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

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“I Created a Different Relationship to the Voice in My Head.”

dan_harrisjpgHabits interview: Dan Harris.

I met Dan Harris–the ABC News, Nightline, and Good Morning America correspondent–when a mutual friend suggested that we’d enjoy having lunch, to talk about habits, happiness, and meditation.

We had a great discussion, and in fact, Dan was one of several people who inspired me to try meditating. (I discuss this at some length in my forthcoming book on habits, Before and After. Stay tuned.)

His hilarious, thought-provoking book about his experiences with meditation, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–is about to hit the shelves next month. (Sidenote: I’m a big fan of long subtitles, see here and here.)

I knew Dan had done a lot of thinking about the relationship of habits and happiness, and how to use habits to foster happiness, so I was eager to hear what he had to say.

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

Dan: I never in a million years thought I’d be the type of person who’d say this, but my answer is… meditation.

I had always assumed that meditation was for robed gurus, acid-droppers, fans of Enya, and people who keep yurts in their backyard. But then I heard about the explosion of scientific research that shows the practice has an almost laughably long list of health benefits, from lowering your blood pressure to boosting your immune system to essentially rewiring your brain for happiness. And then I learned that it doesn’t involve sitting cross-legged, burning incense, or chanting phrases in Sanskrit. (I’ve written up these simple meditation instructions, if anyone’s interested.)

I started with five minutes a day, and very quickly noticed three benefits: 1. Increased focus, 2. A greater sense of calm, and 3. A vastly improved ability to jolt myself out of rumination and fantasies about the past or the future, and back to whatever was happening right in front of my face.

Over time (I’ve now been at it for about four years and do 35 minutes a day), an even more substantial benefit kicked in: I created a different relationship to the voice in my head. You know the voice I’m talking about. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly in conversation with other human beings, and losing our temper only to regret it later. The ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without reacting to it blindly – often called “mindfulness” – is a superpower.

I’m certainly not arguing that meditation is a panacea. I still do tons of stupid stuff – as my wife will attest. But the practice has definitely made me happier, calmer, and nicer. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to write a whole book designed to make meditation attractive to people who are neither hippies nor monks, called 10% Happier. (Which, by the way, you very kindly blurbed, Gretchen – thanks for that!)

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

I’ll preface this by admitting that I know very little about the theory and science of habit – which is why I am very much looking forward to your forthcoming book.

That said, a neuroscientist friend of mine once told me, “The brain is a pleasure-seeking machine.” Usually, we do what makes us feel good. What I know (or at least think I know) now about habit formation that I didn’t know as a kid was that I generally cannot create or break habits unless there is compelling self-interest involved – in other words, unless doing so makes me feel good, either directly or indirectly.

So, for example, with meditation, I was motivated to start the habit by the science that says it’s good for you – and I’ve been able to maintain it because, while the act of meditating is often quite tough, the “off-the-cushion” (to use a meditative term of art) benefits are so readily apparent to me.

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


Two biggies:

1. Multitasking: I’ve seen all the studies that say our brains are not capable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time and that multitasking is a huge drag on efficiency and productivity. And yet, I still frequently find myself flitting between email, Twitter, phone calls, and whatever work I’m actually supposed to be doing.

2. Mindless eating: I try very hard to eat healthfully, but I am a huge sucker for pasta, cheeseburgers, and cookies – and when I get into a feeding frenzy, it’s hard for me to stop. These episodes are almost always followed by a shame spiral.

In theory, meditation should help with the above, since it teaches you to pay careful attention to whatever you’re doing right now. Alas, I still struggle. Hence the title of my book (10%, etc.).

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

Other than meditation, the habit that most contributes to my happiness (aside from hanging out with my wife, Bianca – but does that count as a habit?) is exercise. If I don’t work out consistently, I started to feel a bit crazy. Sometimes, when I’m being antsy and annoying around the house, Bianca will literally force me to go running.

Have you ever managed to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

In my early thirties, as a young reporter for ABC News, I spent many years covering wars. I reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. When I got back from one particularly long and hairy run in Baghdad, I became depressed. In an act of towering stupidity, I began to self-medicate, dabbling with cocaine and ecstasy. I’m not talking “Wolf of Wall Street”-level debauchery. My intake was sporadic, and mostly restricted to weekends. I had never been much of a partier before this period in my early thirties. In hindsight, it was an attempt, at least partly, to recreate some of the thrill of the war zone.

A side-effect of all of this, as my doctor later explained to me, was that the drugs increased the level of adrenaline in my brain, which is what, in all likelihood, produced a panic attack on live television. (It happened in 2004, while I was filling in on Good Morning America.) It didn’t matter that I hadn’t gotten high in the days or weeks leading up to my on-air Waterloo; the side-effects lingered.

The shrink I consulted about this decreed in no uncertain terms that I needed to stop doing drugs – immediately. Faced with the potential demise of my career, breaking this habit was a pretty obvious call. It was not easy, but I quit right then and there, and was helped enormously through the process by my doctor. But again, the overarching motivation was self-interest.

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

The largest and most persistent obstacle to the two habits that I’ve discussed here (meditation and exercise) is my frequent work travel – especially when I’m on the road covering breaking news. During major news events like the Newtown school shooting or the Boston Marathon bombings, we barely get time to eat or sleep, never mind work out or meditate. In the midst of these intense work sprints,  I often find that the voice in my head gets nastier and more self-critical, and also that I’m binging on pancakes at Cracker Barrel.

That said, I get an immense charge out of covering breaking news. It’d be hard to overstate how much I love my job.  So, it’s a tradeoff.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Funny you should ask.

In Question 2, you inquired about what I knew about habit formation at age 18. The answer: basically nothing. As it happens, though, in the summer after I graduated from high school, I did experience a “flash change.” I have a vivid memory of the exact moment. I was in my car, driving to go see some friends, and I decided – seemingly out of nowhere – that after years of being a mediocre high school student (I’d made it into a good college by the skin of my teeth), I was going to truly apply myself in the next phase of my life. And I did. The next year, when my father saw my first college report card, he nearly cried.

Interestingly, the fact that I did well in college has had zero practical impact on my career in television news. I don’t think any of my employers has ever looked at my transcripts or even asked about my grades. But that flash change while driving in my car through suburban Massachusetts during the summer of 1989 established a long-lasting habit of hard work and ambition. Which, it must be said, has sometimes been to my detriment. It was, I now believe, my fervent desire to excel at my job that led me to plunge headlong into war zones without considering the psychological consequences – which, in turn, led to the drugs and the panic attack. I’ve found that meditation has really helped me strike a better balance between striving and stress. It is possible, I am convinced, to do this without going soft. In fact, I would argue, mindfulness has given me a huge edge.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My wife and I exert enormous influence over each other’s habits. When one of us goes on a healthy eating jag, for example, the other generally follows suit. Overall, I’d say she has more power over me than I do her. For example, she doesn’t meditate that often – and I have enough good sense not to proselytize at home.

The most important habit I have picked up from Bianca (who is a doctor, and very compassionate by nature) is kindness. When we first met, I had the terrible – and, in hindsight, very embarrassing – habit of occasionally getting snippy with, say, uncooperative call center employees or surly taxi cab drivers. Also, I would sometimes get so caught up in my own inner monologue that I failed to acknowledge people in my orbit, such as the doormen in our apartment building or the friendly employees at our local dry cleaners.

Not long after I reluctantly became a meditator, I learned that there is actually a specific type of meditation designed to make you nicer. It’s called compassion meditation. At first blush, it’s astonishingly sappy and annoying. It involves picturing people (friends, neighbors, colleagues) and sending them good vibes. Motivated by my wife’s well-intentioned criticism – and also by science that shows compassion meditation actually works – I decided to give it a try.

It’s changed my life. It’s not that I’m suddenly a saint; it’s just that making it a priority to be nice, to push myself to take other people’s perspective, and to have fewer arguments and more positive interactions feels good. (There it is again: self-interest.)

Not being a jerk is the most important and fulfilling habit I’ve ever formed. What’s so radical and exciting about meditation is that – notwithstanding decades of calcified, Age of Aquarius-style cultural baggage – it’s really just exercise for the mind, bicep curls for the brain. No matter how old we are, we are not necessarily stuck with the most difficult parts of our personality. We can rewire our own brains in lots of beneficial ways.

This reminds of a sign that used to hang in my favorite record store in Boston, Newbury Comics. Above the list of upcoming record releases, it said, “All dates can change. So can you.”

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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.

Want to Know Yourself Better, to Shape Your Habits Better? Take This Quiz.

self-reflectionEvery Wednesday is Quiz Day, or Tip Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday: Want to know yourself better, so you can shape your habits better?

Did I mention that I’m working on a book about habit-formation? Oh right, maybe I did. It’s called Before and After (sign up here if you want to hear when the book goes on sale.)

One of the themes of the book is this: If we want to foster habits successfully, we must know ourselves. People often assume that the same approach will work for everyone, that the same habits will work for everyone, and that everyone has the same aptitude and appetite for forming habits, but from my observation, that’s not true.

For instance, it was to try to understand the varieties of human nature that I came up with the four Character Tendencies. (Formerly known as the Rubin Tendencies, until some folks objected–still trying to come up with a better name–suggestions welcome.)

It’s hard, however, to know ourselves. And it’s hard to know the aspects of our nature that are relevant to how we might form habits.

I came up with a list of questions to help me understand myself better. Consider for yourself…

The rhythm of my days

  • Would I rather be ten minutes late or ten minutes early? (Oscar Wilde wrote “punctuality is the thief of time,” but I’m always ten minutes early.)
  • What errands do I regularly do? How many times each week?
  • How much control do I have over my time: what time I get up, go to work, go home, go to the gym, leisure time?
  • How much time do I spend commuting or taking other people to activities?
  • Would I like to spend more time with friends, or by myself?
  • At what time of day do I feel energized? When do I drag?
  • Do I like racing from one activity to another, or do I prefer unhurried transitions?
  • What activities take up my time but aren’t particularly useful or stimulating?
  • Do I want to spend more time outside?
  • What stores do I often visit—for necessity or for fun?
  • Do I have several things on my calendar that I anticipate with pleasure?
  • What does my ideal day look like?
  • What can I do for hours without feeling bored?
  • What daily or weekly activity did I do for fun when I was ten years old?


My values

  • Do I find it easier to do things for other people than for myself?
  • Do I find it easier to spend money on other people than on myself?
  • Do I fear that adopting regular habits will stifle my creativity?
  • Is my life “on hold” in any aspect? Until I lose weight, finish my manuscript, get a promotion?
  • Am I always working, or feeling that I should be working?
  • What’s most satisfying to me: saving time, or money, or effort?
  • Does it bother me to act in a different way from the people around me?—say, not ordering a drink or dessert when everyone else is doing so? Or do I get a charge out of it?
  • Does spending money on an activity make me feel more committed to it, or not?
  • Do I spend a lot of time on something that’s important to someone else, but not to me? If I had $500 that I had to spend on fun, how would I spend it?
  • Who are the five most important people in my life? Do I wish I could see more of them?
  • Do I like to listen to experts, or do I prefer to figure things out for myself?
  • Does paying with cash make spending money seem more “real” to me than using a credit card?
  • Am I motivated by the thought of winning or losing a bet?
  • Do I embrace the rules or flout them?
  • Would I be happy to see my children have the life I’ve had, more or less?


My habits

  • Given my existing habits, what kind of life should I expect to live?
  • How do I spend money? (Look at my checkbook and credit-card statements.)
  • How do I spend time? (Look at my calendar.)
  • What do I do with my weekend afternoons?
  • What medications do I take regularly?
  • What foods are in my fridge and cupboards?
  • What are the last twenty photographs I took?
  • Am I more likely to indulge in a bad habit in a group or when I’m alone?
  • If I could magically, effortlessly, change one habit in my life, what would it be?
  • If the people around me were able to change one of my habits, what would they choose?
  • Of my existing habits, which would I like to see my children adopt? Or not?
  • Do I lie about any of my habits?


Do you find any of these questions particularly helpful, in thinking about what habits you might like to acquire, and how you might structure them for greater success?

For instance, a while back, in a similar context, I posted the question, “Do you like competition?” and a reader commented that once he read that question, he realized that every time he’d successfully exercised, there had been an element of competition, which he loved. So he changed up his exercise habit to include competition, with great success.

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Secret of Adulthood: One of the Worst Ways to Use Your Time Is to Do Well Something You Didn’t Need to Do at All.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:




As I work on my habits, I’m careful not to use a habit to make it easier to do something that I shouldn’t bother to do it at all.

I remember when I was helping my sister clear her clutter, and she had this elaborate plan to create a bunch of files, and to file a big stack of papers she’d accumulated, and to keep it up in the future — but then she realized that she could just throw all the papers away.

Have you ever faced this problem?

NOTE THE NEW FEATURE: I’ve added a Pin It button to the top of the post, so you can easily pin to Pinterest (I’m there myself.)

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My Fellow Upholders: Do You Experience “Tightening”?

wrench-spanner-toolFor my book Before and After, about habit-formation, I’ve been developing my framework of the four Rubin Tendencies. I’m obsessed with understanding these tendencies. (If you want to be notified when the habits book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In a nutshell: the Rubin Tendencies describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a work deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend who said, “In high school, I never missed track practice, but I can’t make myself go running now”)


I’m an Upholder — which, it turns out, is a very small category. Rebel is the smallest category, but Upholder is also very small. So many things became clearer to me when I realized that fact.

Today, I have a question for my fellow Upholders, based on my own experience:

Upholders: Do you experience what I would call…tightening? That when you uphold expectations, they sometimes tighten on you?

I get the impression from other people in other Tendencies that often, as people try to meet expectations, they start off strong, but then slacken over time. They look for loopholes, they find exceptions, they become less conscientious.

This definitely happens to me, too, with some habits. But sometimes, I find, I experience a kind of tightening. It becomes harder for me to make an exception, to loosen up, to loosen an expectation. And that can be good — but it can also be bad.

For instance,  an Upholder friend had a lot of muscle pain, and I convinced her to try my strength-training gym.  She exercises regularly, but I thought this regimen might help. So she did try going, and she cured her pain, and now she wants to stop going — the gym is in a very inconvenient place for her, and she gets regular exercise elsewhere.

But, a trainer at the gym told me, although she keeps saying she wants to stop, and that it would make her life easier to stop, she can’t seem to stop.  Ah, her Upholder nature has locked in, and won’t release! Strength-training is on her to-do list, and now she can’t cross it off, even though she wants to.

I’ve seen this happen with myself. My eating habits are a long story for another day, but the bottom line is, I eat low carb. (Read Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat, if you want to know why.) Here’s the odd thing: when I started eating low carb, in the zeal of the first months of it, I was much less strict. Now that I’ve been doing it longer, I’m more strict. The rules have tightened. Which is helpful in some ways, but a bit of a pain in other ways.

In some situations, being more vigilant about an expectation is good — but sometimes, it’s not good. But maybe other Upholders don’t really have an issue with this.

Or Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers — do you face this tigthtening? or some version of it, depending on your Tendency? I’d be very curious to hear from people, about how their response to an expectation changes over time.

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My New Habit for Tackling Nagging Tasks: Power Hour.

hourglassI’m working on Before and After, a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?

One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off—in many cases, for months. Maybe years.

These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.

But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks?

I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.

I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “Haste makes waste” is more compelling than “Hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “Power Hour.”

First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use Power Hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And I couldn’t use Power Hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power Hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be—and probably already have been—indefinitely postponed. For instance:

 Make a photo album of our summer vacation

Use up store credits

Donate books to Housing Works

Move pretend kitchen

Round up and recycle batteries and devices

It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Power Hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of Power Hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives.

These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?

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