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

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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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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.

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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Revealed! Book Club Choices for March. Happy Reading.

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

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· 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,, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or, more specifically, habits:

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Buy from WORD; BN.comAmazon.

An outstanding young-adult book:

William Pene du Bois,  The Twenty-One Balloons

Buy from WORD;; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Anne Lamott, Operating  Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

Buy from WORD;; 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? Roenneberg’s Internal Time, Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, and Tartt’s The Secret

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Before and After: Stop Mindless Web-Surfing by Deleting Accounts and Toolbars–and Never Visiting..

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 someone who wants to stay anonymous.

The habit I worked on changing was mindless web surfing. I had a series of websites I would visit each day in sequence, even though some had started to bore me, some were full of information that didn’t really add anything to my day, some were specifically for procrastination, and one site in particular (a popular social media service) was grating on my self esteem by causing me to compare my life to many of my acquaintances and friends.

I decided to spend less time every day on this mindless surfing in order to procrastinate less, and improve my feelings of self-worth. I deleted the social media account, removed the other sites from my toolbar shortcut/bookmarks, but most importantly, firmly told myself I would no longer visit those websites.

It really was a case of out of sight, out of mind, as I did indeed stop checking them, gained almost an hour of my life back each day, and did improve my confidence.

This person’s habit change combines the Strategies of Inconvenience and Abstaining–two very powerful strategies. I’ve noticed that when people successfully change a habit, they’ve usually used the combined weight of several strategies.

Technology is a good servant but a bad master, and managing technology is something that many people want to do better. What habits do you use to keep technology in control?

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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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