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

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Do You Fall for Any of These 5 Common Mistakes about Habits?

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

Today: some common misconceptions about habits.

Just about all of us are interested in habits — whether because we want to change a habit of our own, or because we’d like to help someone else change a habit.

But to change habits, it’s important to understand how habits work. In my experience, people make certain mistakes about the nature of habits, and that makes it harder for them to tackle their habits.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions:

1. Repetition isn’t enough to build a habit. People assume that if they repeat a behavior consistently, it will become a habit. Maybe. But maybe not. I’ve heard from many people who trained for a marathon, with the thought that this would make them a regular exerciser, but then after the marathon, they never ran again. Or they do National Novel Writing Month, and think they’ve acquired the habit of daily writing, but stop when the month is over. In both these cases, the danger of the finish line explains why a habit wasn’t formed. Beware the finish line!

2. Consequences often don’t matter. People make the mistake of thinking that if consequences are dire enough, they’ll change a habit. Nope. Consequences, without the proper approach to changing a habit, often fail to move people to change. For instance, one-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness — for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.

3. Some people do better giving up something altogether; others do better when they act with moderation. For most things (though not drinking or smoking), moderation is held up as an ideal, and I often hear people say, “Indulge with moderation, because if you’re too rigid with yourself, you won’t find it possible to keep your habit. Live a little, take a break, don’t be too hard on yourself.” This approach works well for Moderators. But I’m a hardcore Abstainer, and for me, abstaining altogether from something that’s a bad habit is easier. I know it sounds rigid and harsh, but for me it’s easier. As my sister the sage told me, when she gave up her beloved French fries forever, “I tell myself, ‘Now I’m free from French fries.'” A friend had to stop playing the word-game app Ruzzle entirely, because she couldn’t play just a little; another friend had to get rid of his TV. Moderation works for Moderators, abstaining works for Abstainers. Neither approach is right or wrong.

4. Habits can change overnight. People assume that habits can only be changed gradually, with repetition over time. That’s certainly one way habits change. But they can also change in a flash. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt is a mysterious and elusive phenomenon, but it definitely happens; in fact, it’s much more common than I first believed. An idea or realization hits us like a lightning bolt, and we change our habits instantly. It’s frustrating, though, because while this strategy makes change easy, it’s something that happens to us — we can’t really invoke it. The effect can wear off, too, so if you experience a positive Lightning Bolt change, it’s important to recognize what’s happened, and take steps to keep that habit strong, so you don’t lose the benefit of its initial effortlessness.

5. The same strategies don’t work for everyone. The sad fact is, there’s no magical, one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. When it comes to habits, people are very different. So it’s not really useful to copy what Einstein did, or what worked for your brother. We can get ideas from each other, and we definitely pass habits back and forth (that’s the Strategy of Other People), but we have to figure out what works for us. The Strategy of Accountability is crucial for an Obliger; it’s counter-productive for a Rebel, who makes more progress with the Strategy of Identity. A Lark does better scheduling an important habit for the morning, but that might not be true for an Owl. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Agree, disagree? What other mistakes have I overlooked? Habits! The most fascinating subject ever.

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Secret of Adulthood: Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



Or as W. H. Auden put it, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

Or as Flannery O’Connor observed, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

There are many paradoxes of happiness, and this is one of the most important.

In Happier at Home, I write about how I struggled with this question as I faced my fear of driving. Should I accept a fear of driving as a natural limit of my nature, or should I expect myself to conquer that fear? Very reluctantly, I decided to make myself start driving again.

Is there an area where you struggle to decide whether to “accept yourself” or to “expect more from myself”?

The Penalty for a Bad Habit? The Bad Habit.

scales-of-justiceAssay: One of the things that strikes me most, in my study of habits, is the poetic justice of habits.

As you may (or may not) remember from your high school English class, “poetic justice” is when a punishment fits the crime. In Dante’s vision of the Ninth Circle of Hell, a fiend punishes the sowers of discord and schism by continually splitting apart their bodies. Or a criminal sets an illegal trap, but then gets caught in the trap himself.

There’s a real poetic justice about habits. The reward for a good habit…is the good habit. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in “New England Reformers,” “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

Even more striking is the poetic justice of bad habits. As a friend said to me, “I feel too anxious to tackle my bad habits, but my bad habits are what make me anxious.” One survey found that some women who worry about their finances use “retail therapy” to feel better—they shop in order to cope with their anxiety. Gamblers who worry about money distract themselves by gambling. When procrastinators fall behind, working on the task makes them so anxious that they have to stop working in order to feel better; as someone wrote on my blog, “I feel anxious because I’m not getting anything done, so I get a massage to feel better. But I don’t get anything done, because I’m busy with things like getting a massage.”

In his memoir about his weight loss, Never Goin’ Back, Al Roker describes the morning he promised his dying father that he’d lose weight. Later that day, he recalls, “I was so upset about my promise to lose weight, in fact, that I had two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for lunch.”

Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true.

Guilt and shame about a bad habit can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better—by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place. Which is where the poetic justice kicks in.

By contrast, people who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control — and therefore, they’re able to resist indulging in the bad habits that make them feel bad.

Instead of viewing our stumbles as evidence that we’re weak or undisciplined or lazy, we can see our stumbles as part of the habit-formation process. Telling ourselves things like, “It happens,” “We’ve all done it,” “I’ll act differently next time,” or “What I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while” helps us learn from a misstep, and do better next time.  That kind of self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.

Do you ever find yourself feeling worse because of a habit that’s meant to help you feel better? (Along the same lines, here are six mood boosters that often do more harm than good.)

“A Man Gets an Immense Amount of Satisfaction from the Knowledge of Having Done Good Work.”

Eugene_delacroixYou increase your self-respect when you feel you’ve done everything you ought to have done, and if there is nothing else to enjoy, there remains that chief of pleasures, the feeling of being pleased with oneself. A man gets an immense amount of satisfaction from the knowledge of having done good work and of having made the best use of his day, and when I am in this state I find that I thoroughly enjoy my rest and even the mildest forms of recreation.

Diary of Eugene Delacroix

Delacroix was an artist, and he was also a brilliant writer, and I highly recommend reading his Diary. It’s fascinating — particularly if you’re interested in subjects like art, creativity, and productivity.

Do You Have Any Favorite Quotes? I Sure Do.

quotationmarksartI have a real memory from passages from books that I’ve read. This is one of my favorite things about myself, because as I go about my day, I hear little echoes from my reading. Often, too, I’ll be haunted by a line or a paragraph for years, but not really understand its significance, until suddenly I grasp it.

One of the things that makes me happiest about this blog, my books, and my “Moment of Happiness” daily quotation newsletter is that they give me the chance to share all my beloved quotations.

For instance, in the conclusion of Happier at Home, I recount how I was suddenly hit by the words,  “Now is now” from the beautiful  final page of Little House in the  Big Woods. Oh, how I love that passage –read the whole thing here. (I think the conclusion to Happier at Home, which is an homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, is one of the best things I’ve ever written.)

In writing Better Than Before, I was able to make use of one of my favorite passages, which I’ve remembered ever since I read it in college, from Sigmund Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” Freud explains that the names of the three goddesses of fate mean “the accidental within the decrees of destiny,” “the inevitable,” and “the fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world.” The fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world! I love that. (For you Game of Thrones fans, books or TV show, I was just thinking about this, about Bran’s love of climbing. A fateful tendency.)

Another line that I can’t get out of my head, because of its tremendous significance for habits and for its stark, almost ominous words, is something novelist John Gardner said in an interview: “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” It suddenly occurs to me that probably this is particularly evident to Upholders and Rebels, which may explain why I, as an Upholder, am haunted by it.

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about a passage from one of my favorite books of all time, Story of a Soul, the memoir of my spiritual master, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Its context: one day in 1897, when she in her early twenties, and weakened by the tuberculosis that would soon kill her, Thérèse was sitting in her wheelchair in the garden of her convent. Ordered by her Prioress to complete an account of her childhood memories, she was trying unsuccessfully to write:

When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits of the doctor, everything is discussed…another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems…I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. For example, here is a hay worker who is just leaving me after having said very compassionately: “Poor little Sister, it must tire you out writing like that all day long.” “Don’t worry,” I answer, “I appear to be writing very much, but really I am writing almost nothing.” “Very good!” she says, “but just the same, I am very happy we are doing the haying since this always distracts you a little.” In fact, it is such a great distraction for me…that I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing.

St. Thérèse emphasizes the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, instead of responding to the gift itself. She doesn’t want to be distracted with chit-chat; she wants to write. She doesn’t want a bouquet in her lap; she wants to see wild flowers growing in the fields. But she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this today. This isn’t the gift-giving season. But it makes me happy to think about it. Maybe it’s time to reread Story of a Soul, yet again.

How about you? Do you have any quotations that have lodged in your head — or that struck you with particular meaning, when you read them? I like the trend of people including quotations in the signature of their emails; I’m always interested to read what’s chosen.