My friend Ian, unwittingly gave me the idea to start writing articles about books. We were in a meeting discussing fundraising and he referred to Anchoring – a social psychology concept describing the human tendency to mentally gravitate towards a specific starting point. It could be used to explain why my husband says things like, “$1.50 for a pack of gum? That’s crazy.” I first learned about Anchoring in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, a book that, among other things, explains why humans are generally suckers for marketing. Even when we know we’re being suckers. I got a little excited at the possibility of discussing Predictably Irrational with Ian, until he explained to me that he reads articles about these kinds of concepts, not books.
I walked away from the conversation with two new understandings: 1) I’m desperately looking for people to discuss the books I’ve read/am reading (my children and husband will wearily attest to this) and 2) What I’m learning in the books I’m reading could make for practical blogposts. So, here we are.
I found the perfect book for my first book review blogpost on my night table (It helped that there are 10 books on my night table.) The Sweet Spot – How to Find your Groove at Home and Work (or How to Accomplish More by Doing Less) by Christine Carter, PhD. (Thank you Karen Elkin!) I have been trying to solve the problem of balancing all the roles I play in life for quite some time and gravitate toward books that offer a solution. The Sweet Spot offered many, many solutions.
Which brings me to my first problem: one of the hardest parts of discussing this book is distilling it into bite size ideas.
I was going to summarize the categorizes that Carter created, but that felt more like a book report and writing book reports isn’t very interesting to me (and probably not so much for you either). Instead, I’m going to share one of the concepts from the book that I incorporated in the past week and how it’s altered my experience. (Does that make this a reality blogpost?)
The first section of The Sweet Spot encourages everyone to take Recess. Carter explains why our brains need breaks every 90 minutes or so. My son seems to have a handle on this, because when he crossed the stage at Grade Eight graduation this past June, Recess was named as his favourite subject. I too have always loved Recess and breaks. So much so that much of my time at Earl Haig S.S. and McGill was more break than class.
Herein lies the problem regarding how I think about breaks as an adult. Breaks = slacking. I’ll take them, but not wholeheartedly. They’re guilty pleasures. They come wrapped up in the belief that I’m taking a break from doing what I need to be doing (to be doing something less important and possibly self-indulgent). Baked into that is the belief that if I was stronger, I wouldn’t take a break.
The Sweet Spot says that taking Recess is not a sign of a weakness – it’s a practice that strengthens us. Studies have shown that people who take regular breaks are more productive.
So, this week, I started taking planned breaks. I organized my work day into 90-120 intervals. At the 90-120 minute mark, I get up from what I’m doing. I find that I’m often flagging by then anyway – even if I was going strong for quite awhile. Carter teaches that my energy dip is in line with ultradian rhythms (like circadian rhythms but with different characteristics). During my breaks, I’ve walked outside for 10 minutes, caught up on my texts, checked my email or hung out with the puppy.
The rule that Christine Carter lays out is that whatever you’re doing during your break, it can’t be advancing the progress of your to-do list. The activity needs to be enjoyable. I believe that part of the goodness of this practice is to increase the frequency of asking yourself,
“What would I like to do right now that I would enjoy?”
Considering what that might be and then taking time to do it is a very empowering act. Each time I have taken a break, I have returned to work energized, focused and generally feeling good.
I think Recess is a very well-constructed habit. The practice is self-reinforcing – it generates good feelings both in the moment that the action is taking place and also upon reflection when the positive effects are experienced (e.g. increased productivity, feeling good for an extended period). Many habits become boring to us over time – a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation’s kryptonite is variety. Thus, so long as I maintain variety in what I do with my 10 minute breaks, I’m not likely to get bored of the practice. I’m already excited about the potential productivity and creativity that practicing Recess is going to bring me.
The Sweet Spot is full of constructions like Recess. Carter tells good stories about the research that back up the practices and how she builds productive habits in her own life. The book was born out of a challenging time in Carter’s life when she felt so overwhelmed by her responsibilities, ambition and dissatisfaction that her body shut down on her. I can relate to those kinds of feelings and appreciate a book full of direction on how to live in a way where I cultivate ambition while also experiencing deep satisfaction and joy. One of the reasons that I really love reading books like this is that I learn about current scientific research that reveal the potential for change, resilience and happiness. It’s so inspiring.
I think that’s what the Sweet Spot is – the understanding that we really can have it all.
Ambition, Meaning and Joy.
We don’t need to trade one for the other, instead we need to practice articulating our ambitions, making meaning and cultivating joy. I like how Christine Carter delivers these practices.
Let me know if you read the book – we can work on some of it together!