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

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“I Feel as if I’ve Been Let in on a Dirty Little Secret: Winning Changes Nothing.”

agassi“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”

–Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography

Agassi is referring to the “negativity bias,” the phenomenon that means that generally, bad is stronger than good. Alas.

Stay tuned; I’m going to write more about Agassi’s autobiography. It’s fascinating for many reasons–and I don’t even like tennis.

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Why I’ve Grown Wary of Accepting Anything That’s Free.

freebuttonOne habit that I try hard to cultivate is to stay on top of clutter.

Clutter seems trivial, but I’ve found — and many people have told me that they’re the same way — that clutter weighs me down more than it should. Something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing inbox is a petty problem, but then when I clear out that area, I feel so much more energetic, creative, and happy. It’s weird.

I have a lot of habits that I follow to stay on top of clutter. I follow the one-minute rule (anything I can do in less than a minute, I go ahead and do without delay).  I don’t get organized. For more tips to beat clutter, check here.

(I write about more clutter-fighting habits in my forthcoming masterpiece about habit-formation. If you want to hear when the book goes on sale, you can sign up here.)

Because I’m focused on clutter-busting, I’m now very wary of anything that’s free. Getting something for free makes it feel like a treat—and oddly, it makes me feel greedier. I’m excited when I get something without paying—even if it’s something I’d never choose to buy. For instance, getting free food and drink is a challenge to my healthy eating habits, and in fact, research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

Also, an important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Now, instead of unthinkingly accepting a freebie, I ask: would I choose to buy this thing? If not, I probably don’t really need or want it, even if getting it feels like a treat.

When I spoke at a company, I mentioned this habit during the question-and-answer period. Afterward, the event organizer said, “I know this is ironic, but here’s a little something for you.” He handed me a company water bottle and a box of fancy chocolates.

“Thanks!” I said. “This looks great, even if it is free.” We both laughed—but in fact, I  really didn’t want those freebies. My family already has a lot of water bottles (because these days, they’re so often given out for free), and I don’t eat chocolate. I appreciated the kindness and generosity of the gesture, and I accepted the things, because I didn’t want to be rude, but I had to figure out ways to get rid of them usefully, which was a bit of trouble.

How about you? When you consider the sources of clutter in your life, do you find that freebies make up a percentage of the stuff?

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Do You Agree with Tolstoy’s Rules of Life?

birchEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz day.

This Wednesday: 10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Tolstoy. I love his fiction, and for that reason keep feeling compelled to learn more about his life, but then am driven away by his faults. I should stay away from Tolstoy biographies and just read his novels.

In any event, for happiness-project purposes, Tolstoy is particularly fascinating — both because he wrote so extensively about happiness and because he made and broke so many resolutions himself. Spectacularly.

In Henri Troyat’s biography, Tolstoy, which I never did finish, because I found Tolstoy so maddening, Troyat includes an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life.” Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old.

Some of these rules are daily habits of life, and some are more like Personal Commandments. From my own experience, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between different types of life “rules.”

Given my current obsession with habits, for the book I’m writing about habit-formation, I was very interested in the habits that Tolstoy wanted to cultivate. (If you want to know when my masterpiece about habits goes on sale, sign up here.)

Here’s a partial list of Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life”:

-Get up early (five o’clock)
-Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)
-Eat little and avoid sweets
-Try to do everything by yourself
-Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater
-Keep away from women
-Kill desire by work
-Be good, but try to let no one know it
-Always live less expensively than you might
-Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

Apart from the specifics of this particular list, I’m always interested to see when great minds take this approach. Taking the time to write your resolutions, or your personal manifesto, is an endeavor that can help us be more aware of the elements of a happy life. Everyone’s list of rules would be different; certainly Tolstoy’s list reflects him.

Have you written your own Rules of Life, or manifesto, or the like? Has it helped you better to live up to your own standards for yourself?

Gold star for anyone who can find the complete list online. I looked everywhere, but so far, no luck. One of these days I’ll have to go get Volume 46 of the Tolstoy Complete Works from the New York Public Library.

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Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Foundation.

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 Scheduling — one of my favorite strategies (yes, I do have favorites, I must confess.) This is an Upholder favorite, and one of the least favorites of Rebels.

This week is the Strategy of Foundation.

 

To sum up, from my observation, the four Foundation habits are:

 

How about you? Do you find that when your Foundation is strong, it’s easier to stick to other habits?

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Do You Prefer Childlike Wonder or Adultlike Wonder?

starsinskyThe other night, I was at a dinner party, and a new acquaintance told me that he wanted to cultivate a life of childlike wonder and adventure.

I was intrigued. What an interesting aim.

I was particularly struck by his use of the adjective “childlike.” He used this phrase, “childlike wonder,” a few times, so clearly it was very meaningful to him. (This phrase also reminded me of Betty MacDonald’s remark about how she felt a “wonderful, joyous, childhood feeling of expectancy” when she went down to the beach after a storm.)

That got me thinking about the difference between “childlike wonder” and “adultlike wonder.”

Childlike wonder, it seems to me, is the wonder that comes from being new to the world, from the novelty of experience. There’s something special about the first time we do or see anything — and obviously children will be much closer to that state. Children’s wonder will be less mixed by outside associations and emotions. (By the way, novelty is very important for happiness; people who do novel things are happier than those who don’t.)

Adultlike wonder, by contrast, is the wonder that comes from experience and understanding. Some things are made more marvelous with knowledge. At the same time, adults’ wonder might be mixed with frustration, ambition, or other complicated emotions.

Imagine that a four-year-old child and an adult astrophysicist go out to gaze at a night sky ablaze with stars. The child will feel one kind of wonder; the astrophysicist will feel another kind of wonder.

Neither kind of wonder is better, or truer, or more meaningful — but I imagine some people are more attracted to the idea of childlike wonder, others to adultlike wonder. (Once again, I find myself dividing the world into two categories. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.)

For my part, I must say, I’m attracted to adultlike wonder. I find that the more I put into something, the more I get out of it. I wondered at the genius of Little House in the Big Woods when I was a young girl, and I wonder at it now — but because I bring so much more to the book now, as an adult, I take more from it. But it’s true, I’ll never again experience the wonder I felt when I read the book for the first time.

I can’t resist another allusion to children’s literature. In C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the child Lucy meets Aslan, the great lion who is the creator and ruler of Narnia, after some time.  She tells him, “Aslan, you’re bigger.” Aslan replies, “That is because you are older,” and explains, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

What appeals more to you — childlike wonder or adultlike wonder?

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