Raising Happiness


How to Eliminate “Junk Stimulus”

October 15, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Reigning in clutter adds ease to your life.

We Americans are often overwhelmed and exhausted. Did you know that 235 million people are currently grappling with feelings of time-starvation and moderate to high levels of stress, exhaustion, or burn-out in the United States alone? 1

While many things factor into this collective exhaustion, I’ve found, in my own life, that much of it stems from the sheer amount of stimulus and the build-up of, well, stuff. Here are several ways I filter out what I’ve come to think of as “junk stimulus.”

1) First, rid your environment of physical clutter.

• Clean out one drawer or shelf everyday religiously until everything in your home has a place—and everyone in your household knows where that place is. Commit to five minutes a day, everyday, until the job is done.

• Find a large box for donations or other “give aways,” and put it somewhere accessible until you are finished with this process. Donate or recycle anything that hasn’t been used for a year.* This goes for clothes, dishes, books, furniture (yes, furniture!), games, toys, shelf-stable food and spices, the super-awesome tortilla maker you’ve really wanted to try out since you picked it up in the ‘80s, and that tent you haven’t pitched for three years. Remember that your stuff is for today, not some imagined future. Be ruthless—you will thank me later every time you open a tidy, nearly empty, drawer or cupboard.

2) Now, limit the amount of stuff you let back into your house.

• Cancel all snail mail except things like hand-written thank you notes. Sign up to get your bills online. Cancel ALL catalogs and junk mail. (I like the free app PaperKarma : You take a picture of catalogs, mailers, credit card offers, phone books—and they get you off the mailing list!) You can get everything you need online or in a digital version, including books, magazines, newspapers, season information from your local theatre, information from non-profits you love, concert schedules. You may have to call them to ask them to remove you from the list; I’ve had to plead and beg in the past. Again, be ruthless when you ask to be removed from these lists: All that direct mail is clutter.

• Put a recycling bin right by the door that you walk through with the mail, and don’t open junk mail that comes through—photograph it for PaperKarma, then rip it up and recycle it.

• Don’t go into a store without a list of what you need, and don’t let yourself buy anything that isn’t on the list. (This works wonders with my children, especially in places like Costco.)

3) Next, get rid of all unneeded media and audible stimulus.

• Turn the ringer off on your land line, if you’ve still got one and you still get junk calls (even though you are on the Do Not Call registry ). Have friends call your cell phone, and use your landline to check messages or to dial out only.

• Turn off your TV unless you intend to watch something specific. Don’t expose yourself to advertising—it is junk stimulus in and of itself. Record your shows and fast forward through the ads.

• Identify sources of irritation or unwanted stimulation in your household, like whining, too-loud music, background television, or a pet hamster that runs endlessly on a squeaky wheel (and smells bad, to boot). Make a concrete plan for how you will eliminate this junk stimulus over the next few weeks.

• If your home or workspace is noisy, play soothing music or put white noise on in the background—ironically, it will help filter out noise. This is a proven way to sleep better! (I like the app White Noise .)

4) Finally, prune niggling tasks, because if you feel hassled by a long task list, this too is a source of junk stimulus. So weed that puppy down with gusto until it is a realistic representation of what you actually can accomplish given your current status as a human being (and not a super computer).

• Automate as many of the routine tasks on your list as you can. Set your bills up on auto-pay. Create a standing grocery order (I use planetorganics.com, and they choose seasonal fruits and vegetables for me). Install a timed watering system for potted plants. Get an automatic pet feeder. Note: Don’t automate anything that brings you joy.

• For most people, email is a to-do item that never quits. Rein it in. Which emails do you really have to read? Which must you respond to? Consider boldly deleting everything that you don’t absolutely need. I love gmail’s new tabs—they allow me to batch-delete emails that I don’t have time to read before I get sucked in and read them anyway. And I use a “bypass the inbox” filter for a lot of emails—they just go straight to a file, where they wait for me until I have time for them. Feel free to respond to email on YOUR terms; there is no law in the universe that says that you must sacrifice your sleep, well-being, or other priorities simply so that you can get through your email.

• Prune your to-do list with this question: If it turns out that my life is a lot shorter than I hope it will be, which of the things on my list right now will I wish I hadn’t wasted time on? Pay particular attention to anything you do just for prestige, praise or to feel superior to others, anything that makes you tense or anxious but doesn’t contribute to your growth over the long haul, and anything that involves toxic people or situations.

How do you feel when you’ve pruned all this clutter? What other things do you do to eliminate junk stimulus?

*Warning: this process will probably be derailed if you start trying to sell your stuff—that is a totally different project. Donate it to a good cause; write-off the donation if you’d like.

1. American Psychological Association, “Stress in America,” 2009.

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How to Avoid Burnout—or a Breakdown

October 7, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Three ways working parents can combat exhaustion that don’t require radical social change.

Feeling maxed-out? Like you’d like to lie down so badly you are having “hospital fantasies”?

(Not familiar with that term? Hopefully you aren’t as tired as this woman, who writes about her hospital fantasy: “I stumbled back to work when my son was 6 weeks old. He had colic and chronic ear infections, so I really didn’t sleep for a year. No exaggeration. I would fantasize about having a minor car accident on the way to work. Nothing serious—just enough to lay me up in the hospital for a few days so I could sleep!”)

It’s not that I don’t think we have societal problems  that are causing this kind of exhaustion. I do. But there are things that we can do as individuals to prevent burnout and breakdown.

1. Get enough rest. I know, I know, you don’t have time to sleep. Or you think you are the exception to the rule—you don’t need the seven-to-nine hours of sleep that doctors and experts prescribe. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

Ask yourself: What are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit needs.

But that’s not all: We also need to rest during the day . We are not computers, able to run continuously. This means that we need to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 to 120 minutes of high output, we need a period of recovery—or stress and exhaustion start to build, and productivity starts to decline. Rest periods needn’t be long (10-15 minutes will do) if you truly take a break: Go for a walk outside, read an article that really interests you (but isn’t on your task list), chat with a coworker or neighbor, eat your lunch outside or near a sunny window. 

In the wild (or, say, kindergarten), human beings naturally take breaks to refuel with a snack or a meal. Don’t squander this natural rest period by wolfing down your lunch while you read your email, or by sipping a latte while driving to work and calling that breakfast. Practice eating mindfully, paying attention to your food and the people you are with. Notice what you are eating and how quickly or slowly. Breathe. Relax.

2. Do only one thing at a time. Multi-tasking talent is nothing to brag about. If we just focused on one task at a time, we’d actually be more productive in the long run, and we’d be less exhausted at the end of the day. This is because multi-tasking exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does. Take it from productivity experts Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance—increased the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

It is often harder for me to single-task than it is to multi-task. I have to totally remove all distractions to single-task: I do my best writing at a desk I’ve set up in a large closet that doesn’t get phone reception, with my email disabled. I group my daily tasks into two categories: “Think Work” and “Action Items.” Then I block off time on my calendar for both things. I do my Think Work at the closet desk totally uninterrupted, setting a timer so that I take a break every 60-90 minutes.

My Action Items take less focus, but I still tackle them one at a time in sequence—not parallel. Unless I’m working my way through my email, my email application is closed. I answer the phone only for scheduled calls. I leave my iPhone in do-not-disturb mode (so that I can see if my kids’ school is calling, but that’s about it) and reply to texts when I’m taking a break. Having these “rules” for myself has dramatically increased my productivity.

3. Reduce the amount of “junk stimulus” that you need to deal with.
We are bombarded, day and night, with loads of, pardon my language, CRAP. TV ads (or even news!) we aren’t interested in that we watch anyway, making us anxious. A mailbox full of advertising and other “dead tree marketing.” Emails upon emails, mingling with Facebook posts and Tweets and texts. (I’m having an event this weekend, and I got nearly 100 texts about it yesterday. That might be super exciting for a teenager, but I thought I was going crazy.)

Left unchecked, all this junk stimulus will bleed us dry. It’s exhausting even as it is sometimes entertaining. This week, take notice of all the clutter in your life.

Start with your environment. Where is there “junk stimulus”—stuff that makes you feel tired when you see, hear, or otherwise experience it? Consider visual clutter, like that over-stuffed kitchen drawer you open every day looking for a paper clip. Ponder auditory clutter, like whiney kids who make you tense, or the neighbor who really does need to fix his car alarm. Think about online and media distractions. (You might enjoy them, but for mental health reasons, consider indulging in them only occasionally, as a treat.)

Next week I’m going to give you my three-part plan for eliminating junk stimuli and other crap of all kinds. This week: Get some rest, allow yourself to focus, and start noticing the junk that is cluttering your life.


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Would Working Less Make You Happier?

September 23, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Is it even possible to work less in today’s economy?

Are you caught in a “Time Bind”—where you feel like you don’t have enough time to get your work done AND spend time with your children and spouse AND take care of your own basic needs?

Sociologists have been very excited about a “natural experiment” occurring in Korea. In 2004, the Korean government began mandating that businesses cut their workweek back, from six to five days. Researchers now have almost a decade of data about how these widespread changes have affected people’s satisfaction with their jobs and, importantly, with their lives.

What is exciting about this situation is that it should improve our understanding of how number of hours worked per week affects job and life satisfaction. We already have research that shows pretty clearly that working long hours is correlated with work-family conflict and other forms of misery—but we don’t know whether working long hours causes unhappiness or whether, say, unhappy people disproportionately work for companies which require longer hours.

If I regularly worked one less day per week, I think I would definitely be happier with my job, my work hours, and with my life overall. Truly, I can’t think of any maxed-out mom, or even just any working parent, who doesn’t dream of someone mandating that they work less.

That’s why I was surprised by the results: The most recently published study on this topic seems to show that the Korean Five-Day Working Reform did not have “the expected positive effects on worker well-being.” Ten years and one less workday per week, people aren’t happier with their jobs or their lives overall.

Say what? Despite a dramatic correlation between working less overtime and feeling happier, researchers didn’t find that the government-mandated reduction in work hours made people happier on average when they controlled for things like income. Their theory about why: Employers didn’t reduce employee workload when they reduced their work hours. Workers actually only reduced their work time by four “official” hours per week, not eight. This means workers had four fewer hours in which to do their work; either they crammed it in by working more efficiently in fewer, longer days, or they kept working the same amount of time but did their work off the books.

Maxed-out workers need less work, not less time to do the same amount of work. Part of what I find so harrowing about parenting is the time pressure. It’s stressful to have the same amount of work but less time in which to do it.

All this is to say that the obvious solution to our Time Bind—a government mandate that we work less—is probably not coming soon to a workplace near you.

But I’m not saying that our government doesn’t need to help maxed-out parents.

The problems plaguing working parents aren’t our own individual problems. It isn’t that we feel “overwhelmed and overworked simply because [we’ve] individually taken on too much or done a bad job coping with [our] responsibilities,” as Sharon Lerner writes in The War on Moms.

Our collective exhaustion is sociological. Its roots come from the way our society and economy is structured. As Katrina Alcorn puts it in Maxed Out, “We lack the social and systemic supports that we need in order to realize our potential and share our talents with the world.”

At the same time, we set ourselves up for a lot of disappointment, not to mention feelings of victimization, when we hold fast to the belief that we need to change our institutions—our government, our workplaces, our marriages—before we can be happy in life and productive and successful at work. There are three important things we can do to prevent our own breakdowns.

Next week I will lay out three strategies for preventing burnout among working parents that will help you step away from the brink of breakdown.

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