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How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, plan your re-entry.

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

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

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

Join the Discussion

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

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How to Only Do Things You Actually Want to Do

Recently, I started getting loads of requests for help managing too-long task lists, and so I published this process for organizing them. Ineffective task lists make us feel like we have too much to do in too little time, which makes us feel overwhelmed. Ironically, this makes us worse at planning and managing our time.

You might have a perfectly organized task list, though, that is still triggering overwhelm — I just went through one with a client, and frankly I was exhausted just looking at it. If your task list is sending you into an “I don’t have enough time to do all this” tail spin, it’s time to whittle that puppy down into something more manageable. This is a different process than organizing your to-do list, or formatting it in a more effective way. This is about shortening that list — dumping the stuff you dread — without suffering the consequences of not doing what you actually have to do to get done.*

In an ideal world, we would all be able to apply Marie Kondo’s world famous principles for cleaning out our closet to our to-do list: Anything that doesn’t “spark joy” we put in the trash (delete) or give away (delegate). Most of my clients start off with very little on their task list that they look forward to doing; one recently declared that she only puts stuff on her to-do list that she doesn’t want to do, because she remembers to do what she actually wants to do.

How to transform a too-long to-do list into a list of only the things that you actually want to do. Click To Tweet

So here’s how to transform a too-long to-do list into a list of only the things that you actually want to do:

Step 1: Highlight all the items on your to-do list that you dread doing. Hold each task list item in your mind’s eye, and notice how it feels to think about doing that item in your body. Do you lean forward a little, feeling a longing to get right to that task? (Don’t highlight items that feel like that.) Or do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach, with a corresponding desire to put the task off as long as possible? Highlight anything that makes you feel anything akin to aversion.

Highlight all the things that you’ve been procrastinating because you simply don’t want to do those things. And highlight the things that are on your list because you feel like you “should” do them, or because you feel you have to do them, but that you don’t want to do or wouldn’t say you are choosing to do (or that you wouldn’t say with some delight that you “get to” do). In other words, highlight the things you plan to do simply because someone expects you to do it, or because you’ve always expected yourself to do those things, or because doing them would bring you status or power (but no actual joy in the process).

Step 2: Delete or delegate as many highlighted items as you possibly can. Start by deleting, then move on to delegating. Be truthful here; if you know in your heart of hearts that you’ll probably never do a task item anyway, or that there will be little consequence if you don’t do a highlighted item on your list, just scratch it off the list and be done with it.

You may feel relieved, or even accomplished (given that your list is getting shorter so quickly!). Or, you may feel anxious or even sad while doing this. Acknowledge your emotions, whatever they may be, as you madly delete items from your task list. Be curious about whatever you are feeling, and accepting of your emotions — but no need to get involved in them. Maybe you need to mourn (a little tiny bit) the fact that you are never going to make those photo albums (that you hate making but really felt like you should make). It’s normal to feel sad, or a sense of regret — but also, be real: you aren’t grieving anything tangible, you’re grieving the loss of a fantasy. For example, you’re giving up the fantasy that you are the type of person who makes photo albums. Or that writes strategic plans. Or that answers every single email. Oh well. Let yourself feel what you feel, and move on. This is a process of letting go.

If a highlighted task is something that absolutely does need to be done and thus can’t just be deleted, try to think of someone else who’d actually enjoy doing it, and make a plan for how you can delegate it to that person. If you don’t have an assistant or employees or children to delegate to, consider neighborhood teens and retirees who’d like experience, your company, or a little extra cash. Or, think of people who need help with something you enjoy doing, and negotiate a trade with them. All of this may seem like a lot more work than just doing the task yourself, but I promise, you will thank me later. Having a task list that is both short enough to not be overwhelming and that is loaded with things you’ll enjoy doing is worth the initial inefficiency.

Step 3: Transform anything left on your list that is highlighted into something that you actually want to do. If you can’t delete or delegate tasks that you dread, then you’ll have to make them better. Be creative. My favorite way to do this is to pair a not-fun task item with something you want to do more of. I’ve been known to sit on the lawn in the sun and make doctors appointments, and I listen to fun audiobooks while driving to pick up kids and while cleaning the house (I just listened to A Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and I highly recommend it). My co-worker and I have been putting off reviewing our financial systems for, oh, years, but we just made a plan to do it together this summer poolside. There will be margaritas involved, and needless to say, we aren’t dreading the task anymore!

Understanding the value a task has for other people is another good way to make it more fulfilling (thus decreasing the dread factor). In a stunning series of studies, Adam Grant showed that briefly showing people how their work helps others increases not only how happy people are on the job but also how much they work and accomplish.

Grant’s most famous series of studies were conducted at a call center with paid fundraisers tasked with phoning potential donors to a public university. As anyone who’s ever dreaded making a cold call knows, these people probably did not have the to-do list of their dreams. People receiving cold calls from solicitors are often annoyed and can be downright rude. Employees must endure frequent rejection on the phone and low morale at the office—all in exchange for relatively low pay. Not surprisingly, call center jobs often have a high staff turnover rate.

In an effort to see if he could motivate call center fundraisers to stay on the job longer, Grant brought in a few scholarship students (who presumably had benefited from the fundraisers’ work) for a five-minute meeting where callers could ask them questions about their classes and experience at the university. In the next month, that quick conversation yielded unbelievable results. Callers who had met the scholarship students spent twice as long on the phone as the fundraisers who had not met any students. They accomplished far more, bringing in an average of 171 percent more money.

What made the difference? What, essentially, shifted the task of making cold calls from one people didn’t enjoy to one that they did? A shift in the callers’ beliefs about the meaning of their work for other people, and an increased sense of their purpose, value, and impact. So find out what value your work has for other people. How are you making their lives or jobs better?

Voila!

You’ve just Marie Kondo-ed your task list! Everything left on it at this point is now the stuff you actually want to do, the tasks that “spark joy.” If you’re like my client who doesn’t need to keep a list of the things she wants to do, you no longer need to keep a to-do list — you just need to remember to delete, delegate or transform the things you don’t want to do. And if your list still feels too long and overwhelming, now is the time for some task-list organizing — check this post out for how to do that.

*I learned this method from Martha Beck, so many thanks and 1,000 hat tips to her. These steps are an adaptation of her “Better, Barter, or Bag” it strategy.

 

A Family Guide for Surviving the Summer

While not all of summer is destined to feel like a day at the beach, setting routines and expectations for the season can make it more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family.

I don’t know about you, but I fantasize all year about the leisure that summer will bring. And then summer arrives, and instead of cocktails at sunset and naps at noon, I find that the potential for chaos has skyrocketed.

So over the years, as I’ve sought to make my summers less chaotic and more joyful, I’ve developed a three-step guide for setting my family up for success. I hope you will find it helpful!

1. Create new routines for summer.

The familiar routines of the school year will not survive even the first day of summer, like it or not, even if our adult work schedules don’t change in the least. But we human beings need routines and habits, or we get stressed. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals and habits are a primary way to manage stress. The fast-paced world we live in can feel quite unpredictable, but our daily rituals can help us feel more in control, often without us ever realizing it.

Before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. Click To Tweet

So before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. For starters, this means redefining bedtimes and mealtimes, which all get moved later in our household. I change my exercise routine to maximize the time I spend outside and my morning routine, because I have more time to meditate.

The summer is prime time for more digital detox. We don’t relax tech rules for our kids over the summer, we step them up. If we don’t designate device- and social media-free time for all family members, I’ve found my kids walk around in a screen-stoned stupor. Even a few minutes on social media and they suddenly find it impossible to do anything productive, creative or truly restful. And we parents also easily get sucked into compulsively checking our devices while we are trying to “work” from the beach, playground or camp pick up.

To counter the siren song of our phones, we designate specific times and places we’ll spend without devices each day (always dinnertime, and, for the kids, throughout most of the day as well); each week (we try to have technology-free Sundays); and each month (we do a full digital detox when we are on vacation together).

The key, I’ve found, is to actually spell out the new routines and expectations for kids.

2. Create a family calendar.

Maybe this is utterly obvious, but everything is calmer if things feel predictable. We have four kids with four different camp and summer schedules, so it’s helpful for everyone to be able to track everyone else’s whereabouts. Instead of relying on our complicated online calendar – which I love and couldn’t live without, but I am the only one in our family who looks at it consistently – one of my teenage daughters created an adorable top-level calendar in a Google spreadsheet that we print out and tape to the refrigerator. We also have the summer chore rotation on this printout. This calendar has all family events, such as birthdays and vacations, everyone’s camp schedules, major events like tournaments and my work travel schedule.

3. Raise expectations regarding chores and responsibilities.

Kids have more time on their hands over the summer, which means that they have more time to help out around the house.

We don’t tie their allowance to their regular household responsibilities or weekly chores, and we don’t pay them extra over the summer when they are doing more to help out. We know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do.

We’ve had to spell this out for our kids, repeatedly. The lawn needs mowing more often in the summer, and Dad doesn’t get paid a dime to do it. This week, in addition to my paid work, I’ll take all the kids to their annual exams at the doctor’s office; I’ll help them label all their clothes for camp; I’ll purchase and wrap a lot of graduation gifts. I’m not getting paid to do any of these things, even if I don’t feel like doing them. And that’s OK. We don’t need to love every single thing we do every single minute of every day, so long as we can see the bigger picture – the bigger reward. Being in a big, stable, high functioning family is awesome. And it requires a lot of work. Families are built on mutual obligations – the ways that we help and nurture each other – not paid work.

Kids are happier and more confident when they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Giving them real responsibilities around the house fuels an intrinsic sense of place and belonging. Research shows that kids who do unpaid chores are happier and have a higher sense of self-worth. But when we pay kids to play a role in the family, we unwittingly kill their intrinsic motivation by providing a flashy external motivator: money. They often start to see themselves more like household employees – and quit their “jobs” when their allowance is no longer enough to motivate them.

Our summer routines, calendars peppered with vacation days, and the increased help around the house (for those of us with kids older than 8 or 9) can mean that there actually is more time for leisure and rest this summer. Perhaps tonight I’ll meet my husband for a sunset cocktail while one kid preps dinner and another mows the lawn. Cheers to making this the best summer yet!

Originally posted on US News & World Report, June 2017

This is What I Hope I’ve Taught You

This week, my sweet Fiona graduates from high school.

As longtime readers of my blog know, Fiona went to a boarding high school. Having her leave home four years early was very hard for me at first; truly, there were a few weeks there when I thought I would never stop crying. Anyhoo, before Fiona left, I attempted to write down everything I’d hoped I’d taught her during her childhood. (I did start by thinking it would be a 5 or maybe 7 item listicle; clearly, I had issues letting go because the list stretched on and on.) In honor of her graduation, here is the original list. Fiona, CONGRATULATIONS! Thank you for letting me blog about you: You are a joy and an inspiration.

1. Make kindness the central theme of your life. Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity. Don’t be tricked into thinking that happiness will come from getting what you want; happiness comes from giving, not getting. When you’re feeling down, help someone else.

2. Tolerate discomfort. Have the difficult conversations. Let yourself truly notice when other people are suffering. Do the right thing even when the right thing is hard. You are strong enough.

3. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

4. Let go of what other people think of you. Another person’s opinion of you is their business, not yours. Great leaders are often criticized. Especially ignore critics who seem delighted when you stumble.

5. Invite constructive criticism from the people who want the best for you. Other people offer us a different view; we need their broader perspective to grow and improve.

6. Accept that well-meaning and loving people will sometimes give you bad advice. You’ll know when something isn’t right for you because you’ll feel it in your body. Our unconscious mind is our best source of intelligence, communicating through intuition and bodily sensations, not words. Learn how to read your “body compass.”

7. Know the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Legitimate fear, like terror in the presence of a dangerous person, makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. When you feel legitimate fear, run like the wind. Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. (Like when we are afraid of looking stupid and so don’t ask an important question.) Ignore your hesitation. As Maria Shriver wrote in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring … Whatever you’re afraid of–that is the very thing you should try to do.”

Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly. Click To Tweet

8. Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly.

9. When you hurt someone, apologize. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, or you think they are over-reacting.

10. Look people in the eye. Chat with people in elevators and in line at the store. Look up. Smile.

11. Develop a strong handshake. Try to connect with people in your first interaction. Let them feel your delight in them (even if you are scared to death).

12. Hug people liberally. Even people you’ve just met. People are stressed. They need more love. Don’t withhold it.

13. Don’t compare yourself to others. When we get caught in a web of thinking that we are better or worse than others, we usually end up depressed, anxious, and insecure. If you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, try asking yourself these questions: What do I appreciate about those people? How can I connect with or learn from them? How can I add value to their lives?

14. Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.

15. Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, even if everyone else is doing it. High heels are like cigarettes; they are bad for your health. More than that, they get you in the habit of ignoring pain in order to look good to others, which is never a good idea.

16. Let yourself feel what you feel. When we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed), we live in a world that offers many ways to numb those negative feelings—to not really feel them. But to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. Practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

17. Train your brain to see the positive in your life by keeping a gratitude journal.

18. Don’t believe everything you think. If a thought is stressing you out, it is probably untrue.

19. If you feel overwhelmed, unplug. Create times and places in your life every single day where you are free from technology.

20. Make your bed, and keep your room clean. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The outside tends to match the inside.

21. Know when and how to say “no.” That way, you’ll feel more joy when you say “yes.”

22. Chase meaning, not happiness. What purpose or value does your work and your passion have for other people? If you don’t know, find out.

23. Focus on the journey, not the achievement. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, or saving your happiness for when you get where you are going, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

24. Remember that talents are actually skills. Talent” comes from hard work, passion, and great coaching or teaching.

25. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone does something hurtful or annoying, consider that it isn’t about you. Practice compassion and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others.

26. Make mistakes. In the classroom, in your relationships, on the athletic field, at parties, at home. We learn stuff from our mistakes that we couldn’t learn any other way.

27. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-criticism makes us depressed, and much more likely to make the same mistake again. Instead, remind yourself that mistakes make us human. Feel compassion for your suffering. It can feel really awful to make a mistake. It’s okay to feel awful—to feel frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, disappointed, etc. You can handle these feelings.

28. Repair your mistakes. Use them to become a better person.

29. Love what is. Wishing to be older or younger, wanting other people to be different than they are, wanting it to be sunny when it is raining—this is fighting with reality, and it is a futile and frustrating pastime.

30. If you are tired, rest. Working 24/7 will get you nowhere fast. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

31. Remind yourself that more is not necessarily better. Do this especially if you are worried that you won’t have enough of something, if you feel like you don’t have as much as others, or if you are feeling ungenerous with your belongings or your time. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more likes on Instagram, more clothes, more popular or important friends, more prestigious schools. But as they accumulate more, odds are, they’ll just want more! True abundance is not a quantity of something; it is a quality of life, a feeling of sufficiency. When we step back from the idea that more might be better, often we see that we have enough to share.

32. Surround yourself with people and situations that make you laugh uncontrollably. Laughter is heaven on earth.

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3 Ways to Keep Technology from Ruining Your Relationships

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

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

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

Tiny ruptures in our relationships drive love and connection out of our lives. Click To Tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misery Loves Expectations

Irritated with your husband (or your wife)?

You probably expect too much.

I find it ironic that the month after Valentine’s Day tends to be the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers (or so they say). Seems that many people are not feeling as much love and romance as Hallmark would hope.

I have a theory about this.

If I asked my grandmother if her late husband was her best friend, her provider, her lover, and her partner in parenting and life—her go-to guy for emotional fulfillment, practical help, AND the center of her social universe—she would have laughed uproariously.

She did love her hubby until the day he died and she missed him so much she wept when she would talk about him more than 30 years after his death. But my Opa wasn’t her best friend (her girlfriend Beulah was). She didn’t rely on him for help raising the kids or with the housework (times have changed!), nor did she expect him to understand her feelings. She relied on herself for happiness and fulfillment—and truthfully, she didn’t have high expectations there, either.

But she’d tell you she had a wonderful marriage. When I asked her if she had had a happy life (she lived to be 104 years old), she giggled at the absurdity of the question. Clearly she did.

And yet, like most of my peers, I would not sign up for her life—or, in particular, her marriage. Today, we expect our spouses to be our partners in just about every realm. We expect them to be our co-parents, our household running mates, and to help provide for our family financially. We’d think there was something wrong if they didn’t consider us their soul mate, their go-to buddy, and their lover.

Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel. Click To Tweet

Like individuals, couples are increasingly isolated from the outside sources of support that previous generations had, and so our partners have become our primary sources of emotional (and for some, spiritual) fulfillment. When we aren’t happy, it is easy—and quite common—for our generation to blame our spouse for it.

There is an expectations paradox here: The demands put on our relationships have become so great—and our expectations of them have gotten so high—that we are more likely to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want from our partners than we are to feel grateful when we do.

My grandmother expected very little from her husband—I imagine only that he provide her with financial stability, and that he be faithful to her. My grandfather delivered on these things, and as an added bonus, shared with her a love of dancing, a social life full of mutual friends and dinner parties, and a muted joy in raising children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was content not so much because of what she had in her husband, but because of what she lacked in her expectations. This is both ironic and instructive for our generation.

Consider the study where Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, had research subjects try two different types of beer. One was Budweiser; the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it.

The majority of subjects vastly preferred the Bud and vinegar concoction—when they weren’t told what it was. When they were informed before they tasted it, they hated it.

Ariely’s conclusion is that when people believe that something might be distasteful, they’ll experience it negatively, even if they would have liked it otherwise. The reverse is also true.

In other words: Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel.

But the idea that we should just lower our expectations of our spouses and call it a day is inherently unfulfilling. Seriously: Is the answer really to just lower the bar?

I can’t think of anyone for whom this would work. We can’t just drop our beliefs–especially our long-held romantic notions about who are partners should be to us–without replacing them with new beliefs and values that feel as true or truer to us.

So what do we do? How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy?  If expectations create relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism, how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

I’ve spent years combing the research for answers to these questions. I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned on the first live call of my Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching on Friday, March 1. We’ll be digging deeper into the misery of high expectations, and more specifically what to do when our partners don’t measure up. Learn more or enroll now.

Happiness Tip: Let Someone See Who You Really Are

These days, you can have both an actual life AND a life you present to others that’s been optimized for your audience. There can be what really happened, and ALSO what happened as captured on Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat. There’s how you really look, and how you look after you whiten your teeth or crop out that belly fat. There’s how you actually feel after a workout (sore, depleted, out-of-shape?) and what you post about your latest exercise class (OMG! I am so sweaty and inspired after SoulCycle!!)

Although you may not go out of your way to create a complete facade of awesome for your online persona, the lure of wishful thinking is real. Slowly, the filtered colors (lark? lo-fi?) of a funnier, sexier, more intelligently-lived life can take over.

Online, it’s a perception game. But is that game bleeding over into your offline life? What happens when you fib to your coworker about how great your weekend was (why not be consistent with what you posted on Instagram?) when actually, your weekend sucked and you’re feeling pretty depressed and anxious. So what?

You may not want to reveal that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you are okay — and you’re not — you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Research shows that when we accept and let ourselves feel (and even express) what is going on emotionally for us, our overall happiness increases and depression decreases. (Ironically, research shows that people who regularly suppress difficult emotions tend to experience more negative emotions overall.)

A consistent benefit of letting ourselves feel what we feel is that our relationships tend to improve. Click To Tweet

A consistent benefit of letting ourselves feel what we feel is that our relationships tend to improve, sometimes dramatically. For example, the less often that people report suppressing their emotions over a two-week period, the better they tend to feel about their relationships over the course of three months. This sort of authenticity predicts the tendency to avoid destructive behavior in intimate relationships. More than that, it predicts greater relationship quality overall.

Why?

Because authenticity creates intimacy. Research shows that people in romantic relationships are most intimate with and most committed to romantic partners who see them as they see themselves; connection and intimacy in our relationships depend on our feelings of being understood. In other words, when our romantic partners see us the way that we see ourselves — which they can only do if we don’t hide our feelings or pretend to be better than we are — our relationships last longer and are more fulfilling.

Take Action: This week, show someone who you really are.

Join the Discussion: What benefits have you experienced from showing people who you really are? When has pretending backfired for you or someone you know?

* * * * *

If you want closer friendships and better relationships, consider joining my Brave Over Perfect coaching group. This is a great time to join, as you’ll get two themes for the price of one.

All three Habits & Resolutions call recordings and resources will stay up until the end of February. We’ll kick off March with some of the best research-based advice related to relationships and marriage. Learn more or enroll now.

4 Ways to Keep the Flames Alive

4 Ways to Keep Passion Alive

Research shows that with a little elbow grease, romance can last a lifetime. This week, put some energy into your relationship. How can you best improve it?

  • Do you need to dedicate more mind/heart space to your partner?
  • Do you need to foster more admiration, fondness, and appreciation?
  • How frequently do you “turn towards” your partner?
  • What special family celebrations, traditions, and routines do you have? Can you add more?

This video is the 3rd in a series about the science of great relationships from The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Check out the rest of the Homestudy here.

If you would like to download the audio version of this video to listen to in your car or on the go, click the link below.
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO VERSION HERE.


If you’d like to delve a little deeper, I hope you’ll join my Brave Over Perfect  group coaching

In our next theme, we’ll be talking about relationships and marriage, which are foundational for finding meaning and joy in our lives. Join us to practice some science-based ways to improve your relationships.

Group coaching is a highly effective alternative to individual coaching. We do three recorded calls per theme (cost is $20 per theme). Learn more or enroll now.

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Resolutions Slipping? 5 Quick Ways to Stay the Course

We all understand that when we first attempt to drive a car or ride a bike, we’ll make mistakes. Behavior change is no different; it’s a process of slipping, learning from the mistake, and trying again.”

— John C. Norcross, Changeology

Unless you are some sort of superhero, you will not be able to establish a new habit perfectly the first time. Research indicates that 88 percent of people have failed to keep a new resolution. In my experience as a human being and a coach, 100 percent of people trying to change themselves lapse back to their old selves at least some of the time. So what to do if you’re struggling?

1. Don’t get too emotional about your slip or succumb to self-criticism. Instead, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that lapses are part of the process, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

2. Figure out what the problem is. This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing your trip-ups. What temptation can you remove? Were you stressed or tired or hungry–and if so, how can you prevent that the next time? Figure it out, and make a specific plan for what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation again. What will you do differently? What have you learned from your slip?

3. Beware the “What the Hell” effect. Say you’ve sworn not to check your email before breakfast, but you’ve been online since your alarm went off…three hours ago. You’re now at risk for what researchers formally call the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) and jokingly call the “What the Hell” effect. If you’ve already blown your plan today, why not go hog wild? What the hell–you can begin again tomorrow, right? Wrong. The more damage you do during your binge, the more likely you are to slip again the next day, and the less confidence you’ll have in yourself that you can change. So as soon as you notice you’ve slipped, go back to your plan. Double down, friends, double down.

4. Rededicate yourself to your resolution (now, in this instant, not tomorrow). Why do you want to make the changes that you do? How will you benefit? Do a little deep breathing and calm contemplation of your goals.

5. Above all, comfort yourself. To boost follow-through on our good intentions, we need to feel safe and secure. When we are stressed, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item . . . like the snooze button instead of the morning jog, onion rings instead of mixed greens, or that easy taxi to work rather than the less-than-comfortable urban bike ride. So sometimes the best thing that we can do to help ourselves unplug is to preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways. What makes you feel safe and secure–and doesn’t sabotage your goals? Perhaps you need to seek out a hug or take a walk outside.

What are you struggling with? Post a comment and I’ll try to help!

If you want support establishing a new habit, it’s not too late to join our Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January/February theme is about setting and keeping the right resolutions. It’s only $20 to join us! You’ll get instant access to previous call recordings and an invitation to our next live call. We also have a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

Cheers to making this your happiest year yet!

The Power of Taking Time Off

Do you work around the clock, just because you can?

If so, you aren’t alone. These days we check our smartphones (and laptops) constantly to abate our anxiety that we are missing something. Are we supposed to be responding to something urgent at work? What if someone called about something really important? Constant device checking looks a lot like an addiction (or obsessive-compulsive disorder). One study found that many people respond to “phantom phone vibrations”—they think they feel their phone vibrating even when it isn’t.

And even if we aren’t addicted or don’t check our emails and texts and feeds compulsively, often our mental health is still, in fact, at stake. Certainly our productivity and satisfaction with your life are. For example, Harvard University’s Leslie Perlow’s intervention with the Boston Consulting Group executives was nothing short of transformative. She required that participants establish “Predictable Time Off” (PTO)—time when they would not check their email or work remotely from, say, the family dinner table.

Work satisfaction and, ironically, productivity shot up for the BCG executives, dramatically. Before establishing PTO, only 27 percent were excited to start work in the morning. After PTO, 51 percent were. Before, less than half were satisfied with their job, but after, nearly three-quarters were. Satisfaction with work-life balance went from 38 percent to 54 percent. And people found their work to be more collaborative, efficient, and effective; for example, just establishing PTO made 91 percent of the consultants rate their team as collaborative, up from 76 percent when they were checking their email at all hours of the day and night.

Unplugging isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Click To Tweet

Perlow explains:

Busy managers and professionals tend to amplify—through their own actions and interactions—the inevitable pressures of their jobs, making their own and their colleagues’ lives more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be. The result of this vicious cycle is that the work process ends up being less effective and efficient than it could be. The power of PTO is that it breaks this cycle, mitigating the pressure, freeing individuals to spend time in ways that are more desirable for themselves personally and for the work process.

Unless we want to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, we need to unplug.

A lot. Specifically, we need to carve out times and spaces that are insulated from checking behaviors. This can be very, very hard when it doesn’t come as a company mandate, as it did at the Boston Consulting Group. But even though it might be difficult, and requires some courage, I promise, it’s worth doing.


This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow, an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. Want to take the course? It’s free! Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!