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

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13 Tips for Getting More Reading Done.

booksfromsideEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 13 tips for reading more.

Of my hundreds of happiness-project resolutions, and of the habits I’ve tried to form, one of my very favorites is to Read more.

Reading is an essential part of my work. It forms an important part to my social life. And far more important, reading is my favorite thing to do, by a long shot. I’m not a well-rounded person.

But reading takes time, and there aren’t many days when I can read as much as I’d like. Here are some habits that I’ve adopted to help me get more good reading done.

1. Quit reading. I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started. No more. Life is short. There are too many wonderful books to read.

2. Read books you enjoy. When I’m reading a book I love—for example, I’m now reading Charles Portis’s True Grit — I’m astonished by how much time I find to read. Which is another reason to stop reading a book I don’t enjoy.

3. Watch recorded TV. It’s much more efficient to watch recorded shows, because you skip the commercials and control when you watch. Then you have more time to read.

4. Skim. Especially when reading newspapers and magazines, often I get as much from skimming as I do by a leisurely reading. I have to remind myself to skim, but when I do, I get through material much faster.

5. Get calm. I have a sticky note posted in our bedroom that says, “Quiet mind.” It’s sometimes hard for me to settle down with a book; I keep wanting to jump up and take care of some nagging task. But that’s no way to read. Incidentally, one of the main reasons I exercise is to help me sit still for reading and writing — if I don’t exercise, I’m too jumpy.

6. Don’t fight my inclinations. Sometimes I feel like I should be reading one book when I actually feel like reading something entirely different. Now I let myself read what I want, because otherwise I end up reading much less.

7. Always have something to read. Never go anywhere empty-handed. I almost always read actual ye olde print books, but I travel with e-books, too, so I know I’ll never be caught without something to read. It’s a great comfort.

8. Maintain a big stack. I find that I read much more when I have a pile waiting for me. Right now, I have to admit, my stack is so big that it’s a bit alarming, but I’ll get it down to a more reasonable size before too long.

9. Choose my own books. Books make wonderful gifts – both to receive and to give – but I try not to let myself feel pressured to read a book just because someone has given it to me. I always give a gift book a try, but I no longer keep reading if I don’t want to.

10. Set aside time to read taxing books. For Better Than Before, my book about habit-formation, I tried a new reading habit, “Study.” Every weekend, I spend time in “study” reading — which covers books that I find fascinating, but that are demanding, and that I might put down and neglect to pick up again. The kind of book that I really do want to read, but somehow keep putting off for months, even years. Right now, my Study book is E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.

And finally, some tips from great writers and readers:

11. Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim! Read at whim!

12. Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

13. Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Maybe you don’t love to read, so finding more time to read isn’t a challenge for you. The larger point is to make sure you’re finding time to do whatever it is that you find fun. Having fun is important to having a happy life, yet it’s all too easy for fun to get pushed aside by other priorities. I have to be careful to make time for reading, or, even though I love to read, I might neglect it.

Also, having fun makes it easy to follow good habits; when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves. If reading is a treat for you, it’s a good idea to make time for it. To hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.

If this list appeals to you, check out Daniel Pennac’s The 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader.

Have you found any good strategies to find more time to read – or to do whatever it is you find fun?

I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Secret of Adulthood: The Things That Go Wrong Often Make the Best Memories.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

TheThingsThatGoWrong_124854

 

It’s comforting because it’s true.

This great observation was made by my mother, when we were getting ready for my wedding. It’s a very good thing to keep in mind, because it’s absolutely true, and it can also help you laugh at a bad situation while it’s happening. (Here are more excellent tips for living that my parents gave me.)

This is also one of these truths that, even if you don’t think it’s true, is a helpful way to think — like my sister’s observation that people succeed in groups.

I always think of the wonderful night in a snowbound New York City which I spent with my boyfriend (now my husband), when our flight was cancelled. We made brownies, drank champagne, and watched the Star Wars trilogy. At the time, we thought that our vacation plans had been wrecked, but in retrospect, that evening was the highlight of the whole trip.

How about you? Do you have a great memory of something that went wrong?

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?

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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