When asked how we are doing, most of us will answer with "busy." We say it with a mixture of pride and exhaustion. Always doing more has become the toxic default position of our culture. Christine Carter wants to show us how to be happier and even more productive by doing less. There are countless gurus hawking road maps to happiness these days, but Carter's new book is based on five years of turning her life around. She's no longer a harried, stressed-out perfectionist. Her book is filled with practical advice based on a wide array of research on how to get to your "sweet spot."
In sports, the "sweet spot" is that ideal place where power and ease meet. Overexertion throws you out of it, but when you hit that groove, everything flows. Carter, a sociologist and happiness expert at the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, wants to show us how to how to apply that concept to everyday life in her new book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. The Globe's Dave McGinn spoke to Carter about how to get more out of life by doing less.
Is it difficult to convince people that there is such a thing as the "sweet spot?"
Culturally, our greatest lie is that busyness is a sign of productivity. Busyness in our culture is a sign of success and significance. It's seen as a mark of character. So what happens then, is that when we see busyness as success the opposite also becomes true. We see stillness as a lack of character, the absence of productivity or success. And it makes us really anxious.
How do people with not only busy jobs but also kids to look after begin to find their own sweet spot? What's a good starting point for them?
To accept that more is not necessarily better. More time with your kids is not necessarily better. You're not going to be better at your job if you're working more, necessarily. Then identify the minimum effective dose of any given activity in your children's lives or your life at home or work.
What is the minimum effective dose and how do you apply it in your life?
The minimum effective dose is of course the amount of medication a doctor will give. They always want to give the least amount that will still be effective. I had to do this in every area of my life. How many times a week did I really have to blog? What was the minimum number of times that I could blog and it would still be effective? How little could I exercise and still gain noticeable benefits? We don't have to give up entire categories of things. We just have to give up the idea that more is better.
How have you changed the way you spend time with your kids?
I used to multitask with them constantly. Now my kids do fewer activities. They're only allowed to do one after-school activity each semester. And when I'm with them, I'm only doing that [and not answering e-mail at the same time, for example]. And I also don't do things that stress me out. For example, I was relatively successful at setting them up in the kitchen to do their homework while I was cooking, but it was just too chaotic for me and too tense. I've eliminated all the things that are pretty much going to guarantee that I'm outside of my sweet spot.
You argue that because of our biological rhythms we should take "recess" every 90 minutes or so to break from what we're doing and recharge. It sounds great, but how do you convince people to do that?
I find myself trying to convince people that they are choosing jet lag. You can do your next batch of work while jet lagged or you can start your work 15 minutes later and be on your normal time zone. From a physiological perspective it's a very accurate analogy.
What is "satisficing" in terms of making difficult decisions?
It's a workaround to having too much information coming at you all the time. Researchers classify people into "satisficers" and "maximizers." Maximizers are people who tend to look at all the information they can find before they make an actual decision. Satsificers are people who outline their criteria for success and then they stop looking at information related to it once they meet their criteria. Think about going on vacation. You could spend forever trying to decide when to go, trying to decide where to go, what type of activities to do, and so on. And plenty of research shows that if you do that, you will be less happy on your vacation and with your choices than if you satisfice. And not only will you waste a lot of time, you're essentially not as productive and not as successful. This is like the perfect example of how the sweet spot works.
This interview has been condensed and edited.