How to readjust to work after a holiday break

Plus, how thinking like a kid can save you from a “learning trap"

“The average person, if there's such a person, wants to work from home typically two days a week. But that average hides enormous variation.”  — Nick Bloom

BRAIN WAVES

  • Beat the post-holiday blues. It can be tough to head back to work after a holiday. Between disrupted sleep patterns and the heap of emails that stacked up while you were away, returning to the office — even a virtual office — is always a bit of a shock. Popular Science shares a few tips for making the transition a little easier next time around. For example, vacation researcher Jeroen Nawijn (side note: cool job alert!) suggests adding buffer time between your travel and work days. If you’re planning a trip for the holidays, for example, try to come back on Saturday rather than Sunday to give yourself time to readjust to your old routine. “Thinking ahead could also include making a to-do list for your first week back, keeping your work and living spaces clean and organized for your return, and prioritizing relaxation as you get back into the swing of things,” writes Popular Science’s Jordan Blok. Another way to beat the post-holiday blues? Give yourself something to look forward to when you get back. A tasty snack, perhaps?

  • Think like a kid. We adults may think we know everything, but we could learn a thing or two from kids. In a new study, researchers Alison Gopnik and Emily Liquin describe something they call the learning trap. “Adults tend to generalize from negative outcomes,” the researchers write. “And so they fail to explore other related stimuli … Because they instead avoid these stimuli, they never discover that their initial generalization was wrong.” In other words, adults often fall into a “learning trap” where they anchor onto one piece of information and stop learning. For example, if you experience a turbulent flight, you might become anxious about airplanes and avoid flying altogether. “And so you never learn that most plane trips are fine,” the researchers explain. In a series of experiments, Gopnik and Liquin asked adults and kids to play a game where they had to identify a block object as either a “zaff” or a “non-zaff.” As predicted, adults jumped to conclusions more quickly than the children about which objects were zaffs. “Unlike adults, children are motivated to explore despite the costs,” the study concluded. “As a result, they generate more extensive data and learn from that data accurately.” The lesson here? Adults would do better to embrace a little more curiosity, play, and exploration. As Gopnik has told us, “the irony is to get to good outcomes, sometimes you do better by not trying specifically to get to those outcomes and instead not worrying about outcomes at all.”

  • The world of play and the world of work are often seen as opposites. But they may have more in common than we think. What can we learn from the world of games to make our jobs more engaging? Listen to learn more.

ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST

Nov 29: If you’re one of the many Americans now working from home, you might be reveling in your daily commute to the dining room table. Or you might be saying, “Get me out of here.” Economist Nicholas Bloom joins us from his spare bedroom to ponder whether working from home is actually working. 

Dec 6: It’s psychologically simpler to see the world in black and white. But reality often comes in shades of gray. In this episode, how our minds grapple with contradictions, especially those we see in other people.

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ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST

Dec 2: “That conversation made me feel like no matter what we were going through, what I was experiencing was fatherhood.” After his daughter was born with a stroke, Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki remembers a doctor whose kindness made a world of difference.

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MIND GAMES

What is yours to own, yet others use it more?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

Two mothers and two daughters went out to eat. Everyone ate one slice of pizza, yet only three slices were eaten, total. How is this possible?

The answer: They were mother, daughter and granddaughter.

FROM THE TWITTERATI…

A MOMENT OF JOY

We hope your pumpkin pie was just as delicious.

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

Why you should extend a little gratitude — to yourself

Plus, an interactive tool for less awkward dinner conversations.

“Some people are breaking rules just for the sake of breaking rules. Rebels, instead, are being constructive in their approach in a way that creates positive change.”  — Francesca Gino

BRAIN WAVES

  • The benefits of self-gratitude. When researcher Erin Westgate returned to her office for the first time after lockdown, she opened her desk drawer to find a pleasant surprise: a Reese’s peanut butter cup. “She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese's,’” recalled her colleague Matt Baldwin. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You're expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’” Baldwin and his colleague Samantha Zaw asked people to write letters of gratitude. One group was asked to thank someone else, while another group thanked themselves. A third control group simply wrote about a positive experience. After the exercise, the people who wrote letters of gratitude to themselves had an increase in feelings of clarity, authenticity and connectedness. “Being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw. As you spend time this week giving thanks, don’t forget to extend that kindness to yourself.

  • Dreading awkward conversations at your Thanksgiving feast? You’re not alone. “A challenge of our time is that conversations in small groups are harder now than they were just ten years ago,” says Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. “Honest conversation is more needed now than ever.” Haidt is also the co-founder of OpenMind, a non-profit organization that helps people bridge divides using psychology-based tools. They recently launched a Thanksgiving Conversation Simulator to prepare for the upcoming holiday. You first enter the name of a person you tend to disagree with on a particular topic. The tool prompts you with sticky conversations you might have with that person, then helps you navigate those dialogues. “We created this simulator to give people practice, confidence, and a bit of fun as they approach the holiday season,” Haidt says. Give it a try here.

  • We think of gratitude as something we will feel when we’re happy. But maybe it’s the other way around. Embracing gratitude as a regular practice can actually make us happier. Listen to learn more.

ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST

Nov 22: Francesca Gino studies rebels — people who practice “positive deviance” and achieve incredible feats of imagination. They know how, and when, to break the rules that should be broken. So how can you activate your own inner non-conformist? In this week’s Work 2.0 episode, we revisit our 2018 conversation with Gino.

Nov 29: If you’re one of the 40 percent of Americans now working from home, you might be reveling in your daily commute to the dining room table. Or you might be saying, “Get me out of here.” Economist Nicholas Bloom joins us from his spare bedroom to ponder whether working from home is actually working. 

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ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST

Nov 25: In 2018, Vanessa Grace Miller was traveling in Myanmar with her sisters when she had a severe allergic reaction. A quick-thinking tour guide came to the rescue.

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MIND GAMES

Two mothers and two daughters went out to eat. Everyone ate one slice of pizza, yet only three slices were eaten, total. How is this possible?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

What 4-letter word can be written forward, backward or upside down, and can still be read from left to right?

The answer: NOON

FROM THE TWITTERATI…

A MOMENT OF JOY

Speaking of peanut butter...


Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

The perks of vulnerability

Plus, the worst place to argue with your partner

“We've built up a culture of convenience and simplicity...at the cost of effectiveness and true productivity.” — Cal Newport

BRAIN WAVES

  • The perks of vulnerability. Many of us find ourselves in a common social trap: First, we say yes to things. Then we become overwhelmed by our commitments, and feel resentful for saying yes all the time. As a result, we blow up on people we love or stew in our negative feelings. To break this pattern, social psychologist Anna Bruk makes the case for vulnerability. “Often, the best way to break these cycles is to admit our difficulties to others,” Bruk writes. While that might seem daunting, Bruk’s research suggests our fear of being vulnerable may be unfounded. In a series of experiments, Bruk and her colleagues found that while people view their own vulnerability as messy or embarrassing, others looking at the same vulnerabilities from the outside had a different perspective. “We refer to this pattern of conflicting perceptions as the ‘beautiful mess effect,’” she writes. “It’s important to be aware of this mismatch, as it can prevent people from sharing their true feelings and needs.” So how can we overcome the beautiful mess effect? For starters, a little self-compassion can help.

  • Car wars. We know it’s a bad idea to talk on your cell phone while driving. Some research suggests that arguing behind the wheel is just as dangerous a distraction. Researchers put 20 couples in a driving simulator, and asked them to follow a white SUV at a safe distance in three different scenarios. In one scenario, the couples were asked to have a conversation about a sticky issue in their relationship (yikes). In the second, the driver had a similarly difficult conversation over the phone (hands-free) with the non-driver in a different room. In the control condition, the couple had a neutral conversation. The researchers found that, not surprisingly, the contentious conversations were more draining for drivers than neutral conversations. They also found that arguing with a passenger could be even more distracting than talking on the phone while driving. The lesson here? Next time you feel an argument coming and you’re behind the wheel, save it for when you’re off the road. Also, don’t be this guy.

  • Innovation is hard. And there’s a common impediment to innovation: our inclination to focus on the things that can move us forward, rather than on the things that hold us back. Listen to learn more.

ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST

Nov 15: What price do we pay for the constant interruptions from our phones and computers? Is there a better way to handle distraction? We bring you a favorite conversation with the computer scientist Cal Newport.

Nov 22: Francesca Gino studies rebels — people who practice “positive deviance” and achieve incredible feats of imagination. They know how, and when, to break the rules that should be broken. So how can you activate your own inner non-conformist? This week, we revisit our 2018 conversation with Gino.

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ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST

Nov 18: In 1996, Lorrie Paul was visiting her ailing father in the hospital. As she took a break to cry in the hallway, a kind stranger walked over.

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TELL US ABOUT YOUR UNSUNG HERO

My Unsung Hero tells stories about everyday acts of kindness and courage that transformed someone’s life. If you have an unsung hero, we'd love to hear about them! Record your story in a quiet place using your smartphone, and send to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org with the subject line "Unsung Hero." Don't forget to tell us:

  • Your full name and where you're from

  • The moment or event that made this person your unsung hero

  • How that moment continues to impact your life

You can find more details, including our latest My Unsung Hero episodes, here

A SPECIAL NOTE

This week we want to remember a former colleague. Petra Mayer was a books editor on NPR's Culture desk. She passed away on Saturday, November 13. We’ll remember Petra’s sharp sense of humor and kind spirit, and we’re comforted to know that her legacy will live on in projects like NPR’s Book Concierge. She’ll be missed by all of us who had the privilege to work with her.

MIND GAMES

What 4-letter word can be written forward, backward or upside down, and can still be read from left to right?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

A sundial is a timepiece that has the fewest number of moving parts. Which timepiece has the most moving parts?

The answer: An hourglass

FROM THE TWITTERATI…

A MOMENT OF JOY

In 2016, a grandmother texted a Thanksgiving invitation to the wrong number. Six years later…

You can read the full story here.

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

If only saving time were as easy as rolling back the clocks

Plus, how motivation changes as we age.

“Games are here to stay. People love them. So I think the question is: What can we learn from games?”  — Ethan Mollick

BRAIN WAVES

  • Short on time. Most of us don’t feel like we have free time to spare, yet when an emergency arises, we find a way to take care of business. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam argues that time scarcity is often less a matter of quantity than it is priority. In other words, we think of time as something we have when all of our other obligations are met. But what if we started by taking a hard look at those obligations themselves?  “We don't build the lives we want by saving time,” Vanderkam says in a TED Talk. “We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.” Sounds idealistic, but Vanderkam came to this conclusion after interviewing a thousand busy women. One woman spent a week cleaning up the basement after her water heater busted. That week, she devoted seven hours to fixing the problem. It’s hard to find an extra seven hours a week to work on a hobby, train for a marathon, or spend more time with friends. But when there’s water in the basement, somehow, we find that time. “What this shows us is that time is highly elastic,” Vanderkam says. “We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.” Perhaps the key to managing our time better is to treat our priorities like a busted water heater. And Vanderkam suggests a few specific strategies to get us started.

  • Don’t look back. As the people we love age, we can’t help but celebrate how long they’ve been alive. But new research suggests that older people respond better to messages that take into account the time they have left,  rather than the years they’ve lived. “As people age, they tend to care more about people and activities that allow them to make the most of the time they have left, to appreciate life, and to savor time,” reports the American Psychological Association. Researchers think this has something to do with socioemotional selectivity theory (SST). SST says motivation changes as people get older and start to view their time as limited. Namely, we become more focused on positive information over negative information. With this in mind, the researchers say older people respond well to messages that encourage them to savor the moment.

  • Think about the resolutions you made this year: to quit smoking, eat better, or get more exercise. If you’re like most people, you probably abandoned those resolutions within a few weeks. Change is hard, but there are ways to turn our obstacles into opportunities to do better. Listen to learn more.

ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST

Nov 8: Play and work may have more in common than we think. Both involve painstaking effort and repetitive tasks. Yet many people pay money to do one set of activities and resent doing the other. In this episode, what the world of work can learn from the psychology of games. 

Nov 15: What price do we pay for the constant interruptions from our phones and computers? Is there a better way to handle distraction? We bring you a favorite conversation with the computer scientist Cal Newport.

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ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST

Nov 11: In eighth grade, Tony Ludlow hated his English teacher for making him stay after class. But on the last day of school, she told him five words that changed his life. 

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MIND GAMES

A sundial is a timepiece that has the fewest number of moving parts. Which timepiece has the most moving parts?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

Four cars arrive at a four-way stop, all coming from a different direction. They can’t decide who got there first, so they all go forward at the same time. They don’t crash into each other. How is this possible?

The answer: They all make a right turn.

FROM THE TWITTERATI…

A MOMENT OF JOY

You’ve heard of basketball. But have you heard of parrot basketball?

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

The key to more productive arguments

Plus, getting climate policy to stick

“Friction is the psychological force that resists change...We tend to dramatically underestimate the power of these frictions.” — Loran Nordgren, the Kellogg School of Management

BRAIN WAVES

  • Agree to (productively) disagree? Disagreements can be a good thing — they expose us to new perspectives and give us a chance to get on the same page with others. Of course, they can just as easily become hostile, antagonistic, and unproductive. “In a disagreement, explaining language, such as ‘because’ and ‘therefore’, can be seen as condescending,” writes Michael Yeomans, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Imperial College Business School in London. The good news is, we can learn to argue better. Yeomans shares a few key features of productive disagreement. First, there’s acknowledgment. Make sure the other person feels heard and understood. It also helps to hedge —  rather than speaking in absolutes, soften your argument with words like “probably” or “sometimes.” Finally, and maybe most importantly, Yeomans recommends finding common ground. “Humans have so much in common, but those things we agree on can be hard to notice when we are focused on the things we don’t agree on,” he writes. This can be especially important to remember when you’re fighting with a partner or spouse. “In an argument, there is always something you have in common, and it’s helpful to state that explicitly,” he says. With a few tweaks, you could be arguing in your spare time

  • Making change. This week, world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to discuss climate change. Fighting climate change — or adapting to it — requires policymakers to take action. But it also requires public support. New research offers insight on how to get people on board with these policies. Researchers looked at what kind of climate efforts Americans are most likely to support. People in the study seemed to prefer policies that use incentives — like tax breaks or rebates for adopting more eco-friendly choices — rather than policies that use disincentives, like a luxury tax on high-electricity users. But people were more open to policies that use disincentives when those policies were imposed on businesses rather than individuals. “Policies can't mitigate climate change unless they're put into action,” said Janet Swim, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Penn State. “So it's important to consider public reactions to these policies if they're going to be ultimately successful.”

  • Self-criticism is often seen as a virtue. But there may be a better path to self-improvement: self-compassion. People who practice self-compassion are more conscientious and more likely to take responsibility for their mistakes. Listen to learn more.

BIG NEWS

The Hidden Brain store has officially launched! From notebooks to coffee mugs to face masks, our new merch is now available for your holiday gift list. Fun fact: these items were brainstormed by the Hidden Brain team! We hope you like them.

ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST

Nov 1: This week, we kick off our new Work 2.0 series. We’ll explore the psychology of motivation and how you can derive greater satisfaction from your work. In our first episode, we look at a common impediment to innovation: our inclination to focus on the things that can move us forward, rather than on the obstacles that hold us back. 

Nov 8: Play and work may have more in common than we think. Both involve painstaking effort and repetitive tasks. Yet many people pay money to do one set of activities and resent doing the other. In this episode, what the world of work can learn from the psychology of games. 

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ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST

Oct 28: This week on My Unsung Hero, we meet listener Heather Church. One day, Heather slips on the stairs at a busy clothing store. As she begins to fall backwards, she hears footsteps racing toward her.

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MIND GAMES

Four cars arrive at a four-way stop, all coming from a different direction. They can’t decide who got there first, so they all go forward at the same time. They don’t crash into each other. How is this possible?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

A couple has six daughters. Each daughter has one brother. How many people are in the family?

The answer: Nine. Each daughter has the same brother.

FROM THE TWITTERATI…

A SPECIAL NOTE

We’d like to take a moment to celebrate a few important people in the field of psychology.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was known for his work on flow, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” He died on October 20, 2021. 

Sir Michael Llewellyn Rutter was a child psychologist who changed the way we think about autism. He published a landmark study that found genetic factors play an important role in autism, and his work also focused on the challenges autistic people face as they get older. He died on October 23, 2021.

Aaron Beck was regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy and co-founded the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a nonprofit that provides CBT treatment and research, with his daughter, Dr. Judith Beck. He died on November 1st, 2021. “My father was an amazing person who dedicated his life to helping others,” his daughter said.

A MOMENT OF JOY

We are always ready for puppy pandas.

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

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