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

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Secret of Adulthood: If You Can’t Find Something, Clean Up.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

IfYouCantFindSomethingCleanUp_124824

 

I’m amazed by how true this is. I repeat it to my daughters about once a week.

Do you have any other tricks for finding things that you can’t find? (One of the most annoying things in life.) Like the great Secret of Adulthood: Always put your keys away in the same place.

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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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 Find It Hard to Turn Off the Light, Even When You Need the Sleep?

unmadebedpillowsBecause I’m working on Before and After, my new book about habit-formation, I constantly talk to people about their habits, and as I heard about people’s sleep habits, something puzzled me.

For me, sleep is a self-reinforcing habit; I feel so much better when I get enough sleep that I find it fairly easy to respect my bedtime.

Often, however, people tell me that they’re painfully, chronically exhausted–yet when I suggest that they go to bed earlier, they become angry and resentful. Usually, these folks desperately need the sleep. So why do they get so upset at the thought of moving up their bedtime?

As I talked to more and more people, I began to understand. In most cases, these are folks who schedule very little time for themselves. They race around, weekdays and weekends alike, without a break, and their only open time comes at night, when nothing more can be expected of them.

Some use that time to try to catch up on work—to knock off a few emails, to read through a report. For many people, it’s the only time they can work without fear of interruption, and they want to get a jump on the next day.

Other people use the time not for work, but for play. The kids are asleep, the trash is out, office emails have stopped, and they can finally relax.

People don’t want to lose that precious slot of time, even to sleep. It feels like a deprivation—and people hate to feel deprived.

A friend said, with surprising vehemence, “I work at my law firm from morning to night. If I don’t have that hour or two at the end of the day, to read, to relax, I have nothing for myself.”

“So what are your hours?”

“I get home around nine, I never go to bed before midnight, I get up at 6:30 a.m.”

“You might work better and more efficiently if you got more sleep.”

“If I went to sleep earlier, in order to feel sharper the next day, that would just seem like a work-related decision, too. That would mean the firm is getting more of my time.” He shook his head. “No way.”

This it’s-my-only-time-to-myself phenomenon is a big habits challenge. “Rest, relax, and enjoy” is #4 of the Essential Seven, and many of those who cling to that last outpost of open time are reluctant to trade it for the restorative repose of sleep.

Do you find it hard to turn out the light, even when you know you’d feel better if you got more sleep? How do you think about that trade-off?

(If you have trouble getting enough sleep, here are some tips. If you want to be notified when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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“There Is a Myth, Sometimes Widespread, that a Person Need Only Do Inner Work.”

christopheralexander“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself….The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Do you agree or disagree?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I write my book Before and After, about habit-formation — to what degree are our habits affected by our surroundings and by other people? In my view, a lot. (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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Before and After: “The Habit that Changed My Life Was Becoming a Morning Writer.”

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 Nina Badzin.

The habit that changed my life was becoming a morning writer.

 

I’m a freelance writer and blogger with a regular column in Brain, Child Magazine. I also have four kids and try to keep up with answering blog comments, reading other blogs, and sharing others’ articles online.

 

BEFORE AND AFTER: More and more I found that I was using all my day time writing hours (which are never consistent) for the social side (but also important side) of blogging. The real writing was not coming along. To keep up with deadlines, I would end up staying awake until 2AM or later, which took away from time I should have been spending with my husband and made me exhausted, unproductive, and crabby the next day.

 

I realized that the only time I could count on was morning time before the kids were awake, something I’ve been avoiding even though every writer I respect says it’s the way to go. I did nothing to prepare for the first day. I just set the alarm for 5AM and forced myself awake. I’d say it was a cold turkey method.

 

It was never (and is never) easy to get up, but I do it anyway. The joy of having written quality paragraphs by 7AM when the kids are awake was enough to get me up the next day. Another strategy to avoid the snooze button is that my husband can fall back asleep after he hears me get up at 5. But if I let the alarm go off again or try to wake up closer to 6AM, it’s too close to when he has to start his day, which was not fair to him.

 

I’m finally going to bed earlier after many years of staying up way too late, and I’m so much more productive. I feel more professional. AND, I feel less guilty about hopping around on the internet reading articles, commenting, and engaging in social media during other pockets of the day since I already got my main work done.

This is a good example of the principle that if there’s a habit you really want to accomplish, it’s very helpful to schedule it first thing in the morning.

First of all, the Strategy of Scheduling — of explicitly putting an activity on the calendar — is very powerful. And for many people, if they don’t have time for something important to them, getting up earlier is a great strategy to reclaim some time.

Also, whenever possible, important habits should be scheduled for the morning. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, and as the day goes on, more complications arise (whether real or invented).

Self-control is strongest in the morning, and self-control failures often happen at the end of the day. Activities like excessive gambling and alcohol abuse tend to happen at night, and the majority of impulsive crimes take place after 11:00 p.m.

However, it’s true that some people are “Larks” (morning people) and some people are “Owls” (night people), and night people generally aren’t successful at trying to get up earlier to write, meditate, exercise, etc. — because the world is already forcing them to get up too early! Work, school, children…the logistics of life make it hard to be an Owl. So if you’re an Owl (which isn’t the same thing as someone who stays up too late to send a few last emails or to watch TV), trying to get up earlier probably won’t be helpful.

Have you ever been able to adopt a new habit by scheduling it first thing in the morning?

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Want to Read about Writing? Here Are My Five Favorite Books about Writing.

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

This Wednesday: My five favorite books about writing.

It’s not easy to write a book about writing that’s also a pleasure to read. Here are my favorites:

1. William Zinsser, On Writing Well. I’ve read this book several times, and I’m due for another re-reading soon. It’s full of invaluable advice, and so beautifully written that it’s a joy to read. My favorite chapter may be “Humor,” which includes Zinsser’s example of his own magazine piece about women and their hair curlers–brilliant. I’d quote it here but you really have to read the whole thing to get the proper effect.

2. Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary. I’ve read this many, many times. Virginia Woolf kept a diary for twenty-seven years, and after her death, her husband drew from those diaries to create A Writer’s Diary, which includes the entries that refer to her own writing, that comment on the books she was reading, and that touch on the scenes and ideas relevant to her work. Extraordinarily rich and powerful.

When I was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, which is a very unconventional biography, I thought many times of this passage:

Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry–by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?….I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate.

And in Happier at Home, I wrote a passage that’s a direct allusion to this haunting passage from Woolf:

What I must do is to keep control; and not be too sarcastic; and keep the right degree of freedom and reserve. But oh how easy this writing is compared with The Waves! I wonder what the degree of carat-gold is in the two books. Of course this is external: but there’s a good deal of gold–more than I’d thought–in externality. Anyhow, “what care I for my goose feather bed? I’m off to join the raggle taggle gipsies oh!”

(You can read a bit about my strange response to this passage and to the song, and you can hear the song, Raggle Taggle Gypsy, here.)

Okay I must stop, or I’ll end up quoting dozens of passages.

3. Robert Boice, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. This book is bizarrely, insanely expensive, and written very simply, but in terms of practical advice about how to get writing done, it’s very useful. I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I write my book about habit-formation, Before and After, because it’s all about creating habits that allow writers to be productive and creative over the long term.

4. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters. Speaking of habits, how could I resist that title? Plus I’m a crazy Flannery O’Connor fan. These letters are fascinating, especially about her writing. I include one passage, from a 1957 letter, as an epigraph to a chapter in Before and After, about the Strategy of Scheduling:

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.

5. Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird. This is an encouraging, accessible account of how to keep going as a writer. I love the story from which the book gets its title:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How about you? What are your favorite books about writing?

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