Does Getting Older Mean Losing Your Sense of Humor?

Why absurd humor might help keep your brain young.

Source: Does Getting Older Mean Losing Your Sense of Humor?

We all like different jokes. Humor styles vary as much as we do, which is why a hilarious joke to one person may fall completely flat for another. Perhaps that’s why my own favorite joke appeals to me so much.

Duck #1:  “Quack”
Duck #2:  “I was going to say that!”

I’ve shared that joke dozens of times, perhaps hundreds, and it seldom gets a laugh. Yet I still love it, maybe because it’s a shibboleth for fans of silly humor. Laugh out loud, and I know you’re my kind of person. We all have jokes like that, ones only we love, and that love says a lot about who we really are.

Not long ago a British researcher analyzed differences in humor tastes by hosting one of the largest studies of all time. His name was Richard Wiseman, and he set up a website for people to submit their own favorite jokes, while also rating favorites of others. Not surprisingly, the most common jokes were also the simplest (“What’s brown and sticky? A stick!”). Some were raunchy, others complex, but all said something about the people who submitted them. Brits, as we know, tend to like absurd humor (“Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow? So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.”). Americans prefer their jokes to be aggressive. The Germans in Wiseman’s study found nearly all jokes hilarious, which either means they have a great sense of humor or none at all.

Many researchers have tried to use these humor differences to predict personality, though results have been mixed. In fact, it’s almost impossible to guess what joke any particular person will like, with one big exception. As we get older, we tend to turn away from absurd jokes like my duck quip. They’re just too weird.

That’s just the start. Scientists have found that disliking absurd humor as we get older is linked to a very specific personality trait, and that’s conservatism. As we age, we tend to be more fixed in our ways, leading to more conservative outlooks. There’s even a saying about this—children are fools if they are not liberal, just as adults are fools if they are not conservative. This maturation shows itself in several ways. One is a dislike for talking ducks.

In the twenty years since that first study on absurd humor and conservatism was conducted, other scientists have begun to understand why such differences occur. It turns out that absurd humor activates different brain regions than traditional jokes. Take this example:

A student asks her gym instructor to teach her how to do a split. “How flexible are you?” the instructor asks. The girl replies: “I can’t make Tuesdays.”

That’s a normal joke, what is often called an Incongruity Joke because the girl’s expectation is incongruous with the instructor’s. That kind of joke activates the Temporal Lobe and Cingulate Cortex, regions responsible for conflict detection and memory. However, when confronted with something like the duck joke, which ignores the standard setup and resolution, very different brain regions take control. Not only are fewer brain regions activated, but they tend to be focused on interpreting the language of the joke, rather than producing a cohesive story. In other words, our brains tend to be as confused as their owners.

As we get older, we like our stories to make sense, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t like jokes that go nowhere. But could absurd humor be a sort of exercise? Perhaps we become more conservative over the years because we become less flexible and less patient with absent punchlines. Maybe our brains need to be jolted with humor that doesn’t take us where we expect. Even if that destination is nowhere at all.

Which makes me think that maybe duck jokes are quite important. Countless studies have already found that laughing frequently improves heart health, immune system response, and even mental outlook. Perhaps absurd humor might be the best workout for the brain we can get. At worst, it gives us something to think about.

And now, my second favorite joke:  “What has eight legs and an eye? Two chairs and half a cow’s head.”

You’re welcome.


Dai, R., Chen, H., Chan Y., Wu, C., Li, P., Cho, S. and Hu, J. (2017) To Resolve or Not To Resolve, that is the Question. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1-13.

Ruch, W., McGhee, P., Hehl, F. (1990). Age Differences in the Enjoyment of Incongruity-Resolution and Nonsense Humor During Adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 5, 348-355.

Wiseman, R. (2008). Quirkology. London, UK : Pan Books.


What Type of Thinker Are You?

When you get stuck in convergent thinking, you miss possibilities open to you.

Source: What Type of Thinker Are You?

“Convergent” and “divergent” thinking represent two different ways of looking at the world. A convergent thinker sees a limited, predetermined number of options. By contrast, a divergent thinker is always looking for more options. Many of us get stuck in convergent thinking and, as a result, don’t see the many possibilities available to us. Let’s have a look at both types of thinking.

Convergent Thinking. Convergent is a form of the word “converging” and so it means “coming together.” Convergent thinking is what you engage in when you answer a multiple choice question (although, in real life, we often only see two choices). In convergent thinking, you begin by focusing on a limited number of choices as possibilities. Then you choose the “right” answer or course of action from among those choices. The figure on the left side of the diagram illustrates convergent thinking.

Here’s an example: “People are sick or people are healthy.” For many years after becoming chronically ill, those were the only two possibilities I saw: I was sick or I was healthy. Each night I’d go to bed, hoping to wake up healthy. When I didn’t, I considered myself to be sick. It was one or the other.

Along with that, I thought I only had two possible courses of action: I could be a law professor or I could do nothing with my life. That may sound extreme, but that’s how I saw it at the time. Not wanting to do the latter, I forced myself to keep working, even though I was too sick to do so. It didn’t occur to me that I could be in poor health and lead a productive life.

Here’s another example of convergent thinking. When I considered how friends responded to me when I became chronically ill, I saw only two possibilities: those who stuck around cared about me and those who didn’t stick around didn’t care about me. I wasn’t able to see that people could drop out of my life and still care about me.

I’m not dismissing the value of convergent thinking. It’s an important cognitive tool, particularly in math and science. Unless I’m missing something, it would be silly to be open to other options than “4” when asked, “What’s 2+2?”. But convergent thinking has at times been a great source of suffering for me during my illness, because it’s kept me from seeing beyond my limited vision of what is possible in this new and unexpected life.

You need not have health difficulties to see how convergent thinking—because it leads you to take a narrow view of your life—can be unskillful. For example: “It’s aerobics or no exercise at all.” With this type of thinking, if you have an injury that prevents you from doing aerobics, you’ll opt for no exercise at all rather than considering other options, such as doing something less strenuous but still valuable.

Another example: “This new job is going to be great or it’s going to be terrible.” If these are the only two possibilities you see, then if you decide it’s terrible, you won’t be able to enjoy a pleasant experience at work when it comes along. “He either loves me or he doesn’t care about me at all.” Well, you get the idea: limited options; only one “right” answer or course of action.

Divergent Thinking. By contrast, divergent means “developing in different directions” and so divergent thinking opens your mind in all directions. This opens possibilities in your life because it leads you to look for options that aren’t necessarily apparent at first. The figure on the right side of the above diagram illustrates divergent thinking.

A divergent thinker is looking for options as opposed to choosing among predetermined ones. So instead of deciding that the two choices for me are “sick” or “healthy,” I would ask myself if there are other options, like the possibility that I could be sick and healthy at the same time. It took me many years to see that this was indeed an option (and it became the major theme of my book, How to Be Sick).

When I became chronically ill, I was mostly a convergent thinker. As a result, for many years after I could no longer work, I felt useless, as if my life had no meaning. I slowly emerged from this dark place by becoming more of a divergent thinker, but I still have to work at it by reminding myself: “Look for options you haven’t considered.”

Here’s an example of how switching from convergent to divergent thinking can make our lives easier and lead to fruitful results. When How to Be Sick was published in 2010, I began to get requests for me to read it as an audiobook. I decided I could do it if I just bought a good microphone and some computer software. I announced on Facebook that there would soon be an audiobook, and I responded to the many email requests I’d received by telling people that an audiobook was in the works.

But when I undertook the project, it proved to be much more difficult than I’d anticipated. Without going into details, suffice it to say that there’s a reason that most book narrators are professionally trained (or, at least, not limited in their energetic resources!). As I faltered, I saw only two options: Push forward, at great expense to my health; or not do it at all. I did the latter—not without having had to endure self-recrimination over letting people down.

It took me over 2 1/2  years to put on my divergent thinking cap. I thought: “Maybe there are more options than just “audiobook read by me” or “no audiobook.” I began to do some online research and found a website that matches books with narrators. (It’s a spin-off from Amazon and From my laptop, I signed up, submitted a short excerpt from the book, and “auditioned” narrators. They would record the excerpt, upload the audio file to the website, and I’d get an email notifying me there was a new audition.

I listened to over a dozen auditions (it was fun!) and then one day, I heard the voice that was perfect for the book. Deon reads How to Be Sick as if she wrote it; she seems to understand the intention behind every word I wrote. And so, we’re on our way to producing an audiobook. That’s an example of the value of divergent thinking—thinking in terms of possibilities instead of in terms of limited choices.

As for friends, I began to think that there might be more than the two options I’d settled on (that those who stuck around cared about me and those who didn’t stick around didn’t care about me). When I opened my mind to other possibilities, I discovered that some friends who haven’t stuck around do indeed still care about how I’m doing. They aren’t in contact for other reasons. One of them is too uncomfortable around illness because of her experience with her own parents suddenly taking ill and dying within a few months. Another person, unbeknownst to me, developed serious health problems of her own.

Consider whether you tend to be a convergent thinker or a divergent one. If you’re the former, you’re likely to see limited choices instead of being open to possibilities. If you’d like to work on becoming more of a divergent thinker, I have two suggestions.

First, whenever you’re considering a course of action or forming an opinion about something or someone (including yourself), pay attention to whether you’re assuming you have limited choices—it’s this or it’s that; she’s like this or she’s like that; I’m like this or I’m like that. Second, use the Thich Nhat Hanh practice I’ve written about before: Am I Sure?Ask yourself, “Am I Sure?” before you assume you’ve considered all the alternatives available to you or before you make a judgment about something or someone. Having tried these two suggestion, then start looking for more possibilities.

Open your mind and see where it takes you!

© 2013 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books.

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010)

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon,, and iTunes.

Visit for more information and buying options.

How to Put a Stop to Catastrophic Thinking

Learn to skillfully respond to the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing.

Source: How to Put a Stop to Catastrophic Thinking

Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. The phrase refers to our irrational and exaggerated thoughts: thoughts that have no basis in fact, but which we believe anyway. These distorted thoughts then become the breeding ground for stressful emotions. The result is anxiety and the undermining of our ability to feel good about life or ourselves. In September 2014, I wrote an post entitled “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.” You might want to have a look at it. One of those distortions is called catastrophizing and it is the subject of this post.

Catastrophizing is also called magnifying. This is a good way to think of it, because it emphasizes how we often magnify things way out of proportion, dreaming up nightmare scenarios that we believe without question.

The first and second arrows

Catastrophizing is an example of thoughts (and the emotions they give rise to) that the Buddha called the “second arrow.” The first arrow refers to those familiar, unpleasant experiences that are an inevitable part of everyday life, from the mundane (a light bulb that burns out when we flip on the switch) to more profound unpleasant experiences (waking up with a flare in a chronic pain condition). We could each make a list of our own “first arrow” experiences. Some days we’re bombarded with them, again from the relatively minor (a computer crash) to the major (the loss of a job… or a friend). Life is hard enough just coping with the first arrow, that’s for sure.

The second arrow is an unnecessary one. Here’s how it happens. We experience the unpleasantness of the first arrow, but instead of simply acknowledging its presence and, if possible, trying to make things better (e.g., change the light bulb, take a warm shower to try and ease our physical pain), we engage in a stream of stressful thoughts and emotions about that unpleasant “first arrow” experience. Although the Buddha didn’t use the word catastrophize, it’s an example of how we shoot ourselves with a second arrow by mocking up worst-case scenarios instead of just taking care of the business at hand. In other words, we make things worse for ourselves.

It’s as if we’re looking at an unpleasant experience through binoculars, and so it appears way out of proportion to us. I used a light bulb burning out as an example, because it’s a trivial experience. And yet, when it’s happened to you, how often do you say without irritation: “Oh, well, the light bulb burned out; no big deal, I’ll just change it”?

If you’re like me, when you encounter an unpleasant experience, you tend to add a negative reaction, which may not always rise to the level of catastrophizing, but can if it takes on this type of form: “Why do light bulbs always burn out on me? The new one will probably burn out in a few days — on me again.” It’s this second arrow, magnifying an unpleasant experience and making it into a catastrophe, that keeps us from feeling at peace with our lives. After all, if we changed the light bulb mindfully — paying careful attention as we get a new bulb, unscrew the old bulb, screw in the new one, and perhaps even take a moment to reflect on the wonders of electricity — we might even enjoy the experience.

And what about that “first arrow” unpleasant experience of waking up with a flare in our chronic pain levels? Instead of keeping calm and waiting to see if the pain subsides as the morning wears on, there’s a tendency to catastrophize by convincing ourselves that this is our new normal. We say to ourselves: “This pain will never go away; I’ll be miserable the rest of my life.” That’s the experience of the second arrow and, not surprisingly, it tends to be a source of stress and anxiety.

Through habits we’ve developed over our lifetimes, we seem to be quite adept at making ourselves miserable by magnifying our disappointments and frustrations until they seem like catastrophes. Another simple example. I’ve been teaching myself some new embroidery stitches. A few months ago, I was embroidering an underwater scene and wanted to use a “cretan stitch” to make a fish. But I couldn’t do it. Every fish I tried looked awful. Instead of feeling compassion for how hard this was proving to be, I started spinning irrational stories about my attempts: “I’ll never figure out this stitch. I might as well throw the whole piece away.” Catastrophizing.

How to stop the tendency to catastrophize

To reverse the tendency to catastrophize, put your experience into perspective. Start by reminding yourself that unpleasant experiences — not having things go as you want — are an inevitable part of life. Then reframe your thoughts regarding whatever unpleasant experience is threatening to set off that second arrow. Sticking with my examples, remind yourself that everyone has to change light bulbs sometimes; it’s no big deal. Remind yourself that just because you’re in pain this morning doesn’t mean you’ll be in pain everymorning. Everything changes, including pain levels. Remind yourself that some embroidery stitches are hard to learn, and besides, an underwater scene doesn’t have to have a fish in it anyway — put in a crab.

In other words, put a stop to this type of distorted thinking by first becoming aware that you’re engaged in it, and then countering that thinking by adopting a reasonable perspective on what’s going on. Sometimes I even say to myself: “Stop! You’re going down that catastrophizing road again, and it’s only going to make an unpleasant situation worse.” Gently saying, “Stop!” like this can interrupt your tendency to start spinning those “second arrow” worst-case scenarios.

I’m not saying this will always be easy. You may have a lifelong habit of blowing things out of proportion and assuming the worst, often about yourself. The good news is that habits can change, and the first step is to become aware of how you’re making life more difficult for yourself by magnifying unpleasant experiences and blowing them out of proportion.I recommend that you start small — maybe with that light bulb or something you’ve spilled. The better you get at keeping calm and not going straight to exaggerating and catastrophizing over minor unpleasant experiences (“I’m always spilling things and always will”), the easier it will be to maintain your peace of mind when you’re struck by harsher first arrows.

© 2017 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. You might also find these helpful: “You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts” and “What Type of Thinker Are You?

How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia

Source: How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia

Let’s Begin…

How does stress affect you, and how can we use that stress for good?

Watch this link in order to learn how to make stress your friend:

Download this app to relax on the go:

The Psychology of ‘Backburner’ Relationships

It’s natural for humans to pay attention to all their romantic options, and new research shows Facebook helps them do that.

Source: The Psychology of ‘Backburner’ Relationships


One episode in season five of How I Met Your Mother, called “Hooked,” revolves around people being kept “on the hook,” romantically speaking, by members of the show’s central gang of friends. “I can’t be with you … right now” is the phrase the pals keep using to string these people along, the “right now” leaving the door cracked open just enough that apparently some poor guy is willing to continue to do Robin’s laundry and rub her feet for the vague possibility of a someday relationship.

This does not make the friends look very good, obviously, but keeping track of and keeping in touch with alternative romantic prospects is a common thing for humans to do, even if it is rarely in such an exaggerated, sitcommy way. A recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior dubs these interactions “backburner relationships.” A backburner, as defined by the study, is “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.”

The lead study author, Jayson Dibble, an assistant professor of communication at Hope College, told me, “What originally inspired me to think about this is when you meet somebody at a club and trade numbers, you might go through your contacts [later] and say ‘Oh I remember that guy. I might zing him a note and see how he’s doing … It was inspired by my old days in grad school.”“When you were meeting everybody at the club?” I asked.

“Well, I say research is me-search,” he replied, laughing.

The communication is key here. A backburner is not just someone who wanders into your thoughts every once in a while—the college sweetheart whose Facebook photos you occasionally browse, or the cute friend-of-a-friend you met on vacation and have always thought you’d really click with, if you lived in the same city. These “what-ifs” only become backburners if you actually reach out to them.

Dibble notes that sometimes backburners know they’re backburners and sometimes they don’t—I suppose it depends on whether the communication in question is more artful than a “hey, what’s up?” text sent at 1 a.m.

There are a couple of competing evolutionary imperatives at play when it comes to keeping people on the backburner. On the one hand, it makes a certain primal sense to explore all the potential mates available, to be sure to get the best deal. But having one long-term partner helps offspring survive, in the rough-and-tumble caveman world often invoked by evolutionary psychology. So commitment provides benefits, in exchange for letting go of other possibilities—the wouldas, the couldas, the shouldas.

So, with all this as background, Dibble reasoned that people in committed relationships in his study would keep fewer people on the backburner.He and Michelle Drouin had 374 undergrads self-report how many backburners they had, whether they talked to them platonically or were more flirty, and what technology they used to keep in touch with these people. Those who were currently in relationships also completed assessments of their investment in and commitment to their relationships, and rated how appealing they thought their alternatives were.

The most frequent ways that people kept up with their backburners were through texts and Facebook. Forty-five percent of participants reported texting backburners, 37 percent reported talking to them on Facebook. Thirteen percent of people still picked up the phone and called the person they were stringing along, and piddling percentages of people kept up with backburners through email, Skype, or Twitter.

What surprised the researchers was that there was no significant difference between the number of backburners kept by people in relationships, and the number kept by single people.

“We were really puzzled by why we didn’t find a relationship between commitment and backburners,” Dibble says. “If the investment model holds, we should have seen a nice strong relationship. Maybe the investment model doesn’t work in the online world.”

In his dissertation at the University of Texas, Austin, Adam Redd West proposed in 2013 that the investment model indeed might not apply when it comes to the Internet. “The online world provides opportunities to evaluate and monitor alternatives … without the need for direct interaction with others,” he writes. The relative privacy of Facebook makes it easier to keep in minimal contact with backburners. Another thing humans tend to do in relationships is attempt to maximize benefits and minimize costs. It doesn’t take much to just comment on someone’s Facebook status, potentially a small cost for the benefit of keeping that person available as a romantic option.

That could also explain why people in relationships still kept in touch with backburners online at nearly the same rates as single people. It seems a little more acceptable to talk to someone on Facebook when you’re not available than it does to meet up with them for dinner or something.

This was a preliminary study—all it really shows is that people keep some of their romantic alternatives on the backburner. That’s not necessarily a new phenomenon: “The behavior of keeping people waiting in the wings, keeping your options open, is nothing new. In the old days it was called keeping people in your little black book,” Dibble says.

This study shows how that behavior plays out today, when people can zing each other notes through a variety of different mediums. The next steps, Dibble says, are to see exactly what people say to keep others on the backburner and examine the ways those conversations play out. He also wants to refine the definition a little more—if you only check in with someone once a year, are they still a backburner? What happens when someone you considered a backburner starts a new relationship, or gets married?

When someone sees their backburner’s Facebook status change, “you’re going to have that ‘ugh’ moment,” Dibble says. “Now your quality of alternatives has shrunk just a bit. If you could develop a backburner relationship over the short term in the lab, and then take it away, man, that would be really cool.”

Why Everything We’ve Been Told About Happiness Is Flawed

The traditional path to happiness doesn’t work for many, so here’s how to bring more meaning into your everyday life.

Source: Why Everything We’ve Been Told About Happiness Is Flawed


The “standard” blueprint for a happy life usually reads something like this: Go to college. Get a job in a big corporation that provides good benefits. Find a partner. Have children. Buy a house. Raise your children. Retire and hope to go on a cruise (before you die of a heart attack.)

Author Colin Beavan’s life was on that trajectory, but instead of feeling successful, he felt dissatisfied and guilty about the affect his pursuits were having on the earth.

“The truth is that those old approaches to happiness no longer work for us or the world, and they’re starting to break down,” he says. “A college education no longer guarantees a corporate job. Once you get a job, there is no guarantee you’ll keep it or even get health care. We can no longer maintain the illusion that any of this is successful.”

Beavan scrapped the standard blueprint in 2007, when he and his family embarked on a yearlong experiment to reduce their carbon footprint. He chronicled their journey in the book and documentary No Impact Man, and discovered that life was better when you live it according to your values. Soon people asked how they could be more like him and have a more meaningful and happy life.

“The idea isn’t to be like me; it’s to be more like you,” says Beavan, whose latest book, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World, helps readers rethink their own definition of happiness. “The idea is to explore who you are in your own life so you can make choices that are better for you and the world.”


Once you accept that the old path to happiness is an illusion, you have to acknowledge that there is no new standard story that provides a new path, says Beavan. “It’s no longer about personal happiness,” he says. “That happiness is narcissistic and comes at the expense of the world.”

To redefine happiness, you have to explore who you really are. “Too many of us get caught up in the 10,000 ad messages that bombard us every day, and we start wanting things we don’t need,” says Beavan. “Things are at the surface of who we are; deeper inside, you find passions. Ask yourself, ‘What do I care about?’”


The answer doesn’t require a career change or grand action; that will stop you, says Beavan. Instead, explore who you are in the world by looking at simple relationships you have with things like food, products, or transportation. Then choose one aspect of your life that matters to you, and take a step each day toward manifesting value in that area.

Perhaps you want to explore your relationship to coffee, for example. Beavan suggests starting by making a commitment to only purchase and drink ethically produced coffee. But don’t stop there. Research the harm the traditional coffee industry is doing. Find out how you can help, and take steps to make a difference.

“Begin by saying, ‘Today I care about this.’ Then fix that one thing,” he says. “We can worry about all of the problems of the world and do nothing, or we can be happy that there are tremendous opportunities that we can plug into. This is an opportunity to redefine our lives and find our happiness.”


As you make small changes, you begin to gain competence in living according to your values, says Beavan, and eventually you may start to change bigger things. The process is how you define your calling, but it won’t happen right away, says Beavan.

“We usually don’t know enough about ourselves to identify that right away,” he says. “Nor do we have types of lives to support that. Experimenting in those smaller relationships helps you find what will give you fulfillment by helping the world.”

Many people design a career around their calling, but callings can also emerge in the moment, says Beavan. For example, if you care about what’s happening with racial barriers, identify what you can do in your life to make a difference.

“If you work in HR, for example, you might begin by working on a new hiring policy,” says Beavan. “Avoid hiring from personal networks. Advertise jobs and cast a wider net to find new talent. Ask yourself, ‘How can I deal with this in my life right now?’”

Happiness is not the end goal of life, says Beavan. “Happy people help more people,” he says. “If you make yourself miserable helping the world, you won’t help for long. Find ways to help that make you happy, too. This gives you the energy to help more. Happiness is not our purpose; it’s the fuel to fulfill our purpose.”


Why We Always End Up Overwhelmed By Our To-Do Lists

Blame it on the “planning fallacy.”

Source: Why We Always End Up Overwhelmed By Our To-Do Lists

By Kat Boogaard

You look down at your to-do list and your heart starts racing. Why? You’ve just had that brutal realization that there is absolutely no way you’re going to be able to get everything done.

Even if you shut your office door, skip happy hour, pull an all-nighter, and crank up your most inspirational productivity playlist, there will still be unfinished tasks lingering on that pesky list of yours.

Put simply, you’ve over-promised—meaning you’ve found yourself over-extended and totally overwhelmed.

Now what? What can you realistically do, other than put your head down on your desk and silently resent your ridiculous workload?

While there’s no magic formula that will instantly make half of your to-do list vanish into thin air (you wish, right?), there are some things you can do to navigate your way through that sticky situation and come out with your sanity intact.

Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?

Before you can jump into fixing the problem, it’s important that you understand it first.

I know, I know—you’re stretched thin and don’t have time for a detailed psychology lesson about what drives your compulsive need to say “yes” to everything. But, spend just one minute on the science anyway.

The Trap of the Planning Fallacy

First and foremost, we find ourselves with unrealistic workloads due to something called the planning fallacy (also sometimes referred to as the optimism bias).

Put simply, we’re pretty bad at understanding how long things take us. We all fancy ourselves productivity superheroes and thus grossly underestimate just how long a project will take us to complete.

We grossly underestimate just how long a project will take us to complete.

Plenty of studies exist to back this fact up. Researchers wanted to see the planning fallacy in action—so, they conducted an experiment by asking students for an estimate of when they’d complete an academic project. Basically, the students were asked to assign a confidence interval of 50%, 75%, and 99% to a time when they thought they’d have the task finished.

At the point in time when students said they were 99% certain they’d have the project completed? In reality, only 45% of them had it done.

In a separate study involving students, the researchers found that, on average, students were 30 days too optimistic when offering their estimates for completion.

That’s pretty far off. And, if you continue to estimate your time incorrectly over and over again? Well, you already know what happens: You’re left with way too much to do and far too little time to do it.

The Psychology of Saying ‘Yes’

Our crappy time management skills aside, there’s another reason we all pile our plates too full: It feels good to say “yes” to people.

“Much of saying ‘yes’ is saying ‘yes’ to another person,” explains Dr. Robert Bilder, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, “By acknowledging that you are going along with a plan initiated by someone else, you are strengthening or creating a bond with them.”

Joining a group initiates neural circuits (the same ones as when we fall in love, actually!) that cause oxytocin levels to surge. Those increased levels make you feel great, so you’ll be all the more likely to repeat that behavior over and over again. After all, it’s a whole lot better than your brain’s reaction to negative stimuli—like hearing the word “no.”

Where Do You Go From Here?

Now that you know that your overwhelming workload is a result of your brain playing tricks on you, what happens next? You can’t rewind time and say “no” instead of “yes.” So, how can you realistically cope with that pile of tasks that you know you won’t get done?

1. Separate the Wheat From the Chaff

First things first, you need to zone in on the things that are actually urgent. What on your to-do list really needs to be done today, and what’s just hanging out there with a not-so-firm deadline?

Grab a highlighter and prepare to do some major destruction to that list of yours. Highlight only (yes, only) the things that you absolutely need to have finished by the end of the day. That will allow you to turn your attention to those do-or-die items that should be at the very top of your priorities list.

Our brains have the not-so-helpful tendency to conflate real, productive work with those other small, menial, and mindless tasks.

Yes, it’d be nice to finally get around to cleaning your inbox or giving Susan in marketing a prompt reply to that birthday invitation she just sent. But, right now, you’re in crisis management mode. Anything that can wait until tomorrow absolutely should (sorry, Susan).

Not only does this elimination step give you a clearer focus on where you should be channeling your energy and attention, but it also removes the risk of self-sabotaging your own productivity.

Our brains have the not-so-helpful tendency to conflate real, productive work with those other small, menial, and mindless tasks.

By totally pushing those out of your mind (and off your to-do list) for now, you won’t be tempted to color code your inbox when you should actually be completing that presentation that’s due in two hours.

2. Delegate What You Can

You’re now left with a simplified and streamlined to-do list. It helps, but you’re quickly realizing that there are still far too many time-pressing tasks taunting you—this still isn’t doable.

At this point, take a look at what you could potentially delegate to other people. Do you have a direct report that could take one of those assignments off of your plate? If you’re not in a management role, perhaps you could throw yourself on the mercy of one of your colleagues (with a promise that you’ll return the favor if and when they need it).

When delegating, just make sure to pass along any important background information, notes, or requirements to ensure the job is done the way it was intended.

If you work independently or you don’t have anybody in your office who’s willing to take pity on you, don’t count yourself out of this delegation step quite yet. Have you ever considered using automation as a form of delegating?

Automation typically works best for those pesky recurring tasks that take up a lot of your time (think of things like automatically storing files and email attachments in Google Drive or scheduling social media posts, for example).

While you will need to invest a bit of time to get it set up, automation can save you a decent chunk of much-needed time in the long run. Seventy-five percent of marketers, for example, state that saving time is the biggest benefit of automation.

3. Push Back Deadlines

Are you cringing? I know—this is the very thing you wanted to avoid. But, when you’ve whittled down your to-do list and exhausted all of your other options, it’s time to face the music that you’re going to have to extend some end dates and let a few people down.

The key to pushing back a deadline is to do it sooner rather than later. It’s a lot more professional to request an extension before that task is due, rather than hours (or even days) after it was originally supposed to be submitted.

The key to pushing back a deadline is to do it sooner rather than later.

Rest assured, there’s a way to do this in a way that’s polite and professional. It’ll just involve swallowing your pride and admitting to the fact that you bit off far more than you can chew.

Here’s a sample message, so you can see what this ends up looking like:

Hey Jamie,

I wanted to touch base and let you know that I’m pretty swamped right now. I’m doing my best to catch up. But, unfortunately, I won’t be able to have that client rundown completed for you by the end of the week as originally discussed.

I’m hoping that we can push that deadline back a bit, as I’d always rather turn in high-quality work a little behind schedule than shoddy work on time. Would next week Wednesday work to have it submitted to you?

Let me know if that adjusted timeline works on your end.



There are two important things to remember when crafting a similar email of your own. First and foremost, resist the urge to profusely apologize. You might be embarrassed by admitting defeat. But, continuously beating yourself over the head will only make you more guilt-ridden, and ultimately won’t do you any favors. Be direct and concise—and skip the Oscar-worthy apology speeches.

Secondly—and, this is incredibly important—ensure that you suggest an adjusted deadline that you can actually meet (be conservative if you have to!). Pushing a deadline back once is one thing. Needing to do it over and over again will make it appear as if you don’t know how to manage your own workload.

Moving Forward: Don’t Make the Same Mistake Twice

The natural tendency to pile your plate full can be difficult to combat. Once you make it through that overwhelming period, take some steps to ensure that your workload remains at a more doable level (at least most of the time) moving forward.

For starters, it’s a wise idea to begin tracking your time in order to get a more realistic handle on how long specific projects and tasks take you. That’ll override your optimism bias and keep your expectations for your own productivity in check.

If you find that you’re often stuffing your calendar full with various social functions and events, consider using this calendar hack that involves creating an “optional” category within your calendar. Things that aren’t mandatory—whether it’s a networking mixer or an educational seminar you wanted to attend—should be assigned that category.

Life gets busy, and we all fall victim to the siren song of over-promising every now and then.

So on those days when you’re feeling particularly spread thin, with just the click of a button you can sort through everything on your schedule and be left with only the things you absolutely have to do. It’s an effective way to instantly streamline your to-dos when you’re already barely maintaining your grip on your sanity.

Life gets busy, and we all fall victim to the siren song of over-promising every now and then. Follow these steps and you’ll be able to make your way to the other side of that lengthy to-do list—with as few tears and tantrums as possible.

This article originally appeared on Trello.

Kat Boogaard is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life.
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