STOP CHASING THE FUTURE
A famous parable recounts how a successful and wealthy investment banker tries to encourage a humble Mexican man fishing on a pier to boost his output so he can make more money, grow his business, and eventually become a millionaire. The fisherman asks, “What for?” To which the banker says, “So you can retire, relax, and just fish”—which is precisely what the fisherman was doing in the first place. This parable illustrates how you can get so caught up in the chase that you forget your end goal, which is to be happy.
Being ambitious and having goals are of course essential. However, to actually achieve those goals to the best of your ability, remain present. Being present allows you to find fulfillment in the moment, in the task at hand—rather than in some distant future, after you have achieved everything and ticked every last task off of your list. When you slow down and focus one hundred percent on the tasks you are working on or the people you are with, then everything becomes joyful, even the mundane. That joy in turn leads you to perform better, be more productive, become charismatic, and build better relationships.
STEP OUT OF OVERDRIVE
If you have a fast-paced life, slowing down may seem like a challenge. We’re so used to running around and being addicted to the “speed” of life that making this shift to a slower gear seems down right foreign. However, you can learn to tap into your natural resilience. Consciously make time for calming activities. They are vital to your nervous system and well-being. Schedule them into your other top priorities, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth. We usually emphasize habits that make us look and feel good on the outside (grooming ourselves, putting on makeup, showering, and so on), but forget to do the same for what makes us feel good on the inside.
Your breath is with you all the time; it’s the most accessible tool you have, and it’s invisible. You can practice breathing for well-being no matter where you are, without anyone noticing. At a board meeting that is getting contentious, or when your child is throwing a temper tantrum in the backseat, or when you’re exhausted and still have hours of work ahead, take a breather.
The most basic way to develop a relationship with your breath is to take a few minutes, each day, to close your eyes and bring your total attention to your breath. Notice whether it is fast or slow, deep or shallow.
Soon enough, thanks to this practice, you will begin to notice that your breathing shifts with your feelings and emotions during the day. For example, you will naturally take a deep breath during challenging times or find that your breath quickens with anxiety or anger. As you become more aware of your breath, you’ll also start to gain more control over it and your feelings in the moment. Thanks to that awareness, when you feel fear coming on, for example, you may notice your breath speeding up and becoming shallower. At that point you can consciously slow it down and breathe into your abdomen to relax. With practice, you will know to take deep and slow belly breaths whenever you encounter a challenging situation.
MANAGE YOUR ENERGY
In our busy and overwhelmed culture, we are often urged to manage time better. Time management apps, blogs, and workshops abound. We believe that if only we could manage our time, we would get more done and be happier. However, there are only so many hours in a day, no matter how neatly scheduled you are. A better focus—and one that few people understand—is energy management.
How are you using the energy you have each day? Most people burn it unnecessarily on high-intensity emotions, self-control, and counterproductive thinking. The best way to manage energy is by cultivating calm. The result? Less stress, a clearer mind, and sharper focus to get your work done. You get the same amount of work done, but you remain balanced and enjoy the process. Because you are able to think more clearly, you do a far better job. The best part, of course, is that because you are not as tired, your energy levels remain high. As a result, you are happier and more successful.
GET MORE DONE BY DOING MORE OF NOTHING
Just as joy and fun can make you more creative, creativity in turn enhances your well-being. The more creative you become, the more joy you invite into your life. Nikola Tesla wrote, “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.” By naturally tapping into your inner creativity, you reconnect with the joy you had as a child playing. You engage in a positive feedback loop that continues to replenish you with joy and creativity. It makes for an adult life rich with delight and inventiveness.
This is where the research points: happiness is the secret to breakthrough creativity. Make sure to have idle time—but enjoy it. Treat it as time off, time for yourself, time to relax and have fun. Resist the urge for instant gratification. After all, expecting brilliance to emerge from an unstructured activity turns that activity into a purposeful one. Your mind returns to a state of focus and anxious expectation. For example, don’t return from walking your dog thinking, “Gosh, I didn’t have any creative insights about how to improve my presentation on this walk, and I missed the opportunity to call my bank to dispute that charge.” You may find that creative insights arise on some occasions, and not on others. Either way, this period of integration and relaxation will benefit you more profoundly than you know.
Creativity and the success it produces do not emerge out of single-minded focus on “purposeful” activities. They come from idleness, fun, stillness, calm, and relaxation. It may seem counterintuitive that taking a walk, relaxing on your porch, reading a novel rather than an article related to your field, or doing something fun like playing a round of golf can help you develop better ideas and come up with creative solutions to problems. Yet it is through these acts of self-care and enjoyment that your greatest insights are likely to occur. The heightened levels of psychological well-being you will derive from being idle, diversifying your activities, and finding time for silence and play can greatly contribute to your success.
ENJOY A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP . . . WITH YOURSELF
Self-compassion can seem challenging. Not only are we used to being self-critical, but we are brought up to avoid bragging. We are taught to be kind to others, but the idea of being kind to oneself can seem foreign or even new-agey.
Here are some tips for how to make self-compassion a habit.
Notice your self-talk. Neff suggests that in times of failure or challenge, noticing your self-talk can help you curb self-criticism and replace it with self-compassion. For example, instead of saying things like “How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!” you might say, “I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s okay. It could have happened to anyone; it’s no big deal.”
Write yourself a letter. When your emotions are overwhelming, Neff suggests writing a letter to yourself as if you were writing to a friend. Let’s say you made a costly error and are feeling angry with yourself. It might feel stilted or strange at first, but write a letter as if you were writing it to someone dear to you who had committed the same error. Your words should comfort and not attack, normalizing the situation rather than blowing it out of proportion. A number of studies demonstrate that writing about your emotions can help regulate them.
Develop a self-compassion phrase. Neff suggests developing a self-compassion mantra or phrase that you can turn to in challenging situations, so you can deal with them calmly and with grace. Her mantra is “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this.
UNDERSTAND THE KINDNESS EDGE
How can you increase your compassion? Because we are wired for empathy, all we have to do is tap into this empathy reflex within us. Here are a couple of ways you can learn to do so.
Pay full attention when others are talking. When you talk to someone, listen and watch one hundred percent. A lot is communicated through facial expressions and even intonations. Listen to the other person’s words, and notice how she expresses herself. Watch her facial expressions, particularly her eyes. The saying “Eyes are the windows to the soul” expresses a truth; research shows you can read people’s emotions through their gaze.
Verbalize the other person’s point of view. Another way you can empathize with someone is to verbalize the emotion you observe they are feeling. Next time you are in a difficult conversation, try to acknowledge the other person’s emotions. If you find a tactful way to show that you understand that your boss is upset (“It seems that you are very frustrated by [fill in the blank]”) or that your colleague is sad (“You seem a little down today; please let me know if there is anything I can do to support you”), it may improve the relationship you have with the other person, who will feel heard and understood.
Whereas the self-focus myth we have been brought up to believe in actuality hampers our success and well-being, focusing on others through compassion produces extraordinary results. Research shows that when you live your life (be it at work or at home) from an authentic and caring place, you automatically breed trust around you. You inspire others and uplift them, and as a consequence they feel closer to you and even devoted to you. In addition to becoming more successful, you significantly boost your health and psychological well-being. Your impact spreads, as you create a culture of positivity that benefits those around you and reaps great results for you.