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

Want to get the "Moment of Happiness"? A daily happiness quotation in your inbox. Sign up here close daily quote

Putting Off Some Horrible Task? Try These 7 Tips.

ProcrastinationEvery Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for forcing yourself to tackle a dreaded task.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. Often, I know I’d be happier if I do something I really don’t feel like doing. Making that phone call. Dealing with tech support. Writing that email. Going to the gym.

Those dreaded tasks hang over my head, though; they make me feel drained and uneasy. I’ve learned that I’m much happier, in the long run, if I try to tackle them as soon as possible, rather than allowing myself to push them off.

Here are some habits I use:

1. Do it first thing in the morning. If you’re dreading doing something, you’re going to be able to think of more creative excuses as the day goes along. One of my Twelve Commandments is “Do it now.” No delay is the best way.

2. If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, do it every day. When I was planning my blog, I envisioned posting two or three times a week. Then a blogging friend convinced me that no, I should post every day. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’ve found that it’s easier to do it every day (well, except Sundays) than fewer times each week. There’s no dithering, there’s no juggling. I know I have to post, so I do. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

3. Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people. Having a friend along can be a distraction, a source of reassurance, or moral support.

4. Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. Clean off your desk, get the phone number, find the file. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared. There’s a wonderful term that chefs use: mis-en-place, French for “everything in its place.” It describes the preparation done before starting to cook: gathering ingredients and implements, chopping, measuring, etc. Mis-en-place is preparation, but it’s also a state of mind; mis-en-place means you have everything at the ready, with no need to run out to the store or begin a frantic search for a sifter. You’re truly ready to begin to work.

5. Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. This really works, so force yourself to do it. Usually this advice relates to long-term goals, but it works with short-term goals, too. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By October 31, I will have _____.” This also gives you the thrill of crossing a task off your list. (See below.)

6. Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

7. Observe Power Hour. I get enormous satisfaction from my new habit of Power Hour.  I came up with Power Hour because, as I was working on Better Than Before, my book about habit-formation, I wanted to create a habit of tackling dreaded tasks.  But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks? I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I steadily work on these chores. An hour doesn’t sound like much time, but it’s manageable, and it’s amazing how much I can get done.

In Better Than Before, I identify the “Essential “Seven,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall. Number 5 is “stop procrastinating, make consist progress.” Often, it’s dreaded tasks that block us. (If you want to know when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

How about you? What strategies do you use to help yourself tackle a dreaded task?

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.

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of the Clean Slate.

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 forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of the Clean Slate.

It’s one of three strategies that take their power from beginnings, and it’s particularly related to the Strategy of First Steps.

 

The slate may be wiped clean by a change in personal relationships: marriage, divorce, a new baby, a new puppy, a break-up, a new friend, a death. Or the slate may be wiped clean by a change in surroundings: a new apartment, a new city, even rearranged furniture. Or some major aspect of life may change: a new job, a new school, a new doctor.

Even minor changes can amount to a clean slate — a change as seemingly insignificant as taking a different route to work, or watching TV in a different room.

The Clean Slate is so powerful that it’s a shame not to exploit it. For example, in one study of people trying to make a change — such as change in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, health behaviors such as dieting, or change in perspective — 36% of successful changes were associated with a move to a new location.

So take advantage whenever the slate is wiped clean, as a moment to change a habit.

Have you experienced this? Did you find that you changed a big habit after a major change, such as getting married, or getting divorced, or moving, or starting a new job? Or after a small change?

A New Experience: I Was in the Napa Valley Earthquake.

napaearthquakeI had a profound experience yesterday. My husband and I, and much of my family, were in Napa Valley for my cousin’s wedding. At 3:20 a.m., I was lying in bed awake, because the time change meant that my body considered it past my usual wake-up time of 6:00.

As I was lying there, I felt the earthquake hit. My husband woke up right away, and we lay there clutching each other. Neither one of us said a word.

By chance, I’d just had a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law about earthquakes — they live in Los Angeles so have experienced them before. My sister had told me that bed was a fairly safe place to be, and my brother-in-law had commented that the modern codes had done a lot to help buildings withstand earthquakes, and that information was reassuringly in the back of my mind as this was happening.

I could hear things falling over, glass breaking, furniture shaking, the bed moving. I sensed the moment when the power went off. (Later, when I asked my husband later how long he thought it had lasted, he said, “About two minutes”; in fact, it had lasted twenty seconds.)

The experience was so overwhelming and unfamiliar that I couldn’t think about anything except what was happening right in that room. I wasn’t even scared.

Later, when I was trying to put my finger on how I was feeling at that moment, I thought of a passage that has long haunted me, from Thomas Pynchon’s mysterious novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.

When something real is about to happen to you, you go toward it with a transparent surface parallel to your own front that hums and bisects both your ears, making eyes very alert. The light bends toward chalky blue. Your skin aches. At last: something real.

This quotation captures what I felt…it was so real, the direct experience of the tremendous powers of the earth. It was breathtaking. It was intensely real.

A few moments after the quaking stopped, I started to worry about my family (they’re all fine) and about the damage to the region, of course, but while it was happening — all I can say is that it felt so real.

Guess: Which Virtue Gives Other Virtues Their “Principal Lustre”?

AdamSmith“Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.”

–Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Agree, disagree?

I was trying to figure out what Smith means, exactly, and I think it’s this: when we consider the possessions of virtues, without self-command, they shrink. Courage without self-command, consideration without self-command — it’s hard even to imagine justice without self-command.

Before & After: “The Thought of Smoking Made Me Sick.”

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, 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 Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Stephanie Whitfield.

I had been a pack-a-day smoker for 5 years, starting on my 18th birthday. I knew it was unhealthy and I hated it: the smell, the taste, the need for something. I researched advice for quitting, and I attempted twice. The first time with nicotine gum I quickly gave up. The second try I thought I’d taper down until I completely stopped. Another failure. I had accepted it wasn’t “the right time” for me and I’d try again in the future.

A few years ago while I was watching Sandra Bullock deservingly accept her Oscar for her performance in The Blind Side I started feeling ill. The details will be spared, but I had the norovirus.

The next few days were a haze. It was the worst I had ever felt in my life. When I was awake I cried until I could sleep again. Eventually my body was dehydrated, and there were no more tears, or energy or anything. I felt like less than a zombie. Several days in, I forced myself to have a sports drink, and later that day I tried crackers. I was slowly nibbling on a saltine when I looked at my ashtray and realized I hadn’t had a cigarette in three days. Out of habit, I reached for one but then stopped. The thought of smoking made me feel sick. I knew if I did smoke I would somehow feel worse than I already did. It was a light-bulb moment. I had just gone through the most pain and sickness I ever had in my life, and my “crutch” was going to make me feel worse. I threw out cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays. It initially was hard to get used to my day without cigarettes, but it got easier and easier.

Today I can’t believe I ever smoked. Quitting led me to make so many more healthy changes with my diet and lifestyle. Breaking the smoking habit/addiction was the best thing I have ever done, and I’m so proud of myself.

My mother had a similar experience. She’s always had a very strong sweet tooth, and a few years ago, she caught a terrible stomach flu, and when she at last recovered, she found that she’d lost her craving for sweets to a great degree.

Who knew that catching the flu  could offer these benefits?

These examples illustrate the Strategy of the Clean Slate. With this strategy, something happens to wipe the slate clean, and you have the opportunity to re-set your habits.

With both smoking and sweets, it would have been easy to slip back into former habits, but fortunately, both Stephanie and my mother realized that the clean slate offered an opportunity. (Note: moving is often a very effective clean slate.)

This fresh start is a crucial time, because it offers tremendous opportunity for forming new habits — but it can also pose great risk to existing habits that we want to maintain. It’s important to stay alert for signs of a clean slate, because too often, we fail to use the opportunity of a clean slate to form a desirable habit, or we fail to recognize that a clean slate is triggering a habit that we don’t want to form.

The positive effect of the clean slate can wear off, if we just re-write the same marks that were there before.

One popular and sneaky example of the Questionable Assumption Loophole is the belief that a habit has changed so deeply that we can break the habit without any bad effect: ” I don’t like smoking anymore, so it’s okay for me to have one cigarette.”  Very questionable.

It’s great to take advantage of the Strategy of the Clean Slate, and to make the most of the running start it can provide for changing a habit.

How about you? Have you ever experienced a habit change after a clean slate? As I mentioned, moving is one of the most common times when this happens.