How Not to Have a Breakdown

“What we’re seeing is something I call ‘Generation Squeeze,’” says Paul Kershaw, Ph.D., referring to a new study he published showing that parents of school-aged kids are incredibly stressed.

According to Kershaw, a family policy expert from the University of British Columbia, we parents are “squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income because of the high cost of housing, and squeezed for services like child care that would help [us] balance earning a living with raising a family.”

Sound familiar? When we’re squeezed for all these resources, here’s another thing that gets squeezed: our happiness, and our ability to raise happy children.

This is a special problem for me, being a parenting and happiness expert and all.  (I define an “expert” the way the physicist Niels Bohr once did: “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”)

I love my work—this “happiness expert” thing is a really good gig—but I also strive to not work long hours, as this compromises the “parenting expert” part of things. So I’ve been reading studies about productivity, so that I can accomplish what I need to but still have enough time for my kids.

Here is what I’ve learned we “Generation Squeeze” parents need to do:

1. Stop multi-tasking. If we want to raise happy and productive members of society, we need to model this for our constantly texting-while-walking/driving/talking children. We mothers can often be heard lamenting our partners’ inferior multi-tasking skills—why can’t they schedule a dentist appointment while driving the carpool and handling a crisis at work, like we can?

Mulit-tasking actually exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does. Take it from productivity experts Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance—increased the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

Sometimes it is harder for me to single-task than it is to multi-task. I have to totally remove all distractions to single-task: I do my best writing at a desk I’ve set up in a large closet that doesn’t get phone reception, with my email disabled. This focused work increases the chances that I’ll get into “flow” while working—a huge source of happiness and productivity.

2. Build positivity. We need to consciously practice doing things that make us happy, especially during times when we are trying to accomplish something (this goes just as much for helping kids with homework or potty training as it does for finishing that big report at work). As psychologist Shawn Achor writes, “Positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.”

Feeling anxious or agitated by how much you need to get done? Don’t let those negative emotions lead you on a downward spiral into a full fight-or-flight response (which is basically like being on a hamster-wheel—you might feel like you are working furiously, but the work is low-quality).

Stopping to do something that makes us laugh, or feel grateful or inspired, can renew our energy and get us back on a more productive, less stressful track.

3. Rebuild our foundations. We cannot be as productive—or happy—as we need to be when we are sleep-deprived, sick, or out of shape.  Prioritizing sleep (at least 7 or 8 hours, every night), exercise (cardio at least 3x per week, and strength-training at least once a week), and healthy eating (don’t skip breakfast, and cut back on sugar) can make a huge difference.

4. Practice “discontinuous productivity.” In other words, rest between periods of productivity. We can’t gun-it for eight hours straight; our brains just don’t work that way. After about 90 to 120 minutes of high output, we need a period of recovery—or negativity starts to build, and productivity starts to decline.

Productivity experts recommend periods of focus followed by high-quality periods of rest. Rest periods needn’t be long (10-15 minutes will do) if you truly take a break: Go for a walk outside, chat with a coworker or neighbor about a new movie, eat your lunch outside or near a sunny window.

My final piece of advice is to make all of these things habits (check out this video and this one to get started). Once we have daily routines that include single-tasking, regular breaks, exercise, and enough sleep—and that foster happiness habits like a regular gratitude practice—our generation will feel more like the creative and productive group we are, and less like “Generation Squeeze.”

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.