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

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“The Most Important Events in My Life, If Recorded at All, Are Not Dated.”

Henry Thoreau“In a true history or biography, of how little consequence those events of which so much is commonly made!  For example, how difficult for a man to remember in what towns or houses he had lived, or when! … I find in my Journal that the most important events in my life, if recorded at all, are not dated.”

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1855

I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own life. Often, I don’t even realize that an important event in my life has even happened, until some time has passed. For instance, I remember the minute I first laid eyes on my now-husband, but I didn’t make a note of it. Or the moments when I’ve had the ideas for all my books. Such moments strike me hard, hard enough that I can remember them, but somehow it never occur to me to record them.

Have you found this to be true?

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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.

Do You Like Identifying Your “Favorite?” I Don’t.

SoundofMusicMyFavoriteThingsBestEvery once in a while, I put my finger on something that bugs me. This sounds as though it might make me unhappy, but in fact, this greater clarity about my own nature makes me much happier.

For instance, I remember the tremendous relief I felt when I noticed a pattern among certain books, plays, and movies that I dislike. For instance, I can’t stand to read or watch Oliver Twist, The Fugitive, Atonement, Othello. Can you see the pattern?

It’s the theme of unjust accusation. I can’t stand the theme of unjust accusation. I’ve never seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, even though people keep telling me that it’s a great happiness-related movie, because of the unjust accusation. It’s a little sad to realize that we can’t encompass everything–I find it very painful to relinquish the fantasy that with enough effort, I could appreciate everything, even unjust accusation, which appears so often–but it’s also very freeing. (I must confess, however, that my various book groups sometimes get impatient with my question, “Does this book have unjust accusation?” Usually I can smell it a mile away.)

Once I realize what I don’t like, I can avoid it (more or less).

The same thing happened with pesto. And with drinking alcohol. And with board games.

Just today, I realized something else that bugs me. I dislike being asked to identify my “favorite.” Some people seem to love this exercise. Favorite book, favorite movie, favorite restaurant, favorite memory.

I, however, find this exercise distressing. First of all–how can I possibly pick something like a “favorite” book? It’s impossible! And to me, picking a “favorite” somehow makes all the other options seem less interesting. I don’t even like picking something like a favorite part of the day. Sometimes, like Maria, I’ll pick a few of my favorite things–but I can rarely pick just one favorite.

But some people love to consider questions like this.

How about you? Do you enjoy identifying your favorite, or not?

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Resentful? Overworked? Face These Painful Facts about Shared Work.

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

This Wednesday: 7 hard facts about shared work (#5, #6, and #7 are most important)

I’ve posted about this subject before, but I find myself thinking about it so often that I decided to raise it again.

When I hear people complain about the fact that other people aren’t doing their share–about a spouse who isn’t pulling weight at home, or a colleague at work, or a sibling in a family–I want to launch into a disquisition about shared work.

From what I’ve observed, people have a very incorrect understanding about how shared work actually gets divvied up. Take note of these somewhat-painful facts:

Fact 1: Work done by other people sounds easy. How hard can it be to take care of a newborn who sleeps twenty hours a day? How hard can it be to keep track of your billable hours? To travel for one night for business?  To get a four-year-old ready for school? To return a few phone calls? To fill out some forms?

Of course, something like “perform open-heart surgery” sounds difficult, but to a very great degree, daily work by other people sounds easy—certainly easier that what we have to do.

This fact leads us to under-estimate how onerous a particular task is, when someone else does it, and that makes it easy to assume that we don’t need to help or provide support. Or even be grateful. For that reason, we don’t feel very obligated to share the burden. After all, how hard is it to change a light-bulb?

Fact 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.

But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn.

You think, “I’ve been making the first pot of coffee for this office for three months! When is someone going to do it?” In fact, the longer you make that coffee, the less likely it is that someone will do it.

If one person on a tandem bike is pedaling hard, the other person can take it easy. If you’re reliably doing a task, others will relax. They aren’t silently feeling more and more guilty for letting you shoulder the burden; they probably don’t even think about it. And after all, how hard is it to make a pot of coffee? (see Fact #1). Also, they begin to view this as your job (after all, you’ve been doing it reliably for all this time, in fact, you probably enjoy this job!), it’s not their job, so they don’t feel any burden to help.

Being taken for granted is an unpleasant but sincere form of praise. Ironically, the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted.

Fact 3: It’s hard to avoid “unconscious overclaiming.” In unconscious overclaiming, we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to others. This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. Also, we tend to do the work that we value. I think holiday cards are important; my husband thinks that keeping the air-conditioning working is important.

Studies showed that when spouses estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent.

It’s easy to think “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” but ignore all the tasks you don’t do. And maybe others don’t think that task  is as important as you do (See Fact #5).

Fact 4: Taking turns is easier than sharing. I read somewhere that young children have a lot of trouble “sharing” but find it easier to “take turns.” Sharing is pretty ambiguous; taking turns is clearer and serves the value of justice, which is very important to children.

I think this is just as true for adults. I have to admit, shared tasks often give me the urge to try to shirk. Maybe if I pretend not to notice that the dishwasher is ready to be emptied, my husband will do it! And often he does. Which bring us t0…


Fact 5: The person who cares the most will often end up doing a task. If you care more about a task being done, you’re more likely to end up doing it–and don’t expect other people to care as much as you do, just because something is important to you. It’s easy to make this mistake in marriage. You think it’s important to get the basement organized, and you expect your spouse to share the work, but your spouse thinks, “We never use the basement anyway, so why bother?” Just because something’s important to you doesn’t make it important to someone else, and people are less likely to share work they deem unimportant. At least not without a lot of nagging.

Fact 6. If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF. This sounds so obvious, but think about it. Really. Let it go. If you think you shouldn’t have to do it, don’t do it. Wait. Someone else is a lot more likely to do it if you don’t do it first. Note: this means that a task is most likely to be done by the person who cares most (see Fact #5).  To repeat this point in other words, if you persist in doing particular work, it becomes more and more unlikely that someone else will do it.

Of course, you can’t always choose not to do something. Someone must get the kids ready for school. But many tasks are optional.

Fact #7: If, when people do step up, you criticize their performance, you discourage them from doing that work in the future. If you want others to help, don’t carp from the sidelines. If you do, they feel justified in thinking, “Well, I can’t do it right anyway” or “Pat wants this to be done a particular way, and I don’t know how to do that, so Pat should do it.” The more important it is to you that tasks be performed your way, the more likely you are to be doing those tasks yourself. (Of course, some people use deliberate incompetence to shirk, which is so deeply annoying.)

What do you think? What did I get wrong–or overlook? Do you find shared work to be tough to manage?

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Story: Sometimes Flawed Can Be More Perfect Than Perfection.

This week’s video story: Sometimes flawed can be more perfect than perfection.


This is one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood, and I tell another story about the same idea here, about the ballet and wabi-sabi and Glenn Gould. (Wow, that’s an odd combination, now that I think of it.)

That idea is related to another story,  about another Secret of Adulthood that my mother told me, right before my wedding: Sometimes the things that go wrong make the best memories.

The story that I tell comes from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.

What do you think? Have you seen any examples where flawed was more perfect than perfection?

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

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.7 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe.

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Can a Word Cloud Help You Know Yourself Better?

Last week, I posted about the work of researchers who generated word clouds from Facebook updates related to personality, gender, and age.

A thoughtful reader pointed out that sites like Wordle and Tagxedo allow you to generate your own word clouds, based on your own postings.

I decided to do one for this blog. Interesting–though I must confess, I can’t read many of the smaller entries.



If you try this exercise yourself, what, if anything, does it reveal? Anything that helps us gain in self-knowledge–even imperfectly or indirectly–is helpful, to my mind.

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