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

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Story: You Can’t Protect Yourself Against Everything.

This week’s video story: You can’t protect yourself against everything.


This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from Dwight D. Eisenhower:  “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

How about you? Have you ever taken elaborate precautions — only to be foiled by some unforeseen eventuality?

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

The Habits We Most Want to Foster, or, the “Essential Seven.”

seven-columnsMy current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.

When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

Last week, I posted about the “Big Five,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall.

I asked for reader advice about two questions: had I overlooked any areas, and was there a better name than “Big Five”?

Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.

First: yes, indeed, I’d missed some important areas. Now I have seven areas.

Second: given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.

Voila! The Essential Seven include…

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save and spend wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, pay taxes, stay current with expense reports)

4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself)

5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing)

7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read the Bible every day, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature)

Of course, the same habit might satisfy different needs for different people. For one person, yoga might be a form of exercise (#2), for someone else, a way to find mental rest (#4); for someone else, a spiritual practice (#7). And people value different habits. For one person, organized files might be a crucial tool for creativity; another person finds inspiration in random juxtapositions.

The argument I’ll make in Before and After is that when we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then—and this is the best part—we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, and our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

So readers, what do you think of the Essential Seven–the name and the concepts themselves? I very much appreciate all the thoughtful comments that people posted. Very, very helpful.

I must say, it pleases me to have seven. I hate to quote Voldemort, but he was right when he observed, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Isn’t seven the most powerfully magic number?”

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Secret of Adulthood: Doing a Little Work Makes Goofing Off More Fun.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



Agree, disagree?

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“Some Passions Can Be Indulged to Almost Any Extreme…Others Cannot.”

bertrandrussell“All our separate tastes and desires have to fit into the general framework of life. If they are to be a source of happiness they must be compatible with health, with the affection of those whom we love, and with the respect of the society in which we live. Some passions can be indulged to almost any extreme without passing beyond these limits, others cannot.”

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

How about you? Do you find that some of your passions can be indulged to almost any extreme (reading) but others can’t (gambling)? Obviously, this observation has tremendous relevance to our habits.

Russell proposes what sounds like a good test for a habit: a habit should be compatible with my health, with the affection of my friends and family, and the respect of my community. Does that cover everything, do you think?

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“The More You’re Served, the More You’ll Eat. And You Won’t Even Think About It.””

lisa_young_articleHabits interview: Lisa Young.

I met nutrition expert Lisa Young years ago, sometime after I read her fascinating book The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss. I can’t remember how I finally ended up meeting her in person, but now I get to run into her occasionally, because we go to the same gym. (Very appropriate, given our mutual preoccupations.)

Much of her work is about habits related to portion size, so I was very curious to hear what she had to say.

For my book on habit-formation, Before and After, I’ve identified 21 strategies we can use to shape our habits. One of the most powerful of the strategies is the Strategy of Monitoring. As Lisa points out, portion control is a key to understanding how we’re actually eating — and to changing how we’re eating, if we want to. (If you want to know when Before and After goes on sale, sign up here.)

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on an aspect of habits – portion control. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of these habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Lisa: The more you are served, the more you will eat. And you will not even think about it or realize it. We can rattle off what we eat but we pay no attention to how much.

Therefore, try to prepare yourself in advance–for example, try to avoid buying jumbo bag of chips, cereal, or other edible foods (jumbo toilet paper is ok). You will eat more without realizing it. If you do, for some reason buy huge bags, (usually because they are cheaper and we love a good bargain), pre-portion foods in advance or keep handy “props” around: portion out pretzels or chips in ziploc baggies, keep a handy measuring cup around to measure your cereal.

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

Doing yoga or getting in a swim. And, of course seeing Gretchen at the gym. :)

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I think that as an 18 year old, we think we have to cut out entire foods or food groups to be healthy. I now know that I can eat all foods.

The trick is to eat healthy at least 80% of the time. We do not have to be perfect 100% of the time. [I think this works for Moderators, but not for Abstainers. Lisa is definitely a Moderator!]

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

Getting in my exercise routine and doing something I enjoy (swimming or yoga, for me), listening to calming music when home, including some protein and fiber in the morning–ie: a Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and not starting my day with pure carbs ( ie, a bagel or muffin), connecting with a close friend or family member.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I grew up in a house where my family–mom and grandmother–did not know of portion control. Perhaps because I have spent my life researching portions, it has become an ingrained habit. I can eat all foods, I just pay attention and know when to stop and can recognize when a portion is too big.

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

No–because I have developed healthy food and exercise habits, being healthy has become second nature.

It is natural to overeat occasionally at a party, but I do not let it bother me if I do, as instead of feeling guilty the next day, I go back right to eating healthy. I think the key is to prepare yourself for slight changes in your routine when you travel or go to a party.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I think it can give me a sense of calm and structure.

Any last thoughts?

When it comes to weight loss and portion sizes, just becoming more aware of HOW MUCH you are eating is half the battle. In particular, it is important to be mindful and pay attention to how much you are eating of foods that we tend to overeat–grains/starches, desserts. When it comes to fruits and veggies, however, you do not have to be so strict and it is ok to eat more. No one got fat eating too many carrots or bananas.

When asked, what kind of sandwich isn’t fattening, the answer is a half sandwich! Keep this in mind. It pertains to all foods…

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