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

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A key to happiness: figuring out to keep your resolutions.

Jiminycricket_2Before I started my Happiness Project, I — like everyone — had repeatedly made resolutions to make positive changes in my life.

Since I started the Happiness Project, I’ve managed to do a better sticking to these resolutions. Recently I asked myself—why? What was different? Two reasons: accountability and salience.

ACCOUNTABILITY is a key aspect to sticking to a resolution. You must have a way to record your goals, your successes, and your failures. I make a big chart each month, modeled on the virtue chart Benjamin Franklin describes in his Autobiography, on which I score myself each day.

Many readers have asked to see my scoring charts, so I’m prettifying them now, and will make them available soon for anyone who’d like to see a model. Obviously everyone’s resolutions will be very different, but seeing my charts might help spur ideas.

SALIENCE is another key aspect to sticking to a resolution. I found that the more quickly and readily a resolution pops into my mind at an appropriate point, the easier it is to keep that resolution. And the way to keep an idea uppermost in mind is through repetition.

I re-read my Twelve Commandments (see left-hand column) every day. I have sticky notes around the house to remind me of my resolutions. Scoring myself on my chart requires me to review every resolution, every day.

As a result, I hear a little Jiminy-Cricket voice in my head whispering “Let it go,” “Show up,” “There is only love,” “Remember the evening tidy-up,” “Sing in the morning,” and all the rest as I go through my day. Of course, I often ignore that little voice, but at least I hear it more clearly than I did before.

Just last night, I discovered a new mechanism to be reminded of my resolutions. It’s a fantastic website called Hassle Me. This site allows you to arrange to be hassled at certain times – so, for example, as a trial I arranged to be hassled every two days with a message, “No fake food.” It can remind you to go to the gym, to call your grandmother, to pay bills, whatever you want, however often you want.

I think I’m going to send myself fifty hassle-me’s. More salience!

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I found an interesting site, Wise Bread. It’s about “living large on a small budget,” and I like the sensibility. One of my happiness themes is the relationship between money and happiness, which I think is more complictated than people claim. This site is about living frugally, but with a fun and adventurous spirit — not cramped penny-pinching. Plus I learned the history of the “baby carrot.”

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 Saturday: a happiness quotation from La Bruyere.

Labruyere“The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men would rather please than admire you; they seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded; the most delicate of pleasures is to please another person.” –La Bruyere

What the movie “Knocked Up” has to say about the secret to happiness.

KnockedupLast night, the Big Man and I went to see the new movie Knocked Up, and it really lived up to all the glowing reviews.

This morning, I was trying to figure out why the movie appealed to me so deeply, and I realized that it was because it’s all about the nature of love – all sorts of love, between strangers, lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, sisters, in-laws, parents and children…

As well as being hilariously funny, the movie has transcendent moments, when the characters truly tried to connect, or to offer love, or to help, or to take on responsibility, or to change. People were bickering, flaking out, being selfish and irresponsible, but they also tried to do better.

These moments didn’t seem too unrealistically sappy, and they were on the small scale in which most of life is lived: we make many of our important decisions about little matters.

I was reminded about something Flannery O’Connor wrote about her own work:

“From my own experience in trying to make stories ‘work,’ I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put into my stories; it is a discovery that I get out of them.”

Knocked Up is a terrific example of “the devil being the unwilling instrument of grace.” Though I’m not sure Flannery O’Connor would have liked Knocked Up very much.

Just in case the audience might miss this point, the last few minutes of the movie make that point explicit.

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Busy Mom is a great blog — the subtitle, “Better parenting through coffee” gives a good clue to the sensibility. I always find myself chuckling away to myself as I read. I’m sure I sound like an idiot, so good thing I’m alone in my office.

A true secret to happiness: wearing running shoes all day.

Runningshoe_2When I started the Happines Project, I vowed to work on dressing better. Day in and day out, I wear jeans and running shoes, or khakis and running shoes, or yoga pants and running shoes, usually with a long-sleeved, v-neck white t-shirt (the t-shirt is another story).

I had vague dreams of dressing in attractive, grown-up outfits and tried to make a shift, but somehow I could never change.

I know, “Be Gretchen,” but I thought it would be nice to be a slightly more nicely dressed Gretchen.

Finally, I remembered to apply one of my Twelve Commandments (see lefthand column): Identify the problem.
What was the problem? Why did I never want to dress more nicely?

Answer: because I do a lot of walking every day, and always try to walk more whenever possible, so I like to wear comfortable shoes.

This should have been obvious, but somehow it wasn’t. Once I identified the problem, I realized I had to decide between a conflict in priorities: more walking or more fashion?

I choose more walking, almost every day. Now that I see running shoes as an expression of a choice, instead of a sign of a lack of style, I don’t care about upgrading my look.

Yesterday I did need to dress up a bit, so I wore flat loaders with a proper outfit. For most people, I realize, loafers count as comfortable shoes. Let me say that NOTHING beats running shoes.

By the time my day was over, I felt far more tired and footsore than I usually do.

So, if you’re feeling exhausted at the end of the day, if your feet and legs ache, if you feel drained from daily life, try switching shoes.

Obviously, many people don’t have an option to wear running shoes all day. But if you could wear running shoes, but don’t, give it a shot. I predict you will get a serious happiness boost.

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I like to cruise around the many great blogs that deal with the subject of productivity, or as it’s often called, GTD, “Getting Things Done.” I’ve gotten great ideas and inspiration from blogs like Zen Habits, Dumb Little Man, and Getting Things Done. They often manage to be funny as well as useful, always a plus.

This Wednesday: Quiz — Are you at risk for clutter mentality?

ClosetmessyEvery Wednesday is Tip Day (or Quiz Day).
This Wednesday: Quiz: Are you at risk for clutter mentality?

Because one of my hobbies is helping my friends clear out their clutter, I’ve noticed that there are several very distinct kinds of clutter.

By identifying your particular brand of clutter, you gain insight on how to cure it. If one of these statements sounds like something you’d say, you’ve diagnosed yourself.

1. “This is perfectly useful, I can’t just throw it away.”
It’s good to have useful things around the house, but you don’t need them in massive quantities. I have a friend who has an entire kitchen drawer filled with the little ketchup packets that come with take-out food. If you can’t bear to throw useful things away, look for ways to give them to people who need them. I had a shelf packed with those glass vases that come with flower arrangements – too nice to toss but too many to use – so I gave them all to the flower shop on the corner of my street.

2. “One day, this might come in handy.”
True. But there’s a cost to having empty shoe boxes, glass jam jars, flattened packing boxes, and half-filled cans of paints piled around your house. Ask yourself: how much would it cost to buy this item, if I needed it? Do I need to keep more than one of this item? How often does something like this come into the house?

3. “I bought this doodad to help me get organized.”
Ironically, I’ve noticed,folks with the worst clutter problems often react to their clutter by buying more stuff: racks, fancy hangers, the device that sucks the air out of plastic bags that hold clothes. Beware! You should always attack a clutter problem first by GETTING RID of stuff rather than by trying to ORGANIZE stuff.

4. “This is a precious memory.”
College t-shirts. Baby outfits. Your father’s old desk. We all keep items out of pure sentiment, and that’s okay – to a point. Ask yourself whether one finger-painted blob masterpiece from your son’s nursery school years is enough, instead of two huge boxes full. If you need a memory prompt, consider taking a picture of an item. Store such items so they’re out of the way, rather than keeping them in active closets or drawers.

5. “I’m saving this for my children/grandchildren/when I get another dog/when I lose weight.”
Be wary of saving things to be used in the hazy future. Some things are absolutely worth keeping, but they’re exceptions. Do you really think your now-seven-year-old daughter will one day want to wear your pantsuit from 1990? Is that junky, dusty plastic toy going to appeal to your as-yet-unborn grandchildren? If you got a new dog, you’d probably want a fresh dog bed, and if you lost a bunch of weight, you’d probably decide to buy a new pair of jeans.

I’ve discovered that clearing clutter is one of the easiest and productive ways to give yourself a quick mood boost. If you can’t face a closet, tackle a drawer. If you can’t face a drawer, clean out the fridge. Try it.

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Now for a moment of blatant self-promotion…Father’s Day and Graduation Day are coming up. Might I suggest Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill as a gift? For a description, read here. Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill is in paperback now, and if that doesn’t seem substantial enough for a gift, consider pairing it with Churchill’s fantastic, funny, beautifully written (and rare for Churchill, one volume) memoir, My Early Life.

Both books are perfect either for Churchill aficionados or for people who know nothing about WSC. If you don’t know anything about Churchill, run out and read SOMETHING, because he had an unimaginably interesting, exciting life.