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

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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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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.

Story: I Love to See Virtue Rewarded

This week’s video story: I love to see virtue rewarded.

I have a weird trait — I can’t bear any book, movie, play, or anything with the plot of unjust accusation. Oliver Twist, Othello, Atonement, The Fugitive…I just can’t stand it. And I can sniff it out a mile away! I can feel this theme coming as I’m reading or watching.

On the other hand, I love any story in which virtue is rewarded. So thrilling. My daughter loves these stories too, and for a while, she kept asking me to tell this story:

 

Alas, virtue isn’t always rewarded — and one thing I love about this story is imagining the happiness of the customer, who got to be the instrument of virtue rewarded, for this excellent sales clerk.

If you want to read the text of the actual email in which she described this incident, look here.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  Practically TWO MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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If You’re Trying to Keep a Good Habit, Do Other People Help or Hurt?

automatic-transmission-0812-deAssay: For my book on habits, Before and After, I’ve identified the multiple strategies that we can use to change our habits.

One of the most powerful? The Strategy of Other People. We exert enormous influence on others, and they, on us; one way we influence each other is by providing mental energy to support (or thwart) someone else’s efforts.

I find that people fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, they remind, and they join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition.

 

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited or undermining, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit. But just as people in Drive can sometimes provoke opposition, so, too, can people in Reverse. They may ignite a helpful “I’ll show you” or “You can’t stop me” spirit. (Especially in a Rebel.)

 

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They’re not in reverse—which is itself hugely helpful—but they’re not in drive, either. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, and sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t. My sister told me, “If I say to my husband, ‘Let’s go out for dinner,’ he says, ‘Great!’ And if I say, ‘Let’s stay home and eat very healthy,’ he says ‘Great!’ to that, too.

It can be tricky to know how to help people keep their good habits. I’m a bit of a habits bully, and sometimes my “drive” mode probably bugs the people around me.

I have a lot of zeal for healthy habits—in myself and in others—but even I find it surprisingly difficult to stay in “drive” mode. It feels so festive and friendly to encourage people to treat themselves in some way. “Just one won’t hurt!” “You deserve it!” “This is a party!

As the examples illustrate, people also influence us in how they suggest loopholes for us to follow. Just look at all the different types of loopholes invoked above. So one way we can avoid the negative influence of other people is to keep in mind the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Do you do things to help others keep their good habits? Do you feel the influence of other people on your habits?–for good or for ill?

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Revealed! Book Club Choices for March. Happy Reading.

booksopeninvitingBecause 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, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or, more specifically, habits:

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Buy from WORD; BN.comAmazon.

An outstanding young-adult book:

William Pene du Bois,  The Twenty-One Balloons

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Anne Lamott, Operating  Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

Buy from WORD; BN.com; 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. I do provide slightly more context in the book club newsletter.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Roenneberg’s Internal Time, Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, and Tartt’s The Secret

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Before and After: Stop Mindless Web-Surfing by Deleting Accounts and Toolbars–and Never Visiting..

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 someone who wants to stay anonymous.

The habit I worked on changing was mindless web surfing. I had a series of websites I would visit each day in sequence, even though some had started to bore me, some were full of information that didn’t really add anything to my day, some were specifically for procrastination, and one site in particular (a popular social media service) was grating on my self esteem by causing me to compare my life to many of my acquaintances and friends.

I decided to spend less time every day on this mindless surfing in order to procrastinate less, and improve my feelings of self-worth. I deleted the social media account, removed the other sites from my toolbar shortcut/bookmarks, but most importantly, firmly told myself I would no longer visit those websites.

It really was a case of out of sight, out of mind, as I did indeed stop checking them, gained almost an hour of my life back each day, and did improve my confidence.

This person’s habit change combines the Strategies of Inconvenience and Abstaining–two very powerful strategies. I’ve noticed that when people successfully change a habit, they’ve usually used the combined weight of several strategies.

Technology is a good servant but a bad master, and managing technology is something that many people want to do better. What habits do you use to keep technology in control?

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