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

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10 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice, From Me, About Fostering Healthier Eating Habits at Work

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

This Wednesday: My 10 pieces of unsolicited advice for how to foster healthier eating habits in the workplace

In law school, we took “issue-spotter” exams, which were actually kind of fun (as law-school exams go). An issue-spotter exam presents a long tale of legal woes, and students must spot every issue that arises—the law-school version of a child’s “find the hidden pictures” puzzle.

A while back, I was speaking at a big company, and as I was shown around the corporate campus, I did a mental issue-spotter.

What steps would make it easier for employees to eat more healthfully without even thinking about it? I amused myself by writing an imaginary ten-point memo.

1. At the reception desk, put all the candy in an opaque container with a lid, with a small sign that says “Candy.”

2. Don’t provide “health bars” or “energy bars” that are really candy bars in disguise. (Just because the label says it’s “healthy” doesn’t mean it is healthy.)

3. Put doors on the office kitchens. The slightest big of inconvenience shapes our habits; plus, if we don’t see food cues, we’re less likely to eat.

4. Set up a partition to divide each kitchen in two. Dedicate the section closer to the door to healthy selections; put less-healthy food in the back section, further from the door, so people would have to make a special effort to get there. Ideally, they’d have to pass another partition or cross an actual red line painted on the floor—and they wouldn’t be able to see those tempting foods unless they were in that area.

5. On the posters that promote healthy foods, stop conflating “fruits” and “vegetables.”

6. Don’t put candies and nuts in bins that pour out their contents in a stream. Instead, provide containers that dispense one small serving at a time. Or better, serve those items in small, pre-packaged bags. That helps people monitor how much they’re eating.

7. Hang mirrors near food stations.

8. Offer fewer varieties of unhealthy foods.

9. Provide a tracking system to allow people to note their daily snack intake (voluntary).

10. Don’t provide trays in the cafeteria. Many colleges have eliminated cafeteria trays; when students can’t easily load up on food and must make multiple trips, they take less. One study found that going trayless cut food waste by as much as 25-30 %, and I bet people eat less, too.

If you could offer some unsolicited advice about your workplace — about how to make it healther — what would you say?

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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.

Secret of Adulthood: Outer Order Contributes to Inner Calm.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



This is one of the things that has surprised me most about happiness and habits. For most people, an orderly environment helps them feel more energetic, more creative, and more cheerful. This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for most people.

In my forthcoming book about how we make and break habits, I explore the Strategy of Foundation. I argue that habits in four key areas — sleep, move, eat and drink right, and unclutter — strengthen our self-command, and therefore help us to keep our good habits. (To hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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

Do you find that working on the area of “unclutter” helps you? Does outer order contribute to your inner calm?

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Have You Ever Had a Mystical or Supernatural Experience?

dooropeningtolightAssay: Every day, on my Facebook Page, I pose a question that’s meant to help you think about something related to your habits, your happiness, or your self-knowledge in general.

A few ago, I posted: Have you ever had a supernatural or mystical experience? It was absolutely fascinating to read the answers (well more than a hundred people responded).

This question was inspired by a passage that struck me, from art historian Kenneth Clark’s The Other Half: a Self-Portrait. He recalls:

I lived in solitude, surrounded by books on the history of religion, which have always been my favourite reading. This may help to account for a curious episode that took place on one of my stays in the villino.  I had a religious experience. It took place in the Church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before. This state of mind lasted for several months, and, wonderful though it was, it posed an awkward problem in terms of action. My life was far from blameless: I would have to reform. My family would think I was going mad, and perhaps after all, it was a delusion, for I was in every way unworthy of such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off, and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right; I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But that I had ‘felt the finger of God’ I am quite sure, and, although the memory of this experienced has faced, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.

I wished that he’d written much more about what happened to him in those few minutes — and afterward.

Have you ever had an experience of this sort? I haven’t.

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“I Have a Picket Fence of Habits to Keep Me on Track.”

annaquindlenHabits interview: Anna Quindlen.

Last week, I had the chance to hear the well-known author and journalist Anna Quindlen speak — and as always, I found it so interesting to hear a writer speaking in person, after having read his or her books.

I’ve read a lot of Anna Quindlen’s work, and lately, she’d been on my mind because I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles,  and I love the title of her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake  (you can’t judge a book by its title, but it’s a great book). Also, she wrote A Short Guide to a Happy Life — of course I loved that title and book. Her latest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs — yet another great title — just came out a few months ago, and it’s on my reading list.

I asked her about her habits, and the role they play in her life, and she explained:

I’m trying to make a distinction–if any–between habit and routines, because routine is essential to most fiction writers.  Because of that, my life is filled with what might be called essential habits.  I try to walk four miles as fast as I can every morning.  I eat the same things for breakfast and lunch for days on end.  (My husband insists on variety, so dinner is always different.)  I work out three days a week at the same time, although the trainer insists on varying the workouts, which always makes me a little testy.  The idea that a person can write on the fly, in planes or at a coffee shop, is preposterous to me.  I have an office and a desk and a laptop and they must all stay more or less that same. I can only really imagine, go into a complete different world and invent it as I go, if my actual world is completely unvarying and set to music.

There’s a quote from Eudora Welty that I think makes this so clear.  She says, “To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose.  Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.”  It’s in the going outside that I lose my way; if I interfere with my routine, my succession of habits, by traveling or even going out to lunch, I don’t get anything done.  I have a picket fence of habits to keep me on track.  I neither like nor dislike them; I just need them to do my work.

This makes me somewhat inflexible.  For instance, I’m part of a women’s travel group and my friends can tell you that no matter where we land, or how great the time difference, I’m downstairs lacing up my walking shoes around 7 AM.  When people ask about lunch, I offer breakfast instead–if my interruptions come at the beginning of the day, I can handle them far better than if they bisect it.  I don’t do staying up late very well or very often.

As for the rest, I try to talk to my best friend on the phone every morning at 9.  That’s a habit that enriches my life.  I always needlepoint while I watch television, which means I have too many pillows.  I’m on a school schedule, 9 to 3 and then I’m done.  When school’s out, I go to our house in the country and stay until Labor Day.  Those last habits were occasioned by having young children; they’ve grown up and moved on but I, apparently, haven’t.

I think when I was 18 I would have found all this sad and pathetic.  I thought then that I had to be interesting.  Now I just feel that I have to be productive, and happy.

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What Loopholes Do You Invoke at Work, in Relationships, at Home?

fruit_loops2I’ve written a lot about loopholes.

In my forthcoming habits book, I identify the multiple strategies we can use to shape our habits. I love every strategy and every chapter — habit-formation is an intensely interesting subject — but my favorite chapter is the one on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes are just so funny.

Below, I’ve listed the ten categories of loopholes. I have a question for you: when do you invoke loopholes?

I have many examples  in the area of eating and exercise. When do you invoke loopholes at work; with your family and friends; in your spiritual life; with clutter; etc.? I would love to see more examples. I love loophole-spotting!

If you want easily to scroll through them all, start at #10, because each post includes a link to the previous day.
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 so well tomorrow”

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

5. Planning to fail loophole — “How did I get here? Well, now that I’m here, I must indulge.”

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

7. Questionable assumption loophole

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?”

When we catch ourselves invoking loopholes — which is easier said than done — we give ourselves the opportunity to reject the loophole. Often, they flit through our minds so quickly that we don’t even realize that we’re invoking them.

So how about you? I’m eager to hear more examples of loopholes — especially, as I mentioned, in non-eating and -drinking contexts. Battling clutter, getting work done, making time for spiritual pursuits, maintaining relationships with family and friends…

I’ve made this  study of loopholes as part of my research for my next book about habit-formation. If you want to be notified when this masterpiece is available for pre-order, sign up here.

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