Just “follow your instinct”? Maybe not.


Not treating your instinct as the be-all and end-all can help you make better decisions
about when to change direction. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Most of us make the bulk of our decisions based on instinct. How many times in your life have you found yourself saying, “It just felt right”?

But here’s the thing: your intuition might be wrong. It just might be your obstacle to action.

In a recent Brainpickings blog post, editor Maria Popova dissects the marvels and flaws of intuitive thinking based on the findings of psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Drawing from a series of studies he did in the ’70s, Kahneman encourages us to keep our intuition in check.

How? By being aware that it’s our brain’s default to jump to conclusions based on scant information.

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. … People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

But you can use your slippery instinct to your advantage. Maria smartly writes:

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a project and “feeling” that something is right (or wrong), you might want to think again.

When has listening to your instinct worked for you? When has it not?

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Rejection Therapy: The game you win if someone tells you “no”

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

Today, we present: fear.

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A rejection sampler.

Here’s an idea to get over your fear of rejection: seek it out.

Yeah, I know. Sounds crazy. But the concept is sound: the more you’re rejected, the more it doesn’t seem like such a scary thing.

James Comely’s game, Rejection Therapy, encourages you to try this theory out. It works like this: try everyday to get someone to reject you. You can opt for a 30 Day Challenge, 100 days, or more or less depending on what you want to get out of it.

For $10, you can purchase a set of cards that gives suggestions for situations prime for dismissal. Examples include: friending a complete stranger on Facebook; hitchhiking; calling or visiting a direct competitor.

Or, you can create your own rejection scenarios.

Success is when somebody tells you “no.” If they say “yes,” your ask wasn’t risky enough. Try again.

Of course, playing the game once won’t make you immune to the ravages of rejection. The goal is to increase your confidence by disrupting your comfort zone over time.

Here’s what Comely had to say in an interview on fear.less:

Before playing the game, I thought about it a lot: Why was I not happy? Was I always in my comfort zone? All that introspection and pondering pointed to one thing: Rejection. I knew the fear from rejection was handcuffing my life. It was crippling. But what gave power to this fear? The answer was my comfort zone. That’s what it was. Go home on a weekend and be comfortable. At the most, call up an old friend, go out and get something to eat or whatever. Stay comfortable. Opt for the comfort factor.

Opportunities presented themselves but I chose the comfortable, boring route. But as I began to look for rejection, I discovered a unique thing about my comfort zone: It was elastic. The more I pushed past the boundaries, the more it would expand.

Now will you go share this blog post with one million people? I sure hope you won’t.

Have you ever been rejected and had it not be a big deal?

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How to ask for things you want and need

Pretty please? (image courtesy Andrzej Tarnawczyk)

Pretty please?
(photo courtesy Andrzej Tarnawczyk)

It’s an unfortunate truth that indirect questions get indirect answers.

If you hem and haw every time you try to ask for something—money, a job, a date, volunteers—you’re probably not getting the answers you want (or at least, the answers you could be getting if you came on stronger, clearer, and more confidently).

That’s because asking well is easier said than done.

A lot of us have problems asking for things flat out. And, depending on your personality, cultural background, and communication style, it could be really difficult for you to ask for things directly.

If you want to improve your approach to asking, writer and communications expert Sarah Kathleen Peck offers 21 pieces of advice in this recent Medium article: “The art of asking: or, how to ask and get what you want.”

Here are a few of our favorite lessons:


1. First, know what you want.

This is an all-too-obvious step that’s often overlooked. Often it’s not always clear to you (or others) what it is, exactly, that you’re in need of. The more clarity you have about what you want, the better. Take the time to learn, figure out, or discover exactly what you want. Once you know what you want ($1 million in funding, a coffee date with an acquaintance, a new bookshelf, a corner grocery store), it’s much easier to ask for it.

3. You have to actually ASK for what you want.

This too sounds so simple, but many people don’t actually ask for what they want. They’ll tell you a story, email you to say hello, spend hours talking in circles about their thoughts, hedge and hum about a faint aspect of their idea—and hope, amongst all the befuddlement, that somehow you’ll be able figure out what it is they want and help them solve their problem. How to avoid this? Stop pussyfooting and put it out there.

6. Use social proof by creating micro-groups and mini-masterminds.

When you email a small enough group, the presence of one initial response often prompts others to respond as well—creating the inertia of ongoing conversation rather than having to circle back and bother more people. When I email a group of five people that I highly respect and ask them to join a conversation, I try to include someone that I know is great at responding quickly. This generates an ongoing conversation.

15. Ask at the right time: understand how (and when) people make decisions.

If you’re asking for something complicated and difficult, ask while the asking is good. People grow weary of making decisions by the end of the day—we usually make better choices (or are willing to make choices at all) in the morning, or whenever else we’re fresh (see more on decision fatigue in Psychology Today). In the evening, you’re more likely to get a “no” as a response if the person you’re asking is tired and worn out from a long day.

And of course:

21. Don’t be afraid of hearing “no.”

If you don’t ask, the answer is already no.

Good point!

For more advice about asking the right questions—and getting the answers you want—check out the full article.

What advice is missing from this list? Add your tips below.

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Seeking support? Consider flaunting your failures to garner good feelings

Are you trying to drum up support for a project you’re working on—monetary or moral?

Whether you’re drafting language for a Kickstarter page, getting ready to make a speech to city council about your new neighborhood initiative, or prepping for the fundraising event you’re throwing at a local school, the way you tell your audience your story can make the difference between their committing support and walking away.

There are countless good tips out there about how to make people sympathetic to your cause—things like opening with a joke, keeping it short, including real-life examples, and giving a call to action.

Another great one is discussing your failures to show the audience that you’re not afraid to admit your mistakes, are okay with being vulnerable, and—most importantly—that you’ve learned from the past and are better prepared to take on the task at hand as a result of previous missteps.


All eyes on you? Turn the attention from a misstep into heartfelt support.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

The failure you choose to highlight could relate directly to your current idea, or not.

For example, if you’re trying for the third time to start an after-school art program in your neighborhood, you can explain what you’ve learned from your first two attempts, and how that knowledge makes your plan uniquely equipped to succeed this time.

Or, if you haven’t failed at this particular endeavor before, try dredging up an experience from high school or your first job that relates—maybe you learned the hard way to ask for help when you need it, or to speak up when you see something amiss around you.

Whatever story you choose, here are a few pointers about how to tell great fail tales in print and in person from Brooklyn, New York writer, performer, and storytelling coach Andrew Linderman:

For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure. Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*. Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life.

To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.

1. Don’t pass judgment.

The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story. The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible. Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18-22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.

2. Avoid complex explanations.

If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens. Don’t do this. People love stories about a good flop, so don’t cheat them of the experience. One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story. Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important.

3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions.

Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience. Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling. When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.

It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

*All of these things happened to me

See Andrew’s original post in its entirety on his blog The Story Source, and read more about all the ways he helps people tell better stories on his website, www.andrewlinderman.com.

Have you ever told a story about a time you flopped to try to engage potential supporters? Tell us how it went!

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If I read this blog post, then I will get things done

If-then thinking encourages your brain to make logical, step-by-step decisions. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

If-then thinking encourages your brain to make logical, step-by-step decisions. (photo courtesy Igor Kisselev on Shutterstock)

Long-term projects often take a back burner when life’s all-star distractions—our livelihoods, chores, and loved ones—demand our attention.

One way to work more efficiently if there are a lot of other things on your mind is to use if-then planning, a prioritization system that asks you to plan—in advance—the conditions under which you will take a specific action.

This kind of planning breaks down big tasks and creates a manageable schedule with built-in wiggle room as your plans develop. Tasks become tangible, reasonable, much more doable. Here are some examples:

If my volunteer doesn’t respond to my email by 4:00 p.m., then I will try calling her.

If I haven’t finished my donor letter by Wednesday, then I will do it on Thursday before my shift starts.

If it is the first Monday of the month, then I will spend one hour planning my meetings for the week.

If-then planning is a very effective method for getting stuff done. One study shows that subjects who used if-then thinking were two to three times more likely to accomplish their goals than their regular “to do” list counterparts.

A recent 99U article by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center explores why this kind of thinking works so well:

Why are these plans so effective? Because they are written in the language of your brain—the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness.

Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4pm! I’d better return those calls”), even when you are busy doing other things.

Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating what you should do next. (Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan. The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)

So here goes: if you are struggling to get things done today, then you should try using if-then thinking to be more efficient.

What “if-then” plans will you make today? Share in the comments below.


Should you quit, or just do The Dip?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” But author Seth Godin would argue quitting is good—if you’re smart about the right time to do it.

From his book The Dip:

“Never quit.” What a spectacularly bad piece of advice.

Actually, quitting as a short-term strategy is a bad idea. Quitting for the long-term is an excellent idea.

I think the advice-giver meant to say: Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment. Now that’s good advice.

So, let’s say you have an idea for an unique arts project for after-school youth. You’ve been thinking about it for years, have spent months refining your plan, hours getting the word out, and countless minutes perfecting your funding appeal. You’re so close to making it happen.

But there’s a snag: the school you were going to partner with backed out and no other school seems to be stepping up as a replacement.

This, my friend, is what Godin calls “the Dip.” It’s the moment when things don’t seem to be going your way and you’re starting to question if all your effort is worth it.



So your project? Godin would say it’s time to change your tactics, not quit the plan. No one quits the Boston Marathon at mile 25, right?

It’s human nature to quit when it hurts. But it’s that reflex that creates scarcity. The challenge is simple: Quitting when you hit the Dip is a bad idea. If the journey you started was worth doing, then quitting when you hit the Dip just wastes the time you’ve already invested.

Quit in the Dip often enough and you’ll find yourself becoming a serial quitter, starting many things but accomplishing little.

Simple: If you can’t make it through the Dip, don’t start.

Have you ever fallen into the Dip? How did you deal with it?

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How “just do it” might be stopping you in your tracks—especially if you’re an introvert

You have an idea to make the world a better place. So just do it, right? Well, that’s often easier said than done, especially for introverts. Here are three strategies to help you work with—not against—your introversion to make things happen.


Introverts: slow down to get ahead
(photo courtesy Herr Olsen, Flickr Creative Commons)

Has this ever happened to you?

You take on the task of brainstorming big-picture ideas that you want to bring to life in a powerful way. You devote time to making a long list of possibilities. And in those moments of inspiration, you create multiple intentions that all feel equally important, equally urgent. That urgency causes you to rapidly shift gears; your thoughts jump to how to translate those ideas into tangible outcomes or actions. That’s when the flow stops, and your inspiration right along with it.

Goodbye, creativity… hello, resistance.

We’ve all experienced this at some point, and I’d venture to guess that introverts—those who gain energy from solitude and feel drained by prolonged social interaction—have felt it more than most.

As an introvert, I love the inner world of ideas, more than I tend to love the outer world of actions. That inclination is neither good nor bad; it’s just how I’m wired. The challenge comes when I start being manipulated by our “Just do it!,” externally-motivated culture. In feeling pressure to DO my ideas (turn ideas into actions), I sometimes push aside my deep need to BE with my ideas, to let them settle in and expand and take shape.

Many people—usually extroverts—believe the introvert’s love of thinking means that we’re not doers at all. So introverts try to counter that false perception by acting before we’re ready. The result? Instead of giving our ideas space to breathe, we become obsessed with how they’ll fit into a spreadsheet or grant application. We end up feeling stuck, lacking inspiration, and being overwhelmed—all red flags that pop up when we don’t honor our need to think before we act.

If you have great ideas but get stuck on implementation, consider your readiness for action: there’s a chance you’re not really stuck at all; maybe you’re simply getting ahead of yourself.

To gauge your readiness, take the time to notice where the pressure to “go, go, go!” is coming from. Is it from fear, or from confidence?

Leading from fear (for instance, rushing to action because we’re afraid we won’t meet others’ expectations) cheats our process—and our vision—of much-needed time to develop and mature.

When you feel able to take small steps forward with a sense of confidence and abundance, then you know you’re ready.

Here are a few ways for in-our-heads introverts—or anyone who feels stuck—to balance the being with the doing:

1. Slow down.

Slowing down allows you to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, to do each necessary and very doable step before making the next move. Allow yourself space to sit with your ideas long enough that you can discern which ones are most important.

2. Listen carefully.

If we rush to doing, we miss the messages that come from our inner wisdom. Put your idea out there. Pause and listen to what comes back. Act on what you hear. Listen again. Make adjustments based on the feedback. Give yourself intentional space (days, not minutes) to simply listen.

3. Trust the process.

Sometimes, it’s hard to move to action when we get bogged down in uncertainties. It’s easier to stay in the theoretical, because reality is too unpredictable. But if we slow down and listen carefully, we create more space for the process to unfold as it should (not as we might force it to). And with each step forward that comes out of honoring our process, trust grows. We learn to trust that we can handle whatever happens.

We introverts are more likely to create a healthy balance of being and doing if we give ourselves space, solitude, and silence to hear our inner truth. Then we can hear it saying clearly:

Slow down.
Listen carefully.
Trust the process.


Beth Buelow was seven when she outlined the marketing plan for her first entrepreneurial venture, 23 when she learned she was an introvert, and 38 when, in 2010, she put the two together to create The Introvert Entrepreneur. She is a professional coach, blogger, podcaster, speaker, and author of Insight: Reflections on the Gifts of Being an Introvert. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


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Why so serious? What playful thinking can do for you

This week’s spotlight: all things play.


This silly face courtesy of Flickr user Philip Dean via Creative Commons

If your last brainswarm left you with a yellow notepad full of wild ideas, don’t chuck them in the recycling can quite yet. You might be closer to a great new program idea or creative fundraising solution than you think.

According to the minds behind the leading design innovation firm IDEO, the ridiculous ideas we get from uninhibited playful thinking come hand in hand with brilliant ones.

Brendan Boyle is a partner and toy lab leader at IDEO and promotes creative entrepreneurialism around the world. Joe Wilcox, a former circus performer and kinetic sculptor, is one of IDEO’s top toy inventors.

In a recent 99U article, they talked about the importance of play for generating fresh ideas:

Brendan: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.

Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. You need an environment that isn’t quite so judgmental about a ridiculous idea. Sometimes those are the ones that are so close to being the brilliant ones. If a space that allows for play can help encourage those types of ideas than you’ll come up with some possibly ridiculous but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it [by trying out] the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.

So hang on tight, buckle your safety belt, and don’t be afraid to get a little silly with your ideas. You never know what you’ll come up with.


What’s your favorite ridiculous idea that ended up being great?


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What’s all the buzz about? Redefining creative collaboration with brainswarming

Could brainswarming...

Can brainswarming help you have the breakthrough you’ve been needing? (Photo via RioPatuca on Shutterstock.)

Brainstorming: it’s a tool we’ve come to know and love (or hate) as a default way to generate fresh ideas for our projects, programs, and more when we’re stuck or just starting out.

However, in a recent Fast Company post and in his new e-book, Kevin Maney suggests it might be time to think of this old-school method as old news.

He writes that brainstorming “relies on a thunderstorm metaphor–a sudden swirl of energy that gets everybody’s attention for a moment, then passes by, dissipates, and leaves nothing behind.”

So, out with the brainstorm, Maney says, and in with with brainswarm.

How does it work? Below is a short summary of the steps:

  1. Get the right swarmers. Cultivate a tight-knit core swarm and get them into a room with fresh recruits who will say something to shake up the familiar.
  2. Have a swarm room.  The worst place to jam on new ideas might just be the place where most companies today send people to jam on new ideas: the traditional conference room.
  3. Multiple writing and sketching surfaces are key. If everyone in the session has a pen and access to a writing surface, barriers to sharing ideas fall away.
  4. Herd the swarmers. Too many idea sessions start with a rule that there are no rules…if you have infinite choices, what do you choose?
  5. Be a critical swarm. Stop being so warm and fuzzy…Brainswarms need both a surfeit of ideas and constructive debate about those ideas. Bad ideas can lead to good debates that then lead to better ideas.
  6. Swarm success. There are lots of ways to make sure the ideas don’t get lost. Assign someone to synthesize and write up the swarm’s best ideas.
  7. Don’t stop. That’s the vital difference between brainswarms and brainstorms. Brainswarms never end.

How has brainstorming worked or not worked for you? Is it time for a new strategy?

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It’s magic! It’s a subliminal trick! It’s… priming?

How subtle environmental cues can affect whether we make progress on our intentions or not.

It’s a well-established fact that the words in our immediate environment can make us particularly cognizant of the same or similar words in our larger surroundings (imagine: you’re strolling down the street listening to Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and suddenly the words “rain” and “umbrella” pop out as you pass a sign for outdoor gear on sale).

But in 1996, New York University researchers John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows published an article that redefined just how influential words can be.

In the classic experiment, participants rearranged scrambled words to form sentences. In the control group, the sentences were random. In the experimental group, the sentences contained words relating to the elderly (“old, wise, wrinkle, bingo.”) After completing the task, the experimental group walked out of the testing room more slowly than those in the control set.

What?! The researchers had the same reaction. Could something so subtle really have such a significant effect? It did, and it sparked tons of research on just how much we might be unknowingly influenced by what’s around us.

This phenomenon is called priming: when something in the environment activates associations in the mind, influencing one’s perceptions, behaviors, and goals. Not to be confused with subliminal messaging, priming occurs due to direct, conscious interaction with something in your environment; there are no hidden words or images.

Subsequent studies found that it’s possible to prime using all kinds of stimuli (not just words) and for everything from behavior to goal-setting to judgement. In 2007, the New York Times cited an experiment that primed through touch.


Priming can help you put your best foot forward. (Photo via Toby Bradbury on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Simply holding a cup of hot or iced coffee influenced the way subjects would later judge a person in a story: those who had held hot coffee rated the character as warm, friendly and social; those who had held iced coffee rated the same person as colder, more selfish, and less sociable. Wow.

Priming and you

These studies have a significant “whoa!” factor that alone makes them worth sharing, but they also have implications for the world of social impact.

It would be great to start plastering your world with primes to make yourself kinder or more productive. But, there’s a catch to all this—you can’t prime yourself. As soon as you become aware of a prime, it no longer works. In fact, even if you’re just a tiny bit suspicious that you’re being manipulated, primes have no effect. C’est la vie.

Unfortunately, priming others won’t fly either. As long as you know who’s in your own “prime” and “control” groups, you’re likely to subconsciously alter your behavior, which affects the results. Primes need to be facilitated by a “blind” third party in order to work.

So… is this really real?

If you’re raising your eyebrows in doubt, you’re not alone—there is much controversy about the validity of priming studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great review on both sides of the debate, but the social psychology jury is still out.

Part of the reason primes are so hard to create (and replicate) is that they have to be delivered in an environment that convincingly simulates “real life”—a tall order in a lab setting. In addition, newer studies have uncovered many layers to priming. In a variation on the elderly-prime study, for example, researchers found that subjects who had good feelings in general about older folks walked more slowly, while those who didn’t actually walked faster.

What you can do

Why did you just read this whole article, then? Because, priming—even if it’s ultimately judged more fluke than phenomenon—still offers some worthwhile takeaways. Here are three tips on how to create a prime-friendly environment:

1. Be more visual.

Even though primes don’t work when we’re aware of them, embedding positive images into our environments can only help. Not only is “happy decor” a spirit-lifting sight for us, it can also work as a positive prime for newcomers to our space.

Is your nonprofit looking to hire? By creating a work environment that visually promotes cooperation instead of competitiveness, you’re more likely to bring out the best in your candidates and employees. Think, for example, about putting out some flowers, or hanging up happy pictures of people your organization works with.

2. Watch your talk.

Think about the way you speak. Do you use more negatives or positives? Instead of asking, “What didn’t work? Why did it fail? What problems do we need to fix?” Try asking, “What could we improve? What did we learn? What solutions can we try?”

Positive language can inspire people whether or not they’re conscious of its use. It also has the effect of bringing you up in the process, in the same way that smiling—even if you’re unhappy—can brighten your mood.

3. Take stock of your environment.

It might be a bummer that we can’t prime like some research pros, but the flipside is that we don’t have to let ourselves be primed, either. The next time you notice yourself losing patience or feeling feisty, take a moment to truly notice your surroundings.Would you feel the same way if you were surrounded by sunshine, ice cream, and puppies?

By becoming more conscious of our environments, we can help ward off that chilled-coffee effect, and see the strangers around us for their potential warmth instead.

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