Can we accomplish more by doing less?

To succeed in finals and in life, you need to take breaks, leave your mind free to wander, and not engage in compulsive multi-tasking. There’s actually science behind it! At the NALP Conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago, one of the great talks I got to see was given by Christine Carter. Dr. Carter presented on achieving more by doing less and dialing back our busyness.

Who is Dr. Carter?

Dr. Carter wrote her latest book The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and At Work when she recently realized that she was exhausted all of the time. She was in a period in her life where she had established herself as a happiness expert, released her first book, had a full speaking schedule, and a full load of clients she was coaching.

She was so busy that she found she was always exhausted and always kind of sick. At one point, she had strep throat for 18 straight months. At the time, she saw her exhaustion as a mark of her character and a sign of her strength.

Her demand for her time exceeded her capacity. She would work all day long, put her kids to bed, then go back to work, and not get nearly enough sleep. She could not escape the irony as she was doing performance coaching for executives and happiness coaching for parents while both her own performance and happiness were suffering.

One weekend, she woke up feeling sicker than usual with a really high fever so she went to the ER. She had been having hospital fantasies, which is a phenomenon where you are so busy that you fantasize about being so sick that you have to go to the hospital and are forced to stop working. When she got to the hospital, they discovered that she had a kidney infection but it was not so bad that they would need to admit her. She ended up going home disappointed that she had to cook dinner for her family.

She realized that she needed to learn how to live without giving up what meant most to her and that if she dreaded cooking dinner for her family, something had gone wrong.

This is when Dr. Carter delved into the main takeaway of her talk: we can achieve more by doing less but only when we dial back our busyness. Then, we can fulfill our potential.

Dr. Carter learned to work within her sweet spot. All of us have a sweet spot, which is the overlap between our greatest strengths and where we have our greatest ease. She used the analogy of an actual bat. When the ball hits a professional baseball player’s bat outside of the bat’s sweet spot, the bat bends but the player can still potentially get on base. You can actually see an example of a bat bending in this slow motion video:


When the bat bends, however, a baseball player is never going to hit a home run. Baseball players only hit home runs when the ball hits the sweet spot of the bat. Analogously, when we are working, we cannot hit home runs when the bat bends because the ball has hit outside of our sweet spot.

Dr. Carter explained that 70% of Americans are not hitting from their sweet spots. Only 30% of Americans feel engaged at work, which is the worst percentage in the world.

Feeling engaged is very important! When we do feel engaged, we’re more satisfied, more productive, and more likely to stay at our current job.

So how can we stay engaged at work (and at school)?

Engagement requires a few core needs to be satisfied:

Focus: To get engaged with our work, we need to focus in an absorbed way on the most important tasks and we need to be uninterrupted while we are doing it.

Rest: We need to take breaks doing the work day to renew and recharge.

Meaning: We need to feel appreciated for our contributions, have freedom to do what we do best and enjoy most, and feel connected to a higher purpose at work.

What is keeping us out of our sweet spot?

-Exhaustion and lack of renewal

-Lack of focus and inability to do deep work uninterrupted

-Lack of appreciation, gratitude, and connection to the true value of our work.

What is happening culturally to keep so many Americans out of our sweet spot?

We preceive busyness as a sign of success. The most important people seem to have the most to do and are the most pressed for time. A corollary of this is that multi-tasking is a sign of productivity.

Dr. Carter quoted Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love to summarize how most of us are living:

“We are the strivingest people who have ever lived.  We are ambitious, time-starved, competitive, distracted.  We move at full velocity, yet constantly fear we are not doing enough.  Though we live longer than any humans before us, our lives feel shorter, restless, breathless…”

This way of living is not working! Dr. Carter explained that busyness is cognitive overload and cognitive overload doesn’t work.

Simple multi-tasking hinders everything we need to be happy and good at our job. It hinders our self control.

We can’t resist temptations or plan out our time or think clearly. It hinders our social recall.

Multi-tasking causes emotional intelligence problems. We feel both more irritated and find it more difficult to control our irritation when we do it.

Multi-tasking keeps us from learning easily and hinders our ability to remember things There really is no such thing as multi-tasking in the human brain. We can only switch back and forth really fast.

Our brain’s network, which controls our focus, is all tied up by getting us to switch back and forth. The brain can’t both focus and switch the tasks we’re engaging in really fast. Switching between tassks prevents us from accessing the hippocampus, where we store memories and learn new things.

Switching back and forth between tasks also:

-Makes it hard for us to ignore irrelevant information

-Hinders our ability to organize our thoughts and makes it difficult for us to decide what our priorities are

-Cripples our ability to transition between tasks

-Increases the odds we’ll suffer from anxiety and depression

-Increases stress and tension as measured by cortisol and muscle tension

All of this slows the speed of our week and increases our error rate!

So start uni-tasking!

We resist single tasking because it doesn’t feel as productive as multi-tasking.

Really focusing on something is not as easy as checking that new email. Focusing is hard. Multi-tasking is the path of least resistance. Interruptions provide novelty, which is a primary drive of the human brain from an evolutionary standpoint.

The problem is that each interruption tempts us to multi-task even more. Once you’re interrupted, it takes half an hour to get refocused. And you can’t rely on your will power.

Devices were designed to make you want to check them compulsively so just turn them off. Dr. Carter has a sign on her home office door that says “you better be bleeding” because she knows how vital uninterrupted work time is.

Think about all of the little things that interrupt you from your work. Are you going to get hungry? Is someone going to call you? Is the room too cold?

Before you buckle down and start working, get your food, go to the bathroom, get your sweatshirt, turn off alerts, and close out of facebook and email. If you are doing something like studying for finals or writing, it is probably best to turn off wifi entirely. Establish your routine for getting ready to work and follow it every time. Do everything in the same order. Make your coffee, turn on your computer, turn off your devices, etc. When you do this, you train your brain to drop into the wonderful state of flow.

The opposite of busyness is flow.

Flow is when time stands still and we don’t feel overwhelmed or pressured for time. This state is when we do our most productive and engaging work. Dr. Carter did not bring this up but I am going to: flow is also the state that all extreme athletes necessarily must be in to accomplish their crazy athletic feats and in many cases, to avoid death.

Image result for Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold is “free soloing” a mountain with absolutely no protective equipment. You better believe he is in the flow state when he does this or he would plummet to his death.

Dr. Carter acknowledged that what she is saying feels soft and obvious but it works.

Those who can focus are 50% more engaged at work.

Dr. Carter then walked us through two mistaken beliefs that many of us operate under and how to recover from these beliefs.

Many of us operate under the mistaken belief that doing nothing is a waste of time but our brains benefit when we “waste time.”

Scientists conducted a study of what happens in the brain when people let their minds wander. They found that when your mind wanders, your brain is all lit up in a way that it isn’t when you’re focusing. When you are just staring into space and your mind is wandering, your brain is hard at work consolidating memories and drawing connections. That mode is where all of our creative insight comes from.

That’s why people get insights in the shower.

Dr. Carter encouraged us to engage in strategic slacking. Oftentimes, slacking is not strategic. When you don’t give yourself down time, if you try to focus, your mind wanders 47% of the time.

Lunchtime is a good time to go in daydreaming mode. Allow yourself time to stare into space while waiting in line at the grocery store. Engage in strategic slacking at those times that you’re not going to get anything done anyway.

This can be ridiculously hard, even painful.

Science proves it. People’s brains make it look like they’re in physical pain when you just put them in a room and leave them alone with their thoughts.

In one study, scientists paid people to get shocked. They asked who wanted to give their money back to avoid getting shocked again and put those people in a room with nothing but the electric shock machine. So the only people in the room were people that hated getting shocked so much, they were willing to pay to avoid it. Within 5-8 minutes, 68% of men and 25% of women shocked themselves out of boredom because there was nothing else to do!

Dr. Carter then played a great Louis CK video, where he talks about the importance of being alone with your thoughts.

Louis CK’s point is that devices enable us to numb our unpleasant feelings. We feel guilty we’re not doing work so we pick up the device. We think we never have to feel.

When we suppress our feelings, they grow bigger and will be amplified physiologically.

The problem is that we’re numbing our conscious awareness of everything we’re feeling. You cannot selectively numb negative feelings like anxiety or guilt; you necessarily numb all the positive feelings too.

Emotions typically don’t last longer than 90 seconds. So strategically slack and breathe and feel the feeling. Don’t pick up device and hit the shock machine.

Visualize a stop sign in your head when you want to pick up the device.

Strategic slacking brings us creative insight so strategically slack and give yourself the gift of a full range of your emotions.

Employees who take a break every 90 mins report a 30% better focus than those who take no breaks. They also report a 50% greater capacity to think creatively and a 46% higher level of health and well being.

Feeling encouraged to take breaks by people you work with increases by 100% your likelihood to stay with your company and doubles your sense of well-being.

Mistaken belief: More would be better.

We are often craving more. We want more likes on Instagram, more jeans, to attend a more prestigious school, and get a more prestigious job. We have been trained by our culture to believe more is better.

This crates a scarcity mentality. To your brain, it means that you don’t have enough. Just thinking it would be better to have more time makes your brain think you don’t have enough time. Brains evolved around food scarcity. Your brain tunnels and creates hyper focus to area where it is perceiving scarcity. Creating this scarcity mentality hinders your ability to use the full power of your brain.

Truth: Less is more. When we step back from the idea that more would be better, we see that we already have enough. This is especially true with time. You have enough time so make use of it.

Acknowledge the abundance that is all around you. Find something that is enough.

You don’t even have to acknowledge abundance; just acknowledge sufficiency. Sufficiency is not a quantity of anything. It’s a quality of life. Doing less is about perceiving more. The difference between scarcity and abundance is in our thoughts; it is perception. Change your thoughts!

Count your blessings. Train your brain to go to a place where you allow yourself to see that you have enough.

People who practice gratitude are healthier and happier. They sleep better and exercise more. I personally incorporate gratitude in my life by actively making a list of things I am grateful for while waiting and as humans, we wait frequently. I wait for the bus or train, in traffic, to use the women’s restroom. Make use of that time by being actively grateful. If you’re really having a tough time, I have found that it helps to start a 30 day gratitude journal with a friend where at the end of every day for 30 days, you send your friend a list of 10 things you are grateful for that happened to you that day.

Focusing on gratitude is a powerful lever in the workplace. Appreciate that other people are enough.

One of the most fundamental human fears is we’re not good enough. Acknowledge what you appreciate about others and tell them about it. This pulls you out of the scarcity mentality.

Feeling cared for by supervisor has a more significant effect on your trust and safety than any other behavior.

Supportive supervisors make you 67% more engaged and 1.3X more likely to stay with your organization.

  1. Let yourself focus without being interrupted. Start by trying for 1 ½ hours a day.

  2. Practice strategic slacking

  3. Appreciate the abundance that is all around you

“Beware the banality of a busy life”


It takes courage to stare into space at work and cut off interruptions and let yourself focus. What we need to lead our best lives is courage.

So this finals period and throughout your life, give yourself a break. Go take a walk (without your phone), exercise (without your phone), and let yourself stare out the window. You will be both happier AND more productive.

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