Dr. Tim Bono is a faculty member in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis where his teaching and research focus on positive psychology and college student development. His work has been featured in a number of national media outlets including NBC News, CNN, Fast Company, and the Associated Press. Over the last decade, thousands of students have taken his popular courses on the Psychology of Young Adulthood and the Science of Happiness. He summarizes the research from those courses, along with how his students have put that information into practice in their own lives, in his recent book, Happiness 101: Simple Secrets to Smart Living & Well-Being.
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[Nishant] : What’s your morning routine look like? Why having a morning routine is essential in your life?
[Tim]: I wake up every morning—including weekends—at 6:50 AM, and begin my day with 10 minutes of meditation. I have a small alcove in my bedroom that is perfect for sitting in silence and focusing on my breathing. This helps to center me and begin my day feeling refreshed and relaxed. As soon I finish that, I generally open up Pandora to jump start my day with some upbeat music while I make my bed and brush my teeth. Next I make breakfast—usually a bowl of cereal and a protein shake, and only after I’ve completed those things will I allow myself to check email, respond to text messages, or do anything else on my phone.
One thing that has helped me establish this routine is that I no longer keep my phone on my nightstand. I used to be one of those people who—even after I had gotten into bed and under the covers—would be scrolling through my phone, responding to emails and getting lost in random cat videos on Facebook. But I found that was a huge waste of time and often made it more difficult to fall asleep. And then as soon as I woke up the next morning, the first thing I would do was reach for my phone to check email and text messages before I even got out of bed. And sometimes that could be a source of anxiety or otherwise get me thinking about what I was going to do about them. And that was kind of useless because at that stage of the morning I’m not at my desk or in a position to respond to them, and yet my mind would be consumed by them entirely.
So my routine now is that, before I go to bed, I put my phone in that alcove where I meditate and I keep it on airplane mode so that I won’t even see or hear any push notifications until after I have finished my meditation and those other parts of my morning routine. And I have found it is a much nicer way to start the day, without any interference from phone alerts or work issues. I’ll get to those tasks soon enough, but I choose to begin the day focused on the simple pleasures of the morning. That approach allows me to bring a good mood and a refreshed state of mind to whatever is waiting for me when I get to work.
[Nishant]: What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? or with overwhelming life goals?
[Tim]: If I am feeling overwhelmed by a large number of tasks that I need to complete in a short amount of time, I will first create a list of everything I have to do, and then I will order them by importance, and set deadlines for when I will need to complete them. As much as I hate deadlines, I do find that they light a fire under my feet to get things done.
I also pay attention to how I prioritize my time and my energy. I try not to stress out about responding to every email immediately. Once I get to work, I start the day by identifying particular projects that I want to have completed by the day’s end that will help me feel accomplished. And I find that the satisfaction that comes from making progress toward the goals I really care about goes a long way toward mental health. If I let myself, I could easily get swept away into the constant stream of emails and small requests that come up, but that would not allow time to get to some of the more important things, and I wouldn’t feel that satisfaction from making progress toward those large-scale goals. This is not to say that I never have days where I get lost in some of the more mundane details and tasks, but I try to reserve my best energy for the more important projects.
And when it comes to overwhelming life goals, I do my best to break those down to their component parts. When I decided several years ago to write my book, I didn’t just sit down one day and say, “I think I’m going to do a write a book” and then start writing. I started with an outline, a brief sketch of what I wanted the contents of the book to look like. Then I took each chapter individually and focused on each one’s component parts, allowing them to take shape and evolve, very often in ways that were different from what I had originally envisioned. And I think that’s one of the most important things I have learned in life: It’s important to have goals and pursue them, but it’s also important to have the flexibility to allow things to take shape as they will and to go with the flow, correcting course along the way. I believe that approach has taken some of the pressure off and minimized how often I truly feel overwhelmed.
Inevitably there are still days where I feel like I have more to do than I reasonably can. On those days, I do the best I can with what I am able to bring to those tasks, I then forgive myself for the circumstances or poor planning that allowed me to paint myself into that corner, and I try to extract a lesson in time management that I can use to prevent myself from finding myself in that situation again in the future.
[Nishant]: What makes you happy and fulfilled in life? Any advice to people who are seeking ways to fill good?
[Tim]: I do everything I can to prioritize three areas of my life in particular.
The first of those has to do with my physical well-being. I build in time most days for exercise, since physical health is really at the foundation of psychological health. I also do what I can to get a good night’s sleep each night since we know the brain does a lot of work to strengthen neural circuits that play out in emotional well-being and mental acuity during the day.
Second, I keep a gratitude journal and make it a point to focus on good things in my life that I might have lost sight of. In the age of social media, it has become increasingly easy to compare our lives with everyone else. But that’s no good recipe for psychological health. Gratitude is so important for breaking the social comparison cycle and instead, redirecting attention to those good things that I had likely been taking for granted.
Third, and most important, I make it a point to connect with close friends and family as much as I can. I have a close friend who I often will call on the way to or from work most days just to chat, and I get together with other friends as often as I can, as well. I enjoy cooking, so it’s always fun to have friends over to break bread together and just enjoy each other’s company. When I’ve had a bad day, those are the people who help redirect attention away from whatever’s bothering me. And when things are going well, those are the people who help me celebrate and extend the positivity of the good days.
[Nishant]: How do you deal with setbacks or failures?
[Tim]: I try to observe them very matter-of-faculty and extract whatever learning I can from them. I have come to acknowledge that setbacks are part of life, and often it is the people who have succeeded the most who also have failed the most. But what fueled their success was how they responded to the failure. Instead of interpreting setbacks as a signal of defeat, they used them as a source of motivation and a source of information about what they could improve about their next attempt.
One of my favorite quotes is from JK Rowling who once said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.” And JK Rowling is a great model to live by—she had many failed manuscripts before Harry Potter was published. But she took each rejection in stride and kept at it, using feedback from those rejections to improve future versions and ultimately positioning her to unleash her masterpiece that took the world by storm.
So I try to draw inspiration from others who have failed and still found a way to persevere. When things don’t work out as I had hoped, I reflect on it, think about what I can use from that experience to improve my next attempt. And in the process, I practice self-compassion and I do what I can to restore my mood. Some of the best strategies for that are consistent with what I do more generally to take care of my mental health—I’ll talk things over with a friend, practice gratitude for things that are still going well for me, go for a run, get a good night’s sleep, and then direct attention toward other goals. One of the most important pieces of advice I received from one of my mentors was to not allow the disappointment from yesterday’s failures take away from my ability to work as hard as I can on today’s goals. And I try to remind myself of that everyday.
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