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

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“The More You’re Served, the More You’ll Eat. And You Won’t Even Think About It.””

lisa_young_articleHabits interview: Lisa Young.

I met nutrition expert Lisa Young years ago, sometime after I read her fascinating book The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss. I can’t remember how I finally ended up meeting her in person, but now I get to run into her occasionally, because we go to the same gym. (Very appropriate, given our mutual preoccupations.)

Much of her work is about habits related to portion size, so I was very curious to hear what she had to say.

For my book on habit-formation, Before and After, I’ve identified 21 strategies we can use to shape our habits. One of the most powerful of the strategies is the Strategy of Monitoring. As Lisa points out, portion control is a key to understanding how we’re actually eating — and to changing how we’re eating, if we want to. (If you want to know when Before and After goes on sale, sign up here.)

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on an aspect of habits – portion control. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of these habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Lisa: The more you are served, the more you will eat. And you will not even think about it or realize it. We can rattle off what we eat but we pay no attention to how much.

Therefore, try to prepare yourself in advance–for example, try to avoid buying jumbo bag of chips, cereal, or other edible foods (jumbo toilet paper is ok). You will eat more without realizing it. If you do, for some reason buy huge bags, (usually because they are cheaper and we love a good bargain), pre-portion foods in advance or keep handy “props” around: portion out pretzels or chips in ziploc baggies, keep a handy measuring cup around to measure your cereal.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Doing yoga or getting in a swim. And, of course seeing Gretchen at the gym. :)

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

I think that as an 18 year old, we think we have to cut out entire foods or food groups to be healthy. I now know that I can eat all foods.

The trick is to eat healthy at least 80% of the time. We do not have to be perfect 100% of the time. [I think this works for Moderators, but not for Abstainers. Lisa is definitely a Moderator!]

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

Getting in my exercise routine and doing something I enjoy (swimming or yoga, for me), listening to calming music when home, including some protein and fiber in the morning–ie: a Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and not starting my day with pure carbs ( ie, a bagel or muffin), connecting with a close friend or family member.

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

I grew up in a house where my family–mom and grandmother–did not know of portion control. Perhaps because I have spent my life researching portions, it has become an ingrained habit. I can eat all foods, I just pay attention and know when to stop and can recognize when a portion is too big.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

No–because I have developed healthy food and exercise habits, being healthy has become second nature.

It is natural to overeat occasionally at a party, but I do not let it bother me if I do, as instead of feeling guilty the next day, I go back right to eating healthy. I think the key is to prepare yourself for slight changes in your routine when you travel or go to a party.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I think it can give me a sense of calm and structure.

Any last thoughts?

When it comes to weight loss and portion sizes, just becoming more aware of HOW MUCH you are eating is half the battle. In particular, it is important to be mindful and pay attention to how much you are eating of foods that we tend to overeat–grains/starches, desserts. When it comes to fruits and veggies, however, you do not have to be so strict and it is ok to eat more. No one got fat eating too many carrots or bananas.

When asked, what kind of sandwich isn’t fattening, the answer is a half sandwich! Keep this in mind. It pertains to all foods…

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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.

What Habit Would Add the Most to Your Happiness? Does It Fall in These Five Categories?

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

This Wednesday: Do you want to foster habits in one of these five areas?

My current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.

When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

When I think about the habits that I wanted to cultivate, or talk to people about their happiness challenges, it seems as though just about every habit that people seek to make or break falls into the “Big Five”:

1. Eat and drink more healthfully

2. Exercise regularly

3. Rest and relax

4. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress

 5. Organize, clear, and simplify

Does this ring true to you? Are there any habits that you try to foster that don’t fall into one of these categories?

The Big Five reflect the fact that we often feel both tired and wired. We feel exhausted, but also feel jacked up on adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar. We feel frantically busy, but also feel that we’re not spending enough time on the things that really matter. We want to use our time well, but we fritter away hours on activities that are neither particularly fun nor particularly productive.

I call these habit areas the “Big Five,” but I really want to come up with a catchier phrase. Any suggestions?

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Secret of Adulthood: Schedule Time to Be Unscheduled.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



For me, if something isn’t on my schedule, it doesn’t happen. Which is why I have some slightly ridiculous items on my schedule: to kiss my husband every morning and every night; t0 force myself to wander; and something I talk about in Before and After (my forthcoming book on habit-formation), Power Hour.

In fact, the Strategy of Scheduling is one of the most popular and effective strategies of habit-formation. If we put an activity on the calendar, we’re much more likely to do, and in this way, make it into a habit. Even if the activity on your schedule is to make some time…to be unscheduled.

Do you schedule time to be unscheduled? Or do you think that sounds nuts?

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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Did You See the Movie “Enough Said”? And Some Thoughts on Shared Work.

enough_said_640Of all the posts I’ve written in the last few years, one of my favorites is Resentful? Overworked? Face these painful facts about shared work.

The fact is, shared work is a very common source of argument and resentment among people — in couples, in group houses, at work, in families. Anyplace where people have to divide work.

I thought of the challenge of shared work when I was watching the movie Enough Said.  (You know, the one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.)

There are seven rules of shared work, and the movie highlights three of them:

1. Work done by other people seems easy.

2. When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

3. If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF.

Eva is a massage therapist who goes to people’s homes. When she visits the home of one particular client, she has to lug her heavy massage table up a set of steep outdoor stairs to get to his front door.

Here’s where the shared work problem arises (I’m paraphrasing the movie from memory here):

Eva tells a friend, “He’s such a jerk! He sees me carry this heavy table and doesn’t help. Each time this happens, he probably feels more and more aware of the fact that he’s being so inconsiderate, but still, he doesn’t help. The more times I carry it alone, the more he’s in debt to me for what I’m doing, single-handed.”

But what’s the client thinking? Probably…nothing.

Probably, the more times Eva carries the table upstairs, the less likely the client is to think about the hassle. He doesn’t realize how heavy the table is, because he’s never carried it. This job is in her territory; it likely never crosses his mind to lend a hand.

And indeed, when Eva finally stops on the stairs and asks for help, he rushes to help her and exclaims, “Wow, this is heavy!”

Understanding the dynamics behind shared work — and, more important, the work that isn’t being shared — can help us figure out how to handle any conflicts more readily.

Have you faced a problem with shared work, the way Eva did? Now I’m trying to remember what happened in that episode of The Office when no one would clean out the microwave…

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“Old Rubbish! Old Letters, Old Clothes, Old Objects that One Does Not Want to Throw Away.”

Jules-Renard“Oh! Old rubbish! Old  letters, old clothes, old objects that one does not want to throw away. How well nature has understood that, every year, she must change her leaves, her flowers, her fruit and her vegetables, and make manure out of the mementos of her year!”

–Jules Renard, Journal

Do you feel that getting rid of “old rubbish” helps to make you feel more energetic, more creative, more vital? As I study habits and happiness, I find myself doing a crazy amount of thinking about clutter.

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