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

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Spending Time with Some Difficult People over the Holidays? Consider These Tips.

Back by popular demand…some ideas for dealing with difficult people over the holidays. I’ve posted this before, but every year around this time, there’s a spike in interest about ways to handle tricky situations with relatives, neighbors, and friends. Consider:

1. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like my favorite:  “What’s keeping you busy these days?” (also a good question if you can’t remember details about a person’s life that you really should know). Also…

2. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking, don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge.

3. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

4. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Make the best of the situation. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true.

5. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people. And, in the same vein as #2, if you notice that someone is skipping the mashed potatoes, don’t make it harder for them. (I discuss this issue at length in Before and After.)

6. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If this holiday time is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching TV — these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how other people feel.

7. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out negative emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with difficult people — they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change other people; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave in a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her job. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with difficult people over the holidays? What more would you add?

You may also want to ask yourself…Are you the difficult one?

I discuss this issue at greater length in Happier at Home, chapters on “family” and “neighborhood.”

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Story: Am I Wasting My Youth?

This week’s video story:  Am I wasting my youth?


Of course, as an Upholder, I wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the library to go to Toad’s Place. Plus, as I now acknowledge (though I didn’t then), I’m not very interested in music.

Still, it was a memorable moment. I think that we too rarely ask ourselves these kinds of big questions. In the tumult of everyday life, it can be hard to remember what really matters.

How about you? Have you ever had a moment of doubt or recognition like this?

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

Find the archives of videos here.  Almost 1.8 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe.

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“No Matter How Good One’s Sentiments May Be…”

william-james“No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.”

— William James, Psychology: The Briefer Course

This observation is very important to the study of habits. No matter how sincere our intentions, no matter how strong our motivations…what matters is action.  A major issue in Before and After.

How about you? Have you ever been puzzled by the fact that even though you desperately want to achieve some aim, you somehow can’t make progress?

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Remembering JFK: Law Alone Cannot Make Men See Right.

JFKindunesToday is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

This anniversary means a lot to me, because I’ve always felt a particular interest in John F. Kennedy–and much more so, after I wrote his biography, Forty Ways to Look at JFK. Surprisingly, perhaps, I didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about Kennedy; I was fascinated by him.

More than 40,ooo books have been published about JFK, and I couldn’t resist adding one myself.

I wanted to study his life, and I wanted to find a way to capture its complexity–with all his strengths and weaknesses, his virtues and vices, his particular history, and most of all, I wanted to try to understand the mystery of his enduring appeal. What has made Kennedy such a dazzling, unforgettable figure?

It took me a whole book to express exactly what I wanted to say about John Kennedy.

Here is the quotation from Herman Melville which I weave throughout the book and place on the final page:

Not seldom in this life, when, on the right side, fortune’s favorites sail by us, we, though all adroop before, catch somewhat of the rushing breeze, and joyfully feel our bagging sails fill out.

Here’s my favorite Kennedy speech, the Civil Rights announcement of June 11, 1963. My favorite line, which gives me a thrill every time: “Law alone cannot make men see right.


I also wrote a biography of Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. What a life! Oh, what a joy it was to write these biographies. I never forget how fortunate I’ve been to have the opportunity to study these tremendous figures.

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P.S. If you’re tempted to post a comment to remind me about the weaknesses and mistakes of John Kennedy (or Winston Churchill), you don’t need to bother, because believe me, I know. My biographies show “forty ways” to look at these men, and that critical material is covered at length. In the end, we must judge, we must weigh, we must learn.

A Few Questions for You Questioners and Obligers, About Treats.

questionmarkbuttonI’m deep into Before and After, my book about habit-formation. One of the sixteen strategies that I’ve identified is the Strategy of Treats (which will probably be the favorite strategy of many people). By “treat,” I mean something that you give yourself as a…well, treat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about treats, and of course, I continued to be obsessed by the four Rubin Tendencies. In a nutshell:

The Rubin Tendencies 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 slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

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)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend who said, “In high school, I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running on the weekends now”)


I recently gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Rubin Character Index, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.

Today, my questions are directed at you Questioners and Obligers. There are a lot of you, I know, because Obligers and Questioners are by far the largest categories. (Many things became clear to me when I realized how few people are Upholders.)

Questioners: do you have trouble giving yourself a treat if you feel that it isn’t “necessary” or “justified”? In other words, do you feel like there has to be a sound reason to give yourself a treat?

Do you find it easier to give yourself a treat if it’s justified by sound reasons? “I’m getting a massage because studies show that massage increases immune function.”

Obligers, do you have trouble giving yourself treats if you feel that the time, energy, or money is more properly owed to someone else? Is it easier to spend time or money on someone else, than on yourself?

Do you find it easier to give yourself a treat if it’s framed in terms of its benefit to others?  E.g., “If I spend the morning playing golf, I’ll be more patient and relaxed with my kids and at work.”

Feel free to mull your relationship to treats, generally! You Upholders and Rebels, too. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

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