratitude act as powerful brakes on our stress response — and as such, are truly comforting. 

The takeaway: When we start to get stressed or tired, we can schedule a quick walk or call with a friend, reflect on what we are grateful for, or let ourselves take a little nap. Perhaps we need to seek out a hug or watch a funny YouTube video. These things may seem small — or even luxurious — but they enable us to be the people that we intend to be.

* * * * * 

This post is an excerpt from my latest eBook, How to Set a Resolution that Sticks: Establishing New Habits & Achieving Your Goals. If you are interested in learning more about how to be your best self in this new decade, I hope you will download it. It’s free!