Tag Archives: books

“I Wrote This Book on a Computer Keyboard that Used to Belong to Malcolm Gladwell.”

Interview: Daniel McGinn.

Dan McGinn is an editor at Harvard Business Review, and he’s written for publication such as Wired, Inc., the Boston Globe Magazine, and Newsweek.

He also has a book that just hit the shelves this week: Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. This is a question that fascinates many of us — how can we “psych ourselves up” to achieve our aims better?

As Dan explains, many strategies have been proven to boost performance. Some are widely practiced, some are dismissed as superstition, some are counter-intuitive — but what really works?

This book is crammed both with research and with practical, real-life examples of how people put these principles to work. Dan gives great suggestions for many strategies that can work in our own day-to-day lives, and he explains why they’re effective.

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

Dan: I’ve spent two years reporting on how people prepare to perform while writing Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. From this work, I’ve concluded that people in many professions can benefit from having the kind of pre-game routine or habits that we usually associate with Olympic or professional athletes. This routine can include rituals or superstitious behaviors, or listening to a particular kind of music or playlist, or relying on different techniques to boost confidence and reduce anxiety. Depending on the activity, it may even include drugs like beta blockers to lessen the nervous-making effects of adrenaline. Whether your work is done in isolation (like writing or coding) or in front of other people (like making sales calls or pitching venture capitalists), my research suggests you’ll do better if you find the mix of tool that get you in the optimal mindset in the final few minutes before you perform.

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

I have a long commute. Listening to audio books (purchased on Audible, or from my public library on Overdrive) has turned a big annoyance into something I look forward to. This habit consistently boosts my mood, and since I’m a writer myself, listening to good writing helps prime me to do my own work.

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

In my work as a writer, I’ve tried to increase my creativity and productivity by using a set of habits before I write. I try to spend a couple of minutes reading something I’ve written previously of which I’m especially proud; focusing on past success boosts my confidence. (After reading research on visual priming, I also keep some framed examples of my past work on my office walls to subconsciously prime me to perform.) I used to try to find the perfect music to listen to while I write, but after reading the research on music and productivity, I’ve realized that as an introvert, I work better in silence, so now I often use noise-cancelling headphones; when I want to be really productive, I write in a library. I also rely on superstition. Specifically, there’s research on “social contagion” that suggests using an implement (like a golf club) once used by someone you admire can help you perform better. I have a computer keyboard that used to belong to Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote this book on it, and while I don’t use it every day, I will use it for especially important or challenging work. It’s just one more way to feel more confident as I get to work.

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

I’ve always been a sporadic exerciser. But in the last six months I’ve started going to spin class several times a week. I started using my gym’s app to reserve a spot in class, and then I began paying an extra $20 a month to be able to reserve classes up to 7 days in advance. (Otherwise, you can only reserve 12 hours in advance.) I do cancel sometimes, but knowing that I’ve saved a spot (potentially taking it from someone else, as the class is often full) makes it more of a commitment, and that appeals to the Obliger in me. So far, it’s making a big difference.

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

I’m an Obliger. If I make plans to go for a solo run at 6 am, odds are 50-50 it will happen. If I agree to meet you on the first tee for a 6am golf round, I’ll be there every single time. I’d never heard of the Upholder/Questioner/Rebel/Obliger framework until I read your book, and understanding this tendency has been really powerful in helping me understand why I keep some commitments more than others. For instance, at work I now realize that setting a deadline for myself isn’t nearly as effective as telling someone else about a deadline (“I’ll get this to you by the end of business on Tuesday”), even if they haven’t asked when I’ll deliver.

Revealed! Books for June: a Talented Spider, an Unusual Perspective, and Health Hijinks.

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

— one outstanding book about happiness or habits or human nature

— 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.

Now, for the three book-club choices. Drumroll…

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

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A. J. Jacobs

This book contains a lot of very helpful information about how to be healthier — and it’s also hilarious and absurd. It’s a very fun way to learn about various ideas and trends in health. If you want to get healthier this summer, Drop Dead Healthy will inspire you. I think about this book just about every time I wash my hands or eat kale.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

I’m staggered to realize that I haven’t yet suggested one of the towering classics of children’s literature, the immortal Charlotte’s Web. It’s an extraordinary book, from the very first, unforgettable first line: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern.” Terrific characters, like Charlotte, Fern, Wilbur, and of course Templeton the Rat. Gorgeous, profound, but be warned, it’s also sad…when this book was read to me as a child, I cried for two days. But beautiful tears.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is an eminent animal scientist, and she also lectures widely on her experience with autism. Grandin provides an absolutely fascinating look into how she sees the world differently from non-autistic people, and how grappling with those differences has influenced her work and her life.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

If you want to make sure you never miss a month’s selections, sign up here for the book club newsletter.

Remember, if you want to see what I read each week, I post a photo of my pile of completed books on my Facebook Page every Sunday night, #GretchenRubinReads.

If you have any great suggestions for summer reading, or books about children going off to college, send them my way.

A Little Happier: A Tough Happiness Lesson from Hollywood’s Judd Apatow.

Ever since I read Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Hollywood producer, writer, director, and actor Judd Apatow (This is 40, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks, Girls, etc.), I’ve been haunted by this story.

During the course of his interview with the legendary James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow mentions how tough it was for him when his parents split up in 1984, when he was 13. His mother moved out.

He says, “She had a bit of a mental break after the divorce. She claimed that she thought she was going to leave and come right back, and my dad immediately moved his girlfriend in. Right before she died, she told me, ‘I always thought I was going to come right back. I always thought it was going to be a couple of weeks.’”

This strikes me as a great happiness reminder: we have to be very careful not to assume that we can predict how other people will react, especially to big dramatic gestures. We may have to deal with consequences that we didn’t predict.

Have you ever made a big gesture — with unexpected consequences?


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“My Not Procrastinating Stems from Laziness. If I Do Something Immediately, I Can Go Back to Reading.”

Interview: Pamela Paul.

I’ve known Pamela Paul for many years. When I switched from law to writing, one happiness stumbling block was that I didn’t know many other writers. Pamela was among the first writers that I got to know, and through her, I met a lot of other writers who have become my friends. So she has been a huge contributor to my personal happiness.

In her professional life, Pamela is an acclaimed journalist, editor, and author, and she’s also a passionate reader — credentials that make her perfect for her current position as the editor of The New York Times Book Review and head of all things book-related at The New York Times.

She’s also a member of one of my (three) beloved children’s literature reading groups. In fact, she wrote about the Kidlit group in her New York Times piece, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right.

I’m so excited — Pamela has written a memoir that combines her love of writing and reading (and also travel), and it just hit the shelves last week. The day it went on sale, I ran out to get my copy for my weekend reading: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I loved it.

Since high school, Pamela has kept a single journal with her at all times, a book called Bob. It’s her “Book of Books” (“Bob,” get it?), and in it, she records every book that she reads.

My Life with Bob is a reflection on her relationship with the books she reads — how those books have been entwined in her experiences, her relationships, her extensive travels, her work, and her understanding of the world.

When I read it, I was thrilled to see a mention of Kidlit! And myself mentioned by name! Yes, I am a character in someone else’s memoir.

I love memoirs where people explore their passions, and I also love reading books that gives me a reading list for more books to read.

I was also fascinated by the way Pamela reflected on her life by looking at her “Bob.” It’s such an interesting angle. Like writing a one-sentence journal, or taking one photo every day, she found a quick, manageable way to record her experience in a way that allowed her to look back, reflect, and get a better glimpse of her life. So many thought-provoking, hilarious stories.

I couldn’t wait to hear what Pamela had to say about happiness and habits.

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

Pamela: When I am away from my children, I keep my phone by my side. When I am with my children, I (try very hard to) keep my phone away from my side. Obviously, work (and life) can interfere with that, but I really want to be present when I’m with them and available when I’m not. As a parent working full-time outside the home, this makes me happier.

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

I know that you can change your habits, for better and for worse. When I was younger, I thought you created habits for life. Now I realize that life can interfere with even the most ingrained habits. For example, I used to have a habit of exercising three times a week, but I’ve lost that in the last 2 years. Obviously, that falls into the “for worse” category. For better, I have found that when circumstance calls for it, I can start much better habits. When I was pregnant with each of my kids, I was able to learn to sleep on my side and my back, rather than my stomach, which I know is better for my back and overall posture.

Like a lot of people, I’m hard enough on myself as it is. Knowing that there can be a certain amount of flexibility in my habits makes me feel more aspirational and optimistic about the possibility of forming better ones, and more forgiving about falling into poor ones.

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

My most important habit is sleep. If I don’t get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, I am generally unhappy. If I have less than 6 hours, I almost entirely useless. If I get between 6 hours and 7 hours, I complain about it all day and blame all that goes wrong in the world on my lack of sleep, and that includes everything my kids do that irritates me that day, every unpleasant news development and every personal failing. Also, I send emails I regret and blurt out things I ought never have said. Sleep makes everything better.

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

Books keep me up later than they should that isn’t good for my most important habit, sleep. Also, really good TV shows, when I have the chance to watch them, are terrible for sleeping. The most recent one was “Stranger Things,” which I was possessed by. Now it’s “The Night Manager.” A few years ago, it was “Breaking Bad.” That show nearly destroyed me, and a few weeks after I’d finally finished binge watching it again, I started watching the first episode from the beginning and knew immediately that if I finished watching that episode, I would fall right back down the rabbit hole and not emerge again until I’d gone through every season. I had to turn it off at that very moment. It’s taken effort not to go back there.

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.?

Like most kids, I procrastinated doing everything: raking the leaves, constructing dioramas, bringing in bagels from the outside freezer. Then one day, I had a kind of epiphany though I can’t say it began with a lightning bolt. Instead, I recall it happening as I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, pushing a pencil through the grayish pink carpet while contemplating what I didn’t want to have to do that week. Here was my realization:

Say I had a homework assignment. I realized that I could either put the assignment off for a week and thereby add to the list of things I had to do, which is to say, add a week’s worth of low-level stress and then a day of high-stress when I struggled to get it done at the last minute. Or, I could simply do the homework as soon as it was assigned, and then spend a week feeling accomplished and relaxed and able to read or play games on my brother’s Apple II+ or do whatever else I wanted to do with that time. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it has ever since. I know it sounds show-offy to brag about it, but fundamentally, not procrastinating stems from a profound laziness. If I do something immediately, I get it out of the way and I can go back to lying around reading or watching a movie instead.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?


“The Incremental Improvements We Make Become Dramatic and Powerful over Time.”

Interview: Tasha Eurich.

As someone who values self-knowledge, I was intrigued by Tasha Eurich’s new book, Insight, about self-awareness. Her research shows that we are remarkably poor judges of ourselves and how we’re perceived by others, and it’s rare to get candid, objective feedback from colleagues, employees, and even friends and family.

In my own life, I’ve found that responses from others have helped me better to understand myself and how I come across. My daughter Eleanor recently made me see myself in an entirely new light. And through my discussions with Elizabeth on the Happier podcast, I’ve come to understand better how my Upholder ways may sometimes rub people the wrong way. What, I’m being rude when I send that work email over the weekend?

In Insight, Tasha tells stories of people who’ve made dramatic self-awareness gains, and offers secrets, techniques and strategies to help readers do the same — and therefore improve their work performance, career satisfaction, leadership potential, relationships, and more. I was curious to learn about her habits.

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

Tasha: I love this question because my research on self-awareness relates so nicely to your enlightening work on habits. I’ve spent the last three years researching what self-awareness is and how we can improve it to be more successful and confident at work (and at home). Part of that involved studying people who’ve dramatically improved their understanding of who they are and how they’re seen by others. Interestingly, I didn’t find any consistent patterns by gender or by job type or even by age—what they all had in common was a belief in the importance of self-awareness and a daily commitment to it.

In a way, self-awareness was the habit they cultivated. Whether they spent time each evening reflecting on what went well and what didn’t or regularly questioning their assumptions about themselves by getting feedback from people they trusted, or daily mindfulness meditation, each person made it a habit to reflect on their self-knowledge.

What I love about this is that it shows that often there is no big moment or epiphany for most people, rather, it’s something we can chip away at each and every day. Added up, the incremental improvements we make do become dramatic and powerful over time.

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

Most recently my adopted dog Fred! She’s a five-pound poodle and puppy mill survivor, from the National Milldog Rescue (an incredible organization!!). I’ve taken to bringing her with me to lots of the places I go—to restaurant patios, to friends’ houses, and even on some of my business trips. Whenever I’m taking Fred somewhere, I’ll announce to her that we’re about to go on an adventure, and her ears perk up and she runs towards the door. It’s a small thing but I think any day that I get to practice that habit is a day that we both feel more relaxed, happy, and at peace. We are each other’s emotional support animals!

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

About three years ago, I joined Orange Theory Fitness, a gym that does high-intensity interval training. I’d literally never run a mile in my life—I was the awkward kid who sat out in gym class because of my asthma. I started going once or twice a week, and not only did I find it surprisingly enjoyable, I was actually sad on the days I didn’t go! I joke that I wrote most of my book while running on the treadmill at the gym. I’ve found that there’s no better way for me to get unstuck—intellectually and emotionally—than high impact exercise.

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

Based on the quiz, I think I’m an Upholder and I am very goal and rule oriented. But I also care about others’ expectations of me. The day my first book hit the New York Times bestseller list, I literally turned to my husband and said “Well, I guess it’s time to start the next book!” He was horrified and dragged me to a celebratory dinner. I’ve always had pretty unreasonably high expectations for myself and while it’s helped me achieve many of my goals, it wasn’t always healthy. I’ve found myself worried about whether I’m meeting others’ expectations—am I being a good consultant? A good wife? A good friend? A good daughter? Most days, asking these questions is healthy, but I have to make sure that my own needs are not getting lost in the shuffle, which is a little Obliger-y. [From Gretchen: These views are absolutely consistent with Upholderness. Upholders respond both to outer and inner expectations.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’ve always craved novelty in my day-to-day life. It’s so interesting being married to someone who has worked for the same company for 22 years—my husband loves having the same routine every day and finds comfort and excitement in it. For me, though, one of the reasons I was less-than-fulfilled when I worked in the Fortune 500 world was showing up to the same office in the same place with the same people every day.

But that’s also why I love what I do now—I go from being locked in my office or a coffee shop writing one day to getting on a plane and flying to work with a consulting client or do a keynote. No two days are the same, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, I don’t think that an ever-changing routine necessarily precludes one from developing habits—for example, if anyone messes with my airport check-in/security routine, I get pretty stressed. These habits just might not be as apparent to outside observers as they are to me!

One of the things I hope people learn from my new book Insight is that self-awareness allows you to acknowledge the things that are important to you—not what you think should be important but what actually is—and design your life (and by extension, your habits) around them. I can have both novelty that I crave and habits that create healthy order.