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

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Story: Do What You Love, and Then Your Friends Hire You.

This week’s video story:  Do what you love, and then your friends hire you.

 

Perhaps I didn’t quite complete my thought on the video. When you do what you love, even in a non-job context, you make friends with other people who share your interests;  as they move forward in the world, they help you move forward. (Of course, it’s not always easy to cultivate your passions.)

In a related observation, my sister the sage once told me, “People succeed in groups.” Agree, disagree?

Have you found this to be true?

If you can’t see the video, click here.

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Avoid the Dangerous Allure of “Potato-Chip News.”

tv1970sAssay: I’ve identified sixteen strategies to use for fostering habits, and one strategy is the Strategy of Distraction.

It’s a highly effective strategy, particularly for people who are attracted to potato-chip news. I’m not attracted to potato-chip news, myself, so it took me a while to understand this challenge.

“Potato-chip news” is news that’s repetitive, requires little effort to absorb, and is consumable in massive quantities: true crime, natural disasters, political punditry, celebrity gossip, sports gossip, or endless photographs of beautiful houses, food, or clothes. We all have a duty to be educated citizens, but potato-chip news provides endless commentary, speculation, and images, rather than fresh facts or sophisticated analysis, and information is usually sensationalized.

Most people enjoy potato-chips news from time to time—to track a presidential election or the Oscars. However, some are particularly drawn to material that makes them feel shocked, frightened, insecure, or indignant, and that’s what potato-chip news often provides.

Often, constant exposure to potato-chip news causes a kind of distress that can inflame bad habits—in the people are most drawn to it.

The subject of potato-chip news came up when I was giving a talk, and one audience member asked: “I’m absolutely one of those people who’s attracted to potato-chip news. What they call ‘disaster porn.’ I know it’s not good for me, but somehow I always watch. Plus I do think it’s important to be an informed citizen of the world.”

“Try this,” I suggested. “Get information from written sources. Seeing distressing visual images on TV hits people a lot harder than reading about it—also, you’re more likely to watch three hours of TV coverage than to read about a subject for three hours, and written news tends to be more informative, anyway. Or decide to watch for a limited time, like ‘I’m going to watch for thirty minutes to find out what’s happening, then I’ll turn it off until tomorrow.’”

Potato-chip news has two major downsides: it can take up a lot of time, and the bigger problem, from a habits perspective, is that some people feel overwhelmed and upset, and then they indulge in bad habits to try to make themselves feel better.

Righteous anger, pity, a desire for justice—these can make us get involved and do good things. But that means taking constructive action, and potato-chip news often leaves people feeling upset, angry, or helpless, but not inspired to act. And it can have a bad effect on them. I read a comment:  “I was so worried about how the election was going to turn out that I ate half a pan of peanut-butter brownies in front of cable news.” Yes, this person is deeply interested in the situation, but still, we need to have ways to deal with somewhat remote events in ways that don’t derail or attempts to manage ourselves.

It’s stress, but really, it’s a vicarious, voluntary stress.  Spending hours stressed out in front of the TV isn’t the same as volunteering or donating. Feeling a high level of personal distress makes people feel agitated and emotionally drained, to the point that they lack the energy or detachment to help—or the energy to manage themselves. (Here are ten extremely basic tips for eliminating stress from your day.)

Potato-chip news comes in many guises. A guy at a conference confided, “I’ve realized I can’t take a five-minute break and go to ESPN.com. I read one thing, then another, I can’t get in and out quickly. Plus I’m from Cincinnati, so I care a lot about the Bengals, and if I read something about how the Bengals suck, it puts me in a really bad mood, and I can’t work.” A woman told me, “I find myself spending hours in front of Pinterest, and it makes me feel bad about myself, that I’m not hand-stenciling my bathroom, or whatever.”

For people who have a taste for it, it’s very helpful to learn to distract themselves from potato-chip news, so that this inclination doesn’t overwhelm their self-mastery. As William Edward Hartpole Lecky wrote, “To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life.”

Are you tempted by potato-chip news? If so, how does it affect you, and how do you keep yourself from over-indulging in it?

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Before and After: Work on a Ph.D. Thesis from 6:00-9:00 a.m.

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here.

This week’s story comes from Annelie Drakman.

I’m a Ph.D.-student, and I’ve always thought that it seemed dreadful to let finishing your dissertation drag out for years and years – just get it over with, I thought. And still I’d let weeks go by where I went to meetings, and read lots of books relating to my topic, and took courses, but did not spend one minute actually writing my text.

So I started getting up at 6 am. Now, whenever I have a free morning or a whole free day, I try to make sure to always get up this early. I think the reason it works is that I hate it. You see, if I get up at 6 am and don’t write on my dissertation, I got up early for nothing. I have to give up the comfort of my bed without the satisfaction of getting things done, and I can’t bear that. So I write. The hours between 6 am and 9 am just fly by and afterwards I’m always surprised at how much I got done. So it works! And, if I can’t get any useful work done during the afternoon, I know I’ve at least put in three or so hours towards my most important goal, and I can give myself a break about being obsessive about emails.

Excellent. I’ve identified sixteen strategies for habit-formation, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Scheduling. Just putting something on the schedule helps us to do it — and scheduling it first thing in the morning usually works best.

Also, although it doesn’t work for everyone, getting up earlier can be a great way to find more time for something you value. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, so there’s more consistency and control, and less opportunity for conflicts — real or invented — to arise.  (For tips about how and why to schedule a habit for the morning, read here and here.)

I write about the Strategy of Scheduling in Chapter Two of Before and After. If you’d like to know when the book is available for pre-order (not for a while, I must confess!), sign up here.

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Secret of Adulthood: Focus Not on Doing Less, or Doing More, but on Doing What You Value.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

FocusNotOnDoingLess_124803

 

I never think about “balance,” because that suggests that there’s room for everything, if I could just juggle it correctly. Now I tell myself, “I have plenty of time for the things I love to do”–which means dropping things that I don’t love to do. This mantra has really helped me make better decisions about how to spend my time.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for making sure that you spend your time doing what you value?

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Once Again: 6 Tips for Writing from George Orwell.

orwellEvery Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday (again): 6 rules for writing from George Orwell.

Last week, I posted six rules for writing from George Orwell, but that post was swallowed up by the internet. I was quite pleased by the number of people who wrote to ask where the list had gone, so I’ve decided to re-post it.

I loved rules for writing: for instance, here are rules from Mindy Kaling, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor.

In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “the following rules will cover most cases”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (I’m charmed by his example: use “snapdragon,” not “antirrhinum.” Snapdragon is so much nicer.)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I find these rules to be enormously helpful. It’s so easy to use tired, shopworn figures of speech. I love using long, fancy words but have learned–mostly from writing my biography of Winston Churchill–that short, strong words work better. I am ever-vigilant against the passive and against jargon, both of which are so insidious.

However, I have to be cautious with #3. I love to cut so much that I have to be careful not to cut too much. My writing tends to become very dense, so I have to keep some cushion. Sometimes, words that seem superfluous are actually essential, for the overall effect.

One thing that makes me very happy is to have a complicated idea and to feel that I’ve expressed myself clearly. I remember writing the ending to Happier at Home. I wrote the entire book to build to that ending–”now is now”–and what I had to say was very abstract, and yet, I felt satisfied that I managed to say what I wanted to say. One of the happiest experiences I’ve had as a writer was when I typed the final lines,  “Now is now. Here is my treasure.”

How about you? Do you use these rules–or any others?

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