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“Replying Too Quickly to Emails Is a Rotten Habit of Mine.”

Habits interview: Jennifer Senior.

I’ve long been a big fan of Jennifer Senior’s writing in New York magazine — for instance, she recently published a fascinating piece, To the Office, With Love: What Do We Give Up When We All Become Freedom-Seeking, Self-Determining, Autonomous Entrepreneurs? A Lot, Actually.

Jennifer has also written a terrific, thought-provoking book (which by the way has an absolutely brilliant title): All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. So many books tackle the question of how parents affect their children — but this book examines how children affect their parents.  Which they do, dramatically.

All Joy and No Fun just came out in paperback, so that seemed like a good time to ask Jennifer some questions about her habits.

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

Jennifer: It can be really awkward to talk about this, but new parenthood, I’ve discovered, often derails our habits for a while. Even having young kids can do it. I hear this a lot from parents: I used to read/go to the gym every morning/cook Thai three nights a week before my kids came along. It feels vaguely heretical to discuss it, because if we admit as much, it sounds like we’re blaming our kids—My life was so swell before you came along! You’ve upended my life! But of course they’ve added something immeasurably huge to our lives. We’re psychotically, madly in love with them (and have never known this kind of love before); they give us a vectored sense of purpose. They’ve just left us a bit confused about how to reapportion our time. Three days ago, after giving a talk, I was chatting with this lovely woman who said, more or less: I haven’t read a single book since my kid was born. And I replied: And I haven’t gone swimming in over two months. (Her kid, at least, was two. Mine is seven.) I thought my evening swims were pretty well established in my life. But I swam at just the hour I now come home from work to make sure I see my son. My body just doesn’t seem to enjoy swimming at any other time of day. What I’ve discovered when talking to parents—at least of young kids—is that we all temporarily lose something. The trick is not to judge ourselves too harshly for it, and to have faith that it will come back, or at the very least to think imaginatively about ways to partially get it back. Partial may have to suffice for now. (You talk about this a lot in your work: Focus on making things *better,* not on total perfection.)

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

I gained and lost a healthy habit, which stands out to me as both a sunshiny beacon of hope—I can do it!—and a grim little monument to my own failure (How on Earth did you let that slip away?) It was this: For one glorious year, I meditated. Every day, twice a day, twenty minutes each time. It was the. Greatest. Thing. Ever. My sleep improved in ways I’d dared not hope for, at least as an adult. I was less reactive around my kid. I had more perspective around adults. I had more energy. Less twingy-annoying aches and pains. I should also emphasize how weird it was that I meditated in the first place: If the human body is made up of quadrillions of molecules, about six of mine are prone to New Age solutions to everyday anxieties. You have to show me several thousand peer-reviewed Western medical journals before I start contemplating such a thing. The literature on meditation convinced me—meditation isn’t New Age anyway, but thousands of years old—but then I went and did something extremely counterproductive: I Googled my mantra. You are, needless to say, not supposed to do anything of the sort. It sounds like the kind of thing Larry David would do. No good can come of it, and no good did. Once I’d Googled, I’d crossed some invisible Rubicon, because I read just enough stuff about TM to make me feel queasy about it—even though it was helping me. Enormously. I mean, at that point, it truly shouldn’t have mattered. Yet it did.

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

Ooooh, I have an answer for this, though I warn you now: It’s very trivial. But you did ask for something simple, so here goes: I love making healthy smoothies in the morning. They’re virtue in a cup! If I do nothing right all day long, I have at least started my day with the soothing ritual of peeling ginger and stripping kale away from its veins and throwing flax seeds into a blender, as if I were tossing rice at bride. And then I drink the whole mess, which means I’ve had at least one healthy meal.

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

Yes. I tend to classify too many things in my mind as “urgent”—work in particular—which gets in the way of my ability to regularize activities that are healthier and more fun. (Exercise being a particularly good example: I somehow think, I can always swim tomorrow, but I’m so behind on this thing I have to write/research/reply to that I’d better do it NOW.) I think lots of parents do this, working mothers in particular. It takes a lot of discipline to remember that minute-to-minute stuff is just that, STUFF, not a crisis. As a corollary to this problem: I’d say that replying too quickly to emails is a rotten habit of mine. So is checking them too frequently. All of us do this, but because I’m not much of a dopamine fiend—I’m not a big drinker or gambler or anything-elser—this must be how I get my fix. (It does not help, I should add, that my desk is in my bedroom. For this, I blame New York City real estate. Our place doesn’t have enough rooms for me to have a separate office at home.) Many parents talk to me about this too—again, with great guilt. They feel like they’re scanning their emails when they should be hanging out with their kids. I think all of us would benefit from better habits around this stuff, but we have to forgive ourselves too. As Sherry Turkle from MIT likes to say, “Just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.” We haven’t yet developed a set of norms about when to reply to emails. They also come intermittently, which, as we know from B.F. Skinner’s work with rats, is the single most satisfying reward schedule to our brains. It’s hard to resist checking our inboxes, knowing that something marvelous could appear in there at any time.

This said, I went on an email sabbatical this summer — by which I mean I stopped checking my email in the evenings and on weekends — and it was a revelation. Perfect in every way. I’m going to try to institute the evening rule again.

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

An Obliger, no question. For better and for worse. [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, the Quiz is here.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Interesting: I never thought of myself as a person with many habits. I don’t think I resist having them so much as fail to develop them in the first place, if you know what I mean. Some people are more reactive when it comes to life, particularly us Obligers—if something happens that we need to accommodate, we accommodate it. I’ve also never been a person who craved structure—I’m strikingly oblivious to pandemonium, and I’m perfectly delighted to keep things loose at all times (and this is probably good for parenting)—but I suspect habits would make me far happier, because I’m almost stupidly happy when someone supplies a routine for me. (And kids love routines. So that, too, is great for parenting.) It’s just not an Obliger’s instinct to actively seek one out, as you know.

“I Put the Device Face Down If My Daughter Wants To Talk or Physically Turn from the Screen”

Happiness interview: Ron Lieber.

Now, how do I know Ron Lieber? I can’t remember how I met him. For a long time, I’ve been a big fan of his work. He writes a thought-provoking, helpful personal-finance column, “Your Money,” for the New York Times, and also writes for the Motherlode blog there. Recently, he wrote a post that got a huge amount of buzz: Why you should tell your children how much you make.

He has a new book that’s just hitting the shelves this week. The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, which is an essential guidebook for any parents who want to talk sensibly with their children about money — and about good values related to money. This subject is very interesting and important, and I was particularly intrigued by the title, because I’ve often asked myself, what makes a person spoiled?

I was very eager to hear what Ron had to say.

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

Ron: That there’s an epidemic of silence around money in families, no matter how much they have and no matter where they live. Somewhere along the way, we decided that talking honestly with children about money is impolite or age-inappropriate or will scare them or cause them to be money grubbers. But having money or talking about it doesn’t subvert values. In fact, having the right conversations about it over a decade or two can actually imprint good habits like modesty, generosity and perseverance.

Given what you’ve learned, what habits do you think are most important for parents to try to instill in children?

We live in a world nowadays that conspires against waiting. You don’t have to wait through the commercials. You can pay to skip the line at the theme park. Everyone has their own phone line. Homes have more bathrooms.  But patience is good; it’s the foundation of saving, after all. Plus if kids have to wait a while before they buy and get things, the yearning just may pass (albeit on to the next thing that they must have right that very moment).

And let’s not forget curiosity. The primary job of a child is to learn how the world works, and it’s parents’ job to answer their questions. All of them.  Including the hard ones about money.

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

Expressing gratitude.

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

Holding a device or facing a computer screen while my daughter is trying to talk to me. It makes me feel like a bad dad. I now put the device face down if my daughter wants to talk or physically turn from the desktop screen and lock eyes with her to make sure she knows I’m fully present.

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

Automating every possible financial transaction. For me and my wife, this helps reduce anxiety around missing payments or not saving enough.

Soon, we’re going to start automating allowance payments into a virtual account for our daughter so we never have to worry about forgetting to give it to her or not having enough singles to pay her on the appointed day each week.

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

An Obliger. I do a decent job of meeting most people’s expectations of me, whether it’s editors or friends or family. But I’m not as nice to myself emotionally as I should be.

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

I write a weekly column for the New York Times, plus a post every two weeks for our parenting blog, Motherlode. It is an enormous privilege, but the deadline looms each and every Friday. My midnight Thursday eating habits are, well, deeply problematic.

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.?

The Apartment Therapy “landing strip” riff has completely changed the way I walk in the door when I come home each day and has made the logistics of arriving (and leaving) much more calm. Everyone has to check it out!

“I Tend to Let Myself Off the Hook If It’s ‘Only’ a Commitment to Myself”

Habits interview: Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

I’ve “known” Leo for years, though I’m not sure we’ve ever actually met in person. Maybe several years ago, very briefly. The crazy world of the internet! I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time, and now more than ever. (For reasons you’ll be able to guess.)

He has a terrific site, Zen Habits. He’s also doing a Kickstarter campaign to do a book, Zen Habits, that people are buzzing about. It’s about to end, so if you’re intrigued, act fast.

Naturally, I was eager to pose some habits questions to Leo — a person who is as interested in the subject as I am.

Gretchen: What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Leo: The most important thing I’ve developed is a flexible mindset: when a habit inevitably goes off track, I consider this a part of the process, and learn from it, and adapt. My old mindset was one of a fixed plan — I had a plan, and if it didn’t work, I felt like a failure. That’s a good recipe for getting derailed at the slightest bump in the road.

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

Exercise. I used to hate exercise, but now I feel great every time I have a great workout or run. I feel stronger, empowered, vigorous, joyful.

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

When I was younger, I knew I should form healthy habits, but would always put them off because life seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I could always eat healthier or exercise or get my finances in order later, because there will be time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I wasted a lot of time on useless distractions and junk food, and that if I had just done the habits I now love doing, I would be much better off. I wasted years of my life, precious time that I can’t get back. I don’t regret it, but I’m a bit wiser now.

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

I now know that I can be happy in any moment, if I’m present. So forgetting to be present is the only habit that gets in the way of that happiness. Which, of course, I do all the time!

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

Doing my creative work early, focusing on one thing at a time, being mindful, exercise, eating healthy vegan food, being grateful and compassionate. Not in that order.

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

Yes, I’ve changed dozens of habits. I started with quitting smoking, and then started running (eventually running several marathons and an ultramarathon), eating healthier, simplifying my life, waking early, eliminating debt, meditating, learning to focus, learning to trust myself.

I learned that focusing on one habit at a time worked best, and doing small habits was important. I would commit to others and ask them to hold me accountable, focus on mindfully enjoying the habit, anticipate disruptions, adapt when things went awry, progress gradually. And lean on others.

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

I’m an Obliger, for sure! I do really well when other people are expecting me to do something, when I have a commitment with someone else … but I tend to let myself off the hook if it’s “only” a commitment to myself.

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

Yes, I have lots of things that get in the way, but I’ve learned to take them in stride. Travel disrupts my exercise and eating habits, but I minimize the damage by eating vegan food and not overdoing it. Social gatherings also throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view. In the long run, unanticipated disruptions are a part of the journey, and aren’t a sign that you’re undisciplined or anything. I try to breathe, smile, and enjoy each step.

What Brooke Shields Says about Habits: Soul Cycle, Sleep, and More

Interview: Brooke Shields.

Last week, Brooke Shields and I did a breakfast event together, to benefit a terrific organization, Room To Grow, which enriches the lives of children born into poverty during the critical first three years of life.

Brooke Shields is, of course, the super-famous actor, model — and also writer. I’d read her thought-provoking book about postpartum depression, Down Came the Rain, and I’m well into her brand-new book: There Was a Little Girl: the Real Story of My Mother and Me.

Naturally I couldn’t resist asking if she’d do an interview on my blog.

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

Brooke Shields: Spin Class at Soul Cycle.

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

Sleep is more important than I ever realized.

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

Drinking beer.

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

Exercising and getting enough sleep are my most important things for a healthy lifestyle

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

Adding yoga to my routine while I was pregnant was a healthy habit I gained. Worrying about what other people though of me was an unhealthy habit I gave up after I had children and went to therapy.

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

UPHOLDER!!

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

Travel makes it difficult, but I always pack my gym clothes with the intention of exercising.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I crave consistency and order.

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

My friend Stacey Griffiths from Soul Cycle, he motivates me like nobody I have ever met.

When Changing Habits, “Be Careful Whom You Choose To Let in on Your Change Plan.”

Happiness and habits interview: Brian Little.

I’d heard about the work of Dr. Brian Little from many pals of mine who are interested in the same kinds of subjects that interest me: human nature, habits, happiness, research, etc.

So I was very pleased to get my hands on his new book, Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

In fact, just yesterday, I wrote about some of the research he discusses, in the post: Which of these 8 types describes you, as you relate to your environment?

Just reading the subtitle of Brian Little’s book was enough to show me that he and I have many interests in common, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say about his own habits and happiness.

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

Brian Little: In the first chapter of Me, Myself and Us, I talk about how our “personal constructs” shape our lives.  These are the conceptual goggles through which we view ourselves and others and typically take the form of concepts like “bright” “lover of cats” “stupid” “sexy” “utterly disorganized” etc.   Sometimes these personal constructs become so habitual that they decrease our degrees of freedom to live well and wisely.  [Gretchen: In my habits framework, I call this the “Strategy of Identity.”] Similarly with our personal projects which I feature in the closing chapters.  While personal constructs are ways of thinking; personal projects are deeds that we do in our daily lives.  They too can become calcified, predictable and stale and there are ways in which we can begin the progress of redesigning our personal projects so that we are more likely to thrive and flourish.

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

I have the habit of reflexively trying not to be habitual.  Some might regard this as chimerical.

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

That you need to let others know about your resolve to engage in healthy habits–its hard to do sustain them if you are the only one aware of them.  But be careful whom you choose to let in on your change plan.  In Me, Myself and Us, I discuss various dimensions of personality that would not be conducive to helping you in a nurturing and supportive fashion.  And the characteristics that might work for me might not work for you.

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

My tendency toward perfectionism.  But it helps with other aspects of my well-being–like a sense of efficacious achievement (which can be quite joyous in its own way).

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

The habit of alacrity–responding eagerly to the unfolding opportunities in life.  Even if they force me to act out of my comfort zone.  I am a biogenic introvert, but my passion is being a university professor and professing often requires that I act out of character–that I act as a pseudo-extravert–to convey with gusto (one student called it pesto!) the field of personality psychology to my students.  I think the key to successful professing is to have highly combustible students and then light a match.  If I were habitually opposed to lighting matches my deepest core projects would remain unfulfilled.  And this applies to the pursuit of all core projects in our lives.  They sometimes enjoin us to act out of character and much of Me, Myself and Us is concerned with examining how we do this in our lives.  Acting out of character can be exhausting, however, and we need to find restorative niches in which we can return to our more natural psychological state.  I find restrooms in which I can hide after a lecture to be particularly salutary.  Susan Cain spent part of Chapter Nine in her Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describing how this can sometimes lead to embarrassing interactions.  I expand further in my own book.  

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

I quit smoking by sheer bloody mindedness in early adulthood.

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

Because I value alacrity I would say that I am generally an Upholder.  But I am rather skeptical of “fixed” traits and can often be a Rebel, particularly when I feel that there have been unreasonable constraints placed upon the pursuit of my core projects or of those I love.

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

The slings and arrows of outrageous overload prevent me from being as vigorously healthy as I might be.  But I guess I need to weigh whether being say, ten pounds lighter, or supple and super strong would be worth trading off for avuncular warmth, laughter and the capacity to chill and enjoy life.  Some people can do it, but I’m not so sure I could.  That said, I recently gave a talk to 500 fitness experts and came away emboldened to become svelte.  The glow lasted for 18 hours.

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.?  

When I met Susan, my wife, I was struck by a lightning bolt that changed me and my habits forever, but the details shall remain between us.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?    

Depends on the habit.  I don’t embrace resistance unless matters of honour are at stake.  

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

Do cats count?