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

Want to get the "Moment of Happiness"? A daily happiness quotation in your inbox. Sign up here close daily quote

This Wednesday: Twelve tips for keeping your resolutions after the zeal of 1/1/08 has worn off.

ResolutionEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Twelve tips for sticking to your resolutions after the zeal of 1/1/08 has worn off.

Some 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. I loooooove resolutions and make them constantly – I’m a big believer in the power of small changes to make us happier.

But it can be hard to stick to a resolution. Here are twelve tips for following through on a resolution as the year progresses:

1. Write it down – and be specific. Don’t try to “make more friends”; instead, “start a movie group,” “remember birthdays,” “say hello,” “make plans.”

2. Review your resolution constantly. If your resolution is buzzing through your head, it’s easier to stick to it.

3. Hold yourself accountable. Tell other people about your resolution, join or form a like-minded group, score yourself on a chart — whatever works for you to make yourself feel accountable for success and failure.

4. Think big. Maybe you need a big change, a big adventure – a trip to a foreign place, a break-up, a move, a new job. Let yourself imagine anything, and plan from there.

5. Think small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only radical change can make a difference. Just keeping your fridge cleared out could give you a real boost. Look close to home for ways to improve and grow.

6. Break your main resolution into smaller, more manageable tasks. Also, a long to-do list will give you a feeling of progress as you work toward a distant goal.

7. Keep your resolution every day. Weirdly, it’s often easier to do something every day (exercise, post to a blog, deal with the mail) than every few days.

8. Set a deadline.

9. Don’t give up if something interferes with your deadline.

10. Ask for help. Why is this so hard? But every time I ask for help, I’m amazed at how much easier my task becomes.

11. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Thank you, Voltaire. Instead of starting your new exercise routine by training for the marathon, aim for a 20-minute walk each day. Instead of cleaning out the whole basement, tackle one closet this afternoon. If you break your resolution today, try again tomorrow.

Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson are the two patron saints of those who make resolutions. Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts inspired me to do my own resolution charts (if you’d like to see my charts, drop me an email at grubin [that add the “at” symbol] gretchenrubin [add the “dotcom” part]).

I laugh every time I read the entry from Samuel Johnson’s diary on his 51st birthday in September 1760. He has a long list of resolutions, and he concludes with four resolutions to begin at once:

Rise as early as I can.
Send for books for Hist. of war.
Put books in order.
Scheme life.

“Scheme life!” Now that’s a resolution.

His first resolution, “Rise as early as I can,” brings me to Tip #12: Consider giving up a resolution.

For his whole life, Johnson vowed to start getting up early, and he remained a late riser. But he managed to get quite a bit accomplished, anyway. So give it up, Dr. Johnson! Sleep late, and enjoy it!

If you keep making and breaking a resolution, consider whether you should relinquish it entirely. Put your energy toward changes that are both realistic and helpful. Don’t let an unfulfilled resolution to lose twenty pounds or to overhaul your overgrown yard block you from making other, smaller resolutions that might give you a big happiness boost.

And if one of your resolutions is to drink more water, don’t worry about it! This is a myth! You do NOT need to drink more water!

I often stop by Marginal Revolution, and with this visit, was rewarded with a post about the relationship between money and happiness — one of the most complicated and misunderstood sub-topics within the subject of happiness.

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.

It’s January 1, 2008! Make a happiness-project resolution now!

Times_squareAs I’ve been working on my Happiness Project, people keep asking me, “Well, can you really make yourself happier?”

And when I say that YES, I absolutely have made myself happier, they ask, “Was it hard to do?”

And the answer to that is NO. But also YES.

I’ve been surprised by the dramatic happiness boost I’ve gotten from making very small shifts in behavior. I didn’t have to make radical changes in my life to make myself much happier. Little things made a huge difference.

So in that sense, it was easy.

But I did have to put some THOUGHT into what I wanted to change (it wasn’t always apparent what needed to be done) and I needed to STICK to my resolutions. This wasn’t exactly difficult, but it took attention and persistence.

That’s why I think doing my monthly written resolution charts really helped me. Each month, I have a special focus (family, marriage, work, leisure, friends, spirituality, attitude, energy, etc.) and several resolutions meant to help me make progress.

Now that I’ve worked through the entire year, I review all twelve charts every day, and I score myself on any applicable resolution.

My resolutions continue to evolve. I didn’t always realize quite what my resolution should be. I’ve added more specific resolutions and swapped out resolutions that didn’t work. I hit on two of my favorite resolutions, “Keep a one-sentence journal” and “Make three friends” when I was well into the process.

Some resolutions were only good for one month. For example, I wrote a novel in a month only for one month. So now I don’t need to keep track of that resolution.

I love charts. They keep resolutions fresh in my mind, they keep me accountable, they allow me to give myself the gold stars I crave, they give me a sense of growth – but most important is the constant review. I backslide often, and when I don’t review my charts, I backslide much more quickly. I’ve seen this happen again and again.

So consider making a chart! If you’d like to see mine, to use as an example, just email me. I get a HUGE amount of spam, though, so I’m going to encrypt my email address here: grubin – [now put in the usual symbol] – gretchenrubin [now add the most common end-part]. Or you can look in the left-hand column of my blog to get my email address if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

If making a chart doesn’t appeal to you, check out Joe’s Goals or 43 Things.

Another approach, which my sister follows, is to give an entire year a theme. For example, one of her years was the Year of Hot Wheels. She and I are both fearful drivers, but it made much more of a difference in her life, given that I live in New York City and she lives in L.A. – in the Year of Hot Wheels, she bought a car and started to drive (three years after she’d moved to L.A!). The next year was Hot Body. 2007 was her Year of Free Time, and she’d done absolutely nothing in furtherance of that goal until the recent writers’ strike made her perfectly compliant with her year’s resolution.

Another friend of mine also uses themed years. I haven’t heard what he’s had for the past several years, but if I remember correctly, he had Dark ‘96, Network ’97, Fame ’98.

Everyone’s Happiness Project will look different from everyone else’s. You may want to make one resolution; you may want to make fifty. But really take the time to decide if there’s something that you can change for the better in your life.

A new year’s resolution may seem like a cliche, but I think it can absolutely pay off in happiness terms. IF you can keep up with it. Tomorrow I’ll post some tips for keeping your resolutions.

A friend told me about KarmaTube, a site that harnesses the “power of video and the internet to demonstrate and multiply acts of compassion, generosity and selflessness.” Just my kind of thing! It’s interesting — there has really been a burgeoning of sites dedicated to bringing such stories to people’s attention — I’m thinking of sites like Gimundo and HumanKind, for example.

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 NOW is the time to start keeping your resolutions.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, the most popular day for making resolutions, so I planned to write a long post about new year’s resolutions – how to make them, how to keep them, and why bother.

About how to eat better, to exercise more, to nag less, to have more fun, to have closer friendships, to sing in the morning to your children.

But I just got back from a funeral.

All I can think is – one day, that phone is going to ring. For you, for me, for someone we love.

Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote: “Life’s short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

Dear readers, NOW is the time to keep the resolutions that will make us ready; the phone is going to ring.

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: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Start a Happiness Project for 2008!

Not 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.

January 1, the most inspiring opportunity for resolution-making, is just a few days away.

You can start a happiness project with just one resolution – some aspect of your life that, if changed, would make you happier. Or maybe you want to come up with five or six resolutions. Or maybe you want to do what I did, and have a different set of resolutions for each month of the coming year. Zoikes, I’m here to say — it really DOES make a difference. You can make yourself happier.

Two things are important:

1 – reminders. You need constant repetition to keep your resolution uppermost in your mind. Review a chart daily (that’s what I do), post a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, put it on your screensaver, or whatever works to have the resolution flash constantly before your eyes.

2 – accountability. You need to mark your progress. Give yourself gold stars, or a check mark on a chart, or email with a friend, or make plans to meet someone at the gym – whatever it takes to make yourself feel accountable for sticking to a resolution.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider focusing on your energy. Energy makes everything easier. So maybe you should resolve to go to sleep twenty minutes earlier each night, or going for a twenty-minute walk each day. No matter WHAT your life is like, you can probably manage to keep one of those two resolutions, and, research shows, it will have big happiness paybacks.

If energy isn’t an issue, working on strengthening your relationships. Draw closer to your family or make more time for friends. Bonds with other people is THE key to happiness, so taking steps in this area will give you a real boost.

As I’ve been working on my Happiness Project, I keep making the same resolutions over and over, and I keep backsliding, over and over. I comfort myself with examples of Tolstoy, Pepys, and St. Therese, all more elevated souls than I, who re-made the same resolutions throughout their lives.

Samuel Johnson, who repeatedly records in his diary his vow to “avoid idleness” and “rise early,” is another patron saint of resolution-makers.

I often think of his diary note: “I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions.”

Just making a resolution probably won’t be enough to get yourself to 100% compliance. That’s okay. Small steps can mean big changes in happiness.

As I mentioned, along with all my tremendous stack of resolutions, I’ve made a new resolution: not to criticize the Big Man to other people. I’d love to hear other people’s resolutions – great inspiration.

I pick up a novel that turns out to be all about the nature of happiness.

One of the great pleasures of vacation is getting to do some serious reading.

I often develop a weird, irrational aversion to books that are very popular. I understand that it doesn’t make sense that I think I’m LESS likely to like a book that millions of people like, but somehow that sometimes happens.

So it was with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I’d set my mind against it — for no good reason.

But then, as research for the Happiness Project, I picked up Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty. I loved that book, so I steeled myself to read Bel Canto.

It turns out that the novel is all about the nature of happiness. I don’t want to give the plot away — it involves a very unlikely set of circumstances.

I think that if I weren’t thinking about happiness all the time, I might have been bothered by the “unrealistic” nature of the events. But because I was reading it, instead, as an exploration for the circumstances necessary for happiness, I appreciated its careful working through of many aspects of happiness.

The role of families, of expectations, of the weight of the future, of mortality, of the consolations of art, of the importance of material comforts, of education, of communication…all this and much more. This description might make it sound tiresome and pedantic, but it’s not, at all.

In particular, I was interested to see the weight given to the “atmosphere of growth,” which was the aspect that eluded me for the longest time when I was devising my First Splendid Truth (to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth). Many characters find a way to develop an atmosphere of growth in highly restricted circumstances, and that’s how they find consolation and happiness — and form bonds with other people.

So I thought I was just doing some holiday reading, but in fact, it was a good happiness-project meditation as well as a good novel.