I spent this year reading about relationships, productivity, and success -- and these 15 insights stuck with me

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As 2016 drew to a close, I published a list of nonfiction books I’d read that year. At that point, I thought I knew everything about how to be happier, how to achieve my goals, and how to become an expert at anything.

In 2017, I learned – surprise! – I was wrong. This past year, I read another boatload of books on human behaviour (you can consider many of them self help books) and gained brand-new insights into the worlds of relationships, emotions, and money management.

Below, I’ve highlighted the best of those insights and the terrific books they came from.


Even the smartest people can fall into common mental traps when it comes to saving money

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Behavioural economist Dan Ariely is by now well-known for introducing readers to all the ways in which they can, unwittingly, sabotage their own success.

In his latest book, “Dollars and Sense,” Ariely teams up with lawyer-turned-comedian Jeff Kreisler to explore all the traps we fall into when it comes to spending and saving – and how to outsmart them.

For example, we think of money as relative, not absolute. If you’ve just bought a $US100 shirt, you might easily throw in a $US10 pair of socks; but if you’ve just bought a $US5 shirt, you’d be hard pressed to tack on an additional $US10 purchase.

If you’re aware of this tendency, and if you can stop to think about the fact that it’s the same $US10 in both scenarios, you’ll be able to make wiser financial decisions.


Cheating doesn’t have to destroy a relationship

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If you ask Esther Perel whether she’s “for” or “against” cheating, she’ll simply answer, “Yes.”

That’s because Perel – a renowned couples therapist and bestselling author – has seen firsthand how infidelity can damage trust in a relationship, sometimes irreparably. But in her new book, “The State of Affairs,” Perel argues that she’s also seen a couple rediscover honesty, intimacy, and even passion in the wake of an affair.

While Perel would never recommend that someone deliberately cheat on their partner, she explains that on some level, infidelity can revitalize an otherwise deadened relationship, bringing both partners back to reality – and to each other.


You’re more likely to thrive in a work environment that suits your personality

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Everyone loves a good personality test – and Gretchen Rubin’s “four tendencies” quiz is one of the most revelatory.

Rubin, a bestselling author and one of the biggest names in the self-improvement space, says everyone forms habits and approaches expectations differently: Either you’re an Upholder, a Questioner, an Obliger, or a Rebel.

In her latest book, “The Four Tendencies,” Rubin says that knowing your tendency can help you figure out what kind of workplace you’d thrive in. For example, maybe you need a boss who checks in all the time, or maybe you’d be a rockstar entrepreneur. Keep this in mind when you’re job-searching.


Hard work doesn’t have to be miserable

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Jon Acuff’s “Finish” is all about achieving the most important goals you set for yourself. One of my favourite sections is dedicated to tackling your perfectionistic impulses, which can make it harder to accomplish anything.

The specific perfectionistic thought that Acuff wants you to eliminate? “The more miserable something is, the better.” As in: Exercise only counts if it’s strength training, because you hate lifting weights; reading a book only counts if it’s Shakespeare, because you can’t understand the guy. Wrong. Jogging is also a way to stay healthy; graphic novels are also intellectually stimulating.

Most importantly, Acuff draws on a bunch of research when he argues that if you enjoy an activity, you’ll have a much better chance of sticking with it than if you’re miserable.


Treat others as they’d like to be treated — not as you would

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Robin Dreeke calls it the “platinum rule“: Treat others as they’d like to be treated. (He borrowed the rule from author and speaker Tony Alessandra.)

Dreeke is an FBI agent and the former head of a behavioural analysis program. In his book “The Code of Trust,” co-written with Cameron Stauth, Dreeke distills everything he’s learned about human behaviour throughout his career.

One of the most powerful lessons is that everyone has a different style of communication – depending on whether they’re direct or indirect and people- or task-oriented – and if you want to get anything out of them, you’ve got to learn how they like to communicate. That’s true whether you’re working on a secret government mission or simply trying to get along better with your boss.


Asking less of your marriage can sometimes make it stronger

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One of the best pieces of relationship advice I came across this year is counterintuitive: Ask less of your relationship in order to help it grow.

That’s according to Eli Finkel, author of “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.” Finkel’s theory is that couples today place unprecedentedly high expectations on each other: We want our partners to be our best friends, our soul mates, our passionate lovers, our intellectual counterparts … and so on.

If you want to give your relationship a boost, consider placing fewer expectations on your partner and getting certain needs met outside the relationship. That’s especially true if you’re going through a hard time right now – maybe you just had a baby or you just got laid off – and you don’t have that much energy to put into the relationship.


Don’t wait until you’re feeling motivated to make progress on your goals

Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” quickly shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. In the book, Manson – who, by the way, is a popular blogger, but has no background in psychology – overturns everything you thought you knew about success.

One of the most thought-provoking pieces of advice in there is the “do-something principle.” Simply put: If you’re waiting until you “feel like” working on your business, or exercising, or whatever it is that you need to achieve, you may be waiting forever. Instead, just do something – one little thing – right now and see how you feel after that.

Manson writes: “Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.” Once you make a little progress on a project, you’ll likely feel inspired to do even more.


Maths can help solve your relationship problems

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Love and maths might not seem to go together very well. One is a matter of the heart; the other of the mind.

I thought the same, until I read “The Calculus of Happiness,” by Wellesley professor Oscar E. Fernandez. In the book, Fernandez presents relatively simple equations that can help you figure out how many calories to consume, when you’ll hit financial independence – and how to resolve the most common relationship dilemmas.

Say you’re trying to decide with your partner how to split up a pizza pie. You’d use a formula for making optimal joint decisions, based on a 1950 paper titled “The Bargaining Problem” by John Nash (the protagonist in “A Beautiful Mind”). The online calculator where you can plug in the numbers is available here.

The biggest takeaway from the equation is this: A simple way to get a bigger piece of the pie is to start feeling happier about the possibility that you two won’t reach any agreement. In other words: The more willing you are to walk away, the more negotiating power you have.


Resisting your difficult emotions only makes them more powerful

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Tara Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, calls them the “dogs in the cellar.” These are the fears rooted in our past experiences – even in our childhood – that continue to influence our thoughts and behaviour today.

In her 2003 book, “Radical Acceptance” – which I just picked up this year – Brach explains how locking the dogs in the cellar only makes them howl louder. It’s a metaphor for how trying to suppress difficult emotions like sadness and anxiety only makes you sadder and more anxious.

You don’t necessarily have to embrace those emotions, but try to acknowledge that something is not OK right now. Even if you don’t figure out immediately why you’re upset, that’s taking a big step toward reducing the distress.


Success isn’t black and white

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Eric Barker is a mastermind at finding and breaking down compelling research. In his new book, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” which is an outgrowth of his popular blog by the same name, he highlights tons of studies on the best ways to become successful at work and at home.

One of my favourite pieces of research came out of Harvard, and it’s about boiling success into four key components: happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy. The first two are self-explanatory; significance refers to whether your job affords you enough time and money to support the people you love; legacy refers to how much of an impact you’re making on society.

When you evaluate how “successful” you are, take a look at all four metrics and see where you’re lagging.


It probably doesn’t matter where you went to college

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Yes, Harvard grads tend to be more successful and earn more than state-school grads. But the reason why is tricky. So says Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in his book “Everybody Lies,” in which he illustrates the power of data science to figure out what makes people tick.

Stephens-Davidowitz cites research that found students who are accepted to Harvard but don’t go there earn just as much later on as students who are accepted to Harvard and enroll. In other words: Harvard students tend to be smarter and more talented from the start – it’s not the college education per se that gives them a boost.


The higher you ascend on the corporate ladder, the less self-aware you become

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Tasha Eurich calls it “CEO disease.” Eurich is an organizational psychologist and the author of “Insight,” in which she argues that seeing yourself accurately can boost your performance at work – and most people are really bad at it.

CEO disease occurs when execs mistakenly think they’re doing a good job because everyone’s too afraid to tell them otherwise. Eurich recommends that all execs arrange a “power lunch of truth,” in which you ask someone to tell you honestly what you’re doing that’s working and what you’re doing that’s hurting your success.

The important thing is to listen and reserve judgment – and then work to improve.


If you’re seriously struggling in your job, it might not be the right job for you

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At one point in her career at Google, Rachael O’Meara felt like a “miserable failure.” She was underperforming at her job – and the higher-ups were not pleased.

Then one day, as she recounts in her book “Pause,” her boss’ boss told her: “Rachael, your skill set isn’t a match for this role. I know Margaret [your boss] has the best intentions for you, and you need to find a job that works best for what you’re good at.”

O’Meara went on to take a sabbatical from Google and over time, she realised what those words meant. Her poor performance was a result of misalignment – she wasn’t in the right role.

Ultimately, she returned to the company in a different capacity and excelled. She recommends that readers in similar situations think carefully about what they want to do more of and less of at work.


Chasing happiness isn’t the only path to a fulfilling life

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The Power of Meaning” is a fleshed-out version of a viral Atlantic article published by Emily Esfahani Smith in 2013, titled, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

In the article, she explored research suggesting that meaning and happiness are two distinct phenomena – and that meaning might be the path to a more fulfilling life. The book draws on fields such as religion, philosophy, and psychology to support the idea that constantly chasing happiness isn’t necessarily the optimal route to happiness. For example, research suggests that while parenting doesn’t always make people happy, it almost always adds meaning to people’s lives.

Meaning, Esfahani Smith says, boils down to four pillars that my colleague Chris Weller recently highlighted: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. Transcendence is about engagement with your work and storytelling is about crafting a coherent narrative of your life. If you can hit those four pillars, your life will be rich and rewarding.


You’re the boss of your brain

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Mo Gawdat’s son, his best friend, died unexpectedly during a routine operation in 2014. Three years later, Gawdat is on a mission to not only achieve personal happiness but also to spread happiness across the globe.

Gawdat is the chief business officer at Alphabet’s moonshot lab, X, and in “Solve for Happy,” he applies his engineer’s mindset to the subject of happiness. His practical strategies include visiting your unhappiness and getting to the root of the problem sooner than later as well as making sure every thought that your brain presents to you is productive and actionable.

As for that second tip, Gawdat recommends treating your brain like you’d treat an employee – if it brings you distressing and repetitive thoughts, simply tell it, “Go get me a happier thought.”

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