TIME Innovation

Every Song Has Its Own Color and Emotion

Blue for sad music and yellow for happy songs

Imagine yourself as a graphic designer for New Age musician Enya, tasked with creating her next album cover. Which two or three colors from the grid below do you think would “go best” with her music?

Would they be the same ones you’d pick for an album cover or music video for the heavy metal band Metallica? Probably not.

For years, my collaborators and I have been studying music-to-color associations. From our results, it’s clear that emotion plays a crucial role in how we interpret and respond to any number of external stimuli, including colors and songs.

The colors of songs

In one study, we asked 30 people to listen to four music clips, and simply choose the colors that “went best” with the music they were hearing from a 37-color array.

In fact, you can listen to the clips yourself. Think about which two to three colors from the grid you would choose that “go best” with each selection.

Selection A

Selection B

Selection C

Selection D

The image below shows the participants’ first-choice colors to the four musical selections provided above.

song-music-first-choice-colors
Author Provided

Selection A, from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 2, caused most people to pick colors that were bright, vivid and dominated by yellows. Selection B, a different section of the very same Bach concerto, caused participants to pick colors that are noticeably darker, grayer and bluer. Selection C was an excerpt from a 1990s rock song, and it caused participants to choose reds, blacks and other dark colors. Meanwhile, selection D, a slow, quiet, “easy listening” piano piece, elicited selections dominated by muted, grayish colors in various shades of blue.

The mediating role of emotion

But why do music and colors match up in this particular way?

We believe that it’s because music and color have common emotional qualities. Certainly, most music conveys emotion. In the four clips you just heard, selection A “sounds” happy and strong, while B sounds sad and weak. C sounds angry and strong, and D sounds sad and calm. (Why this might be the case is something we’ll explore later.)

If colors have similar emotional associations, people should be able to match colors and songs that contain overlapping emotional qualities. They may not know that they’re doing this, but the results corroborate this idea.

We’ve tested our theory by having people rate each musical selection and each color on five emotional dimensions: happy to sad, angry to calm, lively to dreary, active to passive, and strong to weak.

We compared the results and found that they were almost perfectly aligned: the happiest-sounding music elicited the happiest-looking colors (bright, vivid, yellowish ones), while the saddest-sounding music elicited the saddest-looking colors (dark, grayish, bluish ones). Meanwhile, the angriest-sounding music elicited the angriest-looking colors (dark, vivid, reddish ones).

To study possible cultural differences, we repeated the very same experiment in Mexico. To our surprise, the Mexican and U.S. results were virtually identical, which suggests that music-to-color associations might be universal. (We’re currently testing this possibility in cultures, such as Turkey and India, where the traditional music differs more radically from Western music.)

These results support the idea that music-to-color associations in most people are indeed mediated by emotion.

enya-shepherd-moon-metallica-master-puppets-album-covers
WEA/Reprise/ElektraThe album cover designers for Enya’s Shepherd Moons and Metallica’s Master of Puppets may have subconsciously chosen colors that matched the emotional qualities of the respective artists’ music.

People who actually see colors when listening to music

There’s a small minority of people – maybe one in 3,000 – who have even stronger connections between music and colors. They are called chromesthetes, and they spontaneously “see” colors as they listen to music.

For example, a clip from the 2009 film The Soloist shows the complex, internally generated “light show” that the lead character – a chromesthetic street musician – might have experienced while listening to Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

Chromesthesia is just one form of a more general condition called synesthesia, in which certain individuals experience incoming sensory information both in the appropriate sensory dimension and in some other, seemingly inappropriate, sensory dimension.

The most common form of synesthesia is letter-to-color synesthesia, in which the synesthete experiences color when viewing black letters and digits. There are many other forms of synesthesia, including chromesthesia, that affect a surprising number of different sensory domains.

Some theories propose that synesthesia is caused by direct connections between different sensory areas of the brain. Other theories propose that synesthesia is related to brain areas that produce emotional responses.

The former theory implies little or no role for emotion in determining the colors that chromesthetes experience, whereas the latter theory implies a strong role for emotion.

Which theory is correct?

To find out, we repeated the music-color association experiment with 11 chromesthetes and 11 otherwise similar non-chromesthetes. The non-chromesthetes chose the colors that “went best” with the music (as described above), but the chromesthetes chose the colors that were “most similar to the colors they experienced while listening to the music.”

The left side of the image below shows the first choices of the syensethetes and non-synesthetes for fast-paced classical music in a major key (like selection A), which tends to sound happy and strong. The right side shows the color responses for slow-paced classical music in a minor key (like selection B), which tends to sound sad and weak.

song-music-color-responses
Author Provided

The color experiences of chromesthetes (Figure B) turned out to be remarkably like the colors that non-chromesthetes chose as going best with the same music (Figure A).

But we mainly wanted to know how the non-chromesthetes and chromesthetes would compare in terms of emotional effects. The results are depicted in Figure C.

song-music-emotional-effect-graph
Author Provided

Interestingly, the emotional effects for chromesthetes were as strong as those for non-chromesthetes on some dimensions (happy/sad, active/passive and strong/weak), but weaker on others (calm/agitated and angry/not-angry).

The fact that chromesthetes exhibit emotional effects at all suggests that music-to-color synesthesia depends, at least in part, on neural connections that include emotion-related circuits in the brain. That they’re decidedly weaker in chromesthetes than non-chromesthetes for some emotions further suggests that chromesthetic experiences also depend on direct, non-emotional connections between the auditory and visual cortex.

Musical anthropomorphism

The fact that music-to-color associations are so strongly influenced by emotion raises further questions. For example, why is it that fast, loud, high-pitched music “sounds” angry, whereas slow, quiet, low-pitched music “sounds” calm?

We don’t know the answers yet, but one intriguing possibility is what we like to call “musical anthropomorphism” – the idea that sounds are emotionally interpreted as being analogous to the behavior of people.

For example, faster, louder, high-pitched music might be perceived as angry because people tend to move and speak more quickly and raise their voices in pitch and volume when they’re angry, while doing the opposite when they’re calm. Why music in a major key sounds happier than music in a minor key, however, remains a mystery.

Artists and graphic designers can certainly use these results when they’re creating light shows for concerts or album covers for bands – so that “listening” to music can become richer and more vivid by “seeing” and “feeling” it as well.

But on a deeper level, it’s fascinating to see how effective and efficient the brain is at coming up with abstract associations.

To find connections between different perceptual events – such as music and color – our brains try to find commonalities. Emotions emerge dramatically because so much of our inner lives are associated with them. They are central not only to how we interpret incoming information, but also to how we respond to them.

Given the myriad connections from perceptions to emotions and from emotions to actions, it seems quite natural that emotions emerge so strongly – and perhaps unconsciously – in finding the best colors for a song.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

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 Innovation

The U.S. Foreign Service Is ‘Too White’

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Two top diplomats have a message about America’s foreign service: It’s “too white.” (From May 19, 2015)

By Thomas R. Pickering and Edward J. Perkins in the Washington Post

2. Charleston and the age of Obama. (From June 19, 2015)

By David Remnick in the New Yorker

3. California has about one year of water left. (From March 18, 2015)

By Jay Famiglietti in the Los Angeles Times

4. The prison system is costly and rarely “rehabilitates” prisoners. Imagine a better way to transition inmates to freedom. (From March 20, 2015)

By Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, & Ross Halperin in Vox

5. A new discovery about the brain and immune system could unlock autism, Alzheimers and more. (From June 19, 2015)

By Josh Barney at the UVA Today

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Innovation

How to Transform Libraries Into the Next Great Startup Incubators

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Libraries should be the next great startup incubators. (From March 10, 2015)

By Emily Badger in CityLab

2. The divorce rate is falling. Here’s why that’s bad news for some Americans. (From March 17, 2015)

By Sharadha Bain in the Washington Post

3. Can we truly redesign the experience of death? (From March 24, 2015)

By Jon Mooallem in California Sunday

4. High schools can boost grades by banning mobile phones. (From May 18, 2015)

By Jamie Doward in the Guardian

5. Learning from the past: A thousand year-old Anglo Saxon remedy was just proven effective against hospital superbug MRSA. (From April 1, 2015)

By Clare Wilson in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Innovation

17 Small Habits To Make You More Productive

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Clear your desktop

“The goal of a mini-habit is to be consistent. In fact, consistency is much more important than what you accomplish with this daily habit.”

The Mini-Habit

The idea behind mini habits is that you can get to a larger habit if you start small, create simple goals, and aim for consistency.

In his book Mini Habits: Small Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise gives the example of “The One Pushup Challenge.”

He was doing what a lot of us do. Feeling guilty about not working out, he tried to fit years worth of exercise into the first workout which created an all or nothing attitude (not to mention a focus on goals and not process.) Well, one day he decided to do the opposite. He did only one pushup.

This allowed him to check the box that he did his activity. Only he didn’t stop at one, he did 14 more. Then he did one pull-up and guess what? He didn’t stop at one. His workout went on like this and when he was done it was a pretty decent effort. It started with one pushup.

In Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, author S. J. Scott writes:

The core idea behind the mini-habits concept is that you can build a major habit by thinking small enough to get started. Most people don’t need motivation to do one pushup, so it’s easy to get started. And once you get going, you’ll find it’s easy to keep at it.

Habit-Stacking

The purpose of habit-stacking is to create simple and repeatable routines (managed by a checklist). The goal is to get this out of the cognitive load, “because all you have to remember to do is follow the checklist,” and not each individual habit. You do this by doing the same set of actions in the same order and way each day. Checklists, do more than simply tell you what you need to do next, they help you deal with complexity and increase productivity.

“Linking habits together is a way of getting more done in less time, resulting in a positive change in your life. As you perform the stacked actions every day, they become part of your daily routine.”

According to Scott there are 8 Elements of a habit-stacking routine.

  1. Each habit takes less than five minutes to complete.
  2. It’s a complete habit.
  3. It improves your life.
  4. It’s simple to complete.
  5. The entire routine takes less than 30 minutes.
  6. It follows a logical process.
  7. It follows a checklist.
  8. It fits your life.

17 Small Productivity Habits

All of these habits are from Scott’s Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.

I don’t agree with all of them; Most of these seem like common sense.

Scott argues that if you add them to a routine, “you’ll see a dramatic improvement in both the quantity and the quality of your efforts.” I think a lot of that improvement will be from simply bringing awareness to how you spend your time and what you’re doing.

#1 Drink a Large Glass of Water

Even mild dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, affect your concentration, impair short-term memory and impede mental function. If you want to be at your most productive , it’s important for your brain to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, you should make sure you are sufficiently hydrated before starting work.

#2. Schedule Your Day and Prioritize Your Tasks

Without at least a basic schedule, it’s frighteningly easy to get to the end of the day and realize you’ve achieved nothing of importance. At the very least, you should make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish during the day and decide where your priorities lie.

If you’re lost on how to make this change or what it looks like, let Peter Bregman explain.

#3. Focus on Your Three Most Important Tasks

Another way to plan out your day is to focus on your Most Important Tasks (MITs). With a daily schedule, it’s easy to try to do too much. Then, when you get to the end of the day and haven’t completed everything, you feel like a failure . Picking your MITs each day gives you something to focus on so you don’t waste your day on tasks of low importance. If you manage to complete your MITs, you’ll feel productive— even if you do nothing else on your list.

#4. Turn Tasks into Manageable Steps

For each task on your schedule, consider how it can be broken down into smaller steps.

#5. Create Accountability by Telling Others

If your tasks don’t have accountability built into them (like a client deadline), creating accountability by letting others know your intentions is a great way to discipline yourself into staying on task. You won’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting you didn’t get any work done, so you’re much more likely to achieve your goals if you make them public.

#6. Reward Yourself for Task Completion

To keep your energy up and motivation high, alternate your work tasks with small treats. These treats not only act as a break to replenish depleted levels of concentration, but also work like a carrot on a stick— you’ll work faster and with more enthusiasm when you have something to look forward to at the end of it.

#7. Remove Distractions Before Working

Rather than struggling against your brain’s natural inclination to procrastinate, save yourself a lot of time and hassle by simply closing your email tab and banning social media during work time.

#8. Clear Your Desktop

Clear all paperwork off your desk except what you will need that day. Put everything else into physical folders, file boxes and drawers— out of sight, out of mind.

#9. Play Music or White Noise to Improve Focus

Low-level background noise helps muffle any distracting sounds that could interrupt your work and has been shown to improve creativity and focus for many people.

#10. Do the Hardest (or Most Unappealing) Task First

Look at your list of MITs (Most Important Tasks) and underline the one that you know you’d put off indefinitely if you had the chance. Get started on this task before you have a chance to think about it. Don’t work on your other tasks until it’s finished.

#11. Commit to a Very Small Goal

Look at your hardest task and plan a small, easy first step to completing it that will take only a few minutes. Pick a simple metric that you know (without a doubt) you can complete.

#12. Work in Small Blocks of Time

The Pomodoro technique is probably the most well-known version of this technique. It involves working for twenty-five minutes and then taking a five-minute break.

#13. Track Time for Different Activities

Most people overestimate the amount of time they spend doing actual work and spend a surprisingly large amount of time doing mindless tasks. By tracking your time, you become more aware of how you’re spending it, and you can start to spot patterns in your schedule that are reducing your productivity.

#14. Use the Two-Minute Rule

If a task will take you two minutes or less to do, deal with it immediately and move on.

Keep in mind that this type of framework is how the urgent trumps the meaningful.

#15. Capture Every Idea
Our minds tend to wander. Despite our intentions they drift off from the task at hand. Rather than a drawback this is one of the fascinating ways that we gain insights. Pull out a notepad and write them down. You can come back to them later and, who knows, it just might be a great idea or the solution to a problem you’ve been working on.

#16. Write a Done List

Most people are familiar with to-do lists, but these lists can easily make you feel overwhelmed and demotivated if you try to plan too much. A done list has the opposite effect. By writing down everything you achieve each day, you’ll feel motivated to continue.

#17. Review Your Goals

Everybody has goals. Whether they are big or small, we all have things that we want to accomplish. Sadly, the daily hustle and bustle of life can make us get off track. You need to review your goals so that you can create plans to reach those goals, put your day in perspective and know what’s important to accomplish.

Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less goes on to offer small habits in six other areas: relationships, finances, organization, mental well-being, physical fitness, and leisure.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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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 Innovation

How America Is Falling Behind on Scientific Research

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

This week we’re presenting some of the most interesting ideas from the past year.

1. How did America fall so far behind on basic scientific research? (From April 29, 2015)

By Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times

2. The next leader of the U.N. should be a woman. (From March 30, 2015)

By Gillian Sorensen and Jean Krasno in the Washington Post

3. Cuba has a treatment for lung cancer, and now we can get our hands on it. (From May 12, 2015)

By Neel V. Patel in Wired

4. Technology’s greatest gift to social justice is the mobile phone camera. (From April 29, 2015)

By Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic

5. Want to change how you see the world? Rewire your brain by learning a second language. (From March 23, 2015)

By Nicholas Weiler in Science Magazine

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Innovation

White House Recruits Tech Troops to Serve Government ‘Tour of Duty’

"The tech folks haven’t always had a welcome seat at the table”

The American government finally has its own tech army—and it’s looking to recruit.

President Obama signed an executive order on Monday to officialize the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs) program, a growing national service initiative that recruits technologically-minded Americans as troops to work alongside federal employees to create products and services for a dozen government agencies.

The executive order, which formally establishes the three-year-old fellowship within the General Services Administration, is the culmination of Obama’s efforts to improve upon the federal government’s outdated IT and web services. So far, the roughly 100 fellows who’ve participated in the competitive service program have tackled issues like the Healthcare.gov meltdown, the Veterans Affairs scandal and police reform.

“Almost every job or career comes to the government, except technology. And when they do come, they’re buried in the IT team,” says U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Megan Smith, who left her job as a Google exec last fall to spearhead the nation’s technology policy.

Smith, the third person and first woman to hold the post, said the idea of tech service “hadn’t occurred to [her]” until she began emailing with former U.S. CTO Todd Park, the fellowship’s founder. “The tech folks haven’t always had a welcome seat at the table,” says Smith, who, like Park, maintains that the federal government can be as good an incubator for innovation as Silicon Valley—with the right people. The program does its own recruiting, but also has an application available on its website.

“In Silicon Valley, you accomplish a lot and move the bar from a technical perspective,” adds Smith. “But it’s important to show up where your skills are rare, and it’s in that cross-functionality that you move the bar in a whole other way.”

That’s largely the reason why the program’s fellows choose to serve their tech “tours of duty,” according to fellows Clarence Wardell and Denice Ross. The two had begun their fellowships last September initially working in data innovation projects for the Department of Energy, but soon began working with the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of Ferguson. Wardell and Ross have since collaborated with police departments around the country to open up datasets around police-citizen interactions.

“Denice and I continued, I’d say, a short but high-profile tradition of [fellows] being able to scrub in on projects that become immediate in nature during our tenure here,” says Wardell, who left his job at a D.C.-based think tank after learning about the program through Twitter.

Read next: Inside the Tech Revolution That’s Turning Rwanda Around

Ross, who previously worked on open data initiatives at a New Orleans nonprofit, also praises diversity as one of the program’s chief merits. About half of the fellows are women or minorities underrepresented in the tech field — not to mention their varied backgrounds, skills and geographic locations. “We like to say the program is solving problems that affect all of us. Therefore, the teams that we attract need to represent the same group of people that our government serves,” says Garren Givens, director of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

As the program moves forward, Smith and her colleagues continue to be surprised by the number of fellows—about one-third—who choose to stay after their 12-month stints.

“When the program started, I didn’t think anyone thought they would stay,” says deputy CTO Ryan Panchadsaram, who was in the inaugural class of fellows. “But we’re seeing how much impact they can have. They’re kind of our missing partner in our venture—policy and technology go so hand in hand.”

TIME Innovation

Women’s Soccer Is a Feminist Issue

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

This week we’re presenting some of the most interesting ideas from the past year.

1. Women’s soccer is a feminist issue. (From June 16, 2015)

By Maggie Mertens in the Atlantic

2. Time for open-source tractors. (From February 12, 2015)

By Kyle Wiens in Wired

3. America is more afraid of peace than war. (From June 11, 2015)

By Gregory A. Daddis in the National Interest

4. Is it time to start shutting down law schools? (From July 6, 2015)

By Natalie Kitroeff in Bloomberg Business

5. Stop buying food in bulk. (From June 30, 2015)

By Eric Holthaus in Slate

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Innovation

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

Man on desk holding cup of coffee, close up
Getty Images

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Take time to strategize

Mornings are an underutilized tool to aid productivity.

Let me explain.

We’re often at our peak in the mornings. This is why Mark McGuinness suggests the single most important change you can make to your workday is to move your creative time to mornings. We’re more mentally alert and our mental batteries are charged.

Where do we spend all of this energy? Email. Meetings. We fragment our time. This, however, isn’t the path to success. There is another way.

“Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast,” writes Laura Vanderkam in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast “the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them toward the lives they want.”

Vanderkam studied successful people and she discovered that early mornings were when they had the most control over their own schedules. They used this time to work on their priorities.

Taking control of your mornings is very much like investing in yourself. This is how Billionaire Charlie Munger got so smart: he set aside an hour in the mornings every day just to learn.

While there are 168 hours in the week not all of them are created equally. Vanderkam writes:

People who were serious about exercise did it in the mornings. At that point, emergencies had yet to form, and they would only have to shower once. As Gordo Byrn, a triathlon coach, once told me, “There’s always a reason to skip a four o’clock workout, and it’s going to be a good reason, too.”

Most people find doing anything that requires self-discipline easier to do in the morning. The same can be said for focus.

Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has spent more time studying willpower and self-discipline than most. In his book he highlights one famous experiment where students were asked to fast before coming into the lab. They were then put into a room with food. Specifically, radishes, chocolate chip cookies, and candy. Some of the students could eat whatever they wanted while others could only eat the radishes. After the food, they were supposed to work on “unsolvable” geometry puzzles.

The students who’d been allowed to eat chocolate chip cookies and candy typically worked on the puzzles for about twenty minutes, as did a control group of students who were also hungry but hadn’t been offered food of any kind. The sorely tempted radish eaters, though, gave up in just eight minutes— a huge difference by the standards of laboratory experiments. They’d successfully resisted the temptation of the cookies and the chocolates, but the effort left them with less energy to tackle the puzzles.

“Willpower,” Baumeister and co-author John Tierney write, “like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse.”

This is a problem because you don’t just have one willpower battery for work and another one for home. They are the same battery. And this bucket is used to control your thought processes and emotions. As Baumeister said in an interview:

You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts (of) self-control. That includes not just resisting food temptations, but also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks. Even more surprisingly, it is used for decision making, so when you make choices you are (temporarily) using up some of what you need for self-control. Hard thinking, like logical reasoning, also uses it.

Most self-control failures happen in the evening after a long day of traffic, bickering kids, pointless meetings, and other things that zap our self-control.

Baumeister continues:
“Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are committed after 11: 00 p.m. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior, gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.”

After a good night’s sleep your battery is charged and ready to go.

In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Vanderkam writes:

In these early hours, we have enough willpower and energy to tackle things that require internal motivation, things the outside world does not immediately demand or reward.

That’s the argument for scheduling important priorities first. But there’s more to the muscle metaphor. Muscles can be strengthened over time. A bodybuilder must work hard to develop huge biceps, but then he can go into maintenance mode and still look pretty buff. Paradoxically, with willpower, research has found that people who score high on measures of self-discipline tend not to employ this discipline when they do regular activities that would seem to require it, such as homework or getting to class or work on time. For successful people, these are no longer choices but habits.

“Getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the long run conserves willpower,” says Baumeister. “Once things become habitual, they operate as automatic processes, which consume less willpower.”

If we learned anything from Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it was that routines and habits played an important role in success.

In 1887 William James wrote on Habit:

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

As Tierney and Baumeister write in Willpower, “Ultimately, self-control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.”

So what are the best morning habits?

Vanderkam writes in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast:

The best morning rituals are activities that don’t have to happen and certainly don’t have to happen at a specific hour. These are activities that require internal motivation. The payoff isn’t as immediate as the easy pleasure of watching television or answering an email that doesn’t require an immediate response, but there are still payoffs. The best morning rituals are activities that, when practiced regularly, result in long-term benefits. The most successful people use their mornings for these things:

1. Nurturing their careers—strategizing and focused work
2. Nurturing their relationships—giving their families and friends their best
3. Nurturing themselves—exercise and spiritual and creative practices

Nurturing careers
The reason people do work requiring focus early in the day is the lack of interruptions. Once the day gets going, everyone wants a slice of your time.

You can crank things out; novelist Anthony Trollope famously wrote, without fail, for a few hours each morning. Charlotte Walker-Said, a history postdoc at the University of Chicago, uses the hours between 6: 00 and 9: 00 a.m. each day to work on a book on the history of religious politics in West Africa. She can read journal articles and write pages before dealing with her teaching responsibilities. “Once you start looking at email, the whole day cascades into email responses and replying back and forth,” she says. These early-morning hours are key to managing her stress in a suboptimal academic job market. “Every day I have a job,” she says. But “in the morning, I think I have a career.” She’s on to something; one study of young professors found that those who wrote a little bit every day were more likely to make tenure than those who wrote in bursts of intense energy (and put it off the rest of the time).

Nurturing relationships
One of the secrets to happy families is that mealtime with family matters.

This idea of using mornings as positive family time really stuck with me as I looked at my own life. While my kids tend to get up later, many small children wake up at the crack of dawn. So if you work outside the home and don’t see your kids during the day, why not take advantage of this? You can keep your eyes constantly focused on the clock, as I have a tendency to do, or you can set an alarm to give yourself a fifteen -minute warning, and then just relax. People always pontificate about how important family dinner is, but this is just not a reality in families with young kids who want to eat at 5: 30 or 6: 00 p.m., especially if one or both parents works later hours. But there’s nothing magical about dinner. Indeed, if the research on willpower is to be believed, we’re more crabby at dinner than we are at breakfast. Family breakfasts —when treated as relaxed, fun affairs— are a great substitute for the evening meal.

Nurturing yourself
The general sentiment here is that everyone else is sleeping so you’re not missing out on something important and you can spend time taking care of yourself, which generally leads to a positive impact on your productivity throughout the day.

In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast Vanderkam suggests making over your mornings by tracking your time, picturing the perfect morning, thinking through the logistics, building a habit, developing a feedback loop and tuning up as necessary.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and a self-proclaimed night owl, taught himself to appreciate mornings by thinking about the positive.

“The reason we stay in bed in the morning is because our brains get fatigued by thinking about all the things we have to do that day. We’re thinking about tasks rather than things that are making us happy,” he says. But the reverse of that is also true. “If you’re thinking about things you’re looking forward to, that makes it easy to get out of bed. What your brain focuses on becomes your reality.”

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street. Join over 60,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

Read next: The Morning Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity

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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 Innovation

Congress Should Let Diplomacy Work in Cuba

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. The embassy is open. Now let diplomacy work in Cuba.

By the Editors of Bloomberg View

2. Here’s the best way bioethicists can promote innovation: Get out of the way.

By Steven Pinker in the Boston Globe

3. This smart pen could change how we diagnose brain function.

By Adam Conner-Simons at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab

4. With drones and data, Pompeii is reborn.

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5. Could America cope with a resurgence of tropical disease here?

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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

How To Calm Your Monkey Mind and Get Things Done

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen’s system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.

[…]

Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain’s way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey’s organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

Still curious? Follow up with Getting Things Done and Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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