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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!

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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

Happiness Tip - Go Easy on Yourself - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Go Easy on Yourself

Fun fact: Most people are starting to falter at their New Year’s Resolutions by now.

If you are anything like me, setbacks, lapses, and mistakes can come with a fair amount of self-flagellation. Somehow I think that if I’m really hard on myself, I’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or I’ll motivate myself towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Here’s why: Self-criticism doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion — being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves–does help matters when we make a mistake or the going gets rough. It leads to less anxiety and depression, greater peace of mind, and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

Take Action: The next time you flub-up, take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a small child: use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response (which will only make matters worse).

Photo courtesy of Matty Ring.

Are You Setting the Right Goals?

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Could you be setting better ones?

I’ve always found the idea of setting goals appealing. But—and I hate to admit this—it has been years since I set real goals for myself, personally or professionally. And by “years,” I mean decades.

Why set goals?
Hundreds of studies have shown that goal setting is a way to improve performance as well as happiness and well-being.

A memorable survey of graduates from Harvard’s MBA program found that 10 years after graduation, those who set goals for themselves were earning, on average, twice as much as their classmates who didn’t set goals. Even more astounding: The 3 percent of graduates who had written out clear goals were earning, on average, 10 times as much as the rest of their class.

How to set goals that work
While it’s easy to spit out a goal or two, it is much harder to settle on goals that will actually help us become lastingly happier and more successful. I teach my clients what I call the “WAPPER” method. This type of goal-setting is based on my reading of related research (particularly related to motivation, with a little organizational theory thrown in), but it adds a twist to the common goal-setting method I was taught in the business world.

WAPPER stands for:

Wants & wishes

Actions & circumstances

Problems & obstacles

Plans

Evaluation & measurement

Remind & revise

Here’s how to use this goal-setting method to get what you really want. (A template for this goal-setting method that you can download or copy is here.)

W: Know what you WANT to feel.

This first step is the most important one—and it is the step that we most often skip. Before you start to formulate your goals, ask yourself NOT what you want to achieve, but what, in your heart of hearts, you WANT TO FEEL. Shooting for the feeling-state that you want more of (maybe you want more happiness? confidence? significance?) will take you down a different path than setting your sights on a particular achievement. Emotions are more motivating—and far more fulfilling—than an achievement goal in the long run.

Here’s an example. A coaching client of mine (let’s call her Sam) wanted to grow her online business, and she asked me for help setting some goals to do that. Instead of starting with revenue growth objectives (or more traditional business-y goals), we started with how she wanted to feel when she’d successfully grown her business.

Her response was that she wanted to feel more influential and more confident about the work she was offering the world, and she wanted to feel a greater sense of significance in the coming year.

A: Identify the actions that most often lead you to feel what you want to feel.

Sam reported that she feels most influential, confident, and significant when she is teaching others in person. (An interesting observation, given that her online business tends to prevent her from teaching in person.)

P: Identify the PROBLEMS that are likely to prevent you from feeling what you want to feel.

For Sam, a major conflict revealed itself: She feels most influential, confident, and significant when she is teaching . . . but she was thinking of spending less time teaching in order to grow her online business. So her biggest problem or obstacle to how she wants to feel is that she might not have enough time to teach in the coming year.

Conflicts like these don’t always arise, of course, but here we can see what might have happened if Sam had just set a traditional goal aiming to grow her online business (e.g.,“Grow the product sales division of my online business by 15 percent by January 1st.”). Instead of making her feel more successful—given that success to Sam is defined by feelings of confidence, significance, and influence—such a goal would likely make her feel more stressed. Some of the greatest disappointments of my life have come from reaching an achievement goal, only to wake up the next day with the sinking feeling that I’d been pursuing the wrong thing all along.

Sam’s situation aside, most obstacles are more straightforward. When my daughter, Molly, was setting goals for the coming school year, for example, one thing that she wanted to feel was organized; a behavior that leads her to feel more organized is to clean out her binder every Friday after school. A predictable obstacle to this behavior? When she has a friend over after school on Fridays, she never wants to take the time to clean out the binder.

Another common problem is that we don’t yet have the right skills or habits to easily get what we want. Molly also wants to feel “engaged and confident when studying and doing homework,” but she was lacking some basic study skills, like knowing how to plan out what homework to do when, or how to study for a 7th grade humanities test. Those things also went on the “problems” list.

If you are a particularly optimistic person, you might be tempted to skip this step, preferring instead to think positively and “reach for the stars” while seeing the glass as “half full.” (I should know; I used to have a blog with that title.) Positive thinking has its benefits, but when it comes to setting goals, fantasizing about your success can trick your brain into feeling like you have already achieved the goal—which tends, ironically, to make us less motivated.

All of this is to say: Understanding the obstacles and problems you are likely to face—something researchers who study motivation call “mental contrasting”—is critical for achieving your goals.

P: Make PLANS for overcoming your problems and obstacles.

Look at your list of problems. For each straightforward obstacle, make a specific “if X, then Y” plan for each. For example, Molly’s plan for her Friday afternoon obstacle was this: “IF I have a friend over on a Friday afternoon, THEN I will set an alarm on my phone to remind me to clean out my binder on Saturday morning.”

More complicated problems, like Sam’s, require making plans around the specific behaviors that lead to the emotions that we want to feel. Sam made specific plans to take on more students in the coming year—to teach more instead of less.

And don’t forget to make specific plans for acquiring the new skills or habits you might need. Molly made plans to work with a very organized and studious college student after school several days a week to develop new study skills. Studies in many different fields suggest that we tend to be more successful when we focus on “learning goals” rather than specific achievements.

E: Decide how you will EVALUATE your success. You thought this was going to be all touchy-feely and emotional, but the old adage is true: What we measure we improve. So develop a method to track the action steps and behaviors that will lead to how you want to feel. For example, Molly tracks things like “Cleaned out my binder this week.”  Apps such as “Way of Life—The Ultimate Habit Maker & Breaker” and “TracknShare” make setting up an evaluation system easy.

R: Devise a way to REMIND yourself what you really want to feel, and REVISE your plans—and the behaviors you are tracking—when they are no longer leading to the feelings you desire.

Please try out this WAPPER worksheet, and let me know how it works for you. Happy planning!

Photo by Bronski Beat

5 Research-Based Ways to Say No

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‘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 (Picador, 2013) 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.

Recall a time when you’ve said no, even when it was hard to do so. What strategy did you use? Reply in the comments.

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Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini

Happiness Tip - Trade Expectations for Gratitude - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Trade Expectations for Gratitude

Feeling frustrated or disappointed?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t have high expectations, or that we shouldn’t feel hurt when someone lets us down. But one of the best ways to recover from disappointment is to notice what actually is going well in our lives.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions we have — we have reams of research indicating that gratitude is a part of the happiness holy grail. Compared with those who aren’t practicing gratitude, scientists have found that people practicing gratitude:

  • Are considerably more enthusiastic, interested, and determined;
  • Feel 25% happier;
  • Are more likely to be both kind and helpful to other.

And that’s not all. Gratitude studies report long laundry lists of the benefits of gratitude. For example, people who jotted down something they were grateful for online every day for just two weeks showed higher stress resilience and greater satisfaction with life, reported fewer headaches, and a reduction in stomach pain, coughs and sore throats!

Gratitude is a SKILL, like learning to speak German or swing a bat: can be taught, and it needs to be practiced consciously and deliberately. Yet, unlike learning German, practicing gratitude can be blissfully simple: just count the things in your life that you feel thankful for.

Here are a couple of ideas to get started:

  • Keep a gratitude journal.
    This can be a handwritten journal or kept online (there are loads of web-based versions) or even just jotted down in your calendar. I’m not a big journaler, but I’m thinking about using Facebook as a gratitude journal. Every day I’ll record something that makes me happy, something I’m grateful for — either by typing it in or by taking a picture. I can then share my gratitude with my family. (Though I do wonder if this will be annoying to people, or if I’ll get distracted by other people’s posts. Maybe Instagram? What do you think?) As an alternative, try texting your appreciation to people who’ve helped you out.
  • Start a tradition of writing “appreciations” on place cards at family dinners or on holidays.
    Depending on your comfort level for group sharing, make place cards for each person present, and then ask people to write a few adjectives that describe what they appreciate about one another on the inside of the place cards. Don’t ask people to write something about everyone present unless they want to — you don’t want to force the exercise. But do make sure that everyone has at least one thing written inside their place card, so that during the meal you can go around the table and share appreciations.

Join the Discussion: What are you grateful for? How do you express your appreciation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.