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

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8 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays.

thanksgiving-dinnerBack by popular demand: dealing with difficult relatives over the holidays.

Holidays can be tough. Some people love them; some people dread them.

I thought a lot about the holidays as I was writing Happier at Home, because the holiday season tends to be a time when we focus on home. Maybe you’re going “home” the way I go home to Kansas City for Christmas–which may be fun for you, or not. Maybe you’re deciding how to decorate your home. Maybe you’re making an effort to arrange the holidays the way you experienced them as a child–or the opposite. Maybe you’re feeling sad, or happy, about whom you will or won’t be seeing.

From talking to people, it seems that one of the biggest happiness challenges of the holidays is dealing with difficult relatives. You want to have a nice dinner, but Uncle Bobby makes you crazy. What to do?

1. Ahead of time, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. Get more sleep. Give yourself more travel time. Pick a seat far away from Uncle Bobby. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a girlfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Dodge strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bobby’s views are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring up the subject! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking (or their eating, for that matter), don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge. In my study of habits for Better Than Before, it became clear to me that many people become very uneasy when they feel out of step with what others are doing, and that makes it tough for them to stick to a good habit. Don’t make someone feel conspicuous or strange in what they’re doing.

5. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to your suggestion to eat dinner an hour earlier. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

6. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true. And too much fussing to make an experience “perfect” can sometime ruin it altogether.

7. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If the time with your relatives is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching the parade on TV — these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how the rest of the family feels.

8. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Be grateful for electricity and running water. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with my difficult relatives — they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. But when you change, a relationship changes.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult relatives? What would you add?

I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Beware of These 10 Habit Loopholes as You Head to the Thanksgiving Feast.

thanksgivingfeastWhen I was writing Better Than Before, I loved writing every chapter, because every strategy is so interesting.

But I have to admit, I particularly loved writing the chapter on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, because the loopholes are so ingenious and funny. One of the toughest parts of the editing process was cutting down on the number the loophole examples I list. I had hundreds.

Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, to justify breaking a good habit.

However, if we spot these  loopholes, we can perhaps reject them.

Holidays are a time when many of us face challenges to the good habits we want to maintain — and because holidays tend to involve lots of food and drink, those habits need special attention at that time.

To help you recognize loopholes you might be invoking, here’s a list of some popular ones that are often heard around Thanksgiving:

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that.” “I can’t go for my usual 20 minute walk, because I have to get ready for guests.”

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this.” “I’ve been eating so healthfully, it’s okay for me to eat anything I want today.”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow.” “It’s okay for me to drink as much as I want today, because starting tomorrow, I’m not going to drink for six months.”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself.” “A considerate host wouldn’t have served something so tempting.”

5. Planning to fail loophole, formerly known as the “Apparently irrelevant decision loophole.” “I’ll just stand here by the dessert table, because the other room is so crowded.”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “It’s Thanksgiving!” “We’re out of town!”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “These cookies are healthy. Look, they’re gluten-free.”

8. Concern for others loophole — “If I don’t drink wine with dinner, other people will think it’s weird.” “I have to eat seconds and thirds of everything, or my host will feel insulted.”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once!” “I have to do this now, or miss out forever.”

10. One-coin loophole “What difference will one meal make, over the course of a lifetime?”

Of course, sometimes we do want to break a habit—say, as part of a celebration. A very effective safeguard for that situation is the planned exception, which protects us against impulsive decisions. We decide in advance how we want to behave.

We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance. That’s different from saying, “Yay, this loophole means that I can break my habit, I’m off the hook.” We’re never off the hook. Everything counts.

One good question is to ask yourself, “How will I feel about this later? Will I think, ‘I’m really glad I had a piece of my grandmother’s famous pie. I only get that once a year, and I’d hate to miss it.’ Or will I think, ‘Shoot, I’d been on such a roll at cutting out sugar, and I blew it to eat a piece of my grandmother’s pie, which I don’t even like.'”

What are some of your favorite loopholes? #1 is my favorite. Have you found any good ways to avoid invoking them?

Better Than Before includes many more examples of loopholes, and how to avoid using them. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.) I’m thinking about doing some kind of little book, with all the loophole examples that I had to leave out. I hate to leave them on the cutting-room floor.

Video: Try Pairing, One of the Easiest Ways to Strengthen Habits.

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 pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Pairing. Now that a few people have started to read early copies of Better Than Before, I’ve been surprised by how many  mention this strategy as one that has been very useful to them.

 

In the video, I talk about the positive use of pairing. Note, however, that it’s all too easy to allow a negative habit to form by creating a pair. Some familiar bad-habit pairs: “I always get drunk on Saturday nights.” “I always read an email as soon as I get it.” “I always go shopping when I’m traveling.” Once the pair is formed, breaking it up feels like deprivation.

So pay attention to the Strategy of Pairing, so you can use it as a force for good.

Sidenote: I don’t think I’ve ever received a gift, myself, that has given me as much pleasure as my gift of the treadmill desk to my sister. Writing about that episode was one of my favorite parts of writing Better Than Before.

Have you ever successfully paired a habit with another behavior?

 

We Must Have Treats! Here’s Why.

musicearbudsIn my book Better Than Before, I describe the many strategies that we can use to change our habits. We all have our favorites — but I think most of us would agree that the Strategy of Treats is the most fun strategy.

“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role.

When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.

Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.

When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about treats, and he told me, “I don’t give myself any treats.”

This comment prompted me to pursue two different lines of thought.

First, whether or not he did give himself treats, he thought of himself as a “person who doesn’t give myself treats.” In terms of habits, that seems risky to me.

It might seem stoic, or selfless, or driven not to give yourself treats, but I’d argue against that assumption.

When we don’t get any treats, we start to feel deprived — and feeling deprived is a very bad frame of mind for good habits. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to put ourselves back in balance. We say, “I’ve earned this,” “I need this,” “I deserve this” and feel entitled to break our good habits.

Second, I suspected that he did in fact give himself treats, he just didn’t think of them as treats. And indeed, after one minute of questioning, he came up with a great example: every week, he buys new music.

For something to be a treat, we have to think of it as a treat; we make something a treat by calling it a “treat.” When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat.

For instance, once I realized how much I love beautiful smells, a whole new world of treats opened up to me.

We should all strive to have a big menu of healthy treats, so that we can recharge our battery in a healthy way. Sometimes, treats don’t look like treats. For example, to my surprise, many people consider ironing a “treat.” (To read other examples of people’s quirky treats, look here and here.)

Do you find that when you give yourself healthy treats, it’s easier to stick to your good habits? What healthy treats are on your list?

“It Was Once Suggested to Me that, as an Antidote to Crying, I Put My Head in a Paper Bag.”

didion“It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.”

–Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem