“The Way We Live Our Days, What We Do at 10 A.M., Really Is the Way We Live Our Lives”

 

Interview: Brigid Schulte.

I’m fascinated by habits and happiness, so I’m very interested in how we can use our time wisely, get the most out of every day, include everything we value into our ordinary routine, and so on.

So I was very interested to read journalist Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. The title says it all! The book discusses a crucial issue:  how we can make time for the things that really matter. It just came out in paperback, so it seemed like a good time to ask Brigid Schulte some questions about her own habits and happiness.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Brigid: That time is power. As trite as it sounds, but the way we live our days, what we do at 10 am, at 3 pm, how the evening flows, like habits, it really is the way we live our lives, as the writer Annie Dillard said. And that to live a meaningful life, means making meaningful choices for what to do at 10 am and 3 pm and in the evening. And that means taking time to pause, to step out of the swirl of crazy busyness and think about what really matters most to you. Then put that on your To Do list.

So often, we think we’ll get to the big stuff after we get to the end of the To Do list – that’s something I still struggle with, living what I call an If/Then reality – IF I finish all this drudgery and little stuff, THEN I can get to the stuff I really enjoy or is really important. Then we get so caught up in the IF, the doing, the stuff, we never get to THEN. So I’m trying to flip it, and put the important stuff, the things that give meaning and joy, not just on the list, but at the top.

The other thing about time being power: psychologists say that peak human experience comes from getting so wrapped up in something that your experience becomes timeless. That’s the state when art, literature, philosophy, and civilization gets created. It’s the kind of time that, throughout history, men with status have typically been the only ones to have.

Women’s time has always been fragmented and interrupted, by child care, by housework, and now, with work piled on top, because gender roles haven’t changed as much as we have.  And I found fascinating studies that show women feel they don’t deserve this kind of flow, they have to earn it by getting to the end of a To Do list of chores first. (Remember the If/Then mentality!)

So I’m arguing, it’s time now for women, too, for everyone, to carve out concentrated time for the things that give them joy, and get them into flow. And with technology splintering everybody’s time and attention, we all need to be aware of that pressure, and find ways to knit time together to concentrate, get lost in something we love, and just pay attention to our lives. It’s a skill, and it’s something we can get better at the more we practice. I’m practicing!

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Cocktail minute with my husband. We don’t even have cocktails. He’ll have a beer or glass of wine, and I may or may not. It’s just what we call that small space to check in with each other every day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

 I wish – boy – I wish I’d known a lot of things. Though I’m sure I’ll feel the same at some future point, looking back now. But I guess I wish I’d known how powerful baby steps are. I would think of something that needed changing, and feel like I had to do it all at once, and I’d start, make a herculean effort, and usually give up.

One of the most powerful strategies for changing behavior, changing the way we think and use time was this: Just Start.

Sometimes we overthink things. And sometimes, the brilliant Udaya Patnaik of the design firm, Jump Associates, told me, it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting. You just start where you are.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I still don’t sleep enough. I know how important sleep is, but I’ve developed a lifetime of bad habits from thinking it wasn’t important. I’ll stay up too late, pushing to finish something, then get up too early to try to get a workout in, then feel jetlagged through the day. I know it’s nuts – that it takes me longer to do things, that I’m not thinking as clearly, that I make more mistakes, that I’m not giving myself the space for creative thoughts and innovation to rise – that they’re more likely to come when I’m rested and relaxed – so – ON THE LIST! Work in progress.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I wish! I keep hoping that will happen. It seems like it would be so much easier to be hit with that flash of clarity. But maybe  I’m a slow learner, or a little thick headed, so I just keep slogging forward in the fog and uncertainty, sometimes backward, sometimes falling on my butt. I guess what I’m learning as I get older – sometimes the point is to just keep going.

Do You Find It Hard To Imagine That an Important Place Continues, After You Leave?

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

— John Knowles, A Separate Peace

One of my children’s literature reading groups is reading A Separate Peace, and I certainly know the feeling described here — that it’s hard to imagine these institutions, that we experience so intensely, continuing on their way once we’re gone.

I get this feeling a lot when I go back to Yale Law School. Many things are the same, many things are different…and it’s hard to imagine that it’s all happening, while I’m far away.

Revealed! Book Club Choices for March

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think?

In a few weeks, I leave on my book tour and that means…lots of time for reading! I love to read on airplanes, but it’s crucial to have a great book. I’ve been poring over my book list, to decide what to take. High stakes. Any great suggestions?

So if you’re in San Diego, LA, Plano/Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Princeton, Washington DC, Wellesley, New Haven, NYC, Cedar Rapids, Doylestown, Toronto, or London, I’m headed your way. Please come, tell your friends! A lot of these events take place in bookstores…and you just can’t spend too much time in bookstores.

Happy March, and happy reading.

To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits To Follow?

Assay: This post is back by popular demand, because when I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, one of the questions that people most often ask me is: “What habits are best for creativity?” They want to know what habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce.

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin.

Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami.

Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.

Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.

Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.

Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler?

Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?

Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller.

Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.

Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken?

Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—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.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear about creative habits: while brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm, orderly environment. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.

I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.

I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but other people are Abundance-Lovers.

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

How about you? What habits contribute or detract from your creativity?

Podcast: The First Episode of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” — Exciting!

I’m thrilled to announce that...I have a podcast! It’s called “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” It has been hard to keep this secret, so I’m excited to reveal it at last.

This podcast is one of many launching today on Panoply, a terrific new podcast network.  I’m so excited to be part of it — and in such good company. Other podcasts in the Panoply netwrk come from the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine/Vulture, The Huffington Post, Inc., Real Simple, Popular Science, Food52,  HBO Documentary Films, and lots of others.  Yowza.

One thing that makes this podcast especially fun is that I’m doing it with my sister the sage, Elizabeth Craft.

When I was asked if I wanted to do a podcast, I thought, “Yes!” but then came the question of, well, what exactly would that podcast be?

As it happens, for years my sister and I have talked about the fact that we should have a radio show or YouTube show together. “It would be so fun! We could discuss all our brilliant musings!” we’d say to each other, but it never seemed possible.

So the minute I started to consider this podcast, I knew: this was the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. And it has been so fun to collaborate with my sister. (By the way, this is a good example of why it’s good to do some pie-in-the-sky dreaming from time to time. That way, you’re more ready for new chances.)

One of the main aims of my happiness projects — in both The Happiness Project and Happier at Home — was to spend more time with my brilliant, hilarious sister, because my relationship with her is one of the most important in my life. And if you read Better Than Before, you’ll discover that my sister is a major figure there — because she is the guinea pig/beneficiary/innocent victim of some of my most determined attempts to shape someone else’s habits. Which succeeded brilliantly in some ways, not so much, in others.

We’ve spent so much (phone) time together working on this podcast, and that will continue. That makes me so happy!

So what will you hear us discuss, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin“? We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest,” consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

Here’s what we discuss in this launch episode:

Try This at Home: The one-minute rule, as a way to keep clutter under control. As noted, I’ve been surprised by the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm.

Know Yourself Better: Are you a satisficer or a maximizer? To read more about this distinction, check out Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice.

Happiness Stumbling Block: The one-coin loophole. You’re trying to keep a habit, but just this once, you’re going to let yourself off the hook. This loophole gets its name from “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.  (I love teaching stories, koans, paradoxes, fables,):

“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

There are ten categories of loopholes–all so funny.

Listener Questioner: “Does checking Facebook make people feel happier and more connected, or more lonely and sad?” Elizabeth isn’t even on Facebook; we discuss.

Demerit: I confess that I snuck emailing while talking to my husband on the phone.

Gold Star: Elizabeth gives her treadmill desk a gold star. In Better Than Before, I explain why I gave this gift to her, her very funny reaction, why she loves it so much, etc.  Here’s a photo of it.Elizabeth'sTreadmillDesk

 

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: Maybe, like me until fairly recently, you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe.

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

But if you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really! Instructions here.

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Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!