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Anchoring New Habits to Old Ones

Before we begin practicing a new behavior that we’d like to form into a habit, we’ll do well to consciously designate an anchor or trigger for that new habit: something that is the same every time you want to enact it. My evening walk with the dog, for example, is triggered by me leaving my office in the evening and walking into the kitchen to think about dinner, and then ultimately feeding the dog. (So, the time of day is an anchor, as is feeding the dog. After I feed the dog, I always habitually walk him.)

An anchor can be time of day, a different habitual behavior that comes right before your habit (those make good triggers)—even an emotion. For example, when you feel anxious, you may habitually pick at your nails. Or if you feel happy, you may habitually reach for your phone to take a picture. (I’m not suggesting these as good anchors or habits, mind you. Just showing how emotions are often triggers.)

A note about exercise, since so many people make resolutions about that: A general time of day is usually the best trigger, like first thing in the morning, after school, during lunchtime, or before dinner—but it can’t be the only thing that anchors your habit. Once you know generally the time of day when you’d like to do your habit, try to link your activity to an existing behavior or routine.

For example, here is the existing routine I linked my new walking habit to. It’s something that I was already doing before I added a walk into the picture. I leave the office in the late afternoon, walk across the backyard to my house, go into the kitchen, and call out to see who’s home and who’s helping with dinner. I get out the ingredients that need to be prepped for dinner, and then I feed the dog and give my family instructions for how they can help with dinner. That’s right where I inserted a walk: While the dog wolfs down his food, I now change my shoes (which are right near the dog bowls) and get a leash ready. From there, I quickly head out for a walk.

If you’ve got a habit that you don’t want to do every day, choose a trigger that occurs only when you want to do the habit. For example, “Do a thirty-minute yoga video twice a week” isn’t a habit. It’s a to-do item for your task list because there’s no clear trigger and therefore no clear automaticity. But if you work only three days a week, you can use work as your trigger: “Do a thirty-minute yoga video every weekday as soon as I walk in the door from dropping the kids off at school.”

In this free planner (see the “Goals” tab), there is a column to designate your anchor. I like to use BJ Fogg’s After I… Then I will… format (I highly recommend his latest book about habit formation, Tiny Habits). So the anchor for my dog walk is: After I feed the dog, then I will take him for a walk. Easy!

Learn more about successfully forming habits with my free eBook, How to Set a Resolution that Sticks.

Making Resolutions? Track Your Progress

What we measure, we improve. (Or, “what gets measured, gets done.”)

An important aspect of successfully getting into a habit is measurement. For example, we know that when people weigh themselves every day, they lose more weight than if they weigh themselves just once a week. This is because measurement drives awareness of behavior. For example, if you record everything you eat in a food journal, you’ll be much more aware of what you eat than if you weren’t diligently noticing and recording your food intake. So much of what we do is unconscious; measurement is about making ourselves conscious of our bad habits while we train ourselves to unconsciously out good habits.

In this day and age, tracking or measuring our progress is easy. (It’s so easy that we can sometimes get caught up in the measurement of things and spend more time playing with our recording devices than we do establishing our habits!) If you find techy ways to measure your progress fun, go for it. Otherwise, a piece of paper taped to the fridge will work!

Use this free planner (see the “Goals” tab) to designate how you’ll measure your progress. Be sure to set yourself up fully before you start practicing your new behavior! And notice that sometimes tracking habits needs to become a habit in and of itself. Consider adding “track habits” to your annual goals as well!

Obstacles to achieving your goals

If You Don’t Think About This, You Probably Won’t Achieve Your Goals

A fascinating line of research shows that the more we fantasize about achieving a challenging goal, the less likely we are to actually take a real-life step towards accomplishing that very goal.

So much for positive thinking and visualization practices! It turns out that daydreaming about our success is relaxing, but it isn’t energizing. We envision ourselves hopping off the couch and going for a run, and our brain reacts as if we’ve already gone for that run. Psychologists call this “mental attainment,” and it can really thwart us as we attempt to keep our resolutions and get into good habits.

Fortunately, related research shows us exactly what to do to avoid this surprising brain booby-trap. We need to follow up our resolution or goal setting with something researchers call “mental contrasting.” Here’s how:

Step One: Identify the Obstacle Within Yourself

Take a moment to stop to imagine what will prevent you from reaching your goals or keeping your resolutions. Start by imagining the external circumstances that might thwart you. Maybe you need support from a leader at work, for example. Or maybe you need your spouse to stop leaving junk food on the kitchen counter. Are those external obstacles overcomable? What will you need to do to make sure they aren’t roadblocks to your success? If needed, re-write your goal or resolution so that you feel you have a good chance at succeeding.

Once you’ve narrowed your resolutions down to goals that are challenging but that you still feel pretty confident you can achieve, identify how you will likely hold yourself back. What is it within you that will predictably stand in the way? How will you predictably self-sabotage? For example, maybe you’re afraid to ask that leader at work for support. Or perhaps you often shop while you are hungry…and so you are bringing junk food into the house.

Anxiety, stress, and laziness are common emotional obstacles. Bad habits and limiting beliefs (or incorrect assumptions) are others. What obstacles can you imagine you’ll face? You can use the “Make Plans for Obstacles” worksheet at the end of this free eBook to get started.

Step Two: Make a Plan

What will you do in the face of these obstacles? What instrumental behaviors will help you overcome the obstacles you’ve identified? Frame your plan using an IF/THEN sentence. For example:

  • IF it rains, THEN I will still walk the dogs, and I will use the umbrella that is in the front hall.
  • IF I feel anxious about asking my manager for support, THEN I will remind myself of the times when she has said that she is happy to help.
  • IF I start to feel too overwhelmed to get started, THEN I will close all open browser windows, close all my apps, turn off my phone, and focus on one thing at a time.

A great deal of research shows that when people make a specific plan for what they’d like to do or change, anticipating obstacles if possible, they do better than 74 percent of people who don’t make a specific plan for the same task. Making a specific action plan dramatically increases the odds that you’ll follow through.

People who plan for obstacles tend to be able to meet their goals more successfully. For example, research shows that recovery from hip-replacement surgery depends in large part on having patients make a specific plan for how they will deal with obstacles.

It’s very painful to get up and move around after hip surgery. At the same time, recovery is generally more successful if a patient gets up and walks around a lot. In this study, patients who had just undergone surgery thought about getting up and walking around. Then, they made plans to handle the pain. So if their goal was to walk to the mailbox and back every day, participants practiced thinking: Okay, I’m going to get about halfway there and it’s going to hurt like heck and I’ll want to turn around.

Patients wrote down what they were going to do when they got halfway there and it hurt like heck. These patients recovered faster. They started walking twice as fast and could get in and out of a chair by themselves three times faster than people who didn’t make a specific plan to deal with the pain.

In sum: It is extremely important whenever we establish a new habit to think through all the seemingly minor details. Especially the details that tend to hang us up in the end. We need to decide what the key factors are for our success and how, specifically, we can set ourselves up to overcome the obstacles we may face.

You can use this technique daily by (1) jotting down a problem you need to solve or something that you’d like to accomplish, (2) noting what is likely to hold you back, and (3) making an if/then plan. To make this easy for you, I’ve included these steps in my new planner (it’s free online!), which you are free to customize and print out.




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. Share on X

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?


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.



3 Ways to Keep Technology from Ruining Your Relationships

In Triumphs of Experience, George Vaillant writes that “there are two pillars of happiness revealed by the seventy-five-year-old Grant Study. One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

We all do things — perhaps daily — that push the people we love away from us. We sneak “harmless” glances at our smartphones while playing games with our children. We forget to take thirty seconds to greet our spouse warmly when we haven’t seen her or him all day. We decline a call from our friend or grandmother because we don’t feel like mustering the energy to truly listen. This modern world we live in is full of common situations and experiences which, if not handled well, create resistance rather than ease, impairing the strength that a relationship brings us. Tiny ruptures in our relationships drive love and connection out of our lives.

You know the feeling: You’re having coffee with an old friend, and her cell phone keeps buzzing. She’s left her thirteen-year-old daughter home alone, so she keeps checking her phone, just to make sure everything is okay. But then a text comes in from one of her colleagues who is working late on a problematic project. Your friend feels the need to answer her questions. In the end, you feel you had only half her attention for most of the meal. It was good to see her, but the friendship isn’t what it once was.

Tiny ruptures in our relationships drive love and connection out of our lives. Share on X

Or you are having dinner with your extended family, and everyone is excited to catch up with the college kids who are home. But throughout dinner, the kids can’t resist the pull of Snapchat, laughing at photos that school friends send and trying to share them before they fade. Soon, all the adults have their phones out, too, just to check what’s happening on their Twitter feed or to post a picture of the college students on their Facebook page. No one really gets to catch up with the kids.

In these situations, and many others we’ve all experienced, our smartphones and laptops and tablets and all the social media they carry disrupt the very social connections they promise to create. They make us available to work 24/7, which might seem like a bonus to our relationships because now we can have our work and our family time, too — in theory.

But actually, technology can damage our relationships and our work. We don’t really experience our family time, and the work we do while spending time with friends and family isn’t our best. Rather than bringing us together, new technologies often create an illusion of togetherness, but without the joys, benefits, and, frankly, the challenges that real relationships bring.

Our technology addiction erodes our connection with others. Each time our phone dings, we get a nice hit of dopamine, a neurochemical that activates the reward system in our brain. It feels good, but it also makes us less willing to return to the much more demanding world of live conversation. Real-life friendship has a lot of benefits, but instant gratification is rarely one of them. Our live relationships can be exhausting compared to our online “friends.” At the end of the day, it is so much less taxing to text a friend than to actually call her. It is so much less draining to update our Facebook page and reap the instant satisfaction of dozens of “likes” than to share our ideas and interests with our actual neighbors. In the short run, it seems easier to connect with others through technology, but we need to be clear that this is a false ease. In the long run, these behaviors introduce strain into our relationships.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT sociologist and author of Alone Together, writes that we avoid the vulnerability and messiness of “real” contact and intimacy while getting the sweet satisfaction of a neurochemical high from being connected digitally to more and more people. We can hide from each other, even while we are tethered together.

This hiding from others (and sometimes from our own feelings) that technology can facilitate is a pernicious poison in our relationships. Fortunately, the technology itself is not at all the problem. We need only to use it differently.

Here are 3 ways to keep your gadgets from harming your relationships:

1. Carve out technology-free zones and times in your life when you can pay mindful attention to what is happening in real time.

Being really present with people means that when we are on the phone with them, we don’t do anything else. It means initiating real, face-to-face conversations with people, even though they can bring conflict, even though they can be tiring. When we are really present, we stop interrupting ourselves and others all the time. It might be gratifying to sneak a peek at your texts, but we don’t have to react to our devices all the time. We can command them instead of always letting them command us.

2. Practice being alone. When we don’t learn how to tolerate (and even relish) solitude, we often feel lonely.

“Solitude — the ability to be separate, to gather yourself—is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments,” explains Turkle. “When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”

Spend time alone at home and in the car unconnected. Learn to tolerate the initial boredom that may come; it will pass. Go on a hike or to the beach without a cell phone. Deep down I think we all have a deep, dark terror of being alone and are hardwired to stay with our clan. But when we experience our ability to turn inward— which we can do only when we need the silence and stillness of solitude — we realize that we are never really alone. We feel our innate connectedness. So we need to catch ourselves when we “slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone,” writes Turkle. “It’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely.”

3. Limit the time you spend in virtual worlds — including Facebook and Instagram.

Virtual realities, video games, and social media are addictive. In the short term it can be far more rewarding to spend time in a fantasy world — rewarding in the way that a sugary soda is rewarding (but very unhealthy if over-consumed). Social media and other virtual realities allow us to put on our best performances, showing the world the moment when we looked (or imagined ourselves to look) pretty or felt proud. If we’re feeling lonely, we can easily “connect” with dozens of online “friends.” More than that, we can avoid the problems of real people and real relationships in all their untidiness and vulnerability and pain (and all our own messiness, as well).

But the reality is (no pun intended) that our vulnerabilities create real intimacy and draw us together, and when we avoid the messiness that real-life relationships require, we end up isolated and disconnected. So be very deliberate: Use online games, social media, and virtual realities to facilitate live connections with real people, choosing real connections and real people over fake ones. Use Facebook to deepen your connection with a faraway friend by sharing articles, photos, and videos that you think she will appreciate. Play online games with your son rather than a stranger. Use match.com to make new connections, but then actually meet those connections live, in person,  instead of constraining your relationships to online forums.

This post is based on an excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Sweet Spot.

How to Say No Gracefully

Three Steps to Say “No” Gracefully

Yesterday, a friend asked me if she could borrow my car to run a long-distance errand because my little car gets better mileage than her big one. I wanted to say “no”; switching cars on an already busy day felt like a hassle to me. But I didn’t say no. Instead, I hemmed and hawed and hesitated, hoping she’d get the hint.

It can be really hard to say no. Despite my best attempts not to care what other people think of me, I still find myself wanting to be liked. I don’t want people to think I’m selfish. More than that, I don’t want to be selfish. And I never want to miss easy opportunities to help someone out.

But we human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will make us happiest in the future—and pleasing others (and thinking of ourselves as generous) by saying “yes” tends to be far more pleasant in the present than saying “no.” But saying yes when we want to say no tends to bite us later, in the form of resentment and exhaustion.

We can make better decisions by picturing ourselves moments before the event in question. Would we be relieved if it were canceled? If so, we’ve gotta say no now so that we don’t find ourselves trying to weasel out of it later. Here’s how.

  1. Rehearse Saying No.

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

Something simple—like, “That doesn’t work for me this time”—is almost always sufficient. (See this post for 21 more ways to say no.) Pick a default way to respond when you don’t want to do something, and practice saying it before you need it.

  1. Be clear about your priorities and truthful in your refusal.

Saying no is easier when we’re clear about our priorities; it’s even harder to decline a request when our reasons for doing so seem unimportant.

I could see that if I had to switch cars with my friend it was going to screw up my whole morning, and it would mean that while I could make it to my meeting in time, I would not be able to take the dog for a morning walk. “I won’t be able to walk the dog,” would have felt like a weak explanation. But walking the dog is my favorite part of my morning, and I count on it to get centered for the day. So, it was also true for me to say, “I have plans in the morning which would make it hard for me to switch cars with you tomorrow.”

Note that even though I was being vague about my plans, I was telling the truth. Untrue excuses and white-lies lead to further entanglements and greater stress. Lying sends your unconscious the message that there’s something wrong with saying no—but there’s not.

Be honest, but don’t be afraid to be vague. Telling the truth is not the same as sharing more details than are necessary, even if someone asks why you can’t help them out or come to their party. Detailed explanations imply that the other person can’t handle a simple no—and they often lead to people solving your conflicts for you, when you don’t really want them to.

If your “no” isn’t accepted with grace, persist. Repeat your point calmly, using the same words. This will help the other person see that you are sticking to your no, and that their pestering isn’t changing your answer. If that doesn’t work and you need something else to say, express empathy. For example, say, “I understand that you are in a tough spot here,” or, “I know this is hard for you to accept.”

If they still won’t back down, tell them the truth about how you are feeling. For example: “I feel uncomfortable and a little angry when you continue to ask me even though I’ve declined.” Focus on your emotions—how their refusal to accept your honest answer is making you feel—and not the logistical details or logic for your refusal.

  1. Make your decision final.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has famously shown that when we can change our mind, we tend to be a lot less happy with our decisions. So, once we decline an invitation, we need to make an effort to focus on the good that will come from saying no, not the regret or guilt we might feel. Perhaps we will be better rested because we didn’t go to a party, or we’ll feel less resentful because we let someone else help out. Maybe saying no to one thing frees up time for another (more joyful) activity.

Say you are thinking of missing your monthly book club because you aren’t interested in the book. Send your RSVP as a definitive no, not a “maybe.” And then immediately turn your attention to all the time you just freed up for yourself.  What do you get to do now instead?

This strategy can be a great tool for offsetting the fear of missing out. The brain reacts to potentially missing out on something in the same way it would with an actual loss. By focusing on what we gain by saying no, we keep our brain from perceiving loss.

If you are feeling nervous about saying no, take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of others. But it’s worth it. In the long run, the ability to say no is a little-known key to happiness.

Need more help saying no? Sign up for Christine Carter’s monthly email list (that’s right: it’s only one email per month) to receive notifications of new columns.


Are You Busy or Productive?

Until a couple of 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.

I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. (At one point I ran a Mother’s Day half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven 5 hours to watch me.) The busier I was, the more important I felt. I was committed to pressing on, despite clear signs that I was headed for a fall.

I had been done in by our culture’s big lie, which is:  Busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security.

And this means that the reverse must also be true: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, not to be liked or trusted.

Let’s think for a minute about what it really means when we say that we are busy.

If I tell you I’m busy, it isn’t because I’ve just spent an hour hiking, or playing with my dog. It isn’t because I’ve spent the whole afternoon working on an engaging project, and lost all sense of time. I won’t lead with “I’m so busy” if I’m feeling passionate about something I’m writing, or if I feel super creative and productive and efficient and at ease.

I will only tell you I’m busy if I’m hurried. A little on edge. Doing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really capture my interest or imagination. If you tell me that you are busy, your unconscious is hinting to me that you are a little unhappy or overtired, that you are willing to sacrifice your well-being for your career or your boss or your team at work, or for the long-term success of your children, or doing what you (or other people) think you “should” be doing.

Busy-ness does not make us happy. It also does not make us successful.

The truth is that busyness is a mark of what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” This state of feeling overwhelmed impairs our ability to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, speak fluently, remember important social information (like the name of our boss’s daughter, or our daughter’s boss), and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do in a given day.

Cognitive overload is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential. Share on XCognitive overload – busyness – is a not a sign that we are important or productive. It is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential.” username=”raisinghappines”]

Cognitive overload–busyness–is a not a sign that we are important or productive. It is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential.

It’s also a sign that we aren’t as physically healthy as we could be. Scott Dannemiller, in his post “Busy is a Sickness,” quotes Dr. Suzanne Koven, an internist at the Massachusetts General Hospital:

“In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”

Busyness causes health problems. And yet the type of busyness we are talking about is entirely within our control (as opposed to the busyness of someone living in poverty, working multiple minimum-wage jobs just to keep the lights on and the children fed). The busyness of the affluent and middle-class is an illness we are choosing, “like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom,” writes Dannemiller.

Let’s stop choosing busyness.

Take Action: Here are 5 tactics to help dial back the overwhelm:

  1. Stare into Space
  2. Find the “Minimum Effective Dose”
  3. Change Your Mantra
  4. Single Task
  5. Clear Mental Clutter by Making a Plan

Pick the one that feels easiest for you, and then make it a routine!

Join the Discussion: Which of these tactics works best for you? What else helps you feel less busy? Do you agree that busyness is an illness we are choosing?

Photo courtesy of Tim Caynes.

The Real Cost of Interruption

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

But now freedom from distractions and interruptions seems like a fantasy. My husband and I are both working from home and our kids are doing school from home. Although we all have designated places to work, my family is forever interrupting me, jarring me out of my flow. For example, my husband likes to use the printer that is in my office (because I keep the paper and toner filled). He’ll saunter into my office to pick up whatever he’s printed, and even if I’m clearly trying to focus, 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 that I still have work. And I do like seeing him and our kids so much.

And also…Like many women these days, I’m a little on edge, and each interruption unleashes a riptide of irritation. Even when the person interrupting me is a considerate and whispering teenager needing a change of scenery (“the chair in your office is so comfortable!”), 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 comes in for a minute or two to chit-chat about dinner plans. 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 to 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.

In other words, 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.

None of us needs the added stress of daily, constant interruptions during these difficult times. But for most parents working from home, near-constant interruption is inevitable. We can work hard to eliminate interruptions (see this post for ideas about how), but in all likelihood, our efforts will often be thwarted.

Simply understanding why we feel so irritated by constant interruption can help. Research shows that identifying and labeling a difficult experience and the emotions that go with it allows us to recover a modicum of control. This “name it to tame it” technique works by decreasing activity in the brain’s fear and emotion centers, like the amygdala, and increasing activity in the frontal lobe, where reasoning occurs.

Labeling what is happening with us in the present — both the fact that we’ve just been interrupted again and the way we are feeling about it — is a form of acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as resignation; it’s not that our efforts to eliminate interruptions will never work, or that things won’t improve. Everything changes. But accepting our present reality does tend to make us more effective in the face of challenge. And fortunately, it can help us feel better.


How to Achieve Your Goals on Autopilot - Christine Carter

How to Achieve Your Goals on Autopilot

At each turn of each season, lots of achievement-oriented people set goals.

The start of the school year is my favorite time to do this for myself (I’m with Gretchen Rubin, who calls September “the other January”). I also have my teens set some goals for themselves. But we aren’t very ambitious, and for good reason.

You already know this, but it’s worth saying: More than half of people who set goals (or make resolutions) give up on them, or simply forget about them, within six months. Don’t join this failing 50 percent! Instead, follow these three research-based strategies for making resolutions that stick for a lifetime.

1. Think in terms of habits, not goals.

Your goals for the new season might include losing 10 pounds, or totally clearing your house of clutter, or finding a new job. All of these might be goals worth setting, and they all involve a lot of different behaviors — and, therefore (sorry to say this) a lot of opportunities for failure.

Simple behaviors that can become habits that automatically help you achieve your goals  ultimately make better self-improvement initiatives than ambitious goals. For example, resolve to eat an apple every afternoon instead of a cookie, or spend 10 minutes each weeknight before bed cleaning out a shelf or a drawer, or send one networking email every morning before you leave for work.

For something to become a habit, there needs to be something else that triggers the new behavior — a regular, uniform stimulus that tells you its time to perform this behavior. My morning meditation is triggered by my alarm going off at about the same time every day. (And when I don’t set an alarm, I don’t usually meditate, sadly.)

If you have a habit in mind that you don’t want to do every day, choose a trigger that occurs only occasionally — i.e., at the times when you want to perform that new behavior regularly down the line. For example, “Do a 30-minute yoga video twice a week” isn’t a habit. It’s a to-do item for your task list because there’s no clear trigger, and therefore no clear way to make it a routine for you. If you want to squeeze that twice-weekly yoga into your schedule, a better approach would be to say, “I’ll pop in my 30-minute yoga video after dropping the kids off at soccer practice on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”

2. Bake a reward into the actual behavior, rather than holding out until you’ve achieved some far-off goal.

We human beings may say that we are pursuing happiness, but really what we tend to pursue is reward. Anything that we might desire could count as a reward: a cashmere sweater, a pretty little cupcake, attention from a mentor, a sense of accomplishment, some affection from a loved one.

When our brains identify a potential reward, they release dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger. That dopamine rush motivates us toward the reward, creating a real sense of craving, wanting, or desire for the carrot that is being dangled in front of us.

Fortunately, we can make dopamine work for us rather than against us as we build our habits. To get into a good habit, you’ll need a really satisfying reward–ideally one that’s immediate or, even better, intrinsic to a routine.

We can do this by making the activities themselves more rewarding, or just plain more fun. This is what I did when I switched my silent, sitting meditation (a very serious, long vipassana—like eating kale for the mind) to meditating along with a Deepak Chopra recording (short, inspiring, and easy—like an iceberg wedge salad with bacon and blue cheese). I was getting a lot out of the longer vipassana meditations when I did them, but I wasn’t meditating regularly. Just as any salad is better than a diet without greens, I decided that at this stage in the game, any meditation is better than none. It might not be a sure road to enlightenment, but it’s closer than hitting snooze in the morning.

I’m also a huge fan of the “Yay me!” reward, which I learned from B.J. Fogg at Stanford. Even something as small as a short mental victory dance can trigger a little hit of dopamine, enough to tell your brain to repeat whatever you just did. So when I hear my alarm and sit up in bed, I congratulate myself. If you heard my running internal commentary, you’d think I was utterly crazy, what with the constant “Yay me! I did it again!” self-talk. But it works!

3. Prepare for failure.

Unless you are some sort of superhero, you will not be able to get into this new habit perfectly the first time. You’ll trip and fall and royally screw up. Research indicates that 88 percent of people have failed to keep a new resolution. In my experience as a human being and a coach, 100 percent of people starting a new habit lapse at some point. Faltering is a normal part of the process. It doesn’t matter if you have a lapse, or even a relapse, as much as it matters how you respond to that lapse.

So take a minute to think about what tools you need to embark on your new habit. What obstacles will you likely face? People who plan for how they’re going to react to different obstacles tend to be able to meet their goals more successfully. For example, research suggests that recovery from hip-replacement surgery depends in large part on having patients think through obstacles to their recovery and then make a specific plan for how they will deal with those obstacles.

What obstacles can you predict and plan for? Don’t forget to include the people in your life who (often unintentionally) throw up roadblocks. For example, my husband was not a fan of my morning exercise routine when he noticed how early I was going to bed, and I was successful only when I planned out how I’d respond to his attempts to convince me to stay up later with him.

In The Marshmallow Test, the celebrated psychologist Walter Mischel gives what I think is his best advice for responding to challenges: make an “implementation plan.” First, identify the “hot spots that trigger the impulsive reactions you want to control,” like your alarm going off while it is still dark, or seeing your favorite hot wings on the menu. Then, decide what you will do when the trigger goes off, phrasing your behavior plan in simple, “If-Then” terms. For example: “If my alarm goes off and I want to press snooze, I will immediately get out of bed and walk to the bathroom.” Or: “If I see hot wings on the menu and feel the urge to order them, I will immediately choose a salad to order instead.” This strategy may seem too simplistic to work, but lots of research proves it to be, as Mischel writes, “astonishingly effective.”

Finally, even with the best laid plans, lapses are still going to happen–probably over and over again. In those cases, what’s important is that you don’t beat yourself up for your lack of willpower but instead try to practice self-compassion. When we practice self-compassion, we recognize that everyone makes mistakes and falls short of their expectations for themselves at one time or another–in fact, our shortcomings are what bind us to the rest of our fellow humans. Pioneering research by Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas, has found that when people treat themselves with self-compassion–that is, they extend to themselves the same kind of understanding and kindness that they would show a friend who makes a mistake–they are actually more likely to bounce back from a failure and stay on track to meet their goals.

I love the end of the summer for the opportunity to get back into our routines and habits. This is the PERFECT time to set some goals — and to make a new resolution for the new season. As school starts again for students everywhere, what will make you and your family happier, healthier, and more successful?

If you’re serious about getting into a new habit but aren’t sure where to start, or you just need a few more tips, I have a free coaching program that you are welcome to join.

Pick the right habit (and I’ll guide you in picking the right habit) and you’ll have it well established by the end of this program. 90 Days to a New Habit is a 12-week email and text-based coaching program that is practical, do-able, and science-based. Enroll here.

Why Staring into Space is an Important Strategy for Success

The answer is a cliché: You were probably in the shower. Creativity doesn’t come from the bathroom, we know, but it sure does seem highly correlated with it. So what is it about the shower that leads to our “aha” moments and bursts of creativity?

It’s that in the shower we are simply staring into space, washing our hair on autopilot. We aren’t checking our messages or feeds, or writing a report. We’re just day dreaming.

We may think — mistakenly — that nothing much is happening in our brains when we aren’t consciously doing something, certainly that nothing much of importance is going on. But actually, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree when we’re daydreaming. Many brain regions become active, far more than when we are focusing.


When we daydream, or relax our focus, our brain begins drawing connections between all the things that it previously didn’t see as all that connected. Importantly, the brain networks that are responsible for creative insight come online.

There’s a neuro-biological story behind this. We have two primary attentional networks in our brain: task positive and task negative, and they function like a see-saw in that only one is active at a time.

When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is ON. (And the task negative — mind wandering, daydreaming, “time wasting” — network is OFF.)  We give credit to our task-positive attentional network for all the great work we do in the world. When we are focused, we write books. We build bridges. We raise children. Our culture tells us to focus, and that that’s the only way to get anything done around here.

But when you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, or driving but not listening to the radio and you let your mind wander, the task-negative brain becomes active. All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, usually at an unconscious level. This is where our creative insight comes from. We can’t solve problems or do much of anything without the insights that come from that downtime. We certainly can’t fulfill our potential without filling our need for creative insight, without nurturing our ability to draw connections. This is why we often get our best ideas in the shower…it’s the only remaining place in the world where we let ourselves do nothing!

All of this explains other research that shows that conscious, effortful thinking does nothing to improve creativity, or to help people come up with innovative solutions to problems. For example: When researchers give people a task that requires creativity (such as instructions to come up with a list of ways to use a brick), people don’t generate longer or more creative lists if they have a few extra minutes to think before they start.

What does help? Spending those few extra minutes not consciously thinking about the task, by diverting the research subjects’ attention with an unrelated task. This then gives the insight-generating part of the brain time to get to work making connections. Those new connections are, essentially, innovations that improve our performance on creative tasks.

Here’s what I want you to take away from this:

Creative insight is at the very heart of the sweet spot  that place of both power and ease, that place where we humans hit our home runs. Nothing is easier than an “aha moment” that pops effortlessly into your awareness, and nothing is more powerful.

Creative insight is at the very heart of the sweet spot — that place of both power and ease. #SweetSpot Share on X

What this means is that you will not find your sweet spot, or find flow, or do your best work, without cultivating stillness in your life, without spending a good part of each just staring into space.

That’s such a counter-culture notion that many people feel guilty and anxious staring into space. We feel important and productive when we are busy, and insignificant and lazy day dreaming. But to be successful, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness, we actually need to cultivate it.

Photo courtesy of Malloreigh via Flickr.