Interview: Abigail Pogrebin.
I met Abby Pogrebin because our daughters, now seniors, have been in school together since kindergarten, and she also lives right around the corner from me.
I’m a huge fan — of the many and various things that Abby’s involved in. She wrote a fascinating book about her experience as an identical twin, and about the twin phenomenon generally, in One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular. (If you want to hear me recount what I found to be one of the most striking observations from this book, you can watch that that two-minute video here.)
She was recently featured in the fascinating documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about the making of the Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince musical Merrily We Roll Along, which opened with enormous fanfare in 1981 and closed after sixteen performance. The show starred teenagers and young 20-somethings, and Abby was the youngest member of that cast. Yes, she was in a Broadway musical at age 16. You can read her account of the experience in her Kindle Single, Showstopper.
And now Abby has a new fascinating, candid, funny, heavily researched book: My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew. Although she grew up with some basic holiday rituals, Abby realized that she didn’t know much about the history, purpose, or current relevance of the Jewish calendar. To reconnect with her Jewish roots and spirituality, she decided to immerse herself for a year — to research, write, and observe eighteen important holidays on the Jewish calendar.
I love this kind of year-long-experiment book — like my own book The Happiness Project (my year-long experiment in how to be happier), A. J. Jacobs’s hilarious The Year of Living Biblically, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. (Foreshadowing: I’m not sure, but it’s possible that after The Four Tendencies comes out, I’ll write another book that takes the form of year-long experiment. Stay tuned.)
Abby has so many interesting things to say — I couldn’t wait to hear her answers.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Abby: Having a cappuccino in bed reading the New York Times on my iPad every morning.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
It’s very hard to do any healthy thing consistently if I didn’t get in the habit of doing it when I was in my teens or twenties. To that end, I would not, at this stage, be able to give up sugar or butter unless I absolutely had to. But I did manage to start weekly yoga in my thirties and that added enormously to my ever-elusive sense of equilibrium, which– truthfully– remains elusive.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Yes. I hate my habit of being unable to get off email at night, when all I want to do is read a book. I also hate my habit of waking up each morning thinking about the one thing I’m worried about, instead of the ten things I’m grateful for.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
- Having Sunday breakfast with my family – at a nearby diner or our own kitchen table.
- Going to synagogue services every Friday night.
- Always being in the middle of an interesting book.
- Volunteering to serve breakfast to the homeless once every few weeks.
- Exercising in some form five times a week.
- Connecting with my twin sister daily.
- Reading the New York Times daily.
- Being mindful of my carbs.
- Enjoying a great almond croissant when I find one.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
The healthy habit I adopted is to make sure I forcibly slow down at least three times a week – whether that means doing a yoga by myself (admittedly, often in front of CNN, which quickens my pulse counter-productively), meditating for 10 minutes (the recommended 20 minutes is still too much for this rookie), or not looking at email on the Sabbath – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Adopting a Sabbath pause has been revelatory. It’s untethering and freeing. The unhealthy habit that all of these address is my addiction to constantly crossing off the to-do list or thinking of what I’ve forgotten to accomplish – an exercise which is obviously bottomless. Maria Popova of the always-fascinating Brainpickings.com site which I read every Sunday once quoted author Jonathan Fields saying that, “busy is a decision.” I am trying to make a different decision than “busy” – at least part of every week; to decide to be unscheduled and inefficient.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Definitely, unequivocally, and a little pathetically, an Upholder. Everything you describe fits the bill.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Calls and coffee dates. I often look at my calendar and see that there are too many coffee dates scheduled with people and too many work calls — with little space remaining for reading, working, walking, or exercise. I am currently President of Central Synagogue, so these coffees and calls are important – and admittedly always interesting, even enriching. But there can be too many in a day and leave me craving the chance to shut my mouth for a couple hours.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, 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.?
I started slow-weight lifting for 30 minutes every week (lifting very heavy weights for very few reps, to the point of muscle failure), after taking a walk with Gretchen Rubin and hearing her report that this regimen made her feel stronger. I’ve continued that habit for a decade now. [Yes! I converted Abby to Inform Fitness, the gym that trains Super Slow method that I “love.”] But I have been unsuccessful when it comes to jettisoning my daily one-Diet-Coke-at-lunchtime habit. I stopped for a while, after a nutritionist said it was potentially bloating and dehydrating. But then I started again because my husband likes it and he pours the soda over ice, which makes it look good.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
Embrace them. I like routine because it’s reassuring and I’m not someone who feels the need to shake up – or even vary that much –my exercise, eating or sleeping habits. Maybe that makes me dull and predictable, but there is plenty of other unpredictability in my life; habits give me a sense of stability, having a home base.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
My identical twin sister. When she tries something and likes it, I often follow suit. That has happened with yoga, meditation, and eating Grape Nuts for dinner every once in a while.