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

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Revealed! Book Club Choices for September.

Stitched PanoramaBecause nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links.

I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get the free monthly newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Nudge; The Westing Game; and Traffic. All so good.

I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

“From the Gods Who Sit in Grandeur/Grace Comes Somehow Violent.”

aeschylusZeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our pleasure we are temperate.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace comes somehow violent.

– Aeschylus, “Agamemnon,” translated by Richard Lattimore

I’ve remembered the last two lines of this passage ever since I read them decades ago. I’ve also tried unsuccessfully to find another quotation from a Greek play that I read around the same time…lines saying something like “there are some sorts of wisdom that cannot with piety be prayed for.” Anyone recognize it?

“Instead of Feeling That I’m Never Going to Finish…I Can See Large Chunks Getting Done.”

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 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 Nyssa Hattaway.

I am a devout member of my church.  All of my life I have been taught to develop the habits of church attendance, tithing, daily prayer and daily Scripture study.  I have easily been able to practice all of them except the Scripture study.  I am an avid reader, but for some reason I just hadn’t found my groove on this one. 

My cohorts had given lots of advice informally and from the pulpit.  Read a chapter a day.  Just read a verse a day.  Study by topic not chronologically.  Set a time for 10 minutes and read what you can in that time, and so forth.  You can imagine in my 20+ years of adulthood how many unsuccessful starts and stops I have had, and you can probably guess the guilt that accompanies it.

Somewhere along the way, someone gave me booklet with a 40 day reading plan.  Assignments are made daily and by the end of the 40 days, the entire volume of Scripture is complete.  I decided to try it.  Instead of just giving a little, this program requires 5-6 chapters daily, somewhere between 45-60 minutes of reading.  Instead of feeling that I’m never going to finish and that I’m slowing plowing through the book, I can see large chunks of it getting done.  I am already half way through the volume!  I never thought that by committing to MORE I would have more success, but it demands planning, time and commitment, and that is where I was falling short in previous attempts.  I think this strategy could be applied to many habits and wondered if you have encountered it?  I will continue to study the Scriptures in this way even after the 40 days as I finally have a habit that works for me.

This example illustrates one of the most important things I’ve learned about habits — actually, the most important thing I’ve learned. The secret to good habits is to know what works for you.

Using the Strategy of Distinctions allows us to figure out how we’re different from other people, how we might tackle habits in a way that suits our particular idiosyncrasies. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: we’re more like other people, and less like other people, than we suppose.

One distinction is: Do you prefer to aim big or aim small?

Some people have better success changing a habit when they start small. A series of small but real accomplishments gives them the energy and confidence to continue. For instance, a person who wants to write a novel might resolve to write one sentence each day. Or a person who wants to start running might resolve to run for one minute.

This approach is often emphasized as the best way to form a habit. But in fact, as the example above illustrates, some people do better when they’re more ambitious.

Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a minor change. When a habit is changing very gradually, we may lose interest, give way under stress, or dismiss the change as insignificant. A big transformation creates excitement and energy and a sense of progress, and that helps to create a habit.

As Steve Jobs reflected, “I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why.

How about you? Do you do better with small changes or big changes?

 

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?

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?