Emma Seppälä and I have something in common: we are both recovering chore-haters.
“There was a time when I couldn’t stand running errands: getting gas, taking my car for an oil change, calling the electricity company about a bill, or going grocery shopping,” she writes in her new book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. “Taking care of this or that silly errand instead of being ‘productive’—doing things that would serve some future goal like advancing my career—felt like a waste of time.”
In The Happiness Track, Seppälä tries to untangle one of the knottiest problems of the modern age: our burned out, overscheduled lifestyle. We are stuck in a jumble of feeling overwhelmed yet never accomplishing enough, trussed up by the underlying assumptions that we hold about productivity: Success requires stress. We have to compete with others. We can’t cut ourselves any slack. “We have simply accepted overextension as a way of life,” she writes.
So it’s no wonder many of us aren’t not happy—we’re drained and emotionally exhausted! Nearly half of us lie awake at night due to stress, the worries of the day coming home to roost when we finally stop moving. We tell ourselves to “tough it out” rather than to rest or reassess what we’re doing.
To combat this problem, the typical advice is to manage your time better: Prioritize. Make better to-do lists. Delegate unnecessary tasks. If that hasn’t worked for you, don’t be surprised; nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we. If we give ourselves an extra hour, we’ll find some task to fill it with. So time is not the commodity we should be tracking and managing, Seppälä argues. Instead, we need to manage our energy.
In Seppälä‘s formulation, we drain ourselves of energy anytime we experience intense negative emotions or thoughts, or struggle against our urges and desires. If we allow ourselves a walk during lunchtime but are consumed by worries about our afternoon workload, we’ve drained energy rather than gained it—yet the same amount of time has elapsed. If we have to peel ourselves out of bed morning after morning running a sleep deficit, it takes a toll on our vitality, even though we have more waking hours to get things done.
Seppälä outlines six qualities to cultivate that will contribute to both our productivity and our happiness. In effect, they’re also ways to boost energy without making big changes to our schedules:
1. Full presence. Thinking about the past or future can bring up regrets and worries that sap our strength. Instead, Seppälä encourages us to use the techniques of focus and mindfulness to stay grounded in the present. Not only will we be happier, but we’ll also be more likely to experience flow, that immersive state where progress skips along almost effortlessly. Presence is also the key to charisma and building strong relationships at work, because true connection only happens when we give our full attention to others. On a daily basis, that means we need to stop multitasking and break free from our technological distractions, and incorporate the practices of meditation and savoring into our routine.
2. Resilience. As we move from stressor to stressor, Seppälä explains, we don’t give our bodies time to calm down and activate our natural resources for repair and healing. As a result, we exist in a constant state of tension that strains our body and mind. To fight the frazzle, we have to relearn the basics of taking care of ourselves: adequate sleep, healthy food, exercise, and deep breathing.
3. Calm. Seppälä debunks the myth that energy and calm are opposing forces. Instead, she believes calm and energy are key to productive work and a happy life. Calm may be found in yoga or meditation, while energy is derived from positive moments that we can experience daily: short breaks to watch that viral cat video or go for a walk, engaging hobbies, and a gratitude practice.
4. Rest. In our rush toward achievement, we may not have noticed a big casualty in our wake: creativity. Creativity notoriously can’t be summoned up on command, squeezed into an extra power hour of nighttime work or sandwiched between meetings. It requires rest and free time for new ideas to bubble up, interlace, and recombine. Remember the errands that Seppälä and I used to hate? It might be in these moments of idleness—on a drive to the grocery store, listening to music, or walking in nature—when inspiration strikes.
5. Self-compassion. According to research, it’s self-compassion—not self-criticism—that gives us the energy to plow forward. Self-compassion inspires us to learn from failures and try again, while self-criticism might lead to giving up or denying our failures. Who wants to be called dumb and bad by the voice in their own head? Notably, research shows that people who are more self-compassionate have less anxiety and stress and exhibit more curiosity, creativity, willpower, and motivation. Self-compassion requires treating ourselves the way we would a friend, both in our behavior and in our internal monologue.
6. Compassion. Part of the stress and strain in today’s workplaces comes from a lack of connection to our coworkers—perhaps because we don’t have time for “socializing,” perhaps because we see them as our rivals. But again and again, research shows us the benefits of reaching out. “Givers” are liked, appreciated, and influential, as long as they set boundaries and don’t get taken advantage of. In a compassionate culture, employees are both happier and more productive. Not to mention that solid relationships at work can buffer against any stress and anxiety we experience there.
Each of these suggestions for increasing our happiness and productivity are grounded in extensive research, yet many of us still turn to time management techniques. Why is that? Maybe it seems more concrete—cancel a meeting here, delegate a task there, and we’ve done it. Managing our energy by changing attitudes and beliefs takes more time and commitment, but if we do the hard work of cultivating these qualities, we’ll slowly begin to break free from the chains of stress and overwork. That path may seem intimidating to the burned-out reader, but ultimately it’s the wiser one. And the happier one.