The Sweet Spot

"When we start to feel worthwhile because of our busyness, we start to believe the corollary: if I'm not busy, I'm not worthwhile." ~Christine Carter

Christine Carter’s book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find your Groove at Home and Work (2015), is an entertaining literature review of positive psychology research. I found myself nodding along each time she deftly summarized the high points of a scholar’s work in two or three breezy pages.

Christine Carter’s own quest for practical solutions to everyday challenges frames the book as a whole. She shares her struggles managing a part-time academic career, kids, public speaking, and writing. Throughout, she shares the strategies that helped her take her life and career to the next level.

I particularly liked the way she pointed out some lesser-known thinking traps:

Don’t Waffle

I’m getting the most mileage out of her maxim “don’t waffle.” In today’s age of infinite information, infinite opportunities, and infinite claims on our time and attention, we all need to cultivate the skill of making good-enough decisions based on partial information.

It’s easy, though, to second-guess ourselves into misery. Carter notes that when we close off other options, we feel better about our decisions and ourselves.

All Work and No Play Gives Jack an Anxiety Disorder

Some psychology experiments have inadvertently determined what NOT to do. Like Csikszentmilhalyi’s discovery of a simple method for inducing what looked like “textbook cases of generalized anxiety disorder”!

He asked research subjects to attempt all work and no play–for just 48 hours.

I’ve definitely made that mistake. So have many of my grad school buddies. Especially at the dissertation stage and during the first year of a tenure-track job.

Slow and Steady (and Regular Rest) Wins the Race

I keep coming back to Carter’s point that “Focused work is not the same as unending work” (p. 7). She emphasizes the importance of pacing. Bringing forward examples from olive trees, to writers, to ultra-long-distance hikers, she points out that the key practice is determining–ahead of time–what counts as “enough” for each day, and STOPPING THERE.

As Boice points out, struggling academics tend to do the opposite: working until exhausted, and never establishing a steady rhythm to their efforts. If the reward for working hard is more work, why bother at all?

Carter reminds us that predictable time off improves work satisfaction and productivity. Let’s hear a big cheer for regular rest and relaxation!