New Year’s Resolution: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

I’m doing a happiness project, and you could have one, too. Join in! Start your own! January 1 is a great time to try something new, to turn over a new leaf. Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I certainly always do.

In starting your happiness project, you might begin by writing your personal Commandments. I’ve posted about this before, but because this exercise was one of the most challenging — and most helpful and fun – tasks that I did in preparation for my happiness project, I’m posting about it again. It’s really worth doing.

Here are my Twelve Commandments:
1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So how do you come up with your own list?

First: Listen to what’s buzzing in your brain.
When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people. My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.” A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.” A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person. “No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese (“When one loves, one does not calculate”), and “Act the way I want to feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

Second: Follow the metaphor.
When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life – how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

So you might find that your commandments would be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

Third: Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive.
I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

Fourth: Think about what’s true for YOU.
Each person’s list will differ. One person resolves to “Say yes,” another person resolves to “Say no.” You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Whenever I write about commandments, people post their own lists in response, and it’s always fascinating and inspiring to see what they’ve chosen. Here are some commandments that other people have adopted. Some might work for you, or spur your own thoughts.

Forget the past.
Do stuff.
Talk to strangers.
Stay in touch.
Make haste to be kind.
Don’t wait.
Action, not reaction.
Always with love.
Baby steps.
Recognize my patterns.
Be present.
Don’t rehearse unhappiness. [This is one that I really need to think about!]
Live your values.
The more the merrier.
Love is all around.
Notice the color purple.
Friends are more important than sex.
Choose not to take things personally.
Be loving and love will find you.
Encourage others.
Enjoy simplicity.
Rejoice in beauty.
Deeds not words.
Slow down.
Please yourself.
Nothing lasts.
Music helps.
Only a bore is bored.
Do something different.
Consider the source.
Be the fun.
Cut your losses.

If you come up with your own set, please consider posting them. It’s very valuable for me and other readers — seeing other people’s commandments helps clarify what our own commandments need to be.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I just wrote my 12 Personal Commandments and wanna share them with you and your readers. Thanks for the inspiration.
    1. God is first
    2. Be Winifred
    3. Give thanks
    4. Love in deed
    5. Trust and Surrender
    6. Small things often
    7. Be like a child
    8. Live life to the full
    9. Expect discomfort
    10. Be mindful
    11. Respect the season.
    12. Pick the right battle

  • Jane

    Jane’s 10 Commandments
    1. Don’t rehearse unhappiness
    2. Live your values
    3. Be present
    4. Turn off the TV
    5. Say YES more often
    6. Move every day
    7. Eat to nourish your body
    8. Say it kindly
    9. Discomfort proceeds change
    10. Stop thinking about it and do it
    ……….and if all else fails….tomorrow is another day to get it right

  • Lois

    How about chameleon vs leopard?

  • Kelly

    1. Be You
    2. Be Present
    3. Say Yes!
    4. Breathe….

  • Sara

    1. Be grateful
    2. Love completely
    3. Ask 
    4. Listen 
    5. Ponder
    6. Try
    7. Appreciate
    8. Remember that love is an action word
    9. Straighten the house
    10. See the good
    11. Learn the lesson
    12. Live the moment

  • Anchalee


    1. Don’t ask for fairness but give is out form you
    2. Only this monemt
    3. let’s it be
    4. Accept
    5. Work hard and help people

  • Judy

    My Commandments

    1. Be this moment.
    2. Less is best.
    3. Do the right thing.
    4. Do it anyway.
    5. Give love.
    6. Talk less, say more.
    7. Listen, listen……… listen.
    8. Keep it simple.
    9. Forgive everyone for everything.
    10. Consider all the choices.
    11. Accomplish something.
    12. Yield.
    13. Remain hopeful.
    14. Get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy.
    15. Don’t try harder, try something different.
    16. Remember that only you are responsible for your happiness.

  • Katie

    I just read The Happiness Project and found it very inspiring. I’ve been dealing with anxiety and I am trying to come up with ways to get past that. As I read your book I found myself coming up with my own commandments. Here is my final list.

    1. Be Katie2. Think Positively 3. Remain in the Present4. Give love to receive rove5. Smile6. Listen 7. Stay in touch8. Be kind9. See the good10. Breathe to remain calm11. It’s going to be OK12. No excuses

  • Kimbalie

    I did it…

    Kimbalie’s Twelve Commandments ~ 9/2012

    The best time to laugh is
    any time you can. *Love them always in all
    waysEverything passesBe The JourneyLive intenselyFind the Spirit everywhereRandom acts of kindnessAlways be me cause God don’t
    make junkMy turnI don’t know their
    moccasinsKeep Faith and Hope“but the greatest of these
    is Love.” ~The Bible

    Quote from T.O. Brown, my dad.

  • rfljenksy

    1. Be Samantha.
    2. Live in the moment.
    3. Listen more.
    4. Do it now.
    5. Smooth out what’s too rough.
    6. Keep what works.
    7. Act out.
    8. Play fair.
    9. Slow down
    10. Accept
    11. Rough up what is too smooth.
    12. Be an example.
    13. Breathe in
    14. Exhale

  • SHE

    1. Live your truth with integrity
    2. Trust yourself, the answers are within you
    3. Be grateful for life lessons – even the tough ones – they grow you!
    4. Surround yourself with positive people
    5. Be present
    6. Forgive yourself | Forgive others
    7. Perfection is an illusion – be kind to yourself
    8. Live within your means
    9. Appreciate what you have
    10. Be in service … someone out there needs you.
    11. Breathe deeply and be mindful of your breathing throughout the day.
    12. Do not keep anything in your home that is not useful or beautiful.
    13. Create order in your home; it will sooth and restore.
    14. Keep your heart open.
    15. Live with faith not fear.
    16. Use your G-d given gifts…the world is waiting…
    17. Never stop learning…
    18. Gratitude

  • Kathy Morgan

    I wanted to write a million commandments but I finally was able to list 21 amazing one’s.

    1. Mission I’m Possible

    2. Lead by example

    3. Notice the colors

    4. Talk to strangers

    5. Pay it forward

    6. Smile more, laugh always

    7. Reach out

    8. Say No first

    9. Play more often

    10. Be grateful

    11. Hate is a strong word so don’t use it…always love

    12. Be simply amazing

    13. Don’t wait till tomorrow

    14. Fold my hands instead of cross my fingers

    15. Keep my heart open but hide the key for the right one

    16. Forgive myself and others

    17. Let it be

    18. Leave a new trail

    19. Achieve

    20. Believe

    21. Be YOU

    • gretchenrubin

      Love these. I’ve been trying to do #3 myself…such a pleasure in colors!

      • Kathy Morgan

        Thanks! I use to love art and everything color that comes with it! This will allow me to venture back to the colorful side of my life instead of the black and white!!! I started an online book club for this book!!! We are going to complete it over 2013.. EACH month is a new chapter! Do you have any kind of groups like this? I would like to join to see how they are managed! Thanks 🙂

  • Melinda

    1. Be kind to yourself
    2. Live for the moment
    3. Count your blessings
    4. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition
    5. The only way to finish is to start
    6. Forgive to change the future, not the past
    7. Commitment, either you do or you don’t, there is no in-between
    8. Live a life you would like to read about
    9. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation
    10. Talk with quiet confidence
    11. See every day as a new chapter
    12. Pray and let God worry
    13. Wear your passion
    14. Eat every last bite
    15. Dance more
    16. Live with intent and not habit
    17. Use the whole box of crayons
    18. Focus on fitness
    19. Before you speak, THINK (T-Is it true, H-is it helpful, I-is it inspiring, N-is it necessary, K-is it kind?)
    20. Sit on the corner of Awesome and Bombdiggity

    • gretchenrubin

      Love these.

      • Melinda

        I appreciate the feedback Gretchen. I can’t wait to work my way through your book and focus on these things. Happy 2013!

  • Ann

    1. Smile more
    2. Worry less
    3. Believe
    4. Trust

    5. See the beauty
    6. Live in the moment
    7. Be free
    8. Be yourslef
    9. Eat well

  • nonameneeded

    All of these listed will be broken if you do not have discipline. Otherwise, not too shabby. Perhaps you could follow the original. No one can enter except through him. Just saying. Any other method is likened to a thief and will not be rewarded. I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Good life lesson; try to literally be a shepherd in the holy land. You learn loads and loads of inner knowledge. Always a choice though. No pressure 😉

  • Kay

    1. Don’t live in denial.
    2. Learn from it, then put it in a box & throw it away.
    3. Act the way I want to feel.
    4. Always have a ticket in my pocket.
    5. Lighten up.
    6. Put on my dancin’ shoes.
    7. Toughen up & be strong for my kids.
    7. Accept things I can’t change.
    8. Surround myself with positive, caring people.
    9. Create.
    10. Do something worthy.
    11. Reach out to hurting people.
    12. Don’t personalize things.
    13. Live in faith, not fear.