Most of your to-do list is irrelevant

joy machine

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability: “Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.” More info here.

One of the little tips in Brené Brown’s The Gift’s of Imperfection caught my eye:

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done in our family is making the ‘ingredients for joy and meaning’ list. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of the specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life. Then check that list against your to-do list and your to-accomplish list. It might surprise you,” she writes.

Okay, okay, I get the idea. We have to focus on the essentials. But it didn’t hit home until one evening when I was stressing about my to-do list and forced myself to follow her suggestion: 

Joy and meaning list:

  • A career I love
  • A happy relationship
  • Friends and family
  • Low stress
  • Health

To-do list

  • Be #1 on the writer’s leaderboard for Tech Cocktail
  • Get my work inbox to 0
  • Get my personal inbox to 0, and answer all my dad’s emails
  • Impress the people at the talent agency I have a (totally random) appointment with tomorrow
  • Never make my boyfriend upset
  • Go to gym class three times a week
  • Read one book a week
  • Work on my blog for 10 hours a week
  • Meditate every day

…you get the idea.

You may find related items on your lists – for example, “go to gym class three times a week” and “health.” Health is my real goal, so I need to cut myself some slack when I miss a class (which hasn’t even happened, except when my arm was broken). All my work-related to-do’s should be in service of “a career I love,” not the need to be perfect or hyper-efficient or inhumanely productive. Just because I don’t reply to one of my dad’s emails or say something when I’m hangry that I later regret doesn’t make me a bad daughter or a bad girlfriend.

These lists remind me of Shawn Achor’s concept of meaning markers, the symbolic goalposts in life that guide our actions. Sometimes, we forget about our real meaning markers and get distracted by “hijackers,” false sources of meaning that end up making us frustrated and unhappy.

In other words, most of our to-do lists have been “hijacked” – and if we want our sanity back, we need to find our way to what’s really meaningful.

Photo by Flickr user atomicity


What’s your happiness proxy?

happiness proxy

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?” More info here.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I thought productivity was a magical thing. I had just started playing violin, and I made a nice little chart with dates that I taped on my wall. Every day when I practiced for 20 minutes, I put a little check mark in the appropriate box.

Some nights, lying in bed, I would jolt awake realizing that I hadn’t practiced, and hop out of bed to put in my 20 minutes in my pajamas. Apparently my 7-year-old self hadn’t read up on the science of sleep yet.

These days, I still act like productivity is a magical thing – and by “magical thing,” I mean a proxy for happiness.

You can’t wake up and try to be happy, so most of us wake up and try to be something else. I try to be productive; Fred tries to achieve freedom; other people probably try to be good parents, altruistic, or healthy.

I suspect productivity is one of the most common happiness proxies. As Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.” He spends the rest of the book explaining why this formula is “broken,” and it’s actually happiness that leads to success.

But if science isn’t enough to dethrone productivity, we can just look at our own lives. Lately, I’ve been hyper-aware of the negative consequences of deifying productivity: I begrudge a weekday trip to the grocery store because I “should” be working; I get irritated at Fred because he’s not getting out the door fast enough, wasting time; I ignore stress and persist, which makes my stress worse.

The problem with productivity as a happiness proxy is that – at least as I conceptualize is – it’s not a trait but an action. When I’m working, I’m (usually) productive; when I stop working, I cease being productive and start itching to be productive again. That’s probably one of the reasons why people become workaholics: because productivity is their self-worth and their supposed path to happiness, so being at home makes them feel lost and frivolous.

A workable happiness proxy should be some kind of trait that we have all the time, or at least more of the time. Productivity is hard (not impossible) to apply to leisure time, and to do so you have to fight the cultural stigmas against play, self-indulgence, and doing nothing. Goals like being authentic, brave, or grateful might be easier to apply.

It’s not enough to say, “Authenticity is my new goal” and be cured. As Gretchen Rubin points out, we all have “True Rules” for behavior, or rules of thumb that we unconsciously follow. Mine include “If you have free time, work”; “To-do’s must be finished, no matter what”; and “TV is a waste of time.” We have habitual emotional patterns that won’t disappear with the snap of a magician’s fingers. The only way to change our happiness proxy is to put in the hard, introspective, emotional, honest work – but remember to cut ourselves some slack along the way. We’re not productivity monsters, after all.

Photo by Flickr user mikerastiello

What is secretly motivating your actions?


What motivates you?

For most people, the answer is easy but a little fuzzy: the things that are important to me, of course! I value my work, my boyfriend, my health, and that’s what gets me out of bed and through my day. 

You might go even further, and understand the specific things you value. I value being productive, learning and growing, reducing stress, and having deeper relationships. 

But in Before Happiness, happiness researcher Shawn Achor reveals that something else is probably motivating your actions besides values or meaning: hijackers.

“Our mental maps can become corrupted by hijackers, which are negative attitudes in our lives that lower our overall levels of happiness and derail our paths to success,” explains Achor. The problem is when they’re disguised as values or “meaning markers.”

Achor gives a few examples: wanting to lose weight because you don’t like yourself, a negative motivation that only makes you feel worse. Career advancement for the sake of climbing the ladder. Bosses who try to motivate with intimidation and fear. Worrying about negative comments on your upcoming book (or article, as it were…). 

In all these cases, we’re pushed forward by what feels like a motivator; we think we’re moving toward something we value. But our mindset is actually negative: we’re trying to avoid some painful reality we imagine, not seek a positive one. It reminds me of the idea that you should do things out of love, not fear.

“Fear is a map hijacker because when you activate the Jerk [the amygdala], you shut off the Thinker [the prefrontal cortex] and thus waste your valuable and finite brain resources on avoiding and fleeing from that fear instead of pursuing your goals,” he explains. 

I’m guilty of this myself sometimes. Although I value health, sometimes my health-oriented actions actually stem from a fear of being unhealthy. When I agonize over whether to have dessert and feel guilty afterward, that’s my fear talking. I’m strongly motivated by the idea of not wasting time – that’s a positive, right? – but it often leads to frustration and annoyance. And the desire to be perfect seems like a worthy goal until it compels me to do things I don’t really want to do just because I “should.” 

To discover your hijackers, Achor has a few suggestions: 

  • Write down 5 triggers that consistently lead to unproductive or destructive behavior
  • Ask yourself: Do certain activities tend to make you unhappy or distract you from your goals?

To identify my hijackers, it helped to think about the times when I feel strongly compelled to do certain things. 

Luckily, hijackers can be ditched and replaced with positive meaning. Instead of fearing disease, I can focus on my desire to be healthy, have energy, and stay fit. Instead of being annoyed at wasting time, I can focus on taking time for the things I really enjoy. Instead of being perfect, I can focus on being happy. 

Do you have any hijackers disguised as values?

Photo by Flickr user Olfiika