Tag Archives: habits

“I Wish My 18-Year-Old Self Had Realized That Incrementalism Is ‘OK.’”

Interview: Robb Wolf.

I often write about how I eat a low-carb, high-fat diet. As I describe in Better Than Before, I experienced the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt” after reading Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat, which convinced me of the health benefits of avoiding carbohydrates — I changed practically everything about the way I ate, overnight, after reading that book. (If you’d like to listen to the podcast interview with Gary Taubes, about his new book The Case Against Sugar, it’s here.)

Because of my interest in eating low carb, I got to know Robb Wolf. Robb comes at the issues of diet, eating, and nutrition from the Paleo perspective. It’s a different philosophy of eating, but in the end, we eat mostly the same way, so it’s interesting for me to hear about it.

Robb has a popular podcast, The Paleo Solution, and he has new book that just hit the shelves called Wired to Eat: Turn Off the Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods that Work for You.

Wired to Eat emphasizes that it’s important to figure out how to eat in the way that works for you. It also discusses the importance of things like sleep and movement in trying to eat more healthfully.

As I’ve written and spoken to people about their happiness and habits, the issue of “wanting to eat healthier” comes up again and again as a habit that people struggle with; they’d know they’d be happier and healthier if they ate healthier, but they find it tough. (Sound familiar?)

So I was curious to hear what Robb had to say.

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

Robb: This may seem a bit far afield to your readers but one of the best insights into habits and human behavior came to me when I started looking at this topic from the perspective of evolutionary biology. If we think about the environment that forged our genetics, we can get a sense of some important “hard wiring” that may seem to defy logic in the modern world. Let’s consider healthy eating as an example. It’s easy to vilify overeating, to make this tendency some kind of character flaw, but in our not so distant past it made good sense to eat anything one could find and then to REST. All organisms that move to eat follow a process called “Optimum Foraging Strategy” which is just a fancy way of looking at the energy accounting an organism must maintain to go on living. If a given critter (in this case let’s say us) consistently burns more energy than it finds in the environment…it dies. So, humans are literally wired to “eat more, move less.” This is a completely normal and even healthy state of affairs when living in an ancestral environment, but with modern culture and technology we can order a nearly infinite variety of foods to our door, and barely expend any energy at all. It is now incredibly easy to overeat and we experience a host of health problems as a consequence. This evolutionary biology perspective can help with habits in that if we are not starting a process from a perspective of guilt or shame (which is common when folks are contemplating diet and lifestyle changes) we stand a much better chance of making that process of change stick.

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

When I start feeling cranky and like life is working against me I have found that a few minutes of gratitude goes a long way towards making me feel better. I do this every night before bed and it is incredibly calming and also keeps me grounded in all the good things I have in my life.

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

Something I wish my 18-year-old self had been aware of is that incrementalism is “ok.” For much of my life I tackled things with a perfectionist attitude and what this did is set me up for failure in anything that I was not inherently good at. If I struggled a bit at something I’d get self-conscious and default back to those things I’m good at. Not a great way to add new habits and skills to one’s life!

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

I’m pretty strongly a Questioner. I love seeking out information from folks that are better versed in a topic than I am but I tend to run their advice or teaching through the following filter: Does it make sense? When I implement the recommendations, does the process work? I rarely, if ever, dismiss something out of hand, but I will stress-test the concept and see if it holds up to scrutiny. I’m also always looking for ways to improve upon the original teaching or advice.

For the International Day of Happiness: The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Happiness.

Tomorrow (Monday, March 20), is the International Day of Happiness (there’s a day for just about everything, isn’t there?).

That got me thinking. I’ve been researching, thinking, and writing about it for a decade now: what’s the most important thing I’ve learned about happiness? How can we help ourselves to become happier?

And I realize that my crucial insight is that the answer is…It depends.

It depends on the kind of person we are — our interests, our values, our temperament, our circumstances.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s a “best” way, or the “right” way — but it just depends.

For instance, maybe you know you’d be happier if you exercised regularly, or if you spent less time on your phone, or if you finished your Ph.D. thesis, or if you yelled at your kids less, or if your house were less cluttered.

How do you do that? It depends…

 

And so many other factors.

Very often, though, we’re told we “should” be able to do something, or that something “should” make us happy.

We should be made happier by …

  • travel
  • wine
  • shopping
  • spontaneity
  • music

 

Those aren’t major sources of happiness for me.  I see their value, they do bring me some happiness, I understand that they’re very important to other people, but for me, meh.

If pressed for a universal answer about how to become happier, I do think there are some aspects of happiness that are true for just about everyone.

We need self-knowledge.

This is what I’m talking about above. When we know ourselves, we can shape our lives to suit what’s true for us.

We need relationships.

To be happy, we have to have enduring, intimate bonds with others; we have to feel like we belong; we have to be able to give and get support.

 

If someone asked you, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about happiness?” what would you answer?

 

What Healthy Treats Do You Give Yourself? (Note the “Healthy.”)

In my book Better Than Before, I describe the many strategies that we can use to change our habits. We all have our favorite strategies — but I think most of us would agree that the Strategy of Treats is the most fun strategy.

“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role.

When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.

Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.

When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful.  We start to feel deprived — and feeling deprived is a very bad frame of mind for good habits.

When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to put ourselves back in balance. We say, “I’ve earned this,” “I need this,” “I deserve this” and feel entitled to break our good habits.

So we need treats.

But it’s crucial to give ourselves healthy treats, because unhealthy treats are often bad for us. We don’t want to give ourselves something to feel better that just makes us ending up feeling worse. Like a costly splurge, an extra glass of wine, a big brownie.

All of us should have a long list of potential healthy treats. That way, when we think, “I need a treat,” we have ideas.

For something to be a treat, we have to think of it as a treat; we make something a treat by calling it a “treat.” When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat.

For instance, once I realized how much I love beautiful smells, a whole new world of treats opened up to me. If I need a treat, I visit my “collection of smells” in my apartment or I stop by a perfume counter.

At the same time, it’s important not to call something a “treat” if it’s not really a treat. It may be good for you, and it may even feel good, but it’s not a treat if you don’t look forward to it with pleasure. So a yoga class could be a treat for someone, but it’s not a treat for me. I do it, and I’m glad I do it, but I don’t think, “Oh, yay, time for yoga!”

Sometimes, treats don’t look like treats. For example, to my surprise, many people consider ironing a “treat.”

Here are some other treats I’ve heard about:

  • crossword puzzles
  • looking at art books
  • shopping at a very expensive store (no possibility of buying, so just enjoy looking)
  • translating Latin
  • breaking codes
  • manicure (I never get manicures and dread them; the opposite of a treat for me)
  • visiting camping stores
  • online shopping (I heard from many people who enjoy online shopping with no plan to buy–they have fun filling their cart, then abandon it)
  • choosing plants and seed for the garden
  • video games and phone games
  • getting a massage
  • taking a bath, especially if with special bath salts
  • buying yourself flowers
  • visiting a special place (a park, sculpture, or museum)

 

If you want to hear me and Elizabeth talk about why you should treat yourself, listen to this episode of the Happier podcast.

And if you want to hear Donna and Tom of Parks and Recreation talk about their annual Treat Yo’ Self day, watch the hilarious clip here.

What healthy treats are on your list?

Podcast 108: Use Your Shower as a “Happiness Booth,” Use Your Smart-Phone as a Magnifier, and a Question from the Movie “Before Sunrise.”

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

Update: Along with her writing partner Sarah Fain, Elizabeth is busy getting ready to launch her new podcast Happier in Hollywood. And by the way, if you love listening to podcasts, this is the month of “#Trypod,” when we’re all helping people discover new podcasts or help show them how to listen to podcasts. So encourage people to #Trypod.

Try This at Home: We got this idea from our listener Rebecca: Use your shower as a “happiness booth.”

If you want to hear our interview with Rosanne Cash in episode 22, and hear a clip from “When the Master Calls the Roll,” listen here.

Happiness Hack: You can use the camera on your smart-phone as a magnifying glass. Who knew?

Know Yourself Better: Inspired by the 1995 movie Before Sunrise, we discuss the question: Do you feel more like Celine, who feels like an old woman looking back on her life, or more like Jesse, who feels like a kid pretending to be a grown-up?

If you’re interested in this idea of “anticipatory nostalgia,” I talk about it at the conclusion of my book Happier at Home.

Here’s my one-minute video, The Years Are Short.

Listener Question: Our listener Cindy likes to go for a walk by herself during lunch, but now her boss wants to join her. How does she maintain her solo walk?

Demerit: Elizabeth has the habit of falling asleep when she’s putting Jack to bed at night, taking a nap, and then staying up for another few hours.

Gold Star: I give gold star to our mother and father related to signing up for exercise training sessions.

 

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As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #108

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen to the award-winning Happier 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!

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.” The first shows are Side Hustle School and Radical Candor. Elizabeth’s show with her writing partner, Sarah Fain, will be Happier in Hollywood, so stay tuned for that.

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“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.