Questions for You: What Habits Most Affect Your Spiritual Life and Work Life?

Have I mentioned that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh right, I think I have. Before and After will hit the shelves in 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it’s available).

Most of us — well, perhaps not the Rebels — have habits that we’d like to add or drop, and I’d like to ask you readers:

1. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your spiritual life? Maybe you’d like to read holy books for thirty minutes every morning; or meditate; or observe the Sabbath; or give up alcohol; or fast or abstain during Lent, Yom Kippur, or Ramadan; or attend services regularly.

Also, how do other people’s habits affect your spiritual life–for good or for ill? We’re very influenced by other people’s habits; for instance, if one family member begins attending services, others are more likely to go. Has someone’s spiritual habit rubbed off on you?

Do you have any habits that interfere with your spiritual life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the spiritual life you want?

2. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your work life? Maybe you’d like to file expense reports every day, or do a better job tracking billable hours, or talk more to your co-workers, or stay on top of your emails, or stop putting off work until the last minute. Or maybe you’d like to do a better job of maintaining certain general habits while you’re at work. For most people, habits such as exercise or eating healthfully are issues for work life as well as for private life. My sister the sage is much stricter about her eating habits at work than she is at home, because work contains so many more crazy temptations (you wouldn’t believe what was in the office kitchen!), and she spends so much time at work, she figures that if her work-eating habits are very good, her home-eating habits can be looser.

How do other people’s habits affect your work life–for good or for ill?  Has someone’s habit at work rubbed off on you? Someone started going to the weekly programming seminar, so you started going, too. Or a co-worker is constantly behind, so you’re persistently behind in your own work, because you have to help him finish. (Speaking of my sister the sage, one of my favorite words of wisdom from her is “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” But that can be hard to enforce, in practice.)

People’s habits can cause conflict, when they’re incompatible. For instance, Marathoners like to work steadily, well in advance, while Sprinters like to put in a burst of work at the end. Both strategies are effective, but it can be hard when teams include people of different styles. And Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers have very different work habits.

Do you have any habits that interfere with your work life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the work life you want? You stay up late watching TV, so you oversleep and are consistently late for work.You check your emails while you’re spending time with your kids.

I’m very curious to see people’s answers. Feel free to take a very loose view of the definition of a “habit.” I do! Anything that you’re “in the habit of” doing.

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  • Curt Rosengren

    My meditation practice is bar none the most important. It impacts pretty much all areas of my life – spiritual, work, relationships, you name it. It has become so important that, if I were faced with the terrible choice of being able to do my morning meditation or having my morning coffee, meditation would win hands down. That was a bit of a shocker to realize.

    I also do positive reading after my morning meditation (while drinking my coffee, thankfully!). That’s an important part of starting my mindset out right.

    I’m not always the most positive person when I first wake up. I can easily slide down the rabbit hole of what’s wrong in my life as I lie there in bed. To counter that, I often focus on gratitude, what’s good, giving myself some love, etc. while I’m lying there.

    You mentioned in another post a conversation with someone early on who suggested blogging at least five or six times a week. I’m taking that to heart and breathing that frequency back into my blogging schedule. So I’m reinvigorating a writing habit.

    There’s a habit I haven’t developed yet that I want to. It’s what neurosychologist Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good.” In a nutshell it’s a way of helping the positive experiences sink in as solidly as the negative experiences (he describes our brains as velcro for the bad stuff and teflon for the good stuff).

    • gretchenrubin

      Great to hear how you structure these habits, to make sure they happen, and make you happier.

      • Curt Rosengren

        As far as structuring, I think the hardest part was the first couple months of meditation, before it became an unquestioned habit. I made a deal with a friend that created some accountability/voluntary peer pressure, which carried me through. My morning routine was get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, resist meditating, sit down and meditate. Still is sometimes, but the resistance has gotten pretty weak because it knows I don’t pay any attention to it.

        • Curt Rosengren

          Now that meditation has become a daily habit, making sure it happens isn’t hard. It’s just an unquestioned part of my morning routine, like brushing my teeth. Sometimes it’s a short meditation and sometimes it’s a long one (I like the long ones better), depending on what time I wake up and what else I have going on, but doing it is non-negotiable. It has had far too positive an impact to start skipping it.

          The reading is easy to get in because I’d like to just sit here and read all day. Plus, having a personal development focus in my work as I do, most of the reading I do does double duty as both personal and professional development.

        • Heather

          I love that you accept the resistance as a natural part of the process — and then just move on to the next step of letting it go.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      love the velcro / teflon quotation! Sounds like a terrific practice!

      • Curt Rosengren

        Yes, and I love the neuroscience angle of it backing it up. It makes total sense. I need to figure out how to start building it more consciously and regularly into my days.

    • Caroline Donahue

      I love Rick Hanson’s work! I have been working on taking in the good as well. Would love to hear more about how you’re applying the concept. I would love to work on making taking in the good a daily habit.

    • Heather

      Rich Hanson’s work sounds like something I should look into. I especially like the idea of the audio cds because, as someone who doesn’t have a history of practicing meditation or mindfulness, I always feel like I won’t be able to get my brain in “that place” on my own, without someone else there guiding me into it. Do you have a suggestion re: the best Hanson CD to start with, and/or any others that would be particularly good for beginners? Thanks!

  • debbiedarline

    I’ve been incorporating lots of your great ideas and suggestions into my own life since I listened to the audio version of your first Happiness Project book. My husband died unexpected last fall and both of my children are grown (27 & 28). I find myself currently using tricks to connect newly forming good habits with remembering and spirituality all together as I go through my day. I have mentally tied good habits I am working on with a mental conversation with my late husband and my children. It’s difficult to explain – but here are some examples: Home safety – locking the doors at night. “I’m locking the doors for you Brian – back door and then front door!” Car Safety: “I’m putting my seat-belt on for you Jim – before I pull out of the driveway!” Physical Health: “I’m only eating two pieces of candy to stay healthy for you kids – here is one for Brianna, here is one for Jim”. Spirituality: Words of appreciation for outdoor wonders: “Wow – nice sunset!” “Excellent work putting the snow so beautifully on the mountains – it looks great!”

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you’ve found my work useful during a tough time. Hang in there.
      Sounds like you’re an Obliger – these are resourceful Obliger strategies.

  • Hi Gretchen! I’m not too much of a spiritual person, but I have found that I participate in the Lenten season, like most Christians. I just love the idea of giving something up for a small amount of time. When most people think of breaking a habit, they think forever. However, I have found that getting into a commitment for a while will not only feel less daunting, but it also leads to more than likely future success if all goes well. As for work, I have found that the “find what the problem is” idea is perfect. Since I am a student, if I forget a certain book at home a lot, I think of why I could be forgetting it. Is it in an easy-to-see place when I’m going out the door? Could I put a sticky note somewhere to remember it? I have found that both of these ideas are just right for me when trying to break a habit.

  • Brenda Patterson

    I work from home full time and have two small children, so the lines of my life are always blurred together, and so I am always on the lookout to build in habits or routines that help me make sure I haven’t missed something in the chaos. One I’ve found really helpful is at the end of the day I go to my email and pull up the “windows” bar… just to be sure there are no emails I started to send and then didn’t. (There are sadly a surprising number of them.) I’d love to find more lifehack strategies like that to help keep all the trains on track.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, the unsent email! I’ve done that myself.

      A friend recently made a similar mistake – did all the work to book a ticket, but was distracted before the final “Buy” click. Didn’t notice that she didn’t have the ticket until her bags were packed.

  • Cindy

    These two topics—habits and work—have so much meaning to me right now. I’m currently in a job that makes habit-formation extremely difficult. I’m working 12-hour shifts at night, with work days changing from week to week. This has made it nearly impossible for me to create habits or even keep the ones I once had, from spiritual matters like making time for prayer, to basic things like flossing my teeth. I never realized before how critical habits were to my happiness, but they are. I know the root of the problem is that the lifestyle this job requires doesn’t suit my basic nature, which is why I won’t be able to stay in it for very long, but in the mean time I’d like to take whatever steps I can to maintain some sort of stability to my life. Gretchen, this calls to mind your First Splendid Truth “to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” To be honest I had a difficult time really understanding what “feeling right” meant in that context, until now. This has truly helped me learn more about myself and how I can apply what I’ve learned to make myself happier. Thank you so much for this!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s much harder to form habits with a schedule that’s always shifting – especially working night shifts. Hang in there!

    • lisa

      My husbands work schedule is unpredictable so we struggle with this as a family. Perhaps your habits need to be based on events (doing something before/after a shift) and not a particular time (every Tuesday morning).

      Another thing that has helped us is having a list of what needs to be done each day (like eating, flossing teeth and prayer) and checking off things when you can do them. When you are going through these crazy schedules, sometimes the simple things (post it notes on the mirror)are what help keep us sane.

      Lastly, mindset is a huge help in getting through. Just reminding myself that we will not live like this forever is all I need at that moment. Sometimes some things just don’t get done and I’m OK with that.
      Hope this helped. 🙂

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Spiritual practice is something I am sorry to say I find sadly lacking in my life these days. I am a lapsed ‘Anglo-Catholic’ Episcopalian, who, having moved to an area where there is no church that seems to be into an old fashioned high church liturgy. I am embarrassed to say what is true for me–the loss of the liturgy that was my personal gateway to spirituality has really erased my interest in ‘church’ as it seems to be done where I live, and has led me to invest in other areas of my life that are more sustaining and less intellectually and spiritually repellant. Losing a way to practice with others that is comfortable for me has led me to some pretty deep questioning of the basis for my whole belief system! I am more attracted these days to a Buddhist style of mindfulness and presence, and yet reluctant to enter into some new tradition. So I am lazy and do nothing. This is not a good state and I really appreciate hearing from others who have a better way going!

  • Carla

    My siblings, nephews, husband, and I travel 3 hours each way to go to church every weekend. It is exhausting, but being in the habit and having others along for the ride makes it a little easier. Since we all share the commitment, I don’t get the feeling of unfairness in terms of the amount of effort put in. I would like to do a better job of putting my spirituality into practice during the week, whether that is through reading the Bible, spending time praying, or singing hymns.

    In terms of work life, I’d like to do a better job tracking my todo list. It seems like my list gets too long and unmanageable, so I just start a new one. Then I end up with 4 different lists, a pile of e-mails waiting for a response, and feeling overwhelmed. If I could come up with a maintainable strategy to track all of my action items, it would be much easier to prioritize my work and perhaps I wouldn’t feel so behind all the time. This might help with my other goal: to leave work on time on Fridays.

  • For me, I have one that broke my spirituality, then got compounded by another and finding my faith again has been difficult at best. I am trying very hard. I feel that it is the only thing that will save me…. LITERALLY. You see, I battle anorexia.. severely. Back four years ago, it was the beginning of a deadly battle and it took over and when it did, it took my belief in God away. Led me to think that He didn’t care about me. ( I was that sick).. the anorexia almost killed me as my body was shutting down after two years.. I realized when I was in a hospital for five months that it was the eating disorder that took my faith.. distorted it.. but I was still ill, even when I got out. I knew my road would be long. seven months after I got home, I went back to my church where I had been in the choir there, wanting to go back.. felt I was ready. NEEDING to go back. I was turned away… told it was best for everyone if I didn’t come back. I was shunned because of my illness. That finished off the rest of what I had left of my faith inside… my heart broke and I sank. That was end of 2012 and I never went back, never went anywhere. The time since has been the hardest I have went through. I am still fighting. And I know now that I need my faith back, regardless of if I attend a church. I need it inside of me to HEAL me from this…. to free me, from all I have done. I can’t get better until I begin to forgive myself for the things I have done.. and I can’t do that on my own. And as long as I am on my own… I am like a sitting duck. So Yes, I feel there are things that can take your faith away. Just as there are things that can help to bring it back… I was recently hospitalized ( once again)… and a Chaplain there talked to me several times she was so wonderful.. I had no intention of opening up like I did.. I don’t talk “church” to people.. not that way. But with her, something about her was different…she didn’t judge my scars on my wrists.. she used them as stories to show my strength where I saw weakness. She turned everything around. Where I thought I was always alone, she showed me I wasn’t… only she wasn’t saying it, she got me to say it by the questions she asked… when I got home, I was drawing in my art journal where I put sayings etc, using stencils and then I decorate them with my art and pictures.. and somehow bible verses that coordinate with those sayings and quotes end up on the bottom of each page… I do NOT know the bible well enough to know anything but a few verses by heart… I swear its her prayers that led a higher power to me, to find those verses, to put into my book… to help me, lift me, support me so that I can focus on getting better… be able to look into that journal when I am good, down, struggling… and know that I WILL BE OKAY. I am not alone…. By knowing that she took that time with me, she opened my heart just enough.. a heart that was so cold from being hurt too many times by people in a church that stomped on me and by an illness. It was now open… and that crack was now able to receive even the tiniest of messages, the littlest bit of hope and begin to believe once again that maybe just maybe God does love me after all the things that I have done… and there is a chance it WILL be okay. 🙂 So, I keep drawing, day after day…. keep watching the sun come up after the dark nights.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I hope you will continue to seek people like that wonderful Chaplain, who brought you the love and compassion every human being needs. Those are the people to listen to, and the people who embody what all the great religions teach that we are to be to one another. Love heals, and love is what it’s all about.

      • Thank you Penelope. Yes… my therapist whom I see twice a week ( have for past two years) is a Christian counselor, and although she has never pushed that side of her work, she is very glad to see that part come out in my drawings and my heart opening. And I have a neighbor too and few others as well that have been around, but I was never quite as open with, that may change. And I have found new “support” online who when I had no one, they were there.. they showed me I could fight my illness AND have faith and/or get it back.. that it was possible. Told me they would even have it for me until I got it back. So they are around me… I learned to seek them

        • Penelope Schmitt

          I am very reassured to hear that you are doing the right things to receive the positive support that you need! Keep doing what you are doing, and you will work your way to the light of knowing within yourself that you are valuable, loveable, and loved.

        • HEHink

          I am glad to know that you did not allow the fear and ignorance of a group of imperfect humans to get in the way of your faith. That alone shows how strong you are. Too many people use the excuse of others’ hypocrisy to give up on their faith in God. Personally, I believe that God is much bigger than anyone’s fear, ignorance, or hypocrisy. Keep seeking Him, and you will find Him.

          • Thank you for your reply… back when it happened, I was still very ill from my illness; still needed guidance from others, receiving none except from my therapist. And when that happened, I was already in a “dark place” of depression. I did spiral horribly. From dec 2012 until November 2013 my faith was as shaky and non existent as it could be. During that time, was many, many months of deep depression and suicide attempts, small relapses with my anorexia and a lot of self harm. But it was November 2013 that it stopped…. when I basically scared myself straight with the self harm. Then I seriously relapsed with the anorexia in jan due to an illness; which continues, although I am better and when I was in the hospital in March, talking to a Chaplain realized that starting back in November is when I started to feel a bit of my faith, trusting in it. She showed me that I have used my faith, hoped it was there, even when I was at my lowest and that it was time that I showed myself the same courtesy that I show others… forgive me like I forgive them because God has already forgiven me even if I do not feel it because one day I will feel it. She made me cry. I had never had someone take the time like she had… I admit that I do not know how to pray… I do not feel comfortable if people ask me to do that out loud either. two years ago I bought a compass necklace while in the hospital for five months..i bought it to remind me of the path I am on.. the path to get better. so that if I fall, I will know that I will always find my way back to the path… I will never be too far off the path. I never take it off. I recently was drawing in my journal, and had this feeling… got up, went to the store, bought a small cross necklace, went home. I wear it now too. Don’t know what made me want to buy it. But I did. it matches my compass. ??? It is a beginning… I may not know how to pray… but in my journal, my words come out… my worries, my fears. my hopes. They are all in there, and to me I think those are the same as prayers. 😉

          • HEHink

            They are! There are many ways to pray without speaking – art, writing, music, cooking, building…anything we offer up from deep within us can be a prayer, and create a connection to our faith. Keep doing what you are doing. 🙂

  • Bree

    Hi I’ve found the impact of others habits on me recently a major challenge in my life. As my children have moved toward adulthood – 24, 17 and youngest 13 their habits of eating times word/study, training, and sleep nevermind social life had meant chaos for me. I have been coping with a painful ilness and disability for four years so adjusting to new habits. Mindfulness in small everyday practice helps, I’ve found that multitasking ,which I did all the time before is not productive nor does it lead to any level of happiness. Creating my own physical space no matter how small,my santuary and keeping it also an essential habit formin exercise. Friendships are also key. Mindfulness has helped me in communicating my needs,

  • Amanda Ann

    I am undoubtedly a Questioner who has put myself on many a self-improvement plan, with varying degrees of success. I try to write every night in my Gratefulness journal and to read a devotional, the Bible, or other Christian reading. I find I do much better on the busiest days! An unstructured Saturday rarely finds me in compliance, but a day where I don’t make it home from work, meetings and the gym until after 9 does.

  • johnchavens

    A habit I’d like to break to help my spiritual life would be to put down my phone in the morning and pick up the Bible. Meditating on the Psalms or one of Paul’s letters always centers me versus stepping immediately into the Facebooks/Internets.

    Tangent – thank you, Gretchen, for The Happiness Project and all your amazing work. It’s been very formative for me in my work with The H(app)athon Project and my book, Hacking H(app)iness.

  • Stephanie

    I have found that the habit of spending each day searching, pondering, and praying is absolutely vital to my spirituality. I try to take at least 30 minutes, but preferably an hour, to first pray and ask God what it is He would have me learn and how He would have me serve, then study from the scriptures, keeping a notebook of thoughts that come to my mind as I read, and pondering on what I am reading and the thoughts coming to my mind. Often during this time of pondering on the spiritual and self reflecting I am inspired as to other habits that it would be good for me to create or remove in my own life. It is my experience that if this one simple habit happens regularly, the other spiritual habits seem to come more naturally and with greater ease.

  • Gillian

    I am surprised to see that all the responses about spirituality relate to religion. Churches can fulfil a valuable role when you share the tenets of their beliefs and find the people to be compatible, loving and caring. However, religion and churches are man-made institutions so they encompass all the flaws of man. For me, spirituality means a direct connection to my own soul and a connection between my soul and the universe (or, if you prefer, God). The most direct route to that connection is nature. Being in nature and being silent provides the connection to myself and to whatever universal consciousness there might be. In a forest listening to the wind in the trees, sitting on a beach listening to the waves, enjoying a sunrise, sunset, rainbow, thunder storm, beautiful flower or any of nature’s other wonders soothes the soul. Silence is imperative.

    In a related vein, trying to live a life with a minimal impact on our beautiful planet and its eco-system is also a spiritual practice. Not to be rude, but the people who drive 3 hours to and from church are defeating the purpose. How can you worship God, the creator, when you are spewing so much carbon into His atmosphere so unnecessarily just to get to church?

    Another way to soothe the soul is with classical music – the slow movements. The right music can have a similar effect to that of nature.

    I also think that the practice of a Sabbath is important. For me that is a secular Sabbath. We need to have one day away from the cacophony of daily life. I try to make Sunday my Sabbath – a day to do pleasant things: Read, think, write, listen to the radio, go for a walk, have coffee and cake with my husband. I might putter in the garden but no lawn-mower or other noise-makers.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      super suggestions
      thank you

    • I share your wavelength, Gillian! Although I also have been teaching myself to purr along with my feline friends. Purring – tracheal resonance (as I’ve shared in emails to Gretchen) buzzes through your whole body via your bloodstream. For the Christians posting here: while resonating my trachea on my morning walk with my dog, I realized that the Greek name for Jesus, pronounced ‘Kreesto,’ actually can be exhaled as a dry gargle and rolled ’r’ on the tongue while smiling (for the ‘eee’ sound), ending in a sort of tip-of-the-tongue ‘toh’ — basically duplicating the sound I’ve been making. Maybe I’ve stumbled upon an ancient Christian mantra! By the name, your sleep-breathing puts you there every night.

    • Heather

      I like the idea of a secular Sabbath.

  • Jeanne

    Meditation is the habit that most affects my spiritual and work life. Cannot imagine life without it since meditating daily most of my adult life.

    • Gillian

      I participated in a few guided meditations a few years ago and found them to be both relaxing and energizing at the same time. It is a practice I am becoming more and more interested in. I think it would go a long way towards quieting my rattling brain. I have to move this higher up on the to-do list.

  • chacha1

    I am not someone who feels the need for religion per se, but I have four habits which help me maintain a spiritually steady state. 1. mindfulness 2. gratitude 3. asana 4. nature.
    I live in a city apartment and the entirety of my “natural” view is my patio garden. I spend some time every morning and every night looking out into it, checking to see if the neighborhood hummingbirds are around.
    A habit I would like to establish, but which requires the participation of my workaholic spouse, is a regular hike. “Regular” would be anything more than the “once or twice a year” that we are currently managing. 🙂

  • Lynn

    One habit I have just for work is to pick the hardest thing to do in the whole day and do it first. If I can’t do it right at the start due to scheduling issues, I schedule it for as early as I can. It’s stopped most of my procrastination because the hard things were the things I tended to procrastinate.

    For spirituality and for work, I would have to say daily yoga + meditation. Before I leave the house, while everyone else is asleep, I give myself that gift of time alone with myself. It is the one thing always improves my day. It also expires each night as I sleep – so if I skip a day I normally am not as focused or happy for that whole day. It’s the one habit that I have been able to develop for myself without accountability or any direct outside influence, probably because there are a thousand tiny pieces of feedback during the day.

  • Habits I would like to get better at: Reading the Bible every day, even if it is just a verse or two. Also taking some time to think about those verses. I also want to make a habit of sharing verses with other Christians if I think they are particularly relevant to them.

    Other people: Going to the fellowship group every week helps me be around people who are thinking seriously about their faith. It keeps me accountable. It also makes me feel like I’m not alone in my struggles.

    Interfering: I think maybe the tendency to play smartphone games every single time I have a spare moment, instead of taking time to sit alone with God.

  • kleineslichtlein

    “Habit is the worst enemy of the truth” – that sentence holds especially true for
    faith and religious questions.

    In all of my life I have found only one source that was able to explain all my questions
    concerning the Christian faith, such as “What exactly is the purpose of
    our life on Earth?” or “How can a loving God accept such a lot of
    misery on earth?” You can find it here:

    The answers I found were so fully convincing and without any contradictions within the whole length of the document that I found myself STRENGHTHENED, CONSOLED and MORE THAN HAPPY.

    No man on Earth could have given me a more precious present!

    [especially interesting: the chapter “Christ’s teaching and modern Christianity”
    – what man has made of Christ’s teaching… so ridiculous that it is no wonder
    so many people deny the existence of any God today…]

  • Karla Garcia

    Habits I would like to incorporate into my spiritual life are praying the rosary daily, going adoration, attending Saturday Mass, maybe joining a prayer group. Habits that get in the way include commplaining and gossipping about people, and not forgiving myself. At work, I would like to have the habit of having a designated place for everything and putting things there when I’m not using them so that my workplace doesn’t get so cluttered. Also, figuring out a way to get my co-workers complete buy-in and ownership of projects I need their collaboration in order for them to be more successful, and less stressful for me.