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

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“Do the Most Important Thing of the Day First Thing in the Morning.”

debbie-stierHappiness and habits interview: Debbie Stier.

I got to know Debbie when she was working in book publishing, because she was one of the first people to go deep into the question of how online tools could help authors connect with readers.

We became friends, and when she started The Perfect Score Project, I followed her progress with delight on her blog. I love a project, I love Debbie’s approach to the world, and I was fascinated by her undertaking — to try to connect better with her teenage children through the SAT, and in the process, figure out the SAT.

Her book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, just came out. It’s wonderful — a great read, even if you don’t care about the SAT, it’s just so much fun — and has been getting a crazy amount of buzz, from The New Yorker to the Today show.

Debbie thought a lot about habits during her work on The Perfect Score Project, so I was interested to hear what she’d learned.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Debbie: Making my bed (hehe). Seriously, I read about “making the bed” in The Happiness Project, and I’ve made my bed every day since then.  Honestly,  it really does make me happier.

“Outer order means inner order,” as my agent, Lisa Gallagher, likes to say!

And of course, the big “E.” There is no denying that I feel consistently happier when I exercise. I shoot for 7 days a week and usually end up with 5.  Three of those 5 are “real” exercise, and two are “phone ins.”  The correlation is unmistakeable: the more I exercise, the better I feel. Period.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Do the most important thing of the day first thing in the morning.

I like to exercise in the morning because if I don’t do it then, my day can very easily slip away, and then I don’t do it at all.  And/or, those times when I leave exercising until nighttime are the “phone in” workouts. I don’t push myself at night.

The problem is that I also find morning to be best time for “the brain juice.” So, if I need to get something written or to deep think, I really hate to waste the best brain juice at the gym.

Bottom line: priorities change.  Mornings are reserved for those things I deem to be most important.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Not that I can think of! The closest I can come is, “staying up too late.”  I shoot to be in bed by 11 p.m., but the truth is, I’m rarely in bed before 1 a.m. (eek), and since I’m a “morning person,” this doesn’t leave me with enough sleep.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.).

Watching 1-2 episodes of a funny sitcom right before bed with my kids.  We never end the day without watching a funny show together — ever. I find it to be good for the spirit to laugh together, right before bedtime.

At least 6 hours per night of sleep.

I try to eat healthy food. I’d say I’m about 75% successful!

Exercise!  I get in shape fast … and I get out of shape twice as fast.

And everything feels bad when I’m not in shape (i.e. clothes, mood, etc.).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Oh goodness, I’m always going in and out of habits. If I really want to make something happen, it goes on the #1-priority-when-I wake-up list.

The other trick I’ve used to get myself back into exercise is to buy nice gym clothes. I know, that sounds shallow, but if I have exercise clothes that I’m excited to wear, I’m more likely to do it.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

TOO HARD FOR ME TO ANSWER THIS BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE ALL OF THEM! [For what it's worth, I think Debbie is a Questioner.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties).

My inability to say no.  I’m a knee–jerk “yes” person, which means I over-extend.  I end every day feeling unaccomplished when the truth is that I usually accomplish a lot, but I bit off more than I could chew.

Also, I usually underestimate how long something will take to do.  I’m bad at estimating time.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Not that I can think of.

I’ve made many changes as a result of reading a book or conversations with friends, but I can’t think of any “flash” changes.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I love habits (at least in theory).  I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to maximize my life, searching for life hacks, etc. I’m obsessed with squeezing every drop out of every experience, so I’m always on the hunt for new systems and habits that’ll streamline.

Also, I love seeing and hearing about other people’s systems and habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Catherine Johnson (blogger: Kitchen Table Math and co-author with Temple Grandin of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior)!  She is “the queen of the system.”  You should visit her at her house and have her show you her systems – she is extraordinary and GREAT at “habits.”  One of my all-time favorite activities is to have Catherine tell me about her systems.

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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.

“But Then I Heard About the ‘Don’t Break the Chain’ Tactic.”

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. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

I used to have chronic pain in my hands. It was originally misdiagnosed as carpel tunnel syndrome but apparently it wasn’t, but what it was is something of a mystery. Basically, I had too much tension in my forearms, my shoulders and my neck. My physical therapist told me to do some stretches, and I did, half-heartedly, for a long time, and I saw minor improvement.

 

But then I heard about the “don’t break the chain” tactic. You print out a calendar of the year and begin a new habit. You do it every day, keeping track, and eventually you just won’t want to out a slash after all those weeks of happy circles. So, I made myself do my stretches every morning before I ate breakfast. Sometimes in cook breakfast before I do my stretches, but I don’t eat until they are done.

 

Not only do I have no more hand pain, pain that I didn’t even notice that I had in my shoulders and neck is gone too! I’m even considering doing a second stretch routine before I go to bed.

In my framework of habit strategies, this don’t-break-the-chain approach is part of the Strategy of Starting (which includes the aspect of stopping). Starting is hard, and starting again is harder. So, if there’s a habit we don’t want to break, we should try never to stop. As William James emphasized in Psychology: Briefer Course:

In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible…Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.

There’s even a site, Chains.cc, that’s meant to help people create the unbreakable chains.

Have you ever used this strategy to stick to a good habit?

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“I Call That Voice the ‘Obnoxious Roommate Living in My Head.’”

huffingtonHappiness interview: Arianna Huffington.

I’ve followed Arianna Huffington’s fascinating career for years, and for several years I cross-posted my blog material on the site she launched, The Huffington Post, but it was only last week that I got the chance to meet her face to face.

We were both speaking at a conference here in New York City, and got a chance to talk afterward. I was very interested to hear what she had to say during her presentation, because I’d gotten my hands on her new book Thrive: the Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

For someone who thinks about happiness and habits all day long, of course, a book with this title is irresistible. It’s full of insights, examples, and research about how to “thrive” — how to live a life that reflects your values — and why it matters.

I was very eager to hear what she had to say specifically about habits and happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Arianna: I have made a habit of integrating certain practices into my day — meditation, exercise, walking — but conscious breathing is the habit I can return to hundreds of times a day, in an instant. A conscious focus on breathing helps me introduce pauses into my daily life, brings me back into the moment, and helps me transcend upsets and setbacks.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I now know more — much more about the importance of sleep. Get enough sleep and you will be more productive, more effective, and better able to enjoy your life. Today, this is my number one healthy habit. When I was 18, not so much! [I so agree with this point; if you need tips for getting more sleep, look here.]

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Looking at my phones — plural. Yes, I carry three BlackBerries and an iPhone (though an iPhone with a keyboard!).

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m a total Obliger — or perhaps a recovering Obliger! I’ve always struggled to meet expectations I’ve imposed on myself. I call that voice my obnoxious roommate living in my head. That’s the voice that will keep you from living out your dreams for the rest of your life. I try to silence this inner obnoxious roommate by remembering the words of the French writer Montaigne: “There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.”

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

My flash change came on the morning of April 6, 2007. I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.

This was a classic wake-up call. Looking back on my life, I had other times when I should have woken up but didn’t. This time I really did and made many changes in the way I live my life, including adopting daily practices to keep me on track— and out of doctors’ waiting rooms. The result is a more fulfilling life, one that gives me breathing spaces and a deeper perspective.

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Quiz: Are You an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

quiz-.jpgEvery Wednesday is Quiz Day, or Tip Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday:  Quiz: Are you an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? 

In the course of writing my book about habit-formation, Before and After, I’ve come up with a character framework. (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

I have to say, I’m so pleased with this framework. I love it. But what to call it? The “Rubin Tendencies“? The “Expectation Types“? I’m still pondering that.

In a nutshell, I sort everyone into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important. For your habits, and for many aspects of your life.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner); essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

 

For more explanation, look here.

Many people have asked for some kind of quiz to tell them their Tendency. It’s tricky, because the Tendencies overlap, but here goes…

Check off every statement that describes you.

You’ll probably have checks in more than one category, but if you’re like most people, you’ll find that one will much more accurately describe you.

Upholder

___ I love crossing items off my to-do list.

___ I feel uncomfortable if I’m with someone who’s breaking a rule—whispering to me during someone’s giving a work presentation, or using a cell phone when a sign reads “No cell phones.”

___ Usually, I’m punctual and meet deadlines. In fact, I really dislike being late or missing a deadline, even if it’s somewhat arbitrary.

___ I’ve made New Year’s resolutions in the past, and I usually have good success in keeping them.

___ If something is on my calendar, it gets done.

___ I hate making mistakes or letting people down.

___ It’s just as important to keep my promises to myself as it is to keep my promises to other people.

___ I want to know what’s expected of me.

___ Sometimes other people feel annoyed by my level of discipline. I’ve been accused of being rigid.

___ I embrace habits.

___ It’s painful for me not to do something I’ve agreed to do, even if it doesn’t really matter, so I’m very careful about making commitments—to other people or to myself.

 

Questioner 

___ It’s very important for me to make well-reasoned decisions.

___ If I want to make a change in my life, I’ll make it right away. I won’t make a New Year’s resolution, because January 1 is an arbitrary date.

___ Even when a decision isn’t particularly important, I sometimes have trouble deciding, because I want more information.

___ I get very agitated if I have to wait in line.

___ If I’m asked to do something that doesn’t make sense, I won’t do it—which sometimes causes conflicts with other people.

___ Other people sometimes become frustrated by my demand for information and sound reasons.

___ It really bothers me when things are unfair or arbitrary.

___ I like to hear from experts, but I always decide for myself what course to follow.

___ I can start a new habit without much effort, if it’s something that makes sense for my aims.

___ Occasionally, I arrive at conclusions that violate conventional wisdom or common practice (which can cause problems with other people); I want to act on the basis of my own reasoning.

___ I question the validity of the Rubin Tendencies.

 

Rebel 

___ I never make New Year’s resolutions. Why would I commit myself to do something in advance?

___ If someone asks or tells me to do something, I often have the impulse to refuse—or to do just the opposite.

___ I resist habits.

___ I enjoy flouting rules and expectations.

___ Other people sometimes become frustrated because I won’t do what they want me to do.

___ If someone tells me I can’t do something, I think, “I’ll show you,” and I do it.

___ People sometimes accuse me of being irresponsible or unnecessarily contrarian.

___ I’m not particularly persuaded by arguments such as, “People are counting on you,” “You’ve already paid for it,” “You said you’d do it,” “Someone will be upset if you don’t,” “It’s against the rules,” “This is the deadline,” or “It’s rude.”

___ Sometimes I find myself attracted to institutions with lots of rules—the military, the police, the clergy.

___ If I’m expected to do something—even something fun, like a wood-working class—I have the urge to resist; the expectation takes the fun out of an activity that I enjoy.

___ My significant other is an Obliger.

 

Obliger 

___ I sometimes describe myself as a “people-pleaser.”

___ People often turn to me for help—to edit a report, to take over a carpool run, to speak at a conference at the last minute.

___ I’ve given up making New Year’s resolutions, because I never keep them.

___ I get frustrated by the fact that I make time for other people’s priorities, but struggle to make time for my own.

___ Every once in a while, I snap, and in a sudden moment of rebellion, I refuse to do what other people expect of me.

___ Promises to other people can’t be broken, but promises to myself can be broken.

___ Unless someone is enforcing a deadline, it’s hard for me to get work done.

___ I sometimes feel burned out, and it’s hard for me to take the time and effort for myself, to recharge my battery.

___ I’ll do something to be a good role model, even if it’s not something that I’d do for myself. Practice piano, eat vegetables, quit smoking.

___ It’s hard for me to tell people “no.”

___ I’ve made some good habits, but I often struggle without success to form others.

This quiz is still under construction, so let me know: was it helpful? what is it missing? any false notes?

People’s responses to the four Rubin Tendencies (or whatever they end up being called) has been very encouraging. Most people find themselves within the framework — and also find that knowing their Tendency helps them to understand themselves better.

You may be thinking, “The Rubin Tendencies are interesting, but what the heck do they have to do with habit-formation?” Of the many habit-formation strategies I’ve identified, the first, and the most important, is the Strategy of Self-Knowledge. To shape our habits most effectively, we must understand ourselves. And knowing your Rubin Tendency is enormously helpful in figuring out how to set up habits for success.

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Secret of Adulthood: If You Can’t Find Something, Clean Up.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

IfYouCantFindSomethingCleanUp_124824

 

I’m amazed by how true this is. I repeat it to my daughters about once a week.

Do you have any other tricks for finding things that you can’t find? (One of the most annoying things in life.) Like the great Secret of Adulthood: Always put your keys away in the same place.

NOTE THE NEW FEATURE: I’ve added a Pin It button to the top of the post, so you can easily pin to Pinterest (I’m there myself.)

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