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

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How Do You Feel About the Need to Pay — or Something for Free?

money100sDid I mention that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh yes, I think I did. It’s called Before and After, and it will be out next spring. Sign up here if you want to know when it goes on sale.

Here’s a habit-related issue that I’ve been pondering lately: the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free. I think that these conditions can affect our habits.

First, paying.

When forming habits, we’re surprisingly affected by how convenient an activity is. We can harness this, with the Strategies of Convenience and Inconvenience, to foster good habits.  One person changes into exercise clothes as soon as he comes home from work, to make it easier to exercise; another person puts the TV remote-control on a high shelf, to make it a bit harder to turn on the TV.

When we have to pay for something, it feels less convenient. For instance, for most people, it would be cheaper to pay for the gym on a per-visit basis instead of forking over a monthly fee (70% of people rarely use their long-term gym memberships), but although monthly system may not make financial sense, it makes psychological sense; paying per visit feels less convenient, and means that each work-out means an additional cost, while paying by the month makes each visit feel free.

Also, for many people, paying for something makes them more likely to do it. If they pay for a work-out with a trainer, they’re more likely to go, rather than spend the money on nothing. For some (though not all) Obligers, having to pay is a form of external accountability. For them, therefore, late fees, penalties, paying for a class, hiring professionals, etc.  can be very important for sticking to a good habit.

On the other hand, it seems that for some people, paying for something like a training session makes them feel as though they’ve actually done it, even if they haven’t. Paying for a gym membership makes it seem like they’re “going to the gym,” even if they never actually go. Have you ever experienced this?

Perhaps this is related to the “pay or pray” phenomenon: it turns out that when people donate to religious institutions, they’re less likely to attend religious services. Paying acts as a substitute for showing up.

Second, freebies.

Getting something for free also affects our habits. This comes up a lot with food. Many people can’t turn down a free sample — it’s free! But no surprise,  research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

An important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Another complicating factor: we tend to value things more when we pay for them. But we also love scoring free stuff. And we’re more likely to do something, like go to the doctor, if we don’t have to pay.  These different frames of mind come into play with habits in many different variations.

Have you noticed how the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free, affects your habits?

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

“Collectors…Who Aim at Completing a Series, and Those Who Long to Possess Things that Have Betwitched Them.”

Kenneth-Clark“Collectors are basically of two kinds; those who aim at completing a series, and those who long to possess things that have bewitched them. The former, of whom stamp and coin collectors are the obvious examples, enjoy the pleasures of a limited aim, and its comforting certainties. The latter may suffer ups and downs, changes of heart and deceptions, but they have several great advantages. They never know when some new love will inflame them; they learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions; and in the end they are surrounded by old friends, with long love stories which they must try hard not to tell their friends.”

Kenneth Clark, Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait

Agree, disagree?

Do you place yourself in either of these two camps? In The Happiness Project, I write about my attempt to have a collection — because collections look like so much fun — but I’m not really a collector at heart.

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Before and After: “When I’d Leave My Office, I Wouldn’t Visit the Restroom.”

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 hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

I have to say, this is one of the most ingenious strategies I’ve encountered in all my research. It’s a strategy that’s readily available to us all, doesn’t cost anything, easy to implement…

I wanted to establish a regular exercise routine. I have a gym membership and enjoyed working out at the gym close to my home on weekends, but couldn’t manage to get there during the week. Once I got home to change clothes, I never made it to the gym. So I researched gyms close to work and started carrying my gym bag in the car. When I’d leave my office, I wouldn’t visit the restroom. Instead, I would leave with some urgency and need to stop by the gym for relief. That got me in the door. Once I got there, the energy of the place took over, and I would work out before heading for home.

Brilliant! (Obviously, you wouldn’t want to employ this strategy in a way that would stress your body so much as to cause health issues, etc. etc.)

How do you get yourself to exercise? Exercising regularly is definitely one of the most popular of desired habits of the Essential Seven.

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“After Playing Guitar, I’m Filled with a Sense of Contentment…After Solitaire, with Self-Loathing.”

ayres_ian Habits interview: Ian Ayres.

I’ve followed Ian Ayres’s career with interest for a long time. He’s a professor at Yale Law School, where I went, but he’s also from Kansas City and went to the same high school as I did. We Kansas Citians are always on the watch for our fellow K.C. natives. I assume it’s the same for every home town or home state: my parents can list every single famous person from Nebraska. (They both grew up in North Platte.)

He’s also written several books, including Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done  and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart.

And even before I developed my current preoccupation with the subject of habit-formation, Ian Ayres particularly caught my interest with a fascinating site that he founded, with two other people, called stickK.

StickK is a tremendous tool to boost habit-formation, because it provides accountability. The Strategy of Accountability is very powerful, and can be enormously useful for many people,  but it’s absolutely essential for Obligers. StickK allows you to create, very easily, the type of accountability that works for you.

I was very eager to hear what Ian Ayres had to say on the subject of habits.

Gretchen: There are so many apps and online tools that people try for habit-formation: What makes stickK so successful for so many people?

Ian: We give people the opportunity to choose the types of accountability that work for them.  If you want us to nag you, we’ll do that.  If you want us to tell a group of friends of family whether or not you succeeded, we’ll do that.  If you want to designate a referee to adjudicate whether or not you succeeded, you can do that too.  Lots of people just focus on your ability at stickK to put money at risk.  And that is cool.  But it’s the combination of layers of accountability that are particularly powerful.  Indeed, the accountability layer that people tend to under underutilize is the friends and family option.

 What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

The habit that I acquired (with the help of a stickK contract) of reading at least 20 pages of a novel every day.  Reading 30 books a year gives me great joy.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness? 

Playing computer games like solitaire or minesweeper.  I have the experience of losing track of time when I play guitar and when I play solitaire.  But when I come back to reality after engaging in these two activities I have two very different reactions.  After playing guitar, I’m filled with a sense contentment and pride.  After playing solitaire, I’m filled with contempt and self–loathing.

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

As an academic, the habit of writing 500 words a day has been particularly important.  Before having kids, I tended to write at night.  But post-kids, I developed the habit of writing in the morning.  Make coffee, and write something before you do anything else.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I guess “Rebel” comes closest – although my family would more often use the terms “troublemaker.” Increasingly, I find that my scholarship is causing people to consult with their attorneys. Even going back to high school, I was a bit of a troublemaker and I just help launch a website, AcadiumScholar, that complicates the meaning of merit behind “National Merit Scholarships.”  In some ways, I’ve developed the habit of paying attention to things that I annoy me – whether it be McDonald’s asking if my Happy Meal purchase is for a boy or a girl or retirement plans offer funds that no one should invest in or Microsoft claiming that nearly two out of three people prefer Bing to Google.  I find it therapeutic to write about things that bug me.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

You bet.  Work and family obligations are the go-to excuses for chiseling on health habits.  In addition, my 55-year-old body has been less reliable than in the past.  I’ve deployed a nagging heel injury that has stopped me from running (but doesn’t stop me from swimming or biking) to reduce my overall level of exercise.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace and try to nourish and stickK to habits that I believe will help me be happier and I actively resist those that I think undermine my better self.  But I also think about the optimal amount of habit flexibility.  I try to write almost every morning, but part of the habit is to turn off and refresh by doing something else two or three times every fortnight. [My Secret of Adulthood on this theme: "To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop." But then of course, sometimes it's better not to allow myself to stop, not to "break the chain." I find that for me, both approaches are true.]

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Lost Your Keys Again? 8 Tips for Finding Misplaced Objects.

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

This Wednesday: 8 tips for finding misplaced objects.

Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible,” and I’m often struck by how much happiness I get from making improvements in small, seemingly trivial aspects of my life.

And one of those aspects? Keeping track of my stuff. Not being able to find something is a minor challenge to happiness, of course — but it’s one of those minor things that can make me crazy.

Today, Sumathi Reddy wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that had a great series of tips about how to find a lost object.

Apparently — and this is no surprise — the most commonly misplaced possessions are: cellphone, keys, sunglasses, purse, umbrella, bank card, tablet, documents (that’s a little broad), and wallet. The average person loses up to nine objects every day.

The article included these tips from Michael Solomon’s How to Find Lost Objects:

Don’t look for it yet — wait until you have some idea where it might be

Look where it’s supposed to be — I’ve found this tip strangely useful. It’s surprising how often I overlook something, or don’t look quite carefully enough, to see that an object is pretty much where it’s supposed to be

Repeat the name of the object as you search for it

Check to see if it’s somehow hidden in its proper place

Look carefully and systematically — don’t just rummage around (which is very tempting)

Note: objects are usually found within eighteen inches of their original location. This sounds impossible, but I’ve found this to be uncannily accurate.

Be philosophical. Most things eventually turn up. True. But, I feel compelled to note, they don’t always turn up in time!

I would add a tip of my own:

Clean up — this is very effective. Plus, even though I’m annoyed by having to look for something, having a tidier environment cheers me up.

Also, here are two of my tips for never losing something in the first place — beyond the familiar “put things away in the same place.”

As much as possible, put things away in an exact, rather than an approximate, place. Counter-intuitively, it’s easier and also more fun and satisfying to put something away in an exact place, like “the basket on the third shelf of the coat closet” rather than “in the closet.”

If you see something that’s obviously out of place, don’t absent-mindedly think, “Hmm, I wonder why someone put a cell phone in the bathroom cabinet?” but move it — either to where it belongs, or at least to a place where it’s very conspicuous. So many times I’ve raged to myself, “I saw that thing in some unexpected place, and I sort of noticed how weird it was to find it there…but where was it?”

Do you have any tricks for finding lost objects?

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