How Social Media and E-Mail Hook You and Keep You

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while. – Henry David Thoreau

I found this passage in William Powers’s excellent book Hamlet’s Blackberry(aff link). I struggle quite a bit with the near addiction I have to checking e-mail and social media (mostly Facebook). It’s become an almost automatic response to being on any kind of digital device. I’m connected, therefore I check (email | Facebook | Twitter | Feedly). My fingers tap across the screen without any conscious thought, and before I know it I’m looking at the latest updates or seeing another work e-mail that will ruin my quiet evening.

It makes sense why things like e-mail or Facebook can create these kinds of behavior, and why in Thoreau’s day we could say the same thing about going to the post office. In the behavioral model of psychology, a “reinforcement schedule” is a concept defining how and when a subject is rewarded for behavior. For example, in a simple fixed schedule model, subjects are rewarded every time they produce the desired behavior (every time your dog obeys your command, you give him a treat). But research has shown that over time constant reinforcement tends to produce a leveling effect. The frequency of the behavior slows, and even stops as the reinforcement loses effectiveness. In contrast, if rewards are delivered on a varying basis the behavior continues and is highly resistant to extinction (i.e. it is very hard to stop). This is especially true of so-called “variable ratio” reward schedules, in which subjects are given a reward after a randomized number of times they show the desired behavior.

Think for a moment about that. When rewards are given after randomized counts of behavior, we see the fastest rate of the behavior and the most resistance to change. Now, think about how Facebook works: you check it constantly, and from time to time you see a particularly interesting post, or that someone has left a comment on one of your previous posts. That little glowing red globe symbol is like a tiny shot of dopamine to your brain, and just like a rat in a cage who receives food at random for pressing a lever, you’re hooked.

The same is true of Thoreau’s “poor fellow”. Every time he goes to the post office, there’s a chance he’ll find a letter from a friend or lover. Thus begins the cycle of seeking out the reward, never knowing whether or not this time will be a lucky one.

Lately I’ve worked hard to break this habit as much as possible, with some success. First, it’s best to make getting to Facebook or e-mail as hard as possible; I log out of Facebook once my designated time is done, and turn off my e-mail on my phone. At times I go so far as to turn my expensive smart phone into nothing more than a dumb telephone, at least in the sense of connectivity (for the record, the recipe is to turn off wifi, then disable cellular data. At first it was downright painful, but as time went on, it’s become more and more pleasurable, these brief interludes of silence.

Try it yourself. Today, turn off all your devices and go for a walk. You might be amazed at the things you notice.

Words of Wisdom From a Ray Bradbury Character

“We’re all fools,” said Clemens, “all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day. We think, I’m not a fool today. I’ve learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact that we’re not perfect and live accordingly.”

Ray Bradbury, “The Illustrated Man”

This quote struck a chord with me immediately upon reading it. I’ve remarked several times on this blog (and oh so many times in conversations) about just how irrational and (more dangerously) ignorant we humans are. We believe we knew what was coming all along, seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, and dismiss or discount information which challenges them.

I’m certainly no exception. Despite my awareness of these things, I often find myself falling into their traps. Just the other day, for example, I fell prey to a clever use of the default effect while attempting to unsubscribe myself from a mailing list. After clicking the “unsubscribe” link in the e-mail, I was brought to a page where there was some text along with a series of check boxes. In many cases, one checks the items one wants to unsubscribe from, and submits the form. Since I saw the boxes were already selected, I hurriedly clicked the submit button and went on my way. Naturally I was shocked to find more e-mail from the sender in my inbox the next day. Upon returning and closer inspection of the opt-out form, I found that in fact I needed to un-check the boxes for the lists I no longer wanted to receive. Read the fabulous… oh you get the idea.

I’m fond of saying “I’m just as much of an idiot as everyone else, I just readily admit it.” Even with this awareness, however, my ability to invoke reason and logic is limited. And so, as Bradbury’s character suggests, I live accordingly. Or, at least I try. I keep sweets from easy access in the cupboards, I make it a point to listen to the opinions of those I heartily disagree with, and I try and limit the decisions I make on a daily basis. I frequently get “sanity checks” from those around me and, despite the uncomfortable feeling it brings on, welcome challenges to my thinking.

If we are going to overcome our shortcomings as humans, the first step is awareness. That’s one of the main reasons I write about things like cognitive biases or how preconceived notions can hurt us in our daily lives. Writing about these things helps keep them in the front of my mind, while helping me to connect related information together. Keeping the our emotional irrational nature in check is a difficult task, but one we must engage in every day, and do so intentionally.

Every day, look youself in the mirror, and remind yourself (in the words of author David McRaney(aff link)), “You are not so smart.”

We Must Let Our Children Fail If We Want Them To Succeed

In trying to protect too much, kind people can inflict great cruelty.
-Eric Greitens

The quote above is from the Greitens’s book Resilience, which I’m in the process of reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach my children the best skills for success. I’ve long been a believer that while a parent’s job is to guide and help their children on their path, it’s not for us to make sure the path is without obstacles. We learn best through hard work, and by turning our mistakes and setbacks into well valued experience.

All too often today I see signs that people are treating their children like delicate dolls, rather than what they are, merely small adults. Parents refusing to let their children ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, or even worse, getting in trouble with the law for letting kids walk themselves home from school. Kids now receive trophies even when they place dead last in tournaments. But it doesn’t even stop at children or teenagers; in fact I recently read an article by none other than one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind, detailing how “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”

Greitens hits this one square on, writing:

Not everyone gets a trophy, because not every performance merits celebration. If we want out children to have a shot at resilience, they must learn what failure means. If they don’t learn that lesson from loving parents and coaches and teachers, life will teach it to them in a far harsher way.

Some time ago, I read the book Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein. It made quite an impression on me, and has stuck with me ever since. The authors mainly focus on fostering a mindset of problem solving and creativity in children, so that they can navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises life will hand them. Ever since then, I’ve tried to always step back and let my children work themselves through things, rather than leap in and correct things as quickly as possible.

Is this hard? You bet. Any parent with any degree of compassion (and I’d hope most do) will find it downright painful to see their child struggle. Whether it be in school or when playing with friends, we always want to see our children happy. But truthfully, we do them more harm by making things easy and swatting things from their path, rather than teaching them the skills to handle it themselves.

When I was in college I remember seeing a fellow freshman student struggle mightily with the task of doing her own laundry. Had I not intervened, I think she would have readily poured bleach all over her (rather expensive looking) clothes. It made me think, “If she can’t even handle doing the laundry, how is she going to handle all the far more adverse challenges college life will contain?”

We may well have the best of intentions when we intervene constantly in our children’s lives. It’s only natural to want them to be content and enjoy life. But we must consider the long term consequences of our actions. Just as our muscles grow stronger only by stretching beyond comfort, so too must we expand our children’s resilience only through the occasional pain of failure.

How Bright Lines Make Life Easier

I’ve been focusing as of late on simplifying my life. I have a lot going on, between a full time job, raising two young children, trying to be a good husband, fulfilling my desire to write, and starting a business. There are plenty of times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the minutia of managing this on a day to day basis. So, I do what I have always done when I feel dissatisfied with something in my life: I try changing things up to see if it improves things (because more change is exactly what I need, right?).

One of the things I’ve focused on as of late is the idea of using “bright lines” to reduce the number of decisions I make on a daily basis. I heard about this concept in Roy Baumeister’s excellent work Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength(aff link). He writes:

“You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime.

The idea is this: bright lines are clear and simple rules for how you go about your day. There’s no room for interpretation, no space for arguing over ambiguity. The choice you face is clear: either you follow the rule or you don’t.

While Baumeister mainly talks about applying this to abstaining from bad behaviors (like drinking), I also find it useful in defining daily routines and rituals. If I decide the night before exactly what I’m doing in the morning prior to heading off to work, it eliminates the expenditure of energy in choosing between various paths (do I have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?). This includes not only what I do, but in what order I do it (do I make my coffee first or do my meditation breathing?). Sometimes things go awry based on the interruption by certain small children, but it’s helpful nonetheless.

I also find this useful in defining how I work during the day. I might create a bright line around my use of social media: I only check Facebook after lunch and before heading to the gym. Or I might limit when I check e-mail: I check e-mail once per hour at the fifty minute mark after a forty five minute work session. I can define how I administer my systems: there will be no changes made between 9AM and 5PM EST that have any chance of being disruptive (I wonder on that last bit, do we always know what changes will be “disruptive”? Anyway, I digress.).

Some might argue this is rigid and doesn’t allow for spontaneity. That’s absolutely true, but it’s also the point of so-called bright lines; they take away from flexibility in areas of my life where I don’t need it, so that I reserve my energy for parts where I do. Do I really want to expend energy deciding whether to wear a polo or a t-shirt? Or would I rather keep that energy in reserve, so that I am a more patient parent, or a calm and collected problem solver in the face of an emergency at work?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider implementing a few of these bright lines into your life. You just may find that you free up your energy for far more productive things. Share what you did and if it worked in the comments!

Can Racists Be Reasoned With?

I’m fortunate to have a lot of pretty smart friends, who give me plenty of material for thought (and thus eventually for writing, since that’s how I generally try to organize my thinking). Just yesterday, a friend of mine posted this article, which argues rather convincingly that the cause of many of America’s current ailments is what the author describes as “an abandonment of reason”. He gives numerous examples of this, from climate change denial to sex education. And while I find the argument a good one, I think that there is little cause for optimism of the triumph of reason in this or just about any other case.

In his excellent book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows how reason is consistently subjugated by emotion. He uses the very descriptive metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where reason is the rider and emotion / intuition the elephant. The rider can try and guide the elephant, but in case of conflict, the elephant is going to win. Our cognitions, our very deeply held beliefs, are largely the result of post-hoc reasoning rather than sound logistical deduction. We experience a feeling in reaction to something, and our minds come up with a seemingly rational explanation for why we felt that way.

Because of this, I would say that focusing on reason alone is a poor approach to work towards solving problems such as racism. Certainly, racist beliefs generally cannot stand up to the lens of logic, but for someone who holds them this matters little. As he was engaged in his murderous rampage, the suspect reportedly stated “…you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over our country.” This sounds exactly like an appeal to two of Haidt’s six moral foundations, namely those of “Sanctity” and “Authority”. To a racist, those of different racial backgrounds are corrupting the very moral fiber of their nation, threatening the orderly boundaries of society. I have not searched for studies on the matter but I would surmise that these come from deeply seated intuitions, some of which may even be genetically based. As such, anything trying to contradict them is likely to be summarily dismissed.

So is all hope lost? Is there no way to affect change in the minds of racist individuals? There may be a glimmer of possibility, which we glimpse in another friend’s thoughts on the matter:

How do we change their thinking from a young age? Unfortunately most have parents with warped views who are their driving influence, but can we as a community step-up and be just as influential? Would arranging for greater exposure at a young age to those children seemingly different from themselves, in race, religion, etc. be the most effective? Providing the opportunity to internalize the commonality of all humanity by having these relationships when young seems about right to me.

Much like the character of Derek in American History X, organic exposure to other cultures and ideas may be the best hope. Even so, I don’t know that any top-down effort to accomplish this would be effective. Rather, it would only be seen as yet another invasion of culture. Combine this with the media’s continual efforts to polemicize their constituents for the sake of ratings, and sadly I remain rather pessimistic of any kind of large scale resolution to this problem.

*Note: links to Amazon from this page may contain affiliate codes, so if you purchase items I may receive a small commission. If you’d rather not donate to my kids’ college fund that’s fine, simply look up the title on Amazon without clicking the link.

The Many Definitions Of Wealth

When someone says they are “wealthy”, what does that really mean?

If you think about it, the word “wealth” likely has very different meanings to different people.

For some, they will follow the dictionary definition of “a large amount of money and possessions”. Perhaps they desire a fleet of expensive cars, or an enormous house on a large property. Or, maybe they want to pull a Scrooge McDuck and take a swim in their piles of money.

But for others, the definition of being wealthy may have a simpler meaning. Perhaps they desire the ability to leave their boring day-to-day job and travel the world. Or, be free to pursue their dream career of writing cheap supermarket romance novels. Some may want to find a small homestead in the wilderness and subsist off the land, without any outside contact. Still others may want to open their own small business.

None of these necessarily means you need to have a lot of money, nor do they entail having a lot of material possessions.

I would argue that the truest definition of wealth is closer to the second set of examples. Being wealthy means that you are able to spend your time and energy as you desire, rather than simply trade your labor for the goods required to maintain your life. For example, if you are able to live comfortably on a minimal salary, and as a result can take work as a freelance writer on a part time basis, you free up considerable time for pursuing whatever projects suit your whimsy. I don't think anyone would call such a person wealthy by society's normal definition, but if you ask them, I would suspect they would say they feel wealthy.

Take, for example, the story of Trent from The Simple Dollar. In 2008, he quit his full time job and started working at home full time writing and doing other smaller scale jobs. An explicit reason for his choosing this was because he saw his children growing up, and wanted to spend more time with them. Between his regular daytime job and working on his blog, he found his days become every fuller. So, he chose to cut the cord from his nine-to-five job and focus on his dream. Years and many, many posts later, he certainly seems to be doing well. While I don't know Trent, I would guess that if you asked him, he would probably agree with the statement that in the broadest sense of the word, his life is certainly full of wealth. It's an inspiring story, and one that I would love to some day follow.

I think that becoming wealthy in this sense is really all about focus and sacrifice.

It requires focus, in the sense that you need to keep that goal of financial independence in your mind at all times. Remind yourself every morning what it is you are working for, be it the ability to spend more time with your children, or start that small business you've always wanted. Keep these reminders close by, so that they never slip from your mind.

It also requires sacrifice, in that you need to be able to give up the ability to spend your money, time, or effort on things that don't get you closer to that goal. Life is full of random temptations, and while I'm not suggesting that you become a slave to your goal, it's foolish to think that you can simply carry on living on a whim, rather than carefully considering the minute-by-minute decisions and actions that move you closer to where you want to be.

I think that the notion of wealth today has been twisted by the reality-TV / tabloid driven media such that many view the excessive lifestyles of the super-rich with great envy. I wonder though, if we all got back to basics and thought about the things that are truly important to us, and what we would do with our lives given freedom from reliance on our paychecks every two weeks, if a more achievable and simpler vision of being wealthy might emerge.

The Powerful Effect Of Preconceived Notions (And Letting Them Go)

Every day we go into life with expectations about how things will occur. These beliefs have an astounding impact on our perceptions of and reactions to the world around us, often times without us even being aware.

Think you’re immune? Just see if any of these scenarios strikes a chord with you.

You get a request to attend a meeting at work to discuss something, and even before you walk into the room you think to yourself “This person never has anything useful to say. This is a total waste of time.” In the meeting, you are quick to interrupt, dismissive, and don’t take the time to listen carefully and understand the other side of the conversation. As a result, things don’t get moved forward, and several people come away with a clear negative impression of you.

A friend whom you have not spoken to in quite a while calls you, and when you see the number you think “What does (she | he) want? We haven’t talked in ages, so why would they call now? They probably just need a favor.” You don’t answer and as a result, miss an invitation to a baby shower (for a baby you still don’t know about).

When trying to put one child down for a nap, the other comes into the room and starts to ask you a question. Without thinking you tell them they “can’t be in here because I’m trying to put your (brother | sister) to sleep. You can’t have my attention all the time!” The other child gets upset with you and storms out, shouting “I just wanted to help put my (brother | sister) to sleep! Why are you always so mean?!”

When we allow these expectations to override our senses (and with them, often our better judgement) we set ourselves up to miss out on an amazing number of opportunities for positive interactions in our lives. And while it’s not necessarily easy to overcome this habit (when are habits ever easy to change), the fundamental principles aren’t that difficult to understand.

First, be conscious of these tendencies and their role in your behavior. At every chance you can, ask yourself, “What do I expect to happen here? Why do I expect that? Could something else happen?” Cultivating awareness is probably the hardest task, as we are so used to simply reacting to things without thought. If you know ahead of time that a potentially difficult situation is coming up (think about the time before that meeting), it might be a good idea to scribble some things down on paper. The simple kinetic act of putting our thoughts on paper can be amazingly illustrative. What sounded perfectly logical in our minds looks absolutely ludicrous once we actually spell it out.

Second, work to change the underlying negative scripts that support the beliefs in the first place. When you find yourself saying “My kid always needs my attention. Why can’t they just leave me alone? Can’t they see I need to take care of the other kids?”, try changing it to “Boy, my kid sure does love to spend time with me. How can I let them be a part of what I’m doing while not neglecting the other kids?” Here again, I think writing these thoughts down (both the old and the new) can be a difference maker. Our thoughts hold incredible power over us, so we may as well learn to turn them to our advantage.

When we let go of our preconceived ideas about things, the change is results can be monumental.

Instead of an un-productive meeting, a wonderful discussion ensues with all sides contributing, and a project is put firmly back on track thanks to the cooperative attitudes of everyone. You learn several new things, and everyone is impressed with your open-mindedness and listening ability.

Instead of missing out on an important occasion in your friend’s life, you get to congratulate them on their news and end up talking with them for over an hour about each others’ lives. As a result you make plans to get together after work and a friendship is rekindled.

Instead of having one tired child (who is now more awake thanks to the shouting match) and one child who now sees you as uninterested in them, you experience an incredibly tender moment where your older child sings a lullaby to your younger one, kisses them, and tells them how much they love them.

Don’t go through life blindly listening to your own expectations. Examine them, question them, and drop them by the wayside if they aren’t helping you lead a happier, productive life.

Why We Make Bad Choices – Cognitive Dissonance

This is a post in an ongoing series about the tricks our minds play on us which cause us to make poor decisions (known in psychology as cognitive biases). Learning about how we perceive and interpret the world around us is a critical part of self reflection, so I want to take some time and explain things in (hopefully) clear, understandable terms. While I’m going to use a fair amount of the language of psychology, I will also do my best to define things in ways those of us without degrees in the subject can understand. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments if things aren’t clear.

Here we introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is a key idea to understand for the rest of the series. It is summarized fairly easily as follows: when we hold two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or attitudes, we experience mental discomfort that we will naturally want to resolve.

I know, it sounds like pure psychobabble. But bear with me, as it truly is important to understand this.

Let’s say you are on a diet, but one day you slip up and eat several slices of greasy, delicious pepperoni pizza. Immediately afterwards, you feel guilty about your actions. One one hand, you hold the belief that you are a person capable of staying on a diet (because who wants to admit that they have no willpower); on the other hand, you just ate a slice of pizza, and you also know in your heart that pizza is far from a healthy food. This contradiction (“I eat healthy” versus “Pizza is bad for you”) causes you to experience mental angst.

The only way to resolve this is to change one or both beliefs so that they are no longer incompatible with each other. How we do this varies depending upon many things, but we’ll try to illustrate two possibilities.

First, we might minimize or belittle the idea that pizza is bad for you. Perhaps we think “Well, a couple slices isn’t that bad. I dabbed off some grease so the fat content must be lower.” If the pizza is no longer so unhealthy, then eating it doesn’t mean we broke our rule of eating only nutritious food.

Second, we might lessen the strictness or specificity of our belief that we eat healthily. Instead of “I eat a healthy diet”, we might substitute “I try to eat healthily, but I don’t do it all the time.” If we no longer believe that we are someone who always eats healthful food, then eating fatty pizza doesn’t contradict that carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Are either of these inherently bad ways of dealing with the discord between our two beliefs? You could probably argue on both sides. On the one hand, pepperoni pizza is likely unhealthy any way you look at it, but on the other hand giving ourselves permission to circumvent good behavior without specific reasons is not a good way to instill new habits.

What’s more important is simple awareness of this tendency, and considering it when reflecting upon our lives and the decisions we make. As you’ll come to see, this statement will likely be repeated throughout the series. If you gain nothing else from reading these posts, learn to be conscious of how our minds work. Understanding this is crucial, and it’s why I truly believe that everyone should learn a little bit of psychology. After all, what’s more important than knowing ourselves as human beings?

In the coming weeks and months we are going to learn more about the specific ways in which our mind tricks us and causes us to ignore or misinterpret important things in the world around us. Stay tuned, it should be an interesting ride.

Books That Changed My Life – Raising Resilient Children

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

I would say that it is no exaggeration that my children are the single most important thing in my life. Becoming a parent has profoundly changed my outlook on life in more ways than I can count. There is no more important job than raising my children to be successful, kind, compassionate members of society, and it is one both my wife and I take very seriously.

With that in mind, I make it a point to read books on various subjects around the general theme of parenting and healthy childhood development. And while my background in psychology means I could certainly understand the more theoretical and academic works, in my world of limited time I tend to heavily favor those with a decided practical slant. And I must say, that is one area where this post’s book shines.

Raising Resilient Children is a beautifully (yet concisely) worded series of chapters on how to impart your children with, well, resiliency. How does one define this? While the authors describe several areas, I’d like to focus mainly on one.

Resilient children are able to overcome problems and obstacles they face. As a parent it is natural to want to see your child sail through life with nary a bump, but the reality is that this is neither practical nor desirable. Even if through some extremely overzealous form of “helicopter parenting” one was able to see their child avoid any hint of difficulty, the result would be a person incapable of living in the real world. What we instead want is to give our children the tools with which they can navigate the inevitable bruises of life using problem solving and a healthy dose of hard work.

The authors describe a series of principles which will help teach children how best to weather the challenges of life. Each chapter first lays out challenges we face as a parent in adopting these practices, then offers specific guidelines on how to overcome them. For example, let’s look at one obstacle mentioned in the section on teaching our children to be empathic.

The authors note that many parents believe that showing empathy equates to showing weakness. That is, by listening to and validating the feelings of our children, we are somehow allowing them to get the better of us. They give several examples from their own experience, which is helpful in that it can help us identify with parents dealing with similar struggles. The authors go on to give helpful advice on how one can express empathy but still set firm limits with children.

The book also encourages a lot of self-reflection, that is that parents can and should routinely look at how they are behaving and what effect it has on their children. The authors often will ask some simple, yet profoundly perspective shifting questions. For example, in the same section discussed briefly above, they ask:

Am I saying or doing things in a way that would make my children the most receptive to listening to what I have to say and learning from me?

Would I want anyone to speak with me in the way I am speaking with my children?

What do my children think about the choices I make for them?

As parents we are human and subject to the same biases, mistakes, and occasional blow-ups as everyone else. We often feel pressure to show strength and authority, but neglect to see things from the perspective of the very people we are working so hard for: our children. This book helped me to recognize that being strong does not mean being a disciplinarian; rather, it means accepting our children for who they are, showing them our love through understanding and gentle guidance, and teaching them the means to be successful in whatever pursuits they desire.

How Writing Things Down Keeps Us Positive

I want you to try a little exercise with me. It won’t take long, but I do insist that you try it in real time while reading this. You will need a paper and pen, or some other kind of medium for recording things. Ready? Okay, here we go.

I want you to think of and write down the first five negative memories you have of recent interactions with others. They can be your children, your spouse, or people at work. Don’t go into detail, just five quick sentences or descriptions.

All set? Good, now, repeat the same exercise, except with the first five positive memories. When you are done, keep reading. Don’t worry, the Internet will wait.

Now ask yourself a few simple questions. Were you able to think of five things in both cases? Which was harder to recall, the positive or the negative ones?

If you found it easier to remember the negative memories, don’t feel bad. As it turns out, our brains are hard-wired to recall negative memories far more easily than positive ones. It’s called the negativity bias, and it’s a well known psychological behavior.

I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. At the end of the day at work I can often only recall the frustrations or negative interactions I’ve had. Even when talking about my children, whom I am incredibly grateful to have in my life, I’ve found it’s entirely too easy to focus on negative behaviors. As a result, I often miss out or discount the many small positive things that happen on a daily basis.

I overcome a major challenge at work, but all I can remember is looking over a poor design for an upcoming project and how angry it made me feel (I’m a bit of a “do-righter”, but that’s another story).

I take a walk in the woods with my young son and we spend nearly an hour wandering around learning to identity the different kinds of trees, but all I can remember is how he was too rough with his little sister after lunch.

My wife leaves a little note for me saying how much she appreciates my helping out with the kids, but all I can remember is how she chided me for not finishing some task around the house on time.

Fortunately, with a little intentional behavior, this tendency can be overcome.

First, make note of these small positive occurrences when they happen. When I say “make note”, I mean that quite literally. It’s fine to be more mindful of these things and enjoy them in the moment, but to really be effective I’ve found I must record them somewhere, before they get lost in the jumble of events my brain processes. In the digital age I do this by sending myself an e-mail, snapping a photo, or making a note in Evernote with my mobile device. A small notepad would certainly work too. The exact method isn’t important, so long as it gets the memory out of your head.

Second, create a habit of reviewing these tiny but crucial moments at the end of the day. It’s refreshing and rejuvenating to see these little moments revisited, and it helps to end the day on a positive note. This doesn’t need to take a long time, perhaps five or ten minutes.

Try this habit for a week, and see if your mood and perception doesn’t shift. As an added bonus, you’ll be building up a reservoir of good things that happen to you, which is a powerful thing to have when your life hits an inevitable rough patch. By reminding ourselves of all that is good in our lives, we develop better resiliency and ability to work through the difficulties we face. Memory is a powerful thing, especially when selectively focused.