Home » Blog

Category: Blog

Join Me in 2 Weeks!

There’s still time to join us at a rejuvenating weekend retreat from November 1 to 3, 2019 at 1440 Multiversity, a beautiful 75-acre campus nestled in the California redwoods near Santa Cruz.

Are you longing for more meaningful work or more fulfilling relationships? Or just more time to focus on what matters most? (Or how about just more time in general?) I would love to help you find these things!

Why slow down and focus on yourself when you’re already so busy? Because we all need to carve out time not just to THINK about fulfilling our potential, but also to start CHANGING OUR LIVES.

We are going to keep this group small so that I can spend time coaching each of you individually. We’ll work with science-based practices that will help you identify hidden obstacles (we all have them) that are keeping you from leading your most joyful, productive, and meaningful life.

If you haven’t been to 1440 before, you are in for a treat. We’ll be able to take advantage of all that this beautiful new retreat center has to offer, including locally sourced, seasonal meals, daily meditation and yoga classes, and a well-appointed fitness center.

Space is limited; we anticipate that this retreat will fill up fast.

Register or learn more here.

Dear Christine: My Friend Has Cancer. What Should I Say?

Dear Christine,

One of my best friends was just diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. She has two little kids, a loving husband, and a full-time job. I’m not sure what to do or say or how I can help—my instinct is to jump in and start problem solving. Does she have the best doctor? Can she really afford to take time off of work? I know she knows that this could be terminal. She is only 47 years old.

I know your close friend recently went through something similar. Please just tell me what to do.

—Scared and Sad

Dear Scared and Sad,

My friend, Susie Rinehart, would find it kind of funny that you are asking me what to do when a friend has a potentially terminal illness. Why? Because I initially handled her diagnosis so bizarrely.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t know what form the book was going to take. But we did know that Susie had an important book in her.Susie and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Before she found out that she had a big brainstem tumor, we’d been talking on the phone a lot about her desire to write a book. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the months before her diagnosis, we’d clocked a dozen or more hours gabbing like middle schoolers in the 1980s (that is to say, endlessly on the phone, she in Colorado and I in California). I was trying to help her work out the particulars of her novel. Or of her fictionalized memoir. Or maybe it was meant to be a series of letters to her daughter. Or self-help book for young women in their 20s.

When she found out that she had a tumor wrapped around her brainstem—one that might not be operable and could possibly maim or kill her in as little as three months—she called me. When I didn’t pick up, she left me a message explaining that they’d finally figured out why she’d been having such severe headaches for the past couple of years: It was a massive, tentacled tumor. They were interviewing surgeons. A mutual friend, himself a neurosurgeon, was helping Susie find the best of the best. It was a long road ahead.

I was not as stunned or worried as you’d think I’d be upon learning that one of my dearest friends had a serious illness. In addition to talking about the book, we’d also been talking about her headaches a lot. Two mysteries had been solved!

So instead of thinking through how one might appropriately respond to such news, I immediately called her back and left a long message:

Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that you have a tumor in your neck, but I’m so happy they’ve figured out what’s been causing your headaches! That’s so great. And I’m glad you are taking the time to find the best surgeon ever. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. And, also, not to be Pollyannaish about the ordeal that is surely ahead, but SUSIE! THIS IS YOUR BOOK!! You are going to write a memoir about this experience!!

My husband, Mark, overheard me leave that message back to her. After I told Mark what was going on, he said something like: “She just told you that she has brain cancer, and you told her ‘Congratulations! This is going to make for a great book!’ Call her back right now. Maybe you can stop her from listening to that message.”

In my next message, I said little more than, “I am such a dumbass.”

Coincidentally, a few months later, I was having lunch with a new friend, Kelsey Crowe, who was just launching her very helpful and very funny book, There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.

Kelsey confirmed that I had not responded at all appropriately to Susie’s diagnosis. She gave me a few pointers for the next time something awful happens to someone I love. So here are few things I’ve learned from both Susie and Kelsey:

1. Say something

While Kelsey admitted that what I chose to say to Susie was about the worst she’d ever heard, she was clear that saying something is always better than saying nothing. (But you might need to apologize for being a dumbass, if you are like me.)

A lot of people don’t know what to say when something awful befalls a friend or colleague, and so they don’t say anything at all. It’s terrible for people who are going through something difficult when they feel like people are avoiding them. Here are some things Kelsey suggests:

  • “I am sorry you are going through this.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through. What’s that like for you?”
  • “I want you to know I am here for you if there is anything I can do.”
  • “You don’t look sick; how are you actually doing?”
  • “How are you feeling today?”
  • “I have seen you manage really tough things in the past and I know that you can get through this.”

2. Offer support

Your friend’s diagnosis is an opportunity for you to reach out in whatever way you can. It’s an opportunity to connect, to offer love, and to show compassion. Your relationship will naturally deepen when you offer support, especially if you don’t expect anything in return.

Doing something, even something small, is better than avoiding the situation or the person, which will only make them feel more alone. Delivering a casserole might seem a little retro, but keeping the kids fed and the family trains running is hard if you’re not feeling well (and nothing says I love you like lasagna).

If you don’t cook or can’t reliably deliver things like meals, don’t feel compelled to sign up for that type of support. Maybe send an inspirational poem if that’s more your thing. Or perhaps you can easily drive the carpool for your friend, or be there to hold her hand during chemotherapy or treatments. Consider doing the thing that will bring you personally the most joy, or create the most connection.

3. Hold space for the scary, awful, unfairness of it all

Your friend’s life may have just fallen apart. There’s probably zero chance that she’s not thinking about the fact that she might die, leaving her young children without a mother. Those are some really hard thoughts to be alone with all the time.

So even though our first impulse is often to cheer someone up, or to offer platitudes like, “God never gives us something we can’t handle,” or to find a silver lining, sometimes optimism can make a sick person feel more alone and afraid. We can be hopeful that treatments will work and that everything will be okay in the end—and at the same time we can acknowledge the scary, awful, unfair outcomes that are also a possibility. Specifically, we can hold a place for them to say the unimaginable:

  • “I might die.”
  • “My children might grow up without a mother.”
  • “Everything has fallen apart.”

Because Susie encouraged me to do this with another friend who had been diagnosed with possibly-fatal cancer, I started by telling him that I was there for him if he wanted to talk about all the dark things that were going through his head. I said, “I don’t believe you are going to jinx yourself if we talk about what you are most afraid of. Sometimes it can help to speak out loud about the worst-case scenarios.” Those conversations were brief—like a door we barely opened and barely peeked through—but they were among the most moving and heartfelt conversations I’ve ever had in my life, with anyone.

Your friend is lucky to have you, Scared and Sad. Not because you’re ready to jump in and start problem solving (please don’t do that), but because you can see how scary this situation is for her. You can see that her whole life has just been dumped upside down—that she’s lost a lot already, and she is likely sad about it, too. Your friend is not alone in her fear or her grief, thank goodness.

Fortunately, Susie forgave me for my initial response, because that’s the kind of friend she is. And, also, she did write a book about her experience. It’s called Fierce Joy, and I hope you’ll read it.

Warmly,
Christine

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].

How to Get Your Kid to Tell You Everything

Parents are always asking me how to get their kids to talk to them more (especially the parents of boys), how to get kids to say what really happened at school during the day. We parents want information! We feel that in exchange for our nurturance and worry and everything we did to get them ready for school, we should at least get to know what’s happening there, and in their lives!

So how can we get more than a “fine” out of our kids when we ask them “How was school?” Here are some ideas.

 1. Set aside 10 minutes a day to be utterly present.

What (or whether) kids choose to share with us has a lot to do with their personality, of course. But a factor that is more within our control is our connection with them. We can lay a foundation of trust and connection using what my kids called “special time” when they were little. Every day for at least 10 minutes, I try to do something with each of my kids that they choose. When they were younger, it often meant playing a game, reading together on the couch, or walking the dog.  Now that they are teenagers, it’s covert time. One of them might linger at the dinner table for a few minutes. Another might hint that they’d like help making breakfast. Or someone might consent to walking the dog with me. Last night my 17-year-old stepson wandered into our bedroom where my husband and I were reading and heaved himself onto our bed; he was procrastinating, of course, but he also was thrilled to have me tickle his back tickled like I used to do when he was little. While they might not consider any of these moments “special time,” like they used to, I do. I put down my phone or my reading or whatever else I was doing and I pay attention.

This may sound easy, but for me, it’s not; in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, 10 or 20 minutes per kid can be hard to find. That may seem ridiculous to you—I spend longer doing things that are much less important everyday—but between homework and dinnertime and bedtime giving kids our undivided attention every day can be hard.

Oh, and also there’s the fact that, at least when my kids were little, I often didn’t actually want to do what the kids wanted to do.

For example, one of my daughters used to read dystopian and romance novels voraciously, and a favorite activity is to “fan girl” the authors. When I had one-on-one time with her, she wanted to tell me in excruciating detail about what she was reading. It sounds like a fun book club, I know, but it really wasn’t. Too much blow-by-blow detail.

My instinct was to roll my eyes and not hang out with her while she wrote a letter to John Greene. But when I managed to be present with her in all her fan-girl glory, not judging the or rejecting her current passion, she felt more connected to me, and vice versa. She learned that she could trust me with her inner world.

Moreover, when I consistently gave her this “special time” — and when I set aside my phone or my work or my sleep for her now — she feels secure in the knowledge that she is one of my highest priorities, and that she can count on me to be there for her. It is during this special time that she is most likely to open up and tell me about her life at school, and in general.

2. Be honest about why you want to know about your kids’ day.

Why is it so important to you that you know what is happening at school? There are legitimate reasons to want to know, and reasons that push kids away.

Here’s the thing: Our kids’ lives are not our lives, and we are not entitled to emotional access to their inner or social worlds. No matter how beautiful or painful things might be for them, it is their journey, not ours. We are support along their journey, but we aren’t heroes in their stories. They are the heroes. We might be desperately curious about what is happening with them, but their lives are still their lives, which they can choose to share—or not.

A kid’s primary goal in life is to achieve belonging and significance. (Read more about this in Amy McCready’s fantastic book, The “Me Me Me” Epidemic.) Actually, it is a human being’s primary goal to achieve belonging and significance. This is one reason that we parents want all the gory details of our children’s lives at school. We want to know that we belong in our children’s lives, that our role is significant.

But when we use our children to generate our own sense of belonging and significance, kids can smell our neediness a million miles away. Parental insecurity and anxiety is a heavy burden for a child or a teen to bear, and most kids (people!) will avoid it like the plague. Our kids can only truly connect with us when we don’t depend on them for our own sense of self or significance. This bears repeating: Our kids can’t really connect with us when our own fulfillment, happiness, or identity depends on them or what they do.

We can, however, ask our kids about their day as a way to fulfill their need for connection, belonging, and significance. We can act as curious-but-neutral witnesses to the beautiful mess of their lives. Ultimately, as they grow to trust our motivations, we become a place where our children can share even their most vulnerable feelings without also fearing how we will react.

3. Ask them about the worst part of their day.

Watch for the time and place when your child feels safe and has the energy to reveal him or herself to you. Hint: It probably isn’t when they, or you, walk in the door after school or work. Most kids need time to rest and make the transition from school to home. And most kids don’t want an audience of siblings, or the carpool.

When everyone is ready (though I recommend not opening this can of worms at bedtime), ask them about the part of their day that was least satisfying. I might say something like, “What was the most stressful part of school today?” Or “Was there a time today when you felt nervous or anxious or afraid?” 

We ask kids this not because we want the dirt or the gossip or because we delight in playground or high school drama. Do not ask this question until you are ready and able to stay neutral and unemotional. Don’t ask this if you are inclined to jump in and solve all their problems for them.

Ask only when you are able to accept their uncomfortable emotions. Acceptance means that you hear what is going on without asking why they feel the way they do, without offering a judgement about anyone or anything they are describing to you.

Ask only when you are able to label and validate their emotions, when you are able to neutrally help them understand what exactly they are feeling, and where in their body that feeling lives.

Why ask about the negative rather than the positive? Because, as Dr. Shefali writes in Out of Control,

Inability to sit in the pain of life, whether that of our child or ourselves, shortchanges us, since only to the degree we can be with pain are we also able to experience the unbridled joy of life. In other words, it’s our ability to experience the burning sting of our pain, without assuaging it, that empowers us to receive joy in all its magnificence. 

We want kids to learn that all feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, are okay. Eventually, we can help kids understand how their emotions often drive their behavior—and that while all emotions are okay, all behavior is not equally effective in helping them reach their goals.

So why, in the end, do ask them how their day was?

Because we want to be an unconditionally loving place in our kids’ lives, where they will always be able to touch their own significance and feel their own belonging. We want to be the place where they can unburden themselves from life’s difficulties—so that, ultimately, they are able to receive life’s beauty, in all its magnificence.

The Best Advice for New College Students (Not From Me)

Even though I tend to think that we parents have worn out our welcome in the advice department by the time our kids go off to college, I am still full of hopes and ideas. My daughter Fiona, who just started college last week, got some really amazing send-off advice from her wise college counselor, Maria Morales-Kent. This is a woman who has more than two decades experience sending kids off to college. She’s seen where they stumble in their first few weeks, and she’s seen what helps. Here’s the gist of Maria’s wise advice for first-year college students:

One of the toughest challenges first-year college students face is homesickness. Even if you were dying to leave home, chances are you will miss it.

Believe it or not, you may also miss high school. Time and again, you may find yourself comparing your high school experience to every bit of your college experience and feeling sad.  Classes may seem large and impersonal; you might not get all the classes you want; professors may not even know when you are absent, or your roommate may turn out to be a challenge you never expected. Things like the weather may be a shock.

In fact, during our own Alumni Weekend, a recent college grad shared that he was never fully happy at his college because it never felt like home. But the truth of the matter is that college is not supposed to be like high school or home.

So, don’t focus on that.  Instead, focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.  It may be the new-found freedom and independence to choose your courses; it may be that a larger school translates to greater diversity, and you are finding not just one or two kids like you, but a whole community.

In the meantime, here is some advice that I hope will help:

1. Do not fall prey to comparisons

Regarding the food, orientation, the bathrooms, the dorms, the town or city, etc.  Take in each aspect of your college and be open to what makes it unique.

2. Make personal connections – don’t be shy, don’t hesitate.

      • Have at least a 5-minute conversation with each of your teachers during the first week of school.  Introduce yourself, comment on their lecture or readings, talk about your first few days on campus, etc.
      • Do the same in your dorm – walk around the halls and pop your head into an open door.  So many kids will be dying to talk with someone.
      • Find out about the clubs that might be of interest and go to the first meetings – and join in. 

3. Get help as soon as you need it.

      • Remember how much the tour guides talked about Faculty Office Hours? Use them.
      • If you are having trouble with a class or assignment, talk to your teacher right away.  Don’t let things build up.
      • If things aren’t working out with your roommate and it feels untenable, talk to your RA or Dorm Head.  There may be a very easy process in place to make a change or address the problem.

4. Meet with your advisor more than once.

In fact, after your first week of classes check in with them to share how you are doing – what you are finding hard or easy.  Help them get to know you. Realize that once you have a notion about what you want to study you can also begin to engage with faculty from that department. 

5. Meet the school’s Registrar.

They will be an invaluable source when it comes time to count your credits towards general education requirements, your major, or graduation.

6. If you are a financial aid recipient, go to the Financial Aid Office and find your advisor in the first week.

Introduce yourself and thank them for their work.  This will make access to them much easier if you have an issue in the future.

7. Most important: Take good care of yourself and always be safe.

Socially there will be lots of great things to do and people to meet. Temptations will be inevitable, and the consequences can be substantial. So be smart and thoughtful. 

Fiona called me yesterday to say that Ms. Kent was “right about everything.” I’m so happy that she’s taking Maria’s advice seriously!

Are you looking for advice yourself about sending a kid away to college? If so, perhaps you’ll like this post about helping kids deal with homesickness, or this one about how to deal with the sadness that inevitably comes when kids leave. Or this one, if you just want to reflect on all you taught your student before they left home. 

Maria Morales-Kent has been the Director of College Counseling at The Thacher School since 1997. Before that, she was an admission officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

 

Dear Christine: My Son Went Off to College and I Want to Cry

Dear Christine,

My oldest child is off to college. In the last few weeks, relatives have been offering him their sage “how to succeed in college” advice. Friends keep sending me an article from the New York Times offering advice to college freshmen: “Don’t take other people’s Adderall. Granola bars have a lot of sugar. The stamp goes in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope.” Really? All of this is entertaining, but isn’t it all too little too late? Isn’t the point that they’ve outgrown our advice?

Part of my grief about my son leaving home is that my advice no longer seems relevant. I want to help him as he makes this big transition to adulthood…and I also want to lay down and cry.

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

Oh, how I feel your pain. Last weekend I dropped my daughter Fiona off for her first year at college. Here’s my advice to us both: Let yourself lay down and cry as often as you need to. Not because you’ve been outgrown; you haven’t. Your relationship with your son will grow into something new, something wonderful.

Let yourself cry because it’s sad to lose the daily physical presence of our children, and it’s exhausting and ineffective to stuff our emotions down. Change is hard. It’s normal to feel emotional in times like this. Our urge to give advice is just an attempt to keep the change at bay, an attempt to not feel the loss of our role in their lives as live-in advice-giver. It’s not that our children growing up and going off to college is a loss—that’s always been the plan, and it’s a tremendous privilege to go to college—but there is usually some grief for us parents. It’s okay to feel that.

Instead of numbing your grief with busyness, or social media, or work, or whatever your distraction of choice might be, this is a prime opportunity to practice letting yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. This might seem unfun or counterintuitive—most people aren’t excited about the prospect of just lying down and crying. But if we don’t process our emotions, they tend to fester. And when we feel and acknowledge our feelings, they tend to dissipate.

Take a moment to identify an emotion that you are experiencing; there might be several. For example, you might feel relief as well as loss, because many high school graduates get pretty difficult before they leave home. (Being difficult is a way for them to separate from us parents; it makes it easier for our kids to leave. High school counselors call this “soiling the nest.”)

Pick one of the emotions you are feeling and see if you can objectify it: Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What does it really feel like? Does it have a shape, or a texture, or a color?

The key here is to lean into our emotions, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: I’m feeling anxious and worried right now, or I feel so sad I could cry. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

One of the best ways to cope with a life-changing event such as this one is to move from labeling your emotions to truly accepting them, to surrendering all resistance to them. This is tricky because you may really, really, really not want to feel what you’re feeling, and you might only be doing this because I said earlier that emotions that are processed tend to dissipate.

It can be scary to expose ourselves to our strongest emotions. Take comfort from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who teaches us that most emotions don’t last longer than 90 seconds. What you’ll probably find is that if you can sit still with a strong emotion and let yourself feel it, even the worst emotional pain rises, crests, breaks, and recedes like a wave on the surf.

This can be a really hard process, I know. Once you are able to let yourself feel what you feel, give yourself a pat on the back for demonstrating what Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.”

There are loads of benefits to having this sort of emotional courage beyond getting through major life changes such as having a child go off to college. Emotional courage will enable you to have that difficult (but necessary!) conversation with your boss or your mother that you’ve been avoiding for months because you were worried about the emotional fallout. It’ll help you stop pretending to be someone that you really aren’t. With emotional courage, you’ll be better able to take calculated risks.

And you’ll be modeling for your new first-year college student the emotional courage that they are going to need to get through this first semester. When they call home weeping or homesick, you will be in a better place to help them lean into their difficult feelings, even if they are painful.

In all of this, remember that you have not been outgrown. If you have been a source of trusted advice for your son in the past, he will continue to look to you for your wisdom. And if he doesn’t ask you for advice as he makes his transition to adulthood, that is normal. Please know that your presence in his life as someone who can cope with challenging emotions and difficult transitions (his and your own) is guidance enough.

Yours,
Christine

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

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

How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, plan your re-entry.

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

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

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

Join the Discussion

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

Dear Christine: How Can I Get My Teenager to Listen to Me?

Dear Christine,

My daughter has a chronic health problem that we’ve been dealing with since she was almost three years old. Until very recently, I managed everything about her illness for her: appointments, medications, decision making around treatment, etc. She’s always been interested in learning more about her disease, and she’s been a compliant patient.

But now that she is a teenager, she needs to be more in charge of herself, and more involved in making decisions about her treatments. In some ways, she’s doing this well; for example, she gives herself a weekly injection.

I’m frustrated, though, because it seems like I can’t give her important information about her illness without eye-rolling and resistance. She needs more information than she currently has to make good decisions for herself. Right now, she wants to take herself off of a medication that makes her nauseous, and her doctor and I are worried that this is going to lead to more severe long-term health problems.

How can I influence my teenager? What used to work doesn’t seem to work anymore.

Signed,
Loving Mom Trying to Let Go

Dear Trying to Let Go,

I feel your pain. I find it really frustrating that I can’t just give my teenagers lots of (important!) information and expect that new information to translate to positive behavior. Even kids who don’t have a chronic disease don’t usually know what they don’t know about lots of things that will affect their health over the long run. It’d be much easier if we could just download information to them—say about sex and drugs, or about their health and wellness—and know that they were going to use that information well.

But, alas, as you and I know from experience, giving teenagers a lot of information doesn’t seem to be the key to influencing them. In fact, we know from some interesting research on this topic that what is somewhat effective for elementary school children—giving them information about their health 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 your daughter that is an autonomous young adult is high status. The part of her that is still a kid who needs your support is low status. Our teenagers 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.)

So, when we give our adolescents a lot of information about an (important!) topic, 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, the mere fact of our instruction can feel disrespectful to teenagers.

What is a smart parent (with loads of important information!) like yourself to do? I’ve gleaned three ideas from a related study by some of the smartest thinkers about teenagers: Ron Dahl, Carol Dweck, and David Yaeger.

1. Accord them high status from the get-go. Bring up the topic 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 they feel disrespected, nagged, spoken down to, pressed upon, or infantilized at all, all bets are off.

The goal: Give them enough information that they can make their own informed decision, hopefully one that benefits their health and well-being in the long term, but do it in a way that allows them to feel respected and high status in the short term. They’ll need to feel competent, so it can help to point out all the ways that you see them as already very competent in this arena. What do you admire about them?

One way to convey your respect is to really listen well. Let this be a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Show your daughter that you are listening to her by reflecting back to her what she is saying (not what you wish she were saying).

Another way to convey respect is to demonstrate her value to a group of other teenagers. Are there other kids with the same chronic health issue that your daughter could help? Could you have her write a letter to someone else struggling with the same decision, outlining her situation and all that she knows about the decision she needs to make? This would help her engage in what researchers call “self-persuasion,” and it would make palpable the wisdom that she has to share and the way that she can help others.

2. Keep it short. You may have a mountain of information to impart, but research shows that less is more. Do not do what I often find myself doing in these situations: repeating myself. This can sound like nagging, and research shows that parental nagging activates anger-related regions in teenager’s brains, and it reduces activity in regions related to planning and behavior change.

I definitely talk too much. I learned this the hard way. I was trying to make an important point to one of my kids, and she didn’t seem to be getting it. I plowed on, with more examples. “Are you hearing me?” I finally asked. She looked up, eyes glazed over. “Yes,” she said. “I hear your words. So. Many. Words.”

So, use as few words as possible to make your point, and then shut up and watch for a response. Awkward silences are okay; often teens will want to fill the silence and in so doing will actually contribute to the conversation.

3. Let them be in control of both the conversation and the actions they take following the conversation. Do not, under pain of death, tell teenagers what to do. When it comes to conversations about their own health, invite them to discover what the information means for their lives.

So instead of sitting your daughter down for a Big Talk using a tone that suggests you are going to decide the course of her treatment, wade in sloooowly. Raise the issue you’d like to discuss from a couple of very different angles. For example: “Do you want to talk about what it is like when you feel nauseous at school?” or “Do you want to talk about what the risks and benefits are of going off of your medication?” Ron Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “Or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

If they say they don’t want to talk, let it go temporarily. Force never works, but persistence does.

As parents I think we often forget that teenagers are motivated by totally different things than we are. We want them to do the things that are best for their health and well-being; they want to do the things that bestow on them the highest social status. But we are most influential when we are able to take advantage of teens’ existing motivations, rather than trying to get them to feel motivated by our goals.

Fortunately, our motivations tend to turn out to be aligned already: Our adolescents want to feel like competent, well-respected, autonomous adults. And, in the end, we want our children to be competent, autonomous adults who make choices we respect and admire. Decisions like the one your daughter has ahead of her are a bridge between how she wants to feel and the young woman she is becoming. Though she may not see it right now, she is so lucky to have you walking across that bridge beside—or perhaps a touch behind—her.

Yours,
Christine

christine-carter-how-to-only-do-things-you-actually-want-to-do

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].