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

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“After Playing Guitar, I’m Filled with a Sense of Contentment…After Solitaire, with Self-Loathing.”

ayres_ian Habits interview: Ian Ayres.

I’ve followed Ian Ayres’s career with interest for a long time. He’s a professor at Yale Law School, where I went, but he’s also from Kansas City and went to the same high school as I did. We Kansas Citians are always on the watch for our fellow K.C. natives. I assume it’s the same for every home town or home state: my parents can list every single famous person from Nebraska. (They both grew up in North Platte.)

He’s also written several books, including Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done  and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart.

And even before I developed my current preoccupation with the subject of habit-formation, Ian Ayres particularly caught my interest with a fascinating site that he founded, with two other people, called stickK.

StickK is a tremendous tool to boost habit-formation, because it provides accountability. The Strategy of Accountability is very powerful, and can be enormously useful for many people,  but it’s absolutely essential for Obligers. StickK allows you to create, very easily, the type of accountability that works for you.

I was very eager to hear what Ian Ayres had to say on the subject of habits.

Gretchen: There are so many apps and online tools that people try for habit-formation: What makes stickK so successful for so many people?

Ian: We give people the opportunity to choose the types of accountability that work for them.  If you want us to nag you, we’ll do that.  If you want us to tell a group of friends of family whether or not you succeeded, we’ll do that.  If you want to designate a referee to adjudicate whether or not you succeeded, you can do that too.  Lots of people just focus on your ability at stickK to put money at risk.  And that is cool.  But it’s the combination of layers of accountability that are particularly powerful.  Indeed, the accountability layer that people tend to under underutilize is the friends and family option.

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

The habit that I acquired (with the help of a stickK contract) of reading at least 20 pages of a novel every day.  Reading 30 books a year gives me great joy.

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

Playing computer games like solitaire or minesweeper.  I have the experience of losing track of time when I play guitar and when I play solitaire.  But when I come back to reality after engaging in these two activities I have two very different reactions.  After playing guitar, I’m filled with a sense contentment and pride.  After playing solitaire, I’m filled with contempt and self–loathing.

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

As an academic, the habit of writing 500 words a day has been particularly important.  Before having kids, I tended to write at night.  But post-kids, I developed the habit of writing in the morning.  Make coffee, and write something before you do anything else.

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

I guess “Rebel” comes closest – although my family would more often use the terms “troublemaker.” Increasingly, I find that my scholarship is causing people to consult with their attorneys. Even going back to high school, I was a bit of a troublemaker and I just help launch a website, AcadiumScholar, that complicates the meaning of merit behind “National Merit Scholarships.”  In some ways, I’ve developed the habit of paying attention to things that I annoy me – whether it be McDonald’s asking if my Happy Meal purchase is for a boy or a girl or retirement plans offer funds that no one should invest in or Microsoft claiming that nearly two out of three people prefer Bing to Google.  I find it therapeutic to write about things that bug me.

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

You bet.  Work and family obligations are the go-to excuses for chiseling on health habits.  In addition, my 55-year-old body has been less reliable than in the past.  I’ve deployed a nagging heel injury that has stopped me from running (but doesn’t stop me from swimming or biking) to reduce my overall level of exercise.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace and try to nourish and stickK to habits that I believe will help me be happier and I actively resist those that I think undermine my better self.  But I also think about the optimal amount of habit flexibility.  I try to write almost every morning, but part of the habit is to turn off and refresh by doing something else two or three times every fortnight. [My Secret of Adulthood on this theme: "To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop." But then of course, sometimes it's better not to allow myself to stop, not to "break the chain." I find that for me, both approaches are true.]

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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.

Lost Your Keys Again? 8 Tips for Finding Misplaced Objects.

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

This Wednesday: 8 tips for finding misplaced objects.

Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible,” and I’m often struck by how much happiness I get from making improvements in small, seemingly trivial aspects of my life.

And one of those aspects? Keeping track of my stuff. Not being able to find something is a minor challenge to happiness, of course — but it’s one of those minor things that can make me crazy.

Today, Sumathi Reddy wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that had a great series of tips about how to find a lost object.

Apparently — and this is no surprise — the most commonly misplaced possessions are: cellphone, keys, sunglasses, purse, umbrella, bank card, tablet, documents (that’s a little broad), and wallet. The average person loses up to nine objects every day.

The article included these tips from Michael Solomon’s How to Find Lost Objects:

Don’t look for it yet — wait until you have some idea where it might be

Look where it’s supposed to be — I’ve found this tip strangely useful. It’s surprising how often I overlook something, or don’t look quite carefully enough, to see that an object is pretty much where it’s supposed to be

Repeat the name of the object as you search for it

Check to see if it’s somehow hidden in its proper place

Look carefully and systematically — don’t just rummage around (which is very tempting)

Note: objects are usually found within eighteen inches of their original location. This sounds impossible, but I’ve found this to be uncannily accurate.

Be philosophical. Most things eventually turn up. True. But, I feel compelled to note, they don’t always turn up in time!

I would add a tip of my own:

Clean up — this is very effective. Plus, even though I’m annoyed by having to look for something, having a tidier environment cheers me up.

Also, here are two of my tips for never losing something in the first place — beyond the familiar “put things away in the same place.”

As much as possible, put things away in an exact, rather than an approximate, place. Counter-intuitively, it’s easier and also more fun and satisfying to put something away in an exact place, like “the basket on the third shelf of the coat closet” rather than “in the closet.”

If you see something that’s obviously out of place, don’t absent-mindedly think, “Hmm, I wonder why someone put a cell phone in the bathroom cabinet?” but move it — either to where it belongs, or at least to a place where it’s very conspicuous. So many times I’ve raged to myself, “I saw that thing in some unexpected place, and I sort of noticed how weird it was to find it there…but where was it?”

Do you have any tricks for finding lost objects?

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

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

PayCarefulAttentionToAnythingYouHide_124829

 

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.”

louis-auchincloss“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.”

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 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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