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

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Video: For Habits, Try the Strategy of Monitoring.

This week’s video: I’m starting a 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 the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Last week was the Strategy of Self-Knowledge. This is the first, crucial strategy.

This week — the Strategy of Monitoring. (Which is one of the four “Pillars of Habits, ” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.)

Please excuse the typo in the video. I see it, but I can’t easily fix it. (Secret of Adulthood: Flawed can be more perfect than perfection. Right?)

 

Monitoring is an observational strategy. It doesn’t require that I change what I’m doing, only that I know what I’m doing. This is crucial to habit formation, because once I recognize what I’m doing, I may choose to behave differently.

Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it. Tracking boosts self-control in key categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV- and internet-use, spending—and just about anything else.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for habits: “We manage what we monitor.” Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control. And on the flip side, anything that makes us lose self-awareness weakens our self-mastery. Alcohol makes it all too easy to place giant bets at a casino; a long, stressful day can lead to a night of online binge-shopping; vacationing with a group of friends can make it easy to blow through a personal budget.

Actual measurement is crucial, because when we guess what we’re doing, we’re often wildly inaccurate. Unsurprisingly, we tend to under-estimate how much we eat and over-estimate how much we exercise.

Have you found ways to monitor yourself — and did you find that it changed your habits?

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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.

Do You Love Familiarity or Novelty?

yalelawschoolreadingroom_1182786813I’m working on a book about how to make and break habits, and here’s the most important thing I’ve learned:

If you’re trying to form a habit, the first — and most important — thing to do is to know yourself. What works for you?

Many discussions of habit argue for one particular method — with the unspoken assumption that everyone forms habits in the same way, everyone wants habits equally, and if a strategy works for one person, it will work for everyone. But that’s just not true, as is obvious from everyday life. We have to know ourselves, and suit our habits to our nature.

You might think it would be easy to know yourself, but in fact, it’s very difficult. As novelist John Updike observed, “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.”

In my habits book, I explore the many strategies that people can use to change their habits. One is the Strategy of Distinctions, in which I outline different categories of people. Often, getting a glimpse of some aspect of yourself that you’ve never before recognized, or just having a word for it, is surprisingly helpful.

For instance…

Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%. This was a HUGE revelation for me.

Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.

Are you more drawn to simplicity or to abundance? I’m more drawn to simplicity.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? (categories formerly known as “tortoises and hares,” but I changed the terms). I’m a marathoner.

And here’s a new one:  Are you a Familiarity-lover or a Novelty-lover?

Some people love familiarity; some love novelty. I’m definitely in the familiarity camp. I love to re-read my favorite books and to watch movies over and over. I eat the same foods, more or less, every day.  I like returning to places I’ve visited before. Other people thrive on doing new things.

For familiarity-lovers, a habit becomes easier as it becomes familiar. When I felt intimidated by the library when I started law school, I made myself walk through it a few times each day, until I felt comfortable enough to work there. When I started blogging, my unfamiliarity with the mechanics of posting made me dread to attempt it. But I forced myself to post every day, so that the foreign became familiar, and the difficult became automatic.

Novelty-lovers may embrace habits more readily when they seem less…habit-like. A guy told me, “I feel stale when I go to work every day and see the same faces all the time, so once a week, I work in a different satellite office, to shake thing up.”

How about you? Are you more attracted to familiarity or novelty? How does that preference affect your habits?

My habits book comes out March 2015. Do you want to be notified when it goes on sale? Of course you do! Sign up here.

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“And Yet He Didn’t Know that He Was Happy, Exactly.”

animalfamily“The days went by for him, all different and all the same. The boy was happy, and yet he didn’t know that he was happy, exactly: he couldn’t remember having been unhappy. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: “Do you like your life?” he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: “Can you not like it?”

– Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family

The Animal Family is a wonderful, quiet, mysterious children’s book, with beautiful illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

I love this quotation. Yet it raises the question: Can you be happy without knowing that you’re happy? According to my Fourth Splendid Truth, no.

I agree with Eugene Delacroix, who wrote, “He was like a man owning a piece of ground in which, unknown to himself, a treasure lay buried. You would not call such a man rich, neither would I call happy the man who is so without realizing it.”

What do you think?

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“I’ve Cultivated the Habit of Hard Work, Which Is Deeply Satisfying.”

teicholzHabits interview: Nina Teicholz.

I’m hard at work on my book about habits, and it focuses on how to change a habit – whatever you want your habit to be. Whether you want to start flossing, stop procrastinating about writing your novel,  get more sleep, spend more time with friends, or however you might want to see change. (If you want to know when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Most of us have some habits that we’d like to make or break. A few years ago, I changed my eating habits. For one thing, I used to eat non-fat everything — non-fat yogurt, skim milk, egg-white omelets, turkey burgers — and now, based on the research I’ve read (borne out by my personal experience), I embrace the full-fat version of everything.

Nina Teicholz has written a fascinating book, The Big Fat Surprise, which is a deep look at this question. In this book, which has generated a tremendous amount of discussion since it came out, she explores why we came to believe that the macro-nutrient fat is bad for our health — and why it really isn’t bad for our health. Really. Even saturated fat is fine. It may be hard to believe, I know, but the research is very compelling. The arguments are complex, so I won’t summarize them here, but this heavily researched account takes you through the debate.

By chance, she and I live very near each other, so recently we met for lunch (which included fat).

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

Nina: The research for my book led me to conclude that the saturated fats in meat, cheese and eggs are not bad for health. In fact, they are essential parts of a healthy diet. Also, fat does not make you fat.

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

I’ve taken a good hard look at the past year–the result of working like crazy to finish my book–and have to conclude that I have few good habits. I hardly do anything in a routine way and don’t take time for myself. Work and motherhood have stretched me thin. However, I make time to read to my boys every night, which is a wonderful way for us to all be together. I call my mom regularly–that always cheers me up. And I’ve cultivated the habit of hard work, which is deeply satisfying.

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

Yes, of course. I fail to exercise regularly, rarely sit down to eat properly, and allow myself to obsess about things I can’t change. I have, however, achieved a state of enlightenment about how bad these habits are for me and know that one day, I’ll get my act together.

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72 Lines to Jump-Start Your Brain.

marriageofheavenandhellI love paradoxes, koans, parables, proverbs, Secrets of Adulthood, and aphorisms. Last night, I started to think about poet William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, from his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, so I went to re-read it.

I’d forgotten how much I loved it, so I’m re-posting it today.

Blake’s “Hell,” by the way, is not the traditional Hell, but a place of “unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy” (at least that’s what Wikipedia says).

These proverbs are thought-provoking. When I read them, I feel like I’ve had a jump-start to my brain — new, unexpected thoughts come to me.

I don’t agree with all of these proverbs, and I certainly don’t understand all of them, but I love reading them. I’ve put some of my favorites in bold:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. [Agree, disagree?]

Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

The cut worm forgives the plow. 

Dip him in the river who loves water. [I love this but not sure exactly what it means]

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.

The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.

All wholsom food is caught without a net or a trap.

Bring out number, weight & measure in a year of dearth.

No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

A dead body, revenges not injuries.

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

Folly is the cloke of knavery.

Shame is Pride’s cloke.

~

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.

The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.

The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself. [This one has a lot of significance for habits.]

Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.

Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.

The selfish smiling fool, & the sullen frowning fool, shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.

What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit: watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.

The cistern contains; the fountain overflows. [I looked it up: "cistern" is a tank for storing water]

One thought, fills immensity.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.

The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

~

The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.

Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.

He who has suffer’d you to impose on him knows you.

As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Expect poison from the standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!

The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.

The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse,  how he shall take his prey.

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.

If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

The soul of sweet delight, can never be defil’d.

When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!

As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages.

Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.

The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.

Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!

Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

~

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands &  feet Proportion.

As the air to a bird of the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.

The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.

Exuberance is Beauty. [this is my very favorite; I've loved this aphorism for a long time]

If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement,  are roads of Genius.

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

Where man is not nature is barren.

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.

Enough! or Too much!

Which are your favorites? Or do you passionately disagree with some?

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