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

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Want to Know 6 Secret Weapons in the Battle Against Unhealthy Habits?

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

This Wednesday: 6 secret weapons (well, really, it’s six varieties of one secret weapon) in the battle against unhealthy habits.

When I’m not gearing up for my book tour for the launch of the paperback of Happier at Home, I spend my time pondering the nature of habits — one of the most fascinating subjects in the world, and highly relevant to happiness — as I work on my next book, Before and After.

Habits surprise me in many ways, and one thing that continually astonishes me is the degree to which we’re influenced by convenience — by the amount of sheer effort, time, or decision-making involved in completing an action. One of my twenty strategies of habit-formation is the Strategy of Convenience.

We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.

Accordingly, we can strengthen or weaken habits by making them more or less convenient to follow. One familiar example? The advice to pack your gym back the night before. When it’s more convenient to head to the gym, you’re more likely to do it.

Inconvenience can also be our annoying friend. There are six obvious ways to make an activity less convenient, to help us stick to habits that entail avoiding some behavior:

  • increase the amount of physical energy required — stand up to use the computer, never allow yourself to go to the doughnut shop across the street from your office but only the one eight blocks away
  • hide any cues  — put the video-game controller on a high shelf, put your cell phone on the floor of your car’s back seat
  • delay it — read email only after 11:00 a.m.
  • engage in an incompatible activity — to avoid snacking, do a puzzle; hold a drink in one hand and a napkin in the other hand so you don’t have a free hand for hors d’oeuvres
  • raise the cost – work out with a trainer who charges you whether or not you show up;  one study showed that people at high risk for smoking were pleased by a rise in the cigarette tax
  • prevent it altogether — keep cookies out of the house; give away the TV set; take the Ruzzle app off your phone


Once an action is a habit, it unfolds automatically, but in my experience, some habits always stay slightly fragile (for me, for instance, exercise) so it’s helpful to take convenience into account. Also, convenience/inconvenience can be a powerful aid when we’re initially trying to make or break a habit.

It’s funny; even a trivial bit of extra inconvenience can make it dramatically easier or harder to keep a good habit.

I use the Strategy of (In)Convenience to control my consumption of almonds. I eat a lot of almonds. Being able to stick my hand in a bag made it too easy to eat tons of almonds, without even realizing it. So now I buy almonds in one-ounce packs.  I feel bad about all that extra packaging, and my mother-in-law teased me for not just making my own one-ounce bags out of reused baggies, but for me, that extra bit of in/convenience means I eat the right amount of almonds. One ounce is plenty for a snack — even though it may not seem that way, at first!

This method is both inconvenient (I have to fetch and open up a pack, and if I want more, I have to fetch and open another pack) and more convenient (I don’t have to measure anything). Now that I do this, my eating habits are better.

This also makes use of the very powerful Strategy of Monitoring. It’s hard to know how much I’m eating when I’m eating out of the bag, or even pouring into a bowl; pre-measured servings help me keep track. Am I going to eat six packs of almonds in a day? No.

What have I overlooked? Have you found any good ways to harness inconvenience to help yourself stick to some desirable habit?

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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.

Story: Maybe I’m the One Who Should Do It.

This week’s video story: Maybe I’m the one who should do it.


Yes, it’s true, I’m in three children’s literature reading groups. How I love children’s and young-adult literature! If you love it too, join my book club, where I recommend a kidlit book each month (along with a happiness book and an eccentric pick).

How about you? Did you ever have a similar experience when you realized, afterward, what you should’ve done?

If you can’t see the video, click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  Almost 1.9 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe.

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Want to Make It Easier to Stick to Your Good Habits? Strengthen Your Foundation.

foundationWhile some experts advocate focusing on one healthy habit at a time, to avoid draining precious will-power reserves, other studies suggest that people who work on developing one positive habit often find it easier to improve in other areas, as well.

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

Certain habits, too, 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.

From what I’ve observed, people who get their basic Foundation habits under control find it easier to add additional good habits, even if those habits don’t seem relate.

Why? Because 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.

Of course, a major challenge with Foundation habits is that, ironically, they’re often the very habits that we’re trying to adopt. Yes, exercise would help us stick to good habits, but exercise is the habit that we need help with. Outer order contributes to inner calm, true, but having inner calm makes it much easier to create outer order.

Nevertheless, because of the important role they play in boosting self control, and their helpful spill-over effect on other habits, it seems to me that Foundation habits are a great place to start, with habit change, and deserve specially protection from encroachment. Foundation habits tend to reinforce each other; for instance, regular exercise improves people’s sleep quality.

Agree, disagree? Do you find that working on your Foundation makes it easier to stick to other habits? Or that neglecting them makes it harder to stick to those habits? Do you think Foundation habits that should be added to the list?

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“Most of Us Need Some Sort of Plan to Give Our Lives Coherence.”

fairbrother“Some people are born with the gift of being happy for the moment, but most of us need some sort of plan to give our lives coherence. And since human beings are mostly virtuous, we need to feel good and useful, that others are happy round us, that no one suffers through our doing. All this besides being warm and fed, and healthy, and occupied, and a dozen other luxuries. Small wonder that happiness is a fitful state.”

Nan Fairbrother, An English Year

“Some sort of plan to give our lives coherence”…this is one place where habits meet happiness. More to come in Before and After!

She also wrote, “ ”The happiness of others is almost completely unpredictable.”

Agree, disagree?

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Before and After: Use the Accountability of Weight Watchers and a Personal Trainer.

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.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

As I was staring down the barrel of turning 50, I decided it was time to get up off the couch and get in shape. It had been years since I had exercised and truly watched what I ate. I just couldn’t be fat and fifty. Since there was nothing to do about turning 50, I decided to tackle the fat. For my 48th birthday I gave myself two gifts: a membership to Weight Watchers and a personal trainer at the gym. I need accountability, so having to answer to someone else was the push I needed to keep me headed in the right direction. Six years later, I still work out with a trainer and am probably the “fittest” I have ever been. Now, if only I could break the Diet Coke habit.

The Strategy of Accountability is one of the most effective strategies for habit-formation, and for Obligers, of course, external accountability is absolutely crucial.

But even for people who are Upholders, Questioners, or Rebels, accountability makes a big difference. We behave differently when we know that other people will know what we did, and if we know that there will be consequences.

Also, this reader drew on the Strategy of Thinking — when an idea, such as the idea of turning fifty, acts as a catalyst for change.

Have you found ways to hold yourself accountable? Have you ever been inspired to change a big habit because of an idea such as reaching a milestone birthday?

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