“There Is Something Wonderful About Holding Something Physical and Feeling…an Object Reach Completion.”

Happiness interview: Piers Steel.

I was fascinated by Piers Steel’s book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Procrastination is something almost all of us battle — to one degree or another — and the book is full of surprising information about who procrastinates most, and why, and how to prevent it.

For example, procrastination isn’t tied to perfectionism or laziness, as many people believe, but rather to impulsivity. Impulsive people have trouble getting themselves to do things they don’t want to do.

Because procrastination is one of the enemies of the happy life, I wanted to hear what Piers had to say about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Piers: Fixing or building things. I’m the type of guy who likes assembling IKEA furniture. Perhaps it acts as a counterpoint to the writing I do, but there is something wonderful about holding something physical in your hands and feeling the steady progress as an object reaches completion. Even better, when my five year old son’s Christmas gift, a train he adored, broke within a few weeks, he held back a tear as he placed his toy confidently in my hands. I’ve fixed so many over-loved toys in the past. A little disassembly, a bolt to keep the piston in place, and “good as new,” as he likes say when he gets it back.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Patience. I was once young and impulsive, wanting everything upfront. Unwilling to wait or work for larger but later rewards, I contented myself with what was immediately available, typically video gaming. Without long-term aspirations, I sought short-term pleasures almost exclusively. Later, I realized I was mostly distracting myself from a lack of meaningful ventures in my life, things that you care about and are willing to work hard for. Today, with a career I love and a family I love even more, my life is more than full. Nowadays, there is a willingness to work hard to create something of meaning.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Taking on too much responsibility. I found ambition later in life, perhaps when I finally acquired the motivational skills and the self-confidence to pursue truly difficult goals. My challenges have moved into the realm of work-life balance. Some days I still crave to do nothing of value, allow each hour to be enjoyably frittered away. I dream of snoozing away an entire Sunday, with a Mimosa setting the tone for the rest of the day’s events whenever my morning begins. My kids don’t leave much room for downtime so my life is almost the mirror image of my youth. It’s tricky finding life’s sweet spot between living for the moment and preparing for tomorrow.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“This too shall pass.” It is useful to remind yourself that almost all of life’s trials are temporary. But beware! That saying comes with a curse. It can make you happy when you are sad, but it can make you at least self-reflectively melancholy when you are happy.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
My strategy isn’t to pursue happiness as directly as others often do. It doesn’t work, at least for me, quite as well as I would wish. I’m more of an Aldous Huxley adherent, “Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.” So I seek accomplishment and meaning and through these activities I find satisfaction with my life. In a pinch, however, a really vigorous exercise routine dependably burns away gloom; sore muscles reacquaint you with your body and get you out of your head. [Note: to my mind, directly pursuing happiness would likely involve accomplishment, meaning, satisfaction, and exercise!]

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I see people reliving past wrongs for the rest of their lives. Sometimes a bad memory is a key to a happy life and grudges can do more damage to those who hold onto them than those who instilled them. If you had an unhappy childhood, one helpful way to get over it is by getting a little perspective. There are scores of wonderful autobiographies by people who truly have reason to gripe and yet strangely do very little of it, like The Glass Castle, A Long Way Gone, or Falling Leaves. Reading a few might be enough to assist you with moving on and stop letting the past define your future.

Is there anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention?
Sharing inspirational stories is underrated in importance. Adolescents and adults from every kind background immensely benefit from hearing about others, like themselves, who went through the same tribulations and came out the other side. There is a section on it in my book, The Procrastination Equation, where I review how we take strength from learning about others like ourselves. Here’s one excerpt:

Consider the effect one such story had on entrepreneur Kaaydah Schatten. Despite being raised in profound poverty by alcoholic parents, today she is a multi-millionaire and international franchise owner, a transformation she partly attributes to early inspiration. At a young age, Schatten read the life story of Catherine the Great and, seeing a common thread with her own heritage—Kaaydah is of a royal line, being the hereditary chieftain of the Quakiutl tribe—she adopted Catherine as a role model.

The trick is in finding the right story as the best ones speak specifically to you. What resonates? Perhaps you need to read about someone from the same profession and in the same stage of career? How about the same upbringing? Do they need to have the same cultural background? We need to organize inspirational biographies and autobiographies so we can match people to an appropriate role model. There are others, much like yourself, who have encountered the same adversity but made it through and chronicled exactly how. The trail is blazed; we just need to know where.
To this end, I would like to hear about what books or life stories you found inspirational in this way and why. How did it connect to what you went through and who else do you think would gain the same benefit? Pass on a little inspiration.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and each weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email in-box. Sign up here or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com (don’t forget the “1”). Almost 25,000 people have signed up in just a few months.

  • Good point about the downside of “This too shall pass.” Same risk with my mantra: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. It can lead to doing everything halfway if you aren’t careful…

  • MaGeezy

    Inspirational stories that resonate well with you can be a powerful tool indeed. It brings feelings of hope which can make you feel good. I think they key here is also to constantly remind yourself just so the momentum keeps going. =)

  • Cantabile

    I really enjoy reading your book and reading about other people’s happiness projects through this blog and facebook. However, there’re a lot of discussions out there and it can be difficult to find what I’m looking for. I think it will be great to have a web forum so the discussions can be grouped into different categories and easier to locate.

    Some possible categories:
    Happiness Project Personal Blogs
    Happiness Project Groups
    Tips and Advice

    Maybe also discussions on personal resolutions etc. I know there’s a happiness project toolbox but a web forum will allow more interactions between the users.

    Thanks for sharing your happiness project and inspiring others to pursue happiness.

  • The Red Angel

    This is a great interview! I love the saying “This too shall pass,” it has gotten me through a lot of tough times. Even when I have to endure some of the most painful moments in my life, I always remember that no matter what it is, things will eventually be okay again (whether that be in five days or weeks or months). You just have to be patient, make decisions as best you can during that time, and wait and hope for the best.



    • Neat fact. If tragedy befalls you and you become paralyzed, the emotional devestation is often temporary. Those with spinal cord injuries usually adapt to their new situation within a year, and are then day-to-day are about as happy as most others. Indeed, “This too shall pass.”

      • I love the mantra “this too shall pass” too. It’s pulled me through some of life’s toughest moments. However, I think it’s even more important when we get weighed down in the minutia of our lives and feel like the end of the world is upon us, even though whatever is bothering us is ridiculous (e.g. frustration while in traffic, waiting in the grocery store line, dealing with someone less than cordial). This too shall pass!

  • Mary

    I love the part where Gretchen and Piers describe doing the same thing, but he can’t identify it as “pursuing” happiness, and Gretchen sees it as exactly that. That goes to show the importance of our personal semantics, right? A to-may-to, to-mah-to moment that made me giggle…

    • As long as you get to where you need to be going. For me, I have to sneak up on happiness, but you are right — I do find a lot of the tools in Gretchen’s toolbox handy.

  • Katie D.

    Regarding inspirational stories, back when I was in fourth or fifth grade I stumbled across the book “Karen”, a story about a little girl with Cerebral Palsy. The book chronicles the efforts by Karen’s mother and family to help her daughter to achieve her potential in spite of the then-rampant prejudice against the handicapped. I was fascinated by this book and probably read it at least five times. I didn’t know back then that today I would have a special-needs child in my home. I know I have drawn so much inspiration on how to get through each day positively by thinking back to how Karen’s family handled things. There are so many other books and stories that have helped me stay on the path of sanity, too.

    • Thank you for sharing! It reminds me what I used to read for inspiration during my awkward teenage years — Judy Blume.

  • Peninith1

    I love that “impulsivity” as the enemy identification. I have a certain amount of that distractability in me, and have learned to use a TIMER to help me accomplish things. I set the timer for 30 minutes and do something I LIKE to do (typically quilting) and then for another 30 minutes and do something that must be done (checkbook? housework?). It keeps me on task, ensures that I get frequent breaks and no burn out from the fun stuff and that I get down and do the tough stuff. Plus I have learned that 30 minutes or even 15 minutes is enough time to accomplish an amazing amount! The timer is a great tool for helping yourself both stick to the tough stuff and make time for the fun!

  • K_tele

    I totally agree about the idea of finding a biography of some one at a like stage in life, and a similar situation. I realized when i read this that this is what I do instinctively but it is hard to find the right biographies. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a categorized list somewhere.

    Also, the idea of a web forum is a great one! What do you think, Gretchen?

  • One of the ways in which I overcome my own tendency to procrastinate is by promising myself a reward but only when the job is completely done. However, I often find that when I actually finish the job, I no longer care about a reward. Just finishing the job and being to look at a complete project makes me happy enough that an additional reward is unnecessary.

  • My ability to distract myself from housework is supreme!!

    The best way I’ve found around this is loud rock music. Singing and dancing whilst cleaning definitely makes it fun, and increases energy and enthusiasm.

    Live Life Happy!

  • Some great happiness tips. Yes, agree that inspiration stories can be a great motivator for people who have trouble getting over past wounds. Really enjoyed this interview. Look forward to reading the book.

  • I’m procrastinating right now by reading this interview. Now, off to do some household chores! 🙂

    • Narziya

      lolll same here im procrastinating as i write this =) i’m off to find a job!

  • Patience.

    What is that? I read that part of this post and it immediately made me think of social media. Facebook. Twitter. Text-messaging. That’s all instant.

    Consider me old-fashioned, but I had an awakening of sorts this week. I decided that I’d much rather get a card in the mail than an e-mail. I’d rather talk to a person on the phone than text back and forth (sometimes for hours.).

    I blogged about it today, after an encounter with some “Grumpy Old Men” who had some wise comments about communication.

    Get the Frump Out of Your Rump: Don’t Wait Until the Line Goes Dead http://t.co/sNtlEn5

  • I’ve been a procrastinator all of my life. People have told me that it was perfectionism, but I am NOT a perfectionist. I’ve always called myself lazy…except that I don’t *really* think that I’m lazy. Besides, I don’t see how being negative about myself helps me actually get anything done. The notion that impulsivity is linked to procrastination was a real “ah-ha” moment for me. It makes so much sense! I’ve always been impulsive and can spend hours and hours immersed in things that I enjoy.

    I’ve been telling little white lies to myself and the whole world (ie. “I’m not messy, I’m creative!”), but the truth is that I get overwhelmed by things left undone. I think that I’m finally coming to the realization that organizing my life is the best way to finally free up the mental space to be creative.

    Thanks for this interview…very enlightening! I’m going to look for your book.

    • Heather Hall

      I can totally relate Stephanie! Seeing the impulsivity = procrastination was also an ah-ha moment for me as well. I was actually diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago, so I couldn’t completely lie to myself, but there’s always some new facet I learn that helps to make sense of my thought processes so I can move forward. The chapter on organizing in Gretchen’s book was very helpful (although I haven’t put it completely into practice yet). But I think you’re right – organizing is the key to freeing up mental space. Also, just learning how your brain works and using it to your best advantage. And yes, looking at the positive and not focusing on the negative for sure!

  • I think his comment about doing something with your hands, like building IKEA furniture, was a great one, especially for those of us who work in the “knowledge” fields and spend all day using a computer and our minds. The simple joy of working with our hands is a profound one, and it’s good to experience that several times a week — whether though building furniture, cooking, painting or playing music.

    • I read an article once (maybe in “Psychology Today”) about a theory that some depression is caused by the fact that in our modern society with everything so automated, we don’t have to do anything physical or manual. I think working with one’s hands can be therapeutic and relaxing.

  • Leah

    thanks for the tip on the book. I’ve downloaded the first few chapters for my nook to see if I enjoy it. 🙂

  • Narziya

    ove read this book and i absoloutely love it! It’s amazing…i feeel like Piers is writing about life and this book has helped me come out of a very dark and depressing whole. Thank you Piers!