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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!

How to Practice “Discontinuous Productivity”

Doesn’t “practice discontinuous productivity” sound so technical and important? It IS powerful, but honestly it just means: Take a break. Rest your brain. But if I posted a Tuesday Tip titled “Just Rest a Little Here and There” would you have read it?

If you are like most of my clients, probably not. Most people I know are afraid (terrified?) to rest during the workday and go to great lengths to hide the breaks they take. As a society, we are super committed to the factory model of continuous production that arose during the industrial revolution. But, as I’ve written about before, the human brain did not evolve to work well nonstop. You can probably work for eight to ten hours straight, I know. But here is the real question: Why would you want to work in a way that doesn’t optimize your brain’s natural power? That doesn’t optimize your intelligence, energy, efficiency, creativity, and, frankly, the joy you derive from your work?

One simple (if not easy) way to get the best of your brain power is to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 minutes of high output, your energy will naturally dip. Your brain needs a period of recovery, or tension and stress will start to build, and productivity will start to decline. So work with, not against, your brain’s natural cycles of high and low energy (which are called “ultradian rhythms”).

Productivity experts recommend periods of intense focus followed by high-quality periods of rest. Rest periods needn’t be long if you truly take a break. But, I’ll be honest here, rest periods are better if they last about…90 minutes. I know, I know. That seems too long today, when we want everything instantly. I’m old enough to remember a time in corporate America — I worked at The Quaker Oats Company — when we regularly took lunch breaks that lasted an hour or more. Today we want an insta-break; 1 minute seems ideal in a world where many people don’t leave their desks for lunch.

Even if you can’t find 90 minutes between meetings, you can practice “discontinuousproductivity.” Try going for a little walk outside, chatting with a coworker or neighbor about a new movie, or eating lunch outside or near a sunny window. One productivity expert, Bob Pozen, closes his office door after lunch and naps for 30 minutes. Pozen has worked as a top mutual fund executive, an attorney, a government official, a law school professor, a business school professor and a prolific author–often doing several jobs at once. If he can nap midday, for crying out loud, so can the rest of us.

Join the discussion: Do you have any tips for making time for breaks in your day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Photo by Simon Matzinger.

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The Best Way to Organize Your Email

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

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

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

Here’s how:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Working Longer Won’t Make You More Productive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Tricks to Find Your Flow

Athletes call this mental state being in “The Zone”; psychologists call it “flow” or peak experience, and they have linked it to leading a life of happiness and purpose. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who authored theTao Te Ching, called it “doing without doing” or “trying without trying.”

I think of this mental state as our “sweet spot,” where we have both great strength and great ease; it’s the mental state when our best work emerges without strain or anxiety. Instead of making our most powerful effort, we get to experience our own effortless power.

Although we usually assume that a state of deep concentration is hard to achieve (and getting harder these days, as the interruptions from our smartphone/email/texts mount) the truth is that we can access this wonderful state much more easily than we often realize. Here’s how.

1. Clear mental clutter. What is going on in your mind that will keep you from your sweet spot?

Take a quick look at your task list, and decide what you will do today and when you will do it. When our subconscious mind doesn’t know when we will complete a task, it will often interrupt our flow state with intrusive reminders about what else we need to do. Research shows that our unconscious isn’t actually nagging us to do the task at hand but rather to make a plan to get it done. So scheduling a task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus on something else.

Another precursor to getting into The Zone is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

So note what you’ve just accomplished, what you hope to accomplish next, and what you’ll work on after that.

As I approach my tasks, I also find it helpful to take a quick peek at my calendar and email to clear mental clutter. Is there anything urgent? The idea isn’t to respond to emails; it’s a check that keeps me from worrying while I work that I should have checked my email, and keeps me from wondering if there is anything on my calendar that I should be preparing for.

2. Build yourself a fortress against interruption. If you can’t concentrate, you can’t be in your sweet spot. Period.

That’s because if you keep getting interrupted, you can’t achieve the state of deep concentration that you need for flow. Even if you like the interruptions (as when you get funny texts from a friend). Even if the interruptions are good for your work (as when a colleague stops by to answer a question). If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this:

No focus, no flow.

No focus, no flow. #TheScienceOfFindingFlow Click To TweetNo focus, no flow.” username=”raisinghappines”]

Anything that might distract or tempt you away from your work needs to be taken care of before you drop into The Zone. Think of yourself like a toddler going on a road trip: What will make you pull over before you reach your destination? Will you need to plug your computer in? Get a kleenex? Adjust the thermostat? Something as small as an itchy tag on the back of your shirt can weaken your focus if you are tempted to go to the bathroom to cut it out. Here is what I have to do before I find flow:

Clear my desk of anything that might distract me. I remove yesterday’s coffee cup, close books, put pens away, stack papers into a deceptively neat pile. As I do this, I note anything on my task list that will need my attention later, and make a time when I will attend to it.

Open any documents on my computer that I will need to use while I’m doing my focused work, and then quit my email application. This prevents me from opening my email while I’m trying to write—once I do that, I have to exert a lot of mental energy to resist reading new emails.

I close open browser windows and any other apps that aren’t in use. I leave my calendar open, as one of the great benefits of working from our sweet spot is that we lose track of time, and my calendar keeps me from missing what’s next.

I put my smartphone into “do not disturb” mode and move it out of sight. I turn off the ringer on my landline. (All other alerts on my computer are already off. I would never dream of getting a device like an Apple watch, which would be a constant threat to my concentration.)

I go to the bathroom and bring a glass of water, snack, and cup of coffee to my desk.

I close my shades and office door. If I’m not alone, I put on noise canceling headphones and then I tell Buster, my trusty canine colleague, to go to his “place,” where he’s trained to stay while I work.

Take a minute to anticipate your needs and take care of them now rather than when they will break your state of concentration.

3. Prepare your brain to go into a deep state of focus. This doesn’t require any sci-fi technology that sends a probe or special rays into your brain. Instead, it just takes a few simple, very ordinary steps.

Have a small snack. Concentration is very taxing for our brain energy-wise. Research shows that our focus and stamina tend to improve when our blood sugar is on the rise. (No need to have a whole meal, though. Digestion diverts energy from the brain. A small handful of nuts works best for me.)

Drink a lot of water. Your brain is 73 percent water, and even mild dehydration can cause it to sputter. Research participants who are barely dehydrated — not enough to even feel thirsty — experience “significant deterioration in mental functions” according to one study. Drinking water corrects trouble focusing. We aren’t sure why, but one theory is that it is the brain’s way of getting us to pay attention to our basic survival needs rather than our big thoughts and ambitions.

Put on some music you’ve chosen as ideal for getting into your sweet spot. Star athletes have long understood the power that music has to raise our energy and focus our attention — as well as to block out distractions. (Just make sure that the music isn’t another distraction in and of itself. I’ve created a Pandora radio station that plays only upbeat instrumental music; lyrics distract me.)

Exhale deeply for a minute or so. Our breathing profoundly affects our nervous system and blood flow in our brain—and, therefore, our performance. Taking some nice deep breaths signals to our brain that we are safe, allowing us to access mental resources we can’t when our breathing is shallow (which our brain takes as a sign that we are in a state of fight or flight).

Elite performers — from Stephen Curry to Maya Angelou — train themselves to drop into The Zone unconsciously by performing little rituals like the one I’ve created out of these three steps. (Angelou said that she used her pre-writing routine to “enchant” herself.) Indeed, rituals like these make it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary work.

Getting into a flow state is a habit you can create!
If you need help developing your “flow” routine,
 I hope you’ll check out my latest eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow. In 9 self-paced units, I’ll show you how to optimize your brain so that you can allow your most joyful, productive, energetic, and successful self to emerge. I’ll teach you how to be happy while accomplishing your goals — and while still having energy left over for the things you want to do.

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Photo courtesy of Kristina Alexanderson.

A Quick Way to Clear Clutter

Photo by Iain Watson

It’s approaching that time of the year again: spring cleaning. Although we may know that we want to deep clean or straighten clutter this year (at some point), just the thought of actually doing it can fill us with dread. But putting off what needs to be done can make an already overwhelming task an even bigger deal. 

Two smart ways to prevent clutter clearing procrastination: 

(1) Start small, tackling just one drawer or shelf a day. 

(2) Reward yourself immediately for the small win by congratulating yourself or doing a little victory dance. When we keep rewards simple and immediate, our brain makes a little “note to self” that a behavior is worth repeating in the future. 

Take Action: Take no more than 10 minutes to tackle a messy drawer, or stow some winter gear. Thenimmediately give yourself a “yay me!” or mental high five — a little triumph over the accomplishment. Savor that good feeling while you plan your next small win. 

Join the Discussion: Share your small wins here as a way to celebrate! What did you accomplish today? Extra credit for clutter clearing that takes less than 5 minutes.

 

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Happiness Tip: Automate a Hassle

Ever feel like your time and energy is going into tasks you don’t really want to do?

If so, find a way to make those chores into habits so you don’t have to think much about doing them anymore. Planning to do something takes the energy of our conscious minds; habitual tasks are accomplished more quickly and with less effort.

For me, planning weeknight meals was becoming a dreaded chore, so I automated them. The answer to “What’s for dinner?” is always the same, depending on the day of the week. Here’s how it works:

Sunday Sit-downs:
My daughters and I cook in large quantities so that we’ll have left-overs for another meal. (We always sit down when we eat, but on Sundays, we go large.)

Monday Makeover: We turn Sunday’s meal into something new.  (This week, chili became burrito filling.)

Tuesday Takeout: We go out or get take out.

Wacky Wednesdays: Usually breakfast for dinner (with raw veggies as a pre-meal snack).

Thursday Thaw: We pull something out of the freezer from a previous “Sunday Sit-down”.

Friday Favorites: We have one of four super-easy dinners on Fridays (spaghetti and meatballs, tacos, pot-stickers with rice and stir fried veggies, or pizza).

It might seem hokey, but this system has made dinnertime loads easier for me. Other things our family has on autopilot: we fold laundry while watching “Bewitched” on Friday nights; we hang up backpacks and put shoes away the instant we walk through the door; we empty the dishwasher and set the table for dinner simultaneously in the evening.

Join the Discussion: What hassle or task can you automate this week? Inspire others by leaving a comment below.