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In the past, I’ve thought New Year’s Resolutions were a waste of time. If something is important enough to start, shouldn’t it be important enough to start now, rather than waiting for the Sun and Earth to be in a particular, arbitrary configuration? Nevertheless, this year I’ve decided to use this lunar-solar set up to launch some changes to my life. My resolution is the only sensible one – to become happier – and I thought I’d share my plans in the hope they are useful to you too.

I’ve broken this down into two: changing how I think and how I spend my time. I say this is ‘advanced’ happiness advice because I’m assuming you’re familiar with the more obvious well-being wisdom. Things like “do exercise, spend time with people you like, don’t do a job you hate, don’t get addicted to meth.” If you’d like to get a flavour of the general way I approach happiness, I’d suggest this interview I did with Oxford University, which is great and makes me look real, real smart (as Donald Trump might say).

Retraining thoughts

From my research, I reckon the most effective way to become happier is re-training how you think through mindfulness, positive psychology and cogntive behavioural therapy (CBT). I think people should approach happiness like a marathon rather than a lottery: as something you train for and get better at, rather than something you just sit by and hope will happen to you. These rethinking methods are free and, in theory, easy to do. You just need a chair, a pen and paper and a few minutes.

Yet, even though I am potentially the world’s biggest happiness nerd(/bore), I know these work, I know I feel better after doing them, and I recommend other people do, I still fail to do them consistently. Sitting down to do 10 minutes of mindfulness often feels so, well, dull compared to refreshing Facebook and seeing what’s new on my home page.

So this year I’ve decided to fix this and trick myself into consistently doing three retraining exercises each day. The best framework I know of from behavioural science for making something happen is “EAST“. If something is Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely, you’re much more likely to do it. One part of my plan is to make it easier to do the new habits by linking them to habits I already have. To explain:

  1. When my first coffee cup of the day touches down on my desk I reach for my notebook. I write three things I’m grateful for and why I’m grateful for them. If I’m travelling and without a notebook I use the Gratitude Garden app. The first thing I do every morning is search for coffee so it’s an easy link.
  2. I’ve never struggled to make myself exercise, but I haven’t ever found a natural time to practise mindfulness, so I thought I’d stick them together. I tend to exercise in the afternoon so I’ve started to bolt 10 minutes of mindfulness on afterwards. Specifically, I do it once I get inside but before I get into the shower as that feels like a natural down time. I learned mindfulness from Headspace, an app, and Finding Peace in a Frantic World, a book. I now prefer unguided meditations to having someone talk at me, so I often use this track which is just silence with bells at 5, 10, 15, etc. minutes.
  3. As the evening winds down and I’m sitting at my computer, I do a positive psychology exercise. I use Bliss, which is a free web app, for this. There are quite a few different positive psychology exercises so I won’t list them all, but to give you a flavour, one I like is ‘Transforming Problems.’ In this you’re tasked to reframe a current difficulty more positively, such as by writing down how it is a chance to grow or use your skills. Sounds really lame and like it can’t possibly work. Actually very useful.

Finding the right time in the day to do these was one trick, but I know I’ll still feel inclined to skip them if other things come up. So the secret weapon I’ve enlisted this year is a habit tracking app (I use HabitBull). You record how many days in a row you’ve done a certain thing. Once you see that you have, for example, successfully forced yourself to meditate for 4 days in a row, you feel a surprisingly strong pressure not to let yourself down and end your streak (I confess a couple of days ago I leapt out of bed at 11:40pm when I suddenly realised I hadn’t done that day’s mindfulness). This is the ‘social’ part of EAST: I’m making myself accountable to earlier versions of me. The other social part is telling you, dear reader, that I’m doing these things, which I know will motivate me to stick to them. So you’re now part of my ruse…

These are my examples but you can probably think of your own without too much effort. If you have a really brilliant way of tricking yourself into a happines habit, please email me. You might wonder why I don’t have CBT on my daily list of exercises, given that I said it was great earlier. Whilst CBT is very powerful, I feel that I’ve now learnt how to engage in meta-cognition – how to think about my own thinking – so I don’t find it that useful to do daily. I do occassionally re-visit CBT exercises, such as using the information in Hippo, when I’m feeling particularly knotted up about some thought though.

Reallocating time

Besides changing how you think, the other really key area is changing how you spend your time. Again, because this post is about ‘advanced techniques’, I’m going to skip some basic stuff and focus on two areas. The first is happiness tracking, the second about ‘deep work’ and how it can make you more productive and happier.

The basic advice for time-use is “do more of what you like and less of what you don’t like.” This seems embarrassingy simple (I often imagine people think “you’re doing a PhD, and that’s the best you came up with? Wow. Have you asked for the money back?”). However, as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a bit more to it. Experiments by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and others shows the brain doesn’t remember the world the way we experience it. Other experiments show we suck at predicting how we’ll feel in the future (psychologists call this ‘affective forecasting’).  So the problem is that what we think we should like, what we remember we like, and what we actually like are all different things. Isn’t that, like, really annoying?

This is why I strongly recommend everyone tries happiness tracking – recording your experiences as you have them. You can do this with a pen and paper, but it much easier to use an app like Hippo, which I’d obviously recommend because I built it (if don’t have an android phone, I’d suggest TrackMyHappiness or Mappiness as alternatives. If you do have an android phone but want to spite me, you can also try Daylio). The simple act of asking myself how I’m feeling and what’s might be causing it has taught me a lot about myself. Another wonderful advantage of happiness tracking is I no longer waste much time trying to guess or imagine what will make me happy. I can just periodly review my information in Hippo to make more informed decisions about what I should change in my life.

One thing I’ve learnt from happiness tracking in 2016, which surprised me, is that I’m happiest when I’m working. I know I find my work challenging and meaningful and it puts me in a state of ‘flow‘ where hours can go past without noticing. But I still thought I’d enjoy getting drunk and dancing more (in fairness, I’m less likely to record my moods while throwing shapes). I also noticed that I spend nearly all my time working. In theory this is good – I spend lots of time doing what I like – but I often feel I’m in danger of burning out as well as becoming an impossibly narrow and boring workaholic who ignores the other things I enjoy. So for 2017 I’ve been thinking about ‘work-life balance’, a phrase that makes me want to throw up, but I don’t have a better substitute for. This brings me to my second point about ‘deep work‘, an idea which comes from Cal Newport’s book of the same name.

I read the book over Christmas and took to it immediately. To explain, ‘deep work’ is the important problem-solving work you can only do when you’re focused and free from distractions for extended periods of time. This contrasts with ‘shallow work’ like checking emails, loitering on facebook, reading the news, life admin, etc. that feels useful but doesn’t really allow you to produce anything worthwhile or develop any useful skills. The books aims to convince you deep work is important and then teach you how to do it better.

There’s slightly more in the book, but my biggest takeways were:

1. you can only do deep work for about 4 hours a day. This may not be true, but I’d like to believe it. It has the implication there’s no point trying to work all the time.

2. focus on the ‘wildly important’ things – those that would make the biggest difference if you pulled them off – and track how much time you actually spend working on them. (I’ve started using the Productivity Challenge Timer app which I rather like: it’s a pomodoro timer that also records many sessions you’ve spent on different projects).

3. recognising distractions, such as social media, are not deep work (or any kind of work). You should ‘drain the shallows’ and stop doing pointless stuff. How many times did I check your email today? Who were you expecting to drop you a line – the Pope?

4. realising when you are ‘looping’ on a problem: reminding yourself of what you already know, rather than doing new work.

5. adopt a fixed-time mindset. Forcing yourself only to work on things between 9am and 5:30pm (or whatever times suit you) forces yourself to be more efficient in your work period and cut out the fluff.

6. spend your time after work on other activities you enjoy to actively recharge. This also lets your subconscious work on your main projects.

Whilst deep work is meant to be about becoming more productive, I think it’s a good way to organise your work to be happier too. I’ve often found that, because I can work on my PhD or start up the whole time, that’s what I do: I can work in my head and there’s no one to tell me to stop. However, because I was spending so much time ‘working’ (i.e. at my desk) I allowed that time to be extremely unproductive and punctuated with distractions like checking emails, facebook and the news. And as I wasn’t getting a huge ammount done, and felt guilty for not working, I didn’t feel I could spend time on other activities I might like.

New plan: spend the daytime on the most important, not the most urgent, problems until 6pm. Doing that leaves 6pm onwards to do the ‘non-wildly important’ things. I intend to spend this leisure time thoughtfully on what I want to do – such as exercise, painting, blogging, reading non-philosophy books, learning to code – rather than defaulting to easy, unrewarding activities such cruising the ‘net looking at cat pics. I’ve only been trying this for a few days and I think it might take some getting used to.

The keen-eyed reader might have noticed I’ve left out loads of things and this a wildly incomplete set of happiness techniques (where was success? Where was friendship? What about money? What shouldn’t you spend your time doing?). But maybe some things are better left unsaid. At least until another blog post. And if you don’t want to miss that blog post, don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list.

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