Ideas

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

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

What was the two-word philosophy?

Say yes.

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

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

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

THE (LIMITED) VIRTUES OF “YES”

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the World of Overwhelm.

Now what?

“HELL YEAH!” VERSUS EVERYTHING ELSE

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

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

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

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

No, no, all no!

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

GREAT IS THE ENEMY OF LIFE CHANGING

What’s the benefit?

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

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

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

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

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

But the alternative?

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

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

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

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

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“Congratulations, Neil!”

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

This was it!

The dream job.

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

And more actual work, too.

Because isn’t that how promotions usually work?

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

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

“Guess what! I got the big promotion.”

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

His simple question caught me off guard.

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

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

His message rang a bell.

All of us have contracts with our employers.

Very few of us have contracts with our partners.

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

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

Number of nights away

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

Family Day

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

NNO/LNO

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

Number of vacation days per year

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

That’s the contract I have with my partner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love to see your contract if you’re willing to share at neil@globalhappiness.org 

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

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

6 Ways To Reduce Cell Phone Addiction

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

And that’s when I knew.

It’s getting worse.

But it’s not just me.

It’s us.

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

Can you relate to these feelings?

I absolutely can.

So what do we do about it?

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

1. Download the Forest app 

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

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2. Add extra swipes before work 

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

3. Go black and white

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

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

4. Night Shift mode

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

5. Buy an alarm clock

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

6. Disable notifications

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

Those six things will get you going.

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

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

But is it?

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

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

Like what?

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

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

What helps you fight back?

Drop me a line and let me know.

Power to the people!

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

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

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.

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

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.