“Here I was, an expert on how to sustain high performance and be happy, and I could not get myself healthy, because I was overwhelmed and exhausted,” she says. “The irony was not lost on me.”
That’s when Carter began to chart a new course. Using her background in studying elite performance and productivity, as well as happiness, positive emotions, and well-being, she put together a plan to reinvent her life. That experience, as well as correspondence from her readers complaining that they felt overwhelmed, inspired her to write a book about her path to healing: the just-published The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.
I recently talked to her about her book and the science behind finding my own sweet spot.
JS: What exactly is the sweet spot?
Carter: Most people think of the sweet spot as a point of maximum impact in sports, where an athlete swings the bat or racket that launches the ball with its greatest power and most natural flight, and with the least stress or resistance. So, the sweet spot, as it applies to our lives, is the overlap between where we have the most ease in our lives and the place where we have our greatest power, our greatest strength.
People like me who tend to be perfectionistic—well, I’m a recovering perfectionist—tend to operate outside of their sweet spot. If you think of it as a Venn diagram, I tend to operate from my strengths circle: I’m a high achiever; I get a lot of hits. But, before I changed my life, I couldn’t get those hits without operating outside my ease circle.
A lot of people I talk to, particularly Millennials, seem to be comfortable operating where they have the greatest ease. But, because they’ve been raised in a way where they haven’t experienced a lot of discomfort in their lives, they find it hard to risk failure; so they never develop mastery. They operate outside of their sweet spot because they just don’t generate enough power.
It’s pretty common for people to favor one side or the other. The trick is learning where your overlap is, and growing that overlap.
JS: Your book is coming out just after the New Year, when many of us are thinking of forming better habits, using willpower and determination. But your book says that willpower isn’t the best way to create healthier habits. Why is that?
Carter: The activities that we consciously control in our day-to-day lives are few and far between relative to everything else that’s happening in our bodies and brains, or what’s accomplished on autopilot. Our brain’s ability to train itself to do things without willpower, without self-control, without any sort of conscious control is one of our greatest advantages. Being able to do something with no effort or resistance, completely automatically—that’s the definition of ease.
One of the ways I grew the ease part of my life is that I put a lot of my life on autopilot, so I wouldn’t use up my limited supply of willpower on things I could do automatically. The things that take self-control or willpower, for the most part, involve decision-making, and we don’t want our willpower muscles to become fatigued by every day decisions when they could be automated. We don’t really need to spend a lot of time deciding whether or not we’re going to exercise in the morning, or what to eat or what to wear. A lot of people spend time making decisions in the morning that, in my opinion, could be automated.
JS: But don’t you find people resist routines?
Carter: It depends. Some people are high in novelty seeking, and they find it hard to get into routines; so they resist. And to them, I’d say, it’s not as hard as you think. If you know the underlying brain mechanisms, you can skirt the brain’s booby traps. If you know what you’re doing, it’s like writing code for your brain; it’s simpler than you think.
My husband and I are both novelty seekers—we really love change. For me it’s important to automate mundane things in your life as a way to free up attention for new things, new endeavors. It’s not that I have less novelty or change, now that so much is automated; it’s that I can seek change and growth in more important realms.
JS: When writing about the balance of mastery and ease, you start with the ease side of the equation—the importance of relaxation and taking breaks. Why start there?
Carter: Because stress is pretty epidemic in North America and in the West. Most people don’t understand the benefits of ease, and they need to.
We have a whole cultural mantra around busyness—How are you? Oh, I’m really busy. By that, I mean I’m busy and important. I’ve got so much going on. Busyness is seen as a sign of success, and the marker of character and importance. If you’re not busy and stressed and overwhelmed, then the reverse might be true. You might not be important or very significant; you might be lazy and of low character. This is the big cultural thing we’re up against.
Researchers call busyness “cognitive overload.” The state of cognitive overload makes us worse at everything. It hinders our ability to organize ourselves, to plan, to think clearly, to be creative, to innovate. It makes us irritable. It impairs our verbal fluency, and our ability to remember social information. And, it hinders our ability to control our emotions.
So, it makes us worse at everything. When somebody tells me they’re busy, what I hear is, this is someone who is not fulfilling their potential. They’re not able to do the best work in this world that they can, or enjoy the work that they are doing or the life that they are leading.
JS: Speaking of busyness, it seems like people spend more time on cell phones and computers these days, which is both a modern-day necessity and an enormous time suck. How have we become so enslaved to technology, and how can one find more balance in our lives around technology use?
Technology, in and of itself, is not bad. These are great tools that lead to great ease and efficiency. So, it’s really important not to demonize technology, but to realize that something happens in our brain with technology. It provides what’s called “variable ratio reinforcement;” so, it’s like a slot machine. If you have your email open, and you see that you have a new message, your attention is drawn away from what you’re doing, because every so often the email is rewarding you in some way.
Also, we have a dual attention mechanism in our brains—like a seesaw—so we can either be focused on a task and be in flow, getting things done in that way, or our minds can be wandering, checking for emails, unfocused. It can’t do both of those things at the same time. That’s why we get so stressed and overwhelmed with technology; it’s because we’re constantly pulled between those two states. And, that’s why it’s super important to close down your email, turn off alerts, and put your cell phone on sleep mode while you’re working on something else.
The other important thing is not to push yourself too far with technology. We turn ourselves into zombies if we’ve just been sitting in front of a screen all day. In order to do our best, most enjoyable work, we need to engage that mind-wandering mode from time to time. When our mind is wandering—when we’re staring into space or going for a walk in nature or doing anything but focusing on a task—there’s a neural network that’s constantly making connections, which can lead us to our greatest insights. Unfortunately, it’s the focusing part of our brain that often gets all of the credit for our work.
JS: You also write about how relationships are key to happiness and wellbeing; but what do relationships have to do with mastery and ease?
Carter: We are clannish animals. We like our tribes. And our nervous system feels the safest and most secure when we’re in our groups. Just internalizing that truth is part of living with greater ease.
I dedicate a whole section in the book to relationships because I think that people, at least in the United States, tend to value face-to-face relationships less and less. They don’t understand how central they are for our overall wellbeing.
Having good social connections increases how long we live, how healthy we are, and pretty much every measure we care about, both for introverts and extroverts. And, there’s great research around what it takes to feel really connected to other people. What do the happiest, most socially connected people do differently? Well, for the most part, they’re very giving—they think of other people before they think of themselves, and they are very skilled at connecting to other people, and they know how to mend the ruptures in their relationships.
JS: It seems that the cultural norm is to distract oneself from discomfort—like boredom, sadness, or pain—by any means necessary; yet you emphasize the importance of learning to tolerate discomfort. How do you encourage someone to tolerate discomfort when they are culturally trained to do the opposite?
It’s a numbing effect to be on our phones all the time. We feel anxious about not being busy, or we’re trying to numb out another unpleasant feeling. Other people eat a pan of brownies to numb themselves. These numbing behaviors are actually pretty effective at helping us to not feel an uncomfortable emotion.
The problem, though, is that that when you do something to numb an emotion, you can’t do it selectively. You might feel a lot of stress at work and distract yourself by playing Angry Birds; but then you’re also numbing out your positive feelings. To lead a really joyful life, where we feel inspiration and awe and all the positive emotions that make up a happy life, we need to let ourselves feel the uncomfortable emotions as well.
JS: One thing I appreciated in your book is how you included “ridiculously small” steps people could take to make real change. What ridiculously small step made a big difference in your life?
Carter: The example I give in the book is still true for me: my better-than-nothing workout. Every morning, I do a one-minute plank, 20 pushups, and 25 squats. Doing two years of just that, you should see… I have Michelle Obama arms! Just from doing 20 push ups a day! But it only takes me three minutes. Three minutes, every morning.
Does that mean that I don’t do any other exercise? No, I actually tend to take hikes most afternoons. I get a lot of other exercise too, but not consistently. This better-than-nothing routine is what has made a huge difference in my overall health.
JS: The book is geared toward individuals changing their own lives. But, do you feel the book has a message for society at large?
Carter: Many of the reasons we feel so overwhelmed and busy and don’t operate in our sweet spot come from social structures that aren’t working for us and from really big cultural lies—that busyness is a marker of importance, that more is almost always better. There are a whole series of things we learn from our culture that really color our lives in pretty profound ways.
I’m getting asked a lot now to come and talk at corporations to their administrative teams and big HR departments, and it’s thrilling to me to be able to expose them to these ideas. They may say they want to work smarter, not harder; but they don’t know what working smarter is! At their companies, working smarter currently means working long hours. But if we examine what is really smarter and how they can change their work culture, it will do a lot to undo those unhealthy and unproductive behaviors in their employees.