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

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“It Was Once Suggested to Me that, as an Antidote to Crying, I Put My Head in a Paper Bag.”

didion“It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.”

–Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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.

Secrets of Adulthood: Happiness Doesn’t Always Make You Feel Happy.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

HappinessDoesn'tAlwaysMakeYouFeelHappy_124873

 

One nice thing about not being a scientist? I can say things that a scientist couldn’t get away with.

For instance: happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy. For instance, sometimes, the things you do to feel right make you feel bad — but they still make you feel happy, because you’re living up to your values.

Can you think of times when something made you unhappy — but also happy? This often comes up with novelty and challenge. Doing something new and challenging often brings feelings of anxiety, anger, and frustration. But there’s also a kind of happiness that comes from knowing that you’ve met the challenge.

Some Surprising Observations About How to Fight Clutter.

eggsincartonOne of the things about happiness that continually surprises me is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command.

In the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-box is trivial, and yet such things weigh us down more than they should.

That’s why I follow habits like making my bed and the one-minute rule, and why one of the most important strategies of habit formation is the Strategy of Foundation.

Because I’m so interested in the connections among clutter, order, energy, habits, and happiness, I had to read Marie Kondo’s blockbuster bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

It was interesting for many reasons, but a few things struck me in particular.

For one thing, Kondo pointed out that advice for clearing clutter very often takes the form of “Start off slowly and discard just one item a day.”

This sounds very practical and sensible. However, she comments,

“I am not the kind of person who likes to plug away at something, one step at a time. For people like me, who do their assignments on the very last day right before the deadline, this approach just doesn’t work.”

In Better Than Before, my book about habits, I make a similar point. While taking small, gradual steps works well for many people, it’s also true that some people do better when they take giant steps.  Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a small change. Both strategies can be effective — as always, the key is to know what works for you. Ask yourself, “Do I prefer to aim big or aim small?”

Also, some people (like me, for instance) are Marathoners, and some people are like Kondo — they’re Sprinters, who prefer to do their work right against a deadline. Again, it’s more important to know your style than to argue about what style is “better.”

On a different point, Kondo remarks:

“Many people get the urge to clean up when under pressure, such as just before an exam. But this urge doesn’t occur because they want to clean their room. It occurs because they need to put ‘something else’ in order…The fact that the tidying urge rarely continues once the crisis is over proves my theory…Because the problem faced—that is, the need to study for the exam—has been ‘tidied away.’

“This doesn’t mean that tidying your room will actually calm your troubled mind. While it may help you feel refreshed temporarily, the relief won’t last because you haven’t addressed the true cause of your anxiety. If you let the temporary relief achieved by tidying up your physical space deceive you, you will never recognized the need to clean up your psychological space.”

This reminds me of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. We may feel “productive,” because we’re busy and getting something done, but if we’re not aiming at the target we want to hit, ultimately we’re going to feel dissatisfied.

Nevertheless, it’s very common to want to clean up before settling down to a big project. That’s why it’s so helpful to maintain a reasonable level of order — it means we’re far closer to being able to work.

Have you found this to be true, yourself?

Want Personalized Bookplates for Holiday Gifts? Don’t Delay!

HAHbookplateMany people give Happier at Home and The Happiness Project as holiday gifts. A trend that I very much appreciate.

If you’d like to make your gift more special and personalized, sign up here, and I’ll send you a bookplate that’s personalized for the recipient and signed by me (as shown in the photo). Think how happy you’ll be to cross some gift-giving tasks off your list! U.S. and Canada only — so sorry about that.

I can be a little slow, so to make sure that neither of us has to worry about whether you’ll receive the bookplates in time, request as soon as possible.

If you’re not able to envision what I’m talking about, look here.

If you’re wondering if The Happiness Project would make a good gift, I can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller, and a bestseller for more than two years. That’s right, TWO.

–  order your copy

check out the gallery of foreign covers; so interesting to see what different countries put on the cover

watch the one-minute book video

listen to a sample of the audiobook

If you’re wondering whether Happier at Home would make a good gift, it was also a New York Times bestseller, and you can…

– read a sample chapter on the subject of “time”

– watch the one-minute book trailer, “Ten ways to be happier at home” (guess which suggestion proved controversial?)

– listen to a sample of the audiobook

– request the one-page book club discussion guide

– read the Behind-the-Scenes extra (I had a great time writing this)

Obviously, I’m happy to sign and personalize a bookplate for you–it doesn’t have to be a gift! Request as many as you want — within reason. Although I’m flattered when people request 100, I can’t send that many. Again, I’m very sorry that because of mailing issues, this is limited to U.S. and Canada.

A Surprising Way to Feel Better About Yourself. Have You Tried It?

prab-isherOver the weekend, I read Christopher Isherwood’s memoir, My Guru and His Disciple. It’s an account of Isherwood’s relationship with Swami Prabhavananda, the Hindu monk who was his spiritual mentor and friend for more than thirty years. (The photo shows Swami Prabhavananda on the left, Isherwood on the right, and Aldous Huxley between them.)

I was surprised to learn that Christopher Isherwood — who’s perhaps best known for The Berlin Stories, which was the basis for Cabaret — lived for years in Swami Prabhavananda’s monastery in Los Angeles, and considered becoming a monk himself.

The book is interesting for many reasons, but I was particularly struck by Isherwood’s passing remark, of his cigarette smoking: “I had given up the habit with difficulty in 1941, because I was upset about my parting from Vernon and wanted to raise my morale by asserting my willpower.”

I was fascinated by this brief remark. He wanted to raise his morale by asserting his willpower.

We usually think of an effort like quitting smoking as something that’s demanding, draining, a big drag. And it is, of course.

But it’s also interesting to see that an effort like that is also a morale-booster. And it’s true: whenever we ask something of ourselves, and follow through, we get a big boost in our sense of “self-efficacy,” our sense of control over ourselves.

One thing that has surprised me, in my work life, is that sometimes, when I’m feeling very overloaded, I feel better when I tackle something big and new. There’s an energy and excitement that comes from a new challenge.

Although it’s always tempting to think, “I’m doing too much, I’m so stressed out, I can’t ask this of myself, I need to cut back.” But it may be that asking more of ourselves will actually make us feel more competent, more energized, and less stressed.

Surprising, but true.

Have you ever got a big morale-boost by quitting smoking, quitting sugar, starting an exercise routine, or the like? Or tackling some huge undertaking?