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

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Why Can’t You Exercise Regularly? One Reason: Convenience.

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

This Wednesday:  8 reasons why it can feel inconvenient to exercise.

Right now, I’m editing my next book, Before and After, an examination of the most interesting subject in the world: how we make and break habits. (My editor is reading the draft for the first time right now, in fact, so wish me luck.)

In the book, I identify multiple strategies that we can use to make it easier to foster good habits. One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And its counterpart, the Strategy of Inconvenience.

We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.

Running ShoesWe can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits.

One habit that many people want to form? Regular exercise. And when they explain why they find it difficult, they often point to inconvenience.

I’ve found that it’s very helpful to think very hard about exactly why exercise seems inconvenient. Instead of just thinking, “Oh, it’s such a pain, I can never get to the gym,” really think it through. Identify the problem. Often, by identifying the problem, you identify solutions — which may be easier than you expect.

It’s a pain to pack up the gear when I’m leaving the house in the morning

It takes too much time to work out

It’s a pain to drive and park there

It’s a pain to secure my place in a popular class or to wait my turn on equipment

I don’t know how to use the equipment or do the exercises

It takes too much time to get there

I don’t want to sweat and mess up my hair

I always forget something I need

Identify the problem, find the solution. High-intensity work-outs take very little time. Many forms of exercise don’t work up a sweat. A friend told me, “Even though my gym has multiple branches, I found it very inconvenient. I finally realized that sometimes I’d go to the gym from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from my girlfriend’s apartment, so I never had what I needed. I bought multiple sets of everything—deodorant, shoes, a giant bag of cheap socks. I have what I need, so I don’t have an excuse to skip.” (Not an under-buyer, clearly.)

Justifications based on convenience may also be loopholes, so it’s helpful to use the Strategy of Looph0le-Spotting. (How I love loopholes! They’re so funny.) It may also be helpful to consider this list of questions, to understand how to shape your habits better.

Note: for Obligers, the problem may not actually be convenience, but accountability. Obligers do well to figure out ways to build in the external accountability that’s key for them.

If you’re thinking, “Gretchen, your book about habits sounds so fascinating! When can I get my hands on it?” well, sign up here, and I’ll email to let you know when the book goes on sale.

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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.

Story: I Only Have to Worry about Doing My Best.

This week’s video story: I only have to worry about doing my best.


It was a big relief to me to think — well, my friend is right, I don’t have to worry about being qualified. That’s the Justice‘s problem! It’s hard to explain why that made such a difference to me. All we can do is our best, and I’ve found that when I focus on that, I’m much less anxious, and also more productive.

Has anyone managed to say the perfect thing to you — the thing that really helped you? I think about my husband saying, to a colleague who sent out a very unfortunate “Reply all” email,  “We’ve all done it.” Or my mother telling me, when I was in a frenzy of last-minute wedding plans, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.”

Or better yet, have you ever found the perfect words to say?

Can’t see the video? Click here. Find the archives of videos here.  More than TWO MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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“Every Time You Break the Law You Pay, and Every Time You Obey the Law You Pay.”

gardnerEvery time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

— John Gardner, interview, The Paris Review

I’m haunted by this line; I think about it all the time. It’s even the epigraph to my new book on habit-formation, Before and After– along with a quotation by William James (of course; you can’t talk about habits without quoting William James).

It’s a line with many, many meanings. In the context of habit-formation, I think about it whenever I ponder the Four Tendencies. Because, whether you’re an Upholder like me, or a Rebel, or a Questioner or an Obliger, there’s no evading it: every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

Agree, disagree?

(In the course of writing my book about habit-formation, Before and After, I’ve come up with a character framework, the “Four Tendencies.To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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Before and After: “I Struggled for Years With Getting Myself to Ring My Grandfather.”

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.

I struggled for years with getting myself to ring my grandfather on a ‘regular’ basis. I grew up on the other side of the world from my grandparents and only really got to know them as an adult. I knew I should call my grandfather more often – that it made him really happy, that it didn’t need to take very long… but remembering at useful times seemed impossible.

And then, a year ago, I realised that I often have just a bit of down time just before my weekly dance lesson. I’m chronically early for things and being slightly *more* early was easy, and then there’s 20 minute or half an hour when I have nothing else to do but call. The dancing is something I love – making that a weekly habit was easy, and now I also have the physical reminder of standing outside of the dance building to help me build the other habit. I’ve called every week for almost two years now. He’s even stopped guilt tripping me for forgetting to call.

This is a great example of the Strategy of Pairing — when you connect two activities together to strengthen a habit. Sometimes, with pairing, it helps to say that one activity will occur only if the other activity occurs: “I keep my medicine by the coffee machine, and I can’t make coffee until I take my pill,” or “I can watch Game of Thrones only when I’m on the treadmill.”

Or, as in this reader’s case, you piggyback a new habit onto a settled habit. One habit connects to the other habit. This can be highly effective. Note: this approach seems to work better than trying to form a new habit at a particular time; it’s very easy to lose track of time.

Have you used the Strategy of Pairing to foster a habit? Have you ever piggybacked a new habit onto an existing habit?

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Secret of Adulthood: Enthusiasm Is a Form of Social Courage.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



The more I think about happiness, the more I value enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is a form of social courage – it’s safer to criticize and scoff than to praise and embrace — and I’ve decided that I’d rather be “enthusiastic” than “confident.”

I have a patron saint for enthusiasm. Can you guess it? Julia Child. (By the way, identifying your patron saint is a very thought-provoking exercise in thinking about your own values.)

This post I wrote about Julia Child may be one of my favorite posts ever.

It can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical, and it’s certainly much easier and safer to adopt that sort of stance. But enthusiasm is more fun. Enthusiasm is generous, positive, energetic, and social. It’s outward-turning and engaged. It’s brave, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and kind of goofy. Like Julia Child!

I’m not sure whether I agree with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” – but enthusiasm certainly helps. And sometimes enthusiasm takes guts.

I’m reminded of one of something my sister the sage once told me: “No one has an opinion until someone else has an opinion.” By speaking up with enthusiasm, we change people’s attitudes.

Agree, disagree?

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