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

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It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Make a list.

MakealistNot 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.

One thing I’ve noticed with my own Happiness Project is the power of making all sorts of lists. I’ve become zealous about keeping a to-do list. I’ve listed my ever-growing Secrets of Adulthood in the left column. I check my resolutions chart daily (email me at grubin {at} gretchenrubin {dotcom} if you’d like to see them).

Making these lists keeps me focused on my priorities. Reading the list over and over keeps my priorities uppermost in my mind. And it’s surprisingly FUN to do.

I’ve noticed all sorts of interesting approaches to these kinds of lists. A to-do list is the most common kind, but a list can be so much more. It can be a statement of philosophy, or a collection of favorites, or set of life instructions. A humble list can be an important instrument of self-examination.

Most important to me are my Twelve Commandments (see left sidebar).

On his terrific blog, Work Matters, Bob Sutton has a sidebar of “Fifteen Things I Believe.” Among them, “Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm.” “Indifference is as important as passion.” “In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.” In a concise, interesting way, Sutton sums up his work philosophy.

Madame X of My Open Wallet has a list of “My Rules.” Her rules cover eighteen items, such as “Credit cards,” “Shopping,” “DIY vs. PAY,” and “Who do you think you are.” These sum up her attitudes towards money, saving, and spending.

An excellent site, Day Zero: Home of the 101 Things to Do in 1001 Days Project, leads you through the process of setting 101 goals and committing to completing them in 1001 days (the site even has a calendar calculator, so you can figure out the date). It also has some terrific tips for successful goal-setting.

43 Things, of course, is a great place to get inspiration.

On Our Happiness Project (a blog I love for obvious reasons!), the three contributors posted their own list of personal commandments.

I recently received an email from a reader who plans to keep two lists: one list of self-improvement goals that will evolve; one list for happiness goals that will never change.

It’s also very satisfying to make lists of favorites: favorite movies, favorite books, favorite traditions, favorite songs. You can also put a twist on it, to make it more interesting.

For example, I’m making a list of my favorite transcendent scenes from movies, moments where I felt a big jolt of pleasure at seeing someone perform some exceptionally kind or generous act — just because it gives me so much pleasure to call these scenes to mind.

I love the scene in Boogie Nights when the main character, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his friend Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) eagerly ask the porn producer (Burt Reynolds) if they could make a different kind of porn movie, with plot and character. Burt Reynolds pauses and reflects, then agrees to take a chance on their vision. In the context of the movie, this is thrilling.

A reader emailed me that she was making a soundtrack of her life—the songs that conjure up each particular stage. That would be a very satisfying kind of list.

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of pulling ideas apart and trying to convey them in lists, Q-and-A format, True or False questions, or any other kind of very concise structure. I even managed to do that in my two biographies, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.

I find the process of pressing ideas into these compact forms intensely satisfying; people’s minds absorb information differently, depending on how it’s delivered.

For that reason, I LOVED Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, about why some ideas “stick” and others don’t. On their blog, a professor recounts how he changed a class on digital signal processing more “sticky” by forcing himself to identify the three core ideas he was trying to teach, and designing his course around those ideas.

Making a list is a way of figuring out your core ideas—about goals, about memories, about a subject that interests you.

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I just cracked open the December 17 New York magazine, the “Year in Culture” issue, and was thrilled to see that John Leonard’s TV round-up listed my sister’s new television show, Women’s Murder Club, as #1, as “Best new show” and described it as “genius.”

Not only that, but the show her husband worked on, The Shield, was listed as #3, for “Best Bad-Faith Scuzzball.”

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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'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.

Even though it’s sometimes stressful to have to give gifts, turns out that it’s important to happiness.

Gift1As part of the Happiness Project, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the nature of generosity and gifts.

I’ve always been fascinated by gift exchange – in particular, potlatch. It was my preoccupation with potlatch that eventually led me to write Profane Waste.

But although I’m intellectually interested in the impulse toward gift-giving, I don’t like gift-giving much, myself.

I worry that I’m mean-spirited, because I don’t like to bring a little box of chocolates to a dinner party, or to give a birthday present to an adult.

Why?

It’s not because I’m cheap. I am an under-buyer, but I don’t begrudge spending on friends and family.

Partly it’s because I like to minimize trouble. I dislike shopping. I don’t want to create more errands for myself.

Partly it’s because I think that, often, people don’t really want these gifts. More birthday gifts for children who already opened too many presents on their birthday; more high-calorie treats for people who are watching their weight.

But although I’ve tried to pretend that gift-giving didn’t matter much, I’ve always known that it DOES matter. It’s an important gesture.

So I was very interested to read Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times article, A Gift That Keeps On Giving? A Gift Itself. In a nutshell, “People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.”

Gift-giving makes me stop and think about the people in my life, what they like, what they need. It’s tangible proof of my affection.

So, okay. I don’t like to shop or do errands, but what can I do, within the confines of my own nature, to be generous? I need to cultivate a generosity of spirit.

First, I need to observe the gift-giving traditions: holidays, birthdays, and Mother’s/Father’s Day.

Also, a way for me to be generous is to send people books. If there’s something I think they’d really like, I send it through Amazon. It’s easy, it’s efficient, and it’s thoughtful.

Observing traditional gift-giving occasions is important, because it shows planning and thoughtfulness, and if a person is expecting a gift, there’s no disappointment and hurt.

Surprising someone with a gift gives a little extra thrill to the recipient. Studies show that people react more strongly when they receive an unexpected, rather than expected, present.

I also look for other, non-buying strategies. I hit on a few: Help people think big, Bring people together, and Cut people slack.

I need to buy a gift today, in fact! It matters.

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Lots of great posts on Dumb Little Man lately.
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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 Wednesday: A quiz–are you an over-buyer or an under-buyer?

ShoppingcartEvery Wednesday is Tip Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: A quiz–Are you an over-buyer or an under-buyer?

I love a good self-diagnosis quiz. What kind of clutterer are you? Are you organized or disorganized? Are you at risk for dropping out of your exercise program?

Here’s a new quiz that you can take to determine whether you belong in one of two opposite groups: over-buyer or under-buyer.

It’s not particularly productive to be in too deep in either category; both offer certain advantages but also some definite drawbacks.

Does either of these descriptions fit you?

You’re an over-buyer if …
–You buy several summer outfits for your as-yet-unborn baby, then it turns out he outgrows those clothes before the weather warms up.
–You often lay in huge supplies of items like shampoo or cough medicine.
–You often make a purchase, such as a tool or tech gadget, with the thought, “This will probably come in handy.”
–You have a long list of stores to visit before you travel.
–You find yourself throwing things away—milk, medicine, even cans of soup—because they’ve hit their expiration date.
–You buy items with the thought, “This will make a great gift!” without having a recipient in mind.
–You think, “Buying these things shows that I’m responsible, organized, and thoughtful.”

You’re an under-buyer if…
–You buy saline solution, which you use every morning and night, one bottle at a time.
–You often scramble to buy an item like a winter coat or bathing suit after the point at which you need it.
–You’re suspicious of specialized objects and resist buying things dedicated very specific uses—suit bags, special plastic plates and cutlery for children, hand cream, rain boots, hair conditioner.
–You often need to come up with a makeshift solution, such using soap because you’ve run out of shaving cream, because you don’t have what you need.
–You often consider buying an item, then decide, “I’ll get this some other time” or “Maybe we don’t really need this.”
–If you must buy something, you buy as little as possible—say, by putting $10 of gas in the car.
–You think, “Not buying these things shows that I’m frugal and not a consumerist sucker.”

Me? I’m an under-buyer.

Under-buyers feel stressed because we don’t have the things we need. We make a lot of late-night runs to the drugstore. We’re surrounded with things that are shabby, don’t really work, or aren’t exactly suitable.

Over-buyers feel stressed because they’re hemmed in by stuff. They often don’t have enough storage space for everything they’ve bought, or they can’t find what they have. They feel oppressed by the number of errands they believe they need to do, and by the waste and clutter often created by their over-buying.

So under-buyers—buy what you need, without procrastination! Don’t wait for the first morning of your ski trip to buy ski gloves!
Over-buyers—think it over before you whip out your wallet! You don’t need a ten-year supply of toothpaste!

A while back, I posted this quiz as a guest-blogger on one of my favorites, Zen Habits, and I liked the post so much that I wanted to post it here, too.

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Just reading the title and tag line for this blog, The Written Nerd: Confessions of an Independent Bookseller and Unrepentant Book Nerd was all that was needed to get me to click through. One of my favorite resolutions is “Spend more time with books,” and this kind of blog gets me revved up.

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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.

Why misplaced quotation marks are relevant to the pursuit of happiness.

QuotationOne of my resolutions is “Make a joke of it.” This is an incredibly difficult resolution to keep, but it really works when I can pull it off. (Which is rare, I have to admit, but I’m trying.)

I was reminded of this resolution when I came across the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

From now on, instead of getting annoyed by the rampant maltreatment of quotation marks, the existence of the blog makes them funny. When I spot an ungrammatical example, I can imagine myself posting a picture of it, so zillions of people could enjoy the fun.

But turning an irritation into a joke is hard, because when I’m feeling irritated, the first thing that goes is my sense of humor.

I did manage to do it with one of the Big Man’s annoying habits, and it really did help.

The Big Man has an odd quirk of hiding information. I’ll ask him, “What are you making for dinner?” or “What movie did you rent?” and he won’t tell me. Why not? I have no idea.

I’d been trying unsuccessfully to be patient about this idiosyncrasy, but then I decided to acknowledge my feelings—with humor.

“Are you in the C.I.A?” I asked him, after he refused to tell me what time he’d arranged for us to meet another family for brunch.

“No, why?”

“Because you operate on a need-to-know basis,” I tell him. “N-2-K. You won’t tell me what time we need to leave, you won’t tell me why you’re going to the drugstore.”

He laughs. “That’s right, N2K! Need-to-know only!”

The next time he refused to answer me, I said something about N2K. It didn’t change what he did, but it did a lot to lighten my attitude.

Now, if only someone would start a blog for confused uses of “It’s” and “It is” and “Its.”

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I’m very interested in the blog My Open Wallet. The relationship between money and happiness is very complex, and this blogger writes about her relationship with money in an unusually frank and open way. I was also very intrigued with her “My Rules” column in the upper right-hand corner. They reminded me of my Twelve Commandments. If you’re trying to shape your behavior, I really have come to believe in the efficacy of making a list like this.

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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.