The Power of Lowering Expectations

One tension that this blog explores is between the desire to be present and mindful and the impulse to be striving and planning. In some ways, my instinct for planning has served me very well. Without forethought and effort, I would not have gotten my MBA in the evenings and on weekends. My husband and I would not have been able to buy a nice home. My career would not have advanced. In more everyday terms, I pride myself on being someone who just gets a lot done. My Saturday task management is on point. My husband (who is a striver of a different variety) is mostly exasperated by all my running around. He has the remarkable ability to focus himself entirely on the task at hand. The thing is, it’s reaaaaally slow. I find it nearly unbearable to watch him do something like, say, make a sandwich.

Implicit in all this striving are expectations for how things will turn out. I don’t always handle it well when things don’t go as planned. I feel an outsized sense of disappointment and don’t adjust quickly. Many an average day has been ruined for me because I expected it to be extraordinary. So, I’ve been thinking some about the role that our expectations play in our happiness. Here are a few ways that I am trying to consciously lower my expectations and achieve greater happiness.

Get Real

This one is key for me. I tend to be overly optimistic about what I think I can achieve, both in the short and long-term. These days, I’m trying to let go of some of those self-imposed expectations. I’ve become, as it were, over-accessorized with things to do.

I’m taking Coco Chanel’s advice and winnowing down my list. Does the house need to be in tip-top shape? Nope. Do I need to get involved with the PTA thing? Nope. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a lot done. I’m just learning to be a tad more realistic about what’s really possible on any given day.

I’m also working on getting more real about special occasions – holidays, vacations, family gatherings etc. I tend to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about how wonderful and fulfilling these events will be. They usually are, just not typically in the way I expected. I’m learning to enjoy the planning and preparation without being burdened by all the expectations it creates.

Don’t Let Others Control Your Happiness

The thing with expectations is that they usually involve other people. And the thing about other people is that you have no control over them. None. Including, by the way, your spouse and children. I remember my parents had a flip chart in our house with a quote that said, “Let no man decide your day.”

This is especially true with the most challenging people in our lives. I will often plan out my approach to difficult interactions. The problem is, my imaginings usually also include how the other person will react to what I say or do. Bad plan. One of the hardest lessons in life is that we don’t control people around us and the way they behave is usually not about us. So, I’m resolved to give others less power over how I feel, both good and bad. As a classic Type A over-achiever, I really  crave positive feedback. But, I’ve come to understand that that can be a sort of trap that keeps me needing and wanting and gives the people around me way too much control over my happiness. Better to cultivate an inner contentment that is not reliant on the mercurial responses of the people around me.

Change Your Comparative Set

One of my first posts was about the power of gratitude and reframing your comparative set. There will always, always be someone richer, prettier, fitter, and more successful than you. I enjoy personal finance blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache and Financial Samurai. A common theme on these blogs is the notion of hedonic adaptation. Essentially, it’s really easy to get used to luxury and to start thinking of it as normal and required. Think about the device that you are using to read this blog. Could you live without it? You did, of course, and not that long ago. I’m not suggesting that you  get rid of all your earthly possessions. I do think, though, that it is important to guard against this tendency for lifestyle bloat and to consciously remind yourself of how comfortable your life really is.

Take Joy in the Mundane

Simple pleasures. A long bath, reading to your kids, a quiet dinner at home. Learn to savor these things. Most days are ordinary. If you can learn to take pleasure in everyday things, you’ll find more contentment. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down for some of the everyday tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve not yet reached the level of mindfulness that allows me to savor, for example, scrubbing the bathtub. But, I am learning to take real pleasure in things like watering my plants, making my bed while I listen to the radio, or cooking dinner with my family. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time imagining my future and what my life would be like. It mostly isn’t what I thought it would be like, but it’s also more wonderful than I could have imagined.

How do expectations influence your happiness?

6 Ways Smiling Makes Everything Better

“Peace begins with a smile.” – Mother Teresa

Positivity motivation happiness science of smiling
My father is a dentist and I worked intermittently at his office as a pre-teen and teenager. I remember that he had the front desk personnel keep a mirror in front of themselves so that they could see whether or not they were smiling. He knew that the person on the other end of the phone would hear the smile and that it would make his patients happy. Smart man, my dad. Here are six ways that smiling will make your life better and happier:

#1 – Smiling Releases Feel Good Hormones

It turns out that there is good science demonstrating that the physical act of smiling changes your mood. And, you don’t even have to be happy to start. For me, this sort of outside in approach to happiness is really important. I don’t always naturally feel happy or content…who does? But, knowing a few tricks to pull myself out of the doldrums is empowering. Putting on a happy face, as it were, is a go-to strategy.

#2 – Smiling Makes Other People Happy

How do you feel when you approach someone and they greet you with a warm smile? Good, right? Making other people happy is super important because when people around you are happy they emit positivity and that makes your life better. I remember when my children were babies and we were soooo excited for their “social smiles” to begin. Smiling makes others smile and that will make you happy. It’s a virtuous circle!

#3 – Smiling Makes You More Approachable

“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” – William Arthur Ward

I work in New York City and interact with many people during the course of the day. When I’m going about my day with a smile on my face, all sorts of interesting people engage me in a wide range of conversations and interactions. When I’m looking like a grump, they don’t. There is one caveat to this strategy, however. When I first moved this way from a smaller town in New Mexico, I rolled around town smiling and nodding at everyone I passed on the sidewalk. This strategy tends to attract crazy people who are otherwise shunned by savvier city folk. So, it’s all about balance. But, if you enjoy a nice howdoyoudonicetomeetyaenjoyyourday as much as I do, better to err on the side of smiling.

#4 – Smiling Helps You Focus on the Positive

It’s hard to mull over everything that you’re worried about when you are walking down the street smiling. That sort of cognitive dissonance just doesn’t come easily. I notice that when I’m going through life with a smile I tend to look up and take in the world around me. There is so much beauty in the world when we are open to seeing it and smiling makes me much more likely to take notice of the adorable child, beautiful morning sky, pretty flowers, etc.

#5 – Smiling Improves Your Reputation

There are a lot of people at work with whom I interact very little. How do they view me? What assumptions do they have about my effectiveness? It’s human nature to draw judgements about people. Our minds are very good at categorizing information so that we can get through the day without being overwhelmed. Smiling is one of the easiest ways for you to develop a reputation at work as being friendly, at ease, and productive. 

#6 – Smiling FEELS Good!
The best reason to start smiling is that it just feels good. Try it today!

Using Lists to Stay Happy and Productive

If you are like me, you have a lot to get done. It can be hard to stay focused and on track even with work emails popping up, children asking for snacks, and constant technology reminders/alerts/alarms. That, my friends, is where list making comes in. I am a devoted list maker. A few years ago, I read Atul Gawande’s brilliant book, The Checklist Manifesto. Now, I was already a committed list maker by that point, but Gawande’s book showed me how list making could help me deal with an increasingly complex and demanding world. Gawande is a surgeon and applied his philosophy to creating medical checklists that help reduce clinical errors and save lives. I just need to get all my errands done, work projects completed, etc. No matter, the idea is the same. The world is coming at all of us with so much information and data. If you want to stay on track with the things that matter to you, make a list! Here’s some ways to use lists that I’ve found helpful:

Happy productivity motivation list mindfulness mindful

Use Technology

I swear by the Wunderlist app. It can be shared and synced with family or friends and specific items can be assigned accordingly. Imagine assigning your husband a must-do family task during your morning commute and finding that it has been miraculously completed by the end of the day. Hallelujah! (Okay, okay, Wunderlist doesn’t actually make your husband do things, but it sets up things up for good behavior.)

In addition to the satisfying check off bing (I’m a sucker for Pavlovian incentives), it’s also great because you can set up a variety of lists in different categories. Groceries, house projects, blog ideas – you name it!

Set Priorities

One benefit of list making is that it gives you an opportunity to reflect on what you’ll prioritize. When you have a million to-dos swirling around in your head they are all given equal importance. With a list, you can order them and focus on what’s really important. When I’m feeling overwhelmed at work, I will do a brain dump of everything on my mental list. Then, I’ll chose the manageable subset of things that I can reasonably focus on that day or within a couple of days and write it on another list. If there is something that isn’t making the cut for immediate action, I’ll take the opportunity to alert any my colleagues as needed. This exercise leaves me feeling calmer and more focused on making progress. I find it an be especially helpful to make the list for the following day before I leave work. That way, I can arrive and hit the ground running.

Leverage Small Amounts of Time

Along the lines of setting priorities, I use mini lists to ensure that I’m effectively leveraging small units of time. For example, I’ll sometimes start out my commute be entering the list of things I’d like to accomplish during that time in my Wunderlist app. My commute is more than an hour on a train, so it can be a highly productive time. Or, if I arrive at work at 9 am and have a 10 am meeting, I’ll write a short list of three things I will do before the meeting. I’ve found that this keeps me from wasting time that would otherwise feel too short to accomplish anything meaningful.

Incorporate Self-Care Into Your Lists

One of my favorite things to do is to actively incorporate self-care items into my lists. On the weekend, this may include taking a yoga class or having coffee with a friend. At work, it may include meditating for 5 minutes or stretching my neck. There is power that comes with writing something down and prioritizing it in this way. It puts my self-care strategies on equal footing with all the other demands and frees me from feeling guilty for taking time for myself…after all, it was on the list!

How do you use lists to stay happy and productive?