Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Christine is an author of two books and writes an award-winning blog. She has been quoted or featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and dozens of other publications. She has appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” the “Dr. Oz Show”, the “TODAY” show, the “Rachael Ray Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer”, PBS, as well as NPR and BBC Radio.
Drawing on the latest scientific research on positivity, productivity, and elite performance, Christine demonstrates a sweet paradox: by doing less we can actually accomplish more. She lives with her husband, four kids, and their dog in Marin County, California.
We spoke with Christine about her book The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home (2015). Read excerpts from our interview below.
1MFWF: What is the “sweet spot”—and is it the same thing as “having it all”?
Christine: The “sweet spot” is the overlap between where we have our greatest personal strengths and our greatest ease—that place of least resistance (a sports metaphor). The interesting thing about the sweet spot—and this is how it differs from “having it all”—is that we can get a lot done outside of our sweet spots, where we may have our greatest strengths but no ease—but we end up exhausted. So you might have it all, but you’re only going to hit those home runs from your sweet spot where there is no stress and little resistance.
When we think of “having it all,” maybe we could re-frame that as operating from a place where you have access to your sweet spot, so it’s not always about making such a powerful effort, but also about being able to access your own effortless power.
1MFWF: In order to excel at our jobs, we tend to feel the need to stay permanently connected to work by compulsively checking our devices at all hours. Can you share some reasons why this behavior is misguided?
Christine: The human brain did not evolve to work 24/7, so several things start to happen when we’re on our devices all the time.
First, our brains run out of energy. We start expecting ourselves to multi-task, but that’s a very inefficient way to work from a brain standpoint. It increases our stress and our tension, and that exhaustion depletes us and makes us worse at our jobs.
Second, we lose access to our ability to do deep work—to be able to think deeply, to really focus and solve problems innovatively and do work that requires real concentration (for most people, their most important work). We lose this ability because the brain is very novelty-seeking. It’s like dangling a sparkly ornament in front of a crow all the time: in fact, the human brain’s drive for novelty is as strong as it is for food and for sleep. So if you’re sitting at your desk trying to work and your device is available or your email is open, your brain is always going to reward that ding — you will get a nice little hit of dopamine each time. And the irony is that you will feel more productive as a part of the reward of checking your email — you will feel like you are getting something done, but it’s not true: it’s a little brain booby-trap. Just because you feel productive, that doesn’t correlate with how productive you are actually being—we are easily deceived by it. But your brain gets addicted to compulsive checking when it’s available all the time, so that everywhere we are—at home, at work—we feel that compulsion, which is an addictive pattern by definition.
Third, when you work all the time (whether “deep” or “shallow”), and you’re checking your devices all the time, you lose the ability to innovate. Creative insights are about as “sweet-spotty” is it gets: creative insights arise with ease when we’re not trying very hard. They are also very valuable and make us better at our jobs. But the only time our brain generates creative insight is when we’re not doing anything else—when we’re not focused on anything else. So that’s why we have this hilarious cliche that all of our best ideas happen in the shower—because there is no other place in American culture anymore where we get these ideas! Even standing in line at the grocery store we are checking our email, or we’re talking on the phone on the way to work, or we’re texting our kids while waiting for our soup to heat up for lunch—so it’s constant, there’s no daydreaming time. But when we just stare into space and let ourselves daydream, our brain actually becomes very active—much more active than if we were focused on a difficult problem, for example. All parts of our brain light up, and what our brain is doing is it’s drawing connections between all the things you didn’t previously see as connected, and that is where our creative insights come from: those new neural connections that are formed while daydreaming.
And speaking of those new connections—in order to draw those connections and have creative insight, you have to have that raw data, those components already in your brain, for your brain to connect. And if you don’t have any experiences outside of work, or outside of your device, then you don’t have good raw data for your brain to work with. The most creative people tend to have the most hobbies, for example—they are giving their brains lots to work with, lots of raw material.
1MFWF: You work from home much of the time yourself, and you share a number of productivity strategies you use in your own life to avoid distractions and the perils of multi-tasking. But some would say that a highlight of working from home is having the opportunity to take care of personal items during the workday. That in mind, you note the benefits of “double-tasking”—would you explain the term?
Christine: In general, multi-tasking is a horrific idea and is super inefficient. The human brain really did not evolve to do more than one thing at a time—with the possible exception of movement. So most people learn better while moving, and that’s believed to be evolutionary. Hunter/gatherers learned new food sources by moving, and so the two activities were coupled (that’s the evolutionary theory behind that idea).
So where it may make sense to “double-task” is where you have a physical task and a cognitive task. So it doesn’t work to try and monitor your email while on a phone call—that’s too stressful. But where there’s movement, there can be some benefits. I often will read article or do some writing on a treadmill—I have a treadmill desk. And I have a compulsion to pace while I’m talking on the phone, or to sweep the floor—my floor is very clean. I’ll fold laundry while helping my kids with their homework. The key to double-tasking is the pairing of something physical with something intellectual; not two mental tasks at the same time. You also have to consider that you are likely to be more prone to error this way and assess the risk that you may be slower and make more mistakes.
1MFWF: You share scientific research that shows how important physical connections and non-verbal cues can be in building relationships, and how they benefit productivity. Telecommuting naysayers might use this info as fodder for their case. Is it possible to build strong and productive work relationships when working remotely?
Christine: Yes. First of all, we have good technology now. With the teams I work with remotely, all of our meetings are not done on the phone but are done on Google Hangouts. As a result, you get the non-verbal cues—people are sitting in front of a camera and it’s fantastic, it works really well, and it also prevents people from multi-tasking while they’re on the phone with you. In that sense there is even increased efficiency—more so than if we were all sitting in a conference room together. In fact, with the right technology, remote work can in fact be better—and I actually think it’s important for work teams to think about “How can this be better,” what isn’t efficient, what isn’t effective about meetings if we are all working in the same space—it can be improved.
The second thing to think about—I’m a coach, and I do 95% of my coaching on the phone, with people all over the world. And even the people who live in the same county as I do, most of the time they opt for a phone meeting rather than coming into my office. And that’s because, in addition to the efficiency of it (you don’t lose time driving), it provides some safety: you can get right to the heart of the issue. You can say exactly what you mean, and not have to beat around the bush with sugar-coating. It takes a lot of courage to be really direct, and the safety of not having to look someone in the eye while you say what you mean is terrifically effective.
A lot of people might wonder if that just lets people be mean in meetings—in my experience, not at all, but it really helps equalize power differentials. So the people who would be too shy, or people who are lower on the totem pole who wouldn’t feel comfortable giving feedback to the CEO, often will on the phone, because it provides a level of safety. This is really good news for the CEO, because good leaders need to know what their people are really thinking, so any technology that’s going to provide not just efficiency, but also greater transparency, greater access to what people think—to the truth—is a benefit.
1MFWF: There is a lot of pressure to keep up appearances in work and life, as the “ideal worker” or the “ideal parent”. As a result, people tend to stay quiet about areas of struggle, in fear of being seen as failing. But you talk about how straying from these ideals is actually a strength, not a failure. How is it productive to be “divergent”?
Christine: We live in a world that is changing so rapidly—and the most successful people will be able to solve all the new problems that are coming up with innovative solutions. The rate of change is happening so fast that we need our divergent thinkers, because those are the people who remain able to adapt to change the most quickly. And I actually believe that all of us are divergent in our own ways—but the people who are less bound to the culture, and the things that culture says they should do, the people who are more true to themselves, who know what they need and can figure out a way to get it—those are the people who are going to help us survive this very rapid rate of change.
1 Million for Work Flexibility teamed up with our supporter ThirdPath Institute to co-host a special “Thursdays with ThirdPath” webinar featuring Christine Carter on finding your sweet spot at home and at work. Watch the recording here.
Watch Christine Carter in a PBS NewsHour report, Can Money Buy Happiness?:
photo credit: Blake Farrington