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The Power of “Predictable Time Off”

This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Do you check your phone and email compulsively? Do you work around the clock, just because you can always check your email? If so, you aren’t alone. These days we check 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 your 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 taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

The Novelty Bias

This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

You know that it would be far better to stick to your priorities 95% of the time than it is to compulsively check your phone and email and feeds.

But there’s a catch: Most people can’t effectively command their own time anymore. It’s one thing to want to do something besides check your email compulsively, but it is quite another to actually be able to DO this. You won’t be able to just stick to your newly prioritized task list through the sheer force of your iron-clad will. You just won’t.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to just will ourselves to stop a compulsive behavior. We check our phones and our email constantly for a couple of reasons. First, we do it because our brains have what researchers call a “novelty bias,” meaning they can easily be hijacked by anything newer or shinier than what we are already paying attention to. According to cognitive neuroscientists:

This novelty bias is more powerful than some of our deepest survival drives: Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects…the awareness of an unread e-mail sitting in your inbox can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points…

Let’s be clear: checking our email and our social media feeds constantly is inherently gratifying. These distractions are pleasurable because they represent the consistent promise of something new, and because they give us what researchers call “variable ratio reinforcement.” We are drawn to our smartphones in the way that we are drawn to slot machines: we never know when we’ll get a satisfying or novel message on Facebook or an email with good news, so we just keep checking.

Join the Discussion

Do you use your phone like a slot machine—always hoping the next check will bring a rich reward? We humans are so darned prone to doing that. How does it make you feel? Share your thoughts in the comments.


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Checking is Not the Same as Working

This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

One survey found that 80% of 18-44 year olds check their smartphones within the first 15 minutes of waking up–and that 89% of younger users, those ages 18-24, reach for their device within 15 minutes of waking up. Seventy-four percent reach for it immediately after waking up. A quarter of those surveyed could not recall a time during the day that their device was not within reach or in the same room. Another study found that people tend to check their email about every 15 minutes; another found that in 2007 the average knowledge worker opened their email 50 times a day, while using instant messaging 77 times a day—imagine what that might be today, nearly a decade later, given the evidence that we spend more time checking than ever before.

So we check our smartphones constantly. Is that bad?

A study of college students at Kent State University found that people who check their phones frequently tend to experience higher levels of distress during their leisure time (when they intend to relax).

Similarly, Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently participants checked their email throughout the day. Those striving to check only three times a day were less tense and less stressed overall.

Moreover, checking constantly reduces our productivity. All that checking interrupts us from accomplishing our more important work; with each derailment, it takes us on average about a half hour to get back on track.

So why do we check constantly?

Why do we check first thing in the morning, if it just makes us tense and keeps us from getting our work done? Because it also feels, well…awesome. The Internet and electronic communications engage many of our senses—often simultaneously. All that checking excites our brain, providing the novelty and stimulation it adores. So even though disconnecting from the devices and communications that make us tense and decrease our productivity seems like a logical thing to do, your novelty-and-stimulation-seeking brain won’t want to do it. In fact, it will tell you that you are being more productive when you are online and connected to your messages than when you are disconnected and focusing on something important.

This point is worth lingering on: how productive we are does not correlate well with how productive we feel. Multitasking and checking a lot feels productive because our brains are so stimulated when we are doing it. But it isn’t actually productive; one Stanford study showed that while media multitaskers tended to perceive themselves to be performing better, they actually tended to perform worse on every measure the researchers studied.

Much of our checking and busyness, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is all sound and fury, no meaning or significance. You can sit all day in front of your computer checking and responding to email, but accomplish not one of your priorities. It may feel like a more valuable activity, because it feels more productive. But it is neither.

People who check their phones frequently tend to experience higher levels of distress during their leisure time (when they intend to relax).

Join the Discussion

Are you a compulsive checker? Is your productivity suffering? Share your thoughts in the comments.


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Make a Not-To-Do List

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

According to Peter Bregman, our success and happiness are based as much on what we choose NOT to do as what we choose to do. I wholeheartedly agree. What things in your life keep you from doing other things that you’ve identified as priorities? Which of your behaviors tend to thwart your goals?

Before you answer those questions, make sure you’ve:

1) Identified your top priorities according to what is fulfilling to you and

2) Re-organized your to-do list according to your top priorities.

If you have trouble with follow through, make a “NOT-To-Do” list, which is another fantastic Peter Bregman idea.

Our success and happiness are based as much on what we choose NOT to do as what we choose to do. Click To Tweet

When we aren’t clear about what we don’t want to do, the things we don’t want to do often end up distracting us from our higher priorities. For example, nurturing my teens is one of my top priorities. As part of this, I want to spend more time hanging out with my kids after dinner and after they finish their homework. Ideally, I’ll spend 20 minutes with each of them one-on-one. But instead, I often get pulled into my email or back into my work, and poof! Just like that, the time is gone, and the opportunity missed. (Now that my daughter Fiona is away at school, I’m painfully aware of how fleeting and precious that time is.)

So under the priority labeled “Nurture my family and close relationships,” I’ve written: Don’t go back to work after dinner if the kids are at home. I have similar “NOT-to-do” items under each priority.

Be Explicit

By being explicit about what I’m NOT going to do–by actually writing these things down–I’m increasing the odds that I’ll spend my time on the things that matter most to me.

By being explicit about what I’m NOT going to do–by actually writing these things down–I’m increasing the odds that I’ll spend my time on the things that matter most to me. Click To Tweet

Now it’s your turn: Spend this next week noticing the behaviors and activities that sabotage the way that you spend your time. Each time you notice yourself doing something that thwarts a better behavior, add it to your “Not-To-Do” list here:

 Click here to download the not-to-do list PDF


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Pick Your Top 5 Priorities

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Once you’ve identified what will bring you joy, ease, strength, and meaning in your life — or how you otherwise hope to feel— it’s time to start organizing your time accordingly.

Time management guru Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, advises his clients (high-profile business leaders) to pick their top five priorities and then spend 95 percent of their time doing only those activities, saying “no” to virtually everything else. This idea made a lasting impression on me when I first heard him talk about it because I—full-time working single mom that I was at that time—was convinced that there was no way that I could spend 95 percent of my time doing things that fell into my top priorities. I was too busy just making sure the trains ran on time!

But it turns out that now. To give you an idea of how this worked for me, here are my top five priorities this year, in order of importance.

(1) Maintain my own health and happiness. Because this is my top priority, I first schedule the things that most affect my happiness. I make time for sleep, exercise, creative work, personal growth, and my friends and family, and I say “no” to those activities—fun as they might be—that interfere with my sleep, exercise, and time with my closest friends and family. When I skip exercise or shortchange myself on sleep, I might cross more off my task list or answer more emails, but that puts my first priority—staying healthy and happy—at risk. And if I get sick or so stressed out that my energy is drained? Well, that puts my other priorities at risk, too. So I have to constantly remind myself: It takes less time to exercise in the afternoon than it does to recover from the flu, should I get run down. (This doesn’t mean that I’ll never catch another cold, but it does mean that I’m less likely to!)

(2) Nurture my family, home and closest friendships. My children and husband first, extended family next, friends and community after that. This is about raising amazing human beings who are healthy and happy, and about cultivating a deep sense that I am part of something larger than myself. In order to honor this priority, I need to schedule a fair amount of family time on my calendar. Because I actually have this scheduled, I can say “no” to other things that come up more easily. I simply say that I have a scheduling conflict.

(3) Grow my online class offerings, so that I can expand my coaching practice from coaching individuals to coaching many people at once.  Maintaining my website, newsletters, and other online offerings to support this priority requires that I spend some time on marketing, PR, and administrative work. (I don’t love the marketing and sales-y aspects of this priority, so I do try to outsource them as much as possible.)

(4) Coaching and speaking.  As cheesy as the title “life coach” sounds, I love love love being one. Call it executive coaching if we must, but this is the professional activity in my life that consistently reminds me of my social value. I love creating coaching programs, like this one, and I love coaching individuals. Every day that I coach I get feedback that I’m helping people become happier, healthier, and more productive. So I spend time nearly every weekday coaching my clients. In addition, I do a fair amount of speaking as it is another way to do my coaching work for a larger audience. This year I’ve decided to take no more than twenty speaking engagements; more than that and the travel and energy required to speak will start to smother my other priorities.

(5) Give back to our community.  I serve on the board of The Thacher School and run The Backpack Project, a little family organization we’ve started to help people who live near us that are homeless. We provide backpacks (or “Care Kits”) full of supplies to the people who are homeless living in our community.

Do you think you could spend 95% of your time on your top 5 priorities?

When I first started thinking about my top priorities, I wasn’t even coming close to spending 95 percent of my time on them. In addition to my top five priorities, I was writing Raising Happiness, and then The Sweet Spot, and I was the executive director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center! Spending 95 percent of my time on my top five priorities leaves only about five hours a week for other things—that other 5%, the things that aren’t real priorities, but often need to be done.

Something often has to give; for me, before I made nurturing myself a priority, it was my health. Like many working parents, I used to put my own well-being on the back burner, never exercising and rarely getting enough sleep. This was not an effective strategy, as I was sick all the time.

Guess what? Now I spend closer to 95 percent of my time doing something that falls into one of my top five buckets (which change every year, by the way). 5% is about 45 minutes of every waking day; that is more than enough time to get the little things done that I must. Most days, most of that 5% time is spent answering emails.

How we schedule our priorities doesn’t have to be entirely proportional. We might value family most in life but spend the biggest amount of our time on some aspect of our work. So long as we are spending enough time on each of our priorities to accomplish our goals, that amount of time is enough.

Deciding on your Top 5 priorities is going to REALLY free up some time for the things that matter most to you.

Now it’s your turn to decide on your top 5 priorities ala Peter Bregman. Use the PDF download below as a guide for picking your priorities. You could even save it and use it again next year when you pick new priorities.

 Click here to download the priorities PDF


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

How do you want to feel?

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Pause for a moment and think about what you want to feel more of in this one wild and precious life (as Mary Oliver would say). Don’t think about what you want to achieve or accomplish; think about how you want to feel. Shooting for the feeling-state that you want more of (maybe you want more happiness, confidence, or fulfillment) will always take you down a different path than setting your sights on a particular achievement. Emotions are more motivating—and far more fulfilling—than an achievement goal in the long run.

Maybe you you really want to grow your business, but you’re too exhausted and overwhelmed right now and you need to learn how to accomplish more by doing less. An achievement goal would be to grow your business by 25%. But probably what you want to feel is successful, while at the same time feeling well-rested.

One way to figure this out is to identify the activities in your life that already produce the feeling-state you are looking for. These activities don’t need to be habits or things you have done recently; they just need to be things that have produced the emotions you are after in the past. We human beings are terrible at predicting what will make us feel happy (or feel anything positive) in the future. Although we think we know what will make us happier, plenty of research shows that we tend to be wrong about what actually does.

We have better success in the future when we look at what has produced the results we are looking for in the past. For example, a client of mine identified that she wanted to feel more calm, and two activities that make her feel calm are walking her dog in the morning and meditating.

Having a nice long list of the tasks, circumstances, behaviors and activities that already make you feel how you want to feel is going to be handy for the next few activities we’ll introduce as a part of this online course.

So spend some time reflecting on the feeling state that you are after. How do you want to feel when you find your flow? Which activities and pastimes have produced the feelings that you want to feel?


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Think About Your Eulogy, Not Your Resume

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Since her own bout with burn-out and crippling exhaustion, Arianna Huffington has learned to give great advice for finding greater meaning and fulfillment in life: Start working on your eulogy, and stop working on your resume.

She elaborates:

It is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like:

The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.
Or
He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.
Or
While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her inbox every night.

After we’ve passed away, people will recount the ways that we made a difference in their lives and in the world. They will tell stories and recount memories of times we enjoyed together. They will talk, in essence, about the meaning that we found in this lifetime, about our value, our impact, and our purpose. When we start working on our eulogy, we reorient our efforts toward meaning and away from achievements. We look away from the glitter of external rewards: the decadent meal, the Botox, the designer shoes, the higher paycheck, and the more prestigious title. We look inside ourselves to see what really lights our fire, what really brings us peace.

Please note that this probably isn’t about finding a more meaningful job. It’s about identifying the meaning that is already there.

We humans find our calling in all types of work—as janitors and ministers, as executives and hairdressers, as artists and parents and mail carriers and farmers. One study found that among administrative assistants, one-third considered their work a job (they focused on their paycheck—not the meaning or enjoyment they derived from the work), one-third considered it a career (mostly a series of ascending achievements), and another third considered it a true calling (they felt that their work was interesting, socially useful, and truly worthy of their time and energy).

Researchers have found the same results in other occupations. People tend to be more or less equally distributed in each of the categories of job, career, and calling.

It isn’t the job description or title that determines meaning— whether we consider our work a job, a career, or a calling. It’s the person. It isn’t about the prestige or even the helping nature of our work. It’s about the meaning we personally find in it and express through it, and the effort and commitment we give to it. So what do you want people to remember? 

Questions for Introspection

Think about what your friends and family will say at your funeral. What do you want them to say, and what would they likely say now?

Now, take a step back and think about what meaning you find in your work, and in your life.

What are you passionate about? What do you find most interesting, important, and worthy of your time and energy? What positive impact are you having on the world and other people?

Do your time and effort reflect your commitment to the work you value the most?

This is a first step towards discovering what you value, so that you can better prioritize your time. The next activity is about how best to prioritize.

Join the Discussion

Share your thoughts about these questions in the comments below.


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

How to Foster Grit

This video is the 4th in a series about fostering academic success from The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Watch the rest of the videos here.

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”
–Wilt Chamberlain


Video Notes: Combat Perfectionism

(1) Reflect on the following:

Perfectionism is a particular form of unhappiness; moreover, it is a myth that perfectionism leads to success. Do you see perfectionism as a problem for you? Your children? What do you do that might be fostering perfectionism? Do you value your children’s character over their achievements? If so, how do you communicate this to them?

If perfectionism is a problem for you or your children, script your change.

What is the specific situation in which you tend to foster perfectionism?

What will you do differently in that situation?

What will you say?

(2) Practice “satisficing”: Model it, teach it directly, and practice together. Here are three simple steps for practicing saticficing:

1. Outline the criteria for success. You might also want to set time limits with some kids (or for yourself).

2. Choose the first option that meets all of your criteria for success. This means truly stopping when those “finished” signs appear.

3. Focus on the positive aspects of the choice you made or project you completed. What worked out well? What do you like about it? Resist the temptation to think of what “might have been.”

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.


This post is taken from “The Raising Happiness Homestudy,” an online course I created as a companion to my book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. I’m sharing one “class” from this online course per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this Raising Happiness Homestudy tag. Enjoy!

Finding Meaning at Work

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Social psychologists define meaning, as it applies to our lives, as “an intellectual and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact.” In a stunning series of studies, Adam Grant proved 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 made cold calls knows, work in a call center isn’t easy. People receiving calls 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.

In another study, Grant found that having fundraisers read an account from scholarship students about how they had been helped by the fundraisers’ work significantly increased the amount of money they raised. But reading an account from a previous fundraiser about how the callers themselves benefited from their work as a fundraiser did not. The difference? A shift in the callers’ beliefs about the social meaning of their work, and an increased sense of their purpose, value, and impact.

Helping others

These studies are remarkably counterintuitive. We assume that Westerners are best motivated on the job by our own interests— money, prestige, what’s in it for us, what we’ll get, not what we give. But actually, these studies show clearly that we humans are best motivated by our significance to other people. We’ll work harder and longer and better—and feel happier about the work we are doing— when we know that someone else is benefiting from our efforts. It turns out that one sure path to finding your flow–to both ease and strength–is to find the social meaning in your daily activities.

As leadership and management professor Satinder Dhiman writes in Seven Habits of Highly Fulfilled People, “Success is about getting; significance is about giving: we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” In the end, finding our flow is about finding meaning—our purpose, value, and impact—in what we do.


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Chase Meaning, Not Happiness

These days, a lot of people don’t feel totally in control of their choices and their priorities, especially at work. But you do always have the freedom to choose your beliefs about what will make your life worth living.

As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning upon returning from a brutal concentration camp, where he lost his whole family, including his pregnant wife:

Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

What did Frankl mean by this? He meant that every day–whether we are in a concentration camp or not–we have important choices to make about whether to submit internally to the powerful forces around us; the forces that will rob us of our essential selves if given the chance. To Frankl, it was what prisoners chose to believe and the way that they pursued meaning that gave them the will and strength to endure.

The same can be said of us, living our privileged lives, although the forces that threaten to rob us of our freedoms are obviously much more benign.

Usually, we think we are choosing to pursue happiness, claiming it as our inalienable right. But mountains of research demonstrate that we humans do better pursuing fulfillment and meaning than we do by pursuing happiness.

Frankl was right on many fronts. It turns out that our happiness, success, and productivity at work are dramatically affected by our beliefs about how our work benefits others.


This post is taken from “The 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. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!