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

Want to get the "Moment of Happiness"? A daily happiness quotation in your inbox. Sign up here close daily quote

Do You Love Numbered Lists? Here Are Some Lists to Help with Your Habits.

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

This Wednesday: a round-up of numbered lists to help you shape your habits.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m working on a book called Better than Before, about how we make or break habits — which is an intensely fascinating subject. (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

With habits, and happiness, and everything else, I’ve always been attracted to organizing information according to numbered lists — this process helps me think clearly and remember better.

Slight tangent: I get a tremendous kick out of the numbered lists that pop up throughout Buddhism: the Triple Refuge, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It was surprising to me that Buddhism, with its emphasis on gateless gates and transcending the bounds of rational thinking, has so many of these numbered lists. I love them, but still, it seems incongruous. There’s a koan to be written about it, that’s for sure. Like, “Use numbers to throw away enumeration.”

Here are some numbered lists that are useful for habit-formation — presented, of course, in a numbered list:

1. The Four Tendencies

When it comes to making a habits, it’s crucial to know how you tend to respond to expectations: both outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  1. Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  2. Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (myhusband is a Questioner)
  3. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  4. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.


2. The Foundation Four

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Good habits foster good habits. Change fosters change.

Certain habits seem to be particularly important; they serve as the Foundation for other habits. I always remind myself, “First things first.” That is, pay attention to the obvious before worrying about more subtle concerns.

Foundation habits keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow our healthy habits more easily.

From my observation, the four Foundation habits are:

The Strategy of Foundation holds that when you’re trying to change some habits, think about strengthening your Foundation.

3. The Essential Seven

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 (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save, spend, and earn wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, stay current with expense reports)

4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself)

5. Stop procrastinating, accomplish more (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, clean, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing)

7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read the Bible every day, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature)

4. The Ten Categories of Loopholes. I love this list; loopholes are hilarious.

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself”

5. Planning to fail loophole — “I walked into this bakery to buy a bottle of water”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “the label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

How about you? Do you like reading or making numbered lists? It gives an illusion of control — an illusion, perhaps, but a helpful illusion.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

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.

Revealed! Book Club Choices for July. Happy Reading.

Stitched PanoramaBecause nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

I’ll post these recommendations here, or to make sure you don’t miss them, sign up for the monthly Book Club newsletter.

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD,, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds. So I won’t describe these books, but I love all the books I recommend; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely loved. If you want a little more explanation of why I picked these books, I do provide slightly more context in the book club newsletter.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Daily Rituals; Jane-Emily; and The Design of Everyday Things. All so good.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

Drumroll, Please…Announcing the Title of My Forthcoming Book on Habits.

HabitsRepeatFourI may have mentioned that I’ve been struggling to find a new title for my forthcoming book on habits. At last, I have a title, and it’s better than before. In fact, it’s…Better than Before!

Better than Before: Making and Breaking Our Everyday Habits to Be Happier, Stronger, and More Productive (Really).

The subtitle may change a bit, but that’s the idea.

I hope you like the title, but if you don’t — please, don’t tell me. Done is done, and nothing suits everyone. We must beware the power of the negativity bias.

If you’d like to hear when Better than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

It’s such a relief to have that settled. I’m just about done editing, too. Next hurdle: the cover. Yikes. Getting a great cover is so important, and so tough. Wish me luck.

This milestone reminds me to say thank you, dear readers, as always, for your thoughtful comments here on the blog. My understanding of the subject is much deeper than it would have been if I hadn’t heard from so many of you, on so many different aspects of your habit-formation experiences.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

“Truly to Enjoy Bodily Warmth, Some Small Part of You Must Be Cold.”

melville“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.  Nothing exists in itself.  If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This explains one of the joys of camping.

Agree, disagree?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

“If I Didn’t Take Drastic Steps I Wasn’t Going To Be Around for My Son.”

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Better than Before, 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 hear when Better than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Angela Peinado:

I believed myself to be Wonder Woman and loved when people used to say “I don’t know how you do it all.” I would never say “no” to anything. I loved the recognition and praise. This Wonder Woman Habit came tumbling down fast and hard. I found myself working a 40 hour/week job, teaching one or two nights a week, finishing up my dissertation, part of my son’s school advisory council, home room mom, volunteering for a large community event, on top of being a wife and mom.


I was feeling stress and the beginning stages of anxiety. My sleep habits were out of whack, not to mention my eating schedule. I had gone to the doctor because I wasn’t feeling good (wonder why), and she starting asking me questions about my daily habits. She almost flipped off her stool and said I had to let some things go. I walked out saying OK but then didn’t do a thing (except added on a church committee).


One day, every single thing I was doing either had questions I needed to answer, problem to address, or deadlines for that day. I just lost it and felt this thing happening inside me but couldn’t tell what. My heart was beating fast, had shaky palms, and felt this exhaustion I never had before. My first thought was I was having a stroke. Nope! It was a full fledged panic attack. My doctor then said if I didn’t take drastic steps I was not going to be around for my son. Talk about a wake up call.


I refocused my life, read well-being books, meditated, took some me time, and learned how to relax. Slowly the Wonder Woman habit wants to sneak up but I have to learn I can say no. This was a tough habit to break, since I had been doing it as long as I had. Slowly my life is becoming something I am proud of and do not care what others may say or think. This was the toughest habit to break and it took a long time to recover, but I did and and work hard each day to be mindful and find that balance.

This is what I call the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

Discussions of habit-change often emphasize the importance of repeating an action, over and over, until it becomes automatic, and such repetition does indeed help to form habits. However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt takes its power from knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.

The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command.

A milestone event, whether positive or negative—a panic attack, as in this example, or a marriage, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, a long journey taken alone—often triggers a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed — whether gradually, as in this example, or perhaps even overnight?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.