Tag Archives: habits

Are You Unnecessarily Severe with Yourself and Your Habits?

“All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.

— Samuel Johnson, as quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

I often think about this remark by Samuel Johnson.

Because I’ve been so focused on habits over the past few years, during the writing of Better Than Before, people often talk to me about the habits they want to change.

And although I have so many strategies and ideas that I’ve identified to help people master their habits, to my surprise, I frequently find myself making the case against changing a habit.

I’ve noticed that people often say they want to change a habit because “I really should ___” or “this person in my life tells me I have to ___.”

And I always say, “Well, maybe you would be better off if you changed the habit — but maybe not. Do you care if you change that habit?” And often, they don’t really care.

For instance, a friend said, “I really love coffee, but I know I should stop drinking it.”

“Why?” I pressed. “Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t affect me.”

I couldn’t resist launching into a defense of coffee. “You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it’s not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don’t add anything crazy, it doesn’t have any sugar, carbs, fat, or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you’re drinking it in the human range. Plus, there’s pleasant ritual connected with it—you can go out for coffee with a friend.”

“But I should at least cut back.”

“But why?” I pressed. “Enjoy it! A habit isn’t bad unless it causes some kind of problem.”

Along the same lines, when I was in L.A. a few days ago, I did an event where I was interviewed by brilliant journalist Lisa Napoli. She asked how she could change her habit of dumping her clothes in the bathtub.

I asked, “Does it bother you to have those clothes in the bathtub?”

She paused, and said, “Well, actually, no.”

It’s not a conventional thing to do, true, but why  try to squash a habit if it’s not a problem?

Most of us have some habits that we’d like to change that would actually make us happier, healthier, or more productive. So I argue that we should do first things first, and turn our energy toward the habits that really matter.

How about you? Have you ever thought, “I should really change this habit,” and then realized, “Nah, I don’t really care.”

I have the nervous habit of twisting my hair, and for a long time, I told myself that I should stop — but several years ago I decided, “No, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m fine with my hair-twisting.” (Though I do try not to do it when it might bug someone else — in particular, when I’m around my mother. Fortunately, it doesn’t bother my husband.)

All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. We should be as easy on ourselves as we can be. Agree, disagree?

 

Do You Have Things That You Don’t Use, But Can’t Toss? Hobbits Do.

Yet another Lord-of-the-Rings inspired post!

What can I say? Everything reminds me of habits these days. Better Than Before comes out next week, so I can’t really think about much other than habits. And, apparently, hobbits.

And here’s a hobbit habit, as described in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Anything that Hobbits had no further use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”

I love this term! Mathoms are indeed a problem. All that stuff — you don’t want to get rid of it; but you don’t actually use it or want  it. Re-gifting is a terrific solution, but rarely possible.

What’s the tie to habits? One thing that has surprised me most about habits is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command.

There’s something about getting control of the stuff of life that makes us feel more in control of our lives generally. And if that’s an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.

Although it doesn’t necessarily seem logical, for most people, it’s easier to eat right when the kitchen is tidy; it’s easier to exercise when your desk isn’t buried in papers; it’s easier to make the bed when the floor isn’t covered by dirty clothes.

In Better Than Before, I discuss the Strategy of Foundation. From my observation, habits in four areas do most to boost feelings of self-control, and in this way strengthen the Foundation of all our habits. We do well to begin by tackling the habits that help us to:

1. sleep
2. move
3. eat and drink right
4. unclutter

Foundation habits tend to reinforce each other—for instance,
exercise helps people sleep, and sleep helps people do everything
better—so they’re a good place to start for any kind of habit change.

Furthermore, somewhat mysteriously, Foundation habits sometimes make profound change possible. A friend once told me, “I cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

For this reason, taking charge of the mathoms in our lives — giving them away, donating them, tossing them, or putting them to use — makes us feel more in command of ourselves, and therefore more able to master our habits.

What form do your mathoms take? Off the top of my head, in my house, I would say: flower vases, serving dishes, board games, tote bags, light jackets, and mugs.

Flower vases are a particular issue. They always seem so useful, but I never buy cut flowers (as an under-buyer), so whenever we get flowers, it’s because someone sent them — in a vase!

When we moved, I gave a giant box of vases to the flower shop on the corner of our street. It may be time to do that again. One apartment can hold only so many mathoms.

Like Gollum, Do You Have Something Precious–That Isn’t Good for You?

As I mentioned the other day, to give myself some comfort food for my brain as I gear up for the publication of Better Than Before next week, I’ve been re-re-re-re-re-re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books.

These days, everything reminds me of habits, because I’ve been thinking and writing about habits for so long. And The Lord of the Rings is no different.

In case you’re not quite as familiar with the story as I am, one of the book’s main characters is Gollum, who for many years carried the One Ring, an evil ring of supreme power.  The ring extended Gollum’s life but turned him into a pitiful creature.

In the book The Hobbit, Gollum loses the ring, which is found by the hobbit Bilbo, who later gives it to Frodo, etc., etc.

How does this relate to habits? Bear with me.

Whenever Gollum refers to the ring, he calls it “my precious.” “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!

And when the wizard Gandalf goes to research the history of the ring, he finds an account by King Isildur, who, in the distant past, had won the ring from the evil Sauron. Isildur writes of the ring, which he refuses to destroy, “It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

So again, that word “precious.” Once the ring comes into the various people’s possession, they hate to give it up.  They become enslaved to the ring, though it’s precious to them.

I’m haunted by the way, through the books, Gollum mourns for “my precious.” And if you watch the movies, you see the way he hisses out, “my precioussss.” (You can watch a 10-second clip here.)

Here’s the tie to habits: I’ve noticed that many people have a habit that makes them unhappy — one that they know drains them, isn’t good for them, causes them grief. And yet, at the thought of giving it up, they protest, “No! It’s my precioussssssss!”

A friend told me that she was uncomfortable about how much wine she was drinking every night, but when I said, “Do you think you’d like to stop drinking the wine?” she became very agitated, saying “No, no! I don’t want to do that.”

Or when another friend told me that she felt bad about her weight, and I said that I felt so much better after I gave up sugar, she said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. I could never give up sugar.”

And I talked to a friend from law school who felt lousy because he was exhausted all the time; when he told me that he gets four hours of sleep each night, I said, “Maybe you could go to bed earlier?” In a furious voice, he said, “If I went to bed earlier, that would mean my firm would get more of me! That time at night is the only time I have to myself!”

Each time, I was reminded of Gollum and Isildur. “It’s my preciousssss! It’s precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

We’re grown-ups. We can do what we want. I’m not saying that giving up wine, or sugar, or leisure time is necessarily the right thing for those folks to do. But as my Habits Manifesto holds, “We should make sure the things we do to feel better don’t make us feel worse.

It’s precious…but perhaps we’d be healthier, happier, and more productive if we think about tossing it away.

Whenever I start to get that feeling in my life, when I feel myself starting to hiss, “But it’s my precioussssss!” I pay attention. Am I being mastered by something that’s not good for me?

greekyyogurtFor a while, I had this feeling about — of all things — Greek yogurt. Oh, how I love Greek yogurt! I was eating it two or three times a day, instead of other foods. Which I knew wasn’t a healthy course for me. And if some other member of my family ate the last carton of yogurt, I was furious.

So I stopped eating it altogether for a while (that’s the Abstainer way).  Now I eat it just once a day, and am finding that manageable.

But for a while there, I had that feeling of “this isn’t good for me/but it’s precious to me/so I’m going to refuse to give it up.”

How about you? Have you ever had this feeling about something, “It’s my precioussssssss!” How did you master it — if you have?

In a future podcast of Happier with Gretchen Rubin, you’ll hear my sister Elizabeth talk about her precioussss: Candy Crush.

“Give Me a Second Glass of Wine, and All My Hard-Fought Self-Control Falls by the Wayside.”

Habits interview: Hannah Nordhaus.

I know Hannah Nordaus from college. Back then, neither one of us talked about becoming writers (or at least I didn’t, and I don’t remember Hannah talking about it, though maybe she did…) A few years ago, she wrote The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America.

Now Hannah has a new book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, that’s just hitting the shelves this week. I can’t wait to read it — part memoir (I love memoirs), part travelogue, part history — all about Hannah’s great-great-grandmother, who is said to haunt a hotel in Santa Fe. If you want to read an excerpt for yourself, you can read here.

I was curious to hear what Hannah would say about habits and happiness.

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

Hannah: Drinking a warm drink each morning. It is something I look forward to every day. Yes! I get to drink a cup of coffee! With honey! It is a simple pleasure that makes me look forward to waking up each day.

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

I suppose I have learned, through years of trial and error, that it isn’t a zero-sum game. There are things you like about yourself and things you don’t; habits you are proud of and ones you aren’t, and if you slip and fall back into old patterns, this does not mean that you have failed. You simply forgive yourself, face forward, and keep trying.

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

I stay up too late. I am a night owl by nature, but with small children and limited time to work, I’m unable to keep the hours I did when I was the sole master of my schedule. There’s always something that beckons before bed – one more article to read, one more email to send, one more episode to watch. It is so hard to force myself to go to sleep. But if I don’t, even the warm morning drink can’t save me.

I also crack my knuckles. Which is impossible to stop—perhaps, Gretchen, you can offer some advice? They’re right there, on your hands, begging to be cracked, and it feels so good! I gather that there’s no actual health issue with the cracking, but it drives my husband insane, and so really it’s a habit that gets in the way of his happiness, which then gets in the way of my happiness, because he groans and swats at me and says “stop the popping” whenever I do. But those knuckles are just so tantalizing, there in front of me, every single moment. I’m cracking them right now.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Hands down, it’s getting outside and getting exercise on a regular basis. It is good for my physical health—that goes without saying. And also my mental health; I get cranky if I go more than a couple of days without moving around. But I have also found that taking a break and going for a run or a hike or a bike ride does magical things for both my creativity and productivity.

When I’m hung up on an idea or can’t think what to write next, I can do nothing better than force myself to take a break, get away from my screen, and move and clear my brain. I come back refreshed, and I find that the ideas and breakthroughs just come, unbidden, as soon as I get moving and stop looking for them. My favorite insight in my new book, American Ghost, arrived while I was on a hike. It was on a particularly easy downhill stretch towards the end, where I didn’t have to think about where I was going or what I was doing. The trail wasn’t too rocky underfoot, and I wasn’t huffing and puffing to get to the top. I was just there, running in a pretty laggardly fashion and looking at the mountains, and then whabang: sentence, fully formed.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I had to give up caffeine. I was, as I mentioned above, a night owl, and I found I was more and more dependent on coffee and more and more jittery, and that I could barely speak in the morning before I had a cup of coffee, and this seemed not a good way to live. So I decided to give it up.

Cold turkey wasn’t my thing, so I first weaned myself down to one cup a day for a few weeks, then switched to decaf. I still needed the ritual—and still do—but for me it’s more the idea of having a warm, sweet drink in my hands to start the day, than the actual pick-me-up of the caffeine.

I also rewarded myself once a week with a frothy full-caff latte. That way it wasn’t like I’d given it up forever. Until one day I realized I didn’t need the caffeine, and that in fact I felt much better if I didn’t drink it.

Now I am trying to cut down on my sugar consumption, with moderate success. Sugar is so much more omnipresent in our lives; it’s awfully hard to avoid. But I am also weaning, slowly, if not always successfully. Now I take a half a teaspoon of honey in that morning coffee instead of two spoonfuls of sugar, and sometimes I skip the honey all together. I’ve given up soda—oh how I loved ginger ale! I try to eat dessert only once or twice a week instead of every day. I look at labels, and think more about what I’m consuming. It is a work in progress.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, take the Quiz here.]

I’m a questioner, with a big upholder streak. I love being given a discrete task, and I love to do it well. I always return emails and love to rise to a challenge. Give me a deadline; I won’t miss it. However, if I think the challenge or expectations are stupid, I’ll arrange my life so that I am not asked to accept them. There’s a reason I work for myself; I try very hard only to take on projects I find interesting and worthwhile, so I don’t put myself in a position of having to meet expectations that I find objectionable.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Wine. I’m okay with one glass. But give me a second (and please don’t give me a third), and all my hard-fought self-control falls by the wayside. I overeat. I double down on dessert. I tell stories I promised I’d keep to myself. I watch that extra show or read that extra chapter. And then I wake up at 3 am in a miserable sweat. I have no idea how I managed to be drunk several nights a week in college.

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 think I generally need to reach these life-altering realizations on my own time, at my own pace. I’m fairly skeptical and not easy to persuade, and I have at my command many powerful arguments for keeping my life the way I like it. It’s pretty hard to lightning-bolt me into changing the routines I have become so attached to. And I’m a historian, a journalist and a perennial questioner—I like to conduct my due diligence, and make sure this new potentially life-altering information is really factual and meaningful, and that changing my habits will really make a difference. I am open to change. But it has to be on my own time, after proper research, and on my own terms.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I love the comfort of routine. I love how it shapes my days and gives them structure and meaning. I know the things that make me happy and healthy and strong, and I try to incorporate them into my life whenever I can.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My great-great-grandmother Julia Staab has left an indelible mark on how I view the world. I never met her—she died in 1896—but in researching her life for American Ghost, I feel that I came to understand her in a way—and also to understand something important about living itself. What I learned about her life has made me deeply appreciative of the daily routines in my own life that keep me content and keep me going.

Julia was severely depressed. She had been shipped from Germany to New Mexico as a mail-order bride and never quite adapted to the rough frontier. She simply didn’t have the resilience to create, out of the less-than-ideal situation into which she was imported, an existence that she could live with.

All of our lives contain sadness, and setbacks, disappointments and injustices—some more than others, of course. But having spent three years examining how Julia lived and died, and trying to understand her state of mind, I realize how much we determine our own happiness. Whether it’s through creating the routines that ground us and keep us going—like those frequent trips I take up into the hills—or learning new things that keep us engaged with the world, we shape ourselves and our reactions to the misfortunes and setbacks that we encounter.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can strive to shape how we respond to those things. That everyday appreciation of the small routines in our lives, the things we do that work for us and keep us on an even keel, both mentally and physically, matter more than I ever realized.

Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

My new book about habits, Better Than Before, comes out one week from tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that publication day is so close.

I don’t feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious — because I recognized my “tell.”

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know myself– but it’s not.

Because I find it hard to know myself, I’m always on the look-out for indirect ways to gain self-knowledge. For instance, I ask, Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? My envy and lies reveal a lot — including things I’d otherwise try to keep hidden, even from myself.

And I’ve also learned to look for my “tells.” In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

For instance, when I was writing Better Than Before, I went through a stage of a major editing. Not just little changes here and there — massive re-organization, massive cutting (I went from 140,00 words to 80,000 words without losing any ideas), massive line edits. It was exhilarating, but also very stressful and intellectually demanding.

And during that time, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

What book did I pick up yesterday, without quite realizing I was doing it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo and company were already at The Prancing Pony before I recognized, “Oh, hey, I’m anxious, and so I’m reading this now.”

Once I first recognized my tell those years ago, I realized that I can use children’s and young-adult literature as “comfort food” for my mind. When I want some comfort, when I want to know that I’m going to enjoy something whole-heartedly, and get a distraction from my thoughts, I now deliberately turn to those books.

In this case, though, part of my brain realized that I needed comfort food before I consciously grasped it, myself.

One reason I’m anxious is that these days, a book’s first week of sales has a very disproportionate importance. If a book sells well that first week, it gets a big, big boost.  So next week really matters.  (Which is why, if you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now.)

But at this point, with one week to go there’s not much more I can do to affect my book’s fate. I told my husband, “It’s like knowing that I’m gong to take a major exam, but I can’t study.”  He gave me a patient look and said, “Gretch, you’ve already studied.”

Hmm. Well, I don’t know what will happen to Better Than Before, but I do know what happens when the Nine Walkers enter the Doors of Durin. And I love reading about it, again and again.

As any lover of Tolkien would agree:  once the story of the One Ring begins, there’s no stopping: you’re going there and back again. And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not. So, depending on how much free time I have in the next week, I may be set until my publication date on March 17.

How about you? Do you have a “tell” that shows that you’re anxious?  And do you have a “comfort food” for your mind — some activity or subject that soothes you?