Secret of Adulthood: Pay Careful Attention to Anything You Try to Hide.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


As I’ve been studying habits, and how we make or break habits, I’ve been struck by the fact that we should pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide The desire to prevent family or co-workers from acting as witnesses—from seeing what’s on the computer screen or knowing how much time or money is spent on a habit—shows that in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values.

One way to attack a hidden bad habit—secret smoking, secret shopping, secret monitoring of an ex-sweetheart on Facebook—is to force it out into public view.

Also, when we pay attention to the things we try to hide, we learn something about ourselves.

In Tory Johnson’s remarkable memoir The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, she writes, “From the day I got my driver’s license, I developed a habit of pigging out at drive-throughs. When I rolled up alone to the window, I would pretend I was ordering for a few people by saying out loud, ‘What was it they wanted?’ As if the clerk at the window cared.” She was hiding the fact that she was ordering food for one person–and that told her something about herself.

Of course, we might hide a habit for many reasons. A reader posted: “I’m a closet writer. Whenever anyone asks me what I’ve been up to, I never tell them that writing a novel is occupying half my time. I somehow feel dishonest, but there’s something about telling people I’m writing that makes me feel overly exposed.”

Sometimes it’s helpful and healthy to keep something hidden — but sometimes, it’s not. In either case, it’s probably useful to notice that we’re trying to hide something, and to know why.

In my framework of habit-formation strategies, this principle is an aspect of the Strategy of Clarity. The more clearly we understand ourselves, our values, and our actions, the better able we become to foster good habits. Ironically, the Strategy of Clarity was very obscure to me; it took me a long time to grasp its importance for habits.

How about you? When you think about what you try to hide, does it reveal anything to you about yourself? Self-knowledge! So important, and so hard.

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“There Is a Charm, Even for Homely Things, in Perfect Maintenance.”

“There is a charm, even for homely things, in perfect maintenance.”

— Louis Auchincloss, The House of Five Talents

Agree, disagree?

I feel this very strongly myself, and I write about it quite a lot in The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. Well-made, suitable tools make work a joy; keeping things in their proper places makes a place seem more inviting; old, strong objects serving their purpose feel almost alive.

When I was home in Kansas City recently, I used a particular small pan that my parents have had as long as I can remember. It made me so happy to see it! It was the perfect size and weight for certain kinds of jobs, and was as serviceable as it had ever been, after decades of constant use.

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Before and After: “I Needed to Establish a Small, Non-Threatening Daily Writing Habit, and I Needed Accountability.”

I’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 hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Brett Cooper.

I’d known some writing success: winning, for example, a 2003 screenwriting contest that awarded me $2,000, a yearlong contract with a Hollywood Literary Manager and exposure to dozens of top production companies. But I’d never been able to build momentum. I’d work in fits and starts, churning out a lot of content for a month or two and then sputtering to zero output for several months more. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the big power of small habits.


A teacher by day, I have always struggled to find the time to write. Typically, writing progress only came during my long summers off. One day, inspired by others who’ve traveled the happy road of habits and shared their glowing stories after, I was struck by an idea. I needed to establish a small, non-threatening daily writing habit, and I needed accountability.


100 words a day, I thought. Yes, I could do that. Even after the toughest of spells at school, surrounded as ever by my gaggle of delightfully squirrely eighth graders, I could collapse on the couch and tap out a paragraph or two. Small, non-threatening habit? Check.


Next I needed accountability. If not for that, I knew from experience that I’d fall off the wagon. I contacted a teacher friend who’s also a writer. I asked her if she’d be my “100 Words Accountability Partner.” All she had to do was agree to allow me to send her an email every day. In that email were to be 100 or more new words I’d produced for my daily bread. She could read the words or not. She could respond or not. Didn’t matter. I just needed to know that someone knew if I wasn’t keeping my promise. She agreed. I’m glad I chose her because I don’t see her every day. Now working at a different school, she’s distant enough that I don’t see her face so frequently as to feel self conscious that she’s in the habit of reading my words. Or could be, at least. Accountability? Check.


The results have been astounding. Whereas I used to write 5,000-10,000 words per two months of summer break, now I’m writing about 500 words a day 10,000 every three weeks or so. Once I get started, I can’t easily stop at 100 words. (Though it’s nice to know I can.) And so I don’t. I keep writing.


This is a game changer for me. My 100 Words habit never fails to provide me with a sense of success and a daily dose of creative energy. The hard part was conceiving of the idea. What small habit could I handle? How was I to be held accountable? The rest has been simple, structured, rewarding, possibly – dare I say it? – life-changing. I’d call that momentum.


This is a great example of using the Strategy of Accountability, by teaming up with an accountability partner. Accountability helps just about everyone — of course, it’s essential for Obligers. Accountability also requires Monitoring, which is another helpful strategy, and often involved Scheduling.

It’s also a good example of the Strategy of First Steps. Often, just taking that first step, over and over and over, and keeping that step small and manageable, is enough to keep us going.

I’m reminded of National Novel Writing Month, inspired by Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. With this program, you write 1,667 words a day for a month, which means you write a 50,00 word novel (which is about the length of The Great Gatsby.) As I described in The Happiness Project, I did this myself, and really enjoyed the process.

However, if you’re trying to form a habit, beware the lure of the “finish line.” Make sure that you’re really building a writing habit, not just sprinting toward Day 30. Have a plan for day 31! Because while starting is hard, starting over is often harder.

Brett fostered the habit of writing by starting small. This is an approach that works for many, many people: keep it manageable. But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for many people, it’s easier to start big.  I’m a mix of both approaches, myself. Here’s a post on Do you prefer to aim big or aim small? There’s no right way or wrong way, just what works for you. Different solutions for different people.

Have you ever teamed up with an accountability partner? For what habit? Or perhaps you joined an accountability group. These can form around anything; Weight Watchers and AA are two famous examples. For Before and After, I’m creating a “starter kit” for people who want to form their own Before and After accountability groups for habit-change.  (I’m in a writers’ accountability group, and it has really been useful.)

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Questions for You: What Habits Most Affect Your Spiritual Life and Work Life?

Have I mentioned that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh right, I think I have. Before and After will hit the shelves in 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it’s available).

Most of us — well, perhaps not the Rebels — have habits that we’d like to add or drop, and I’d like to ask you readers:

1. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your spiritual life? Maybe you’d like to read holy books for thirty minutes every morning; or meditate; or observe the Sabbath; or give up alcohol; or fast or abstain during Lent, Yom Kippur, or Ramadan; or attend services regularly.

Also, how do other people’s habits affect your spiritual life–for good or for ill? We’re very influenced by other people’s habits; for instance, if one family member begins attending services, others are more likely to go. Has someone’s spiritual habit rubbed off on you?

Do you have any habits that interfere with your spiritual life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the spiritual life you want?

2. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your work life? Maybe you’d like to file expense reports every day, or do a better job tracking billable hours, or talk more to your co-workers, or stay on top of your emails, or stop putting off work until the last minute. Or maybe you’d like to do a better job of maintaining certain general habits while you’re at work. For most people, habits such as exercise or eating healthfully are issues for work life as well as for private life. My sister the sage is much stricter about her eating habits at work than she is at home, because work contains so many more crazy temptations (you wouldn’t believe what was in the office kitchen!), and she spends so much time at work, she figures that if her work-eating habits are very good, her home-eating habits can be looser.

How do other people’s habits affect your work life–for good or for ill?  Has someone’s habit at work rubbed off on you? Someone started going to the weekly programming seminar, so you started going, too. Or a co-worker is constantly behind, so you’re persistently behind in your own work, because you have to help him finish. (Speaking of my sister the sage, one of my favorite words of wisdom from her is “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” But that can be hard to enforce, in practice.)

People’s habits can cause conflict, when they’re incompatible. For instance, Marathoners like to work steadily, well in advance, while Sprinters like to put in a burst of work at the end. Both strategies are effective, but it can be hard when teams include people of different styles. And Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers have very different work habits.

Do you have any habits that interfere with your work life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the work life you want? You stay up late watching TV, so you oversleep and are consistently late for work.You check your emails while you’re spending time with your kids.

I’m very curious to see people’s answers. Feel free to take a very loose view of the definition of a “habit.” I do! Anything that you’re “in the habit of” doing.

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Why Can’t You Exercise Regularly? One Reason: Convenience.

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

This Wednesday:  8 reasons why it can feel inconvenient to exercise.

Right now, I’m editing my next book, Before and After, an examination of the most interesting subject in the world: how we make and break habits. (My editor is reading the draft for the first time right now, in fact, so wish me luck.)

In the book, I identify multiple strategies that we can use to make it easier to foster good habits. One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And its counterpart, the Strategy of Inconvenience.

We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.

We can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits.

One habit that many people want to form? Regular exercise. And when they explain why they find it difficult, they often point to inconvenience.

I’ve found that it’s very helpful to think very hard about exactly why exercise seems inconvenient. Instead of just thinking, “Oh, it’s such a pain, I can never get to the gym,” really think it through. Identify the problem. Often, by identifying the problem, you identify solutions — which may be easier than you expect.

It’s a pain to pack up the gear when I’m leaving the house in the morning

It takes too much time to work out

It’s a pain to drive and park there

It’s a pain to secure my place in a popular class or to wait my turn on equipment

I don’t know how to use the equipment or do the exercises

It takes too much time to get there

I don’t want to sweat and mess up my hair

I always forget something I need

Identify the problem, find the solution. High-intensity work-outs take very little time. Many forms of exercise don’t work up a sweat. A friend told me, “Even though my gym has multiple branches, I found it very inconvenient. I finally realized that sometimes I’d go to the gym from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from my girlfriend’s apartment, so I never had what I needed. I bought multiple sets of everything—deodorant, shoes, a giant bag of cheap socks. I have what I need, so I don’t have an excuse to skip.” (Not an under-buyer, clearly.)

Justifications based on convenience may also be loopholes, so it’s helpful to use the Strategy of Looph0le-Spotting. (How I love loopholes! They’re so funny.) It may also be helpful to consider this list of questions, to understand how to shape your habits better.

Note: for Obligers, the problem may not actually be convenience, but accountability. Obligers do well to figure out ways to build in the external accountability that’s key for them.

If you’re thinking, “Gretchen, your book about habits sounds so fascinating! When can I get my hands on it?” well, sign up here, and I’ll email to let you know when the book goes on sale.

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