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  • feedwordpress 09:00:09 on 2018/10/18 Permalink
    Tags: , Can You Learn to be Lucky?, Interview, Karla Starr, ,   

    “My Life Today Is the Sum Total of My Past Choices.” 

    Interview: Karla Starr.

    Karla Starr has written for O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, and she received the Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her first book recently hit the shelves:  Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.

    Karla says, "The best way we can successfully deal with the unknown is by building our own character strengths: our flexibility, empathy, confidence, self-control, curiosity, self-esteem, humility, persistence, belief in our ability to improve, and the ability to simply show up. The key to maximizing luck is simply to maximize what you bring to the table, plug yourself into many outlets, and be open to whatever comes along."

    I couldn’t wait to talk to Karla about happiness, habits, luck, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Karla: If I had to pick just one thing, it’s to get enough sleep. It’s the basis of physical and mental health, and I have no problems prioritizing it over everything else. When I go to bed early enough to wake up naturally, I have more energy, my brain works as well as it can, and I feel like a functional human.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Karla: I knew nothing about happiness when I was 18; I just thought it was something for people who had summer houses, Ivy League scholarships, great wardrobes, and perfect test scores. But as it turns out, you can have all of those things and be miserable.

    Two people in the exact same situation can have completely different moods because of what they pay attention to and how they interpret it. Fortunately, we have complete control over those two things. Paying attention to something is what gives it power, which is why practicing gratitude is so important. I had no idea it was that simple.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

    Karla: How much random, uncontrollable things influence our thoughts, behavior, and habits, which are entirely controllable.

    Small moments can alter our entire life’s trajectory by making us assume that it’s part of a larger pattern. For example, seeing someone try to cut in line at the grocery store can make us assume that they’re a jerk; if we see them later on, we’d probably ignore them or give them a look. But what if they were in a hurry to buy food for a sick friend, and felt awful about cutting in line? We never get a chance to find out if we’re wrong.

    Our brains love patterns, even though this means seeing regularities in the environment that may not actually exist.

    I was surprised to find out how easily this can happen when we get information about ourselves. If a grade school teacher tells us that we’re not cut out for music, we learn that we’re no good. So So we’ll never practice, get more flustered when we do, and assume that improving is harder for us than others—even though getting better takes time for everyone. More often, however, we’ll just quit. We don’t realize how many aspects of our life are self-fulfilling prophecies, and the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid being wrong about themselves and the world, even when it might lead to positive change.

    Our social environments play a huge role. Imagine someone with jaded friends who goes on a few dates that turn out to be bad. They might begin to think of dating as a pointless endeavor, and start acting distant or slightly hostile towards others—the very behavior that drives people away. Over time, they might conclude that they’re fated to be alone, stop giving new people a chance, or never meeting people. Guess what? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You never learn that you’re wrong.

    Think of a story you might attribute to luck, like getting an offer for your dream job meeting the love of your life, getting your startup funded, or being accepted into your first choice school. We don’t see the lifetime of good habits that went into these moments, like attending networking events every week and keeping in touch with professional contacts for years, or staying positive after years of bad dates. No one posts on Facebook about living off of ramen and having tons of roommates while developing their app, or that they studied for a standardized test every weekend for two years.

    Actions that lead to larger rewards in the future often feel less rewarding in the present, and change itself can be difficult. It can take longer to see those larger fruits of beneficial habits than people realize. Doubting the value of good habits can make people inconsistent enough to never see change, or give up prematurely. Change takes time. Different habitual ways of responding to what happens to us create wildly different life trajectories over time.

    I was surprised to see how many aspects of life are self-fulling prophecies: when people become convinced that certain outcomes won’t happen, we never really try to make them happen. And guess what? We’re right—even if it started because of a random comment.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Karla: I used to think that exercise was torture, and that being athletic just wasn’t in the cards for me. I used the research to turn it around: bit by bit, I made everything associated with a healthy lifestyle as positive and rewarding as possible. I found an activity that I really enjoyed and a coach I connected with. I started befriending people at the gym, got workout clothes that I loved, and focused on how good it felt to get better. My attitude towards health has done a complete 180. I even won a competition at my gym this past year!

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

    Karla: Absolutely no one who knows me will be surprised that I’m a Questioner! I researched my book for years and am obsessed with learning. I hate the feeling of being forced to do something just for the sake of doing it. But if I have a good reason, I have no problem moving time and space for something that I want to do.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

    Karla: "One coin won’t make you rich, but the only way to get rich is by collecting coins." [Gretchen: This is one of my favorite teaching stories! Here's an episode of A Little Happier where I talk about it.] My life today is the sum total of my past choices. Each small action may feel inconsequential, but every one counts. Every smart decision you make adds value to your future self. Books are read and written one word at a time, well-being is improved one healthy decision at a time, relationships are strengthened one kind deed at a time, retirement accounts grow one dollar at a time, and marathons are finished one step at a time. Every extra minute of reading, writing, brownie-skipping, gym-hitting, hugging, thanking, saving, and stepping adds up over time. Everything counts.

    Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    Karla: People think that personality traits and intelligence are static, but our brains are much more plastic and malleable than we realize, at any age. Personality traits also depend on the situation we find ourselves in: everyone becomes more conscientious when they’re about to finish a project they really want to complete, or more extroverted when they see a great friend they really want to catch up with. Our lifestyles and social environments shape what we think we’re capable of, especially the habits among people in your social circle. As the narrative we tell ourselves about our life starts to take shape over time, people settle into a story of who we are, and make a habit of putting ourselves in situations where we’re most comfortable.

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Karla: Last year, when I was working on my last chapter on the importance and difficulty of open-mindedness, I had a health scare. One of my friends said she’d pray for me, and I replied that it wasn’t a good use of her time. After talking, I ended up testing the advice that I was giving in that chapter: what if I was wrong, and there was a divine presence in the universe? Why was I stubbornly refusing to even consider it? What was the worst that could happen if I was wrong?

    It felt so odd to challenge such a core belief, especially one I’d been writing about for years. But what if the universe wasn’t just made of chaos and randomness—what if coincidences were meaningful? A few days after my scare, I started to act “as if.”

    If you do everything in your power to make your future brighter, stay flexible about the outcome, and have patience that things will eventually work out, they will. Another word for luck is faith.

    can you learn

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:31 on 2018/10/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , Interview, KJ Dell'Antonia, ,   

    “Worrying About Something You Fear Doesn’t Prevent It; It Does Keep You from Enjoying What You’re Doing Right Now.” 

    Interview: KJ Dell'Antonia.

    I've known KJ for many years. We first met when she was the editor of Motherlode, the New York Times online section devoted to "adventures in parenting" -- a section that  evolved into Well Family, where she was also a contributing editor.

    While she was there, KJ was my editor when I did a short Motherlode series about my love of picture books -- ah, what a joy it was to write about my favorite picture books! You can read what I wrote about Little Bear, Blueberries for Sal, The Little Engine That Could, or about the picture books that fill me with dread. And after my commentary, you can read KJ's commentary.

    Along with writer, teacher, and education expert Jessica Lahey, KJ also is the co-host of a terrific podcast #AmWriting, all about writing and getting things done. (My sister Elizabeth was a guest on an episode, and so was I.)

    As if all this weren't enough, KJ just published a terrific book: How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute.

    I couldn't wait to talk to KJ about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative? 

    KJ: I’m a planner. For example, I write every day. I plan when I’ll write the day before (it’s usually first thing after I drop my kids at school in the morning which isn’t really first thing in the morning). If I can’t write then, I decide when I can write. I do the same thing with exercise (I don’t do much but I do it every day). I even block in space for little tasks. Right now, I need to decide how much my car is worth as trade-in. That’s minor and not really work, but it has to get done, and it won’t get done unless I plan a time to do it and then do—so I do.

    Possibly the most relevant side effect of this is that if I don’t plan a time to do something, it probably wasn’t important to me in the first place.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

    KJ: I didn’t know anything about being happy when I was 18 years old! I thought you found happiness in other people, which, not surprisingly, never, ever worked. So the list of things I know now that I didn’t know then is long, but here’s a favorite—worrying about something you fear doesn’t prevent it, and it does keep you from enjoying whatever you’re doing right now. Plus, when things do go wrong, all we ever want is to be back in our nice cozy ordinary lives again—the ones we spent worrying about things that might go wrong! So, don’t do that.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most? 

    KJ: My research is in the area of what makes parents happier, or less happy, and most people are surprised by what a consensus there is around what we most hate doing—which is disciplining our kids. Enforcing the rules, getting them to do chores, dealing with them when they screw up—we don’t like that, and we also don’t feel like we know how (which always makes people less happy). I don’t think our own parents felt that way.

    Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

    KJ: I stew. I pick something I’m worried about and then I worry it to death, or just go over it and over it and over it, especially on a long drive. I just soak in it. I had one setback, two years ago now, that I will STILL sometimes stew over when my brain just needs something to grab onto. Knowing I do it helps, but not enough.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    KJ: I plan our entire week every Sunday. I have four kids, I work 30-40 hours a week and I help to manage our horse barn, so our weeks tend to have a lot of moving parts. Planning what’s going to happen when, who’s going to get who where and what we’re going to have for dinner every weeknight is key to my happiness. I’ve learned that I hate it when I feel rushed or harried, and I always feel harried without a plan. That said, it has to be MY plan. Unless I’ve already taken a deep breath and made a decision to just go along with it, I don’t usually like other people’s plans. My plans are better.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    KJ: I run a mile every day. I hate running. I hate mandatory exercising, really. I hate having to do anything physical, I hate having a plan to meet someone to work out or a scheduled class. I get bored with nearly every physical activity in about 25 minutes. But obviously I need to do something.

    My husband has a treadmill, and I ‘d been reading about interval training, and I thought, well, I’ll run for three minutes four times with a minute in between. Anybody can run for three minutes, right?

    That turned out to be about a mile, and after a while, the walking minutes in between started dragging the whole thing out. So I decided the mile was my goal. That was a little over two years ago, and now I’m a little compulsive about it. I get up every day and just do it first thing, and then I’m done for the day—and even if I don’t get out of my chair for the whole rest of the day I’ve got that going for me.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

    KJ: I’m a Rebel, although because I’ve held down jobs (maybe for not very long) and obviously I can get my writing done, it took me a while to figure that out—but nothing else fit. Then I remembered how, even as a kid, I would say to myself “I don’t have to do that (homework, show up to class, not steal stuff). I just choose to, because I don’t want the consequences.” And once I knew, it was so clear—and it really does help me to know. Now, when I actually want to do something, I make sure to remind myself I don’t have to, and I usually don’t set a time. I also use the strategy of making it part of my identity—and I also rebel by defying other people’s expectations that I can’t or won’t do certain things.

    I credit my dad for helping me be a successful Rebel. He’s one himself (with a big Questioner bent), and he’s always setting out to prove people wrong. You say I can’t put myself through college? The hell I can’t! Say I’m not good enough for that job? The hell I’m not!

    It’s kind of a combative approach to life but it works for him. I’m less combative about it, but it works for me, too.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

    KJ: If I don’t run first thing in the morning, it’s hard for me to do it at all. (If I’ve planned on a time, I usually can, but if there’s no plan beyond “I’ll do it later” it’s not happening. Similarly, If I don’t meditate right after I run, I almost certainly won’t. Clearly pairing works well for me!

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? 

    KJ: In one of Laura Vanderkam’s early books, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, she reminds us that most of what we do every day involves some kind of choice. You’re “too busy” to chaperone the field trip but not “too busy” to drive 5 hours round trip to pick up a kitten your family has been waiting for—because you choose the kitten, but not the field trip. (That might just be me.)

    So I stopped saying I was “too busy,” ever—because I’m not too busy. If I want to do it, I’ll find time. If I don’t, I won’t. For the most part, with some exceptions, it’s that simple—and recognizing that changed how I looked at my time, which I think changed my life.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    KJ: “Decide what to do, then do it.” That’s one of my mantras for parental happiness, from my book How to Be a Happier Parent—but I find it generally applicable. I often feel frozen at the beginning of a project or when faced with a lot of choices. “Decide what to do, then do it,” reminds me just to pick a road or a topic or a small piece of the job and start. You can nearly always change course, but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t start.

    How to be a Happier Parent

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:12 on 2018/09/27 Permalink
    Tags: , Bradley Tusk, , Interview,   

    “I Get So Focused on Whatever I’m Doing That I Wake Up at 3 a.m. Just to Check My Email.” 

    Interview: Bradley Tusk.

    Through my husband, Bradley and I have been friends for several years  -- plus we also had the chance to work together briefly on an issue related to organ donation. Bradley has an unusual combination of qualities: he's highly thoughtful and contemplative, highly effective, and extremely comfortable with conflict.

    He's had a very colorful career. Among other roles, he was Deputy Governor of Illinois, campaign manager for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, worked with startups like Uber and Lemonade, and is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, a multi-faceted platform that includes multiple businesses. I knew some of the highlights of his history, but I was excited to learn more of the details by getting my hands on my copy of his new book The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics.

    Because he's thought so much about happiness, habits, and productivity, I couldn't wait to interview Bradley on these subjects.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Bradley: I never end a workday without having finished the day’s to-do list, made the next day’s list and returned or at least dealt with every incoming call, text and email. It’s not like things automatically stop happening once I do those things but it makes it a lot easier to enjoy the evening.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Bradley: That the cliché about “it’s the journey, not the process” ended up being right. I spent way too long chasing specific achievements and then wondering why I wasn’t happier when each one happened. I still have a pretty ambitious list of goals but I now get that the work we do to achieve them is far more interesting, fulfilling and important than that one moment at the end when you check the box. Writing my book – The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups From Death By Politics – also helped me figure this out since it forced me to look back at my life and career and lay out how things happened.

    Gretchen: You’ve had fascinating experiences. What experience surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

    Bradley: That nothing comes easy – and that there’s no secret book of knowledge or answers. Everyone’s mainly making it up as they go along and doing their best. The people who put the most into it, take the most risk, are willing to have the biggest ideas, and are willing to be held accountable tend to be the people who succeed. That was true even when I worked for Mike Bloomberg as his campaign manager. Mike’s a genius but it wasn’t like he inherently just knew everything. He put the work in. Every single day.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Bradley: My kids – like all kids – never got ready for school when they were supposed to. I’d ask nicely half a dozen times and then start yelling. That never actually moved anything along, it just made everyone really upset. I realized what I was doing, spent a lot of time thinking about it, a lot of time working on it in therapy, a lot of time reminding myself and eventually, I stopped doing it altogether. They’re still usually late for school.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

    Bradley: According to this, a Rebel, which is a relief since I work in technology and am supposed to disrupt things.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

    Bradley: Boredom is the biggest problem. If I’m really busy and focused on whatever I’m trying to do, I’m usually good. But if I’m bored, that’s when I start causing the kind of trouble that’s counter-productive (although sometimes fun). The other is obsession. I get so focused on whatever I’m doing that I’ll wake up at 3am every morning just to check my email. That’s not healthy – whatever’s on there will still be there at 5am.

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Bradley: I spent four years as Deputy Governor of Illinois. My boss was the now incarcerated, frequently insane Rod Blagojevich. About halfway through, I couldn’t take it anymore. I flew home to New York for a week with every intention of never going back. My friend Rob Galligan and I spent around three hours walking through Central Park, talking about why I hated Rod so much. And by the time we were done, I realized the job wasn’t about Rod. He was just an impediment. The job was about the ways we could help people and do things differently and what I could learn from it. Not shockingly, Rob went on to become a very successful therapist.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

    Bradley: There’s a sign on the wall of my kids’ school that says “Character is what you do when no one is watching.” Whether it’s going home to get more bags and then back outside to pick up our dog’s poop off the street or making the extra effort to recycle or tipping every Uber driver even though the trip is over, you’re out of the car and will never see them again, I think about that sign — and do things I don’t really feel like doing — all the time.

    Gretchen: Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

    Bradley: When I was in elementary school, I read a novel about politics called Advise and Consent by Alan Drury. The minute I finished the book, I knew I wanted to work in politics. Most of real life in politics wasn’t as exciting as the book but enough of it was that I’m grateful to the librarian who handed it to me.

    Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    Bradley: As a venture capitalist, people outside the field tend to focus on the capitalist part and assume the point of the job is to just make as much money as possible. That’s obviously part of it, but every good VC I know cares far more about building new companies, launching new ideas and disrupting the status quo than just making a good return. You don’t become a VC to get rich. You become a VC because you like blowing things up.

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:37 on 2018/09/20 Permalink
    Tags: , Interview, Lisa Kohn, ,   

    “I Just Have to Choose to Notice the Good and Allow Myself to Enjoy It.” 

    Interview: Lisa Kohn.

    Lisa Kohn had a challenging childhood. Her mother was a member of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, and her father was part of the life of New York City's East Village in the 1970s. She was caught between two wildly different worlds, and this shaped the way she saw the world, herself, and other people.

    She's written a memoir of her experience, and how she found the resiliency to surmount the difficulties in her upbringing, in to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?

    Lisa: As simple as it might sound, when I actively, intentionally practice mindfulness in a way that makes me notice things that are soothing or joy-creating for me, I am happier. By that I mean when I actively look for the yellow birds that I love - each time I see them I am happier. When I pause and notice the breeze on my skin, or the beautiful day, or the flowers around me, I am happier. When I throw myself into the moment - as I exercise or talk with friends or laugh and play, etc. - any and all of this can consistently make me happier. I just have to choose to notice the good and allow myself to enjoy it.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Lisa: When I was 18 years old, I didn’t even know that I was unhappy, and I didn’t know that I deserved to be, and could be, happy. Because I was raised in a cult - as a Moonie - and 18 was about the age when I started to pull away from the cult, there wasn’t a lot of happiness in my life (or mind or heart) at that point. It took years for me to realize that I could be happy and to figure out ways to allow myself happiness. (I also didn’t know that, at least for me, self-love and self-compassion are at the root of allowing myself happiness and being happy.)

    Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

    Lisa: I wouldn’t say that I have habits, as in something I do or don’t do every day, but I do have negative thought patterns, or thought habits, that get in the way of my happiness. I can be be a worrier and filled with irrational fears. I can be a people pleaser and lose myself in panic that others will be upset or disappointed. I can push myself too hard and be too strict and rigid with myself. All of these thought patterns get in the way of my happiness. (And all of them are at least somewhat manageable when I go back to questions #1 and 2 and allow myself happiness and find moments and mindfulness that will ease my negative thought patterns.)

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Lisa: I have a number of habits that are most important to me. My physical health habits - I exercise in some way nearly every day. I run, practice yoga, lift weights, and move as much as I can. My mental and emotional health habits - I practice yoga roughly three times per week, and I meditate nearly every day. I also make time to sit, notice, practice mindfulness, etc., and I make time for family and friends, because I love to be connected with and to people.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Lisa: I am proud of the fact that I meditate regularly - generally every day. However, the way I was able to build that habit is, perhaps, a bit different from the norm. Because I was raised in unstable environments, I became a very rigid rule follower. (I also believe that is related to my anorexia when I was younger.) In order to build a meditation habit, I had to allow myself to meditate “my way” - not to follow set rules or strict guidelines. I’ve sat quiet at times, sat quiet with a timer at times, sat quiet with a cup of tea at times, and sat quiet with an app making “white noise” in the background, but in all of these, I’ve allowed myself to not be too rigid. If I get rigid, then I worry that my meditation didn’t count, because I somehow did it “wrong.” Allowing myself space and the possibility that there was no right or wrong way to meditate helped me to build my meditation practice/habit.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

    Lisa: I am clearly an Upholder. I think I was more of an Obliger and also a bit of a Rebel for a while (most likely when I left the Moonies), but I do keep my promises to myself and to (most) others. [Note: from her description of herself in her answers, I wonder if Lisa is actually an Obliger who has figured out ways to meet inner expectations.]

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

    Lisa: I have let travel and others’ expectations and needs get in the way of keeping my habits, but I’ve learned to make my habits my priority, because I am so much happier and better when I do.

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Five years ago I was knocked to my knees with insomnia, for longer than I care to admit. I fought it, long and hard, but finally reached a point where I accepted what was and decided that if the rest of my life was going to be just lying on a couch every day, because that was all that I could physically, mentally, and emotionally do, than I was going to be okay with that, and I was going to find a way to be happy, no matter what. The experience changed - and loosened - some of my rigidity and perfectionism/self-non-acceptance.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Lisa: I did thoroughly enjoy The Happiness Project. (I’m not just saying that - I kept thinking, “yes, yes.”) Two books that helped me move on most recently are The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) and Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach). The saying I repeat to myself the most now, when I’m afraid or anxious or hard on myself, is “I choose love.” It eases my heart and mind. I read this anonymous quote years ago in O, and it stayed with me - “When you die God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the pleasures in life that you denied yourself.” And although it’s not a motto or saying, I’ve found that putting my hand on my heart is very, very soothing.

    Gretchen: Tell me about your new memoir.

    My memoir is entitled to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence. It tells my story of growing up in the Moonies (and also in the sordid East Village scene in the 1970s) and gives a glimpse into how I learned that I deserved happiness...and how I could find or build it.

    to the moon and back by Lisa Kohn

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:31 on 2018/09/06 Permalink
    Tags: attention, , Chris Baily, distraction, focus, Interview, ,   

    “I’m One of the Laziest People You’ll Ever Meet—and That’s What Drives My Productivity.” 

    Interview: Chris Bailey.

    Chris Bailey is a writer who thinks a lot about productivity -- he literally wrote the book on it, The Productivity Project.

    He has a new book that just hit the shelves: Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. It turns out that when you're trying to be productive, it's important to know how to keep your focus.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Chris about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

    Chris: My latest project is my book Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, which is a deep dive into the research on how our attention works—how we can sharpen our focus, better relax our attention to recharge, and how we can resist falling victim to distraction (long story short, being distracted isn’t our fault, but there are also science-backed ways we can manage our attention better).

    One common theme kept recurring as I connected the research: that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. If we’re distracted in each moment, these moments accumulate, day by day, week by week, year by year, to create a life that’s distracted. When we focus on what’s meaningful and productive in each moment, these moments accumulate to create a life that’s filled with those same qualities.

    This surprised me. I went into the project thinking I was writing a productivity book. But the more research I explored, the more I realized that managing our attention isn’t only a way to squeeze more productivity out of our day. It’s a way by which we can live a more meaningful life, and even increase our happiness.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

    Chris: I spend around half of my year on the road. This is totally fine, but last-minute travel can really trip up my healthy habits.

    I make sure to plan ahead if I see a heavy bout of travel in my calendar. I stay at hotels with gyms (and bathtubs!), look for healthy take-out options nearby, and schedule time to meditate and talk to friends and my fiancée, all of which ground me and make me happier. Obstacles are a piece of cake—provided we deal with them in advance. Last-minute trips make this planning a lot more difficult.

    Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    Chris: Yes: that laziness is a bad thing. I’m one of the laziest people you’ll ever meet—and that’s precisely what drives my productivity. My laziness motivates me to look for shortcuts (ones that don’t diminish the quality of my work), and also forces me to carve out room so I can think more deeply about what I’m doing and creating. Setting aside this time for idle thinking is one of the best things we can do for our productivity.

    Looking at the state of our attention, we spend so much time responding in autopilot to the tasks that come our way. It’s in the space between doing tasks—when we let our attention rest and wander in these periods that sometimes come across as lazy—that we choose what to do next (we think about our goals 14x more when our mind is wandering versus when we’re focused). This is also when our best ideas strike.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

    Chris: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

    The source of this proverb is unknown, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve found it to be true across pretty much every part of my life. For example, a lot of people assume that putting out a book is a solo project. But speaking from personal experience, the cumulative work of everyone else on the team is likely far greater than my own. Between editing the book, pitching it to media outlets, marketing it, designing the cover, creating translations, and so on, publishing a book (at least in the traditional way) is a team sport.

    At work, at home, and everywhere else, our happiness, productivity, and success is intertwined with the happiness, productivity, and success of the people surrounding us. If you think it isn’t, you’re not living up to your full potential.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Chris: I practice Buddhism, and one of its central tenants is that happiness is nothing more than coming to terms with how things change. We can do this by managing our expectations—that’s meant a mental shift where I now believe things never truly go wrong, they just go differently than I expected.

    Truthfully, these ideas took a while for me to internalize. Once I did, my stress levels plummeted. This is not to say I don’t strive for success, especially by more traditional measures (money, recognition, and so on). But today, when I notice my happiness is being batted around by external circumstances, I make sure to check what expectations I had in the first place.

    When doing so, I often find there’s something I felt entitled to that I shouldn’t have, or some uncomfortable truth that I’m not willing to face about myself or the situation. It’s always worth running towards discomfort.

    Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey

     
  • feedwordpress 12:00:07 on 2018/09/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Ingrid Fetell Lee, Interview,   

    “I Have a Phrase That I Come Back to Again and Again: ‘Remember What You Love.’” 

    Interview: Ingrid Fetell Lee

    Right now, I can't learn enough about color and scent -- I'm looking for anything I can read, see, touch, learn, or listen to on these fascinating subjects. Plus I'm always thinking about happiness and human nature.

    So when I got an advance copy of Ingrid Fetell Lee's new book, I couldn't wait to read it. Just the title was enough to spark my enthusiasm: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.

    Ingrid  is a Brooklyn-based designer and writer whose work focuses on the way that design affects our health and happiness.

    She gave a terrific TED talk called "Where joy hides and how to find it" and writes an excellent blog called The Aesthetics of Joy.

    She has more than twelve years of experience in design and branding, most recently as Design Director of IDEO's New York office, having led design work for Target, Condé Nast, Eileen Fisher, American Express, Kate Spade, Diageo, Pepsico, and the U.S. government, among others.

    About herself, she notes, "loves pancakes, polka dots, and rainbow sprinkles, and has an extensive repertoire of happy dances for any occasion."

    I couldn't wait to talk to Ingrid about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Ingrid: Happy dances! My husband and I often do a happy dance on Friday evenings to mark the start of the weekend. We also do them when one of us has good news. It sounds silly, but there’s science to suggest it works. Research shows that celebrating good news with someone else can deepen relationships by increasing our confidence that they will be there for us in hard times, not just in good ones. And dancing with other people can bring about a state that scientists call synchrony, which elicits feelings of unity, generosity, and a desire to be helpful. Not to mention that happy dances are silly and fun!

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Ingrid: That true happiness is really a sum of many smaller moments of joy. When I was younger, I associated happiness with large milestones or goals in life: getting into the right school, finding a good job, getting married, having children. Reaching some of these milestones has brought me happiness, and some I haven't reached yet — but now I understand that you can have all the “right” things happen in life and be unhappy, and you can have big disappointments and still be extremely happy.

    My research on joy has shown me that the small daily joys matter a lot more than we think. A picnic in the park with a friend, a deep belly laugh, or taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses: these simple moments of delight have powerful effects that linger long after the moment has passed. Small sparks of joy can mitigate the physical effects of stress, open our minds, and connect us to others. They can even make us more resilient, by sparking positive feedback loops that promote long-term wellbeing. Though the moments themselves seem small, they have ripple effects that do end up influencing our happiness on a broader scale.

    The reason this is important is that while the big elements of happiness are often out of our control (we don’t always get the dream job, and we don’t know when we’ll meet “the one”), joy is always accessible to us. Turning our attention to the joys of the moment absorbs us in the present, focusing us on the parts of our lives that are good, not the ones we’d like to change. We notice more moments of joy — in fact, research shows that people in a state of joy are actually more attuned to positive stimuli on the periphery of their visual field — and begin to include others in our joy. When we focus on joy, happiness finds us.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?

    Ingrid: I've found that people are often surprised to learn just how deeply our physical environment affects our emotions and wellbeing. The field of psychology has historically focused almost exclusively on the internal factors that shape our emotional experience, in the form of thoughts, behavioral patterns, and neural chemistry. Almost no attention has been paid to environmental factors. So, if we are feeling sad or anxious, we’re conditioned to believe this is due to either our genetics or our learned responses. We never look around us and think that there might be something in our surroundings that is making us uneasy.

    Yet when you look at the research, there are many well-documented links between environment and emotional wellbeing. One example that has gained visibility in recent years is Seasonal Affective Disorder, which highlights the link between light and mood. But light therapy has actually been shown to be effective in treating non-seasonal depression too, so effective that in some studies the results are comparable to those achieved by anti-depressants. (We rarely hear about this research, perhaps because it's more lucrative for pharmaceutical companies to fund studies about drugs than about light.) Other research shows that employees with sunnier desks sleep better and are more physically active in and out of the office than those without windows, and that just changing the lightbulbs in a nursing home can reduce both depression and cognitive decline among Alzheimer’s patients.

    These effects can come from very subtle aspects of the environment, ones we may not be conscious of, such as symmetry and shape. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that showing people pictures of visually disordered, asymmetrical environments increases the likelihood that they will cheat on a test. And fMRI studies have shown that when people are shown pictures of sharp, angular objects, a structure in the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and anxiety, lights up, but stays quiet when people look at curved versions of the same objects.

    I've found that many people have an intuitive understanding of these effects but have been taught to tune them out. Or worse, made to feel that their impulses toward color and light, symmetry and curves are frivolous. What has surprised me most about this work is how validated many people, especially women, feel to know that these sensations are a real, measurable contributor to their wellbeing. I even heard from one woman who told me she cried with relief after watching my TED talk, because she had so often been judged as childish for her vibrant home and whimsical outfits. My hope is that as awareness rises of the role that environment plays in emotional wellbeing, more people will feel permission to seek out joy in their surroundings, and as a society we will recognize that mental health is a function of both what’s in us, and what’s around us.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) 

    Ingrid: It’s not a motto, exactly, but I do have a phrase that I come back to again and again: “Remember what you love.” When I get overwhelmed by everything I need to do, or feel anxious about what I’m trying to say or how people might receive it, this phrase helps remind me that everything I do at root stems from the love I feel for this beautiful, diverse world, for the people in it and the extraordinary joy that can be found in even its ordinary corners. I do what I do because I want to share that love with others. When there’s a task I really don’t want to do, “remembering what I love” helps me see the bigger picture. An email or errand that normally might feel like a chore becomes an extension of that love; it enables it and is connected to it .

    This phrase also helps me conquer some of the anxiety I feel about speaking in public. If I focus on the idea that I have to stand on a stage and talk about my work, I get nervous. But if I "remember what I love," that feeling cuts through the anxiety and helps me see getting on the stage as an opportunity to share my excitement and joy with others. I think this phrase is one of the things that kept me working on Joyful for ten years, even during times when I was really unsure if I’d be able to finish it. Every time I felt lost, “remembering what I love” brought me back to the fundamental reasons why I wanted to write the book, and reinvigorated my desire to see it through.

    “Remember what you love” is also really helpful in relationships. In the day-to-day of a marriage, a work partnership, or a friendship, it’s easy to let small disagreements or annoyances take over. When you remember what you love about the other person, it reconnects you to the reasons you chose to be in this relationship, and it becomes easy to let some of the small things go. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but this also applies to one’s relationship to oneself. As someone who can be quite hard on myself, I think it’s not a bad idea to occasionally balance out the critical voices by “remembering what you love” about yourself too.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Ingrid: It’s not a habit exactly, but as a city dweller I’ve found that getting out into nature regularly is important to my sanity and wellbeing. When I’m in the city, this means taking a walk to Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, an old pier that was converted a few years ago into a meadow. I sometimes bring a notebook and spend an hour there working on an essay or a talk. But I also enjoy getting out of the city as often as possible, to the beach or for a hike, or to go snowshoeing in the winter!

    Having houseplants brings a little of that nature into the house, and creates a new habit by necessity: watering once or twice a week. I find I really enjoy this task — checking on them all, dusting their leaves and removing spent flowers, and seeing what new growth has appeared. Even if I have a million other things to do, the plants need me, and that brings me back into connection with the natural world.

    Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:21 on 2018/08/30 Permalink
    Tags: , Interview, Mallika Chopra, ,   

    “I Realized I Was Being a Hypocrite: Talking About Being Present, While Being Completely Distracted.” 

    Interview: Mallika Chopra.

    I can't remember when or where I first met Mallika Chopra. At a conference, through a friend? I can't remember anything anymore. It was many years ago, I know that.

    Mallika Chopra is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur who has a new book for children that's hit the shelves: Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More.

    I was eager to hear what she had to say about happiness, good habits, and human nature.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Mallika: I meditate for about 20 minutes a day. My parents taught me to meditate when I was 9 years old and it was the greatest gift that I ever received. [Note: Mallika's father is Deepak Chopra, quite a teacher.] My meditation practice has been irregular over the last 35 years of my life -- I have gone through phases when I do it twice a day and years when I haven’t practiced at all. But, when I am meditating, I feel more calm, am able to focus more, naturally chose habits that make me feel healthier and more energetic, and feel more rested. I am also more creative as I step out of the automatic responses and daily grind of everyday.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Mallika: For many years, particularly when I was in college and then when I first had my kids (in my 30s), I thought I was too busy to take time for myself mentally and physically to be happier and healthier. But, when I meditate, I am a better mom, spouse, and friend. And I feel more connected to who I am, what I want, and how I can serve.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Mallika: My habits include drinking my tea every morning (which anchors me for my day), going for walks outdoors with my friend (to process life), and having dinner with my family (to connect). Recently, my husband and I began yoga twice a week, and I am eager to incorporate yoga into my daily routines, even if it is just a few sun salutations each day. When I am writing, I try to take walks in my neighborhood to give my mind some open space outside of staring at a computer!

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Mallika: I am a lifelong sugar addict. Over the last few years, I have made a conscious effort to notice how my body feels after I overindulge in sugary sweets. My body has more aches and I feel more on edge. Being more aware of the after effects of a sugar binge, instead of just feeling guilty while I am quickly eating what I am not supposed to be eating, has helped me to more naturally resist that chocolate chip cookie.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties)

    Mallika: It is easy for me to come up with excuses about why I don’t exercise or meditate - most of the time I justify it by being too busy. But, exercise always makes me feel better, and with my meditation, even if I do it for 5 minutes a day, I feel better. So, now I  really try - I've started to meditate while in the carpool line!

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Mallika: One day I was speaking to an audience about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation when I realized that I was having a parallel conversation in my head that went like this: “I have to pick up the dry cleaning, buy dog food, and write that note for my investors.” On stage, I realized I was being a hypocrite - talking about the power of being present, while being completely distracted by thinking about other things. This was a turning point for me to return to my meditation practice and mindfulness habits and seek to understand what balance, happiness, and living with purpose truly means for me.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Mallika: “Don’t take life too seriously” is the motto that my father, Deepak Chopra, taught my brother and me as young kids. It helped us laugh at ourselves, not hold onto criticism, and to generally seek out joy in our lives.

    Gretchen: You've just come out with a fascinating new book about mindfulness and meditation that's targeted for young people.

    Mallika: Yes, I am so excited to share my new book, Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement and More. It’s an illustrated guide for kids, ages 8-12 years old, with simple techniques to help them find calm, be more focused, and be happier. Teaching me meditation was a precious gift my parents gave me when I was a child, and I have seen how simple mindfulness and motivational practices have positively impacted my daughters and their friends.

    Just Breathe by Mallika Chopra

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:36 on 2018/07/19 Permalink
    Tags: , hormones, Interview, Randi Epstein,   

    “It’s Important to Recharge My Inner Battery. To Be On-the-Go, I Need Down Time.” 

    Interview: Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., M.P.H.

    I've known Randi for a long time; we're both members of a writers' group that has been a joy to me over the years. I remember when she first started talking about the idea for her current book, so I'm thrilled that Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything is now hitting the shelves. Metabolism, behavior, sleep, mood swings, the immune system, fighting, fleeing, puberty, sex...so many aspects of our lives are controlled by hormones. It's a fascinating, important subject.

    She also wrote the terrific book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

    When she's not writing books, Randi Epstein is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a lecturer at Yale University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Psychology Today blog, among others.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Randi about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Randi: For years, I’ve been running in Central Park. What used to be fast-paced is now slow and contemplative. But either way, it’s time to think. I don’t do the “To-Do lists” but allow myself time to just think big picture things. No headphones, rarely with partners, just silence and nature. And one little trick (that I’m embarrassed to admit): Sometimes I’ll sing a few lines from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in my head. I don’t know all the words, so I’m singing the same few lines over and over. It’s very empowering. I really should learn a few more phrases.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Randi: It’s important to recharge my inner battery. In order to be on-the-go, I need down time, which can be a long bath or getting absorbed in a novel.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?

    Randi: I write about hormones, which is a relatively new field with huge advances. Think about this: When my grandmother was born in 1900, the word “hormone” didn’t exist. (We didn’t call hormones “hormones” until 1905.) By the time Grandma was diagnosed with her hormone ailment, doctors could spot her hormone defect and measure hormones down to the billionth of a gram. That’s an amazing leap in our understanding in a relatively short time span. (Grandma had Addison’s disease, same disease that John F. Kennedy had. It’s treatable with cortisone pills.)

    Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

    Randi: I’m a nibbler. So If I’m stressed (working on a chapter, etc.), I’ll keep crunchy foods around, but those calories and that feeling of being way too full adds up. I’m talking granola, nuts, chocolate, carrots.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Randi: Exercising outside. There’s something about being in nature, looking up at the trees. It’s moving meditation, to get away from the onslaught of news and just remember to, well, smell the roses. Or really in my case, it’s not roses but the enormous big trees in Central Park. I also like cooking. I’m not sure if there’s anything productive about it, but I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Food, particularly dinner parties, make people happy. I love cooking for my family and friends. I’m not a gourmet chef by any means, but I enjoy trying new recipes and tweaking old ones. It makes me happy to bring together friends in a homey atmosphere. I love baking fun desserts for the famil .

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Randi: My kids think I drink too much. Water, that is. I think it’s important to be hydrated so I make sure I always have a water bottle filled with water in my backpack. I’ve also cut out soda—and now I don’t even like that taste.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

    Randi: I would not have known but I’m an Obliger. Maybe that’s from raising for children and focusing on them. All mothers do that—we put our children’s needs first. [Gretchen: Randi, you and I can talk more about this later!]

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Randi: This isn’t quite “health scare,” but a health glitch: I was diagnosed with “age-related knee degeneration,” a fancy name for saying my knees aren’t what they used to be—probably from years of long-distance running. So my knees are more like rusty hinges—and I want to avoid surgery or further deterioration. That’s forced me “listen” to my body. Exercise is more about quiet time than racing to a finish line.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

    Randi: Laughter is the best medicine.

    Gretchen: Tell us a bit more about your recent book, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything.

    Randi: I’m so proud of this book, not just because it has fun stories in the history of medicine and current advances, but because I think there is so much confusion about what’s real and what’s hype. I hope that readers will grab my book and feel more informed about making healthy decisions. That they will be able to distinguish hucksters from heroes. And I’d love to get their feedback about anything that surprised them as they dove into it.

    Aroused by Randi Hutter Epstein

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:34 on 2018/07/12 Permalink
    Tags: Interview, Lucy Maddox   

    “As I’ve Got Older I’ve Started to Embrace JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) as Well as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).” 

    Interview: Lucy Maddox.

    Dr. Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer, and writer.

    She's just published an intriguing new book, Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. She argues that our adult selves are rooted in our childhood selves, and explains how to get insights into our current personality, relationships, and daily life  by understanding this influence. The book uses cutting-edge research, everyday experience, and clinical examples to examine that central puzzle: who are we, and how did we become who we are.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Lucy about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Lucy: Ooh, there are a few. Not that I always manage to do all of them but they are all things that definitely help when I do. Regular writing makes me feel happier, regular mindfulness makes me feel calmer, regular exercise makes me feel more alive and regular sleep just makes me feel more human!

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Lucy: The importance of the basics: sleep, eating well, and not cramming too much in. I find it hard to say no to shiny opportunities and always have done, but as I’ve got older I have started to embrace JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) as well as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?

    Lucy: One of the things that led me to write my book Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are, was that I was teaching on child development and was constantly surprised by how few of the really juicy experiments from this area we are taught about in school. Everyone has been a child and there’s lots in child psychology that can help us understand ourselves as grown ups, yet most people aren’t taught about the classic psychology experiments, unlike the way we are taught about classic physics studies like Newton’s apple or Archimedes’ bathtub. I wanted to explain child development and psychology in clearly accessible language for anyone interested in how they’ve become who they are, and also reassure people that although our childhoods are important not everything is set in stone.

    Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

    Lucy: Making myself too busy is the main one.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Lucy: Probably the overall habit of balance, if I can call that a habit--trying to do enough fun things I like but also enough cosy things and having enough space where nothing is planned in.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Lucy: I’m a sucker for a list or a star chart. One thing which helps me to achieve something I want to is writing lists and ticking things off. I employed this when I was writing my book--I had a spreadsheet of the chapters and coloured a box in yellow each time I completed a draft or green when I finished the final copy. This is a bit like what happens in NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month, when you have to write a certain amount of words each day and your online bar graph changes colour when you achieve it.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

    Lucy: I love the books and the podcast but with my psychologist hat on I struggle to accept the Tendencies without more of an evidence base on how reliable they are. I think you would say that this makes me a Questioner, and that’s what your quiz called me too.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

    Lucy: I find it harder to stick to exercise or eating well when I’m travelling a lot, especially for work, and also harder to guard time for writing.

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    Lucy: For me, not so much. I see keeping healthy habits as a process rather than an event. There’s a classic theory on motivation by Prochaska and Diclemente who described the ‘stages of change’. They didn’t see these as a linear process, but as a cycle, that we can loop back around. This was a really new idea back in the late seventies and early eighties when they first wrote about it, even though it's now very much accepted.

    They thought it all starts with pre-contemplation, where we aren't even thinking about making a change, then progresses through contemplation - where we become aware of something being problematic but don't do anything differently, to preparation for a change, then finally taking action, and then maybe hardest of all trying to maintain that change. It's really hard to stick to a change in behaviour so often we relapse back into our old way of being, but we might cycle through those initial stages much quicker the next time round.

    I like the way they describe this as a cycle, which means we don’t have to beat ourselves up if we do fall off the wagon, but instead just climb back on. I also like the way they include a phase where we might not even be consciously aware of the need to change. Sometimes looking back at decisions I’ve made to change something I can think of a reason why, but it’s not always totally clear at the time.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

    Lucy: Actually something my Dad once said to me: “everything is fixable.” I sometimes think of that if I’m feeling a bit panicked about something. I find it really reassuring. I also really like the phrase “adventure is waiting”--it tends to make me feel more excited about new opportunities and less scared. Another thing I say to reassure myself if I catch myself worrying over something is to try to put things in perspective by asking myself if anyone is going to be hurt as a result of whatever it is. If not then it’s sometimes possible to shrink the worry down a bit. In a similar vein, on getting things in perspective, there’s something called the Overview Effect, which astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth all small and feel that day-to-day human problems are insignificant. There are some meditations which try to bring about a similar kind of feeling, by talking you through a guided visualisation which zooms out so you see how small we really are in the wider context of the universe.

    Blueprint by Lucy Maddox

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:14 on 2018/06/28 Permalink
    Tags: Alex Salkever, Interview, , Vivek Wadhwa,   

    “Reading Is the Best Habit for Lifelong Learning, and It Helps with Other Skills like Concentration and Meditation.” 

    Interview: Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever.

    Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, has written several books and been a columnist for Fortune, the Washington Post and other noted publications.

    Alex Salkever is an author and technology executive who formerly served as technology editor at BusinessWeek and as a visiting researcher at Duke University. He advises technology companies on product, strategy and marketing and is a regular columnist for Fortune.

    The two paired up to write the book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Can Change the Future.

    Now they've teamed up again to write a new book: Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain--and How to Fight Back.

    In it, they examine the question of how technology influences our thoughts and behaviors. They focus on the four key areas of Love, Work, Self, and Society and document problems caused by technology--and then suggest strategies to take back control of technology.

    I was eager to hear from Alex and Vivek about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Alex: This may sound strange, but doing the dishes! It’s a structured activity and I have a specific way of doing it that gives me some comfort. Every dish type has its place. And I have a routine around washing dishes - the small spoons go in the same basket, the desert bowls fit into the upper rack on right. More conventionally, I love going walking or jogging in the redwood forest near my house. If I am close to an ocean, I try to go surfing to clear my head. It’s my passion. I sometimes get my best ideas out there. And I can honestly say I have never gotten out of the water less happy than when I got into the water. In general, it's a question I ask - do I feel happier and more fulfilled after I do something. If the answer is consistently “No” then I try to curtail that activity. If the answer is “Yes!” I try to do more of that activity.

    Vivek: For me, going for a hike and getting off the grid is really crucial in keeping me healthy and productive. I also meditate daily to slow down my brain, which naturally runs at a really high speed. I make sure to spend some time every week disconnected and on a trail. And there is the question of happiness: spending as much time as possible with family is the best route for me.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Alex: Don’t beat up on yourself if you don’t succeed in building healthy habits. Establishing and maintaining healthy habits is very hard, really a lifelong process that never stops. But make sure the habits you prioritize the highest and work the hardest to fulfill are the ones that make you happiest. When I was living in Hawaii as a recent college graduate, I made it a priority to get in the water and go surfing at least five days per week. I was often busy building a writing career which eventually took me to BusinessWeek and into books. But come 4 pm, I was in the water and to this day some of my happiest memories are with me. That lesson - prioritize what is the most important - is something I wish I had known when I was very young. I would have worried a lot less and probably had more fun.

    Vivek: You should follow your heart. It is easy to follow your mind or your hunger, but that little voice inside guides you on practically everything if you listen to it. This comes into play the most in happiness, when you are having to make decisions about what is right and wrong. There are choices we have to make every day that need to be based on our values.

    Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

    Alex: Oh, definitely. Compulsively checking texts. In the book, I write about how I almost killed a group of cyclists while texting and driving on this dangerous coastal highway north of San Francisco. It was the stupidest thing. How could I risk so much just to read a text? But I’m not that different than tens of millions of people. (I’ve since set a new habit of putting my phone away when I get behind the wheel). I get distracted by shiny objects on the internet and have to work hard to stay focused. I struggle to not check email and read random news on the internet (usually on Hacker News). And I have to work hard to put down the smartphone and leave it alone, or in a drawer. I can honestly say my technology addiction is my worst bad habit - it pushes me towards doing the “urgent” or tackling the “noisy” task rather than working on what’s really important. I never met anyone who said they wish they had spent more time answering emails or looking at pictures on Facebook. And I personally find the less time I spend with technology, the more happy I am (to a certain point - I need technology to earn a living, of course).

    Vivek: I’m like Alex. I had a heart attack a few years ago driven in part by my technology-induced stress levels (I write about that in the book). So I have to work hard to disconnect and not feel like I need to respond to things quickly. I’ve gotten much better at it, though, and have built some systems around it. Like I don’t even bother to check voice mails a lot of the time and I post to social media but I don’t read that much on social media; it’s not the best use of time. Technology really is an addiction, that you have to manage--and overcome!

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you?

    Alex: Spending time with my children. I try to do it every day, for at least a few hours. Usually playing sports or talking. Reading is next. I think that reading is the best habit for lifelong learning and it helps with other skills like concentration and meditation.

    Vivek: Meditation and mindfulness.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

    Alex: A healthy habit I started a year ago that has stuck is running in the morning when I wake up. It was a hard one to get going. I like running but am not really a morning person. I also have a bad habit of staying up late to read and sometimes I get creative inspiration at night. I’m not a night owl but I’m not a lark, either. I did a few things. First, I started laying out my running clothes - socks, shorts, shoes, t-shirt - every evening before I went to bed. That removed a mental barrier which may seem insignificant but actually was a key obstacle. I am a time counter so if it took me five minutes to gather my clothes, in my mind I would subtract five minutes from my running time and sometimes that took me below the threshold of where it was worthwhile to run. Second, I would write down a mini activity diary for the next day and would list in the “Exercise” section the run I planned. This was both an affirmation and a commitment. Third, I switched my running routine to places where I love to run. There are a few trails near my house that go through forests of oak, laurel and redwoods and one stunning trail down to the Pacific Ocean past hills of wildflowers. It takes a few minutes extra to drive to those trailheads. I don’t have enough time to get to them by running and get to work. But running in those beautiful places makes it so much more pleasurable that it feels like a real reward. Lastly, after my run I would stop at my favorite coffee shop and buy an Americano, my favorite coffee drink. By putting these pieces together - planning and reward - it helped me turn a resolution into a pretty robust habit that’s stuck for a year.

    Vivek: I try to switch off all technology by 9 PM and get to bed by 10 PM. And then I wake as early as I can. It is easy to watch late shows and stay connected, but early to bed and early to rise is the best habit of all.

    Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

    Vivek: According to the quiz, I am a Questioner. I won’t dispute this!

    Alex: The quiz results describe me as a “Questioner” and parts of that definitely make sense. I crave perfect information and am a perfectionist in many realms. I also think I have parts of Rebel and Obliger in me. I really don’t like getting bossed around and told what to do. I definitely resist external expectations and relish the role of non-traditionalist. I have trouble working for people I don’t respect. But I am an “Obliger” too in that sometimes I struggle to advocate for myself and I may coddle my children and my employees to much. I respect and prioritize my duties to others over what might make me happier and saner. But at least with family, I think that’s the only way to live - family comes first.

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or to stay happy?

    Alex: I would say lack of sleep is the biggest problem. Everything else breaks down when I get less than six hours and less than seven is not great either. You can ask my wife. I am more likely to get angry, to get depressed, to say silly things. I am less patient. I have trouble eating healthy and sticking to exercise regimes. Sleep is the linchpin. I only realized this, ironically, after I left a heavy-duty job as a vice president at Mozilla, where I was expected to be always on. That meant never enough sleep. Once I left and took some time off, for the first time since college I made it a point to get enough sleep. It was like a light went on. I could actually feel the difference between six and seven hours, and see how negatively it affected my day.

    Vivek: It is always sleep that is the problem!

    Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare?

    Vivek: I’ll take this one. I was on a family vacation, a cruise in Mexico. I was a startup CEO and constantly checking in on work via email. On the cruise I couldn’t get any internet access and it was killing me! Literally, I found out. I started to get some chest pains. At first I ignored them. As I climbed the pyramid of Chichén Itzá, in the Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the pains became increasingly severe, and I began to feel nauseous. The views were stupendous. People dreamed for their whole lives of visiting this location and walking up these steps. Yet, amid the majesty of one of the greatest civilizations ever, my mind was on….when I can check my email? On the flight home, the chest pains and nausea turned into a shooting electric current in my left arm. My wife Tavinder insisted we go straight to the doctor. I said, no, I needed to go home and check email. Fortunately, my wife prevailed. We landed and drove straight to the hospital. I literally blacked out as he entered the emergency room, and sat propped up in a wheelchair while they registered me. My next memory was of waking up after lifesaving surgery for a massive heart attack. Had I waited another hour or two, my doctors said, I would have been dead. None of my emails would have mattered. That day woke me up and I decided to leave the world of startups and become an academic and teacher - to teach and assist others rather than try to make money as my primary goal. It was the best decision I have ever made.

    Alex: My story pales next to Vivek’s. For me, it was reading a website that tallied up how many times you will see your parents before they die. The number was a lot less than I had imagined it would be - my parents live on the East Coast. And I started doing the math on how many times I would see all my dear friends. It was very sobering. I vowed from that day to prioritize relationships and spending time with people over anything else in my life. I bailed on corporate America (I may go back, but only on my terms) and created a life where I spend time every day with my children and my wife, and see my parents and friends more. I’ve been much happier since I made these changes.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Alex: “Put yourself in their shoes.” It helps me focus on empathy and stop thinking about myself.

    Vivek: Always give more than you take.

     
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