Modern life can feel overwhelming and stressful. Happiness expert Christine Carter, a sociologist and one of the founders of the Greater Good Science Center At Berkeley, and author of the book, “The Sweet Spot,”says by doing less, we can not only ease that sense of overwhelm, but actually do more. She explains how:
Q: What is the “Sweet Spot?”
Carter: The sweet spot is when you’re operating with the greatest ease, with the least resistance, and the greatest power of strength.
Q: Wow. Sounds nice. Is that even possible today when so many people feel stretched and crazy busy?
Carter: It’s possible. And it’s even possible to grow your sweet spot. You know how there’s a sweet spot on a racket? Where an athlete can hit with the greatest strength and ease? An athlete can’t grow that sweet spot. But I’m living proof that it is possible to grow ease in life.
It’s very hard for us not to accept this lie we’ve been told – that more is better, that busyness is a marker for importance. I’m saying that, operating out of our sweet spot, we can achieve more by slacking strategically, checking emails less, and working fewer hours. When you do that, you get this whole other part of your brain coming online.
Q: Strategic slacking? Working less makes you achieve more. WHAT?
Carter: Yes! There’s a neuro-biological story behind it. We have two attentional networks in our brain: task positive and task negative – they function like a see saw. Only one is active at a time.
When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is on. What’s off is the task negative – the mind wandering, daydreaming, what most people tend to think is the “time wasting” mode. So all the great work we do in the world, we give credit to the task-positive brain. We assume it takes a lot of self discipline and willpower to just muscle through. We write books. We build bridges. We raise children. That’s what our culture told us to focus on – human output, like the factory model. But it’s actually not true.
When you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, driving but not listening to the radio – or checking texts, ahem! – and you let your mind wander, the task- negative brain becomes active. All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, and it’s all happening at an unconscious level. That’s where insights come from. We can’t write books without the insights that come from that downtime. We can’t fulfill our potential without filling our need for creative insight, and nurturing our ability to draw connections. Just staring into space is going to help. It’s a cliché, but, think about it, we often get our best ideas in the shower! Also reading poetry, painting, reading a novel, fiction – all of these things help us draw connections, become more empathetic. These all count as insight-building activities. And it’s a big part of finding your sweet spot.
Q: You say you’re living proof that you can grow your sweet spot. How so?
Carter: I’m a happiness expert, right? I was raising happy children. I had a career I really enjoyed and was proud of. But I was really exhausted and sick all the time. I had strep throat for 18 months – I went through nine courses of antibiotics, I had my tonsils out. Two months later, I was in the Emergency Room and having hospital fantasies – ‘Please, just let me stay overnight!’
The irony was not lost on me. Here I was, deep in the research and methods of well-being, elite performance, the ability to sustain elite performance and productivity, and really sick. People would say, ‘When are you going to learn you just can’t have it all? You’re going to have to slow down. You’re going to have to make some choices.’ Yet everything in my life was so hard won, I just didn’t want to give it up. I didn’t want to spend less time with my children. I loved my career. Then I thought, ‘If I can’t figure this out, nobody can. I’ve been studying this stuff for 10 years, I really need to road test it all.’
I started applying all the lessons to my own life. I feel like I wrote The Sweet Spot so I could just hand all these tactics to other people like myself, so they wouldn’t have to go through the period of getting sick like I did.
Q: So how did you start?
Carter: I tried to do everything all at once. And it was hard to get any one thing to stick. I felt so much anxiety, because I felt like I was continuing to fail. Eventually, I realized I had to make changes much more slowly to get them to stick, and that every time I failed, it was an opportunity to look at my life more carefully, and see an obstacle that I didn’t see before.
Where I often recommend people start – which I discovered was my own Achilles’ heel – is to use technology more strategically.
Carter: Technology can bring both great ease and great power or efficiency to our lives. But not if we don’t use it strategically. It also ramps up the stress in our lives. If you’re answering your emails in bed because you just turned off your alarm, and you haven’t even sat up yet, you’re not doing your best work. There’s no power there.
You have to create rules around technology. Research has found that when we manipulate how often people check their emails, for instance, from 15 or more times a day to three to five, the overall tension and stress levels go way down. So this is something we know. But we also know we are driven to constantly check our emails. It comes from something called the “variable ratio reinforcement” – that because something is pleasurable one time in 10, or one time in 20, our brains are driven toward those checking behaviors. It’s like having a bowl of candy in front of us all the time – we have to constantly resist temptation.
A lot of people who do client-oriented work get very nervous. They say, ‘But it’s my job, I’m expected to be checking email all the time.’ If that’s true, then that’s you’re job, and focus on it. But for most people, we really don’t have to check all the time.
The idea is to be more strategic. Create predictable time off, and communicate it to the rest of your team. You’ll be able to respond more efficiently, do your job better, decrease your stress and create space for insight.
Q: Have you found your own sweet spot with technology?
Carter: I was really uncomfortable for a long time. Then I became very strategic about all my time. I started blocking out the times that I’d check my emails – at 11 am, at 3 pm, and home emails after 7:30 pm.
Failure for me came from my phone, because it’s like having a bowl of Halloween candy on the dashboard, at breakfast, sitting next to you on your desk, by your bedside. It’s human. The temptation to check is very real. So I solved it by taking email off my phone and from the computer that I write from.
It was like, ‘OK, this is too hard for me to resist this temptation. I’m going to hide the bowl of candy.’ And then I communicated with people at the Greater Good Science Center what I was doing – ‘I know this is really annoying you – but I’m not going to pick up my phone unless it’s scheduled, and it’s during this time.’ I had to learn to turn the computer off at 9 or 9:15 so I could get to bed. That was hard for me, because that was a time when I was getting a lot of work done. But it was important. Because I wasn’t healthy, and I needed to get more sleep. I enlisted the help of family and friends, and said, ‘If you ever get an email from me after 9 pm, pick up the phone and call me, and tell me to get off the computer.’ The social pressure really helped.
I kept saying, ‘I’m doing this for my health. And when I do respond, you’ll get a more error-free and thoughtful response.’
That’s made all the difference in the world. I’m healthy. I’m so much more relaxed. It’s dialed back the low level of stress that was just constant. It enables me to get in a sense of flow when I’m working, then when I’m home, I’m actually home with my kids. Even the quality of saying goodbye to my husband before going into my home office is different because I’m not checking emails first thing in the morning. I feel like I can actually be present and enjoy my home life. And when I sit down to work, I have more sheer brain power. I have so much more ease in my life. So, for me, finding the sweet spot with technology has made a huge difference.
Q: What are your top tips so others can find their sweet spots?
1. Create rules around technology
2. Have a gratitude practice in which you take time each day to consider what you are grateful for
3. Take a 12-minute break after you feel like you’ve been focusing for a long time
4. Work on the little gears. If you shift the little gears, make the small changes like checking your email three times a day instead of 15, it may not be as big as moving to New York City, or ending a bad marriage, but if you shift the little gears, the big ones end up changing, too.
If you liked this Q & A on how to live the Good Life on Inspired Life, you might also enjoy these:
Want to make more time for the things that matter? You make like the 21-Day Timehacker Challenge