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

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Revealed! Book Club Choices for February. Happy Reading.

bookopenpagesBecause nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

I’ll post these recommendations here, or to make sure you don’t miss them, sign up for the monthly Book Club newsletter.

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness:

Til Roenneberg, Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired

Buy from WORD; BN.comAmazon.

An outstanding young-adult book:

Irene Hunt, Up a Road Slowly (wow, I really dislike the new cover; ignore that)

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds. So I won’t describe these books, but I love all the books I recommend; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely loved. I do provide slightly more context in the book club newsletter.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? La Rochefoucauld’s Collected Maxims; Julie Andrews’s Mandy; and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

So, so, so good.

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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.

Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #10: the One-Coin Loophole.

heap of coinsFor two weeks, I’ve done a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #9, the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.  Today is the final day with a loophole I’ve written about before

Loophole Category #10: the One-Coin Loophole

One of the most insidious of loopholes is the “one-coin loophole”—insidious because it’s absolutely true. This loophole gets its name from “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.  (I love teaching stories, koans, paradoxes, fables, etc.) According to a footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:

“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

This teaching story highlights a paradox that’s very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.

Pointing to the one coin is a way to deny a conflict between our values: we’re not choosing between our desire for French fries and for healthy eating habits, because eating one bag of fries is an insignificant act. But when we consider the accumulated cost of the French fries, the conflict looks different.

I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.

 

One beer won’t make a difference.

 

What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or at a video arcade?

 

Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?

 

A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.

A friend told me, “I’ve really changed my eating habits, I’ve lost seventy pounds. A woman in my office uses that against me! She’s always saying, ‘Come on, you eat so well now, one cupcake won’t kill you.’ So I say, ‘You’re right, having one cupcake is no big deal—but I’m not going to have one today.’”

It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.

The Strategy of Monitoring is helpful with the one-coin problem, because monitoring reminds me that my heap is growing—or not. Without monitoring, it’s easy to lose track of what I’ve actually accomplished.

Do you invoke the one-coin loophole? As I said, the challenge of this loophole is that it’s true.

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #9: the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.

yoloFor two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #8, the Concern for Others loophole.  Today…

Loophole Category #9: the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.

This loophole  comes in the disguise as an embrace of life or an acceptance of self, so that the failure to pursue a habit seems life-affirming—almost spiritual. But for most of us, the real aim isn’t to enjoy a few pleasures right now, but to build habits that will make us happy over the long term. Sometimes, that means giving up something in the present, or demanding more from ourselves.

You only live once.

 

I love life too much to deprive myself of this.

 

It’s too nice a day to spend doing this.

 

I’ll be sorry if I don’t at least try it.

 

I should celebrate this special occasion. (How special is it? National Cheesecake Day? A colleague’s birthday?)

 

I should enjoy myself.

 

This is special, I have to act now or miss out forever. (Fast food joints exploit this loophole; customers buy more when a limited-time offer is tied to a season, an event, or a specific holiday, such as pumpkin spice lattes or heart-shaped donuts.)

 

I live in the moment.

 

I want to embrace myself, just as I am. (I try to remember to Accept myself, and expect more from myself.)

 

I have to die of something.

 

I should do something nice for myself.

 

I don’t want to be rigid and obsessive about denying myself this.

 

If I don’t make any demands on myself, I’ll feel better.

When I was explaining my Abstainer approach to an acquaintance, she scolded me, “You only live once! Eat a brownie, enjoy life!”

“We only live once, but we live a long time—we hope,” I answered, with some irritation. “I’m happier when I skip the brownie.”

It’s true, however, that sometimes we do want to live in the moment, we do want to take advantage of an opportunity. As with many loopholes, a great way to handle this conundrum is with planning. You’re an adult, you make the rules for yourself, you can mindfully choose to give yourself an exception to a usual habit.

So you might think, “My habit is that I don’t drink at home on weeknights, but next week is our anniversary, so we’re going to have champagne.” Or “I’ve promised myself to work on my thesis every single day, but on the first sunny day about 70 degrees, I’m playing hooky to go for a day-long bike ride.”

By planning for an exception, you stay in control, you ensure that your habits are working for you. Usually, loopholes are invoked in the heat of the moment, in the eagerness to find an excuse to junk a habit.

Here’s a test that can sometimes be useful: how do you feel about your exceptions later? Do you think, “I’m so happy I embraced the moment” or do you think, “Hmm…looking back on it, I wish I’d made a different decision”?

How about you? Do you sometimes invoke self-actualization to justify an action — and then regret it later?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #8: the Concern for Others Loophole.

Broad_chainFor two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #7, the Questionable Assumption loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #8: the Concern for Others Loophole.

We often use the loophole of telling ourselves that we’re acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or, more strategically, we decide we must do something in order to fit in to a social situation. Maybe we do — and maybe we don’t.

It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I get up early to write.

 

I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.

 

So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health.

 

It would be so rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of birthday cake.

 

I don’t want to seem holier-than-thou.

 

Changing my schedule would inconvenience other people.

 

Other people’s feelings will be hurt if I don’t partake.

 

I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.

 

At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink. (Somewhat to my surprise, this loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

This particular loophole doesn’t appeal to me, because I — for better and sometimes certainly for worse — am not much bothered by what other people think of my (some very peculiar) habits. As I discovered when I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor that measures personality according to the Big Five model (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or OCEAN), for a woman I score “low” on agreeableness, which measures a person’s tendency to be compassionate and cooperative and to value getting along harmoniously with others.

I suspect that my low agreeableness accounts for my willingness to appear fussy or to be out of step in social situations. Also, in all modesty, my lack of concern stems from modesty: I just can’t imagine that others are paying much attention to me.

For instance, I more or less gave up drinking, and that decision never makes me feel uncomfortable.

But for some people, I’ve discovered, this loophole is a major challenge. Relationships are a key to happiness, and if a particular habit makes you feel very awkward about being out of sync in a social situation, or you worry that you’re hurting other people’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable, this is a real factor in the formation of a habit.

By identifying the loophole, you can identify possible solutions. “Everyone else is drinking, so I’ll order a sparkling water, and no one will know what’s in my glass.” “Everyone else is ordering a drink, so I’ll order a glass of wine, but I won’t drink it, I’ll just leave it on the table.” “My grandmother gets upset if I don’t take seconds, so I’ll take a very small portion the first time, so she sees me go back for more.” “I’ll talk to my partner about whether this new habit is actually inconvenient, and if so, how we can work out a schedule that works for both of us.”

Sidenote: when you’re forming a new habit that feels awkward to others, give them time to adjust. Any change feels awkward at first. But if you keep starting and stopping, no gets used to a new pattern. For instance, a friend wanted to go for a run on weekend mornings, but her family complained that she wasn’t around to get the day started — so she immediately stopped. She started again, and stuck to it, and after the first few weekends went by, everyone got used to starting the day on their own.

Do you find yourself invoking a heed for others — to the detriment of your own habits? In what situations?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

assumptionsFor two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #6, the This Doesn’t Count” loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

A very popular loophole! Consciously or unconsciously, we make assumptions that influence our habits—and often, not for the better. They often become less convincing under close scrutiny. A reader posted a good example: “I set up weird mental blocks around my time. For instance, if it’s 9 a.m. and I have an appointment at 11 a.m. I’ll think ‘Oh, I have to go somewhere in two hours, so I can’t really start anything serious’ and then end up wasting my whole morning waiting for one thing to happen.”

It’s not a proper dinner without wine.

 

This is taking too long, I should be done already.

 

I can’t start working until my office is clean.

 

I need to eat a lot to get good value from this buffet.

 

People should get exercise by having fun—by playing tennis or going skiing—not by exercising for the sake of exercising.

 

I’m too busy to take the stairs. It’s faster to wait in this long elevator line.

The label says it’s healthy. (In one study, when a cookie was described as an “oatmeal snack,” instead of a “gourmet cookie,” people ate thirty-five percent more.)

 

If I do this, my craving will be satisfied, and I’ll stop.

 

I’ll outgrow this habit. (For years, I assumed I would outgrow my hair-twisting.)

 

I can’t work out if I’ve already showered.

 

I’m so far behind, there’s no point in doing anything.

 

If a little of this is good for me, a lot will be even better.

 

Everyone’s got to have some vices.

 

My instructor will be angry with me because I’ve missed so many times.

 

Dramatically changing my eating habits has allowed me to hit my goal weight, so now I can return to eating normally.

 

If I wait until I’m more in the mood to do it, I’ll do a better job.

 

It’s too late in the week to start.

 

It’s ridiculous to pay for a gym/a trainer/a home treadmill/a personal organizer/a financial advisor to help me with this behavior, when I could do it perfectly well for free on my own. (Especially if you’re an Obliger, forming those external systems of accountability are key.)

 

If I indulge now, I’ll get it out of my system.

 

People notice what I do. (In a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect,” we assume think that we’re being observed much more closely than we are. In an experiment in which students walked into a classroom wearing a Barry Manilow shirt, they greatly exaggerated how many people noticed the t-shirt design.)

 

People who follow strict rules will inevitably fall off the wagon.

 

It would be a good idea to test my willpower.

 

This will help me sleep.

 

This will help me concentrate.

 

If I don’t do this now, I’ll just do something worse later.

 

It’s not fair that other people should be able to do this, but not me—so it’s okay for me to do it too.

 

If I indulge massively now, I’ll feel so disgusted with myself that it will be easy to be good.

 

Unless I can sweat for an hour, it’s not worth exercising.

 

If I worry about something, I’ll ward off danger.

 

Insisting that people accept food or drink is a great way to show my love.

 

I’ll just have a few bites. (A reasonable assumption for Moderators but not Abstainers.)

 

I should feel stuffed when I leave the table. (The Japanese saying hara hachi bu means “eat until you’re eighty percent full.”)

 

Doing a lot of research about a healthy habit means that I’m about to start practicing that habit. (A trainer told me that some people ask questions as a way to tell themselves they’re about to start, when in fact, it’s a delaying tactic.)

 

Watching TV is the only thing to do at home in the evening.

One very sneaky questionable-assumption loophole is the assumption that a habit is so ingrained that we can ease off.  “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up.” Unfortunately, we have a tendency to regress, and even long-standing healthy habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent. Research shows that people tend to overestimate the amount of temptation they can face.

I experienced this with driving. I’m a fearful driver, and for many years in New York City, I didn’t drive at all. Finally, as part of my Happier at Home project, I tackled this fear and started driving again. I still very much dislike driving, but I do drive, and I aim to drive at least once a week, to stay in the habit of driving. However, I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’m so much less afraid to drive than I used to be. In fact, I don’t think I have to drive once a week anymore.” Hah!

Do you find yourself making questionable assumptions in order to justify breaking a good habit?

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