7 Science-Backed Ways To Be Happy Right Now

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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)

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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: https://www.bakadesuyo.com/ (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: https://austinkleon.com/newsletter/


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 https://www.ahaparenting.com/


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: https://www.adamgrant.net/newsletter


*** Ahhlife.com 

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. Ahhlife.com. 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: https://ahhlife.com/ (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: https://seths.blog/subscribe/


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: https://ryanholiday.net/reading-newsletter/


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: https://fs.blog/newsletter/


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: https://melrobbins.com/


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: https://www.raptitude.com/


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.

A CLOUD OF SMOKE 

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.

THE MAGICIAN REVEALS HIS SECRET

“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.”

THE BLACK HOLE INBOX

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

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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:

1. ENTERTAIN

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.)

2. EDUCATE

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).


3. EMPOWER

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

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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… 

Books. 

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 1000AwesomeThings.com. 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

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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

AWESOME!

 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

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“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

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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 classify.oclc.org 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

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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 Calm.com? 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 stickk.com or  futureme.org 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

The Power of 1000

I didn’t realize it at the time, but something special happened to me on June 20, 2008.

I was in a pretty depressive state with my marriage heading the wrong direction and my best friend suffering from severe mental illness. I needed an escape. An outlet. A place to go. A place to vent.

So, I typed “How to start a blog” into Google and pressed that “I’m feeling lucky” button, which no one ever presses. And 10 minutes later, I started up a tiny website called 1000 Awesome Things.

My idea was to write down 1000 awesome things for 1000 straight weekdays to cheer myself up.

Why 1000?

Well, 100 awesome things sounded too low. Too easy! I could whip that off in a few months and I’d be finished. I didn’t expect I’d have things figured out in my own head that quickly.

And one million awesome things sounded like too much. A million! How many years would that take? Oh, not many, just a couple thousand. Since I’m not Gandalf, I knew I was aiming too high.

So, 1000 was my baby bear bowl of porridge.

It sounded jussssssssst right.

For the next four years, for the next 1000 straight weekdays, I really did write 1000 awesome things on my blog. And while my marriage fell apart and my best friend sadly took his own life, that tiny blog became a salvation, a place to escape to, a place to disappear to.

On April 19, 2012, 1000 weekdays after I launched it, I announced the No. 1 awesome thing in a downtown bookstore beamed live to the CBC National News.

And then … that was it. I hit 1000. The project finished. The blog ended. And I moved on.

But something happened to me over the years.

And it’s something I never put a finger on until pretty recently.

The number 1000 kept appearing in my life.

I thought maybe it was just the famous Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. You know, when you keep seeing the same obscure word jump out at you after hearing about it for the first time. Does that happen to you? In 1994, a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board came up with the term after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in one day.

But the number 1000 felt deeper than that.

When researching The Happiness Equation, I looked a lot at lifespans around the world. I was trying to understand why people in Okinawa, Japan, for example, live seven more years than North Americans and have no word for retiring.

So, guess what our average lifespan is? Here’s the interesting thing. It’s 1000 months. Or just over 83 years.

“There’s that number again,” I thought to myself.

A year later, I was working on my journal 2 Minute Mornings. I found I was stressed out so I came up with a routine to help me chill. Each morning, I would wake up and answer three research-backed prompts to both clear and focus my mind:

  • 1. “I will let go of …”

  • 2. “I am grateful for …”

  • 3. “I will focus on …”

When part of your life is doing interviews with media, you get good insight from journalists. And that’s what happened. I was doing the TV, radio, and podcast circuit on this journal and a host said something that struck me. She said:

“Today, we welcome Neil Pasricha on the show. His challenge? You’re awake 1000 minutes every day. Could you take two of them to make the other 998 even better?”

Wait a minute.

You’re alive 1000 months.

You’re awake 1000 minutes a day.

What an incredibly helpful way to measure what you’re doing in life in the broadest possible sense.

Renovating your fixer-upper for three months? Feels awful. But maybe small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only 3 of your 1000 months. Hate your 100-minute commute? Well, that makes sense. You’re only awake 1000 minutes a day, so you’re burning 200 or 20% of them in the car.

What’s another reason 1000 is such a powerful number?

Because it’s a moon shot number that’s actually realistic.

When you’re only alive for 1000 months (or roughly 30000 days), then doing something for 1000 of them is a massive commitment … that you can actually do.

Can you do 1000 morning runs?

Can you cook 1000 homemade dinners?

Can you teach 1000 students?

Can you help 1000 people?

Yes, you can. It will take you a while. But you can.

And why 1000?

Because it is clear and measurable and big and daunting … but reachable. I wanted to so many times to quit while writing 1000 Awesome Things. But I had that number, that commitment, those three big zeros staring me in the face.

Once I’d spent a year writing a few hundred awesome things, could I look at myself in the mirror if I quit? I decided I couldn’t, which is where duds like, say, #806 Ducks came from on my blog.

How do I use it in my life today?

I decided I wanted to try and read the 1000 most formative books in the world before I die. Easy math. About a book a month. I realized there was no list of 1000 books I could trust and no algorithm that could feed me these 1000 important, life-changing books.

So, I made my own. I decided to interview 333 people who I find inspiring and ask each of them for the three books which most changed their lives. Who? Authors like Judy Blume, David Sedaris, and Mitch Albom. Creatives like Sarah Anderson of Sarah’s Scribbles or Chris Anderson who runs TED. Or inspiring people I stumble upon like Vishwas Aggrawal, the world’s greatest Uber driver with a 4.99 rating and over 5,000 rides.

I record these conversations in a podcast called 3 Books with Neil Pasricha and I release one chapter on the exact minute of every new moon and full moon since March 31, 2018 till 5:52 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2031.

2031? Yes! That’s the magic of 1000.

It’s a moon shot — I may never make it. I started the project at 38 years old and I’ll be in my 50s when it’s over. But it’s 1000 books, so it will take me a long time. But I now know, and I now believe, in the power of 1000 to lead me there.

As George R.R. Martin wrote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

There it is again. A one with three zeros.

What can you do a thousand times?

Just sign up for doing 1000 of something and then get ready to drop your jaw and stare back at yourself as you accomplish your massive goal.

Good luck!

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

13 Best Summer Reads (For People Who Don't Want To Turn Their Brain Off)

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Does your brain turn off in the summer?

Mine doesn’t. Yours doesn’t. Everybody’s doesn’t.

And that’s why I reject the common assumption that summer beach reads are supposed to be airy-fairy tales of steamy romance or paint-by-numbers Pattersons.

To that I say a big loud: No!

Now, don’t worry, I’m not swinging the other way and recommending you check out the latest 600-page examination of the Civil War. But I do think we should swing the pendulum back a bit. So let’s start off with a few summer beach read principles first:

1. Fast paced. You may be sitting on a towel on the way home from the beach, lounging in the park after walking the dog, or jumping in and out of coffee shops down on a little Main Street somewhere. The book has to be gripping enough that you want to keep tearing through it. Pacing! The book has to move.

2. Jump in, jump out. A big one! The thoughts flying through the book have to be light enough that you can jump in and jump out of the book. A few pages before a dip. A few pages after a hot dog. Essays, short stories, and tiny chapters all get a thumbs up here.

3. You learn something. Like I said before, brains don’t turn off in the summer. So there’s no excuse for shutting down. You should return from holidays with fresh ideas and new perspectives. The books can take a fun road to getting there. But I’m not letting you hit the snooze bar.

Okay, we have our principles.

So now here are my picks for 13 great summer reads:

1. Calypso by David Sedaris

Years ago I waited until around 1am in the basement of Massey Hall to meet David Sedaris. I was by myself. My phone died. I was thirsty. By the time I got near the front I hated David Sedaris. Who was this guy? Sure, I loved his books. But where did he get the nerve to make me wait in line for four hours to get my book signed? Who did he think he was? Space Mountain? But then I got to the front. And he sat there calmly. And it was clear I could lead the conversation. So I did! I asked him about my favorite essays in Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day and something like five or ten minutes later he wrote “Neil, I am so happy you’re alive” in my book. Now that’s a book signing! Patience, connection, intimacy. I’ve tried adopting the same approach and think it’s the most beautiful part of the writing world. As for David Sedaris, I think Calypso may take the position of Best Sedaris Book Ever. Slower, darker, and — wait for it — it has an arc! All the hilarious essays sort of weave together to give a sharp portrait of middle age with everything that entails. A father in his 90s. Losing a sibling. Everything sounding loud in airports. The essays are perfect for dipping in and out and yet you always feel like you are learning something new about the human condition. (PS. I also interviewed David (in the back of his limo!) for 3 Books.)

2. Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This is one of my only novels on the list. Most of these are short and punchy but this one has enough short chapters and well-braided-but-not-too-complex plotlines to make the cut. 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 the immigrant experience and an Oprah’s Book Club pick to boot.

3. 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. 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 in a forest 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 or Full House-style group laughs … but rather with an honest emotional candid snapshot of what life felt like, for that person, at that time. Hard not to laugh, cry, or be a little moved by each one.

4. “Commencement speech books”

The benefit of reading commencement speech books is that you get them done in under an hour and feel a sense of perspective or motivation far beyond. I find them delightful to revisit and they remind me of the bigger principles in the world. Three favorites: Congratulations, By The Way by George Saunders, This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, and Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman.

5. A Little History of The World by E.H. Gombrich

Do you have a curious 12-year-old in your life? Or do you have a curious 12-year-old inside you? Buy them this book. Back in 1935 the author wrote it in German over six weeks for a little girl. And that tone and style is still there in the English translation which didn’t appear until 70 years later. A mesmerizing look at, well, a little history of the world. Short and snappy — feels like a Wait But Why blog post written 100 years ago.

6. Herding Cats by Sarah Andersen

Graphic novels make perfect beach reads. The emotion packs a wallop yet you can swoop in and out quickly. Sarah Andersen is the millennial cartoonist behind the online sensation Sarah’s Scribbles with strips addressing issues like anxiety, social awkwardness, mental health, and becoming an adult. Herding Cats is her latest and I also recommend her last two books: Adulthood Is A Myth and Big Mushy Happy Lump. If you want to go deeper down the graphic novel hole I’ll also recommend Killing And Dying by Adrian Tomine and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

7. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Okay, this is maybe my most beachy of summer reads. Do you ever walk by the tabloids and sort of stare at the children of celebrities pasted on the covers? I find the idea of someone like Suri Cruise or Shiloh Pitt even being known a bit sickening. They’re just kids! Born onto our spinning planet by parents who happen to be famous. I often worry what their lives must feel like on the inside of all that press and publicity. I picked up this book casually just because — just because I’d heard of it, just because I knew Carrie Fisher from playing Princess Leia, and just because it looked interesting. I had no idea Carrie Fisher was a Suri Pitt! Born to Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, or the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the late 1950s, 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. Fascinating, absorbing, enlightening, and hilarious.

8. The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyo Masuno

A peaceful meditative listicle of 100 Buddhist principles for living a content and simple life. In my blurb for this book I wrote: "Our mind is blazing in the new dopamine war between alarmist news and attention-hooking apps. The Art of Simple Living is a bucket of water on the flames."

9. Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

If loneliness is like “alone and sad” then solitude is like “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. I needed this book. I loved this book. And both halves of my brain were scratched because Michael’s a captivating writer with an arty flick-of-the-wrist style who also knows how to navigate the world of research and science. (For a sample of his writing check out this great piece he wrote in The Globe & Mail called I Have Forgotten How To Read.) Oh, and Michael was also a guest on my podcast 3 Books.

10. Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun

Who else has the Hamilton soundtrack blaring at home? Talk about a gift to the world. When artists blow up the way Lin-Manuel did I always find their little side projects fascinating. Often it’s a bomb, occasionally it’s a hit, but either way it’s worth applauding because it means the artist doesn’t care about the shoebox the world is stuffing them into. Well, turns out long before Hamilton premiered, Lin-Manuel was opening and closing his writing days with little bits of Twitter poetry, and this book collects the best batch of them and pairs them with the crazy Canadian polymath Jonny Sun’s smooth n’ curvy drawings. An inspiring combo. Here’s what I wrote about the book on Twitter.

11. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

I was listening to the episode of The Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard Podcast with Seth Meyers when he said, and excuse my French, but “I have such a boner for hard workers.” It hit a nerve with me. Chapter 2 of The Happiness Equation is all about valuing intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones, valuing inputs over outputs. Well, hard work is the ultimate input. And James Clear has been working hard for years. He writes these epic articles on his blog, publishes them for free, and has created an entire community around them. Atomic Habits feels like the grand culmination of those years of hard work. No surprise it instantly debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. I always say “Systems beat goals” and if you’re looking to inject your life with some new systems to help get things done… this is a great place to start.

12. The History Of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss 

Not too long ago I gave a speech and, afterwards, an older lady walked up to me, smiled deeply with wet eyes, and handed me a tiny slip of paper. I opened it. All it said was “The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.” I looked up at her and she simply said “Read it” and then walked away. Then a few days later I saw the book mentioned again on Mitch Albom’s "Mitch's Picks". Turns out I needed those two pushes because I found the first two-thirds of the book totally frustrating. It’s written in that 3D jigsaw puzzle. Did you like movies like Traffic or 21 Grams? If so, you’ll like this book. Me, I’m lost the whole time. But I promise 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. Beautiful.

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

If the world feels too full of words for you 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.

And there you have it!

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star

7 Customer Service Lessons From The World’s Greatest Uber Driver

Do you Uber?

I’ve probably hailed an Uber two or three times a day for the past couple years and every time I do I scroll down to check the driver’s rating and number of rides. Do you do that? I’m always curious so I’ve sort of made a little mental map over time of what the ratings mean. 4.3? May drive on wrong side of the road. 4.5? Get ready for loud GPS directions. 4.7? Messy trunk with no suitcase room.

But something different happened the night I hailed an Uber driven by a guy named Vishwas Aggrawal, who goes by Vish for short. He had a staggering 4.99 rating. 4.99! I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen a 4.99 before. I just figured he was just a brand new driver with a handful of rides until I scrolled down and saw that he’d given almost 5,000.

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How was that possible?

Well, when I sat down in Vish’s car I realized how it was possible. The five-minute drive home blossomed into an interview I did with Vish the following week (in the back of his Uber, of course) for my podcast 3 Books with Neil Pasricha, where I discuss the three most formative books of inspiring people like Seth GodinJudy Blume, and Gretchen Rubin. Vish was officially the first Uber driver on the show, and he shared with me why he cares so deeply about his service quality–even though Uber has no leaderboard, ranking, or major incentives tied to it–and what he does in order to keep that service so high.

1. MAKE A 10-SECOND OFFER, THEN CONFIRM THE DEAL

After Vish confirms his passenger’s name and destination, he always asks, “Do you have enough room back there?” while actually moving his seat up. So within 10 seconds he’s able to show — not tell — that he’s in the high-service game using a repeatable method to demonstrate this quickly.

After Vish moves his seat up, he says, “It will take 11 minutes to get to your destination. Does this sound good to you?” The purpose of the question is to establish the service being offered and find out if the passenger is in a rush. If they are, he’ll work hard to shave even a minute or two off the arrival time. If not, he knows the offering has been crystallized by both sides. The deal is confirmed.

2. YOU SET YOUR OWN STANDARDS EVERY DAY

Born and raised in Indore, a city in central India, Vish earned his MBA and held sales and marketing positions at Coca-Cola and New York Life, where he says, “I learned how to effectively deal with people” with tact and emotional intelligence. Eventually, Vish moved to Toronto and, like many immigrants, found it difficult to break into his adoptive country’s knowledge economy, despite his extensive corporate experience.

“Doing Uber was not my first choice,” he says, but he hasn’t lowered his work standards, even though the company doesn’t compensate him for it. “Why can’t you compare driving a car with flying an airplane? Like the pilot,” he points out. Both are fundamentally customer-service roles, requiring similar skill sets he developed earlier in his career. “One of my mantras,” Vish tells me, “is either I do the thing, or I don’t do the thing. But if I do the thing, I do it the best.”

3. IT’S ALWAYS THE CUSTOMER’S FIRST TIME

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Despite the thousands of rides he’s given, Vish knows that “it’s always their first time with me.” He keeps wet wipes under his seat and cleans the floor mats between every ride. Why? “This car is my office. This is the only office I have in this business, so I’m supposed to keep it up, I’m supposed to maintain it, I’m supposed to clean it,” he explains. “Every day, even when I go home, I also take out the carpets, I clean them. If it is snowing or dirty, I wash them.”

As an Uber driver, Vish says, “I know I’m doing a service,” not just operating a vehicle. His passengers’ experience is really what they’re paying for, more than just getting safely from point A to B. Vish has his phone programmed to silent, and an auto-responder menu pops up on his screen to handle incoming texts and calls, allowing him to tap and send replies without losing focus on his passenger. The one I kept getting while trying to set up our interview said simply, “I am in a trip, please text me if needed” (followed by the smiley face and thumbs-up emojis).

4. GIVE THE TASK TO THE “YES” PART OF YOUR BRAIN

Vish says that the classic self-help book The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz gave him “a formula in life always–the formula of ‘yes man’ and ‘no man’.” As Vish explains, Schwartz argues that “the human brain is like a factory  with two foremen: one is a ‘no man’ and the other is a ‘yes man’ . . . If you give the job to the ‘no man,’ your own mind will start finding logic and reasons to prove how can’t you do this job.”

“You know debate competitions?” he asks me. The debater “who is speaking in favor looks quite right, and the person who’s speaking against also has valid logic, so at the time you feel both are correct.” In other words, we all have a choice as to which parts of our own brains we charge with executing certain tasks and tackling challenges. After reading Schwartz’s book, Vish says, “I started working on my ‘yes man.’ That’s what I do at Uber as well.”

Vish lets customers alter routes if they choose. He even calls passengers at home to tell them their UberPool-ing friend was dropped off safely, and tries to accommodate small requests along the way.

5. WE BUY WITH ALL SENSES

Vish only eats raw vegetables and salad in his car to avoid smells or odors. His car needs to be a blank slate that passengers can immediately feel ownership of, not like they’re suddenly in somebody else’s kitchen. He has the same theory about sounds, which is why his radio is never playing when a customer climbs in. If they want the radio on? That’s fine. But he turns it off for the next person. And if they’re eating a garlic stir-fry or smell like smoke? That’s fine, too. But he sprays a lemon air freshener and opens all the windows to start fresh the next time.

6. USE THEIR NAME

Vish says that Uber wants drivers to say “What is your name?” to customers before they get in the Uber. He ignores that. Instead, he greeted me with, “Is it Neil?” and a big smile. In fact, the excitement in his voice made it more of a statement than a question: “Is it Neil!” Real name, right off the bat, plus an immediate flash of intimacy.

“I try to break the ice by appreciating people,” Vish explains. “When you appreciate someone, you are not giving a discomfort to him or her.” Instead, he’s found that these simple moments of warmth he creates are almost always reciprocated. “They will surely come back with a positive remark or a positive affirmation, sentence, or a line or a word to you.” He adds, “If you start with a smile, 99% of people will smile back.”

7. KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER SPECTRUM (AND WHO FALLS OUTSIDE OF IT)

I asked Vish how he deals with drunk customers on busy Friday and Saturday nights. He surprised me by saying he doesn’t serve them. Drunk customers aren’t his target market. As soon as he lands one, he heads home. It’s a signal he’s serving folks outside of his customer spectrum and his day is done. (In fact, Vish also benches himself whenever he’s having an off day because he says driving is too risky–a judgment call that takes real self-awareness, especially in the gig economy, where there’s no direct boss to manage your performance.)

“The most important thing in your life is to enjoy what you’re doing,” Vish adds, and for him, it’s as simple as that. Driving an Uber wasn’t his first choice, and it isn’t what he intends to do indefinitely, but he’s doing more than just making the most of it.

He’s enjoying what he’s doing–and creating an unbelievably positive experience for everyone he interacts with in the process.

Can we all say the same?

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

Why You Need An Untouchable Day Every Week (And How To Get One)

I hate meetings.

They sit subconsciously in my brain, taking up space. I prepare for them in my notebooks. I travel to them, and then back again, in the middle of my work days. And what do most meetings usually result in? You guessed it — more meetings.

When I worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, my days were full of meetings. Everybody’s were! And when I quit two years ago to strike out on my own as an author and keynote speaker, I thought my days full of meetings were behind me.

But I was wrong.

I now have research calls and phone interviews, lunches with literary agents and web developers, conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules, radio interviews, and media prep calls. And before every speech I give, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

Turns out meetings never really go away.

But the problem is I’m now measured almost solely on my creative output. And there’s no time for it! It’s not just me, either. As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.

I used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps. It’s how I wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days at my blog 1000awesomethings.com. But I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.

I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to me, and I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones. I realized that what I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, to be honest, I needed it fast. Why? Because in my first year as a full-time author, I actually started feeling my productivity slipping — even though I had quit my full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing. “So how’s the new book coming?” “Oh, now that I quit my job? Terribly!”

I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”.

These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.

Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding workTo share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.

How do I carve out Untouchable Days?

I look at my calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, I block out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. I put it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. I don’t write in all-caps for anything else, but I allow UNTOUCHABLE days to just scream out to me.

Why sixteen weeks ahead? The number of weeks isn’t as important as the thinking behind it. For me, that’s after my speaking schedule is locked in — but, importantly, before anything else is. That’s a magic moment in my schedule. It’s the perfect time to plant the Untouchable Day flag before anything else can claim that spot.

On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about emergencies?

The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.

I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

So what do Untouchable Days look like up close?

I think of them as having two components.

There is the deep creative work. When you’re in the zone, you’re in a state of flow, and the big project you’re working on is getting accomplished step by step by step.

And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk. After all, Thoreau said “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” And Hemingway stated “I would walk along the quais when I finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” What else? A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.

So what happens if the bulletproof car really does get bumped? Say I get an incredible speaking invite or somebody much more important than me only has this one day to get together? Red alert: The Untouchable Day is under threat. What do I do?

I have a simple rule. Untouchable Days may never be deleted, but they can move between the bowling-lane bumpers of the weekends. They can’t jump weeks, though. They are more important than anything else I am doing, so if they need to move from a Wednesday to a Thursday or a Friday, that’s fine — even if I have to move four meetings to make room. The beauty of this approach is that when you plant the Untouchable Day flag on your calendar, it really does feel permanent in your mind. You start feeling the creative high you’ll get from such deep output as soon as you start booking them in.

Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast 3 Books — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.

With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?

The honest answer is no.

Now I schedule two.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

Avoid Burnout By Asking This Question

In the late 1990s I began an undergrad business degree program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After nearly flunking Economics 101 and striking out with a majority of sports and teams, I finally found my home among a group of interfaculty misfits at the Golden Words comedy newspaper.

Golden Words was the largest weekly humor newspaper in the country, an Onion-esque paper publishing 25 issues per year, with a new issue every Wednesday during the school year. For the next four years, I spent every Sunday hanging out with a group of people writing articles that made us all laugh. We got together around noon and wrote until the wee hours of Monday morning. I didn’t get paid a cent, but the thrill of creating, laughing, and seeing my work published gave me a great high.

I loved it so much that I took a job working at a New York City comedy writing startup during my last summer of college. I rented an apartment on the Lower East Side and started working in a Brooklyn loft with writers from The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I love.”

But it was the worst job of my life.

Instead of having creative freedom to write whatever I wanted, I had to write, say, “800 words about getting dumped” for a client like Cosmopolitan. Instead of joking with friends naturally and finding chemistry writing with certain people, I was scheduled to write with others. Eventually my interest in comedy writing faded, and I decided I would never do it for money again.

When I started writing my blog, 1000 Awesome Things, in 2008, I said I’d never put ads on the website. I knew the ads would feel like work to me, and I worried that I might self-censor or try to appeal to advertisers. No income from the blog meant less time trying to manage the ads and more time focused on the writing, I figured.

I was smart about that…but not smart enough to ignore the other extrinsic motivators that kept showing up: stat counters, website awards, best-seller lists. It was all so visible, so measurable, and so tempting. Over time I found myself obsessing about stat counters breaking 1 million, 10 million, 50 million; about the book based on my blog staying on the best-seller lists for 10 weeks, 100 weeks, 200 weeks; about book sales breaking five figures, six figures, seven figures. The extrinsic motivators never ended, and I was slow to realize that I was burning myself out. I was eating poorly, sleeping rarely, and obsessing about whatever next number there was to obsess about.

I started worrying that the cycle — set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal — would never end. And I started forgetting why I started writing my blog in the first place. I was shaken by how quickly I had gotten caught up in the achievement trap.

Studies show that when we begin to value the rewards we get for doing a task, we lose our inherent interest in doing the task. The interest we have becomes lost in our minds, hidden away from our own brains, as the shiny external reward sits front and center and becomes the new object of our desire.

Keep in mind that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is internal — you’re doing it because you want to. Extrinsic is external — you’re doing it because you get something for it. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has performed some experiments on intrinsic and extrinsic motivators with college students. She asked the students to make “silly collages” and invent stories for them. Some were told they were getting rewards for their work, and some were not. What happened? Based on scores from independent judges, the least creative projects by far were done by students who were promised rewards for their work. Amabile said, “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”

And it’s not just getting rewards that hurts quality.
 In another study conducted by Amabile, 72 creative writers at Brandeis University and Boston University were split into three groups of 24 and asked to write poetry. The first group was given extrinsic reasons for doing so — impressing teachers, making money, getting into fancy grad schools. The second group was given a list of intrinsic reasons — enjoying the feeling of expressing themselves, the fun of playing with words. The third group wasn’t given any reason. On the sidelines, Amabile put together a group of a dozen poet-judges, mixed up all the poems, and had the judges evaluate the work. Far and away, the lowest-quality poems were from those who had the list of extrinsic motivators.

James Garbarino, former president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, was curious about this phenomenon. He conducted a studyof fifth- and sixth-grade girls hired to tutor younger children. Some of the tutors were offered free movie tickets for doing a good job. What happened? The girls who were offered free movie tickets took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a worse job than the girls who were given nothing except the feeling of helping someone else.

The Garbarino study raises the question: Do extrinsic motivators affect us differently depending on age? Do we grow into this pattern — and can we grow out of it? According to a recent study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, we may be hardwired to behave this way. Their work found that if infants as young as 20 months are extrinsically rewarded after helping another infant, they are less likely to help again than infants who received either no reward or simple social praise.

I was surprised by the studies, but they made sense to me. I loved writing for Golden Words. It was a joy, a thrill, a true love. With the paid writing startup in New York City, I lost all my energy and drive.

When you’re doing something for your own reasons, you do more, go further, and perform better. When you don’t feel like you’re competing with others, you compete only with yourself. For example, Professor Edward Deci of the University of Rochester conducted a study where he asked students to solve a puzzle. Some were told they were competing with other students and some were not. You can probably guess what happened. The students who were told they were competing with others simply stopped working once the other kids finished their puzzles, believing themselves to be out of the race. They ran out of reasons to do the puzzle. But those who weren’t told they were competing with others kept going once their peers finished.

Does all this mean you should just rip up your paycheck and work only on things you’re intrinsically motivated to do? No. But you should ask yourself, “Would I do this for free?” If your answer is yes, you’ve found something worth working on. If the answer is no, let paid work remain paid work and keep asking yourself what you would do simply for the pleasure you derive from doing it. Chances are, if you’re working solely for extrinsic reasons such as money, you’re bound to burn out sooner or later.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.

How to Conquer Your Biggest Fears

We’re all scared of something.

Do you get heart palpitations at the idea of speaking in front of big groups at work? Are you worried you’ll never actually learn to swim? Do you stare at the ceiling, thinking you’ll never write that book you’ve been dreaming about for years?

Me, too. I’ve deeply felt all three of those exact fears, along with many others. But those fears are just a few I’ve started overcoming using a little happiness hack I can share with you.

Are you ready?

O.K., to start with, here is the thought process most of us follow when it comes to facing our fears:

CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT —> DO IT

Before you do anything, you have to feel like you can do it first—and then you have to actually want to do it second.

Take my fear of swimming. Developed from a childhood full of ear infections and never-ending sets of tubes, I grew into the 30-year-old guy perpetually hanging by the grill at the pool party. I was afraid of the water. Why? Because “I can’t swim. I’ll sink like a stone! I can’t tread water, jump into the deep end, nothing.” And “You know, I don’t really want to swim anyway. No big deal. I prefer reading at the beach. Getting wet, showering, showing off spaghetti-noodle arms? No thanks. I’ll do without.”

Yes, I never got to do it because I never thought I could do it and so I didn’t want to do it.

It’s the same way many of us think about running a marathon, giving a big presentation or writing a novel.

So what happens if we think about that process in a different order? The same set of words, but said a different way? Specifically, what happens if do it becomes the starting point instead of the end? Well, then it looks like this:

DO IT —> CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT

What happened with my fear of swimming?

Well, I started dating a beautiful woman who I fell in love with, fast. On our second date, she told me her family had a cottage on an island—and every morning in the summer, her little cousins and 80-year-old grandparents swam around the island together. And did I ever want to come?

That night, without thinking about whether I could do it or whether I wanted to do it, I just did it. I signed up for swimming lessons at the city pool. Shortly thereafter, I walked into the moldy locker room and listened to my heart thumping as I stepped onto the pool deck wearing a life jacket and goggles.

After that first 30 minutes of flutter-kicking in the shallow end and wearing a life jacket, guess what happened? I thought, “I can do this!” And so the next week, I wanted to do it. “Give me moldy locker rooms! Pass me the flutter board—in the deep end this time.” And after I had done it one week, I knew I could do it again.

How do you turn your biggest fear into your biggest success?

You place action in front of capability and motivation. You put do it before can do it and want to do it.

Turns out, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting. Those forced baby steps create the early belief in your abilities, which create the motivation—and a virtuous cycle quickly develops.

So go forward. Step into your fears. Because you’ll quickly see that, completely counter-intuitively, motivation does not actually cause action. Action causes motivation.


How to Add an Hour to a Day with Only One Small Change

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 highlighted 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 there.

But…there was nothing. 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’ve 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 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 email. Almost a third. And Baydin, one of the world’s largest email management services, says 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. It was part of the job. And we all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known to come to have lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and drive 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 continued, “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 the 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.”

How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset

You have only one brain. And it focuses 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.”

Your brain is capable of infinite possibilities: producing great works of art, building businesses, raising children. Brains made The Starry Night and the Great Wall of China. The Beatles and the Bible. Brains made planes, trains, and automobiles. Brains make your life what it is and die when you do. The good news is for no money down, no annual fees, and no monthly interest, you get one free copy of the universe’s most complex and powerful object. It’s yours for life! The only bad news is there is no warranty, it requires daily charging, and even the longest-lasting models in the world last only forty thousand days. (The average model lasts twenty-five thousand days.)

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. No doubt about it. In the years since, he’s gone up and up and up. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. I had worked with Roger only three months when I learned how to add an hour to the day with only one small change.

How?

Block access. Protect your brain. Guard it. Remove all entry points to your brain except a single one you can control. In addition to Roger’s approach to email, I learned later that he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. Fuel your brain and let it run wild by removing access points. Close the doors and lock the windows, but answer the bell.

What’s the bell? It’s your #1 top priority. What was Roger’s bell? Emails from the chairman of the board and his family. Not voicemail, not texts, not anything else. Have you ever shopped in a small town convenience store where they have a little bell on the front counter? They are busy stocking shelves. They are busy unpacking boxes. They are busy placing orders. But when you ring that bell they are right there, right away. That’s what it means to close the doors and lock the windows but answer the bell.

Let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your  biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments.

An older version of this article appeared in The Observer

This article is adapted from a chapter in my book The Happiness Equation