Tag Archives: interview

“As Long as the Good Habits Outnumber the Bad Ones, I’m Ahead of the Game.”

Interview: Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni has written several books and is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His brand-new book is a bestseller that has received a huge amount of buzz: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. It’s a thought-provoking look at how the college admission system works–and a fresh, reassuring reminder of what really matters in the college experience (as I wrote in my blurb for Frank’s book!).

Also, when I was researching Better Than Before, I read Frank’s fascinating memoir, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, because I was reading everything I could find that I thought might touch on the subject of habits.

I knew Frank would have some interesting insights — and he did.

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

Frank: There are three that come to mind, and they may stretch the definition of habit, in that they don’t all occur with daily or weekly or even monthly frequency, but I still think they qualify. And they’re of a piece, as they all relate to family.

My family—my father, my siblings, their spouses, their kids, my partner and I—are all very close, and there have been times in the past when, as a result of that closeness, we took actual time together for granted. But we’ve now ritualized certain things, which is another way of saying that we’ve turned them into habits, so that we’re guaranteed to see one another often, and this brings me enormous happiness. In fact a column I once wrote about it, called “The Gift of Siblings,” was by far the most widely read and shared column I’ve ever written for The Times.

One week every year, all 21 of us pile into a beach house somewhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or such, always in the summer, when it’s off season and less crazily expensive. And every time one of us adults has a milestone birthday—something ending in a zero—we adults do a special weekend away. My 50th, for example, was in late October of last year; we all spent three days in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is wine country.

And I no longer let more than a four or five days go by without talking with my father, either in person or on the phone. That wasn’t always so: my mother, who died years ago, was the talker, the one who wanted and even demanded to communicate; Dad was the silent rock, or maybe the plant that needed no watering. Sometimes my conversations with him are just five minutes, but five minutes is everything. Me hearing his voice, he hearing mine: It’s an enormous comfort. I know it won’t last forever—he’s about to turn 80—but thanks to this habit, maybe, just maybe, it will last forever, and more indelibly, in memory.

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

That habits are like muscles; they get stronger with repeated exercise. You force yourself to do something the first time. You force yourself the second and the third and the fourth. And then, with each subsequent effort, there’s less force required. What was intense effort becomes unthinking reflex or at least something close to that. You just have to trust in that trajectory at the outset. You have to tell yourself at the beginning, when so much will is required, that you’re not always going to need that reserve, that you’re moving toward a destination where everything becomes so much easier.

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

Before I write, I need to read. I’ve seen time and again that I write better in the morning if I’ve read at night; I write better in the mid-afternoon if I paused midday to read. I’m astonished at how long I fought this, because I was sometimes lazy or tired or the reading seemed like procrastination, like a luxury. I finally stopped fighting. This was a habit begging to be developed, and yet still I resisted. It’s funny: habits are like commitments, until they become reflexive. And in the same way you can be a commitment-phobe, you can be a habit-phobe.

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

Yes. I have never lost the enjoyment of eating late at night and especially of indulging in a guilty food pleasure late at night. And though I’ve improved on this front, I still give in to this temptation and tendency—this habit—far too often. But you know what? In my life I’ve quit smoking. I’ve cut way back on drinking. I’ve remained a steady exerciser. So I don’t beat myself up about it. I see habits as a balance sheet. As long as the good ones outnumber the bad, and as long as the list of good ones grows faster than the list of bad ones, I’m ahead of the game. I’m OK.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I think I straddle two of these. I’m two-thirds Obliger, one-third upholder. Though I hope—I pray—I have a dollop of rebel in there somewhere. [Note: this combination means that Frank is an Obliger.]

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

Yes. The first personal trainer I ever saw. I used to get out of healthy habits by telling myself that if I couldn’t commit to them 100 percent or didn’t execute them perfectly then I might as well stall and wait until such (possibly mythic) moment when I could. He really hammered into me that doing at least some of what you intend to and doing it imperfectly is better than taking a pass on the whole shebang—and that it’s also the beginning of the path toward doing it really well, toward making the habit stick. I think he was and is right about that. I thank him for sharing that perspective with me. For haranguing me, really.

Secret of Adulthood: Give Myself Limits to Give Myself Freedom

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

This is one of my Secrets of Adulthood, absolutely, and I used to think it was true for everyone, but now I know that not everyone has the same view about limits and discipline that I do.

I’m an Upholder. And an Abstainer. And an Under-buyer.

For all these reasons, and others, too, it seems right to me that discipline brings freedom. But now I understand that other people may have different perspectives. For instance, Rebels! I should have made the Secret of Adulthood, “Give myself limits to give myself freedom.”

For instance, as I describe in Better Than Before, in the chapter on the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt,” my eating habits are very limited. For me, observing those limits is tremendously freeing and energizing — but that doesn’t mean that everyone feels the same way.

I remind myself, as always to Be Gretchen — and also to remember one of the entries on my Habits Manifesto: We’re not very different from other people, but those differences are very important.

How about you? For you, do limits give you freedom?

While traveling for my  book tour for Better Than Before, I’ve had the chance to to talk to so many interesting people and groups.

If you’re interested, you can…

watch my talk at Google, in conversation with Logan Ury

watch my interview on the BBC about how habits affect happiness

–check out the special page that iTunes created for me, which lists both my podcast and my books. I can’t resist quoting what they say about my work–zoikes!

“We’re major fans of Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project. Rubin’s fascination with human behavior–as well as her sincere believe that we can make our lives more fulfilling and joyous–shines through in her podcasts, blog, and books. Her new book, Better Than Before, looks at how we form and break habits and is packed with her trademark warmth, wit, and down-to-earth intelligence.”

–listen to the Washington Post podcast “On Leadership” or read it here

watch a clip on Big Think

I love getting a chance to talk about habits with readers, but boy it’s nice to be home for a few days. This year, for once, I remembered well in advance to get out the Easter decorations.

“I Formed a ‘Resolution Club’ with Three Friends. We Each Had Different Resolutions.”

Interview: David Lat.

I got to know David Lat through our connection as being combination lawyer/writers. He founded and is the managing editor of Above the Law, a site which covers law firms and the legal profession (in an edgy way).

David recently published his dishy first novel, Supreme Ambitions. It’s the story of a woman who graduates from Yale Law School and wants to clerk on the Supreme Court. As a Yale Law School grad who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, you can see why this intrigued me.

I was curious to hear how David manages his novel-writing habits, work habits, and health habits.

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

David Lat: Procrastination. I postpone difficult, unpleasant, or challenging tasks until they can’t be postponed any longer. Running a widely read, commercial blog like Above the Law has been good for me because I can’t indulge my procrastination habit; I constantly need to be writing and editing. But procrastination was a major problem when I was trying to write my novel, Supreme Ambitions, which was a much more long-term project.

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

I managed to pick up a healthy habit (walk at least 15 miles a week) and break an unhealthy one (excessive consumption of desserts and sweets) by forming a “resolution club” with three friends. We each had different resolutions we brought to the group. Every Monday, we’d check in with each other: did we keep our resolutions over the prior week? Those who failed to honor their resolutions had to pay $20 to the other group members — and also had the shame of acknowledging failure. [If you’d like a “starter kit” for launching a group of people who work on their habits together, click here.]

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?  [Readers, to learn more about this framework, or to find your own Tendency, look here.]

I’m definitely an “Obliger.” When I was in school, I would do assignments to meet the expectations of my professors. When I worked as a law clerk and then a lawyer, I would complete projects to meet the expectations of my bosses. Now that I basically work for myself, running Above the Law and doing outside writing, I struggle more with getting things done. When I was working on Supreme Ambitions, I would have a hard time sitting down and producing pages. I didn’t start making real progress until, acknowledging my “Obliger” personality, I told my editor Jon that I would send him some pages every Monday. He didn’t have to read them immediately, but I committed to sending them to him every Monday, which at least kept me writing so I could meet Jon’s expectations.

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

Travel interferes with my healthy habit of going to group fitness classes at my gym. I’ve been traveling a lot over the past few months on book tour. I try to exercise in other ways while on the road, but I do miss my classes. What’s great about classes is that they occur at fixed times, and I make an “appointment” with my friend and workout buddy Jen to go to certain classes, ensuring that I actually go. But when I’m traveling, that’s not possible.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Generally I resist habits. I enjoy spontaneity, novelty, and excitement; I like every day to be different. So I have relatively few habits, since I associate habits with routine, and routine with a lack of freedom. But maybe I’m overlooking the way that good or healthy habits “free us” to be our better selves.

“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.

“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.