Book Review: The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less, by Dr. Christine Carter

“This book did something I thought was impossible: It seemed to give me more time!” Martha Beck

A colleague told me about the work of Christine Carter, a sociologist and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center. Her work combines scientific research and practical application. She offers tips on ways to cope with modern pressures, and thrive.

In her book, The Sweet Spot, she covers useful tips for how to create flow and balance at work and home. (She also has a couple of parenting books.) Sweet Spot is speckled with stories of challenges that get shifted toward success. She shows the path and details for how to work with our brains and the pressures today, to create more meaningful focus and ease in life.

A few things I liked immediately: the author’s voice is ebullient, fun. She started working on having more balance because her life was a mess. It helps me when people admit challenges, and give the nitty gritty details on how they turned this around.

Carter had the right things going on in her life – valuable work she loved, a positive family life. A productivity and happiness researcher, she knew a lot about how to prioritize and make things happen. But life today has more drains and derails. It takes regular focusing to make sure the right priorities are getting your attention. It takes mindfulness to stay on track.

Get more done by doing less? Please, tell us more…

(See if her voice / style works for you: check out this video, Confessions of a Bad Exerciser).

BEST TAKEAWAYS OF THE BOOK
1) NAME THE PRIORITIES ATOP THE ROUTINES

Pick your five priority areas, it’s suggested. Say no to everything else. (Is this hard? See Saying No Gracefully). You’ve likely heard this before. How does that extra stuff sneak in? When projects complete, or big phases run their course, it helps to pause and reflect. Where am I now? What’s next. Update, reorganize, rest. Refocus.

What routines need more consistency? In the author’s life, sleep was suffering. This took time to figure out – because it meant getting to bed earlier. Which took negotiating with hubby and kids. There was resistance, negotiation. Habits, routines, tiny habits – these take time to build, to tweak as you discover what works best.

There is the “better than nothing” option. Tim Ferriss calls this, the minimum effective dose. For exercise, this was a five minute routine she could do on busiest days or when traveling.

The result she reports with consistent, though perhaps small efforts of exercise? Feeling better physically than she had in years – more fit, with less hip and knee pain. More ease, more happiness, more productivity. She keeps up better with her cross-fit obsessed husband. And this routine in on autopilot. Versus hours of anxious planning and no follow through.

Her better than nothing routine? 15 pushups, 30 sit ups, and 15 squats. Hey, do wall pushups count? I’m in.

2) THAT’S RIGHT, START SMALL

I study this area, but found new ideas and aha’s galore. It’s not easy to a) make changes and b) make them last. The book has a ton of ideas for getting started on important change areas, without as much stress. She also has a good section on handling relapse, a natural side effect and accoutrement of change.

Carter worked on meditation and exercise routines in her foundations. It took two years for her exercise routine to get solid. Meditation-wise, she started small. Thirty seconds on the cushion to start. Pretty hard to argue with this length of time. But the key here? Do it every day.

Her tips on how our brains work with change – the Elephant and the Rider concept? Super helpful too.

3) THE ELEPHANT AND THE RIDER – Automatic versus controlled brain function

This concept is taught by Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. He describes how brain function falls into two categories – automatic and controlled. Automatic are our habits; controlled is the zone of willpower and conscious thought. Habits work like the Elephant. This animal likes pathways that are established. It tends to lumber toward food and love. It likes routines, not surprises.

Willpower is like the tiny rider on top of the elephant – it can provide direction – maybe even coax the elephant at times. But guess who wins a fight? Willpower gets tired quickly and is a lot less fuel efficient than the elephant, our unconscious brain energy. To live with more ease and power, the elephant needs training – by habits, routines, and the well-worn paths that start with small steps.

So many clients say they need more motivation. Or they get down on themselves because their willpower wasn’t enough to foster a change or maintain it. This last year I lost 25 lbs. This last year I gained most of it back! It’s been a stressful year. There is always learning and healing work as the onions of our heart (?) keep peeling away the layers. Aho, welcome forgiveness. Hello again elephant & rider – what’s a key now?

LOTS OF RESEARCH THAT INVITES DEEPER DIVES

Carter covers a lot of relevant research that is intriguing and relevant to increasing health, happiness and work/life ease. You’ll find a lot of reminders about things you’ve heard, or that you know are good for you. You’ll likely find new ideas, along with reinforcement of your own wisdom.

Change is hard, and it takes time. See if she is a source of reason and inspiration for you. The book is worthwhile. Sometimes the plethora of ideas is overwhelming, but she does end each chapter with “The Easiest Thing” summary, a smaller menu of choices from which to take a next step.

One important section covers cultivating relationships and mending ruptures. No, communication skills, especially when dealing with conflicts/differences is not usually taught in school. Good stuff for today’s strife and divisiveness.

In the end, it looks like Christine Carter did find her groove. She also changed her work from an executive director, to pursue her coaching, writing and speaking. As you know, this kind of sea change and redirection takes both planning genius, and courage. There are some personal and touching success stories – always helpful.

Have you found your sweet spot yet where you are in the flow, getting the right things done, with ease? What works? What gets in the way?

Big love,

Denise Barnes, LPC, Reverend

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