By Martha Ross
San Jose Mercury News.
At a recent high school alumni event, Christine Carter disabused former classmates of the notion that she was incredibly busy.
She couldn’t blame them for assuming her life was packed 24/7. The sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has a new book, “The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work,” coming out in January. She’s also blogging, teaching online classes, coaching executives, doing public speaking, as well as managing a new marriage and parenting four kids, ages 12, 13, 14 and 15.
“Actually, I’m not that busy,” said Carter, 42. “I’ve worked very hard to not be busy.”
Carter’s efforts to give up her overworked, multitasking ways lie at the heart of her new book. “The Sweet Spot” offers practical advice on how people can make small but important changes in their daily lives so they can enjoy more balance at home and work.
The book’s title describes the place where people can perform tasks with the “greatest ease” and the “greatest power”, as when a tennis player is able to easily but powerfully launch a ball back over the net.
Carter’s book originated from her own experiment in “having it all.” Five years ago, she was an outwardly successful academic, best-selling book author and single mother with a long list of high-profile commitments, including serving as executive director of the Greater Good Science Center.
But she was miserable. She had fallen into what she calls the “busy-ness trap.”
“The sheer logistics of my single-parent, triple-job life were leaving me dead tired and, if I’m honest, often snappish with the people I loved the most,” she writes. “It seemed like I never rested anymore, never just sat down to watch a movie or read for pleasure. Every minute of every day, I needed to make progress answering emails, checking things off lists, driving the kids around, arranging things on one of my multiple task lists and Google calendars.”
One autumn morning, she landed in the emergency room, exhausted, dehydrated and suffering from a fever and a kidney infection. She was due to give a keynote address at a large conference in Atlanta at the end of the week but concluded, “I couldn’t do it.”
It was time, she realized, to reduce the “overwhelm” she felt in her life.
She found plenty of scientifically based strategies while revisiting all the research on well-being and elite performance she had studied over the years.
Much of the research challenges contemporary attitudes that busy people are successful, important or productive. Only 17 percent of adults in our “pressure cooker” society are said to be fulfilling their potential for happiness, success and productivity, Carter says.
Numerous other studies show that working more than the 40-hour week makes people less effective in both the short- and long-term, she adds.
One of Carter’s first steps was to borrow an idea from management guru Peter Bregman: Pick your life’s top five priorities. Then she pledged to spend 95 percent of her time on activities that support those priorities and to say “no” to virtually everything else.
“Because we can’t do everything, we need to make choices,” she says.
Her priorities were: Maintain her own health and happiness; nurture others; write “The Sweet Spot”; work toward being a truly great speaker; and maintain her website, newsletters and online classes. For example, she stepped down from her job as the Greater Good Science Center’s executive director because the administrative duties didn’t fit in with those priorities.
Over time, she also worked on adopting simple new habits that promote her physical and mental health and bring pleasure back into her life. People know they should exercise and sleep more, she says, but they struggle to do what’s good for them until they make those activities so routine they don’t have to think about doing them. “Habits take the effort out of our daily tasks; they are the ultimate form of ease.”
These days, Carter goes to bed at 10 each night and begins each morning with meditation, then does her “better than nothing” exercise circuit of push-ups, sit-ups and squats followed by a 10-minute run. She fits in all these things before it’s time to get breakfast for her kids and take them to school.
Carter’s less-than-ambitious exercise routine fits in with her recommendation that we stop giving 110 percent to everything we do. Often by doing just enough, what Carter calls the “minimum dose effect”, but doing it consistently over time yields the best long-term results.
Carter applies this “minimum dose effect” to work. When she’s working on a book, she writes consistently, up to 1,000 words a day. She tries to hit that word count even if she’s traveling or has the kids home from school.
But on days when she has a six-hour block of time and could write much more, she still will stop at 1,000 words. “I’ve found that if I write more than 1,000 words a couple days in a row, by the third day, the writing becomes rather joyless.”
Carter also has learned that she works best when she respects her body’s natural daily rhythms. Like many people, Carter does her best work in the morning, so she devotes that time to tasks, such as writing, that require her highest level of focus.
She barely will check email before she starts because doing that is distracting. She also limits how much time she spends on email throughout the day and stays away from it first thing in the morning or before she goes to bed. “The email thing is huge,” she says. “It was taking over my life.”
Like many organizational experts, she frowns on multitasking, saying that briefly stopping one task to peek at Facebook or Twitter or answer a phone call is not only distracting, it’s mentally exhausting.
Making life easier also means learning to live with fewer choices, such as having one basic “uniform” for work or speaking, or having the same set of meals for family dinners; accepting imperfection and failure on your way to mastering a new skill; and living with the discomfort of pursuing what is right for you, not what others expect of you.
Her main antidote to the busy-ness trap: Take recesses. That is, schedule time to spend with family and friends and take breaks after 60 to 90 minutes of hard work.
Recess time doesn’t mean knocking things off your to-do list. It means taking a nap, or doing something joyful or fun.
“The more we stop to enjoy a spectacular sunset or do fun, creative things, the more productive we can become, she says. “We humans need play.”
FINDING YOUR ‘SWEET SPOT’ IN TOUGH TIMES
There’s no getting around it, author Christine Carter says. You can’t live a life that’s free of difficulties or discomfort. Here is Carter’s shortlist for navigating those times and staying in the groove:
Feel what you feel: Don’t numb out with alcohol or drugs or by compulsively eating or checking your email and Facebook. Replace self-criticism with self-compassion.
Accept responsibility for your role in life’s disappointments: “When we hold ourselves accountable, we put ourselves in a better place to course-correct,” Carter says.
Learn from mistakes: “Adversity almost always carries with it a gift, the opportunity to learn something we couldn’t have learned any other way.”