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

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“There Is a Myth, Sometimes Widespread, that a Person Need Only Do Inner Work.”

christopheralexander“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself….The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Do you agree or disagree?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I write my book Before and After, about habit-formation — to what degree are our habits affected by our surroundings and by other people? In my view, a lot. (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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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.

Before and After: “The Habit that Changed My Life Was Becoming a Morning Writer.”

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 Nina Badzin.

The habit that changed my life was becoming a morning writer.

 

I’m a freelance writer and blogger with a regular column in Brain, Child Magazine. I also have four kids and try to keep up with answering blog comments, reading other blogs, and sharing others’ articles online.

 

BEFORE AND AFTER: More and more I found that I was using all my day time writing hours (which are never consistent) for the social side (but also important side) of blogging. The real writing was not coming along. To keep up with deadlines, I would end up staying awake until 2AM or later, which took away from time I should have been spending with my husband and made me exhausted, unproductive, and crabby the next day.

 

I realized that the only time I could count on was morning time before the kids were awake, something I’ve been avoiding even though every writer I respect says it’s the way to go. I did nothing to prepare for the first day. I just set the alarm for 5AM and forced myself awake. I’d say it was a cold turkey method.

 

It was never (and is never) easy to get up, but I do it anyway. The joy of having written quality paragraphs by 7AM when the kids are awake was enough to get me up the next day. Another strategy to avoid the snooze button is that my husband can fall back asleep after he hears me get up at 5. But if I let the alarm go off again or try to wake up closer to 6AM, it’s too close to when he has to start his day, which was not fair to him.

 

I’m finally going to bed earlier after many years of staying up way too late, and I’m so much more productive. I feel more professional. AND, I feel less guilty about hopping around on the internet reading articles, commenting, and engaging in social media during other pockets of the day since I already got my main work done.

This is a good example of the principle that if there’s a habit you really want to accomplish, it’s very helpful to schedule it first thing in the morning.

First of all, the Strategy of Scheduling — of explicitly putting an activity on the calendar — is very powerful. And for many people, if they don’t have time for something important to them, getting up earlier is a great strategy to reclaim some time.

Also, whenever possible, important habits should be scheduled for the morning. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, and as the day goes on, more complications arise (whether real or invented).

Self-control is strongest in the morning, and self-control failures often happen at the end of the day. Activities like excessive gambling and alcohol abuse tend to happen at night, and the majority of impulsive crimes take place after 11:00 p.m.

However, it’s true that some people are “Larks” (morning people) and some people are “Owls” (night people), and night people generally aren’t successful at trying to get up earlier to write, meditate, exercise, etc. — because the world is already forcing them to get up too early! Work, school, children…the logistics of life make it hard to be an Owl. So if you’re an Owl (which isn’t the same thing as someone who stays up too late to send a few last emails or to watch TV), trying to get up earlier probably won’t be helpful.

Have you ever been able to adopt a new habit by scheduling it first thing in the morning?

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Want to Read about Writing? Here Are My Five Favorite Books about Writing.

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

This Wednesday: My five favorite books about writing.

It’s not easy to write a book about writing that’s also a pleasure to read. Here are my favorites:

1. William Zinsser, On Writing Well. I’ve read this book several times, and I’m due for another re-reading soon. It’s full of invaluable advice, and so beautifully written that it’s a joy to read. My favorite chapter may be “Humor,” which includes Zinsser’s example of his own magazine piece about women and their hair curlers–brilliant. I’d quote it here but you really have to read the whole thing to get the proper effect.

2. Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary. I’ve read this many, many times. Virginia Woolf kept a diary for twenty-seven years, and after her death, her husband drew from those diaries to create A Writer’s Diary, which includes the entries that refer to her own writing, that comment on the books she was reading, and that touch on the scenes and ideas relevant to her work. Extraordinarily rich and powerful.

When I was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, which is a very unconventional biography, I thought many times of this passage:

Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry–by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?….I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate.

And in Happier at Home, I wrote a passage that’s a direct allusion to this haunting passage from Woolf:

What I must do is to keep control; and not be too sarcastic; and keep the right degree of freedom and reserve. But oh how easy this writing is compared with The Waves! I wonder what the degree of carat-gold is in the two books. Of course this is external: but there’s a good deal of gold–more than I’d thought–in externality. Anyhow, “what care I for my goose feather bed? I’m off to join the raggle taggle gipsies oh!”

(You can read a bit about my strange response to this passage and to the song, and you can hear the song, Raggle Taggle Gypsy, here.)

Okay I must stop, or I’ll end up quoting dozens of passages.

3. Robert Boice, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. This book is bizarrely, insanely expensive, and written very simply, but in terms of practical advice about how to get writing done, it’s very useful. I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I write my book about habit-formation, Before and After, because it’s all about creating habits that allow writers to be productive and creative over the long term.

4. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters. Speaking of habits, how could I resist that title? Plus I’m a crazy Flannery O’Connor fan. These letters are fascinating, especially about her writing. I include one passage, from a 1957 letter, as an epigraph to a chapter in Before and After, about the Strategy of Scheduling:

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.

5. Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird. This is an encouraging, accessible account of how to keep going as a writer. I love the story from which the book gets its title:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How about you? What are your favorite books about writing?

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Story: I Love to See Virtue Rewarded

This week’s video story: I love to see virtue rewarded.

I have a weird trait — I can’t bear any book, movie, play, or anything with the plot of unjust accusation. Oliver Twist, Othello, Atonement, The Fugitive…I just can’t stand it. And I can sniff it out a mile away! I can feel this theme coming as I’m reading or watching.

On the other hand, I love any story in which virtue is rewarded. So thrilling. My daughter loves these stories too, and for a while, she kept asking me to tell this story:

 

Alas, virtue isn’t always rewarded — and one thing I love about this story is imagining the happiness of the customer, who got to be the instrument of virtue rewarded, for this excellent sales clerk.

If you want to read the text of the actual email in which she described this incident, look here.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  Practically TWO MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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If You’re Trying to Keep a Good Habit, Do Other People Help or Hurt?

automatic-transmission-0812-deAssay: For my book on habits, Before and After, I’ve identified the multiple strategies that we can use to change our habits.

One of the most powerful? The Strategy of Other People. We exert enormous influence on others, and they, on us; one way we influence each other is by providing mental energy to support (or thwart) someone else’s efforts.

I find that people fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, they remind, and they join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition.

 

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited or undermining, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit. But just as people in Drive can sometimes provoke opposition, so, too, can people in Reverse. They may ignite a helpful “I’ll show you” or “You can’t stop me” spirit. (Especially in a Rebel.)

 

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They’re not in reverse—which is itself hugely helpful—but they’re not in drive, either. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, and sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t. My sister told me, “If I say to my husband, ‘Let’s go out for dinner,’ he says, ‘Great!’ And if I say, ‘Let’s stay home and eat very healthy,’ he says ‘Great!’ to that, too.

It can be tricky to know how to help people keep their good habits. I’m a bit of a habits bully, and sometimes my “drive” mode probably bugs the people around me.

I have a lot of zeal for healthy habits—in myself and in others—but even I find it surprisingly difficult to stay in “drive” mode. It feels so festive and friendly to encourage people to treat themselves in some way. “Just one won’t hurt!” “You deserve it!” “This is a party!

As the examples illustrate, people also influence us in how they suggest loopholes for us to follow. Just look at all the different types of loopholes invoked above. So one way we can avoid the negative influence of other people is to keep in mind the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Do you do things to help others keep their good habits? Do you feel the influence of other people on your habits?–for good or for ill?

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