Fill in the Blank: X Is a Good Servant But a Bad Master

I love to collect variations on phrases, such as the “X is the new Y.” “Orange is the new black,” “Breakfast is the new lunch,” “Forties are the new thirties,” “Halloween is the new Christmas,” or–and I was inspired by this one for Happier at Home–“September is the new January.” (I started this happiness project in September, instead of January, because September also seems like a good time for a fresh start.)

I came up with my own fill-in-the-blank phrase, “___ is a good servant but a bad master.” I’ve been thinking about different ways to fill in that blank.

Because I’ve been writing and thinking about habits for so long, to write Better Than Before, my first answer is, no surprise, habit. And indeed, habit is a good servant but a bad master. A very, very good servant, and a very, very bad master.

Other possibilities…

Money

Technology (or Facebook, Twitter, email…)

Alcohol

Punctuality

Caffeine

Television

Anger

Food

Ambition

Planning

The flesh

Ego

Leisure

Productivity

What would you add? I don’t know why I get such a big kick out of lists like this, but I do.

Like Jung and Wharton, Do You Remember When You First Knew Yourself?

In my writing about habits and happiness, I keep coming back to the same idea: to shape our habits, to build our happiness, we have to start with a knowledge of ourselves — our own nature, our own interest, our own temperament.

It sounds so easy to know yourself — after all, you hang out with yourself all day! But it’s very, very challenging. We’re so distracted by how we wish we were, or by what think we ought to be, or by what other people expect from us…we lose touch with what’s actually true.

The first step in self-knowledge is self-consciousness. I was struck by these two stories, by two great minds: Carl Jung and Edith Wharton. They both remembered exactly the moment when they knew themselves for the first time.

In a 1959 “Face to Face” TV interview, Carl Jung describes:

That was in my eleventh year. There I suddenly—on my way to school, I stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in a  mist, walking in a mist, and I stepped out of it, and I knew, “I am. I am what I am.” And then I thought, “But what have I been before?” And then I found that I had been in the mist, not knowing to differentiate myself from things. I was just one thing, among many things.

 You can watch the video of the interview here, at minute 3:01.

In the very first paragraph of her autobiography,  A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton recalls:

It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. That little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity–this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day.

Do you have a particular memory of realizing, “I am”? I have a very vivid memory of standing on a step-stool to look in the mirror above the sink in my kindergarten. I thought very distinctly, “That’s me in the mirror. I’m right here, right now, standing at the sink, looking in the mirror.” But I don’t recall if that was the first time I’d had a thought like that.

Weirdly, when I remember that moment, I remember thinking that thought, but I envision myself from a distance — I don’t see my face in the mirror, but my whole body, from across the room.

How about you?

To know ourselves — it’s the great challenge of our whole lives.

If you want to know yourself better, to shape your habits better, take this quiz.

“Oddly, Though, Lists Are Reassuring.”

“Oddly, though, lists are reassuring. We become aware of this if we scrupulously follow a recipe, which is essentially a list of ingredients and actions; but if we give this ‘list’ too much importance, we leave no room for the imagination.”

—Jean-Claude Ellena, The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur

I’m obsessed with the delights of the sense of smell, which led me to a much greater interest in perfume. Jean-Claude Ellena is one of the major figures in the creation of perfume. The Diary of a Nose is his book about his process.

I’m very attracted to any kind of list, particularly to-do lists. They can be freeing, but also constraining — like so many things.

Trying to Keep a Resolution? Don’t Fall into This Common Trap.

Many of us make resolutions — at the New Year, and throughout the year.  For the most part, these resolutions involve habits; we want to make or break some important habit (read the Essential Seven here).

To my surprise, as I was writing Better Than Before, I learned that while it’s hard to change habits, it’s also surprisingly easy to change habits.  The secret is to know how to set yourself up for success.

For instance, one important way to set yourself up for success is to imagine how you might fail. What are the temptations, the stumbling blocks? When have you struggled in the past?

Also, it’s important to be very wary of loopholes.

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

Now, we’re all adults, and we can always mindfully decide to make an exception to our good habits. (Read here about my friend’s hilarious pie policy.) But that’s not what a loophole is. A loophole is a way to avoid making an exception, to get a free pass or an excuse.  But in the end, the loophole just ends up weakening, or perhaps ending, the habit we’re trying to create.

I’ve posted about each of the ten categories. If you want easily to scroll through them all, start at #10, because each post includes a link to the previous day.
1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself. I can’t go to the dentist; too busy writing.

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow” – “I can bust the budget in December, because I’ll be so frugal in January”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself” – “They served donuts at the meeting”

5. Planning to fail loophole — “I’m going to buy some scotch in case anyone stops by”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “The label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

Which one is most popular, do you think? 1, 2, and 3 are very popular. Also 4. And 5 is more common that I first thought. Also 6, 7 of course, 8 comes up a lot, 9, and also 10. Look at that. They’re all popular!

As Benjamin Franklin wryly commented in his Autobiography, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” We can almost always find a reason, a loophole, that excuses us from following a habit. But when we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.

What loophole do you invoke most often, to get yourself out of a habit that you’re trying to keep?

P.S. Do you get the pun in this post’s illustration? I had fun with that.

A Fun Way to Shape the New Year: Pick a One-Word Theme.

I love New Year’s resolutions – and I’m not the only one. Some 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions.

There’s one kind of resolution that I particularly love: identifying one idea, often summarized in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year.

My sister often does this kind of resolution. This year her theme is “Novel.” One year was the year of “Free Time,” another, “Hot Wheels” — that year, she got a car and started driving; she and I have both struggled with a fear of driving, which was much tougher for her, given that she lives in Los Angeles and I live in New York City. If you want to hear about my fear of driving, click here.  (Warning, non sequitur: follow my sister on Twitter, @elizabethcraft.)

Another friend of mine does the same thing. One year, I remember, was “Dark,” another was “Make.”

One year I chose “Bigger.” I have to fight the urge to simplify, to keep things manageable; this word will remind me to think big, to tolerate complications, to expect more from myself. Many people work to simplify their lives, but I struggle against the tendency to simplify too much. As Albert Einstein observed, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This year, I’ve chosen “Upgrade.” I want to take many areas of my life to the next level. I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages, from the opening of Norman Rush’s fascinating novel, Mating.

“There was an opulent sunset. I was standing under an acacia in bloom and the words ‘shower of gold’ came into my mind, followed by a surge of feeling. I call it greed, but it was more a feeling of wanting a surplus in my life, wanting to have too much of something, for a change. I didn’t want to be a candidate anymore, not for a doctorate or anything else: I wanted to be at the next level, where things would come to me, accrue to me. It was acute.”

I love this passage because it describes a feeling that I’ve often experienced, but have never quite been able to put into words myself. Do you know this feeling of “wanting a surplus,” “wanting to have too much,” where “things would accrue to me”? My sister and I sometimes talk about “wanting to get a present in the mail,” but it’s not exactly that…

In writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I’ve been thinking obsessively about habits. There are lots of one-word themes that might help someone determined to master his or her her habits: Health; Finish, Rest; Free (as in “free from french fries“); Fulfillment, etc.

Have you ever tried this choose-a-theme approach? Did it help you direct your year?

I’m fascinated to get more ideas for themes. What theme or word would you pick?