Former Navy SEAL and I Agree on an Important Habit. Not What You Might Expect.

Whenever I talk to people about their happiness projects, I ask, “What have you tried? What works for you?”

People tell me a million things they’ve done, but to my astonishment, the one resolution that comes up the most often — and this isn’t the most significant thing you could do to boost your happiness, but it does seem to be the thing that people most often try, and that does work — is to make your bed.

“Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.

I write a lot about this issue of “making your bed” in The Happiness Project and in Happier at Home — and it also comes up in my forthcoming book about habit-formation — so I got a big kick out of seeing that when Naval Adm. William McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave the commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin a few days ago, he specifically mentioned the resolution to…make your bed.

Here’s the video, here’s what he says:

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Viet Nam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task—mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs—but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

I wholeheartedly agree.

I also think that for many people — like me — an unmade bed is a broken window, which is why “Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.

 

(Now, some people say that, to the contrary, they revel in not making their beds. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is The opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for some people, a useful resolution might be “Don’t make your bed.” One person wrote to me, “My mother was so rigid about keeping the house tidy when I was a child that now I get a huge satisfaction from not making my bed, not hanging up my coat, etc. It makes me feel free.” Some people thrive on a little chaos. Everyone’s happiness project is different.)

What about you? Does making your bed – or not making your bed – contribute in a small way to your happiness? Or have you found other manageable resolutions that have brought more happiness than you would’ve expected?

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  • Guest

    Great post! Love the simple wisdom of the commencement speech. But I think this sentence is missing a few words at the end: “I also think that for many people — like me — an unmade bed is a broken window, which is why”…

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks — fixed!

  • Bryan Stroud

    I tend to be sort of anal about tidiness in general, but I don’t have a lot of choice in this particular case as I leave very early for my work and so the bed I leave is almost never empty. My dear wife loves her sleep.

    • gretchenrubin

      My husband and I have a tacit agreement: whoever sleeps later makes the bed.

      • Leslie Rieger

        We had that agreement for a while, but it sort of fizzled out (I’m pretty sure it was my fault). I need to get that started up again, because I really do get a happiness boost from seeing that neatly made bed.

      • Carla

        That only works if your husband is up for it. Mine would probably do it if I really pressed, but only then.

        I think the size and layout of your home really makes a difference in how much a made bed can matter. When I was in college and living in the dorm, my bed was about 1/4 of my entire living space! It really made a huge difference when the bed was neat and made. Now that I’m living in a full house, an unmade bed doesn’t really bother me much. I’m typically only in my bedroom while I’m sleeping.

  • Kathy

    I try to make the bed and open the blinds in our bedroom every day–every time I pass that room, I get a little lift of the spirits, because it tends to be one of the neater rooms in the house (especially when the bed is made!). Also, when the bed is made, I’m more likely to put things away instead of dumping them on the bed or dresser. I’m not an especially neat person, so any little thing like this helps!

    • PolarSamovar

      Ooh, I agree with you about opening the blinds. There’s something about a bedroom bathing in sunshine all day that makes it feel cleaner and nicer.

  • Catherine Al-Meten

    When I consistently make my bed, I feel better. It does start the day off with getting something accomplished. For a writer and one who is self-employed, consistency and a little bit of routine and discipline is essential. I try not to be pushy with myself about it, but weave it into my morning routine, just as I weave changing the bed into my Sunday night routine. Creating little rituals makes everything more enjoyable.

  • Gillian

    I don’t make the bed first thing in the morning; I throw the covers back to allow the bed to air for a couple of hours. I typically make the bed the first time I wander into the bedroom after a couple of hours of airing. Of course, if I don’t happen to go into the room during the day, the bed doesn’t get made. I do enjoy the tidiness of a made bed but I can’t say that it is all that important to me.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I get up, make my coffee and have a leisurely bit of online time. When I go back to my room to get ready for my walk, then I dress, make the bed, and open the blinds.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Military bed making instruction–I know two poles of that equation.
    First, I had a young soldier who worked for me in my first job with the Army (I was civilian). He was always in trouble for not making his bed right or keeping his locker tidy. His desk was also a nasty smelly mess. He claimed such things were not important, and was the despair of his sergeant. Though he was bright and capable, he washed out of the Army and subsequently had rather a spotty career because he could not follow directions or meet deadlines. A chronic rebel with some addiction issues, he just could not and would not follow anyone else’s rules or lead.
    Second, my long-time man friend had more than 20 years of military service. He was drafted at 19 and working in a technical occupational specialty. He sure learned to make his bed and keep everything in absolute apple pie order. It is not a martinet thing, it’s an efficiency, ease of use, and good maintenance thing. I have learned from him that many, many good things flow from order. I did not have that training, and have worked for years to overcome my messiness. I’m getting closer, by millimeters. As an abundance person, I’ll always struggle to keep some level of control over my ‘stuff,’ but I know it is worth trying.

  • Natalie

    I do make my bed every morning, but part of my kids’ bedtime routine is to frolic on my bed. To the point where everything is a mess and the covers might be on the floor. I hate it, and it does make me sad when I walk in and see it (my husband is in charge of putting them to bed, so it happens under his jurisdiction). I have told my husband I don’t like it, but I guess it’s time to tell the kids. I just didn’t want to be a party pooper. But it really does make my heart sink every time, so I’m going to forbid it! Or at least they have to tidy after themselves and put everything back.

    • aleishacd

      This makes me sad. We have so little time in life to frolic…

    • Mimi Gregor

      Frolic with them. Who knows… you just might like it!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      How old are they? Sounds like they could be old enough to continue the frolic and play ritural, and then add it a ‘transition to bedtime’ ritual where maybe there is some quieter, soothing music, and some smoothing, bed making activity to get everything ready for Mommy’s bedtime and then go to their own beds? Don’t give up the playtime and fun, just shift things to ‘cool down’ exactly as would be done in an exercise class.

  • Mardi

    Gretchen, Did you see the big article on habits in the new Scientific American? Yes, I make the bed every morning.

    • gretchenrubin

      Going to buy the magazine
      today.

  • http://themommybook.blogspot.com.html/ April May T. Ramos

    This is soooo true! I make it a point to make all our beds first thing in the morning, especially since I work mostly ON my bed as a work-at-home mom! It doesn’t have to be as spic and span as a military man’s bed though – as long as the pillows are stacked near the headboard and the sheets are smoothed – I’m fine! There’s something about a bed’s neat appearance that makes me feel better AND makes my day a lot easier!

  • Sarah Linehan

    I agree. It’s a little bit of order in the day and it works for me. A made bed is a gentle reminder that I’m in charge of me, my life, my choices.

  • K2P2

    I make the bed every day, even if I’m home sick. Just getting out of bed, even if only to move to the couch, is a huge accomplishment when I’m not feeling well. And being able to look at a made bed gives me the reassurance that I’m going to get better – I was at least able to do that simple task. On a work day, if for some reason I didn’t make the bed, it weighs on me all day. It’s the first thing I do when I get home in those rare instances.
    But I’m VERY picky about my bed. The sheets must be a certain thread count. The pillows are critical – the right softness, the necessary firmness. The coverlet or duvet isn’t bold or highly patterned. Every element of the bed is designed to be soothing and restful. And yes, I do sleep well!

  • http://www.gabriellahewitt.com/ Sasha Tomas

    Making the bed for me is procrastination. A delay tactic. For so long, I believed in having a neat and tidy home, I put it before myself and used it as an excuse that “keeping house” was good work. When the day that I had to go back to work for money to help support my family, I went out into the real world and my skills of making a bed, few, if any, thought was resume worthy. So, I learned to prioritize. Family, education, career before tidy house. Clean when necessary, learn to ignore the dropped sock and not blow spilled milk out of proportion. Worry about the bigger things in life, not the small. If the bed is messy, so what? Get dressed up everyday, get out the house and go live life to earn a living. You can come home and make the bed up later and then go to sleep. Wake up refreshed to face another day, knowing that you can do it all again.

    • Ann

      Don’t you feel like it’s a chore to do it at night when you’re so tired you would rather just drop? That’s why I make it, although sometimes I’m in a hurry and I leave it.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        When I worked I made the bed because it was something so nice to come home to–and so nice to climb into a pretty, nicely made bed at night. It looks restful and welcoming. I understand the overwhelm of career and housekeeping. But somehow this ‘made bed’ and ‘clean sink’ thing really spoke to me of an order that I would not otherwise have been able to feel. It told me ‘no you are not drowning in your own chaos!’ Sure, since retirement, I have done WAY more housekeeping. But even with spills and socks on the floor, the made bed kind of made my morning and evening.

        • Gillian

          I agree whole-heartedly with Sasha. I have always been a terrible housekeeper. My excuse was that I worked full time with a fair bit of overtime and a 40-minute commute each way so there was little time for housework. This was exacerbated by the fact that I find it very difficult to switch tasks. I certainly didn’t make the bed – got into it the way I’d left it. I did housework on average every 4-6 weeks. I’m sure many find this shocking but it was just at the bottom of my priority list. After 3 weeks, it doesn’t change much. I fully believed that when I retired, all this would change. It hasn’t – I still get around to housework every 4-6 weeks; it is still at the bottom of the priority list. I can say that the house is a lot tidier than when I was working but it is not any cleaner. I have come to the conclusion that housework is not in my DNA – I was not put here to push the dirt around. Over the years, I have occasionally thought I should be like everyone else and clean every week. I’d be half way through cleaning a week after the previous time when I realized that I could hardly tell the difference between what I had cleaned and what I hadn’t – what a total waste of time! There would never be any time or focus left for anything else. Would I like to live in a permanently clean house? Yes, I’d love to. But I am not prepared to pay the price – there are more interesting and useful ways to spend my time. Several years ago I told someone that my standards in this area are a lot lower than my sister’s (who is a first-rate housekeeper). His response was: not lower standards, just different priorities.

          • Gillian

            PS – I do however now make the bed most days.

    • http://indiguru.com IndiGuru

      All,
      I agree.
      As human beings, we are all incredibly adaptable and there is incredible diversity. All are correct. Follow your heart and your priorities first. Earn a living if you have to, but live well anyway.
      It does not matter when you make the bed, but make the bed anyway, whether it is after work or after airing it out. Be adaptable too, depending on your spouse and relationship. Crumbled bed could be a reminder of great sex the previous night! or mark of relishing great sex when a traveling spouse returns!
      thx.

  • Non compliant

    I became so tired of not making my bed that I got rid of it and now sleep on the floor. I get up, fold my sheet and blanket, put them away, and I am good for the day.

  • Megan

    I’m wondering if bed making should be equally about sleep habits as it is about orderliness. Maybe respecting the bed by keeping it tidy would lead to better respect for a good night’s sleep? Seeing the bed as more than a piece of furniture. I’m no expert on this, as both my bed making and my sleep habits are horrid, but maybe I’ll test this theory right now and make my bed! And maybe tonight, at a respectable hour, I’ll see my nicely made bed and want to hop in and let it take me off to dreamland! :)

  • Mo. B.

    Perhaps military folks and Americans in general are bed-makers… which is GREAT! But having been raised by a European parent, I was taught to not make the bed first thing in the morning. The thinking behind this is that in the night, you sweat a bit, and your skin (which is an organ, and releases toxins) is at work through the night, and therefore your bedding will be fresher longer if you “air it out” in the morning. Many folks take their comforter or covers and hang them out in the sunshine and fresh air in the morning, rather than immediately cover up the spot where you just slept. I find that I am very productive, and very organized, and very happy, and …. I air out my covers daily. :-) Personal preference, and I think that finding what works for you is the key to happiness!

    • Gillian

      This is exactly why I let my bed air for a couple of hours before I make it. I don’t put the covers into the sunshine but I throw them back. Maybe that’s because I’m British born and have a German husband.

      • Sholay

        Adn this is exactly Putin can do whatever he wants in Eastern Europe these days. I am pretty sure he makes his bed everyday in the morninig :D

        • Gillian

          I’m sure someone else makes it for him! Sorry, I don’t get the connection?? Europeans air their beds in the morning before making them (so that they are cleaner and fresher) and this allows Putin free rein??

    • Guest

      I too have parents from Europe and fold my bed coverings back in the morning to air the bed. I consider that making my bed. I don’t just leave the covers askew. I fold them back neatly. When I come home from work I make my bed.

  • Judy

    The best thing for me about making my bed in the morning is when I get to climb into it that night, and it’s so pretty and welcoming. I love it!

  • Angela Sherman

    I love this! I previously only made my bed when I washed the linens, but since reading your books and blog I figured I’d give it a shot– really sticking with it. I was pleasantly surprised that there is a feeling of satisfaction after making the bed, and going to bed at night! I also realized that my previous excuse of not making my bed because my husband and I have different blankets and it’s a jumbled mess didn’t really hold true; of I make the bed every morning it stays neater at night and takes less than 5 mins to make. Yet another experience that has shined a light on my bad habits and the excuses I use to maintain them!

  • JB

    Making our bed has become such a habit for me that sometimes I can’t even remember making it. The entire commencement address is excellent – well worth listening to!!

  • AnnaKate

    I made my bed one day, and did not like how it felt to sleep in a made bed. So I quit making it, and a much happier sleeping in my unmade bed.

    • Ann

      I bought duvets for everyone, so all we end up really doing is pulling up that one blanket. It’s very comfy and unstructured, but looks great too.

  • Kathryn z

    The June 2014 issue of Scientific American has a cover story on the Neuroscience of Habits. I haven’t read it yet but thought you would be interested.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! I’m going to buy it today.

  • Elizabeth Wolf

    Making the bed is like the Buddhist saying, ‘Chop wood. Carry water.’ I even do it when I’m in a hotel. For me, there is beauty in it.

  • http://lawniss.wordpress.com/ youonlylawonce

    Making the bed means I have made some time for myself. And that’s why I am happy.

  • martha johnson

    I love the fact that you allowed the opposite to be true. Your post reminded me of a time in a growth group many years ago when the instructor told everyone to create their goal. I sagged with disappointment and boredom, finally recognizing that as a inveterate goal setter and goal achiever, having more goals was not my “growing edge.” I admitted to the group that I wanted to leave that evening with NO goals and have NO goals for the week. The wonderful healing moment was when i was applauded loudly for my counter intuitive, and right on target, no goal intentions. But, to be honest, I think the bed making goal might be helpful to me. The brilliance is in the specifics.

  • chacha1

    I habitually make the bed before leaving for work. Because otherwise I will get home to find a nest of cat hair and toe-pickins in the sheets.

  • mountainhigh

    My wife and I make our bed together everyday. We start the day with order, beauty, and as a team. My Mom taught all my brothers and sister and I with perfect “hospital corners” and all, from a young age, to make our bed everyday. Couldn’t agree more about the many benefits both realized and unrealized.

  • Peggy

    Love it! I have a theory, “The more you do, the more you do and the less you do, the less you do.” Which means…the more you do: you get up, make your bed, throw in a load of laundry, water the plants, eat breakfast – and you will find that you keep going and have an incredibly productive day…the less you do: you get up, crawl out of bed, read a little, maybe watch tv – it’s all down-hill from there.

  • LC

    I have a corollary to the making-the-bed idea: Clean/straighten up the house from back to front. Start with the least messy room (usually the master bedroom) and work your way thru’ the house, ending with the kitchen. I started doing this after our first child was born to eliminate back-tracking and using up precious time while our son was asleep. Even if I didn’t make it thru’ every room, I was satisfied with what I’d done. I shared this with my sister-in-law and she was “converted,” too!

  • Joanne Van Der Holt

    I agree with making the bed. It does give me a small sense of pride and when I return to my bed at night it’s inviting and comfortable. Another thing I do that makes me happy is shining my kitchen sink after doing the dishes. I just use my dish towel after wiping down the sink and give it a little polish. That alone makes the whole kitchen seem really clean.

  • GEM200

    I am fascinated by this article, since I just spoke about this topic again this past week to someone. I was raised in a very clean home and was a very sloppy teenager. I married young and had a difficult time developing the self-discipline needed to keep my home clean – something that was important to me, but that had always been done for me. I had a very helpful husband (who had been taught well by his mother), but became more and more frustrated with my laziness in this area. I had had cleaner roommates in college and knew young women who were more mature and self-disciplined in this way than I was. I wanted to be like them. I decided to see if I could change and knew I’d need to take baby steps. My first goal was to make the bed every day. It was like magic. My next goal was to wash the dishes every day. These two things made such a difference, that gradually I became a wonderful housekeeper (but it took several years) – while working full time with five children. It’s one way I say “I love you” to my family. Other women say “I love you” in many other ways. This is just one way that is important to me. It has provided my family with a more peaceful, orderly existence and I think it makes us happier. So, for me, making the bed was a life-changer.

  • GEM200

    After thinking some more about the other posts I’ve read, I think it’s important that I add that my housekeeping takes an amazingly minimal amount of time. I keep things simple and have developed ways of doing little bits of cleaning routinely. This small effort has paid off in so many ways, such as having everything in its place when you need it, and always clean clothes to wear, and clean dishes to eat off of, that I don’t think there’s been any sacrifice of time at all.

  • heather

    I’ve never looked at making my bed quite like this. I must say I like it and the outlook that it gives you! thanks

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