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

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My New Habit for Tackling Nagging Tasks: Power Hour.

hourglassI’m working on Before and After, a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?

One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off—in many cases, for months. Maybe years.

These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.

But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks?

I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.

I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “Haste makes waste” is more compelling than “Hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “Power Hour.”

First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use Power Hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And I couldn’t use Power Hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power Hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be—and probably already have been—indefinitely postponed. For instance:

 Make a photo album of our summer vacation

Use up store credits

Donate books to Housing Works

Move pretend kitchen

Round up and recycle batteries and devices

It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Power Hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of Power Hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives.

These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?

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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: You Can’t Protect Yourself Against Everything.

This week’s video story: You can’t protect yourself against everything.

 

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from Dwight D. Eisenhower:  “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

How about you? Have you ever taken elaborate precautions — only to be foiled by some unforeseen eventuality?

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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The Habits We Most Want to Foster, or, the “Essential Seven.”

seven-columnsMy 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.

Last week, I posted about the “Big Five,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall.

I asked for reader advice about two questions: had I overlooked any areas, and was there a better name than “Big Five”?

Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.

First: yes, indeed, I’d missed some important areas. Now I have seven areas.

Second: given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.

Voila! The Essential Seven include…

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save and spend wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, pay taxes, stay current with expense reports)

4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself)

5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing)

7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read the Bible every day, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature)

Of course, the same habit might satisfy different needs for different people. For one person, yoga might be a form of exercise (#2), for someone else, a way to find mental rest (#4); for someone else, a spiritual practice (#7). And people value different habits. For one person, organized files might be a crucial tool for creativity; another person finds inspiration in random juxtapositions.

The argument I’ll make in Before and After is that when we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then—and this is the best part—we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, and our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

So readers, what do you think of the Essential Seven–the name and the concepts themselves? I very much appreciate all the thoughtful comments that people posted. Very, very helpful.

I must say, it pleases me to have seven. I hate to quote Voldemort, but he was right when he observed, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Isn’t seven the most powerfully magic number?”

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Secret of Adulthood: Doing a Little Work Makes Goofing Off More Fun.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

DoingALittleWorkMakes_124743

 

Agree, disagree?

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“Some Passions Can Be Indulged to Almost Any Extreme…Others Cannot.”

bertrandrussell“All our separate tastes and desires have to fit into the general framework of life. If they are to be a source of happiness they must be compatible with health, with the affection of those whom we love, and with the respect of the society in which we live. Some passions can be indulged to almost any extreme without passing beyond these limits, others cannot.”

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

How about you? Do you find that some of your passions can be indulged to almost any extreme (reading) but others can’t (gambling)? Obviously, this observation has tremendous relevance to our habits.

Russell proposes what sounds like a good test for a habit: a habit should be compatible with my health, with the affection of my friends and family, and the respect of my community. Does that cover everything, do you think?

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