Video: For Habits, the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

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. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt. Ah, this is one of my favorite strategies.

Discussions of habit-change often emphasize the importance of repeating an action, over and over, until it becomes automatic, and such repetition does indeed help to form habits. However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt takes its power from knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.

The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command. Which can be frustrating, because it often makes change so easy.

Something, whether positive or negative—a panic attack (here’s one person’s story), pregnancy, a documentary, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, even a conversation with a stranger—can trigger a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.


As I explain in the video, I was hit by a Lightning Bolt in March 2012 when I read Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat. I was so persuaded by his arguments about nutrition that my eating habits changed, for the better, overnight. No small steps, no gradual change, no looking back — bam.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed? I’ve been surprised, as I’ve been writing Better Than Before, to discover that this happens more often than you might expect.

How the Strategy of Scheduling Helped Me Make a Habit.

In my study of habits, I’ve identified many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits.

The Strategy of Scheduling, of setting a specific, regular time for an activity to recur, is one of the most familiar and powerful strategies of habit-formation—and it’s one of my personal favorites.

For most people, and certainly for me, there’s a kind of magic about seeing an item actually appear on a schedule. Scheduling makes us far more likely to convert an activity into a habit (well, except for Rebels), so, for that reason, I schedule even some slightly ridiculous habits, such as “Kiss my husband every morning and every night.”

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood for Habits is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

However, while I want many of my habits to happen daily, or almost daily, there are other habits that I want to follow just once a week.

Many of my habits revolve around trying to read more. Reading is my favorite thing to do, and it’s also essential to my work, yet I still have to work on reading more and reading more widely.

This is one of the most surprising thing about habits — at least to me. I understand why we find it tough to make habits to do something that we don’t want to do, but why is it often so hard to make a habit to do something we do want to do? That we love to do? (One of the big themes of Better Than Before is how to make habits that allow us to do more things we enjoy.)

In my case, I made a habit to get me to do more of something that I both like and dislike to do. I used the Strategy of Scheduling.

I’ve acquired a large pile of books that look fascinating — but also demanding and dense and perhaps a bit boring. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Plutarch’s Lives, and Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement were at the top of the stack. I needed to schedule a specific time for this kind of reading. It wasn’t work reading, for which I always make time, and it wasn’t pleasure reading, for which I make as much time as possible…it was study.

I decided to add thirty minutes of Study Reading to my weekend, to tackle those books. I can read more than thirty minutes, if I want, but I can also stop at thirty. That’s another Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop.

I became a little discouraged when it took me a month to plow through Understanding Media. Should I abandon this habit? Then I realized—well, I wasn’t reading the McLuhan very fast, but it was faster than I’d been reading it for the past two years, when it sat untouched on my bedroom nightstand.

For more tips on reading more, check here. If you want to hear when Better Than Before hits the shelves, sign up here.

How does the Strategy of Scheduling work for you? Do you find, like me, that just seeing something “on the schedule” makes it much more likely to get done?

Revealed! Book Club Choices for August. Happy Reading.

Yes, I said I was on vacation this week, but I forgot that it was time for the book club suggestions. So here I am, live from Kansas City, for a single post.

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

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’m considering whether to change this, but I haven’t so far, for two reasons:

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. I assure you: when I choose these books, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

Also, one of the secrets of reading lots of books is making time to read. It would take me a lot of time and mental energy to do justice to the terrific books I choose, yet at the same time, with a single click, there’s a huge amount of information available about the book choices. So I’ve figured that I could let readers avail themselves of that option.  But I’m pondering whether I should do it differently. (By the way, here are more tips on getting more reading done.)

In the meantime, if you want a little more explanation of why I picked these books, I do provide slightly more context in the book club newsletter.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Crossing to Safety; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH; and Fight Club. All so good.

Farewell, I’m Off for a Week.

I’m off for a week’s family vacation, in my hometown of Kansas City (Missouri, for those of you in the know).

Each year we visit my parents, and do all our favorite KC things: eat at Winstead’s and The Mixx; visit the library; shop on the Plaza; go to Worlds of Fun; walk through the Kauffman Gardens and the Nelson-Atkins Museum; go to the playground in Loose Park; etc. I also plan to do some binge-reading.

One of the Secrets of Adulthood for Habits is: Sometimes, if I want to keep going, I have to allow myself to stop.

In fact, research suggests that people who take vacations get a boost in life perspective and productivity.

Do you love to visit your hometown? Or do you still live there? I love visiting Kansas City.

With Habits, “It Helps to Adopt Simple Rules.”

Habits interview: Cass Sunstein.

I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, my book about habits, which focuses on how to change a habit – whatever you want your particular habit to be.  (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

As part of my research, I’ve read innumerable books and papers on various topics related to habits. One of my favorite sources is the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

I started my career in law, so I knew a lot about American legal scholar Cass Sunstein and his work. Nudge, however, isn’t about law. It’s about how people and institutions can “nudge” behavior, to help people achieve better health, better finances, and better outcomes in many different areas, by shaping default choices that lead people to make better habits (often, without even realizing it), and by making better choices easier. “Choice architecture” takes advantage of the Strategy of Convenience: the simple facts that many people choose the default decision presented to them, rather than take the trouble to choose for themselves, and that when things are easier, we more likely to do them, and when things are harder, we’re less likely to do them (for good and for ill).

Sunstein and Thaler offer many practical suggestions about how to put this approach into practice; people are still free to make their own decisions, but they’ve been “nudged” in the right direction.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Cass: Probably this: It helps to adopt simple rules, which are easy to follow. For example: Exercise on specific days every week.  I play squash (an obscure racquet sport), and it’s good to have a plan to play with a specific person at a specific time every Monday, and another every Wednesday, and another every Friday. In fact it’s often best to adopt a practice that operates by default, meaning that unless you take active steps to alter the practice, you’re on the path you want. Example: Pay bills (credit cards, mortgage, etc.) automatically and electronically, so that you’re in the habit (so to speak) even if you aren’t thinking about bills at all. Habitual behavior isn’t something that we have to work at — though it might take a lot of work to make certain behavior habitual, or to turn something that is a struggle into part of life’s furniture.

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

That one’s tastes can change a lot, and that you often like some things more, or dislike them less, when you keep doing them. When I was 18 years old, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which new habits and new tastes can develop over time — and how much control people ultimately have over their own habits.

Here’s something that I also didn’t know: In thinking about habits, it’s useful to focus on two things: the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. That sounds like econo-speak, and it is, but when we have a good habit, the decision costs are low (because it’s a habit!) and the error costs are also low (because it’s a good habit, e.g., a healthy one). Bad habits tend to have low decision costs (because the relevant behavior is habitual) but high error costs (because they make your life worse). When we lack a habit, the decision costs are often pretty high, because we have to keep thinking about what to do. That can be a strong argument in favor of developing a habit; it simplifies life. True, the decision cost-error cost framework will hardly appeal to everyone, but I think it’s useful.

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

I try to find at least two hours to write every weekday morning, between 9 am and noon — that is pretty helpful for productivity.

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

After I left government, I developed a new habit, which is that I generally don’t do interviews. I am breaking that habit right now! [Gretchen: Which I very much appreciate.]

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Actually I haven’t.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Depends on what they are! Some of them are helpful, of course, but others less so. One question is whether it is possible to object to habits as such. I think it is; some of them can be stultifying even if they are pretty good (or great). If you have a habit of eating only healthy foods, your life might be a bit boring. Another question is whether it is possible to endorse habits as such. I think that it is, because they simplify life, and make it more easily navigable.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Dick Thaler, my coauthor on Nudge (and several academic papers). I’ve learned a lot from him about the importance of default rules. He’s also responsible for the term “snudge” (meaning, self-nudge), which is admittedly awful. (But it’s a lot better, and more useful, than “selfie” — wouldn’t you agree?) If you keep your refrigerator pretty empty, and don’t fill it with unhealthy things, you’re snudging. In fact good lives are full of good snudges (but I am now considering whether to develop a new habit, which is not to use that particular word).