“The Granite Peaks of the Inevitable…Rubble from the Landslips of Chance.”

“The landscape of my days appears to be composed, like mountainous regions, of varied materials heaped up pell-mell. There I see my nature, itself composite, made up of equal parts of instinct and training. Here and there protrude the granite peaks of the inevitable, but all about is rubble from the landslips of chance.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations, from Sigmund Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets” in The Freud Reader. I managed to work this quotation into my new book about habits — enormously satisfying:

“The names of the three spinners have been interpreted significantly…Lachesis, the name of the second, seems to mean ‘the accidental within the decrees of destiny’ while Atopos means ‘the inevitable’ and for Clotho ‘the fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world.’”

I often think:  What are my fateful tendencies? What is the role of instinct and training? How does chance play a role? Etc., etc.

What do you think?

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A Secret to Good Habits and Happiness? Know Your Zone.

I needed to set a meeting time with someone, and she said, “I know my zone. Let’s meet at 11:00.”

I was instantly intrigued by this phrase, “know my zone,” and I asked, “Why 11:00? Why is that ‘your zone?'”

She said, “I know from experience that if something’s important, I should schedule for 11:00. Any earlier, and I might be late or feel rushed. I have to drop off my sons at school, commute into the city, all that. I need a big margin. Plus, by 11:00 I’m wide awake and in the swing of my day. If I schedule something after lunch, I’m more tired and distracted. I get a lot of work done, but I use the 11:00 slot for what’s most important.”

By chance, I was talking to a writer friend about his habits, and he told me, “I never write before noon.” Now, this is interesting, because one of the most popular pieces of advice about good habits — and specifically about the habit of writing — is to write first thing in the day, because your mind is clearer, you have more energy, etc. This is certainly true for me. So I asked him why he doesn’t write before noon.

“I’m foggy,” he said. “It takes me a while to get going. By noon I’m ready.”

These exchanges reminded me of one of the most important things I’ve learned about habits, as I’ve been writing my new book: there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. (Want to hear when this masterpiece goes on sale? Sign up here.)

Some people — maybe most people — do better when they schedule important habits for the morning, but that’s not true for everyone. Along the same lines, some people do better when they start small; others when they start big. Some people like a lot of activity and stimulation; others prefer quiet and simplicity.

We don’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Each of us needs to figure out our zone. Self-knowledge! Everything in habits and happiness comes down to self-knowledge.

Do you know your zone? I’m a morning person, and I know that very well about myself.

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Do You Have Any Toys from Childhood that Are Still Important to You?

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

This Wednesday: Do you have any toys from childhood that are still important to you? as well as a short list of well-beloved toys.

For some reason, I lay awake last night thinking about toys. Do you have any toys or “comfort objects” from childhood that are still important to you?

I have my Hambugins (my name for my ancient, decrepit doll which was a “Baby Huggums”) and Cocoa, my stuffed bear.

My sister has a Blankee which she still sleeps with, to this day.

I started making a list of famous examples of adults with their toys:

1. The most haunting loss of a doll — in On the Banks of Plum Creek, when Ma gives Laura’s beloved Charlotte to a bratty neighbor. Ma never did apologize to my satisfaction, though fortunately Laura did get Charlotte back. [Does anyone know if there’s basis for Charlotte and this story in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life?]

2. The Toy Story movies, of course — Toy Story Three! Oh my gosh. The fate of Andy’s toys.

3. Understood Betsy — old Aunt Abigail and her doll, Deborah. “You could tell by the way she spoke, by the way  she touched Deborah, by the way she looked at her, that she had loved the doll dearly, and maybe still did, a little.”

4. Brideshead Revisisted — who can forget Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear, Aloysius?

What are some other prominent examples that I’ve overlooked?

For my whole life, I’ve been fascinated by people’s relationships to objects. I discuss this at some length in Happier at Home, and in a very different way, in my odd little book Profane Waste (what a joy it was to write that book).

I agree with Elaine Scarry, who wrote, in The Body in Pain,

“Perhaps no one who attends closely to artifacts is wholly free of the suspicion that they are, though not animate, not quite inanimate.”

And Adam Smith, who observed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,

“We conceive…a sort of gratitude for those inanimated objects, which have been the causes of great or frequent pleasure to us. The sailor, who, as soon as he got ashore, should mend [build] his fire with the plank upon which he had just escaped from a shipwreck, would seem to be guilty of an unnatural action. We should expect that he would rather preserve it with care and affection, as a monument that was, in some measure, dear to him.”

My Hambugins is part of myself.

Do you feel that way about any old toy or artifact from your childhood? I used to wonder whether I should bother to keep these things around, but I’ve come to realize that such possessions (within reason) have an important role to play in a happy life.

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Secret of Adulthood: Sometimes, Material Desires Have a Spiritual Aspect.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

 

Agree, disagree?

This reminds me of another Secret of Adulthood: Sometimes, you can minister to your spirit through your body.

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A Key to Good Habits? Don’t Allow Ourselves to Feel Deprived.

A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York Times, Losing weight may require some serious fun, about a study that makes a point that I think is incredibly important.

In the study, women were sent to walk a one-mile course in the next half hour, with lunch to follow.

–Half were told that their walk was meant to be exercise, and they should think of it that way, and monitor their exertion as they walked.

–Half were told that the walk would be for pleasure; they’d listen to music through headphones and rate the sound quality, but they should mostly enjoy themselves.

Afterward, they were asked to estimate mileage, mood, and calorie expenditure.

The “exercise” group reported feeling more tired and grumpy — and at lunch afterwards, they ate significantly more sweets than the “for fun” group. (The piece discusses other studies that show the same kind of result.)

Reading this study reminded me of one of my important conclusions about habits: If we want to stick to our good habits, we should try very hard never to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

When we feel deprived, we try to make things right for ourselves. We begin to say things like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this,” “I’ll just do this now, that’s fair, but tomorrow I’ll be good.”

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified in invoking many of the most pernicious loopholes: the Moral Licensing loophole, the Tomorrow loophole, and the Fake Self-Actualization loophole.

The lure of loopholes is why the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is so important.

Once I realized how dangerous it was to allow ourselves to feel deprived, I grasped the importance of the Strategy of Treats. It’s a delightful strategy, yes, but it’s not frivolous or selfish.

Treats help us to feel energized, restored, and light-hearted. Without them, we can start to feel resentful, depleted, and irritable. When we give ourselves plenty of healthy treats, we don’t feel deprived. And when we don’t feel deprived, we don’t feel entitled to break our good habits. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

And when we can frame a habit as fun, that’s useful too. This year, I started walking once a week with a friend. It started as a way to get more exercise, but now I view it as a way to get more friend time. Now that same habit is a treat.

In my forthcoming book about habit-formation, I talk a lot about how to avoid feelings of deprivation. There’s the Strategy of Abstaining, of course, for my fellow Abstainers; there’s “consumption snobbery,” that works too; there’s delay, within the Strategy of Distraction.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Gretchen, I can’t wait to read your book which sounds so fascinating and helpful,” fear not, you can sign up here to find out as soon as it goes on sale.

How about you? Do you find that deprivation makes you feel justified in indulging or breaking a good habit?

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