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

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What Habit Would Add the Most to Your Happiness? Does It Fall in These Five Categories?

hand_printEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Do you want to foster habits in one of these five areas?

My current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. 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. Or not.

When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

When I think about the habits that I wanted to cultivate, or talk to people about their happiness challenges, it seems as though just about every habit that people seek to make or break falls into the “Big Five”:

1. Eat and drink more healthfully

2. Exercise regularly

3. Rest and relax

4. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress

 5. Organize, clear, and simplify

Does this ring true to you? Are there any habits that you try to foster that don’t fall into one of these categories?

The Big Five reflect the fact that we often feel both tired and wired. We feel exhausted, but also feel jacked up on adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar. We feel frantically busy, but also feel that we’re not spending enough time on the things that really matter. We want to use our time well, but we fritter away hours on activities that are neither particularly fun nor particularly productive.

I call these habit areas the “Big Five,” but I really want to come up with a catchier phrase. Any suggestions?

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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.

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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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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