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

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This Wednesday: Twelve tips for stopping the buzz in your brain.

RingingphoneEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Twelve tips for stopping the buzz in your brain.

We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being beset by distractions.

The problem is – too many things are clamoring for your attention. People are trying to reach you, by phone, email, text or IM. There are the interesting subjects you want to learn more about, on the TV or the internet or the newspaper. Noises in the background occasionally catch your ear, from the TV or radio. Your kids all talk at the same time. Colleagues interrupt. You need to update, check in, post, or ping. Ads jump at you from the most unlikely places. Devices ping, buzz, ring, and vibrate.

It’s enough to drive you crazy. You lose your train of thought, you forget what you’re doing, you have trouble re-engaging in a task, you feel besieged.

But there are steps you can take to quiet the buzz in your brain – even if you don’t want to take up meditation.

In addition to feeling calmer and more focused, you’ll probably be more efficient, too. Turns out that people aren’t very good at thinking about two things at once.

A recent study showed that when people responded to email or IM, it took about fifteen minutes for them to resume a serious mental task.

Many of the following suggestions are fairly draconian. “No iPod?!” “A silent cell phone?!” But you’ll notice a difference in your day. Really consider whether you might be able to go a day or a week without some of these distractions.

 If you keep the TV turned on in the background – while you’re getting dressed, say – turn it off.
 Turn off the radio, too. Even in the car.
 Don’t bring your iPod.
 I have a sticky note in my bedroom that reads, “Quiet mind.” Whenever I see it, I drop my shoulders, relax my jaw, and try to smooth out my thoughts. It actually works.
 During family time, divide up your children among adults. If possible, have one child per adult.
 No multi-tasking. Don’t talk on the phone while you’re doing dishes, don’t check your email while you listen to a conference call, don’t sort the mail while your child explains the school project that’s due next week.
 Turn your cell phone ringer off. Hearing your cell phone ring – or even imaging that you’re hearing it ring – is a big source of jumpiness.
 Take a break from doing errands. Keep a list, but don’t try to fit them in throughout your day.
 Stop looking in the mirror for a week.
 Only use the internet to look up a specific piece of information; once you find it, step away from the computer. No jumping from link to link, no browsing.
 Twyla Tharp had an interesting approach: occasionally, for a week, she’d “stop counting.” She avoided looking at clocks, contracts, bank statements, bathroom scales, or anything to do with numbers, in order to let the other part of her brain take over.
 Flee temptation. I find it hard to work in my home office, because my family, the phone, my email, and the internet constantly beguile me away from my work. So I work at the New York Society Library, where I’m not set up for internet and where they enforce a strict rule of silence.

It’s important to have space in which to think.

Yesterday, I overheard someone complain, “I left my Blackberry at home, so I was so bored during my cab ride home. I just had to sit there.”

There are few things that I love more than looking out the window of a taxi. One day, when I was gazing out of a taxi window, I was struck by a thought: “What do I want out of life?” “Well,” I thought, “I want to be happy.” It occurred to me that I never thought about whether I was happy or not, or how I could be happier, or even what it meant to be happy. “Zoikes,” I thought, “I should have a happiness project!”

If I’d been checking my Blackberry, I might never have had the idea for the happiness project.

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I was catching up on one of my favorite sites, Unclutterer, and I found a fascinating post about clearing clutter as a psychological tool. I agree; I think that getting rid of clutter is an extraordinarily effective way to boost energy, calm the mind, and get a jolt of happiness.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

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.

Why I “force myself to wander,” and what I found off the beaten track.

PathOne of my resolutions is to “Force myself to wander.” I tend to stick to familiar subjects and routines, so I want to push myself to pursue new experiences

For example, when I’m writing a book, I’m enthralled with that subject. At the same time, however, I have lesser interests–that I too often shove aside to concentrate on my “official” subject.

My resolution to “Force myself to wander” is meant to encourage me to follow wherever my interests lead, even if that effort doesn’t seem particularly productive.

One of these interests is the presentation of information.

I’m absolutely fascinated by the way in which the presentation of information shapes the way people learn and understand material.

This sounds dull, but if you read brilliant books like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, you see how extraordinarily interesting this question can be.

One of the reasons that writing my own books — Power Money Fame Sex, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, and Profane Waste – was so thrilling was that I tackled the question not just of ideas, but of how to present those ideas most effectively. This is a very creative process, very satisfying.

So I got big jolt of intellectual happiness when I saw Lane Brown and Dan Kois’s chart in the November 19, 2007 New York magazine. Their subject? Your Preholiday Guide to Downer Films.

The way the information is presented does so much – it’s short and funny and perceptive. It makes a hundred different arguments on one page. I took the very rare step of cutting it out for my scrapbook (a happiness-project undertaking).

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I like to visit Web Worker Daily and catch up. There’s a lot of useful material there — even for people who don”t consider themselves “web workers.” But actually, seems like practically everyone is some form of a web workers these days.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

The Three Types of Fun, and the secret of why people watch so much TV.

TvphotoI’ve been thinking a lot about TV and happiness. Research published in Science magazine using the Day Reconstruction Method showed that participants ranked TV-watching very high among their daily activities.

At the same time, Shifting Careers, on how to handle informational interviews. I read her post, as always–and was suprised and pleased to see that I made a guest appearance.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Sunday: a happiness quotation from Miyamoto Musashi.

Musahi“Speed is not part of the true Way of strategy. Speed implies that things seem fast or slow, according to whether or not they are in rhythm. Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast….Of course, slowness is bad. Really skillful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy.” –Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

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A great site, The Simple Dollar, just joined the LifeRemix network. A ton of great information there, with a focus on frugality and sane living.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

It’s Friday: think about YOUR Happiness Project. Learn from my mistake! Identify your triggers.

UnhappyfaceNot long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! No need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

The First Splendid Truth about happiness is: to think about your happiness, you must think about
1. feeling good,
2. feeling bad, and
3. feeling right, in
4. an atmosphere of growth.

In my Happiness Project, I think mostly about #2. I’m really working to try to remove causes of the feelings of guilt, anxiety, irritation, boredom, frustration, irritation, envy, etc. I find it much easier to “feel good” and to “feel right” about myself when I’m not “feeling bad.”

One thing I try to do is to identify triggers. So, for example, I spent a huge amount of time clearing the clutter in my apartment, because I realized that when I feel overwhelmed by mess, my irritability is triggered.

Another one of my triggers is customer support or any kind of phone interaction with a company. Cable tech support, cell phone problems, etc. I find it so hard to remain patient and cheerful. It’s so foolish to lose my temper and act annoyed, because the person on the other line usually becomes less cooperative—and MUCH WORSE, I feel guilty about the way I’ve behaved.

So last night, I did everything wrong.

Someone called from a company—which shall remain nameless, though I vindictively toyed with the idea of including its name in this post.

Starting several months ago, this company should have started sending us monthly bills, but we never got them. A few months ago, they started making a lot of harassing phone calls to get us to pay. Which we were eager to do! After a lot of back and forth, and the alleged confirming of our address, it turned out that they were sending our bills to the west side, not the east side. It’s just one letter on the address line, either “E.” or “W.” but it makes a BIG difference.

So we thought that was straightened out.

Then the calls started again. They hadn’t received our most recent payment. Because we hadn’t received their most recent bill!

I said to the woman, with irritation, “Why can’t XXX manage to get our bills delivered to us?”

She said, “The bills are just a courtesy. You signed a contract and are responsible for payment whether or not you receive a bill.”

I lost my temper. “You mean that I’m a customer of a company that can’t be relied upon successfully to deliver a bill to my residence? Who doesn’t consider that a responsibility? And I’m supposed to rely on you for [unidentified services]?”

“You’re shifting the responsibility. You’re responsible for your bill.”

Etc.

I’m really ashamed by my reaction. I instantly became bellicose and obnoxious. Even worse, thinking back on it, I realize that I’d led the conversation in a way that made her make the kind of statements to me that would look VERY bad to a supervisor (if in fact they ever do listen to recordings “for quality assurance purposes”).

Finally, I got a grip on myself and got off the phone. I felt terrible all night. I had to steel myself to make sure I didn’t snap at the girls or the Big Man, just in reaction to my own guilty feelings.

So the happiness lesson?

Identify triggers and BE ON YOUR GUARD. I should have steeled myself better for the interaction, I knew the phone was a trigger for me. Take steps to keep yourself calm and good-natured when you’re in a situation that sets you off.

I have to remember my commandment to “Act the way I want to feel” (see left column). If I want to feel patient, act patient. If I don’t want to feel obnoxious, don’t act obnoxious.

What are your triggers? Maybe it’s being in the car. Or getting dinner ready. Or the morning routine. Or the afternoon before the weekly report is due.

If you act bad, you’re going to feel bad. Yelling, whining, complaining, attacking—they don’t help, they make matters worse.

I accomplished nothing except ruining my evening, and probably hers, too. There was no catharsis, no glee, no triumph – just horrible feelings of self-accusation for being so obnoxious.

As Adam Smith warned, “The consciousness, or even the suspicion, of having done wrong, is a load upon every mind, and is accompanied with anxiety and terror in all those who are not hardened by long habits of iniquity.”

Be happier! Know your trigger. Bite your tongue and avoid anxiety and terror.

If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

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There’s a smorgasbord of great information on Dumb Little Man — lots of fun to jump around and see what you can find.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.