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

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Do You Agree with Tolstoy’s Rules of Life?

birchEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz day.

This Wednesday: 10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Tolstoy. I love his fiction, and for that reason keep feeling compelled to learn more about his life, but then am driven away by his faults. I should stay away from Tolstoy biographies and just read his novels.

In any event, for happiness-project purposes, Tolstoy is particularly fascinating — both because he wrote so extensively about happiness and because he made and broke so many resolutions himself. Spectacularly.

In Henri Troyat’s biography, Tolstoy, which I never did finish, because I found Tolstoy so maddening, Troyat includes an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life.” Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old.

Some of these rules are daily habits of life, and some are more like Personal Commandments. From my own experience, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between different types of life “rules.”

Given my current obsession with habits, for the book I’m writing about habit-formation, I was very interested in the habits that Tolstoy wanted to cultivate. (If you want to know when my masterpiece about habits goes on sale, sign up here.)

Here’s a partial list of Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life”:

-Get up early (five o’clock)
-Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)
-Eat little and avoid sweets
-Try to do everything by yourself
-Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater
-Keep away from women
-Kill desire by work
-Be good, but try to let no one know it
-Always live less expensively than you might
-Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

Apart from the specifics of this particular list, I’m always interested to see when great minds take this approach. Taking the time to write your resolutions, or your personal manifesto, is an endeavor that can help us be more aware of the elements of a happy life. Everyone’s list of rules would be different; certainly Tolstoy’s list reflects him.

Have you written your own Rules of Life, or manifesto, or the like? Has it helped you better to live up to your own standards for yourself?

Gold star for anyone who can find the complete list online. I looked everywhere, but so far, no luck. One of these days I’ll have to go get Volume 46 of the Tolstoy Complete Works from the New York Public Library.

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Foundation.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My book describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when this masterpiece goes on sale, sign up here.

Last week was the Strategy of Scheduling — one of my favorite strategies (yes, I do have favorites, I must confess.) This is an Upholder favorite, and one of the least favorites of Rebels.

This week is the Strategy of Foundation.


To sum up, from my observation, the four Foundation habits are:


How about you? Do you find that when your Foundation is strong, it’s easier to stick to other habits?

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Do You Prefer Childlike Wonder or Adultlike Wonder?

starsinskyThe other night, I was at a dinner party, and a new acquaintance told me that he wanted to cultivate a life of childlike wonder and adventure.

I was intrigued. What an interesting aim.

I was particularly struck by his use of the adjective “childlike.” He used this phrase, “childlike wonder,” a few times, so clearly it was very meaningful to him. (This phrase also reminded me of Betty MacDonald’s remark about how she felt a “wonderful, joyous, childhood feeling of expectancy” when she went down to the beach after a storm.)

That got me thinking about the difference between “childlike wonder” and “adultlike wonder.”

Childlike wonder, it seems to me, is the wonder that comes from being new to the world, from the novelty of experience. There’s something special about the first time we do or see anything — and obviously children will be much closer to that state. Children’s wonder will be less mixed by outside associations and emotions. (By the way, novelty is very important for happiness; people who do novel things are happier than those who don’t.)

Adultlike wonder, by contrast, is the wonder that comes from experience and understanding. Some things are made more marvelous with knowledge. At the same time, adults’ wonder might be mixed with frustration, ambition, or other complicated emotions.

Imagine that a four-year-old child and an adult astrophysicist go out to gaze at a night sky ablaze with stars. The child will feel one kind of wonder; the astrophysicist will feel another kind of wonder.

Neither kind of wonder is better, or truer, or more meaningful — but I imagine some people are more attracted to the idea of childlike wonder, others to adultlike wonder. (Once again, I find myself dividing the world into two categories. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.)

For my part, I must say, I’m attracted to adultlike wonder. I find that the more I put into something, the more I get out of it. I wondered at the genius of Little House in the Big Woods when I was a young girl, and I wonder at it now — but because I bring so much more to the book now, as an adult, I take more from it. But it’s true, I’ll never again experience the wonder I felt when I read the book for the first time.

I can’t resist another allusion to children’s literature. In C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the child Lucy meets Aslan, the great lion who is the creator and ruler of Narnia, after some time.  She tells him, “Aslan, you’re bigger.” Aslan replies, “That is because you are older,” and explains, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

What appeals more to you — childlike wonder or adultlike wonder?

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“The Granite Peaks of the Inevitable…Rubble from the Landslips of Chance.”

yourcenar“The landscape of my days appears to be composed, like mountainous regions, of varied materials heaped up pell-mell. There I see my nature, itself composite, made up of equal parts of instinct and training. Here and there protrude the granite peaks of the inevitable, but all about is rubble from the landslips of chance.”

– Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations, from Sigmund Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets” in The Freud Reader. I managed to work this quotation into my new book about habits — enormously satisfying:

“The names of the three spinners have been interpreted significantly…Lachesis, the name of the second, seems to mean ‘the accidental within the decrees of destiny’ while Atopos means ‘the inevitable’ and for Clotho ‘the fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world.’”

I often think:  What are my fateful tendencies? What is the role of instinct and training? How does chance play a role? Etc., etc.

What do you think?

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A Secret to Good Habits and Happiness? Know Your Zone.

thezoneI needed to set a meeting time with someone, and she said, “I know my zone. Let’s meet at 11:00.”

I was instantly intrigued by this phrase, “know my zone,” and I asked, “Why 11:00? Why is that ‘your zone?’”

She said, “I know from experience that if something’s important, I should schedule for 11:00. Any earlier, and I might be late or feel rushed. I have to drop off my sons at school, commute into the city, all that. I need a big margin. Plus, by 11:00 I’m wide awake and in the swing of my day. If I schedule something after lunch, I’m more tired and distracted. I get a lot of work done, but I use the 11:00 slot for what’s most important.”

By chance, I was talking to a writer friend about his habits, and he told me, “I never write before noon.” Now, this is interesting, because one of the most popular pieces of advice about good habits — and specifically about the habit of writing — is to write first thing in the day, because your mind is clearer, you have more energy, etc. This is certainly true for me. So I asked him why he doesn’t write before noon.

“I’m foggy,” he said. “It takes me a while to get going. By noon I’m ready.”

These exchanges reminded me of one of the most important things I’ve learned about habits, as I’ve been writing my new book: there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. (Want to hear when this masterpiece goes on sale? Sign up here.)

Some people — maybe most people — do better when they schedule important habits for the morning, but that’s not true for everyone. Along the same lines, some people do better when they start small; others when they start big. Some people like a lot of activity and stimulation; others prefer quiet and simplicity.

We don’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Each of us needs to figure out our zone. Self-knowledge! Everything in habits and happiness comes down to self-knowledge.

Do you know your zone? I’m a morning person, and I know that very well about myself.

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