Decision Time!

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We make decisions every day – dozens, scores, or even hundreds. Our brains are constantly juggling a dizzying array of choices. Somehow we do this with ease.

 

But it’s the big decisions that often trip us up and leave us befuddled. That’s why Steven Johnson’s book: “How we Make the Decisions that Matter the Most” is being wildly hailed as a breakthrough in helping us cope with the act of deciding (see the review of his book here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/02/books/review/steven-johnson-farsighted.html).

Johnson shared the highlights of his suggestions in a recent piece in the New York Times. Here’s how he began:

In July 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, sat down to make a decision that would alter the course of his life. The decision he was wrestling with was not related to scientific questions about the origins of species. It was a different kind of decision — existential as well, but of a more personal nature: Should he get married?

Darwin’s method for making this decision would be recognizable to many of us today: He made a list of pros and cons. Under the heading “not marry” he noted the benefits of remaining a bachelor, including “conversation of clever men at clubs”; under “marry” he included “children (if it please God)” and “charms of music and female chitchat.”

Even if some of Darwin’s values seem dated, the journal entry is remarkable for how familiar it otherwise feels. Almost two centuries later, even as everything else in the world has changed, the pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the only regularly used technique for adjudicating a complex decision. Why hasn’t the science of making hard choices evolved?

In fact, it has, but its insights have been underappreciated. Over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — has given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices. When you face a complex decision that requires a long period of deliberation, a decision whose consequences might last for years or even decades, you are no longer limited to Darwin’s simple list.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Secret to a Better Life

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Tired at work? Tired at play? Too tired to enjoy your kids or your friends? Who hasn’t felt this way? We all have. There is a culprit. It’s called not getting enough sleep.

Somehow I’ve always understood this, but it wasn’t until I read Tim Herrera’s piece in “Here to Help” that it finally gelled for me. Here’s part of what he shared:

Imagine this: Someone walks up to you and pitches you on a brand-new, magical pill. This pill can measurably improve your memory, overall cognitive performance, ability to learn new information, receptivity to facial cues, mood, ability to handle problems, metabolism, risk for heart disease and immune system. Would you buy it?

Yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: That pill exists, but not in pill form. You can have all of those benefits cost-free, and all it takes is going to bed a little bit earlier. That’s it.

And yet! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called sleep deprivation a public health crisis, saying that one-third of adults don’t get enough sleep. Some 80 percent of people report sleep problems at least once per week, and according to a 2016 study, sleep deprivation “causes more than $400 billion in economic losses annually in the United States and results in 1.23 million lost days of work each year.”

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Play…Or?

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We all want to support our kids – and our grandkids – that’s why we faithfully attend T-ball and soccer games, swim meets and tennis tournaments, and just about any sports activity our kids do.

That’s why I was drawn into the article, “How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy.” It will make you think. Here is how it begins:

Before he died, Senator John McCain wrote a loving farewell statement to his fellow citizens of “the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” Senator McCain also described our democracy as “325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals.” How can that many individuals bind themselves together to create a great nation? What special skills do we need to develop to compensate for our lack of shared ancestry?

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he concluded that one secret of our success was our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively. He praised our mastery of the “art of association,” which was crucial, he believed, for a self-governing people.

In recent years, however, we have become less artful, particularly about crossing party lines. It’s not just Congress that has lost the ability to cooperate. As partisan hostility has increased, Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies. Support for democracy itself is in decline.

What can we do to reverse these trends? Is there some way to teach today’s children the art of association, even when today’s adults are poor models? There is. It’s free, it’s fun and it confers so many benefits that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged Americans to give far more of it to their children. It’s called play — and it matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.

Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

But not all play is created equal. Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist at Boston College, studies the effects of “free play,” which he defines as “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” Guitar lessons and soccer practice are not free play — they are supervised and directed by an adult. But when kids jam with friends or take part in a pickup soccer game, that’s free play.

The absence of adults forces children to practice their social skills. For a pickup soccer game, the children themselves must obtain voluntary participation from everyone, enforce the rules and resolve disputes with no help from a referee, and then vary the rules or norms of play when special situations arise, such as the need to include a much younger sibling in the game. The absence of an adult also leaves room for children to take small risks, rather than assuming that adults will always be there, like guard rails, telling them where the limits of safety lie. Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn these essential life skills.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Just Do It – For You

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When is the last time you just did something for fun…no…really…just for fun? It seems that we are always striving and trying to be the “best” at everything we do.

That’s why I was intrigued by an article by Tim Wu entitled “In Praise of Mediocrity.” He nailed it and said what I think most of us have been thinking for quite a while. Here’s how he begins:

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Bucket List?

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We all have bucket lists, right? And we’re earnestly working our way through it. Whew, that’s exhausting even thinking about it.

That’s why I loved Joe Queenan’s recent article: “It’s Time to Kick the Bucket List.” Here’s how he begins:

Americans have become obsessed with supposedly transformative experiences. But is bungee-jumping in Madagascar what will really make life complete?

The American bucket list is in a state of crisis. The obsessive need to parasail over volcanoes in Mongolia, swim with man-eating sharks in the Seychelles and sleep in every farmhouse that George Washington ever bedded down in has contributed to a national epidemic of bucket-list neurosis.

Americans are so obsessed with running a 100-mile marathon in the Outback, visiting every Double-A baseball stadium in the country or flying in a hot-air balloon over Fiji that all the fun has gone out of having a bucket list in the first place. Compiling a bucket list was once the perfect way to pass the dreamy days of summer vacation. Now it’s just another form of work.

Like American Youth Soccer and contemporary country music, bucket lists started out as something harmless and amusing before turning into a nightmare. Officially, the concept of the bucket list derives from the bellicosely heartwarming 2007 film of that name about two doomed old coots competing with one another to polish off a list of personal dreams before the Grim Reaper carries them off. But as so often happens in this otherwise great country, something that started out as a joke became a clinical disorder. It’s as if every woman who watched “Thelma and Louise” suddenly decided that it was a good idea to drive a car off a cliff.

Today, everyone with a few bucks to spare seems to be fixated on bucket lists. 100 places to see before you die. No, make that 1,000 places. Fifty restaurants to eat in before you die—no, 200. The Top 111 Bucket List Ideas. 329 Great Bucket List Ideas. 15,378 Top-Quality Bucket List suggestions.

Alas, bucket lists tend to be obvious and generic: See the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Mount Fuji, the Aurora Borealis, the West Edmonton Mall. Such ready-made, just-add-water lists are infuriating. It’s tragic that anyone would need to consult somebody else’s list to compile their own. A bucket list is supposed to be deeply personal, the product of much internal debate and intense self-searching. It’s not supposed to be just another dumb thing you found on the Internet.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Your Brain and “You”

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We all have a “to do” list with things we know we need to get done. And we always get to all of them, right? Well, not exactly.

That’s why I was taken by Tim Herrera’s recent Here to Help piece, “Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks.” Here’s how he begins:

Here’s a list of things I did before starting this newsletter: I filled out the documents to renew my passport; clipped my cat’s nails; bought some household items; responded to a few Instagram DMs; and ate a snack because I was hungry.

Sound familiar?

Some of those tasks were relatively urgent — I need to get my passport in order soon, and those Instagram DMs were weighing on me. But none of those tasks were as important as writing this newsletter. I know I needed to get this done, but the call of those minor-yet-urgent tasks was too strong.

To all of my procrastinators out there, I offer an explanation: Your brain is working against you, and it’s because of a phenomenon called the urgency effect.

In other words: Even if we know a larger, less-urgent task is vastly more consequential, we will instinctively choose to do a smaller, urgent task anyway. Yet again, thanks for nothing, brain.

So what are we to do? To answer that, let’s talk about boxes — specifically, one developed by our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Picture a 2×2 square with four boxes. At the top of the square are two labels: Urgent and non-urgent. On the left are two other labels: Important and not important.

On any given day, try to put every task you have to do into one of those four boxes. You’ll quickly see that the things tied to approaching deadlines are quite often not the most important things you have on your plate. Accordingly, schedule time to finish them later or, if possible, delegate them.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Summer

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Want to enjoy summer more? Of course you do…don’t we all? I needed a bit of encouragement to relax and do so, and found just the tonic in Patricia Hampl’s piece, “The Season for Learning To Do Nothing.” Here’s how she begins:

I barely had time to digest my colleague’s automated out-of-office email reply—“I regret missing your message. I am out of the office for two weeks on vacation, without access to email”—when her email arrived. Thirty seconds, and there she was, zooming in to solve my minor bureaucratic problem from her lake cabin half a continent away. She was still on the job, at the ready to put out any little fire flaring up on the distant horizon. “I’m only checking email twice a day,” she wrote sheepishly—or was it proudly?

We are all breathless with our busyness, over-amped with everything we must/should/could do, gleaming with how necessary we are. Time off is a guilty pleasure. Or maybe, deep down in the contemporary heart, it’s mainly just guilty: I should be making myself useful, if only to myself. This duty-driven life makes it difficult to really and truly go on vacation, or as we say, “take” a vacation—as if it were a form of theft, low-grade larceny, time pilfered from the cash machine.

How to leap off the grid of good behavior and duty, how to be out of reach? Especially out of reach of one’s own inner compulsion to be—well, doing something.

Some vacations, of course, pose no such problem. Skiing, scuba diving, following the Piero della Francesca trail in Umbria—such vacations are chosen assignments, pleasurable tasks, activities, projects. No trouble there.

But how about just letting go, allowing yourself to drift into a free fall of ease for a couple of weeks? Spend the day without knowing quite where it went—and be happy about this lapse into timelessness. Take two weeks to do nothing much, to have nothing to show for it—and find you’re the better for it. Possible?

Want more? You can read the full article here

We Like Us

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One of the things most people agree on is that high self-esteem is good, and low self-esteem is bad. Most of us more-or-less accept that “truth.”

That’s why I was quite taken by the review of “Selfie” a book that tries to get at the root of how we’ve gone from just having self-esteem to being self-obsessed. Here’s how it begins:

Worrying about one’s own narcissism has a whiff of paradox. If we are suffering from self-obsession, should we really feed the disease by poring over another book about ourselves? Well, perhaps just one more.

“Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” by Will Storr, a British reporter and novelist, is an intriguing odyssey of self-discovery, in two senses. First, it tells a personal tale. Storr confesses to spending much of his time in a state of self-loathing and he would like to know why. On a quest to explore self-esteem and its opposite, he interviews all sorts of people, from CJ, a young American woman whose life revolves around snapping, processing and posting hundreds of thousands of selfies, to John, a vicious London gangster who repented of his selfish ways, possibly because of his mother’s prayers to St. Jude. Storr takes part in encounter groups in California, grills a Benedictine monk cloistered at Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, and gets academic psychologists to chat frankly about their work. Storr’s side of the conversations he recounts tends to be blunt, inquisitive and peppered with salty British swearing. One comes to like him, even if he does not often like himself.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Neighbors

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Many of us grew up with Fred Rogers…and for those who didn’t…your kids did. But few know how the show got started or much, for that matter, of what went on behind the scenes.

That’s why I found this piece by David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” so interesting. Here’s how it begins:

Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness. That’s what happens to the audiences of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the new documentary about Fred Rogers.

The documentary demonstrates how Rogers’s children’s show got started and how he used it over 30 years to teach and accompany children. It describes the famous opening sequence — Mister Rogers going to the closet, putting on the sweater, changing his shoes. It describes how he gently gave children obvious and non obvious advice: You are special just the way you are; no, children can’t fall down the drains in the bathtub.

Sometimes he would slow down time, be silent for long periods as he fed his fish. Occasionally “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” touched politics. During the civil rights era, when black kids were being thrown out of swimming pools, Rogers and a black character bathed their feet together in a tub. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, Rogers gently explained what an assassination was.

There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Easy Self Control

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Who doesn’t want more self-control? Talk about and easy question.

While there isn’t an easy answer to gaining the degree of self-control we all seem to want, Tim Herrera recently teed up some good ideas. Appropriately, his piece features a plate of delicious-looking chocolate brownies. Here’s how he begins:

Picture this: You’re staring down a plate of fresh brownies during your 2 p.m. lull. You had an early lunch so your stomach is grumbling, and dinner feels a lifetime away. What happens next?

You’re probably eating those brownies, friend-o. (And I am, ahem, definitely not pulling this story from personal experience.)

Self-control in the face of temptation is a tricky thing. We tend to view it in black-and-white, almost moralistic terms: Anyone who succumbs to temptation, in whatever form, clearly must be weak willed. A stronger person would never eat that brownie, fall into a 90-minute YouTube spiral or watch another three episodes of “Billions” instead of writing his weekly newsletter.

But the science behind self-control tells a different story.

A 2011 study that examined how people deal with self-control found that those of us who are best at it aren’t more strong-willed or dedicated: They simply experience temptation less.

In fact, the very idea that we can improve our self-control is in question: A 2016 study found that “training self-control through repeated practice does not result in generalized improvements in self-control.”

In other words, don’t beat yourself up over a lack of self-control: We’re wired to be bad at it. But that’s not the end of the story.

Want more? You can read the full article here