Tag Archives: book

For Habits, “Adopting a Sabbath Pause Has Been Revelatory.”

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.

“My Laptop Is My Friend and My Enemy.”

Interview: Alan Burdick.

I’m fascinated by time, and our perception of time. Of everything I’ve ever written, I think this one-minute video, “The days are long, but the years are short,” is the thing that resonates most with people.

So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Alan Burdick’s new book, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. It’s a fascinating, mind-blowing look at the curious qualities of time — how we understand it, how it affects our bodies, how it’s both an objective measurement and a subjective experience.

I just started this book yesterday, and I’m racing through it — it’s just my kind of book. What happens when a person lives in a cave, cut off from any light? Why does time seem to pass more quickly, the older we get? How is it possible that many people (like Alan himself) often wake up at exactly the same minute every morning? How can the years seem so short, and the days feel so long? And so on.

Alan is a staff writer and former senior editor at The New Yorker, and his writing has appeared in magazines from Discover to Harper’s to GQ. His book Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion was a National Book Award finalist. So he’s a great writer to tackle such an immense and thought-provoking subject.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Alan: Until I began working on Why Time Flies, I hadn’t realized how deeply time is embedded in us. Each of our cells is basically a clock that beats out a firm twenty-four-hour rhythm; together these form bigger clocks — the liver, the kidneys — that also keep a twenty-four rhythm, and as group they’re responsible for running our physiology. Basically, the sum of me, and you, is a clock, and respecting its rhythm is essential to one’s health. So, for instance, I’ve stopped eating late at night, as that’s the least efficient time of day to metabolize food. And I try to get outside for at least a few minutes every morning, because exposure to daylight at that time of day ultimately helps me sleep better. It’s a matter of listening to the clock that is me.

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

Running — it’s good exercise, of course, but it also clears my mind. I’ve been a runner since forever, and now that my kids are old enough, we can all go to the track in the afternoon or on a weekend and run around it together, I love it.

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

That having and keeping a schedule can be liberating. I used to hate the idea of planning out my day, with certain hours set aside for writing, errands, and whatever else; it felt confining. But that sort of planning actually relieves me of the stress of deciding what to do next – which, in my case, can fill up way more time than it should. So once I’ve blocked out my day, I can actually relax into each block of time a little more, because I don’t have to spend any of that time thinking about what needs to happen in the next period.

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

Procrastination; I put stuff off, although I’m much better than I used to be. Some years ago I read Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, and that made a difference. I realized that, for me at least, procrastination is often a way of avoiding making a decision – and simply acknowledging that is the first step toward actually making whatever decision needs to be made. I also make a lot of lists now; by writing down all the things I need to do, I remove the distraction of trying to juggle all that stuff in my head. Plus I have the satisfaction of crossing something off a list.

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

One of the healthiest things I can do for myself is to wake up early, at maybe 5 a.m., and put in a couple of hours of writing before our kids get up. That’s the most productive window of my day. But I’m just not a natural early-riser; it’s so hard to get out of bed at that hour! Often, instead, I do the opposite: stay up really late and write until 1 or 2 a.m. That’s also a productive window for me – but it’s exhausting and it makes my next day start late. The key to my establishing the habit of getting up early is to avoid the temptation to go back to work at night after the kids have gone to bed. Like me, my wife is a journalist and writer, and it can be hard for us to unplug from the world, so I always keep a good book by the bed to help me turn off my work-brain.

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

An Obliger, definitely; I’m much better with a deadline set by someone else than with one I set myself.

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

My laptop is my friend and my enemy. It’s where I do my writing, and I’d be lost without it, but I also struggle constantly against getting sucked into its many distractions and wonders – email, Twitter, Facebook, the news, Wikipedia entries about anteaters, and the rest. So I try to block out a couple of hours during my workday when I literally turn off the Internet; the software app Freedom is great for that. Even then, though, I’ll start rooting around in my computer files, looking at old photos, cleaning out the hard-drive, anything to avoid the blank page. That’s the point at which I turn off my laptop, put a notebook and pen in my pocket, and go for a walk.

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.?

One night at dinner, when our kids were maybe 6 years old – we have twin boys, they’re now 10 – one of them said for the zillionth time, “Dad, hey dad …” and it suddenly hit me: I’m their dad. Obviously, I knew for years that I was a parent and a dad. But I still thought of me as just me: Alan, writer, editor at various magazines, ran track in high school, traveled after college in Central America, and all of the other memories. That was my identity, and it matched pretty well with the way that Susan, my wife, sees me. But suddenly I realized that here were two people very close to me who knew none of that: to them, my identity was dad.

That made me sit up straight. In the book I write about how, as I grew into the role of parent, I sometimes felt like I was dismantling a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. The story of my self wasn’t just mine any more. It also meant that my habits, weren’t just mine anymore either, so I needed to work harder at developing some good ones — regular exercise, getting my full dose of sleep, writing at the same time every day. I’d gotten bogged down in the book, but that exchange with the kids pushed me to get reorganize, double-down, and finish. Also, by then, the boys were old enough to say things like, “I bet J. K. Rowling writes faster than you,” and that prodding helped, too.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’m very good with habits once I start them – it’s the starting-them part that I resist!

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

For the first couple of years after our twins were born, our life was chaos; we were learning to be parents, twice over; both of us were trying to work; and we’d just bought our first house and were discovering how much work that entails. Somewhere in there my mother-in-law gave us some priceless advice: make your bed every morning. It seems like such a small thing, which is exactly why it’s so worthwhile. We start the day having accomplished one small task of self-improvement, so subsequent ones feel easier to achieve. And at the end of the day, if life is still chaotic, we have a well-made bed to crawl into. All these years later we still make our bed every morning, often together — it’s a like a gift to our future selves.

“The Habit of Daily Exercise Was Probably the Most Important and Unexpected Thing I Learned at Business School.”

Interview: Kim Scott.

I’ve known Kim for many years. She and I (and my husband Jamie, too) worked at the Federal Communications Commission together. After that job, I switched to being a full-time writer, and she worked in a bunch of different places, including three failed start-ups, Google, and Apple, and wrote novels.

I’m thrilled that with her co-host Russ Laraway, she’s heading the terrific new Radical Candor podcast on The Onward Project family of podcasts that I’ve just launched — podcasts about your life, made better. The Radical Candor podcast is about being a better boss, a better colleague, a better team member.

I love talking to Kim about workplace issues. She has such interesting things to say about how to be a terrific boss or colleague who has high standards, and who can help people grow and improve, but also be kind. It can be a tough balance.

Her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity comes out in a few months — a terrific books, with fascinating stories from her own life (including mistakes and failures, always my favorites), practical suggestions, and profound insights.

As a side note, I thought of Kim when I read this line by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as she described her friend the poet Apollinaire:

“The death of Guillaume Apollinaire at this time made a very serious difference to all his friends apart from their sorrow at his death. It was the moment just after the war when many things had changed and people naturally fell apart. Guillaume would have been a bond of union, he always had a quality of keeping people together, and now that he was gone everybody ceased to be friends.”

I’ve never known exactly how she does it, but Kim also has this quality of “keeping people together” to help them be friends. I’m going to ask her to about this on the Radical Candor podcast! How does she do it?

Naturally I wanted to quiz Kim about her habits.

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

Kim: I declared 1999 the Year of my Fantasy. I quit my job and did only the things that I wanted to do. It turned out that not having a job was enormously productive: I wrote a novel, I worked at a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, and I started Juice Software. The reason I was able to do so many things that year was not because I wasn’t working, but because I started the year out focusing on how to be happy. I found three habits were responsible for keeping me happy:

  1. Sleeping 8 hours a night
  2. Exercising 45 minutes a day
  3. Having a real conversation with somebody I love every day.

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

I had no idea how bad sugar is, how much of it is snuck into our food, or how much we need a little fat to deal with the sugar that’s in foods we don’t think of as sugary (milk, Cheerios, etc). I learned this only when I got gestational diabetes, and the experience of checking my blood sugar levels after every meal really changed my eating habits for the rest of my life.

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

I like to have a glass of wine with dinner. I prefer two glasses. And unless I focus on not having that third, I reach for it. That much alcohol interrupts my sleep, which affects my happiness.

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

Sleeping 8 hours a night is probably the most important habit I have for health, creativity, productivity, and for enjoying leisure.

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

I quit drinking altogether for about 18 months to break my 3 drinks a day habit. Here were the things that helped:

  1. Having a ritual of a seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice and a lime
  2. Eating dinner earlier–often I was hungry and had a drink rather than eating something
  3. Eating food I really looked forward to eating
  4. Arriving at parties late

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

I am definitely a Rebel!

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

I have twins who are seven years old and go to bed at 8:00. The temptation to crawl under the covers with them as they are falling asleep is often overwhelming. When I succumb to it, I fall asleep too. Then I wake up around 11 with a crick in my neck and am unable to go back to sleep till about 3 am. It’s a disaster for healthy sleep habits!

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 never exercised regularly until I got to business school. I went to Harvard, where they really stressed the importance of daily exercise, and put their money where their mouth was. They spoiled all business school students with a beautiful gym and free personal trainers. Developing a habit of daily exercise was probably the most important and unexpected thing I learned at business school.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

As a Rebel I resisted anything that looked like habit or routine from 1967-1999. Then, in an act of rebellion, I found that having a few habits made me so much happier and left me with so much more energy for other more important rebellions that I adopted a few 🙂

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

You have been a huge influence on habits–both breaking them and adopting them. [Awww, thanks Kim!]

In 1998, I realized that I was in a habit of hating my work. I started talking to people about quitting my job so that I could break this habit, and you were one of the people I talked to. But, I wasn’t making any moves to actually quit. I kept coming up with reasons to delay quitting. Most people, nervous about the idea of my unemployment, reinforced my habit of staying in jobs I hated. But you looked at me one day and said, “Don’t forget to quit!” Your words rang in my ears over and over, and were a big part of what propelled me on the Year of My Fantasy.

You also helped me with a more mundane habit: flossing. Like you I hate to floss. You suggested toothpicks, and I took your suggestion. I now have toothpicks at my desk, in my bag, in my car. My dentist is pleased, and I feel virtuous!

Podcast 80: A Very Special Episode Focused on Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages.”

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: It’s almost September, and for many of us, September is the other January. If you get a clean slate, start-over feeling in September, check out my book Happier at Home. If you’re not happy at home, it’s hard to be happy.

Very Special Episode: Every tenth episode we do a Very Special Episode, and for episode 80, we’re talking about Gary Chapman’s blockbuster bestselling book, The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts.

I love a personality framework derived from observation! If you want to experience my own personality framework, the Four Tendencies, to find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, check it out here.

The Five Languages:

  • Words of Affirmation — the love language for both Elizabeth and me
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch

 

Gretchen’s Demerit: I didn’t give a proper good-night kiss to Jamie, even though I’d just been thinking about the fact that his language is Physical Touch.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth gives Acts-of-Service Adam a gold star for buying a light-weight comforter.

Want to give us the Words of Affirmation we both crave, for the podcast? Easy instructions here about how to rate and review the podcast (scroll down).

Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page about the podcast. To join the conversation, check the schedule. 

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #80

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much.

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Revealed! Book Club Choices for August. Three Terrific Books.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

  • one outstanding book about happiness or habits
  • one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit
  • one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

 

Shop at IndieBound, BN.com, or Amazon (I’m an affiliate), or your favorite local bookstore. Or my favorite, visit the library!

For all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read most of them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.  Drumroll…

A book about happiness, good habits, or human nature:

Born Standing Up by Steven Martin

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

An outstanding children’s book:

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

An eccentric pick:

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.