You Need To Take More Vacation … And Here’s How To Do It

Mandatory vacation is the way of the future


Have you ever felt burned out after a vacation?

I’m not talking about being exhausted from fighting with your family at Disney World all week. I’m talking about how you knew, the whole time walking around Epcot, that a world of work was waiting for you upon your return.

Our vacation systems are completely broken.

They don’t work.

The classic corporate vacation system goes something like this: You get a set number of vacation days a year (often only two to three weeks), you fill out some 1996-era form to apply for time off, you get your boss’s signature, and then you file it with a team assistant or log it in some terrible database. It’s an admin headache. Then most people have to frantically cram extra work into the weeks before they leave for vacation in order to actually extract themselves from the office. By the time we finally turn on our out-of-office messages, we’re beyond stressed, and we know that we’ll have an even bigger pile of work waiting for us when we return.

What a nightmare.

For most of us, it’s hard to actually use vacation time to recharge.

So it’s no wonder that absenteeism remains a massive problem for most companies, with payrolls dotted with sick leaves, disability leaves, and stress leaves.

In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions says that absenteeism costs the country’s economy more than £100 billion per year. A white paper published by the Workforce Institute and produced by Circadian, a workforce solutions company, calls absenteeism a bottom-line killer that costs employers $3,600 per hourly employee and $2,650 per salaried employee per year. It doesn’t help that, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only country out of 21 wealthy countries that doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time. (Check out this world map on Wikipedia to see where your country stacks up. We love you, Enlightened Swedes!)


Let’s solve this problem.

First question is this big one.

Would it help if we got more paid vacation?

No, not necessarily.

According to a study from the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, just over 40% of Americans plan not to use all their paid time off anyway. It’s not the amount we’re given then, it’s the amount we’re taking, or feel able to take.

So what’s the progressive approach?

Is it the Netflix or Twitter policies that say take as much vacation as you want, whenever you want it? Open-ended, unlimited vacation sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? Very progressive, right? No, that approach is broken too.

What happens in practice with unlimited vacation time? Warrior mentality. Peer pressure. Social signals that say you’re a slacker if you’re not in the office. Mathias Meyer, the CEO of German tech company Travis CI, wrote a blog post about his company abandoning its unlimited vacation policy:

“When people are uncertain about how many days it’s okay to take off, you’ll see curious things happen. People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don’t want to seem like that person who’s taking the most vacation days. It’s a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well rested and happy team.”

The point is that in unlimited vacation time systems, you probably won’t actually take a few weeks to travel through South America after your wedding, because there’s too much social pressure against going away for so long. Work objectives, goals, and deadlines are demanding. You look at your peers and see that nobody is backpacking through China this summer, so you don’t go either. You don’t want to let your team down, so your dream of visiting Machu Picchu sits on the shelf forever.

What’s the solution?

Recurring, scheduled mandatory vacation.

Yes, that’s right — an entirely new approach to managing vacation. And one that preliminary research shows works much more effectively.

Designer Stefan Sagmeister said in his TED talk, “The Power of Time Off,” that every seven years he takes one year off. He said:

“In that year, we are not available for any of our clients. We are totally closed. And as you can imagine, it is a lovely and very energetic time.”

He does warn that the sabbaticals take a lot of planning, and that you get the most benefit from them after you’ve worked for a significant amount of time.

Why does he do this? He says:

“Right now we spend about the first 25 years of our lives learning, then there are another 40 years that are really reserved for working. And then tacked on at the end of it are about 15 years for retirement. And I thought it might be helpful to basically cut off five of those retirement years and intersperse them in between those working years.”

As he says, that one year is the source of his creativity, inspiration, and ideas for the next seven years.

I wanted to test this theory so I collaborated with Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, a global aviation strategy firm of about 10 people, to ask a simple question:

“What if we force people to take a scheduled week off every seven weeks?”

The idea was that this would be a microcosm of the Sagmeister principle of one week off every seven years. And it was entirely mandatory. In fact, we designed it so that if you contacted the office while you were on vacation — whether through email, WhatsApp, Slack, or anything else — you didn’t get paid for that vacation week. We tried to build in a financial punishment for working when you aren’t supposed to be working, in order to establish a norm about disconnecting from the office.

The system is designed so that you don’t get a say in when you go. Some may say that’s a downside, but for this experiment, we believed that putting a structure in place would be a significant benefit. The team and clients would know well ahead of time when someone would be taking a week off. And the point is you actually go. And everybody goes. So there are no questions, paperwork, or guilt involved with not being at the office.

With this 12 week experiment we had managers rate employee productivity, creativity, and happiness levels before and after the mandatory time off. (We used a five-point Likert scale, using simple statements such as “Ravi is demonstrating creativity in his work,” with the options ranging from one, Strongly Disagree, to five, Strongly Agree.)

And what did we find out?

Creativity went up 33%, happiness levels rose 25%, and productivity increased 13%. It’s a small sample, sure, but there’s a meaningful story here. When we dive deeper on creativity, the average employee score was 3.0 before time off and 4.0 after time off. For happiness, the average employee score was 3.2 before time off and 4.0 afterward. And for productivity, the average employee score was 3.2 before and rose to 3.6.

This complements the feedback we got from employees who, upon their return, wrote blog posts about their experiences with the process and what they did with their time. Many talked about how people finally found time to cross things off of their bucket lists — finally holding an art exhibition, learning a new language, or traveling somewhere they’d never been before.

Now, this is a small company, and we haven’t tested the results in a large organization. But the question is: Could something this simple work in your workplace? Are you the leader in charge of a team who could try this? Do you run a company where you want to give it a shot?

Let me share two pieces of constructive feedback that came back:

  • Frequency was too high. Employees found that once every seven weeks (while beautiful on paper) was just too frequent for a small company like SimpliFlying. Its competitive advantage is agility, and having staff take time off too often upset the work rhythm. Nigam proposed adjusting it to every twelve weeks. But with employee input, we redesigned it to once every eight weeks.

  • Staggering was important. Let’s say that two or three people work together on a project team. We found that it didn’t make sense for these people to take time off back-to-back. Batons get dropped if there are consecutive absences. We revised the arrangement so that no one can take a week off right after someone has just come back from one. The high-level design is important and needs to work for the business.

This is early research, but it confirms something we said at the beginning: Vacation systems are broken and aren’t actually doing what they’re advertised to do. If you show up drained after your vacation, that means you didn’t get the benefit of creating space.

Why is creating space so important?

Consider this quote from Tim Kreider, who wrote “The ‘Busy’ Trap” for the New York Times:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Vacations systems are broken.

But early results say that mandatory vacation could fix them.

Life is short so the earlier we get cracking the more time we’ll be spending doing better and more important work.

Check out the video version of this article below:

An earlier version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

The Single Principle You Must Practice When Feeling Overwhelmed or Burned Out


Years ago I got divorced and went from married suburbanite to urban bachelor in the span of a few weeks. Talk about a bumpy landing. I didn’t have any friends, family, or social support downtown, so it took me time to develop a new two-word philosophy to rattle myself out of the wallowing.

What was the two-word philosophy?

Say yes.

To anything, anytime, with anyone. Say yes. Simple as that.

I don’t regret that philosophy. It brought me opportunities and human connections that I would have never had otherwise. But for everything I gained, I also paid the price on productivity. The more you’re given a chance to do, and then actually do, of course the less time you have to do it all.

So this article shares how I knew it was time to rein it in and the method I use to keep everything in balance today. It’s a great principle if you’re struggling with any form of overwhelm, burnout, or just feeling like there’s always too much to do.


Defaulting to yes actually worked well for me in those first few years.

I went to charity events for organizations I’d never heard of before, I was the guy at the concert who doesn’t know the songs but buys the album anyway, and I often had some random internet friend crashing on my couch.

Of course, I also had lots of nights that didn’t end well. Stutter stops, terrible blind dates, cold lonely walks home from some get-together that didn’t go anywhere. But I also said yes to doing a TED Talk that became one of the world’s most inspiring and said yes to writing a bunch of short blog posts for myself which ultimately turned into The Book of Awesome and sold a million copies.

And then, over time, I suddenly had more options, more choices, and more invitations than I could possibly accept. This transition happens to many of us. You go from parent of one kid to parent of three. You say yes to the community board and suddenly three more boards ask you to join. You score a promotion at work and then inherit a big team of 10 people to manage.

You look back and realize that you said yes to more—more meetings, more opportunities, more challenges. Your life accelerated. But then you hit a point where you suddenly have too much to do.

Welcome to the World of Overwhelm.

Now what?


My friend Derek Sivers has a great philosophy that I’ve adopted and want to share with you. It’s called, “No or hell yeah!” and it’s really quite simple. Here’s how it works: You receive an invitation to do something (a date, a job, a social event, whatever), then take a minute to observe your authentic reaction—which is invariably either one of two things:

  1. A super emphatic, fist-pumping, “Hell yeah!” where you’re just shaking with excitement to do it—in which case you do it, or

  2. Literally anything else at all—in which case you don’t.

The beauty of this model is that it filters every other positive reaction into a no: “Um, sounds good!”, “Lemme check my calendar, I think I’m open,” or the dreaded, “Can I get back to you?”

No, no, all no!

Those are lukewarm reactions that remain positive until just before you get to the commitment and realize you wish you’d said no instead. Maybe you even bail last-minute, which destroys trust and hurts your reputation. It’s much easier to simply filter your options through the “No or Hell Yeah” model up front, to make sure you’re only committing to things you really want to do.


What’s the benefit?

You don’t kill those invisible opportunities you haven’t dreamt up yet—those big projects you need time to dive into, and all the downtime your mind needs to create space for what matters.

I knew it was time to switch from “say yes” to “no or hell yeah!” when I looked at my calendar and realized I was swamped, morning to night, on things I really enjoyed doing but—and here’s the crucial part—only some of which I loved so much as to call life changing. If “good” is the enemy of great, then “great” is the enemy of “life changing.”

Why does it need to be life changing? Simple. Life is short. We have on average 30,000 days here total. It’s over in a blink! There are already loads of options and obligations you simply can’t say no to because they’re part of your work or family responsibilities. And that’s fine. But that often leaves precious little room for your personal and social commitments, which makes it all the more important to set a really high bar for those. When you do, you’ll free up time to focus on what you care deeply about. And the benefit of doing that will start leaking into your work and family life, too.

Now, I’ll be honest. Though it sounds great on paper, making this transition wasn’t easy for me. It was actually downright painful. And it continues to be. It’s not just saying no to a lunch meeting so you can write a book chapter. That’s the easy stuff! It also includes missing a family dinner because I’m off interviewing David Sedaris for my podcast. These hurt—deeply. It’s incredibly hard saying no to friends, fun projects, and fly-away ideas. Plus, sometimes you find yourself just staring in horror as a brand-new relationship you know would take off if you had time to put into it just sputters and dies because of zero water or sunlight.

No need to pretend that’s easy. It’s frankly a horrible feeling.

But the alternative?

Well, those giant regrets haunting you later in life—that maybe you could’ve tackled your dream job, that perhaps you should’ve done something that felt more meaningful—those are harder to brush away than any obligations cluttering your calendar next week or next month. Because plotted on a long enough timeline saying yes to everything doesn’t just tank your productivity, it also eats away at your sense of purpose.

And that’s actually pretty easy to say no to, don’t you think?

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

Here's Why You Need A 'Day of Yes'


We’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic.

More of us live alone now compared to ever before, and a New York Times article says the percentage of American adults who report they’re lonely has doubled since the 1980s. Now it’s sky-high at 40 per cent.

And it gets worse. A recent meta-analysis titled “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk” shows loneliness creates double the mortality risk of obesity and is actually even greater than the risk of smoking.

Suddenly it feels like many of us are facing a particularly bleak future.

Do you ever feel lonely? Or know others who do? I certainly felt devastatingly lonely when I crash-landed downtown after my divorce years ago. Suddenly I had no friends, no family, and no social structure around me. It took me time to invent a two-word philosophy to kick myself out of the gloom and doom.

What was it?

Say Yes.

I know it’s not revolutionary but it changed my behaviour so much.

Suddenly with my new philosophy I was saying yes to anything I was asked to do. I found myself volunteering for charity functions, going to the play with six people in the audience, and saying yes to any event, literally any event, anybody asked me to attend.

Shonda Rhimes, creator and producer of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, delivered a 4-million-plus viewed TED Talk called “My year of saying yes to everything.” In it she says:

“So a while ago, I tried an experiment. For one year, I would say yes to all the things that scared me. Anything that made me nervous, took me out of my comfort zone, I forced myself to say yes to. Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes. Did I want to be on live TV? No, but yes . . . And a crazy thing happened: the very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear, made it not scary. My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, poof, gone . . . ‘Yes’ changed my life. ‘Yes’ changed me.”

Yes puts you in situations you’re not comfortable with.

Yes helps you get out there.

Oh, and how big is the relationship between social ties and happiness?

It’s not big.

It’s gigantic.

According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who wrote popular bestseller Stumbling on Happiness:

“If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network — about your friends and family and the strength of the bonds with them.”

So say yes. Say yes! Get out there. When you sign up for things you’re scared to do, go on trips you never thought you’d go on, and sign up for activities you have no business doing, guess what happens?

You meet new people, you create new relationships, you combat loneliness head-on . . . and you become happier.

And if a Year of Yes sounds too intimidating, no problem.

Just start with a Day of Yes first.

How about today?

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Toronto Star

How To Make More Money Than A Harvard MBA


Harvard makes you feel rich.

I walked through campus for two years feeling like I’d been cast in the lead role of Moneybags McGee in a movie about ruling the world and having it all.

On Harvard’s campus, tall twisting oak trees blow softly in the wind, casting polka-dot shadows over beautiful red-brick buildings, manicured ivy, and rolling lawns. Students ease open thirty-foot-tall carved wooden doors to grab made-to-order sushi from the cafeteria before eating with friends on brown leather couches against walls covered with expensive original art.

The students at Harvard Business School feel rich because they either are rich… or they’re about to get rich.

The average graduating salary is $140,000! To put that in perspective, the average American makes $905 a week or $47,060 a year. That means a fresh-faced, dewy-eyed twenty-six-year-old with two years of business school under his or her belt makes three times what the average American citizen makes. I know my salary almost tripled after I graduated from Harvard.

Yes, Harvard makes you feel rich because it actually makes you rich.

Or does it?

I was sad when I graduated, because all my friends were scattering in different directions. After a big road trip, it was suddenly all over and then:

  • Mark and his wife moved to Houston, and he got a job with a high-end consulting company. A full 25% of Harvard Business School grads go work for consulting firms, and the hours are notoriously tough. Unless they land a local assignment, most consultants fly out Monday mornings and fly home Thursday nights, every single week, every single month, forever.

  • Chris went to Washington, DC to be assistant principal at a big charter school. We kept in touch, but he was always at work when I called. We talked about our road trip and I’d ask him, “Are you getting any sleep these days?” He’d say, “Well, I get to work every morning around 7:00 a.m. and get home around 9:00 p.m. I usually go in for a few hours on the weekend, too. So yeah, enough sleep, but not much else.”

  • Ryan went into private equity in New York. 29% of Harvard Business School grads get finance jobs in sub-industries like investment banking, private equity, or hedge funds. They help big companies buy each other, invest in illiquid assets, create complicated investments. But Ryan told me he started work around 10:00 a.m. and worked till 11:00 p.m., seven days a week.

  • Sonia went to work in Silicon Valley at a big tech company. The tech giants hire 19% of the graduates from our class and had great reputations for gourmet meals, dry-cleaning, and Ping-Pong tables at the office. When I reached out to Sonia a year after graduation she told me she loved her job and was working about eighty hours a week.

It seemed crazy to me, but all my friends were working like 80 to 100 hours a week. And a week only has 168 hours in it! I remember thinking, “Is everyone nuts?”

I thought back to Harvard and remembered going out for dinner with a group of McKinsey consultants during a recruiting event. They flew to Boston and wined and dined us at a ritzy joint. We drank expensive wines, ate delicious food, and talked about world issues into the wee hours. My brain was overheating because of the stimulating conversation. These folks were warm, friendly, and killer smart. It was a great night.

But the thing I remember most is that when we were finally finishing up around two in the morning, all the McKinsey consultants were… going back to work! I’m not joking. They were jumping on conference calls with teams in Shanghai, opening laptops to do emails, or getting together to finalize presentations for the next day. At two in the morning!

Consultants and finance folks make up most of Harvard Business School grads and they work approximately 80 to 100 hours a week.

Are they really making $140,000 a year?

Do you remember fractions? I learned them back in fourth grade in a moldy classroom with flickering florescent lights in my elementary school. Pink chalk dust scrawled across blackboards showing us how one-half can be written as ½ or three-quarters can be written as ¾… with 3 being the numerator and 4 being the denominator. As in “I sat on the couch in sweatpants watching Netflix all night and ate 3⁄4 of a sausage pizza.”

Well, the Harvard salary of $140,000 is a fraction, too.

Every single job is paid by the hour.

Harvard Business School grads make double or triple the money a lot of people make, but they often work double or triple the hours, too. When you work that much, it’s harder to find time to shovel the driveway, play with your kids, or plant your garden, so maybe you hire people on the cheap to do those things for you. You will still have fun! Frankly, the money you’re making can afford luxury vacations and expensive restaurants. You may have even more fun. But there’s less time for fun.

Think about whether it’s important to you to feel the pride of a freshly shoveled driveway, the joy of watching your kids discover a new word, or see the tulips you planted in the fall finally bloom in the spring.

There’s nothing wrong with either life.

But think about the life you want.

Here’s how much a Harvard MBA makes compared to two very common jobs: an assistant manager at a retail store and an elementary school teacher.

They all make $28/hour.

Where did I get the numbers from?

Well, teachers are scheduled for seven-hour school days (usually 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) with typically an hour off for lunch. Let’s round that up to thirty working hours a week. But we all know how hard teachers work. We know it’s way more than that! My dad is a teacher, my wife Leslie is a teacher, and they bring work home. The average teacher does an hour or two of work every single night! Marking, prepping, coaching a team. So I added ten hours a week for that.

Retail store assistant managers are typically scheduled for forty-hour work-weeks, but it’s a tough job. They end up working before or after shifts sometimes. There are questions, issues pop up, people call them at home. So I added ten hours a week for that.

And the eighty-five hours for Harvard MBAs? It’s a ballpark average figure based on my data, research, and personal experience. Working on consulting gigs in a Chicago hotel room or slaving away on an investment banking deal doesn’t exactly give you free evenings or weekends.

Although these numbers are generally accurate, of course there are exceptions. Are you the outlier teacher working eighty-five hours a week or the outlier Harvard MBA working forty? Maybe! But stick with me, because there’s still value in the higher level point here.

What’s the bottom line?

They all make $28/hour!

So how do you make more money than a Harvard MBA?

Work way less hours than they do … and make more dollars per hour.

But wait: Am I telling you to work less? No, that’s not the final takeaway. My point here isn’t that you should suddenly dial down your interests, passion, or career. My point is to calculate how much you make per hour and know this number. Remember this number. Have this number in your head. I have friends who work around the clock as downtown lawyers and they joke, “When I do the math I actually make less than minimum wage.” They’re right! And, frankly, I don’t understand them. Do not make less than minimum wage!

The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue your time so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.

The average life expectancy is around 30,000 days and we sleep for a third of that.

That means you have less than 20,000 days in your life total.

Understand how much a Harvard MBA really makes and then overvalue you, and overvalue your time, so every single hour of your working life is spent doing something you love.

Check out the video version of this article below:

An earlier version of this article appeared in my

#1 international bestseller The Happiness Equation

Here's Why You Need A Relationship Contract (And What To Put In It)


“Congratulations, Neil!”

I was sitting across from the SVP of HR at Walmart a few years ago when he offered me his hand and a new sheet of paper with all the terms of my new promotion spelled out. I shook his hand and left his office doing mental cartwheels down the hall.

This was it!

The dream job.

More money, bigger team, fancier title, more interesting work.

And more actual work, too.

Because isn’t that how promotions usually work?

A few more meetings. A few more hours. A few more business trips. A bigger job isn’t just a bigger paycheck. It’s got more responsibility, too.

With the job offer in hand I popped my head into the office of one of my mentors at the company and said:

“Guess what! I got the big promotion.”

“Congratulations!” he said. “Are you going to accept it?”

His simple question caught me off guard.

“Well, it feels like a slam dunk,” I replied, with a bit of a confused look in my eyes, wondering what he was getting at. “Everything improves here — salary, benefits, title. Great for future employability, too. If I get turfed I have a nice “top line” on my resumé. A good benchmark for going somewhere else. I feel like I should sign this right now and head straight back to the SVP’s office.”

“Go ahead and sign it,” he said with smile. “But it’s a big job! You’ll be leading a large team and on the road a lot. So, before you hand it back in, make sure you take the contract home, share it with your wife, and write up another contract, too. A family contract. One between you and your partner. The company is changing all your terms, aren’t they? So make sure you revisit all your home terms, too.”

His message rang a bell.

All of us have contracts with our employers.

Very few of us have contracts with our partners.

We have detailed sheets of paper spelling out exactly what we’re supposed to do on the job. But we have no similar piece of paper for our families, do we?

Maybe it sounds a bit strange, but that night I went home and sat down with my wife Leslie and we thought writing up a family contract was a good idea. We spent a long time that night discussing and writing out the terms of the contract and it has four bullet points that we still use today.

Number of nights away

It breaks my heart to miss bath time. Combing my son’s wet hair. Reading books under the covers. Goodnight kisses. There are a finite number of these nights in our lives so it should hurt to miss them. The biggest thing for Leslie and I to discuss was how many nights I was going to be away per year. We came up with a number that worked for us and began tracking it. It was a number that was easy to break down per month so if I had a really busy month (say, a conference out of town or something) then I knew I had to say no to a business trip next month to make up for it. Can this hamper your career? Absolutely. But can business trips away hamper your family? Absolutely. Let’s not pretend you can have everything. Come up with a number that works for your family and stick with it.

Family Day

We decided it was important for us to have one Family Day every weekend. What’s a Family Day? A full day with no cellphones, no extended family, no friends, nothing. Just me, my wife, our two little kids and zero interruptions all day. We had so many weekends blurring by in a smear of gymnastics, birthday parties and extended family dinners. Fun weekends! But no deep family time. Is this tough to do? Of course! Think about how many days you have with a sports practice or somebody’s big birthday. Those are beautiful things. But prioritizing one Family Day a weekend creates energy, helps you be choosy about what activities you’re signing up for and helps avoid saying a passive yes to every invitation.


This is a fun one. Once a week I get an NNO. Neil’s Night Out. Watch out, town! Seriously though, whatever I want to do that night, I do it. Dinner with a friend, live music by myself, spinning in circles in empty parking lots. It’s my night off. I can do whatever I want. What’s an LNO? That would be Leslie’s Night Out. She gets one a week, too. Energy is the priceless commodity here. It’s too easy to crash into Netflix comas on the couch once the kids are in bed. “Oh, look, we have only three Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts left!” NNO/LNO helps us plan and prioritize ourselves and our other relationships, too. I feel like a great father and husband before and after I go away because I get energy from those nights. Plus, I get my own stories and experiences to bring back into the home while continuing to develop my life as an individual. The best part is there’s no guilt, since my wife has a night off, too. So in a way these two nights “pay for” each other. She can go to a yoga class, work on her pictures in a coffee shop, try my spinning parking lot thing, whatever. The two nights end up feeling like a gift to each other, which helps, though sometimes we do find we need to push each other to take them.

Number of vacation days per year

I know work contracts generally have a number of vacation days spelled out. But most of us aren’t taking real vacation. We either don’t take all our days or we work while we’re away. It’s also worth noting that most companies have policies where you can buy more vacation days or take unpaid personal days. What’s my point? My point is it’s nice that the company tells you what you get, but it’s more important you discuss and write down the number that works for your family and then plan it out. For me, this meant every year at Walmart I used the company policy to apply for an extra couple weeks of unpaid leave a year and took the 5 per cent annual hit to my salary. It was a worthwhile trade-off for the extra time together and I never noticed the funds that were being skimmed off the top.

That’s the contract I have with my partner.

We printed it up, signed it and keep it in a file.

The goal is to have a contract in a desk at home that creates a healthy tension with the contract you have in a desk at work.

Everybody will have different terms, of course. Maybe you include points about school drop-off and pickup or whether or not you work from home on weekends.

Now, I didn’t tell my work I had this contract. I didn’t wave it in their face and say, “Sorry, I can’t travel next week.” But the home contract helped me articulate my values, which enabled speedier decision-making and a better acceptance of the decisions I did make later on in my new role. I didn’t sweat every business trip. I simply counted them towards an annual number. Plus, if I cheated on one of the bullet points, I knew I had to make it up. If I travelled on a weekend (and missed Family Day) then we needed two Family Days next weekend. Good excuse for a road trip.

Now, as you think about a contract that works with you and your partner, let’s make sure we remember that the goal is never to be perfect.

It’s simply to be a little better than before.

I’d love to see your contract if you’re willing to share at 

Too hardcore? Check out this video on the power of the ‘quarterly relationship meeting’ instead:

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

19 Great Summer Beach Reads (For People Who Don’t Want To Turn Their Brain Off)


Does your brain turn off in the summer?

Mine doesn’t. Yours doesn’t. Everbody’s doesn’t!

Yet many of us still hold the assumption that summer beach reads are supposed to be airy-fairy steamy romance tales or paint-by-numbers Pattersons.

To that I say a big loud: No!

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going the other way and recommending you check out the latest 600-page examination of the Boer War. But I do think we should swing the pendulum back a bit.

So here are nineteen summer beach reads that I feel are fun and fast-paced enough to fit into your popping-into-the-pool plans and yet also will leave your brain with new perspectives and fresh ideas:

1. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

When I was a kid my older cousin handed me this book and said “Read it now and when you’re older it’ll mean something completely different.” Well, I finally reread this book. There’s a reason it’s sold 80 million copies. Really profound commentary on the busyness of society, what love really means, and the value of friendship.

2. Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

A completely hypnotic 250-page graphic novel sharing the bizarre true story behind Tetris. Yes, Tetris. Full of Russian KGB agents, the centuries-long Nintendo history, giant lawsuits, and screaming fans. If you liked the fast-pace plot of movies like American Hustle, you will love this. The time and love Box Brown put into this book is astounding.

3. Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living with his wife and 6-year-old son in Harlem. The book tells the story of him getting a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive just before the financial crisis hits. A behind-the-curtains tale of an immigrant experience we don’t hear about as often and (yes indeed) an Oprah’s Book Club pick to boot.

4. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

This is perhaps my most beachy book on the list. I had no idea Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame) was born to Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds who were basically the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the late 1950s. Here she tells a rollicking, radically self-aware story of the absurdist upbringing she had inside a world of Hollywood elite … while struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction.

5. The Moth or All These Wonders by The Moth Podcast

Picture your closest friends going around the red-and-white checkered tablecloth sharing their best true stories over late-night chicken wings. That’s The Moth. (Not to be confused with a moth.) There’s one from the woman who became David Bowie’s hair stylist. Another from an African child soldier asked to go to a paintball birthday party with his new classmates in New York. And another from an Indian guy standing at his white prom date’s door and being told by her parents they don’t want him in their family photos. The stories are insightful, addictive, and end without any smarm … but rather with an honest emotional candid of what life felt like, for that person, at that time. If you remember the Degrassi Junior High “freeze-frame” ending… that’s what they feel like to me. I feel a little moved by each one.

6. “Commencement speech books”

The benefit of reading commencement speech books is that you get them done in half an hour yet leave with a sense of perspective far beyond. Great for remembering bigger principles. Three favorites: Congratulations, By The Way by George Saunders, This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, and Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. (Do you have a favorite commencement speech I’m missing? Email me at and let me know. I’m always looking for good ones.)

7. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

A super quick, tightly written, emotionally suspenseful parable of modern day family tensions against the backdrop of a globalizing world. First person narrative as struggling businessman Alan Clay travels to Saudi Arabia for “the one big sale” and revisits his life up to that point. One of the fastest Dave Eggers reads for sure.

8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Did you ever listen to Serial? I only caught a couple episodes but Ronson’s writing style reminds me of the show. You hear his voice from above as he experiences something, goes on a journey to dig in, and then tries to make sense of it all. This book explores the history of public shaming and its re-emergence on a mass scale with the Internet. A great exploration of shaming history and wades confidently into the complex emotional issues surrounding how we think about power to the people.

9. Point Your Face At This by Demetri Martin

A perfect book for people who love the intelligent absurdity of The Far Side cartoons. Demetri Martin is a stand-up comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show whose tiny cerebral drawings make you laugh and think at the same time. Here are one, two, three, four, five examples of his work.

10. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. The Fault In Our Stars? The Perks of Being A Wallflower? Sign me up. I think because those years are so formative I just feel the need to relive them over and over in different ways. Well, Black Swan Green is my current favorite coming-of-age story. David Mitchell had me at Cloud Atlas and this novel is blissfully beautiful while being a lot more beachy. We follow 13-year-old anxiety-prone stutterer Jason through a single up and down year in rural England in 1982. Unlike most of his other books Mitchell doesn’t shapeshift voice and characters in this one and I think the narrative voice is (somehow) even stronger as a result.

11. Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

This is a collection of non-fiction essays Wallace wrote for outlets like The New York Times Magazine and they are flabbergasting. The title essay is about Roger Federer at the beginning of his tennis career. It’s like nothing I’ve read before on sports. He has an essay on the seminal importance of Terminator 2. A collection of “word notes” on commonly misused words. And my favorite is his essay called The Nature Of The Fun which is about the emotional roller coaster of the creative process after having success in the creative process. (Brainpickings does a nice overview of it and this essay was almost singlehandedly responsible for the creation of my podcast 3 Books as you'll hear in Chapter 1 with my wife.) Any of those essays are worth the price of admission alone. Truly original, high-flying, mind-bogglingly good writing.

12. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Thickest book in my beach pile. Gotta have one brick in there. I have to tell you how I found this book. A few years ago I was chatting with a guy next to me at a bar. The conversation turned to books and I asked “So, what’s your favorite novel of all time?” and he suddenly peeled back the top of his shirt and revealed a gigantic tattoo of a tree branch. “What’s that?” I asked. And he said “East of Eden. John Steinbeck. This is a tattoo of the cover of the book.” I didn’t have a moment to really gather the fact that he had a book cover tattooed on his body before the bartender shouted “No way!” She came up to us and pulled up her shirt sleeve and revealed some indecipherable quote. “From East of Eden!” she said excitedly. “I got it on my arm.” My reaction was something like “If two random strangers who don’t know each other both have a book permanently tattooed on their body, then I really have to read that book.” Sure enough, it blew me away and I was sobbing by the time I read the last page. Long, fast-paced biographical type narration that twists and ties together with giant themes of fatalism versus free will sitting on top.

13. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

We need a comedown after that behemoth. This isn’t that Iron Man! It’s the original. An award-winning kid’s chapter book published in 1968 about a misunderstood giant iron man who arrives out of nowhere, tumbles down a cliff, gets buried by fearful townspeople, rescued by a little boy, and then ultimately rescues the planet. Phew! Wonderful book on so many levels. Thrilling storyline, beautiful writing, wondrous imagery. Sure, it’s for kids, but we’re all kids. If you liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you’ll like this.

14. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Fantastic love story told about refugees migrating from violence in a slightly futuristic world. The thesis is that we’re all migrants, either from place to place, or by standing still through time itself. Really fun quick read which pairs well with his other beachy-to-me reads The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia. (If you haven't read any of his stuff, I think I'd suggest starting with Reluctant Fundamentalist.)

15. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

The lone sci-fi on our countdown. And it’s a doozy. Elan Mastai is a writer and producer on This Is Us and this is his debut novel. It’s a fast-paced, mindbending time-travel book that reminded me of The Martian and Dark Matter. (Also great beach reads.) The pace of this one seemingly goes faster and faster the deeper you go with a few epic themes uncovered by the end. I can’t recommend it enough. Listen to Elan Mastai on my podcast 3 Books here, too.

16. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About The Meaning Of Life by Steven Hyden

Pearl Jam versus Nirvana, Biggie versus TuPac, Smashing Pumpkins versus Pavement. This could have been a Wikipedia style summary of musical feuds but it goes so much deeper. Written for music lovers so some details are skimmed in favor of trying to reflect the rivalry back on our own psychology and the sentiments of the moment.

17. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Imagine I was going to explain to you how baseball was played and I did it by describing how a tree gets carved into a baseball bat, giving you the biography of the guy who built the Green Monster, showed you a black and white reel of a radio announcer singing the national anthem, and then took you to an art gallery featuring close ups of dugout floors after a doubleheader. What the? Yeah, exactly. And that’s how this fascinating novel goes about describing the lives of its two central characters over the decades. A giant anecdote about one of their best friends over here, a little window into a date they once had over there. It feels kind of like watching Mulholland Drive. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

18. Will you please be quiet, please? Stories by Raymond Carver

If the world feels too full of words and you crave short stories that get right to it – try this one. Efficiency. Economy! Saying more with less. Have you heard that famous quote attributed to everyone from Blaise Pascal to Mark Twain: “Sorry my letter was so long. I didn’t have time to make it short.” (Actual history of the quote here.) If you’ve ever slaved away at a tweet – reading and re-reading, writing and re-writing – just to get it to fit into the tiny little box, then you know what I’m talking about. Why do I mention all this? Because this group of short stories has to be the most efficient writing I’ve ever read. Hemingway is an airbag next to this guy. Some of the stories are two or three pages and yet pack deep emotional intensity. (As a sidenote: This is one of David Sedaris's three most formative books.)  

19. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Sometimes I need my beach read to help me pause and recharge. I'm on vacation. And that means I'm between things. And that means I need to go deeper into myself to figure out which way to go next. This book helps. A simple guide to battling “Resistance” – the single word Pressfield uses to describe the set of emotions and barriers preventing you from doing work you love. Within pages you’ll want to drop everything and tackle a creative project you’ve been thinking about starting.

And ... there you have it!

My laundry list of fast-paced books to keep your mind stimulated and be pop-in-and-pop-outtable enough to actually read this summer.


6 Ways To Reduce Cell Phone Addiction


A few weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night to go pee and subconsciously grabbed my leg looking for my cellphone.

And that’s when I knew.

It’s getting worse.

But it’s not just me.

It’s us.

Three University of Bologna professors published a report in the Sloan Management Review which showed that anxiety spikes when students don’t have their cellphones for even a single day. Another study found when cellphone users couldn’t answer their phones while those phones were ringing, they experienced increased heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. And adolescents who spend more time on phones are more likely to report mental health issues.

Can you relate to these feelings?

I absolutely can.

So what do we do about it?

Here are six ways we need to start fighting the fight:

1. Download the Forest app 

Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” You know what we need to start measuring? Not time on our cell phones, but time off them. You click open Forest, enter 15 minutes (or the amount of time you want to stay off your phone for) and then hit the button. What happens? A tiny little seed starts to grow. Oh, look, it’s a sapling now! And here come cute little branches! What happens if you use your phone before the 15 minutes run out? Simple: You kill the tree. You’re an axe-wielding murderer. You feel bad! And that’s the point. In order to grow a forest you need to practice growing the muscle of staying off your phone. It hurts. It’s painful. But it’s important. Give it a shot. (Note: Yes, it costs $1.99. But I feel it’s worth it. And no, I get nothing for telling you about it. This page is, and always will be, no ads all the way.)


2. Add extra swipes before work 

So many of us are merging our lives into one phone. Do you have your work email on the same phone you want to take out on Friday night? If so, my suggestion is to first separate the accounts (i.e., use the built-in Mail app for your personal email and download the Gmail app for work, etc.) and then move the work app a few screens away. Maybe with a few empty screens with just one dusty app in the middle. What do the extra three or four thumb swipes do? They give your brain an important one-second pause to ask yourself “Do I want to do this?” before checking work email on your ride home from the bars.

3. Go black and white

Have you ever walked into a casino and been dazzled into a jaw-dropping stupor from all the whizzing colours, flashing slots and ringing bells? Does that remind you of anything rectangular in your pocket, by chance? Casinos know bright colours and flashing lights attract your eyes. Same with phones. So, turn your phone to black and white. All functionality is still there! You just aren’t attracted to it anymore. If you have an iPhone, go to Settings – General – Accessibility — Display Accommodations — Colour Filters — Grayscale. Yes, conveniently buried under six menu options! But you can do it.


PS. Too hardcore? If you like the idea of going black and white, but want to keep color handy for occasional use, then here’s a setting to help. Go Settings — Accessibility — Accessibility Shortcut — Color Filters. What’s that do? It lets you triple-click the side button on your phone to swap between settings. Pa-zam!

4. Night Shift mode

Recent research from Australia shows that exposing our brains to bright screens before bed reduces melatonin production — the sleep hormone. Bummer! What helps? Well, if you can’t stay off your phone then at least enable Night Shift mode. Mine is on from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It dims the screen and reduces that blinding brightness which makes your evolutionarily slow brain think it’s morning time. If you’re on an iPhone, go to Settings – Display & Brightness – Night Shift.

5. Buy an alarm clock

Old school, I know. Why is this important? Because we are sleeping with our phones these days. And we need to stop. Get them out of the bed… and the bedroom. Of course, when I tell people this they usually say “Oh, but my phone’s my alarm clock! I will hibernate like a grizzly if nothing wakes me up.” So what’s the solution? Drive to Giga-Mart and fork over ten dollars for a cheapo clock. Then plug your phone in the basement.

6. Disable notifications

What’s the first thing every app asks you when you download it? “EatMoreDonuts would like to send you Notifications. OK?” And you click OK because, well, you would like to eat more donuts. And you just downloaded it. And the app never lets you forget it. So, get intentional. If you’re on an iPhone, go to Settings – Notifications and scroll down your list of apps. Start by turning them all off and then cruise the list again combing for anything that might be crucial.

Those six things will get you going.

And this cuss-filled page (NSFW) will give you buckets more.

The issue is that when everybody has an addiction it sort of looks like nobody has one. We get in line for coffee … so it looks kind of normal. We keep our heads locked on our cellphones … so it looks kind of normal.

But is it?

Adam Alter, New York University business professor and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hookedexplained: “You only develop an addiction when there is some psychological motive that hasn’t been fulfilled for you: loneliness, that you’ve been bullied, or you can’t make good things happen in your life. It doesn’t actually matter what you use to soothe that addiction, whether it’s playing a particular game that lulls you into a distracted state or whether it’s taking a drug. In terms of soothing those psychological ills, behaviour and substance addictions are very, very similar.”

I’ve listed six tactical ideas above that are slowly helping me, but the longer-term solution may be latching our minds onto something else.

Like what?

Buy some hiking boots and commit to a new uphill hobby. Check out my 3 Books podcast to get back into reading. Grab fresh trunks and sign up for swimming.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know it’s time for an intervention.

What helps you fight back?

Drop me a line and let me know.

Power to the people!

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star.

7 Science-Backed Ways To Be Happy Right Now


Let’s start with some bad news.

The happiness model we’re taught from a young age is actually completely backward. We think we work hard in order to achieve big success and then we’re happy. That’s how I grew up! That’s what my parents taught me.

We think the scribble goes like this:


Study hard! → Straight A’s! → Be happy!

Interview lots! → Great job! → Be happy!

Work overtime! → Get promoted! → Be happy!

But it doesn’t work like that in real life. That model is broken.

We do great work, have a big success, but instead of being happy, we just set new goals. Now we study for the next job, the next degree, the next promotion. Why stop at a college degree when you can get a master’s? Why stop at Director when you can be VP? Why stop at one house when you can have two? We never get to happiness. We just always push it further and further away.

Now what happens when we snap “Be happy” off the end of this scribble and stick it on the beginning? Then these important six words look like this:

Be Happy First.jpg

Now everything changes. Everything changes. If we start with being happy, then we feel great. We look great. We exercise. We connect. What happens? We end up doing great work because we feel great doing it. What does great work lead to? Big success. Massive feelings of accomplishment and the resulting degrees, promotions, and phone calls from your mom telling you she’s proud of you.

The research shows that shows happy people are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and are three times more creative than their counterparts.

So what’s the first thing you must do before you can be happy?

Be happy.

Be happy first.

Being happy opens up your learning centers. Your brain will light up like Manhattan skyscrapers at dusk, sparkle like diamonds under jewelry store lights, glow like the stars in the black sky above a farmer’s field.

American philosopher William James says, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor says, “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”

William Shakespeare says, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Now, it’s one thing to say “Be happy, everybody!” and leave it there.

But we all know it’s not that easy.

Why not? Because our brains get focused on negative things. We can’t stop! I do this all the time. And you know what? Everybody does. Every single person gets stuck focusing on the negative sometimes. I’ve spoken on stages with the best-known motivational speakers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and political leaders from around the world. Do you know what they’re all doing backstage? Freaking out. Sweating. Thinking something might go wrong.

The problem isn’t that we get stuck focused on the negative sometimes.

The problem is that we think we shouldn’t.

And that prevents us from taking action.

Action? That’s right. I’m talking about intentional activities. Studies show these happiness hits work like little happiness hacks that slowly shift our brain to being more positive focused.

I’ve sifted through positive psychology studies to find what I call The Big 7 ways to train your brain to be happy. Many of these studies have been discussed in journals, conference keynotes, and research reports, but I’ve brought them together here. These activities all meet my “3 S” criteria of being simple enough that I can do it, shareable enough that we can do it together, and short enough that they can be done in less than half an hour in middle of a busy day.

So what are The Big 7?

Let’s break it down:

3 Nature Walks

Do you suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)?

I do. I am developing a hunchback. My thumbs occasionally get fried from too much texting. We are all becoming addicted to our cell phones.

We need to take more breaks and get outside.

Pennsylvania State researchers reported in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that the more physically active people are, the greater their general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. The American Psychosomatic Societypublished a study showing how Michael Babyak and a team of researchers found three thirty-minute brisk walks or jogs even improve recovery from clinical depression. Yes, clinical depression. Results were stronger than those from studies using medication or studies using exercise and medication combined.

And why nature? Less keyboards. Less screens. More fresh air. More perspective. More reflection. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it turns out trees release a chemical called phytoncides which are actually shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Other benefits? Lower blood pressure, greater activity of parasympathetic nerves that promote relaxation, and a reduced activity of sympathetic nerves associated with “fight or flight” reactions to stress.

The 20-Minute Replay

Writing for twenty minutes about a positive experience dramatically improves happiness. Why? Because you actually relive the experience as you’re writing it and then relive it every time you read it. Your brain sends you back. In a University of Texas study called “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words,” researchers Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker had one member of a couple write about their relationship for twenty minutes three times a day. Compared to the test group, the couple was more likely to engage in intimate dialogue afterward, and the relationship was more likely to last.

Seriously? Journaling? Aren’t journals just a pile of blank paper stapled together with a picture of a cat on the front of them for twenty bucks? Yes! Yes, they are. Total ripoff, right? But they work. Turns out an area of your brain called your visual cortex has an area within it called area 17 which actually replays the highlights of your day as you recall and write them down. (This is partly why I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit The Journal of Awesome has outsold most of my books. Yes, a book I’ve written with no words in it has outsold many books I’ve written with words in them.)

5 Conscious Acts

Carrying out five conscious acts of kindness a week dramatically improves your happiness. Depending on your personality it’s not always natural to think about holding the door open for a couple minutes as a room exits, shovelling our neighbor’s sidewalk and walkway, or writing a Christmas card to the apartment building security guard we see every morning. But Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, did a study asking Stanford students to perform five acts of kindness over a week. Not surprisingly, they reported much higher happiness levels than the test group. Why? They felt good about themselves! People appreciated them.

In his book Flourish, Professor Martin Seligman says that “we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

High-Challenge, High-Skill Tasks

Get into a groove. Be in the zone. Find your flow. However you characterize it, when you’re completely absorbed with what you’re doing, it means you’re being challenged and demonstrating skill at the same time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this moment as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Do you get that feeling from painting in the basement? Leaving your cell phone and watch at home and going for a long run before everyone wakes up? Taking nature pictures? Hitting the batting cage? In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes it using a wonderful image which I’ve redrawn below:


Ten Long Deep Breaths

A research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain scans of people before and after they participated in a course on mindfulness meditation and published the results in Psychiatry Research. What happened? After the course, parts of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while parts associated with stress shrank.

Studies report that meditation can “permanently rewire” your brain to raise levels of happiness. If you’re having trouble getting started, try an app like Calm or Ten Percent Happier.

Five Gratitudes

If you can be happy with simple things, then it will be simple to be happy.

Find a book or a journal, or start a website, and write down five things you’re grateful for from the past week. More if you have them! Once you get going it will become easier. But the key here is actually writing them down. I wrote five gratitudes a week for four years on my blog 1000 Awesome Things. Some people write in a notebook by their bedside.

Back in 2003, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked groups of students to write down five gratitudes, hassles, or events over the past week for ten weeks. Guess what happened? The students who wrote five gratitudes were happier and physically healthier. Charles Dickens puts this well: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

20 Pages Of Fiction

There’s a Game of Thrones quote I love that says:

“The man who reads lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

We need to read books — real books on real paper — more than ever before. We spent over four hours a day on our cellphones right now. In a world of endless dings and pings we need to get back to single-tasking.

A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology showed that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion and understanding. What does EQ help with? Becoming a better leader, teacher, parent and sibling. Another study from Science Magazine in 2013 showed that reading literary fiction helps improve empathy and social functioning. And, finally, a 2013 study at Emory University showed MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. The MRIs were done the next day. Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.

So those are The Big 7.

We know it’s important to be happy first, and these are the seven ways to get there.

Remember: Just like riding a bike, doing a somersault, or juggling — you can learn to be happier.

Happy people don’t have the best of everything.

They make the best of everything.

Be happy first.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Quiet Revolution and Thought Catalog.

9 of the World's Best Email Newsletters (Actually Worth Clogging Your Inbox For)


Your attention is for sale.

Detergent jingles blare before YouTube videos, podcast hosts can’t stop yapping about sweat-whisking undies, and spammers are even weaselling their way into our text messages.

I feel like these days we need to make sure our personal email inboxes become even more of a safe haven. Bunkers! Last vestiges of quiet in this loud, loud, loud world. You open it up and you want substance. Value. Gold. And if you don’t get it? Vamoose!

So protect your digital home.

Dig a moat around it. Ready the archers. Fill the cauldrons with boiling oil. And then, just before you raise the drawbridge, make sure you invite only your most interesting friends — the fascinating, provocative, enlightening ones — to join you for a celebratory feast in The Great Hall.

Below are the nine people I’d invite to my Great Hall feast.

And all nine pass my 3 key principles of:

  • Real Human: The email must come from a real human with a real name and a real face who I can actually reply to and (ideally) get a response back. (Sidenote: If you want to see why I think “humans over algorithms” is crucial, check out my SXSW Speech “Building Trust In Distrustful Times”)

  • Super Value: Time is precious so the emails I’ve recommended need to offer a depth and richness that jars my brain with incongruent ideas I can thoughtfully apply to ultimately living a more intentional life.

  • No Ads: “I feel monetized” is the new “I need a shower.” I’m not recommending any clothing companies with pics of sexy people wearing $800 rainboots traipsing through orchid swamps. And if any real human delivering super value is insidiously dropping in ads (and tons of the big ones do), they’re out on my list. Man’s gotta have a code.

And now: onto the list!

9. Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Eric Barker

I’m not sure how he does it but Eric Barker seems to suck up business and self-help books like a vacuum cleaner. A turbo-powered vacuum cleaner. But then, unlike the rest of it, who sort of leave it at that, Eric Barker does not leave it at that. He pulls off a magic trick something akin to opening up the dusty vacuum cleaner bag, sneezing a ton while wading through dust balls and cat hair, and then pulling out three valuable things sucked up in there — a tiny doll’s comb, the back of an earring, a couple of coins — and then tells us all about those three valuable things in a warm and witty way. And the best part? We don’t have to vacuum!

  • Frequency: Sporadic (approx. 1–2x / month)

  • Perfect for: Business and self-help book lovers looking to inject more into their brain and anyone looking to stay on top of “thinking trends”

  • Number of subscribers: >320,000

  • Signup Form: (Wait for the pop-up)

8. Austin Kleon’s Newsletter 

I like the idea that success blocks future success. Are you killing it as a real estate agent? Great. But… what if you hadn’t quit ballet when you were twenty-two? Would you be on Broadway right now? Hard to know because you’re selling so many condos. Are you a great Vice President Of Something at your company? Fantastic. But what artistic itches remain inside you’re always thinking about scratching? Austin Kleon’s newsletter helps me scratch those itches. He’s a former reference librarian turned bestselling author (Steal Like An Artist, How To Keep Going) who points my brain at all kinds visual art, “ear candy,” quotes, and artistic ideas every Friday morning. A great way to keep challenging my own ideas and helps me explore lots of little “what if I dids.”

  • Frequency: Weekly (Fridays)

  • Perfect for: People who want to rock themselves out of stasis, those who like getting their brain poked with art, and those who feel a bit uncultured (like me) in big broad areas like music and painting and film

  • Number of Subscribers: > 60,000

  • Signup Form:

7. Aha Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham

I am trying to be a better dad. Sometimes I yell at my kids and then feel a huge wave of shame. I get frustrated when it’s taking fifteen minutes to put on rainboots because we’re late and it’s not raining, even though my kids aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re kids. So often I find what I’m lacking are the words. The phrases. The child logic brain to know what to say and how to say it in a way that’s meaningful to them. And that’s exactly what Dr. Laura helps with. Her emails are simple, clear, and, I like to remind myself, aspirational. So, what do we do now to get ready? Make it a game. “You can’t put your boots on! No way, nooooooo wayy!” And my wife Leslie’s new technique of playing a song as a countdown to get going. (“Bust A Move” by Young MC works great. Yes, I put that link to their live 1989 Arsenio Hall performance, just because.) Plus, lots of other things. Some days are frustrating. But Dr. Laura’s email is helping me (slowly) become a better dad.

  • Frequency: You choose between weekly or weekly + two blog posts

  • Perfect for: Parents who want to be better parents, those fascinated by language and communication, and (for the same reason) managers and leaders of teams

  • Number of Subscribers: > 130,000

  • Signup Form: At the bottom of

6. Granted by Adam Grant 

Adam Grant is the nerd’s Superman. Youngest tenured faculty in history of Wharton. (I was still in school when he got tenure.) Writes a New York Times column. Gives TED Talks. Drops an award-winning podcast. And, you know, debates Malcolm Gladwell in his spare time. I think it’s safe to say he’s at the top of the social sciences Pyramid of Influence. Every month his Granted newsletter gives me a little peek at the world through his eyes. I always find at least one article to share with friends and family. (I really liked this profile on Adam from Philly Mag.)

  • Frequency: Monthly

  • Perfect for: Business book junkies, leaders looking to become better leaders, those looking for new ways of thinking about same old things …

  • Number of Subscribers: >100,000

  • Signup Form:


This one isn’t a newsletter so I gave it three asterisks instead. But it’s gold. And it’s one of my faves. Let’s start with this: Do you journal? You should! It’s good for your brain. Good for your body. Research shows it makes you happy. I talk about journaling, I make YouTube videos about journaling, I even make actual physical journals, but guess what? I suck at journaling. That’s why I’m always preaching about it. I’m preaching to myself. Here’s what happens: I snap myself into the journaling habit! I get there! I’m there! I’m doing it, I’m journaling, for a day, a few days, for maybe a week. And then I fall off. Bam. Right to the ground. So now I’ve come up with a patchwork journaling system that has been working for a while. How does it work? Well, first, I surround myself with journals. Two-Minute Mornings in the morning. A longform journal of blank pages on my bedstand to squeeze out late-night anxieties. And… what else? This puppy. What is it? A great little free email journaling subscription that helps me supplement my constantly floundering home journaling efforts. A little plug for the drug. They send me an email on the dates and time I picked and I just reply back with my entry … and I’m done. Super quick. Super easy.

  • Frequency: You pick your own date / time frequency. (I do Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays at 9pm.)

  • Perfect for: People who already know the benefits of journaling but are having trouble getting into the routine…

  • Number of Subscribers: (Not listed)

  • Signup Form: (Click “Start your journal now”)

5. Seth Godin’s Blog Posts

Seth is best known as a marketing guru who’s written 19 (!) bestselling books. But I think of him as this deeply enlightened Yoda spouting pithy and almost coded bits of wisdom that sometimes fly way over my head and other times hit me with a ton of bricks and help me completely re-orient myself in the machine. I absolutely love listening to him.

  • Frequency: Daily (!?!?)

  • Perfect for: Anyone interested in human nature, entrepreneurs and those working without a safety net, and, of course, marketing folks…

  • Number of Subscribers: (Not listed)

  • Signup Form:

4. The Ryan Holiday Reading Recommendation Email

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents harped on you to read all the time? They got you a bookshelf. They read to you at night. Do you still live with them? If not, who harps on you to read now? Well, Ryan Holiday will. He’s happy to! Every month he sends out a list of the 5–10 books he’s consumed together with the not-so-subtle plotline to “Read more books, dummy!” He preaches about how it’s work, your job, your education. His tastes veer towards classics, Stoic philosophy, biographies, translations. “Smart books for smart people.” Yes, I feel really dumb reading his list sometimes. But it always, always gives me a good push. (By the way, I liked Ryan’s email list so much I completely copied it, with his permission, and started my own Monthly Reading Email)

  • Frequency: Monthly

  • Perfect for: Readers looking for the next great book, booksellers and librarians and book industry folks, anyone aspiring to be a better writer or reader…

  • Number of Subscribers: > 100,000

  • Signup Form:

3. Brain Food by Shane Parrish

Shane Parrish is a former Canadian spy whose weekly Brain Food email aims to break through the “fast food noise” of the world with a grounded, thoughtful reflection of how we’re seeing the world right back to us. Super high level. Way above the fray. Thinking about thinking. A fantastic zoom-out and perfect way to start your week. He’s a kindred spirit on reading more books, too. (Note: Although Shane’s email is the only one on this list with a sponsor, I’ve chosen to include it because of the Ethics he shares on his About page.)

  • Frequency: Weekly (Sundays)

  • Number of Subscribers: > 200,000

  • Perfect for: Anyone who feels too micro wanting to get more macro, people looking for an edge, and I know this will sound like a contradiction, but those also looking to slow down their thinking and mentally chill more …

  • Signup Form:

2. Take 5 with Mel Robbins

Whenever I open up Mel’s email I feel like I’m hanging out behind the scenes with an A-list celebrity who’s somehow radically self-aware, authentic, and even self-critical. Her weekly email sounds like a long email from a friend who shares the shame she felt visiting her grandmother after not visiting for years, the pain of her son being bullied at school, and even being a mom of three deciding she needed pelvic physio and encouraging everyone to look into it. I love Mel’s sharp, insightful, empathetic tone on how to build your best life. Makes sense she’s one of the world’s most booked female speakers, has sold more books on Audible’s self-publishing platform than anybody, and why one day last year every single recommended video on my YouTube sidebar featured Mel Robbins. YouTube knows something. And TV execs watch YouTube! Makes sense she’s hosting a national talk show debuting this fall. I’ve already heard people calling Mel the White Oprah. She is three big flame emojis.

  • Frequency: Weekly (Thursdays)

  • Number of Subscribers: > 350,000

  • Perfect for: Anyone looking for post-modern self-help, a no-BS kick in the pants, and a strong passionate friendly voice whispering in their ear once a week…

  • Signup Form:

1. Raptitude: Getting Better At Being Human by David Cain

Ten years ago David Cain wrote an article on Raptitude mentioning my blog 1000 Awesome Things and I noticed a traffic spike and hyperlinked over to say hello. I wrote that blog for four years. David’s been writing his for over ten (ten!) and has been constantly getting deeper and deeper into what it means to (yes) get better at being human. David is a fortysomething guy from Winnipeg and he’s one of the best street-level philosophers out there. He writes about The Elegant Art of Not Giving A Shit and how Everything You Own Is A Relationship You’re In and about The Simple Joy of “No Phones Allowed.” (I like his writing so much I got permission to quote him a bunch in The Happiness Equation.) My wife Leslie and I often swap Raptitude posts back and forth over email with our thoughts on top. Because I know so many “thought leaders” who read David’s writing I sometimes think of him as a bit of a thought leader’s thought leader. His writing is crisp and thoughtful and occasionally veers into challenging and cerebral waters. David Cain isn’t on the lecture circuit. His books aren’t front of the bookstore. He isn’t posting Insta-stories, sweating the size of his platform, or trying to “build his list” with piles of Facebook ads. Why? Because he’s chill. Because he’s beautiful. And because he’s living the life he preaches.

  • Frequency: Sporadic (approx. every 2–4 weeks)

  • Perfect for: People looking to live more pacefully, anyone feeling an itchiness about the world today, and people looking to lengthen their attention spans…

  • Number of subscribers: >30,000

  • Signup Form:

And, yes, yes, of course: I also have my own email list which I didn’t put on the list above. I write and send an article every other Wednesday morning to over 30,000 people all about living intentionally (failure, trust, reading, resilience, etc.) Samples? This article you’re reading, “8 More Ways To Read A Lot More Books,” or “Why You Should Never, Ever Retire.” I’d love for you to check it out.

Now, those are my dinner guests!

Time is precious. Attention is precious. Thanks for reading.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

The Black Hole Inbox: An Incredible Email Productivity Tip I Learned From a Fortune 50 CEO

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I got my first office job in my early twenties.

For four months between school years in college I held the sexy job title of “summer intern” at a big consulting company in a downtown high-rise. Casey was my boss and the head of the project I was assigned to for the summer, which was for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

One Monday morning, I was sitting in his glass-windowed corner office with the rising sun beaming onto the desk between us. More than three months of late-night stress and working on weekends had finally rolled up to right now.

We were minutes away from our big presentation.

Casey’s sense of humor had carried me through all the challenges and Chinese take-out boxes leading up to today, but he had just asked me a last-minute question that made me snap. My nerves were frayed. I had no energy left.

“Why do we have an assumption in here instead of an actual figure?” he asked.

“Because Roger didn’t write back to my three emails asking him for the right number and he never gave us a number where we could call him. I tried his assistant twice and never heard back, either. It’s like he forgot we existed. You know that.”

Roger was the highly touted CEO of the oil and gas company who everybody looked up to. He was featured in flashy magazine articles and known as a people leader who espoused work-life balance while nonchalantly beating his numbers every year. Meanwhile, employees at the company told us he ate lunch in the company cafeteria, drove a beat-up truck to work, and had dinner with his kids every night.

The man was a legend.


After our introductory meeting three months back I wrote Roger an email summarizing our meeting and next steps. He didn’t write back. I then took my laptop home every night in case Roger emailed with an urgent question or request. I checked email every half an hour just in case the CEO of the company ever emailed late at night asking for a project update the next morning. Just so if he ever needed something, anything, I’d be ready, I’d be there. 

But… there was nothing.

Roger had seemingly disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

In three months of working for him he didn’t write me a single email. He didn’t write Casey any emails, either. We dropped a few questions along the way but never heard back. And I had just told Casey my messages to his assistant weren’t returned, either. Now suddenly it was time for our big presentation and Casey was questioning why I didn’t have certain numbers.

I steadied my nerves as we stepped into the boardroom where Roger was sitting and chatting with our company president. He smiled and got up to shake our hands and thank us for the work we’d done. “I’m so excited,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You guys are geniuses. I’m going to learn so much from this chat.”

The anger I felt about his unresponsiveness suddenly melted. I felt like a million bucks.

We jumped into the presentation and had a great discussion. It was casual, engaging, and open. He loved it. And I couldn’t believe how relaxed everything felt. He was talking to us like old friends. After the meeting was done there was so much trust between us. So as we were packing up, I thought about it for a split second, and decided to ask him one last question.

I couldn’t help myself.


“Roger, thanks so much for today. We had trouble checking some numbers by you in advance. And I know we didn’t hear from you on the additional questions we had. So, just for my own learning, can I ask why you don’t write or respond to emails? How do you do that?”

His eyes opened a bit and he seemed surprised by the question. But he wasn’t fazed.

“Neil,” he said, “there’s a problem with email. After you send one the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I nodded, thinking about all the emails I got from Casey and co-workers.

“I do read emails, but the ones looking for something are always much less urgent than they seem. When I don’t respond, one of two things happens:

1.  The person figures it out on their own, or

2.  They email me again because it really was important.

Sure, I send one or two emails a day but they usually say, ‘Give me a call,’ or, ‘Let’s chat about this.’ Unless they’re from my wife. I answer all of those.”

I was very confused.

How was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of employees not emailing?

He paused to look at me and sensed I didn’t get it.

“You know what,” he continued. “Since I don’t write many emails, I don’t receive many either. I probably only get five or ten emails a day.”


Five or ten emails a day?

Here I was working at a consulting company writing emails morning, noon, and night. It was the same for everyone. “My inbox has seven hundred emails,” my coworkers would say and sigh. “I did emails all Sunday afternoon.” There was no way around it. After all, our bosses sent urgent emails at 7:00 a.m. Saturday, late Sunday afternoon, or 11:00 p.m. Friday. I knew this was common in my company and others.

McKinsey had even reported that office workers spend on average 28% of their time answering emails. Almost a third. And Boomerang, one of the world’s largest email productivity services, reports the average person gets 147 emails a day.

We were all attached to our cell phones and computers, firing emails around, working hard to get everything done. Some people did Inbox Zero where the goal was to quickly delete, reply, or sort every email down to a baseline of empty. Others picked and prodded at them more. But everyone did emails. You couldn’t just ignore them. After all, it was part of the job. We all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known for having lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and driving home for dinner with his family every night.

He didn’t respond to hot potatoes.

He didn’t write back to emails and create email chains.

I looked up at Roger again, and he continued.

“Most of the time Neil,” he said, “people really do figure it out on their own. They realize they know the answer, they keep on moving, they develop confidence for next time. They become better themselves. Your assumptions in the slides today weren’t perfect, but they worked perfectly well and you learned by doing them. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes walk over to chat with a person or pick up the phone. But if I wrote back to the email, I’d be sending a hot potato. And nobody wants to be asked by their boss or a Director or a VP or the company CEO to do something… never mind on an evening or weekend. Why? Because people would drop everything to reply. And they would expect me to reply to that. Basically, if I sent an email, it would never end.”

“So I end it.”

The Black Hole Inbox means mentally thinking of your inbox like a black hole.

People may fire emails in there! Here come questions! Here come queries! Here come concerns! And all of them get precisely zero response. The emails never come back. They never see them again. They disappear into the black hole.

Because the truth is you have only one brain.

And it can only focus deeply on only one thing at one time.

Your brain is the most incredible and complex object in the universe. We have never seen anything like it. We barely understand it. We use it, but we don’t know how we use it. When we kick, we pull our leg back and swing it forward. When we think, we just think. As Cliff once said on Cheers, “Interesting little article here. It says the average human being only uses seventeen percent of his brain. Boy, you realize what that means? We don’t use a full, uh… sixty-four percent.”

In order to focus on deep work, rich work, creative work, we need uninterrupted time. We can read our emails. Sure! Read them. But replying is what kicks off the incessant ping-ponging that never ends. Think of your inbox like a black hole and try hard, very hard, to dramatically reduce your replies. 

This is a scalable idea, too. If you get 100 a day and reply to 0? You're an all-star. Hardcore! But if you're replying to 75 today and you get it down to 50? That's a huge improvement, too. That's 25 more ping-pong balls you're not smacking back. Every single email you blackholify helps.  

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. Rose through the ranks! With huge respect from so many. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. 

I learned a few other things later on about Roger. I learned he was known internally all the way up the corporate ladder for not replying to emails. It infuriated some people! Most stopped emailing him altogether. But he created valuable Untouchable Days for his mind to think and always make sure he was doing the right things… rather than just doing things right. People loved working for him because he didn’t bog them down with micro-management. He empowered them. He grew great teams. And? He got endless promotions.

What else?

In addition to Roger’s Black Hole Inbox, I learned he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. At all.

How can you let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments? 

Start with thinking about your inbox like a black hole.

This article is adapted from my book The Happiness Equation

The 3 E's of a Great Speech


I gave a brand new speech at SXSW yesterday.

So, I was nervous about it. I lost sleep over it. I spent weeks writing the speech out, editing it over and over again, making up slides, editing them over and over again, and then I practiced out loud in front of my wife and my parents and a few friends and even the guy sitting next to me on the airplane to Austin until I had the whole thing memorized.

I was stomach-churningly nervous for the speech even though I give over fifty speeches a year.

What helped?

Well, there is a model for giving speeches that helped me yesterday, that's helped me before, that always helps me, which I want to share today.

I think about this model all the time and it applies whether you’re giving a toast at a wedding, standing up in the boardroom, or delivering a big keynote address at the annual trade show.

We always know we need to get our act together.

The hard part is how.

So here are the 3 E’s to giving a great speech:


This is the base of the pyramid. Starting point. Table stakes. Want to know how entertained your audience will be by the time you get up to talk? In short, very. For starters, we all touch our phones over 2000 times a day and spend over 5 hours a day on them -- scrolling Instagram, watching SNL clips, reading fantasy football trash-talk, listening to podcasts. This is now your competition. So how do you beat it?

Well, you have one major advantage over the massive addiction that is the cell phone, and it is that you’re here. You’re live. You’re in the flesh. No one’s doing stand-up in the other corner. It’s all you. You get a deeper personal connection from the beginning. Nobody needs WiFi or has to tap a link to watch you. You get 30 seconds of free attention. (That’s a lot more than the average YouTube video gets.) 

So what do you need to do with that momentary leg up on your listeners’ attention? Reward it immediately. Show the audience the bonus they get by listening. Raise interest as you get onstage, create a laugh, and most importantly, be the most into your speech of anyone there. The audience can only rise to your level of excitement—nobody else’s—so no apologizing and no self-deprecating. Banned phrases include: “Now I don’t really know why I’m doing this!”, “I wrote this ten minutes ago so here goes…”, or “Well, how am I gonna follow that?!”

A good test is this: If your speech entertains one other person you’re close to (especially a friend or significant other) during a dry run, it will entertain a whole room.

Start with the toughest critic first.

(Normally I’ll try and open with a funny line but at SXSW yesterday I had this video made by my friends at Adjacent Possibilities to entertain before I walked onstage. Cheating? No. I say entertain any way you can.)


Humans are learning animals. We’re always growing our minds, abilities, and knowledge. Of course we are -- education makes us better at our jobs, better with our money, and better at relationships, so we tend to seek it out. But even when we aren’t actively learning, our brains are absorbing new information. Podcasts share how a chocolate company is changing the world or which books shaped David Sedaris. Even SNL clips give us perspectives on the news. In fact, why are you reading this article? I’m guessing it’s because you’re hoping to learn something. So ask yourself:

What is your speech teaching?

Make sure you can write out the answer to that question in fewer than 140 characters. If the essence of your message is too complicated to tweet, it’s too complicated period:

  • “I’m teaching our hundred closest friends which formative moments shaped my daughter’s beautiful personality” (wedding toast)

  • “I’m teaching my employees why they should feel proud about last year’s results and excited about next year’s goals” (all-hands meeting)

  • “I’m giving people new techniques to apply at work to improve their well-being” (a TEDx–style talk).


This one is the biggest trick of a good speech, the hardest to pull off, and admittedly the most ambiguous-sounding as a result. But “empowering” your listeners really all comes down to making them feel like these were all their thoughts. Theirs! Not yours.

Yes, you’re on stage.

But they have to feel like they own the message if they’re going to take it with them—and, ultimately, change their minds or behavior. Sure, people may ask for opinions, do research online, and read books to brush up on things. We all do that. But we only really do what we want to do.

So, the bottom line is: It can’t be your message, shared. It has to be their message, heard.

Your role is to lead listeners through a series of thoughts that build on each other as they progress, where they keep nodding and thinking to themselves, “Yes … yes … yes… ”

There are at least three reliable tools you can use to generate empowerment in your talk:

i) Pause and interact.

Can you use a flip chart where you write something down together with the audience? Can you leave pauses for the audience to jump in with their own answers? Can you do a short interactive exercise or experiment using the content you just shared? Their minds have to chew, not just swallow. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of a great book called The Coaching Habit, sometimes has listeners trade questions with the person sitting next to them.

ii) Find a lesson that’s doable, not just interesting.

We don’t want to hear how you climbed Kilimanjaro if we think we never will. When I talk about happiness I share major positive-psychology studies that show how you can improve your mindset in 20 minutes or less. Then I say, “You just have to do one, not all of them!” I’m trying to make the laundry list feel achievable. Is it harder to do this at a wedding? Maybe. But you know someone is nailing it at the wedding reception when you hear a story and think, “I want to start doing that.” 

iii) Keep it conversational.

It has to feel like a coffee-shop chat with your best friend, not like a charmer onstage tossing takeaways into the audience like candy at a parade. So? Memorize first. Paraphrase later. Don’t be too rigid. You listen to your friends, right? So that works better than a guru on a stage who may entertain and educate, but still falls short of empowering you to make changes in your life.

So that’s it. The 3 E’s to giving a great speech. The little meat grinder to run your speech through in order to make sure it passes the test. And how will you know if you nailed it? Count how many pieces of unsolicited feedback you get more than a month later. That’s real impact. Real change. You’re not asking what they “got” from your talk, you’re seeing what they remember.

Giving a great speech that entertains, educates, and empowers is a tall task.

Are you up for it?

You’re all the way down at the bottom so I’m guessing yes.

Congrats on making the commitment.

Now get out there and inspire others to commit to something, too.

I also did a video version of this article on Youtube:

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

13 Books To Read If You’re Anxious


Anyone who says they never get anxious is lying.

Sure, National Institute of Mental Health studies may say things like 1 in 3 people are affected by anxiety and 1 in 5 Americans in general suffers from clinical anxiety, but I’m not talking about official diagnosed anxiety. I get that’s real anxiety and I don’t want to disempower the word but I also think it applies to the more general definition of anxiety, that I feel, that I’m guessing you feel, too. 

I’m talking about spinning in your head while lying in your bed tossing and turning for a couple hours before falling asleep. I’m talking about sweating the big interview or big trip you have coming up to the point where it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. I’m talking about thinking and overthinking and overthinking a decision till you ultimately just avoid the decision completely. 

I felt like this a lot when I was little.

I would get headaches all the time and need to miss piano lessons or Beavers. I slowly grew out of feeling anxiety so often but to this day despite, you know, writing and speaking full-time about living intentionally, I still get anxious bouts a few times a month.

What helps?

For me, a few things: journaling, going for a long walk, talking to my wife Leslie, doing a tough workout, calling up my parents, and… 


Yes, books help me move through anxious bouts so often that I thought I’d take a deep comb through my shelf and pull out the ones I find myself turning to again and again to nudge my brain forwards...

13. How To Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. 

The prolific Zen monk’s simple little paragraphs about compassionate love. Great applying to those you love… and great applying it to yourself. 

12. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch. 

I worried this book could actually cause anxiety. Sort of like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does for some people. So that’s a risk. But I included it because there’s something about feeling connected to others who feel anxious which can help my own anxiety melt away. Despite the super rudimentary Microsoft-Paint visual style the content is an amazing introspection on the human condition on topics such as mental illness, depression, and, yes, anxiety. (Sidenote: Hyperbole and a Half was one of Sarah Andersen’s three most formative books over on the 3 Books podcast.)

11. The Art of Living by Epictetus. 

I stayed in a hotel called The Taj in San Francisco during the book tour for The Happiness Equation. It was my first time staying in an Indian hotel chain so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I pulled open the top drawer of the bedside table and there was a copy of The Vedas lying there. But it was jarring. I’ve been used to seeing Bibles in hotel rooms my whole life. And then suddenly there was something else. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe it’s not the Bible, per se, but a thousands-of-years old grounding and centering guidebook of stories and lessons for people far from home.” That got me thinking. What book would I put in the bedside table of my own hotel chain? (No, I don’t have one, but say I did! Maybe Pasricha&Pasricha? Our tagline: Least pronounceable hotel chain in the world.) (Btw, it’s pass-REACH-ah, in case you’re curious.) (No more brackets, promise.) What book would you include in your hotel chain’s bedside table? Me, pretty sure I’d go with The Art of Living by Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca may command more of the Stoic philosophy spotlight, but I’ve found great joy paging through this two thousand year old book of simple philosophical notes written by a slave born on the edges of the Roman Empire in 55 AD. Perfect to flip through to wind your brain down before bed or to gently wake it up in the morning rather than looking at your cell phone (NSFW). Part of the appeal is that, despite being written so long ago, the book reads like an email you got this morning from a wise friend. Sample entry to share a taste: “It is better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit that you have done wrong and to do wrong often.” (More sample entries can be found here.)

10. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. 

A completely simple guide to battling “Resistance” – the single word Pressfield uses to describe the set of emotions and barriers preventing you from doing work you love. For me anxiety gets swirled into this emotional stew. A helpful brain reframe. 

9. Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka. 

Beautiful children’s book showing how easy it is to connect and friendify. My wife Leslie has been using this book in her elementary school classroom for years. It’s super short with only a word or two per page. Literary minimalism! (It’s like: “Yo!” “Yes?” “You!” “Me?” “Yes, you!” “No fun.” “Oh?” “No friends.” “Oh! … Me?” “You?” “Me!” “...Yes!”, etc) Wonderfully emotive illustrations help it serve children and remind adults like me to always try and offer each other tender connection. That it’s not hard to be kind. And that kindness greases every other movement. Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka who’s also the wonderbrain behind the incredible A Ball for Daisy and The Hello Goodbye Window

8. How To Develop Self-Confidence & Influence People by Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie. 

Is your anxiety about giving a speech, an interview, or a date? I give a lot of speeches and sometimes I get anxiety right before a big one. Enter this book. This book is a lot less known than How To Win Friends and Influence People because, I think, it’s slightly less applicable but it’s gold, honestly. Timeless advice showing how to make a speech (or a conversation) all about the listener. That’s the key. Favorite chapters were templates with examples on how to open and close speeches (i.e., arouse curiosity, share a human interest story, share a shocking fact, etc.). Perfect for anyone shoulder-tapped for a toast at a wedding all the way up to the corporate honcho in the big hat. 

7. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell. 

According to the introduction, this is the only book ever written about autism … by someone with autism. Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida wrote this book with a Japanese alphabet pad and an assistant, one character at a time, and you can feel that slow tenderness and passion as he answers question after question. Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly? Why don’t you make eye contact while talking? What’s the reason you jump? I’ve loved David Mitchell since Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green so I originally found this book while searching for bibliographical scraps. Turns out it’s incredible for anxiety because it pulls off an epic consciousness leap. You really feel like you’re living in another mind. A huge injection of empathy helps our own problems feel less important when we’re done. Side history: David Mitchell shares how his son has severe autism and he, like many, struggled to identify, relate, and support his child… until he read this book. He then worked with his wife to translate it at the request of friends and the book found a giant Western audience after The Daily Show trumpeted it and it hit The New York Times bestseller list. 

6. What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin. 

This book is a shot of nitro. There’s no way you can read it and not feel your confidence and energy lift up for your next project. Flip through it in an hour or two. A visually beautiful book from the incredibly wise master Seth Godin on taking risks, starting businesses, and just doing it.

!. Think Like A Bronze Medalist, Not Silver by Derek Sivers. 

This one isn’t a book but a blog post. Still, I feel like it deserves an honorable mention on this list so I gave it an exclamation mark instead of a number. Helpful perspective when I have anxiety because it’s a reminder to sometimes focus on gratitude over ambition, on being thrilled you made it instead of being bummed you didn’t, and on simply having enough versus always wanting more. 

5. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays by Henry David Thoreau.

The title essay is great but the one I really want to talk about here isWalking (link goes to full text). A fiery piece on the philosophical, meditative, and creative benefits of… walking. Leslie and I picked our house based on what we could walk to and I try and do most of my meetings walking. (Here's a great TED Talk on walking meetings.) This essay was both a justification and reminder of the benefits. As Thoreau says: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.” (Sidenote: If you want to go deeper on this topic, I recommend the Nassim Taleb essay “Why I Do All This Walking” and Austin Kleon’s tagged blog posts on Walking.)

4. The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. 

Can I recommend my own book? The reason I wrote it was because my wife asked me for a divorce and my best friend took his own life right around the same time. I was in shock. I was spinning. I had to find a new place to live. I started up in therapy for the first time. I looked for any way to help avoid slipping down to emotional rock bottom. The awesome things in The Book of Awesome were the bounce from the bottom for me and I wrote one every single day for four straight years on The best ones are in this book. (Here’s a TED Talk which shares more of this story.)

3. If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut. 

Inspiring collection of commencement speeches by Kurt Vonnegut collected over forty years. Creates great perspective and incredibly grounding and centering. 

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. 

Have you by chance heard of this book? I’m guessing yes given it’s been on top of bestseller lists for years. I remember when it first came out booksellers I spoke to said it was the f-bomb that attracted folks. Later I heard folks say it was tapping into the emerging counter-anxiety trend of not giving a f*ck. But now that I’ve read it I can say… no, it’s the book itself. Pure solid gold life advice and mind-expanding philosophy told in a disarming, accessible, warts-and-all way by a new master. There’s less “new news” here but some pretty epic distillations of concepts that can otherwise feel too ephemeral or inaccessible. (P.S. Mark Manson is an upcoming guest on 3 Books and he just announced his new book.) 

1. Mindset by Carol Dweck. 

Check out this scenario from Page 8 of this book: “One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.” According to Carol Dweck, if you have a fixed mindset you’d think “I’m a total failure” or “I feel like a reject.” And if you have a growth mindset, you’d think “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” She points out it was a midterm... not a final. A parking ticket... not a major infraction. Sort of brushed off... versus getting dumped or screamed at. I’ll admit I was totally in the first camp. This incredibly readable book helped me understand how to develop a growth mindset across all spectrums of my life from writing to marriage to parenting. Since I read this book I began speaking differently to my children. And to myself.

I also did a condensed video version of this article on Youtube:

#1001 When that person you haven’t seen in a while doesn’t guilt trip you for not seeing them in a while


Did you used to get your cheeks pinched?

When I was a kid Poona Auntie pinched my cheeks at family gatherings on the reg. And, as if the death grip on my ruby-reds wasn’t enough, she always accompanied it with some classic Indian head wobbles and lines like “Why don’t you ever visit me, beta gee? Why has it been so long? Why don’t you ever phone your Poona Auntie?”  

Guilt, pain, shame, and a quick feeling of being a bad nephew.

I guess it never struck me to take a break from fighting hammer brothers in my basement to phone up a distant aunt and start gabbing like we were sitting under permers at the beauty salon.

And what would have happened if I really did call up the aunt whose only conversation topic was how I didn’t call her? Would we have suddenly started swapping vindaloo recipes or debated the latest Bollywood star turn? Or would we have simply inched along a step to discussing how I never came to visit?

Much later on in life I owned a sandwich shop and sometimes had a customer walk in the door who I hadn’t seen in a little while.

What did I say to them? “Hey, where have you been?  Why don’t you ever visit your favorite sandwich shop anymore?”

I started noticing when I did that they’d quickly flash an apologetic smile, make a quick Mesquite Chicken order, and then disappear forever.

I’d hear the door ding and could almost see the swirling black cloud of shame hovering over them as they stepped inside their dented Honda Civic and drove straight out of my life.

It took a long time to realize the shame was because of me.

And that it was undeserved.

I had somehow grown into the Poona Auntie of Sandwiches.

Over time, I started to understand why they never came back. It was the same reason I never called my aunt.

Who can handle that kind of guilt?

Much easier to disappear completely.

Shame clouds came in those days because I wasn’t confident.

“I’m a non-caller, I’m a bad nephew, I’m not holding up my end of the relationship.”

Or maybe the snow globe lives we live in just had a shake and I didn’t realize that was okay, that was normal, that neither person was to blame.

Because guilt tripping is a form of emotional lashing out.

Research from the University of Auckland and the University of New Hampshire found that people who felt more hurt when receiving criticism from partners were more likely to respond dramatically in order to make their partner feel guilty. The more their feelings were hurt, the more guilt their partners experienced.

 When you say, “I know we haven’t seen each other in a while,” you’re essentially saying, “and it’s all your fault.”

But we’re forgetting we all live in a snow globe.

We shake up, we shake down, we fly sideways, we get around. Sometimes the shakes send us flying. And that doesn’t mean we did anything wrong. We have to grow to appreciate what we had and what we have. We have to learn to let go a little more of what could or should be.

Moments, days, this year, right here.

Tomorrows are never guaranteed so no need to spray them with Poona Auntie sayings or shake shame clouds over people when all you really mean to say is:

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I feel lucky we got this.”

“Thanks for being in my life.”

“And thank you for being


 I wrote 1000 Awesome Things from 2008 – 2012 which turned into four books. This is my first new one online since then.

Why You Should Never, Ever Retire


“He’s dead.”

Staring in shock at my high school Guidance Department secretary, I thought that it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true. I’d just talked to him last week.

“It happened so suddenly,” she whispered, tears shining through thick glasses, glossy red lips quivering silently in slow motion. “I am so sorry.”

Mr. Wilson was my guidance counselor. He had a shiny head holding two fluffy-cloud patches of gray hair on the sides and wore thick glasses and loose-fitting gray T-shirts while helping students with timetables, college applications, and personal problems.

Everybody loved Mr. Wilson.

I talked to him about summer jobs and he calmed me down during exams. He had a quiet, big-picture worldview that helped us get above ourselves and see beyond life in our hometown.

You could tell Mr. Wilson loved his job by the way his eyes twinkled as he bounced through the halls, spouting hellos and high-fiving students, calling everybody by name. He was always smiling, and our school was his home.

Back when I was in high school, the government had mandatory retirement. You turned sixty-five and poof! The government yanked you out of the workforce in a cloud of smoke and moved you straight on to old-age pension. You had no choice. And let’s face it — almost everybody wanted to retire way before sixty-five, anyway. TV ads preached “Freedom 55” with gray-haired couples skipping town to swim at the cottage, play golf, and sail into the sunset.

Retirement is a good thing. A great thing! What everybody wants, dreams about, wishes for, over and over and over and over . . . until it finally comes.

Do whatever, whenever, wherever . . . forever?

Sounds like a good deal!

The funny thing is that when Mr. Wilson retired . . . he didn’t look happy. None of us did. We had the big celebration with cake, music from the band, and teary speeches from former students. It was like the final scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Wilson said he was excited to be retiring, but his thin smile and wet eyes said the opposite.

But mandatory retirement came at age sixty-five . . . and so he retired.

The next week he had a heart attack and died.

The horrible idea the Germans had that ruined things for everybody

Every day there’s another article about how all of our retirements are doomed. Public pension promises in the U.S. vastly exceed their ability to pay. We now need nearly $400,000 at age 65 just to cover health care costs. And retirement itself increases your risk of depression by 40%.

For many of us, it’s starting to feel like the light at the end of the tunnel of life has been blocked by a triple-bolted steel door. Who’s to blame for this mess?

The Germans.

Yes, back in 1889, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the idea of retirement, establishing the concept for the rest of us. “Those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state,” he said at the time. He wanted to address high youth unemployment by paying those 70 and older to leave the workforce, and other countries followed suit with retirement ages around 65 or 70.

But there is one big difference between 1889 Germany and the world we live in today: The average lifespan then was 70 years. Penicillin wasn’t discovered for forty years! Now we’re all living much, much longer. And many of us would like to retire much earlier. But the scary headlines — and the realities that we see around us — cast doubt on our ability to ever retire. The entire concept of retirement is starting to feel flimsy at best.

So what are we to do, short of working the rest of our days away?

What can we learn from the healthiest 100-year-olds in the world?

To get to the root of the issue, let’s look past the North American shorelines (where I live) all the way to the beautiful sandy islands of Okinawa, in the East China Sea. According to the Okinawa Centenarian Study, men and women in Okinawa live an average of seven years longer than Americans and have one of the longest disability-free life expectancies in the world.

Dan Buettner and fellow researchers from National Geographic studied why Okinawans live so long. What did they find out? Among other things, Okinawans eat off of smaller plates, stop eating when they’re 80% full, and have a beautiful setup wherein they’re put into social groups as babies to slowly grow old together.

But they also have an outlook on life that is very different from those in the West. While we think of retirement as the golden age of golf greens and cottage docks, guess what they call retirement in Okinawa?

They don’t. They don’t even have a word for it. Literally nothing in their language describes the concept of stopping work completely. Instead, one of the healthiest societies in the world has the word ikigai (pronounced like “icky guy”), which roughly translates to “the reason you wake up in the morning.”

It’s the thing that drives you most.

Toshimasa Sone and his colleagues at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine wondered whether having an ikigai could actually help extend longevity, health, and late-life stability, so they put the concept to a test. They spent seven years in Sendai, Japan, studying the longevity of more than 43,000 Japanese adults with regard to age, gender, education, body mass index, cigarette use, alcohol consumption, exercise, employment, perceived stress, history of disease, and even subjects’ self-rated scores of how healthy they were. Then they asked every single one of these 43,000 people, “Do you have an ikigai in your life?”

Participants reporting an ikigai at the beginning of the study were more likely to be married, educated, and employed. They had higher levels of self-rated health and lower levels of stress. At the end of the seven-year study, 95% of the folks with an ikigai were alive.
 Only 83% of those without an ikigai made it that long.

The 4 S’s

To put it another way: We don’t actually want to retire and do nothing. We just want to do something we love. And I’m not talking about endless days of back nines, fishing, and sailing into the sunset. While we might want some time to do those things, you’d be surprised to learn how quickly the bloom can come off of that type of rosy retirement. I believe that we’d all be better served by taking the concept of ikigai and distilling it into what I call the 4 S’s:

Social: Friends, peers, and coworkers who brighten our days and fulfill our social needs.

Structure: The alarm clock ringing because you have a reason to get up in the morning, and the resulting satisfaction you get from earned time off.

Stimulation: Keeping our minds challenged by learning something new each day.

Story: Being part of something bigger than ourselves by joining a group whose high-level purpose is something you couldn’t accomplish on your own.

Now, am I saying that if you’re six weeks away from your final punch-out after 30 years at the meatpacking plant, you should suddenly skewer your dreams and ramp up for 30 more? Of course not. What I’m saying is that retirement is a Western invention from days gone by that’s based on broken assumptions that we want — and can afford — to do nothing.

If you’re already struggling to pay bills and your career’s sitting on tectonic plates that are threatening to shift below the labor market, my recommendation is to dig deep into your natural passions to find a second act that aligns with your values.

There are far more problems and opportunities on this spinning planet than there are people to help with them so if you feel lost, follow your heart, find your ikigai, and remember the 4 S’s.

And stop worrying that you won’t ever be able to retire.

You’ll be far better off if you don’t.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

I expand on this idea in The Happiness Equation

8 More Ways To Read (A Lot) More Books


Do you want to read more books?

Most people I talk to say yes, yes, definitely yes. Then two seconds later they say “But I just don’t got that kind of time.”

Well, you know what? I’m calling shenanigans on that BS excuse.

Because the truth is we’re reading more words per day now than ever before. It’s just garbage reading. Texts and alerts and notifications and emails and headline skims and fly-by tickers and blog feeds and Twitter spews and Instagram comments.

Who has time for books anymore?

I know this pain because I’ve felt this pain. For most of my adult life I read five books a year tops. Few slow burners on my nightstand, couple on vacation if I was lucky.

But then three years ago I suddenly read fifty. Fifty books! In one year. I couldn’t believe it. I could suddenly feel books becoming this lead domino towards being a better husband, a better father, a better writer.

In fact, I was so enamoured with myself I even wrote an article about it for Harvard Business Review called “8 Ways To Read (A Lot) More Books This Year” where I summed up the little systems that helped me 10x my reading rate after decades of being a “don’t got that kind of time” whiner.

And then what?

Well, that article became the Most Popular article on Harvard Business Review for something like six months straight and when you type in “how to read more books” in Google it’s generally right near the top.

So it seems the desire to read more is somewhat universal.

Since then I’ve tried doubling down on reading myself. I send out a monthly book club with a summary of the books I’ve read and enjoyed each month and I now host a podcast all about books, too. I’m reading somewhere around 100 books a year now so I figured it was time for a Version 2.0 of that article sharing all the things I do to keep my reading rate high. An advanced version! Because sure, I hit slow patches, I hit bare patches, I slip into social media swirls and feel dirty afterwards.

But these are the eight things I do to get back on track.

8. Live inside a world of books. The first one is a mindset change. Most people have a bookshelf “over there”, you know? That’s where the books live. But one day last year my wife just dumped a pile of about ten picture books in the middle of our coffee table. What happened? Our kids started flipping through them all the time. So now we just rotate them and leave them there. Path-of-least-resistance principle! Just like how Google leaves alfalfa bars and tofu chips on the counter for employees while hiding the jelly beans in cookie jars. We’ve put the TV in the basement, installed a bookshelf near our front door, slipped books into carseat pouches, and, of course, placed one within reach of every toilet. (Want an epic toilet book? Try this.)  Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges says: “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.”

7. Go red in bed. Yes, I’m talking about lighting up your bedroom like a bordello. How? Well, you gotta wear a red-light headband on your head like you’re in the jungles looking for the Predator. My wife Leslie generally falls asleep before I do and that’s when I strap my red reading light on my forehead and get my reading on. Why red? Michael Breus, PhD and author of The Power of When says that “The theory is that red light aids melatonin production.” And bright lights have the opposite effect according to The Sleep Health Foundation of Australia.  

6. Make your phone disgusting. Cell phones are a problem. Our phones are designed to be smooth, sexy, and irresistible. Don’t believe me? The book Irresistible by Adam Alter will quickly raise your awareness to the addictive designs going into smartphones. They’re pocket slot machines. So what’s the solution? Make it disgusting. Put your phone in black and white. Move all the apps off the main screen so it’s blank when you open it. Leave your cracked screen cracked. Move your charger to the basement so it’s an extra step in your low resilience nighttime and morning moments. (Cause you're never really proud of those 11pm emails, amirite?) Enable Night Shift to automatically block calls and texts after 7pm. Slowly, slowly, slowly prevent it from becoming such a seductive temptress. 

5. Go Dewey Decimal. How do you organize your books? By color? By when you bought them? By big random piles everywhere? There’s a reason every library is organized in the Dewey Decimal System. It makes sense. The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) System was created by Melvil Dewey in 1876. The DDC is the most widely used classification system in the world and is currently in use at libraries in over 140 countries. All books fall neatly into ever-more-thin-sliced categories around psychology and religion and science and art and everything. What’s the benefit? You make connections. You see where your big gaps are. (I couldn’t believe I only had three books in all of religion until I realized I only had two books in all of science! Who is Jesus? What is a tree? Don’t ask me!) I spent one Saturday putting my books in Dewey Decimal System and, in addition to scratching an incredibly deep organizational itch, I now find books faster, feel like my reading is more purposeful, and am more engaged in what I read, because I can sort of feel how it snaps into my brain. What tools do you need to do it? Just two! I bookmarked to look up Dewey Decimal Numbers for any books which don’t have a DDC code on the inside jacket and I use the Decimator app to look up what that number means. Oh, and I use a pencil to write the number and category inside the jacket. So three things including the pencil. I write the DDC code and the category in the inside jacket of each book. 

4. Listen to 3 Books. A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… and the man who never reads lives only one. Yes,  I stole that quote from Game of Thrones. But that quote begs a great follow-up question: Which thousand lives will you live? The average lifespan is about 1000 months long. (!) And estimates suggest around 1000 new books are published every single day. So on 3 Books I am spending fifteen years finding and reading the 1000 most formative books in the world. How? I’m sitting down and asking 333 of the most inspiring people I can find which three books most shaped their lives. I read the books in advance, do all the interviews in-person, have a strict no ads and no sponsors policy, and just get off discussing the big themes related to their books. Sample guests include David SedarisJudy BlumeChris Anderson of TED, and the world’s greatest Uber driver.

3. Unfollow all news. (Or Go Wiki.) Sure, sure, I preached before about how I cancelled all my magazine and newspaper subscriptions to focus solely on books. But you know where the news followed me? Online. They’re fishing for our eyeballs! So I had to get hardcore. Unfollow every news site on social media. Remove all bookmarks to news sites. Remove all passwords too! Now I get the news from skimming headlines at my local grocery store. Too hardcore? Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, told me he combs the front page of Wikipedia News each day. That’s it! No news sites, no news feeds. Why? Well, it’s quick and it’s Wikipedia. No left, no right, no leanings. It’s Wikipedia. When the news gets stripped out the space to read opens up. 

2. Read on something that doesn’t do anything else. In my chat with Seth Godin on 3 Books, he told me the research shows we don’t read on devices where we have the ability to multitask. Same path-of-least-resistance principle. If we can be interrupted, alerted, or notified, we will. Not good for diving deep into new worlds. So what do I suggest? Real books. Real pages. On dead trees. Yes, kill em, print on em, and disappear into your mind. Only real books let you be the full director of the show, after all. No voice replaces your mental voice, no formatting or display screen affects the artistic intentions of the writer. Sure, I get it if you need big font or you drive all day and prefer audiobooks, I get that, but I’m just saying if you wanna be a real book snob for the rest of your life just like me, well I’ve got a nice warm seat beside me. 

1. Find your Sarah. My favorite bookseller of all-time is Sarah Ramsey of Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. I walk in, I start blabbering, I start confessing, I share what I’m struggling with, she hmms and hahs and sizes me up as we wander around the store talking for half an hour. And then I walk out with an armload of books that completely fit my emotional state, where I want or need to grow, and those that resonate with me on a deeper level. If you believe humans are the best algorithm (like I do) then walking into your local independent bookstore, sizing up the Staff Picks wall to see who’s similar to you, and then asking them for personal picks is a great way to speed you up. (Here’s an ‘indie bookstore finder’ if you want a place to start.)

So are you ready to go? Do you need some final convincing?

If you need your left brain scratched, then check out the 2011 The Annual Review of Psychology which says that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion, and understanding. Makes you a better leader, teacher, parent, and sibling. Another study published in Science Magazine in 2013 found that reading literary fiction helps us improve our empathy and social functioning. And, lastly, an incredible 2013 study at Emory University, MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Priming the brain. And the MRIs were done the next day. Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.

Most of us want to read more. And we can.

A couple years ago I shared 8 ways to read more books and now I'm share 8 more ways. Ditch the Instagram comments and news feeds and let's all try and slip more pages into all the cricks and corners of the day.

Happy reading.

The Very Best Books I Read In 2018


Another year!

Another “best of” reading list from me.

As always, these are the best books I read in 2018 … not the best books that came out in 2018! I don’t care what books come out when. The goal isn’t to be timely! It’s to read good books.

These are the Top 15 books I read in 2018:

15. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. DweckMy wife Leslie and I use the “fixed versus growth mindset” metaphor all the time. To illustrate the difference here’s a scenario from the book: “One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.” According to Carol Dweck, if you have a fixed mindset you’d think “I’m a total failure” or “I feel like a reject.” (That’s how I felt when I read it!) But it was a midterm, not a final, it was a parking ticket, not a car crash, you were “brushed off”, not dumped forever. So if you have a growth mindset, you’d think “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” This illuminating book helped me understand how to develop a growth mindset across all spectrums of life from business to parenting. I can’t recommend it enough.
Perfect for: teachers, anyone leading a team, and people who like TED Talks… 
14. Point Your Face At This by Demetri Martin. Demetri Martin is a stand-up comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show. It is really hard to explain this book of cartoons so instead I’m going to give you onetwothree,fourfive examples of the cartoons themselves.
Perfect for: fans of the absurdist style of The Far Side cartoons, people who like mathy / logic puzzles, and bathroom readers… 
13. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Zora Neale was born in Alabama in 1891 and published this novel about a Southern black woman’s journey to independence in 1937. Born from a rape and raised by her grandmother who was a slave, it’s an incredibly epic tale of her life which (I promise) ultimately rewards at the end. Three things about this fascinating book: One, it was a lost book, meaning completely out of print and forgotten for years, until an essay about the author by Alice Walker appeared in 1975 and raised interest again. Two, it’s written exactly as people spoke. So, like, a sample sentence is “They’s jes lak uh pack uh hawgs”. And three, it takes a few chapters to get into the writing style – maybe like A Clockwork Orange if you’ve read that.
Perfect for: fans of historical fiction, people who liked A Thousand Splendid Suns, and those who enjoy epic stories of triumph over adversity…
12. The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. Did you know blue was for girls and pink was for boys? Me neither! But it wasn’t that long ago. Less than a hundred years. Red was for kings, warriors, and cardinals. So pink was the “little king.” And blue? Color of the Virgin Mary for a couple thousand years. Ever wondered about the origin of fuchsia, electric blue, or sepia? Well, each of the seventy-five colors highlighted (literally) in this book shares the fascinating little tale of how it got to its place in the world today. Masterful!
Perfect for: anyone who wants a coffee table book that’s not just for show, designers or visual artists, and, once again, bathroom readers… 
11. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. This book explores the history of public shaming and the reemergence of it on a mass scale with the Internet. It sounded like a topic I cared nothing about yet the storytelling here is completely engrossing. Ronson managed to score interviews with pariahs like Jonah Lehrer who became a New Yorker plagiarism castaway and Justine Sacco who sent a bad joke out to 170 followers on Twitter before getting on an 11-hour flight… and then landed to discover she’d become the #1 trending topic on Twitter and been fired from her job all while she was on the plane. Past and future covered here: A great exploration of shaming history and a confident wade into the complex emotional issues surrounding how we think today about power to the people.
Perfect for: anyone with a public presence, contemporary philosophers, and those working in news or media … 
10. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I’ve heard about Bonfire forever! Never read it until this year. And when I finally opened this gripping, breathless, searing portrait of rising inequalities taking place between the highest highs and lowest lows of Manhattan in the 1980s I was just left wondering: “Why did it take me so long?” After I finished I lent it to my mom over a family trip this summer and she whipped through it, too. Captivating.
Perfect for: people who find books “too slow”, anyone working in finance, and people who liked The Wire… 
9. Calypso by David Sedaris. I love David Sedaris. He went super deep in our ridiculous interview driving around Toronto in the backseat of his limo. He has this ability to take authenticity to that total next level place. I would personally put Calypso in a three-way tie with Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day for Best Sedaris Book Ever. Slower, darker, and all the hilarious essays sort of weave together to give a sharp portrait of turning sixty with everything that entails. A father in his 90s. Losing a sibling. Everything sounding loud in airports. If you want a sample essay, here’s one from The New Yorker which is included in the book.
Perfect for: dads, people who like their comedy a little spicy, and anyone navigating a mid-life crisis… 
8. The History Of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss. I had this book recommended to me by a few people over the years including anonymous strangers at book signings, my father-in-law, and even Mitch Albom. Turns out I would eventually need all those pushes because I found the first two-thirds of this epic love story totally frustrating. It’s written like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. But it does eventually deliver a massive payoff that makes it all worth it. Reading this book feels like setting up a hundred dominos in a dark room. Getting to the end feels like finally turning the lights on and knocking them all over.
Perfect for: people who liked The Notebook, people who liked The Rosie Project, and your everyday big-hearted romantic… 
7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls WilderThis may be the most unusual book on my list this year. And I would never have read it if Gretchen Rubin hadn’t picked it as one of her three books on (yes) 3 Books. But it’s a hypnotic autobiographical description of growing up in rural Wisconsin in the late 1800s. From shooting panthers to smoking meat in hollow tree trunks to playing catch with pig bladders. There is no plot. There is no crisis. There’s just 238 pages in 18-point font of vivid memories weaved into a captivating tableau that makes you feel like you’re living another life. A truly wondrous work and the first book in the famous “Little House” series. Written in 1937.
Perfect for: early or young adult readers, anyone looking to escape the modern world, and people willing to stop and just meditate on being in the moment… 
6. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib. There is magic in describing invisible things. Root beer on your tongue. Muscle buzz after a workout. And, for me, music reviews. I’ve always loved reviews that wrap words around the invisible spaces and emotions and reflections sitting inside great tunes. And Hanif Abdurraqib writes great music reviews. But he writes something more, too. He writes about class and race and anger and culture and making it and living it and what it all means… with music serving as a wobbly brass doorknob to a whole new world inside.
Perfect for: Pitchfork readers, aspiring musicians, and fans of good arguments… 
5. Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris. I’m still thinking about this book all the time. If loneliness is “alone and sad” then solitude is “alone and happy.” Michael Harris peels back the layers of this incredibly subtle life skill to show us why it’s crucial to master, what gets in the way, and how we can reorient ourselves in the distraction machine we live in.
Perfect for: people who don’t make time for “solo time”, anyone finding the world too loud, and those looking to improve focus or concentration… 
4. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers. Only picture book on the list this year! Superhuman children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers dropped the mic with this life-affirming, crowd-pleasing, planet-cheering children’s book conceived as a Welcome To Earth-style note to his newborn son.
Perfect for: children, their parents, and anyone looking for a reminder on how lucky we are… 
3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Here it is! Maybe the best book on writing out there. I found this one a lot stronger than Bird by Bird which provoked minor anxiety in me with its endless list of writing stresses. King shares his mental models for writing, demystifies the process, and speaks in a snappy manner about how to actually do it. The first half of the book is his optional memoir (lots of fun but skippable if you aren’t interested) and then the second half is on writing. Sidenote: what’s in the middle? An incredible little five-page interstitial called “What Writing Is” which blew my mind.
Perfect for: writers, aspiring writers, and people who like English but not English class 
2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A Novel by Maria Semple. Funniest novel I read in 2018. Maria Semple is a former writer for Arrested DevelopmentEllen, and Mad About You and she’s put together this novel in a unique way – in the form of Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter solving the riddle of her eccentric, agoraphobic mother’s sudden disappearance through a collection of newspaper clippings, stolen emails, and schools newsletters. The comedy acrobatics are incredible as every plot twist and turn is ultimately in service of a perfectly solved Rubik’s Cube by the end.
Perfect for: fans of any of the TV shows mentioned above, fans of ridiculous domestic drama or soap opera-y type tales, and people who used to laugh more but are too stressed these days… 
1. Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker. Before this year I’d never read a Steven Pinker book before and the man intimidates the hell out of me. His Wikipedia profile almost sounds fake in its endless list of accolades and accomplishments. And check out the amazing hair: dude’s bringing back the Ludwig van for real! But this year no book kept me up later at night than Enlightenment Now. That feels like a good test for the #1 overall position. A few nights in a row I watched the clock click past 3:00am as I couldn’t stop mentally swallowing the endlessly delicious nuggets of comfort the book kept dropping in its piece-by-piece deconstruction of how, you know what? Life is actually really good. We’re living longer, we’re healthier, we’re safer. And the stories and research underpinning these truths are told in a beautifully readable way. It feels like the guy is tap-dancing on a stage just daring you to poke a hole in his arguments. Now, when you take on a topic this big (“The whole world is great!!!”) you’re bound to get buried in criticism, too. There’s a lot out there. But I think that means he’s touching a deep and real nerve. I trust the Bill Gates blurb on the cover more: “My new favorite book of all time”, he says. I’m with Bill. This one is a gem.
Perfect for: optimists, science and history buffs, anyone who needs to zoom out of the news cycle… 

10 Unconventional Gifts-ukkah To Give At Christmas-ukkah

Christmas is messed up.  

Lots are jammed, malls are rammed, and we race around in giant plastic cars to fill giant plastic bags with of giant plastic toys to set under giant plastic trees.

Toss another box on the pile! 

Now, I’m definitely guilty, too. But my wife and I are always trying to pull back, pare back, and get intentional about what we’re giving every year. Perfect’s over there, we’re over here, but still: here are ten unconventional gifts we have given or received in the past few years which have helped dial down the insanity while dialing up the intimacy: 

10. Old jewelry. Most things in your grandma’s closet don’t age well. Socks. Pantyhose. Reading glasses. Pink track pants. But jewelry is an exception. The story of a specific bracelet or pair of earrings only deepens, lengthens, and intensifies with time. “It’s the ring you grandfather bought me on our tenth anniversary” or “I bought these earrings for my prom back in Timmins.” The story of old jewelry is the story of the milestones in your life. Also applies to hoodies, watches, or anything else special you think someone else might love.

9. A batch of your homemade spaghetti sauce. Whip up a big batch of the good stuff and dollop it into jars for all your loved ones. Also works with salsa, jam, or granola. For bonus points cut out some little checkered cloths with pinking shears and wrap them around the lids with string. 

8. A travel water bottle. By some estimates there are now over a million people in airplanes at any given time. That’s like a lot. And I don’t know about you but running to my gate in the screen-n-perfume-n-dead-eyeballed tank that is The Modern Airport always makes me thirsty. So I buy some $8 bottle of water, chug it, and chuck the plastic brick it came in into the trash. Horrible! I may as well personally strangle a pickerel. But what’s the solution? Well, a travel water bottle that dangles on the outside of a backpack. Perfect for airport tap water fill-ups. And a nice reminder of a loved one when you’re far away. 

7. A different version of their favorite book. When I interviewed my favorite bookseller Sarah Ramsey for 3 Books she told me she had four copies of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. What? Why? Well! It’s her favorite book, they have different covers, one of them is signed, you get the idea. Why is this such a brilliant move? Because you already know they love it. Now they get an edition that’s different because of the cover or format or signature inside. It also ups your gift giving cred if you pored through endless used bookstore bins to find the gem. I just gave my friend Mark an original hardcover I found of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace because I knew he was a huge fan. (Sidenote: Mark wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck which is an incredible book. The wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York sells signed copies of it online.)

6. An upgrade of that free meditation or mindfulness app they already love. Do they Headspace? Are they into Do they use the Momentum Chrome extension? If you already know they love it then you can soup up their experience by buying the upgrade. They went freemium. You can go premium. 

5. A mix tape or personalized playlist with the track listing printed inside the card. Every single Christmas I eagerly look forward to my friend Mike’s “Best Of This Year” CD he painstakingly filters, produces, burns, and mails to me. Yes, I still listen to CDs, and I also toss his mix tape into a Spotify playlist to listen to while I’m traveling. Music says what words can’t. And, in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets. If you want to get hardcore you can record it on a cassette and pair it with a used cassette player to play it on. And, if not, then making a custom playlist and writing up a pretty track listing in the card also works wonders. 

4. A gift certificate to your favorite independent bookstore. 2009 and 2015 is often called the “retail apocalypse” because of all the big chains that went belly up. But what happened to the number of independent bookstores in the US during that time? They actually grew by 35%. Ditch the screens and let’s get back into books. They’re back. With a vengeance! Now, I have a personal Life Rule when it comes to independent bookstores. Simply: I am not allowed to walk into one without buying something before I leave. That’s pushed my brain into all kinds of places I never thought it’d go. Bookstores are one of the most vital members of our local cultural communities and a gift certificate from one of them is the stocking stuffer of love. 

3. A hand-written love letter. Sounds daunting! That’s why it sticks out. A few things up front: The paper don’t matter, the pen don’t matter, crossing things off and rewriting them again and again don’t matter. No need for rhymes. No need for anything fancy. Just try to remove all the plaque between your heart and fingers and let it flow. What you remember about how we met, a few favorite memories from this year, and how you make me feel. Now, I debated not sharing this next part since it sounds a little cutesy but it’s true so I’m sharing it. My wife Leslie and I have been together for eight Christmases. We’ve never bought a single Christmas present for each other. We just write a letter to each other and that’s it. What would you rather have in 50 years? A pile of dusty electronics in your attic or a treasured collection of fifty love letters? Leslie even photographs them in case of tornado or typhoon. Again, length, style, format – none of it matters. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, when we express gratitude for others by writing them a handwritten letter, we underestimate how grateful recipients feel, overestimate how ‘awkward’ it is, and underestimate how positive they’ll feel. Don’t think about it. Just go for it. 

2. A homemade coupon booklet. I know you remember giving these to your mom when you were six and couldn’t afford to get her a sweater. “This coupon entitles the bearer to 1 free hug.” And those coupons were beautiful and sweet and I bet they made your mom cry and I bet she kept them. But then what happened? You started getting her muffin trays and sweaters. Lame! Bring back the homemade coupon. But now, as an adult, you can make it a whole booklet. We know experiences make us happier than things and the homemade coupon brings experiences to life. Foot massages! Homemade lasagna! Watching the kids! Two weeks of laundry! Make out sessions! Wait, I’m talking about your partner not your mom now. I should clarify. Hey, if you take the advice of bestselling author Kelly Oxford in GQ, then sexual favors in committed relationships are fair game, too. Spicing up marriages, strengthening relationships, getting right to the nucleosis of generosity, and saving money. Is there anything homemade coupons can’t do? 

1. A photo or essay book from all their friends and family. Okay, this here is the jackpot. When my friend Fred turned 30 years old I got an email from his wife Jen asking if I would write a little essay about what Fred means to me. So I did. And she collected similar essays from all his friends and family and put them into a book which is still one of his most prized possessions. Now, maybe this gift is better for their milestone birthday, rather than, you know, Jesus’s milestone birthday, but I think it needs to be mentioned because it takes a lot of time and effort to put together this type of gift. You might start planning for it this year and then place it under the tree in 2023. 

Christmas, Christmas, long grown from its religious roots straight and into our increasingly secular world. But how do we flee the pulsing dehydration headaches, endless Man Couches, and chop suey chicken ball stenches from mall food courts?

We do it by preserving the magical reminder of generosity and togetherness by choosing gifts easy on the environment, easy on the wallet, and extra on the intimacy … whenever we can.

3 Ways To Fight Cellphone Addiction In Schools

I was speaking at a principals’ conference recently. Want to take three guesses at what most of the questions were about? If you said “cellphones, cellphones, and more cellphones” you’re right.

“How do we pull students off devices?”

“How do we remove cellphones as a distraction and regain focus and attention in classrooms?”

“What can we do to cope with growing cellphone addiction and anxiety and other problems rising up?”

Well, first off, it is an addiction. We’ve talked before about how when everyone is addicted to something it looks like nobody is. It’s not the only thing! Caffeine, sugar, you guys know what I’m talking about. But, on phones, my old answer used to be to ban cellphones. Not allowed! Keep them away from classrooms, lunch rooms and hallways. But the tide has shifted. When I asked the room of 300 elementary and high school principals how many didn’t allow cellphones in classrooms … nobody put up their hand.

And then I stared a bit closer at all the conference tables around the room. What was sitting in front of everybody? Cellphones. Of course.

That’s when I realized.

Pandora’s Box is already opened.

You can’t stuff demons back in that easily.

It wasn’t even a few years ago I remember CEOs or conference MCs holding up cardboard boxes and asking everyone to toss their cellphone in before a big meeting began. But now all we do is tell people which hashtag to use.

Why are we so afraid to tell others to give up their phones? Because we don’t want to give them up ourselves.

And it’s not our fault as the devices are designed to be more and more irresistible and addictive and, since we are the most social species on the planet, our phones have become the primary connective tissue to our family, friends, coworkers, tribes, subreddits, fantasy football leagues, celebrity follows … all our social connections.

2017 study looked at how people with high and low nomophobic (no-more-phone-phobia) tendencies perceive and value their smartphones. The findings suggest that we see our phones as extensions of ourselves, which is what creates separation anxiety to our phones. That’s right — high cellphone users literally feel anxious when separated from their devices.

Clinical psychologist Brenda K. Wiederhold further elaborates on this subject: “Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of being offline (FOBO) — all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles — may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias. Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness.”

But it ain’t that easy!

So what do we do?

Well, I have three suggestions.

1. Zones

After a moment one principal bravely put up her hand and said “You know, we’re trying something at our school. We have 25-minute nutrition breaks twice a day. And in those breaks we say cellphones aren’t allowed. The students sit at tables, face each other, and if we see a cellphone … we take it.”

“How’s it working?” I asked.

“Well, we end up taking a bunch of cellphones every day. It’s really hard for them. But most of them have figured out they can make it 25 minutes and be able to use their phones right afterwards.”

So if you can’t yank the drug, how about a cellphone free zone? It can be schedule-based or maybe location based. Like no cellphones in the library.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is an Austin, Texas-based movie theatre chain that is growing in leaps and bounds. While movie theatres nationally experienced a 3.4 per cent drop in box office sales in 2010, Alamo saw a 2.6 per cent rise in sales, and if you include food and drink revenue, that number is up to 4.8 per cent.

What differentiates the Alamo from the rest? Well, it has set in place policies to improve the customer’s overall experience … including one no other movie theatre has: if you use your cellphone a bouncer kicks you out.

Like I said, the chain is growing in leaps and bounds.

2. Modelling

Are you complaining about students using cellphones with your phone sitting on your desk?

Last month the New York Times released an article on why Silicon Valley parents are becoming increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from phones … and why many are now asking their nannies to sign “no cellphone” contracts to help keep technology away from their kids.

One Silicon Valley nanny said: “Most parents come home, and they’re still glued to their phones, and they’re not listening to a word these kids are saying … Now I’m the nanny ripping out the cords from the PlayStations.”

Are children using their phones more because their peers are … or because their parents are?

This all reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I saw recently. Two women are sitting beside each other on a park bench. Each has a young girl beside them, presumably their daughters. One mom is holding a phone. Her daughter is looking at a phone. The other mom is holding a book. Her daughter is reading a book. And the caption is phone-holding mom asking book-holding mom: “How do you get your kid to read?”

3. Fasting

How often do you say “Wow, I drank too much at that wedding. No drinks till next weekend.” Or “I gained five pounds over the holidays. I’ll walk to work this month.” These fasts are little mental systems put in place to prevent slipping again. Systems always beat goals.

So if you’re leading a group of people (in a school, sure, but it also applies elsewhere) you can apply the fasting principle to the group.

How? Start by saying you’re going on a fast.

A Facebook fast, an Instagram fast, a “no social media apps on my cellphone” fast. You pick the fast!

Then ask who else is in, draw up a leader board, and track who lasts the longest. Throw in a prize if it helps. Use a website like or if it’s helpful.

Declare cell free zones! Model the behaviour! Take a fast!

Yes, our tools may be dull and rusty.

But we can win this war yet.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star