Category Archives: Assay

Don’t Fall for the Common Habits Myth that Stops People from Making Successful Change.

Assay: People often ask me, “Why do we struggle so hard to change our habits–why do we so often fail?

There are a few reasons, but there’s one big one — a popular myth about habits that leads people astray. It makes them accuse themselves of being lazy, self-indulgent, and lacking in will-power. It causes them to fail.

What is this myth? It’s the myth that there’s a magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habit change.

You’re read the headline: “The habits that successful people follow each morning!” “Follow these 3 secret habits of millionaires! “The one habit you must follow if you want to get ahead!” “The five habits of all highly creative people!”

But here’s what I’ve discovered. And you know this, too — because it’s perfectly obvious from looking at the world around us.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. There’s no one “best” habit.

 

Or rather, there is a one-size-fits-all-solution, which is: Follow the habits that work for you, that help make you happier, healthier, and more productive.

What works for you might be very different from what worked for your brother or Steve Jobs or  Virginia Woolf.

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

  • Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin. Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami. Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.
  • Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.  Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.
  • Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler? Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?
  • Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller. Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.
  • Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken? Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

 

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive and healthy by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear: while these brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

This “one-size-fits-all” myth is dangerous, and it makes people feel terrible about themselves, because they think, “Well, you’re supposed to get exercise first thing in the day, and I tried to get up early and go for a run, and I totally couldn’t stick to it. See, I’m a lazy person with no will-power.” Or they think, “The secret is to indulge in moderation, and I’ve been trying to limit myself to one-half cup of ice-cream each night, but each night, I break down and eat the whole container. I’m such a loser.”

When I talk to people like this, I say, “No, that’s not true about you! You just haven’t set yourself up for success. There’s a way for you to change those habits, with much better results — because it’s tailored to you.”

Now, I speak of this one-size-fits-all myth from first-hand knowledge, because for a long time, I believed in it, too.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm, orderly environment. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to give up sugar, cold turkey, and just never indulge. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

 

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

This is so important that in Better Than Before, the first two chapters focus on self-knowledge. Once you know yourself better, you can figure out how to use the other nineteen strategies more effectively — and with less frustration. It’s not that hard to change your habits–when you know what to do.

What have you learned about yourself and your own unique habit fingerprint — and what works for you? Any thing that surprised you?

The Answer to a Question People Keep Asking Me: What Do I Eat Every Day?

Assay: People keep emailing to ask me what I eat, so here’s the answer.

But before I respond, I want to say a few things.

First, I do indeed eat a very low-carb diet. If you want to know why and how I came to do that, I describe it in my book Better Than Before and in episode 33 of the podcast.  Nutshell version: more than three years ago, while on vacation with my family, I read Gary Taubes‘s book Why We Get Fat. I experienced a “Lightning Bolt,” and all my eating habits changed — overnight, effortlessly, and permanently.

Not everyone would want to eat this very-low-carb way, and even people who more or less eat this way (like my father) might not want to be as strict as I am. I prefer to be super-strict. Hey, everyone needs a hobby!

Second, I want to say that after thinking and learning about nutrition for several years, I’ve concluded this: what we don’t eat is more important than what we do eat. People can be healthy and vigorous eating wildly different things. We can argue about whether it’s a good idea to eat burgers or brown rice. But as far as I can tell, no one argues that a healthy diet features sugar or refined carbs. And if you don’t eat (or drink) sugar or refined carbs, you’re likely to get a big boost in health. So that’s a place to start.

For me, cutting out carbs all together has been enormously freeing. No more sweet tooth! No more inner debate–one, two, three? now, later? does this count? All that noise has gone away. I’m much less hungry, and much happier with the way that I eat.  But what works for me isn’t the best choice for everyone.

For one thing, I’m a hardcore Abstainer. For me, bright-line rules are easy to follow, while moderation is too demanding. Again, not true for everyone! Not everyone is an Abstainer! For more about Abstainers vs. Moderators, read here or listen here.

So I’m not saying that everyone should adopt my eating habits. But many people are curious, so here’s what I eat:

  • eggs — lots of eggs, often scrambled with butter, or in other forms, like frittatas
  • hamburger, bacon, turkey, tuna, salmon, chicken, steak, pepperoni (yes, I saw the article about processed meats causing cancer, but I’m not worried by that study, for reasons explained here)
  • cheese — I eat cheese as an ingredient (in a salad, on a burger if I’m very hungry) but I usually don’t eat a piece of cheese on its own
  • broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, lettuce
  • Greek yogurt — occasionally
  • almonds — great snack
  • Nick’s Sticks —  One reason that eating low-carb is healthy is that just about all processed foods are eliminated, and you’re stuck with the kind of food that needs to be cooked, eaten at a table with cutlery, and goes bad quickly.  Which is the healthiest kind of food. I do keep a few Nick’s Sticks in my backpack and in my suitcase when I travel, in case I get hungry.
  • coffee, tea, diet soda — I use almond milk, when I can get it, or cream when I can’t, or half-and-half when I can’t get cream
  • avocados — I keep meaning to eat more avocados. Also olives.

Also I eat items that are a mix of those things. For instance, I love  quiche (no crust) or a Cobb salad.

As you’ll notice, there’s not a lot of variety here. My whole life, I’ve tended to eat the same foods every day. Again, that’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.

There are items that I’ll eat in small amounts, if they’re served to me, say, at a restaurant. For instance, I might eat some berries, some peppers, etc., but I don’t generally go out of my way to eat them.

I’m  a huge zealot for this way of eating, because it has been such a happy change for me. My father, too. And it has been thrilling to hear from so many people, since Better Than Before was published, who have told me how much better off they are eating this way.

And I understand why people might disagree, and why they might make different choices. Absolutely. The way that we eat raises all kind of complex scientific issues, as well as ethically- and morally-charged choices — such as whether or not to eat meat.

Which brings us back to the importance of the Strategy of Clarity for changing habits. No matter what our beliefs might be, if we want to change our eating habits, the more clear we are about why we want to eat a certain way, and the habits that we want to adopt, the easier we’ll find it to follow through.

I have my reasons. Others will have their own reasons. But for most of us, it’s possible to do better than before, according to our own lights.

Have you ever made a major change to your eating habits that gave you a big happiness boost? What did you do?

Have You Ever Felt a “Call” to Do a Certain Kind of Work?

Assay: A few weeks ago, my family and I went to see Sequence 8, a performance by Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers, if your French is rusty).

It’s a performance that’s part circus, part dance…it’s very compelling.

But as much as I enjoyed the show, I was just as interested in the playbill.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to experience a “call” — that is, a powerful, practically irresistible feeling that you’re meant to do a certain kind of work.

I certainly felt a call to writing. It took me a while to hear it and follow it, but I remember thinking, “Well, at this point, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.” I remember quoting Juvenal to my father, “An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.” I didn’t want that to happen to me.

I was struck by the evidence in the playbill that many of these performers had felt a call to the circus. A sampling from several bios: “In 2008, his life took a serious turn when he abandoned his studies at McGill University and entered the National Circus School of Montreal, in what was decidedly one of the best decisions of his life…discovered circus at age eight…immediately impassioned, he tried every circus experience he could…was barely five when he entered the San Francisco School of Circus Arts…”

I once met a woman who’d left her family  and dropped out of school in her early teens to become a juggler. When I expressed surprise, she said, “I just had to do everything I could to learn to juggle.” This sounds comical as I write it, but in the moment, it was a profound and almost terrifying statement.

In some ways, a call is wonderful. It’s clear. It’s urgent. It’s fulfilling.

But in some ways, and for some people, a call isn’t wonderful. A call means no choice — or at least, great pain in making another choice. Some people don’t want to be called to do the kind of work they feel called to do. This reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, where Hazel Motes destroys himself (and redeems himself) in resisting his call.

Also, a call is no guarantee of success. Now, does a call help? I imagine it does help, because a call makes it easier to practice.  Logan Pearsall Smith wrote, “The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery in involves.” There are good and bad aspects to this. I feel unsettled at any time when I’m not writing. And I mean that. There’s a sense of peace, and of being in the right place, that I experience only when I’m writing. You can see how that has drawbacks.

I remember talking to a group of first-year medical students. I made a vow to myself, always to talk about drift when I speak to college or graduate students, so we were talking about how to avoid drift. I was asking them how they got into medicine, and they had many different answers: “I’ve always been fascinated by biology and the human body,” “Both my parents are doctors,” “From the time I was a child, I’ve known I was going to be a doctor.” The last answer sounds like a call, to me. All three students could make excellent doctors, but having a call makes the experience different.

Is a “call” the same as a “moment of obligation?” I heard this term from someone who awards grants to people to start public interest projects. She explained that when they were evaluating people as possible grant recipients, they asked, “Did you feel a moment of obligation?” Meaning, did you spot a problem and decide that you were the one who had to fix it? Many of the people they funded had these moments. “I was reading about the malaria problem, and I thought, someone should come up with a better way to distribute nets. And then I realized, I should be the one.”

We often think of a call as related to a religious vocation. And it certainly happens there. I’ve been meaning to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I think is about a call to be a missionary, though I’m not sure, because I haven’t yet read it. I’m reminded of one of favorite titles of all time: William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

I’ve just started thinking about this. How about you? Have you ever felt a call, or been around someone who felt a call? To do what?  Was it pleasurable or painful?

Of All the Posts I’ve Ever Written, This Is One of My Favorites.

Assay: Lately I’ve been doing some research on Thomas Merton (long story), and that got me thinking about Flannery O’Connor, and that got me thinking about a post that I wrote several years ago. Of all the posts I’ve ever written, this post is one of my favorites.

So I’ve decided to post it again:

Years ago, my husband and I fixed up a very close friend with another friend. They fell in love, it was great. But within a few years, he got sick. She stood by him through it all. Then he died. It was awful. And it was very, very hard on our friend.

It was a sad situation for many reasons. As the years passed, one thing continued to bother me: I felt we had put a beloved friend in the path to sorrow. It had been inadvertent and well-intentioned, but still, we had brought all this pain into our good friend’s life.

I mentioned this to my husband, and he said something that completely changed my thinking. He said, “Yes, it was very hard on her. But think how much better it was for him.”

This thought, obvious as it is, had never occurred to me. I realized – how often I make this error. I was acting as though my friend were the main character of this story! That she was the one who really mattered. And I saw that I make this mistake all the time. I’m the most main character of course, and then the people close to me, and so on…with some people just appearing as extras or in walk-on roles.

But that’s not true. Everyone is a main character. And everyone is a minor character. And as I started thinking about this, I realized that many of my favorite happiness passages concerned exactly this shift: someone re-interpreting a situation, by understanding how different circumstance would seem if someone else were placed in the starring role.

Each has haunted me, but only now do I see what theme links them together.

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being led me to the extraordinary book, A Memoir of Mary Ann, a memoir about a little girl, Mary Ann, who lived with a gruesome tumor on her face before dying of cancer, written by the nuns with whom she lived for several years in a free cancer-treatment home.

Near the end of Mary Ann’s life, a five-month-old baby, Stephanie, was brought to the cancer home. Stephanie’s parents were crushed at the thought of leaving their baby there.

The nuns relate that for years, Mary Ann had longed for a baby to take care of. When Stephanie arrived, she said shyly to the baby’s mother, “I didn’t pray for a baby to be sick, but I prayed that if a baby was sick, it would come here.”

Later, the mother wrote the nuns, “I had accepted the hurt [my child’s affliction] brought me, but I had not accepted the fact that I had to give her up. My husband was suffering too and my attitude…was not helping much. Mary Ann’s words opened my understanding. Stephanie was needed…this child [Mary Ann] with the bandaged face and a heart full of love needed her…God had given me a good husband, six beautiful children. This last child was probably the most special of them all, destined for something I knew nothing about.”

*

In Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning, he relates a story from his psychiatric practice, when an elderly man, distraught with grief over the death of his wife two years before, came to him.

Frankl asked, “What would have happened…if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”

The man answered, “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

Frankl responded, “You see…such a suffering has been spared to her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”

The man left the office, comforted. Frankl observed, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

*

Here’s an example from children’s literature. In Rick Riordan’s novel, The Sea of Monsters, the hero of the story, thirteen-year-old Percy Jackson (who happens to be the son of the sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman), has taken Tyson, a huge, awkward boy who seems to be learning-disabled, with a misshapen face, under his wing. They go to high school together, but Percy isn’t exactly sure why he’s bothering to protect Tyson and drag him along on his Olympian adventures.

He keeps Tyson with him, though, and at the end of the book, Percy learns that Tyson is his half-brother: Tyson is also a son of Poseidon, and he’s a Cyclops, which is why his face looks wrong (he only has one eye).

Tyson says to Percy, “Poseidon did take care for me after all…I prayed to Daddy for help…He sent me a brother.”

Ah! we see. Percy thought that Tyson was tagging along with him, but in fact, he was a supporting character in Tyson’s adventure.

*

How about you? Have you ever had a moment when you realized that you could shift your understanding of a situation, by re-thinking who was at its center?

To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits To Follow?

Assay: This post is back by popular demand, because when I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, one of the questions that people most often ask me is: “What habits are best for creativity?” They want to know what habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce.

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin.

Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami.

Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.

Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.

Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.

Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler?

Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?

Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller.

Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.

Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken?

Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear about creative habits: while brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm, orderly environment. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.

I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.

I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but other people are Abundance-Lovers.

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

How about you? What habits contribute or detract from your creativity?