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The Quiet Secret to Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

How to Raise a High-Achiever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberate practice

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

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

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

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

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

Persistence over time

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

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

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

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

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

Are We Wired to Want Stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Our brains are hardwired to pursue rewards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4: Your plate is already too full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I Really Going to Have to Ask You Again?

I asked my daughter to help me make dinner the other night; soon after that, I got caught on the phone. When I finally emerged from my office 40 minutes later, I found that Fiona had already prepared our whole meal—the table was set, and dinner was waiting. I was beside myself with delight.

Few things are more satisfying than having someone exceed our expectations. But around the house, it seems like more often we’re annoyed or disappointed when someone fails to meet those expectations—when, once again, our spouse is late, or the kids didn’t take out the garbage, or someone failed to help clean up, or wasn’t really listening while we were baring our soul, or doesn’t really “get” us. Living with others is, in many ways, living in a constant state of unmet expectations.

Living with others is, in many ways, living in a constant state of unmet expectations. Click To Tweet

Fortunately, we can develop constructive ways of responding when our needs aren’t being met by our spouses and our children—techniques that increase the odds that they will be met in the future. Here are three alternatives to nagging—or harboring resentment—when your expectations aren’t met.

1) Do nothing. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge a disappointment, then let it go without taking further action. When Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist with loads of first-hand experience and scientific knowledge about real-life ecstasy, feels upset or uncomfortable, she just looks at her watch and waits 90 seconds before letting herself think about whatever upset her. Loads of research on “rumination” suggests that people who dwell on some hurt or distress are way more likely to feel depressed or dissatisfied with their lives. Sometimes we make ourselves feel worse—we prolong pain and frustration—by thinking too much about our disappointments.

2) Inspire the person who disappointed you. Even though we sometimes really want to unleash on a spouse who left the house without so much as clearing his or her breakfast dishes, whining and criticizing (or yelling, as the case may be) is not going to make your partner (or teenager, or pre-schooler) really want to help the next time. Negativity rarely inspires others.

The “ERN” method, something I devised long ago from piles of academic journal articles to motivate my kids to do boring but necessary tasks, also works well with adults. The gist of it is to use Empathy, Rationale, and Non-controlling language to get what we want, as those are the things that research shows are most motivating to people. It might go something like this:

Empathy: “I know you are anxious about your upcoming review and need to get into work earlier these days.”

Rationale: “I need more help on school days because Max has been late to school three times this week. I won’t be able to shake this cough if I keep getting up so early. I’m doing my best, but I can’t do it all by myself.”

Non-controlling language (or “not-being-so-bossy”): “It would be great if you could help me tomorrow morning. Is that a possibility?”

Admittedly, this is much harder than nagging your spouse and kids. But think about it: Would you rather someone insist you do something (“You HAVE to help me with the lunches in the morning!! I have a cold and a full time job, and I can’t wake up any earlier or I’ll just get SICKER!!!!”) or gently enlist your help?

3) Pick a Fight… but in a constructive way. Again, this is about finding more constructive ways to express what you want. So even though you might want to punish that guy who didn’t get you so much as a card on your birthday, making him feel as bad as you do won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your next birthday more promising.

Make your disappointment known by starting off on a positive note. Yes, you read that right. In fact, begin with a statement of appreciation.

“I really appreciate how much time you’ve been spending with me in the evenings. I love going for a walk with you at night.”

That gets your cardless-wonder’s attention, and makes him or her open to listening to what you have to say. Then, staying as calm and positive as possible, make your feelings known with a good ol’ “I” statement.

“I felt really lonely and disappointed and actually a little bit abandoned when you decided we didn’t need to celebrate my birthday. It hurt that you didn’t even get me a card.” 

Finally, tell that disappointing partner what you need—really clearly and specifically, explain what he or she can do to make it up to you. What exactly are your expectations? I recommend making it an easy win; go for something more ambitious the next time around.

If we must ask for what we need—which clearly we do, since the people we live with tend to have very poor mind reading skills—it behooves us to ask in a way that will get results. Good luck, and report back with what works for you!

Passion + Adversity = Success?

Now that the kids are back in school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success—as well as happiness. Part 3 in a 3 part series. Click here to read Part 1  and here to read Part 2.

When I was graduating from college, I didn’t look for work that I felt passionate about because I assumed there were no good jobs that would involve my interests. My intention was to get the most prestigious, high-paying job I could. At that time, corporations recruited on Ivy League campuses, and I interviewed for advertising and brand management jobs that seemed to fit my internship experiences and creativity.

I landed a prestigious and high-paying job in marketing management. Unfortunately, I hated the job. I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything but clocking in, checking tasks off a list, and heading home. I started therapy for anxiety. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted in life.

When I started studying the sociology of happiness six years later, my world was set ablaze. No one else particularly thought what I was doing was a great idea; one professor told me to “at least stop calling it happiness” if I was studying “subjective well-being,” because people were going to think that I was “not very smart.” After my struggle with anxiety in corporate America, I could have cared less what others thought of me. I paid no attention to what type of research was going to get me a tenured track position; I was too thrilled by all I was learning. I think it worked out pretty well for me.

And I’m not alone. In my first post in this series on grit and elite performance, I emphasize how success requires a whole lot of practice, which can often be unpleasurable. Yet the consistent and deliberate practice of elite performers is nearly always fueled by an innate interest in what they’re doing.

In other words, passion is a core component of grit.

Research convincingly shows that when we perceive a child as being innately talented or gifted, or as showing great promise for something, what we are really perceiving is interest, not talent. A four-year-old who pretends to play the violin with a stick and demonstrates an unusual interest in classical music does, indeed, show promise as a violinist. She does not, however, show talent yet. Her interest in the music at such an early age may stimulate a lot of things that lead her to virtuosity, like early music instruction and parents who encourage her to practice deliberately and consistently. But early interest is not the same as early achievement. As we saw in the first post in this series, achievement takes both effort and skill, neither of which the four-year-old has had enough time to develop.

Here’s the bottom line: The practice and effort that leads to success and happiness over the long run is fueled by intrinsic desire, not hard-driving parents or social expectations. In fact, my passion for the science of happiness probably developed better—and my chances for success increased—because there was no one pushing me to achieve.

Falling down
So passion is one more thing—in addition to rigorous practice and strategic resting—that elite performers have in common. All that passion comes in especially handy when we consider another important ingredient to success: failure.

Elite performers turn adversity into success. Most greats don’t just pile up one achievement after the next. Failure is a key part of growth and, eventually, elite performance: J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers (and before she even wrote the book she suffered a stream of potentially devastating personal failures). Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. Abraham Lincoln, probably the most famous example of failure contributing to success, suffered a series of lost elections (along with some notable successes) before he went on to become one of our greatest presidents.

Consider that 75 percent of all people experience some form of trauma in life, and about 20 percent of all people are likely to experience a traumatic life-event within a given year. So the odds are good that our lives aren’t going to be free from pain and suffering, no matter how well-off or well-positioned we are. (That said, socioeconomic status does matter; while wealth doesn’t insure us against many disasters, it does make many types of adverse life-events fewer and farther between.)

Since adversity in life is a given, our success and happiness depend on our ability not just to cope with it but to actually grow because of it. Professionally, we have the greatest potential to grow when we challenge ourselves in our field just beyond our comfort zone. This means risking fear, embarrassment, errors, or even full-blown failure. And it means gaining new skills and abilities that contribute to our greater mastery and success in the future.

Because grit is a combination of persistence and passion, adversity plays a significant role in helping us develop both of those qualities. Interestingly, a vast body of scientific research shows that the stress we experience as a result of adversity—and how we respond to that stress—tends to predict how much we will benefit from it. The people who report the most growth following hardship are notthe people who are entirely stress-resistant in the face of adversity. Instead, the people who grow the most are actually the ones who are a little “shaken up,” and even exhibit a degree of posttraumatic stress. So if we don’t feel some stress in the face of a difficult situation, odds are we won’t grow from it.

Failure—and adversity in general—is life’s great teacher. While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life-events—a plane crash, a terrorist bombing, breast cancer—can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose, and in this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation.

Stephen Joseph, a preeminent expert on posttraumatic growth and the author of What Doesn’t Kill Us, puts it like this: “Adversity, like the grit that creates the pearl, is often what propels people to become more true to themselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a wider perspective.”

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

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

the-best-ways-to-organize-your-email-christine-carter

The Best Way to Organize Your Email

I’ve been studying the problem of email overload and compulsive email checking for a couple of years now. The problem is massive, but totally solvable.

Fortunately, over the years I’ve devised a way to organize email that works. I’ve taught it to several clients in different industries — all report back that this method is a game-changer. Personally, I’m no longer plagued by email overload — and not because I’ve just delegated it all to an assistant, though delegation is an awesome strategy if that is available to you.

To make email a more powerful and efficient tool, I have three main strategies. First, make compulsively checking email much less gratifying. Second, make checking email on a planned, set schedule much more gratifying. Finally, and most obviously, reduce the amount of time it takes to read and respond to email.

Here’s how:

1. Set up three different email accounts. I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways to do this, and while I do like a lot of the features of Google’s Inbox, it doesn’t go far enough, so trust me on this one.

  • You need a work account, where only email directed to you goes. No bulk email subscriptions, notifications, etc. will go to this account. If you are a stay-at-home parent, you can get away with two email accounts and skip this one.
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  • You need a personal account, where your friends and family can email you. Have personal notifications from kids’ schools and invitations go here, for example, but not stuff that you want to read but will never need to respond to.
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  • Finally, and this is critical, you need a bulk account, where all of your subscriptions and newsletters go. This is the only email address you should give to a company or organization. This is also where you should send ALL your social media notifications. (This is a good account to use with Google Inbox, because it will sort this email into things you want to read, and stuff like receipts.)

You’ve now got a work inbox that contains only messages you need to read and respond to when you are working. You can check your personal email when you get home, and you can set aside time to read all the interesting stuff that comes into your bulk account when you aren’t trying to get your work done.

2. Relentlessly unsubscribe. I mean it: Any newsletter or publication that you haven’t read and found interesting in the past three months gets deep-sixed. Marie Kondo the heck out of your email inbox: If a subscription doesn’t spark joy, unsubscribe. Just do it.

For most people, this is so much harder than it sounds, because of their FOMO (fear of missing out). Businesses rely on your FOMO to get their promotions in your hot little hands. Remember that every coupon is available with a quick Google search. So is every event calendar. And even every blog post. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

7 ways to make email a more powerful and efficient tool. #EmailOverload Click To Tweet7 easy ways to make email a more powerful and efficient tool.” username=”raisinghappines”]

3. Redesign how you schedule meetings and calls via email. This is especially true if there is a lot of back-and-forth in your email related to calendar items. Do your best to eliminate email correspondence related to “finding a time to…” I use Acuity Scheduling for to schedule calls, client meetings, media interviews, office hours, etc.

4. Schedule the time you will spend on email, and design your life up to follow-through on this. This is such an important step I wrote a whole other post about it. Read it here. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.

5. Get to inbox zero every single day. The first day you do this, you may have so many emails in your inbox that you need to declare email bankruptcy, or you may need to move ALL of the emails in your inbox to a folder to deal with at a later date.

This means you must block off enough time each day to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox in one way or another. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily. Then, when you are in your scheduled time to read and respond to your email, respond to them all in one standard way or another. If a particular email is going to take more than five minutes to read and respond to, put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to your task list. That email is a different kind of work now—it’s a part of a project or something that requires more than just emailing.

6. Take your work email account off your home or personal computer and your phone. This is the truth: You can’t efficiently respond to email from your phone; you can only monitor what is coming in. And this will keep you from being present wherever you are and doing whatever else you are supposed to be doing.

You are now a strategic email checker. You will respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to your emails. This will not hurt you at work; it will improve your standing.

(Do you check your work email on your phone when you’re just waiting in line and want to “get stuff done”? That’s a whole other problem. Don’t do it. Let yourself daydream; it will make you more creative when you get back to work. At the very least, just give yourself a break, for crying out loud.)

7. Now take your personal email account and your bulk reading account off your work computer. The first time I checked my work email after doing this, I mostly felt disappointed. It was so much less stimulating. There was nothing in my inbox that I could just quickly delete, and nothing fun and stimulating (like this Pure Wow article) that you can read in 2 seconds.

This disappointment is super important, because it started to decrease my deep and persistent desire to check constantly. But another great thing happened: I got to the bottom of my inbox! I replied to everything, the same day I received it! How awesome! And satisfying! This accomplishment was so inherently rewarding that it started to reinforce my new, more strategic, email checking habit.

Good luck, everyone! If you’ve already joined me at my “How to Take Your Life Back from Email” webinar, ask me follow-up questions or tell me what steps are working for you in the comments below. But if you haven’t watched the webinar, and think you’ll need extra help with managing your email inbox, sign up for my “How to Take Your Life Back from Email” webinar and I’ll talk you through this email-management method (and answer your questions).

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Tuesday Tip: Stop Compulsively Checking Email

I have a full and rewarding career, and four teenagers who go to four different schools. I couldn’t have the life I do without email. I am certain of this.

But email is also a disaster. It’s mostly a giant to-do list that other people create for you — people (and companies) who don’t know and probably don’t give a damn about your highest priorities — or the other things you’re hoping to get done today.

This is why I aim to spend 45 minutes or less reading and responding to emails a day. This frees up hours and hours to do my most important work, and to do the things that I value the most, like hang out with my children.

There are real challenges to managing the amount of time we spend on email, mostly because email is so satisfying and stimulating and easy to check constantly. It can feel enormously gratifying to delete emails in rapid succession. Checking email excites our brain, providing the novelty and stimulation it adores. In fact, your brain will tell you that you are being more productive when you are checking your messages than when you are disconnected from email and actually focusing on something important.

But checking is not the same as working. While it certainly feels productive to check email or answer a text, constant checking actually reduces our productivity. All that checking interrupts us from accomplishing our more vital work; once we are deep in concentration, each derailment costs us nearly a half an hour — that’s the average amount of time it takes to get back on track once we’ve been interrupted (or we’ve interrupted ourselves by looking at email).

This point is worth lingering on: how productive we are does not correlate well with how productive we feel. Checking our email a lot feels productive because our brains are so stimulated when we are doing it. But it isn’t actually productive: One Stanford study showed that while media multitaskers tended to perceive themselves as performing better on their tasks, they actually tended to perform worse on every measure the researchers studied.

We humans are weak when it comes to resisting our email. The solution is easy: All we need to do is set our email up in a way that makes it less tempting. This post will give you clear instructions for how I cracked that nut. If you’re serious about making a change, sign up to receive Tuesday Tips straight to your inbox!

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Why Working Longer Won’t Make You More Productive

I’m calling for a new conception of the “ideal worker.”

I don’t know anyone who has worked for a traditional business and hasn’t run up against our cultural notion of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls “the ideal worker”–the perfect employee who, without the distractions of children or family or, well, life, can work as many hours as the employer needs.

Ideal workers don’t have hobbies–or even interests–that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that. The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed.

In terms of sheer number of hours on the job, most working parents can’t compete with these ideal workers. Still, it’s easy for us Americans to aspire to the archetype. But our fixation on the ideal worker can lead us to hone only one strength: the ability to work long hours.

Unfortunately, honing that one strength won’t get us very far. Why? The ideal worker is not necessarily ideal. Reams of research suggest that people who work long hours, to the detriment of their personal lives, are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours so they can have families and develop interests outside of work.

So why do we continue to believe that the longer and harder we work, the better we’ll be?

The ideal worker archetype was born more than 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the factory system in the late 18th century marked the first time that a clock was used to synchronize labor. Once hours worked could be quantified financially, that created a new perception of time, one that saw the amount of time on the job as equivalent to a worker’s productivity.

This notion of work (and time) is particularly problematic today when we factor in all the fancy technology we have. You know, the stuff that lets us work ALL THE TIME. We can check our email before breakfast (and while we wait in line for our lattes), and make calls during our commute. Most of us can keep working straight through lunch while we eat–how wonderfully productive is that? And after dinner, we can log back in and KEEP WORKING when our grandparents back in the day might have been, say, conversing with a neighbor or spouse or child. Or perhaps reading a book. For pleasure.

Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. #TheScienceOfFindingFlow Click To TweetOverwork does not make us more productive or successful.” username=”raisinghappines”]

The truth is super hard for us to hear: Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus (among the management gurus) was that “working more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive–and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot,” writes Sara Robinson, a consultant at Cognitive Policy Works who specializes in trend analysis, futures research, and social change theories.

Moreover, according to Robinson, more than a HUNDRED YEARS of research shows that “every hour you work over 40 hours a week [will make] you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.” Really! Even for knowledge workers!

Why? The human brain did not evolve to operate like a computer that gets switched on and can run indefinitely without a break. Just as a fruit tree does not bear fruit 365 days a year, human beings are only productive in cycles of work and rest.

So if we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must create a new cultural archetype for the ideal worker. One that is based on the biology we actually have, and the way that we actually are able to work. That is exactly what I aim to do in a series of upcoming posts.

True happiness and fulfillment are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal. Click To TweetTrue happiness and fulfillment are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.” username=”raisinghappines”]

This idea will be threatening to the people around you who still strive to be ideal workers. But sticking with the status quo–a life of unrelenting work–will break your heart slowly, as one of my clients so aptly put it. True happiness and fulfillment, it turns out, are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.

To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. This can be terrifying and disorienting–after all, humans are deeply social animals, so our nervous system sends distress signals when we break from our group. But we will not find our groove by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. We’ll find it by allowing ourselves to be complex and divergent–our most authentic, balanced selves.

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3 Surprising Ways to Feel More Loved

Are you focused on romantic love this Valentine’s Day? If so, you’re missing an opportunity! Building stronger connections with those around us can lead to a happier, healthier, more successful, and easier life. Our relationships help us live and work from our sweet spots by bringing us both strength and ease.

Love and the similar emotions that we experience when we feel connected socially—like affection, warmth, care, fondness, and compassion—are a powerful force for a rich and rewarding life. In Love 2.0 author Barbara Fredrickson’s words:

Love is our supreme emotion: its presence or absence in our lives influences everything we feel, think, do, and become. It’s that recurrent state that ties you in—your body and brain alike—to the social fabric, to the bodies and brains of those in your midst. When you experience love . . . you not only become better able to see the larger tapestry of life and better able to breathe life into the connections that matter to you, but you set yourself on a pathway that leads to more health, happiness, and wisdom.

Similarly, the longest running study of human development, The Harvard Grant Study, makes it clear that “the most important influence, by far, on a flourishing life is love,” as one of the researchers behind the study, George Vaillant, put it in Triumphs of Experience.

So if our happiness and our success are best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others, the question remains: How can we increase the amount of love we get in our lives? Here are a few of my favorite ways to feel more connected:

  1. Talk to strangers — or at least smile at the barista.

A half dozen recent studies demonstrate the power that a simple positive interaction with a stranger has to make us happier. In one study, researchers randomly assigned volunteers to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train during their morning commute. Pretty much no one thought that they were going to enjoy giving up their morning solitude to make small talk with someone they didn’t know and would probably never see again. But guess what? The volunteers enjoyed their commute more than the people in the study who got to read their books and finish their crossword puzzles in silence. What’s more, not a single study participant was snubbed. Other research indicates that the strangers being chatted up in public spaces similarly think they won’t want to talk, but then end up enjoying themselves.

The takeaway is that often the easiest way for us to connect with others is to slow down just enough to make eye contact with someone, smile, and, if we’re feeling brave, start a little conversation. Research shows that even just acknowledging someone else’s presence by making eye contact and smiling at them helps people feel more connected.

  1. Just send loving thoughts to others.

When Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues want to study what happens when people increase their daily diet of love, they simply ask people to do a loving-kindness meditation once a day. This is a private, quick, no-contact-with-others way to give. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well wishes toward others. Loving- kindness meditation isn’t complicated — it really isn’t anything more than using your imagination to send love and well wishes to others.

This stuff is more effective than Prozac for many people.If you are going to do only one thing today to bring more love and connection into your life, I recommend you do this. 

Even if you aren’t likely to sit in meditation everyday sending good thoughts to yourself and others, you can use metta throughout the day as a tactic to increase your feelings of well-being, compassion, and connection. Perhaps put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator door or car dashboard — wherever you tend to be most exhausted or overwhelmed or isolated — to remind you to pause and cultivate a loving thought or two.

  1. Master the most important relationship skill in the history of the universe.

Perhaps the most useful skill we can master for building strong connections with others is the ability to deliver an effective apology. When a relationship starts to break down, the best repair, bar none, is almost always an apology.

Think about it: if a relationship is dented or sputtering, someone probably made a mistake. Perhaps it was a benign comment (a well-meaning but poorly understood suggestion) or maybe it was more toxic (you got caught in a lie, or didn’t follow-through on a commitment).

People make mistakes in relationships all. the. time. Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don’t think that we’ve made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.

So if we’ve done something that offends someone else — whether or not we feel we are to blame — we apologize?

YES.

I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we’ve hurt or offended someone else — even if we think the offended person’s anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.

But all apologies aren’t created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced “SORRY!” and known it was worthless.) So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare’s work, I’ve created this three-step method for making a good apology.

This post is a little tidbit from my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow: How to Create Happiness and Maximize Productivity (launching later this Spring) . If you’re invested in bringing more ease and flow into your life this year, you will love this eCourse! And if you pre-order this eCourse now, you’ll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot and $50 off! This is a steal, friends. Plus, if you want to, you’ll get to help me test out the content before the launch. Click here to pre-order The Science of Finding Flow eCourse.

Image by Benjamin Lehman