“Do the Most Important Thing of the Day First Thing in the Morning.”

Happiness and habits interview: Debbie Stier.

I got to know Debbie when she was working in book publishing, because she was one of the first people to go deep into the question of how online tools could help authors connect with readers.

We became friends, and when she started The Perfect Score Project, I followed her progress with delight on her blog. I love a project, I love Debbie’s approach to the world, and I was fascinated by her undertaking — to try to connect better with her teenage children through the SAT, and in the process, figure out the SAT.

Her book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, just came out. It’s wonderful — a great read, even if you don’t care about the SAT, it’s just so much fun — and has been getting a crazy amount of buzz, from The New Yorker to the Today show.

Debbie thought a lot about habits during her work on The Perfect Score Project, so I was interested to hear what she’d learned.

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

Debbie: Making my bed (hehe). Seriously, I read about “making the bed” in The Happiness Project, and I’ve made my bed every day since then.  Honestly,  it really does make me happier.

“Outer order means inner order,” as my agent, Lisa Gallagher, likes to say!

And of course, the big “E.” There is no denying that I feel consistently happier when I exercise. I shoot for 7 days a week and usually end up with 5.  Three of those 5 are “real” exercise, and two are “phone ins.”  The correlation is unmistakeable: the more I exercise, the better I feel. Period.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Do the most important thing of the day first thing in the morning.

I like to exercise in the morning because if I don’t do it then, my day can very easily slip away, and then I don’t do it at all.  And/or, those times when I leave exercising until nighttime are the “phone in” workouts. I don’t push myself at night.

The problem is that I also find morning to be best time for “the brain juice.” So, if I need to get something written or to deep think, I really hate to waste the best brain juice at the gym.

Bottom line: priorities change.  Mornings are reserved for those things I deem to be most important.

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

Not that I can think of! The closest I can come is, “staying up too late.”  I shoot to be in bed by 11 p.m., but the truth is, I’m rarely in bed before 1 a.m. (eek), and since I’m a “morning person,” this doesn’t leave me with enough sleep.

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

Watching 1-2 episodes of a funny sitcom right before bed with my kids.  We never end the day without watching a funny show together — ever. I find it to be good for the spirit to laugh together, right before bedtime.

At least 6 hours per night of sleep.

I try to eat healthy food. I’d say I’m about 75% successful!

Exercise!  I get in shape fast … and I get out of shape twice as fast.

And everything feels bad when I’m not in shape (i.e. clothes, mood, etc.).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Oh goodness, I’m always going in and out of habits. If I really want to make something happen, it goes on the #1-priority-when-I wake-up list.

The other trick I’ve used to get myself back into exercise is to buy nice gym clothes. I know, that sounds shallow, but if I have exercise clothes that I’m excited to wear, I’m more likely to do it.

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

TOO HARD FOR ME TO ANSWER THIS BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE ALL OF THEM! [For what it’s worth, I think Debbie is a Questioner.]

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

My inability to say no.  I’m a knee–jerk “yes” person, which means I over-extend.  I end every day feeling unaccomplished when the truth is that I usually accomplish a lot, but I bit off more than I could chew.

Also, I usually underestimate how long something will take to do.  I’m bad at estimating time.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Not that I can think of.

I’ve made many changes as a result of reading a book or conversations with friends, but I can’t think of any “flash” changes.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I love habits (at least in theory).  I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to maximize my life, searching for life hacks, etc. I’m obsessed with squeezing every drop out of every experience, so I’m always on the hunt for new systems and habits that’ll streamline.

Also, I love seeing and hearing about other people’s systems and habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Catherine Johnson (blogger: Kitchen Table Math and co-author with Temple Grandin of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior)!  She is “the queen of the system.”  You should visit her at her house and have her show you her systems – she is extraordinary and GREAT at “habits.”  One of my all-time favorite activities is to have Catherine tell me about her systems.

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Walk in the morning–I have a morning routine I do before I go out the door–checking email, video-chatting with my friend, taking my meds and making the bed, jotting down a couple of brief journal entries. But my morning walk is the ‘must do.’ Today it is cold and rainy, but I will go out anyway at least for once or twice around the neighborhood. This has gone from being like climbing Mount Everest to being something like my ‘3d cup of coffee’ that gives me the clarity and energy to do the rest of my day. It is not the cause of my weight loss, but the foundation of my ability to stick with my weight loss program. I love my walk!

  • Leanne Sowul

    What a wonderful, natural-sounding interviewee! I like the “do the most important thing first” idea. I have the same struggle- exercise vs. mental tasks- and I often don’t know what to do first. I think it will help to frame it in terms of what’s most important on that particular day.

  • gilcarvr

    one bit of dissonance in her answers… early on she admits to starting to make up her bed each morning after reading about it in your blog…

    then later, she doesn’t recollect any flash habit changes..

    or am i misunderstanding your meaning associated with “flash habit changes”

    • Hi! I interpreted “flash habit changes” to mean “impulsive,” and I didn’t think of making my bed as impulsive. But perhaps I should have considered it a flash change because the truth is, I started making it as soon as I read that — so maybe it was a “flash” change!

  • PolarSamovar

    Gretchen, have you seen a correlation between Questioners and people who are optimizers/lifehackers like Debbie? Debbie’s answers, her comments about Catherine Johnson’s wonderful sytems, and my late husband (a strong Questioner who loved nothing better than optimizing his 100s of systems, routines, and behavioral protocols – he spent 25 years perfecting his “how to make a friend” flowchart) has got me wondering.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmm…I never thought about it. I think this kind of thing might appeal to people in all categories except Rebel. A different kind of interest/temperament, apart from Rubin Tendency.

  • What is a SAT?

    • gilcarvr

      SAT=Scholastic Achievement Test; US schoolchildren who hope to attend college and university must take. Used to screen potential applicants..

  • mkenny1

    I have been downsized! After thirty-five years of continuous employment, I recently found myself without the lifelong “getting ready for work” routine that used to rule my day. I’m reinventing my self and my habits so that I have some structure and consistency. Every morning now, I get up, make my tea, make the bed, feed the pets and sit down to read and respond to emails, check job listings, watch the news. At 9:00, tv turns off and I start doing whatever I have planned for the day. I am relying on lists more, so I can check things off and feel like I’ve accomplished something. Your site has given me some excellent guidance about happiness and forming/breaking habits! Thank you for that, Gretchen. I enjoyed reading this post; I love hearing about other people’s good habits!

  • Thank you Gilcvr! I have stopped the “new habit” of reading this blog & trying to be a part of ANY conversation first thing in the morning. It is what I would call a “flash habit change”!!! I am back to my old comfy habit of a quiet time, lost in my own thoughts then walking the dog, breathing in a new day and sorting what is in store for me. This morning was “Why did I ask that question??” . I figured it out on my walk…duh. I thought there were current courses for students to take and the whole process was being revamped. Didn’t have them in my day. I failed to listen to my favorite quote…”It is better to sit in a corner and look stupid…than open your mouth and prove it”.!!!

  • Mine is to eat breakfast. Seems like it would be a no-brainer and obvious, but I do try to skip it a lot of times thinking it will be okay. Usually it ends in a disaster. No matter how rushed I am I make sure something gets into my system before class or work.

  • karen

    I thought this interview was downright depressing! You can tell that she is so unfulfilled by not fulfilling so many things she wants to: from working out hard at least five days a week to establishing really good habits that make her feel like she’s truly accomplished something at the end of every day. I felt exhausted, and sad, for her after reading this!

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