Tag Archives: habits

“As Soon as I Finished the Video Game, I Thought, ‘Well, There’s 8 Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back.'”

Interview: Eric Barker.

I got to know Eric Barker through his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.  It’s a funny, practical, and interesting look at “how to be awesome at life.”

His new book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, came out last month. It’s already a bestseller and has generated a lot of buzz.

It’s all about learning what makes people successful — or not — by looking at science, great figures in history, and stories from everyday life. Some of his conclusions are quite counter-intuitive.

I knew that Eric thinks a lot about happiness, habits, health, productivity, and all the related topics, so I was curious to hear his answers.

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

Eric: Exercise. Spending time with my girlfriend makes me happier, but that’s less of a habit and more of an addiction.

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

Stanford professor BJ Fogg has a concept called “Minimum Viable Effort” which I love. Since consistency is so critical to building a habit, he says to start off doing the absolute minimum — but doing it consistently. So even if I was utterly exhausted, I would make myself go to the gym. I wouldn’t work out, but I’d go. Then I’d turn around and leave. It felt utterly ridiculous but it got me into the habit of going every day. (Now I actually exercise and it’s far less ridiculous.)

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

I tend to ruminate. I’ve reduced this by using something mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein told me: whenever you’re dwelling on negative thoughts, pause and ask yourself, “Is this useful?” 99% of the time, it’s not.

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

Exercise, meditation, and socializing (I’m quite the introvert. If this isn’t practiced like a habit, often it doesn’t happen.)

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

For me, the most effective way to break bad habits and encourage new ones has been through manipulating my environment. Eating healthy is easy when you only have healthy food in the house. I often employ Shawn Achor’s 20-second rule. I make good habits 20 seconds easier to engage in and bad habits 20 seconds harder. It’s shockingly effective.

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

Questioner. Definitely. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I have a really hard time with it. I find this helps me accomplish tasks effectively, but can cause problems in my relationships if I don’t temper it.

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

I don’t work according to a clock. Things are done when they’re done. So that means sometimes I pull crazy long hours and everything else gets shoved aside when I’m in the thick of working — including good 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.? 

Years ago I spent an entire Saturday playing a video game from beginning to end on my Xbox. As soon as I was finished I thought, “Well, there’s 8 hours of my life I’ll never get back.” I haven’t seriously played a video game since.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I resist them until they’re solidly a habit. Once they’re something I do daily, it’s like flipping a switch and I get irritated if I can’t do them.

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

Yes — but generally because they were a very bad example and I said, “Whoa, I don’t want to be like that.”

Want to Change an Important Habit? Tips for Upholders, Questioners, Obligers & Rebels.

Do you want to make a significant change in your life? Or help someone else to make an important change?

Often, this means changing a habit (get more sleep, quit sugar, exercise regularly, spend more time in nature, put down devices). Habits are like the invisible architecture of daily life — research suggests that about 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits.

In my book Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. (Want to see the whole list? Scroll to the bottom of this post.)

Sometimes people get a bit freaked out that there are so many strategies to choose from — but it’s helpful that so many strategies exist. Because some strategies work very well for some people, and not for others, and some strategies are available to us at some times in our lives, but not at other times.

The most important point? There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to changing habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.

To change your habits, it’s crucial to identify your Tendency.

Yes, I’m obsessed with my Four Tendencies framework. It explains so much! The world is much less puzzling and frustrating to me now that I understand the Four Tendencies. (Order my new book, The Four Tendencies here.)

When you know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, you’re better able to set yourself up for success. And if you’re trying to help other people to change their habits, you’re more effective.

Don’t know your Tendency? Take the quiz here.

Note: While many strategies work for just about everybody (Convenience, Inconvenience, Foundation, Clean Slate, Lightning Bolt), some strategies that work very well for one Tendency can actually be counter-productive for another.


Strategy of Scheduling (most important for Upholders)

The Strategy of Scheduling is a powerful tool for Upholders. They love to keep a schedule and march through every item. Whatever appears on the calendar—go to the gym on Monday and Thursday, write 1,000 words every day, goof off—gets done. They can make time for every person and activity they value, by putting it on the calendar.

Strategy of Clarity

When Upholders know clearly what’s expected, they can generally meet that expectations. Very, very important to remember: Upholders can meet inner expectations, but only when those inner expectations are articulated.


Strategy of Monitoring

Upholders do well with the Strategy of Monitoring, because they tend to love to-do lists with items to check off. Monitoring plays to this inclination: “I intend to walk 10,000 steps today, and look, my monitor says I hit that number.”

Strategy of Pairing

Upholders can make good use of the Strategy of Pairing, because it’s easy for them to enforce the pairing rule on themselves. If an Upholder gets himself to go to the gym by pairing, “I can only shave on a day when I’ve gone to the gym,” he won’t have any trouble holding himself to that pairing.

Note: Because Upholders can take advantage of just about every strategy, anyone who touts a scheme or device that’s meant to help people form good habits will have some success—because Upholders will tend to uphold, no matter what.


Strategy of Clarity (most important for Questioners)

The Strategy of Clarity is crucial for Questioners. They want to know exactly what they’re doing, and why. They won’t meet an expectation if they don’t understand the reason, so they must receive robust answers to their questions. They also must clearly see and trust the authority and expertise of the person asking them to meet that expectation.

Strategy of Monitoring

The Strategy of Monitoring is a good fit for Questioners; Questioners’ love of data means they enjoy self-monitoring. They might wear a device to track the number of steps they take; use an app to track when they take their medication, or chart what time they go to bed.

Strategy of Distinctions

The Strategy of Distinctions may resonate with Questioners, because it emphasizes that a habit should be tweaked very specifically to suit an individual’s character and idiosyncrasies—something that appeals to Questioners, who love customization. They can sometimes be convinced to try something “as an experiment.” “Why don’t you try this, you’ll find out if it works for you, and if not, you can try something else.”

Strategy of Loophole-Spotting

The Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is particularly important for Questioners, because it addresses a common stumbling block for Questioners: the invoking of loopholes to justify breaking a good habit. “I should exercise.” “But it’s too cold outside.” “Do my workout inside.” “But I have too much work and that takes precedence over exercise.”


Strategy of Accountability (most important for Obligers)

All Four Tendencies (even, under certain circumstances, Rebels) find accountability to be useful for developing habits, but Obligers absolutely require structures of external accountability. They need oversight, deadlines, and consequences, and the involvement of accountability partners, such as coaches, accountability groups, trainers, health navigators, friends, or their own children. Obligers often feel a powerful sense of obligation to be good role models. They can often do something for someone else that they can’t do for themselves: “Once my baby was born, I had to quit smoking.”

Strategy of Monitoring

Monitoring supports accountability, and the more Obligers monitor their behavior, the more easily accountability will attach.

Strategy of Other People

Because of the weight imposed by outer expectations, Obligers—and the people around Obligers—must take careful note of the influence of other people, for good or ill.

Strategy of Treats

All of us should use the Strategy of Treats; when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Because Obligers may fall into Obliger-rebellion when they feel burned out or exploited, it’s important that they get treats as a way to energize themselves. Remember, a treat is different from a reward! Rewards are very, very tricky to use correctly. Stick with treats!


Strategy of Identity (most important for Rebels)

For Rebels, the most effective habit-change strategy is the Strategy of Identity. Because Rebels place great value on being true to themselves, they can embrace a habit if they view it as a way to express their identity.

 Strategy of Clarity

The Strategy of Clarity works for Rebels, because it focuses on why a habit might have personal value for them. The more Rebels think about what they want, and why they want it, the more effectively they pursue it.

Strategy of Convenience

Instead of trying to commit to scheduling a habit, Rebels often do habit-behaviors as soon as they feel like it.

Strategy of Other People

The Strategy of Other People is also a useful strategy for Rebels to consider; Rebels love doing things differently from other people. They do an obscure kind of yoga, run barefoot, exercise late at night.

Note: Rebels tend to resist if you ask or tell them to do anything. It’s very important—but challenging—to avoid setting off their spirit of resistance. Also, many of the 21 strategies that work well for other Tendencies typically don’t work for Rebels: for instance, Strategies of Scheduling, Accountability, Monitoring, or Rewards.

From Better Than Before: The 21 Strategies for Habit Change

  1. The Four Tendencies (subject of my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies)
  2. Distinctions (what works for other people may not work for you)
  3. Monitoring
  4. Foundation
  5. Scheduling (this is often counter-productive for Rebels)
  6. Accountability (Obligers! This is YOUR STRATEGY)
  7. First Steps (be on the look out for opportunities to harness this powerful strategy)
  8. Clean Slate (this strategy is powerful, but only available at certain times)
  9. Lightning Bolt (it’s frustrating–this is a strategy that happens to you; you can’t invoke it)
  10. Abstaining (this strategy works extremely well for some people, and not at all for others)
  11. Convenience (this is the most universal strategy)
  12. Inconvenience (twin of Convenience)
  13. Safeguards
  14. Loophole-Spotting (this strategy is hilarious to study)
  15. Distractions
  16. Reward (beware! this is a very, very tricky strategy to apply effectively)
  17. Treats (this is definitely the most fun strategy to follow)
  18. Pairing
  19. Clarity
  20. Identity (it took me a long time to realize the power of this strategy)
  21. Other People (never overlook this strategy)

“It Is Not Just Okay But Necessary to Let Myself Feel Good.”

Interview: Courtney Maum.

Courtney Maum is a gifted writer, and her terrific new novel Touch just hit the shelves — so if you’re looking for a book to read this summer, here’s one for your stack.

It’s getting a tremendous amount of buzz, such as being chosen as an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review, as one of “The 6 Juiciest Summer Reads” by Glamour, and as one of “The 29 Best Books of the Summer” by the New York Post.

And while I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I always do, and I think that Touch has one of the best covers I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s about Sloane, a trend forecaster who goes on a quest to understand the value of “in personism,” that is, real-life human interaction. Many of the fictional trends mentioned in Touch have already proved to be eerily prescient.

In addition to writing, Courtney Maum also has a position that instantly caught my attention – she is a product namer for the cosmetics MAC cosmetics and other companies. As someone who is obsessed both with color and language, this fascinates me.

A great job for a novelist!

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

Courtney: Horseback riding. This was something I got great joy from when I was a little girl, but I stopped riding when I was ten. Thirty years later, I decided to start again. At first, I was reluctant: it felt really indulgent, it takes a lot of time and resources to ride. But it brings my mind and body such strength and honest joy. Now I feel proud that this is something I’ve decided to do for myself, on my own terms. The fact that I’ve made a habit of it reminds me to remind myself that I am worth it: that it is not just okay but necessary to let myself feel good.

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

Do not drink three Venti servings of Starbucks coffee in one day! I ruined my young adulthood with caffeine. I became completely hooked at a young age. I’ve always been incompetent at math, and growing up, I was at the kind of school where it wasn’t kosher to underperform, so I had a math tutor. I was thirteen, and she’d show up to our sessions with the huge cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, which have such a specific smell. I was so entranced by her beverage, she started bringing one along for me as well. And that was it. I became addicted to caffeine.

In high school and college, I worked at Starbucks—this was back in the late 90s when Starbucks was still novel, and I got the coffee for free, so I’d just take it around everywhere with me, like a designer handbag. I got free refills. I was drinking it all the time. I was awake my entire sophomore year.

I haven’t given up “caffeine” per se—although I stopped drinking coffee about ten years ago. I’m a black tea drinker now, one cup of tea a day. I don’t get jittery and nervous and sick-feeling the way I did with coffee. If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self that caffeine addiction is not a good look for a person who already struggles with sleep issues.

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

Insomnia. I’ve always struggled with sleep issues, even when I was a little girl. It’s never been easy for me to quiet my mind, and like many people with similar challenges, the less I sleep, the more I worry about not sleeping, and so the less I sleep.

After touring for my first book, my insomnia got so bad, that (along with some other personal issues I was dealing with) I spiraled into a depression. So over the last year, I decided to do whatever I could to tackle this unhealthy habit. I saw a therapist and a pharmacologist; I tried different medications. I went to an acupuncturist, a shaman, the works. I saw a nutritionist who put me on an herbal regimen that helped. I tried going off of stimulants, off of dark chocolate, off of white rice…I tried whatever the professionals wanted me to try, but the irony of course, is that you can’t be stressed out about adhering to the rituals that are supposed to improve your sleep, because stress just makes it worse. So what I’m focusing on mostly right now is treating the root cause—my brain. I do what I can to give myself access to real happiness and rest. There are inevitable periods when I’m overworked, but I no longer want “overworked” to be my way of life. And I don’t give myself a hard time about taking medication anymore. I used to be really dyed-in-the-wool against that: I used to think that I could treat anxiety and depression by going for a run. Now, if I need support, I take a sleeping pill, and I don’t beat myself up about it.

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

De-connected quality time is extremely important to me. And I literally mean de-connected: time spent away from the Internet and my phone. I try to start workdays writing by hand with my phone off and my computer stored away somewhere out of sight.  When we join friends for dinner, I don’t tolerate cell phones being out. I can’t stand the sight of that frenetic slab pinging away while we’re trying to settle into a conversation. It’s tough being a parent, because ideally I really want to spend time with my daughter without my cell phone on me so that I don’t even have the option to be distracted, but this is hard to do because common sense tells you that you should always have the capability to place an emergency call. This is one of the reasons I’m tempted to get a dumb phone: a secondary cell that only calls and texts. Light Phone has a great one out right now.

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.?

Oh, yes! Earlier in my career, I gravitated toward professional opportunities that had me in close contact with a super intelligent, super creative, super passive aggressive boss. I would constantly find myself unhappy and destabilized in a job that was unpredictable and usually underpaid. And I’d drop everything for these bosses, time and time again. A single email from them would see me decimating an entire weekend of plans just so I could come through for them, be asked “what they would ever do without me?” in a thank-you text. [Courtney, I suspect that in my Four Tendencies framework, you are an Obliger.]

As creatively fulfilling as a lot of these jobs were, I often felt terrifically unhappy and unsure, and I was always nervous: I couldn’t settle into my present or enjoy a moment with friends because I was constantly expecting a missive from my high-powered boss.

The lightning bolt came in 2007 when my husband, on another day that I’d come home from work crying, told me, “You know, this job pays nothing. You went to a great college! You get that there are other jobs out there, right?” But although I quit that particular position, it took me a decade to break the bad pattern I was in. I’m mostly freelancing in the branding world now, but I now choose to collaborate with people who respect that I have a personal life, that I need private time. This has resulted in my private time feeling like a much safer space. I don’t have to worry about crazy desperate “need this ASAP” emails any more.

“My Husband Said, ‘You Don’t Want to Be the Kind of Person Who Leaves the Book in the Drawer.'”

Interview: Mary Carlomagno.

I met Mary years ago…now, I can’t even remember why. But she told me something, in a very off-hand way, that led to a big, exciting undertaking on my part.

This is a good example of how sometimes, even the most casual comment by someone else can spark a big effort by someone else. Or it can lead to a significant habit change, which is what I call the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt” as described in Better Than Before, my book about habit change.

In my case, Mary mentioned that she was writing a novel in a month by following the program in Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.

I was instantly enchanted by this idea. I went straight from the coffee shop where we were meeting to a bookstore to buy the book.

I did indeed write a novel in a month, as I discuss in my book The Happiness Project. It’s not an undertaking that everyone would enjoy, but it was sure fun for me!

Mary has a new novel that’s just hitting the shelves: Best Friend for Hire. It’s about a woman in New York who, after getting fired from her dream job at a publishing company, creates a career as a “best friend for hire.” In the end, she realizes she needs to become her own best friend.

Because Mary had such a large (if unintentional) influence on my habits, I wanted to ask her about her habits.

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

Mary: The “organizing mom” part of my life is all about order. I love to make sure my house is as tidy as possible before I go to bed. Dishwasher loaded and running, laundry in.  Most mornings are devoted to getting the kids to school and exercise so I like to feel ahead of the day the minute I get up.

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

I was raised in a fastidious household which created a consistency for my adult life.  What I did not realize when I was young was how hard it is to break a bad habit like coffee which I have kicked successfully now for over a year after many failed attempts…

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

The Lindt Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Bar consistently gets in the way of my weight loss goals, but I love it so…

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

Consistent creativity, I am either writing, painting and refinishing furniture, organizing and designing and reading, every day!

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

My first book Give it Up was all about habit forming and breaking.  It is based on the idea of releasing one bad habit a month to achieve awareness and appreciation. Studies say it takes four weeks to make or break a habit which is why I chose one habit a month. But the key learning of the book was that I learned how to change.   I do tell my clients that organizing is a ritualistic behavior that must be practiced on a daily basis to take hold.

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

Probably a combination of Upholder and Questioner.

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

I am the type of person that has to set a goal so I work hard hard hard during the day and then when evening comes, I am ready to make a hard stop, unwind, eat chocolate and have a glass of wine with my husband.

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.?

Well, I did have an overstuffed shelf of my own shoes hit me squarely on the head.  Some need a subtle message, mine was less than subtle.  I am recovering shopaholic, an urge I fight against every day, even right now I am thinking about that Free People top I should have bought last week.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?


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

Yes, my husband has encouraged me to write the novel.  After three non-fiction books, I had shelved my novel, Best Friend for Hire, for ten years.  He said to me, you don’t want to be the person who leaves the book in a drawer!  He literally pushed me to work on it and then eventually publish it–thank goodness.

Podcast 122: Tackle a “Power Day,” People Who Question Your Good Habits, and What’s Your Advice about College-Bound Children?

Update: The September book tour for The Four Tendencies is set! I’ll be going to New York City (obviously), Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.  I hope to see you there — please come, bring friends. Info is here.

Try This at Home: Tackle a “Power Day.” In episode 6, we discussed a “Power Hour.”

Are you wondering if you’re a Rebel? Take the quiz here to see if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Happiness Hack: Jen explains why having a two-person book group has made her happy. (I love one of their reading choices, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.)

 Happiness Stumbling Block: Kelly’s in-laws discourage her from eating the way she likes to eat.

I mention several strategies of habit change from my book Better Than Before.

If you’d like to know what a low-carb zealot like me eats every day, here’s the post.

Listener Question: This week, I have a question for listeners. My daughter Eliza is starting college in the fall, and I would love insights, suggestions, experiences, and advice about dealing with a child going off to college. This is a big transition, so I would love to hear people’s ideas.

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Elizabeth gives herself a demerit for lamenting the end of the first grade for Jack.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: How I love the waterfall in the ravine of the North Woods of Central Park.

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  1. Follow me on LinkedIn — just go to happiercast.com/linkedin.

2. In just 21 days, you really can take steps to make your life happier—without spending a lot of time, energy, or money. I’ve created four premium 21 Day Happiness Projects for you to follow, if you want to tackle one of these common happiness challenges. Or buy the Omnibus, to get them all. Find out more by clicking on the links below.


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Want a new podcast to listen to, with the same vibe as Happier? The Onward Project is the family of podcasts that I’ve launched, for podcasts that are about “your life–made better.” Check out these great shows: Side Hustle School and Radical Candor and Happier in Hollywood.

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