Are You “Addicted” to Something?

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

This Wednesday: Are you “addicted” to something?

The definition of  “addiction,” and what people can become “addicted” to, are hotly contested issues. In everyday conversation, of course, people throw around the word “addicted” a lot, as in, “I’m addicted to Game of Thrones.”

Addiction, whatever it might be, is a subject that’s related to my current fascination: habits. As I explain in the introduction of Better Than Before, my discussion of habit formation doesn’t cover addictions, compulsions, nervous habits, or habits of mind. Nevertheless, I did a lot of reading and thinking about addiction, because it’s a useful area to consider.

The nature of addiction is highly controversial, but I found it interesting to read, in Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and Laura Curtiss Feder’s Behavioral Addictions, this list of factors put forth by Mark Griffiths. Apart from the question of “what’s a true addiction?” it’s a helpful way to think about whether a certain habit is making it harder to live a life that reflects our values and contributes to our long-term happiness.

According to this definition, a behavioral addiction is marked by:

Salience — this behavior has become the important activity in a person’s life

Mood modification — this behavior changes a person’s mood, by providing a rush of excitement or a sense of calm or numbness

Tolerance — more and more behavior is needed to get the mood boost

Withdrawal symptoms — a person feels lousy or irritable when unable to engage in the behavior

Conflict — the behavior causes conflicts with other people, interferes with other activities, or causes a person to feel a loss of control

Relapse — the behavior returns after being given up

I don’t want to sound like I’m treating addiction lightly. Whatever “addiction” might be exactly, when a person feels powerless to control a behavior that’s destructive, that’s a very, very serious matter. Far beyond the scope of my writing.

But I do think that even for people who aren’t “addicted” to something, these points are interesting to ponder, as they might relate to a bad habit (a habit that’s not good for us, but doesn’t rise to this level of severity).

They help us think about whether we’re engaging in a behavior that’s turned into a negative. That’s when we might want to consider changing a habit.

Sometimes, a behavior that one person consider to be healthy and positive is viewed as another person as extreme and negative. I have a friend, a fellow Upholder, who exercises just about every day of the year. People sometimes say she’s “addicted” to exercise in a way that’s unhealthy, but that’s not how she sees it.

In cases like this, I found this point by Griffiths to be very helpful: “Healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it.”

My research on habits and happiness have convinced me that it’s very important that we feel in control of ourselves. The feeling that a behavior is out of our control — that we can’t change what we’re doing, even when we know it’s not good for us — well, that’s a bad feeling. Whether it’s an “addiction” or not.

As I was writing Better Than Before, I kept changing the epigraph (I love choosing epigraphs). In the end, I’ve chosen this line from Publilius Syrus: “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”

Self-command, self-knowledge…more and more, I’m convinced that good habits and happiness come down to these two. And maybe self-command comes from self-knowledge, so really it’s just self-knowledge.

What about you? Have you ever had a behavior in your life that felt out of your control? If you wrested back control, how did you do it?


Secret of Adulthood: Someplace, Keep an Empty Shelf.

Further Secrets of Adulthood: Someplace, keep an empty shelf.

Now, what’s so great about an empty shelf? An empty shelf shows that I have room to expand — I’m not crowded in by my stuff, I have order and space. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, a subject that I explore at some length in Happier at Home and also in Better Than Before. (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

Some people say, “Gretchen, do you really have an empty shelf?” I really do (though I have to protect it against my husband, who never sees an empty shelf without wanting to stick something on it). If you want to see it, watch here at minute 6:41.

The opposite of a profound truth is also true, however, so someplace, I also keep a junk drawer.

How about you? Do you have an empty shelf, a junk drawer, or both?

“Life Is What Our Character Makes It. We Fashion It, as a Snail Does Its Shell.”

“Life is what our character makes it. We fashion it, as a snail does its shell.”

–Jules Renard, Journal

Agree, disagree?

I’d never heard of French writer Jules Renard, but I love this journal.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to add “Life is what our habits make it.” Do you agree with that? But of course, I see everything through the lens of habits these days, because of writing my book about habit-formation, Better Than Before.

To hear when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

Before and After: “I Get My Coffee in My Bedroom and I Don’t Go Downstairs Until I Am Done.”

I’m writing my next book, about how we make and break habts– 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 hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Paige NeJame.

My husband and I own a small company. For the most part, I am able to do my work from home in order to stay flexible for our three kids, fitting in most of my work around their schedules. When I would find a “crumb of time” as I called them, I would rush to my office (in my bedroom) and work.

When the kids were younger I was constantly stressed because after they stopped taking naps, the crumbs of time rare and short.

As they entered school, it was much easier for me to find the time – as long as nobody was ill, I had 6 hours to myself to get my work done.

But then there was summertime. It was like back to having the crumbs of time again since all three kids are underfoot again. I knew I had to do something different this summer and remembered that you often write from 5am – 7am. I decided to try this schedule. The first morning I went downstairs and got my coffee and one of my kids was already up. I got pulled into cleaning up the kitchen and discussing with him something about the upcoming day and before I knew it my “golden hours” were gone.

That day, I moved my Keurig coffee machine, coffee pods, sugar cubes, and Coffeemate to my bedroom. Now I still get up at 5am, but I don’t go downstairs. I get my coffee in my bedroom (which feels like a treat) and I don’t go downstairs until I am done with my work. Just by moving the coffee machine, I am able to stay put and do my work and have the rest of my day to be with my kids!

There are several aspects of this habit-change that I think are worth pointing out.

First, identify the problem. This sounds so obvious, but it’s actually a crucial, and often over-looked, step. Once you’ve truly identified the problem, solutions become more obvious. What’s the problem? She didn’t have time and space to herself during the summer — even at 5:00 in the morning.

Second, change your surroundings, not yourself or other people. Instead of trying to persuade her kids to act differently, which can be tough, she moved the coffeepot. Much easier.

Third, do what’s right for you. For many people, getting up earlier is a great way to claim a part of the day for themselves. I love my early-morning time. But this won’t work for night people, so if you’re an Owl, don’t try to make yourself attempt this solution, which is so contrary to your natural inclinations.

Fourth, be willing to ignore conventional advice. I often see the advice, “Never work in your bedroom. Keep your bedroom a place of relaxation, enjoyment, and rest.” That’s good advice, for some people. But maybe for you, working in your bedroom is the right answer. It’s always helpful to consider suggestions, but be willing to reject them if they don’t work for you. I experienced this as an Abstainer. It took me a long time to recognize my Abstainer nature, because people kept telling me that I “should” learn to be moderate, because moderation is “better.” But for me, I finally realized, abstaining is easier. And I want to shape my habits to suit me.

Fifth, habits are easier when they feel like treats. Try never to let yourself feel deprived.

The sad fact is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habits. Self-knowledge! Everything in habits and happiness always comes back to self-knowledge.

How about you? Have you ever made a few small changes that gave you a big boost in this way?

My book on habits, Better Than Before, comes out in March 2015 (Crown). If you’d like to hear when it becomes available, sign up here. Habits! The most fascinating subject ever.

Do You Fall for Any of These 5 Common Mistakes about Habits?

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

Today: some common misconceptions about habits.

Just about all of us are interested in habits — whether because we want to change a habit of our own, or because we’d like to help someone else change a habit.

But to change habits, it’s important to understand how habits work. In my experience, people make certain mistakes about the nature of habits, and that makes it harder for them to tackle their habits.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions:

1. Repetition isn’t enough to build a habit. People assume that if they repeat a behavior consistently, it will become a habit. Maybe. But maybe not. I’ve heard from many people who trained for a marathon, with the thought that this would make them a regular exerciser, but then after the marathon, they never ran again. Or they do National Novel Writing Month, and think they’ve acquired the habit of daily writing, but stop when the month is over. In both these cases, the danger of the finish line explains why a habit wasn’t formed. Beware the finish line!

2. Consequences often don’t matter. People make the mistake of thinking that if consequences are dire enough, they’ll change a habit. Nope. Consequences, without the proper approach to changing a habit, often fail to move people to change. For instance, one-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness — for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.

3. Some people do better giving up something altogether; others do better when they act with moderation. For most things (though not drinking or smoking), moderation is held up as an ideal, and I often hear people say, “Indulge with moderation, because if you’re too rigid with yourself, you won’t find it possible to keep your habit. Live a little, take a break, don’t be too hard on yourself.” This approach works well for Moderators. But I’m a hardcore Abstainer, and for me, abstaining altogether from something that’s a bad habit is easier. I know it sounds rigid and harsh, but for me it’s easier. As my sister the sage told me, when she gave up her beloved French fries forever, “I tell myself, ‘Now I’m free from French fries.'” A friend had to stop playing the word-game app Ruzzle entirely, because she couldn’t play just a little; another friend had to get rid of his TV. Moderation works for Moderators, abstaining works for Abstainers. Neither approach is right or wrong.

4. Habits can change overnight. People assume that habits can only be changed gradually, with repetition over time. That’s certainly one way habits change. But they can also change in a flash. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt is a mysterious and elusive phenomenon, but it definitely happens; in fact, it’s much more common than I first believed. An idea or realization hits us like a lightning bolt, and we change our habits instantly. It’s frustrating, though, because while this strategy makes change easy, it’s something that happens to us — we can’t really invoke it. The effect can wear off, too, so if you experience a positive Lightning Bolt change, it’s important to recognize what’s happened, and take steps to keep that habit strong, so you don’t lose the benefit of its initial effortlessness.

5. The same strategies don’t work for everyone. The sad fact is, there’s no magical, one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. When it comes to habits, people are very different. So it’s not really useful to copy what Einstein did, or what worked for your brother. We can get ideas from each other, and we definitely pass habits back and forth (that’s the Strategy of Other People), but we have to figure out what works for us. The Strategy of Accountability is crucial for an Obliger; it’s counter-productive for a Rebel, who makes more progress with the Strategy of Identity. A Lark does better scheduling an important habit for the morning, but that might not be true for an Owl. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Agree, disagree? What other mistakes have I overlooked? Habits! The most fascinating subject ever.

If you want to hear when my book about habits, Better Than Before, is available, sign up here.