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

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The happiness of finding a new technique to improve my writing.

Laptop2I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Susan Bell’s new book, The Artful Edit, about how writers can do a better job of editing themselves.

It has a lot of good advice, but there was one technique – reassuringly simple to do – that I tried today with great success.

I printed out my draft in a different font.

Yes, it was as easy as that. When I printed out my draft for editing, I switched the text from Times New Roman, which feels like my own handwriting, to Georgia.

It sounds insignificant, but in fact, the changed look of the page made it easier to spot awkward spots.

When I’m done with this edit, I’m going to try another of Bell’s suggestions, and read the whole darned draft aloud.

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For folks interested in the general subject of self-improvement, the great site Pick the Brain has a helpful round-up of blogs worth checking out. Needless to say, I was very happy to see The Happiness Project on the list.

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I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

This Wednesday: How to feel happier BY THE END OF THE DAY: Your menu of options.

CheckmarkEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: How to be happier BY THE END OF THE DAY: Your menu of options.

Do you need a happiness boost—right now? If so, take a look at this menu of options and make your choices. Remember, the more you tackle, the bigger the boost you’ll receive.

When you’re feeling blue, it can be hard to muster up the physical and mental energy to do the things that make you happier. Plunking down in front of the TV or digging into a tub of ice cream seems like an easier fix.

However, research shows (and you know it’s true) that these aren’t the routes to feeling better. Try some choices below. The more you push yourself, the better you’ll feel; but if you can’t tackle a big task, just do something small. Even a little step in the right direction will give you a lift.

According to my ground-breaking happiness formula, to be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. What’s dragging you down? Is it a lack of fun, of connection? Do you feel a lot of guilt, boredom, or anger? Do you feel that something’s “not right” about your life? Do you feel stagnant or stuck? Focus your efforts on the choices that will do the most to address what’s not working in your life.

Your menu of choices — commit to doing as many items as you can:

Friends
__ call or email one of your closest friends
__ call or email three friends to whom you haven’t spoken in a while
__ track down an old friend who has drifted out of your life (I just did this a few days ago, zoikes)

Fun
__ add a fun thing to your calendar
__ add a fun thing to your calendar that involves other people
__ add a fun thing to your calendar that involves other people doing something outside

Challenge
__ think of a subject that you wish you knew more about (be honest! something that really interests you!) and spend 15 minutes on the internet reading about it
__ take a step toward acquiring a new skill that you want – research Italian classes in your neighborhood, order Photoshop for Dummies
__ if you absolutely can’t think of one single subject that interests you, visit two bookstores (one huge, one independent) and browse until some book catches your attention – and buy it

Do good, feel good
__ sign up to be an organ donor, and remember to tell your family
__ give $25 or more to a worthy cause
__ sign up to volunteer or participate in an organization

Energy
__ walk around the block
__ take a twenty-five-minute walk
__ go the gym or go for a run

Order
__ clear out the space around your computer
__ clear out a closet
__ walk through your house with a garbage bag, and clear clutter until the bag is full of trash; then walk around again and fill a new bag with things to be given away; repeat

Guilt
__ make a dentist’s or doctor’s appointment that you’ve been putting off
__ reach out to a family member whom you’ve been neglecting
__ make something right: apologize, confess, repair, replace, or return something you borrowed

Nagging tasks
__ clean out some old emails that you haven’t answered
__ stop off at the drugstore to buy supplies you need
__ stop off at the hardware store to buy supplies you need
__ fix something broken

Good citizen
__ Throw away someone else’s litter
__ Be helpful to an elderly person or a person with small kids
__ Be friendly to a store clerk who seems grouchy

Gratitude
__ Reflect on the following quotation, from Marjorie William’s Woman at the Washington Zoo:

We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl: She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me—what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween.

I’d just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I’d cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I’d played was the fifty-two-year-old mother I will probably never be.

It was effortless.

Editor’s Note: A month after Marjorie wrote this, her oncologist concluded that there was no further treatment to recommend. Marjorie died, at home, on January 16, 2005, three days after her forty-seventh birthday.


__ Reflect on the following quotation, Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940:

We shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.

__ Reflect on the following quotation, from Thomas Arnold, diary, June 5, 1842:

[Of reading the newspaper] “So much of sin and so much of suffering in the world, as are there displayed, and no one seems able to remedy either. And then the thought of my own private life, so full of comforts, is very startling.”

At the end of the day, look back on your list. Did you hit all the items you checked off? Do you feel happier?

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Via the Very Short List (very short, very fun, I just signed up for the daily notices), I discovered the wonderful Strange Maps, which has a wonderful collection of…strange maps. My favorite is the map of the United States, with the states renamed as countries with similar GDPs.

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Sometimes money CAN buy happiness – and sometimes, not; or, The “expensive-gym-membership effect.”

GymOne of my revelations from the Happiness Project is that most people don’t spend enough time thinking about how money could buy them some happiness.

If you spend money thoughtfully, in the right way, it can do a lot to boost your happiness.

However, today I want to explore a familiar situation in which money does NOT buy you happiness. I’m trying to think of a snappy name for it, but because I haven’t come up with one yet, let’s call it the expensive-gym-membership effect.

The expensive-gym-membership effect is when you pay money for something in order to force yourself to make time for a priority.

Because you want to make yourself go to the gym, you pay a lot for a membership, with the thought, “Gosh, this costs so much, I’ll feel like I have to go to the gym!” Guess what. You won’t. The expensive-gym-membership effect is how gyms stay in business. They can’t afford to have a treadmill for every member, but they know a lot of paying members will never show up.

If you find yourself paying for something but not using it, ask yourself, “Why?” You may be buying something to try to nudge yourself toward a goal to which you’re not wholly committed.

For example, the Big Man kept bringing home books about the Middle East, then not reading them. “You know,” I told him, “I don’t think you’re actually interested in reading about the Middle East. Maybe you think you ought to be interested, but you’re not.”

But the expensive-gym-membership effect doesn’t apply only to situations where you’re trying to get yourself to do something that you don’t really want to do. Sometimes you’re trying to encourage yourself to make time for something fun.

Maybe you buy a new tennis racket, because you want to play more tennis. You buy a fancy camera, because you want to start taking more photos. You buy lovely bath oils, because you want to start taking a nightly relaxing bath. I myself went to three stores to hunt down Mod Podge, because I wanted to experiment with decoupage.

I bought that Mod Podge months ago, and I’ve never used it. Merely spending money on something doesn’t do much to push you along. You have to decide to make an activity a priority. Probably the reason you’re not taking long baths isn’t because you don’t have the right bath oil, but because you have three kids and no time. You buy the bath oil as an expression of your desire to change something in your life – but that purchase won’t do it.

I try never to buy something unless I foresee using it within a week. If I’m buying a pair of pants, would I wear them within a week? If I’m buying a photo album, would I be putting photos in it in a week? If I’d asked myself that about Mod Podge, I would have had to answer “no.” I liked the idea of doing decoupage, but in truth, I couldn’t foresee making time to do it.

This can be a tricky line, because sometimes buying things is part of laying the groundwork necessary for a new activity. You might feel more comfortable going to a yoga class for the first time if you were wearing the appropriate kind of clothes – and therefore, you’d be more likely actually to go.

I think the mistake comes when people try to make the purchase as a way of giving themselves the momentum they need – but purchases rarely do that. If you want to play more tennis, concentrate on finding the time on your calendar, not on finding the right racquet at the sporting goods store.

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There’s a terrific new blog, an offshoot of the fantastic 43 Folders. It’s called the Petri Project, and it covers subjects related to personal growth from a variety of angles. I found it for the first time yesterday, and that post really hit home, because it was all about asking for help — and one of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood (see left column) is “It’s okay to ask for help.” Why is this so hard? Read the post for a discussion.

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In which I am given the “Thinking Blogger” award, and do some thinking of my own, about happiness.

TbawardI was happy to discover that the blogger of Never That Easy tagged me as one of the “five blogs that made her think” when she participated in the “Thinking Bloggers” meme.

I was particularly pleased to have been chosen by Never That Easy, because of her subject. She writes about the challenges and frustrations of having lived with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for more than a decade: living with her parents in her late 20’s, constant fatigue, not getting answers from doctors, painful and inconclusive medical tests, barred from activities that are easy for others, confronted by some people’s skepticism about whether she’s “really” sick.

The fact that someone who grapples with such serious, constant issues would see value in my blog means a lot to me. Sometimes I worry that readers might think that I’m presenting happiness as something that can easily be achieved if only we’d all organize our closets and eat more vegetables.

I do tend to focus on the little things, it’s true. Partly that reflects my belief that the way to achieve a big change is to make lots of little, manageable changes. I find it’s easier to follow through with something small and concrete, like “I’m not going to nag the Big Man to change light-bulbs” than to follow through with something lofty and vague, like “I’m going to behave more lovingly toward the Big Man.”

“But,” I sometimes imagine a reader thinking, “it’s so easy for Gretchen. She doesn’t have any terrible problems to deal with. She doesn’t have a step-daughter who hates her, or a father who was verbally abusive, or three hundred pounds to lose, or….”

That’s absolutely true. One thing I’ve learned from my happiness project is that I should be very, very, very grateful every day for the fact that (right now, at least) the scale of my challenges is small.

But one day, my phone is going to ring. That’s true for me, that’s true for everyone. It’s the human condition. And I already have a pretty clear idea of one particular phone call that might come. One reason that I focus on the little things is that I believe that the best preparation for meeting large challenges is to meet small challenges, first.

One of my biggest goals for the happiness project is that I’d be better prepared for adversity – that I’d have the patience, the stamina, the self-control, the mental reserves to deal with a bad thing when it happens. Because it will.

The time to start exercising, stop nagging, and make gingerbread houses, I decided, is when everything was going fairly smoothly. I didn’t want to wait for a crisis to re-make my life. And as trivial as these steps may sound, I do hope that working toward happiness now will make it easier to deal with causes of great unhappiness.

Some people seem to think that it’s pointless, or frivolous, to worry about happiness unless you’re very unhappy or depressed (I distinguish these two states). I disagree.

Studies show that people often look back on bad events – like having cancer – and say that much good came out of those experiences, and that people who face what seem like big challenges – like being in a wheelchair – are often quite happy. The writer of Never That Easy strikes me as a pretty happy person.

But that happiness doesn’t come automatically. It takes effort. I hope that making the effort to be happy under ordinary conditions of life (and it does take effort, even under ordinary conditions) will make it easier to be happy when conditions get tougher. Also, the same strategies tend to work to bring happiness, whatever the conditions of life might be.

The fact that the writer of Never That Easy linked to my blog encourages me to think that I’m on the right track.

Now, to continue the meme…five blogs that make me think are:

1. Zen Habits
2. Michael Melcher Reports
3. Hey Marci Blog
4. Genuine Curiosity
5. Exceptional Dental Practice Management (I promise, worth a look, even if you’re not interested in dentistry)

The rules for the meme: 1) if you get tagged, write a post with links to five blogs that make you think, and 2) link to the original post, by The Thinking Blog, that launched the meme so people can easily find it.

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I have some fun getting my “Style Statement” from consultants Carrie and Danielle.

CarrieanddanielleThe first of my Twelve Commandments is to “Be Gretchen,” and one way to do a better job of “Being Gretchen” is to increase my self-knowledge.

This lofty goal also provides a good excuse to do things like read books about the Enneagram.

When I read Cynthia Kling’s article in Domino magazine, Phone Date with (Style) Destiny, about her “Style Statement” appointment with a team of consultants, Carrie and Danielle, I was intrigued.

Carrie and Danielle’s motto is “Communicate who you are in all you do.” Their “style statement” is a two-word phrase that sums up your personal style. It’s descriptive, but also prescriptive, because it not only describes you, it’s meant to help you think about your decisions and actions with more insight into what makes you happy. The first word in the phrase describes your dominant style, and the second word, the individual edge – in an 80/20 balance.

Gosh, that sounded fun. Knowing my “style statement” might boost my self-knowledge, right? I also have resolutions to “Experiment with psychological shortcuts” and “Try something new.” I decided to give it a shot.

I made a phone date with Carrie (on the left in the photo). For about an hour, she posed a series of questions meant to reveal my values, priorities, aesthetics, and approach to life. Then we took a break. When she called me back, she gave me my style statement.

Her analysis: I’m “Constructive Insouciant.” (Cynthia Kling was “Cultivated Wonder,” Carrie is “Refined Treasure,” Danielle is “Sacred Dramatic.”) The first word, “Constructive,” represents my foundation and fundamental nature. The second word, “Insouciant,” represents my creative edge, and, if I understand correctly, also the aspect of my personality that, while important to me, is at risk for being overwhelmed and lost.

So did I feel that “Constructive Insouciant” is a phrase that gives me insight into myself?

“Constructive” absolutely does feel like a great fit. Some of the observations that rang true were: loves order, patterns, cohesiveness…likes making things happen…like being clearly expressive…wants to get things moving in the right direction…often very driven…needs sound foundation of love and family, or can be overcome with worry…likes a look and feel that’s sturdy, complex, detailed, strategic, tailored, social responsible…

There’s more but that’s the idea.

At first, I wasn’t sure about “Insouciant.” I sure don’t think of myself as insouciant. But then I realized – a desire for more play, more creativity, more light-heartedness was a major motivation for my starting The Happiness Project. I have resolutions like, “Force myself to wander” and “Take time to be silly.”

Obviously I felt the need to bring more insouciance into my life – and the way I did it was typically “Constructive,” by carefully building a structure to include “play” and writing down appointments in my datebook for things like “browse in a bookstore.”

So I guess my style statement was pretty darned enlightening.

Carrie and Danielle have a book about the “Style Statement” coming out in several months, can’t wait to read that. Getting a phone consultation is expensive, so I think many people will be excited to have the option to read the book.

The Carrie and Danielle website has their Manifesto of Style, which I found very interesting. Now I’m inspired to try to write a Happiness Manifesto.

Re-reading this post, it strikes me as kinda flack-y, but all very sincere.

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