My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Can a Stunt Project Help to Build Your Habits? Sometimes, But Be Careful.

ShelfPhyllisRoseAs I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, a book about how we make and break habits. Sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale.

I’ve noticed an issue that often arises when people are trying to change a habit.

When people want to get into a habit, they often set themselves a juicy goal and pursue that goal with special intensity. A person who wants to start exercising decides to train for the marathon. A person who wants to eat more healthfully decides give up sugar for a month. A person who wants to start writing regularly decides to do NaNoWriMo.

This approach can be counter-productive, however, because of the hidden danger of finish lines.

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

A finish line marks a stopping point, and once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.

The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end—and the more effort required to start over. By providing a specific goal, a temporary motivation, and requiring a new “start” once reached, hitting a milestone may interfere with habit-formation.

However, it’s also true that a period of special, intense effort, or striving toward an exciting goal, sometimes does help people change a habit. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: The opposite of a profound truth is also true.

For some people, they run the marathon, and they never run again. For other people, the short-term habit does indeed help to fire up the long-term habit. But don’t count on it! Decide what your habit will be, going forward.

One key is to have a plan for what happens after the finish line is crossed. What are you doing a week after the marathon? How do you eat when the sugar-free month is up? You have to make a plan.

I thought of this when I read Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading.  She decided to read every book in a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES, at her local library, the New York Society Library.

This undertaking had particular appeal to me. First, as I write about in Better Than Before, several of the habits that I try to form as part of my habits project are related to reading more. Reading is my playground and my cubicle, and I want to read more. Rose’s kind of extreme reading is the kind of thing I’d like to do (I’ve been playing with the idea of spending six months only re-reading, for example).

Second, like Rose, I’m a member of the New York Society Library; it’s one of the joys of my life. I work there on my laptop, and I check out books regularly. In fact, I’m writing this post while I’m sitting in the study room, and I just took  break to take a photo of Phyllis Rose’s shelf. See above–her particular shelf is the second from the top.

Third, I like any experiment in living — lifehacking stunts of all kinds. My book The Happiness Project is, of course, was an experiment of this sort. (Did I ever mention that The Happiness Project was on the bestseller list for more than two years? Oh right, maybe I did.)

Sometimes, it can seem a bit artificial to do a “stunt,” such as a boot-camp, or a fast like a technology fast, or month of ____, but it can be useful — as long as we remember the danger of the finish line.

That period of intensity should help build momentum and shape a habit, not give us a feeling of being “done.” I can imagine that doing a reading exercise, of the sort undertaken by Rose, would help remind me of how much I love to read and how much time I can make available for reading, if I set my mind to it. And shape my habits accordingly.

How about you? Have you ever done a stunt habit-formation exercise — or done a boot-camp, technology cleanse, given up coffee for a month, etc? Did it shape your habits permanently, or not?

I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Better Than Before, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

The Counter-Intuitive Strategy that Really Works–For Habits, and Much Else.

count-intuitivejpgI love Secrets of Adulthood, and am always listening to try to identify new ones. At first, I didn’t realize the usefulness of this Secret of Adulthood, which was given to me by an engineer friend: “If something doesn’t work one way, turn it around.”

Literally, if you can’t get a piece to fit, turn it around. And figuratively–if something’s not working, reverse it.

I’ve found this principle to be astonishingly useful. If some approach isn’t working, try the opposite.

For instance, I’m a person with pretty high self-control, and when I thought about trying to achieve certain aims by using more self-control, I could hardly bear the prospect. But then I realized I could do the opposite, by abandoning my self-control. (Granted, my method of abandoning self-control might surprise you, but it works.)

I see this principle over and over in the area of habit-formation. People assume that one way is the “right” way, even if they aren’t getting good results. Instead, it’s helpful to think — well, what I’m doing isn’t working, so I’ll turn it around.

I’m trying to start small, but it’s not working — so start big. Or vice versa.

I’m trying to follow a new habit first thing in the morning, but it’s not working — so try later in the day. Or vice versa.

I’m trying to be moderate, but it’s not working — so abstain altogether. Or vice versa.

People often ask, “What are the best habits to follow?” as though there’s one path that everyone should follow.  But I’ve concluded that the secret to having good habits is to figure out the habits work for us, and to make a great effort to maintain those habits.

There’s no magic formula—not for ourselves, and not for the people around us. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best. So if something doesn’t work one way, turn it around.

I write much more about this in Better Than Before, my forthcoming book about how we make and break habits. Which, I must say, is one of the most fascinating subjects ever. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

How about you? Have you ever found that doing the opposite of something was a good way to come up with a solution?

 

Do You Love Manifestos as Much as I Do? Here’s My Habits Manifesto.

blackboardwithchalksEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: My Manifesto for Habits, plus an assortment of other manifestos.

Writing a personal manifesto is a great exercise for clarifying your thinking — and it’s also a creative, absorbing process. I’ve written my Twelve Personal Commandments, and I also collect Secrets of Adulthood, which aren’t manifestos, but related to the same impulse.

As I’ve been writing Better Than Before, my book about how we make and break habits, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about habit-formation. (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

I decided I should write my manifesto for habits. Earlier, I’d done a similar exercise, where I distilled each strategy of the book into one sentence, and I also made a list of Secrets of Adulthood for Habits, but they aren’t quite manifestos.

Voila, here’s my Habits Manifesto. What would you add (or subtract)?

You manage what you monitor.

You’re not very different from other people, but those differences are very important.

First things first.

Everything counts.

By giving something up, you may gain.

What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

Self-regard isn’t selfish; when you give more to yourself, you can ask more from yourself.

Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.

There is no finish line.

Make sure that the things you do to feel better don’t make you feel worse.

Temporary often becomes permanent, and permanent often proves temporary.

You can’t make people change, but if you change, others may change.

I love manifestos, and anything even vaguely manifesto-like. If you love them, too, check out…

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 10-point manifesto for his apprentices

Bob Sutton’s manifesto about work

Madame X’s manifesto about money

Google’s manifesto about Ten things we know to be true

Mindy Kaling’s Voice Checklist for her writers’ room

Tolstoy’s 10 rules for life

Pope John XXIII’s daily decalogue

My manifesto for happiness

Have you ever written a manifesto for yourself? Or do you know of other good ones? I collect them.

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Video: For Habits, the Strategy of First Steps.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

I identify four strategies that are so essential that I call them the “Pillars of Habits”: Monitoring, Accountability, Scheduling, and Foundation.

Today I’m going to talk about the Strategy of First Steps, which is one of the three Strategies that relate to “The Best Time to Begin.” (Here’s a complete list of the Strategies.)

 

Want to read more about some of the ideas I mention in the video?

I mention “tomorrow logic,” which is related to the ever-popular Tomorrow Loophole. The fact is, once we’re ready to begin, the best time to start is now.

I also mention that some people do better when they start small; others, when they start big. This is a key distinction to understand about yourself, one which I cover in the Strategy of Distinctions.

I suggest that we should be wary of stopping. There are many reasons for this, and one is the danger of the finish line.

Finally, I refer to the “don’t break the chain” approach to habit-formation. Many people find this very useful.

How about you? Have you found First Steps to be a particularly important phase in your habit-formation?

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Finding It Hard to Change a Habit? Maybe This Explains Why.

jamesageesmokingThis weekend, I spent a huge amount of time reading — ah, my favorite thing to do. One book I read was the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. (I just read Agee’s A Death in the Family, and loved it, so wanted to more of his work.)

Because I’m writing my book about habits – Better Than Before — these days, everything I read or hear makes me think about habits, and reading this book was no different. I was struck by something that Agee wrote, in February 1951, when he was about 41 years old.

He’d had serious heart trouble, and had been hospitalized, and had been told by doctors that he needed to cut back on drinking and smoking.

Agree wrote:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

And indeed, Agee didn’t cut back on the drinking and smoking, and died of a heart attack, at age 45, in a taxi on his way to see a doctor.

In Better Than Before, I talk about the strategies we can use to change our habits, and Agree alludes to the strategy that took me longest to recognize: the Strategy of Identity.

When people find it hard to change a habit, when they keep trying and failing, often an issue of identity is involved.

Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.

Often, habits can’t change until identity changes. For instance, a person identifies as the fun one, the one who says “yes” to everything — but also wants to cut back on drinking. A person identifies as a workaholic, but then wants to work reasonable hours. The identity is incompatible with the change in habits.

James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character says, “One regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”

Over and over, I’ve seen, that to change a habit, sometimes people have to grapple with a fundamental shift in their identity.  A while back, a commenter here summed this up perfectly:  “Food and eating used to play a big part in my identity, until I realized that my baking and being a ‘baker’ was resulting in being overweight. So I had to let that identity go.”

It can be exciting, but also painful or sad, to relinquish an identity. Sometimes it’s necessary, to allow important changes to occur. The more aware we are of a clash between the identity we have and the habits we seek, the more we can shape our actions to reflect our true values.

Have you ever had to re-think an aspect of your identity, in order to make an important change? It’s a lot more subtle and challenging than it sounds, at least in my experience.

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