Tag Archives: habit-formation

My New Habit for Tackling Nagging Tasks: Power Hour.

I’m working on Better Than Before , a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?

One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off—in many cases, for months. Maybe years.

These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.

But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks?

I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.

I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “Haste makes waste” is more compelling than “Hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “Power Hour.”

First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use Power Hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And I couldn’t use Power Hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power Hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be—and probably already have been—indefinitely postponed. For instance:

 Make a photo album of our summer vacation

Use up store credits

Donate books to Housing Works

Move pretend kitchen

Round up and recycle batteries and devices

It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Power Hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of Power Hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives.

These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?

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The Habits We Most Want to Foster, or, the “Essential Seven.”

My current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.

When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

Last week, I posted about the “Big Five,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall.

I asked for reader advice about two questions: had I overlooked any areas, and was there a better name than “Big Five”?

Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.

First: yes, indeed, I’d missed some important areas. Now I have seven areas.

Second: given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.

Voila! The Essential Seven include…

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save and spend wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, pay taxes, stay current with expense reports)

4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself)

5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing)

7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read the Bible every day, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature)

Of course, the same habit might satisfy different needs for different people. For one person, yoga might be a form of exercise (#2), for someone else, a way to find mental rest (#4); for someone else, a spiritual practice (#7). And people value different habits. For one person, organized files might be a crucial tool for creativity; another person finds inspiration in random juxtapositions.

The argument I’ll make in Before and After is that when we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then—and this is the best part—we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, and our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

So readers, what do you think of the Essential Seven–the name and the concepts themselves? I very much appreciate all the thoughtful comments that people posted. Very, very helpful.

I must say, it pleases me to have seven. I hate to quote Voldemort, but he was right when he observed, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Isn’t seven the most powerfully magic number?”

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #10: the One-Coin Loophole.

For two weeks, I’ve done a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #9, the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.  Today is the final day with a loophole I’ve written about before

Loophole Category #10: the One-Coin Loophole

One of the most insidious of loopholes is the “one-coin loophole”—insidious because it’s absolutely true. This loophole gets its name from “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.  (I love teaching stories, koans, paradoxes, fables, etc.) According to a footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:

“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

This teaching story highlights a paradox that’s very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.

Pointing to the one coin is a way to deny a conflict between our values: we’re not choosing between our desire for French fries and for healthy eating habits, because eating one bag of fries is an insignificant act. But when we consider the accumulated cost of the French fries, the conflict looks different.

I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.

 

One beer won’t make a difference.

 

What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or at a video arcade?

 

Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?

 

A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.

A friend told me, “I’ve really changed my eating habits, I’ve lost seventy pounds. A woman in my office uses that against me! She’s always saying, ‘Come on, you eat so well now, one cupcake won’t kill you.’ So I say, ‘You’re right, having one cupcake is no big deal—but I’m not going to have one today.’”

It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.

The Strategy of Monitoring is helpful with the one-coin problem, because monitoring reminds me that my heap is growing—or not. Without monitoring, it’s easy to lose track of what I’ve actually accomplished.

Do you invoke the one-coin loophole? As I said, the challenge of this loophole is that it’s true.

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #8: the Concern for Others Loophole.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits.

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #7, the Questionable Assumption loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #8: the Concern for Others Loophole.

We often use the loophole of telling ourselves that we’re acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or, more strategically, we decide we must do something in order to fit in to a social situation. Maybe we do — and maybe we don’t.

It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I get up early to write.

 

I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.

 

So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health.

 

It would be so rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of birthday cake.

 

I don’t want to seem holier-than-thou.

 

Changing my schedule would inconvenience other people.

 

Other people’s feelings will be hurt if I don’t partake.

 

I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.

 

At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink. (Somewhat to my surprise, this loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

This particular loophole doesn’t appeal to me, because I — for better and sometimes certainly for worse — am not much bothered by what other people think of my (some very peculiar) habits. As I discovered when I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor that measures personality according to the Big Five model (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or OCEAN), for a woman I score “low” on agreeableness, which measures a person’s tendency to be compassionate and cooperative and to value getting along harmoniously with others.

I suspect that my low agreeableness accounts for my willingness to appear fussy or to be out of step in social situations. Also, in all modesty, my lack of concern stems from modesty: I just can’t imagine that others are paying much attention to me.

For instance, I more or less gave up drinking, and that decision never makes me feel uncomfortable.

But for some people, I’ve discovered, this loophole is a major challenge. Relationships are a key to happiness, and if a particular habit makes you feel very awkward about being out of sync in a social situation, or you worry that you’re hurting other people’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable, this is a real factor in the formation of a habit.

By identifying the loophole, you can identify possible solutions. “Everyone else is drinking, so I’ll order a sparkling water, and no one will know what’s in my glass.” “Everyone else is ordering a drink, so I’ll order a glass of wine, but I won’t drink it, I’ll just leave it on the table.” “My grandmother gets upset if I don’t take seconds, so I’ll take a very small portion the first time, so she sees me go back for more.” “I’ll talk to my partner about whether this new habit is actually inconvenient, and if so, how we can work out a schedule that works for both of us.”

Sidenote: when you’re forming a new habit that feels awkward to others, give them time to adjust. Any change feels awkward at first. But if you keep starting and stopping, no gets used to a new pattern. For instance, a friend wanted to go for a run on weekend mornings, but her family complained that she wasn’t around to get the day started — so she immediately stopped. She started again, and stuck to it, and after the first few weekends went by, everyone got used to starting the day on their own.

Do you find yourself invoking a heed for others — to the detriment of your own habits? In what situations?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits.

In this series, I focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #6, the This Doesn’t Count” loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

A very popular loophole! Consciously or unconsciously, we make assumptions that influence our habits—and often, not for the better. They often become less convincing under close scrutiny. A reader posted a good example: “I set up weird mental blocks around my time. For instance, if it’s 9 a.m. and I have an appointment at 11 a.m. I’ll think ‘Oh, I have to go somewhere in two hours, so I can’t really start anything serious’ and then end up wasting my whole morning waiting for one thing to happen.”

It’s not a proper dinner without wine.

 

This is taking too long, I should be done already.

 

I can’t start working until my office is clean.

 

I need to eat a lot to get good value from this buffet.

 

People should get exercise by having fun—by playing tennis or going skiing—not by exercising for the sake of exercising.

 

I’m too busy to take the stairs. It’s faster to wait in this long elevator line.

The label says it’s healthy. (In one study, when a cookie was described as an “oatmeal snack,” instead of a “gourmet cookie,” people ate thirty-five percent more.)

 

If I do this, my craving will be satisfied, and I’ll stop.

 

I’ll outgrow this habit. (For years, I assumed I would outgrow my hair-twisting.)

 

I can’t work out if I’ve already showered.

 

I’m so far behind, there’s no point in doing anything.

 

If a little of this is good for me, a lot will be even better.

 

Everyone’s got to have some vices.

 

My instructor will be angry with me because I’ve missed so many times.

 

Dramatically changing my eating habits has allowed me to hit my goal weight, so now I can return to eating normally.

 

If I wait until I’m more in the mood to do it, I’ll do a better job.

 

It’s too late in the week to start.

 

It’s ridiculous to pay for a gym/a trainer/a home treadmill/a personal organizer/a financial advisor to help me with this behavior, when I could do it perfectly well for free on my own. (Especially if you’re an Obliger, forming those external systems of accountability are key.)

 

If I indulge now, I’ll get it out of my system.

 

People notice what I do. (In a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect,” we assume think that we’re being observed much more closely than we are. In an experiment in which students walked into a classroom wearing a Barry Manilow shirt, they greatly exaggerated how many people noticed the t-shirt design.)

 

People who follow strict rules will inevitably fall off the wagon.

 

It would be a good idea to test my willpower.

 

This will help me sleep.

 

This will help me concentrate.

 

If I don’t do this now, I’ll just do something worse later.

 

It’s not fair that other people should be able to do this, but not me—so it’s okay for me to do it too.

 

If I indulge massively now, I’ll feel so disgusted with myself that it will be easy to be good.

 

Unless I can sweat for an hour, it’s not worth exercising.

 

If I worry about something, I’ll ward off danger.

 

Insisting that people accept food or drink is a great way to show my love.

 

I’ll just have a few bites. (A reasonable assumption for Moderators but not Abstainers.)

 

I should feel stuffed when I leave the table. (The Japanese saying hara hachi bu means “eat until you’re eighty percent full.”)

 

Doing a lot of research about a healthy habit means that I’m about to start practicing that habit. (A trainer told me that some people ask questions as a way to tell themselves they’re about to start, when in fact, it’s a delaying tactic.)

 

Watching TV is the only thing to do at home in the evening.

One very sneaky questionable-assumption loophole is the assumption that a habit is so ingrained that we can ease off.  “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up.” Unfortunately, we have a tendency to regress, and even long-standing healthy habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent. Research shows that people tend to overestimate the amount of temptation they can face.

I experienced this with driving. I’m a fearful driver, and for many years in New York City, I didn’t drive at all. Finally, as part of my Happier at Home project, I tackled this fear and started driving again. I still very much dislike driving, but I do drive, and I aim to drive at least once a week, to stay in the habit of driving. However, I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’m so much less afraid to drive than I used to be. In fact, I don’t think I have to drive once a week anymore.” Hah!

Do you find yourself making questionable assumptions in order to justify breaking a good habit?

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