Further Secrets of Adulthood — for Habits.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Further Secrets of Adulthood–for habits.

I collect axioms, paradoxes, maxims, teaching stories, proverbs, and aphorisms of all sorts, because I love to see complex ideas distilled into a few words.

For years, I’ve been writing my “Secrets of Adulthood,” which are the principles I’ve managed to grasp as I’ve become an adult.

Right now, I’m hard at work editing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits — really.  This is the most fascinating subject ever — though it’s true, I say that about all my books.  (If you want to hear when Before and After goes on sale, sign up here.)

Many of my latest Secrets of Adulthood relate to habits:

  • We’re more like other people than we suppose, and less like other people than we suppose.
  • A slight delay is the easiest way; no delay is the easiest way.
  • Prioritize prioritizing.
  • Well begun is half done.
  • Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation.
  • Practice makes permanent.
  • Things often get harder before they get easier.
  • What we assume will be temporary often becomes permanent; what we assume is permanent often proves temporary.
  • There is no finish line.
  • It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.
  • By giving something up, we gain. (More true for Abstainers than Moderators.)
  • When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Important for the Strategy of Treats.
  • We can’t make people change, but when we change, others change.
  • The biggest waste of time is to do well something that we need not do at all.
  • Make it easy to do right, and hard to go wrong. Strategy of Convenience.
  • Make sure the things we do to make ourselves feel better don’t make us feel worse.
  • To keep going, we sometimes need to allow ourselves to stop.
  • Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • Self-regard isn’t selfish.
  • Progress, not perfection.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (cribbed from Voltaire)
  • The more we accept ourselves, and what’s right for us, the more other people accept us.
  • Nothing stays in Vegas.
  • Things look messier before they look tidier.
  • What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.
  • What’s best? Getting better.
  • Self-sacrifice can be self-indulgent.
  • Not choosing is a choice.
  • Everything counts.
  • Slow progress can be more frustrating than no progress.


What would you add?

  • Borrowed this from Sensei Charles Goodin:

    “When they complain that a task if difficult, I say, ‘That’s why they call it work.'”

  • Andrea

    I have two that I think of often.

    “It’s all gonna happen” (picked up from Lana Del Rey’s song This Is What Makes Girls) When I’m stressed out and think of all the things I should’ve done or worry about something that might happen in the future, I like to think about the fact that it’s all gonna happen anyway.

    “If your job is to eat a toad, don’t stare at it” …When I really don’t want to do something that has do get done I tell myself to eat the damn toad.

    • statmam

      Laughed out loud at the toad proverb. Thanks, Andrea.

    • Terry Insinga

      LOL. What a visual I got!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    The only one of these I could not agree with is ‘slow progress is more frustrating than no progress.’ I understand why a person would say or think that: they are actually aware and looking for progress, and feel frustrated because their pot doesn’t instantly boil.
    No progress is only less frustrating to me because I’ve completely given up–it’s a hopeless condition.
    In acquiring any habit or new condition (fitness, weight loss and maintenance at a lower weight for example) I have become very happy with tiny increments of progress in the right direction. In fact I try to work more in small increments, which continually reward me while I am strengthening my habits until they move from experiments to a new regime to a habit to a ritual I don’t want to go without. Slow is good.

    One thing that I am grateful to have learned from you is the ‘do it EVERY day’ mantra. This has been more helpful to me than any other changed outlook I can name. I am sure that is a shared abstainer ‘aha!’ Gretchen. Thank you so much!

    • Weird, I read that as “no progress is more frustrating than slow progress.” I guess my brain unconsciously disagreed with that statement too and then switched it around.

      But I can maybe see a point the original statement. Sometimes it makes sense to change gears completely because what a person is doing might not suit them well. Yet that person keeps at the task (or career) because there are some benefits, like maybe increased paychecks or more supervising responsibility or other perks. If the person was making “no progress” it might jolt a flash change to something that is better.

      Just a guess…

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Actually, I see what you mean about this. It like that saying about not trying to teach a snake to fly or a songbird to swim etc. You can expend an awful lot of energy to make small increments of progress at something not suitable for you, be it an occupation or a flawed relationship. Better to stop, take stock, and possibly change direction.

  • Emily

    At 26, I feel like I am constantly coming up with secrets to adulthood. Some of them are basic and simple (budgeting works!) but others, particularly involving relationships and learning to love and live with yourself are very hard. A few of my recent secret of adulthood discoveries:

    – Sometimes things that are good for you may seem bad and sometimes things that are bad for you may seem good.
    – Suffer now, benefit later.
    – Never started, never done.
    – The answer is always there.

    • I like the “never started, never done” one a lot.

  • LisaLooneyTune

    One from my mum: ‘when in doubt, don’t’

    • Amy Wehrspann

      Conversely, mine is “You’re more likely to regret NOT doing something than you are to regret doing it and failing (or not liking it.)

  • Hipnanny

    Change can take place at any time.

  • jenny_o

    Life is not a dress rehearsal.
    The best time to appreciate people is right now.
    It’s hard to be overweight; it’s hard to lose weight; it’s hard to keep weight off. Choose your hard.

    • Terry Insinga

      I love the dress rehearsal one myself! It was a true revelation when I first heard it.
      I love the “hard” saying. Never heard that one before. Love it!

  • AnnaKate

    Some of mine are:
    – Go to church it will make you feel better.
    – Fell blessed and lucky to have the life you have.
    – It’s all about human connections
    – Faith in God is how I live my life

  • Kristen

    Since college, I have used this quote from another student:
    motivation FOLLOWS action.
    It’s helpful when procrastinating…

  • Really like these!

  • Judith

    Be ready to change your route.

    • Terry Insinga

      OH boy is this true. I call it Plan B (or C, or D). LOL

  • What a great list! I’ve so enjoyed reading and learning from your Secrets of Adulthood over the years, and I can’t wait for the next book. 🙂

    What I’d add:
    – If you think you need a nap, you need a nap.
    – You won’t regret going to bed earlier; you will likely regret staying up later.
    – It will always look better in the morning. (What my mom would say to me when I was tired and discouraged at night!)
    – Always bring snacks.
    – When in doubt, be kind.
    – “You only fail when you decide to not try again. So it’s entirely in your control. Once you understand failure, it’s impossible to fail.” (From Humans of New York)
    – You don’t know what you HAVE until you get moving with what you’ve GOT.
    – Good habits are like good relationships: always works in progress. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Love these!

  • la_boheme

    “who are you when nobody is looking?”
    advice from my father who I miss terribly. love you dad~

  • Catherine Sager

    Good advice is like the weather, some of it is good and some of it is bad ~Arnold Lobel

  • Catherine Sager

    “Yes,there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Led Zeppelin

  • Suebob

    To grow, you have to be comfortable with discomfort.

  • Bola

    I am interested in reading Secrets of Adulthood, this must be an eye opener to the very many phases of adulthood we all go through in our personal development as individuals. so, how do I get started?

  • happysimple

    Great list. I would add surround yourself with a tribe that inspires and supports you in creating good habits. I just joined a community at http://stickyhabits.com to help me with daily exercising (running,walking or cycling).

  • kayziel tadiaque

    It is so awesome.

  • Terry Insinga

    Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are good is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.

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  • Sara Hamling

    I have many of the same Secrets of Adulthood as Gretchen’s originals, but I also add these:

    – First things first (water, breakfast, sleep)
    – Listen to your body
    – Cultivate rituals and traditions
    – Reframe the situation (i.e. “Make the positive argument”)
    – When in doubt, go to bed
    – Go outside
    – Celebrate small victories
    – If you really want to do something, you will find the time to do it
    – Objects need stories

  • Marcus Dantas

    Great list!! What I would add is Like your team, you will spend a lot of working hours beside them.

  • Bonnie J. Becker

    One that I find helpful is “Not every day can be a crisis.” In this context, it means that you can’t always be in a state of working on the immediate at the expense of the long-term. Most days should be making slow forward progress. (I might have stolen this from the Happiness Project, actually!)

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  • AnneDK

    Posted this in the wrong thread, so am reposting it:
    Good judgement comes from experience.
    Experience comes from bad judgement.

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  • Silvina Cecchi

    To Worry for what you can’ t manage makes life harder.
    Just take care and do your best.
    Worries and night are not good partners.
    At daylight everything is better

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  • Jamie

    I don’t know if this is a secret of adulthood, but I think about it a lot. Once I was talking to my sister about my ambivalence about being home with the kids. I can’t really remember the focus of the conversation more specifically than that, but at one point she said, “No matter what it is, take pride in what you do.” I repeat that a lot. Just because you’re not doing what other people may think you should do, or what you ideally would want to be doing, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. If you take pride in what you do, you’ll do a better job and be happier about doing it.

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