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

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Farewell, I’m Off for a Week.

winsteadsI’m off for a week’s family vacation, in my hometown of Kansas City (Missouri, for those of you in the know).

Each year we visit my parents, and do all our favorite KC things: eat at Winstead’s and The Mixx; visit the library; shop on the Plaza; go to Worlds of Fun; walk through the Kauffman Gardens and the Nelson-Atkins Museum; go to the playground in Loose Park; etc. I also plan to do some binge-reading.

One of the Secrets of Adulthood for Habits is: Sometimes, if I want to keep going, I have to allow myself to stop.

In fact, research suggests that people who take vacations get a boost in life perspective and productivity.

Do you love to visit your hometown? Or do you still live there? I love visiting Kansas City.

I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

With Habits, “It Helps to Adopt Simple Rules.”

sunstein_qa002_16x9Habits interview: Cass Sunstein.

I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, my book about habits, which focuses on how to change a habit – whatever you want your particular habit to be.  (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

As part of my research, I’ve read innumerable books and papers on various topics related to habits. One of my favorite sources is the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

I started my career in law, so I knew a lot about American legal scholar Cass Sunstein and his work. Nudge, however, isn’t about law. It’s about how people and institutions can “nudge” behavior, to help people achieve better health, better finances, and better outcomes in many different areas, by shaping default choices that lead people to make better habits (often, without even realizing it), and by making better choices easier. “Choice architecture” takes advantage of the Strategy of Convenience: the simple facts that many people choose the default decision presented to them, rather than take the trouble to choose for themselves, and that when things are easier, we more likely to do them, and when things are harder, we’re less likely to do them (for good and for ill).

Sunstein and Thaler offer many practical suggestions about how to put this approach into practice; people are still free to make their own decisions, but they’ve been “nudged” in the right direction.

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

Cass: Probably this: It helps to adopt simple rules, which are easy to follow. For example: Exercise on specific days every week.  I play squash (an obscure racquet sport), and it’s good to have a plan to play with a specific person at a specific time every Monday, and another every Wednesday, and another every Friday. In fact it’s often best to adopt a practice that operates by default, meaning that unless you take active steps to alter the practice, you’re on the path you want. Example: Pay bills (credit cards, mortgage, etc.) automatically and electronically, so that you’re in the habit (so to speak) even if you aren’t thinking about bills at all. Habitual behavior isn’t something that we have to work at — though it might take a lot of work to make certain behavior habitual, or to turn something that is a struggle into part of life’s furniture.

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

That one’s tastes can change a lot, and that you often like some things more, or dislike them less, when you keep doing them. When I was 18 years old, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which new habits and new tastes can develop over time — and how much control people ultimately have over their own habits.

Here’s something that I also didn’t know: In thinking about habits, it’s useful to focus on two things: the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. That sounds like econo-speak, and it is, but when we have a good habit, the decision costs are low (because it’s a habit!) and the error costs are also low (because it’s a good habit, e.g., a healthy one). Bad habits tend to have low decision costs (because the relevant behavior is habitual) but high error costs (because they make your life worse). When we lack a habit, the decision costs are often pretty high, because we have to keep thinking about what to do. That can be a strong argument in favor of developing a habit; it simplifies life. True, the decision cost-error cost framework will hardly appeal to everyone, but I think it’s useful.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I try to find at least two hours to write every weekday morning, between 9 am and noon — that is pretty helpful for productivity.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

After I left government, I developed a new habit, which is that I generally don’t do interviews. I am breaking that habit right now! [Gretchen: Which I very much appreciate.]

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, 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.?

Actually I haven’t.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Depends on what they are! Some of them are helpful, of course, but others less so. One question is whether it is possible to object to habits as such. I think it is; some of them can be stultifying even if they are pretty good (or great). If you have a habit of eating only healthy foods, your life might be a bit boring. Another question is whether it is possible to endorse habits as such. I think that it is, because they simplify life, and make it more easily navigable.

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

Dick Thaler, my coauthor on Nudge (and several academic papers). I’ve learned a lot from him about the importance of default rules. He’s also responsible for the term “snudge” (meaning, self-nudge), which is admittedly awful. (But it’s a lot better, and more useful, than “selfie” — wouldn’t you agree?) If you keep your refrigerator pretty empty, and don’t fill it with unhealthy things, you’re snudging. In fact good lives are full of good snudges (but I am now considering whether to develop a new habit, which is not to use that particular word).

13 Tips for Getting More Reading Done.

booksfromsideEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 13 tips for reading more.

Of my hundreds of happiness-project resolutions, and of the habits I’ve tried to form, one of my very favorites is to Read more.

Reading is an essential part of my work. It forms an important part to my social life. And far more important, reading is my favorite thing to do, by a long shot. I’m not a well-rounded person.

But reading takes time, and there aren’t many days when I can read as much as I’d like. Here are some habits that I’ve adopted to help me get more good reading done.

1. Quit reading. I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started. No more. Life is short. There are too many wonderful books to read.

2. Read books you enjoy. When I’m reading a book I love—for example, I’m now reading Charles Portis’s True Grit — I’m astonished by how much time I find to read. Which is another reason to stop reading a book I don’t enjoy.

3. Watch recorded TV. It’s much more efficient to watch recorded shows, because you skip the commercials and control when you watch. Then you have more time to read.

4. Skim. Especially when reading newspapers and magazines, often I get as much from skimming as I do by a leisurely reading. I have to remind myself to skim, but when I do, I get through material much faster.

5. Get calm. I have a sticky note posted in our bedroom that says, “Quiet mind.” It’s sometimes hard for me to settle down with a book; I keep wanting to jump up and take care of some nagging task. But that’s no way to read. Incidentally, one of the main reasons I exercise is to help me sit still for reading and writing — if I don’t exercise, I’m too jumpy.

6. Don’t fight my inclinations. Sometimes I feel like I should be reading one book when I actually feel like reading something entirely different. Now I let myself read what I want, because otherwise I end up reading much less.

7. Always have something to read. Never go anywhere empty-handed. I almost always read actual ye olde print books, but I travel with e-books, too, so I know I’ll never be caught without something to read. It’s a great comfort.

8. Maintain a big stack. I find that I read much more when I have a pile waiting for me. Right now, I have to admit, my stack is so big that it’s a bit alarming, but I’ll get it down to a more reasonable size before too long.

9. Choose my own books. Books make wonderful gifts – both to receive and to give – but I try not to let myself feel pressured to read a book just because someone has given it to me. I always give a gift book a try, but I no longer keep reading if I don’t want to.

10. Set aside time to read taxing books. For Better Than Before, my book about habit-formation, I tried a new reading habit, “Study.” Every weekend, I spend time in “study” reading — which covers books that I find fascinating, but that are demanding, and that I might put down and neglect to pick up again. The kind of book that I really do want to read, but somehow keep putting off for months, even years. Right now, my Study book is E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.

And finally, some tips from great writers and readers:

11. Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim! Read at whim!

12. Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

13. Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Maybe you don’t love to read, so finding more time to read isn’t a challenge for you. The larger point is to make sure you’re finding time to do whatever it is that you find fun. Having fun is important to having a happy life, yet it’s all too easy for fun to get pushed aside by other priorities. I have to be careful to make time for reading, or, even though I love to read, I might neglect it.

Also, having fun makes it easy to follow good habits; when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves. If reading is a treat for you, it’s a good idea to make time for it. To hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.

If this list appeals to you, check out Daniel Pennac’s The 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader.

Have you found any good strategies to find more time to read – or to do whatever it is you find fun?

Secret of Adulthood: The Things That Go Wrong Often Make the Best Memories.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



It’s comforting because it’s true.

This great observation was made by my mother, when we were getting ready for my wedding. It’s a very good thing to keep in mind, because it’s absolutely true, and it can also help you laugh at a bad situation while it’s happening. (Here are more excellent tips for living that my parents gave me.)

This is also one of these truths that, even if you don’t think it’s true, is a helpful way to think — like my sister’s observation that people succeed in groups.

I always think of the wonderful night in a snowbound New York City which I spent with my boyfriend (now my husband), when our flight was cancelled. We made brownies, drank champagne, and watched the Star Wars trilogy. At the time, we thought that our vacation plans had been wrecked, but in retrospect, that evening was the highlight of the whole trip.

How about you? Do you have a great memory of something that went wrong?

Can a Stunt Project Help to Build Your Habits? Sometimes, But Be Careful.

ShelfPhyllisRoseAs I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, a book about how we make and break habits. Sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale.

I’ve noticed an issue that often arises when people are trying to change a habit.

When people want to get into a habit, they often set themselves a juicy goal and pursue that goal with special intensity. A person who wants to start exercising decides to train for the marathon. A person who wants to eat more healthfully decides give up sugar for a month. A person who wants to start writing regularly decides to do NaNoWriMo.

This approach can be counter-productive, however, because of the hidden danger of finish lines.

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

A finish line marks a stopping point, and once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.

The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end—and the more effort required to start over. By providing a specific goal, a temporary motivation, and requiring a new “start” once reached, hitting a milestone may interfere with habit-formation.

However, it’s also true that a period of special, intense effort, or striving toward an exciting goal, sometimes does help people change a habit. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: The opposite of a profound truth is also true.

For some people, they run the marathon, and they never run again. For other people, the short-term habit does indeed help to fire up the long-term habit. But don’t count on it! Decide what your habit will be, going forward.

One key is to have a plan for what happens after the finish line is crossed. What are you doing a week after the marathon? How do you eat when the sugar-free month is up? You have to make a plan.

I thought of this when I read Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading.  She decided to read every book in a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES, at her local library, the New York Society Library.

This undertaking had particular appeal to me. First, as I write about in Better Than Before, several of the habits that I try to form as part of my habits project are related to reading more. Reading is my playground and my cubicle, and I want to read more. Rose’s kind of extreme reading is the kind of thing I’d like to do (I’ve been playing with the idea of spending six months only re-reading, for example).

Second, like Rose, I’m a member of the New York Society Library; it’s one of the joys of my life. I work there on my laptop, and I check out books regularly. In fact, I’m writing this post while I’m sitting in the study room, and I just took  break to take a photo of Phyllis Rose’s shelf. See above–her particular shelf is the second from the top.

Third, I like any experiment in living — lifehacking stunts of all kinds. My book The Happiness Project is, of course, was an experiment of this sort. (Did I ever mention that The Happiness Project was on the bestseller list for more than two years? Oh right, maybe I did.)

Sometimes, it can seem a bit artificial to do a “stunt,” such as a boot-camp, or a fast like a technology fast, or month of ____, but it can be useful — as long as we remember the danger of the finish line.

That period of intensity should help build momentum and shape a habit, not give us a feeling of being “done.” I can imagine that doing a reading exercise, of the sort undertaken by Rose, would help remind me of how much I love to read and how much time I can make available for reading, if I set my mind to it. And shape my habits accordingly.

How about you? Have you ever done a stunt habit-formation exercise — or done a boot-camp, technology cleanse, given up coffee for a month, etc? Did it shape your habits permanently, or not?