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

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Secret of Adulthood: Schedule Time to Be Unscheduled.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

ScheduleTimeToBeUnscheduled_12_124818

 

For me, if something isn’t on my schedule, it doesn’t happen. Which is why I have some slightly ridiculous items on my schedule: to kiss my husband every morning and every night; t0 force myself to wander; and something I talk about in Before and After (my forthcoming book on habit-formation), Power Hour.

In fact, the Strategy of Scheduling is one of the most popular and effective strategies of habit-formation. If we put an activity on the calendar, we’re much more likely to do, and in this way, make it into a habit. Even if the activity on your schedule is to make some time…to be unscheduled.

Do you schedule time to be unscheduled? Or do you think that sounds nuts?

NOTE THE NEW FEATURE: I’ve added a Pin It button to the top of the post, so you can easily pin to Pinterest (I’m there myself.)

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I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

Did You See the Movie “Enough Said”? And Some Thoughts on Shared Work.

enough_said_640Of all the posts I’ve written in the last few years, one of my favorites is Resentful? Overworked? Face these painful facts about shared work.

The fact is, shared work is a very common source of argument and resentment among people — in couples, in group houses, at work, in families. Anyplace where people have to divide work.

I thought of the challenge of shared work when I was watching the movie Enough Said.  (You know, the one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.)

There are seven rules of shared work, and the movie highlights three of them:

1. Work done by other people seems easy.

2. When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

3. If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF.

Eva is a massage therapist who goes to people’s homes. When she visits the home of one particular client, she has to lug her heavy massage table up a set of steep outdoor stairs to get to his front door.

Here’s where the shared work problem arises (I’m paraphrasing the movie from memory here):

Eva tells a friend, “He’s such a jerk! He sees me carry this heavy table and doesn’t help. Each time this happens, he probably feels more and more aware of the fact that he’s being so inconsiderate, but still, he doesn’t help. The more times I carry it alone, the more he’s in debt to me for what I’m doing, single-handed.”

But what’s the client thinking? Probably…nothing.

Probably, the more times Eva carries the table upstairs, the less likely the client is to think about the hassle. He doesn’t realize how heavy the table is, because he’s never carried it. This job is in her territory; it likely never crosses his mind to lend a hand.

And indeed, when Eva finally stops on the stairs and asks for help, he rushes to help her and exclaims, “Wow, this is heavy!”

Understanding the dynamics behind shared work — and, more important, the work that isn’t being shared — can help us figure out how to handle any conflicts more readily.

Have you faced a problem with shared work, the way Eva did? Now I’m trying to remember what happened in that episode of The Office when no one would clean out the microwave…

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“Old Rubbish! Old Letters, Old Clothes, Old Objects that One Does Not Want to Throw Away.”

Jules-Renard“Oh! Old rubbish! Old  letters, old clothes, old objects that one does not want to throw away. How well nature has understood that, every year, she must change her leaves, her flowers, her fruit and her vegetables, and make manure out of the mementos of her year!”

–Jules Renard, Journal

Do you feel that getting rid of “old rubbish” helps to make you feel more energetic, more creative, more vital? As I study habits and happiness, I find myself doing a crazy amount of thinking about clutter.

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Before and After: Use the Nuclear Option to Hold Yourself Accountable.

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.


This week’s story comes from Brian Carroll.

I picked up smoking when I studied abroad in Vietnam. The father of my host family didn’t speak English, but he smoked, so he encourage me to join him. Open to new experiences, I went from zero to a pack a day in one week.

 

That pack-a-day habit stuck with me for three years while I tried everything to quit smoking — set deadlines, cursed my lack of willpower, thought that switching to a tobacco pipe was somehow better. It was terrible.

 

Of the hundred ways I tried to quit, here’s what worked: I set a date in advance that held meaning for me (the one year anniversary of graduating college), I wrote out a long list of both the things I hated about smoking, and the things I loved about smoking (so I knew the tradeoffs), and then — what I consider the innovative part — I hand-wrote fifteen letters to friends and family members saying “If, after May 20, 2001, I ever smoke another cigarette, I will pay you $200.” I sent these letter particularly to friends who themselves were smokers.

 

When the date came, I gave away my remaining cigarettes, lighters and accessories. I scheduled new after-work activities to break up my routines for a couple of weeks. And I noticed a funny thing: my smoking friends, who had previously tried to lure me back to smoking in my earlier quitting attempts, were now constantly handing me cigarettes — then reminding me of the money I was going to pay them if I accepted the cigarette. “This cigarette will cost you $200″ my friends would say. The letters had turned my enablers into enforcers. Needless to say, when that one cigarette would cost me $3000, it was easier to refuse it.

 

And that was it. I still love smoking, and really wish I could smoke. But I went from a pack a day to zero, cold turkey in May 20, 2001 and haven’t smoked again.

In Before and After, I identify the twenty-one strategies we can use to shape our habits, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Accountability. By recruiting others to hold us accountable, we increase our chances of success — of course, this is especially true for Obligers.

I call this dramatic kind of accountability measure — staking a lot of money on compliance with a habit — as  a “nuclear option.” A nuclear option is when there’s some major drawback to breaking a habit. For some people, this really helps.

A friend told me about how his mother used the nuclear option. “She gave up alcohol for a month, and if she had a drink before her time was up, she promised to give money to her grandsons to buy video games. She considers that a terrible waste of money.”

“Did she stick to it?”

“Yes, and it was funny to hear my nephews beg her, ‘Come on, Grandma! Have a drink!’”

You can set up a nuclear option online, using sites like StickK.com.

Also, it was a very good idea to give away anything that served as a smoking cue, such as cigarettes, lighters, accessories. — that’s the Strategy of Safeguards — and breaking up the routine — that’s the Strategy of the Clean Slate. I’ve noticed that when people conquer a challenging habit, often they’ve employ multiple strategies. We all need all the help we can get.

Have you ever used the nuclear option in the Strategy of Accountability to help yourself stick to a habit you wanted to shape? How?

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“The Constant Temptation to Succumb to a Mindless Habit Like Checking Email Is a Constant Threat.”

nir-eyalHabits interview: Nir Eyal.

I first learned about Nir Eyal through his terrific blog, Nir and Far, which is about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Then I met him at a conference, and had a chance to talk to him in person. A few weeks ago, I read his thought-provoking new book, Hooked: a Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products. Next month, I’m speaking at a summit he’s putting together, on the subject of habits (March 25, Stanford University).

So I couldn’t wait to interview Nir, to hear more about what he’s thinking.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Nir: I think I’ve been most fascinated and surprised by how products change our daily habits. Many of our behaviors are in fact designed for us — that’s a scary thought but it can also be a good thing. If we allow some habits to get out of hand, we can find ourselves in a mindless reactionary vortex of Facebook checking and email pecking. However, I think we may also be on the precipice of an age where forming new healthful habits becomes easier than ever. If used to enhance our lives, new devices may actually provide the cues to prompt us to alter our actions in positive ways that help us lead richer and more meaningful lives.

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

What makes me happy is not succumbing to certain habits. As a writer, I depend on focused concentration to synthesize new ideas. To me, the constant temptation to succumb to a mindless habit like checking email is a constant threat. I feel consistently happier when I successfully overcome habits I don’t want in my life and maintain focus on the things I want to accomplish. Truth be told, this isn’t easy and I’ve had to implement several strategies to prevent distraction. When I work for example, I use a program to shut off the Internet for a fixed period of time and makes it impossible to turn back on — that’s the only way I can get any writing done.

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

One thing I now know about habits that I didn’t when I was younger was that one size does not fit all. There is a popular myth that bad habits can be overcome and good habits can be formed through sheer will power —  I think that’s just not true. I think there are four distinct types of behaviors and each requires its own method for change. For example some behaviors require tiny repetitious changes to take hold, like starting a flossing habit. However other behaviors, like smoking cessation, can’t be stopped with the same strategy. Each type of behavior requires the appropriate change method. I write more about this in an article on how to design behavior change.

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

Sure, I constantly struggle with technology habits — that’s probably why I’m so fascinated with habit-forming products. My wife and I had to take some drastic action to regain the love life our gadgets had destroyed. (See: here.) I’m glad to say though that by understanding how products change our habits, we could begin to unravel the behaviors that weren’t serving us.

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

Rebel, for sure. [In fact, my conversation with Nir about how he sees things, and how he manages himself, as a Rebel, is one of the most illuminating conversations I've had on the subject of the Rubin Tendencies.]

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

Disrupting my routines really throws me off. I’m happiest when I can effortlessly begin doing the things that are most important to me. However, most of these things (like researching, writing, and exercising) can be difficult at times. So the key for me is to remove triggers for the bad habits that distract me from my objectives. Having a predictable routine helps me not have to think about what to do next.

Have you ever made a flash change, 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.?

Every household changes certain habits after a baby is born and we were no exception. But with the exclusion of a big life change like a move or a new baby, I’ve never successfully made a dramatic sudden habit change. New Year’s resolutions have never stuck for me. However, I have made several small changes, which over time have had big results. For example, with food, I give up the things I know are not good for me but that I also know I won’t miss. Many people do the opposite and I think that’s a mistake. They want to lose weight so they give up their favorite desert. That method requires way too much will power. Instead, I give up the things I don’t really like, bit by bit, but commit to it for the rest of my life. Giving up things you won’t really miss is easy. For example, when I wanted to drink less soda, I decided to only drink it in restaurants. For me, not having soda in the house was not a big deal but it cut down on a few drinks a week. Then, about a year later, I decided I’d cut out a bit more and would only drink sodas with a burger or on airplanes. Later, I decided sodas would be a treat only during flights. Finally, I gave them up all together. The process took about two years but no step felt like a sacrifice. I promised myself I would not make the change until I was ready to stop that behavior for the rest of my life and I gave myself the time to change.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Both! I seek to understand how to create healthy habits and break the bad ones.

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

My wife has had a huge impact. Triggers are a very important factor in stopping or starting new habits. I’ve found it is nearly impossible to stop bad habits or start new ones without my wife on board.

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