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

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This Saturday: a quotation from Thoreau.

Snow“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” –Henry David Thoreau

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.

Is it selfish to be unselfish?

Christmas_treeWell, it’s not exactly selfish to be unselfish, but it’s certainly self-rewarding.

The positive psychologists will tell you this, and it’s really true: performing a good deed, doing a loving action, makes you feel great. Here’s an example.

Once my sister and I grew up, my parents started a new Christmas tradition. We adults “draw for stockings,” i.e., we put slips of paper into a hat and each draw out a different name, and we only buy presents for that one person. And we’re supposed to buy lots of stocking presents—small, relatively inexpensive gifts—nothing too big. CDs and books, not sweaters and iPods.

This simplifies Christmas shopping, because we each just have one person to focus on.

It’s a great tradition, because it makes us really pay attention to each other—my father is interested in learning more about ancient Rome, my mother has switched to the small Filofax from the big Filofax.

In any event, this year I drew my mother, and the Big Man drew me, and my sister drew my father.

My sister has had a crazy, CRAZY year. She writes for TV in Los Angeles. In the space of one day, she got engaged, got diagnosed with diabetes, and had an offer on a house accepted. With her writing partner, on the side of her TV job, she wrote a young-adult novel; now they’re working on a pilot script. She and her fiancé moved two weeks ago, and they’re getting married in May.

She’s under a huge amount of pressure at work right now. I really wished that I could do something to help. And then I thought of something I could do.

I got her on the phone. “Hey, since I can’t come to help you move, guess what I’m going to do to help you out?”


“I’m going to do your Christmas shopping.”

She was so relieved that she didn’t even say, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t.” “Thanks, Gretch! That would be so great.”

And you know, I’ve gotten more happiness out of that good deed than I could get from any Christmas present that I’ll receive.

Now, it helped that my father suggested several things he wanted, and the Big Man—in a miraculous development—did most of the actual shopping for the presents. So it turned out that my offer wasn’t a big sacrifice on my part.

But I do know that the shopping would have weighed on my sister’s mind. And sometimes when you’re under a lot of stress, it’s the little tasks that seem the hardest.

Generally, I’m ashamed to say, I’m so self-absorbed that I don’t even think about what good deeds I might do for the people around me. I’m trying to be better at seeing possibilities—even little things. I can email some digital photos of the girls to my in-laws, who are away on a vacation (I just learned how to do this). I can really make an effort to set up my great friend who’s single. I can help a person carry her stroller up the subway stairs.

We should do good just because it’s the right thing to do—but it helps to remember how satisfying it is. Do good, feel good.

One of my resolutions is to “explore on the internet,” and I’ve become intrigued by the wild, lovely variety of design sites. Here’s one of my new favorites: K Style.

Do you keep making the same vow over and over?

RedI’ve really been back-sliding lately with the Big Man, with my temper.

The other day, after the girls were sleep, we were talking about our schedules. We had an upcoming dinner date with some friends—not old, close friends who know all our faults, but new friends with whom we still need to be polite.

“Hmmm…I’m not sure I’ll be back in time to be there,” the Big Man said. “Let me see what time my flight lands.”

“You’d *** better be home on time!” I said in the rudest way. “We’ve already rescheduled once, that is just too rude. This dinner has been on your schedule for two weeks!”

I was astounded by the violence of my own reaction and lamely tried to make a joke of it. “Umm, I don’t know where that came from,” I said in a calm voice. “Clearly I tapped into some wellspring of rage.”

“Seems like it!” the Big Man answered, unruffled.

Joking about it helped, but still, that was a bad moment.

It’s good that the Big Man isn’t terribly disturbed by my snapping, but on the other hand, I fear that his imperturbability is the result of years of harpiness on my part.

I remember when we first started dating, and I snapped at him for the first time, he said to me in a very serious way, “I don’t like being snapped at.” I recall it so vividly. We were on the subway, going back to his apartment from his office at Sullivan & Cromwell. (In fact, now that I think about it, that may have been the very day he threw away the piece of cheesecake.) It would be terrible to think that he’s just become inured to my snapping over the years.

In any event, no matter what he thinks or how he reacts, I don’t want to be the kind of person who behaves that way.

I keep making this resolution, over and over, and I keep backsliding, over and over. I comfort myself with examples of Tolstoy, Pepys, and St. Therese, all more elevated souls than I, who kept re-making the same resolutions throughout their lives.

Samuel Johnson, too, repeatedly records in his diary his vows to “avoid idleness” and “rise early.” At one point, he wrote, “I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions.”

And so, once again, I resolve to speak tenderly and light-heartedly.

This Wednesday: Tips for staying in control of holiday eating.

HolidaytreatsEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday…Tips for staying in control of holiday eating.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my eating habits lately—probably because the holiday season is so full of temptation.

Here are some guidelines that I’ve been trying to follow, with various degrees of fidelity.

1. Wear snug-fitting clothes.

2. Buy food in small containers. Studies show that people give themselves larger portions out of larger boxes, so I don’t buy that economy box of pretzels.

3. Make tempting food inconvenient—put cookies in a hard-to-reach spot, set the freezer to a very cold temperature so it’s hard to spoon out ice cream, eat wrapped Hershey’s kisses instead of M & Ms.

4. Order the appetizer size.

5. Use smaller plates, bowls, and cutlery. I often use the Little Girl’s little plastic Disney Princess plates.

6. Dish food up in the kitchen, and don’t bring serving platters onto the table (except vegetables).

7. Pile my plate with everything I intend to eat, and don’t get seconds once that food is gone.

8. Keep serving sizes small: get a small frozen yoghurt instead of a large; get a single hamburger instead of a double.

9. Skip the add-ons: tell the waiter that I don’t want the side of fries, don’t add croutons or bacon to my salad. I feel like Sally from “When Harry Met Sally” as I quibble about how my food should be served, but oh well.

10. After dinner, signal myself that “Eating’s over”: brush my teeth, clean up the kitchen, turn out the lights.

11. Don’t allow myself to get too hungry or too full.

12. Realize that, with some things, I can’t have just a little bit. It’s far easier for me to skip cookies, bagels, and chocolate than it is to have a sensible portion.

13. Never eat hors d’oeuvres.

I’ve realized that although it seems festive and carefree to indulge in lots of treats, in the end, I feel guilty and overstuffed. Which doesn’t make the holiday happier.

Today I came across the blog Positive Sharing, written by Alexander Kjerulf, a/k/a the “Chief Happiness Officer.” He recently posted his book HAPPY HOUR IS 9 TO 5 on his blog–I haven’t had time to take a look at the book yet, but his site has lots of great information about how to be happier at work. I can’t wait to dive in and see what’s there.

Are you eating enormous portions without even realizing it?

Inspired by two fascinating and quite funny books, Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating and Lisa Young’s The Portion-Teller, I’ve been paying much more attention to portion size lately.

These books persuasively argue that a key reason that people are gaining so much weight, so easily, is that we’re eating gargantuan portions of food, without realizing it.

Both books are full of great examples—how the size of a croissant in the U.S. compares to one in France; how a serving of soda has gone from 6.5 ounces to 64 ounces; how cookbooks re-print the brownie recipe from thirty years ago as serving “15” instead of “30”—the batch is the same, but people think that brownies should be twice as big.

Therefore, the argument goes, an easy way to cut calories is to keep portion sizes in check. By ordering the appetizer size instead of the entrée size of pasta, for example, I can still have the fun of eating, and I won’t feel hungry, but I’ll eat substantially less.

When I was at my gym the other day, my instructor showed me some plastic food they have to illustrate proper portion sizes. Zoikes, I wanted those for myself! It gave me a real feel for the proper portions—plus the food is so realistic looking, it’s hilarious.

So I came home and found the site from which they came: Nasco. I hesitated before buying them, but then decided to “spend money to further my goals.”

Dsc00399For $29, I ordered plastic replicas of:
½ cup rice
½ spaghetti and sauce
3 oz. grilled chicken
3 oz. salmon
½ cup ice cream
1 tablespoon jelly

The Portion-Teller is full of suggested comparisons—a protein serving should be as big as a stack of cards, etc.—but I think it’s much easier to look at this dummy food to train my eye.

It’s striking: when I look at the plastic food, I think, sure, that’s a good amount of rice or fish or ice cream. But I know that if I got a plate that held that portion size, it would seem pretty meager. I put the fake spaghetti in our pasta bowls at home, and it looked so dinky at the bottom of the enormous bowl. (Note to self: don’t use the pasta bowls!)

And if I get tired of using this fake food to help me with portion control, the Big Girl and I can use them to play practical jokes on the rest of the family.