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

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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?

 

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.

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

Secrets of Adulthood: Happiness Doesn’t Always Make You Feel Happy.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

HappinessDoesn'tAlwaysMakeYouFeelHappy_124873

 

One nice thing about not being a scientist? I can say things that a scientist couldn’t get away with.

For instance: happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy. For instance, sometimes, the things you do to feel right make you feel bad — but they still make you feel happy, because you’re living up to your values.

Can you think of times when something made you unhappy — but also happy? This often comes up with novelty and challenge. Doing something new and challenging often brings feelings of anxiety, anger, and frustration. But there’s also a kind of happiness that comes from knowing that you’ve met the challenge.

Some Surprising Observations About How to Fight Clutter.

eggsincartonOne of the things about happiness that continually surprises me is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command.

In the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-box is trivial, and yet such things weigh us down more than they should.

That’s why I follow habits like making my bed and the one-minute rule, and why one of the most important strategies of habit formation is the Strategy of Foundation.

Because I’m so interested in the connections among clutter, order, energy, habits, and happiness, I had to read Marie Kondo’s blockbuster bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

It was interesting for many reasons, but a few things struck me in particular.

For one thing, Kondo pointed out that advice for clearing clutter very often takes the form of “Start off slowly and discard just one item a day.”

This sounds very practical and sensible. However, she comments,

“I am not the kind of person who likes to plug away at something, one step at a time. For people like me, who do their assignments on the very last day right before the deadline, this approach just doesn’t work.”

In Better Than Before, my book about habits, I make a similar point. While taking small, gradual steps works well for many people, it’s also true that some people do better when they take giant steps.  Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a small change. Both strategies can be effective — as always, the key is to know what works for you. Ask yourself, “Do I prefer to aim big or aim small?”

Also, some people (like me, for instance) are Marathoners, and some people are like Kondo — they’re Sprinters, who prefer to do their work right against a deadline. Again, it’s more important to know your style than to argue about what style is “better.”

On a different point, Kondo remarks:

“Many people get the urge to clean up when under pressure, such as just before an exam. But this urge doesn’t occur because they want to clean their room. It occurs because they need to put ‘something else’ in order…The fact that the tidying urge rarely continues once the crisis is over proves my theory…Because the problem faced—that is, the need to study for the exam—has been ‘tidied away.’

“This doesn’t mean that tidying your room will actually calm your troubled mind. While it may help you feel refreshed temporarily, the relief won’t last because you haven’t addressed the true cause of your anxiety. If you let the temporary relief achieved by tidying up your physical space deceive you, you will never recognized the need to clean up your psychological space.”

This reminds me of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. We may feel “productive,” because we’re busy and getting something done, but if we’re not aiming at the target we want to hit, ultimately we’re going to feel dissatisfied.

Nevertheless, it’s very common to want to clean up before settling down to a big project. That’s why it’s so helpful to maintain a reasonable level of order — it means we’re far closer to being able to work.

Have you found this to be true, yourself?