Tag Archives: discipline

In Your Life, Has a Sweet Thing Become Bitter, by Excess?

“The sweetest things become the most bitter by excess.”


This line resonates with me, because one of my Secrets of Adulthood is “Every medicine can turn to poison.

For instance, for most people, sugar itself becomes bitter (figuratively) when consumed in excess. Also Facebook, discipline, caffeine, spending and saving, TV…and habits, of course.

Is  there any sweet thing in your life that has become bitter? Some medicine that has transformed to poison?

Former Navy SEAL and I Agree on an Important Habit. Not What You Might Expect.

Whenever I talk to people about their happiness projects, I ask, “What have you tried? What works for you?”

People tell me a million things they’ve done, but to my astonishment, the one resolution that comes up the most often — and this isn’t the most significant thing you could do to boost your happiness, but it does seem to be the thing that people most often try, and that does work — is to make your bed.

“Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.

I write a lot about this issue of “making your bed” in The Happiness Project and in Happier at Home — and it also comes up in my forthcoming book about habit-formation — so I got a big kick out of seeing that when Naval Adm. William McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave the commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin a few days ago, he specifically mentioned the resolution to…make your bed.

Here’s the video, here’s what he says:

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Viet Nam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task—mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs—but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

I wholeheartedly agree.

I also think that for many people — like me — an unmade bed is a broken window, which is why “Make the bed” is one of the most popular happiness-project resolutions, and in fact, the habit of bed-making is correlated with a sense of greater well-being and higher productivity.


(Now, some people say that, to the contrary, they revel in not making their beds. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is The opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for some people, a useful resolution might be “Don’t make your bed.” One person wrote to me, “My mother was so rigid about keeping the house tidy when I was a child that now I get a huge satisfaction from not making my bed, not hanging up my coat, etc. It makes me feel free.” Some people thrive on a little chaos. Everyone’s happiness project is different.)

What about you? Does making your bed – or not making your bed – contribute in a small way to your happiness? Or have you found other manageable resolutions that have brought more happiness than you would’ve expected?

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Agree, Disagree? Often It Takes Discipline To Take Pleasure.

One of the mysteries of human nature is: Why do we sometimes have to force ourselves to do the things we enjoy? —even the things we yearn to do?

A friend exemplified this perfectly when she said, “I love yoga. I look forward to it, I enjoy it when it’s happening, and I feel good when I look back on it. So why can’t I make myself go to yoga class?”

It seems like it shouldn’t be true, but it is true: often it takes discipline to take pleasure.

I have to push myself to take time to read a book, even though reading is my favorite thing to do.  I have to force myself to stop in the flower shop to buy a gardenia plant–which, by the way, I’ve been trying to get myself to do for days, but haven’t yet successfully done.

Do you ever face this? That there’s something you love to do, and is good for you, yet somehow you can’t get yourself to do it?

Four Personality Types: Which One Are You?

Assay:  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different people respond to rules–and I use “rules” broadly (see below for examples) to mean any kind of instruction to do or not do something.

I love to identify categories. Abstainers/moderators. Leopards/alchemists. Radiators/drains. And I now I can’t stop thinking about these four categories.

To see if you spot yourself in these categories, ask yourself:

How do I respond to an outer rule? A law, a traffic sign, a “request” from a spouse; a work deadline, an admonition from your doctor, an appointment with a trainer, social protocol?

How do I respond to an inner rule? A New Year’s resolution; a decision to exercise more; putting in work on a self-generated project (writing a novel, planting a garden).

With that in mind, consider whether any of these types rings a bell:

Upholder—accepts rules, whether from outside or inside. An upholder meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution. I am an Upholder, 100%.

Questioner—questions rules and accepts them only if they make sense. They may choose to follow rules, or not, according to their judgment.

Rebel—flouts rules, from outside or inside. They resist control. Give a rebel a rule, and the rebel will want to do the very opposite thing.

Obliger—accepts outside rules, but doesn’t like to adopt self-imposed rules.

Some examples:

An upholder stops at a stop sign at 3:00 a.m. in a small deserted town; so does an obliger. A questioner decides whether it’s safe to stop. A rebel rolls through the stop sign at 3:00 p.m. in traffic.

An upholder can train with a trainer or exercise on her own; a questioner can do either if he thinks it makes sense; a rebel will do neither, because the fact that she has an appointment or an item on her to-do list makes her want to disobey; an obliger can meet a trainer, but can’t get to the gym on his own.

Of course, this is about your tendency. There’s a continuum, and no one accepts or resists all rules, and some people don’t fit easily into one of the four types–but I’ve been amazed at how often people immediately place themselves firmly into one camp. Do you recognize yourself? How does this evince itself?

Each type has its pros and cons.

I’ve just started thinking about this so welcome any thoughts, experiences, additions. I’m going to write more about it soon.

“Decide What You Want or Need to Do, and Then Do It With All Your Power.”

Happiness interview with Chris Yeh.

I was e-introduced to Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Chris Yeh by my online-then-real-life friend Jackie Danicki.

Chris has been building Internet businesses since 1995 (which, if I recall correctly, was about the time that I actually used the Internet for the first time). He’s the VP Marketing for PBWorks, the world’s leading provider of hosted collaboration solutions, and he played a role in starting many other Internet companies. He has two interesting blogs: Adventures in Capitalism and Ask the Harvard MBA. Because I so often remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure, I was particularly interested in his recent post, Little bets and the power of quitting.

I was very curious to hear Chris’s perspective on happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Chris: There are so many simple things that make me happy that it’s hard for me to choose! Exercising, going shopping with my wife, having the kids ask me for hugs…all of those things apply for me. So let me pick one random thing that your readers might also enjoy. I love TVTropes.org. It’s a giant wiki of all the recurring motifs you’ll find in movies, TV, literature, and so on. Things like Dramatic Gun Cock or Crowning Moment of Awesome. For someone like me who loves to read, it’s like narrative crack in its purest form. I could spend hours reading about all the tropes that turn up in Star Trek for example. [I LOVE TVTropes! I’ve linked to it before. Dangerously fun.]

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is much less about accomplishments and much more about relationships. I was one of those child prodigies who was hell-bent on achieving more than anyone else. When I was in high school, the local paper interviewed me, and I actually said the following: “When someone does better than me in a class, I take it as a personal insult, which drives me even harder to be the best.” Scary, I know. But now I realize that I’m happiest when I’m with someone I enjoy spending time with, and I structure my life to maximize those kinds of interactions.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I’ve worked hard on this, but I still find myself comparing my professional successes to others. Have you ever noticed that the first thing you check when you see a LinkedIn profile is what year the person graduated from college? If they graduated after me, but have achieved more “success,” I still feel a slight twinge. Must be that “personal insult” thing again. But I’ve worked hard to overcome these feelings. Edward Deci has a great book, Why We Do What We Do. In it, he shows that people who focus on extrinsic motivations like being “successful” in the eyes of others are less happy than those who focus on intrinsic motivations like personal growth and loving relationships—even when they achieve those successes they crave. This was a huge revelation for me, and prompted me to rethink my life and even write a blog post about The Meaning of Life.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Everyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite expressions is “Let’s see what happens.” I don’t believe in borrowing trouble or worrying about things that I can’t control. It can drive me wife up the wall at times, because she is a born worrier—must be that Catholic guilt! I also want to call attention to a great book that most people don’t know about. Po Bronson is a famous author, but I think his best book is one of the least well known: Why Do I Love These People? It’s all about families and their relationships, and it is phenomenal.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
The more reliable happiness boost is to call someone I always enjoy speaking with. I have a couple of friends who are beacons of positivity and happiness, and talking with them can’t help but lift my mood. If they’re not available, I usually go for a run—there’s nothing like working up a good sweat to clear the mind.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
The biggest thing that I see that detracts from people’s happiness is the tendency to compare themselves with others. But the subtlest thing that most people miss that detracts from their happiness is the tendency to “check the boxes” and half-ass things. As Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When you half-ass something just to say you did it, you’re putting yourself in a subservient mentality—“I have to do this because someone told me to.” Decide what you want to or need to do, and then do it with all your power.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
You mean besides graduating from the 7th grade? Looking back, what’s interesting to me is that the few times in my life when I’ve felt less happy (I won’t say unhappy, because that’s incredibly rare and transitory) were right after graduating college, and right after finishing business school. I used to think that was because I missed the learning process, but I now realize that it was because in both cases, I suddenly left a community where I was surrounded by people I enjoyed spending time with to move across the country. In essence, I was lonely, and that loneliness was compounded by the withdrawal symptoms of leaving the welcoming confines of school and my friends. In both cases, I became happier after meeting new friends and spending more time with other people.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Absolutely. It’s like people who ask me, “Why are you so concerned about your diet? You’re in great shape.” The answer is, “Because that’s why I’m in great shape.” I’m happy because I work at being happy, though having a high natural level of happiness certainly helps. At first, I focused on figuring out what would make me happy. Now that I have a pretty good idea about that, I focus on making sure I do enough of the things that make me happy. [Yes, exactly! This is so important!] That means going out and setting up times to meet with people, calling friends randomly for no reason, and otherwise making sure that I give my personal relationships the attention they need to make me happy.

Ironically enough, a fair number of friends call me up when they are unhappy or dealing with problems in their lives so that I can lend a sympathetic ear. They often apologize afterward, saying things like, “I’m sorry to burden you,” or “You must be tired of hearing about my issues.” What I tell them is simple: Sometimes, the greatest gift you can give someone is to give them a chance to be the gift-giver. I enjoy helping others, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
The very first time I started a company, it was during the dot-com boom. As boom turned to bust, it became apparent that the business wasn’t going to make it, and that I’d have to lay people off and find an honorable exit for the company. I was filled with anxiety. Like many young people, I had been on a constant upward trajectory professionally, and I’d never dealt with any kind of failure. What would people think? Would I be damaged goods? And laying people off was difficult and painful. And of course everyone would prefer to IPO and make billions. But I found that once I had made those tough decisions, I felt much more at peace. I had accepted reality, and no longer had to strain myself trying to deny it.

Rather than trying to hide my failures, I embraced them. At the first event I attended afterward, a peer group of young entrepreneurs, I told people, “I’ve lost $6 million of my investors’ money. Let me share what I learned.” When I introduced myself to people, and they asked me, “What do you do?” I would reply, “I am an unemployed bum.” And that willingness to accept reality and acknowledge helped me recover both my happiness and my career far more quickly than anyone might expect.

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