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Sidestep Stress, Beat Burnout, and Have It All—Really!

Blake Farrington

Despite being the mom to two great kids and director of the prestigious Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., was constantly sick and stressed. So she set out to discover how to truly have it all—the happy family, fulfilling job, and the wellbeing to enjoy it. In advance of her new book, The Sweet Spot, out January 20, we talked to Dr. Carter to find out what she learned, and what advice she has to offer.

Shape: What inspired your book?
Dr. Christine Carter (CC): I’m a chronic overachiever, and a recovering perfectionist. And after a decade of studying the research around happiness, positive emotions, and elite performance [at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center], I had a scary health moment. I had everything—great kids, great family life, fulfilling work—but I was sick all the time, and I was always overwhelmed. (Fellow perfectionists, listen up: Here are 3 Reasons to Not Be Perfect.)

Everyone I spoke to about this said I’d have to give something up, that I couldn’t have it all. But I thought, If I can’t be successful, happy, and healthy at once, and I’ve been studying this for a decade—then all women are screwed! So I started road testing all the techniques I was coaching others about at the Center to figure out where all my energy was going, and the book was born out of that.

Shape: And what did you find?
CC: Our culture tells us that busyness is a marker of importance. If you’re not exhausted, then you must not be working hard enough. But it’s one thing to be successful, and it’s another to be healthy enough or have enough energy to enjoy your success. I ended up really redesigning my life one routine at a time. And some of the changes are simple things that really do seem like the science of the blazingly obvious. But they do bear repeating—because they really work! 

Shape: So what tips can you offer for someone who’s feeling totally stressed and overwhelmed?
CC: First, acknowledge your feelings. Women’s instinctive response to anxiety is to resist it or push it away. But research shows that when we do that, the physical symptoms of stress get worse. So by not resisting, you actually let the emotions dissipate.

Next, reach for uplifting things—a playlist filled with happy songs, cute photos of animals, an inspirational poem. These are kind of an emergency break for your fight-or-flight response; they’ll short-circuit your stress by bringing on positive feelings instead. (This Get-Happy-and-Fit-With-Pharrell Workout Playlist should do the trick!)

Then once you’re feeling better, the final step is to prevent the stress from cropping back up. To do that, you need to take active steps toward reducing cognitive overload, or the amount of information and stressors you take in. (Your tension may be wreaking more havoc than you realize. Here are 10 Weird Ways Your Body Reacts to Stress.)

Shape: And how do you do that?
CC: Honestly, no one likes to hear it, but the top way is to shut off your phone. Think of your energy like a full balloon. Every time you check your email, work schedule, or Twitter feed on your phone, it creates a slow leak in the balloon. Eventually, you’ll be completely deflated. When you power down your phone—and I mean that literally, you should actually, physically shut off your phone—you give yourself a chance to refill the balloon. (Learn more about how Your Cell Phone Is Ruining Your Downtime, and what to do about it.)

Shape: That’s a tall order for lots of women—including myself! Are there certain times that it’s most important to unplug?
CC:
Yes! Hands down, when you’re in bed. That’s a time when you’re supposed to be relaxing, which you can’t do if you’re on the phone. I even recommend that women buy a real, old-fashioned alarm clock so they don’t have to use their phone’s alarm, which tempts them to check their email first thing. (Discover why calm people Never Sleep With Their Cell—and 7 other secrets they know.)

Shape: How else can you reduce your cognitive overload?
CC:
A big one is to do what I call “turning on autopilot.” Research shows that 95 percent of our brain activity is unconscious: When you’re driving and see someone crossing the road in front of you, you hit the breaks automatically, for instance. So think about all the things you don’t need to do consciously throughout the day, like your morning routine. Do you do the same things in the same order every day—up, coffee, gym, shower? Or do you wake up and think, Should I exercise this morning, or later? Should I make coffee now, or after my shower?

I teach people more about how to do this on my website (you can register for free). Every day, I send an email detailing a small step you can take to streamline your routines.

Shape: What’s the smallest step someone can take that will have the biggest impact on their daily happiness and stress levels?
CC:
I’d say to establish a “better-than-nothing” exercise plan that takes less than five minutes to do, for days when you can’t make it to the gym. Mine is 25 squats, 20 push-ups, and a one-minute plank; it takes me three minutes, but it works. I’ve been told I have “Michelle Obama arms” before, and this is the only upper body workout I do! (Learn why Exercise Is the Key to Work-Life Balance here.) And once a day, think of something or something you’re thankful for. Research shows gratitude is the foundation for personal happiness. 

To learn more about escaping the “busyness trap” and uncovering a happier, less stressed you, buy a copy of Dr. Carter’s new book The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, on sale January 20.

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