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How to Help Kids Adjust to College

At this time of year, I start receiving dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.

“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.

Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?

Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:

1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.

2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.

3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.

What to do instead of trying to rescue them

Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”

2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.

3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. Research shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to be more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.

4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.

A word of caution: While it’s important to let college kids know they can rely on their own inner capacities and family support to get through tough times, it’s also important to let them know that reaching out for help is appropriate—especially if they have any suicidal thoughts and incapacitating depression or anxiety.   If the situation seems intractable, parents should consider encouraging kids to seek mental health services through their college health department or the National Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.

 

How to Deal When a Child Goes Off to College

Dear Christine,

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

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

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours,
Christine

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

This morning I said goodbye to Tanner, who is driving to Boulder with his dad for his first year of college. Next week, I will fly with Molly to Boston to get her settled in for her first year of college. Even though I have worn out my welcome in the advice department, I can’t help myself.

One of Tanner and Molly’s older sisters got some really amazing send-off advice from her wise college counselor, Maria Morales-Kent. This is a woman who has more than two decades of experience sending kids off to college. She’s seen where they stumble in their first few weeks, and she’s seen what helps.

Here’s the gist of Maria’s wise advice for first-year college students:

1. Focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.

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

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

A recent college grad shared that he was never fully happy at his college because it never felt like home. But the truth of the matter is that college is not supposed to be like high school or home.

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

Finally, don’t fall prey to comparisons regarding the food, orientation, the bathrooms, the dorms, the town or city, etc.  Take in each aspect of your college and be open to what makes it unique.

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

– Have at least a 5-minute conversation with each of your teachers during the first week of school.  Introduce yourself, comment on their lecture or readings, talk about your first few days on campus, etc.

– Do the same in your dorm – walk around the halls and pop your head into an open door.  So many kids will be dying to talk with someone.

– Find out about the clubs that might be of interest to you and go to the first meetings – and join in. 

3. Get help as soon as you need it.

– All of the faculty have office hours. Use them.

– If you are having trouble with a class or assignment, talk to your teacher right away.  Don’t let things build up.

– If things aren’t working out with your roommate and it feels untenable, talk to your RA.  There may be a very easy process in place to make a change or address the problem.

4. Meet with your advisor more than once.

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

5. Meet the school’s Registrar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 years now. The problem is massive, but totally solvable.

To make email a more powerful and efficient tool, there are 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. Trust me on this one.

  • You need a work account, where only work 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, if you must. (This is a good account to use with Google Inbox, because it will sort emails into things you might 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 or on the weekend, 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.

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. 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. This is how you will ultimately make this method more gratifying than compulsively checking email all day long. 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.