A Key to Good Habits? Don’t Allow Ourselves to Feel Deprived.

A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York Times, Losing weight may require some serious fun, about a study that makes a point that I think is incredibly important.

In the study, women were sent to walk a one-mile course in the next half hour, with lunch to follow.

–Half were told that their walk was meant to be exercise, and they should think of it that way, and monitor their exertion as they walked.

–Half were told that the walk would be for pleasure; they’d listen to music through headphones and rate the sound quality, but they should mostly enjoy themselves.

Afterward, they were asked to estimate mileage, mood, and calorie expenditure.

The “exercise” group reported feeling more tired and grumpy — and at lunch afterwards, they ate significantly more sweets than the “for fun” group. (The piece discusses other studies that show the same kind of result.)

Reading this study reminded me of one of my important conclusions about habits: If we want to stick to our good habits, we should try very hard never to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

When we feel deprived, we try to make things right for ourselves. We begin to say things like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this,” “I’ll just do this now, that’s fair, but tomorrow I’ll be good.”

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified in invoking many of the most pernicious loopholes: the Moral Licensing loophole, the Tomorrow loophole, and the Fake Self-Actualization loophole.

The lure of loopholes is why the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is so important.

Once I realized how dangerous it was to allow ourselves to feel deprived, I grasped the importance of the Strategy of Treats. It’s a delightful strategy, yes, but it’s not frivolous or selfish.

Treats help us to feel energized, restored, and light-hearted. Without them, we can start to feel resentful, depleted, and irritable. When we give ourselves plenty of healthy treats, we don’t feel deprived. And when we don’t feel deprived, we don’t feel entitled to break our good habits. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

And when we can frame a habit as fun, that’s useful too. This year, I started walking once a week with a friend. It started as a way to get more exercise, but now I view it as a way to get more friend time. Now that same habit is a treat.

In my forthcoming book about habit-formation, I talk a lot about how to avoid feelings of deprivation. There’s the Strategy of Abstaining, of course, for my fellow Abstainers; there’s “consumption snobbery,” that works too; there’s delay, within the Strategy of Distraction.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Gretchen, I can’t wait to read your book which sounds so fascinating and helpful,” fear not, you can sign up here to find out as soon as it goes on sale.

How about you? Do you find that deprivation makes you feel justified in indulging or breaking a good habit?

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“Anxiety and Ennui Are the Scylla and Charybdis on Which the Bark of Human Happiness Is Most Often Wrecked.”

“Anxiety and Ennui are the Scylla and Charybdis on which the bark of human happiness is most often wrecked.”

— William Edward Hartpole Lecky, The Map of Life

According to myth, “Scylla and Charybdis” are two sea hazards that blocked the Strait of Messina — a rock shoal with a monster on one side , and a sea monster/whirlpool on the other.

Using this phrase is the same as saying “between a rock and a hard place” or “out of frying pan into the fire.” So Lecky’s point is that to be happy, we must steer between anxiety and ennui, and not allow ourselves to be wrecked by either.

Agree, disagree?

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Why the Anniversary of D-Day Gave Me a Moment of Happiness.

My husband and I sleep with all-news radio playing (which I’m sure is a very bad idea, but we do), and I woke this morning to the reminder that today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allied trips landed on the beaches of  Normandy.

I read a lot about D-Day when I was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, my biography of Churchill. What a subject! How I loved writing that book.

And one of my favorite moments in my research was when I read about what General Eisenhower did to prepare for the invasion.

In case the invasion failed, Eisenhower had prepared a statement, known as “In Case of Failure”:

incaseoffailure

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

 

 

This is a momentous example of one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever received, from my father. He said, “If you take the blame, when you deserve it, people will give you responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true.

And this memory reminded me of another story that I love about Eisenhower. It illustrates one of my Secrets of Adulthood: Sometimes, words only diminish what we want to convey.

I love this story so much that I get choked up whenever I think about it. (If you want to see me tell the story, you can watch the video here.)

At the end of the war, in May 1945, the German military commanders had unconditionally surrendered, and the time came when they signed the surrender documents. Obviously this was a momentous, awe-inspiring event.

Afterwards, General Eisenhower needed to send a message to the combined Chiefs of Staff, to tell them that this had been done, and Eisenhower’s colleagues proposed various drafts of grand language for the victory message.

Eisenhower rejected all suggestions, and wrote:

“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”

missionofthisalliedforce

So simple, so beautiful. Sometimes words can only diminish what we want to convey.

One of the most pure, satisfying sources of happiness is the feeling of transcendence. It can be difficult, in the crush of everyday life, to find moments of transcendence. Memories prompted by this D-Day anniversary brought me that feeling of awe.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s 10-Point Manifesto for His Apprentices.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day — or List Day.
This Wednesday: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Manifesto for His Apprentices.

I’ve posted this before, but I’m posting it again, because I love personal manifestos — for instance, on the home pages of their blogs, Bob Sutton includes his 17 Things I Believe about work and Madame X lists My Rules about money (look in the right-hand column).

I read Frank Lloyd Wright’s Autobiography and found it very thought-provoking. In it, he includes a list of the “Fellowship Assets” that he outlined for the architecture apprentices he worked with at Taliesin, his summer home, studio, and school.

1. An honest ego in a healthy body.
2. An eye to see nature
3. A heart to feel nature
4. Courage to follow nature
5. The sense of proportion (humor)
6. Appreciation of work as idea and idea as work
7. Fertility of imagination
8. Capacity for faith and rebellion
9. Disregard for commonplace (inorganic) elegance
10. Instinctive cooperation

This list was interesting to me, because although it’s quite short, it packs in a lot of big ideas and strongly held views. It really started me thinking — to ask, “What does Wright mean by ‘inorganic’ or even ‘nature’?” “What’s an ‘honest ego’?” I particularly loved #5 — the inclusion of humor on this list, and the tying of humor to a sense of proportion. I’d never thought of humor as an expression of a sense of proportion, but I think that’s one reason that humor can be so helpful at difficult moments.

Writing a personal manifesto is a very interesting exercise; it really forces you to articulate your values. Have you ever written a manifesto for yourself? Was it a useful exercise?

I wrote my manifesto, though I should probably update it. Scroll down; my manifesto is below some other manifestos. I love manifestos! If you have one, post it please. They’re so fascinating.

I need to write my habits manifesto. That will be fun. But first I need to finish the book. If you want to hear when my book about habit-formation goes on sale, sign up here.

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Video: For Habits, Try the Strategy of Scheduling.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My book describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when this masterpiece goes on sale, sign up here.

Last week was the Strategy of Monitoring — one of my favorite strategies (yes, I do have favorites, I must confess.)

This week — the Strategy of Scheduling. Also another one of my favorites.

The Strategies of Monitoring and Scheduling, along with the Strategies of Foundation and Accountability, form the section of my book on the “Pillars of Habits.” These are big, bedrock strategies.

 

To read more about my Wednesday adventures with my daughter, check out Happier at Home, chapter on Parenthood.

You can also read more about Power Hour and the Four Tendencies in those posts.

How about you? Do you find that you stick to your habits better — especially when a habit is fairly new — if it’s actually entered into your schedule? It’s surprising to me how the simple act of making a note of something can make such a big difference.

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