TIME psychology

5 Top Secrets to Getting More Done

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Cavan Images—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Make decisions more automatic, so they require less energy

1) Be a Machine

The secret to getting more done is to make things automatic. Decisions exhaust you:

The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.

It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you’ll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.

Build routines and habits so that you’re not deciding, you’re just doing. When you first learn to drive it’s 1000 activities like steering, shifting, checking mirrors, braking — but with practice you turned it into autopilot and it’s no stress at all.

2) Sleep is king

Get enough sleep:

All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.

3) Checklists are magic

Use checklists. Yeah, everybody says that. And you probably don’t consistently do it.

Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande analyzed their effectiveness in his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. What happens when you consistently use checklists in an intensive care unit?

The proportion of patients who didn’t receive the recommended care dropped from seventy per cent to four per cent; the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter; and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year. The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

What makes for a good checklist? Be specific and include time estimates.

4) Beat Procrastination

The two secrets to overcoming procrastination are dashes and precommitment devices.

Dashes are:

“…a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute.”

Precommitment devices take the form of:

Give your friend $100. If you get the task done by 5PM, you get your $100 back. If it doesn’t, you lose the $100.

These scale powerfully and work well.

5) Mood Matters

Happiness increases productivity and makes you more successful.

As Shawn Achor describes in his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

And don’t be confident — be overconfident. Overconfidence increases productivity:

We conduct maze-solving experiments under both reward structures and reveal that overconfidence is a significant factor in increasing productivity. Specifically, subjects exhibiting progressively higher degrees of overconfidence solve more mazes.

Thinking about what you need to do, Rocky-montage style, is more powerful than envisioning how good it will feel to be done. Progress motivates you more than anything else.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

What Are the 3 Quick and Easy Ways to Boost Self-confidence?

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Body language plays an important role in confidence Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

“Trash talk” works

As a general rule, you’re better off being moderately overconfident. Overconfidence is performance-enhancing and increases productivity.

But what about when you’re not feeling so high on yourself? What can quickly and easily boost your self-esteem?

1) Look At Your Resume

Reviewing your credentials can remind you how talented you are and induce a “reverse stereotype threat” that boosts confidence.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

I immediately think about my research credentials, a trick I developed after discovering that getting people to think about aspects of themselves that are conducive to success can actually be enough to propel them to a top performance and prevent choking.

And:

The mere act of realizing you aren’t just defined by one dimension— your SAT score or a speech or a solo— can help curtail worries and negative thoughts. In essence, thinking about yourself from multiple perspectives can help relieve some pressure that you feel.

2) Stand Up Straight

Your mind moves you, but how you move also affects your mind.

Recent research in the area of embodied cognition confirms we can improve how we think and behave by changing how we sit, stand and move.

The military makes soldiers stand up straight for a reason: there’s an implicit connection between posture and power that has been demonstrated time and time again.

Want to increase confidence? Make yourself tougher? Write a better self-evaluation? Impress others? Stand up straight.

3) Talk To Yourself

Might seem crazy but it works.

Talking to yourself out loud can make you smarter, improve your memory, help you focus and even increase athletic performance.

What should you say to increase confidence? Be positive. And when you have doubts about your ability, you should doubt your doubts.

Self-talk is one of the skills that helped Navy SEAL candidates pass their grueling “Hell Week.”

And talking to yourself isn’t the only type of talking that can boost confidence. Seeing your opponent as inferior improves your own performance as well. So, yes, “Trash talk” works.

Are You Confident About Confidence?

Is confidence really that vital?

People prefer others who are prideful. Self-esteem can be sexy.

Some research shows people prefer confidence to actual expertise. Confidence can be enough to get you made leader of a group — even if you don’t know what you’re talking about:

Via The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us:

So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

Why Aren’t You Doing What Really Makes You Happy?

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Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Mastering skills is stressful in the short term and happiness-boosting in the long term

The path to happiness and the path to being an expert overlap.

Here’s the problem though: research shows that you don’t usually do what really brings you joy or makes you an expert — you do what is easy.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

Studies have found that American teenagers are two and a half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport. And yet here’s the paradox: These same teenagers spend four times as many hours watching TV as they do engaging in sports or hobbies. So what gives? Or, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it more eloquently, “Why would we spend four times more time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?” The answer is that we are drawn—powerfully, magnetically—to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort—getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on.

Sitting on the couch watching TV does not make you happy:

“…heavy TV viewers, and in particular those with significant opportunity cost of time, report lower life satisfaction. Long TV hours are also linked to higher material aspirations and anxiety.”

You are happier when you are busy and often have more fun at work than at home.

How is that possible? You spend a lot more time in high-challenge, high-skill situations that encourage flow states during work hours. You’re more likely to feel apathy during leisure time at home.

Via Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness:

the study found that while at work (relative to home/leisure), these individuals spent a great deal more time in high-challenge, high-skill situations (that is, those situations that foster flow) and less time in low-skill, low-challenge situations. Indeed, they were inclined to experience a sense of efficacy and self-confidence during work hours but to experience apathy at home. However, when probed about what they’d rather be doing, these participants uniformly stated that they’d rather be doing something else when working and that they preferred to continue what they were doing when at leisure.

Thinking and working can beat sad feelings. But you avoid those because they take effort.

You spend up to 8 minutes of every hour daydreaming. Your mind will probably wander for 13% of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30-40% of our time daydreaming.

Via The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You):

Do you remember what the previous paragraph was about? It’s OK, I’m not offended. Chances are that your mind will wander for up to eight minutes for every hour that you spend reading this book. About 13 percent of the time that people spend reading is spent not reading, but daydreaming or mind-wandering. But reading, by comparison to other things we do, isn’t so badly affected by daydreaming. Some estimates put the average amount of time spent daydreaming at 30 to 40 percent.

Problem is, a wandering mind is not a happy mind:

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” …subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.

Your default is to do what is easy, but you’re happier when challenged. You need to fight your instincts.

What should you be doing?

Things you’re good at.

Signature strengths” are the things you are uniquely talented at and using them brings you joy. People who deliberately exercised their signature strengths on a daily basis became significantly happier for months.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.

Signature strengths are the secret to experiencing more “flow” at work and in life. Exercising them is why starving artists are happier with their jobs.

But isn’t this a lot of hard work?

Mastering skills is stressful in the short term and happiness-boosting in the long term. Ambitious goals make you happier.

But maybe you’re afraid of failure. This is why you do what is easy and why your instinct is to play it safe. Fear of failure is one of the most powerful feelings.

Via Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy:

In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”

Thinking about what happens to you in terms of your self-esteem will crush you — look at life as growing and learning:

“A key to alleviating depression is fostering a shift from self-worth goals to learning goals and from the beliefs underlying self-worth goals to the opposite beliefs.”

When challenged, focus on “getting better” — not doing well or looking good. Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy.

Via Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur…

But what is the end goal you should focus on? Is there an easy way to think about what you should be heading toward?

Yes. Think about the best possible version of yourself and move toward that.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

What 5 Things Can Make Sure You Never Stop Growing and Learning?

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Mike Chick—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Probably the most important thing in your environment is supportive friends

1) Keep Trying New Things

Having lots of hobbies is one of the secrets of the most creative people.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities— a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity— but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies…

Matt Cutts gives a great talk about how trying new things for 30 days not only helped him learn new skills but also changed him as a person.

2) Don’t Fear Failure

In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:

…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.

Getting it wrong helps you get it right. Making mistakes is vital to improvement.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

…Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. De Forest was wrong about the utility of gas as a detector, but he kept probing at the edges of that error, until he hit upon something that was genuinely useful. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

Taking tests increases performance – even when you fail the tests. Deliberately making mistakes during training led to better learning than being taught to prevent errors.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…the group encouraged to make errors not only exhibited greater feelings of self-efficacy, but because they had learned to figure their own way out of mistakes, they were also far faster and more accurate in how they used the software later on.

3) A Supportive Environment

The most effective way to change your behavior over the long term is to manipulate your environment. Change your surroundings to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

And I’m not just talking about moving furniture around. Probably the most important thing in your environment is supportive friends.

Via The Longevity Project:

The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.

And when it comes to learning there’s nothing more valuable than a good mentor. How do you pick the right one?

Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

1) Avoid Someone Who Reminds You of a Courteous Waiter

2) Seek Someone Who Scares You a Little

3) Seek Someone Who Gives Short, Clear Directions

4) Seek Someone Who Loves Teaching Fundamentals

5) Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person

4) Focus on the Long Term

Merely deciding you’re committed for the long-term vs the short-term dramatically increases progress and improvement.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent.

5) Make It Fun

There are 1000 ways to improve but the truth is, you’re probably not going to follow through with anything too complicated, difficult or outside your normal routine.

Understand this, accept it and work with it. Fit new things in to your current habits and make them enjoyable. Playing and learning are not opposites. In fact, playing is the most natural way to learn.

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents.

In fact, there’s some anecdotal research that shows we may need play.

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

What Can Studying People From Birth to Death Teach You About Living the Good Life?

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David Jakle—Image Source/Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

The good do not die young, as the old saying goes. In fact, they live longer

One of the most interesting books I read this year was The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. They studied over 1000 people for the duration of their lives – from childhood until old age — giving them regular physical and psychological tests and tracking the results.

What they discovered confirmed some things we all believe about what it takes to live a good, long life — and more interestingly they found out where our common beliefs are wrong.

One of the things that I found most fascinating was the link between what it takes to live a long life and what it takes to have a happy life.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

…many (but not all) of the recommendations for happiness are nearly identical to recommendations for maintaining health.

For example, those trying to improve their happiness are advised to do the following things:

• Watch less TV

• Improve social relations— spend time with friends

• Increase levels of physical activity— go for a long walk

• Help others and express gratitude to those who have helped you

• Take on new challenges to remain fresh and in-the-moment

If there was one main takeaway from the study and the book, it was how important relationships are:

…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.

And it wasn’t getting help from others that conferred a long life. It was giving help.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

The good do not die young, as the old saying goes. In fact, they live longer.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

…there’s no real evidence that the good die young. In fact, although there are always some exceptions (which are therefore notable), generally speaking, it’s the good ones who can actually help shape their fate; the bad die early, and the good do great.

Want to make your life better? This study shows it’s your relationships that can determine whether or not you succeed.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.

Another more recent study confirmed this.

Via Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness. Others changed after they saw a friend go through something awful…

Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier… When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.

A long, happy life doesn’t come from a perfect diet or exercise regimen. You’ll find it in those you surround yourself with.

My compilation on what it takes to live a long life is here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

What 7 Things Can Geniuses Teach Us About Being More Creative?

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Steve Prezant—Image Source/Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Keep lots of ideas banging around in your head

Work hard

Hard work (often more than 10,000 hours worth) is vital.

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

…the lessons that the rest of us can learn from individuals who are highly creative. I culled three: (1) Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently).

This type of Deliberate Practice and dedication is what it takes to become an expert. Formal education isn’t as important: most creative geniuses had the equivalent of a college dropout level of schooling.

Be curious and driven

For his book Creativity, noted professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did interviews with 91 groundbreaking individuals across a number of disciplines, including 14 Nobel Prize winners. In 50 Psychology Classics Tom Butler-Bowdon summed up many of Csikszentmihalyi’s findings including this one:

Successful creative people tend to have two things in abundance, curiosity and drive. They are absolutely fascinated by their subject, and while others may be more brilliant, their sheer desire for accomplishment is the decisive factor.

Live in a big city

There’s a reason you’re more likely to find artists in cities. Cities are more creative and their inhabitants are too.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative… the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.

Balance creative teams

The most creative teams are a mix of old friends and new blood.

Via Imagine: How Creativity Works:

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently— they had a familiar structure to fall back on— but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”

Keep lots of ideas banging around in your head

Having multiple hobbies allows your brain to subconsciously compare and contrast problems and solutions, forming new connections at the margins of each.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities— a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity— but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies… That cognitive overlap is what makes this mode so innovative. The current project can exapt ideas from the projects at the margins, make new connections.

Similarly, reading multiple books at the same time vs serially lets your brain juxtapose new ideas and develop new connections.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago.

Work on projects because of passion, not money

This is what produces the best art and, eventually, the most success.

Via Daniel Pink’s very interesting book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior,” the study said. “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”

Everything you need to know to be more creative is here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

What 5 Counterintuitive Things Can Help You Make Better Choices?

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John Rensten—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

In most areas of life, settling produces more happiness

You love having lots of choices.

But having more choices isn’t always a good thing — ever see so many good options that you end up picking… nothing?

Barry Schwartz has spent a great deal of time researching this issue and in his excellent book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less he explains how we can make ourselves happier and more fulfilled by reducing choice.

What are the 5 steps?

  1. We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  2. We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best (have you ever heard a parent say “I want only the ‘good enough’ for my kids”?)
  3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  4. We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible
  5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.

So what do these mean?

1) We love choices. Research shows people prefer freedom and autonomy over money. But too much choice overwhelms us, leads to second guessing and makes us unhappy. But we rarely admit that. Having too many choices is stressful. Constraints help.

2) A maximizer is someone who researches, comparison shops and works hard to make sure they get the absolute very best. A satisficer is someone who is happy with good enough. Which is the better strategy? Maximizing may give better objective results — but makes us unhappier in the end.

In most areas of life, settling produces more happiness.

3) Keeping your expectations under control is smart thinking. Optimism is good, but keep an even keel. Schwartz explains:

Via The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less:

Our evaluation of experience is substantially influenced by how it compares with our expectations. So what may be the easiest route to increasing satisfaction with the results of decisions is to remove excessively high expectations about them.

4) We often want to leave our options open but that makes us prone to second guessing. We forget how powerful our ability to rationalize after the fact is and we fear regret. However, research shows when decisions are not reversible we adapt to them quicker, move on faster and are happier with our lives.

5) Comparing yourself to others can seriously reduce your happiness. Schwartz explains:

Via The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less:

“Stop paying so much attention to how others around you are doing” is easy advice to give, but hard to follow, because the evidence of how others are doing is pervasive, because most of us seem to care a great deal about status, and finally, because access to some of the most important things in life (for example, the best colleges, the best jobs, the best houses in the best neighborhoods) is granted only to those who do better than their peers. Nonetheless, social comparison seems sufficiently destructive to our sense of well-being that it is worthwhile to remind ourselves to do it less. Because it is easier for a satisficer to avoid social comparison than for a maximizer, learning that “good enough” is good enough may automatically reduce concern with how others are doing.

Lastly, something Schwartz mentions in the book really made me stop and think. He quotes Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties saying:

“What happens when you have too many options is that you are responsible for what happens to you.”

Being aware of that — all the time — is incredibly stressful. Paralyzing.

Doesn’t sound like a prescription for happiness to me.

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TIME Business

Is More Embarrassing, Disappointing, Soul-Crushing Failure Exactly What You Need?

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Westend61—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

It’s never as bad as you think. Really

In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:

…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.

This isn’t just true for companies — it’s true for you. Getting it wrong helps you get it right. Making mistakes is vital to improvement.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

…Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. De Forest was wrong about the utility of gas as a detector, but he kept probing at the edges of that error, until he hit upon something that was genuinely useful. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

Taking tests increases performance — even when you fail the tests. Deliberately making mistakes during training led to better learning than being taught to prevent errors.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…the group encouraged to make errors not only exhibited greater feelings of self-efficacy, but because they had learned to figure their own way out of mistakes, they were also far faster and more accurate in how they used the software later on.

So why don’t we all just go make more mistakes? Oh yeah…

FEAR

Fear of failure is one of the most powerful feelings.

Via Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy:

In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”

You know what the funny thing is? It’s never as bad as you think. Really.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness has studied how long people feel lousy after bad things happen. The answer? Not nearly as long as they guess. You anticipate regret will be much more painful than it actually is. Studies show we all consistently overestimate how regret affects us.

Why is this? You don’t take into consideration your amazing ability to rationalize bad events and absolve yourself of responsibility. Regret hurts, but due to rationalizing it is not nearly as bad as we anticipate.

When we fear failure we limit our ability to succeed. Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Via Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom:

…the brain does not want the body to expend its resources unless we have a reasonable chance of success. Our physical strength is not accessible to us if the brain does not believe in the outcome, because the worst possible thing for humans to do is to expend all of our resources and fail. If we do not believe we can make it, we will not get the resources we need to make it. The moment we believe, the gates are opened, and a flood of energy is unleashed. Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.

WHAT DO EXPERTS AND GENIUSES DO?

The shift to focusing on negative feedback — failure — is one of the marks of an expert mindset.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

“Our predictions were extremely accurate,” Zimmerman said. “This showed that experts practice differently and far more strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves. They have a strategy they can fix.”

How about creative geniuses? They regard failure as a learning experience and grow from it.

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

…when they fail, they do not waste much time lamenting; blaming; or, at the extreme, quitting. Instead, regarding the failure as a learning experience, they try to build upon its lessons in their future endeavors. Framing is most succinctly captured in aphorism by French economist and visionary Jean Monnet: “I regard every defeat as an opportunity.”

Neuroscience research has shown that when we learn from our failures we don’t feel as bad about them.

Via The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success:

Reframe a failure to find the benefit, even if it’s just a tiny nugget… Sarah Banks and colleagues have provided fMRI evidence that this act of consciously putting a positive spin on things actually changes brain activity patterns, specifically by engaging areas of the prefrontal cortex, which in turn dampens the response from the amygdalae. Consummate reformers like Wyeth and Meili seem able to tame their amygdalae, and thus negative thoughts, in order to translate even the most difficult circumstances into an affirmative challenge.

But this advice isn’t just for experts and geniuses. Daniel Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need conveys a number of principles about the world of work that everyone should take note of. Not the least of which is:

Make excellent mistakes

SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

Make “little bets.” What’s a little bet?

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.

A little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:

The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. Failure is the clearest feedback and little bets are the safest way to fail.

Get out there and fail… so you can succeed.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

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TIME psychology

Optimists vs. Pessimists: Who’s Right?

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Pgiam—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Sometimes, it pays to see the glass half-empty

I listed optimism as one of the ten things you should do every day to improve your life. Yet pessimism does have advantages and plenty of people see it as a better way to view the world. What does the research say about the best outlook to take?

Glass as half full

Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life. Being positive can actually cause better health because it changes how people behave.

Via The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain:

This study examined a group of patients who had experienced heart attacks and were following a rehabilitation program. The researchers found that… optimists exercised more and were more likely to reduce their body-fat levels, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. They were also more likely to take vitamins and eat low-fat diets. The result: Optimists lived longer… people who react to illness with passive acceptance of their own impending death… die prematurely…

Optimism can make you happier. (And before someone screams “correlation/causation!research has shown that practicing optimism and gratitude does cause increases in happiness.)

The army teaches soldiers to be optimistic because it makes them tougher and more resourceful. Just believing you can become smarter and can become a better negotiator have both been shown to increase improvement.

Being socially optimistic — expecting people to like you — makes people like you more. Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations made groups more likely to come to a deal and to be happy with it.

Optimistic salespeople are more successful.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…testing revealed that the agents with more optimistic styles sold 37 percent more insurance than those with pessimistic ones, and that the most optimistic agents actually sold fully 88 percent more than the most pessimistic ones.

And optimism researcher Tali Sharot explains that, no, being pessimistic doesn’t soften the blow of bad news.

Via The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain:

…students who had low expectations of their performance on an undergraduate psychology exam felt just as bad when those expectations came true as students who expected to do well.

So why would anyone choose to be pessimistic?

Optimism can blind us. Pessimism can correct your brain’s natural positive bias. Those who are the most optimistic about their own willpower are actually the most likely to give in to temptation.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. For example, smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight.

The reason you can predict your friends’ behavior better than they can is because we are all realistic about others’ actions and a little too optimistic about our own.Extremely happy people and very trusting people don’t fare as well as those who are more moderate.

In some situations, negative thinking offers a clear advantage.

If diagnosing problems is key to success, you don’t want to be looking on the bright side. Pessimistic entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed. Optimistic gamblers lose more money.

The best lawyers are pessimists. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at UPenn and author of Authentic Happiness, explains:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyersThe ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities.

A negative attitude, not a positive attitude, makes you more likely to learn from your mistakes. In fact, the shift to focusing on negative feedback is one of the marks of an expert mindset.

There’s even evidence that shallow efforts at optimism can make people feel worse.

Via The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

…those who began the process with low self-esteem became appreciably less happy as a result of telling themselves that they were lovable. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with – and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. ‘Positive thinking’ had made them feel worse.

So what’s the best outlook?

Does this seem like there’s no way to win? Totally contradictory?

Improvement requires a focus on the negative and an awareness of all the things that can go wrong. On the other hand, perfect execution requires irrational levels of self-confidence. So when the pressure is on, yes, top performers need to engage in a type of doublethink to be at their best.

Via Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success:

You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.

For most of us, though, those situations are rare. What should you take away from all this?

  1. The majority of the time, think positive. Happiness and health trump pretty much everything else.
  2. There are situations where negativity can help, like when we’re making high-stakes plans or trying to improve skills.

You don’t have to see everything through rose-colored glasses (in fact, that’s bad) but avoid taking a pessimistic attitude where negative events are seen as pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable. Try to see them more as local, temporary and changeable.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 100,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Business

How You Can Stop Email From Taking Over Your Life

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TommL—Vetta/Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Spam alone wastes 20 hours of your life every year.

We send, and receive, a lot of email.

Via The Tyranny of E-Mail:

“In 2007, 35 trillion messages shot back and forth between the world’s 1 billion PC’s; in the time it took you to read this point, some 300 million e-mails were sent and received.”

“In 2006, one study found that the average U.S. office worker was interrupted eleven times an hour. The cost of these interruptions, in which e-mail plays a large role, runs close to $600 billion in the United States alone.

“…in 2006, it was discovered that Americans spent more than half of their life connected to various forms of media. This means we spend more time engaged in media than we do sleeping, more hours plugged in than we log at work. We work in order to have time to watch. We spend more time with our computers than our spouses.”

The Downside of Email

All forms of communication are not created equal. E-mail does a terrible job of conveying emotions:

Via The Tyranny of E-Mail:

According to the survey in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we misunderstand the tone of e-mails 50 percent of the time…

Too much time at the keyboard and not enough time with people may reduce the ability to read nonverbal signals, to judge the intent of others and influence them:

With 55% of person-to-person communication being nonverbal (tone of voice, inflection), over-reliance on computer-based interactions may hamper an individual’s ability to judge intent and influence others, Mullen suggests.

Steven Johnson suggests that by stripping away the emotional information in faces and intonation, email and text messaging might be simulating autism.

Via Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life:

…when you look at most electronic communication through the lens of neuroscience, it’s hard not to think that autism might be a more appropriate “poster condition” for the digital society. (The cultural critic Harvey Blume made this argument nearly a decade ago.) When we interact with other humans via communication channels that are stripped of facial expressions and gestures and laughter, we are unwittingly simulating the blank emotional radar of the mind-blind.

People lie more via email.

Communicating via email (vs. face-to-face) makes people less cooperative and makes them feel more justified in being noncooperative:

Two empirical studies are presented that explore how and why e-mail communication (versus face-to-face communication) influences cooperation in mixed motive group contexts. Results indicate that, relative to those engaging in face-to-face interaction, those who interacted via e-mail were (1) less cooperative and (2) felt more justified in being noncooperative. Feelings of justification mediated the relationship between communication media and the decision to cooperate or not.

Basically, too much communication via e-mail can turn you into a jerk.

Stress Up, Intelligence Down

Email stresses us out:

A new study released Thursday by the University of California, Irvine, which was co-written with United States Army researchers, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive.

And:

“We were able to get second-by-second stress levels from our tests and we found that over the five-day period away from e-mail, people’s stress levels went down compared with when they were using e-mails,” Ms. Mark said.

Constant e-mails and texts have the effect of reducing mental ability by an average of about 10 IQ points. For men, it’s about three times the effect of smoking marijuana.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner.

Spam alone wastes 20 hours of your life every year.

On a bigger note, too much e-mail time can make you unhappy. We frequently use technology like email to replace relationships. This is bad.

Technology can increase happiness and improve relationships if you leverage it to connect with other people face-to-face.

What’s The Solution?

Below are three great methods. I personally use the first two. The third is a going-nuclear option for those who are beyond the point of no return.

1) Batching

Turn off all notifications on your desktop and mobile email clients. Set it up so you can send email without automatically checking.

Then designate 2 or 3 times a day when you’ll look at and respond to email. And stick to those.

Tim Ferriss explains here:

There is a psychological switching of gears that can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task that has been interrupted. More than a quarter of each 9-5 period (28%) is consumed by such interruptions. This is true of all recurring tasks and is precisely why we have already decided to check e-mail and phone calls twice per day at specific predetermined times (between which we let them accumulate).

2) Inbox Zero

Get that inbox empty and keep it empty using this system. The creator of the method, Merlin Mann, explains it best in this video.

More info here.

3) Email bankruptcy

Are you so hopelessly behind that you can’t even imagine catching up? Well, if you need a nuclear option, this is it.

Declare e-mail bankruptcy: Send a bulk email saying you’re going to do a reset. You’re sorry but you can’t and won’t be replying to all the emails clogging your inbox. Then archive everything.

Yes, there will be pain. And the reset will generate a lot of new e-mail. But for many this is the only way to start fresh.

Don’t be embarrassed — some of the internet’s luminaries have had to resort to it:

Via The Tyranny of E-Mail:

E-mail bankruptcy is the communication subprime mortgage crisis of our era. Ironically, among the first to declare this were the internet visionaries, such as Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, who believes that computer code will or can regulate our world as legal code has done for the other realms of life. “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, I apologize but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy…

After the bankruptcy is the single best time to implement inbox zero, simply because you will (at least briefly) have an empty inbox. You should also designate your batch times.

What else can you do to claw back precious hours from the digital gremlins?

  • More on productivity here.
  • More on using tech to increase happiness here.
  • More on killing bad habits and starting good ones here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 100,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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